"Metaphors we live by . . ." an invited talk given at the Freedom of Movement symposium at Iklectik Art Space, Lambeth on 16.03.2019

The following is the draft text of a talk I gave in March 2019 as part of Freedom of Movement at the Lambeth arts venue Iklectik. The talk is entitled "Metaphors we live by . . .", a title shamelessly stolen from Lackoff and Johnson's book of the same name. In it I try to de-colonialize some of the metaphors we use to talk about creativity, and provisionally suggest that the notion of "being at home" might be a less problematic metaphor than "breaking boundaries" or "new territories" when we improvise participate in creative art making, or thinking.


Freedom of Movement 3 was the third in a series of events on the theme of borders and freedom, both political and creative. I was privileged to be part of this symposium organised by Nell Catchpole and Jan Hendrickse, lecturers at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London University,t hat brought Claudia Molitor, Steve Beresford, Bashir Saade and myself together with an enthusiastic, thoughtful, and creative group of MA students from Goldsmiths, and members of the local improv and arts communities for a day of presentations, discussion, and musicking.

"Metaphors we live by . . ."


During the recent governmental shut-down in the United States, a number of National Parks, deprived of their usual staff of park rangers, were seriously damaged by off-road driving, polluted with large amounts of litter and, in the case of Joshua Tree National Park, illegal tree-felling. Few philosophers, I think, would argue that those responsible were acting as anything other than free individuals. They were certainly not coerced in any sense that make sense to me. No doubt they see themselves as exercising exactly those freedoms that that George W. Bush accused the Muslim world of hating. Freedom - so-called - is written into the American psyche, and, more generally, the contemporary psyche of Western capitalism. The "free market" has become the very bedrock of this worldview. Of course, this is an incredibly complex issue, and I mention it here simply as an emblem of the extent to which the seemingly positive notion of freedom is inseparable from its sinister side, the "I'm going to do what I damn well like, and the rest of you losers can just suck it up!" side of "freedom". I want to talk today about some of the metaphors we use to talk about artistic and cultural freedom, and to ask some important questions about them.


There are complex cultural stories across the world where borders, insiders and outsiders as designated by those borders, and a contingent understanding of freedom are concatenated together for political effect. The current hysteria in some communities the United Kingdom about "freedom of movement", or more precisely hysteria about "ending freedom of movement", is one of the sources for the title of our symposium today. But the extent to which "securing the borders" has become an obsession for some of the political classes can be seen in the case of those young women who left the UK to join Islamic State. A decade ago, politicians and members of the public would have been howling for such individuals to be extradicted to face trial in the UK, but the anxiety among politicians to be seen to be upholding an end to "freedom of movement", post-Referendum, mean that these women are now stripped of their citizenship and excluded from the country. It is, I think, a symptom of something, though a symptom of what exactly I am as yet quite unsure.


Ours is an historical moment where the so-called "integrity" of borders has become such an unhealthy obsession that any crossing, pushing against, or breaking of borders is surely a good thing?

Trying to arrive at a definition of any relatively controversial term - like Freedom, for instance - often reminds me of something an old friend of mine used to say. "You know it's time to leave the party when the conversation turns to discussing the nature of God". It's not worth staying, because the conversation will never actually go anywhere. It will simple circle round and round. We can't objectively know the nature of God, so we're rather lost in terms of arriving at a definition. Any concrete definitions we can arrive at for ourselves will be subjective contingencies for others. Freedom, similarly, is not something we can objectively know. I'm sure I'm not alone in finding myself, towards the end of some parties, being sucked into a vortex of argument and counter-argument for and against the possibility of "real" freedom. Once sober, however, instead of banging my head against this problem, if problem it is, I'd rather take a leaf out of improvising pianist and philosopher of music Christopher Small's book, Musicking. As many of you will know, Small proposes that asking the question what music is is not, actually, a particularly useful question to ask. Why? Because, as he writes, "there is no such thing as music"; music is not a noun, it's a verb, it's an action, not something we can have. How can we understand freedom, then, not as a thing, but as something we do? How do we "do" freedom?


As I've already said, defining freedom and then talking about is is not, for me at least, much of an option. Instead, I want to look at some of the metaphors we draw on to talk about freedom, as clues to how we do freedom as a culture. In particular I want to look at these metaphors as we apply them in the context of artistic creativity. Basically, I want to historicise those metaphors, and explore some of the ideologies that gave rise to them, and which help to sustain them. And hopefully the US National Parks example I started with will start to make more sense as I proceed.


