The Subtraction of the World: Waste or Resource?

Martin Scherzinger – [email protected]
  New York University

The presence or relevance of the ancestors in one’s life in different cultures ceases to be an anachronistic manifestation of primitive religion or magic to become another way of experiencing contemporaneity.

(Boaventura de Souza Santos)

On Wasteful Modes of Reason

In “A Critique of Lazy Reason: Against the Waste of Experience,” the sociologist Boaventura de Souza Santos argues against the mode of reasoning that systematically excludes and discriminates against certain types of social experience (scientific, biological, cultural, etc.) in practical existence across the globe today (2004). From non-literate archives of knowledge and information to alternative production systems and the management of collective intellectual rights, western centers of political and economic power regard as residual, inferior, local, or subcultural vast swaths of the world’s theoretical and methodological traditions. Instead of figuring these traditions as credible resources, argues Souza Santos, these social experiences are deemed “not susceptible of being perceived and controlled by order,” and hence become “wasted” social experience. For all the considerable intellectual effort to critique the Western-oriented model of reason over the past two hundred years (dialectics, existentialism, deconstruction, etc.), Souza Santos points out, we still find a latent commitment to a notion of reason that is disembedded from its own social conditions of possibility. In particular, the dominant mode of reasoning produces dichotomized hierarchies (“scientific culture/literary culture; scientific knowledge/traditional knowledge; man/woman; culture/nature; civilized/primitive; capital/labor; white/black; North/South; West/East, and so on”), which thereby also produce that which is nonexistent. Moreover, the primary condition underwriting this form of rationality, along with its organizational praxis, is the expansion of capitalism. For example, one of the principal logics of “nonexistence” is the ”logic of productivity,” with its emphasis on infinite (future) expansion, accompanied by a legislative order that ensures its smooth (“legitimate and coercive”) functioning (2004:17). As a result, what is disqualified from this order of reason is frequently regarded in economic terms as discardable, peripheral, worthless, invisible, residual, noncivilized, ignorant, residual, inferior, or unproductive.

Souza Santos regards this kind of reason as “lazy” because, for all its embeddedness in an economic calculus, it nonetheless “claims to be the only form of rationality and therefore does not exert itself to discover other kinds of rationality, or if it does, it only does so to turn them into raw material” (5). On a general level, the determined incuriosity imbricated in lazy reason ultimately results in the subtraction of the world (rendering invisible alternative cultural praxes and knowledge formations) and a contraction of the present (in service of a hyperbolically productive future). Western reason, in short, manufactures a waste of experience. For Souza Santos, a progressive cosmopolitan sociology should set out to valorize alternative modes of production as contemporaneous, thereby bestowing the present with a denser, decelerated substantive content. Souza Santos encourages seeking out and amplifying those tendencies and possibilities, discarded objects of knowledge and culture, hidden clues and capacities, that do not arrogate the future for production as much as take “care of the future” on a global scale (31). This kind of “sociology of absences” is transgressive, practically by definition. In particular, Souza Santos recommends transforming impossible/absent objects into possible/present ones, thereby permitting disqualified experiences to impose themselves on the analytic scene: “To be made present means to be considered alternatives to hegemonic experience, to have their credibility discussed and argued for and their relations taken as the object of political dispute” (14, 18). In this way, the world is expanded into a more symmetrical system of reasonable relations, equalizing the naturalized distinction between political players. The disjunctive temporalities in play in the “encounter between the African peasant and the officer of the World Bank in his field trip,” for example, would be regarded as contemporaneous and cosmopolitan, thereby granting the present a denser, decelerated, substantive, and more expansively productive content than that afforded by western reason alone (15). Instead of dichotomizing the world according to categories emerging from Western reason, Souza Santos emphasizes the contemporary, contextual, and hybrid character of all social experience today. Souza Santos offers an example:

If we take biomedicine and African traditional medicine as an example, it makes no sense to consider the latter, by far the predominant one in Africa, as an alternative to the former. The important thing is to identify the contexts and the practices in which each operates, and the way they conceive of health and sickness and overcome ignorance (as undiagnosed illness) in applied knowledge (as cure) (20).

By emphasizing a cosmopolitan contemporaneity, the sociology of absences thereby demonstrates a methodological commitment to a more generalized analytic optic, delinked from the precision of rationality that organizes life in dichotomized categories.

Souza Santos makes an important argument. The diagnosis of reason as containing a monocultural aspect, in turn tied to the naturalization of contingencies and differences on a global scale, as well as the analysis of rationality as constitutively linked to a particular set of economic axioms, all indicate crucial components of a cogent cognitive map of global cultural and scientific production and distribution, no less than their intermingling in various transnational flows. However, like all modes of reasoning, distributions of the sensible, procedural systems, and so on, the “sociology of absences” itself encounters an analytic limit in various conjunctures. On the one hand, the emphasis on widening the world of operational methodologies and theories (instead of subtracting it), expanding the sense of the present (instead of contracting it), and building and engaging experience (instead of wasting it), holds the promise of permitting hitherto excluded zones to weigh upon the content of what goes as universal knowledge. On the other hand, the same points of analytic emphasis may occlude the ideological way modes of experiential widening, expansion and inclusion actually sustain the efficient functioning of the very economic system that is the object of Souza Santos’s critique. Due attentiveness to the addition of the world, the expansion of the present, the re-valuation of subculture, tradition, and so on, while lying outside of the scope of reason’s precise calculus, can actually sponsor the free markets they are supposed to contradict. In other words, western reason frequently breaks ranks with (as much as it adheres to) its own organizational protocols to uphold or accommodate an economic imperative. In sum, the promise of methodologically linking a mode of reasoning with political economy in Souza Silva brings down a curse thereby. It may be necessary to keep the two spheres of inquiry analytically delinked.

