Friday, April 30, 2010

Locker Rooms: on exterior interiority

In my email inbox today, I received an intriguing proposition from "Sportsmen Asia," a Singapore-based website which teeters on the edge of the "open secret." Its concept is simple enough - a few dozen surreptitious "lockers" will be made available for hire in a dusty corner of Chinatown "away from prying eyes," enabling its patrons a sense of purchased security. Although I do not know the details of this enterprise (i.e. the limits on safety and purchased privacy, what is deemed a "storable item" in the box, or does the company impose a threshold on the sotrable), the immediate paradoxes of psychic space and its projective manifestations are made clear, albeit in the comic mode. It is worth noting that the idea of hiding-away pervades the enterprise of Sportsmen Asia. The company name is no more than a mask, a cover, a subterfuge which appears to appeal, on the surface, to fitness-inclined gentlemen. Beneath its misleading guise, however, is a throwback to the well-documented English "gentlemen's clubs" of the 19th Century. Put simply, Sportsmen Asia caters to a very select group of clientele. Ignoring for a moment the genereded implications, it's trade is remarkably queer, just have a look for yourself.

Could we say S.A. is properly queer? It offers no mode of identification except the communal experience of the pink-dollar that could as easily be used to shore up heterosexist desires. This, no doubt, begs the troubling question over queer capital: can the tenacity of capitalism indeed undermine the temporalized, apocalyptic, unsettling throes of queerness? As the owners of Sportsmen Asia have brilliantly shown, it can soundlessly transmorgify the symbolic resistance of ex-scribed, ex-temporalized, ex-iled queer space into its own signifier, the sign of the coin, the symbolic of global financial recognition. It's immediately amazing how quickly the acknowledgment of dangerous heterosexual spatio-temporalities governed by the linearity of the phallus and its fantasy of transparent disclosure threatens to fold up upon itself in another equally libidinous system driven by the flow of capital rather than the charge of skin (a question we may return to is whether the project of Capitalism, since it stabilizes the ex-spatialization of queer space through the dollar, as Edelman might say, returns metonymy to metaphor, disables the monetarily charged micro-spaces its ability to queer the "disclosed" outside in the filed of the heteronormative phallus). Is metonymy marketable? Or is Sportsmen Asia's brand of metonymy simply reminiscent of a flourishing circuitry of capital which, for its flaring moment, returns deferment and displacement to the "tyranny of the [homosexual] signifier"? Recall Edelman's critique of "gay" and "lesbian" lit crit.:

The questions, in short, demanded of us a willingness to assert and affirm a singular, recognizable, and therefore reproducible critical identity: to commodify lesbian and gay criticism by packaging it as a distinctive flavor of literary theory that might find its appropriate market share in the upscale economy of literary production. In the process these questions directed us to locate "homosexual difference" as a determinate entity rather than as an unstable differential relation, and they invited us to provide some general guidelines by which to define what constitutes the homosexual itself. (Edelman, "Homographesis," in Yale Journal of Criticism, 3:1, 1989)

Aside, the Locker Room project aligns other interiorities with queer ex-istence; the charged space of the locker room, of course, itself generates the dangerous - yet compellingly eroticizing - staging of homosociality. In the locker room, however, towels drop: the homosocial is left bare, its "members" jostling in (un)comfortably proximity. Conflicted desires thrash about viciously underneath a sea of calm nudity. Let us not forget that the concept of the "bathhouse," and the explicitly sexualized "sauna" (increasingly popular in Southeast Asia) transforms the hegemonic heteronormative neutral of hyper-masculine sociality into an electrified zone for "cruising" and the fulfillment of illicit (read: lawfully ambiguous) desires. Vis-a-vis Cary Howie, the threshold of the queer enclosure - it's enclosive function - borders on disclosure of the queer subject, but visibility happens literally at the threshold, and is never in itself complete, its borders leaving no cookie-cutter subject for easy alliance. The space of the Sauna is effortlessly recapitulated here; the danger of spatial danger still lurks. After all, is the idea of the "locker" the mediating passage between exteriority and queer (bathhouse) interiority? Paradoxically, what function does the "locker" serve in the sauna? Do the keys strapped around the ankles or wrists of its identity-obliterated folk seal something else other "protect" private possession? Or does the enclosed locker-space within the enclosure of queer space delimit the ultimate reversal within queer space: that is, the locking away of one's "proper" identity, ex-scribing one's queer subjectivity for a skin-taut tabula rasa of anonymity in which the historical particular is denied? From this view, the so-called "queer" space of the enclosure is but fantasy, it's "properly queer" zone, really, shut-away in the locker, ex-iled to interiority.

