Bennett Hogg

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Culture, Consciousness, and the Body: The Notion of Embodied Consciousness as a Site of Cultural Mediation in Thinking About Musical Free Improvisation (2009)

This is a paper I gave at the conference “The Musical Body” at the Institute of Musical Research, London, on 23rd April 2009.


Musical free improvisation is one of several cultural practices that problematizes those Western epistemological positions that construct a division between the physical and mental self.  Both within the practice itself and at many levels of discourse about improvisation, the split between consciousness as something located in the mind, and action as something located in the body, is continually brought under interrogation.  Though this paper argues that a “bodily consciousness” has been a significant trope in conceptualisations of improvisation since the first widespread blossoming of the practice in the 1960s, such conceptualisations often run the risk of essentialising and naturalising “the body/bodily” in ways that are ultimately unrepresentative and unproductive.

Using ideas from consciousness studies, in particular theories of “enactive consciousness”, I begin from a position in which the body and consciousness are mutually inseperable.  Whereas some earlier epistemological positions have sought to locate “the cultural” in a mind equated with consciousness, leaving “the body” to nature,  the notion of enactive consciousness offers an epistemology that, in including the body in consciousness, does not evade its cultural role, and thereby offers up a productive dialogue with Foucauldian perpectives on the body as a site of cultural “inscription”.  In this paper I am particularly interested in how free improvisation can be thought about from the perspective of “the body” where the body is both an active participant in, and something that is in a sense formed by, culture.  Where some perspectives that see free improvisation as informed by and structured by embodiment have represented it as something like an escape from culture through tapping in to originary or natural modes of expression, I argue that it is a site of cultural mediation and intertextuality where gesture, aesthetics, interaction, and structure are corporealised in acting bodies for whom the conditions of possibility of meaningful musical action – however counter-hegemonic they may be in intention – are always learned and culturally constructed.  The musical body is as much a site at which culture is recorded as is the musical mind (memory), prescriptive notation, or technologically-mediated recording.

click on title below for the paper, which still needs footnotes and references adding, when I get round to it!

Culture, Consciousness, and the Body