The voice

Last time I was writing (yet again) about blogging, or more generally about academic work published online, which we might or might not call “the digital humanities.” But DH is a bit of a red herring, as the question is not “does blogging count as digital humanities?,” but “does blogging count?” As in, does it count as real intellectual work in the humanities?

Don’t make the mistake of confusing “real intellectual work in the humanities” for recognition within the academy, though. That’s mostly what I wrote about last time: the way that academia is, in Ramsey Dukes’s terms, a religious culture, and as such is not inclined to accept work that fails to consult its high priests. But not all writing plays the same game. Do the essays of Montaigne constitute a legitimate intellectual project? Or (if that’s pitching it a trifle high) how about J. Hoberman’s writings on film and American culture? Or Susan Sontag’s book On Photography? Or the music essays of Geoffrey O’Brien? Or David Foster Wallace’s essays on tennis, television, and David Lynch? Or M. C. Richards’s Centering? Would you refuse to acknowledge the intellectual legitimacy of these writings just because they couldn’t pass peer review in modern academic journals? Surely only the most bigoted and Gradgrindian professor would insist that the academic game is the only game in town.

So what makes those books different from academic monographs? A rude answer might be “those are books that people might conceivable keep on their nightstands.” Not even academics are likely to read a standard scholarly monograph in that short blessed interval between going to bed and going to sleep — for pleasure, in other words. Academia generally has a hard time with pleasure. We are supposed to be after truth, not pleasure, and there is a long tradition (both religious and philosophical) of thinking that aesthetic pleasure in particular is not only indifferent in truth but actively opposed to it. “Aesthetic” is a dirty word in the contemporary humanities anyhow, at least that part of it that insists on the priority of “the political” in all discussions of culture. (A religious insistence if ever there was one, though that’s an argument for another day.)

So to an academic audience it probably seems strange to suggest that an academic writer might value blogging primarily because it enables him to cultivate a personal style, which is the sort of thing we associate with the belles lettres. But that’s pretty much exactly where I was going in my last post. I don’t actually care that much about blogging as such, or the specific medium of the blog; I value the way my own blog has allowed me to develop a voice that is not unrelated to my formal, church-clothes, academic writing, but which isn’t the same as it either.

For a long time I didn’t really value my blog voice, or even notice that I was “developing” or “cultivating” one. I thought that blog writing was fun and got my name out there (this being that anxious early point in my academic career where I was on the hustle and trying to Make It) and I liked some of the ideas I had hashed out over the years. But only after Jonathan and I restarted Dial M in 2013 did it dawn on me that (1) people read my blog writing a lot more than my formal writing, because (2) it’s a lot more readable. And (3), that writing has developed its own distinct form and style and has become its own autonomous intellectual project.

And in the last year or so I have come to value this project, and the particular writing voice that has evolved to suit it, more than my more traditionally “academic” stuff. Or perhaps it’s truer to say that, if there has been a gap between the voice of my formal academic writing and that of my blogging, it has narrowed considerably. The stuff I’m writing offline is a lot more like the stuff I’m writing online than it used to be, to a large extent because I no longer see the point in keeping them separate.

It’s still a bit of a mystery to me why blogging has brought forth the particular style of writing it has. Maybe there’s just something about the blog platform compose screen that triggers some Pavolvian response and I just start flowing. More likely, it’s the fact that I am writing for an audience I imagine a particular way. If you’ve ever wondered how martial artists can punch through cinderblocks, it’s because they practice punching through the target, not at the target. They visualize the focal point of their attack a few inches behind their actual strike point, and somehow this difference in mental framing alters the force of the blow. I don’t really know who’s reading Dial M or what they think about it, but I have a target in mind, and I aim at that. We do the same in our academic writing, too, but we almost always aim at an audience of peer reviewers we imagine to be harshly critical and eager to be displeased. Elsewhere I have quoted George Orwell as saying that good writing can only happen when the writer is not afraid, and if this is true (as I think it is) then there is much to be said for writing for an imagined audience that doesn’t scare the hell out of us.*

And perhaps the most important difference between my formal writing and my blog writing is simply that for the latter I can imagine an audience that wants to hear a story. There is something narrative about writing in this medium. I don’t mean to say that I’m always writing stories, because obviously I’m not. It’s more like you become aware of improvising a line of thought, in something of the non-take-two way that typewriting models most clearly, that places items of thought together in narrative fashion. It’s not that I don’t edit these posts; a lot of the discipline of this kind of writing lies in polishing it up while figuring out how to hold onto the non-take-two voice. (Paradoxically, editing allows you to burnish that feeling of directness and spontaneity; as George Burns said, sincerity is everything, if you can fake that you’ve got it made.) But in the frame of the medium, you becomes aware of the push and pull of ideas as they entrain themselves.