In the enclosure of the queer bathhouse, the most normative gesture would be to reject the ornamentations of the phallic Symbolic: the very codes which could eventually queer queerness itself. Seldom are words exchanged, seldom is identity revealed, codes govern the necessity for secrecy, but secrecy disables the radicant which demolishes both spaces, and prevents the queer from becoming mere repetition, a jukebox-language which plays the selfsame tune. What then, of Sportsmen Asia's locker room project? Does it not present us with a communal form of "shedding," of spatialized (albeit socialized) temporal dis-identification? Bodies (colliding in queer space) are exchanged for objects rubbing against each other; to be specific - shamefully charged materials which feed on excised abjection, leaving its users, its attached body-part, free to re-enter the Symbolic free of proximal shame, bartered through the (Capital) Symbolic itself. Put differently: is this queerness literally selling out by ex/en-closing in? Are patrons paying to demarcate, control, excise deviant eroticisms by returning it to the overdetermined flow of relations between homosexuals and heterosexuals, by confining it to the Laws and dynamics of homosociality?

And what of "prying eyes?" Whose "prying eyes"? In the discursive locale of the epistemological "locker room" space (not locker) within the Sauna, isn't the locker precisely meant to govern access to the "prying eyes" of individuals who may return the anonymity of metonymy (fleshy, identity-less bodies) to a "marked" form of existence by prying open one's suppressed Symbolic history? In the Bathhouse, 'safety' is guaranteed by de-marking one's libido organized by the (outside) Symbolic, throwing the sign of one's "phallus" into slippery play ("you can be anyone") simply a rejection of queerness? The queer is not, then enclosive function of communal desire, but the registral shift of enclosive/disclosive threat - of recognition, the possibility of bringing the play of (bodily) signs into being named, a name, an identity: a co-worker, a classmate, a colleague, a policeman, a statesperson, a senator, a father, a professional. The loops are endless - seizing the momentum of metonymy and bringing it back into the rigidity of metaphor, the electric circuit of signification, the "lightbulb" goes off. But the "lightbulb" goes off in a/c currents as well, frictional electricity governed by the very differential relation between opposing flows. The Locker Room Project then forcibly governs the spatio-temporalization of safe spaces, built upon an absolute understanding of the hermeticism of enclosures - be it the enclosure of one's public-private life on the verge of the visible (by normative communities), or the enclosure of the deviantly charged Sauna-space, which (falsely) proffers to castrate the flows between either communities. What queerness tries to locate (always impossibly), is the disjunctive, enclosive/disclosive momentum between registers, and the possibility of rupture within imagined, hermetic spaces. Metonymy is not marketable - irreducible to the signifier of queerness or the signifier of the coin, for to market is to designate a product which stabilizes the economy of desire.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Middle Th-[rough/]-ou[g]ht

Disclaimer: the following post may seem explicitly sexual, and hence offensive to some. Read at your own risk.

Thought - thinking through, thinking out [of the box]; what do these registers of heuristic "penetration" afford us? Historical "rimming" - I find unfocussed, unsettled thoughts tackling Cary Howie's outstanding philo-medieval project "Claustrophilia," or "the love of enclosures." Taking its starting point the attempt to think 'beside' historiography which, as Zizek rightly pronounces, is a metaphysical placeholder for authentic scholarship, Howie investigates the paradox of the enclosure - enclosive, while also orbiting around a disclosive gesture; the disclosure which emerges at the boundaries of enclosure. While I enjoy Howie's theorizing and its fantastic joy (jouissance?), has the disclosive enclosure walked so far ahead beyond penetrative modes? I'm not seeking an appraisal of penetrative violence, of strongly heterosexist models of domination and subordination, especially in an emergent field of Medieval studies creatively fuelled with the libido of enclosive phenomenology and the potency (albeit metonymic shiftiness) of a non-denotative queer, I want to return to one portion of Howie's formulation of "thinking-out-of" [the box] while - here he "enfolds" the Chinese notion of the "box," its paradoxical, in/egested other, that of thinking-through warrants some address.

Certain psychoanalytic directions in the Philosophy of History has sought to query the analysts' propensity to "act-out"  an inherited, textual encounter rather than to "work-through" the material, dis- and re-connecting circuits of meaning and their psychic flows vis-a-vis the libido. Acting-out: mimesis, reproduction of power-cycles which leans against a death-wish, a repetitive drive of the self-same, versus "working-through," the possibility of obliteration and reformulation, though flirting with the possibility of violence, of domination. The "binary-star-system" complex may be fantasy, two moments held in perpetual sublative motion without the full destruction of the other (also maintained in current political "translation theory"), but is there a moebius-strip like topology which can fully engage the two? 

