Thursday, October 1, 2015

"Don't Play That Music, Bro!"

The reference is to this incident where a student pleaded "Don't tase me, bro!" just before being tased while being held down by six university police. After an interminable stream of articles about classical music's unfair treatment of women, the Guardian has found a new drum to beat: music as torture. The subject is ideal because it is only Western authorities that seem to use music for this purpose--Islamic states tend to ban music and instead of using it for torture, they just stone or behead their prisoners. Personally I would rather hear music, even if loud, rather than be beheaded. Well, unless it was Nikki Minaj, of course. But that's just me.

[Just a note: have you ever noticed how every single cause chosen by the social justice warriors has two components: it contributes to the decline of Western civilization AND it is either irrelevant, as this one is, to our Islamic opponents, or, as in the case of the treatment of women, the situation in their societies is hypocritically ignored.]

But let's get to the article. The title is "Music as a torture weapon: exploring the dark side." The article is a short and rather uninformative one, seemingly content, once it has convicted the West of Doing Something Bad, to stop there. But it has some illuminating links. This one goes to an essay by musicologist Suzanne G. Cusick of New York University:
First, it is not at all clear that the music aimed at prisoners in detention camps has functioned as music. Rather, it has more often functioned as sheer sound with which to assault a prisoner’s sense of hearing; to ‘mask’ or disrupt a prisoner’s capacity to sustain an independent thought; to disrupt a prisoner’s sense of temporality (both in terms of how much time had passed and in terms of the predictability of temporal units); to undermine a prisoner’s ability to sustain somatic practices of prayer (both through behaviour at the hours of prayer and through abstinence from musical experiences considered sinful); and to bombard the prisoner’s body (skin, nerves and bones) with acoustical energy.
Yet, whether the sounds used in detentions camps functioned as music or not, among the most horrifying aspects of these practices is the degradation of the thing we call ‘music’. We in the so-called West have long since come to mean by the word ‘music’ an acoustical medium that expresses the human creativity, intelligence and emotional depth that, we think, almost lifts our animal selves to equality with the gods. When we contemplate how ‘music’ has been used in the detention camps of contemporary wars, we find this meaning stripped away. We are forced, instead, to contemplate ‘music’ as an acoustical medium for evil. The thing we have revered for an ineffability to which we attribute moral and ethical value is revealed as morally and ethically neutral – as just another tool in human beings’ blood-stained hands. This feels like the stripping away of a soul from a body, and therefore like some kind of violent, violating death. It is, therefore, as horrifying for us as it is for its obviously intended victims (though not as painful), tearing away parts of the collective subjectivity – the culture – we have for so long taken for granted, and subsumed under the heading of ‘Western values’.
Here are the tell-tale elements. First of all it assumes a moral equivalency: these prisoners are just innocent bystanders so any unusual treatment of them is cruel. It might "undermine a prisoner’s ability to sustain somatic practices of prayer" not to mention bombard them with acoustical energy. But it is the next paragraph that is particularly ingenious in its simultaneous elevating and discounting our notions of music as art. First of all, she sets up "music" as "an acoustical medium that expresses the human creativity, intelligence and emotional depth" and something "to which we attribute moral and ethical value". Ironically, it is the standard practice of the new musicologists, of which Cusick is one, to discount all of this. In a different context, I suspect she would be the first to deny that music has moral content. But here it is useful for her to construct a straw man for her argument. Because of this temporary and provisional elevation of music into a medium for Western values, she can exhibit horror that it would be used to soften up prisoners prior to interrogation.

