Sensory Social

I am working on a piece of para-academic critical writing on the topic of the relationship between music, technology and society through the lens of neurodiversity. It exists in the form of an introductory text and an outline.

I’m looking for a readers to provide me, a non-academic, with some feedback and guidance in order to refine my rough sketches into its destined end form.

These thoughts were stimulated by my engagement with the FluCoMa community which is why I thought to share them here.


Here is an excerpt:

I understand the activity of music making as being primarily a personal and intuitive one which serves the purpose of making our sensory environment intelligible and habitable. The main way we do this is through making sounds and inventing patterns. The social and ritual functions of music must derive from some sort of first principle or instinctive individual behaviour closer to self-soothing and sensory exploration. Even so, music is social right from the beginning in the sense that we need others to survive and learn this behaviour from them.

Music making also relates to technology. These are technologies of memory, tool making, and dissemination which are historically situated. Music making necessarily employs whatever tools are available and at hand.

Following from these premises, I’m led to believe that our ways of relating to one another through our senses are also being continually shaped by the surrounding environment in the course of our interactions with it. In turn, different sensory adaptations create distinct social formations.

I refer to this complex of relationships by a single concept: “the techno-sensory-social”. In this framework, socio-economic considerations (the constraints of economies of scale; forms of literacy; politically determined modes of agency, freedom and participation) are framed within an ecological understanding which relate to sensory experience.


My ambition is to publish it in some form, although right now it’s unclear what. My intended readership, I think, are mainly pedagogues and workshop facilitators but also artists and curators.

Does what I’ve written resonate with anybody here enough to have a conversation exploring the topic?

Hello @heretogo

This is quite close to some of what I’m writing about at the moment (a critical review of FluCoMa, as it happens), and not a million miles away from the way that I think about the techno-social in music.

Some comments inline:

This is where we differ most. I tend to cleave more to the view that musicking is at least as social as individual, not least on the basis that I also view our sense of individuality as itself social (following, e.g., Varela, Thompson and Rosch in The Embodied Mind).

So, consequently, I place a greater emphasis on the socio-cultural horzions that inform and sometimes bound this inventiveness, i.e. one doesn’t draw equally upon patterns from the entire possibility space: our selectivity and appetite is always historically situated and culturally conditioned (but not determined).

This chimes with how cultural evolution scholars and evolutionary psychologists tend to think about it. For instance, see the (open access) articles in an issue of Behavioral and Brain Sciences: two target articles (Savage et al; Mehr et al) argue on the premise that there must be some unitary first principle, whereas some of the responses dissent, such as the one from Wald-Fuhrmann et al, which points out that there’s no strong basis for arguing that all the things that ‘we’ (Western subjects) identify as music need to have the same historical basis or evolutionary ‘function’ (this is me doing some violence to their argument). I’m more sceptical still, about both the necessity of unified origins and about the idea of Darwinian analogues of cultural practices!

Music making also relates to technology. These are technologies of memory, tool making, and dissemination which are historically situated. Music making necessarily employs whatever tools are available and at hand.

Following from these premises, I’m led to believe that our ways of relating to one another through our senses are also being continually shaped by the surrounding environment in the course of our interactions with it. In turn, different sensory adaptations create distinct social formations.

Yes, with some caveats. People can and frequently do transform / mutate / extend / recombine the tools at hand, i.e. there is a radical open-endedness – and politics – to technology as this open-endedness is conditioned (like musical invention) by socio-cultural horizons and power relations. Meanwhile, yes different ‘sensory adaptations’ (I would go for ‘ways of making sense’, I guess) do affect social formations, but this is a reciprocal affair: social formations affect sense-making practices.

My thinking around this is heavily informed by Andrew Feenberg’s philosophy of technology and Georgina Born’s writing about music. I’m also currently getting to grips with Matthew Fuller and Eyal Weizman’s Investigative Aesthetics, and Simon Penny’s Making Sense, both of which seem like they’d be up your street.

Feenberg: Technosystem (2017): Technosystem — Harvard University Press

Born, Music and the materialisation of identities (2011): https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:1ac532ba-239f-4e8f-87bf-f474ad5e86a9/files/mafdc1b3b739f8a53b2f01f70991d7931

Fuller and Weizman, Investigative Aesthetics: Investigative Aesthetics: Conflicts and Commons in the Politics of Truth | Verso Books

Simon Penny, Making Sense (2019): Making Sense

‘Techno-sensory-social’ is neat. I don’t think you need to limit the social to socio-economic though!

I’ll be very interested to see how your piece takes shape: if you’re addressing teachers and facilitators outwith academia, then I guess the point will be to develop something pragmatic (i.e. practice-focused) that cuts through the theoretical thicket we’ve covered here?

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This chimes with how cultural evolution scholars and evolutionary psychologists tend to think about it. For instance, see the (open access) articles in an issue of Behavioral and Brain Sciences: two target articles (Savage et al; Mehr et al) argue on the premise that there must be some unitary first principle, whereas some of the responses dissent, such as the one from Wald-Fuhrmann et al, which points out that there’s no strong basis for arguing that all the things that ‘we’ (Western subjects) identify as music need to have the same historical basis or evolutionary ‘function’ (this is me doing some violence to their argument). I’m more sceptical still, about both the necessity of unified origins and about the idea of Darwinian analogues of cultural practices!

I had to really think about this and I need to be careful about language I use. There is something that interests me about how we as individuals negotiate our environment. This is primary in the sense that one has to take care of one’s own needs before the needs of others. I’m also thinking of things like early brain development where certain changes happen in stages. There are ways that music can relate more to basic needs like safety and shelter than to social signalling and group bonding. Whether one can posit a unitary first principle and build an account of the origins of music is too big a leap outside the scope of what I want to accomplish. I like the idea of a divergence of social functions of music.

Thanks for all these references. I’m going to take my time to check them out. I recognize Matthew Fuller’s name from a talk I saw him give at CodeFest:


I’ll be very interested to see how your piece takes shape: if you’re addressing teachers and facilitators outwith academia, then I guess the point will be to develop something pragmatic (i.e. practice-focused) that cuts through the theoretical thicket we’ve covered here?

I can’t find it now, but a long time ago I came across this amazing YouTube channel by these two guys with autism who did movie reviews. They had a set of criteria they would use to assign ratings. These included expected things like entertainment value and filmcraft but also criteria like like “coherence” and “sensory”. I’d like to find ways to normalize talking from this perspective, as musicians.

Right now I’m reading Heble and Stewart’s Jamming the Classroom which is fantastic. I suppose this is the level of tone and language that I’m going for as far as writing.

Besides that I’m considering all kinds of ideas: an academic journal article, a comic book or zine, a kit made up of flashcards prompts and activities, a series of podcast interviews, a reading group…

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