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Anatomy of Thought-Fiction: CHS report, April 2214

Anatomy of Thought-Fiction: CHS report, April 2214

by Joanna Demers

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In the year 2214, the Center for Humanistic Study has discovered an unpublished manuscript by Joanna Demers, a musicologist who lived some two centuries before. Her writing interrogates the music of artists ranging from David Bowie and Scott Walker to Kanye West and The KLF. Questioning how people of the early twenty-first century could have believed that music was


In the year 2214, the Center for Humanistic Study has discovered an unpublished manuscript by Joanna Demers, a musicologist who lived some two centuries before. Her writing interrogates the music of artists ranging from David Bowie and Scott Walker to Kanye West and The KLF. Questioning how people of the early twenty-first century could have believed that music was alive, and that music was simultaneously on the brink of extinction, light is shed on why the United States subsequently chose to eliminate the humanities from universities, and to embrace fascism...

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Anatomy of Thought-Fiction

CHS Report, April 2214

By Joanna Demers

John Hunt Publishing Ltd.

Copyright © 2016 Joanna Demers
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78535-553-0


Part I

Thought-Fictions and Musical Style

Postcards and Thought-Fictions

In October 2013 I received a postcard sent from Bangalore, India. To this day, it remains a mystery to me. The sender's cursive is expansive and lovely, and seems familiar. But try as I might, I cannot make out the signature underneath the salutation ("With best wishes") that would identify the sender. Three five-rupee stamps depict scenes from Jayadeva's epic poem, the Geetagovinda. The stamps form an upper border over the handwriting that, curiously, appears in three colors of ink: pink (for "AIR mail"); light blue (for "With best wishes – [and the sender's name, presumably] – 21/10 [something illegible] Rd – B'lore"); and dark blue for my name and address. This side of the postcard is, for me, a delightful little enigma. The provenance of the card seems just beyond my reach, as if merely one more autographical clue would reveal the sender to be an old friend or teacher, someone whom I know.

The mystery only increases when I consider what is printed on the other side of the postcard. It is a flow chart with text in seven colors. The heading states, "M = ER". This equation is written out in the following line as "Memory = Emotion x Rhyme x Rhythm". Surrounding these four words are terms and phrases such as "Cerebellum Basal Ganglia", "Sub-conscious or implicit memory", and "Five senses". These various pronouncements are entangled in a web of arrows and text boxes that refer to chemicals ("Dopamine", "Oxytocin", "Serotonin", and "Endorphins") and areas of the brain. Elsewhere on the card appear statements like "Music is in the genes", "Amygdala & Accumbens (ventral striatum) (Musical emotion)", and "Lights upto [sic] Fear & Music on scans". Near the bottom, the postcard declares that "Reticular formation may be the prime mover of 'Consciousness' 'Arousal' and 'Emotion' because of its many connections especially to the Automatic & Endocrine systems. It is the great 'Unifier' as is 'Music'."

This thicket of interlocking branches and arrows makes any of my interpretations provisional at best. The postcard would seem to claim that music stimulates the areas of the brain that regulate memory and affective response. The visual surfeit is pleasantly esoteric for my taste, but its quirks notwithstanding, the postcard contends that music is a measurable stimulus, a phenomenon that exerts quantifiable effects on the human brain. A brief internet search indicates that the text draws from the writings of an M.R. Shetty, who published a few books of poetry and rhyming couplets. It may be that the sender is himself M.R. Shetty, but I will probably never know for certain. I also do not know why I was sent this postcard. So most of what could be known about this communication will remain unknowable to me. What I do know is that I find myself disagreeing with the postcard's message. Music is more complicated than the flow chart lets on, because so much of music's affect depends on acculturation, education, and environment, variables that are challenging enough to describe on their own, let alone as they interact with cognitive phenomena. Still, the message of the postcard is hard for me to discount entirely. If its purpose is to convince readers that music affects our emotions, that music can trigger and aid memory, then despite knowing otherwise, I believe what this postcard says. We can all think of examples in our personal lives that would support such a claim. And if the postcard's pseudo-scientific rhetoric strikes me as tenuous, it doesn't matter, for I have accepted this message as a beautiful fiction, an untruth I believe in order to approach the considerably more difficult questions of how music affects our emotions and cognition, and why it does so in a manner that is distinct for each listener.

Other disciplines are marked by these same fault-lines separating science from the arts and humanities. Aesthetics acknowledges that music can trigger memory and induce affective response, but its claims are often transcendental (meaning applicable to all listeners, or all listeners of a particular type) and bypass issues of physiology, cognition, or culture. At its weakest, aesthetics behaves like the stereotype some non-philosophers have conceived of it: elitist and effete, based on armchair speculation. Neuroscience, on the other hand, sets out to explain empirically how music affects cognition, but its focus on cerebral function runs the risk of overlooking the effects of culture, history, economics, politics, and (especially!) aesthetics. At its least convincing, neuroscience reduces listening to input and output streams connected to the black box that is the mind, which itself is reduced to a particularly complex computer. My mysterious postcard deploys a peculiar assemblage of esoteric aesthetics and neuroscience. Although I know that 'M=ER' is mathematically incoherent since the postcard defines 'R' as two distinct variables, I can nonetheless momentarily indulge in this thought-fiction to go where the rival disciplines of aesthetics and neuroscience are unable to follow.

