Don’t be a poltroon

And finally, to bring my thoughts about blogging to some kind of temporary conclusion (and then I promise to shut up about it for a while), I will present you with a cartoon that sums up my feelings on the matter:


The fear that something you write might somehow, somewhere come back to haunt you, so it’s better to leave a thought unexpressed than run the risk of someone’s displeasure, is a craven and unworthy thought. Especially for those who are pleased to think of themselves as free-thinking intellectuals.

This almost pathological aversion to risk is one reason most academic writing so unreadably dull. So when I hear my fellow academics saying “yes, this so-called “blogging” is all well and good, but you stand to make a fool of yourself,” I want to say, you say that like it’s a bad thing. A bit of danger — or at least the sense that something is at stake and the outcome is unknown — is the life-blood of writing.

One thing that younger scholars hear all the time is that they shouldn’t use online media to share their thoughts lest someone take offense. And sure, if you have any kind of online presence you will almost certainly show your ass sooner or later. I know I have. Furthermore, there are certain varieties of ass-showing that can do you serious and permanent professional harm. But we’re all adults here, and adults get to make adult-type choices. We infantilize ourselves when we act as if our hands are tied, we can’t risk it, we cannot face our choice as such, the choice cannot be made . . . This is what Sartre meant by “bad faith.” It is very true that, as Black Thought said, “keepin’ it real will kill you if you end up letting it.” But so will not keepin’ it real. Well, we’re all going to die sometime. What do you want to show for your brief time on earth?

What a way to live your life, cowering in fear from every hypothetical danger. Life is too damn short. “He managed risk effectively” is not something people want on their tombstone.

Now there’s a headstone I can get behind. The woman for whom it was carved is apparently a bit of a mystery. No-one knows why she wanted it to look this way. Perhaps she had it carved in a spirit of bitter self-recrimination. But I’d like to imagine it was otherwise: that she looked at a life of ideas and feelings set to paper, to no great glory or posterity, and thought, you know, I said what I had to say, and it was enough. There are things worse than failure.

Posted in Blogging, Ethics | 4 Comments

Blogging and the Van Meegeren Syndrome

It’s been a long time. I shouldn’t have left you. Without a strong rhyme to step to. Well, I’ve been teaching again after a semester’s sabbatical and working on a biggish piece of offline writing, so that’s been occupying my mind. Excuses, excuses.

This was my first sabbatical ever. I can say confidently that I’m in favor of them. The only downside is that, when you return, everyone asks you what you did, and when you tell them you suddenly feel self-conscious of how paltry your accomplishments sound when you try to count them up.

Me: Well, uh, I . . . read a lot and had a lot of . . .  thoughts . . . and . . . [more confidently] I blogged a lot!

Colleague: [Silence]

Hey, I wrote a lot of offline stuff too, OK? But I certainly used my freedom to spend a lot more time than usual writing for Dial M. I regret nothing! I still feel a bit sheepish, though, sticking up for my online stuff when I’m talking to senior colleagues. I notice that younger academics don’t really need to be convinced that blog writing can be a legitimate form of intellectual work, though. One student of mine suggested that there might be some kind of generation gap between those who remember a world without an internet (my age and older) and those for whom there has never not been an internet. Interesting thought.

One of my fellow musicologists recently suggested to me that there is one objection to academic blogging that I had not yet addressed in my recent series of posts on the subject. It’s not just a question of what kind of work it represents, but also how much. Academics are familiar with what it takes to push an article through peer review: they have a rough idea of how much time will be spend researching, writing, waiting for the thumbs-up or -down, responding to peer review comments, rewriting, editing, swallowing anger, etc. But academics can’t look at an online essay and make the same calculations. We don’t know whether this is real work because we can’t tell what work went into it.

We all know that there are countless peer-reviewed journal articles entirely bereft of style, originality, intelligence, or a point. Academics reading this post can supply their own favorite examples. These are the box-checking, CV-padding, sand-flavored, paint-by-numbers wads of bumf that even their own authors secretly despise. But no matter how lame a published article is, it does represent a certain recognizable minimum of work.

Now compare something like that to an essay by a really good blogger — for example, the philosopher and culture critic Steven Shaviro. Read his (relatively) recent essay-review on Mark Abel’s Groove. It’s better-written than most things you will see in a specialist music-academic journal. Shaviro’s explanation of Adorno’s understanding of meter and time in both Western art music and groove music is remarkably clear, and his discussion of various philosophical conceptions of time manages the trick of joining a conversation already in progress while unobtrusively catching you up on it. As a critic he is fair-minded and has an impressive catholicity of cultural reference. This is scholarly/intellectual writing with style, originality, learning, and above all ideas — lots of them. His in-passing mention of Western art music isn’t perfect, but small gaffes are unavoidable for someone who is writing about something outside his academic specialty. And surely one of the things we value about blogging and other kinds of online writing is that it makes it easier for scholars to transgress disciplinary boundaries at will — indeed, it positively encourages them to do so.

My point is, I would rather have a single online essay by Shaviro — say, this brisk and entirely deserved beatdown of Greil Marcus — than a whole shelf of crap musicology. Essays like this contribute more to my thinking than any amount of peer-reviewed time-serving. If someone invented a device that, like Maat’s scale, could weigh the worth of a piece of intellectual writing, the best online essays would outweigh entire monographs.

But a certain kind of mind can’t take such essays seriously because we don’t know how long they took to write.

My colleague told me a story about some fool asking Picasso how long it took him to draw something, clearly implying a criticism along the lines of “my kid could do that.” Picasso’s answer was that it took him his whole life to learn how to do that.

For reasons I will explain shortly, I think it’s a bit beside the point to ask how hard it is was to write something. But that does seem like a question people ask. I think it has to do with more than just blogging: it registers a unease about technology more generally. If, as Freud said, our technologies make us into “prosthetic gods,” then we have to wonder how god-like we would be if we dropped our technological extensions and tried our strength against the world unaided. It’s a trope in action movies for the hero and his honorable adversary to drop their weapons and fight bare-handed; the villain is the one who hides behind his weapons. Similarly, internet technology might confer an unfair advantage to the scholar released from the drudgeries of the peer-review process.

