All I want to talk about is a certain sound, and in the process remind myself of listening. But at the moment of articulation, my subject runs away with me. Sound slips into metaphors like "flowing" "lofty" "constant" each approximating an agnostic's apology for his secret faith.
At that point, the sound moves out of ear's reach; taking with it our certainty that sound is indeed what we're discussing. Maybe it's just me, but anytime sound becomes displaced with the rhetoric of transcendence, I get the sense that I'm no longer contingent with the thing I wish to consider. That is why I want to say, this early in my goings-on, that sound has as much to do with the ear that receives it as the waves which channel it to me. To reduce sound to metaphysics eradicates this vessel which gives the frequencies their intelligibility. Thus, for me, sound will always be about the body. But, can the reverse be just as true? Can I say, with any degree of certainty' that the body will always be subject to sound? This is the question I wish to pose to radicals -- cultural, political and sexual each and every one.
Accompanying my interest in sound, I also hold to an equally constant devotion to social/cultural transformation. The two commitments are rarely in harmony. Rather, between them and their playing out through my life, there grows a continual swell of noise. My political commitments find little sympathy in my artistic practice. All efforts at a synthesis produces a dissonance whose rhythm is neither constant nor regulated. Yet I am far from persuaded to abandon the work. When taking up the position of musician, I am compelled to ask questions along the lines of cultural criticism, political contingency and material effects. Likewise, at those moments of activist intervention (whether it be civil disobedience or community organizing), I wonder about the sounds around to what extent they contribute or hinder our work. I am comforted to know that the dialectical oscillation between actions of sound and politics is not a solo effort. But I must admit to being less than satisfied with much of the results.
For most activists, the possibility of radical audio-work ends either in the realm of propagandistic chants or the narratives of a rap session. This is one way of saying, sound is essentially outside of consideration.
Artists, musicians and sound workers have been less restrictive in their approach to the radical implications of their work. For this reason, I wish to challenge my contemporaries in the fields of political activism: any discussion of cultural resistance must consider the role of music and noise in the movements of struggle. Yet, as far as I know, no such history has yet been written. Perhaps it's a history that is more the task of musicians than musicologists - or, at least as long as the two activities are divided by academic and recording industry market politics. Furthermore, moving closer to the realities of cultural resistance itself, perhaps we can boldly say that a social movement is only as efficacious as the noise it musters. Oh, but this evokes a whole network of complexities and contradictions. And for musicians as manufactured by the music industry, "the music's got to flow." It is, after all, "the universal language which thus means music is its own transcendental signifier - in terms of commodity circulation. At the same time (of course), noise is nothing more than the peace disturbed, tranquillity ruptured by dissonance. In the conflation of global markets and musical idealism, noise operates on the limits of intelligibility. It is that din playing itself out along the boundaries of the ear. Perhaps then, we are the ones to consider the function of noise and sound in the various struggles which recruit us.
Let us append to our subject the question: can the avant-garde do no better than offer up a protest song? Political activists are now equipped with fax machines, computers, cellular phones, marketing networks, cable access, even capital, but still they walk the streets chanting, "He he ho ho, AIDSphobia's got to go." Is this the noise we have to work with? Can our rage, our passion produce no other noise in protest? I remember that moment when AIDS and health care activists exhausted every chant that had been scripted, resorting to a collective moan. Raising our mouths to the corporate towers standing over us, the moan spread through the crowd of protesters, transforming into a sound part lament and part fury. At the time, I found the act too ambiguous to be of any use. Collectively, we sounded more weary than outraged. Yet, the truth could not be denied. Organizations such as ACT UP, Puss 'N Boots and Queer Nation had lost so many of its members to the struggles against intolerance and structural antipathy. We were at wits end to find a place for both mourning and militancy resulting in the repression of the former into the cathartic value of the latter. The psychic consequence of which produced that emotive noise. And as most militants are led by song, we had neared the end of our strength to utter anything but such a sound. What followed the moan has been a long period of silence. ACT UP in all the major cities has gone underground. Puss 'N Boots and Queer Nation and other anti- Reagan/Bush activist organizations have gone on an unfortunate Clinton-era reprise. And yet the need for cultural and political intervention remains as urgent as ever. Yet, picking up from where that moan left off, the question remains, what noise is there for us to make? As ambient artists, we believe much remains in the background calling for articulation.
