Music Blogging as Torture

Jonathan Bellman

Phil chides me for my long (1074-word) blog of August 21—in which I took issue with a certain glib fatuousness in musicological discussions of torture, and a certain lame, head-in-the-sand do-goodism in academics’ responses to such things—and he takes (no lie) 1067 words to do so.  Moreover, he begins with “Then we agree! End of debate.” and concludes with “So I take it back, I don’t suggest that the AMS draft a position against torture, because, hey, I don’t want to put people through that kind of nonsense.”  So the purpose of these 1067 words, it seems, is in the sentence that follows: “I do, however, think that I, and Suzanne Cusick, and every other academic and intellectual, can do something useful by writing about torture, and that it’s not just posturing.”

I’ll address that in a moment.  But first, Chris Molla’s comment to my blog likewise pulls no punches:

“Jonathan falls into the trap of conflating the imposition of one person’s taste or aesthetic upon another person with the actual technique of subjecting a prisoner to hours-long sessions of exposure to music at extreme high volumes.”  And then: “This is just the sort of ignorant double-think that cripples efforts to generate any kind of general awareness of the nature and consequences of torture (not only for the victims, but for society at large).”

My comment was: “Given its existence, though, I think I am willing to go on record as preferring the use of music as a torture implement to physical injury or physical or moral degradation.”  The instance Chris quoted from someone else’s Vanity Fair article clearly qualifies as “physical or moral degradation.”  That isn’t music; it is sonic torture, or just torture.  To act as if  “music” is relevant in this discussion is like suggesting that the only differences between a caress and being beaten to a pulp are gradations of intensity.  That, probably, was where I encountered the banana peel (and I’m not alone), succumbing to the temptation to continue talking about music (which, admittedly, probably looked trivial).

Even in Phil’s original 8-21 blog, though, we are no longer talking about music.  It is torture, physical abuse, and for music types to be particularly offended that music is somehow involved is no more relevant than the hurt feelings of a Beanie Baby collector if people were choked to death on Beanie Babies or the dudgeon of a scotch aficionado  if people were drowned in rare single-malt scotch.  They, and we, deserve no greater sense of offense in the matter, because torture is torture and it’s not better or worse to use something certain people—um—like.  The manner does not compound the ultimate felony because of someone else’s outrage.  Twittering about music at all in such a context implies that we as musicians have a privileged voice when we don’t.  We have the same voice everyone else does on this issue, whether people are being brutalized and destroyed with music or single-malt or choked to death with cute fluffy bunnies.

Now, as to glib fatuousness.  I’ll quote again the phrase I found offensive in Phil’s quote from the Suzanne Cusick article (N.B. she’s at NYU, and is a high-profile figure in our discipline): her comment that the use of music as a weapon in the War on Terror “wounds me as a musician–wounds me in that part of my sensibility that remains residually invested in the notion that music is beautiful, even transcendent—is a practice whose contemplation would always lead me to contemplation of bodies and pleasures. Not bodies in pain.”  What enraged me is that this comment is really more about her offense: not the torture, but how it offends her and her “contemplation of bodies and pleasures.”  Phil asks rhetorically if “protest against torture is the same whether an icky new musicologist does it or when someone more appropriately serious does it, right?”  Then he answers:  “Right. That’s exactly what it means. Judge the arguments, not the person making them.”

Except that the passage immediately following the one he quoted makes clear that there is no argument being made.  Cusick writes, “It is not my intention here to engage the moral, ethical and political debates around torture, interesting as they are.  Rather, I offer today a rough taxonomy of the complex subject denoted by my title…”  This would be what…post-modern distance?  Fake, pseudo-scientific, “disciplined” “objectivity” was out and unabashed subjectivity is now in, right?

I recommend that her article be read, for the full context.  Of course, the U.S., Canada, and Israel are the entities who come up for specific mention as those studying or using this kind of torture, a variety of so-called “no touch torture”.  We then spin from a quote of Princeton theorist Edward T. Cone, whom I assume was talking about art-music interpretation: “The goal … must be identification with the complete musical persona by making its utterance one’s own,” to the author’s earnest thought-question “Could this notion of listening, propagated in elite universities (including those on contract to the CIA) in the last half of the 20th century, have influenced the architects of ‘no touch torture’?”

We then get an account of the blogospheric reactions to uses of music in torture—we at Dial M seem to be retracing others’ steps—and then Cusick’s memories of being pleasantly sonically overpowered as a young person hearing electric guitar and a somewhat older person on the disco dance floor.  Then, imagining (I am not making this up) the experience of a detainee under torture, Cusick writes:

“I imagine it, sometime, as being plunged into it something like the post-modern, post-Foucauldian dystopia where one is unable quite to name, much less resist, the overwhelmingly diffuse Power that is outside one, but also is inside, and that operates by forcing one to comply against one’s will, against one’s interests, because there is no way–not even a retreat to interiority—to escape the pain. What better medium than music to bring into being (as a felicitous performative) the experience of the West’s (the infidel’s) ubiquitous, irresistable [sic] Power?”

There is no argument here, because the author chose not to engage the “moral, ethical, and political debates around torture, interesting though they are,” and no amount of outrage from anyone can make it an argument.  “Interesting”!  Well, that’s strong.  Instead, “taxonomy,” and there is history of the practice, and cultural criticism, and there is autobiography and creative writing.  In a sense it is clever, because the descriptions provoke a kind of outrage, until one realizes that in taking no responsibility for “engaging the political debates around torture” the author has absolved herself of any responsibility to look at the other side—say, the kinds of tortures found in Iraq or Iran, or the rhetoric that is cultural daily bread in such places, or the mass graves.  No, since we’re talking about this kind of torture, we get “the national security state that the US has been since the era of World War II” and move on without whys and wherefores.  I was going to call this “government-issue radicalism” but maybe “anti-government issue radicalism” is better.  Maybe, given the position of the author as NYU professor implying dark things about “elite universities,” “designer radicalism” would also work.

Her article is online, and as I support freedom of speech I encourage the reading of it.  Still—since I’ve been challenged to judge the argument—I find far more posturing (a very adroit, fashionable, polysyllabic posturing) than argument, and by focusing on music and sound only the author allows herself a very convenient, comfortable, and all too common-and-comfy outsider’s position.

Phil’s passion about the subject, it seems to me, leads him to see something other in this piece than is really there.  My judgment is that if you’re detained and tortured, don’t expect a postmodernist to have your back.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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2 Responses to Music Blogging as Torture

  1. Eric says:

    A-Wop-bop-a-loo-lop a-lop-bam-boo!
    I love this blog!

  2. Daniel Wolf says:

    Gilbert Rouget developed the notion of music instrumentalized for external purposes in his landmark book _Music and Trance_. Rouget demonstrates, through a varietyt of cases, ancient through modern, and from the cultivated west to the most distant cultural settings, music fills a place-holding function in the mechanism of trance, and indeed, there is no built-in automatism between particular sounds or musics and particular psychological effects. This clearly applies to the instrumentalization of music in torture as described in this thread.
    (The United States — as documented in an appendix to Slonimsky’s _Music SInce 1900_ — has, however, investigated the use of sounds with specific effects on physiological systems for military and police applications.)
    Once a particular sound or music has been associated with particular conditions or behavior, a automatism can indeed be forced upon a subject, whether a dog responding to bell salivates or a human subject — pace _Clockwork Orange__ — responds to a particular work of music. In such cases, I think we’re obliged to deplore both the behaviorism (and, in worst cases, torture) and the devaluation of music through its instrumentalization.

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