It’s a musical thing, actually. When we listen to or play music, we are aware that its themes and harmonies follow one another in a certain rhythm and with a certain logic that gives us the same feeling of a well-told story, though without giving us any concrete narrative events to hang them on. We have a sense of eventness without event. And in some obscure way it is the same kind of eventness that makes up our lives. In Art as Experience, John Dewey puts it well:

Music, having sound as its medium, thus necessarily expresses in a concentrated way the shocks and instabilities, the conflicts and resolutions, that are the dramatic changes enacted upon the more enduring background of nature and human life. The tension and the struggle has its gatherings of energy, its discharges, its attacks and defenses, its mighty warrings and its peaceful meetings, its resistances and resolutions, and out of these things music weaves its web.

If I were to put it very briefly, I would say that for me, blogging elicits the music that is in writing. Maybe that’s why I keep calling it “voice.”

All of which gets me inching back towards something I’ve been trying to get away from in this post, which is the idea that what I’m after in writing is as much aesthetic as purely intellectual. But as soon as I write I have to backpedal furiously, because that sounds like I’m saying “academic writing is boring and the writing I admire is interesting, so therefore my writing will differ from other academic writing by being more beautiful.” This is an empty, smug, self-serving distinction, like Norman Mailer announcing his intention to write hipper books than anyone else. If you say it no-one will believe it and everyone will hate you.

Don't hate me because I'm beautiful.

Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.

No, I am trying to make a fairly neutral and functionalistic distinction: what I am after, and what is characteristic of the writing that I most admire, is an integrity of form and content.

The main thing in a piece of academic writing is the content — the idea, the fruits of research. The most common ideal of good writing in academia is one in which the idea is communicated as elegantly as possible. Writing, on this account, is a medium of transmission for an idea, and poor writing is something like data loss or noise in the signal. So from this point of view, content and form (the shape the writing takes) are closely linked, but in a clearly hierarchical relationship: first the idea, then the words for the idea. On this account, writing is instrumental; it is for something. Its beauty is the beauty of industrial design, a beauty whose touchstone is elegance.

The opposite of this kind of writing is what academics call “journalistic,” which usually means “dumbed-down.” When academics wrinkle the nose at what they take to be vulgarized popular treatments of serious topics, they believe that this kind of writing inverts the hierarchy: it is style first, ideas second. If the aesthetic ideal of the academic monograph is elegance, which we might think of as the greatest density and complexity of thought conveyed with the greatest economy and clarity — the clearest signal, the smallest data loss, the minimum of redundancy — then dumbed-down writing presents drastic data loss and lack of economy. Its stylistic fillips (jokes, everyday slang, personal anecdotes, etc.) don’t do anything to convey a complex idea, but merely distract or confuse. The full complexity of the idea is lost in favor of “accessibility.” This is quite true of bad popularizing writing, but the problem is that academics come to think of “accessibility” as the sole hallmark of intellectual writing in a popular style. This, again, is conceiving of writing in an instrumental way, only now the purpose being served is not the lossless transmission of an idea but a lossy, accessible transmission.

The problem is that either way, whether we are thinking of writing as “scholarly” or “popular,” we are tacitly accepting the idea that there is a form/content divide in writing on ideas.  What I am after is different. The writing I like holds style and substance, form and content, writing and ideas, in an indivisible unity, an integrity. The idea is suggested by the shape of the writing, and writing takes its shape from its writer’s ideas. Style and substance are the two sides of a coin, or (a less hackneyed metaphor) the poles of a circuit. Even to write in this way is to suggest a duality where none truly exists.

