Skip to content

Practicing Balancing Acts

Ellen Koskoff’s reflection upon the main ‘phases’ of feminist musicology as ‘woman-centric’ and ‘gender-centric’, provides a useful paradigm through which to think about the two main themes identified as emerging from these previous approaches.  For between “older-style research paradigms” and between “those of the present and future” – as those between previous practices which sought to reify the ‘woman composer’ for example, and latter processes that sought the destabilisation of categories through process and movement – can be deduced a tension that emerges between ideas of “reification versus process” and “theory versus experience” (Koskoff 2005: 98). To further appreciate the nuanced shift between these approaches, between practices and acts, performances and processes, Georgina Born’s musicological analysis of the ways in which “socialities have been mediated in music” can help sharpen focus upon the terms reification, process, theory and experience and the tensions between. These tensions in themselves and an awareness of their replication across a wider range of disciplines can further extend the ways in which “socialities engendered by musical practice and experience” may be perceived to emerge through an “analytics of mediation” that is itself mediated through and that in turn materialises specifically queer feminist scholarship (Born 2011: 378).

These tensions, which may be appreciated as ongoing paradoxical ‘balancing acts’ between the individual and the collective, between subject and object, between material experiences of ongoing marginalisation and discrimination and between theories of deconstruction and destabilisation that have sought the dissolution of the subject altogether and which are lived upon micro, individual scales that are mediated through macro, institutional frames, have been the focus of much recent thinking in feminist, queer and critical race scholarship and their intersection (Alexander 2005; Puar 2005, 2007; Holland 2012; Halberstam 2005, 2011; Cvetkovich 2003, 2012; Freeman 2010; Berlant 2011).  Professor of literature and women’s studies, Robyn Wiegman – in a manner that resonates with Joan W. Scott’s earlier assessment of historical feminist methodologies, Ellen Koskoff’s assessments of the shifting practices of feminist musicology and Born’s analytics of mediation as one that accounts for a more complex appreciation of both the personal and the political – critically assesses recent movements within contemporary queer feminism (Wiegman 2014). Wiegman identifies what she considers to be the two pillars of contemporary queer feminist critical theory as those established largely through Judith Butler’s and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s scholarship (Wiegman 2014; Butler 1999; Sedgwick 2003). Butler’s theories, largely through Sedgwick’s own critical engagement with her writings, have been framed as a particular form of ‘paranoid critique’ with Sedgwick’s scholarship often being considered as providing a necessary and more ‘reparative reading’. These two historical approaches of critique, paranoid and reparative, Wiegman asserts, provide the “twin figures of critical practice” by which the field of queer feminist critique has developed (Wiegman 2014: 10).

Paranoid Repairs

In particular Sedgwick, based upon what Lynne Huffer cites as Sedgwick’s own citational obsession with Butler’s now canonical text Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, critiqued Butler’s framing of gender performativity as a “hermeneutics of suspicion” (Sedgwick 2003: 129, 143; Huffer 2012: 29). Through her own practice of critique Sedgwick demonstrated what she interpreted as an inherent paranoia within Butler’s own formulations as one that seeks endlessly to expose hidden ideological structures (Sedgwick 2003: 139). This, Sedgwick claims, is a specifically ahistorical process, reliant upon “iteration, citationality, the “always-already” that whole valuable repertoire of conceptual shuttle movements that endlessly weave between the future and the past”, as an over-dependence upon an ahistorical criticality and suspicion that implicitly re-centres the subject in the present as the knowing subject (Sedgwick 2003: 68).  Butlerian paranoid critique, Wiegman claims, has been “taken to confer epistemological authority on the analytic work of exposure” (Wiegman 2014: 6). Butler’s gender performativity as a critical interpretation of knowledge that seeks to measure the assumed limitations of intelligibility – the laws, norms and conventions by which society is regulated – read through Sedgwick’s own critique, is taken as a form of interpretation considered to be “too distant from its object of study” (Wiegman 2014: 10). This detachment, Wiegman explains, has thus been perceived to be “too committed to social construction to find intimacy with its objects of study” (Wiegman 2014: 10).