Glenn Gould encountered similar objections to his argument that studio recordings are superior to live performances. Classical music culture has always mistrusted recordings because (it believes) the art of performance lies in the performer’s grappling with the highest demands of art, nakedly and without mediation, before an audience. Edits and overdubs let a player sound better on record than he would on stage, and to classical audiences this seems like a kind of fraud.

Gould completely rejected this view: he didn’t believe that a happenstance in a performer’s biography, the “release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline,” should determine how a piece of music sounds. For Gould, what is essential to a musical work is not any contingent, time-bound aspect — the way the composer notated it, or the instruments for which it is written, or even, to some degree, the notes on the page. In a sense, even the composer is a mere contingency. What is most real in a work, and what commands the performer’s attention, is an idea, an idea of which the score is an imperfect approximation and for which the composer is only a sort of mouthpiece. To Gould, the performer’s duty to illuminate the idea trumps fidelity to the score, which explains why Gould was so willing to inflict insane tempos on the music he played, deploy multitrack “acoustic choreography,” or in some cases to rewrite passages in order to bring out what he considered their underlying structure. He always had a point to make, and he did whatever would allow him to make that point.

From Gould’s perspective, then, who cares if the recording falsifies what a performer is able to do? The performer matters only insofar as he can furnish an interpretation that clarifies an idea latent in the music. And if that’s the real point of a performance, then anything that helps it along is fair game. So why wouldn’t you use tape splices, multitrack mixing of differently-placed microphones, and all the tricks of the studio trade?

Classical listeners never stopped grousing about how a recording can make someone “sound better than they really are,” though. Gould countered them with the example of Hans Van Meegeren, a Dutch art forger whose imitation Vermeers were convincing enough for him to be prosecuted for selling one of them to the Nazis during World War II — and when he revealed that he had faked them, he was promptly charged with fraud. When the authorities believed that Van Meegeren’s Vermeers were authentic, they were outraged that he had sold off his nation’s precious cultural heritage; when he revealed that they were fake, the same paintings were suddenly declared worthless. Which suggests that while we might say we love an artwork for what it means to us, what we really care about is who made it. We care about the facts of its origins and the contingencies of its history, not how it looks or sounds in itself — or, in Ramsey Dukes’s terms, what it is, not what it does.

Gould cared only about what an artwork does. If he could create the artistic effect he was after by cutting together 2000 splices of each separate note in a Bach invention played with the eraser end of a pencil, he would have done it. If his aims had been served by getting a machine to play the music for him, he would have done that. (He was a big fan of Switched-On Bach, by the way.) A record buyer might care about the story of how a particular collection of sounds ends up on a particular record, but to Gould all such stories were irrelevant.* If the sounds are good, who cares how they got there?**

It’s probably true that a lot of academics don’t take blogging seriously because they can’t tell if the writer is really doing something hard and academic. Perhaps the blog medium makes it only seem as if the ideas in an online essay are substantial. We can’t know unless we see them on stage — that is, in a proper academic journal.

Remember Steven Shaviro’s review of Groove by Mark Abel? Well surprise, that was a peer-reviewed journal article. Do you feel different about it now? Do you feel a little twinge of relief in some corner of your soul because the world has turned right-side-up again and you can reconcile your impression of the essay’s contents with what you now know of its provenance? Or are you disappointed that my Exhibit A for the intellectual worth of blogging turns out to be a sham?

Actually, no, I’m messing with you, it really is a blog post.

Or is it? Maybe I’m still messing with you. Can you tell what it really is just from reading it? If you don’t know what it is, does this affect the value you assign it?

What matters to me is what a piece of writing does, not what it is. If a blog post has a good idea and a peer-reviewed article doesn’t, I’ll take the blog post every time. For me, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and insofar as some of my fellow-scholars care more about where the pudding came from — whether it’s a prestigious and respectable pudding — I think their intellectual values are skewed.

I know that some venues are more prestigious than others, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t care about such things. I also think that scholars have to pay their dues and take their lumps in the peer-review system; it’s not a perfect system, but it actually functions pretty well, all things considered. And most blogs are crap, though you didn’t need me to tell you that.

All I’m saying is, be willing to rely on your own taste and intelligence to tell you what counts. It’s one-sided and wrong-headed to say that the peer-review system is irredeemably broken and that self-publishing on the internet is where it’s at. It’s likewise wrong to say that viable intellectual work can only be done within the conventions of academic publishing. The trick is to hang out at the point where these two systems meet and throw up interference patterns. It’s the space between them that’s the place to be, grooving off the energy of their confrontation.

*Or at least that’s what he said. In trying to make their arguments perfectly consistent, intellectuals always seem to take them to ludicrous and totalizing extremes, and Gould was no exception. I doubt his actual practice was anything nearly so radical as the ideas by which he justified his practice. And in any event I don’t hold with Gould’s idealist notion of music — I’m a fan of what Gould despised as “non-take-twoness,” myself. But I think he was onto something with what he called “the Van Meegeren Syndrome.”

**I draw the line at plagiarism, though. If the words on your site are good but they’re not your words (and you say they are), then I do very much care how they got there.

Posted in Academia, Blogging, Recordings, Technology | 2 Comments

The stuff in Jonathan’s last post blowin’ my mind like

mind blown

Did you read it? Go read it.

Posted in Image post


As I’ve written before, one of the general ideas that holds the greatest allure for me is the discovery of long-unheard music and musical practices, of hearing again what is generally agreed to have disappeared and been forgotten, and of realizing that what was assumed to be lost in fact is not. This impulse underlies much musicological research: discovering works long thought to have disappeared, preserving recordings of much earlier performance styles, and (particularly important in my case) the study of historical performance practices—the way historical musics were conceived and performed in their own time. Performance Practices not only encompasses historical instruments but also historical approaches to tuning them, the sorts of technique used to play them, ways of ornamenting, performance contexts (spoiler alert: the polite silence of the modern concert hall would have been more anomalous, historically, than one would think), and much more. All such considerations are highly relevant to situating music and musical performance in its time and culture, which is a central concern of contemporary musicology. Understanding the cultural effect of a famous soprano or piano soloist of a couple of centuries ago by imagining a modern classical performer rather than an ornamenting, improvising, highly individual musical sorceror is a mistake, because what was expected of a musician two centuries ago (for example) is very different from what is expected today.

