John Mowitt (2002). Percussion: Drumming, Beating, Striking

London: Duke University Press. ISBN: 0-8223-2919-0.

Paul Bowman

Unless I am badly mistaken, John Mowitt’s Percussion: Drumming, Beating, Striking (2002) is about misrecognition. Well, it is also about misrecognition. For, as its title clearly announces, it is about percussion, and/or drumming, beating, striking. But, because the subtitle does not include either the word ‘and’ or the word ‘or’, it isn’t immediately clear whether ‘Drumming, Beating, Striking‘ either reiterates one percussive ‘thing’ three times, or whether drumming, beating and striking are three different sorts of percussive things; or indeed, whether it is through percussing (some ‘thing’ that itself has to happen more than once to be what it is) that this or these or ‘things’ come to be, at all. The trouble with anything that needs reiteration or repetition to be itself — as Derrida keeps repeating, in different ways — is that it requires the ‘more-than-once’ to constitute the ‘one’ (a ‘re-‘ at the origin), and that it requires spatial and temporal absence and delay in order to achieve the effect of presence: it entails division at the heart, repetition at the origin, which introduces alterity into the entity or identity.

Saying this will strike a chord with those who will now recognise the significant and subtle complexity (undecidability, even) entailed by Percussion: Drumming, Beating, Striking. This complexity is quietly — perhaps too quietly — (not) announced or (not) telegraphed by the title, so that if you weren’t expecting it, you might have missed it, and misconstrued the book altogether. Many in cultural studies, postcolonial studies and political studies (not to mention psychoanalysis, sociology and Continental philosophy) might never get to know about this book, and all because of something in its name! But read it again. Percussion: a profoundly boundless and radically undelimitable field of possibilities, to be reined in nevertheless according to three ways of disciplining or disciplinarily demarcating ‘it’ as (or into) a ‘proper’ object of knowledge; Drumming signifying the musicological; Beating simultaneously connoting the psychoanalytical (recall ‘A Child is Being Beaten’), the sociological (from charivari, ‘rough music’ and lynching to dance, desire and subcultural identity) and even the philosophical (for instance, from Barthes’ to Nancy’s attention to the philosophical challenge of the heart); Striking implying the question of ‘agency’, as exemplified by the political strike.

Its title certainly doesn’t go out of its way to telegraph the book’s range and scope. Indeed, just as many might have missed it, on the other hand, too, those expecting a book simply ‘about drumming’ might themselves pick it up and, as is likely, put it back down again. For, although we all say we know we shouldn’t, I’m sure we all do (also) judge books by their covers, or make snap decisions about texts based on nothing more than whether our own preferred reflex-inducing keywords blatantly call to us (‘Politics of. . .’; ‘Philosophy and. . .’; ‘Pushing Musicology Beyond Its Limits For Complex Ethico-Political Reasons and Consequences’; or indeed — as is worse, but far more common — ‘[Name-of-Preferred-Authority/Hero-Figure] and. . .’). To judge this book by its cover in this way — in the snap-decision way — though, is likely both to make many overlook it who would actually love it, whilst also making many who will not ‘get it’, pick it up.

Interestingly though, if as is likely, this unjustifiable snap-rejection misrecognition is going to happen to this book, then it will ‘normally’ fail to arrive (promptly) at what we might anticipate to be its ‘proper destination’, or fail to be recognised as being of and for critical political and cultural theorists, as much as for postcolonial, race, gender studies, philosophy and musicology. The perversity or obscenity of this likelihood (inevitability?) is hammered home when one considers that this will occur even though the dust jacket unequivocally announces that this book is of and for ‘Theory and Criticism / Cultural Studies’. I believe that many of us tend to ignore such claims, either (or both) because we don’t trust publishers or because academic readerships are simply so bogged down, segmented, professionalised, hidebound and demarcated, that they rely on the blatant and loud calling out of this or that particular set of keywords (and ‘Names’) emblazoned on book covers before taking the time even to reflect further on whether a particular book ‘should properly’ or might ‘profitably’ be read or not.

Given the substance and argument of Percussion, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to speculate that Mowitt has deliberately done this — deliberately wrong-footed ‘both’ kinds of readership (the ‘proper readership’, who could well wrongly miss it; and the improper, who could well ‘wrongly’ pick it up). For, given Mowitt’s rigorous and sophisticated arguments about the contemporary forms of disciplinary power, that he first thoroughly articulated in Text: The Genealogy of an Antidisciplinary Object (1992), and develops further here in Percussion, it is not unlikely that he deliberately ‘mis-titled’ Percussion so that it would be misrecognised. This would be something of an anarcho-disseminatory — or ‘antidisciplinary’ — strategy, against the disciplinary power logic of segmentation, which produces isolated conservative enclaves, to, by and within which we are increasingly intensely subjected. That is, if we want to be properly interdisciplinary, we first need to be antidisciplinary (see Mowitt, 1992: 214-222), and really put the cat among the pigeons, by — if nothing else — refusing or at least problematizing what the proper ways of thinking, categorizing, organising, connecting and doing are meant to be. (You don’t put the cat among the pigeons by being content with pigeon-holes.)

