Monday, July 9, 2007

55. Masculine Feminine

I've already mentioned the extremely interesting, and in my opinion highly meaningful, association of so many of the hocketed ensembles I've been discussing, in so many different parts of the world, with gender. In tradition after tradition, among indigenous peoples from Africa, southeast Asia, China, Indonesia, New Guinea, Island Melanesia, even Central and South America, we find hocketing and/or interlocking ensembles of tuned pipes, panpipes, trumpets, horns, and also certain types of idiophone, such as slit drums, stamping tubes, even the metal gamelans of Java and Bali, where certain instruments are considered "male" and others "female." If we were to assume that any of these remarkably similar musical practices developed independently, it seems too much of a coincidence for them to have independently come up with this particular terminology as well. For me, as you should know by now, this looks like yet another important clue, one of many strongly suggesting that all these ensembles could not be the result of independent invention, but must have a common origin -- an origin that now, thanks to the many dramatic developments in the fields of population genetics and genetic anthropology, we can trace with some degree of confidence to Africa.

Once we "bring it all back home" (as the saying goes) to Africa, taking into account all the evidence we've been considering in the last several posts associating tuned pipes with the origins of both music and language, it's tempting to take our speculations a bit further into the realm of the gender distinction itself. In other words, can the myth I've been weaving tell us something meaningful about the origin of gender as well, as both a social construct and one of the fundamental oppositions basic to language?

The first thing to consider is the question of how certain instruments came to be given gender labels in the first place. If we are willing to accept the hypothesis already offered here, that the ensembles originally emerged either in the wake of, or in tandem with, hocketed vocalizing, then a very simple and straighforward explanation presents itself. Indeed it's quite easy to see how those instruments playing parts normally sung by women could be labeled "female," and those playing typical men's parts, "male." This works especially well when we consider that the higher pitched instruments are smaller. And indeed, in most cultures still perpetuating such traditions, the higher pitched, smaller instruments tend to be the ones labeled "female," the lower pitched, larger ones, "male."

Keeping in mind what's already been said regarding the possible role tuned pipes might have played in the origin of language, with respect to both the "phonemic" and symbolic realms, I'm willing to go even farther out on the same limb by suggesting the following: if the special role tuned pipes might have played in the formation of language be taken into account, then their division into male-female pairs may well have been a part of that same process. If a tuned pipe was understood as a signifier, then each such pipe would have signified not only a particular pitch, but also a particular gender: it would have been heard as either "male" or "female." If we are indeed somewhere close to the origins of language at this point, then the central significance of the gender distinction to language (and culture generally) might have, at least in part, a "musical" explanation.

What I've been up to here, by the way, is not simply the weaving of some sort of fanciful, "imaginative," theory based on whatever notions happen to come into my mind that seem "interesting" or "promising." Nor have I attempted something akin to what one is finding more and more with respect to the origins of language and music in the literature stemming from cognitive science, where experiments on subjects from more or less the same sociocultural background as the experimenter are extrapolated into speculative, highly abstract theories, meant to be "universally" applicable, but in fact based on very narrowly limited evidence, with an all but total disregard for the nature of music as it is actually practiced by real people in the world around us.

It's important to remember that what I've been doing is based on a very close and thorough examination of evidence, both musical and cultural, drawn from a truly vast array of different practices and customs from a great variety of different cultures in all corners of the world -- and it is my atttempt to make sense of this evidence that has led me to present the various theories, however speculative, that I've been putting before you here. What every scientist and/or scholar tries to do is offer a model within which the evidence he or she is considering can be reasonably understood -- and critically evaluated. I believe that this is what I have done -- and will continue to do. Whether this is in fact the right model remains to be seen.

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