Let's take a look at some phrases we use to describe the cultural effects of exercising our creative freedom. One phrase we might use is "breaking new territory" in an album, performance, or composition. Why should this carry such powerful cultural force? The notion of new territories, or The New World, as the Americas are sometimes called, is inextricably linked to what is known as the Columbian Exchange, the large-scale migration of Europeans to the Americas after Columbus's first contact with them in 1492. The New World was, of course, only new to the Europeans. Native Americans had been there for at least 12, 000 years. When we talk about an artist "breaking new territory" we are implying that they're coming up with something new, something no one else has done, and yet, there is catch in the metaphor - what Derrida would call a point of deconstruction where the metaphor unravels, deconstructs itself. Every new territory that humans have broken into was always somebody else's - human or more-than-human - old territory. This is an inescapable strand of meaning as soon as we talk about territory of any sort.


An artist who is "out there" on their own, an original not an imitator, is someone who acquires value - if not in their lifetime then posthumously. Often the term "pioneer" is applied to them, but this also quite clearly names a colonial value system. It also, though, ascribes value to the lone individual working at the "frontiers" of the known world, and this serves as a cultural model for individualism and, in the arts, originality. Before the Age of the Enlightenment, and the emergence of empiricism and the scientific method, originality was not nearly as valued as it has been since then. Knowledge was grounded in authority, and that authority was grounded in certain prescribed texts - The Bible, Aristotle, Boethius, etc.


Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, for example, first published in 1621, runs, in its modern edition, to 432 pages of quotation and counter-quotation. Burton's disputations are not tested against empirical reality, but conducted between the ideas and assertions of previous writers. Intellectual and artistic value, prior to the Enlightenment, was measured against one's adherence to, and efficacy in the understanding of the prescriptions laid out in such texts. One of the major impacts of the "discovery" of the Americas in the late 15th century would be the question "Why was this not in The Bible? Why did the classical geographers not mention this continent?" The doubt cast over centuries of received wisdom by this singular event would transform knowledge and politics in the centuries to follow.

When we understand this transformation within the context of the emergence of capitalism during the same period, the extent to which new territories, a pioneering attitude, and originality become flattened together becomes clear. New territory is new wealth, originality is marketability - Beethoven had something to sell that no other composer did; Beethoven! As Tim Fulford, Debbie Lee, and Peter Kitson among others demonstrate, European cultural values, exploration, colonialism, commerce, and the exploitation of others are deeply implicated in one another.


There is a laissez-faire position that sees the fact that artistic originality is imbricated deeply with the marketisation of culture to mean that it is no different to any other activity associated with the modern world. This is the kind of argument that says "they're all as bad as each other" or "it's always been the same", a fatalism that lets oppression and cruelty and environmental destruction off the hook. But the really insidious effect of the artist as "Culture Hero", of the "one-off", the genius ahead of their time is the extent to which originality, identified with the individual, leads to a downgrading of the communitarian. We see this in Adorno's critique of "Mass Culture" back in the middle of the 20th century (when, arguably, "mass cultures" of one sort or another were vehicles of similarly sinister political forces we deem "populist" politics today). But this valorisation of the outstanding individual who is not hampered by artistic or intellectual convention is part of the same ideology that has given rise to the ugly neologism "sheeple", a term that not only puts people at the level of domestic livestock, but which, through rehearsing and repeating the negative, anthropocentric associations mapped onto livestock also misrepresents the individuality of sheep. Spend some time with sheep, and you may well find that they amaze you. I'm sure we can all come up with similar figures of speech in which the communal is negatively compared with the outstanding, the original, the non-conforming individual.


Staying with metaphors of place, some artists are said to work "at the frontiers" of their field. But the idea of the frontier, as I've already suggested, is an inescapably colonial idea. The frontier is, implicitly, the edge of where we have reached with the certain knowledge and established intention that we will go further. A frontier is almost by definition a boundary destined to move, a challenge to courage, resourcefulness, imagination, or endurance, with great rewards for those individuals willing to face up to the challenge. But when we work "at the frontiers" of science or art, colonisation, empire, and war are never terribly far away. These very metaphors, and the value systems they embody, are deeply imperial. Though we might individually wish to dissociate ourselves from such associations, and instead claim that being "at the frontier" or "breaking new ground" simply add to our knowledge, and are therefore "good things", there is a history to how these ideas have acquired their value, a history sedimented into the metaphors we have inherited to talk about the world that no one individual can rewrite. It is something that we have to live with the knowledge of, that the power of some of these metaphors is an imperial power. We cannot pick and choose as though empire and genocide never happened. This is what I mean by historicizing our metaphors.

