I’ve been thinking about my “method” lately and realizing how easy it might be to mistake my focus on contingency as a new materialist impulse.

Although I focus on the interdependent relationships between “subjects, objects, and environments” in an improvisatory scene, I do not wish to trod down the new materialist path, which aligns itself with “hard science” epistemologies against so-called “representationalist” social theories, erasing queer and feminist work while instantiating (when applied to sound) what Marie Thompson calls “white aurality” as universal. Although I am invested in interdependence as the necessary flip-side to contingency (see Kriti Sharma’s Interdependence), my goal is to show how actually incoherent, indecipherable, and inexhaustible something like an improvisation becomes when viewed through this perspective.

Many theories of musical interactivity (such as those utilizing complexity/emergence, Actor Network Theory, or critical posthumanism) resonate clearly with my approach insofar as they are all concerned with how improvisation actually emerges from a total social scene and is thus irreducible to the intentions, creative practices, or even unconscious habits of the acting subject. Where I part ways with these theories, however, is in their implicit focus on cataloguing such “actants” as a question of outcomes, a rationalist impulse that aligns such studies with new materialism and its affinity for the hard sciences. Not only do I find this focus on outcomes methodologically inadequate for studying improvisation (particularly in music studies, which is already historically overdetermined by sheet music), it is also politically problematic insofar as I aspire to orient my research in alignment with the queer/feminist scholarship that new materialism discounts.

As Robin James writes in The Sonic Episteme,

Similarly, new materialism’s turn toward hard sciences like biology and physics has the effect of aligning philosophy with the most prestigious and well-funded fields in the twenty-first- century academy. Much like analytic philosophy in the twentieth century, which allied itself with the hard sciences against the rest of the humanities just as these humanities fields began to incorporate feminist, queer, and critical race theory and scholars from those underrepresented groups, new materialism appears to be a turn toward hard science and all the prestige (which is not unrelated to its whiteness and cis-maleness) that comes with it (James 2019, 105).

So not only do such methods carry an objectionable politics, but additionally, as I said above, new materialisms are also simply inadequate for studying the densely affective, singular, experiential encounters that produce and constitute an improvisatory scene. No matter how thoroughly we trace the factors involved and their complex interactions, improvisation isn’t simply a question of causality. In other words, we can’t exhaust improvisation by tracing the outcomes of a process or how they came to be. All that we can do, and what is more interesting in any case, is to become familiar with sounds and their relations through the repeated touch of contingency, through a musical intimacy or close listening, an intimacy that becomes a feminist method by virtue of its context.

That is: by listening closely to sounds and the embodied situations through which they arise, we pay attention to the uneven, inexhaustible things that matter to both performers and listeners, understanding music as a socially significant but non-rational, affective space. In viewing improvisation in this way, we can begin to think about what improvisation and music do: how they move people, what forces push in what directions, and what the significance might be of turning this way instead of that. This can be a feminist method if we consider its direct opposition to masculinist rationalisms, and if we consider the long history of both deep listening and the intimacy of care in feminist scholarship. To listen deeply is to become intimate with the social histories, questions, and feelings circulating in and through performance, to put oneself into contact with those factors and to use that contact to think.

In sum, while chapter 4 of Contingent Encounters in particular explores the idea of musical intimacy as a feminist practice in a particular recording, the book overall attempts to deploy this kind of intimacy in its general method, by listening deeply to its material, and by following this listening without the aim of rational outcomes or total mastery. This, I hope, is facilitated (rather than made more difficult) by a focus on contingency and interdependence.


  1. scott mclaughlin says:

    I understand the impulse to avoid the ‘objectionable politics’ but I think there’s a real danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater? At risk of sounding like #notAllMaterialisms, the alignment with the hard sciences (where it exists) is achieved only alongside the work of discussing all of these things in a way that explicitly doesn’t fall into the traps that allow STEM (traditionally, writ large) to erase queer and other voices and lived experiences: Thompson and Goh are (AFAIK) taking aim at particular expressions of materialist thinking. The avoidance of representation is a move to valorise the embodied and performative subjectivities that are ignored when representation only means measurement and objective fact. Equally, to reject new materialism in this way also throws out precisely the ‘uneven, inexhaustible things’ that you discuss above, which is (IMHO) a central component of the writing of Karen Barad’s feminist onto-epistemology, as well as work of Rosi Braidotti, Anna Tsing, Donna Haraway, and many others.