In brief, the closer we get to the newness that compositions and musical effects had in their time, the closer we are to hearing the magic, and getting to understand and experience it, rather than pallid rehearsals of Received Standard Interpretation. I do exaggerate somewhat (perhaps less than the reader thinks), but it is worth remembering that in most cases music does not set out to be classical; it sets out to delight, persuade, challenge, entertain, and strike to the hearer’s emotional core. Hearing a musical work with the familiarity of one who has studied and performed it, as many musical aficionados do today, is only one very limited kind of listening.

What I want to do is highlight three (fairly) recent examples of what to me are mind-blowing you’d-never-believe-this musical discoveries that have a lot to add to our imagined historical soundscapes.

The first of these is a demonstration of historical reconstruction at its most creative. Nicola Vincentino (1511–76) was a musical visionary who divided the octave into thirty-one microtones (the most common western system today of course divides it into twelve half-steps of equal size), and who invented an enharmonic harpsichord, the “archicembalo,” to play music written for that system. Unsurprisingly, his compositions met with resistance; Vincenzo Galilei, Galileo’s father, wrote:

Don Nicola [i.e., Vicentino] had some students, who, while he played, especially in the enharmonic genus, sang this sort of music composed by him. He had this music performed in all the principal cities of Italy and I have heard it often, in various times and places. Let it be the sign of whether this music pleased or not that after his death it was practised neither by his students nor by anyone else. If by misfortune one of the singers lost his way while singing, it was impossible to put him back on the right track.

Thus this kind of music necessarily required an instrument that could guide the voices of the singers through unknown tracts (not to say through precipitate cliffs), not letting them proceed according to the nature of singing and through a straight path. These particular sounds of the enharmonic … could only be unpleasant to the senses. After Don Nicola’s death the music was not sung anymore; the instruments were no longer played in that manner and his students completely abandoned the enharmonic, not finding anyone who wished to listen to it.

Thus a classic dismissal of one Who Didn’t Get It—I’m sure such statements about the likes of Webern were common also. How in the world might one reconstruct such difficult music, competently enough that it speaks as it ought rather than just excite pity? Well (ahem), obviously—obviously, if you’re Prof. Jonathan Wild at McGill University—you use Auto-Tune Auto-Tune, in the service of Good, not Evil! Here is a blogpost with an interview with Prof. Wild, and here is a CBC feature with music and explanation thereof. It is a veritable banquet.


On the other end of the spectrum, we might consider party music for dancers, players, and drinkers… A rare 1954 Folkways album by one Prince Nazaroff (not, unsurprisingly, his real name)—a hysterical, out-of-tune, Yiddish free-for-all—has resurfaced because a three-continent all-star Klezmer group called the Brothers Nazaroff have recorded a tribute. This is street music, backroom music, music so raw, so pounded and stretched that it had no business being recorded. The commentator Michael Wex aptly described it this way:

“My initial reaction to it was, ‘How the hell did this get recorded?’” he says. “It sounds like the Yiddish-speaking janitor and a bunch of his friends at Folkways broke in one night, and just sort of seized the equipment and started playing songs.”

The NPR feature on the project is to be found here, but fortunately the entire original album is digitized and available from the link above (start with “Freylekh,” the fifth track down). No studied, correct “rejoicing” here; it sounds like several glezelekh bronfn (glasses of whiskey) were consumed before the recording even began. In a sense, this is not music that should ever have been recorded. Rather, this is music made by people stomping the hell out of their instruments, rejoicing like crazy without caring who is watching, and who might not have been able to make a living as a wedding band. So the comparison to garage band or punk band is a good one: these are people who have to slam this stuff out because they’ll plotz otherwise. I suspect there’s no surviving Yiddish culture where this kind of music-making survives without cultivation. This is purely secular Yiddish, I think, and by sixty years later I think the descendants of such people are largely assimilated, musically—certainly, there’s no wider Yiddish musical world in which they might have been nurtured. This is a recording of a culture that has largely vanished, and (fortunately, and fascinatingly) it’s almost entirely unmediated.

Yet another treasure: to my knowledge, there is not a tremendous amount of research on the art of the silent movie pianists. After 1940 it was a retrospective art, and so it didn’t flourish for much more than twenty years. There are some anthologies available, but the most famous has mostly excerpts of published works for pianists to flip through. What’s the point?

The 1980 New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians relegated improvisation, if I recall aright, to “such artistic limbos and the dance class and organ loft.” Of course, as a former professional ballet pianist I take offense, but I also take the point. The art of the silent movie accompanist, though, has the potential to be something far subtler, a smooth-as-silk, rapidly changing series of musical excerpts of different styles, moods, characters, etc. This practice lies in a direct line of descent from the sort of music Franz Joseph Haydn was called upon to produce for the theater, as a young man. His audition supposedly began with an impresario shouting, “I’m drowning! Accompany me!” and Haydn had to come up with appropriate music, on the spot, while the man flailed about. André Previn had earned a few bucks this way as a young person, and told an anecdote of when he absentmindedly played “Tiger Rag” during a cinematic version of the Crucifixion. His next activity, I think, was to look for a new job.

Silent movie accompaniment is a subtle art but a vernacular art, as quicksilver-clever as vaudevillians had to be, stemming from a deep well of musical culture, but irrevocably tied to B- and C-movies, with their cheap sentimentality and clichéd action sequences. The best pianists in this line had a real depth, but few pretensions, and they had to be keyed into popular culture in order to serve the public. Here is an interview with just such a pianist, at the end of a long life, with demonstrations. He says he never considered himself a real pianist, his hands were too small, etc.; I myself (with my doctorate in Piano Performance Practices) listen to something like this and wonder what the hell a “real” pianist is, anyway, given that kind of capability. It is a highly worthwhile interview; this sort of music was taken for granted as a more or less ever-present part of culture…and it then promptly disappeared with the advent of “talkies.” Listen, ye Prize-Winning Superpianists, and marvel.

