The Body-Sonic: Critical Essay
North Carolina State University
Critical Essay: The Body-Sonic
Most people live with an ontological set of assumptions that position them to think about the world through established binaries. We consider ourselves unique, fully formed subjects, creating a binary of self and other. We see ourselves as agents able to work on and affect a world outside of ourselves, creating a binary between subject and object. And we understand some things as uniquely human, other things as non-human, creating a binary between, say, humans and technology. We can see the problems in these divisions in tired debates about technology. Asking questions like, "are we too reliant on technology?" or "does technology move us further away from genuine human interactions?" shows a reliance on a dualist opposition between humans and technology. A monist position allows us to consider what technologies and people can do together.
We created The Body-Sonic as an art project that helps participants move beyond what we see as three pervasive dualisms: between a self and other, between a subject working on an object, and between the human and the machine. We see this born-digital project as an encounter that generates new percepts and affects, opening up the possibilities for understanding how human and technology interoperate within the 21st century. The Body-Sonic specifically works to challenge binaries present in the experience and performance of music. Echoing the three binaries above, dualisms in music include that between the audience and performer, between the performer and the instrument, and between humans and technology.
In this paper, we will first present an alternative to dualist assumptions by looking to the monist ontology of Gilles Deleuze. Next, we will turn to scholarship in sound studies to explain how dualist assumptions often guide the interpretation of sound in the digital age, and review some previous sound projects that attempt to go beyond these dualisms. Finally, we will explain how The Body-Sonic works to overcome these dualisms. As a musical performance, The Body-Sonic allows for a blending of body, technology, and environment in which subject-object epistemes in regards to sound begin to dissolve through new modes of multi-sensorial experiences, intensities, and perceptions. We argue that this blending of the body, technology and the environment constitutes a monist ontology and articulates "the milieu" in the Deleuzian sense: flows of affect that move from electricity to chemistry to sound. Rather than clear "insides" or "outsides," and rather than clear subjects and objects, we create shifting milieus that interact and transform into one another. The Body Sonic itself acts as our argument for understanding a monist ontology through the flows and rhythms articulated by our interactions with each other as performers, our interactions with technology, and our encounters with participating bodies.
Two key Deleuzian concepts are important for explicating our work with The Body-Sonic, and both follow from Deleuze's notion of ontological monism. First, Deleuze does not believe that subjects are fully-formed, static beings. Descartes dualism allowed him to understand the world by separating himself from it as a "cogito" that then allowed him to experience the rest of the world. In Deleuze's monist perspective, the subject and the world are one, bound together, and constantly shifting in relationship. This makes the detached, rational experience of a subject suspect because Deleuze would argue we are dealing with an interconnected flow of experience and affect that does not reside in single, discrete subjects. This leads to the second concept, that of the "milieu". This posits, again, that discrete entities are not important. In a milieu, entities blend into each other, shift, and change. The Body-Sonic, as we will argue, complicates separations between self and other, and subject and object, by questioning the relationships among performer, audience, and instrument. Similarly, his formulation of "milieus" will be key to understanding how The Body-Sonic blurs lines between the human and the technological.
As Deleuze argues, a coherent subject does not exist in the way we might believe. In Difference and Repetition, he argues against the Cartesian "cogito," the thinking subject that can form in the world, and proposes instead a "cogito for the dissolved self" (58). Deleuze works against ideas of "common sense" and "good sense," which he sees as "two halves of the doxa," that keep us locked into repeating the same thoughts rather than branching out into new thoughts (134). For Deleuze, "[g]ood sense determines the contribution of the faculties in each case, while common sense contributes the form of the Same" (134). This means that "good sense" is the idea that all of our faculties—senses, memories, thought—work in unison to create recognition of particular objects in the world. Common sense, then, means that others will have similar experiences. Deleuze believes both of these assumptions are erroneous. Sometimes, our faculties do not match up; sometimes people experience a certain phenomenon differently. Therefore, he questions the idea of a clear self, arguing that "[u]nderneath the self which acts are little selves which contemplate and which render possible both the action and the active subject. We speak of ‘self' only in the virtue of these thousands of little witnesses which contemplate within us" (Difference and Repetition 75). We argue the Body-Sonic makes more obvious these "little selves" through the amplification of aspects of our body that we aren't aware of. In revealing these selves, these witnesses, we can show how "good sense" does not work as the tiny selves may not always agree.