Theodor Adorno, of all people, makes this point very well. Adorno is probably responsible for more bad writing than any other thinker of the 20th century, and that’s saying something. Countless academics have followed the example of his labyrinthian prose altogether too well, though not too wisely. But his own writing is, in its odd way, beautiful. And his advice on writing from Minima Moralia is spot-on:

Skepticism against the oft-cited objection, that a text, a formulation would be “too beautiful.” The reverence for the matter [Sache: thing, philosophic matter], or even for suffering, can easily rationalize the resentment against those who find, in the reified shape of language, the traces of something unbearable, which befalls human beings: debasement. The dream of an existence [Dasein: existence, being] without shame, to which the passion for language clings, even though the latter is forbidden to depict the former as content, is to be maliciously strangled. The author should make no distinction between beautiful and factual [sachlichem: factual, objective, realistic] expression. One should neither entrust this distinction to concerned critics, nor tolerate it in oneself. If one succeeds in completely saying what one means, then it is beautiful. The beauty of expression for its own sake is by no means “too beautiful,” but ornamental, artsy, ugly. Yet whoever leaves off from the purity of the expression, under the pretext of unswervingly stating the facts, thereby betrays the matter [Sache] too.

Oh, and happy thanksgiving.

*I should also point out that even though you can’t exactly see it, the audience for a blog is a lot more present to one’s experience that the audience for more traditional kinds of publications. As I write and publish online I am constantly getting into conversations in the comments section, on Twitter, in personal emails, or in person, for example when I am at the national AMS meeting and people come up to say hi. (I love it when that happens.) And those conversations can have a huge influence on what I write. Come to think of it, just this morning I retweeted something from Brian Eno to this effect:

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 5.21.11 PM

Posted in Academia, Blogging, Writing | 1 Comment

Is this anything?

David Letterman used to do this bit called “Is This Anything.” Paul Schaffer would lead off a fanfare, the curtain would open and close on some weird act, and then Dave and Paul would decide whether it was anything. Mostly, they decided it wasn’t.

That’s a question I keep asking about the stuff I’m writing on Dial M these days. Is this anything? On the one hand, yes, obviously, I’m writing a lot of stuff and people are even reading it. But what I’m really asking is, what kind of intellectual work does blog writing represent? What value does it have in the academic humanities? Is academic blogging just a hobby? A place to vent personal opinion? A way of roughing out ideas before working them into serious projects? Or is it a serious project in itself — that is, an autonomous mode of intellectual work? Is so, what kind? Can you call something “serious” that uses animated gifs? Again: is this anything?

is this anything

Dial M in a gif

The other day I gave myself a promotion. I had to update my CV and decided that my work on Dial M — around 300,000 words and the better part of ten years — deserved more than a single line buried in the ignominious “service publications” category. So I made a new category for it, “Digital Humanities,” and moved it up next to my peer-reviewed academic publications. This felt a little bogus, though, as if I were a banana republic generalissimo pinning medals to his own chest.

Does blogging count as “digital humanities”? I usually associate that term with large-scale, “big science” data-processing work done by institutes like Indiana University’s CHMTL, which has been doing this stuff since before the internet existed. But of course the realm of the digital includes the internet and therefore also the creative work that makes use of its myriad resources and capacities. Which would include blogging — a form of writing that doesn’t just happen to be housed on the internet, the way academic articles can be housed either in bound paper volumes or on JSTOR, but which is integral to the medium and impossible to understand apart from it.

The question “is this anything?” often comes down to the question of whether blogging deserves to be recognized in formal evaluations of academic faculty. The brutally cynical answer is maybe, but who cares, nothing is going to change. As I’ve said before, the academic humanities is caught between its demand for newness and the mechanisms by which newness is judged. Everyone wants, or says they want, cutting-edge and paradigm-smashing notions. But if we want to decide whether something is appropriately or usefully new (or for that matter to decide what “appropriately or usefully new” means), we need to ask experts in the field, which means that in order to get a hearing in academia, things can only be new in the sanctioned, permissible way. New ideas or approaches must thread their way through the preferences and prejudices of what is, after all, just a bunch of people, albeit people with Ph.Ds. We like to imagine that a brilliant idea wins out on the basis of its own merits, but what matters just as much, maybe more, is the authority that bestows legitimacy on the idea.* To the degree that online publishing circumvents the hierarchy of academic authority, that system will never value it.

Although I have bemoaned the death of the old blogosphere, there’s no question that more and more scholars are taking more and more of their work online. Discussion of what we’re to make of that is still mostly online, too. It seems to me that as younger scholars go about their working lives on the internet, they are becoming increasingly aware that they’re putting in work here, and that it matters. If my Twitter feed is to be believed, though, we have reached a point where the form our work is taking has outrun the ability of our institutions to keep up with it.

