History in its underwear

Phil Ford

Barnet Bound has a good post in response to my own from a few days ago. In the first part he thinks a bit about how parallelistic thinking* is still valuable despite whatever may be said against it, and he’s right. For one thing, any kind of political or social interpretation of music would be impossible without it, and my own work would basically disappear if I were denied the ability to draw speculative lines between various nodal points within a total system of culture. To get back to my original parody post, I don’t think the basic idea of reading unspoken (and perhaps unconsciously-held) social attitudes in architectural details is silly in itself. For example, the hideous McMansiony architecture I’ve gotten to know rather well during my time living in Austin** seems to me to encode certain social pretentions, not least the desire for a cut-rate appearance of prosperity. The odd proportions of vaulted grand foyers that are just a tad too narrow (because whatever kind of house it is, the lot it is built on is basically a tract lot) seem to me to bear mute witness to the contemporary middle-class gamble that the appearance of success will turn into success itself.

The thing is, I live here, I know these neighborhoods, and I know what it’s like to live here. So while my architectural interpretation here is speculative, it’s built on the kind of intimate daily experience of life in early 21st-century suburbia that some future historian of this period will have to built up painstakingly and at second hand.*** Which means that the key here is research. To avoid making specious, superficial parallels, you have to develop a feel for that fine grain of history through a lot of reading — not just published stuff either, but the archives of people and institutions connected to your chosen field of history.

And what do you get from archival research? It’s hard to put it briefly and well, but I guess I’d say that you have the feeling of being backstage at history. Reading Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, for example, puts you in the audience: you’re watching as Ginsberg cuts the figure of a ragged-robed Old Testament prophet of the Atomic Age, filled with apocalyptic visions of Moloch. Spend time with the Ginsberg papers, though, and you can see Ginsberg off-stage; you can more clearly measure the distance between the public persona and the private person. Reading the unpublished notebook of a depressed, stoned 25-year-old Ginsberg a few years before Howl, you see someone who looks less like an ecstatic mad-eyed shaman and more like George Costanza, pissed off at himself for being stuck in Patterson NJ and living with his Dad, underemployed, and unable to get laid. It’s like wandering backstage at The Magic Flute and seeing Sarastro smoking a cigarette and playing cards. Spending time in archives gives you the chance to see history in its underwear.

Which is why you really should go and read Barnet Bound’s post. He makes a point that I’ve often stewed over — how few research grants are targeted specifically to Americanist research. My wife likes to tease me about how other professors’ spouses get to tag along on research trips to, say, Naples or Paris, and all I have to offer is Newark NJ (home of the redoubtable Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies Archive). But beyond this, as BBound points out, “there is precious little money out there to encourage archival work in
American music”:

If you are doing European music, well, sometimes it
seems like people are tripping over themselves to give you money. The
AMS has no less than three travel grants for research outside of the
United States, the Bartlet, the Wolf, and the Powers grants. At my own
University, there is a travel grant for research in Europe that my
colleagues regularly get, plus a grant within my department for travel
which is limited to music before 1950. Plus, there are a number of
interdisciplinary centers at my school which give quite a bit a support
to musicologists, but are limited in spirit if not name to non-American
research: centers for medieval and renaissance studies, for 17th- and
18th-century studies, and so on. And then of course there are the
various federal programs like the Fulbright, Fulbright-Hays, the FLAS,
and so on. There are no equivalents for these Eurocentric programs, in
the AMS, at my university, or in my department.

Tell it. Scholars who work on John Cage or Duke Ellington have to do the same kind of archival digging as those working on Haydn or Josquin, and it ain’t cheap.

*Is this a word? No? Well, it is now!

**To all you people who think Austin is a rock’n’roll village with cute sleepy streets of tall old trees and picturesquely dilapidated bungaloes, well, it is, but only if you earn 200K a year and can afford to buy a house downtown. To everyone else, it’s off to the suburbs with you, and Austin’s sprawl looks like sprawl everywhere.

***Of course, what our future historian has that I don’t is distance: my comments here are doubtless inflected by class prejudice (i.e., the traditional middle-class disdain for the middle class), my dislike of living in the ‘burbs, and various things I’m too blinkered even to be self-aware about.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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8 Responses to History in its underwear

  1. bbound says:

    Thanks for the shout-out!
    I’m going to start saying “parallelistic” if that’s alright.

  2. jnet says:

    (not to nitpick or anything…but I think BBound is a woman. just saying. enjoyed this exchange)

  3. Phil Ford says:

    Dammit. My bad. Once again I curse the English language and its lack of a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun.
    I do have a suggestion, though: “dude.” It works well in all cases where you don’t know your interlocutor’s gender (a very common situation in Age of Teh Internets) and is more satisfying that typographic botches like “s/he.” Instead of writing “s/he argues that the key area proportions within the first-movement exposition of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante K.297b indicate that the work’s authorship is commonly misattributed,” you could write “dude argues that the key area proportions within the first-movement exposition of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante K.297b indicate that the work’s authorship is commonly misattributed.” Which is much more down-to-earth.

  4. Galen says:

    I’m not sure I agree with your assessment of the McMansion phenomenon as an attempt to construct the appearance of success. The first problem is that the McMansion holders are in a sort of middle ground between upper and middle class. They aren’t independantly wealthy, but they do very well and have substantial disposable incomes. People tend to identify with the social group above their own, so these people on the mezzanine between the classes feel upper class and cultivate their upper-classness. Much of that cultivation is done through consumption–BMWs and Audis, Burberry and Coach clothing and accessories, Ivy League schools for the kids (and giving the kids their own new cars), and living in McMansions. These people aren’t trying to construct an appearance of success in hopes that real success will follow, they _have_ succeeded and are taking on the trappings of the upper class in order to broadcast that success. In the minds of the actual inhabitants, the McMansion is not a house with pretentions to be a Mansion, it’s an actual mansion that’s been mass produced.

  5. bbound says:

    Interesting. I’m actually a male of the species. And I shall now be self-reflexively scouring my blog for its gender presentation.

  6. jnet says:

    Dude! No way. Ha, well, you had me fooled this whole time. 🙂
    I like Phil’s idea of dude.

  7. ECG says:

    Phil. Dude. I feel for you Americanists and your lack of funding and all, I GUESS, but console yourself thusly: yeah, there may be more money to get overseas and get lost in some tired, forgotten archive in Plattsburg or wherever, but who the f*** gets noticed on the job market anymore with that kind of work, when they get back? I don’t think the slant in interest towards American music (speaking wicked broad here) in music departments, of late, can be dismissed as something fluky. We (pre-1600 folks) get the funding (MAYBE), you get the jobs. Not sure you’ve got the short end of the stick here.

  8. Phil Ford says:

    But is research funding necessarily a zero-sum game?
    Now, the jobs market *is* a zero-sum game, for the most part, and it’s also true that there’s been Americanists have been hired in record numbers lately (or so it seems — I don’t actually have any numbers to back me up). Then again, this is partly because it’s only rather recently that a large number of universities have considered American music a “serious” enough discipline to invest in. And some still won’t deign to hire any Americanists. (You guys know who you are. Not mentioning any names or nothing.) So don’t hate. We were due.

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