Untying Bodies

September 9, 2016   •   By Naomi Waltham-Smith

Phantom Limbs

Peter Szendy

PEKITI-TIRSIA KALI, an indigenous Filipino combat art also known as “the dance of the blade,” calls for a phantom third hand. The attacker must use one hand as if she had two. To the opponent, this gesture seems like the momentary manufacture of a third hand. Kali’s third hand is what Peter Szendy would call an “effiction,” a concept he borrows from an old figure of Latin rhetoric (effictio) that denoted the head-to-toe verbal fashioning of a body. But Szendy also hears in this term a contraction of “fiction” and “efficacy.” The phantom limb is fabricated and yet effective. It has “a strange modality of insistence and persistence.” The effective body is less than the body that actually occupies space and yet more than mere artistic semblance. Peter Szendy’s book is all about bodies, organs, limbs, and members that, like Kali’s third hand, do not exist apart from their fabrication in the body-to-body interaction of performance. Their existence, always on the point of becoming embodied, is felt in their effects.

Phantom Limbs: On Musical Bodies, translated by Will Bishop, thus makes the seemingly perverse claim that bodies do not make music, but that music makes bodies. Music, to adapt Nietzsche’s dictum about interpretation, is “the formation of organs.” In fact, music forms a whole proliferation of organs. In the early 18th century, keyboardists had too many fingers, but by the middle of the century they had too few. So, one of J. S. Bach’s sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel, considered how one might “comfortably acquire […] as many fingers as needed.” Translators tend to think this refers to expanding the range covered by the fingers, but Szendy instructs us to take Bach at his word. Music quite literally gives birth to phantom fingers. It is a provocative claim. Throughout the book, Szendy invites us to take literally various metaphorical descriptions of musical bodies and their effects. These playful reversals have the potential to open up bold new horizons for thinking about musical performance and musicians’ bodies.

Szendy’s “general organology” radicalizes a stuffy discipline, overturning its pedestrian premises. Organology, typically concerned with musical instruments played by human bodies, now examines the organs produced by this interaction. The author dislocates both instrument and bodies, refusing to draw a clear line between them. One of his first examples is Glenn Gould’s fantasy that he would simply be the piano, rendering himself superfluous: “Glenn Steinway, Steinway Glenn,” all in one. Szendy isn’t interested in how musicians’ bodies use musical instruments or even in how these bodies themselves are instrumentalized. Rather, he speaks of a “hand-to-hand struggle” that cannot be reduced to either of its terms. This is not merely an interaction between body and instrument, but a transformation through the engagement with the instrument; the performer experiences her “own” self as this body-to-body contact. One version of organology would have it that there has been a continuous exteriorization of the human body into its spatial prostheses: limbs become musical instruments, internal organic cavities turn into external resonators and spaces such as theaters. The body, on this account, becomes increasingly instrumental until it is suddenly completely dispossessed. But Szendy asks us to consider: what if the body were originarily instrumental, already dislocated from itself?

Szendy’s logic here owes much to his deconstructive heritage. But the book wears its philosophical learning lightly. There is no open hand-to-hand combat with Jacques Derrida or Jean-Luc Nancy. Their influence is nonetheless strongly felt in two premises that drive Szendy’s analysis. The first — a recurring theme in Szendy’s work — is announced early on in Chapter One, when the author asks whether it is really possible to have a body. Is the body really mine when I withdraw my hands from the keyboard and its multiplication of fingers? Derrideans would label this “exappropriation.” There is never anything that is properly my own, the logic goes, and everything I seek to appropriate for myself always recedes beyond my grasp. For Szendy, this means that there is no proper body of the pianist that exists apart from its creation in the confrontation with the keyboard. The musician does not first have a body which she brings to performance. Rather, music fabricates a body. The same music, the same challenging passages of virtuosic fingerwork, will have similar effects time and time again. For that reason, it makes no sense to say that this effective body belongs to the musician. It has a life of its own. Music’s effictions survive the musicians’ bodies they temporally possess.

For this reason, too, musical performance is also an experience of body-to-body contact with one’s own body. It’s as if one encounters oneself anew in playing. Szendy’s examples span historical periods and musical genres, although there is a clear penchant for thinking through these issues at the keyboard. The quirky American jazz pianist and legendary improviser Thelonious Sphere Monk experienced the distance of himself to himself more than any other musician, claims Szendy. He was out of sync with himself. His right hand was awkward and modern, his left classic and straight. Moreover, as a young child learning the piano, he had installed a mirror above the keyboard and played with his eyes turned up toward the ceiling. He encountered himself only indirectly. Later, he would hit a chord only to raise his hands suddenly as if he’d received a jolt from the piano. He’d stare at the instrument perplexed, as if, like Glenn Steinway, it had played itself by itself. Szendy takes up and runs with this experience of “autophony,” an autonomous sounding, a mechanical instrument that plays of its “own” accord. Monk encounters his playing, his body, precisely in what is played without him. He is dazed by the mechanical hands produced through the musical interaction, hands that don’t seem to be his own.