And finally, a speculative reconstruction of the soundscape of historical Paris itself: the echoes, the birds, the whole sonic panorama. This can be explored at leisure. Enjoy!

Posted in Early Music, Film, Old Honkytonk Monkeyshines, Pop Culture, Recordings | 1 Comment

Mad Studies and Advocacy

Phil’s testimony about depression (see his Mad Studies blogpost for the most recent example), like that of other friends, always impresses me because it’s so clear-eyed and brutally self-pitiless. It the Black Dog is to be found in my family, I didn’t inherit it—in fact, I seem to get happier and more contented the older I get. (I’m also told I get grumpier, but that’s normal. Don’t make me get out my gradebook.) For me, the concept of “Mad Studies” throws up a red flag or ten, but it’s the sort of thing that looks on the surface like a somewhat unexceptional new subdiscipline like many others. So we have Marxist Studies and Cultural Studies and Postcolonial Studies; moving toward identity issues we have Africana Studies and Hispanic Studies and Jewish Studies and Gender Studies, and now (among many, many others), Mad Studies. One common pattern would be for it to be taken blazingly seriously by its founders and followers while for academics of a certain age (I’ll quote my much-missed father, Prof. Samuel I Bellman: “fusty old profs, with the one-leg-after-the-other, breathe-in-breathe-out, just managing to get to their classes”) such a new discipline might garner a raised eyebrow, a vague and possibly condescending smile, and little more. This is a (st)age I have now reached so I get it, Dad, I get it.

This one merits a closer look, though. I have no skin in this game: for all my weirdnesses and eccentricities, and despite my belief that we’re all on some kind of spectrum—that absolute mean-“normality” doesn’t exist, in other words—I personally do not have to deal with “difference” as it’s generally meant, physically or mentally or psychologically. For all intents and purposes I’m a neurotypical, able-bodied, straight white guy, period, and (once I finally managed to become employed) have benefited from all the traditional privileges appertaining thereunto.

So I read the social media posts from my many friends who are either neurodiverse or who have neurodiverse children, or who have chronic illnesses (perhaps invisible ones like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, if it’s still called that, or chronic pain conditions), or depression, or serious physical situations that may or may not be apparent, etc. I try to learn, and I note the unavoidable self-obsession (sorry but yes) that can result from dealing with some kind of hideously challenging life circumstance, day in and day out. As a human, you are expected to interact and compete as an equal with fellow humans, sure, but you personally are forced to run with heavy weights, and everything about your life, or your child’s life, amounts to somehow trying to make up for that additional burden. That brand of self-centeredness and constant self-advocacy is a natural by-product to simply trying to function, to stay in your lane, and the alternative is simply to collapse. Never mind “level playing field,” because the concept is irrelevant to someone running with a Black Dog on his back, or who can’t run at all, or whose body generates pain because of a diabolical nervous disorder, or who is often exhausted for no bloody reason, etc. Lots of my friends are academics, so the act of being employed on even a part-time basis, or finishing an article or blogpost, or just doing daily exercise often takes a level of resolve that might shock a fusty old someone-like-me.

One problematic point is the distinction between physical and mental illness. My friends who suffer from chronic pain and fatigue are far less interested in identity than simply in a cure, thank you very much. They don’t want to be “different,” damn it, just fix the flaming problem—and it is a problem, thank you, not “difference” to be validated—and let them return to life. But surely many mental illnesses are treatable with drug therapies, and could thus be made much more manageable? But these might potentially flatten out (say) the highs, altering people’s essential nature, and thus be unwarranted intrustions. Oliver Sacks has written of such cases. The exhilaration of the highs is more obvious, but I knew someone whose wife once shared that her severely bipolar husband valued the no-lower-than-this lows because those were the only times that the small child they’d lost to a heart defect could come and “be with” him, regardless of how it debilitated him otherwise. The line between what should and shouldn’t be corrected, or celebrated, or accommodated, grows hazy.

The primary question about Mad Studies, though—Phil touched on it already—has to do with the difference between advocacy and discipline. The dividing line is elusive, especially when it is understood that situating oneself or one’s work in a particular area is de facto endorsement; it is not going to be an act of interrogation and resistance to that area. Misogynists and gay-bashers don’t enter gender studies to sabotage it from the inside; they flee, because to be within a discipline is an implicit proclamation of its validity, however much disagreement there is within the tent. Same with Postcolonialism, which is a particular critical perspective; in Postcolonial Studies the basic postcolonial understanding of power and appropriation both cultural and physical cannot be questioned because the subdiscipline is based thereupon. No point in being involved if there isn’t sympathetic buy-in.

Phil notes, though, that discipline and identity are hard to separate: he quotes a Nick Walter piece in reference to the question of whether we refer to someone as “suffering from homosexuality”—“No, we don’t. The implication of this phrasing — that being gay is some kind of disease — is offensive.” True, but it might be more accurate to say that we don’t anymore, because the way homosexuality used to be referred to in the psychiatric literature and popular culture was pretty much that—a deviant pathology. So the fundamental basis of queer theory and related subdisciplines is first and foremost that a different sexual orientation and/or identification is not wrong or bad; it’s part of the diversity of human orientations and identifications. In other words, it is one of the varieties of normal. Typicality is not normal; diversity is, and once that is established we can move on to the specific awarenesses and approaches this or any such area have to teach.

“But is a mental disorder and illness or an identity?” The answer to Phil’s brutal question is, of course, “depends on who you ask.” A voice or two about what the Black Dog can reveal to those familiar with it/suffering from it that others might not be able to perceive are quoted and acknowledged. In rhetorical terms, I think it would be quite possible to make the same argument about schizophrenia; those like me mired in their psychotypicality cannot perceive reality in the kaleidoscopic, fearsome, possibly inspirational and/or enlighting and/or revealing way that schizophrenics do. So the loss is ours, one might say; these are experiences and perceptions that are denied us owing to our straitened perceptual vocabulary.