Thinking-through and thinking-out, perhaps, returns to the ego of the phallus but, like Howie's temeprate ass-licking/rimming version of the historical and ahistorical, social and asocial, may father a non-reproductive (a-futurist, in Edelman-speak) method of ex-egesis. That is, the act of enclosure which preserves the resistiveness of the "historical" resembles more an act of masturbation than it does a clerkly violent rape of the "robed" text. Thinking through-out is a historical handjob, but the formulation begs the question: who gives whom pleasure? Is it text that invigorates the jouissance of the enclosed, or is it the jouissance of never approaching the text's own foreclosed desires? This way, the "wrapping" of the medieval is partial; as easily as it wraps, it unwraps, the penetrator is himself "penetrated," but penetration is never absolute, since the "hole" in question resists cartesian space. Meaning through disclosive-enclosure of the historical hand-job is literally at the limits of "wrapping": the phallus is never dominant, stoked to non-reproductive joy by that which it penetrates, and is enclosed-by. By speaking the medieval, is one's throat choked, or does it wrap? By singing the medieval, does one spit, or does it ingest? A primer for claustrophillic middle-ages music-making might then consider the metonymic relation between reading and listening, except that listening is a sort of a "double-fuck," to extend Madhavi Menon's reflections - the mouth and ears participate in... in what? Can the ear be penetrated, or does it enforce an aural form of "rimming," where sound [from the mouth, the lips] orbits the functional pinnae (the ear's outer bone structure), filtering it into a vor-textual abyss? Then there is the narcissistic mouth, (gagging? spitting?) which flows through the ears and back to the mouth again in a circuitous loop. Where is the enclosure here, then? Through-out. At the threshold of a handjob's joyous friction.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The end of a thesis era: back to the books I love

I am proud to report that my nocturnal adventures in the enclosures of thesis-land have not been for naught. To my delight, an email arrived a few days ago confirming that my thesis entitled "Musical 'Beastliness' in the Roman de Fauvel: Chaillous 'addicions' and Sensory Danger" was awarded high honors. Retroactively, perhaps I should have bought a more expensive bottle of Champagne instead (refer below):

This queer ritual captured above is known as the annual end-of-thesis-party-on-Olin-Library-Senior-Sendoff, where Wesleyan Seniors indulge in blind drunkenness in the (possibly false) celebration of life's little challenges. This unfortunate event is usually followed by denial, aggression, a chronic lack of academic motivation, and several episodes of nudity on Foss hill. Fortunately, the condition wears off within a few weeks, and most nocturnal subjects return, rejuvenated, to a diurnal lifestyle. Some even manage to recalibrate their scholarly sensibilities towards intellectual productivity, but, alas, constitute a minority especially since the anxieties of graduation are quick to kick in.

To alleviate the aforesaid, I have broken my word by breaking the piggy bank. Amazon be damned! Ever since disappearing into the vortex of "thesis," I am happy to report that several stimulating reads temporarily put on hold for sake of education are now making their way across states, and into my mailbox (hopefully by tomorrow):

"The Beast and the Sovereign, Volume I (The Seminars of Jacques Derrida)"
- Definitely one I've been meaning to pick up after examining Derrida's highly provocative essay "The Animal therefore I am" chocked full of titillating ideas on the ani-mot, an ontology modeled on "following," and the gaze of his cat which brings the enterprise of Universalism/Particularism under scrutiny.

"The Renaissance Reform of Medieval Music Theory: Guido of Arezzo between Myth and History"
- Anyone who was at AMS 2009 who heard Mengozzi's paper would agree that this is a hugely important work for late medieval conceptions of the Guidonian Hand, and, correspondingly, the schema of hexachordal space. I'm hoping that Mengozzi's "semantic turn" investigative style will provide clues to the nature of late medieval ars, especially regarding the re-appraisal of musica ficta/falsa, whose story, I believe hasn't been fully told with much certainty.

"The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century (Series Q)"

- Inexorably excited about this one, ever since reading Edelman's "No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive," in which Edelman critiques the fantasy of "reproductive futurism." He leaves the fantasy intact, however, by avoiding the "queer child" in his accounts of the child-as-Big (or little)-Other supporting the foundation of an anti-anti-futurist ethic. Freud himself is credited by attempting to formulate an understanding of the pre-Symbolic queer subject (as does Lacan), and should be pertinent in unveiling yet another fantasy structured on models of domination, that is, Adultism. I'm interested in seeing how "growing sideways" may be complementary to Sara Ahmed's take on "Queer Phenomenology" which discusses /dis/re-orientation.

"The Christian West and Its Singers: The First Thousand Years"

- Finally! Christopher Page's scholarship on the disciplining of singers in the later medieval ages!

"First As Tragedy, Then As Farce"
- One of Zizek's latest offerings. Anyone read it? How is it? I meant to put a purchase hold on his soon-to-be-released "living in the end times," but I'd rather wait for it to come out before I spend more than I can manage. Was looking forward to "The Monster of Christ," but isn't that topic a little worn out by now?

"This Incredible Need to Believe"

- Kristeva's latest book. Kristeva is always magnificent food for thought.

And with that, I conclude my anticipated reading list for these few months in between gasps of merry-making, singing, concerts, and future-less preparations.