But maybe things aren’t really all that bad. There’s an argument to be made that academia is beginning to find ways to accommodate and recognize online writing. Maybe we’re already seeing new institutional arrangements emerge and are only waiting for them to lock fully into place.

I was going to attend the panel on online publishing in musicology at the recently-concluded annual meeting of the American Musicological Society, but as always seems to happen, something came up and I missed it. I’m guessing that someone pointed out that there are now a number of blogs that offer a new, hybrid, best-of-both-worlds model of online publishing — the Oxford University Press blog, Norton’s The Avid Listener, the AMS’s Musicology Now. These are all multi-author blogs with editors to whom scholars can pitch ideas; some of them (like The Avid Listener) even pay. The argument for these platforms is that you can have the loose-limbed informality, space for imagination, and individuality that blogging offers, while at the same time work within a quality-controlled environment that offers something like a recognizable set of safeguards against triviality and self-indulgence. These are places where a scholar’s online publishing can be more easily recognized as real academic work. You can show these publications to a tenure review committee without embarrassment, and even if it still ends up in the “service publications” category, in due time we will see a shift in tenure priorities as blogging platforms are professionalized and online writing becomes more legible as legit academic work.

But what has happened is that with these new edited multiauthor blogs, blogging has taken on the shape of academia’s “religious culture” (see notes * and #, below). Whatever the merits of these platforms and the things they’ve published (which are substantial), they are online magazines, not blogs, because (1) they have guidelines for contributors and editors to enforce them — in other words, they lack the freedom of a personal blog — and (2) they hire writers and for the most part don’t have permanent contributors who can develop a voice and a context for their interests and ideas and writings.

My wife (who among other things does freelance work as an arts and humanities grant consultant) likes to say that one cardinal rule of grant writing is, don’t try to fit your project to the grant guidelines — instead, find the grant that best fits the unique shape of your project. If you trim your sails to the winds of granting requirements, the proposal will almost certainly be weaker. I think something of the sort applies to writing as well: it’s hard to imagine that H. P. Lovecraft could have developed his distinctive writing voice trying to flog his stories to The Sewanee Review. Or Saul Bellow having to push his work at Weird Tales.

If I didn’t already have a blog, I could write for these new multiauthor platforms and probably get a lot out of it, but I wouldn’t be doing the sort of writing that I’ve ended up doing here. The Avid Listener’s submission guidelines call for pieces of between 500 and 1500 words on topics “intended to address the needs of two different audiences at once: undergraduate students in music appreciation and music history courses, and the general public, who may not have been previously exposed to technically fluent music criticism.” Almost nothing I have written recently for Dial M really answers this description. Musicology Now has more general topical guidelines but tighter word-count limits, and anyway my idea of musicology isn’t necessarily the AMS’s. The OUP blog seems to exist largely to promote OUP publications; it’s basically a marketing tool. This thing I’m writing right now — I couldn’t publish it on any of these platforms. I’m not sure I could publish it anywhere that would be recognized as a properly accredited academic venue.

And that’s just fine — these online publications are doing good work in valuable genres of writing. I don’t want other blogs to look like mine! But by the same token I also don’t want my writing to look like everyone else’s, either. That’s why blogging matters most to me: Dial M is the place I’ve developed an individual writing voice and my own peculiar ideas. It might be a small thing, but it’s my thing. It’s that truly free space for individual intellectual development that academia still can’t (and I suspect won’t) recognize. The academy can only recognize it when it becomes just a bit less free.

You might ask, what’s so great about cultivating an individual writing voice? Aren’t you in the wrong business for that? That’s an artistic aim, not a scholarly one. Well, those are interesting questions, but I will have to try answering them another time.

*When Ramsey Dukes says that academia is a religious institution, this is partly what he’s driving at. It would be the task for another day to lay out his theory of the “four cultures” — art, religion, science, and magic — which expands the “two cultures” argument of C. P. Snow. But very quickly, Dukes argues that religion characteristically deploys reason to make sense of “intuition,” a sort of inner prompting that might come from inspiration, memory, learning, or tradition. So the rational arrangement of things taken as given — whether those things be scripture or the collected works of Jacques Lacan — is the characteristic mode of (respectively) theology and academic writing.#

#So: do you buy this idea? Admittedly, I didn’t do it justice, since I gave myself a paragraph to summarize a set of ideas whose complexity demanded Dukes write a whole book (S.S.O.T.B.M.E.) to explain them. I can hardly be said to have argued the idea in proper academic fashion; I have only gestured vaguely in its direction. However, this happens all the time.