To dramatize the promise and the curse of the “sociology of absences,” I will offer two brief cases that argue first for and then against Souza Santos’s recommendations. The overarching reference point is the case of African music in the context of its global circulation. In the first case, inclusion and addition are overvalued, falsely producing objects of identity; and, in the second, they encounter a limit, falsely producing objects of difference. The point of destabilizing Souza Silva’s general position is to draw attention to the particular contextual conjunctures that, in turn, determine the political valences of different modes of addition and inclusion. In other words, the article preserves the object lesson of Souza Silva’s diagnosis of the asymmetric valuation of global experience, but negates its claims to the extent that they are set adrift from specific contextual coordinates.

On African Rhythm and International Music Theory

In his chapter “Polymeter, Additive Rhythm, and Other Enduring Myths” from Representing African Music, Kofi Agawu spells out the specific ways African music has been misrepresented via ideologically charged terms in the scholarly literature. Agawu places the terms “polymeter,” “polyrhythm,” “additive rhythm” and “cross rhythm” under particular scrutiny, arguing that the very plethora of terms registers an “incorrigible urge to represent Africa as always already different” (2003:72). Instead of dignifying these terms in his analyses, Agawu identifies various rhythmic topoi, or time lines, to describe common African rhythmic patterns in less exoticizing terms. This can be read as an attempt to valorize an excluded cultural domain that, guided by a mode of western reason, is deemed culturally different (and hence dichotomous to its western form) by default. In sync with Souza Santos’s project of expanding experience, Agawu seeks to counter the systematic reduction of rhythmic experience to an exotic residuum. As it is with Souza Santos’s example of biomedicine in Africa, Agawu is less interested in identifying African rhythm as an “alternative” musical practice, but instead identifies the contexts in which the practice operates. Here the most significant intervention is Agawu’s inclusion of the movement of the dancers’ feet to access the metric structure of the various dances. “For cultural insiders,” writes Agawu, “identifying the gross pulse or the ‘pieds de danse’ (‘dance feet’) occurs instinctively and spontaneously. Those not familiar with the choreographic supplement, however, sometimes have trouble locating the main beats and expressing them in movement” (73). With the choreographic supplement firmly in place, Agawu’s time lines unambiguously elaborate basic metric schemes. The so-called “standard pattern” often heard as a bell pattern in Ewe dances such as Agbadza, Agbekor, and Adzida, for instance, falls into four main beats in [12/8]; while the “Highlife” time line, despite being strongly off-beat centered, falls into four main beats in [4/4] (75). Agawu considers the Yoruba rendition of the standard pattern as “so close that [it] may be regarded as a variant” of the standard Ewe pattern (74). As it is in Western music, then, Agawu posits a regulative background that enables “the accentual and durational patterns that constitute a particular topos” (78). Far from the “clash and conflict” identified by Jones as a “cardinal principle” of African music Agawu describes a “communal and cooperative” musical situation operating according to the familiar mechanism of “hidden background and a manifest foreground” (2003:79). Agawu uses examples from Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms to demonstrate, vis-à-vis the mechanics of rhythm and meter, a kinship between African and Western music.

In Souza Silva’s terms, this is an act of re-valuing potentially wasteful experience, which would relegate African music to exoticism, by way of an epistemology of difference. His argument is mediated both by local contextual factors (African conceptions of time and movment) and by global ones (the underlying kinship between African and Western music). However, this act of inclusion is all-too-thorough in its specific detail. Agawu’s analyses and re-transcriptions are entirely consistent with, if not beholden to, modern theories of rhythm and meter (Grosvenor Cooper and Leonard B. Meyer, Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff, Carl Schachter, William Rothstein, David Temperley, and others), where two music’s two temporal dimensions have been placed in opposition to one another: Rhythm is the actual flow of sounding durations, meter the abstract grid of strong and weak pulses. In other words, regularly recurring aspects of the musical flow are conceptually/perceptually separated from rhythmic ones. Thus meter itself is conceptualized as the generalizable, non-expressive, and mechanical temporal scaffold for the concrete unfolding of rhythm. In the more extreme versions of this theory, metric beats are actually regarded as durationless instants that can be compared to “geometrical points rather than to the lines drawn between them.” (Lerdahl and Jackendoff, 1983:19) These immobile beats (like mathematical instants without extension) are inferred from various sounding rhythmic phenomena, but once this inference has taken place, the patterned sounds of the music need not always reinforce them and may even conflict with them. Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s claim that “even though the two structures [meter and rhythmic grouping] obviously interact, neither is intrinsically implicated in the other; that is to say they are formally (and visually) separate.” (1983:26) Likewise, in his discussion of meter and grouping in African music, David Temperley insists that “a metrical structure is best regarded as something in the mind of the listener, rather than being present in the music in any direct way.” (2000:67)

Although, historically speaking, this dichotomous construal of rhythm and meter is in fact a recent development in music theory, and has until very recently been applied to Western music alone, this particular analytic paradigm for understanding rhythm and meter has been formulated as an account of the fundamental structures of human cognition. Complete with an inventory of “preference” and “well-formedness” rules, this theory aspires to describe the general structures of our musical intuitions (1983:40-43). Hence, Temperley’s application of this analytic paradigm to African music seems wholly justified, even warranted. In Souza Silva’s terms, this analytic gesture would amount to the precise antithesis of subtractive exclusion. However, when Temperley demonstrates the theory using actual musical examples from Africa, its shortcomings become evident. For example, he analyses the metric structure of the “standard pattern” of Ewe drum ensemble music in the following way (Figure 1):

Figure 1

Figure 1: David Temperley’s analysis of the “standard pattern,” showing the metrical structure implied by a 12/8 time signature.