By the way, she avoids any mention of exactly what music we are talking about, probably because identifying any particular artist might make a reader think, hmm, well, I subjected myself to pretty much exactly that when I went to the dance club last night: pop music played extremely loud. The closest she gets to telling us what the subject of her essay is, is this quote from a prisoner:
[…] after a while you don’t hear the lyrics, all you hear is heavy, heavy banging, that’s all you hear. Um, you can’t concentrate on the drums, or what the person’s saying, all you hear is just loud shouting, loud banging, like metal clashing against metal. That’s all it sounds like. It doesn’t sound like music at all.[2] (italics added)
This resembles very closely Kingsley Amis' description of pop music he heard at a college dance in his novel Lucky Jim. Indeed, as soon as you mention a particular song, the whole argument collapses into a bad joke, which is probably why Cusick quickly wanders far off topic into areas I lost interest in almost immediately. Here is a sample:
If the reparative is a reconstruction of shattered objects so that they can bring us pleasure, and if the reparative’s affect is love – then a reparative musicology (a post-Obama musicology?) would restore love for music; would reconstruct musical experiences so that we could love them (which is more than to appreciate them, more than to understand their functions, more than to feel their performative power or their saturation, with social, political, economic forces.) This was, I think, the work toward which several alternative musicologies (especially queer ones) aspired in the last decade.
The first mention I can find of the use of music to soften up the enemy was in the US invasion of Panama in 1990 where
Noriega remained at large for several days, but realizing he had few options in the face of a massive manhunt and a $1 million reward for his capture, he obtained refuge in the Vatican diplomatic mission in Panama City. The U.S. military's psychological pressure on him and diplomatic pressure on the Vatican mission, however, was relentless, as was the playing of loud rock-and-roll music day and night in a densely populated area.[30] The report of the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff maintains that the music was used principally to prevent parabolic microphones from being used to eavesdrop on negotiations, and not as a psychological weapon based around Noriega's supposed loathing of rock music.
Aha, rock music! This is really the Unmentioned Element, isn't it? US soldiers, who mostly like rock music, sometimes use it to annoy their enemies/prisoners, who loathe it. They aren't playing Schubert lieder at loud volume! No, it is likely Guns n' Roses or maybe Lady Gaga (except of course, for the use of Wagner in Apocalypse Now). But mentioning that would have us ask, "so how is this different to the torture I am subjected to every time I go to a mall or certain restaurants, not to mention dance clubs?"

That the whole point of these sorts of campaigns is to deny tactics to the West while ignoring anything done by our opponents is revealed by this passage in the Guardian article:
As Grant and Cusick’s work confirms, music is value-neutral. It is what we make of it, and how we use it. Of course it can be used to heal, to comfort, to console, to offer existential transcendence and emotional escape, yet it can also be weaponised. One consequence of their work ought to be that the use of music in conflict situations should be recognised - and banned - when it is used in contexts of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. It’s disturbing reading, but this research – in all of these links – reveals a bleak phenomenon of musical history that needs to be faced up to, accounted for, and stopped.
"Value-neutral?" But wait, I thought Cusick was praising music for its moral and ethical values? Oh, right, but that was just to cobble together her straw-man argument, she didn't actually mean it. The West must never do anything that might be considered cruel by academics: like playing Guns n' Roses at loud volume. But wouldn't this also rule out nasty things like dropping bombs and shooting bullets at people as well? On the other hand, kidnapping children to be used as sex slaves and beheading every Christian they can find seems to be ok when the other guys do it. Those practices never seem to become the subject of a big crusade in the Guardian...

Time for a musical envoi I think. At the risk of being accused of using music for torture, here is a little Guns n' Roses:


David said...

Bryan, this seems to be another example of the importance of definitions. What is "music" and what is "noise"? The Guardian states: "Of course it [music] can be used to heal, to comfort, to console, to offer existential transcendence and emotional escape, yet it can also be weaponised." I would be interested to see examples of GnR's creative output being used to heal, comfort or console. Examples of weaponized Bach/Beethoven/Brahms/Biber would also be instructive. [Some classical music cogniscenti may say that Glenn Gould's treatment of the Goldbergs is an illustration of the later.]

I have little doubt that "noise" can be weaponized. The jury is still out on "music".

Perhaps the truly "bleak phenomenon of musical history that needs to be faced up to, accounted for, and stopped" is the current output of today's EDM and pop artists. [Sorry, my inner musical reactionary got loose there.]


Bryan Townsend said...

"Weaponized Bach" is quite a concept!

Marc Puckett said...

I immediately thought of the Noriega business when I began your post; never realised that that fellow supposedly loathed rock music-- I had thought that the tactic was aimed at the members of the Holy See's embassy, which is pretty clearly a violation of international law.

