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.