It’s almost Christmas — the traditional time for anxiety and recriminations, so let’s start here, on this blog. I want to look back over the last semester — hell, the last two-plus years — and talk about failure. Namely mine, and to some extent yours.
On the plus side: I’ve written some things I’m proud of, and I know that people read them. At AMS this year I lost count of how many times people told me they read Dial M every week (sometimes every day) and how much they appreciate what Jonathan and I write. It made me feel good, and I returned to Bloomington with a renewed feeling of commitment and enthusiasm for blogging . . . which then quickly dissipated. Don’t get me wrong, it matters that you read. A number of people told me that my dispatches-from-academic-life posts, like the one about waiting for schools to call you back for an interview
or not getting any work done before the election
, gave them some comfort, made them feel as if they weren’t alone in what they were going through. And I write those things for pretty much the same reason: I want to write down something I’m feeling to see if anyone else is feeling it too. (This is one reason why blogs have comments sections.) And as I say, I’ve written things I’m proud of. I’m glad I had a chance to write about my Dad
. I’m proud of a memorial post
for a guy I didn’t know and didn’t agree with but whose horrifying and lonely death deserved some kind of meditation. I think that the cross-blogger debates we’ve had here on touchy subjects like torture
have been some of Dial M’s finest moments. I’ve gone all meta and blogged about blogging
. (I guess now I’m taking another step on the endless spiral staircase of blogging self-reflexivity and am blogging about blogging about blogging.) I’ve even occasionally written about my actual research
But there’s an awful lot of stuff in my head that never gets written because whatever anyone says, blogging isn’t about keepin’ it real — it’s about the meticulous preparation and presentation of an artful rhetoric of keepin’ it real. At one point in Nashville I ran in Jim Hepokoski, who expressed surprise that I would confide so much about myself to a bunch of perfect strangers. I replied that I wasn’t confiding
anything; whatever I write about myself is exactly what suits me for people to know about me. I don’t lie or mislead; nothing I say about myself is false. But whatever I disclose is selective and calculated. This isn’t the “real me” here, it’s a version of the real me packaged for blog consumption. Come to think of it, is there a real me anywhere? Probably not. We all do the same thing, making strategic self-disclosures to manage the perceptions that our friends, family, colleagues, and students have of us. As Rameau’s nephew
pointed out, even the King poses for God and his mistress. And it’s one of my Professor’s Ten Commandments
(with an assist from Biggie) to self-own in what you write:
Number two: Never let ‘em know your next move/Don’t you know bad boys move in silence or violence. Or, as MF Doom says, never let your so-called mans know your plans. This applies especially to bloggers. Seriously, bloggers, always assume that everyone you know, and everyone you might want to know, will read your blog. It’s easy to get suckered into the illusion that you’re confiding your innermost thoughts with an anonymous Them you’ll never actually meet. Nope, and when you confide stuff about yourself that you wouldn’t announce from the lectern of a plenary session of the American Musicological Society, you could end up like Youngblood Priest from Superfly, who accidentally kills his best friend when he drops the name of his connection in a nightclub.
As Curtis Mayfield comments in the title song: “But a weakness was shown, ‘cause his hustle was wrong/His mind was his own, but the man lived alone.”
Or, to put it in less poetically, if you want your mind to be you own, or if you want to be master of your own destiny, you need to live alone, metaphorically speaking; don’t confide, or a weakness will be shown, and your hustle will be wrong.
What would it look like if I were really keeping it real? It would look like this:
Just like Vernon I have deep-buried rage which, if I started letting it out, would probably land me in a job at a gas station too. Which is one of the reasons why my contributions to this blog have been getting shorter, lamer, and less frequent. It’s not that the only things I want to write about are the things that piss me off; it’s that I’m constantly aware of all those things that piss me off and which I won’t let myself write about. It makes what I *do* write about feel like trivial, self-serving happy talk, an unwitting confirmation of the image of academics in general (and musicologists in particular) as a pack of timid bores. Frank Zappa’s jeer at academic composers always plays in my mind when I sit down to write something at Dial M these days:
Hey, buddy, when was the last time you thwarted a norm? Can’t risk it, eh? Too much at stake over at the old Alma Mater? Nowhere else to go? Unqualified for ‘janitorial deployment’? Look out! Here they come again! It’s that bunch of guys who live in the old joke: it’s YOU and two billion of your closest friends standing in shit to your chins, chanting, ‘DON’T MAKE A WAVE!’*
When a blog post becomes just another occasion to contemplate one’s failure, at a certain point it just becomes easier to say “screw it” and not write anything at all. Which brings me to the part I promised in the first sentence of this post, where I said I’d talk about your failures as well. And by “you” I mean the discipline of musicology, or more generally music scholarship. (There’s enough fail to go around: music theory and ethnomusicology can each take a forkful.) I started this blog thinking that the strange absence of music-scholarly blogs was a temporary condition, and that musicologists, once they had learned about academic blogging by example and could see what could be done in the medium, would start writing their own blogs and a hundred musicoloblogospheric flowers would bloom. Well, that didn’t happen. Look at the academic blog wiki list of music-scholarly blogs
. Now look at the one for history
. Or linguistics and philosophy
. Or even Classics and Ancient Languages
, for Chrissake. We’re getting our asses kicked by Latin
I can’t help but think that this is a cultural thing. Just as different parts of the orchestra each have their own micro-cultures
, different disciplines within the humanities do too, and the culture of musicology is marked by its almost insane degree of caution and self-limitation. Sorry to be so blunt, but there it is: the other humanities, when they think of us at all (which isn’t very often) tend to think of musicologists as something like stamp collectors, fanatically collecting and sorting and classifying stamps without caring about what they’re attached to. We wouldn’t want to start opening those letters! Just throw the letter away and keep the stamp. It’s got pretty colors. This one from Zambia has a bird on it! Hey, it looks like this other one with a bird on it. Do I put it in the “birds” part of the album or the “Zambia” part? Hm . . .
I usually dismiss this characterization, because it doesn’t describe the musicologists whose work I admire. But I don’t know. The point and challenge of blogging is to make connections with other parts of the intellectual world, and inasmuch as that challenge has hardly been taken up in the two-and-a-half years since I started this blog, I have to ask if we as a discipline are not actually just happier staying in our corner, playing with our stamps.
*Frank Zappa and Peter Occiogrosso, The Real Frank Zappa Book, 193.