In addition to the "dissolved self," which The Body-Sonic will make more understandable in an effort to undo clear subject-object divides, we consider important what Deleuze, along with Felix Guattari, called a "milieu" which they develop throughout A Thousand Plateaus. The milieu represents the shifting relations present in Deleuze's monist ontology. For Deleuze and Guattari, distinct objects do not exist and interact with one another. Rather, indistinct milieus interact with one another to create new relationships. A key difference here is the possibility for change. When we generally discuss terms like "inside" and "outside," we think of these as categories that persist. This is not the case with milieus, even though Deleuze and Guattari speak of numerous types of milieus: interior, exterior, intermediary. As Deleuze and Guattari write in A Thousand Plateaus, "[t]he notion of the milieu is not unitary: not only does the living thing continually pass from one milieu to another, but the milieus pass into one another, they are essentially communicating" (313). These ideas of shifting and communicating milieus can help to undo ontological boundaries by considering new possibilities for the relationship between humans and technology. Popular accounts of technology will often situate technology as somehow "less" than human. We see this when people devalue online relationships merely because those relationships take place "online" and not interpersonally face-to-face. There is, in this way, a clear divide between the human and the technological. Academic work also sets up these divides, though sometimes in different ways. Friedrich Kittler, for instance, retains these divides but reverses the valence, giving technology the place of agency and "so-called humans" the role of passive objects. In Gramophone, Film Typewriter, Kittler describes changes in Friedrich Nietzsche's prose as the effect of owning a typewriter. Nietzsche, Kittler wrote, "changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style. That is precisely what is meant by the sentence that our writing tools are also working on our thoughts" (203). Here then, rather than humans acting on the typewriter in a subject-object divide, the typewriter is acting on the human across that same divide. Rosi Braidotti, drawing on Deleuze's monist ontology, provides insight into another way of considering technology. In her work, Braidotti does not ask the dualist-minded questions that quibble over whether humans or technology have more agency. Rather, she takes a monist view that favors emerging connections and interrelations, enjoining people to discover what a "biotechnologically mediated" body can do (The Posthuman, 61).
While Deleuze's concepts of a dissolved self and an ontology of shifting milieus will be important for understanding The Body-Sonic, we would now like to describe how sound studies specifically reacts to dualisms. Scholars in the field of sound studies suggest that privileging vision over other senses has created ontological splits that force us to think dualistically. Eleni Ikoniadu, for example, writes that Western thought has often presumed a "tyranny of ocularcentrism" when experiencing the world and gathering knowledge (2). This privileging of the visual over the aural is also echoed in Jonathan Sterne's history of sound reproduction technologies, in which the author suggests that there has traditionally been a relationship in scholarly methodologies and cultural frameworks between the development of modernity and a privileging of images and visuality as tools to examine the modern world (The Audible Past, 3-4). This persistent hierarchical relationship positing sight over sound as the presumed sense by which knowledge of the world is gathered, has helped to install dualisms more broadly. The ocularcentrist mode of thought delineates subject-object splits in the production and performance of sound such as performer/audience and musician/instrument. Sterne laments what he calls the "audiovisual litany," which is a set of binaries that set up subject-object divides based on this preferencing of vision (Sound Studies Reader 9). As Sterne writes, "sounds come to us, but vision travels to its object," that "hearing is concerned with interiors, vision is concerned with surfaces," and that "hearing tends toward subjectivity, vision tends toward objectivity" (Sound Studies Reader 9). In each of these cases, we see opportunities to refigure the experience of sound though a monist ontology.
Numerous artists have attempted to address the issues we have presented above. Jin Hyun Kim and Uwe Seifert provide some background for us in their history of interactive bodily sound performances. Kim and Seifert focus on ways in which control interfaces for instruments can provide new perspectives. The authors group these projects into two categories. Each category works to trouble dualist understanding of music and performance, but neither category fully dismisses the dualist assumptions.