In other words, all of this is (also) to say that Percussion — a book explicitly or ostensibly ‘only’ about percussion, drumming, beating, striking — is actually extremely expansive, rigorously theoretical, and intimately involved with many areas of critical, cultural, political, psychoanalytic, sociological, deconstructive, philosophical and musicological theory, practice, scholarship, institutionalisation and organisation, at a very advanced level. This is not to say that it isn’t about percussion in general, and drumming in particular. Indeed it is. Mowitt insists that it is primarily about rock-and-roll drumming and ‘making sense of senseless beating’. But again, such a disarmingly modest-sounding claim as this does also entail that the book cannot but also be about more and other than just that: for (how) can rock-and-roll drumming be simply demarcated and clearly separated from other forms of drumming? And (how) can drumming be separated from other forms of beating? Tapping? Patting? Stroking? How and why and on what basis? Tendentious boundaries and politically consequential disciplinary distinctions do more than the clichéd ‘blurring’ here: they are beaten. But they still beat. And you begin to see how both boundaries and beating come to ‘make sense’ — or carry, conduct and constitute what Derrida calls ‘force and signification’ within a ‘general economy of force and signification’. But what is entailed by attempting to ‘make sense of senseless beating’ in general? Such an initially apparently modest task, actually amounts, on reflection, to a staggeringly huge one: where and how and in what ways would or could you even begin, properly? And organised in terms of which paradigm? And to what ends? Mowitt arranges things by staging an encounter between the volatile and ferociously policed borders between sociology and psychoanalysis, and according to the ‘textual’ paradigm that he elaborated in his first book, namely, one which insistently confronts ‘the problem of disciplinary power as such’ (1992: 219), by insisting on the indubitable premise that ‘what enables [any ‘reading’, of anything] to “make sense” reaches well into the institutional field of the social’ (1992: 217).

Mowitt is basically always reminding us that we are always obliged to attend to the matter of the way in which any ‘thing’ is construed as being a thing. So, in studying aspects of music, he is equally concerned with the way that music becomes a disciplinary object, an object of disciplinary knowledge. We know music as if it is a thing: music tends to be treated as a noun. But music is not an ‘object’ at all. So, to insist on something as (retrospectively) obvious as that music is considerably more of a verb — and a complexly spatial and temporal, material and psychic, (inter)subjective and technological, aesthetic and ethical and political, acute and chronic, ‘event’ at that — certainly should change things, and cast a telling light on (or sets alarm-bells ringing about) the cultural/political effects of disciplinarily legitimated ways of thinking and discoursing about objects. As we all should know by now, disciplinary knowledge is not neutral, but constitutive, constitutively biased, and politically consequential in myriad ways.

To put it differently again: you will appreciate the scope of this book if you reflect upon the kind of connections that there already are and could otherwise also come to be between percussion, drumming, beating, striking, rhythm, repetition, reiteration, regularity, irregularity, enjoyment, the proper, the constitution of identity, subjectivity, beating and competing, participating, communicating, punishing, placing, forcing, racing, engendering, disciplining, disciplines, power, technology, community, violence, exclusion; the borders between music and noise, sense-making, senselessness, insides, outsides, surfaces of connection/separation, contacting, the skin and the body, making, giving and receiving signs, interpretation, audibility, intelligibility, hegemony, and so on. (Mowitt constructs a concept of ‘the percussive field’ which ‘is designed expressly to pose questions both to music and to its study . . . In questioning the study of music, the percussive field seeks to engage disciplinary reason and the social relations it organizes’ [3].) It is certainly true to say that this book is a vital contribution to very many different areas of the contemporary interdisciplinary arts and humanities, at least. It will come to be known as an immeasurably valuable contribution to critical theory, musicology, deconstruction, psychoanalytic cultural theory, cultural studies, methodologically attentive studies of history and popular culture, gender and post-colonial studies, and political theory.