The problem is that there is nothing in his “metric preference rules” (borrowed from Lerdahl and Jackendoff, henceforth MPRs) that implies this analysis (2000:67). The assignation was not made on account of “parallel musical segments” (MPR 1), nor on account of the “strength of a beat” in a group (MPR 2), nor on account of an “event-onset” (MPR 3), nor a “loud event” (MPR 4), nor a “linguistic stress” (an MPR added in a later article by Fred Lerdahl and John Halle) (67). It might be argued that MPR 5a, which states, “Prefer a metrical structure in which onsets of relatively long events are aligned with strong beats,” implies, to some extent, Temperley’s analysis, but the first quarter note in the diagram is no ‘longer’ than five other notes in the pattern (67). In fact, the proper application of this rule would probably imply a starting point on the third quarter note in the diagram because it initiates the longest span of equally spaced notes. Furthermore, there is nothing in the rules that implies compound meter at all. Since meter is principially a matter of ‘equally spaced beats,’ the theory could imply as easily (if not more easily) two bars of 3/4 starting on the third quarter note as 12/8 starting on the first quarter note. To invoke the “event rule” (that is, “ the preference for aligning strong beats with events”), most beats would collide with events under the 3/4 (not the 12/8 reading) (2000, 80). Indeed, the metric analysis of this pattern even seems counter-‘intuitive’ according to its own tenets. Notice, for example, how only two out of seven notes fall on any kind of significant metric beat. Almost any projected metric structure whatsoever could capture as little of the rhythm’s metric properties as this.

Of course, as the writings of Alan Jones, James Koetting, and others attest, Temperley’s analysis may not be empirically incorrect. But the reason it may be correct is a result of his consideration of ethnographic evidence and not an application of the analytic model. This is not to say that there are no musical cues for this interpretation at all. In fact, one obvious point about Temperley’s analysis is that it leaves out the remaining parts of the drum ensemble as well as a consideration of the accompanying dance movements. That is, the excluded rattle and dance patterns, for example, usually articulating spans of three eighth notes, would encourage the 12/8 hearing outlined in the diagram. But these are additional rhythmic patterns, which sound along with the bell part. Far from a series of abstract durationless time-points - “something in the mind of the listener, rather than being present in the music in any direct way” (2000:67) - the ‘metric’ dimension of this music is in fact elaborated by a series of definite durations that are arguably the most embodied of the rhythmic patterns. In short, the music’s metric dimension is rhythmically elaborated. In contrast, while relying on them for ethnographic evidence, Temperley believes that ethnomusicologists have tended to “confuse grouping and meter.” (88) The problem with Temperley’s position is that the ethnographic evidence was constructed with this ‘confused’ theory as a constitutive guide. Therefore, various factual errors are implied by Temperley’s account. For example, one of the standard makwa (handclapping) patterns of the Shona of Zimbabwe is practically identical to the bell pattern outlined above except that the downbeat is placed on the second (not the first) of the first two quarter notes in figure 1. But, more importantly, Temperley does not consider the possibility that the ethnomusicologists’ confusion on the matter might in fact be a productive puzzlement. What if the music itself puts the vivid dichotomy between grouping and meter in doubt? Or what if Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s MPR’s predicted two simultaneously sounding meter-like rhythmic groupings in a piece of African music (as figures 6-10 above, broadly speaking, would indicate)? Temperley addresses this possibility, but, in step with Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s hierarchical construction of meter, he argues against the possibility of “perceiving multiple interpretations at once” (80). But why not? Why is it that hearing the simultaneous flow of two different meter-like rhythmic patterns cannot be perceived, while hearing one such pattern against another sustained rhythmic “hemiola” can? Perhaps the problem lies in the odd idea that musical things are interpreted “at once.” What does this mean? Is one metric structure ever perceived at once? In the case of music, necessarily not. Musical perceptions require the passage of time; even the projected perception of a musical ‘instant’ entails a duration that locates it as such. In contrast, it is as if Temperley’s ideal kind of perception approximates the very durationless instant (of the idealized metric “beat”) that has been isolated from the music’s temporal elaboration.

In agreement with Tempereley, Agawu does not question the applicability of Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s theory to African (or any other) music. To support his argument, Agawu draws on Temperley’s work on African rhythm, which, in turn, was inspired by Agawu’s research on the subject and unquestioningly perpetuates Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s theory. What, however, is the musical cost of these theoretical assumptions? Agawu seems wholly to endorse Temperley’s findings on both musical and political grounds. Citing Temperley at length, Agawu makes a point about the politics of current institutional divisions in music studies: “Ethnomusicology is concerned with the production of differences among world musical cultures, while music theorists tend to produce sameness” (2003:174). Music-theoretical systems, therefore, are put to political work in Agawu’s text.