Kim and Seifert's first category includes projects that they call "augmented musical instruments" (140). These instruments attempt to go beyond traditional instruments by expanding the ways in which the instruments can accept different inputs. Some might include gestural inputs from performers (140), or "hyperinstruments," which combine human performance with computerized enhancements (140). Kim and Seifert describe these types of projects as creating "enhanced human expressivity" (140). We believe that these projects operate in more of a milieu than a traditional split between humans and technology because flows from humans and machines intermingle to produce the project. However, these projects also maintain a split in the way that they assume human control over the creative process. As Kim and Seifert put it, these projects "[serve] as an extension of the physical body" (141), maintaining the agency that the human controls the technology rather than acting in a milieu.
The second category includes projects that "immaterialize" the performer's body (141). These include biofeedback devices similar to The Body-Sonic. In these examples, though, the body still operates as "good sense." That is, the body still represents a coherent subject. In this way, Kim and Seifert fall back on dualist notions. They refer to the first set of instruments as looking at the body as object of sound, the second set as looking at the body as subject of sound (142). Therefore, while these projects may do good work in undoing the separation of the human from the technological, they maintain splits between performer and instrument and between performer and audience.
While Kim and Seifert provide an overview for conceptualizing these types of performances, a few specific projects from artists are worth noting. One interesting work that complicates the idea of performer and audience in a unique way is Maryanne Amacher's Sound Characters (Making the Third Ear). Amacher's music uses tones that, when played at a loud enough volume, produce otoacoustic sound that emanates directly from the vibrating ear. In this way, the audience "becomes" a performer in a certain sense because the rhythms Amacher develops are not all in the recorded performance. Rather, some of the rhythms only emerge through the otoacoustic sounds emanating from the audience. That said, there is still a strong divide as Amacher, as the performer, is in active control. The audience, while adding to the sound, is passive.
In more direct lineage with our project is Julie Wilson-Bokowiec and Mark Bokowiec's Bodycoder system. This project would fall under the category of an "augmented instrument" by Kim and Seifert's definition. The Bodycoder system used sensors attached to a suit to map sounds onto gestures. Here, using the body as an instrument creates interesting affordances. The creators of the bodycoder system note that the processing speed of computers exceeds the body's capacity to register sensations. Wilson-Bokowiec and Bokowiec then ask what place the human body has in this interaction. They give two answers from science fiction and critical theory: either we become slaves to the machines or the human body evolves through "violent confrontation" (49). We can see here that the first answer provides a strong dualism similar to the way Kittler sees humans as being slaves to technology. The second notion gives an opportunity to go beyond the human, but seems to retain a separation between the human and the technological. That said, the authors do note that the Bodycoder system allows music to "emerge" rather than simply being "performed" because of the way a user can explore the possibilities through movement (51). This seems to suggest a way that humans and technologies might exist in a monist milieu. However, one way that the Bodycoder system does not engage the full possibilities of a monist ontology is that it focuses on conscious movement. Because one can move consciously, the subject is still fully in control of the instrument, even if the subject is not fully aware of what the instrument makes possible.
A similar and more recent example is musical artist Imogen Heap's Gloves Project. These gloves are a similar gestural music-making technology. Sensors on the gloves and keyboard triggers allow Heap to play different tones and timbres depending on where she positions her hands and how she moves her hands. Further, Heap's Gloves take into account the stage as the gloves will react differently depending on where Heap is on the stage. Reflecting on her experience using the Gloves, Heap said in a TED talk, "I had almost become a machine; I was hardly sleeping; it was taking over… I was imagining what it would be like for a machine to want to be human" (n.p.). This idea of becoming a machine exemplifies what we argue for in a monist ontology. Rather than the machine and human being separate, Heap's experience shows how technology and humans can interact and move among one another. Her becoming-body is intertwined with the becoming-machine. Both work in unison so as to transition the human body and the machinic into a something-other that no longer differentiates between the flesh and circuitry. Likewise, Heap's gloves move toward a unification between instrument and performer. Again, as with human and machine, the distinction blurs as her physicality becomes coextensive with the algorithms that produce sound through her gestures. Heap no longer plays an instrument in the traditional fashion such as when a subject picks up and strums a guitar. She is no longer a subject, nor a musical object for that matter, as both form an assemblage in which body and instrumentality become something-other that attempts to move past notions of a dualistic split.
