The Theory, Culture & Society special issue on GeoSocial Formations is finally out! Please email me, if you don’t have access and would like to read it.
This Sunday, I am doing a Curved Radio spot on the tarantella (podcast recording here). It follows on from the show in which I talked about the ‘Mexican baroque’ and other black and indigenous influences on early and classical music. Much of it is based on two albums (Los Impossibles and La Tarantella: Antidotum Tarantulae) by an experimental baroque ensemble called L’Arpeggiata, led by the Austrian theorbist/harpist Christina Pluhar. These albums, and the booklets that accompany them, provided a starting point for looking up other versions of the songs they performed, but also more on the hidden histories of music we usually perceive as ‘European’ and devoid of all associations we might have with music from other countries. For instance, we do not often connect European music with ritual, not even when we talk about folk music. We also tend to forget about European histories of trade, travel, war and colonialism, which all brought Europeans into contact with other musical traditions.
L’Arpeggiata’s Los Impossibles album, for instance, features a couple of villancicos, a musical form that was shared across Southern Europe (Portugal, Spain) and Latin America in the 15-18th centuries. This style was known for incorporating instruments, rhythms, speech rhythms and words (actual or made up) from other cultures, such as African or Native American. Although this appropriation was often done in a mocking fashion, satirising the primitiveness of the Other, it nevertheless constituted an influence that then proceeded to move to other musical and poetic forms. The negrillo (such as L’Arpeggiata’s version of ‘Sa qui turo‘ above, another example is ‘Bastiao‘) is an example of attempts to copy African speech and music. It has also been argued that some of this music was used for subversive ends, to express commonalities and even solidarities between poor people from both sides of the colonial divide and their political struggles. Robert Stevenson, in his survey of baroque villancicos, gives the example of a 1677 song by early feminist villancico poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, whose lyrics translate as “tumba, la-lá-la, tumba la-lé-le/wherever Peter enters, no one remains a slave”. The active influence on negrillos by black musicians (from the mid-15th century) has also been documented by Stevenson. Curiously, by the close of the 18th century, negrillos – and villancicos as a whole – were forbidden (by royal edict!) in both Portugal and Spain.
The tarantella, an Italian (and, through migration, Argentinian) folk dance, was popular during a similar time, although some sources date it back to the Middle Ages or earlier. In fact, the beginnings of the tarantella are so obscure that the myths that surround it sound as plausible as the many origin stories that have been suggested across the last 600-or-so years. The L’Arpeggiata booklet samples some of these legends, from medieval field workers’ spider bite treatments to dancing sirens that tried to overcome Ulysses’ resistance to their songs. At its most basic level, the tarantella is a song and dance combo, most often in 6/8 time. Its name appears to reference spiders (or the Italian city of Taranto), and it is commonly portrayed as a highly ritualised cure for spider bites. More recently, anthropologists such as Ernesto de Martino have been looking at 20th century practices of tarantism (you can sample some of their films and audio recordings at the Wellcome Collection archives and also on youtube), and ethnomusicologists such as Giovanna Marini and Diego Carpitella have been been instrumental in reviving research into this cultural phenomenon.
What I find interesting about the tarantella is that its history, whichever one is true, suggests a series of different oppressions, especially from the Church. For instance, it has been proposed that the tarantella is a remnant of Greek/Roman pagan rituals devoted to gods such as Diana or Dionysus that were driven underground by the Church and then became redefined as a medical cure and also a social dance for courtship, funerals et cetera. At a later point, the Church seemed to have intervened again, initially banning the dance and the music. When this containment did not work, they banned the music, forcing performers to solely rely on vocalisations and the use of colours. The Church additionally proceeded to ascribe the healing powers to Saint Paul, in an effort to create, as Jean-Paul Combet put it, “theologically satisfactory explanations” for this obstinate insanity. This suppression has strong parallels with other ‘civilising missions’, for instance, the ban on indigenous and slave music in many European colonies (there is a powerful talk by Tanya Tagaq on the attempt to erase throat singing as a First Nations cultural practice).