an earful of quarrels
The stereo had fallen silent just moments before my writing required an example from me. I had hoped to appropriate some sound in service of my articulation. Having claimed that if a social movement is as good as the noise it makes, then the opposite must not go without saying. For this reason I pressed my ear to the stereo speakers, anticipating a sonic transformation. On second thought, perhaps a sound refined by the hi-fi would dictate too rigidly the path my procession would take. In an age of digital reproduction, we are so easily seduced by the highly polished surface - the touch of technology. Not that I can somehow locate my process in a retro-gardist quest for sound unmediated by technology: prerecorded, pre-amplified, pre- instrumental, pre-scripted, pre-linguistic. Instead, I'd like to take a leap into another artistic form altogether, still keeping the ear in mind. There is that movie poster by Andy Warhol for Fassbinder's film adaptation of Querelle. In the poster, two men facing to the right are locked in the erotics of a "spoon" position. However, instead of hand to mouth, the man to the rear thrusts his tongue into the other's ear. Warhol shows his own hand by coloring the tongue blood red, while the rest of the image he reduces to a lurid blue.2 So extreme and obvious is the eroticism of the image that the proximity of the tongue to the ear eliminates the possibility of speech.3 The function of both organs is clearly lust. Communication as speech has been displaced by desire; a desire producing noise and murmur. Could this be the quarrel Jean Genet dramatized in Querelle De Breste (1952): noise and carnality? Working ass-backwards, we turn to Warhol's source, that scene in Genet's novel where the cop Mario seduces Querelle - merchant marine, drug-smuggler and murder - into a fuck. When the moves of their game bring the two men into the tableau depicted in Warhol's poster, the element of sound overwhelms the narrative:
I, the voyeur of Genet's drama (and Warhol's representation thereof), am all too quickly seduced by a detective's tongue in a murder's ear. Staring at Warhol's poster, I sense the irrefutable pull of recruitment. That the power of a posted image is included in Genet's text gains significance in the wake of Warhol's Querelle. An appeal drawing Querelle himself into a compromised position. "Querelle told his companions that he is a 'victim' of the recruitment posters! So am I, a victim of those posters, and a victim's victim"5 - an observation noted by Querelle's commanding officer, Sub-lieutenant Seblon of the "Venguer," written in his journal, or prayer diary. In the dialectics of master/servant, the Lieutenant imagines the pleasure of submission to the subordinate. He fantasizes subjecting himself to the one subjected to the authority of the poster. We can only imagine what that poster imagined: a finger pointing state? What sort of poster is imagined by Warhol? Does Warhol accept the mastery which seduces in his own poster? Positioned in a long chain of samples, it would seem that citation signals much authority: Querelle cites the poster, the Sub-lieutenant cites Querelle's citation, Fassbinder affords himself the privilege of citation, as does Warhol who disseminates his own recruitment poster.
But what of Genet, where is he positioned in this chain of samples? Thanks to Sartre's hagiographic study of Genet,6 we all too quickly assume Genet's mastery over his own text - even as the overproduction of subject positions deftly undermines any such privilege of authorship. If we examine carefully the operation of antagonisms - or doubling, to use Sartre's term - we notice a fierce resistance to totalizing power even in the midst of its own pageantry. Querelle is praised for his beauty, his purity of intention, the completeness of his murderous crimes in the same pages that divulge the murderer's quest to be dominated and betrayed. Locked in combat, Querelle is doubled in the figure of his brother who is reflected back in the figure of Gil and so forth, all the while posing new linkages, renewed breaks and contradictory homologies.7 If, as I said earlier, sampling becomes a site of authority it is also along this chain where authority is ruptured. Should anything be established in the proliferation of subject positions, it is the failure of any one authority to fix those positions and stabilize those linkages within a total schema. No one individual can lay claim to their identity, particularly if we understand identity in terms of fixed relations. Identities begin to resemble trajectories through social relations, rather than unified objects around fixed relationships. For Genet, the mode of this trajectory is always sex. Sex and transgression - be it theft, betrayal or murder. The law becomes nothing more than the field on which this orgy of splitting subjectivities plays itself out. In much the same way as common sense becomes the field unearthed by the sound of a cop's tongue in a murderer's ear. Suddenly their cooperation is exposed and common sense is ruptured.
