Interdisciplinarity

Phil Ford
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.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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10 Responses to Interdisciplinarity

  1. dwr says:

    Thanks for this great post, Phil! A few comments:
    I often feel that the disciplinary entrenchment of musicology is perpetuated by musicologists our/themselves (not sure how I identify at the moment!). Out of anxiety? Out of territorial protectionism? Sure, everyone says they are interested in interdisciplinary scholarship, but I’m not sure what this actually means anymore. Being ‘interdisciplinary’ (whatever this means) has become par for the course in academia, fetishized.
    I’m also reminded of Cook and Everist’s writing about how “fissures between the different strands of professional activity have become increasingly apparent.” That is, how there is a perceptible difference between interdisciplinary approaches we take in our writing, and the fairly conservative approaches we take to our teaching and the overall approach to music program curricula. Though I should also say here that while in my own experience this is true (in mid-sized university music programs), what I’ve read on this blog about your own and Jonathan’s courses, makes me hopeful that this situation countinues to change.
    “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.”
    I’m not so sure about this. Relatively speaking, what one scholar believes to be ‘forced kloodgeing-together’ is another scholar’s apposite integration (or juxtaposition). I think this applies even more so to musicology. Additionally, I wonder if the familiar claiming of interdisciplinarity as a ‘solution’ to solving research problems that cannot be solved in any other way is little more than a convenient alibi for its necessity. I do believe an openness to interdisciplinary modes of research is a necessity. But to me casting interdisciplinary thinking as merely problem solving seems to limit the its application, and forecloses on the productive risks of more speculative modes of thought that use interdisciplinarity as experimentation. I’m very much influenced by Rancière’s writings on the political function of ‘indisciplinarity,’ and the ‘police order’ of academia. I also find Žižek’s metaphor of interdisciplinary scholarship as the crossing of wires not normally crossed provocative.
    Again, thanks for the stimulating post!

  2. Peter Alexander says:

    There is something about music that helps create its insularity, I think. Is it the time that has to be spent just learning to read music, learning theory, before you can even start? That surely is part of it: everyone learns to read in school, which is the basic start to the study of literature (prose, poetry, drama); everyone makes art in grade school; but music is specialized. And I have always suspected that the things that make music different — its abstraction when compared to word-based art forms, that are so much more specific and immediate *in meaning* — also lead to differences in the people who devote themselves to music as a life’s calling. This would be true of course for performers, but also for those who study what we call the literature of music — its history, its place in culture & society, its theoretical basis. So it should not surprise us that musicologists/theorists/etc. are somewhat insular. Instead, we should celebrate those who can cross disciplinary boundaries with sophistication and insight, and should also consider, how can we train younger musicians & musical scholars to develop a broader view of music’s place in the larger world?

  3. glen says:

    Phil I sure hope you keep on blogging, I really enjoy the posts. As for this interdisciplinary stuff, I think the issue becomes more clear if you look at it from the opposite angle: what’s the argument for being NOT interdisciplinary? I’m not sure what the proper antonym is, but how can a student or professional scholar realistically expect to do productive work within the confines of a single, myopic vision of scholarship? How does that kind of work contribute to a broader body of knowledge, or advance the understanding of a cultural phenomenon such as music? Why would one choose to ignore the vast wealth of scholarship from other disciplines?
    I don’t understand why an institution would allow a student of Beethoven to completely ignore the French Revolution, except to note why the dedication of the Eroica is scratched out. There’s countless other examples of historical, anthropological, sociological, mathematical, physical, scientific, political, ethical, etc scholarship that should inform a contemporary musician’s study, and to argue that it’s irrelevant or extraneous seems absolutely ridiculous to me.
    But then again, I have “interdisciplinary” degrees! Maybe I’m just too biased.

  4. Alice Clark says:

    I agree completely with glen’s statement that the desire to expand beyond our discipline is (or should be) all but inevitable, but I think dwr has a good point about our teaching, which (as Peter suggests) is indeed different from most of our colleagues, in ways that make it more difficult to do as much as most of us would like. I know I’m not nearly as well read outside music as my medievalist colleagues are, but then they spend all or nearly all their time teaching medieval literature, or history, or philosophy–I on the other hand teach the middle ages for a few weeks a year, and (if I’m lucky) my own area of research for a day or two, in one class, on a very basic level. Moreover, we teach from a variety of perspectives, including documentary, analytic, performative, and so forth.
    Don’t think that I’m complaining about all that–I actually enjoy teaching so broadly, and I think it does serve my research (when I actually have time to do any) in ways that are perhaps complementary to my reading in medieval studies. The point is that in a sense we must be interdisciplinary within music, AND interdisciplinary beyond. This double task is to my mind a wonderful one, but I also think it is more difficult; while that doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to engage with the wider scholarly community (a task that again is arguably more difficult for us, both because of the material and because of our colleagues’ frequent resistance), it perhaps gives us less time and energy to do so.
    Speaking of time and energy–back to grading. Phil and Jon, thanks for this blog! Even if I don’t have the time to participate as often as I should, I appreciate your work with it.