So let me indicate something of the contents of Percussion. It starts from a reading of a Monty Python sketch in which two men tap rhythms on their briefcases whilst in a waiting room, and it concludes with what could either be construed as a helpful prod or as a fatal strike at the heart of Slavoj Žižek’s entire work. Along the way there are studies of the relationship between percussion and the body, skin, Chuck Berry, syncopation and the back beat, and human agency. That’s chapter one. Chapter two, ‘knocking the subject’, relates predominantly to the vexed matter of interpellation. Here, Mowitt’s initially faintly ridiculous-sounding opening declaration that his ‘aim is to change the way we read [Althusser’s] “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” . . . and the way we listen to “Get Off of My Cloud”‘ (42) is thoroughly redeemed by his compelling analyses of the theories and theorists of interpellation (from Althusser to the post-Marxists Laclau, Mouffe, and Žižek, to Dolar) to Adorno and Eisler, Frankfurt School theory and key instances of critical musicological theory which relate music to identity formation (57), and — as I will keep being forced to say about this book, for reasons of brevity — so on, into a reading of ‘Get Off of My Cloud’; a reading which detects that, therein, interpellation clearly — and significantly — fails (64). Now, Mowitt’s focus on the possibility of the failure of interpellation is far from an effort to refute the notion. On the contrary, he argues that the dimension of solicitation is as crucially important for cultural and political studies as it is for any other (say, psychoanalytical, sociological, or even philosophical) comprehension of agency, as it is for musicology’s understanding of music.

To tackle music, agency, and academia’s theoretical categories and paradigms head on and simultaneously is, for Mowitt, a task that is necessary in every way. As he puts it: ‘This is not about the conversion of incoherence into a (no doubt, postmodern) virtue. Instead, it is about rigor. It is about the importance of implicating theoretical practice within the struggles it seeks to amplify, struggles that this chapter has situated in relation to the concept of interpellation’ (66).

But what struggles has theoretical and/or musicological practice sought to amplify? Well, chapter three judiciously concerns itself with the ‘encounter between African rhythmic traditions and Anglo-American musical practices — the very encounter regarded as having sparked rock-and-roll’ (67). And, it is certainly true to characterise a whole host of ‘encounters’ between the African and the Anglo-American as entailing ‘struggle’, to say the least. Mowitt ‘accentuate[s] the specifically percussive character’ of this or these encounters (67). It is at this point that Christopher Small’s concept of ‘musicking’ enters the fray (69); and this concept becomes, along with interpellation, one of the most productive of notions here and throughout. For, ‘musicking’ — construing music as an event — helps reveal at once the subjective, intersubjective, profoundly and irreducibly social and psychoanalytic interpellative character of music as musicking, and the political dimension of the assembling and organising of relations that take place at such ‘moments’. (These ‘moments’ are of course events that themselves institute or constitute ‘things’ — they are instituting events):

the concept of musicking prompts one to assume responsibility for delineating how different stroking interpellates different folks — how it works not simply as an expression of different identities, or, for that matter, as a solicitation of particular identities, but rather as an event where the differences “folks” share (however unequally) are called up and assembled, in effect, constituted. (70)

Now, ‘musicking’ itself inevitably calls up the subject of ethnomusicology. And ethno-anything-ology (pardon my tmesis) always runs huge methodological and ultimately ethico-political risks. Such work is, of course, always enabling (the question always is, though: enabling of what, and for whom?). In this regard Mowitt affirms the importance of the work of Kofi Agawu, who

shows how mired ethnomusicological discourse is in pre-critical conceptions of ‘the other,’ context, and observation (or witnessing). [Agawu’s] point is not that we should abandon the study of non-Western musics. Instead, he insists that their study should include a rigorously theorized autocritique, one geared to thematizing the conditions of our access to African music. (72).

The reasons for the simultaneously academic and political urgency of such rigorous autocritique in ethnomusicology should be obvious.

In light of an account of African musicking as a socially organised and organising call-and-response interpellatory set up, Mowitt goes on to consider the disciplinary and technological relationship between the contemporary Western drummer and the contemporary drum kit (or trap set) (81-82). This form of agency is as related to discipline and technology as it is to interpellation and no less to ‘possession’ (84). The historical link forged between African music, voodoo, possession, and rock-and-roll, and sex (etc.), Mowitt articulates to the work Angela McRobbie on youth, dance, disco and club culture, which is of course related to issues of desire and identity, and therefore (back) to intersubjectivity and the social (86-87):

McRobbie’s discussion emphasizes precisely what has already been argued about possession: that it engages the subject at its limit, or at the point at which its dependency on a network of relations becomes palpable. Long theorized as a moment of either loss of or unmanageable excess, this limit might more usefully be comprehended as an opening, an opportunity to experience — through a well-timed blow — the unlivable state of our deep constitutability. (87)

The sense in which we have a ‘deep constitutability’ leads Mowitt into a significant re-reading of Foucault (92-94), and then into a suggestive reflection on Rosa Luxembourg’s ideas about rhythm and timing in revolutionary acts (100). Music, rhythm and beating are tied to the rough justice of lynching and charivari (104), as well as the famous Nietzschean connection of the necessary co-founding of memory and morality in punishment (111). This is, undoubtedly, then, the movement and reconstitution of a huge corpus — all of which also always relates directly to the body.