Let’s say you go to an academic conference and hear a paper that applies Lacan’s psychoanalytic theories to music. The presenter breezily says something about how the Real lies outside of language and therefore outside of our experience and then proceeds to build her subsequent argument on this thumbnail sketch of Lacanian theory. The argument itself carries no authority, because it’s hardly even an argument, it’s just a cursory characterization. What carries authority is Lacan’s name.

But oddly, in such a situation you almost never hear anyone take issue with what looks a lot like a naked appeal to authority. If someone got up in the Q&A and asked “how do you know Lacan isn’t full of shit?” you’d probably think it was someone Making A Point, like someone thinking he’s taking a brave stand against the creeping pernicious influence of Lacanianism in the academy or something. Whereas if in my paper I just dropped a reference to a cultural theorist you had never heard of, or to someone who (like Dukes) writes books in a genre that doesn’t get reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement (which probably amounts to the same thing), then it’s likely that people are going to ask me to defend the theoretical warrants of my argument.

In Lacan’s case, the idea is already taken on board, because c’mon, it’s Lacan. You studied him in graduate school. He’s important. By the time our imaginary presenter has written her paper on the Lacanian implications of Superfly, there have already been so many other Lacanian papers, monographs, edited anthologies, graduate seminars (etc.) that we have already accepted the Lacanian Real as a received idea we can deploy in making our own arguments. And while the logic and cogency of our application of Lacanian theory might be contested, the theory itself is simply posited a priori. Which, when you think about it, is exactly what Dukes is talking about when he says that academia is a fundamentally religious institution, in the sense of religion = reason + intuition.



Posted in Academia, Blogging, Writing | 4 Comments

Students write mean comments on and I’m all like

stoic nut shot

I was going to post something substantial today, but then I didn’t. I’ll put it up tomorrow.

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Click Here for Gershwin

This year, the American Musicological Society’s national meeting was in Lou’vl, KY, and it has proven to be one of my favorite annual get-togethers: good program, papers, food, bourbon, networking, planning, socializing, jamming, even meetings…really, the whole lot. One of the nicest aspects, for me, was learning about a recent Gershwin-related discovery. Eric Davis (doctoral candidate at USC) gave a fine paper about recently discovered private recording by Ford Lee (“Buck”) Washington, who had been the original Jasbo Brown character (Mingo, also) in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Although Washington’s part was drastically reduced for dramatic reasons, he was the first exponent of the piano solo that opens the opera—a slow piano jam, “Jasbo Brown’s Blues,” that establishes the mood and setting in Catfish Row, in Charleston, SC.

“Buck” Washington, staying in Los Angeles for a performing engagement, took himself to a recording studio five years to the day after Gershwin’s 1937 death and recorded two sides: an extended version of Jasbo Brown’s solo which segues into “Summertime,” and a version of “Embraceable You.” As one of the sides opens with eight bars of Eubie Blake’s “Memories of You,” Davis made a compelling case for this recording representing an explicit “valentine” from Washington to Gershwin, and a record of something closer to what Jasbo Brown’s original solo would have been like.

But look—don’t take my word for it! The recordings are available on the composer Lance Bowling’s website, both sides in good quality streaming audio, so go listen right now and judge for yourselves. I hear occasional Rhapsody in Blue-like licks (e.g., the transition in parallel seconds), but in general the piano is more reminiscent of the Second Rhapsody, which is in a slightly more lean and objective style than the more familiar mid-1920s pieces: Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F, and the Three Piano Preludes. I’m sure most of the Jasbo Brown solo, at least, is Gershwin’s writing as opposed to Washington’s jamming thereupon. An uncommon treat!

Posted in Academia, Jazz, Performance Practice, Recordings | Leave a comment

Whole lotta magic


At the AMS annual meeting. My interests were represented.

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Courage to create

One of the hazards of blogging for a long time is having to live down the effusions of an excitable and irritating former version of yourself. Back in 2006 I find myself writing that I was “totally stoked” to go to the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society, as if I were some dudebro going to Cancun for Spring Break.

