IN: Reviews

Lag and Laughter Wrap Up Modernity Series


The last of the eight seminars on Hearing Modernity on April 14th at Holden Chapel Harvard University touched upon mental commotion and helpless laughter. Featured speakers for   “Reflections of the Voice” were Brian Massumi, Professor of Communication, University of Montreal and Steven Connor, Grace 2 Professor of English, University of Cambridge.

The alluring description at Modernity’s website advertises these two scholar’s work as defying “any simple disciplinary description. Their papers romp through terrain as varied as neuroscience and notions of presence to surveillance and other forms of ‘sadistic listening.’”

Did you know that thinkers such as Professor Massumi have been investigating time and our brain. Specifically, there exists a half-second lag. In this split second the mind is unconscious, meaning that the “I” is not there; it has “fallen off the throne.” It is what Alfred North White called an “influx of otherness.”  This half-second lag is a time of “commotion” and “over population.”  We should not “lament this lag but celebrate it” as it is a time of creativity, of newness.

Moving onto “sound sense,” Professor Massumi tells us that timbre registers above all other ingredients in music. In its “firstness,” timbre stands for nothing; it is its own universe. Timbre is more affect than meaning. That is, “pure experience is another name for feeling.”

When the Music Department invited him to participate in Hearing Modernity, Massumi’s puzzled reaction was not a first in this series at Harvard. Given that his work is not directly related to sound, he wondered, “Maybe I shouldn’t come.”  Harvard’s response:  “there will be connections.”

Professor Connor’s opening remarks prompted laughter, a welcome relief. At the airport, when asked by an immigration officer what he would be doing in the U.S., he answered that he would be giving a lecture for Harvard’s Music Department. When the officer commented that this seemed odd for an English professor, Connor quipped, “It’s my day off.”

To the attentive listener, language can be “violent,” according to Conner who spoke about “sadistic listening.” When someone says, “say what you mean” or “a penny for your thoughts,” the listener is immediately put on notice; there is fear, even pain. Sound recordings can extend and intensify oppression by having you “giving yourself up to the voice.” In somewhat similar vein, for comediennes, laughter is “addictive”; the audience’s laughter is their power. As to the times when we cannot stop laughing or when we are giggling uncontrollably, this is, for Connor, “helpless laughter.” During such intervals, we lose our composure, allowing “corpsing” to set in—somehow such a state introduces our sense of death.

Some questioners thought of Massumi’s views as utopian in contrast to Connors’, described as utilitarian. For the former, “abduction precedes calculation,” that pure half-second lag followed by higher level tendencies, such as analysis. For the latter speaker, “listening is taking” and “taking is culmination—perception means to capture something.”

Over the six seminars I have attended, a loop of gleaning-and-eluding has been in play. Being exposed to “mediation”—the series’ centering concept—via such topics as eavesdropping, surveillance, disembodiment and embodiment, hearing devices, technology and perception torture and playlists, has broadened my notion of hearing. Apparently, ears are only a small part of today’s ever-widening picture of perception. As to the notion of modernity, of newness, of innovativeness, the seminars at times focused on the historical while at other times skirted conclusiveness. An issue that arose during this final seminar may sum it up for some:  “cashing in” on the investigations of Massumi and Connor seems to hold little promise.

Hearing Modernity really played to a small audience and in the end, music was noticeably marginalized.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

Comments Off on Lag and Laughter Wrap Up Modernity Series