Friday, March 13, 2009

siren embodiment... a primer

In Judith Peraino’s Listening to the Sirens, the Homeric myth of Odysseus’ encounter with the monstrous feminine provides a heuristic fulcrum in order to investigate the potentially queering effects of Siren-song though modern-day musical technologies. In order to navigate the seas without being captivated by the seductive death-bearing potentialities of the Sirens’ song, Odysseus binds himself to the mast of the ship and instructs that wax fill the ears of his rowing mates. The male body politic is thus disembodied, order is momentarily thrown into disorder and irrational solutions: Odysseus forgoes the use of his limbs while his men sacrifice their ability to hear their master’s commands. Though this method of temporary incapacitation eventually prevents their ship from being steered in the direction of the sirens – and into a certain watery death – Peraino shifts the focus of the myth to Odysseus himself. It is he, she notes, that hears/queers himself in the aural proximity of the Sirens, eventually condemned to lead a queer (after)life himself as the sole individual having lived the ordeal to tell it. Odysseus’ predicament is lonely knowledge; the veracity of his tale ironically falling on the same wax-filled deaf ears he initiated in the first place, untranslatable and fragile amongst a community of non-listeners.

In the recent years, musicological studies has indeed beckoned audiences to break the phallic mould of the wax and, restraining themselves as Odysseus did, hear the Sirens without leaping to premature conclusions. Although “Queer” musical culture is a category asserted not without heavy theoretical contestation, its sister platform, the largely influential body of discourse that constitutes Feminism and Feminist theory, seems to have fared little better. Resting on the assumption that “woman” as a unifying social community has been exploited by male-dominated discursive manoeuvres, Feminism’s project tends to look backwards and forwards at the same time; that is, drawing legitimacy from previous (historical) narratives of oppression, suppression and repression, and projecting these narratives forward in time to discuss how such proscriptive apparatuses continue to operate through the exclusion of “woman”, or how sites of resistance and subversive strategies may work to interrupt, interrogate and even dismantle such topologies of power inequalities.

Barbara Bradby’s somewhat angry examination of sampling women’s voice in dance music performs that analytical task, inquiring how theoretical utopias of gender egalitarianism might be better applied in emerging fields of musical technology. Decrying a well-worn binary opposition that all-too-easily reinscribes the category of “woman-as-nature”, Bradby selects theoretical iconoclast Dona Harraway and her musings on the posthuman cyborg body as a liberating enframing device in modern-day feminist dissections of musical technologies. Bradby singles out the disconcerting representational fragmentation in Black Box’s music video “Ride on Time” for its entagled nature in ownership, citation and copyright issues. Black Box’s “Ride on Time” stirred up a messy court case regarding its video that:

“showed a tall, sexy model from Guadaloupe … [one Katherine Quinol], ‘performing’ the passionate vocal line. But the rumour quickly spread that the vocals had been ‘sampled’ from a song called ‘Love Sensation’ by the American soul singer, Loretta Holloway.”

For Bradby, however, in addition to being wrongfully “sampled” under the umbrella of a different song, Loretta Holloway seemed to be “doubly ripped off” since the image of her body had been replaced by Katherine Quinol to create a cyborg-like composite of an hyper-sexualized performing body. This, Bradby asserts, did much to reinforce existing fields of discursive struggle including the “tyranny of slenderness” and so-called “acceptable body images for women” that dominate issues in scopophillic culture. Another song on the Black Box label entitled “Strike it up” pays tribute to this hypersexualized/monstrous hybrid by accrediting the “visual performance” of the video to Katrin Quinol while reserving the title of “lead vocal performance” to its rightful singer, Martha Wash. Does this cyborg-like hybrid parading in the face of hyper-reality recruit the male-gaze to reinforce proscriptive images of sexuality, gender and womanhood? The answer is overwhelmingly yes for Bradby:

“Once again, Katrin Quinol appears as the acceptable (because attractive to the male gaze) image of woman that can sell the voice of another woman that has been electronically manipulated by the male producers.”

