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Embodiment, Music, and the Body in Flamenco Song Performance

Reseña de Carles Pitarch

A Review Essay of William Washabaugh's
Flamenco: Passion, Politics, and Popular Culture

Washabaugh, William.
Flamenco: Passion, Politics, and Popular Culture
Oxford, U.K. and Washington, D.C., U.S.A.: Berg, 1996. 224 pp.,
bibliography. Index. Hardback
ISBN 1859731716;
Paperback ISBN 1859731767.

Washabaugh, William.
Flamenco: Pasión, política y cultura popular
trad. Verónica Canales y Enrique Folch González.
Barcelona: Paidós Ibérica, 2005. 251 págs.,
bibliografía. Índice. Rústica
ISBN 8449317320.

There are two reasons that warrant paying attention to Washabaugh's view on the body in Flamenco song performance, one prominent topic in his book Flamenco: Passion, Politics, and Popular Culture. On the one hand, the recent publication of this monograph in Spanish translation, at last offering the Spanish reader access to an anthropological and cultural studies approach to Flamenco which is noticeably different from the historiographic, aestheticist, or essentialist orientations of traditional flamencology; on the other hand, the steadily-growing interest in the body and embodiment—one of the hallmarks of existential phenomenology and the “postmodern turn” within the humanities and social sciences—that also motivates the issue of Trans in which the present review is published. Washabaugh's work examined from the standpoint of embodiment allows us to realize how much is still to be done in order to get rid of old scholarly contradictions and misunderstandings. I take his book as evidence of an unresolved question which calls for further research in ethnomusicology.

Since the time in which John Blacking (1977) heralded both in anthropology and ethnomusicology the interest in the bodily constraints on culture and music ("the biology of music making") much research has been conducted on embodiment in different related disciplines. A few years ago Horst Ruthrof (2000:vi) could point out that during “the last ten years or so” (now fifteen!) in the catalogues of the leading presses "the body runs through the titles like an oncoming spring tide," from literary theory and criticism to law and sociology, from gender studies to anthropology and philosophy—and I should like to add, from musicology to linguistics, from psychology to cognitive studies, and beyond. As one goes through this recent literature on the body—of which Washabaugh's monograph is just one example despite the fact that the body doesn’t appear in its title—it’s easy to realize that most of it is uneven in assumptions, scope, and methodology, and at times seems to perpetuate the Cartesian dichotomy mind/body running throughout Western modernity, a dichotomy that scholarship focusing on embodiment ultimately seeks to overcome.

Few contemporary authors seem to shed any light on the relevance of addressing embodiment in the humanities and social sciences. Anthropologist Thomas Csordas's arguments frame in part this issue and that’s why I bring them into consideration here at the starting point of my review. Csordas (2002:3), in fact, reminds us of the fundamental shifts about the nature of ethnography in anthropological theory that happened in the 1980s: (1st) the critique of culture in terms of "coherence, pattern, and holism" from the standpoint of an awareness of the importance of "margins, borders, and boundaries in cultural life," (2nd) the move from the interpretation of "meaning" to the critique of "power" as the central figure animating social life, and (3rd) the shift in emphasis from abstract "symbolic action" to "embodied and bodily experience" as necessary to understand the whole range of human experience in its wide scope. Ethnomusicology has usually followed the first two shifts with a delay of ten years or so. To my understanding, the third one is still on its way, due partly perhaps to John Blacking’s untimely death, and partly to the fact that it was consistently theorized in Anthropology only at the beginning of the 1990s (Csordas 1990). Flamenco: Passion, Politics, and Popular Culture shows us to which extent the problems that this shift seeks to overcome are still there in musical scholarship.

Washabaugh starts exploring the topic of the body right at the beginning of his book in Chapter 1: "The politics of passion: Flamenco, power, and the body." In this reworking of a paper that had previously appeared in the Journal of Musicological Research (Washabaugh 1995) one would expect an account of why embodiment is relevant to understand cultural, social, and political processes in music, and particularly in Flamenco. Washabaugh, instead, seems to be concerned with the body as an uncontrollable mass blindly carrying on “politicized” musical practices, rather than with the multidimensionality and complexity of embodiment itself.