Closely related to the theme of the improper body is the second deconstructionist notion that animates Szendy’s readings. There is no “the” sense of touch, Nancy tells us. There is no “the” hand, no “the” ear, says Derrida, going hand-to-hand with Heidegger. So, too, there is no “the” body, no “the” limb. This is another way of saying that there is no hand that exists independently of its contact with the keyboard. But the emphasis is not now on propriety, on the hand that does not belong, but on the problematic singleness of the organ. There is not a single right hand, but a proliferation of multiple hands and multiple fingers. So it is that there is a third hand in Kali, mirroring Derrida’s desire to add third members to our various pairs of organs: three hands or, like Nietzsche, a third ear. But even three is not enough. Music puts no limit on the number of fingers or hands it calls for.

This explains Szendy’s fascination with the keyboard. As he notes, other instruments do place restrictions: on the flute or clarinet each finger covers a given hole. Keyboard fingering, though, is completely arbitrary. The run of keys could just as easily be played by fewer or more fingers. Szendy credits C. P. E. Bach with being the first to have this insight: there is no natural position of the hand at the keyboard. Almost any finger, with the usual exception of the thumb, could be substituted for any other. Fingering is simply a matter of expediency, and frequently, as pianists will attest, it would be much easier if we just had one more finger to get around the notes more smoothly without having to count how many fingers are left before the thumb is summoned. What matters is the substitutability of the finger. Its capacity to be exchanged sets up a kind of general economy of the keyboard. You can play the keyboard with as many or as few fingers, or even with more than 10 or with none at all and just some substitute prosthesis, like a piece of fruit or a paint roller. Elsewhere, Szendy describes one such act of virtuosity; the scene in Go West (1940) where Chico Marx plays “The Woodpecker Song” at the piano. His right index finger takes on a life of its own, acting with atypical independence, trading places in various ways with other fingers, silently pointing toward virtual motions and even knocking on the lid of the piano. At the end, Chico grabs an apple with his right hand and continues to play with this prosthesis. No bodily organ is irreplaceable.

The classic substitution of middle for index finger, used by pianists for rapid rearticulations of the same key, is recharacterized here as a single index finger split in two. Later in the book, Szendy cites Disney’s Fantasia and, although he doesn’t mention this scene, one immediately thinks of the magic broom axed in half which then multiplies uncontrollably in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” But in that episode all the magic brooms do the same thing. Szendy is interested in the multiplication of functions or uses to which the finger may be put. It is not just that music can fabricate multiple extra organs, but that it repurposes them. Each organ, each limb, each member is divided from itself. That is why there can be no “the” finger — not because there can be multiple fingers, but because there is no finger that could be constrained to a single definition or use.

Music, then, entails not just the creation of organs in greater number, but also their wholesale reinvention. In his earlier book Listen (2008), Szendy adopted Catherine Malabou’s notion of “plasticity,” performing a deconstruction on the ear similar to the one he now performs on the finger and the hand. He established that “my” listening is never my “own.” I am always overhearing and rearranging someone else’s hearing. And there is no “the” ear. It is split from itself into multiple uses and possibilities. So too with my finger. It is never “mine” but gains a life of its own, innervated by the body-to-body contact with the keyboard. At the same time, it is always split into multiple ways of striking, hitting, and stroking the keys.

Szendy’s provocative, counterintuitive claims resonate with another book that has recently come out in translation, Giorgio Agamben’s The Use of Bodies. Agamben is no stranger to deconstruction, with which he enjoys an ambivalent and often fraught relationship. The parallels are unmistakable. Key to Agamben’s idea of a “new” or “free” use is that it shows it is impossible to “have” one’s body or to make “proper” use of it. Rather, this new use deactivates any canonical or normative use, instead freeing the body up for new possible uses. A comparison of Phantom Limbs and The Use of Bodies reveals fascinating points of convergence and of tension, especially since the biopolitical dimension is largely absent from Szendy’s account of bodies. Agamben, for example, thinks of the use of the body as the experience of a body being affected as it effects, of being affected by itself as it comes into contact with a body. His refusal to distinguish between active and passive might challenge Szendy’s idea of a “peculiar agency of phantom limbs and organs that the musical body-to-body experience causes to emerge.” Challenging, too, is Agamben’s desire to hold onto a clandestine proximity of the body. Szendy’s account, true to its deconstructive impulse, focuses on the exteriority of the musician’s body and explicitly calls for “giving up on any privilege of figures of proximity or contact.” But what of the ways in which performance and the engagement with the instrument exposes the body’s uncanny intimacy? There is surely in musical performance an experience not simply of the body being out there, observable in a mirror as an alienated mechanism, but also of the body being too close, of being subjected to, of suffering the body and all its idiosyncratic habits. Szendy, though, committed to Nancy’s idea of an originary resonant spacing, goes in a different direction.

