On Appropriation

This essay was originally published in CR: The New Centennial Review in 2007. (To read more of my published essays, click here.)

“What if Appropriation – no one knows when or how – were to become an insight whose illuminating lightening flash enters into what is and what is taken to be? What if Appropriation, by its entry, were to remove everything that is in present being from its subjection to a commandeering order and bring it back into its own?”  Martin Heidegger, “The Way to Language” (133)

David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, first released in 1981, marks a key moment in the history of sound culture.  Recorded just prior to the advent of digital sampling, Byrne and Eno used edited and looped found, field and folk recordings, mostly of devotional singing and preaching from around the world, but also radio recordings, setting them to synthesized ethno-funk grooves. Spanning the dadaists use of found materials in their art, Duchamp’s famous urinal sculpture Fountain or his Mona Lisa appropriation L.H.O.O.Q, the modernist cutting and pasting practices of Eliot and Pound, the use of found sounds by Cage, the discovery of musique concrete by Pierre Schaffer, Burroughs and Gysin’s discovery of the cut-up as a technique for both writing and tape manipulation and the situationist practice of detournement, appropriation has a long and well known history in twentieth century western avant garde art, one which Byrne and Eno were keenly aware of when they made My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in 1981.  Parallel to this tradition is an African diasporic tradition of appropriation, that we can trace from the mixing of breaks by hip-hop DJs like Grandmaster Flash in New York in the 1970s, through the use of collage and editing in Jamaican reggae (I am thinking for example of the cow sounds on Lee Perry’s “Cow Thief Skank”), back through various traditional practices, such as the “spiritualization of found and recycled objects placed in yards and upon the tomb as altar” which Robert Farris Thompson has described as being characteristic of the greater Afro-Atlantic World (181).  Nigerian author Amos Tutuola’s 1953 novel My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, whose title Byrne and Eno also appropriated, apparently without having read the book, also has its place in this tradition. Written in English by a Christian Yoruba man, the book describes a series of acts of possession and dispossession that the narrator is subject to when he is driven out of his village by the wars of slavery.  The originality of Byrne and Eno’s Bush of Ghosts consists in bringing together these two traditions of appropriation in a new way, one that has profoundly influenced contemporary musical forms including hip-hop (Hank Shocklee, Public Enemy’s producer has cited it as a key moment in his musical education), drum and bass (Goldie sampled the record on Metalheadz’ genre-founding “Saint Angel”) and more.

What is appropriation?  The word has at least two contradictory but related meanings.  First of all, the sense in which it is used above, that of taking something and making or claiming it as one’s own, or using it as if it was one’s own.  Secondly, that which is proper to a situation or a person, that which is “appropriate”.  Appropriation, according to the first definition, often involves taking something which arguably belongs to someone else.  There is the sense of seizing, of making a claim on something that is claimed by someone else.  According to the second definition, it is that which one has a right to claim as one’s own, which is “properly” one’s own (we will set aside for now the question of where this right and claim come from). I began with a quote from Heidegger, from a lecture given in January 1959, 6 years after Tutuola’s book was published. Appropriation plays a highly significant role in Heidegger’s later work.  In his second, esoteric book, Contributions To Philosophy, written in 1936-8 with the subtitle title “Of Appropriation” and throughout the latter part of his career, Heidegger emphasized the significance of appropriation (an unusual translation of the word “Ereignis” but apparently one that Heidegger considered valid (1)), going so far as to claim in “The Way to Language” that it was “richer than any conceivable definition of Being” (129, footnote).