I’ll be honest: this year I’m not so stoked. It’s not that the program doesn’t look great, because it does.* It’s not that I’m not looking forward to seeing old friends, because I am. And I’m not giving a paper this year, so that’s one thing I don’t have to deal with. But I have a certain feeling of mild dread all the same. It’s not the same dread that I wrote about back in 2006, when I was still pretty close to my graduate school days and had fresh memories of feeling like a nobody and having no-one to talk to. A decade on, I’ve done the career stuff I was supposed to do and have amassed a lot of good friends in the biz. So it’s not that.

It has something to do with a feeling I did have when I was a graduate student, and which so far as I can tell is practically universal among scholars regardless of their age and rank. It’s the feeling of being confronted by your own ignorance and the fear that your ignorance will be found out — the famous “impostor’s syndrome.” The reasons why such a feeling is nearly universal are not hard to find: scholars are deep in very particular areas and shallow in most of them (unavoidably, given the true vastness of all there is to know even within a single field), so anyone you talk to will necessarily know a great deal that you don’t. Furthermore, there is no end to the languages and skills that a scholar might wish to learn, and no end to the demands on a scholar’s time — teaching, advising, committees, families, and just trying to grasp the rudiments of whatever it is you’ve set out to research.

But no, it’s not exactly that, either, though it’s related to it. When you are aware of how little time you have to do your own creative work, then every moment you do have feels precious, and you feel the pressure not to waste it. In that fugitive hour between your last class and your next meeting, you have time to do one thing — start a monograph you’ve been meaning to read, catch up on an article someone published in your area, listen to some music you want to know better, work on your Latin grammar, whatever. OK, so how do you know that the thing you have chosen to do is what you should be doing right now? Maybe you shouldn’t be reading or listening to music at all but writing instead. When’s the last time you wrote something that wasn’t an email? Damn, I should write. I’ve got that thing I need to finish. But I have this new idea . . . maybe I should write that one down. But is this idea any good? Is it good enough to put off working on my Latin? Or my unfinished and overdue article? Or reading that book? Or …?

The anxiety of choice poisons the moment of freedom you are given to make that choice. What should be a pleasure — the scholar’s creative work — becomes painful. In that moment of anxiety, Facebook beckons. Next thing you know, you’ve pissed away your hour. Time for that meeting. Shit. You come home, your partner asks how your day was, and you say, it was OK, I guess. I dunno. You have a sense that something fell flat, though you can’t necessarily say what it was. If this happens often enough, it becomes impossible to get any pleasure from the creative act: it’s as if you’re in some crude behavior-modification experiment where you are given a small electric shock every time you try to do some scholarship.

In that moment where you are confronted by (1) your fathomless ignorance, and (2) the numberless ways you could go about relieving yourself of at least a little bit of that ignorance, in that moment where you begin to feel the paralysis of choice begin to squeeze, then, at that moment, consider that anything is better than nothing. And nothing is exactly where this creative paralysis leads. You could do anything, any one of those things I listed, and any one of them would be better than clicking on Facebook in despair of getting anything done. You could use the I Ching to find a random book in your library and start reading it, and that would be better. Any creative act would do. And by “creative” (that poor, soiled, bruised, ill-used word) I mean, anything that adds to the sum total of things you know or have experienced that you can use as fodder for your creative work — “creative work” being, for us, scholarship. And since the horizon of scholarship is (as I have said) immeasurably vaster than the horizon of any one limited individual, the number of things that might productively be used for it is correspondingly vast. As Charles Fort wrote, “if there is an underlying oneness of all things, it does not matter where we begin, whether with stars, or laws of supply and demand, or frogs, or Napoleon Bonaparte. One measures a circle, beginning anywhere.” You are free to follow your intuition, you will, your whimsy, your pleasure.

Why is it so hard to live this way, though? I don’t really know, but I had a thought yesterday, when I was talking to my daughter. She’s gotten very serious about playing music lately: for her, the violin is That Thing, as Jonathan put it: “the thing that can consume you,” or as I later wrote, the thing that draws forth your best self. It’s the medium of her creativity. When she practices, she does so with great intensity and concentration; her best days are the ones in which she plays a lot of music. Then why, she asked me, does she put off practicing? What emerged from our conversation is something pretty simple: it takes courage to create. In my daughter’s life, there are many voices — kids at school, people on the internet, and really, in the end, the voice in her own head — telling her that playing the violin is stupid or that classical music is dead and how is she going to make money, etc. And I also believe that when she picks up her violin or when I open my laptop to write another post at Dial M (“why a blog post? shouldn’t you be working on your book? does blogging even count?”), there is an even more powerful voice in our heads: who are you to create?