The question that always fascinates me is how much music (and often dance, too) is perceived as threatening, even more threatening than words. Not only was the music of the tarantella periodically banned, but also any publications on the topic. So, what does the tarantella look like in practice, and what does it allow performers and ‘victims’ to do? Christina Pluhar, the creative director of L’Arpeggiata, describes the ‘healing’ version of the tarantella as follows:
“In order to overcome the poison, he must overcome the broken equilibrium in himself. On his journey the sick person identifies himself with Nature, whose harmony he perceives through sounds and colours and whose vibrations he absorbs into his body. The sick person becomes the black sun (or black spider) in the centre, surrounded by the planets, which are symbolised by the people and the musicians who accompany him in his quest for healing. It has always been written that each sick person reacts to different melodies, rhythms, colours and instruments according to his own character and the nature of his illness. The appropriate music is found by empirical means: the musicians play different melodies until the sick person reacts and his body begins to move. The healing process can spread over several days of almost uninterrupted dancing.”
For her, the disorienting change and improvisation over recognisably stable repetitive sequences – basically a long quasi-psychedelic jam – serves to dislocate the afflicted person from their current state in order to “restore the cosmic order”. The tarantella serves supernatural ends and therefore constitutes a rival to other providers of supernatural services such as the Church.
While the tarantella may have had an actual function, at least at some point, to keep a person alive after a spider bite – the music would certainly keep a person awake, which is often crucial in the first stages of paralysis or convulsion inducing spider bites – this functionality seemed to spill into spiritual life (or is it the other way round?). What is interesting here is the role of the spider. As Combet describes, different spiders are assigned different moods (melancholia, anger etc) and colours (red, green, yellow or black). Given that the tarantella appears to enable a number of controversial boundary crossings such as gendered behaviour – for instance, the tarantella allows women to express themselves differently erotically and socially (e.g. their role as musicians) – the connection with the lowly but feared spider, an animal mainly encountered by peasants during harvest (Combet writes that some municipalities even paid for musicians to ‘treat’ farm workers, so they wouldn’t get into debt and miss out on work more than necessary), suggests a strategic affiliation with the nonhuman. The nonhuman element appears to permit not just boundary crossings, but extravagant enactments of these transgressions. Pluhar even wonders whether the role of women as not only as singers and dancer, but primarily as percussionists, adds another nonhuman dimension: “woman as the pulsating rhythm of the earth…?” This seems to affirm Athanasius Kircher’s mid-17th century view that “the cosmos was revealed in musical ratios and that musical harmony mirrored universal harmony” (reference source: J-P Combet).
For me, the music-spider-farming-gender-cosmos connections that appear to endure against the onslaught of time feel like a form of resistance to the imposition of a different worldview (monotheism, modernism etc) – a worldview that was perceived as limiting. Here, the role of sound and oral culture stands out as a more successful format than print, both in terms of its accessibility, communicability and destrucibility. So few print works have survived from ancient times, on the tarantella and overall, but we still, despite the inevitable mutation and evolution of the songs and dances, hear the same songs, the same lyrics, the same themes (the lyrics are often in old and/or local languages such as Griko). While the lyrics may not speak of political or spiritual struggle – the lyrics often seem quite bawdy and rude, speaking of voluptuous women, heartache, inebriation, food, poverty, madness, death – they feel like a Bakhtinian/Rabelaisian use of the grotesque as a celebration of that which is being excluded from official culture. Some of my favourite lyrics accompany the intensely percussive Pizzica Ucci: for me, they represent an undisguised mockery of the Church’s attempt to clean up the spiritual side of the tarantella via an association with St Paul:
St Paul of Galatina, pardon this young lady!
St Paul of tarantulas, pinch the girls’ bottoms.
St Paul of serpents, pinch the boys’ balls.