Chapter four, ‘the sound of the city: a musician is being beaten’, develops the corporeal dimension with a study of The Beatles (with whom ‘there is indeed something in a name’ [116]), in a chapter which connects beating to rock-and-roll to the city and to sex, through Freud, Benjamin, Simmel, and Baudelaire, and via issues in writing, fencing, lyric poetry, fantasy, the Oedipus Complex, seduction theory, boxing, blackness, Bo Diddley’s coming from the countryside, Chuck Berry’s curious biography, Fanon and racial identity, Sartre, and Buddy Holly playing Bo Diddley songs to black audiences. . . . Needless to say, I could say more. But, as the saying goes, ‘In the space of a review. . .’. For, faced with such complexity, at too many points the best I can do is try to indicate something of the menu. So, what, you might well ask, is for desert?

The final, concluding chapter, ‘a drum of one’s own’, steps out of this novel and important revisiting of what are familiar themes approached in ingeniously enlightening ways, and — surprisingly, perhaps — moves into the peculiarity of the ‘men’s movement’. The reasons for this change of tack, though, soon become clearly appropriate: The men’s movement seems constitutively to entail regular recourse (narratively and literally) to the wilderness, to nature, to drumming, to the heart (-beat), and paradoxically to rebuilding or reclaiming men’s proper/authentic/natural identity (the paradox being, of course, that you ‘cannot rebuild an identity that is not conceived first as a construct’ [179]). Mowitt frames his analysis within the problematic of interpretation itself — or, more specifically, within the problematic of interpretation within the age of the hegemony of ‘information’, which the likes of Benjamin viewed as the age of ‘interpretive passivity’ (176-177). For information does not solicit interpretation: information substantially provides itself as (if) its own interpretation. Now, suffice it to say here that Mowitt pursues these themes and the questions they raise, and fleshes out their genealogies — historical, philosophical, political — with a rigour that is consistently astounding. You could say that this chapter, perhaps more than any other, takes some reading (and, indeed: some beating). It also could be said to deliver several strikes (or helpful nudges) to a variety of cultural practices and academic tendencies. Now, the ground covered in this final chapter is daunting: the men’s movement, its genealogy, feminism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, Nancy and continental philosophy, Marxism and Žižek, and more. But it is overall, I think, organized by the idea, issues and stakes of misrecognition. At the very least, it identifies the work of a constitutive misrecognition at play within the men’s movement, as well as suggesting, perhaps startlingly, that there is ‘something akin to the men’s movement in deconstructive philosophy’ [190], what with its growing involvement in questions of friendship, the human heart, love and fraternity, etc. (Mowitt, for instance, fascinatingly explores Nancy’s ‘conviction that the heart — as the amorous organ par excellence — is, through its beating, what philosophy cannot reduce to thinking.’ [185]). But perhaps the most ‘striking’ and timely moments take place in the concluding discussion of Žižek.

What solicits the need for a response to Žižek is not only the timeliness of a rigorous appraisal of one so fashionable, but it also relates to the significance and consequences of the regular use Žižek makes of the Lacanian idea that ‘woman is man’s symptom’. In many respects, Mowitt simultaneously uncovers a startling homology or disavowed equivalence or inter-implication between Žižek and the men’s movement, at the same time as radically upsetting the likelihood that Žižek has been correct in identifying the homology between Marxism and psychoanalysis that he relies upon, and which underpins his entire corpus. Now, the fundamental problem of Žižek’s orientation has formerly been explored most fully, I think, by Judith Butler in her contributions to Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (2000). But Mowitt’s take on the problem is certainly more striking than Butler’s, not least because, rather than criticising him with recourse to other categories and notions, all that Mowitt does is to fully accept everything about Žižek’s own position and argument, and point to the fact that the key components of his argument simply, directly, and literally, in their own terms, do not make sense.

