Friday, November 14, 2008

Being-in-the-World: Culture and Biology

Becker, Judith. "Being-in-the-world: Culture and Biology." In Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion, and Trancing. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.

Judith Becker examines music and emotion, and music and trance, through a combination of cultural and biological perspectives. She develops a theory of trance based on emotion using neuroscience and biology as tools. In this chapter in particular, she redefines culture in a way that allows for a biological component.

In Part I, she rethinks perception. Music, especially through trance, can be subversive to the views that 1) there is a definable, objective world, and 2) that I am a single, bounded consciousness that rationally interacts with that world based on accurate perceptions of it. She outlines recent research suggesting that perception and cognition are embedded in embodied action, neither solely a production of the mind nor possessing pregiven properties alone. Repeated behaviour creates linkages between neuronal groupings which may be triggered in a mapped effect when 'perturbed' by a particular physical stimulus (such as a certain piece of music). These bundles of neurons are not hardwired, and so can be reworked based on further interactions with the environment. Dramatic reconnections of these groups during musical ritual can result in a different (and sometimes very extraordinary) perceptual experience of the world.

Part II is titled Biological Phenomenology, which suggests what Becker sets out to do in this section: to combine the study of subjective experience with its possible biological explanations. Objectivist studies of firing neurons are hard to reconcile with those of the phenomenological experiences of our everyday lives and a strict split has been maintained in this regard. Becker elaborates on studies that have bridged this gap, and constitutes consciousness as bodily and interactive. Perception is dependent on the properties of the individual and their chosen interaction with the world. "The environment emerges from the world through the actualization or the being of the organism" (119). Thus, musical events contain an element of self-recreation in the enactment of reality by participants. What's more, deeply personal and emotional musical experiences of trance are played out in the supra-individual domain. "There must be changes in the neurophysiology of the trancer for trancing to occur, but those changes are not attributable simply to the brain/body of a self-contained individual. They occur through the group processes of recurrent interactions between codefined individuals in a rhythmic domain of music that is intrinsically social, visibly embodied, and profoundly cognitive" (129). For Becker, the nature vs. culture dichotomy in music is dissolved by the view that each individual's biological and emotional interactions with performance are the locus of the evolution of music and trancing. She posits a new definition of culture: "Culture (redefined) can be understood as a supraindividual biological phenomenon, a transgenerational history of ongoing social structural couplings that become embodied in the individual and transmitted into the future through actions" (130).

I found this chapter informative and intriguing. It seemed to answer many questions that I've long entertained about the deep inter-individual dynamics that occur during group musicking. People often have the sense that they are somehow being shaped by and shaping others through their musical activities, creating a sense of community among participants. I am thrilled and relieved to see this most important aspect of music-making being talked about in academic settings, and without sacrificing the subjective intensity of the experience. Becker has a very powerful way of giving legitimacy to both phenomenological and biological understandings of music practice, especially for such an emotionally intimate experience as trancing. She apparently has a firm grounding in both realms that she deals with. I would be interested to know how this chapter (and the rest of the book) stand up to criticism from both ethnomusicological and scientific communities. I believe the book is quite highly acclaimed in ethnomusicology circles. The rest of the book is also highly relevant to music and brain; I intend to read much more and follow Becker's bibliography to other authors such as Maturana, Varela, Thompson, Rosch, Edelman, etc.

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