The Politics of Vibration: Music as a Cosmopolitical Practice

Catherine Christer Hennix, “A non unique extraordinary set, 1973”
“The (MA-) Gap Theorem [Re : Yoga-57/L’etourdi]” 2021
Photo: Amadeo Schwaller

The universe vibrates. My new book, The Politics of Vibration: Music as a Cosmopolitical Practice, which will be published by Duke University Press in summer 2022, sets out a model for thinking about music as emerging out of a politics of vibration. It focuses on the work of three contemporary musicians — Hindustani classical vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, Swedish drone composer Catherine Christer Hennix and Houston-based hip-hop creator, DJ Screw, each emerging from a different but entangled set of musical traditions or scenes, whose work is ontologically instructive. Three musics characterized by slowness, much of the time then. From these particular cases, the book expands in the direction of considering the vibrational nature of music more generally. The book looks at a variety of musical examples including a Ryan Driver/Sandro Perri concert in a park in Scarborough, ethnomusicologist Jose Maceda observations concerning traditional Philippine musical instruments, Sri Karunamayee’s mental ladder of scales, Keiji Haino’s ideas of vibrational space, love and death according to Prince, Frankie Knuckles’ first visit to The Loft, Moroccan gnawa musicians in the Djemaa al Fnaa in Marrakech, John Coltrane’s famous sleevenotes to A Love Supreme, Earl Sweatshift’s alchemization of depression, and a performance by flamenco/folk master Peter Walker.

Vibration is understood in multiple ways, as a mathematical and a physical concept, as a religious or ontological force, and as a psychological/psychoanalytic determinant of subjectivity.  The organization of sonic vibration that is determinant of subjectivity, a.k.a. music, is understood to be pluralistic and modal — and topological rather than phenomenological or time-based. And understanding what music is means shifting our understanding of what space is.  I argue that music needs to be understood as a cosmopolitical practice, in the sense of the word “cosmopolitics” recently introduced by Isabelle Stengers — music can only be understood in relation to the worlding and forms of life that are permitted in a society, and according to decisions that a society makes concerning access to vibrational structure. I reconsider the ontology of music in the light of the practices of contemporary musicians, and I try to open up what the possibilities for a free music in a free society would be. 

Even after finishing writing the book, I still find it hard to describe what I’ve written. The above paragraph is one version of it — and describes a kind of philosophical project, but the book is a lot more personal than that, since it also describes my own life, participation in different music scenes, shit that has happened, to me and those around me. And above all, the book also describes a kind of apprenticeship in music and philosophy via my introduction to the music of Pandit Pran Nath in the late 1990s, and the music and philosophy of Catherine Christer Hennix, who was a student of Pran Nath’s, in the early 2000s. While Hennix’s work has recently gained some attention thanks to Blank Forms’ publication of her selected writings in Poesy Matters/Other Matters, and various archival and new audio releases, the full complexity of Hennix’s brilliant ideas and sonic practices has not until now been documented.  Hennix’s work is challenging and requires study and attention to understand her full vision of what music, mathematics, sound and ontology can do.  In this book I describe  my own studies and conversations with students of Pran Nath’s  — and years of study and dialogue with Hennix. And I apply Hennix’s insights to musical worlds different to her own — showing how versatile and powerful and challenging her ideas are.  What emerges is an idea of music as pragmatic but cosmopolitically entangled improvisation in a universe made of vibration. I explore these ideas in relation to the Black radical tradition and Houston based DJ Screw’s chopped and screwed sound.   This book is also my own improvisation, in words, in that entangled universe. It is also about breaks, breaks in symmetry which give everything their particular finite forms, musical breaks and the power of repetition, mathematical modelling and its intersection with human fragility and finitude, but also the incredible breakage of/in my own world, the music scenes that I find around me, and in the lives of musicians who have cosmopolitical ambitions.  This book offers a broken ontology of music — and I still don’t know if it could be otherwise.

The Book of Methods: Selected Writings on the Cut Up by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin

Brion Gysin, “The Book of Methods”, circa 1962, Musée d’Art Moderne, Ville de Paris

I’ve been working with my friend Davis Schneiderman for a number of years on a new edition of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s writings on the cut up. Later this year, University of Minnesota Press will publish the fruits of that research — encompassing a new edition of their classic text on the topic, The Third Mind, which will be a facsimile of the mythical unpublished 1970 Grove Press edition of that text, together with a companion volume called The Book of Methods, which will collect various key writings and statements from Burroughs and Gysin on the cut up, made over the course of their decades working together, including many hitherto unpublished texts. We will offer, for the first time, a comprehensive and chronological overview of Burroughs and Gysin’s writings on the cut up.

