Victim-of-the-Month Studies

I suppose I’d better do this as a proper entry, not hide it in the comments after an earlier blog. I made a reference recently to “victim studies,” in the context of fashionable late-1980s and 1990s “New Musicology” critical paradigms, and Phil Gentry, a graduate student at UCLA (not fellow mmusicology blogger Phil Ford) desires clarification:

“I’m curious what you mean by ‘victim-of-the-month studies.’ Are you referring to something in particular? That’s a pejorative usually used to refer to things like queer studies, women’s studies, African-American studies, and so on. Is that what you mean? And you are glad that these topics are now no longer to be found at AMS?”

Fair question. My offending passage was this: “Most notable, from my perspective, was the absence of fashionable, manufactured-hot-topic-of-the-quarter papers. (‘Radical Musicology,’ if you will, victim-of-the-month-studies, whatever.)” The passage that immediately followed, in which I slammed Old Musicology, was apparently not so offensive. Let me be clear, then: glib, intellectually unadventurous, follow-the-leader scholarship of any kind is always boring, and I’m always glad when I don’t find it. In the case at hand—as was clear in the original context—I was referring to the Pisk submissions as a group, not whether certain sub-disciplines are currently found in the AMS at all, which they are. I’ll try again:

What I am saying, clearly and loudly, is that a lot of what was presented as paradigm-breaking “new approaches” in musicology when I was an all-but-unhireable straight white male in the early 1990s was abject garbage, and the sub-disciplines Phil mentions were home to a goodly portion of it. For published works, I’ll just mention Opera, or the Undoing of Women by Catherine Clément, or the opera books of Wayne Koestenbaum and Sam Abel. Remember, too, that for everything that hit print, there were myriad other haranguing papers that didn’t, but that we heard. Perhaps an emblematic case was when a friend was told by the eminence grise of one of these sub-disciplines, during the Q & A following a talk, “You wouldn’t have asked that question if you weren’t a straight white male teaching at [X University].”

Am I glad that kind of glib, dismissive, indefensible nonsense is gone? Yes, I am. Thanks for asking.

As with any other area, I have my favorites (and I hope I won’t tar these studies with my approval of them), but I consider Gary Thomas’s Handel piece and Byron Adams’s superb (nuanced, measured, thought-provoking) biographical study of Elgar to be examples of what gender studies in music can be. (I had wanted to quote chunks of the Adams in the second edition of my writing about music textbook, but I was getting pounded by my publisher about length as it was, and—sadly—ended up having to be much more brief.) If one wants to continue to meitotically divide disciplines, maybe this means I’m more receptive to “gender studies” than “queer theory.” It was and is my feeling that the further such studies go into “Criticism” and from music per se, the more untethered they get, and then I begin to feel as if my time is being wasted. I do have to say that this was not characteristic of work going on in my own department (most of us were still deeply involved with musical performance and thus not disposed to read endless reams of self-pitying French literary theorists), but it certainly was in other departments on the campus. There is something I’ve never been able to stomach about academics’ striking a theatrical “j’accuse!” pose—checking the footlights to see if they’re cutting a sufficiently fine figure—and that is what all too many of those sub-disciplines seemed to consist of.

The usual reaction here is that I and people like me “just don’t get it.” Fine. Mere anger and confrontation and resentment are boring as hell, though, which is why most adolescents grow out of them. I did not find those feelings to be present in the aforementioned Adams and Thomas research studies. The point I was trying to make was that in none of the Pisk submissions did I find a slavish adherence to a particular methodology or point of view, but rather I found a wide variety of untold stories and underexamined areas—individual personalities, not lockstep adherence to fashionable patterns of thought and rhetoric. For me, this is cause to celebrate.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
This entry was posted in Academia, Musicology, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Victim-of-the-Month Studies

  1. Scraps says:

    self-pitying French literary theorists

    This is an awfully random snotty aside. I gues the acknowledged fact of not being inclined to read them is responsible for the bizarrely irrelevant pejorative “self-pitying”, as though you reached into a grab-bag of contempt and used the first thing that came out. (It looks even sillier alongside your lament for the poor oppressed straight white male.)
    There are a lot of good reasons to criticize French literary theory, but there is probably no field of thought — not even “victim studies” — that is as subject to reflexive hostile dismissal.
    I enjoy your blog, and am not a troll looking for a fight. Just a reaction from someone who generally finds your writing about music incisive and thought-provoking.

  2. Greg says:

    Uh… Suzanne Clément?

  3. Jonathan Bellman says:

    Thanks for the correction, now noted in the blog: CATHERINE Clément, not Suzanne (as I first noted). I can only plead the same cause as did Alicia de Laroccha when asked why certain big pieces were no longer in her repertoire: she wistfully said, “Los añitos.”

  4. Phil says:

    I appreciate you engaging further with a lowly grad student on this. Byron Adams and Gary Thomas certainly do great work, and I imagine we have the same standards when it comes to scholarship: interesting questions, good research, smart answers.
    I don’t want to drag this out, but you do say a lot of provocative things that seem to beg response. I would point out that an important part of your argument seems to be that those who practice work you don’t like–the “abject garbage” you speak of–do so as if we are forced to. You speak several times of us being a slave to fashion, and even of “lockstep adherence,” as if we have no choice in the matter. You are certainly welcome to disagree with this scholarship, but I do like to think that just because I do queer theory, I have not somehow lost my free will. Nor am I striking a pose, or stuck in an adolescent stage. I do this work because I believe in it. I’m putting this in the first person, but I find it hard to believe those scholars from the early nineties felt differently; certainly those of whom I know personally believe in what they do, and did. I think in a small discipline like ours we owe each other enough respect to take that for granted.

  5. eba says:

    “self-pitying French literary theorists” — snotty to some, perhaps, but comedy is not pretty. I say laugh!

Comments are closed.