  5. Charles Sharp says:

    Excellent and important points. True, deep interdisciplinarity is a lot harder then it looks. I am not sure that musicology’s apparent isolation is due to its lack of interdisciplinarity though, but then again my degree is ethnomusicology, which is supposed to be even more interdiscplinary, but is just as isolated, even from musicology!
    Peter Alexander’s comment made me feel itchy. I recall making all kinds of music when I was in grade school. Kids love to sing and dance, in my experience. Training is a different thing. People that study literature may write, but they are not expected to say publish fiction before they start critiquing it. Art historians are not expected to master life drawing before they start writing about art. Almost everyone listens to music. Approaching music only from its formal elements is insular, not the music itself.
    Which raises a second point, granted there are few “musicology” blogs, but I read an awful lot of untrained “musicology” on regular old blogs. People share and communicate all kinds of brilliant ideas about music and its meanings all over the internets.
    A blog about musicology for musicologists is an insular place, by nature. I think there are some good reasons to look and write beyond our disciplines, but we should recognize that our orientation towards others comes from our background, our discipline.

  6. Charles Sharp says:

    Excellent and important points. True, deep interdisciplinarity is a lot harder then it looks. I am not sure that musicology’s apparent isolation is due to its lack of interdisciplinarity though, but then again my degree is ethnomusicology, which is supposed to be even more interdiscplinary, but is just as isolated, even from musicology!
    Peter Alexander’s comment made me feel itchy. I recall making all kinds of music when I was in grade school. Kids love to sing and dance, in my experience. Training is a different thing. People that study literature may write, but they are not expected to say publish fiction before they start critiquing it. Art historians are not expected to master life drawing before they start writing about art. Almost everyone listens to music. Approaching music only from its formal elements is insular, not the music itself.
    Which raises a second point, granted there are few “musicology” blogs, but I read an awful lot of untrained “musicology” on regular old blogs. People share and communicate all kinds of brilliant ideas about music and its meanings all over the internets.
    A blog about musicology for musicologists is an insular place, by nature. I think there are some good reasons to look and write beyond our disciplines, but we should recognize that our orientation towards others comes from our background, our discipline.

  7. Hi Phil –
    Greetings from Evanston/Chicago. Great post, as always.
    Some of these issues came up in (alert: shameless self-promotion coming) the book
    “Music and History: Bridging the Disciplines,” in which I have a flawed but well-intentioned essay on this issue of interdisciplinary approaches to popular music (and in which, I admit, I unfairly restrict what musicologists do!).
    From my perspective, history suffers from a number of the same problems. There’s a kind of obsession with what so and so found in the archives, has he or she checked all the sources, etc. that replaces a focus on ideas, arguments, interpretations, bigger conceptual points. But I suppose they aren’t called disciplines for nothing! Part of what disciplines do is discipline: they police the borders and (hey Foucault!) cause us to self-police our thoughts and practices as well.
    But to get psychological for a moment, I think many scholars find solace in their little ivy-covered corners of the world. They hide out in the archives or with old sheet music or whatever. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s one of the great pleasures and important functions of academia — the idea that people can go specialize in small topics of knowledge just because.
    But for those of us who aspire to the intellectual bird’s eye view of ideas, a la Peter Gay, I think maybe the interdisciplinary spaces and institutions become very crucial: American Studies, for instance (which of course has it’s own problems and vexed origins, but is dedicated to interdisciplinary exploration and conversation).
    Or just the idea that we are all humanities scholars and should sometimes gather together around certain topics, themes, ideas, theories, texts, sounds, images as humanities scholars as well as in our disciplinary hats as musicologists, historians, lit crit theorists, communications cult studies types, and so on. I suppose you can’t have interdisciplinary conversations without the disciplines, but it’s important to cross the barricades between us as often as possible.
    Thanks for the great blog again and stay in touch,
    Michael