First comes a devastating new slant on the relatively familiar (Baudrillardian) observation that it is Marxism itself that is capitalism’s highest ideology. Mowitt takes it even further and puts it like this: ‘If Lacan concedes that Marx invented the symptom, might it not also follow that capitalism invented psychoanalysis?’ (205). This comes in addition to a related caveat, delivered earlier in the book:

What the ‘Slovenian School’ has yet to do is persuasively address, in some detailed manner, the ‘outermost’ conditions of the interpellative force of psychoanalysis. In other words, under what circumstances will subjects identify with the account of themselves as traumatic kernels and do so in the name of reaching back into the pre-ideological? As Jacques-Alain Miller once put it, the ‘archeology of psychoanalysis,’ the ‘regime of truth’ in which its effects could be produced, has not yet been written. (53-54)

Interestingly, this is a problematic of which Žižek is clearly aware, but with which he refuses to engage (or even formulate) in any other than the most simplistic and facile terms. As he puts it in his recent psychotic babble that is the Afterword to Revolution at the Gates: Selected Writings of Lenin from 1917 (2002):

We live in the ‘postmodern’ era, in which truth-claims as such are dismissed as an expression of hidden power mechanisms — as reborn pseudo-Nietzscheans like to emphasize, truth is a lie which is most efficient in asserting our will to power. The very question ‘Is it true?’, apropos of some statement, is supplanted by the question ‘Under what power conditions can this statement be uttered?’. (Žižek: 2002, 176)

Now, one is often daunted by Žižek — if only the way one is daunted by, say, having to walk up the same tediously laborious hill on the way home every evening: the daunting thing about Žižek being how to cut through the layers of very postmoderncombinations and always contingently (arbitrarily?) connected schools of Theory, Philosophy and Psychoanalysis, in order to establish, once more, time after time, in what ways and how and why he is talking nonsense. Mowitt has, thankfully, done us all a huge service by articulating, in the space of a few pages, precisely how and why Žižek does not work and knows not what he does. That is, simply, as Mowitt observes, ‘one finds [in Žižek’s Lacanianism] a clear repudiation of something like the method of historical materialism as a way to get at the affiliation between capitalism and psychoanalysis’ (206):

Although Žižek does acknowledge the historical specificity of capitalism — his whole account of fetishism hinges on the distinction between feudalism and capitalism — the homological orientation of his discussion leads one to assume either that psychoanalysis is essentially a derivative hermeneutic or that it is foundational in a way that makes its commitment to historicity quite difficult to assess (206)1

Given the rigour and conciseness of Mowitt’s reading of Žižek, here, it would not be easy to rigorously summarise it further whilst expressing it clearly. Suffice it to say, then, that Mowitt is ultimately less concerned with Žižek and more concerned with The Point; which it, of course, to change it. The point, for Mowitt, is that of ‘the protracted struggle for sociality’ itself (207), in which all are engaged. In very many ways, this work is exemplary, both analytically and performatively. It may be misrecognised, but ultimately teaches so much about the stakes and consequences of the way in which things are recognised/perceived/constructed; it calls out to many disciplinary spaces (musicology, anthropology, philosophy, any number of ‘-studies’ subjects, etc.), and both demands and provides different interpretive frames, vocabularies and orientations. Percussion is striking.


1 See also Judith Butler:

Indeed, if a theory of capital and a theory of the psyche are not to be thought together, what does that imply about the division of intellectual labour that takes place [in Žižek] first under the mantle of Lacan and then under the mantle of Marx, shifts brilliantly between the paradigms, announces them all as necessary, but never quite gets around to asking how they might be thought — or rethought — together?. (2000, 139).

The key difference between Butler and Mowitt, here, relates to the differing degrees to which each is consciously attending to the matter of what it is about psychoanalysis and/or Marxism that is being drawn into question. Butler is, so to speak, primarily concerned with the (human) subject, Mowitt with the (disciplinary) paradigm within which the subject it set up. Their differences may not be so great, as it is just a matter, here, of orientation. But this small matter is, for Mowitt, perhaps the greatest one of all.


Butler, J., Laclau, E. & Žižek, S. (2000), Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left. Verso, London.

Mowitt, J. (1992) Text: The Genealogy of an Antidisciplinary Object. Durham and London: Duke.

Mowitt, J. (2002) Percussion: Drumming, Beating, Striking. Durham and London: Duke.

Žižek, S. (1989) The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso.

Žižek, S. (2002) Revolution at the Gates: Selected Writings of Lenin from 1917. London, Verso.

Paul Bowman is Lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of Surrey, Roehampton, UK. Formerly editor of the international cultural studies journal, parallax, he has published widely in books and journals on many aspects of political theory, and in particular on the politics of knowledge, and knowledge establishment. Most recently, he is editor ofInterrogating Cultural Studies: Theory, Politics, and Practice (Pluto Press, 2002), and author of the forthcoming Post-Marxism versus Cultural Studies (Edinburgh University Press).