Skip to content

Mapping the Masculine Universal

Feminist sound studies scholar Tara Rodgers expands upon Jonathan Sterne’s critical analysis of the original/copy dialectic embedded within sound reproduction technologies as those that have implicitly sought to reinscribe “the reproduction of an existing cultural order” (Rodgers 2010b: 26; Sterne 2003). Instead, Rodgers considers the potential of “a logic of synthesis” as one that might open a path for “a more radical and non-normative clitoral economy” (Rodgers 2010b: 26). With the aim of explicating this potential, Rodgers’ feminist historiography of audio-technical discourse, Synthesising Sound: Metaphor in Audio-Technical Discourse and Synthesis History (2010b) is depicted through the development of the modern sound synthesiser. There are two over-arching concerns within her thesis, firstly to examine the ways in which “audio-technical language and representation, which typically stands as neutral, in fact privileges the perspective of an archetypal Western, white, and male subject” and secondly to consider “the ways in which histories of electronic music technologies and cultures are conceived and written and how and why women seem to be routinely if not systematically excluded from those historical accounts” (Rodgers, Feminisms and the Sonic Symposium 2012). Through an analysis of “key concepts” in the history of synthesised sound, Rodgers identifies,

“two primary metaphors for conceiving electronic sounds that were in use by the early-twentieth century and continue to inform sonic epistemologies: electronic sounds as waves, and electronic sounds as individuals” (Rodgers 2010b: v emphasis in original).

Echoing and extending upon Andra McCartney’s earlier work on metaphor in the recording studio (1995), Rodgers investigates the ways in which these “metaphors in audio-technical discourse are invested with notions of identity and difference” (Rodgers 2010b: v). In particular she explains that the “modern practice” of metaphorical thinking about sounds as waves and individuals “is not neutral or without history, but entwined with histories of scientific determinations of difference and desires for social ordering and control” (Rodgers 2010b: 24). Specifically, Rodgers connects metaphors about electronic sounds as waves with histories of maritime voyages and associated colonial narratives whilst the metaphor of electronic sounds as individuals provides a means by which to critically analyse the concept of the individual as one considered through generative principles of unity derived from part-whole relations within audio-technical discourses. These discursive structures, as feminist musicologist Robin James also addresses, have developed through legacies of musical harmony and theories of tonality that “claimed to build a model of social or musical organisation on the basis of natural order (e.g., the State of Nature, the overtone series)” (James 2014: 142). As Rodgers asserts, “notions of sonic individuation and variability emerged in the contexts of Darwinian thought” in ways that “were deeply entwined with epistemologies of gender and racial difference in Western philosophy and modern science” (Rodgers 2010b: v-vi). Tracing romantic conceptions entwined in the “intersections of physiology and acoustics… the life sciences and aesthetics” through the “relation of biology to art” back to an Aristotelian tradition that systematically established a “totality of form”, Rodgers demonstrates the endurance of acoustic concepts based upon holistic perceptions in which form was defined “as that which embodies the whole of an organism as well as its internal organising principles” (Rodgers 2010b: 118-9). In this analysis may be deduced an ongoing tension between the general and the particular – sameness and difference, abstract and concrete – expressed through procreative beliefs of “the genesis of whole sounds from internal organising principles” (Rodgers 2010b: 119) as assumptions about sound’s own transcendental self-birthing abilities invested in its ‘natural’ form of harmonious part-whole relations.

Rodgers’ identification of the metaphorical investment of ideas about sounds and in particular electronic sounds as individuals “understood as complex wholes characterised by individually distinctive variations” is instructive (Rodgers 2010b: 23). Echoes of discourses of racial and sexual difference, and thus racial and sexual segregation and erasure, reverberate throughout these historical constructions. Beliefs in which ‘scientific’ thinking about phrenology and biology as “differential variations”, “analysed and controlled by specialised technologies and techniques” have also been historically applied as markers of differences between people whilst also serving as methodologies by which to organise the boundaries of electronic sound’s fundamental parameters (Rodgers 2010b: 93, 23). Such historic scientific rationalism, as I expand more upon throughout Feminist Frequencies, often resulted in the categorisation of individual characteristics based upon assumptions that the shape of the skull, pigmentation of the skin or  reproductive organs were actually productive of socio-cultural inferiority and secondary status for women and people of colour. Further, Rodgers identifies “Helmholtz’s physiological theories of acoustics” as informed by the “graphical inscription instruments” of his era combined with “experimental physiology research” as providing the basis which “grounded his theories of the experience of musical aesthetics in anatomical form and function” (Rodgers 2010b: 93). The ways in which these physiological assumptions that have underpinned a history of acoustics can be heard to echo through audio-technical discourses and their materialisation through both auditory perception and aesthetic process in the historical present is one of the primary concerns that Feminist Frequencies seeks to address.

Published inChapter 1 | Hierarchies of DifferenceMapping the Masculine Universal