Resorting to the concept of "metonymy, unusual in analyses of music and politics" (p. 4), he tries to develop the notion of "musical metonyms" as "behaviors that rehearse politics … through a course of action that has the potential of channeling interests and resolving quarrels" (p. 7). In Washabaugh's own terms, this is a "muscular politics" (p. 7) or a "muscular metonym" (ibid.), which may be said to consist in a “human politics … invisibly advanced by … momentarily bodily movements that are consonant with larger long-lived political agendas" (p. 8). Since bodies—Washabaugh claims—“inadvertently do politics while enjoying music" (p. 7), we should seek a "'body-based aesthetic[s]' that looks for politics not in words or metaphorical juxtapositions, but in the 'conversation between dancers and musicians or that between player and the instrument' (Keil and Feld 1994:56)" (p. 8).

One unsettling aspect of Washabaugh's book, however, is that most of the “ethnographic examples” he adduces in support of his theses come not from the lived experience of the author in Flamenco performances, but from secondary, mediated or scholarly sources. This leaves the reader wondering how in fact the embodied performances of Flamenco concretely channel larger Andalusian and Spanish political issues; how the ethnography of live Flamenco performances yields the points of “muscular metonym” that Washabaugh makes in his discourse. More often than not, this discourse is closer to an abstract theoretical reflection than to a grounded ethnographic description and discussion on embodied musical practices.

Thus, for instance, his contextualization of "political metonym" or "musical metonym" is made by just recurring to Carlos Saura's film Flamenco and to a short published comment of the filmmaker himself upon the politicization of his film. Then Washabaugh goes on to identifying seven contexts or "ideological claims" (p. 10), i.e., seven "narratives of Andalusian and Spanish social life" (ibid.), in which we are told that "Flamenco bodies work out their politics metonymically" (ibid.), namely nacionalismo, romanticismo, fatalismo, modernismo, franquismo, andalucismo, and gitanismo (in Spanish in the English original). We do not learn, however, how these ideologies "are promoted physically" (p. 1) in real performances by Flamenco singers, musicians, and dancers, i.e., in “performance contexts,” as one would expect.

Rather, a generic claim under the rubric of “Metonymic Aspects of the Flamenco Style” (p. 16) switches our attention into a new concept: Washabaugh says that Althusserian ideological “interpellations” “in an expanded sense” (not specified, but I guess he means “embodied”) are directed by “sedimented social memories” of “the bodies of artists and listeners [so as to] invisibly accomplish politics” (p. 16). This politics of “divergent interpellations” in relation to some Flamenco musical characteristics such as “orientalization” of songs, “synchronization” in performance, “dys-appearance” or inner collapse of consciousness when the body is in pain, and issues in “recording” sessions, Washabaugh tries to illustrate through a new set of mediated examples, mostly extracted from the documentary series Rito y Geografía del Cante aired on Spanish public television between 1971 and 1973. Thus, Washabaugh's observation of the “Flamenco body” is always made keeping distances, with a learned detachment from the very embodied relationships which create the meaning of lived experiences in Flamenco performance. And not surprisingly, this has expectable consequences.

On the one hand, his unproblematic and indiscriminate use of the term "body" both in the sense of "biological body" or in the sense of "embodied self"—at times also in other ambiguous senses. It doesn’t come as a surprise that such indiscriminate use goes hand in hand both with his undeclared assumption of the old Cartesian dichotomy mind/body and his embracing of the root metaphors of the old Newtonian physics (bodies within force fields inadvertently attracting each other or offering resistance). The "gravitational" dictums of Washabaugh’s discourse on embodiment and politics make my claims all the more apparent: "bodies caught in the politics of music" (p. 4), "a politics that has everything to do with bodies and little to do with thoughts" (p. 4), "muscles, not minds, accomplish politics in Flamenco performance" (p. 4), "Flamenco bodies, moving within the long-lived political force field of Andalusian social life, inadvertently comply with or resist specific political agendas" (p. 5), "the sort of politics that is accomplished by bodies" (p. 7), and so on.

