Feeling out the limits of history

Women’s representation in the field of sound studies in the UK reflects a fraught history, as similarly reflected in wider Western feminist musicological discourses, where women have struggled for recognition among their male peers. Feminist theory at the end of the last century developed a critical self-reflexivity through the development of gender studies, in part to address history’s resistance to change through the continued production and subordination of difference, historicising its own development within a social constructivist paradigm in modes that resonate through contemporary enquiries in queer, queer of colour and critical race scholarship (Scott 1999; Alexander 2005;  Butler 2011; Freeman 2010; Holland 2012). Feminist musicologist Ellen Koskoff similarly addresses feminist musicology’s own historicisation, noting the main phases of the discourse as correlating with the main phases of feminism (Koskoff 2005). Where both feminist scholarship and feminist musicology seem to have coalesced is around a critical awareness of the limitations of prior approaches and efforts, which though invaluable and necessary, can be appreciated as not really having affected much wide-ranging change, ideas that will be returned to. But to state briefly for the moment, simply valuing women’s work or considering unequal power relations within a broader sociological field, in effect producing herstory and critiquing history as individual and mutually exclusive processes have, as critical feminist historian Joan W. Scott explains, had a limited effect upon the foundational constructions and therefore deployments of gender within and especially beyond each respective field (Scott 1999: 18).  The limited effects of feminist approaches that have sought to reify the notion of “woman” through the writings of “herstory”, as Scott addresses, have the propensity to reinforce essentialist notions of “woman” and to reinforce the notion of separate spheres (Scott 1999: 18). A focus upon social histories on the other hand, as Scott similarly explains, has demonstrated the propensity to eclipse specific “women’s” issues with a more weighted focus placed upon macro-structures such as economic and political systems that can erase the specificity of everyday lived experiences of gender (Scott 1999: 4). Scott points out, as a result of these two separated historical methodologies, the reification of difference or its sublimation appear to be the only outcomes of such compartmentalised approaches. Thus their impact has been largely limited, implicitly, to reproducing a system that already exists. In light of an awareness of the efforts of the past that have sought to ‘write women into history’, either through presenting evidence of women’s musical contributions that have been erased or through analyses of larger and more systemic structures by which ideas about gender, race and music for instance have been produced, the development of a specifically critical queer feminism is one that seeks to balance these tensions; between experience and theory; between epistemology and ontology, as the task of the historical present in which we currently find ourselves (Scott 1996, 1999; Koskoff 2005).

Considered through processes that engage speech act theory; performative composition; representational politics embedded within audition; the critical analysis of auditory fundamental parameters through paradigms of discipline and desire; and historically shifting socio-political economies mapped through tensions and negotiations between the individual and the collective, each of the works considered here are addressed as feminist experiments in exercises of governmentality. By governmentality I mean that each work is addressed as a means by which to consider processes of  “organisation, distribution, and limitation of powers in a society” (Foucault 2008: 16, 13) with a focus upon shifting materialisations of “woman” as subject, gender and politics considered through socio-aesthetic processes of sound arts and experimental music production.

Finally, an overarching intention of Feminist Frequencies is not only to investigate the ways in which historical differences may have manifested in sound arts and experimental musics. Specifically, the intention is to connect these aesthetic disciplines as informed by recent scholarship undertaken within the field of sound studies directly with feminist, queer and critical race scholarship. Feminist Frequencies, then, is intentionally transdisciplinary and outward looking, listening out for relations and patterns with wider discourses so as to connect with broader ranges of experience that a listening-in to sound alone, as sound for sound’s sake, might possibly allow and to instead situate the field in connection with a multitude of other herstorical temporalities.


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