Our project follows on this lineage in an effort to conceive of a new way to create and experience music. The Body-Sonic consists of multiple elements working together to create sound. Electromyography (EMG) sensors on the device connect to the muscles of participants. These sensors interpret electrical signals generated by the body into digital signals. The digital signals pass to a computer running a Processing script that interprets the signals into sound. Multiple users may be wearing sensors during a performance. Simultaneously, other participants use Fruity Loops Studio 10 to generate rhythmic loops and samples. The sound performance emerges in the shifts and interactions among muscle activity from the sensors, digital signals from the computer, and physical actions in the movements of people and the triggering of effects. Further, the sound generated returns back on the performance. Interactions among participants change the ways the muscles respond; the music itself can change the movements of participants, thereby changing the music again.
With this system, we can demonstrate the affordances of a monist ontology by replacing the dualist divide between humans and technology with a monist milieu of boundaries shifting—becoming-human, becoming-machine. Further, we complicate the notions of performer and audience. And finally, we call into question the fully formed subject and the ability of that subject to act on an object.
To understand how the Body Sonic develops a milieu of humans and technologies, it is important not to focus on the individual objects, but rather the flows of information between the objects. From this perspective, the sound performance does not come from the computer, the sensors, or the participants. Rather, the performance is found in the flows moving among these elements. Bioelectricity shifts into digital signal shifts into sound pressure shifts into physical movement. Without these movements, there would not be a performance. In this way, we argue that this project breaks down the barriers between humans and technologies and instead presents a way for the elements to "communicate" with one another, as Deleuze and Guattari would say, or "become" one another, as Heap described.
We also complicate assumptions in sound studies that split performer and audience. In our project, only some people will wear the sensors, and only some people will control the samples. To borrow from Jose Gil and his Deleuzian treatment of the dancing, choreographed body, our assemblage of The Sonic-Body "secretes" auditory space through gesture when the intensive affects of the body extensively flow outward (85-86). This intensive-extensive space created by the gestures of The Body-Sonic produces a body as becoming; one that conjures space through what Gil calls its electrical-vibrational energy (Gil, 85-88). In other words, the body that wears the sensors generates space through both gestures and the flow of sound waves. Intensities from the inner body that flow outward in the form of sound and coextend with exterior, Cartesian space can be thought of as a means to disrupt binaries between audience and performer through a rhetorical lens of what Thomas Rickert refers to as ambient attunement. In Ambient Rhetoric, Rickert argues that the notion of a subject as autonomous can be replaced with a "dispersed subjectivity" in which one is no longer working separately from an audience, but rather working through ambience, the relationships among bodies and surrounding environment, as a means to explore what might arise from a particular audience and situation. Thus Rickert works toward rethinking subjectivity as something that is embodied in an environment; he argues that a body, through an attunement to the ebb and flow of the surroundings, creates new ways to persuade and interact with an audience (92). Or, in our case, new ways to approach sound and music through the interactions among bodies, audience, space, and machines. Thus, The Body-Sonic reflects a way of thinking about performer and audience as interrelated and co-dependent in their sense of becoming. As sound is secreted from the body with sensors, those sound waves impinge upon the body producing loops, as well as listening bodies situated within the ambience of the environment. As bodies within the environment are affected by the unfolding of sound-space, they move and interact with the sensor-body and body controlling loops. We argue that one should not assume that these are the performers and others are the audience. Rather, one should understand that the ways people with sensors interact with people without sensors will affect the sounds produced. If a person without sensors dances with a person with sensors, the ways they move together will still produce effects via the sensors. In this way, the "audience" can create the sound of the performance as well as the "performers."
We believe that these two ways in which we have broken down the binaries have been done in other projects. However, we believe that our project works specifically to undo the idea of a fully formed subject. While the other body-based sound projects we have reviewed use conscious gesture as the mechanism for controlling an instrument, the Body Sonic uses semi-conscious muscle activity. While we can control our movements and our muscles to a certain extent, we cannot control the precise amount of bioelectricity our muscle activities generate. This demonstrates the ways in which we are not fully formed subjects but rather a thousand witnesses that may sometimes be able to act as a subject. We hope that people are able to wear and experience the Body Sonic so that they can appreciate new ways of experiencing the world.
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