On the other hand, Washabaugh's ethnographic detachment leads him to a dramatic incomprehension of the meaningfulness of the human body as the "existential ground of culture" (Csordas 2002:4), as the "ground of [human] experience" (Leder 1990:1) in its wide scope, or as the ground of any social communication. In Chapter 5: "The body," previously appeared in the journal Popular Music as "The Flamenco body" (Washabaugh 1994), the unresolved dichotomies of modernity which show up in his discourse on “muscular politics” become now a trouble for Washabaugh’s coherence. His contradictions alert us about the need to overcome such dichotomies if we are to account for the complexity and meaningfulness of human experience in musical performances, by acknowledging the existential aspects of embodied communication.

According to Washabaugh, Flamenco performance "resists the rules that govern [Western] conventional communicative expressions" (p. 98). But "[i]nstitutionally established channels … want us to hear all expressions as 'conduits of meaning'” (ibid.). Washabaug argues that flamencologists locate themselves in these channels when hypothesize about the so-called cante quejío—the "warbling" song which precedes the copla as an outburst of pain—trying in vain to find out its meaning: "dominant Western modes of interpreting song [performance] … fail to understand that the 'uselessness' of cante is its sharpest challenge to an oppressive institutional order that demands of expressions that they serve communicatively useful purposes” (p. 98).

In support of his assumption that cante quejío means nothing, Washabaugh points out that "bodies—i.e. embodied selves—in pain … become selfabsorbed [i.e., dys-appear]. They turn their intention inward" (p. 97) in such a way that they "truncate their normal outgoing … mode of operation, and begin exploring, feeling, and exclaiming about internal realities" (ibid.). In this way, pain prompts “a curious kind of introspective body-talk … that is rarely useful or productive,” it is but a “communicative dead-end” (ibid.). Washabaugh illustrates this with the example of Manuel Agujetas singing seguiriyas in one program of Rito y Geografía del Cante. The singer's "every movement communicates pain. To understand his song, one must first understand bodies in pain" (p. 97) because the Flamenco singer actually uses "his voice to introduce his own failed body into the landscape of [economic] disasters that is Andalusia" (p. 98). His collapsed body makes itself apparent in the singer’s ‘grain of the voice’ (Barthes 1977), that for Washabaugh communicates nothing. And similar to this, he contends, is the case of a radio commentator who, broadcasting the disaster of the Hindemith in the 1930s, became so deeply affected by what he was witnessing that he collapsed, started “warbling,” and was not able to communicate anything else through words. But, isn’t it a contradiction in terms to claim first that one may understand bodies in pain (p. 97), and then to sustain that "wherever bodies speak [“warbling”], it is fruitless to ask what they mean" (p. 101)?

Washabaugh wants us to believe that “Cante quejío gives pleasure rather than meaning” (p. 99) of any kind because outsiders contemplating the expression of a Flamenco singer’s body in pain have had sometimes exhilarating reactions. This is not only a new sign of Washabaugh’s detached stance with respect to the embodied experience of Flamenco singing he is trying to describe, but also a nonsensical celebration of Roland Barthes’s (1977) assumption that the “phonic,” bodily dimension of the human voice, its ‘grain’—as he named it, has only "pleasurable," "pre-semiotic" connotations. There is a fundamental misunderstanding underpinning both Barthes’s and Washabaugh’s idea of the meaninglessness of voice qua sonic medium springing forth from the body: they mistake language for communication, showing to which extent the old dichotomies reason/senses, mind/body still are inadvertently pervasive in our mindset. A Western cultural bias, in fact, historically has constructed the sound of the voice and the body as the radical alterity of the logos and the mind (Dolar 1996), ascribing meaning only to the latter.