Yet while Agawu rhetorically upholds Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s theory, his analyses do not in fact outline a generative process as it is understood in Generative Theory of Tonal Music. A generative process infers a metric structure from sounding patterns (that largely support it), while Agawu’s analyses posit a metric structure (identical to the choreographic supplement) on sounding patterns (that largely contradict it). This is not to say that Agawu’s analyses of metric structure in, for example, either the highlife topos or the standard pattern are wrong (at least in the context of some African dances), but that the appropriate use of Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s model in this context would actively undermine Agawu’s conclusions. Figure 2 reproduces Agawu’s metric analysis of the highlife pattern, wherein the four main beats have been determined in correspondence with the accompanying choreography. However, if one were to use metric preference rules to infer the metric structure of this sounded pattern alone, it would result in a [4/4] pattern beginning on the eighth (or perhaps the fourth) eighth-note beat of the sequence. Placed in the context of the (now obviously contrametric) choreographic supplement, this result suggests precisely the polymetric structure of this pattern. The appearance of a single gross metric scheme aside, the correct application of Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s theory actually creates the conditions for undermining the case against inventing African rhythm. That is, the generative procedure is at odds with the choreographic supplement; the single gross meter implied by the model is different to the factual one embodied by Africans.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Kofi Agawu’s metric analysis of the highlife pattern.

Aside from the occasional tantalizing remark, Agawu does not recognize that it is precisely this sort of Western theory of rhythm and meter that lays the conceptual foundations for the fantastical Western views of African rhythmic and metric complexity he aims to critique. Unfortunately, most of Agawu’s analyses bear the mark of this deep contradiction. Perhaps close formal studies of African music can interrogate the separation between meter and rhythm or at least serve as a persistent reminder that such general theories are documents of limited historical and geographical scope. If African music runs the risk of becoming exotic every time it stakes out a unique way to pattern time, how can it ever contribute to the broad musicological debate, let alone offer us startling musical possibilities? The point is neither to celebrate African “rhythmic complexity,” nor to recoil from it in alarm. While the strategic use of Western methods for the study of African music should be vigorously supported on political grounds, the epistemological dimensions of the inquiry should be deeply interested in the moments that do not quite fit the theoretical archetypes. These are the moments where a consideration of African rhythmic processes may force a revision of general theories of rhythm and meter in genuinely global terms. For, taken in the context of its broad implications, this is the hope that Agawu’s inquiry inspires.

It is not difficult to find African examples that challenge the fundamental tenets of Western theories of rhythm and meter. In fact, the very first of Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s ‘metric preference rules’ flies in the face of a basic feature of the performance practice of the African mbira dza vadzimu. The rule states, “Where two or more segments can be constructed as parallel, they preferably receive parallel metrical structures” (2000:67). A typical performance of an mbira tune involves the repetition of “parallel musical segments” (usually 48- or 24-pulse patterns) but their metrical structure precisely is constantly shifting. In other words, while performers may repeat the same series of notes for some time before they change to a new series, the repeated hearing tends to bring out different metrical interpretations. As Thomas Turino notes, “The bass, midrange, and high melodies create a variable polyphonic texture, and a listener’s perception of the piece can change substantially by shifting attention from one line to another.” (1997:166) Likewise, Paul Berliner reports that “different rhythmic groupings” come to prominence and recede again as the mbira performance unfolds (1981:92). In fact, mbira players frequently report that “the mbira itself magically created its own variations; one simply had to have the patience and learn to hear what it had to offer” (Turino, 1997:163). Thus, repetition in this context becomes a site of expressive interpretative multiplicity. To project an unrelenting and abstract parallel metrical structure onto these “parallel” patterns of mbira music would not only distort an African way of hearing but drastically limit the horizon of what is metrically hearable in general. At the very least, the theory seems to make for a somewhat uninteresting hearing of mbira music. In this context, the theory should be re-examined in light of the aesthetic failure.

Theodor W. Adorno’s warning that “disaster” ensues as soon as “desiderata are elevated to the level of norms and are dispensed from th[e] confrontation [with the concrete form of music to which they are applied]” is pertinent here (1973:69). It is pertinent not because it endorses some kind of inquiry free of desiderata, but because it reigns back the desiderata by allowing musical particulars to impose themselves on their generality. Far from abandoning it on the terrain of African music then, I want to repeat the fact that Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s theory should be re-examined in light of a certain failure on that terrain. The African case should have the capacity to modify the content of what in this theoretical parlance goes as our “fundamental cognitive structures” (2000, 90). This is a necessary task not because such “structures” necessarily exist, or, if they do, that they are necessarily available to our knowing, but that the practice of pointing to them as so many ideological constructions is not sufficient in a genuinely postcolonial context. Dethroning social inventions alone proffers no social alternatives. In fact, figuring this theory of rhythm and meter as a Eurocentric invention risks dichotomizing African and European musical perceptions on false grounds. This is because this charge simultaneously naturalizes the theory, as if the theory had already accurately captured the experience of Western music, and then opposes it to the experience of African music. African experience would thereby be laid to waste once more. Instead, the analysis should show how the African case can contribute to an understanding of perceptions of meter and rhythm in general; that African music can inform the way Africans hear African music no less than that African music can inform the way Westerners hear Western music (or the way either hears the music of the other). Therefore, this is not so a matter of localizing the reach of these ostensibly “universal” theories, as it is to Africanize those theories that go as universal.

This mode of re-valuation of African music holds that the actual perceptions that Westerners have of rhythm and meter in general is more African than some of the West’s “general” theories describing that perception will permit. Cultural “sameness,” or simple “addition,” should not be pursued at any cost. If African music is to stake a claim on international musicology, it will not do to arrest those moments in the terms of preconceived theories (of rhythm and meter or anything else). While the strategic use of Western methods for the study of African music should be vigorously supported on political grounds, the epistemological dimensions of the inquiry should be deeply interested in the moments of not-quite-fitting the theoretical archetypes. After all, those are the points where African music might make its greatest contribution to international musicology; where a consideration of African rhythmic processes, for example, may force a revision of general theories of rhythm and meter.