  8. Evan T says:

    For whatever it’s worth I’ve found that reading various music (and other) studies blogs outside my immediate field (music education) to be very stimulating in terms of thinking of implications for curriculum and pedagogy (usually in the context of public school music education). I can’t speak for other music education bloggers but the insights I find here and elsewhere are extremely valuable. That being said I’m not sure to what extent the bridging and linking between music disciplines takes place in the blogosphere. (I used to find myself reading more musicology, music theory, etc. blogs than music ed. blogs but lately since the number of music ed bloggers has grown I’ve been reading less from other music studies blogs and I do miss those perspectives!)
    At the recent College Music Society conference one of my favorite sessions was a discussion between music education and composition faculty. I wonder to what extent our blogs can or do serve as potenital spaces for cross fertilization between fields as a way of ‘speaking’ with each other or at least becoming more familiar with each other’s work/perspectives. Besides reading and attending conferences outside our immediate disciplines, perhaps blogs can be a starting place for interdisciplinary efforts?
    Hope you continue to blog!

  9. Michael says:

    “But then no-one seems to be starting any musicology blogs, so oh well.”
    Okay, I’ll bite. What does a musicology blog read like? And who writes for it?
    Prof. Ford’s barb represents one of the most significant internet-related challenge to those of us who identify as a musicologist, and the point is well taken. (Where da blogs at?) In response to the cited AMS isolation problem, let’s imagine two possible salutary worlds representing the extremes of readership and bloggers, in numeric terms.
    The first, on the low side of things, might involve the creation of an official AMS blog, where one member in good standing—the one who chooses chicken or steak—is appointed sole writer of the operation. Happy AMS-ers would digest the online news, like taking medicine, and then—back in the real world—arrive late for some department meeting. It’s a sad place, like Orwell’s Manor Farm, where the last remaining commandment reads, “All bloggers are equal but some bloggers are more equal than others.”
    On the other end of the spectrum, there’s a world where every AMS-er is the proprietor of an interesting blog. Each tries assiduously to gain readership not only within the community, but across campus (and town) as well, where some of their colleagues are in hot pursuit of dead languages. Some blog more than once each day, while others are more careful, less ambitious, or both. Copious blogging of an AMS extraction obtains, but no one, sadly, has any time to read what much of the community is writing.
    Chicken or steak? There is always, as geographer Edward Soja asserts, a third space. A vegetarian option, if you will. Third spaces are the workshop of solutions, where Blog fail and COURAGE inspire, and where Edisonian axioms (“1% inspiration . . .”) echo. Let’s try these:
    – Veteran interdisciplinarians: consider blogging about what you’ve experienced, and what you have planned
    – Dial M: consider inviting twelve (or fifty-two) guest-bloggers per year to take the helm
    – University of [blank]: please, where’s your blog? Or is what occurs in your city of no interest to us?
    It’s the old Bourdieu stand-by of elders and cultural capital, and some have enough to go around. Or, it’s the old Pink Floyd stand-by, “I’m alright, Jack. Keep your hands off of my stack.” I reckon we decide this one.
    If anyone is still reading, I’ll finish with an observation. Prof. Ford placed his feigned throw-away comment in its own third space: squarely between the exciting Victorian hypothetical and Prof. Paglia’s paean to “universal” training. I simply meant to explore the invitation.

    Disclosure: I blog quite infrequently, and when I do, I don’t think to announce it or ask for a plug. Lately it’s been enough to practice writing a paragraph or two.

  10. Daniel Wolf says:

    As an undergrad at Santa Cruz and grad at Wesleyan in the early 80’s, I was exposed fairly early on to the various strands of cultural theory then starting to take hold in the humanities. Attali’s Bruits, the rediscovery of Adorno, the bits about music in Mille Plateaux seemed to be important nudges to music from across the academy. But I recovered fairly quickly when I realized that Levi-Strauss, both specifically in his rough analogies to musical forms and generally, in terms of structural analysis, was borrowing more analytic technique from musicology than I would ever be able to borrow in exchange; a similar casual or surface level approach to music was to be found throughout this literature. While the opening to genre, gender and ethnic studies has been very useful to musicology, I have the impression there has been disappointingly little assessment of the potential for the resources of existing musicological theory to go both broad and deep into a musical work or its context. The exception are, however, all quite exciting: neo-Riemannian theory, Gjerdigen’s study of the gallant style, Marc Perlman’s study of Javanese musician-theorists, and Jessie Ann Owens’s Composers at Work are examples.

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