To overcome this bias, Walter Ong (1981 [1967]) first drew our attention to the significant "presence of the word," i.e., the meaningful sensuous dimension of speech, claiming that the "[hum]an [being] communicates with his whole body." It’s all too obvious that this dimension has to do with states of the embodied self. That is why Corrado Bologna (1981, 1992) proposed to develop an "anthropology and metaphysics of the voice" that could account for its acoustical "materiality" as primary carrier of meanings both in our social and inner experiences. Contrary to Washabaugh’s argument, the "warbling," bodily voice of Flamenco singers in pain retreating from the word possesses a deep, transcendental meaning. And Caterina Pasqualino (1998) clearly showed it through a grounded ethnography of the Andalusian gypsies’ intimate song and dance parties in Jerez de la Frontera.

“[W]e should not assume—George Steiner (1976:12) reminded us long ago—that a verbal matrix is the only one in which the articulations and conduct of the mind are conceivable. There are modes of intellectual and sensuous reality founded not on language, but on other communicative energies such us the icon and the musical note." Despite abstract conceptualization like the one adopted by Washabaugh, it is a matter of fact that "a linguistic signifier [is] activated by nonverbal signs. … the signifier acts as a rule agreed upon by a community that sets 'boundaries' for what sort or nonverbal readings are to be selected in each instance as activating signs” (Ruthrof 2000:103-4). Plainly stated, embodied social communication precedes and grants meaning to words, as well as to any other kind of expressive signs. Human sounds and gestures, as musical signifiers emerging from the body or from the interaction of the body with instruments, are therefore apt vehicles for communication of socio-cultural realities and mindsets, independently of their association with words, although this is the most common thing in many kinds of song performance.

Washabaugh’s general conclusion is caught in the dichotomous contradictions of modernity: "In this chapter I have argued—he says—that bodies occupy a central rather than a marginal place in cante. In moments of music, both rhythmic and painful, the artists’ intention becomes secondary, and their bodies speak for themselves. And wherever bodies speak, it is fruitless to ask what they mean" (p. 101). Truly disappointing: not only because the whole range of anthropological research that over the years has explored the meanings of nonverbal behaviors in a variety of cultures, but also, and above all, because the “Flamenco body” Washabaugh wants to rescue from the monologic, rationalistic interpretations of Western “institutionally established channels” (p. 90) ultimately becomes discarded as a meaningless sign: it seems as if it were important that we pay attention to the body only because in musical performance the body takes over the reigns of rational consciousness and carries on an inadvertent politics, manifestation of “the muscular chaos of music” (p. 91).

To my understanding, music is only possible because human bodily movements can be organized and manifested into sound. The body, rather than a source of chaos and disaster, is the source of order both for human consciousness to grow and for musical performance to spring forth as manifestation of creativity and experiential understanding. It is not by chance that the Western philosophical tradition which has reduced the body to a meaningless curiosity mistaking it as a burden to communication, also has reduced music to an “absolute,” purportedly disembodied, combination of sounds, and has been more concerned with abstract “representation” of realities than with the live, creative experiences of ongoing life manifested in real performances. In this respect, Thomas Csordas (2002:3) has distinguished textual(ist) or representational (semiotic) approaches to experience—which for him remain "inflections" of experience itself—from existential or being-in-the-world (phenomenological) approaches which focus on immediacy, indeterminacy, sensibility, and the vividness of experience.

To overcome this uncomfortable dichotomy which echoes the old, untenable opposition mind/body, his project in cultural phenomenology based on a paradigm of embodiment looks for the complementation of both kinds of approaches. The recognition that “our body is a product of culture no less than of biology”—i.e., that it is more than a physical or muscular, chaotic mass at the mercy of gravitational fields—has for Csordas (2002:4)"the potential to transform our understanding of both body and culture"The body rather than simply the physical or "biological ground" of culture—as John Blacking first proposed in ethnomusicology—may be shown to be its "existential ground," and thus become equally religious, linguistic, historical, cognitive, emotional, artistic (Csordas 2002:4), or for that matter, musical. Washabaugh’s narrow concern with “muscular politics” of Flamenco bodies collapsing and inadvertently resisting ideologies, gives little space for all these interesting possibilities.