And in that moment, you have to put out a little quantum of courage to assert yourself. A lot of M. C. Richards’s writing is about finding that courage, finding the temerity to live out the truth of your own soul. To create is to give witness and voice to what is truly ours; to create, then, is to value ourselves, and that is something that academics find very hard to do. If there’s one thing on constant display at academic meetings, underneath all the assertions of ego, it’s a monstrous and bottomless self-loathing. To the question, who are you to create? we have been trained and socialized to say, no-one at all, nothing. I count for nothing; it is the Discipline that matters. It’s not even creative work at all — it has nothing to do with me. I am the humble servant of my wissenschaft, a truth beside which which my own truth is irrelevant and trifling. That voice is very loud indeed inside all our skulls.

Which brings me back to what I was saying about that subtle feeling of dread I’ve been feeling, and which, to judge from things I’ve heard over the years from other musicologists, I’m not alone in feeling. In the moment you find yourself in a conversation and someone asks you about your work, observe yourself. Do you feel uncomfortable? Probably. Now you have to start talking about what you’ve been working on. And as the conversation goes on and your interlocutor responds by asking if you’ve read X’s work (and you haven’t) that voice will start up: What if I don’t know what I’m talking about? What if I have no right to talk about it? What if my Thing doesn’t matter? Who am I to create?

I confess that you won’t necessarily be able to answer any of those questions in the moment. But courage isn’t the same thing as knowing the answers. Think of that famous opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, where the soldiers at Omaha Beach are waiting to land and know that many of them — most of them? all of them? — will die in the next few minutes. I doubt anyone in that situation would fail to ask, will I make it? I think about my own grandfather, who fought at Vimy Ridge in WWI, a nightmare of mud and blood in which half of the Canadians Corps were killed or wounded. My grandfather never talked about his war experiences, but I have to imagine he asked, am I going to make it? And neither he nor anyone else had the answer to that question. But it’s up and over the top, lads, and up and over they went, and what got them there wasn’t knowing the answer. Courage is all you have, the only weapon in your hand, when you embark on something whose outcome cannot be known in advance. Will my work be any good? Will it matter? Do I matter? This very thing I’m doing right now — do I have a right to do this?

In that moment, take heart. What else can you do? It’s not whether you live or die that matters, it’s whether you acted at all.

*In particular, my students Kerry O’Brien and Dan Bishop are delivering papers. If you want to hear some next-level material from rising scholars in the American postwar avant-garde (Kerry) and New Hollywood film (Dan) — and you know you do — here’s your chance.


Posted in Academia, Life, Musicology | 4 Comments


[written in LA, posted several days later]

I’m in Los Angeles right now. I got a grant from IU’s invaluable New Frontiers program to go to the Getty Research Institute for a couple of weeks and do research in the M. C. Richards papers. I have a thing for esoteric avant-gardists, I guess: like John Benson Brooks, who I wrote about at length in Dig, Richards is one of those Zelig-like people who knew everyone and happened to be involved in a lot of legendary scenes without herself being particularly well-known. (Though she is at least better-known than JBB.) Richards was a teacher at the Black Mountain College, a sort of All-Varsity Squad of the avant-garde, and among other things wrote the English translation of Antonin Artaud’s Theatre and Its Double, which had incalculable influence on postwar American art and not least on John Cage, with whom Richards collaborated on his Black Mountain Piece no. 1 in 1952 — a work of Artaudian “Theatre of Cruelty” and the first-ever Happening.

Richards also wrote Centering, a unique treatise on the practice of art and life. I suppose I could say that it’s a book about creativity and you’d get a halfway decent idea of what it’s about, but really, this book is sui generis. As Cage wrote in his blurb for the book, “the subject she teaches isn’t listed in the catalogs.” Wesleyan University Press published it in 1964 and intended it to complement its publications of Cage’s essays; in the years since, that cultural context has become less legible, and the back cover now lists it in “Psychology/New Age.” But that’s not it either.