Monday, April 26, 2010

In the [Medieval] "Mittle"

It's about time that I vociferously slogan the wonderful work of In The Medieval Middle, a truly stunning set of Shenkerian-esque "unfoldings" about everything off-centered we find about the Middle Ages. Or is it time to topple the "Middle" from "Middle Ages," many of the posts argue, not in the least in our exciting age of posthuman scholarship. Rarely do critical medieval-middle-isms meet Musicologists; the latter are still wringing hands over the search for origins, and schema for structural, traceable, "historical" answers. As Jeffrey Cohen (famed for his truly original work on monsters and nonhuman medieval Others, not forgetting their Queer in/carnations for scholarship today) has constantly sought to befuddle our predilections for a "dark" Middle legible only by the light of empiricism, we constantly find our temporalities thrown into deep question when the "Middle," that is, the expositionary, the pulsative inching towards the "/" which enables presentness to be present, infiltrates and muddies the medieval me.

In celebration of (hopefully) another Rhizomatic flight path which "wraps" and imagines a kind of historical "embrace" brought on by contemporary "touch" theory, perhaps (in the spirit of D&G), I will contribute this first act of touching with not a history of music, but a musical history, already somewhat hinted at by Daniel Albright in his strange livret Untwisting the Serpent. My model considers the "flickering" that ensues within the vor-text of the "middle" via Schenkerianism - that (often difficult) mode of musical analysis which, at its perverse core of overdetermining the exactitude of individual constituent pitches in the musical score, disfigures the object itself in favor of a hegemonic "chord of nature" understanding - God's Claves, if you wish:

What draws me to Schenker is not his insistence on the "chord of nature," which supposedly exists only in the hintergrund (background), strenuously extrapolated from the Vordergrund (foreground), but the idea of the Mittelgrund (Middle-ground), that indistinct mediatory step which fluctuates between the despotic one-size-fits-all "chord of nature" and the particular, the full glory of the notated score itself. A musical history wedged in the Mittlegrund gestures uneasily towards both poles, while much more recent work recognizing the creative potential of Schenkerian analysis has re-emphasized the Mittlegrund for its d/r-econstructive potency. What's more - each "level" extrapolated from the score-trace is predicated on a series of chordal "unfoldings," a historical sense which, while seeking consonance between the Vordergrund und der hintergrund demands the analyst to eludicate linear patterns while molding the Mittlegrund to the contours of the Vordergrund.

A musical historical note then to medievalist/musicologists - what does an aesthetic of the medieval "mittle" propose? A reversion to the infinite nature of "unfoldings," to the rhizomatic understanding of the "Mittle" which, even as it acknowledges the insufficiencies of the present hintergrund, nevertheless avails the (analytical) possibility of rebuking it, while weaving a set of twisting-connective operations vis-a-vis the "textual," Vordergrund. If we can think music through history, why shouldn't we be able to think history through music? An aesthetics of the Medieval Mittle, perhaps, would respond to an "unfolding," "leading" quality whilst actively dealing with the manifold received "medievals" and "moderns." For the operation of Schenker's graph of the Mittle is not to lead-to, but to lead-for, to lead-in-lieu-of.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ah! Cappella!

On Monday I was contacted by a Hartford Courant reporter who wished to conduct an interview regarding the rise in popularity of collegiate a cappella. And why should one feign an interest in this socio-economic (mostly university) phenomenon? From about 300 singing groups in New England, "a cappella," or, more accurately, its collegiate incarnation, has literally taken the US by storm. I myself am in two very different a cappella groups, Wesleyan's all-male The Wesleyan Spirits and another group I formed with three other individuals in my freshman year named The Mixolydians (you can conceive of all the bad puns by yourself).

But what exactly of a cappella music and its fresh, new faces? When one mentions collegiate a cappella, perhaps the first thing to bubble up to memory's surface is Tuft's Beezelbubs, thanks (or no thanks) to the highly popular, albeit sensationalized Sing Off program produced by NBC. Under the dazzling overexposure of glitzy lights and adoring fans, a cappella's new faces have somewhat trampled the memories of them good 'ol fraternity-like Glee Clubs and barbershop quartets so pervasive in the mid twenties. Less remembered, however, is that the association between "a cappella" and its modern counterpart was based on a mistaken attribution of the Roman Catholic Church in the 19th Century.

But first, back to basics. A-cappella; "cappella" meaning "Church" in Italian. The term first arose in the early 17th Century, denoting polyphonic music composed in the more "modern" concertato style as compared to the older Renaissance form of high counterpoint, exemplified by Palestrina. The surprising twist comes about in the late 19th Century when the Roman Catholic Church (along with a few non-Catholic music conservatists/museumists) attached special favor to the polyphonic repertory of the 16th Century. A cappella then came to connote music sung "without instruments," or so they believed, with Palestrina hilariously heroicized as its exemplar. And so, it is the latter definition we have inherited, although we've unwittingly knocked Palestrina off the pedestal again.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

BACK IN THE WORLD OF THE LIVING! (And anticipating MedRen 2010)

Dearest (fellow) Bloggo-musico-logists of the new world order,

I am pleased to announce that, countless sleepless nights, hundreds of edits and one soused episode of champagne overdose later, my Honors thesis is finally done, uploaded, and I'm back amongst the living. (And, saying that, I'm typing this from a tiny carrel). The lack of sunlight on skin has taken its toll, and I seem to gleam under the moon as well. But for anyone who's curious, I rolled out a thesis investigating musical ontologies of "beastliness" in our favorite fourteenth century source. Everyone repeat after me: Le Roman de Fauvel.