Sonic ontologies

I'm going to shift emphasis, now, to another of the themes of the symposium, the question as to whether sound has the ". . . capacity to disrupt conventional ontologies and boundaries . . ." established by a predominantly visual culture such as ours.


It is a fairly commonly held view that Western modernity is dominated by "the visual". In their very different ways, Jonathan Crary's Techniques of the Observer, Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle, the essays collected in David Michael Levin's Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision, and the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's idea of "the ego's era" - particularly in Theresa Brennan's exegesis - critically engage with this apparent dominance of the visual. More recently, a number of thinkers have sought to recuperate those senses subordinated by this visual bias, and the emergence of the interdisciplinary field of "sound studies" is probably the most prominent marker of this epistemological shift. Within this new discipline, sound is often understood to be participative and immersive; participative because we make sounds as well as hearing them, whereas we do not make light; immersive, because sound seems to surrounds us, and we cannot turn our ears off the way that we can close our eyes. In contradistinction vision distances and objectifies, and Salome Voegelin's excellently thoughtful book Listening to Noise and Silence has a very eloquent account of this.


She proposes that the sensibility of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception [quotes] ". . . is not that of vision ... it is sonic perception, which is free of the visual stranglehold on knowledge and experience. Sound does not describe [an already existent thing] but produces the object/phenomenon under consideration".


Against the ways that visual knowledge tends to hold things at a distance, objectifying them, sound brings the listening subject and the sounding object together as "partners rather than adversaries ... constituted through each other without abandoning their own purpose".There is something both tactile and intimate about how we perceive sound, it literally touches us in a physical way that light really doesn't. And because we generate sound as well as perceiving it, the distinction from vision is even more acute; we hear ourselves inhabiting the world in ways that we can rarely see ourselves.


The anthropologist Tim Ingold, though, takes the position that the human sensorium does not operate as unconnected ‘sensory pathways’ - that the senses do not operate independently of one another, and so the notion that there might be a specifically "sonic" ontology would misrepresent how we actually perceive the world. For him perception is multimodal, each sense being mediated by the others to a greater or lesser degree.


As an example of this, we might consider the phenomenon of attentive concert listening - something, it has to be said, whether for better or worse, is becoming increasingly rare. This kind of listening is usually directed forwards, a strategy of listening derived from the nineteenth-century concert hall. Silent, unmoving, listeners face the proscenium (or its equivalent), their physical orientation in the space determined by a visual organisation of that space rather than by anything specifically aural - seeing is narrowly directed whereas hearing is multidirectional; there is no absolutely determining need for concert listeners to all face in the same direction. When we are outside of this attentive listening mode, our hearing is generally not done in silence and stillness but elicits sound production (through conversation, non-verbal vocal expressions, singing along), movement (dance, physical reaction, turning to shift attention towards a sound), and is directed outwards to a more omnidirectional process of attending than is possible with vision. The extent of the significance of this - what we might call - visual organisation of sonic perception can be seen in the development of two-speaker stereo, one of the dominant modes through which recorded music has been consumed and perceived. The "frame", we might call it, set up by stereo loudspeakers replicates the proscenium space of the visually-organised listening of the  concert.


Although concert listening and its derivatives (such as stereo), is in fact fairly a-typical of how we regularly perceive and behave towards sound, it affords a very clear illustration of Ingold's point - that the senses mediate one another, and work together.

But Voegelin’s advocacy of a specifically sonic ontology does not limit sound to the aural. Instead, the perception of sound opens up the explicit possibility for sensory integration, much more so than is possible with the strictly visual, and it is this rather than any separation of sound from the other senses that marks her difference from Ingold. For Voegelin the aural sense is much more closely imbricated with touch, movement, vision, and muscular reaction through dance, gesture, rhythm and musical performance. Sounds perceived by an embodied subject are multiply tactile - they encode physical gesture, as Denis Smalley has argued, they physically resonate with us, we make sound, we feel vibration, we experience different states of muscular tension. Vision, on the other hand, has tended to be associated with forms of knowledge that are more distant, less tactile, less ‘involved’; we might say it is more associated with a worldview that establishes zones of separation, with objectification, with the drawing of "boundaries".


Sonic boundaries

Imagination is not just something stimulated by sound, it is an essential mediator in how we perceive sounds. Sounds are rarely solitary, and I find it hard, when I am hearing a sound, or listening to a sound among other sounds, to imagine any of them as having a boundary. I can imagine all sorts of shapes, gestures, textures, materials - colours, even - but - if this makes sense - these are shapes and textures without clearly defined edges. Instead of edges, sounds have zones of ambiguity where rather than separation between the sounds there is mixing. We might say that it is in the nature of sounds to mix with one another. If sounds have limits they are less like borders and more like zones of flux, polymorphous and transient minglings of sonic matter.