Heidegger uses the concept of appropriation in working through his critique of the Platonic doctrine of identity as essence.  Appropriation, in the sense of seizing something that belongs to others and making it one’s own, belongs to the tradition of metaphysics, since it posits that things have essences that belong to them, and at the same time that these things can be stolen from them.  The paradox of course is that if these things can be stolen, they can’t really be essences which would not be transferable.  For Heidegger, the process by which those things came to appear to have essences relied on an appropriation – in other words, that essence which appeared to belong to them was appropriated to them.  Thus, it is appropriation, rather than essence that is determinative of these things, although there is an ambiguity in the quote with which I began, since it is unclear whether, when things are removed from their subjection to the commandeering order (of metaphysics, science and so on), they will be “restored” to their own order, or to the order of appropriation itself.  What could “own” mean, if not an essence?  Indeed, where does “properness” come from if not essence?  In his late works, Heidegger spoke of “dwelling” as a kind of home that was properly one’s own, but nonetheless constructed, and of nearness or proximity as a measure of being, rather than essence.  Nevertheless, the question of how any sense of belonging can be constituted, phenomenologically or otherwise, remains unresolved in his work.

Tutuola’s remarkable text provides an interesting picture of what things would be or are like in a world constituted by acts and events of appropriation.  To list some of them, Tutuola is a Christian Yoruba man living in Lagos in the 1950s, writing in an English which has undergone considerable transformation.  His book begins with the narrator, a young boy, fleeing the wars of slavery (slavery being one of the most basic acts of appropriation imaginable) by heading out into the bush of ghosts.  In the bush of ghosts, he is passed from village to village, ghost to ghost, and transformed, possessed and used in a variety of ways.  The theme of eating and being eaten is crucial in the book – eating being of course another fundamental kind of appropriation and assimilation.  So is the theme of technology –in the variety of ways that the narrator becomes an object used instrumentally, as when “over a million “homeless-ghosts” … were listening to my cry as a radio.” (50) and the surprising presence of other techno-beings in the bush of ghosts – most famously “the television-handed ghostess”.  Where nothing has an essence, one is in a realm of constant transformation, appropriation, theft.  And yet the narrator is also able to insist on his proper form – proper perhaps as “that which is nearest to us”, to use a Heideggerian phrase, rather than that which IS us.  Tutuola’s text suggests the possibility of a comparative study of ways of modeling phenomena that we label appropriation.  Basic human ideas and phenomena such as embodiment, identity and property have of course been modeled in radically different ways by different cultures. These different models are highly relevant to contemporary discussions of copyright, intellectual property which are often built around uncritical framings of these terms.

In his 1957 text, Identity and Difference, Heidegger writes:

“The event of appropriation is that realm, vibrating within itself, through which man and Being reach each other in their nature, achieve their active nature by losing those qualities with which metaphysics has endowed them.  To think of appropriating as the event of appropriation means to contribute to this self-vibrating realm.” (37-8)

Without the endowments of metaphysics that appear to ground beings in essences, the universe appears as a flux of mutually co-constituting and interdependent appropriations, not dissimilar to that described by Tutuola.  “Properness” is given in the moment or event of the coming together of these vibrations.  But what does Heidegger refer to when he writes of this “self-vibrating realm”? Of course, it’s not clear.  The realms of light or sound?  The realm of pattern, tantra, interdependence, sunyatta of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism?  Following the rumor that Heidegger took LSD with Ernst Junger in the early 1950s, the realm of psychedelic experience?  Although Heidegger in fact pursued this thought in the direction of language, the vocabulary he uses is more specific to sound.  Thus in Identity and Difference, he writes that “in the event of appropriation vibrates the active nature of what speaks as language” (39, my italics). Avital Ronell has already investigated the importance of the “call” to Heidegger, and one might also examine “attunement” in Being and Time as a specifically sonic mode of apprehending being.  For now, let us observe that the sound world is indeed a “self-vibrating realm” and one in which appropriation is already quite familiar to most of us.