The Third Mind, by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, is a strange and enigmatic book. Long out of print after a single American edition in 1978, this eclectic offering of instructions for a material revolution has had a lasting influence on everything from punk and cyberpunk to appropriation art, new media theory and conceptual literature. The Third Mind continues to have new things to say to a generation of artists and thinkers who not only use cut-ups and fold-ins, cut-and-paste, collage and montage practices just as earlier writers used “plot” and “character,” but who also—in the present—deploy strategies from The Third Mind as a way to reveal the ubiquity of practices of collage and cut up in mainstream digital culture. Indeed, arguably we live in a moment where the cut up has triumphed — but unconsciously so, in our fragmented attention spans, our cynicism concerning the mediation of truth, and the ease with which text and image are converted to data and back again.  

In The Book of Methods, a companion to The Third Mind, we propose a radical rereading of Burroughs’ and Gysin’s cut-up practices, drawing on hitherto unavailable materials by both Burroughs and Gysin, presenting the core of Burroughs’ and Gysin’s collaborative works anew for the age of digital media and the global society of the spectacle — complete with post cut up practices that include deepfakes, mass media simulation, and AI.

What is a cut up? Gysin discovered the technique in his studio in Paris in 1958, when he sliced through a newspaper and realized that by reading across the cut to a now exposed adjacent page, a new, “random” text was generated, with a new meaning.  This cut quickly turned into an intense exploration, by both Gysin and Burroughs, of the possibilities for permutating and generating texts via processes of cutting and rearrangement. And these practices were then applied to visual images, sound recordings, film and other media.  While Tristan Tzara claimed to Gysin that he was not doing anything that the dadaists hadn’t already done in World War I, Burroughs and Gysin’s ideas about the value of the cut up went far beyond Tzara’s.  Burroughs in particular rapidly developed ideas of human consciousness as a cut up (in part via his involvement in Scientology), sexuality as a cut up (via the pornographic fragmentation of the drive) and reality itself as cut up (“nothing here but the recordings”). 

The Book of Methods also tells the story of Burroughs and Gysin’s friendship, both in terms of their collaboration on a book expounding the cut up as method or practice, but also in terms of the ill fated publishing history of the book, which was about to be published as early as 1965, again in 1970, at varying times in the early 1970s — and then finally in 1978, at a point where much of the material was almost 20 years old. As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, Gysin’s mail to Burroughs often features an increasingly anguished “What of THE THIRD MIND??”

The cut up was untimely — but in fact 1978 was a moment where an international post-punk fan base interested in media experimentation, whether Kathy Acker, or Throbbing Gristle or the graffiti artist Rammellzee, were very much ready to respond to Burroughs’ and Gysin’s work.

The Third Mind/Book of Methods also tells a story of the importance of the Beats’ European connections and extensions, from the cut up’s genesis in the Beat Hotel on Rue Git le Coeur in Paris, to the various European writers and artists who took up the cut up, from Jeff Nuttall, to Claude Pélieu and Mary Beach, to Carl Weissner and Udo Breger — and to Gérard-Georges Lemaire, the Paris based art critic and translator of a number of Burroughs’ works, who first assembled with Brion Gysin, the texts that would compose the first actually published The Third Mind in the 1976 French book, Oeuvre croisée.

Franz Thalmair’s Marcus Boon, In Praise of Copying (Berlin, Revolver, 2019)

A few years ago, Franz Thalmair wrote me to tell me that he was in the process of making a hand made copy of my book In Praise of Copying.  I didn’t quite know what to make of such a project, but Thalmair would send me regular updates as to how it was going … and then one day he finished. 