We must remember, as well,  that different listeners in the same place will hear very different things from one another, so even listening, when it is done in a group, is a state of mixing. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, it still makes a sound, but when listeners are there to hear it fall, there are probably as many different sounds as there are listeners, because each listener brings their own memory and imagination to play in perceiving and then interpreting the sound it makes. And the sound that a badger or a woodpecker hears at the same time is different again.


Looking at sound from the other vector, as it were, when I am "inside" a sound, and can only hear "the sound itself", singular and focussed, the idea that that sound has a boundary out beyond the space in which I am listening is also something that I find difficult to get a hold of in my imagination. In part, I think, this is down to the phenomenon Voegelin identifies, that the sound and I are  partners - the sound constitutes me at that particular time, just as I also constitute it.


Looking outwards, as it were, from my listening position, where does the sound that I feel myself to be inside of, to be part of me, end? Does it have a border, a boundary? Even with imagination running full steam ahead, the notion of this sound having a border, a boundary, beyond which it ceases to exist makes no experiential sense to me. I can imagine it fading out, I can know that it does have a threshold - somewhere - but to put things in a nutshell, the notion of a boundary - or, in currently fashionable terminology, a "hard border" - where sound is concerned does not make sense. If we can recuperate anything specifically "sonic" from the preceding arguments, then, perhaps what is sonically particular is the imaginative and experiential redundancy of the idea of a border. Sound affords us a model of limits that are mixings rather than as separations.



I want to bring this talk to a close by moving back to thinking about borders and boundaries. It seems appropriate, when talking about borders, to think about geography, and Christopher Tilley is a geographer whose writing is infused with the phenomenological perspective. This means that for him landscapes or places are not merely objects that can be understood through the detached scientistic viewpoint, but are phenomena that are ". . . lived in and through . . ." Like music, and like freedom, landscape and place are not, for Christopher Tilley - or for me - things in the sense of objects so much as phenomena that we - and the rest of the animate world - do! The world is in, and has always been in, a constant state of change, through the dynamic nature of climate, geology, and the living creatures that inhabit almost every cubic metre of its surface. The planet we live on is a lived and living phenomenon, not inert matter.


Looking at ethnographies of small-scale societies, Tilley finds that rather than simply providing a backdrop for human action the natural landscape is ". . . [a] linking together [of] topological features, trees, rocks, rivers, birds and animals with patterns of human intentionality". This is reminiscent of the inextricability of sound and hearing as Voegelin conceives it, of the idea that sonic perception is about "partners rather than adversaries". It is also a very different model of place from the one structured by the rapacious ideology of new worlds, territories, and frontiers.


Tim Ingold talks about our experience of place in terms of a ‘dwelling perspective’ that refuses the separation of beings from their landscapes, focusing ‘upon “the agent-in-its-environment” as opposed to the self-contained individual confronting a world that is “out there”’. Anne Whiston Spirn adds another layer to this line of thought when she talks about "the dynamic connection between place and those who dwell there". Such views begins to problematise the idea of a world that the subject is separate from and which much be mastered, either in terms of the control and exploitation of the natural resources found there, or in terms of the other humans who already live there. They also provide very different metaphors from those which ground colonialism and the reckless exploitation of natural resources - a term, incidentally, that I hate.

Once we start to look at territories where we live, or through which we travel, as "lived (and living) landscapes - rather than as frontiers to be challenged, or borders to be crossed - the metaphors we draw on start to change. What might it be to use a metaphor like being "at home", for example, in talking about our artistic practices.


Now, it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that the injustices of colonialism can be meaningfully engaged with by simply changing metaphors, and that's not what I'm claiming. As I have already said, whether we like it or not, there are some pretty awful things associated with some of the metaphors we use to talk about artistic creativity and originality, and we have to live in that knowledge - and hopefully learn something from it. The metaphor of "home", too is far from unproblematic, though historically speaking if some people had been content to stay at home, that might have been a good place to start, actually. One of the complications of the idea of "home" arises because one of the most influential thinkers about the idea of home was, at least for an important time in his life, a card-carrying member of the German Nazi Party. That Martin Heidegger's embrace of Blut und Boden - blood and soil - ideology has cast something of a shadow over the study of place is attested to by Anne Whiston Spirn, who notes "a declining use of [the term] landscape" in the mid-twentieth century, and its replacement by terms such as environment and place that [quotes] "was in part a reaction to the Nazis’ adoption of “blood and soil”, a linking of native landscape and racial identity". 