Don't forget the classical tunes aimed at discomfiting the loiterers at the bus station, ha. I believe I remember reading, in a letter to the local free weekly newspaper, the word torture used with reference to the abuse of the poor loiterers by the city.

Bryan Townsend said...

So maybe there is such a thing as "weaponized Bach" --but only to louts and loiterers! The torture is in the ear of the beholder, as it were!

Out of curiosity, what international law applies to the playing of loud rock music outside the Vatican embassy?

Marc Puckett said...

Am not a specialist in international law as it is applied in diplomatic conventions, obviously, but I think that state use of any means of physical or psychological intimidation directed at the properly accredited embassies of foreign powers is bound to be illegal, particularly in situations of war (whatever that was in Panama).

Marc Puckett said...

'Particularly in situations of war (whatever that was in Panama)'-- I am on the telephone, tsk, with the mobile provider-- in peace time, such intimidation would be in violation of diplomatic convention while, in time of war (whatever that was in Panama), there are even more emphatic protections of neutral foriegn embassies in place.

Bryan Townsend said...

And this applies even if they are sheltering the very person that the US is after? Yes, makes perfect sense under international law, but international law is a frail reed in times of war. What if, oh, say, Mussolini decided to shelter in the Swiss embassy in Rome when the US invaded Italy in WWII? I think that they would have to give him up pretty quick.

Anonymous said...

There is so much sarcasm in your post I am not sure I get your point. You seem to be saying that torture by music is OK as long as we, the good guys, are doing it.

You equate rock music torture with going to a dance club. The point of torture is to deny the victim any agency. In a club you can always leave; in the torture chamber you can't. Being exposed to constant sound or lighting drives people to madness. This is well known by psychiatrists. You're being a bit flippant.

As for Noriega being a bad guy, indeed, he was -- but let's not forget that the guy who ordered his arrest (Bush Senior) is the same guy who kept Noriega on the CIA payroll for decades. As for the invasion, it was illegal by any international norm you can think about. So the comparison with Mussolini is cartoonish.

Marc Puckett said...
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Marc Puckett said...

Bryan, Well, if Mussolini had been allowed to enter the Swiss embassy in Rome, then the US would have been faced with a decision-- forcibly enter and seize him, or not, as they could have done in Panama [am editing, adding in this sentence, after the colon]: but my understanding is that such entry/seizure would be a serious violation of international law. But, as you note, in war many laws of many sorts are set aside. I was a monk for most of the 80s and missed the US business in Panama, so all I know about the particulars, apart from 'blaring rock music' part and the superficial grasp I have of international law as it relates to embassies stuff, I've pretty much learned today from the Wikipedia article. Operation Nifty Package? ha, I hope that that name was not considered to be one of the name-maker's successes

Marc Puckett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marc Puckett said...

Good Lord! Am reading the Musicology, Torture, Repair essay.

"... (T)hat distress has, in turn, provoked us to speech that has slowly spread and fuelled the smouldering fires of outrage. Those fires now burn in many a classroom, and therefore spread to many a dorm room, apartment or hangout. They burn on many a website, perhaps especially those which have objected to the narcissistic element behind professional societies’ resolutions. They cannot help but produce political awareness, and, eventually, they will produce political effects."

That provoked guffaws of laughter! The image of those 'hang outs' on the University's campus, at the Frohnmayer Music Building, perhaps, burning, burning....

Bryan Townsend said...

Anonymous, yours is a valid comment with some substantial objections. Thanks! Apparently sometimes what I am actually attacking can become obscured. The object of my criticism here is the hypocritical and contrived argument of the musicologist Suzanne Cusick so I invite you to read all of her paper for the nuggets therein, some of which were discovered by Marc. You might find it as amusing as I did. Yes, you are correct, one aspect of torture is to deny the victim agency and I was being a bit flippant. Perhaps Noriega was a poor comparison, but it was an excellent example of music as torture, which I wanted in order to counter the vaporous abstraction of Cusick's paper. Let me reiterate, it is the approach of Cusick that I am attacking. I may or may not be against the use of music in interrogation. I think that to determine the morality of that we would need, not vague speculation, but concrete details.