(There was an episode of House that was about little people, with all kinds of pride and sass coming from a little mother, but when it transpired that her little daughter was actually small for a wholly correctable medical reason, she brushed aside her daughter’s defensive identity argument and told her to get the treatment because of the opportunities it would open up. Yes, a TV show, but this is precisely the issue under discussion.)

So if we’re talking about something that isn’t good vs. bad but rather just different, it really does become a matter for advocacy. Advocacy, which as I say is an integral part of “studies,” lies outside justice or fairness, though they sometimes coincide; it’s advocacy, a different enterprise. (Here’s an overview of Mad Pride.) It is relatively straightforward to talk about justice where there is discrimination based on race, religion, gender, or sexual preference. However, in the legal world, it isn’t about “fairness,” it’s about your client getting the best defense possible. So we’ve got the “twinkie defense,” affluenza as excuse for moral bankruptcy, and (truth!) mitigating circumstance for the poor darlings who behave hideously because they can’t help themselves. That’s the best defense that can be provided, so such parties are “entitled” to the best defense their attorneys can provide, sowing doubt in the jurors’ minds and so on, and for the attorneys involved anything less is a breach of professional responsibility. The attorney’s role is not to play judge and jury, to mete out justice and fairness; it is to provide advocacy, period. However ridiculous it may seem to suggest that Mad Studies might inspire some surprising defenses or assertions, in my mind there’s no question, particularly in a high-profile case where—win or lose—money is to be made, attention to be attracted, and so on.

If “Mad Studies” is a discipline, then madness is but one more human variation, not to be castigated or judged. Do I exaggerate? The first point of a recent manifesto-type post from the “Mad Studies Network” is “We aim to work towards making and preserving space for mad people’s knowledges and histories within the academy and within services.”

“Mad people’s knowledges.” For a competent Advocate, it is no distance at all to the position that every thought or act is automatically not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity, regardless of who or what has been hurt, or what norms have been flouted. And special pleading in identity cases is already an old tradition; the acdemic identity politics of the 1990s were rife with strident claims, often based on questionable stereotypes, about things that should be allowed to some groups, in professional situations, but not others. This sounds insane (and I certainly thought it was), but such opinions were by no means uncommon. “Women’s ways of relating” was one such (all women being, you know, the same), and Black men talking about basketball around the water cooler (I am not making this up)—because it was so cultural important to them but not to whites—was another. Very few were contesting all the self-righteous browbeating at that time. Rather, people just looked the other way and shrugged helplessly. I was there, and I will never forget the the impotent hand-wringing. “Well, they’re talking a lot about that now,” people would limply mutter, and not look you in th eye.

This, to me, is a key point with Mad Studies. Queer Theory very consciously takes a word with a negative connotation and makes it a positive…is out about it. Mad Studies follows the same strategy, but the implications and ultimate consequences would be far different. Situating “mad” as one of the variations of normally human would have implications far beyond those of other disciplines, and the primrose path to that quite possibly dangerous place has already been well mapped and well traveled.

The humanities have often had to contend with accusations of pointless triviality and self-importance, and Mad Studies seems custom-made for true humanities-haters, especially in that it elevates the dread “relativism” to a whole new level. It almost seems like a glib, Ender’s Game-kind of destruction from within. What I don’t know is if there is an academic protocol for simply calling something outlandish out as crap, over the line. I’ve never heard it done, except in private. This new discipline would be, I think, my first candidate.

Posted in Academia, Ethics, Intellectuals | 6 Comments

CFP: Music and the Occult

I have been writing about magic a whole lot lately, and suddenly I feel like I’m seeing a whole lot of CFPs (calls for papers/proposals) on magical themes. Maybe there’s something magical in the air? Are academics finally getting hip to magic, the occult, the supernatural, esotericism, or whatever it is we’re going to call it? Are the lonely redoubts of academic research in this area finally getting some reinforcements? Make no mistake, for years a small band of outstanding scholars have been working specifically on the history and ideas of Western esotericism: Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, Antoine Faivre, and Wouter Hanegraaff come immediately to mind. And from outside the specific area of “Western Esotericism Studies” there has been a steady drip-drip-drip of academic studies and symposia on magical themes — magic and literature, magic and rhetoric, magic and the visual arts, but little as yet on magic and music. (Though this CFP sounds really interesting.)

S. Alexander Reed (author of the indispensable Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music) and I are co-editing a special issue of the Journal of Musicological Research that will attempt to fill this void. For a longish while, Alex and I have been talking on and off (mostly off) about organizing something on this topic. My original idea for a title was “Music and the Fucking Occult,” since “occult” is such a metal-sounding word you might as well go all the way.

nelsart dio


Cooler heads have prevailed, however, so herewith we bring to you our CFP for “Music and the Occult”:

Call for Papers
“Music and the Occult”
Due Date: September 15, 2016

The Journal of Musicological Research, a quarterly peer-reviewed journal published by Routledge, is seeking article submissions for a special issue on “Music and the Occult,” to appear in 2017 or 2018. The editors welcome submissions that occupy and/or concern the intersection of music and the categories of esotericism, Hermeticism, magic, mysticism, or the occult. Scholarly approaches may be historical, theoretical, ethnomusicological, or idiosyncratic to the subject matter.

Topics are not limited to any particular area of scholarly study, but possible subjects might include the following:

Music and paganism
Music and occult/pagan ritual
Esoteric and Hermetic philosophies of music
Neo-Platonic and Pythagorean music theory
Music in esoteric Christianity
Popular music and occultism
Music and theosophy (e.g. Alexander Scriabin, Henry Cowell)
Occult revivals (e.g. late 1800s and early 1900s, 1960s)
Music and the New Age
Nonwestern musics and magical traditions
Musicology and the occult

You can go to the Taylor and Francis site page for the official contact information, though of course you could also just get in touch with me or Alex.