This hand made copy was then copied again and turned into the book Marcus Boon, In Praise of Copying (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 1 – 285, which was recently published by Revolver Publishing in Berlin.  Thalmair recently sent me a copy.  It is a strange and beautiful object.  The typeface is a little blurry, as if slightly out of focus, imitating the stereotypical relationship of copy to original as having lost something, being a mere copy, ephemeral, slightly unfaithful to or divergent from the original.  On the other hand, Thalmair’s careful tracing practice reintroduces a practice of uniqueness, originality, authenticity that turns the copy of the book that Thalmair was working with, a multiple, whether in pdf or print form, back into a unique object, with a Benjaminian aura, that fuzziness or haziness that marks it off as being the product of a certain time and place, and a certain kind of awe inspiring patience and manual labor too.  But then this “original copy” is in turn copied and reproduced in an edition of 250 copies, the glossy paper allowing for an accurate facsimile of the hand produced tracing, and a grey border on each page framing the pages as being a visual object as much as a “book page”. 

Thalmair told me that he copied passages that he had tagged or that he was interested in.  At first glance, this makes the book feel like an erasure project, in which the gaps or spaces or silences encroach on the text. But Franz told me that he regarded the practice as containing a trace of his reading — and in that sense, the gaps seem less significant, and the text itself more like a positive memory or trace, as something that remains or has been collated, like a list of quotes. The feeling is uncanny — a rare moment when to read or look at a text is simultaneously to be reading or looking at someone else’s reading of the text. Of course we’re used to such things when we explore the marginalia found in an author’s library — but here the text and the phenomenological act of it being read by another person — and our access to that phenomenological event that belongs to someone else — all coincide. 

Thalmair, who is a writer, curator, editor and professor at the University of Applied Art in Vienna, is co-director of the arts based research project Originalcopy—Post-digital Strategies of Appropriation.  He and Michael Kargl recently put out a beautiful book of the same name containing work related to the project, including essays by myself, Bettina Funcke, Kenneth Goldsmith, Boris Groys, Jussi Parikka.  In the introduction to the book, Thalmair asks: “is it possible to develop a methodology of contemporary copying practices by initiating a copying process that always remains aware of itself? And how can such a loop of thought in the copying process reveal knowledge about the simultaneous omnipresence and invisibility of the phenomenon of the copy, with its deep historical, cultural, and technological roots in society?” For Thalmair, copying can be a performative research practice — as it is with the book described above. 

Practice: Now Published by MIT Press/Whitechapel Gallery of Art

The book on practice that Gabriel Levine and I edited has now been published by MIT Press/Whitechapel Gallery of Art. We think it looks good — a photograph of Francis Alÿs from his famous “Paradox of Praxis” series is on the cover.

We’ll be launching the book at the Whitechapel Gallery of Art in London on April 26, in a conversation with visual artist Kader Attia (whose amazing work on repair is featured at the end of the book) and philosopher Nina Power. There will also be a Berlin launch on April 28 at Hopscotch Books, and a Toronto launch on May 31 at the University of Toronto Art Center, featuring a panel that includes artists Sameer Farooq, Rea McNamara, Su-Feh Lee and Diane Borsato.

MIT has a good description of the book. You can view the table of contents here.  And listen to an hour long conversation about practice that we had with Erik Davis on his excellent Expanding Mind radio show.  Our goal was to open up new ways of thinking about practice and its relationship to art, and even to ask the question whether we were moving into a world where practice is becoming autonomous from art.  We received some sublime responses to the book:

“Boon and Levine have assembled an engaging collection of short essays, manifestos, interviews, impressions and expressions, which together explore the rich density of “practice”. It is about art, and will fascinate anyone who experiences politics, philosophy and everyday life as forms of artistry — as artistic “practices” that repeat, hustle, experiment with, fly free from, and play with established subjectivities, cruelties, virtues. A bracing and marvellous book.” Jane Bennett, Professor of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University

“To move from competency to fluency to freedom takes some practice, but just what that entails — as this volume makes clear — is more than technique. Personal desires comingle with social questions, to that whether working solo or in coalitions of the like-minded, having a practice is always a dynamic process of situating oneself in the world. And as writers from across a wide spectrum offer here, when embodied consciousness and impassioned commitment take hold, practice as a way of working becomes a way of being. Mary Jane Jacob, Director, Institute of Curatorial Research and Practice, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

“Political, philosophical, poetic, aesthetic and critical, Practice will be of great use to anyone working with and thinking about this most dominant (but obscure) of terms. The texts collected here are fresh and provocative. From magic to high art theory, structuralism to anarchism, Boon and Levine have collected the most vital words on the “practical turn” in art, and many other ways of thinking about practice besides.” Nina Power, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Roehampton