I cannot keep away from this example the presence of the state. Mario was a cop, not a good one, and one certainly operating beyond the bounds of the law, yet a cop nonetheless. (I could say, all the more.) It would be problematic to draw too complete an analogy from this scene, particularly in my own efforts. However, the fact that the man on top in the drama is a detective only draws out the political nature of Genet's scene. To restrict myself to a tongue in an ear (or pointed finger on a poster), puts me in danger of ignoring the background of this text. The cop is that background; coming up from behind. It is from hence that my strategy emerges. In his book Rhythm and Resistance, Ray Pratt considers the possibility of a sound whose sonic nature is political resistance. Pratt writes: "Whether a form is genuinely oppositional or serves as an effective means of resistance depends upon context." If I take my context to be a police state (which in Los Angeles is not an unreasonable consideration), my conclusion is clearly a challenge to make noise. "In the contemporary United States," writes Pratt, "sound itself is oppositional. It creates a new space, reinforcing within each person the possibility of an assertively oppositional posture before existing social reality, but also . . . imposing a new order in sound on a context once oppressively closed."8
And it all began with a poster. A fantastic image of a cop driving his tongue into the ear of an unscrupulous naval soldier while the sound of a train advanced in darkness. And mixed with this soundtrack, the crackle of a watering mouth and the sound of power splitting, dividing over the shoulders of desire. This is what is meant when authority is shown to be complicit in the very transgression it seeks to destroy - implicated in the destruction of its very charge: the construction of its own power. I can only imagine the sound such bodies make.
a body without organs
I can only imagine the body such sounds make. Picking up on the tracks of my subject, the subject of sound, I'd like to remind myself of the question which initially conducted this contemplation on a sound body: the articulation of noise useful for political resistance. As Ray Pratt emphasizes in Rhythm and Resistance, the search for tactical noise is predicated on familiarity with context. In my efforts, the question of sound presumes a lengthy discussion on the precise nature of the objects for change. Yet does my situation always so clearly articulate itself? I am not so sure. For this reason, I would like to defer the identification of situations. Rather, I prefer to begin my articulation ass-backwards, asking first what are my agencies of change? What sound bodies can be made available to me? I begin this way due to my own lack of surety around objects. At the same time, to suggest a pitch-perfect sound in reply would less than satisfy. Or satisfy too completely - deafeningly. Instead of offering up a noise that will quiet my inquiry once and for all, let me learn from the elaborate steps necessary in the process of articulation. After all, electronic musicians, musicians working within the electronic medium, the role of process is critical. The processed sound is my articulation. Even at that moment, identification swiftly slips into mutation and realignment. I bring myself to a reminder of one definition of articulation: "any practice establishing a relation among elements such that their identity is modified as a result of the practice."9
There is that interview with the late Sun-Ra sampled by the Grid on their 456 album10 where the great cosmic-bopmaster calls for a "sound music." In a culture mitigated by managed sensibility, Sun-Ra proposes that in addition to a "sound mind" and a "sound doctrine," such a music would merge a utopian vision with a music governed by neo-platonic laws of self-unity set in resistance to the domination of racist ideologies. But can resistance be articulated within such a place as utopia? In other words, what resistance can be articulated in a music of metaphysical ontology? In the parlance of many electronic musicians, from John Cage to Wendy Carlos to Kraftwerk, "sound music" becomes pure sound. The achievement of pure sound can only be accomplished when the means of transmission, of generation, are totally eliminated from the heard. However, to the dismay of many purists, the wasted channels have a tendency to return from their exile. I could say, pure sound is haunted by its discharged matter. All sound, from glossolalia whispered in a paramour's ear to the frequencies of an electronic oscillator, suffers the remains of transmission. Whether the sound is generated by human subjects or celestial bodies slowly turning in their gaseous robes, all wavelengths are haunted by the presence of their absent vessels.11