Music moves us, in doing so, it appropriates us.  It does this affectively – through “affection”.  What is called in our world today “appropriation” – the taking of something and making it ours, making it belong to us – operates in a fluid way in the realm of sound where the interaction of different sounds, which is called “harmony” or “rhythm” is manifestly a mutual appropriation.  The sound world requires us to think through the possibility of “appropriation” precisely in the Heideggerian sense of a “belonging together” which is not a unity.  The sound world “takes us out of ourselves” (ecstasis) and yet we experience that which takes us out of ourselves as part of ourselves, because we are emotionally affected, and we identify ourselves with our ability to “have” emotions. David Byrne struggles with this in his essay accompanying the reissue of Bush of Ghosts when he writes about an emotionally affective music that is composed through montage, that “tricks the emotions” because it is not a representation of an authentic performance.  But in the realm of sound, the affective power of sound is not the product of authentic expressions of particular subjectivities, despite the tradition of writing about music in the west that takes this point of view. This tradition would be the Platonic tradition that Heidegger is criticizing, in which identity is an essence that is revealed by an expression or representation.  A variety of non-western musical traditions around the world have developed rituals, practices and cultures built around this appropriative potential of sound.  Possession by deities and spirits is initiated through drums and percussion throughout the African-Atlantic diaspora, and the Islamic world from Morocco to Indonesia.  In Hindustani classical music, singers and musicians evoke the spirit of a raga by performing it, and a successful performance is measured by the appearance of the spirit, which is simultaneously a sound form, a picture, a color, a mood and a deity.  In all of these situations, no claim is made by the performers that the power of the music is the result of a particular personal subjectivity revealing itself.

As one of the first composers to break with the Platonic tradition in Western music, John Cage’s writings on sound offer us a way of thinking through sound and appropriation.  At first glance, there would appear to be no one more “against appropriation” than Cage. But it is precisely against the appropriations of sound made by the Western classical tradition that Cage writes.  In his stunning Juillard lecture (1952) he comments “I imagine that as contemporary music goes on changing in the way that I am changing it what will be done is to more and more completely liberate sounds from abstract ideas about them and more and more exactly to let them be physically, uniquely, themselves.  This means for me: knowing more and more not what I think a sound is, but what it actually is in all of its a-coustical details and then letting this sound exist, itself, changing in a changing sonorous environment.” (99-100) In other words, rather than appropriating sounds and forcing them to conform to an artificial set of ideas about what sound is, the composer sets up a situation where audience and composer can experience sound as being autonomous. “Silence surrounds many of the sounds so that they ex-ist in space unimpeded by one another and yet inter-penetrating one another” (100)  This would be the “self-vibrating realm” that I discussed earlier, where the interpenetration of sounds (and listeners) would constitute an open, unbounded mutual appropriation, where by taking a leap (participating in a performance of 4’ 33” for example), one “is appropriated” and enters into “the event of appropriation” and an encounter with “Being”.

There is some question whether, in working so hard to avoid an appropriation that posits sound as being composed of notated essences, Cage fully engages the autonomously appropriative qualities of sound.  “Chance procedures” are indeed a way of taking a leap into “the event of appropriation”, but is it the only or most a/effective way?  Is unstructured sound the only authentic way of experiencing Being sonically?  A whole diaspora of post-Cagean musical practices and strategies have evolved and been disseminated around the world that work in different ways with this problem.  The use of just intonation tuning systems by La Monte Young and others, based on the physics of sound suggests the possibility of a “true” metaphysics that emerges from a time-based tuning in to the universal structures modelled and constituted through natural harmonics.  Improvisation, as practiced by Derek Bailey and others, turns music making into an event whose meaning is immanent in the moment of collaborative or solo performance.  The use of chance procedures as the basis of collaborative improvisation by Cardew and Zorn, the use of error or found sound by Bryars or the glitch electronica of Oval and Kid 606 all arguably aim at triggering a Heideggerian event of appropriation, in and through sound.  A kind of secular mysticism emerges in both Heidegger’s work, and many of the musicians named above, one that is all the more powerful for its manifestation within an apparently non or a-cognitive zone.