Something the CFP doesn’t go into is why exactly we think this is an important and timely scholarly project. I can’t speak for Alex, but for my part I’ve argued at some length on this site about why I think magic and the occult (or, if we’re being dignified, “esotericism”) is a lot more pervasive than we are normally inclined to think. I agree with Ramsey Dukes that magic is one of the main axes of human feeling, thinking, making, and doing. Dukes contends that the other axes are science, art, and religion, but while people are happy to ascribe their motivations to those endeavors, very few will openly avow magical motivations for what they do and think. And yet, as I’ve said repeatedly here, magic — you’re soaking in it.

What happens when we share a habit of mind that is (a) ubiquitous, and (b) unspoken, repressed, demonized, and thus unknown to ourselves even as we entertain it? It becomes our shadow-side, and in the shadows it gathers power. Thus is this domain rightly called “occult” — meaning hidden — and so too does the word come to be garlanded with a certain obscure dread.

At its heart, the academic humanities is an Enlightenment project, even when its more postmodern practitioners try to distance themselves from Enlightenment values and assumptions. Humanities scholars, almost without exception, aim to throw light on dark corners, clarify what is murky, and make explicit what is unarticulated. And the occult is surely one of those dark corners. And yet it’s also one of those things, perhaps like music itself, that changes in our explanation of it. To continue with the dark-corner analogy, a dark corner flooded with light is no longer a dark corner; it’s just a corner. Which is fine if our aim was to understand the corner as such, with all “extraneous factors” removed, but not if what we wanted to understand is dark corners. 

There is something participatory about magic that makes distanced contemplation of it problematic. As I have argued before, magic tends to disappear when we approach it in instrumental-rational terms, or at least becomes something other than its experience. Practitioners of magic, like performers of music, have some real advantages over academics who write about the subject from a position of greater abstraction. But this CFP represents a wager on academics, too, having something to say in this conversation. At the very least, I think we might get away from the “here’s some crazy stuff that ignorant people used to believe in” kind of historicism that has hindered scholarly understanding of magic. I am hoping that this special issue on “music and the occult” might even show some commerce across the border between practitioners and academics.*

*I’ve noticed several publications lately that walk the line between scholarly and participant voices in writing. I have mentioned Susan Greenwood’s The Anthropology of Magic elsewhere, and lately the London publisher Fulgur has issued two handsome journals, Abraxas and Black Mirror, that walk that line very well.

Update, a few hours after posting the above: Emily V. Leon has written to let us know of a future online publication, Desert Suprematism, that promises to do exactly this kind of scholar/practitioner crossover work on the occult and the arts.

Posted in Magic, Musicology, Research

Mad studies

At AMS this year a friend told me about an academic subspecialty I hadn’t heard of before, “mad studies.”* Mad studies is the offspring of disability studies and seeks to draw the sting from invidious words like “mad” just as its parent field does with “cripple.” As with all the various “studies,” mad studies is the academic wing of a social-justice movement (in this case, “mad pride”). And the bottom-line action of any such movement is to identify a majority stigma against a minority, raise consciousness among the people who have borne the burden of the stigma, and organize them into a community that understands itself as such. In this way, the source of the stigma — disability, ethnicity, religion, etc. — is revalued and becomes the basis for an identity. “Black is beautiful,” “sisterhood is powerful.” And perhaps now madness becomes insight. Academic minority studies try to analyze the ways stigma works in society and to theorize the identities of those who have suffered from it.

But is mental disorder an illness or an identity?

Andrew Dell’Antonio raised the issue when I wrote a piece on depression a few months ago. In the comments, Andrew linked to a piece by Nick Walker that prods us to rethink our attitudes towards Autism. And by “our” attitudes I mean those of the neurotypical population who almost invariably think of Autism as a pathology: you “have” Autism, or “suffer” from it. Yet do we say that gay people “suffer from homosexuality?” This is what Walker asks, and it’s a fair question. No, we don’t. The implication of this phrasing — that being gay is some kind of disease — is offensive. So Walker asks that we move from the “pathology paradigm,” in which we relate to Autism mostly as an illness, to the “neurodiversity paradigm.” The latter implies three things: that there is no single true model of mental functioning; that diversity in types of mental functioning is something to celebrate; and finally that

The social dynamics that manifest in regard to neurodiversity are similar to the social dynamics that manifest in regard to other forms of human diversity (e.g., diversity of race, culture, gender, or sexual orientation). These dynamics include the dynamics of social power relations – the dynamics of social inequality, privilege, and oppression – as well as the dynamics by which diversity, when embraced, acts as a source of creative potential within a group or society.

And here we can see the characteristic move of every pride-and-identity movement: the stigma is reversed, shame becomes pride, the burden is lifted, and those who were alone find their voice as a community.

So it’s reasonable to ask whether it wasn’t a mistake for me to call depression a “mental illness,“going so far as to compare it to diabetes. And I don’t have a consistent answer.

My first reaction is, suicide from untreated depression kills a lot of people — tens of thousands per year in the U.S.** I know people who would be dead without their medications. Past a certain point, the idea that mental disorder is insight or liberation, that we should throw our medications away and storm out of our therapists’ offices and march into the street singing “We Are Family,” is destructive nonsense.

And yet I have learned things from depression that I would not have learned otherwise: how to listen a bit better to people; how to understand better what other people are going through; finding the limits of my own strength; discovering the limitations of my pride and will; learning how to ask for and accept help. Depression is the harshest of all masters; learning from depression is like “The Cruel Tutelage of Pai Mei.”

cruel tutelage

There is some truth in what James Hillman says: “through depression we enter depths and in depths find soul. Depression is essential to the tragic sense of life. It moistens the dry soul, and dries the wet. It brings refuge, limitation, focus, gravity, weight, and humble powerlessness.” (James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology, 99.)

But then, on the other hand, most people learn exactly the wrong lessons from depression — for example, that you’re a piece of shit and should die. Depression can ruin your health, lose you your friends, destroy your family, lay waste to everything you have ever tried to accomplish, and leave you dangling from a rope’s end. If there’s a medical treatment that will stop all that from happening, why would you not accept it? Because embracing neurodiversity “acts as a source of creative potential within a group or society?” It seems as if that deal works out better for those who propound abstract social-justice doctrines than it does for people who are simply suffering from depression.

But on yet another hand, though, yes, there are clearly problems with the pathology paradigm. To explain what they are, I need to get a little abstract.