The value of Washabaugh’s reflections on the body is to be found elsewhere. As I understand it, in his contraposition of the way in which Western song performances, both Classical and Popular, are conceived of and enacted on the one hand, and of the way in which the "undeniably physical and incontrovertibly corporeal" (p. 88) Flamenco song performances are carried out on the other hand. This contraposition illuminates, in fact, how Western modern culture tacitly imposes abstract categories on most traditions of music as they are incorporated into the modern stage, overshadowing thus the most obviously bodily, dialogical, and often multifocal nature that they boast when performed at homes, in streets, and other traditional private and public venues.

The modern stage—Washabaugh contends—has constrained musical activity in Western culture by playing up two different secularized conceptions of song performance with which other kinds of song traditions are arbitrarily requested to comply. On the one hand, a "communal" song model—cultivated in the Roman Church—originally consisting of blended, homophonic voices creating a single-voice, disembodied effect, then "transformed into a model of rationalist-universalist social relations" (p. 92). And on the other hand, an "individualist" song model—cultivated in Protestantism—of single, polyphonic voices coming together but remaining separate, then "transformed into [a model of] competitive individualistic social relations" (ibid.). In Western modern Popular culture, thus, songs are first inscribed into the singers' voices as messages purportedly conveying universal, abstract values of humankind as a global “community,” and then sent into the market in a disembodied way for competition and validation. The Western relegation of physical experience to the margins—Washabaugh claims—has transformed "the heteroglossic manifold of musical practice into products of a pure heart, a unified soul, … an authentic spirit" (p. 91) of monologic dimension which finds its ideal and physical mold in the modern stage.

By reiterating the contemplative, aesthetic, emotional, and intellectual elements of Flamenco song—Washabaugh goes on—flamencologists “marginalize the bodies of singers" (p. 90), subscribing implicitly to "assumptions about music and mind which leave little or no role for the body" (ibid.). "Flamencologists pursue conventional Western channels of musical interpretation that, while taken for granted by most people, treat bodies as peripheral and ornamental with respect to significant social action" (pp. 90-91). Even if I could subscribe to these critiques, it is all too obvious that this is not an exclusive problem of flamencologists. So, why to blame only them? Rather, we ethnomusicologists—as well as many other humanities scholars—have our important share in this state of affairs. Not to mention Washabaugh himself, who brings the Flamenco body to the forefront of our attention, only to succumb to the dichotomous assumption of the Cartesian worldview by proclaiming the body's meaninglessness in human communication.

This worldview still looms large on much musical research. As we see, in unexpected ways. The problem calls, therefore, for our endeavor to overcome it in non-reductionist ways. In the same line of thinking, sociologist Harvie Ferguson (2000:21-2) argues that “the body has become available as a sociological topic only to the extent that it is conceptualized as something other than a living human presence. Thus, … a historical understanding of modern forms of embodiment remains to be fully developed.” My guess is that ethnomusicology has much to do in this sense.

By way of conclusion, I would not say that Washabaugh’s book is not worth reading: it is the sign of a struggle for overcoming the contradictions of obsolete paradigms and ethnocentric assumptions in the field of musical scholarship—something we ethnomusicologists are still far from having fully achieved. For this reason, although Washabaugh is not successful in his struggle for recovering the body from its scholarly ostracism in a way that makes sense, at least Flamenco: Passion, Politics, and Popular Culture is indirectly stimulating for those who wish to carry on this struggle critically, i.e., without renouncing to understand why it is worthwhile.


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  • Washabaugh, William. 1994. The Flamenco body. Popular Music 13, no. 1:75-90.
  • ________. 1995. The politics of passion. Journal of Musicological Research 15:85-112. College Park, MD 8/19/05

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