Skip to content

Destabilisation of the Subject

The displacement and transformation of orthodox beliefs is a major strategy within much post-structural theory, within feminism and queer theory as much as within post-colonial scholarship. Displacement and transformation are strategies invested, in part, in repeating stereotypes to expose and subvert the fallacy of dominant assumptions about authenticity that are bound up within hegemonic representational systems. As critiques of authenticity, origin and originality, these strategies can be found at the centre of both Judith Butler’s theories of performativity, whilst also being central to Homi K. Bhabha’s theories of colonial mimicry (Butler 1990: 42; Bhabha 1994: 111-21; Harris 2006: 71). Whilst Butler seeks to undo the hierarchical dependency between the original and its assumed derivative copy in relation to heterosexuality and homosexuality by exposing that dualism as a false construction of power/knowledge with a specific focus upon the im/possibility of a lesbian aesthetic, Bhabha’s intervention engages an undoing of the hierarchical dualism of coloniser and subaltern through a similar original/copy performative paradigm (Butler 1993; Bhabha 1994). Bhabha’s The Other Question in particular seeks to deconstruct colonial stereotypes through a combination of semiotics and psychoanalysis aimed toward the displacement of racist stereotyping and the development of an always ambivalent and fluid hybridity (Bhabha 1994). As Bhabha explains, “an important feature of colonial discourse is its dependence on the concept of ‘fixity’ in the ideological construction of otherness” (Bhabha 1994: 66). Strategies of hybridity in Bhabha’s writings seek to harness the enigma of the “productive ambivalence of the subject of colonial discourse” so as to reveal “the boundaries of colonial discourse” which, he claims, enables “a transgression of these limits from the space of that otherness” (Bhabha 1994: 67 emphasis in original).

Post-colonial discourses of hybridity can be heard to resonate with gender feminist discourses engaged in the destabilisation of the unified sovereign subject, even if the ‘original’ in either discourse proceeds from a slightly different starting point and takes different forms of subjectivisation as the mode of analysis. Both approaches can be appreciated as sharing the intention of displacing and transforming commonly held orthodox beliefs, hegemonic ‘truths’, as a strategy that is similarly at the basis of Joan W. Scott’s historiography of critical feminism engaged in a revolutionary questioning of rights (Scott 1999).  Paradox, gender performativity, colonial mimicry, all are engaged in processes of destabilising representational politics through forms of repetition intended to insert points of resistance within dominating discourses as a de-disciplining and decolonisation of the subordinated body of the other. Jacques Attali similarly cites the shift from a politics of representation to an era of repetition in the political economy of music as one in which “the simulation of the master’s word leads to a questioning of the status of the master himself” (Attali 1985: 86). A discourse of repetition, Attali asserts, is one of the primary means by which “mechanisms for recording and reproduction” have provided both  “a technical body, a framework for representations” and specifically “by presenting themselves as a double” have constituted “a simulacrum of power, [to] destroy the legitimacy of representation” (Attali 1985: 86).

My intention in forging a genealogy of post-structural processes across different discourses here is not carried out with the intention of collapsing or equating all forms of socio-political or cultural difference and thereby erasing the specificities of ongoing forms of racism, sexism or homophobia or any combination thereof. Rather, the intention is to seek out recurring patterns as they may emerge across different discourses more in terms of what Georgina Born calls an “analytics of mediation” (Born 2010: 87). This is analysis concerned with relations between social, political, economic and most importantly historical and musical “experiences” and the systemic means by which such experiences may be perceived to have materialised.

Identification of Norms

At the time of this writing in the field of sound studies, it is Jonathan Sterne and Tara Rodgers who have recently written most convincingly of an epistemology of the field, tracing the development of sound’s historiographies through the wider discourses that have shaped what so often appears as natural within traditional discourses of sound. In terms of histories of sound studies and audio-technical discourses, both Sterne and Rodgers address disciplinary norms and conventions in ways that can be read as a critique of certain organising logics (Sterne 2003, 2012; Rodgers 2010a, 2010b, 2012). Sterne addresses the discourse of sonic ‘fidelity’ as “the social organisation of sound-reproduction technology [that] conditioned the possibility for both “original” and “copy” sounds” (Sterne 2003: 26). Rodgers addresses the historical “logic of synthesis…examining electrical signals as a form of technical and aesthetic representation” (Rodgers 2010b: 26). Historical logics of reproduction, fidelity and synthesis are informed by and relate to the exposure of norms and conventions that have occupied many critical investigations in cultural theory, in particular gender, queer, critical race and post-colonial scholarship. In a way that resonates with Sterne’s critique of a “philosophy of mediation that ontologises sound reproduction too quickly” (Sterne 2003: 219), Butler critiques the heterosexual assumptions about identity and identification that have historically bound gender to sex as a natural order by explaining that instead,

…this is a kind of metaphorical substitution, an act of imposture, a kind of sublime and momentary participation in an ontological illusion produced by the mundane operation of heterosexual drag” (Butler 1993: 317).

This certainly takes into consideration performativity through Butler’s influential gendering of the theory, where gender performativity is understood as a set of repeated everyday performances that combine to create the illusion of a stable and coherent identity (Grant 2011). Butler’s understanding of gender as an act, an everyday drag, sought to insert points of destabilisation and resistance into the notion of fixed gendered identities that are themselves the product of specific sociocultural norms.  As she explains, “drag enacts the very structure of impersonation by which any gender is assumed”, exposing the fundamental instability of all gendered categories (Butler 1993: 312 emphasis in original). An ontology of mediation therefore erases the power/knowledge regimes by which norms, in gender and sexuality and in race and ethnicity and their coincidental co-construction as much as in music and sound, are established and maintained based upon assumptions that technologies of reproduction – social, cultural, political and economic, sonic and musical – “can function as neutral conduits” (Sterne 2003: 21). As Sterne asserts, a philosophy of mediation shifts the focus “from processes to products” in which “technology vanishes, leaving as its by-product a source and a sound that is separated from it” (Sterne 2003: 21).

A separation of music from the social relations through which it has been produced forecloses the possibility of an analysis of the “social and institutional conditions” by which “socialities engendered by musical practice and experience” have been constituted (Born 2005: 378). Such a separation further occludes any consideration of the ways in which “power and knowledge constitute identity and experience” (Scott 1999: 5) and the ways in which normative assumptions about the categories of gender and race, ethnicity and sexuality may manifest in the making of music. For the focus on a product alone, be it an archive, a musical composition, sound-artwork or an identity removed from the social milieu in which it was produced is the moment at which, as Stuart Hall explains, the “whole apparatus of ‘a history’”, its  “periods, key figures and works, tendencies, shifts, breaks, ruptures – slips silently into place” (Hall 2001: 89). Focusing upon “the practice of musical creation” rather than “the music itself” as a process-based relational methodology therefore enables an investigation into the creative processes of both the composer/artist/musician and the social context in which they worked and which shaped their production (Folkestad quoted in Armstrong 2013: 9). For to simply insert “woman” as a subject into sound and music histories not only keeps her locked in the double bind by which she has originally been produced through relations of domination and subordination, but also “women’s history written from this position, and the politics that follow from it, end up endorsing the ideas of unalterable sexual difference that are used to justify discrimination” in the first place (Scott 1999: 4).

Published inChapter 1 | Hierarchies of DifferenceDestabilising the Subject