Curious? For all those with spare time (don't laugh...) you can access the FULL unrestricted thesis here:


... and get ready for some Horsey Musicology!

HELLO EVERYONE, it's nice to be back outside!

That said, this year's medieval and renaissance conference looks totally baller. Here are some of my favorite picks from the lineup:

Yossi Maurey: Singing the Praises of
God without Words: The Meaning of
Neumas in Medieval Liturgy

Andrew Hicks: Re-interpreting an
Arithmetical Error in Boethius’s De
institutione music (iii.14-16)

Ali Pemble: Timaeus and the Trumpet:
The Harmonizing Logos in Medieval Art

Timothy Chenette: The Role of Complex
Notation in Complex Rhythm of the Late
14th Century (YES!)

Jeffrey Levenberg: Ouds or Lutes?
“Fumeux Fume’s” Ficta Speculacion
(Finally, another voice about Fumeux Fume that isn't Lefferts)

Richard Parncutt: Historical origins of
major-minor tonality: A psychological
approach (Seriously? Rick Cohn better watch his back!)

Gábor Kiss: Spontaneity or
consciousness? Late-medieval
approaches to the differences of the
liturgical repertories (can't even begin to wonder)

Stefano Mengozzi: Facets of Musical
Renovatio in the Early 15th Century (Everyone should go buy his book when it officially hits the shelves)

Catherine Bradley: Clausula or Motet: Which
Came First? (We're still arguing about it, folks!)

Anna Zayaruznaya: The Composite Tenor of
Vitry’s Cum statua/Hugo (This should be magnificently interesting! Vitry's motet talks about lying and interior deception, using the metaphor of Nebuchadnezzar's statue. She's gonna talk about a hybrid tenor, and I'm hoping she'll court with notions of Alchemy...)

Rachel Lumsden: Mode, Gender, and Aribo’s De Musica (Everyone remember the 12th Century Aribo's very strange articulation of modes as woman's body? I wanted to talk about it in my thesis; never got round to it)


This one's for Phil who lamented some blogposts ago that there really isn't much on musicology and Derrida. I'm happy to say that (1) I've used Derrida's "Hauntology" in my thesis at least once, and MedRen has this in store...

Kate Maxwell: Boethius, Guido, ...
Derrida? ‘Grammatology’ as a means of
understanding early music notation

Curious? So am I. I think I know where she's going with this one, but let's see if it's true.

Signing off,

HT. Going to get coffee now.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The chapter that didn't quite make my thesis: Beastly transformation, Musicality, and Michael Jackson.

Michael Jackson’s Beastly Transformations in Thriller: Killing the Hypersexualized, “Musical” Body.

Nearly six entire centuries have passed since Chaillou’s interpolated Roman de Fauvel was brought into completion. Today, the enclosed world of reading for whom fr. 146 was probably meant for is replicated under the strict surveillance of the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale, fully accessible only to a limited number of viewers at a time. Despite the restricted circumstances of Fauvel viewership, paradoxically, the musical components of fr. 146 have never been more accessible. Over the last decade, the publication of the colossal Fauvel Studies has ushered in a new wave of Fauvel interest, succeeded by Emma Dillon’s Medieval Music-Making and the Roman de Fauvel, which both seek to relocate Chaillou’s interpolations within the epistemology of the “book,” and correspondingly, its intertextual relations with other items also included in fr. 146.

Acquiring a Fauvellian sound-byte has never been easier, thanks to new disseminative pathways such as the CDs, recordings, and the digitization of music over the internet. At the click of a button, almost every single musical item in the Roman de Fauvel can be purchased over i-tunes, Amazon, “ripped off” via file-sharing networks, or sampled on media-sharing sites such as imeem or youtube. On the front of contemporary music-making, groups as diverse as the Clemencic Consort, Studio der Frühen Musik, Ensemble P.A.N., Boston Camerata, Ordo Virtutum, The Ensemble for Early Music and even community amateur groups have tried their hand at theatricalising Fauvel from page to stage. Contrary to Gervais’ and Chaillou’s poetic predictions, Fauvel is far from deceased; his multiplied, sonorous musical form permeates the far corners of contemporary reconstructions of medieval music-making, with musicologists idolizing the Roman as one of the most important documents of music in the early fourteenth century.