The imagery is brilliant in its takedown of the officially ‘highest’. It is also funny and highly understandable, qualities that assure its wider appeal and transmission. The music, too, despite its filtration through a variety of contexts, instrumentation and other ‘treatments’, powerfully transmits a concept. Whether it is the maddening speed and repetition of the pizzica or the frighteningly grating ‘harmonies’ of the funeral laments, a tarantella almost never fails to disturb and/or arouse, even in its most sanitised renditions. There is something raw and alien about the dance, the music, the lyrics – or all three of them at once – that makes you want to know more about it. While no one may ever be able to trace the tarantella’s exact history and purpose, it is perhaps sufficient that it has survived and continues to trouble and inspire, from women in rural Italy to people in unexpected locations, searching for a different connection to the world than one is supposed to be having.
Notes: This post follows on from Protest music: questions of travel (2013)
The Curved Radio show that features the tarantella spot broadcasts on Sunday 14 May 2017, 11pm – 2am Sydney time, 2-5pm UK time.
Mutable Matter will be hosting its first workshop this year, generously supported by a BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grant and Warwick Social Theory Centre. The workshop, entitled ‘Cosmos & Crisis: interdisciplinary conversations’ will be taking place in late Summer/early autumn. More details coming soon!
A couple of weeks ago, I watched the film Hidden Figures, after a friend (thanks, Donnamarie!) recommended it to me. As a black British woman, she was blown away by this piece of history – three African American women who contributed, as NASA employees, to putting an American into the Earth’s orbit. What we both liked about the film was not just the uncovering of the phenomenal achievements of these women against the obstacle of white supremacy and misogyny, but how much the story still relates to current times, both in terms of issues and the kind of rhetoric that is used.
For example, in the film, there is a scene at a barbecue where NASA employee Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monaé) talks to her husband about going to court for taking classes to become an engineer. Jackson is generally encouraged by her friends and the Jewish scientist she is working with, because her potential success might open up paths for future generations. Her husband, however, initially cautions her against entering a system that is effectively designed to take its fuel from her while burning her in the process. This tension is still very much present in contemporary debates, for instance, the one surrounding ‘why is my curriculum white?’: should we, as non-white students and academics, join the academy and attempt to make it less racist, or should we try and create something outside of a system that is racist in its foundation? This conflict has, for instance, been sharply dissected in the work of Kehinde Andrews.
A key moment in the film, for me, was the scene where the white boss of Katherine Goble (later Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson), an incredibly talented black mathematician, asks: “why are we not as good as the Russians?”. While asking this question he is surrounded by all the talent that could help them achieve the same or better results, but is completely oblivious to it. Neither Goble nor the brilliant supervisor and programmer Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer), nor Mary Jackson – or any of the other African American “computers” – are even recognised as humans. They are even denied access to the very means – programming books, computers, classes, scholarships and even toilets and coffee – that would enable them to contribute. Everything about that moments feels totally nonsensical: the space race feels like an idiotic alpha male competition that somehow made it to the international scale, the absurd extent of racism and the resources put behind it adds another layer of incomprehension, and, overall, the way the project is managed seems utterly in opposition to what is desired to be achieved. As another friend cynically put it: exploitation works best if everyone is exploited equally and made to want to be exploited.
Having recently done some work in relation to the Race Equality Charter Mark, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the current rhetoric of “excellence” in diversity committees. There, the argument that is often made is that diversity is needed to achieve excellence. At the same time, it is plainly obvious that while this rhetoric is rolled out at every opportunity, the most brilliant people are still being systematically pushed out, often by the same dynamics as shown in Hidden Figures (all-male panels and decision-making boards, moving the ‘finish line”, lack of support, ignorance towards other embodiments of excellence). What Hidden Figures highlights against this background is that real excellence is not actually desired, because it would mean disturbing the way things work and disturbing the narrow logic of competition to which we have become accultured. To me, it is no coincidence that nearly all of my living intellectual heroes are working outside of the academy, in sports stores, FE colleges, manual jobs, where they have no institutional support. The few who manage to remain in academia, often as tokens of ‘diversity’, often have to make do with insecure contracts, are pressured into leaving or are simply not promoted. Many are moving abroad, through the added injustices of Brexit and other destructive immigration regulations.