On African Ancestor Worship and International Copyright

Souza Santos’s analytic emphasis is less purely cultural than it is economic, with a special interest in non-Western production systems, alternatives to the intellectual copyright system by way of collective rights, and so on. Music obviously also circulates within various interlocking economies on a global scale. Musicologists are beginning to be disturbed by cases of Western artists appropriating music from other parts of the world for profit. For example, Hugo Zemp critically elaborates the case of sampling by two French musicians of a Solomon Islands lullaby which resulted in millions of dollars in profit through CD sales (1996:36-66). Likewise, Timothy Taylor accuses South African composer Kevin Volans of “appropriating” various “indigenous” African elements in his music without authority (1995:504-536). Much of the debate about how such cases should be arbitrated has focused on the culturally specific lineaments of the current copyright law; its origins in European book publishing, the signing of the Berne Convention of 1886, and so on, and is thus taken to be inherently ethnocentric. In his article, “The Problem of Oral Copyright: The Case of Ghana,” John Collins raises the problem of global copyright protection in the context of “Eurocentric assumptions that a specific art-work or intellectual idea is created by a single or restricted number of individuals who are therefore easily identifiable” (1993:146). Similarly, Simon Frith, in his introduction to Music and Copyright, voices a suspicion about the role that copyright law plays in ostensibly protecting artists and publishers from exploitation and shows instead how the law precisely is implicated in economic exploitation on a global scale: “[F]rom an international perspective, copyright can be seen as a key plank in Western cultural and commercial imperialism.” Thus, according to Frith, the copyright law “is increasingly seen as a weapon used by the multinationals against small nations” (1993:xiii).

With Souza Santos’s notion of inclusion in mind, this case investigates one aspect of the confrontation of copyright rules with various traditionally non-western notions of music making. Against Souza Santos, Collins and Frith, however, I contest the view that the copyright requirements of the law are necessarily ethnocentric just because they were designed for Western capitalist society. For example, this view holds that because, in many traditions, sacred songs are issued forth by ancient spirits or gods, copyright protection is not operative: such music lacks the originality requirement of the law. In contrast to this view, such traditional figurations of making music need not self-evidently pass over copyright protection and may even sustain some of the law’s underlying historical principles. In part, this is because the invention of copyright protection for music in the nineteenth century was logically implicated in notions of originality that were beholden to the quasi-divine nature of inspiration that ravished the composer. In other words, a specific metaphysical stance was entailed by the logic of early copyright law. By problematizing the idea that songs that stem from, say, the spirits of ancestors are fundamentally different from songs that stem from the spirit of the poet, Idea or muse, one might gesture towards strategies for legal resistance. Genuine comparison can be strategically mobilized to reconstitute the points of affinity and difference between distant cultural realities in ways that render them more equal before the law.

In a valuable collection of articles appearing in the Yearbook for Traditional Music that examine the relations between music that falls outside of the definitive modes of production and the laws governing copyright in a global context, we still encounter presuppositions that unwittingly perpetuate a kind of subalternization of “traditional,” “indigenous” music (1996:57). This could be considered a case of describing the subtraction of the non-western world from productive value. One case in point will have to suffice here: Sherylle Mills, whose article otherwise exhibits an exemplary vigilance to the “power discrepancy between traditional communities and the multi-national music industry,” (80) argues that the copyright requirements under U.S. law – that music “have a specific author…be captured on a tangible medium and … be original” – are “stubbornly ethnocentric,” because they were designed for commercially-oriented societies and are indifferent to “non-Western” understandings of music. (63) She carefully substantiates her argument with examples from various quarters: “[T]he Pintupi,” for example, “believe that songs are captured, not composed, by a man’s spirit when he sleeps,” and thus such composition cannot be promoted “through the United States’ method of financial incentives.” (62) Elsewhere, “[t]he Suyas would not designate th[e] man [that can teach new songs by mimicking his spirit’s singing] as the ‘creator’ of songs,” (64) and thus the music is compelled into the public domain. More generally, Mills claims that “in many traditions, sacred songs stem from ancient spirits or gods … The job of the keepers is to accurately reproduce the ancient song, not necessarily to add ‘original’ intellectual modifications,” (65) in effect depriving copyright for lack of an originality requirement. In sum, because the author, if there is one at all, is often a community of musicians; because the tangible medium of the music is in many cases orally transmitted; and because the music is frequently a reproduction rather than an invention, non-Western music becomes ineligible for copyright protection.

Let me focus on the African case. Without yet taking up the rich and important field of discursive affinities these apparently foreign views of music have to various Western conceptions of music, particularly European Romanticism in the age of industrialized capital, this kind of argument remains beholden to a somewhat static and observably different view of non-Western cultural units; to a non-Western music that is “built by … distinct, individual communit[ies]” (71). The communitarian emphasis sees the African landscape as an ensemble of households joined in a nonmarket ethos of kinship relations. In this view, the market is regarded as an external and artificial imposition, and so these communities (necessarily epistemologically Elsewhere) are cast in an aura of noble savagery at various points in the text. Hence, “[t]he problem of protecting the music that originates from primarily oral traditions remains particularly poignant because there is no tangible representation of the music ‘to own’” (italics mine, 61). An ethos of ownership and profit-oriented business threatens to invade a native ethos of profit-indifferent sharing. This idealization is not problematic in itself, but inscribed at the very inception of this formulation is a paternal West that is unwittingly granted a nuance and differentiation unimaginable in the non-West. Laws passed in industry countries, for instance, are advanced as the best protector of non-Western music, because “laws within industry countries [where offending recordings mainly occur] will enable the efficient policing of infractions … [and] by controlling the dissemination through the industry countries’ laws, the frictions often found between traditional communities and their national governments are entirely circumvented” (80-81). Furthermore, ethnomusicology, advanced as playing a crucial role in the more benevolent side of the Western practice of policing, is aligned with those forces that “lie outside of the profit oriented business world’s influence,” (78) — a business that, by the end of the article, it must also “be prepared to meet … head to head” (83). Passing laws, informed by sensitive ethnomusicology, is presented as the good side of a cultural world that also has its bad profit-driven side.