If anyone should have familiarity with ghosts it would be the Futurist. According to the Italian Futurist, F. T. Marinetti, a sound body is the "life spirit purified."12 Purified of body. The Futurist claims that this sound body is nothing less than a universal machine: an exploding display of words in freedom. Words blasted from mime and gesture. Words without corporeality, expelled from the domain of materiality. Hence the Futurist writes: "The word must be recharged with all its power hence an essential and totalitarian word which in Futurist theory is called 'word-atmosphere.'"13 Several things strike us about this conception of a "sound body." First, we would like to check out further the process of "recharging" the word: to what account is the word reapplied; what debt renewed? This is a question vigorously resisted by the Futurist who sees in his work only its freedom from the past, not its indebtedness. The second question stems from our own work as musicians of ambient sound. For artists of background noise, the link intimated by Futurist theory between totalitarian "word- atmosphere" and the sound body raises a particularly crucial problematic. In its immateriality, its pure essence, what differentiates the sound body from that body of power, above death, above labor, above difference: what other than Fascism is the sound body? For the Futurist, there is no viable other, only objects for elimination. Which raises the spectre: how is it possible for an ideology to eliminate its waste when its ideal body possesses no organs?
In the history of revolutionary art, the Futurists were not the only moderns to conceive of a thing I call a sound body. In a radio-performance never to have been aired in his life-time, French poet Antonin Artaud called his particular formation "a body without organs." Composed after Artaud's nine year incarceration in an insane asylum, and only one year before his death, the radio-play, "To have done with the judgment of God" broadcasted the poet's life-long quest for a passage out of physical existence. For Artaud, radio and its channels of "pure sound," posed the possibility of "true freedom." This had been a subject of Artaud's poetics as early as 1927. In his critique of the Surrealists shortly after their alliance with the French Communist Party, Artaud responded to the alliance by issuing his renunciation of all things physical, from the political to the "endless pain and misery in the charnel house of myself."14 This self- abnegation was bound to his belief that artistic practice merged with specific political action vulgarized what the Surrealists represented. Am I, like Artaud, in search of a body without its inner workings ("organ" from the Greek "body works"), removed from any contiguity with political action but reduced to pure essence: pure sound? A body beyond the production of waste, beyond the designs of death? Is the sound body above shit?
I am not the first to bend an ear to Artaud's radio-play. In their study of late-capitalism, Anti-Oedipus Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari appropriate "the body without organs" as a figure for desire as the "non-place of counter-production."15 They define this counter-production as the site less labor of desire - excesses directed against boundaries. I return to the sphere of sound, specifically the sound body and reexamine its potential as that corpus of desire's materiality, counter-productive to any unifying/totalizing force which may bring me near "pure sound." By materiality, I mean the function of sound in opposition to its fixed place. There is that approach to music which reduces sound to topography: the music which takes us somewhere. Thus, ambient and experimental music are limited to vapid utopianism lacking both the specific access points on the political level, but also turning sound into some sort of pure experience meaning everything to everyone. It is against this sort of vulgar use of transcendentalism that both Artaud and the Futurists were reacting - the pure magic of art as defined by the liberal bourgeoisie. Taking a cue from the project of Deleuze and Guattari, I would rather focus on the function of sound, its practices of corporeality and spatiality, as transmitted by desire.