Nonetheless, some of the ideas that Heidegger puts forward in his influential essay ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ have been productively engaged with, not least by Tim Ingold, to whose work I have already referred at several points in this talk. Ingold takes a lead from Heidegger, and divides our experience of place into the "building perspective" and the "dwelling perspective". From the building perspective we construct buildings in order to live in them. From the dwelling perspective, though, we build because we dwell, we do not build in order to dwell, and this marks a more fundamental position. "Home", from the dwelling perspective, is not an unchanging essence of singular place - the sort of essence that is open to xenophobia and exclusion of others - but something we ‘do’, an ‘experience’, if you like.


I want to think of ‘home’ not as a boundaried space, or as a means for exclusion, but as a ‘knowing-how-to’. ‘Home’ can be learned, assumed, or appropriated in a social dynamic that embraces migration, multiplicity and reinvention. ‘Home’ as something synonymous with ‘knowing-how-to’, with what is ‘possible’ or ‘permissible’ is a transitive sense of home that is always in process.

Mervyn Peake touches on what this idea of home might be in his trilogy of fantasy novels set in Gormenghast, an enormous castle weighed down by its own past and by the rigid rituals that determine the lives of its inhabitants - if there was ever an image of home as an unchanging essence, as strictured and bounded, this is it. Yet the ultimate theme of the books is the leaving of such a place, and the impossibility of return, a deeply modernist trope of escape and exile. In the first novel the daughter of the house, Fuschia, escapes to the abandoned attics that are her own personal refuge from the life of the castle. Here she feels

". . . a love that equals in its power the love of man for womn and reaches inwards as deeply. It is the love of a man or of a woman for their world". This is no xenophobic, closed "real" world, but ". . . the world of their centre where their lives burn genuinely and with a free flame" (emphasis added).


"The love of the diver for his world of wavering light. His world of pearls and tendrils and his breath at his breast. . . . he is at one with every swarm of lime-green fish . . . as he holds himself to the ocean's faery floor, one hand clasped to a beeded whale's rib, he is complete and infinite. Pulse, power and universe sway in his body. He is in love.


The love of the painter standing alone and staring, staring at the great coloured surface he is making. . . . The twisted tubes, the fresh paint squeezed and smeared across the dry upon his palette. . . . The window gapes as he inhales his world . . . a rented room, and turpentine. He moves towards his half-born. He is in love.


The rich soil crumbles through the yeoman's fingers. As the pearl diver murmurs, 'I am home' as he moves dimly in strange water-lights, and as the painter murmurs, 'I am me' on his lone raft of floorboards, so the slow landsman on his acr'd marl - says with Fuschia on her twisting staircase, 'I am home.'" (The Gormenghast Trilogy, Vintage, p. 53)


Christopher Tilley’s phenomenological approach to geography is particularly suggestive where he talks of how paths and tracks structure our landscape experience. For him, following a path is ‘a paradigmatic cultural act, since it is following in the steps inscribed by others whose steps have worn a conduit for movement which becomes the . . . “best way to go”’. This seems to be the very opposite of what the culture of modernity has advocated for decades; When did exile become an indispensable requirement for modernity? Is "home" a dirty word? The history of modernist art and music certainly, on the surface, would support such a blunt distinction. But what about places with well-worn paths? What about following rather than breaking new paths? What about thinking outside of the colonial and environmentally destructive metaphors?


Improvisation, in its broadest sense, is how we interact with the world and its beings; improvisation, then, is one key mode of action through which we can be being ‘at home’. In specifically musical terms, improvisation constitutes for me a kind of musical ‘home’, a series of inter-related competencies and knowings that mirror the competencies and knowings through which I dwell. We can call this my individual voice, but doesn't that then bring into play those problematic metaphors we have inherited from the Age of Empire, colonialism, and the individual genius against the world? For me, then, ‘my’ musical ‘home’ - or one of them - is constituted through improvised actions. Improvising musically is thus a specifically sonic way of being ‘at home’. Musical improvisation as an element of living in the world concretises the notion that through living in it, and improvising in it, the world becomes a part of us, "just as we are a part of it".

Just as a thought experiment, then, let's dispense with these metaphors of conquest and anti-communitarianism we often use to describe creativity, and think of improvising as "being at home". When we play our instruments or sing we are, in some quite important senses, being at home with our practice. I don't need to draw on metaphors of breaking boundaries, or of crossing borders, with their colonial baggage, or the commercial need to be original or exclusive.


Improvising is something we do. It is a way for us to quite literally inhabit sound.


  • Grey Facebook Icon
  • Grey Instagram Icon
  • Grey Vimeo Icon
This site was designed with the
website builder. Create your website today.
Start Now