Hearing our bodies

posted 18 Jan 2014 06:41 by Simon McKerrell

I’ve just finished reading Mark Johnson’s ‘phenomenal’ (no pun intended) book The Meaning of the Body (University of Chicago Press, 2007). I think it is a book that will stay with me for some time, and rarely have I found that I agree with so much of the flow of narrative in an academic book. Fundamentally though, for me, this book has profound implications for how we understand musical and multimodal meaning. Johnson’s thesis (very crudely and reductively) is that we are embodied human beings, and we understand the world and make meanings in a profoundly experiential way, based upon our sensorimotor experience. We use this sensorimotor experience to build up metaphors to understand meaning in our lives, all the way to abstract reasoning, all of which is based in the body–he says it better than me here:

‘Concepts that we think of as utterly divorced from physical things and sensorimotor experience (concepts such as justice, mind, knowledge, truth, and democracy) are never really independent of our embodiment, because the semantic and inferential structure of these abstract concepts is drawn from our sensorimotor interactions, typically by cross-domain mappings (conceptual metaphors)…Our understanding of abstract notions is thus pervasively structured via systematic connections (neurally realized) among sensorimotor meanings and other, “higher” aspects of thought…. The power of conceptual metaphor is that it permits us to use the semantics and inferential structure of our bodily experience as a primary way of making sense of abstract entities, relations, and events. (Johnson 2007: 273; 280).
If this is true (in the sense that some folk believe it to be true etc.) then it has very important ramifications for our understanding of how musical meaning is created. For the last several years, I’ve leaned heavily towards the somaesthetic (soma + aesthetic) theory of musical meaning which bases musical meaning in our bodies as developed by Richard Shusterman (Here he is talking about some of his work: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49xX6piR6gM). This book largely agrees with that thesis but uses different language, but both are pragmatists in the American tradition. The importance goes something like this: we understand human meaning (incorporating propositional thought, metaphor, percept, concept, feelings and even emotions) through conceptual metaphors that allow us in the act of hearing to fire mirror neurons in our brains that are based upon cognitive image-schemata which form the embodied basis for culturally-determined conceptual metaphors that construct meanings. These meanings can be cross-domain (i.e. experienced or enacted through different senses like vision, audition, taste, proprioception, touch etc.) and provide the fundamental basis for human meaning. 
Important because a) this model allows for cultural relativism in that different cultures create different conceptual metaphors based upon universal image-schemata in the brain, and that b) it eradicates the mind-body dualism which was the basis of most Kantian-derived analytical aesthetics of music–quite a lot when you think about it!
Returning to planet earth–what does this mean for scholars of music, or even for audiences? I think what it means is that we can do several important things. Some of which might include, work towards understanding how music has such powerful affect on people through its embodied meaning, dissolve quite unhelpful binaries in musicology and ethnomusicology, begin cross-cultural work on how we learn and how we teach music for a better way of teaching, provide evidence for more ambitious cross-disciplinary research into how we use music and multimodal texts to distance others and to create community cohesion etc. etc. For me anyway, understanding music as an embodied and temporally, culturally situated experience is actually pretty important. Here’s a link to Mark Johnson giving a lecture on this topic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HaMeGdrKnEE.

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