It is worth reflecting on this kind of scholarly topos. Are we protecting Africans from profit-makers or profit-makers from Africans? The possibility that anthropological description might itself be a site of superstructurally significant ideological work is not entertained in this view. There is a possibility that the communitarian view of the African landscape (to be protected) is potentially laced with neo-colonial thinking. Mahmood Mamdani argues, for instance, that “[m]ore than anywhere else, there was in the African colonial experience a one-sided opposition between the individual and the group, civil society and community” (22). Mamdani demonstrates how pluralizing the landscape into distinctive communities, thus channeling a racial division into ethnic tensions, was one of the most brilliant and effective modes of colonial control. This is because communal custom was state ordained and enforced through the institution of Native Authorities (in charge of managing the local state apparatus) in many parts of Africa. That is, colonial authorities defined distinctive laws for ethnic groups (or tribes) with distinctive characteristics, referred to as ‘custom,’ and, in effect, fractured the ranks of the ruled along an ethnic divide. Without denying that there was a tribe-like dimension before colonial conquest in Africa, the construction of ethnic homelands, the forced removals and the system of pass laws in apartheid South Africa, aimed at curtailing movement across tribal lines, should suffice to illustrate the colonial investment in inventing and maintaining distinct tribal identities. It is open to question whether these were “subtracted” from the State (in Sousa Santos’s terms) as much as they were “added” as a constitutive element of the State.

This is not to say that the resonant relationship between the notion of “distinct individual communities” (71) and the decentralized despotism of colonial Africa necessarily holds outside of a specific contextual determination today. It is also not to say that the communitarian view is no more than an orientalist imposition by westerners on Africans. Indeed, there was a strong African lobby to change the stipulations of the Berne Convention to include collective rights along with individual rights at the 1997 World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) conference on folklore and intellectual property in Thailand. Delegates from African governments largely argued, in step with Mills, that the musical creations of Africa were not protected by the international legal instruments because these creations were community-based and conceived collectively. In sync with Sousa Santos’s call for inclusion in the global order of things, these delegates called for a reconsideration of the law’s emphasis on individual authorship. While the account to follow takes a different view, I do not wish to undermine this effort as much as supplement it with an alternative that hopes to bear the weight of the above historical reminder. What I am saying is that the call for a legal reformulation of copyright protection to include collective effort proceeds with a dichotomy intact and then reckons with it. Such a tactic risks occluding a certain kind of historical critique of the legal apparatus today, and therefore forecloses the strategic option of transformatively inhabiting it. Let me explain.

To begin with, Mills’s formulation of the copyright problem does not consider the possibility that the copyright laws are themselves based on some weird premises and miraculous leaps of logic within their felicitous cultural enclosure. For example, we do not have to read about the death of Roland Barthes’s author to recognize that the legal formulation of the author requirement, “he to whom anything owes its origin,” is factually fantastic and theoretically naive (63). Nor do we have to track the presence of, say, Ludwig von Beethoven in Franz Schubert, Frederic Chopin in Johannes Brahms, nor to hear the quotations in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Gustav Mahler or Charles Ives, to recognize that originality is a hotly contested idea in the West itself. In fact, the peculiarly Western development of aesthetic postmodernism precisely celebrates eclectic quotation and reference to other music as one of its chief modes of representation. If anything, current Western composition, precisely the one protected by copyright law, is probably more conscious (than either African composition or than it was before copyright) of an artistic situation that is always already intertextual. And yet, when Luciano Berio takes an entire movement from Mahler’s Second Symphony in Sinfonia, or when John Zorn quotes Mozart’s B-flat Major Sonata in Forbidden Fruit, in the very name of relinquishing authorship, Berio and Zorn, for various reasons, nonetheless fulfill the author requirement for copyright protection. At the very least, this requirement for copyright in the West is not as secure as the legal formulation about origins would have it. By emphasizing Africa’s epistemological difference, by way of the notion of the communal collective, this position leaves unmarked the disconcerting aspects of the law’s contradictory logic.

There is an even deeper mischief afoot if we consider historically less problematic cases of ‘original’ music. The idea of an autonomous ‘composer’ of an original ‘work’ can be legally traced to late eighteenth — and early nineteenth — century Romantic assumptions about imagination, genius and inspiration. The writings of Johann Gottfried Herder, August Wilhelm von Schlegel, Christian Friedrich Michaelis, Arthur Schopenhauer, Peter Lichtenthal, Gustav Schilling and even Friedrich Nietzsche are abundant with references to the almost divine intervention that inspires the composer. Take Schilling’s story about the origin of beauty and the beautiful (Schönheit und Schön) in 1838: “Some higher spiritual power must at the same time give life to the…[musical] form; so it is that morality and truth are not excluded from the creation of true beauty” (le Huray and Day, 1988:315). Like the harmonically resonant cosmos of old, the romantics reassert a metaphysical priority to the divine powers begetting the creative moment. Herder thought that artists never invented musical sound, but discovered it in and then brought it forth or coaxed it out of an ineffable and living natural sphere that logically preceded the actual composition (le Huray and Day, 1988:188); Arthur Schopenhauer believed the inspired composer was released from temporal, spatial and causal determinations, transported out of his normal relation to the Will, and entranced by the Idea (1988:222), finally becoming one with it; Hugo Wolf, in his settings of poetry to music, was believed to be possessed and controlled by the spirit of the poet; Franz Liszt thought instrumental music released us from our customary horizons, and put us in touch with the inaccessible and the infinite (1988:365). The list goes on.

