Anarchy in the AMS

Phil Ford

Good evening —

I am speaking tonight on Thursday, November 1, at the American Musicological Society Annual Meeting in Quebec City. The session at which I am speaking is the Committee on Career-Related Issues forum on collaborative internet tools. If you are attending this conference, you might be hearing my words as I speak them, though it’s more likely you’re drinking at the opening-night reception. Or you might be reading my words on Dial “M” for Musicology, the blog I write with Jonathan Bellman, since the blogging software I use has allowed me to write out my remarks in advance and arrange for them to appear online at the same time as I am delivering them in person.

And I’m doing this because I think it’s kind of cool, and because I can. But I suppose I could also use it to illustrate why I blog at all. As I speak these words I’m in a small roomful of academics. Not just academics, musicologists; not just musicologists, members of the AMS; not just AMS members, but that subset who have paid especially punitive travel costs to come to Quebec City; and, of that already small subset of the academic community, we are left with those who have resisted the temptation of caffeine-, nicotine-, and alcohol-fueled socialization in the ballroom. But there are no such restraints of space, time, and academic specialization on my blog, or on any blog. Granted, the people who come there regularly (and we get between 200 and 400 site hits on an average day), are self-selected — people with an interest in music, musicology, academia, or some combination of all three. But we also get people who surf in on false hits, like the guy who found my post on Tom Lutz’s cultural history of slacking with the search term “wife discipline,” or the unknown soul, perhaps tormented beyond endurance by her accompanist, who found us when she typed “I hate pianists” into the Google search box. More to the point, there is no prior restraint on who might find us, or why, and no restraint on who might link to us, or how they might respond to what we write.

Neither, in writing the blog post version of this talk, is there anything preventing me from littering the page with cuss words, or passing unprovoked personal remarks about Ryan Bañagale, though I would certainly forbear both in the Committee on Career-Related Issues, out of fear of community disapproval and a stony glare from the moderator. As we all know by now, blogging enables virtual communities but erases the social restraints enforced by real ones. Bloggers can choose to be anonymous and write with all the unrestrained savagery of the anonymous student evaluation or journal peer review. But even when they’re not anonymous, bloggers can fall under the spell of an illusion common in ostriches and toddlers: the belief that if I don’t see you, you don’t see me. I see the same crew of friendly, helpful blog commenters every week at Dial M, and can believe that they represent the views of our much larger silent audience. But they don’t: there will always be people who hate you and hate your stupid blog and will lie out there in the weeds, silently hating. And every blogger will at some point say something mean, ill-considered, or frankly stupid, because even when you’re not anonymous, you kind of feel as if you are, and anyway, it’s an informal medium that discourages lengthy reflection. All of which is to say that when you’re blogging you’re exposing yourself in ways you can’t control or even fully understand, and this exposure, with all its associated risks, is probably why there are still so few musicology blogs out there, and why many of them disappear after a while. Academic careers are bought and sold with the currency of peer evaluation, and academic bloggers get freaked out when they feel themselves losing control of the image they present to their disciplines.

Some non-blogging scholars are freaked out by all this, too, and argue that blogging lures people to do damage to themselves and their careers. Quick hits for easy kicks, fun in the
short term and personal ruin in the end — blogging is like crack for academics. And there’s another argument against academic blogging that’s familiar from debates over Wikipedia: how can anything of value emerge from a medium where there’s no-one in control, no editorial board, no-one maintaining intellectual standards and norms of civility? Without such oversight, blogging is mere anarchy.

Well, this is quite right. The natural state of the blogosphere is anarchy. The essence
of the medium is the reciprocal and nonhierarchical relationship
between bloggers and their audiences. In fact, writing about “bloggers and their audiences” is misleading, because it implies that this is a clear distinction of roles, like the distinction between those who read a newspaper and those who write it. But in the blogosphere there is nothing preventing any reader from turning into a writer, and every blogger has the same megaphone as everyone else. To be sure, there’s a pecking order — Alex Ross is more widely-read than I am, for instance — but it’s an abstract, intransitive
kind of authority. Alex Ross has authority, but he doesn’t have authority over anyone. He can’t shut me up, or compel me to talk about the things he and other A-list bloggers have deemed most important. If I hate Alex Ross I can buy the domain name and devote my site to mocking everything he writes, and while this would be nutty and pointless, people would probably read it. And it is the ability to attract readers and links to your page that makes you visible, and nothing else. You may get links only because you’re that crazy guy who hates Alex Ross, but still, you’re getting links. It’s a kind of anarchy that mirrors the anarchy of an unregulated free market, where the only thing that controls what is being offered for sale is whether someone is willing to pay for it. A geek show gets the same pull as a poetry reading. In the blogopshere, the currency is not money, but popularity, but the principle is the same.