Today, fr. 146 makers’ concerns over hermeneutic and exegetic “beastliness” seem to be lost in contemporary culture. Thanks to the Hollywood industry, medieval worry over the possibility of “beastly mutation” has been largely quelled by recent films such as X-men (2002) and its sequels (2003, 2006, 2009), The Incredible Hulk (2008) and the highly popular Twilight movie series (2008 followed by New Moon in 2009). In these films, the ability to transmute between beastly and humanoid bodies is fashioned as an imaginary additional appendage, a signifier of extraordinary abilities and fantastic powers beyond human possibilities. Although “beastliness” in its contemporary positive incarnations has the power to inspire awe and admiration, it is worth considering how these films as such respond to beast/human hybridity with ambivalence; to use a cursory example, the massive strength of the Incredible Hulk comes at the cost of uncontrollable rage and monstrous destructive urges. Such is the case demonstrated succinctly in Michael Jackson’s (MJ) immortalized music video Thriller (1983) directed for television by famed horror filmmaker John Landis (American House, American Werewolf in London, Twilight Zone), in which the music-star persona of Michael Jackson – then internationally lauded as the “King of Pop” – vacillates with a ghastly, monstrous filmic persona as if both the aura of celebrity musical genius and the horror of beast stem from the same metaphysical source.

In the fourteen minute music video, Landis and Jackson present us with a modern cinematic version of the Roman de Fauvel’s “Gesamtkuntswerk” aesthetic, marrying image, text and music unfolding temporally over a television “page.” More importantly, I believe the video reproduces similar concerns as the Roman de Fauvel’s anxiety over the sensuous, beastly (musically-suffused) body, albeit in a contemporary setting. The video opens with a lengthy expositional narrative sequence without Jackson’s signature pop tune (the catchy C-D-F-G-D repeating bass vamp only begins 4:13 minutes into the video), in which Jackson transforms into a hideous werewolf as soon as he and his onscreen date (Ola Ray, OR) declare their affection for each other, and the former presents her with an engagement ring [1:43] (see fig. 5.1).

Fig. 5.1. MJ presents OR with an engagement ring [1:43].

Leading up to his beastly transformation, the following dialogue ensues:

1:55 MJ: I have something I wanna tell you.
OR: Yes Michael?
MJ: I’m not like other guys.
OR: Of course not! That’s why I love you.
MJ: No, I mean I’m different.
OR: What are you talkin’ about?
2:10 Screenshot of clouds clearing away revealing the moon. MJ winces and crouches over
2:21 OR: Are you alright?
Cut to MJ, who has semi-transformed into a werewolf
2:24 MJ: (With a gruff, beastly voice) Go away!

Fig. 5.2. MJ transformed into a werewolf [2:51].

MJ’s transformation from 2:10 is ominously paired with “scary music” provided by Elmer Bernstein, which juxtaposes the audience’s expectation of Jackson’s lyricized pop tune with a nondiegetic “external” musical accompaniment (that is, music which seems to originate from a source other than onscreen narrative). In the self-contained fantastic world of Thriller, Bernstein’s music is presented as an “excessive” surplus to MJ’s song, conspicuously paired with moments of filmic beastly mutation. In other words, MJ’s mutations are flamboyantly “musical” in the sense that Bernstein’s “addicions” lack the neutralizing component of text (the word). It is as if the dimension of beastly transformation is explicitly linked to the wordless orchestration of Bernstein’s “beastly” scary music, or even apparent as its complicit source. During the transformation, even MJ’s human voice takes on a gruff, bestialized, monstrous quality [2:24], finally overtaking the mechanisms of speech: the fully transformed werewolf is completely “musical” in the sense that he is unable to produce words, his seat of grammatical reason reduced to “musical” howling and chaotic roaring akin to the intoxicated bray of a thought-deprived cantor (see fig. 5.2 above).

This beastly, speech-impaired “musical” version of werewolf-MJ threatens to break the anthropocentric social pact of MJ and OR’s wedding engagement, pursuing her ruthlessly [3:00 – 3:41] and pinning her to the ground (fig. 5.3 below). That is, the masculine hyper-sensualized (-sexualized) “musical” body of MJ-the-werewolf threatens to overwhelm the disciplinary “human” restrictions of nuptial relations. As Bernstein’s “scary music” surges to a crescendo, the “excesses” of the textless musicality of Thriller reaches a high point as the werewolf prepares to “consume” OR. This sequence has been oft interpreted as the rapacious beastliness of sexual predation, recapitulating Alan and Arnulf’s apprehension of the uncontrollable excessiveness of beastly sexual desires we encountered in chapter 1. MJ is suggestively posed above OR who, stricken with fear, lies helplessly on the ground; whether his approach concludes with sexual or oral consummation is, however, ingeniously left to the imagination of the viewer. At the critical point of attack (rape? Devouring?), the camera cuts to a shot of a movie theatre audience watching a horror film, with a “modern-day” (human) version of MJ and a differently fashioned OR amidst the crowd [3:42]; the viewer than “discovers” that the fright sequence was all but a dreamlike movie-style sequence.

Fig. 5.3. A fear-stricken OR [3:39] sprawled on the floor, encroached upon by a werewolf version of MJ [3:41].