A recent article in the Timed Higher Education touched on this issue, sadly without getting to the bottom of it. The author lamented that “young academics’ research is elegant but not interesting”, because they are afraid to speak out and end up self-censoring. Instead, according to the author, it was the senior academics who seemed to present more daring arguments. What is missing from this analysis, again, are the ‘hidden figures’: the people whose work is too challenging for hiring panels, for funding bodies, or whose work is being appropriated by professors without credit. ‘Excellence’ is rarely found at academic conferences, but in the growing para-academic spaces that frequently overlap with activist and artist circles. As Jack Stilgoe put it in a related rant in The Guardian: ‘excellence tells us nothing about how important the science is and everything about who decides’ (for a more elaborate analysis, see this article by Moore et al).
The film also nicely showed how efforts to progress are being undermined by supposedly natural allies, in this case, white women. Not only did Kirsten Dunst’s supervisor character “Mrs Mitchell” participate in the oppression of her black co-workers, but she effectively sabotaged herself. Another layer of failed alliances was added through the reviews of the film where at least one woman performed the same move as the white female supervisor by devaluing the race dimension. And, like her, she would probably have to reacted to the criticism in a similar manner:
Mitchell: “Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all.”
Vaughan: “I know you probably believe that.”
This line is brilliant, because it so poignantly summaries the kind of rationalising that people perform to justify violence. The allies who supported the women in the end were men – the women’s husbands, the Jewish scientist and the boss who desperately needed the black women’s skills (partly also in order not to lose his own job, or, as one reviewer put it, he is ‘too busy to hate‘).
What makes this film so successful (quite a few people I have spoken to since have reported standing ovations from black audiences), Donnamarie suggested, is the fact that is provides so many different angles on the subject. Everyone can find a way into discussing it, whether through race, gender, family and workplace dynamics, science etc. This certainly worked at the café where we talked, and there have, of course, been many articles in the media, from the NASA website to black community newspapers. While progress might not proceed in linear ways, a film like Hidden Figures illustrates that the lucky constellations that bring progress do not just depend on co-incidence, but also determination. The film’s clear parallels with today give a prompt to all possible audiences of this film to not repeat history, but continue the work of creating a better one. As “Mary Jackson” put it at the start of the film, when the three black women manage to turn a potentially dangerous traffic control by a white male police officer into a police escort to take them faster to work: “I’ll tell you where to begin”.
Image: “Abyss” by Alpha Coders
While working on my section for the forthcoming Routledge International Handbook of Interdisciplinary Methods, I stumbled upon an old essay on researching with Michel Serres and Mikhail Bakhtin. It is one of three essays that I wrote in 2005/2006 for the social theory module of my MSc in Human Geography Research Methods at the Open University. I had stopped being a Fashion student in 2003 and had worked on my own for two years to develop a theoretical project. At the same time, I was negotiating the future of my art practice and how it might sit within an academic framework as a “method”. The MSc, and especially this module, gave me the opportunity to explore a lot of different theories and experiment with my writing. There are quite a few essays and working papers that I have never published, but am thinking of re-editing for teaching use. When I ran the Theory Surgery at the British Library café, the Serres/Bakhtin essay often came in handy as an example, and I was planning on publishing it, however I gradually became unsure about it, because I felt I had moved on in theoretical and stylistic terms. Looking at it now, I think it already shows some of my current themes, although I would probably turn to different philosophers now for the same questions due to the growing influence of feminist/queer/postcolonial critique on my work. Despite this shortcoming, I feel that it still offers some useful prompts, which is why I have decided to upload it after 12 years on my hard drive. Here, then, is some vintage Mutable Matter – even including adorable references to Open University ‘audio-cassettes’!
Less a juncture to control than an adventure to be had –
Working with Michel Serres and Mikhail Bakhtin (pdf)
What is it like to work with the ideas of Michel Serres and Mikhail Bakhtin as a researcher, especially as an early career researcher? How might their ideas and experiments affect you at various stages of your research, from asking questions to writing for particular audiences? In this essay, I focus on themes in their work that resonate with my own project, which considers the relation between the human and nonhuman in method, and also incorporates sensory methods. The themes of communication, invention and responsibility are discussed through Serres’ and Bakhtin’s non-linear philosophies, represented through the gods Hermes and Janus respectively. After some more project focused discussions, I end on a set of general observations on the relationship between theory and method or ‘practice’.