If all musical experience involves and is constituted by appropriation, what do we make of music that involves what we might call the secondary, more literal appropriations of “other people’s sounds”?  This kind of appropriation involves either an imitation of a style or musical form (as with Doors cover bands or Elvis imitators, but also with genre or idiom based musics of all kinds), or the use of a technology of some kind to record sound and manipulate or represent it in some fashion.  With sound, there always exists the possibility of an imitation that appears identical to the original, as long as the source of the sound is not actively sought out.  This is the basis of the use of sound in hunting – the imitation of animal sounds by the voices of hunters.  Therefore, not all sonic appropriation is technological.  Although the technological appropriation of sound has been traced back to the use of bamboo slivers placed under temple doors which, when scraped across the floor produce a sound similar to a human voice (Davies), I will focus on the group of sound recording technologies developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, beginning in 1877 with Edison’s development of the tinfoil cylinder phonograph.  These technologies constituted a large leap in human ability to appropriate, imitate and manipulate sound.  Recording has a particular pathos in the world of sound because unlike visual images, text etc., sound is only present at the moment that it resonates in space, and is thus particularly time-bound.

The appropriations for which My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is known are of course technological, in that the record involves sounds which are copied and manipulated from other sources, using a variety of recording technologies.  Some tracks were recorded onto cassette from talk radio in New York and San Francisco (“America is Waiting”, “Mea Culpa”) or from Christian evangelist preachers (“Help Me Somebody”), others from a Folkways recording of a gospel choir from Georgia (“Moonlight in Glory”) and ethnographic recordings (details of Qu’ran?).  It is these appropriations that have been controversial.  Made before the advent of digital sampling, and the attendant licensing, copyright and intellectual property disputes that have come with our new abilities to appropriate and manipulate recordings of others, the clearance of samples that Byrne and Eno sought for My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was apparently a novelty: “no one knew what the hell we were up to”. The disk has faced at least two challenges on the grounds of the inappropriate use of the samples. One for the Qu’ran track, which features recordings of Muslim preachers chanting from the Koran, which Eno and co. decided to leave off the recent reissue, after complaints from the Islamic Council of Great Britain (Enoweb). The other for the original version of “The Jezebel Spirit” which was entitled “Into the Spirit World” and featured a recording of Christian preacher Kathryn Kuhlman, but was blocked by her estate and then replaced by a recording of another preacher.

All technology, as Heidegger tells us, is a framing.  Within the framing, certain kinds of appropriation are possible, in that certain materials are taken, transformed and renamed.  Thus, the whole history of recorded sound constitutes a framing of sound and music, turning it into a kind of raw material that stands ready to be called forth and used by humans. It may be the case that the appropriation of human voices, as opposed to musical instruments, is particularly problematic, because voices are particularly unmediated sources of sound.  These voices have not only been copied, but also edited and manipulated, and they thus have the intense ambiguity around them that surround all montages.  Anthropologist Michael Taussig has written about the power of defacement as a way of negating and politicizing form (the montages of John Heartfield or Adbusters come to mind).  However, any sonic appropriation – meaning a sound taken and used outside of its “original” context – regardless of the intention behind the appropriation, might be considered a defacement if those who claim the ownership of the sounds object to the editing or recontextualization.  Montage is disrespectful of form.  What montage reveals is the inherent mutability of all forms.  As Taussig shows, the incendiary effects of montage reveals the politics of form, of what is appropriate, and the ways in which what is believed appropriate are enforced.  In other words, montage reveals the power structures that give to us the form of the appropriate and the inappropriate – and also the fragility, delicacy of particular forms.

A certain amount of guilt prevails around appropriation.  We would like to pay for our appropriations, and so we try to find someone to pay off.  Nor are such people usually hard to find.  And yet, if appropriation is ontologically inevitable, it is unclear that such payment is ever totally appropriate.  Perhaps our entire economic system serves to allow us to perform endlessly this ritual by which we seek to pay for what we think we have taken, or demand payment for what we feel has been taken from us.  One possible response to this situation is to give things away.  For example, the new edition of Bush of Ghosts comes with a website in which we can download samples of the original tracks of Bush of Ghosts for free.  The debt incurred by using other people’s work is paid for by freely giving away that which might otherwise be taken without permission.  Sometimes people have a right to control the uses to which their voice is put.  Sometimes they don’t.  Where does the sense of “our own” come from in music?  Heidegger speaks of the proper as a kind of law, but how do we come to know what is proper?  Is this a human rights issue?  Without a doubt, most of us would like to have some control over the uses that our words, our speech, our performances are put to.  And yet, much of the most vital music made in the last 25 years is based on a free circulation of sounds that is predicated on free access to recordings placed on the public record.