Let’s start with a very, very large historical phenomenon: secular modernity, a.k.a. modernization, a.k.a. post-Enlightenment instrumental rationality. We’re talking about the philosophical operating system that runs in the head of almost every person living in the North Atlantic world and increasingly everywhere else. Calling it “philosophical” is a bit misleading, actually, because the assumptions of secular modernity operate on a pre-philosophical, pre-reflective level. Modernity isn’t something we think, for the most part; it’s something that allows us to think what we think. The pathology paradigm plays out on this level.

Secular modernity denatures conventional moral categories: if “evil” is the shadow cast by God, when we do away with God we are left explaining wrong actions solely within what Charles Taylor (in A Secular Age) calls the “immanent frame,” which here means explaining them as bad functioning of the organism. Everything becomes an illness. If mind is reduced entirely to brain (as it must be, under the ruling materialist dispensation), then mind as such disappears and what is left is solely the behavioral manifestation of disordered machinery. Motivations, tastes, ideas, loves, angers, fears . . . all this internal subjective stuff, the stuff of mind, boils away.

All the better to classify you with, my dears. The impulse behind understanding human wrongness is no longer moral/religious (wrongness as sin) nor even humanistic (wrongness as a legible trace of biography or social existence), but scientific, an effort to grasp the exact limits and forms of wrongness as such, wrongness in its most objective aspect, as an autonomous thing separate from human subjectivity. This means grasping all wrongness as bad functioning, as pathological behavior. When this move is made, all our various wrongnesses can become pathologies, and they now can be ordered in the rows and columns of a typology.

Thus we have the ever-expanding Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), now in its fifth edition. Sam Kriss wrote a scalding, bitterly funny satire of the DSM-5 for The New Inquiry that pretends the book is actually a brilliant dystopian novel with characters (“figures comparable to the cacophony of voices in The Waste Land or the anonymously universal figures of Jose Saramago’s Blindness“), a setting (though an abstract and conceptual one), and a prologue to introduce us to it:

The scene this prologue sets is one of a profoundly bleak view of human beings; one in which we hobble across an empty field, crippled by blind and mechanical forces whose workings are entirely beyond any understanding. This vision of humanity’s predicament has echoes of Samuel Beckett at some of his more nihilistic moments—except that Beckett allows his tramps to speak for themselves, and when they do they’re often quite cheerful. The sufferers of DSM-5, meanwhile, have no voice; they’re only interrogated by a pitiless system of categorizations with no ability to speak back. As you read, you slowly grow aware that the book’s real object of fascination isn’t the various sicknesses described in its pages, but the sickness inherent in their arrangement.

The crux of Kriss’s review is his suggestion that the scientific mania for classification and objective assessment is itself just that, a mania, an arch-sickness or meta-sickness that generates the teeming and ever-proliferating sicknesses of the DSM-5.

The idea emerges that every person’s illness is somehow their own fault, that it comes from nowhere but themselves: their genes, their addictions, and their inherent human insufficiency. We enter a strange shadow-world where for someone to engage in prostitution isn’t the result of intersecting environmental factors (gender relations, economic class, family and social relationships) but a symptom of “conduct disorder,” along with “lying, truancy, [and] running away.” A mad person is like a faulty machine. The pseudo-objective gaze only sees what they do, rather than what they think or how they feel. A person who shits on the kitchen floor because it gives them erotic pleasure and a person who shits on the kitchen floor to ward off the demons living in the cupboard are both shunted into the diagnostic category of encopresis. It’s not just that their thought-process don’t matter, it’s as if they don’t exist. The human being is a web of flesh spun over a void.

“The human being is a web of flesh spun over a void” — I have never read a sentence that better sums up what our understanding of human beings, human life, human culture and society and history, is reduced to when our education is dictated by the philosophical assumptions of scientific materialism. Though I shouldn’t pick on scientific culture too much: this same sentence could as easily come from a post-Nietzschean, neo-Marxian, vaguely-Foucauldian, H-P-Lovecraftian, anti-humanist humanities academic of the sort that represents the intellectual current Charles Taylor calls “immanent counter-Enlightenment.” Both strands of modern thought, though apparently opposed, have a lot in common, not least a desire to purge all metaphysics from our idea of the human. (I have elsewhere argued that this is doomed to failure, though the attempt results in some interesting forms of unavowed metaphysics, of which more below.)

Back to the pathology paradigm: when we call “depression” what at other times has been called “melancholia,” we might be acceding in advance to an agenda of a “strangely causal word.” So Andrew Solomon calls the word “depression,” a medicalized notion of the thing itself and loaded with all its web-of-flesh-spun-over-the-void metaphysical baggage. But the real ding an sich, the Black Dog that stalks through the lives of 350 million people worldwide, is nothing new, has no clear lines of causality, and has never been something to trifle with:

I use depression here to describe states for which we would now use that term. It is fashionable to look at depression as a modern complaint, and this is a gross error. As Samuel Beckett once observed, “The tears of the world are a constant quality.” The shape and detail of depression have gone through a thousand cartwheels, and the treatment of depression has alternated between the ridiculous and the sublime, but the excessive sleeping, inadequate eating, suicidality, withdrawal from social interaction, and relentless despair are all as old as the hill tribes, if not as old as the hills. In the years since man achieved the capacity for self-reference, shame has come and gone; treatments for bodily complaints have alternated and crossed with treatments for spiritual ones; pleas to external gods have echoed pleas to internal demons. To understand the history of depression is to understand the invention of the human being as we now know and are him. Our Prozac-popping, cognitively focused, semi-alienated postmodernity is only a stage in the ongoing understanding and control of mood and character. [Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, 286.]

So which of these approaches is the right one? Prayers? Prozac? How about the one I identified at the beginning of this piece — making mental disorder an “identity” and the basis for some sort of politically-empowered community?

