Percussion: Drumming, Beating, Striking

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Overview


Percussion is an attempt—in the author’s words—to make sense of "senseless beating," to grasp how rhythm makes sense in music and society. Both a scholar and a former professional drummer, John Mowitt forges a striking encounter between cultural studies and new musicology that seeks to lay out the "percussive field" through which beating—specifically the backbeat that defines early rock-and-roll—comes to matter for raced, urban subjects.
For Mowitt, percussion is both an experience of embodiment—making contact in and on the skin—and a provocation for critical theory itself. In delimiting the percussive field, he plays drumming off against the musicological account of the beat, the sociological account of shock and the psychoanalytical account of fantasy. In the process he touches on such topics as the separation of slaves and drums in the era of the slave trade, the migration of rural blacks to urban centers of the North, the practice and politics of "rough music," the links between interpellation and possession, the general strike, beating fantasies, and the concept of the "skin ego."
Percussion makes a fresh and provocative contribution to cultural studies, new musicology, the history of the body and critical race theory. It will be of interest to students of cultural studies and critical theory as well as readers with a serious interest in the history of music, rock-and-roll and drumming.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“This book contributes subtly and powerfully to the important project of self-reflexively retheorizing musical analysis. Mowitt knits together the most complex cultural theory with the most influential popular music in surprising and illuminating ways.”—Robert Walser, author of Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822329190
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 6/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.74 (w) x 8.76 (h) x 0.82 (d)

Meet the Author

John Mowitt is Professor of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Text: The Genealogy of an Antidisciplinary Object, also published by Duke University Press.

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Percussion

Drumming, beating, striking
By John Mowitt

Duke University Press


ISBN: 0-8223-2919-0


Chapter One

the end of senseless beating

The Skinny

I have proposed that percussive sense-making requires for its amplification recourse not simply to the body, but also to what I have called a genealogy of the skin. At one level, this proposal derives its motivation from my treatment of the drum as a catachrestic instrument. At another, it represents an important way in which the personal, precisely in the sense that we speak of being at ease in "one's own skin," is politicizable-that is, subject both to analytical reconstruction and practical transformation. This chapter thus opens with a discussion of the skin as a physical and a psychical phenomenon and concludes with a long analysis of Chuck Berry's hit "Rock 'n' Roll Music" from 1957. The backbeat that, according to this song, cannot be lost regardless of how it is used is made to sound off against all three divisions of the percussive field, a process that establishes the latter's efficacy while, at the same time, taking a first, and perhaps emblematic, swipe at making sense of senseless beating.

There are, of course, those who would claim that "the moment of the body has passed," and I would count myself among them were it not for my conviction that, quite apart from the fact that bodies persistently matter (however differently), there are indeed more interesting ways to writewhat scholars have been calling the body's history. I am proposing, therefore, that a link exists between what some might regard as the premature burial of the body problematic and the efficacy, or intellectual force, of the scholarship responsible for its articulation. As a strictly contingent link, its current form (about which more in a moment) is a victim of circumstance, and one of the things I seek to effect here is an articulation of what I take to be an engaging strategy for proceeding otherwise. Because the specific manner in which I want to articulate the body and the percussive field draws heavily on the historical-indeed, genealogical-research of Barbara Duden, it makes sense to clarify such a claim by appealing directly to her work.

If one sets The Woman Beneath the Skin: A Doctor's Patients in Eighteenth Century Germany alongside, say, Donald Lowe's The Body in Late-Capitalist USA what becomes almost immediately obvious, beyond the comparative attenuation of feminist preoccupations in the latter, is the principled obliqueness of Duden's approach to the body. Though she is constructing the body's history, particularly as it is marked and marred by the social division of gender, she does so in a manner that avoids constituting the body as a center, as a substance, that patiently indexes sociohistorical developments. Instead-and this reflects her theoretical stance as much as it does her source materials (that is, the doctor's writings she is analyzing)-she approaches the body fully aware that what it comes to be and how it is studied are intertwined. The body emerges in her analysis, rather than radiating elliptically from page to page, like a lighthouse signal, as it tends to in Lowe's. What one avoids in proceeding thus is the predicament wherein the body is at once historical and ahistorical-that is, both the fixed referent of historical analysis and the product created through the illumination cast by it. I grant that I am overstating my criticism of Lowe (whose study is, after all, remarkable), but what concerns me more at present is a clear delineation of Duden's exemplary strategy.

Setting aside for the time being the vexed issue of whether Duden's approach is in some immanent manner linked to a specifically feminine body, I want to underscore that my own project also seeks to have the body "emerge" in the course of its elaboration. But if this body is to emerge rather than emanate, then its uprising (as Michel Foucault might have said) must take place within an organizing problematic, which in Duden's study is the analysis of Enlightenment medical discourse in Germany. Here the historicity of the body is to be made palpable through an inquiry into percussion-indeed, an inquiry organized around what I have been calling the percussive field. But what, the skeptical reader might ask, is the necessary relationship between percussion and the body? Why insist on starting here? Although the theoretical perspective I have adopted obliges one to refuse the very category of necessity, responding to such a question in that way strikes me as disingenuous. Instead, I shall reiterate a point made in the introduction, where the practice of percussing the body was invoked as a way, if not to join the body and beating, then to underscore how making sense of either depended on thinking both together.