It is worth noting that this metaphysical aspect is often unevenly handled in critical scholarly commentaries on the cultural politics of autonomous authorship. In her book The Author, Art and the Market (1994), Martha Woodmansee also links the aesthetic autonomy principle with an emergent “theology of art” (1994:32) and shows how various pivotal nineteenth-century theorists of art were deeply influenced by a religious model. For example, in his attempt at a general theory of the arts, Karl Philipp Moritz draws on his German Pietist background, “which posited absolute self-sufficiency, or freedom from dependence upon anything external to Himself, as a condition of the pure perfection of the Deity” (italics Woodmansee’s, 1994:18). While Woodmansee recognizes the connection between the subordination of all “practical considerations to the perfection of [the artist’s] work” (1994:20) and religious doctrine at one level of the argument, it is ignored at another. Where it is recognized, it argumentatively demonstrates “the interests in disinterestedness” (1994:11-33) in art, newly figured as a “(supreme) virtue” (1994:32) instead of as instrumental. Thus we are alerted to a kind of religious ideology that undergirds apparent disinterest. Elsewhere, however, Woodmansee distinguishes the Romantic artist from the craftsman of the Renaissance and neoclassical period on the grounds that he was always a “vehicle or instrument;” “a manipulator of predefined strategies,” and, if inspired, “the subject of independent forces;” “higher, external agency;” or “divine dictation” (1998:36-37). Now the religious mandate secures the preordained instrumentalism of pre-Romantic conceptions of art as if it had been evacuated in the more self-sufficiently inspired Romantic conception. This is a quite different argumentative situation.

Perhaps the confusing role of religion in Woodmansee’s account can be explained in the following way. Although the source of divine inspiration was internalized by some theorists in the late nineteenth century (notably Johann Gottlieb Fichte in literature and Eduard Hanslick in music), the founding moment for authorship rested on a metaphysical conception of inspiration that involved possession of some higher spiritual power. This view became more, not less, widespread in the Romantic age even if it drew on certain seventeenth — and eighteenth — century precedents. Schlegel’s account of the “origin and spirit of romanticism” rested on a religious dimension that “aspired to a higher perfection than that which could actually be achieved by the exercise of [one’s] own faculties” (italics Schlegel’s, 1988:196-198). Romantic art required the intervention of a “superior wisdom” if it was to transcend the limited perfection which Schlegel attributed to the art of the ancient Greeks and offer us instead (via “contemplation of the eternal”) insight into “our real existence” (1988:198). For Herder too, the defining moment in the emancipation of music from outside constraint (from “spectacle, dance, mime, and even from the accompanying voice”) was “religious awe” — a condition best approximated by voiceless, gesture-free, wordless and pure “sounds” (italics Hereder’s, 1988:192). Far from a condition of self-identical autonomy then, the artwork required this extra “something [to] free [it] from all external control” (italics mine, 1988:192). Paradoxically, the exemplary Romantic artwork was thus incomplete in itself, even giving an “appearance of imperfection” in Schlegel’s language, and the necessary supplemental dimension (or “mysterious alliance”) could not be captured in ordinary terms (1988:198). In short, the aesthetics of autonomy were deeply implicated in a new principle of anagogic transformation on the levels of both composition and reception, and it was music’s apparent insufficiency that secured its autonomy. Even in Hanslick’s more purely formalist aesthetics, apparently shorn of religious dimensions, we read about the metaphysical and symbolic significance of music in its “reflection of the great laws of the world” (Bond 1997:415). Interestingly, references of this sort were omitted in subsequent editions of Vom Musikalisch-Schönen, so that Hanslick’s later musical work began to exist in an abstract realm of self-sufficient signification. But the logic of the argument — the effort to strip the work of reduction to ordinary extramusical terms — remained the same.

Timothy Taylor, in his article on Kevin Volans mentioned above, too identifies the rise of the autonomous author and artwork in mystical Romanticism, even if he completely overlooks the crucial moral dimension of the Romantic aesthetics of autonomy, reducing it instead to having “no use or function” (1995:517). Thus Taylor explains that in the “western cultural system” the artist is the “hyper-individual who is thought to be in a position to offer great insights into the human condition;” or elsewhere, composers are “not just individuals, but super-individuals, exceptional special, even divine” (1995:516-7). While this may be an exaggeration of the case particularly in terms of twentieth-century meanings of the “western cultural system,” it does alert us to the historical determinants of the idea of original creation as the current copyright laws understand it. While the spiritual dimension of inspiration was more to the fore in elaborations by nineteenth-century commentators on aesthetics than it is today, the historical glance reminds us of the irreducible metaphysical leap of faith required to identify “he to whom [some]thing owes its origin” in general, and thus the religion lodged within a current legalistic secularist frame (1996:63). In other words, if creation is to fit the “originality” requirement, it must not derive from some object already in the world, but from out of the blue — whether this metaphysical sky is understood as substantive, like the faith in the Idea, nature or the muse in the nineteenth century, or whether it was empty of substance, like the faith in nothing but faith itself in origins (the more difficult thing to believe; the greater faith — precisely because it evacuates substance) in the twentieth century.