There is a value to seeing yourself as a part of a community, of knowing that you are not alone; I said as much in my previous post on depression. I sense that community when I talk to those of my friends who share my experiences with depression. But I don’t find the pride-and-identity approach any more likely to grasp the whole truth than anything else. The neurodiversity paradigm, whatever its merits, is as historical and time-bound as the pathology paradigm. That’s not a knock against it, exactly, but let’s not pretend we have won our way to truth at last. We have won our way to another face of a truth that can reveal itself only in time, reveal itself as one in a series of such revelations whose full unfolding might take fully as long as our species has to run its course. Solomon, again: “To understand the history of depression is to understand the invention of the human being as we now know and are him.”

What lies behind the postmodern fetish for new and liberating identities is, again, modernity.*** It is only a commonplace to say that the great hallmark of modernity is disenchantment, the progressive subtraction of power and agency from things in the universe — first God, then art (who among the clever set wants anymore to say that particular artworks are beautiful or powerful all on their own?), and then, finally, human beings are evacuated of any numinal sense of power and potentiality. In the blighted world of the DSM-5, humans are puppets on the string of their disorders; in the postmodern academy, they are puppets of social and economic and political forces.

Where, then, can we find meaning? Where can we place our faith? Is there redemption anywhere? For the scientist, there is redemption in science. The negation of meaning is itself the meaning. Meanwhile, the last thing anti-humanist academic postmoderns (AHAPs for short) want to talk about is redemption. But while AHAPs might be suspicious or scornful of humanism, they regrettably cannot avoid being human. For all their brave Nietzschean talk, they can’t live in hopelessness any better than anyone else. Where they put their faith is in politics.

To be sure, our actual political options may give us little to choose from and little to hope for. In our lived experience, politics is a savage and venal enterprise. But for the AHAP, it’s always “next year in Jerusalem.” Things are irredeemable now, but some day . . . it’s uncool to finish that sentence, though. We don’t want to come out and say what we think or hope will happen some day. But by god we will work for that some day that we pretend not to believe in. And if we cannot bring ourselves to believe in any real-world politics, present or future, we can put our faith in a more abstract and theological category, the political. Thus we will insist that all issues of culture are in the end political issues and assimilate all present concerns to the political horizon.

And if we no longer believe in a Utopian future state, then we can believe in a present made meaningful by the shadow that the future, however unwinnable in fact, casts over it. No wonder Theodor Adorno has become the patron saint of contemporary humanities academia: he strikes the only redemptive pose that fully modernized intellectuals can permit themselves, negation as redemption.**** Which you will notice is very close to what I said about science: the negation of the meaning is the meaning. The intellectual is to be like Moses, forever at the borders of the promised land, able to see it but never to claim it. As Adorno writes at the end of Minima Moralia, “The more passionately thought denies its conditionality for the sake of the unconditional, the more unconsciously, and so calamitously, it is delivered up to the world. Even its own impossibility it must at last comprehend for the sake of the possible. But beside the demand thus placed on thought, the question of the reality or unreality of redemption itself hardly matters.” [Adorno, Minima Moralia, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London:Verso) 247.] It wouldn’t surprise me if someone had gotten a tattoo of that passage.

adorno tatt

Writer Carey Harrison with the first page of Minima Moralia tattooed on his back. If that doesn’t demonstrate quasi-religious devotion I don’t know what does.

So when I hear someone suggesting that the politicization of mental illness (or whatever we’re calling it) and formation of “the mad community” will do the trick, color me skeptical. It just seems like the kind of thing we would say. It’s the kind of thing that will seem as quaint to our descendants as the idea of treating madness by exorcising demons now seems to us. (Not that I don’t see some value in demonology, either . . .)

So do I think depression is a mental illness? Sure, when it suits. Sometimes that’s how it plays out. The great advantage of the “pathology paradigm” is that makes mental disorders no-one’s fault.***** It makes it easier to come in from the cold. It suggests a course of treatment; the normative approach is one of consistent and watchful care, and that is a whole lot better than the usual alternative, which is nothing. Is it a spiritual condition? Sure, sometimes. Is it a part of who you are? Yes, actually, it is, or can be. Should you try to get rid of it, then? Well, that’s not a bad idea. But is it always a curse? There’s no curse without its blessing, friendo. And no blessing without its curse. Is it all a mystery, a mess, a farrago of contradictory notions, a scramble suit of ever-shifting appearances that settle into no one fixed identity? Why yes, yes it is. There at last is a statement I can get behind.

scramble suit

Depression is a mystery because humans are a mystery, and every time we try to foreclose the mystery with some appealingly unified explanation (“it’s an illness,” “no, it’s an identity,” “no, it’s a spiritual trial” etc.) we are doing that human thing of insisting on one single cause and, so doing, disrespecting our human condition, of which it seems truest to say that its nature is never just one.

*There is a recent edited anthology in this field, Mad Matters: A Critical Reader in Canadian Mad Studies. (For whatever reason, this field is heavily represented by Canadians.) For an overview of the book and mad studies more generally, see Mark Castrodale’s review of this book.

**In 2013, the number of suicides in the U.S. was 41149, and at least half of them are directly attributable to depression. The two links I’ve provided here are full of dismaying statistics; if you are one of those people who likes to think that depression is a fake concept and that depressed people are self-dramatizing weaklings, I suggest you look at them.

***I never for a second believed that “postmodernism” was anything but a strain of modernism, but that’s an argument for another day.

****If my characterization of Adorno as an academic saint seems over-the-top to you, consider this artwork I saw at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, called (so far as I could tell without a trace of irony) “Saint Adorno“:

Don’t get me wrong, I quite like this piece, especially its riffing on Giacometti’s The Palace at 4 a.m. I don’t even have a problem with investing Adorno with a certain modern kind of sanctity. He was an admirable thinker and an admirable man, and I know scholars, like my friend Jim Buhler, who make our profession better by embodying the very high ideals that Adorno represents. But I would like scholars to recognize that their intellectual commitments are not purely intellectual, as we always like to think, but at least partly religious.

*****I disagree a little with Kriss when he suggests that pathologization makes “every person’s illness … somehow their own fault” — in the neoliberal state it becomes your own problem, but that’s not quite the same thing.

Posted in Intellectuals, Mind, Philosophy, Religion, Society, The Modern | 5 Comments