Saturday, July 13, 2013

Constructing Spirits: An Exercise in Pluralist Composition

This working paper is available at my SSN site, HERE (PDF).
Abstract: It is well known that music can engender altered states of consciousness that are difficult to interpret scientifically except is odd malfunctions in the nervous system. In this paper I report on a phenomenon known among some musicians as “the magic of the bell,” the apparent emergence of spirits while a groups is playing bells with passion and precision. I argue those sounds arise through interpersonal coupling among the musicians and that those twittering “spirits” should be considered as embodiments of non-mysterious and physically coherent group consciousness.
This working paper is grounded in an experience I had some years ago while rehearsing with three friends. We were each of us playing bells and, at some point, we heard high-pitched twittering sounds that none of us were playing. Where did they come from? What were they?

I can easily imagine that someone without the scientific conceptual resources available in the contemporary world would think they were hearing spirits. My objective here is see whether or not, by pushing those conceptual resources further than one normally would do, I can make a plausible argument that those twittering sounds were themselves spirits. That is, the basic scientific impulse would be to discount the notion that those sounds are evidence of spirits simply because we know that spirits do not exist. However, I argue, if we refuse to consider those sounds apart from the entire situation in which they arise, if we insist on treating the sounds and their context as a single ontological entity, then it is reasonable to think of that entity as a spirit.

Imagine that the four of us, Ade, Druis, Fonda, and me, had arranged to record that practice session and that listened to that recording and played it for others. In that context the sounds are not linked to spirits because the four of us are not making them. We’re only listening to recordings of them.

The sounds happened only when we were in a special focused state of mind, when we were in the zone. The sounds exist only through our collective interaction in the zone. It is that collectivity as it “attaches” itself to the sounds that I am calling a spirit. The sounds are an audible manifestation of a special and temporary relationship among the four of us. It is that relationship-in-the-sound that is the spirit.

If that sounds a bit obscure and hard to grasp, well it is. But it’s the best I can do. You need to read the rest of the working paper to get a better idea of what I’m up to. I can say one more thing, however, by way of clarification. When I talk of spirits I am not talking flighty immaterial beings that exist in some ethereal realm “out there” and visit us mortal humans only on special occasions. When I talk of spirits I mean only the sounds and the actions undergone by the four of us in the process of making those sounds.

* * * * *

I undertook this work while under the spell of Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter (2010), Graham Harman, The Quadruple Object (2011), and Bruno Latour, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods, 2010). I thus regard those spirits as fully real, as real as the sun, New York Bay, a caterpillar, a benzene ring, or the British Parliament. They are real, but also socially constructed, as is the atomic theory of matter. As Latour insists, the fact that something is socially constructed doesn’t mean that it’s not real. To arrive at that judgment we must consider whether or not the object has been well and properly constructed. The atomic theory of matter is so constructed. And so are those spirits, the things that Ade, Druis, Fonda and I constructed by playing bells. But they were constructed by different means and to different ends. The purpose of this paper is simply to describe that construction.

In the first of the three sections in this paper, Instrument Matter in the Musician’s Mind, I talk about how one plays a simple percussion instrument and then retell the experience of those spirit sounds. The second section deals with time and how, if we think of time in terms of brain states, something that looks suspiciously like time-travel seems real and to have happened. The third section recaps the first, looks at some anthropological work on spirit possession, and goes about constructing spirits. Conceptually of course. It’s not a recipe for making non-physical flitty things that fly around here and there. As I said above, that’s not what I’m up to. THAT’s old hat. What I’m up to is a bit stranger and a bit more difficult. And, I submit, more interesting as well.

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