  2. Dan DiPiero says:

    Hi Scott, thanks again for your perspective. Just a couple of thoughts here as they’re occurring to me, and with some humility on my part as there’s always more that I’m sure I’m missing:

    First, what I take from Ahmed’s critique is that the problem that new materialisms were (at least initially) responding to is a sort of fictional problem. That is, where do we actually find evidence of “embodied and performative subjectivities” being ignored in so-called representationalist theory? It’s certainly not ignored in the feminist/queer theory that I’m familiar with, which makes the characterization of this vast body of work as “representationalist” seem like an effort to reduce or misread what queer theory has been trying to do. So then if queer theory (if not “representationalist” queer theory, which again I don’t see anywhere) also attends to embodiment and performative subjectivity, why the need for new materialism in the first place? That’s Ahmed’s question as far as I can tell. Even if new materialism has something to contribute, the justification for its turn feels disingenuous given the framing (hence critiques of opportunism along the lines expressed by James in the quote above).

    Second, I’m really happy to be wrong about the “inexhaustibility” question. That is, if Tsing, Haraway, and others are arguing for this kind of irreducibility, then that’s great, and I need to brush up on my reading. I think the mistake here is that I’m associating new materialism in general with those theories of complexity and emergence which in improvisation studies anyway continuously aim for what feels like mastery of the improvisational scene. I don’t care about mastery, and find it actually obfuscating rather than helpful. (Perhaps not unrelated: I also find that everyone using complexity/posthumanism to think about improvisation is a man!)

    Finally, I’ll just note that I don’t actually disagree with many of the perspectives offered by new materialisms–i.e. the importance of focusing (again as I put it) on “subjects, objects, and environments” when understanding a given scene. The problem for me is not necessarily the intellectual architecture of this perspective and more the risks that emerge as a result of it, which all too often flatten ontologies in a way that amounts to a kind of “colorblindness”. That is, people are equated with plants, difference among historically oppressed populations and their oppressors is lost, because we’re operating on the level of “ontology” and not “history”. I’m thinking here of this thread in particular, which has to do with the infamous, “To me, plantations are just the slavery of plants” discussion between Haraway, Tsing, and Ishikawa: https://twitter.com/pardoguerra/status/1370776397380161542 (and the source article is here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00141844.2015.1105838).

    So my question is: in light of all of these difficulties, what is GAINED by turning to new materialism, when there are other theories of relationality that equally stress the importance of objects, plants, ecosystems (etc) while not losing track of the way that power operates in white supremacist patriarchy (for example)? This is another reason why affect has been useful for me: not just because it insists on inexhaustibility but because it centralizes the partiality of the perspectives of the specific people involved, not just “people” as an ontological category along the lines of “ozone”.

    That said, I haven’t been endeavoring very hard to find out what new materialism does contribute, so maybe you can help me understand that aspect of it–in your work or otherwise!

    Thanks for helping me to think through this a bit more. I hope my thoughts make sense here.


  3. scott mclaughlin says:

    Thanks, that’s a really interesting response that made me sit back and question quite a few things about my own thinking. And it was interesting to read the Ahmed and the Haraway/Tsing/et-al talk: I also need to go and do some more reading.

    I guess in my own work (on musical instruments) the ideas I’ve taken from New Materialists has been useful to de-center the human to ask what happens when we look at sound and contingency from the perspective of the material instrument. This is of course a highly artificial perspective, but it is (for me at least) highly productive. And yes, this centralising of the instrument necessarily is also a bracketing-out of specifically human concerns. However, the artificiality slowly collapses to reveal the human again in a new light. The materiality of the instrument alone only gets you so far before you have to bring back in the human interaction with that materiality, and the cultures of instrumental technique, and the interaction of the two, and the wider meshwork of relations that ensue. Bracketing-out the human allowed me to see the human in ways I hadn’t before, but not some shiny new human devoid of histories and power differentials, if anything, those come more starkly to the fore.

    There is of course a danger that in this flat ontology that some things are lost, part of the work must be in not letting that happen: this is not easy work, and as I write this I find myself thinking sentences that would allow that work to slip away quietly undone. Equating people with plants doesn’t have to be a totalising move with no way back, but it often is. Ontological perspectives are mutually exclusive by their nature, as is mattering. Acknowledging that the world is a multiplicity of ontologies doesn’t help enough when the power differential across them is great.

    New Materialism was simply the thing I came across that lit up a trail for me. I didn’t read all-the-things and decide NM was the best, it was just something I stumbled onto that blossomed into a productive line of practice and enquiry: it was the right thing at the right moment.

    I’m interested to know about other relational theories that might offer a better balance of perspectives. Ten years ago I needed the (to me) radical position offered by what I read, now I can be more thoughtful.

    Thanks again for the conversation, hope to continue it with you in the real some day.


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