In the second half of the video, the “modern-day” MJ (of the movie theatre) leaves the theatre at the request of “modern-day” OR, at which point the C-D-F-G-D bass vamp begins [4:13]. The beastly excesses of Bernstein’s orchestration are left behind in the movie theatre, “domesticated” as such by containing it within the theatre, and hence the fantastic imagination of the film both actors previously “watched.” After singing three permutations of the song’s verse, the camera pans to a graveyard where, accompanied by an organ underscoring, a different sort of monstrous, “beastly” being emerges. From 6:31 to 8:03, zombies (another form of liminal beastly being perched between life and death) emerge from beneath the ground, as if drawn to the infectious “musicality” of the song’s textless, repetitive bass vamp. Like the “imperfect” neumatic coloration of the tenor line of Garrit Gallus/In Nova Fert, the sensuous pulsation of Thriller’s ground bass appears to breathe “pneumatic” life into the corpses of the dead, spawning an army of aural-pleasure-seeking creatures. This monstrous life-giving quality of MJ’s metaphysical musicality is further strengthened by the deterioration of MJ’s vocals into meaningless, sensuous warbling: at 7:32, the zombies rise to MJ’s signature “hiccup” vocal hook, and his musical improvisation on intoning “ooh,” “yeah,” “ooh baby,” and “woah yeah,” approximating nonsensical glossia: precisely the kind of avian-like literate but inarticulate particulate vox which transform the signifying capacities of the sign into pure aural titillation (see chapter 2). Are the zombies drawn to the “musical” qualities of MJ’s voice, or are they enraptured by the significance of his envoiced words (i.e. the logos of the sign)?

Fig. 5.4. MJ’s zombie metamorphosis [8:26].

By 8:03, the auditory zombies have encircled MJ and OR. At this moment, the Thriller vamp drops out completely, while Bernstein’s “scary music” theme irrupts out of its movie theatre enclosure and into “modern” MJ and OR’s narrative, articulated with an alternating E-flat/F dyad (another musically “metamorphosing” pitch sequence?) in the string section [8:09-8:21], proceeded by an atonal D-C#-C falling chromatic pattern in the strings from [8:21-8:24]. This section climaxes on a loud dissonant cluster in the orchestra [8:25], as the camera pans onto “modern” MJ’s, himself suddenly transformed into a beastly, zombie-like being (fig. 5.4 above) to the bewilderment of “modern” OR. Immediately after this ghastly “reveal,” at 8:28 the familiar Thriller bass vamp kicks into gear, inspiring the ghoulish MJ and his zombie accomplices into a wordless dance sequence which continues until 9:40 (fig. 5.5), which heightens the relationship between textless “musicality” and the rhythmic, sensual drives of the (dancing) body. However, at 9:41 where the text of the chorus returns, the ghoulish MJ spins around to face the camera and sing only for the viewer to discover that his beastly “mutation” has abruptly come to an end. Indeed the moment MJ returns his musical piping to a worded chain of signification, all signs of transformation vanishes, leaving the pop star intact in his fully humanized body (fig. 5.6).

Fig. 5.5. The zombie dance sequence [9:24].

Fig. 5.6. A “re-humanized” MJ [9:41].

By returning to the safe, productive realm of signification, the music video seems to suggest that MJ overcomes his own “beastly” self by becoming an intelligent master of the word (logos), thereby returning to the realm of humanness. On the contrary, by abandoning the symbolic functions of the sign and appealing to the metaphysical excesses of “musicality,” MJ is portrayed as degenerating into the sphere of beastliness. Once MJ’s sung chorus break [9:41-10:34] ends, a shot of MJ’s face in 10:40 shows him retransformed into a zombie. It is only by speaking again (“what’s the problem?”) in 11:47 that MJ breaks the spell of his beastly ontology and, predictably, acquires the affection of his recovering girlfriend. The aesthetic of the word’s power in MJ and Landis’ modern-day Gesamtkuntswerk is further reified by an opening message signed by MJ at the beginning of the video:

Due to my strong personal convictions,
I wish to stress that this film in no
Way endorses a belief in the occult.
- Michael Jackson.

MJ and Landis therefore use the hermeneutic strength of the signifying word to quell any alternative “beastly” forms of exegesis, or acts of misreading which may result from watching the film. In other words, MJ’s opening statement covertly works to dispel, indeed “kill” misinformed acts of reading arising from the metaphysical excess of the film’s semiotic signs in play. By “framing” our viewing experience by warning the viewer not to interpret the film as evidence of MJ’s occult-based beliefs, does not MJ position himself as a version of the clerky, masterful “reader” instructing his students (fans/viewers) of “carnal” reading? MJ disciplines the field of the film’s reception through use of the word, reminding spectators that the filmic events should be understood at an aesthetic, “figurative” level rather than one that is “literal.”