For Agamben, it is essential that a new use of the body render its normative function inoperative. This privative moment is also important for Malabou. Thinking of the brain’s infinite capacity to reinvent itself and to reform even through trauma, Malabou argues that plasticity is the capacity to take and to give form, but also to destroy it. In his roving history of musical bodies, Szendy gives us various multiplications of fingers and transformations of one organ into another. For example, he describes the right pedal of the piano as a prosthesis of the foot that turns it into a lung. Similarly, the organist’s feet, which pick out notes on another keyboard of sorts, essentially function as extra two “fingers.” There are no examples, though, of music outright destroying bodily organs, at least not quite in Malabou’s explosive sense. But Szendy does note how the codification and standardization of piano fingering in the 19th century effectively reduces the number of fingers and diminishes the number of possible uses. We might say, in Agamben’s parlance, that certain uses of the fingers, once available to Couperin at the beginning of the 18th century, have become inoperative 150 years later.

Ultimately, Szendy’s wide-ranging, deeply engaging tome is a history of musical bodies — more precisely, of the gradual emergence of the spacing between these bodies, which permits them to sound in the first place. Here Szendy is very close to Nancy, who thinks the originary dislocation at the heart of being as sonic resonance. Szendy echoes one of Nancy’s terms: “areality.” This is less a question of music producing unreal bodies than of music’s assembling bodies, distributed over an area in space, and tying them to one another and to themselves only by threads. Szendy draws attention, then, to the various couplings by which bodies resonate together, spread out in space. The conductor, on this analysis, weaves together the ties between the members of the orchestra to produce a collective body. The conductor is literally an “electric conduction” that galvanizes or electrifies the players. What is important, in comparison with the keyboardist whose phrasing ties the fingers together, is the distance over which the conductor forms these couplings. With the advent of radiotelephony, that distance grows. Szendy’s history is of a vast process of gradually unlinking musical bodies, albeit one that is often accompanied by an injunction to link.

Szendy’s historical narrative is innovative, but some might be left wondering as to its politics. Other accounts of the coming together of musical bodies, and interpretations of the orchestra in particular, are paeans to solidarity. But Szendy locates music’s political “engagement” in its capacity to create tiny deviations from organ to organ. If we can speak of a politics here, it consists in music’s capacity to reinvent the body. Malabou has chastised the deconstruction of biopolitics for restricting the possibility of resistance to a symbolic plane discourse separate from biology and thereby repeating the biopolitical gesture par excellence of dividing life in two. Instead, she has called for thinking political engagement on the basis of biological life’s capacity to reinvent itself. Through Szendy’s eyes, we begin to see music, with its fabrication of phantom sonorous bodies, as a possible site for such resistance. Quite radically, it is a politics that depends as much on untying bodies as on tying them together.

Szendy’s writing is always entertaining and playful, but this can tend to make it all the more difficult to navigate with precision. One may be tempted to read Phantom Limbs for its provocative collisions and dissipating resonances alone — to marvel at Szendy’s eclectic examples and to enjoy the rhythm of his prose. Yet if we do not attend to the nuances of the book’s deconstructive apparatus, we may misread it as a straightforward endorsement of musicology’s rather unsophisticated turn toward musical materiality. This danger presents itself most clearly at the end, when Szendy approvingly cites Helmut Lachenmann’s elevation of sound’s corporeal and energetic aspect. If we follow Szendy’s subtle argument carefully, however, we will discover that he has precluded any naïve reappropriation of the body proper. Phantom Limbs thus demands the very close hearing that it puts into question. Ironically and appropriately, just at the point when the author extends deconstruction to the sphere of musical bodies and organology, the threads that tie his thought to other resonant philosophical bodies bind all the more strongly.


Naomi Waltham-Smith is assistant professor of music at the University of Pennsylvania.