What Richards was writing about, here and in all her works, is art as the necessary bodying-forth of human life. From a history-of-ideas point of view, this is the characteristic avant-garde idea of the form of an artwork being identical to the act by which it is made — an idea vividly demonstrated by the film of Jackson Pollack painting on glass. It was also how the literary avant-garde — most famously, Jack Kerouac — understood jazz improvisation, and what they sought in their own writing.

animationRichards believed that art is the trace our life leaves in our chosen medium, whether it be her own media of poetry and pottery or anything else. Centering, for Richards, is a process by which we integrate (“bring to the center”) all the parts of our lives, our different moods and characters, the pleasures and traumas that befall us, and allow them expression in art. An art whose form is necessarily the form of the life from which it emanates. Just as we manifest the energy of the universe in our breathing, in the pulse of our blood and the tightening and relaxation of our muscles, so too does our creative work manifest those same pulses, tensions, resistances, and releases. Being “creative” is not the inane goofing-off that marketers so often make it out to be, but hard and chastening work, for it involves bringing to the center everything, not just the stuff we like.

Richards demands that we embrace everything and turn away from nothing: like Cage, she wanted to let sounds — and sights, tastes, smells, feelings, experiences in the broadest sense — be themselves, unfalsified by our egoistic attachments and cravings. Cage’s philosophical point of reference here was Zen; Richards was closer to Rudolph Steiner and Carl Jung. But it was in the very air they breathed to insist upon digging everything and seeing the holy in the bruised, shit-stained, scabbed, needle-marked human chaos.

Easier said than done, though.

There is a subtle trap: if, in the act of gathering everything into yourself, in centering it, there is the danger that you will make of everything a oneness by which you can transcend the particular miseries of your experience. In fact, it’s hard to see how we can avoid doing that. Even as you say, wait, experience this pain, don’t try to prettify it, don’t make it something other than what it is — even as you say that, the very act of framing it as a singular pain held within a larger whole suggests an integrity that gives any particular part its meaning, a Greater Good for the pain to serve. And a pain that serves a Greater Good is a pain negated or denied, or at least made to be something other than what it is. From what I can tell after several days of working through her collected papers, this was a problem Richards wrestled with her entire life.

I once heard Simon Morrison say, of archival research, “the highs are high and the lows are . . . consistent.” It’s very true. There are moments when you’re looking at some obscure scrap of paper and you figure something out, make a connection, fit some missing piece into the puzzle, and realize that, in that moment, you’re probably the only person in the world who knows what you know. But much of the time you’re just plowing through endless reams of stuff, the ejecta of a human life that forms no pattern and serves no purpose beyond the perpetuation of its own Brownian motion. And from the hour-by-hour repetition of this exercise comes a certain pervading feeling of sadness. You begin to question the point of the human life you’re researching, the point of your own life, the point of what you’re doing right now.

In my book I made the distinction between “living” and “a life.” The distinction is akin to that between “practice” and “performance.” The one is the name we give to a process that is intrinsically open-ended and imperfect; the other is the name we give in retrospect to that process, now conceived as finished, complete, a whole that can hold still for our judgment. “A life of service,” “a wasted life,” “an uncompromising life,” etc. And of course we also do this while we are living. We always try to convert our living into a life; we always apply a valedictory rhetoric to our living and speak as if the events of our lives are turning points that lead towards the final meaning that our lives must surely have. But what if it really is just one damn thing after another, and we never really change, never really learn, just go on making the same stupid mistakes again and again until we die?

In the avant-garde rhetoric of living rather than life, process rather than product, of centering, this is ultimately the thing we have to bring to the center. Our radical imperfection, our irremediable limitation. And this is supposed to be a beautiful, life-affirming thing, somehow. I am guilty of a certain amount of this rhetoric myself. As I say, easier said than done.

That’s the feeling of sadness I get every time I do research in the papers of some historical figure. I have a lot of fellow-feeling for M. C. Richards: like me, she’s a bit of a mess. She’s so full of love and insecurity and pride and hurt, so painfully sincere, trying so hard, so honest and self-revealing and yet always falling into traps laid by the parts of herself she can’t see. In page after page of her diaries, she tells herself don’t do X, don’t do X, don’t do X . . . and she goes ahead and does X again. Year after year she ponders the mystery of herself and human beings generally, and year after year she remains stubbornly herself.

Remind you of anyone you know? It should: it’s the essence of our limited condition as human beings. Old Adam.

To give up on the possibility of change, transformation, and transcendence, feels like giving up on life itself. And yet acceptance of our limited condition, our human condition, is surely the only possible freedom.

I won’t pretend I’ve figured any of this out. After a lifetime of thinking about it harder than almost anyone, M. C. Richards didn’t come up with a final understanding either. Is that OK?

Posted in Avant-Garde, Life, Research | 2 Comments