I am currently working on my book on ‘Cosmic Materialism’, supported by Warwick Social Theory Centre. The book looks at the role of science and the parallel re-evaluation of alternative cosmologies/ontologies in the anti-colonial and anti-totalitarian movements of the interwar period. The artist statement in this exhibition (h/t Gesa Helms) is very exemplary of how the cosmic was envisioned as a provocation to contemporary politics:
“For him [Otto Freundlich], abstraction expressed a radical renewal that went far beyond art. For instance, the curved patches of color in his paintings reflect the concept of space in Einsteinian physics, with which he was familiar from an early age. Still, overcoming representationalism also had a social dimension for him. As he saw it, every form of material perception was permeated with possessiveness and thus outdated: “The object as the antithesis to the individual will disappear, and with it the state of one person being an object for another.” He always viewed the harmony of the colors in his paintings in the context of the greater whole. The notion of communism for which he fought sought to abolish all boundaries “between world and cosmos, between one person and another, between mine and yours, between all the things that we see”.”
Needless to say, this book (and this exhibition) isn’t sadly just about the past.
The present turn to the right is giving rise to a seemingly unceasing flow of disastrous policies and actions. Every few hours of so we receive another devastating piece of news, accompanied by an avalanche of online and print commentary. It is these responses that are almost as frightening as the shocks from the top. And I do not mean the comments from those who celebrate their own self-oppression, but by those who consider themselves in opposition. While it is understandable that people suffer from overload, this is not a good moment for clinging to straws offered by the very same people one is opposing. These false friends tend to manifest as follows:
1) ‘National values’. Whether it is appeals to ‘British values’ and ‘Americanness’, or concerns about embarrassing the Queen, emphasis on ‘national values’ as a counter-strategy is not only disturbing, but increasingly bordering on the bizarre. From reading the protest signs at the London march on Monday against the ‘Muslim ban’, one gets the impression that some people seriously think of the UK Government as being capable of decent actions. We are talking about the same government that ran racist Brexit and anti-immigration campaigns and is radically disenfranchising its own people. But, apparently, there is still hope that they’ll do super nice things, because of British values and all that truthful stuff that abject non-Brits have to learn about this country in the citizenship test.
But then you say: appealing to ‘national values’ helps me speak to the nationalist constituency and not just preach to the converted. Great move! But: while you have correctly identified that nationalists do not fully understand their own ‘values’, perhaps you as an Enlightened Being at least could be a bit more reflexive about what these might be. After all, such values have historically been used to devalue those of other people, specifically, as writers such as Hoda Katebi have pointed out, under colonialism and ‘development’. From this perspective, if there is something such as ‘British values’, it could be described as ‘killing with kindness’.
2) Nationalism. Some writers feel no need to bother with the lame illusion of ‘national values’ and go for straight, undiluted nationalism. This economic gesture is popular, because it neither requires much elaboration nor reflexivity: take back the nation, make it great again! Oh wait, doesn’t that sound familiar? In the past, nationalism has led to real revolutionary fervour that resulted in some brilliant dictatorships and mass deportations/executions, or, if you don’t want to go full drama, failed alliances (I’m not talking EU here) and some really sound delineations of who belongs. But for many people it means such beautiful things as re-nationalising the railways, keeping more of their money, preserving the fragile local ecology of non-standardised bathtub plugs, saving the health service from the likes of Richard Branson – or being saved by the almighty Nicola Sturgeon. Of course, nationalism is totally going to deliver on that, because there is going to be so much more accountability…
3) Who is this about? At the supposed anti-Muslim-ban march on Monday, most of the signs read something like ‘fuck this shit’, ‘fuck Trump’ and ‘grab him by the balls’, combined with some more polite British variations (see point 1). As some Muslim (and also non-Muslim) writers have pointed out, no white person actually gives a fuck about them. As a white non-Muslim, you might be hurt by bad man Trump, but, most likely, you are going to be able to carry on live as usual, even if you join the odd travel boycott. So, basically, you get to vent your frustrations at that whatsitorangefuckface, look great in front of your friends AND continue to enjoy your privileges – after all, even the most disenfranchised white person has greater freedom of movement – a brilliant win-win situation. Of course, it is totally okay to make this all about personal pain and not about your embeddedness in structural oppression (see points 4 & 5). After all, this is not making things worse for anyone else, is it?