In the context of Duden's study, percussing the body has perhaps an even more obvious resonance. But why not begin at a more basic level? Surely it is the body that beats, not exclusively, but persistently. Even if the beating is inhuman-say, technological-the beating mechanism exhibits distinct allegorical or prosthetic features. It beats for or in the place of the body. Moreover, if we are to believe the ethnomusicologists, the body is not only that which beats; it is, as in the case of "patting juba," a site of aboriginal beating. The reflexivity that positions the body as both the subject and object of beating suggests, if only in a "grammatical" way, that percussion comes to the body neither from outside nor from afar. As we will hear, certain scholars have proposed that beating was the aboriginal music-that is, the ordering of repetition and difference that prepared sound for a form of manipulation that was distinctly non-linguistic in character. John Blacking, in How Musical Is Man? (1973), has even suggested that, precisely because of its transcultural manifestation, musical practice is fundamental to the very emergence of the human. Although this sort of neostructural anthropology may not be entirely convincing, it nevertheless invites one to consider the likelihood that percussion and the body struck up a relationship early on.

To put the key point very bluntly: The step from beating on one's own skin to beating on an animal's skin stretched over a resonating chamber is a modest one, even if that step took a long time to take. What interests me here is not the anthropological fact but, rather, as I have stressed, the kind of analytical writing such a plot element makes possible. If I characterize this discussion as "basic," it is simply with an ear toward accounting for why the percussive field can be said to require reference to the body. In short, the body and its skin are tangled up in the associations drawn upon in making sense of percussive signifying. This, I argue, is one of the reasons why the sense of music feels so personal. The collectivity that makes the "I" possible is at stake within it.

In The Woman Beneath the Skin, Duden plots the fate of the skin along the trajectory of the body and does so in a most instructive way. She writes,

The skin was fragile and it was a boundary, but it was not meant to demarcate the body against the outside world. It was above all a surface on which the inside revealed itself.... In the sixteenth century the holes of the body were places of continuous exchange between the inside and the outside, between the body and the surrounding world. The body's interior conveyed itself through the body openings, which functioned as points of entry and exit. The permeable boundaries between the body and the environment served the fruitful metamorphosis in both directions. (Duden 1991, 123)

She goes on-in a manner, in fact, that recalls Norbert Elias's discussion of homo clausus in The Civilizing Process (1978)-to underscore how, during the eighteenth century, the skin came to be seen no longer as "a collection of minute orifices," but as a "sealed" envelope shielding the body and the individual from an anarchic outside. Her commitment to feminism asserts itself as she moves to link a "hardening" of gender identity with the elaboration of this trajectory, where the skin-once a site for the expression of an essentially "runny" femininity-becomes a surface on which an austerely engendered identity inscribes its profundities. This is how she gets at what she regards as the specifically modern link between woman and the body.

Obviously, it is Duden's direct appeal to the skin as a way to get at the "laminated" historicity of the body that attracts my attention, but there is more. Because my aim here, at least in part, is to underscore how a historical approach to the body helps us rethink the domain of musical practice, it is worth foregrounding that moment in Duden's discussion in which she broaches the theme of identity, setting aside, at least for now, the more general theoretical issue of using the body to rethink the conditions of its historical representation. This angle leads one back to the formulation in which Duden speaks of "the inside," which reveals itself on and in the skin, especially once the skin emerges as a hardened surface. If there is more than simple serendipity linking the projects of Duden and Elias, then this "inside" to which they both refer might well be construed as the very subject of what the Germans called Bildung, or cultural formation. Thus, the skin-as a specific genealogical thread-can be seen as a decisive component of the structure of a distinctly "modern" incarnation of subjectivity insofar as the production of the subject's interiority is understood to involve not only a decisive cultural mediation, but also the mediation of a particular culture.

It might make sense to support such a claim by adducing additional historical evidence-for example, Richard Sennett's discussion of the psychological importance of uniformly drab clothing at the end of the nineteenth century (Sennett 1978)-precisely because such a gesture might always be seen as avoiding the issue, that is, as always starting toward the subject from "outside." I want instead to elaborate the issues raised here by making an appeal to the treatment of the skin in psychoanalysis. The aim will be to tease out how psychoanalysis comprehends the structure of the subject's encounter with the social, not simply by starting from within, but from the production of the relation between within and without. It will be lost on no one that, in turning to psychoanalysis, I am also working the suture joining the sociological and psychoanalytical divisions of the percussive field.