There is a power structure in evidence in all appropriation.  Certain voices, certain sounds are taken from their context, from their own names and placed in another context, an 8 track recording studio, another name, that of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Byrne and Eno.  Sometimes this is done with permission, sometimes not.  When done without getting permission, the links between the sonic appropriations of the avant garde and the long history of colonial appropriation become evident.  But the right to give permission can itself be seen as an appropriated right – and the practice of appropriation, as I have already shown, is a practice of many cultures around the world and throughout history.  In particular, folk cultures in the industrial age, as philosopher/musician Henry Flynt has observed, are often engaged in appropriating techniques from high or mass culture and “subordinating them” to their own purposes. Sometimes, the appropriation is mutual as with the collaboration of “Byrne” and “Eno”.  At other times, surely Byrne and Eno are themselves appropriated by the voices they have used. As Heidegger says in his writings on technology, the end of man’s placing nature within a technological enframing in which it is taken as a standing reserve is that the point is reached where man too must be taken as standing reserve, and technology is revealed as something other than man’s servant.  We see precisely this happening with music – indeed it is the reason why music holds such an enormously prestigious place in the world today.  Why?  Because we can see the way in which man is appropriated by technology through music, and we can experience a kind of ecstasis (Heidegger’s term) through the experience of this appropriation, which “calls” us too as we listen or dance.  The goofy video made for Talking Heads’ “Once In a Lifetime” from Remain In Light, released around the same time as Bush of Ghosts, features Byrne as a tweedy anthropologist, moving in a dishevelled but committed way to the rippling funk that surrounds him.

Some of Heidegger’s richest thinking about appropriation concerns a struggle between the different modes of appropriation found in contemporary society.  In particular, Heidegger is concerned with technology as a dominant mode of appropriation – and the quote with which I began posits a linguistic power as potentially being able to appropriate that which has been appropriated by technology.  In these terms, the technological appropriations that I have discussed on Bush of Ghosts are only one kind of appropriation.  The tension on many of the tracks on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is the tension between different modes of appropriation, different claims being made on the listener.  Most tracks use a highly repetitive funk sound, that asserts its effects corporeally, makes you want to dance etc.  Against this more or less pagan sound, with its links to the hedonistic dance cultures of the 1970s, these recordings of religious voices, trebley, lofi, affectively intense, work.  On “The Jezebel Spirit” the swirling gamelan funk that Byrne and Eno create appropriates in one direction, while the voice of the unidentified New York exorcist enacts the literal reappropriation of the mind of the woman possessed by “The Jezebel Spirit” in an other direction. The funk on “The Jezebel Spirit” intensifies into a swirling loop as the exorcism proceeds mimicking the struggling forces, and yet it does not resolve itself at the end of the track.  We are caught between different modes of appropriation – as perhaps we always are.

But these “other voices” call us into deeper engagement in and with the sound world, through the framing of technology.  I mean this as follows: sound, the sound of the human voice is a sacred force in most of the vocal samples Byrne and Eno use.  One could argue that these voices appear within the technological horizon, are framed by it, and by Byrne and Eno’s editing and direction.  Yet there’s another way in which it is the sound world, which has particular rules and powers, which appropriates technologies, editors and the like into it.  These appropriated voices actually stand in closest relation to that sound world and its powers, and maintain the most integrity in it.  Indeed they are propagated, radically extended by the forces of modernity and postmodernity which we know to be so crucial in the dissemination of African diasporic cultures in the twentieth century … and also perhaps more broadly in the dissemination of peasant or folk cultures worldwide.  The remarkable tension achieved on many of the tracks on Bush of Ghosts is the result of Byrne and Eno’s peculiar modulation of the different modes of appropriation that can manifest sonically.  At the beginning of this paper, Heidegger spoke of a moment where appropriation might come into its own.  Heidegger writes in a number of essays about the possibility that the appropriations of technology might themselves be appropriated in some way by a different kind of force.  Byrne and Eno’s Bush of Ghosts, emerging in New York at the same time as the radical mutations of the 12 inch discomix and Grandmaster Flash’s scratch mixes, revealed new powers of appropriation, which have become almost a dominant mode of making music in the age of Public Enemy, click and cut sound sampling and Moby’s Play with its blues and gospel archival appropriations.

