I returned exhausted by in good spirits from Newcastle around 11 o’clock last night, after traveling for about twenty four hours. I had an absolutely fantastic time. These are the sorts of conferences worth going to: small, with a lot of discussion, where the papers are working on a shared problematic within a somewhat shared theoretical horizon. Despite the fact that all the talks were dealing with their own subject-matter and problematics, somehow they entered– in my view –into an assemblage with one another, resonating in interesting and provocative ways, without being reducible to a theoretical consensus or shared set of theses. In my view, such assemblages are the most productive spaces of thought.
My impression is that something very exciting is developing at Newcastle. The graduate students are sophisticated theoretically, and are interesting and engaged, taking the study of music in exciting directions that are highly relevant as a sort of critique of high capitalism. The faculty are developing a set of questions about the intersection of music, technology, late capitalism, and the relationship between the aesthetic, the social, and the political that have the potential to open up new ways of thinking the political significance of cultural production that depart from a number of the limitations to be found in, for example, Adorno. This space of a problem is an exciting mix of Badiou, Lacan, Derrida, and Deleuze and Guattari that doesn’t hesitate to liberally rethink their positions, and send their concepts shooting forth in new directions where new concepts are developed.
When I arrived at Newcastle University, Lars immediately whisked me off to the local pub where Wittgenstein is reputed to have drank, to meet graduate students. At this point I was a bit catatonic from the flight, so my speech was stumbling all over itself. We had a great time talking about Deleuze and Guattari and a variety of other things. I had an amazing time talking to Lars over the course of the entire trip, over far too many pints, about the intricacies of theory, all the problems with the academy, where things are moving and just the details of life. He now knows far too much about me. After that I got a couple hours of sleep, and then was off to dinner at Ian’s. It turns out that he is a fabulous cook, as well as an excellent host. Much to my surprise, Anahid Kassabian was there as well. This came as a surprise since the paper I presented was both critiquing and building on her work. As you can imagine, this made me very anxious; but we hit it off well, having lots of spirited discussion and sharing ideas. She gave a terrific paper on music and haptic listening, which opens exciting ways of thinking problems of individuation in the age of distributed listening.
From the questions and comments I received in response to my paper– “Territories of Music: Distributions, Productions, and Sonorous Individuations” –I think it was well received. I still feel a bit bad at torturing my audience with 28 pages of high theory. I came away with a couple of impressions that will inform my own subsequent work. On the one hand, I think there’s a lot of anxiety about the ontological status of relation, leading to what Hegel or Marx would call an “abstract opposition” between agency and relatedness. Blah-feme had already noted this in his post “When the Music Stops”, pointing out how agency is seen as the opposite of ubiquity. In the paper he gave at the symposium he developed a beautiful self-reflexive critique of the discipline of musicology itself, similar in scope to what Bourdieu did for sociology or Lacan for psychoanalysis, opening the possibility of a ubiquitous agency. This is a theme I would like to develop as well: how can we simultaneously think agency and ubiquity, or a form of the subject that is always related, always within a relational network that individuates it, without falling into the trap of a theoretical pessimism where the subject is enslaved like a member of the Borg collective? I think part of what drives current interest in Badiou (truth-procedures and subjects of the event) and Zizek (the Act) is anxiety about precisely this issue. However, Badiou and Zizek seem to search for the un-related, the non-related, as a way of responding to this issue. Is there a way of squarely accepting the ontological thesis that all things are only in problematic fields or networks, while developing a robust account of agency that isn’t simply enslaved by this field but can rebound upon it and transform it?
Second, some of the questions responding to my paper gave me the impression that there’s difficulty thinking the time of agency and the unfolding of a process wherein something new emerges. This is something I will have to develop more explicitly and in greater detail. How are we to think of transformations that occur not all at once and completely like the world being created in six days, but as a process of inmixing where new forms of embodiment, affectivity, and consciousness are produced in and through an engagement with a foreign milieu where new mixtures are produced? I find that I just don’t have the language to describe such processes of individuation very well, yet thinking in terms of the becoming of a tendency– much like the speciation of a species in evolutionary theory –is absolutely vital to, I think, asking the right sorts of questions and not getting lost in unproductive abstractions. How can we think the genesis, the production, of qualities and new types of bodies within the social field in a way that doesn’t lead us to grim, top-down determination through a social system that is seen as other to social agents? This question, I believe, is especially important as we tend to think social agents as simple copies of social distributions (the form of economy and media functioning as a model), giving rise to the grim view that there’s no escape.
All in all this was a truly wonderful experience. I’ve fallen in love with England and am resentfully envious of what the Newcastle folk have. Ian and Lars know how to throw a conference, and I emphatically recommend Ian’s cooking should you ever get the chance to enjoy his table. I will not post the paper right now as we’re talking about publishing the talks, but we’ll see in the future.