Now surely this is inimical to the values of scholarship, if not art itself. It is infamous to judge ideas according to their popularity, and besides, very few of us went into musicology because we wanted to be more popular. I suspect that many of us became academics because we wanted to preserve the things we love from the tyranny of popularity, from the demand that artistic values line up with worldly success. Better, then, that musicology stay where it can be protected; better that there should be protectors.

When anyone says that we need protectors, the first question you should ask is who they have in mind. Usually it’s them, or people who think just like them. So then the second question should be, why you? And it is at this point that we start hearing moral arguments that appeal to things unseen and benefits we must take on faith. It is here that people begin to insist on transcendent goals to which our universities and scholarly societies should be directed. Musicology should resist the philistinism of the market, or preserve the cultural heritage of the West, or work for social justice and fight race and gender discrimination, etc.  But of course there is never any agreement on these goals. While all academics pay lip service to the idea of free and unfettered intellectual inquiry, we all have our blind spots. There is always some school of thought to which we cannot extend even a minimal assumption of sense and good faith. The new-musicology debates of the 1990s were envenomed by the fact that people on both sides simply could not believe in any of the warrants that underwrote the scholarship of the other side. The only thing you can really say about who was right is that they all thought they were right. But when the question of who’s right is also a question of who should call the shots, as it inevitably is in zero-sum situations like, say when we’re deciding who’s getting published in JAMS, intellectual matters become political matters. Not any particular kind of politics, necessarily, not politics of the left or the right, but the principle of politics itself, which is power.

And it is here that the abstract and intransitive power of the blogosphere becomes a very great virtue. No-one can shut anyone else up, ideas can cross-pollinate unpredictably, and since the blogosphere is not a zero-sum enterprise, there is nothing forcing people to “take a side” with this or that school of thought. Those who gather around their shared faith in Academic Theory X might face questions from which they would otherwise be insulated by institutional mechanisms. And I suspect that this is something a few academics secretly resent and fear about blogs. They don’t want someone who hasn’t been properly housebroken asking cheeky questions, and they don’t want to be denied the institutional authority to control the discourse.

People who complain about blogs, like those who complain about Wikipedia, ask why a medium that puts any random crank on the same footing as an expert should be taken seriously. Defenders of Wikipedia always point out that it’s self-correcting: the damage that malicious and incompetent people cause is quickly undone by dedicated Wikipedians. Now, you can’t quite say this about blogs. A stupid blog post stays stupid. But there is a kind of self-correction at work — call it peer review. The freak who writes may get links, but this won’t earn him a place in the minisphere of classical music bloggers. A geek show may get the same pull as a poetry reading, but it’s not as if they have the same clientele: poets don’t have to start biting the heads off chickens. And while one of the charms of blogging is that it allows you to post a long piece of serious writing one day and pictures of your cats the next, a clarinetist who only posts pictures of her cats isn’t going to get any play, except from the crazy cat people. (And that’s a whole different scene.) The classical music blogosphere and the smaller sphere of academic music bloggers are communities of interest, and while you can be an enormous hairbag, you also need to be an interesting, entertaining, and at least marginally relevant hairbag if you want anyone to read you. This kind of peer-review is non-binding, of course. It won’t keep you from saying dumb things in public and getting denied tenure.* It is implemented only in blunt remarks in your comments section, rebuttals in other blogs, or ostracism, in the form of no links and no love. But again, there’s no one person doing the ostracizing. Decisions are collective (if non-binding) and power flows (intransitively) from a decentralized structure enabled by the logic of the internet itself.