Contemporary issues around copyright and intellectual property, whether related to downloading of digital music “copies” or the right of artists to sample the work of others and use it in their own work, issues which Byrne and Eno were among the first to confront with My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, result from a growing confusion as to the nature of the appropriate.  As the evidence of the fundamental character of appropriation, revealed through technologies or otherwise, accumulates, a crisis as to our relation to the appropriate and the appropriable becomes ever more apparent.  Although Heidegger recognised this crisis, even in his late writings it has the character of something unknown.  And Byrne and Eno didn’t know either.  But this “not knowing” is not merely a general statement of confusion – Heidegger spoke of the event of appropriation, and the status of the event is that it opens up into the not known.  Our experiences of sound are precisely an example of such an event of appropriation.  We do not know what it is that moves us in music, and we do not know from where it is that music speaks or sings to us.  That which appears as sound in the sound world no longer belongs to the one who sung or played or composed it.  It has been appropriated to it.  Byrne and Eno can hardly be said to have discovered this, but we can say that they discovered for themselves that the nature of the “not known” event in which various unrelated sounds encounter one another is not “merely” that of randomness.  Appropriation is precisely that which takes up the random, the aleatory, the unconnected and chaotic and does something with it, places it in pattern or resonance.  Because in this sense appropriation underlies our very ability to make meaning of ourselves and the world that we find ourselves in, we should pause before endorsing the arguments of lobbyists for aggressive enforcement of copyright law – as well as those who argue for eliimination of such laws.  Something joyful and yet highly disturbing is revealed in the appropriations of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.  Slowly, inexorably, we are drawing closer to it.


(1) I have followed the conclusions of Richard Polt (2005, 2006), regarding the translation of “Ereignis” and “das Ereignis” as “appropriation” and “event of appropriation” (2006, 10).  This is also the word used by Stambaugh, in consultation with Heidegger, in translations of Heidegger’s later works such as Of Time and Being and Identity and Difference.

Works Cited

Byrne, David and Brian Eno.  2006 (1981).  My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.  Nonesuch CD.
Cage, John.  1969.  “Juillard Lecture” in A Year From Monday.  Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
Davies, Hugh.  1996.  “A History of Sampling”. Organised Sound, vol. 1 (1), 3-11.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
“Enoweb, FAQ 2” on Enoweb, an unofficial web site devoted to Brian Eno’s music athttp://music.hyperreal.org/artists/brian_eno/
Flynt, Henry.  2002 (1980).  “The Meaning of my Avant-Garde Hillbilly and Blues Music” atwww.henryflynt.org/aesthetics/meaning_of_my_music.htm.
Heidegger, Martin. 1969.  Identity and Difference. Trans. Joan Stambaugh.  New York: Harper & Row.
1972.  On Time and Being. Trans. Joan Stambaugh.  New York: Harper and Row.
1982.  “The Way to Language” in On The Way To Language.  Trans. Peter Hertz.  New York: Harper & Row.
1993.  “The Question Concerning Technology” in Basic Writings.  Trans. William Lovitt.  San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
1999.  Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning). Trans. Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Polt, Richard.  2005.  “Ereignis” in Hubert Dreyfus and Mark Wrathall, eds. A Companion to Heidegger. Oxford: Blackwell.
2006.  The Emergency of Being: On Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy.  Ithaca, Cornell University Press.
Ronell, Avital.  1989. The Telephone Book: Technology–Schizophrenia–Electric Speech.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Taussig, Michael.  1999. Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative.  Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press.
Thompson, Robert Farris. 1996.  “Afterword” to Recycled, Reseen: Folk Art from the Global Scrap Heap by Charlotte Cerny.  New York: Harry N. Abrams.
Tutuola, Amos.  1994 (1953). The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.  New York: Grove.