And yet, Bradby reserves room for small praise, pointing out the way in which Black Box’s double accreditation signals a challenge to “the primacy of the visual in our everyday imaging of the body … [implying] that the voice is somehow ‘disembodied’”, while the “real” bodies of two separate non-cyborg women are indeed given prominence behind the fantasy of the virtual. Such a disjoint, as Richard Middleton argues, interrogates the very embodied notion of performance:

“especially through … a bodily intimate mechanism as singing – [which] is to put a body on display, to flaunt it, offer it up […]. Indeed, in this discursive formation, to own to a body already produces a place of subordination, creating the potential to suffer […]; meanwhile, the owners of discourse … are all words, bodies effaced from view no less than those of the record producers.”

Acknowledging the “spectral” economy of the fragmented being sutured together at the site of fantasy may denote (as is for Bradby), what Donna Haraway terms a “significant prosthesis” or a new kind of embodiment afforded by the site of suturing. But Middleton is also quick to point out the fragility of such forward-thinking gestures:

“listeners [may] immediately invent an imagined source for them [or have fantasy sites perform the operation of bodily suturing], drawing on the contours embedded in their experience of the operations of the vocalimentary canal: the phallus (male or female) writes, the voice translates, and the mapping of this process to the structures of anatomical and other visual and tactile knowledge describes exactly how the sensuous and the symbolic create each other, through the Derridean networks of ‘dissemination’ and ‘invagination’.”

What is at stake, thus, is what Baudrilliard warns of as “integral reality”, or the collapse of the real into the virtual – the point of ultimate commensurability where pure virtual fantasy acquires a sheen of the real more real than the real itself. Perhaps Bradby’s criticism bespeaks a horizon by which fantasy hypersexual Quinol-Wash cyborgs bleed into the parameters of lived embodied experience to announce (voice) new forms of exclusions. The question, for either authors, is one of “authentic” voice, that is, behind the muppet-like flailing of fantasy-creatures, who supplies the words – whose authorial voice speaks? Odysseus, or the men with wax-filled ears? This perspective, however, assumes that there is an ever-present, situated panoptical Big-Other that usurps the complexities of modern day technological assemblages, assemblages that figure into the assembly-line of musical-cultural products and, as Nicholas Cook suggests, by-products. This Big Other attribution of the phallogocentric (to use Irigaray’s formulations), skirts around the fact that, like Irigaray’s metaphorical women, the Big Other is an Other that is not one. Indeed, hard-and-fast feminist accusations of phallogocentrism tend to forget that entire economies of gender are occluded by their epistemological enemies, throwing the male body into crisis as well.

To put a spin on the original question is to investigate how emerging musical technologies “speak back” in sometimes unintended ways, troubling both the normalized “male gaze” as well as the apex at which the feminist gaze returns. Nicholas Cook’s groundbreaking analysis of Madonna’s “material girl” throws questions of ocular-centrism into musical relief by attempting what he terms a “musicology of the image”, showing how purely “musical” attributes inform and penetrate the very autonomy of the image in an MTV. For Cook,

“There is, in effect, a collision between two competing hierarchies, […] the result is to destabalize the meaning of the words and, through them, the closure of the song as a whole. The pictures, in short, serve to open the song up to the emergence of new meaning.”

The semi-sonata altering between two Madonna image-themes which Cook calls “Madonna I” and “Madonna II” blur the distinction between narrative diegesis and fantasy performance space though functioning to keep these dimensions wholly separate. The ultimate effect, Cook suggests, is that an “invisible” master puppeteer works the strings behind the automaton-like Madonna homunculi: “the real persona constructed by ‘Material Girl’ is not Madonna II or Madonna I; it is an unseen, authorial Madonna whom logic compels us to call ‘Madonna 0’”. The problem for Cook is that the most “essential”, albeit “necessary” Madonna is that which escapes the world of a virtual – neither heard nor seen – perhaps the Madonna that never is. A mythological Madonna that vacillates between the disabilities of Odysseus and his men, forever condemned to the dark and watery cave of her lurking. But perhaps this “dark and watery cave” houses no Madonna at all, that the luxurious shrieking of voices are but echo-like reflections that constitute the epistemological somaticism of a pre-virtual Madonna which merely returns our own calls to her by the sonorous contours of the unknown.

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