I use the term "thought-fiction" purposefully to refer to a concept that serves a purpose even though it is known to be untrue. When we are enthralled by a beautiful sky at dusk, for instance, we tend to think of sunsets as the moment when the sun slowly descends behind the western horizon. No matter our level of education or age, it is easy to conceive of a sunset as the product of the sun's, rather than Earth's, movement because we cannot feel Earth's rotation. Sunsets stand at the junction of what we know to be true and that which we believe out of habit or convenience. Our ordinary, unreflected experience of sunsets amounts to a convention we know to be contrary to fact, yet that concurs with the way we perceive our planet. In jurisprudence, there is a term to describe such situations. "Legal fictions" are statements made in legal proceedings that are acknowledged as false, but are not intended to deceive. Legal fictions can be as non-descript as a "metaphorical way of expressing the truth", or more purposively, can be "false statements recognized as having utility". Among the most infamous of recent legal fictions is the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which found that the First Amendment prohibits restrictions on the money that nonprofit corporations spend on election advertising. Implicit (though never stated) in this ruling is the concept of corporate personhood, a legal fiction dating back to the nineteenth century that permits courts to treat corporations as persons. The Citizens United ruling found that personhood entails protection under the First Amendment, and that limiting the amount a corporation can spend on election publicity amounts to limiting a (corporate) person's right to free expression.

The legal fiction of corporate personhood is certainly controversial, but should not give the impression that all legal fictions are cynical means to ends. A more loving legal fiction is that of adoption, since the adopted child is issued a new birth certificate that indicates only the adoptive parents. This fiction, of erasing any record of biological parents, places all rights and responsibilities with the adoptive parents. Legal fictions undergird much of modern life, amounting to crutches with which courts can approach complex issues. We sometimes acknowledge these fictions as metaphors, and at other times, we simply accept them as truth. At such moments, the fiction resembles philosophy, a way of making sense of a baffling world. The fictions common in courtrooms are by no means the only sort of thought-fictions. Most of us have acted at one time or another as if we were the center of the universe, or would live forever, or enjoyed complete control over our lives. Most of us entertain these and other innumerable fictions. We may even momentarily forget what we know, at which point the thought-fiction becomes myth or ideology or delusion. As David Foster Wallace put it, "a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded". But as much as fictions may permeate human cognition in general, they are especially prevalent, indeed unavoidable and indispensable, in our ways of thinking about music. They are the conditions for the possibility of musical thought, which is an obvious nod to Kant's conditions for the possibility of experience. Kant explained that anything that appears to consciousness does so through the conditions of space and time. I argue here that anything that we presume to know about pop music presents itself to us through thought-fictions. There is no way around them.

Musical Fictions of the Past

Let's look at some of the thought-fictions that have received sustained attention over the past two decades.

The acousmatic / reduced listening – The acousmatic is defined as a situation in which the site or provenance of sound is hidden from view. The tension of acousmatic situations often results from the chasm separating the phenomenal source of a sound (say, Scarlett Johansson in the 2013 film Her) from the presumed source of the sound (according to the plot of Her, an invisible yet omnipresent operating system). However much the main character Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix) knows that the breathy voice can never be corporeal, he falls in love with that voice, and ascribes to it all the emotion and physical allure of a real woman. The acousmatic is a collision between the unknown and the imagined, or in the case of Her, the known and the desired. Musique concrete-originator Pierre Schaeffer was the first to theorize the acousmatic and proposed reduced listening, an ascetic practice of denial whereby we embrace an untruth of an acousmatic, unknown sound source, even if we really do in fact know that we are hearing a train or a bell.

The fiction in the acousmatic and reduced listening is that we can halt or momentarily suspend our biologically-determined faculty of identifying what we hear. Michel Chion, drawing on empirical knowledge of film sound, writes that it is impossible to disregard whatever we may know about a sound. But Schaeffer, electroacoustic composer Francisco López, and philosopher Roger Scruton say that we can (or, in Scruton's case, do) transcend our natural curiosity about the production of a sound to hear in it what we want to hear, and thus believe. Objecthood – The fiction of objecthood is that sound or music can be treated as a voluminous body. Physics demonstrates that sound is ephemeral, composed of air vibrations that must dissipate, and although sound can be documented through notation or even inscribed onto a phonograph, the same sound can never be heard twice. Yet because phonography first enabled sound to be represented onto tangible objects like disks and tape, the twentieth century was rife with metaphors likening sounds to voluminous objects. Schaeffer focuses his discussion of sounds that can be divorced from their context and source, and christens such phenomena "sound objects" (objets sonores). After Schaeffer, it was taken for granted that such sound objects possessed attributes normally associated with three-dimensional objects: presence, plasticity, even tangibility.

