Thursday, March 31, 2011

Music, the Brain, and the Group – OOO

I thought I’d make another gesture in the direction of object-oriented ontology (OOO) and Tim Morton. It’s not something I know much about, nor do I have any immediate plans to go there myself. Yet, for whatever reason, I’m intrigued by what Tim has to say, and others as well.

One notion, as I understand it, is that humans have no more ‘being’ than, say, a fungus; fungi have no more being than, say, a rhino virus, which has no more being than a grain of sand, and that has no more being than a quark. Being is the same all over.

I’ve got no quarrel with that. Yet, at the same time, I do believe that humans are more complex than fungi. And I’m pretty sure Morton would object to that. Still, I’m intrigued.

So let’s take that as a ‘measure’ of the distance between us.

And go on.

Let me tell you about my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil. The whole argument depends on two conceptual decisions:
  1. Music is fundamentally and irreducibility a group phenomenon.
  2. That ‘groupiness’ is to be understood as a physical connection between brains, albeit mediated by sound waves.
It works through coupling, aka coupled oscillation. You know, you attached two pendulum clocks to the wall. Start them up so they swing independently of one another. In time, they become synchronized. It’s a purely physical interaction.

Fireflies do it too. They start blinking independently of one another. Before too long, their blinks are synchronized.

Neurons too. And brains consist of neurons. Some are connected to muscles, some are connected to sense organs, and some are connected only to other neurons.

Thus people’s brains are physically synched together through the sound waves they emit (through song, or clapping and stomping, or playing an instrument) and hear. During the music-making it’s all one synchronized physical system. When the music stops, the people decouple and their brains are no longer one physical system.

I suppose one could say that music is an ‘emergent’ phenomenon. But Tim’s suspicious of emergence (search his blog) and so am I. It’s a fancy word that explains little.

And, because the connection is a brute physical one, albeit a subtle sort of brute physicality, there’s no mystery about how different peoples minds know one another and the world. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about the music and the dance. The rhythm. The coupling.

I know, that’s all sketchy. But you can fill the sketch in by reading chapters 2, 3, and 4 of Beethoven’s Anvil, or by reading about the busy bee brain and about synchronized clapping and group intentionality.

In any event, it seems to me that that conception of music, the group, physicality, and the brain is moving in the direction of, somewhere within the orbit of, whatever it is that Tim’s tracking down under the rubric of object-oriented ontology. If so, well then, I want to say that I arrived at those conceptions, not by doing philosophy, but by trying to nestle up to hard-nosed neuroscience, with a dose of mathematical conception.

Could it be that these two very different paths both lead to Rome? The way up is the way down, no? And if it’s turtles all the way down, then it must be turtles all the way up.

Who would have thought that turtles could fly!



  1. wasn't it Yertle who tackled the stack
    until up was down and forward was back

    i get "oooby" out of our back yard transition
    can't say i share the object-oriented vision

    it's all process movement for me as flux and flow
    that's just who we are -- with little need to know

    each person hears musicking differently
    each person irreducibly unique

    that's why p d s never quite match up
    even tho all turks are greek

    2 zurnas produce tartini tones
    1 dauli rattles and bombs all brains

    serbs, arabs, turks, greeks, jews
    hear (but don't sing) the same refrains

  2. As those ladies sang so many times, "Shoobie oobie oobie..."