Resistances of History

At the fourteenth international New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME) conference of 2014, Georgina Born organised and chaired a panel/workshop titled Gender, Education, Creativity in Digital Music and Sound Art (Born et al 2014).  This was the first panel to address issues of gender in sound and music in NIME’s fourteen year history. Born, along with Kyle Devine and Mark Taylor presented findings from their UCAS/HESA research in which they demonstrated “the enormous growth of music technology degree provision in British Higher Education since the mid 1990s” drawing particular focus to the following demographics:

…the demographic of British music technology degrees, in comparison to both traditional music degrees and the national average, is overwhelmingly male (more than 90%), from less advantaged social backgrounds, and (slightly) more ethnically diverse. At issue, then, is the emergence in the present of a highly (male) gendered creative digital music scene (Born, Devine & Taylor 2014).

This startling demographic of a “more than 90%” male and highly masculine “gendered creative digital music scene” in the UK in 2014 presents stark evidence to the largely ineffectual force of much prior feminist work to bring about any real change within the British landscape of music and technology education upon the ratios between men and women enrolled in these courses. This, as Born asserts, means that the current (and future based upon the trends exposed in Born’s research) digital musical landscape is a masculine one.

These statistical findings and personal experiences all point to a certain failure within feminist efforts to actually, really change the ongoing experience of gendered imbalances in the historical present, particularly within this field.  Such ‘failures of feminism’ to actually effect widespread change have been addressed by Joan W. Scott who critiques the ways in which feminism’s past efforts “have encountered the powerful resistance of history – as a disciplined body of knowledge and as a professional institution” (Scott 1999: 18). As a result, Scott challenges an “acceptance of history’s positivism” within historical feminist frameworks based upon “an implicit belief in pluralism” (Scott 1999: 3). Such beliefs, she asserts, stem from a naivety in thinking that existing historical categories and topics could be expanded to include women, particularly where a desire to expand the categories in question does not “effectively change established definitions of those categories” in themselves (Scott 1999: 3). Instead, by combining previously segregated feminist methodologies embedded within a qualitative frame of ‘herstory’ and quantitative feminist social history processes – which can each be heard to echo within “woman-centric” and “gender-centric” feminist musicological processes, Scott develops what she calls a “critical practice of feminism” (Scott 1999). Such a practice is one that seeks to self-reflexively trace the construction of its own terms and conventions, with a particular focus upon the key terms “woman as subject, gender and politics” (Scott 1999: 24) which can be simultaneously be joined-up with an added focus upon the key terms of noise, silence, pitch, timbre and amplitude. Reading this methodology through an analysis of the Her Noise Project for example, seemingly suggests that rather than simply attempting to write ‘women’ into existent sound and music histories, the definitions of key terms such as ‘her’ and ‘noise’ as well as ‘sound’ and ‘music’ and the region that binds such modalities themselves must be critically engaged with and transformed if any challenge to the “resistances of history” is to be lodged at all (Scott 1999: 18).

In light of such ubiquitous “resistances of history”, Scott’s critical feminist approach to writing feminist histories is addressed to a feminist past that, she asserts, has failed to meaningfully produce any tangible change in the relations between ‘men’ and ‘women’, focused specifically upon “the relatively limited impact women’s history was having on historical studies more generally” (Scott 1999: 3). Her critique of herstory and social history as two mutually exclusive processes each failing to produce tangible change, is based upon an assertion that the concept of sexual difference, upon which historical feminism has largely rested, has either been taken as a given or has not been sufficiently and critically analysed. In ways that resonate with the anti-essentialist sea-change in the 1980s and 90s where the dispute about ideas of sexual difference as linked with biology and as ideological hegemony perhaps were most intense, Scott, in the late 1990s, called for a critical analysis of gender, understood as the “social organisation of sexual difference” (Scott 1999: 2). This enabled Scott to tap into what she perceived as the potential agency contained within historical notions of ‘sexual difference’ as a specifically “critical function” rather than maintaining understandings of ‘sexual difference’ as they have been “equated with modes of heterosexual presumption” (Butler 2011: 19).  Importantly, Scott maintains that herstory and social history approaches can only be productive when in dialogue with each other and when incorporating a re-questioning of the terms “woman as subject, gender and politics” within a paradoxical and temporal framework that interrogates the connections between the social and the political and the conflictual processes and forces by which meanings are established (Scott 1999: 24).

Through her political practice of critical feminism Scott extended the Foucauldian concept of ‘reverse discourse’ as an inherent “tactical polyvalence” within language through her insistence upon the productivity of paradox as a strategy, not only of displacement, but specifically as one of transformation (Foucault 1990: 100-101). For Michel Foucault, the strategy of ‘reverse discourse’ offered the possibility for destabilising discursive hegemonic orthodoxies through a reclaiming of the resistive power invested in words by seeking to alter the value judgement or connotation of a word “often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories” upon which the originary discourse relied (Foucault 1990: 101). The reclamation of terminology such as gay, queer, dyke and ‘her noise’ offers a clear example of this strategy as one that works to highlight contradictory discrepancies within discourse yet leaves the original phrases of the contradiction in tact.  Paradox for Scott works differently to a basic contradiction, such as speaking the words ‘I am lying’.  Whilst a sentence such as this is what Scott identifies as a “formal paradox”, the terms of the contradiction within such a paradox remain; the terms ‘true’ and ‘false’ remain as dominant structures. Instead Scott seeks to expand upon the Foucauldian concept of reverse discourse by insisting upon a more complex performative paradox as one that has the potential for a more radical change. For whilst the destabilisation of inherent contradiction, though a necessary precursor, works to highlight and displace an originary discourse,  Scott’s idea of paradox is one that seeks not only to challenge and displace the original terms in question, but also importantly to transform them.


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