4) Self-victimisation. A familiar face from anti-racism debates, white self-victimisation is a totally great way of ensuring that we can all be happily oppressed together without having to make special concessions for anyone. As they say, we’re all in this together. In fact, all the hard-done by white people that have suffered from the clout of the English upper class, evil Germans and so on, are much worse off than, for example, those dirty refugees that don’t even have a concept of the struggles in the countries they are rushing to for salvation. You seek salvation from us wretched white people? Sorry about those unfortunate bombings, but haven’t you looked at how much we are suffering ourselves? Some of the brilliant logic from this camp has even resulted in calls to support Trump, because Angela Merkel, the apparent source of all of this suffering, rejects him. The enemy of my enemy is my…
5) Externalising white supremacy. Congratulations – you have correctly identified sources of modern day Nazism: Trump, the KKK, the Christian right, Theresa May, Nigel Farage, the Sun, Steve Bannon, the BBC, and sometimes even Jeremy Corbin when he dabbles in half-hearted attempts at immigration policy. Down with them all, and the world will be a better place. Of course, as a white middle-class political commentator, it is sheer talent and ambition that has given you a position at a major news outlet, and it is sheer coincidence that pretty much all of your colleagues have the same background, too. You probably all love Hannah Arendt and her poignant analysis of totalitarianism. But you are really not sure what to make of that ‘banality of evil’ talk. Evil that can’t just be conveniently isolated in scapegoat-type effigies? Evil as a process that we may all be part of? But I’m such a good guy!
6) Fantasies of violence. Along the same lines, a popular sport at the moment is virtual ‘Nazi bashing’. Devised as a critique of the wimpy left and its amnesia regarding bodies that could potentially be hurt, because it’s usually not theirs (and wasn’t there this Fanon guy, too?), some people haven’t quite got the irony and have discovered ‘Nazi bashing’ as an online spiritual relief that helps make the world a better place for others – a bit like Fight Club meets Live Aid. It’s so romantic to be a black clad street fighter, a hero fighting for… what was it again? And it’s unlike the less visible forms of violence that are so hard to make fashionable. Recommended watching: The Dreamers.
7) Bad shit from nowhere. OMG – where did all this suddenly come from?? We’ve never seen such racism, sexism, homophobia, etc before! What has gotten into people? I’m afraid, you are so right! This is a total anomaly, probably having to do with a bad constellation of planets or something. I’m sure I read some of this my horoscope: people will turn really fucking scary from 2016 onwards. Of course, this has nothing to do with present economic and political systems which reward a dismantling of public services or just the public in general. It also has nothing to do with any sort of racist, sanctimonious rhetoric from the top, used to cover up self-enrichment and nepotism. So what are we supposed to do?? We can’t really think of anything, because we really don’t understand why people act like this!!
Ongoing Reading List (recommendations welcome!)
Demir, Ipek (2017) “Brexit as Backlash Against Loss of Privilege and Multiculturalism” Discover Society
Goodfellow, Maya (2017) “Theresa, Trump and a Culture of Demonisation” Media Diversified
Katebi, Hoda (2017) “Please keep your American flags off my hijab” JooJoo Azad
Ko, Lisa (2017) “20 Lessons on How to be American” The Offing
Holloway, Lester (2016) “White tribalism was not made by Trump. It already existed in America as it does in Britain” Media Diversified
Weber, Cynthia (2016) “Sovereignty, Sexuality And The Will To Trump: A Queer IR Analysis And Response” The Disorder of Things
Wolfe, Ross (2017) ““Everyone’s a victim”: Relativizing Auschwitz with Adorno” The Charnel House
Yerbamala Collective (2017) “Our vendetta: Witches vs Fascists”
Big thank you to Gesa Helms and Anja Kanngieser for comments. All mistakes remain my own.