Sedgwick’s reading of affect, most notably of shame, sought to extend prior “critical attachments once forged by correction, rejection, and anger with those crafted by affection, gratitude, solidarity, and love” (Wiegman 2014: 6). This movement within queer feminist critical theory is one in which “the critical act is reconfigured to value, sustain, and privilege the object’s worldly inhabitations and needs” (Wiegman 2014: 6). In other words, materiality of a new kind returns through repair which emerges, it would seem, through a ‘loving’ return to the object of study. Georgina Born similarly cites a return to the musical object as a means by which to reconsider the mediation of not only a musical subject, but also importantly the mediation of musical experience as listening. Such a listening is one that “entails and proffers relations between objects and subjects; indeed it construes what might be called a musical assemblage a series or network of relations between musical sounds, human and other subjects, practices, performances, cosmologies, discourses and representations, technologies, spaces, and social relations” (Born 2010: 87-88). In a way that chimes almost harmoniously with the affectivity of the reparative turn ushered in by Sedgwick, Born suggests that “by producing particular engagements, confrontations or combustions between musical objects and subjects…musical experience can generate affect and create transformative effects” (Born 2010: 88). Listening then, for Born, as “a significant musical experience”, always social, is mediated by and through “an engagement with the musical object” as the means by which the the musical subject, “entangled in a musical assemblage”, as one that is always produced on the plane of sociality, is materialised as an always social ontology (Born 2010: 88).

In a way that also enables the forging of another connection, but with the radical negativity that underlies much queer feminist critical theory, Born asserts that such an “analytics of mediation” is one that necessarily “encompasses and addresses conceptually the kinds of difference and antagonism that routinely inform musical experience, as well as the question of the social, historical and musical conditions that may engender the mutual transformation of musical object and subject” (Born 2010: 88). Listening then is musical experience that is accessed through a return to the object as an assemblage which is reconnected “to analyses of the macro-dynamics of cultural history and technological change” (Born 2005: 34). This suggests a way in which to critically align Born’s recent musicological analysis with the body of work within what Wiegman has called “queer feminist criticism” as a discourse that specifically “attends to the condition of the present through the converging analytics of affect and time” (Wiegman 2014: 5). Born’s call to reconnect “the corporeal, the affective, the collective and the located nature of musical experience” – the body, feelings and the social with/through the musical object –  with “the macro-dynamics of cultural history and technological change” – i.e. social histories such as audio-technical discourses and sociopolitical institutions such gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity –  suggests a way in which to trace the impact of listening as experience through a queered analysis of social histories and institutions (Born 2005: 34). Particularly, Born explains, “what is required…is precisely a focus on the relations between musical object and listening subject, where the latter demands an analysis of the social and historical conditions and the mediation of listening, as well as the changing forms of subjectivity brought to music” (Born 2010: 80-1). This then enables more explicit connections between musicology and queer theory through reparative socio-musicalities that are, as Wiegman explains, “drawn to the intimacy with the object of study that reparative reading affords” (Wiegman 2014: 16). Drawing back out to queer feminist critical theory, Sedgwick suggests that “‘what we can best learn from such practices” are “the many ways in which selves and communities succeed in extracting sustenance from the objects of a culture – even of a culture whose avowed desire has often been not to sustain them” (Sedgwick 1997: 35 emphasis added). This would allow a further indication of “the kinds of questions opened up by empirical research that takes listening-as-musical-experience, and the situated, relational analysis of musical subjects and objects, as its focus” but through a necessary shift situated specifically within the critically queer, anti-racist, feminist archive (Born 2010: 81).

Published inChapter 1 | Hierarchies of DifferencePracticing Balancing Acts