Which means that blogs have something in common with Wikipedia: they rely on what Yale law professor Yochai Benkler calls commons-based peer production (CBPP). Peer production means that knowledge (in the form of a Wiki, Project Gutenberg, Librivox, a piece of open-source software, or whatever) is being created by a widely distributed, non-hierarchical network of volunteers whose willingness to work on a shared project is their main qualification for doing so. Commons-based means that nothing created in this way is proprietary and no-one’s doing it for money. The magic ingredient that makes it work is the internet, which allows for a decentralized peer review structure and which also permits a large number of people to make something huge (i.e., an ongoing self-sustaining intellectual conversation on music) by adding tiny pieces to it.** This is a model of production that now drives a good deal of software innovation, and something like it is beginning to happen in scholarship as well. The academic blogosphere is self-selected, ungoverned, and nonhierarchical; the knowledge it produces is generated collectively as ideas are passed along, argued, and transformed from one blog to another; and while individual blogs (including Dial M) might stipulate which rights they reserve on their own work, no-one can be said to own a conversation.

However, the problem with understanding the musicoloblogosphere as commons-based peer production is that the musicological commons is still very small: for reasons I’ve described, there just aren’t a lot of music-academic blogs yet. But perhaps this is also a secret strength. There aren’t enough music academics to sustain a conversation, but this means that those of us who are in the blogosphere end up spending a lot of time conversing with music people who aren’t academics, or academics who aren’t music people. And the best of them are brilliant: aforementioned critic Alex Ross, pianist Jeremy Denk, composer Matthew Guerrieri, and intellectual critic Scott McLemee, to name only four. And what happens when you spend a lot of time sharing space with these people is that you start to develop a lingua franca, a border language synthesized from the things you have in common. And as I’ve argued elsewhere, that common tongue has its own special characteristics. It is “cool,” in the McLuhanesque sense: readers can profitably interact with it in a wider variety of ways than they can with more traditional forms of academic communication. Blog writing tends to be “porous,” filled with open spaces that readers can fill with their own contributions. This kind of writing doesn’t make the “hotter,” denser kinds of academic writing obsolete, of course, but I would guess that as academic blogging continues to grow it will “cool down” academic discourse generally. Whether this is a good thing or not is a tough question, and maybe at this point an unanswerable one. I should blog about it some time. Or maybe someone else can. I’m looking at you, AMS.

*But then, we’re all grown-ups, aren’t we? Grown-ups take responsibility for what they do and don’t blame their bad decisions on the medium. It’s not “the medium” making you post all those pictures of cats, it’s you.

**Benkler treats these conditions of commons-based peer production in “Coase’s Penguin,” the article where the term was first introduced. See also Benkler’s book on the subject, The Wealth of Networks, which (of course) has a Wiki. Other things you should read that I didn’t have space to mention in the main text: James Boyle’s classic article on the “second enclosure” of the intellectual commons; the CHE forum “Can Blogging Derail Your Career?“, and Alex Ross’s recent New Yorker piece on classical music in the internet age.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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4 Responses to Anarchy in the AMS

  1. Jeannette says:

    Thanks for this.
    Have fun at AMS!

  2. Bob Judd says:

    Nice Phil — sorry I missed the live one (I was in the reception, of course!)
    The AMS board is interested in public musicology, and your blog is a great implementation. It’ll be interesting to see in what direction the board will move on this front, and it’d be fun to use your space to talk a bit more about public musicology. The discussion continues Friday at 7 a.m. at the communications committee– see you there? or if not, just keep writing!

  3. Thanks very much, Phil.
    We should collaborate on editing a book about the MC5 and the White Panthers. I’m just daydreaming out loud here, of course. But hell, you know it’s a book you’d drop everything to read — and that’s the only kind of project worth doing.

  4. Another nice thing about blogs, which is particularly relevant to the primary venue for your excellent speech, is their realtimeyness. The beauty of a conference is that you get to hear what people are working on without having to wait for the papers to be published in journals, and you get to then discuss those ideas right away, either with the author in the QandA portion or with your colleagues over hors d’ouvres afterwards. Papers published in journals rather than blogs may have more opportunity to be scholarly (for reasons related to the current state of the media in question, not permanent unalterable reasons.) but there’s also less opportuity for community policing of bad ideas and community expansion of good ideas.
    I’ve been out of academia for abut 3.5 years, and one of the great values of blogging for me has been that even though I’m not at a university I can participate in a high-level scholarly discussion of musical subjects every day. I’m pretty sure I get more out of a week in the blogosphere than I got in the weekly Graduate Composition Seminar at NEC, and that’s in no way intended as a criticism of NEC–the Grad Comp Seminar was great.
    Also, your title should have been “i’m in ur confrnce deconstructin ur modez of kommunikation.”

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