Getting Musikwissenshafted

Phil Ford

The national meeting of the American Musicological Society in LA looms. I trust you all have your tickets bought, hotel rooms booked, hamster kennels lined up, etc. OK, this is an unforgivably geeky thing to say in public, but I am totally stoked to go this year.

I always hated the AMS annual meetings when I was a graduate student, because the only people who I ended up talking to were other graduate students from my own department, and it didn’t make much sense to fly across the country just for that. The only time I really enjoyed myself was when the meeting was held in Minneapolis and me and my friends were gofers — a kind of musicological version of the Capitol page program without the sexual harassment. Being a dogsbody may not sound like fun, but it was nice to have some official role other than “wallflower,” and I got to party and share the day’s haul of gossip with my friends at the end of the day. But now that I have a job I understand why people go to these things: for a few days you get to cancel your classes, catch up with your old friends, stay up late, drink and eat and smoke too much and, most importantly, talk about yourself.

So everyone’s kind of amped, but there’s also a low buzz of despair underneath it all. The loud-talking, wide-gesticulating, glad-handing, hustling folks are the ones you notice when you walk into the hotel lobby. But then look outward toward the edges and see the quiet ones with the closed-in look, slumped in the hotel lobby chairs: graduate students trying to get someone to talk to them, graduate students stuck in year X of their dissertation, graduate students worried about the job market, Ph.D.s who don’t have jobs, Ph.D.s who have crappy exploitative jobs, Ph.D.s who only have hotel-room interviews to look forward to — in short, the people who, for whatever reason, don’t feel that this big annual party is for them. I suspect you’d see the same thing at the annual meeting of every scholarly society.

At last year’s meeting in DC, I skipped the Saturday business meeting (for you non-AMS-ers, a plenary “state of the union”-type meeting where awards are handed out, people are honored for their service, speeches are given, etc.) but was walking by when a couple of friends of mine came out, looking puzzled. Apparently some anonymous person had photocopied a manifesto, “A Martian View of Musicology” and put it on every seat in the room before the business meeting. Here’s a pdf of it. Download martian_musicology.pdf

I don’t know what seems more characteristically academic to me: the furtive, hit-and-run way the unknown polemicist delivered his/her message, or the total silence that greeted it. Other than the friend who gave me this copy, I haven’t heard anyone talk about it. (Maybe my friend was hoaxing me? Did anyone else see this thing?) Maybe that’s because, as manifestos go, it’s pretty generic. Most of the points would be made by anyone who ever felt alienated at an academic meeting — which is pretty much everyone in academia. Everyone in graduate school or at the start of their careers is going feel that everything in their field is controlled by a small cabal of elder scholars; everyone, at some point, sees himself as a lonely guardian of integrity in a field crowded with careerists and sycophants. I sure did. And then I got a job and magically started to feel better. See, the system works!

And the possibility that our field lacks relevance does not come as startling news. (Go here for a better-than-average article on the MLA meeting — it deals mostly with the anxiety of irrelevance.) The one bit that seems the least generic is the stuff about JAMS (the journal of the AMS and the flagship publication of our field) —  “JAMS has turned into the discpline’s Walhalla, accessible only to heroes who can stretch arguments to unreadable lengths.” Which is kind of funny. Every time I see the “copper-resembling” JAMS cover the Tannhauser “Pilgrim’s Chorus” starts playing in my head. Wrong opera, but still, if JAMS had a theme song that would be it. (I invite readers to suggest their own JAMS theme songs in the comments section.)

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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One Response to Getting Musikwissenshafted

  1. Peter Alexander says:

    Well, I was at the business meeting last year and I can tell you I didn’t see this. Nor did I talk to anyone at or after the meeting who mentioned it. It may have been on some seats, but it certainly wasn’t on all of them. And it strikes me as pretty puerile. I don’t think musicology is above criticism — I’m on the fringe, not even in a faculty job, so I don’t have any stake in the system — but I don’t think this gets close to the truth.

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