Geez, I should write self-hating blog posts
more often. People always say the nicest things! Thanks for all the supportive comments; at least no-one wrote to say “yeah, you really do suck. Pack it in.”
Since Jonathan has apparently left for holidays after posting a response to my blog fail post the other day, it would be churlish of me to escalate this into a full-on blog fight. And in any event I appreciate the intention of the title ( all-caps COURAGE), which I take to be a kind of “buck up, soldier” kind of thing. Actually I ended up getting some kind of flu-ey bug over the weekend, which might explain some of my crankiness on Friday, though only some. In truth, these are things I’ve been thinking about for a while. Which isn’t the same thing as saying I’m throwing in the towel, though god knows I’ve been tempted to, and maybe will anyway. But I’m not going to right now, because it’s Christmas, and Christmas is all about giving. Self-loathing: this is my gift to you.
So I appreciate what Jonathan wrote and (as usual) don’t actually disagree all that much, but I want to follow up with a few more thoughts of my own on that much-abused notion, interdisciplinarity. I don’t think we should be “looking over our shoulder” at other humanities disciplines just for its own sake, like they’re the cool kids and we’re the geeky bespectacled plaid-clad orthodontia-sporting outcasts who desperately want to be like them. (The internalized voice of Mom: So what if the MLA likes to smoke out by the dumpsters, you think that’s a reason to start smoking too? If the MLA went and jumped off a cliff, would you follow them?
) And in the 1990s, when musicologists started trying to incorporate various lit crit approaches in their work, it did sometimes seem forced, a manifestation of lit-crit envy. Some, like my own advisor Michael Cherlin, who had been reading Harold Bloom for years and working Bloomian insights deep into his own way of thinking, did it for real. For others (self included), the appropriations were more superficial (“Lee press-on theory
,” as I like to call it). Still, if talking to other disciplines is not a sovereign good in itself, neither is complacent isolation. Maybe “they” should read us, but they don’t, and we all know it. Everyone* knows musicology exists in a state of disciplinary isolation, including and especially our own parent organization, the American Musicological Society, which has publicly called for new ways to address that isolation. This blog was started for the usual reasons (narcissism) but also in response to that call. And my point in my last post was that this call still goes mostly unheeded.
I really don’t know what to say to people who acknowledge this state of affairs only to dismiss it by blaming everyone but themselves. There is this stupid habit (NOT a habit of Jonathan’s, I hasten to add — I speak more generally) of dismissing concern about our place at the outer edges of humanities discourse by saying “well, we’re not TRENDY
or anything, just good humble music-analyzing musikwissenschaftlers.” As if the only reason people are reading other stuff — cultural criticism or social history or whatever — is that they’re “trendy.” And as if we’re keepin’ it real by embracing our isolation. I hate that entire way of thinking. It is the mentality of a defeated people, of people who stop liking their favorite band when it gets too popular, people who cherish resentment against those big city folk who think they’re better than us, people who burnish a tribal memory of historic defeats to keep the edge of their resentments honed . . . I just hate that whole psychology.
Actually, I take back what I wrote earlier: talking to those outside our tent IS a sovereign good, if only because we’re in the ideas business, which means the business of communicating ideas, freely and without prior restraint. The more people you talk to, the better it is for business. Perhaps outsiders will have a hard time understanding what we write about? Figure it out how to explain it to them — it’ll do you good.
What interdisciplinarity means, if it means anything, is not the forced kloodging-together of unrelated notions, but the investigation of things that cannot properly be investigated within the boundaries of a single established discipline. Right now I’m reading Peter Gay’s study of Victorian sexuality, Education of the Senses. Here the entity to come to terms with is Victorian sexuality, which is a big, rather shapeless thing that can be carved up lots of ways. Although Gay is one of those genius people who can survey the whole field, you don’t have to: you could write a book on music and Victorian sexuality, or Victorian sexuality and the visual arts, or Victorian sexuality and literature (etc.). But the point is of the exercise, the thing to be investigated and understood, is still Victorian sexuality. What’s the right way to proceed? It seems to me that even if you want to remain rooted in a single discipline (and for practical as well as intellectual reasons I think you generally have to) you still have to map the whole shapeless terrain, read as widely as you can from all across it, accept that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in RILM. You hold in mind the tension between your own area of specialty and the wider area of your relative ignorance, so that when you write about your specialty it takes on the shape of the whole. What we shouldn’t do, I think, is start off by asking “but is this really musicology?” Because then you amputate your subject from the get-go, limiting yourself to only those aspects of (say) Victorian sexuality that pertain to music, policing what things are “really” musical (works, genres, composers) and what things seem too distant (diaries, paintings, advertisements). The tension between the part (music) and the whole (Victorian sexuality) collapses, and what you are left with is chunk of an idea crudely cut out from the whole, its limits arbitrarily set by the fear of not talking enough about music. This is one way to write bad interdisciplinary scholarship, but it is easier just to stay with the “purely musical” and not even try.
Now, you might ask, what if I don’t want to write about Victorian sexuality? Or anything else remotely like it? What if I’m interested in tuning and temperament in 1540s Zurich? Hey, different strokes and all that. We all have our things we’re into, and I wouldn’t presume to lowrate anyone else’s particular enthusiasm. Even if I don’t want to write about tuning and temperament in 1540s Zurich, I’m glad you do. Where it matters is in those zero-sum places — in academic journals, job searches, AMS paper sessions, and the like — where one man’s meat may be another man’s poison, but someone
has to choose: chicken or steak? Victorian sexuality or tuning and temperament? I’ve said before
that this was always one of the best reasons for academic blogs: the blogosphere is never zero-sum. But then no-one seems to be starting any musicology blogs, so oh well.
Camille Paglia may be kind of crazy, but she made some good points back in the day, and this is one of them:
The humanities are dismembered and scattered, with music, art, and literature residing far afield. Literature is chopped into national fiefdoms. English departments are split by recruitment “slots,” a triumph of the minim, producing such atrocities as ads for “Opening in nondramatic literature, 1660-1740.” What kind of scholar, what kind of teacher could satisfy this sad little mouse-view of culture? American universities are organized on the principle of the nuclear rather than the extended family. Graduate students are grimly trained to be technicians rather than connoisseurs. The old nineteenth-century German style of universal scholarship is gone.**
This passage has a hint of Paglia’s usual crackpot messianism (19th-century universal scholarship is gone . . . but its time will come again! The sixties people will return, bearing with them calfskin-bound folio volumes of Walter Pater and the Marquis de Sade! And I shall lead them!), but it’s worth thinking about.
*This even came up in casual conversation at my kids’ bus stop the other day. And yes, I live in the kind of neighborhood where this kind of thing actually does come up in casual conversation.
**Paglia, Sex, Art, and American Culture, 120.