Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Ellen Dissanayake brings a wealth of knowledge and a sharp intellect to bear on the question of the origins of music ("Antecedents of the Temporal Arts in Early Mother-Infant Interaction," The Origins of Music, Wallin et al. (eds.), Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000, pp. 389-410). The Abstract:

Speculations about the biological origins of music, like other human social behaviors, typically assume that competition affecting reproductive success was and is the ultimate evolutionary driving force. A different approach maintains that human music originated in perceptual, behavioral, cognitive and emotional competencies and sensitivities that developed from primate precursors in survival-enhancing, affiliative interactions (using ritualized packages of sequential vocal, facial and kinesthetic behaviors) between mothers and infants under six months of age. Thus music in its origins is viewed as a multimedially presented and multimodally processed activity of temporally and spatially patterned–exaggerated and regularized–vocal, bodily, and even facial movements. It is held that because of increasing infant altriciality during hominization, the primate propensity for relationship or emotional communion, not simply sociability, became so crucial that special affiliative mechanisms evolved to enhance and ensure it. These mechanisms in turn could be further developed (as in the temporal arts, including music) to serve affiliative bonding among adults in a species where close cooperation also became unprecedentedly critical for individual survival. That musical ability (like any variable attribute) can be and is used competitively in particular instances is not denied. However, the hypothesis offered here is able to address and account for music's specific and widely attested power to coordinate and conjoin individuals both physically and psychologically.

Any evolutionary argument about Homo sapiens that notices extreme altriciality is probably on the path to some sort of knowledge. Here I only mean to comment on a few of Dissanayake's observations rather than continue her argument against predominant conjectures in the field of sociobiology. However, we should be clear as to the kind of activity she means for us to attend to, and it's helpful in that regard to clearly understand her argument:

The trend towards increasingly helpless infants surely created intense selective pressure for proximate physiological and cognitive mechanisms to ensure longer and better maternal care. I suggest that the solution to this problem was accomplished by coevolution in infants and mothers of rhythmic, temporally patterned, jointly maintained communicative interactions that produced and sustained positive affect–psychobiological brain states of interest and joy–by displaying and imitating emotions and motivations of affiliation, and thereby sharing, communicating, and reinforcing them.

(p. 390)

Dissanayake would direct our attention in the first place not to maternal singing but rather to rhythmic interactions between infants and primary care givers prior even to the onset of babble.

I do not refer to lullabies or to maternal singing but to early interactions, ritualized packages of sequential behaviors, vocal, facial, and kinesic, between mothers and infants under six months of age. I thus view music in its origin more broadly than as vocalizations, rather, as a multimodal or multimedia activity of temporally patterned movements. I also emphasize its capacity not only to attract and charm individuals, but to coordinate the emotions of participants and thus promote conjoinment.

(ibid., Dissanayake's emphases)

Dissanayake is saying that music and movement are originally one. This perspective leads her to be critical of various theoretical assumptions about music, language and cognition. "As theorists tended to neglect the importance of gesture to language and thought and the importance of prosody to spoken language, so the integral importance of bodily movement in musical behavior has been overlooked," she says (p. 397). It is silent and motionless listening which would need to be explained (making one point of agreement with James H. Johnson). Further, she asks us to be critical of the established science of mother-infant interactions, arguing that an "overemphasis on vocal behavior in mother-infant studies also distorted and confused theoretical debate and conjecture" (ibid.). She clearly asserts that "[d]espite the research emphasis on highly vocal, dramatic, American middle-class interactions of mothers and infants, kinesics is the dominant interactive modality at four months" (p. 398, my bold).

I have to admit a soft spot for anybody who would trace the idea the temporal arts are about the transmission of emotional dispositions from one generation to the next back to The Andaman Islanders. I'm going to have to raise a quibble though, for what it's worth. Dissanayake says that it's not enough to look at rhythmicity alone in mother-infant interactions. She argues that instead we need to look at how violations of expectation structure experience; we need to look at how anticipations are created, manipulated, delayed and satisfied (or not, I reckon). This is an argument about affect and sharing affect. Theorists of affect, she tells us, regard affect in general as "a response to some change–to novelty, strangeness, or uncertainty"(p. 395). She cites Beatrice Beebe and Frank Lachmann's "Representation and internalization in infancy: Three principles of salience," to tell us that infants' expectations in dyadic interactions are organized according to (1) regulation, (2) disruption and repair, and (3) heightened affective moments. Dissanayake says that "[e]xperience is organized by contrast, disjunction, and difference" but perhaps she means only to describe experience in one phase of disruption and repair on the way to heightened affective moments. In talking about music and its antecedents should we be talking about experiences organized by contrast, disjunction and difference, as well as the emotional response to such strangeness? If so, then a question arises in my mind. Although we may grant that our emotional responses to music are difficult to describe, they should in principle be empirically knowable. I would propose that the agent of musical experience and the agent of knowing a musical experience should both be called "consciousness," though I am not unaware of the problematic nature of talking about consciousness and agency in such a way. So we're coming up to my quibble. Dissanayake reports that "[t]ogether, mother and baby practice and perfect their attunement by engaging in mutually improvised (jointly constructed) dyadic interactions in which each partner tracks the durations of movements and holds in emotionally expressive behaviors of face and body, or vocal phrases and pauses (sounds and silences), of the other." She then concludes that "[t]he rapidity with which these sequences are performed suggests that they occur partly or fully out of conscious control"(p. 391). Well, nothing of the kind has been suggested to me. On the contrary learning about the emotional capabilities of infants leads me to believe that consciousness is not as slow as some theories, folk and scientific, would have us believe. If we're going to accept Dissanayake's invitation to look beyond rhythmicity to coordinations of expectation and surprise, and I presume, conjoinments of emotional responses to the unexpected, i.e. conjoinments of surprise, wouldn't we have to be talking about conscious experiences even if we meant, for some reason, to talk about the conscious mind's encounters with the unconscious, that is, irruptions of the uncanny or some such? Just a quibble, and one I've left in the form of a question because I'd like to be open to a variety of ways of talking about consciousness.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 11:48 AM.


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