Stemming from the contradiction between "a body without organs" and its counter-productive desire, the sound body calls for an autopsy. There had been a period when writing "energy" was enough to evoke a sound body. Sharing its origins with "organ" in the work "energos," the site of work, "energy" seemed to encapsulate the function-ness of sound. By destabilizing the place of work, "energy" suggested that sound was inextricable from its channels of production while at the same time restricted from being a totalizing force. Thus, it seemed to me, sound became the dialectic of material specificity and utopian introjection. Ignorant of the history of the electric body - a history written in the contradictory passages of modernist manifestos - I breathed life into my phantasm. Its first words were a terror to me: "there is nothing more useless than an organ."16 I then transformed my project: no longer a new word for body, naively written "energy." But a new conception of energy: in a word, "body." This transformation has opened to me the entire realm of material processes and relations, the proliferation of political spaces. Strategically interjecting a self into the very network of power relations - a field sometimes called culture, by others named the political. The body subjected to that network has been the site of my resistance: energy incorporated. My transmission, my action as a trans-sister: transference resister.
Los Angeles, June 1994
This essay originally appeared in installments in issues 7, 9 and 10 (July 8, August 5 and August 12, 1994) of Contact, the 'zine of the Los Angeles ambient/electronic music club Public Space. I want to thank Seamus Malone for publishing the essay in the Fall 1995 issue of the Chicago performance arts journal P-Form. Special acknowledgement goes to Lynn Hasty and Jon Tejada in their enthusiastic and creative directorship of Public Space. Dedicated to the Ambient International.
1Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (NY: Verso Books, 1985), p. 105.
2Alternative repetitions of the Querelle poster paints the background either green or white. The tongue remains some hue of red or reddish orange.
3For a discussion of Genet's own "failure" to communicate, a reading proposed by Sartre and later affirmed by Bataille, see Jacques Derrida, Glas (1974), trans. John P. Leavey Jr. and Richard Rand (Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), pp. 215ff. Derrida approach to Genet, analogous in many ways to Deleuze and Guattari's notion of a form of anti-work, argues with the judgment of "failure" as defeat. For Derrida, Genet rejects the Oedipal triangulation of work but rather engages desire as a refusal to communicate. A similar thesis is expounded in terms of a specifically non-phalocratic homosexual practice of desire in Guy Hocquenghem's Homosexual Desire (1972), trans. Daniella Dangoor (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993).
4Jean Genet, Querelle, tr. Anselm Hollo (NY: Grove Press, 1974), p. 205.
5Ibid., p. 93.
6Jean-Paul Sartre, Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr (1952), tr. Bernard Fretchman (NY: George Braziller, 1963).
7In the film, Fassbinder has both Querelle's brother Roger and the character Gil played by the same actor.
8Ray Pratt, Rhythm and Resistance: The Political Uses of American Popular Music (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994), p. 210.
9Laclau and Mouffe, p. 105.
10London: Virgin Music LTD., 1992.
11Significantly for our own study of sound and desiring bodies, Jacques Derrida's discussion of Genet in Glas takes places in a larger study of resonance within the sphere of Absolute Knowledge. For a background on the relationship between Derrida's text and Genet's own writings, see Edmund White, Genet: A Biography (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), pp. 564ff.
12"Overcome death 'with a metallization of the human body and the purification of the life spirit as a machine force.'" F.T. Marinetti and Pino Masnata, "La Radia" (1933), tr. Stephen Sartarelli, in Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead, eds., Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio and the Avant-Garde (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1992), p. 265.
13Ibid., p. 268.
14Antonin Artaud, Selected Writings, ed. Susan Sontag (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988), p. 140.
15Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972), tr. Robert Hurley, et al. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.)
16Artaud, p. 571.
Antonin Artaud. Selected Works (1976). Editor Susan Sontag. Berkeley, California: University of Berkeley Press, 1988.
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972). Trans. Robert Hurley, et al. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.
Jean Genet. Querelle (1953). Translated by Anselm Hollo. New York: Grove Press, 1974.
Michael Kirby and Victoria Ness Kirby. Futurist Performance (1971). New York: PAJ Publications, 1986.
Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. New York: Verso, 1985.
Ray Pratt. Rhythm and Resistance: The Political Uses Of American Popular Music (1990). Washington, DC: Smithosonian Institution Press, 1994.
Jean-Paul Sartre. Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr (1952). Trans. Bernard Fretchman. New York: George Braziller, 1963.
Edith Wyschogrod. Saints and Postmodernism: Revisioning Moral Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.