This leads me to two points. The first relates to the specific poetics of copyright law articulated here. The point is not to reject notions of faithful leaping — who would risk scaring off the spirits that possessed Wolf? This is also not a point in favor of sheer secularism — who would imagine a place of no leaping? The questions is, how can this divine realm, precisely about which we cannot know in the ordinary way, be understood better when it is deemed culturally ‘different’ from the west? Why do the Shona masvikiro (rain-making) spirits of Zimbabwe that possess us through the music and song of the mbira dza vadzimu (mbira of the ancestral spirits) necessarily behave differently from those of Europe that possess us through the music and song of the romantic piano? If the physical world is epistemologically easier to access than the metaphysical, and our physical world easier to access than someone else’s, by what miracle did we know other people’s spirit behavior well enough to recognize that theirs was substantially different from our spirit behavior? Beyond the fact that this question is inherently unanswerable from the limited vantage of the not-possessed, our spirits necessarily recognize current national borders (contingent and worldly as they are) in this imagining. And, even if we miraculously know that they do, this is not a knowledge advanced by the founding Romantic tale.

The point is that the African cultural inflection of the creative process disrupts copyright protection, while the equivalent Western inflection secures it. It is true, of course, that the details of their respective cultural contexts differ vividly, but at the level of the conceptual generalities guiding copyright law, the poetics of their creative praxis is more similar than it is different. In other words, the legal construal of traditional African music and folklore as a resource in the global public domain (while the construal of European music and culture is primarily in the lucrative terms of property) is a brute default position that cannot be sustained by the precise premises of the law itself. In a kind of reverse alchemy (or what I call sideropoeia), it is as if African knowledge and culture is automatically treated as craft — raw material for exploitation, anti-property — while European knowledge and culture is construed as art — refined, property – and benefiting from circulation in an economy of exchange.

The second point is that it is important therefore to recognize the limits of the ‘public domain’ concept in its actual global workings. The current scholarly trend of critiquing all new copyright and licensing arrangements as an encroaching enclosure of the commons overlooks the differential access global populations have to that commons (in the form of distribution networks, internet access, and so on). The critical scholarly trend also paradoxically legitimates the current imbalances in the global IP regime and simultaneously undermines the claims for intellectual property rights from disadvantaged, disempowered and subordinate constituencies. The imbalance is striking. In the early twenty-first century, developing countries received far fewer fees in royalties and license fees than they paid, while Western nations consistently gathered a surplus of royalties and fees (2004:1354). Considered within a global frame, it is clear that the vast amount of free resources, information and knowledge flows from the global south to the north. More polemically stated, this amounts to a systematic, if subterranean, form of economic aid for the developed world.

It is important to note that it is less in its pure, “naïve,” and “Romantic” form that the concept of authorship and originality need to be challenged than in their peculiar conceptual comingling with the concept of the commons, which, in practice, readily supplements the term’s conditions of impossibility. If authorship could be precisely traced following the multi-capillaried inputs of collaboration, its reward structures would dramatically reorient those of the current industry standard. Of course the task is one of byzantine complexity. As many of the scholars discussed above point out, the author ideal ignores the realistic processes of production, where multiple authors often work within collaborative corporate settings, frequently drawing on a host of preexisting works, which in turn are infused with multiple meanings by adopters, users, and consumers. The practical impasse argues for the viability of an alternative model, which accounts for the reality of a kind of cultural commons, or, legally speaking, a general public domain. However, if the public domain idea enters precisely when the author concept practically fails in order better to sustain the latter concept, its function becomes ideological.

Sousa Santos’s “sociology of absences” attempts to retrieve non-Western theoretical and methodological traditions in order to restructure knowledge within a genuinely global frame. As can be seen, however, non-Western modalities of experience can serve the efficient ideological functioning of Western economies of exchange as much as they can undermine or restructure them. In the above case, for example, what is needed is less an increased regard for the “relevance of the ancestors … in different cultures,” so as to resist the idea that these are merely “an anachronistic manifestation of primitive religion or magic to become another way of experiencing contemporaneity,” and more a decreased regard for their relevant role in registering epistemological difference aprioristically (Sousa Santos, 2004:21). Alternatively, what is required is more, not less, attention to the peculiarly local cultural poetics underpinning the metaphysics of the West’s legal logic. This is because the “reason” underpinning the law here breaks ranks with its own organizational protocols to uphold or accommodate an economic imperative. Furthermore, Sousa Santos’s position needs to be mediated by a more precisely calibrated political analysis. On the one hand, the act of adding cultural “experience” from the global South to international scholarly traditions, aesthetic valuations, cognition studies, policy debates, legal structures, and so on, can significantly avoid the “subtraction of the world”. On the other hand, this act of addition can simultaneously underwrite an inclusion in that world that is highly differential, sustaining domination, poverty, social injustice, and so on. To the extent that a general statement is even possible, what is required is a diagnosis of the mode of inclusion/addition at play in specific contextual conjunctures, no less than its often uncanny ideological fallout.


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The case studies discussed in this article elaborate upon previous writings. Section 2 draws on my “Notes on a Postcolonial Musicology: Kofi Agawu and the Critique of Cultural Difference” [Agawu, Kofi. 2003. Representing African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions. New York and London: Routledge, 304 pp.],” Current Musicology, No. 75, 2003, 223-250. Section 3 draws on my “Music, Spirit Possession and the Copyright Law: A Cross-Cultural Comparison,” Yearbook for Traditional Music, Vol. 31, 1999, 102-125. They are re-printed here with permission.