From his onscreen persona to his public persona, MJ’s “performance” of the self in public has also repeated the authority of the word against the metaphysical excesses of wordless “musicality.” This has come to bear on MJ’s deliberate refusal to participate in discourses of his sexuality (the discursive domain of the sensuous beast), his business associate Shirley Brooks explaining that it is “none of anyone else’s business.” Yet, MJ’s suppressed “beastly” domain has nonetheless attracted the admiration of thousands of adoring fans, who, like Alan’s pleasure-seeking sodomites, figure MJ’s sexual appeal into the “musicality” of the voice rather that its textual passengers. Mercer explains:

Just what is it that makes this young, black man so different, so appealing? Undoubtedly, it is the voice which lies at the heart of his appeal. Rooted in the Afro-American tradition of ‘soul,’ Jackson’s vocal performance is characterized by breathy gasps, squeaks, sensual sighs and other wordless sounds which have become his stylistic signature. The way in which this style punctuates the emotional resonance and bodily sensuality of the music corresponds to what Roland Barthes called the ‘grain’ of the voice – ‘the grain is the body in the voice as it sings.’ The emotional and erotic expressiveness of the voice is complemented by the sensual grace and sheer excitement of Jackson’s dancing style: even as a child, his stage performance provoked comparisons with James Brown and Jackie Wilson.

However, as we have seen in the Thriller video, MJ’s “stylistic signature” of erotic “musicality” is similarly the sensuous, metaphysical agent which initiates his mutation from man to beast, an uncontrollable monstrous entity which must be killed by the presence of the word for meaningful figurations of the social contract. The beast is undeniably on the outside, and must be brought back within the boundaries of signification in order to discipline, police, and regulate the meanings of human interactions. One only need venture beyond the bounds of MJ’s regulated stronghold of signification into fan-based circles and the discourse of popular tabloids to observe the destructive effects of beastliness and the “musicality” of signification gone awry on MJ’s reputation. In 1993, MJ’s fame was tarnished by a permutation of such sensuous beastliness, himself stigmatized by a spate of child-molestation scandals, the repercussions of which are still felt today after the celebrity’s untimely death in 2009 from drug overdose. Put differently, MJ’s ambiguous flirtations with the realm of beastly, erotic sensuousness in music videos such as Thriller was an integral part of his rise to fame, as much it was ultimately the blemish that tarnished his public “humanly” image. Indeed, the mutative, beastly quality of MJ’s Thriller video spills over to his public persona in which, under the charged rumours of his deviant acts of sexual predation, construes MJ as a queer, hybridized beast of sorts, shuttling between the glorified super-human object of desire and his monstrous incarnation as a predatory paedophile.

Another name for the musical, sensuous beastliness which dominated MJ’s charges is suggested by John Nguyet Erni as “queer,” a term which designates a deviance from yardsticks of (sexual) normativity while also containing the potential to “queer” the “givenness” of normative templates against which it was first measured. Drawing on the work of literary queer theorists such as Michael Warner and Judith Butler, Erni describes MJ’s “queer figuration” in the realm of the cultural-political as:

[Increasingly] a zone of socially licensed excess, and one without guarantee. “Queer” is a point of resistance, a locus of repeated stigmatization, and a site for overcommodification all at the same time. However, realizing this is never an underestimation of the over-and-above charge of queer practices and queer practices and queer modes of articulation. Rather, it is to trust, with due caution, that the queer performative self – whether it is about performing the transitive “race,” the crossover “gender,” or the topsy-turvy “sexuality,” [and, one should add, the beast-human hybrid,] Michael Jackson style or otherwise plays in the phantom space on all sides of the social and political sphere, and produces itself as vigilant, imaginative, and vastly revisable, but invariably paradoxical, political fictions.

On the front of musicology, the late Philip Brett brilliantly demonstrated the historical semantic connection between beastly “queerness” and “musicality.” Inspired by the work of Eve Sedgwick, Brett argues that the beastly ineffability of queerness (under the regulating gaze of the heteronormative) due to what Sedgwick calls the “epistemology of the closet” made it structurally complementary to music’s own alleged ineffability, to the extent that they became nearly coterminous. “Musical” came to be a slippery “codeword,” an identifying catchphrase amidst members of the same deviating class that could potentially signify that which was other than itself, in other words, signify the beastly, unstable transmuting locus of the “queer.”

Paradoxically, then, “musical” only “signifies” queerness when it signifies defectively, when it short-circuits the pathway of normative signification. Like Fauvel’s visual and musical ontology as a sensuous/sign hybrid, musical queerness threatens the legitimacy of normative signifying systems by being impossible to firmly “pin down.” It revels in the metaphysical, sonorous excesses of the sign and the uncontrollable generation of multiple meanings through play while refuting a unidirectional epistemology of signification. Instead, as the sonorous explosion of “boive” and its sister signs on folio 45r, meaning is amplified (amplificato) in all directions, rupturing a one-way signification street and causing an experience of disorientation or intoxication. Similarly, MJ’s “beastly” persona in Thriller is equally resistant to the grasp of reason – his mutating body slips effortlessly between human, werewolf and zombie, in turn “queering” the authenticity of his “original” humanly appearance, relating, as it were, to the slippery, hybridized quality of the Fauvellian sign teetering between signification and self-absorption.