Architecture – Closely related to the fiction of music's objecthood, the fiction of music as architecture imbues music with structural characteristics. Students of medieval music are familiar with Edgar Sparks' metaphor likening the tenor cantus firmus in a three- or four-voice composition to a scaffold upon which ornate melodies in the upper voices hang like garlands. The "scaffolding" in Sparks' fiction is the relationship between the tenor and the other voices, an incipiently harmonic process in which the pitches of a plainchant determine vertical sonorities for the whole composition. Perhaps because musicologists have historically tended to admire architecture, Sparks and others have relied on the scaffolding metaphor to argue that Renaissance polyphony was a quasi-architectural practice. Christopher Page interrogates this passion on the part of twentieth-century musicologists for "architectonic" metaphors that rationalize late medieval music. Page contrasts twentieth-century fantasies about medieval esotericism with what were, in fact, no-nonsense rejections of such esotericism. As Page points out, early fourteenth-century theorist Johannes de Grocheio tartly quipped about Boethius' musica humana, the supposed harmony of the human body, "Who has heard a constitution sounding?" For Page, discarding images of a romantic Middle Ages demands that we divest ourselves of the musical fictions that, over time, risk congealing into received fact. More recently, Alexander Rehding and Lydia Goehr have traced conceptions of German symphonic and operatic music as monumental, weighty, and dignified, all qualities also attributed to state buildings.

Movement – Here, the fiction could be that music could elicit bodily movement in performers or listeners, or that something in music itself, whether rhythm, pitch, or timbre, moves. Scruton, for instance, conceives of the second theme of the last movement of Brahms' Second Piano Concerto in B flat major, op. 83 as being traded back and forth between piano and orchestra: "Each note follows in sequence as though indifferent to the world of physical causes, and responding only to its predecessor and to the force that it inherits from the musical line."

* * *

This is by no means a complete list of musical fictions or scholarship devoted to them. But we can still cull one useful observation from these fictions: music is an intentional object, the term Franz Brentano employs to describe the object about which we think. Without thought, any sort of music is just an assortment of sounds that may happen to be either improvised or planned, yet are nonetheless just sounds. But with thought, these sounds signify, point beyond themselves, and affect listener behavior. Scruton provides one of the most refreshingly honest acknowledgements of musical fictions. Our very definition of music is mutable and subjective, he writes. And however we choose to distinguish between music and non-musical sound, that distinction is not a disinterested accident, but rather, "a decision made with a purpose in mind." Scruton's frank acceptance of the inevitability of musical fictions is one I share, and will advocate throughout this book.

Scholarly writing is by no means the only breeding ground for musical fictions. One of the most famous musical fictions is also perhaps the loveliest: "the little phrase" in Vinteuil's violin sonata, a work that plays a critical role in the first volume of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. This little phrase is a leitmotif that, in the mind of the main character Charles Swann, anticipates and embodies his love affair with Odette de Crécy. Proust bestows on Swann a double awareness, of both the significance of this musical passage in relation to his romance as well as the falsity of that significance:

But ever since, more than a year, before, discovering to him many of the riches of his own soul, the love of music had, for a time at least, been born in him, Swann had regarded musical motifs as actual ideas, of another world, of another order, ideas veiled in shadow, unknown, impenetrable [380] to the human mind, but none the less perfectly distinct from one another, unequal among themselves in value and significance.


So Swann was not mistaken in believing that the phrase of the sonata really did exist. Human as it was from this point of view, it yet belonged to an order of supernatural beings whom we have never seen, but whom, in spite of that, we recognize and acclaim with rapture when some explorer of the unseen contrives to coax one forth, to bring it down, from that divine world to which he has access, to shine for a brief moment in the firmament of ours.

There are few things as pleasantly melancholic as the music we associate with a failed romance. But Scruton refers to the fictions he brings up as metaphors, not fictions. Why then do I call Swann's little phrase a musical fiction rather than simply a metaphor? What distinguishes musical fictions from metaphors about music?

Scruton defines metaphor as "deliberate application of a term or phrase to something that is known not to exemplify it". And this definition concurs with Fuller's definition of a legal fiction, an untrue concept used intentionally (and without mischief or intent to deceive) to achieve some goal. Both Scruton and Fuller base their respective definitions on a sober, measured awareness of the implications and limits of a thought-fiction. But this is not always the case, for musical fictions excel at camouflaging themselves amid musical knowledge and certainty. While it is certainly true that we may at times be aware of fictions as fictions, at other times, fictions may assume the guise of undisputed truth. We then will look not only to the prosaic nature of musical fictions, but also to the reasons why we at times choose to believe them, and why we may even forget their fictive nature.


Excerpted from Anatomy of Thought-Fiction by Joanna Demers. Copyright © 2016 Joanna Demers. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Meet the Author

Joanna Demers is associate professor of Musicology at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music, where she specializes in post1945 popular and art music.
Joanna Demers is associate professor of musicology at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music, where she specializes in post-1945 popular and art music.