The most sustained and therefore useful discussion of this problematic appears in Didier Anzieu's The Skin Ego (1989). Starting with the embryological insight that "both the skin (including the sense organs) and the brain are formed from the ectoderm [one of the three layers of the embryo]" (Anzieu 1989, 9), and drawing persistently on the analytical notion of anaclisis (in other words, the notion that structure derives from the "leaning on" or "propping" that characterizes the relations among its components), Anzieu establishes the indispensability of the skin to the very formation of the subject. Some of the force and significance of his project can be gleaned in the following quotation:

Every psychical activity is anaclitically dependent upon a biological function. The Skin Ego finds its support in the various functions of the skin.... The primary function of the skin is as the sac which contains and retains inside it the goodness and fullness accumulating there through feeding, care, the bathing in words. Its second function is as the interface which marks the boundary with the outside and keeps the outside out; it is the barrier which protects against penetration by the aggression and greed emanating from others, whether people or objects. Finally, the third function-which the skin shares with the mouth and which it performs at least as often-is as the site and a primary means of communicating with others, of establishing signifying relations; it is, moreover, an "inscribing surface" for the marks left by those others. (Anzieu 1989, 40)

The anaclitic relation invoked here between the skin and the Skin Ego allows Anzieu to conclude that the latter participates in identity formation, both structurally and developmentally, by providing a "mental image" allowing the child to represent itself as "containing psychical contents"-in short, as possessing interiority. Clearly, it is from a perspective such as this that the expression "bruised ego" takes on a certain literal sense. And although one may well want to quarrel both with Anzieu's inclination to reduce the subject to the Ego and his reticence on the matter of color, his discussion does invite the sort of historicization that many psychoanalytical discussions do not. In fact, when he later calls for setting limits to the violence wrought upon nature and human beings (everything from pollution to "fiscal discipline"), and in drawing attention to the changing clientele of analysis (he claims that more than 50 percent of analysands are "borderlines," or people suspended between neurosis and psychosis), Anzieu all but invites one to situate his study in the broad context generated by the likes of Duden and Elias. Thus, the "sealing" up of the skin and the walling in of the self must be seen as a reaction formation-in effect, a self-protective strategy in which the self is at once secured and compromised. In fact, many of the skin (Ego) disorders diagnosed and discussed by Anzieu, especially those in which patients complain of feeling like cracked and leaking eggs, hark back to the skin that Duden claims was sacrificed to Western modernity, suggesting, of course, that this very "backwardness" may well trigger the "borderline" identification.

It is crucial here not to lose sight of the dialectical character of "leaning on." Otherwise, Anzieu's position appears as one in which the sheer physicality of the skin is deemed determinant in the "first instance," thus making the gesture of historicization seem hollow. Precisely to the extent that it complicates the dynamics of derivation, anaclisis designates that importantly precarious state achieved by a tripod, where each element supports itself on the other two. Thus, the physicality of the skin does not "come first." It arises-in the field of representation-in conjunction with the Skin Ego, which, although it may indeed be "leaning on" the dermal sac, functions rather like the Lacanian imaginary to produce, retroactively or belatedly, an organizing defect in the structure of the subject. This defect is interesting not as a void but as a passage, an unstable "worm hole" through which history and being commute, mediating the most immediate. In addition, anaclisis -even at this level-extends the field of its effects to include social relations as such. This is why Anzieu stresses the communicative function of the skin-or, as he says elsewhere (citing Turguet), "the relational frontier of the I [which I share] with my neighbor's skin" (Anzieu 1989, 29), where the frontier itself becomes a border with multiple edges. The point being that just as the Skin Ego leans against the dermal envelope, the identity it contains leans on "the neighbor's skin," making the skin less of a surface or a fold than a space of organized contiguities, rather like the delicious surface where pudding mix, boiled milk, and refrigeration commingle. History and the social are thus immediately part of a network within which embodiment takes place.

Though Anzieu notes in passing that the skin has rich and diverse connotations in a variety of semantic paradigms (one thinks here of such expressions as "give me some skin, man," or "by the skin of her teeth"), he unfortunately does not link this to the skin's anaclitic structure. To do so would not just mean acknowledging the catachresis that predicts our deployment of the sign "skin" in such expressions; it would also mean unfolding or elaborating the catachrestic web of associations that enables, and is enabled by, this situation. Such an elaboration would, in my judgment, quickly lead one to what I call the percussive field, a significant portion of which is involved in the production (through drumming, beating, and striking) of our sense of the skin-hence, not strictly the body, but the embodied subject. To the extent that I am thereby linking the representation of musical practice and embodiment, I am clearly pursuing a line of inquiry that has been meticulously opened by my colleague Richard Leppert. But whereas his research concentrates on what he calls the "site" (pun intended) of the body, I am decidedly more interested in the body's "resonance"-its "tone," as well as its connotative dispersion within the practices of music and painting (Leppert 1993).

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Percussion by John Mowitt Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Preface
Introduction: (Re)percussions 1
The End of Senseless Beating 14
Knocking the Subject 42
Different Strokes for Different Folks 67
Sound of the City: A Musician Is Being Beaten 116
A Drum of One's Own 166
Notes 209
Works Cited 239
Index 251
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