Further (long and probably very boring) thoughts on interdiciplinarity following from this pre-Christmas post.
From McLemee, a Newsweek piece that’s been making the rounds ponders a question sure to bait humanities types with a presentist bent: name a piece of culture (book, movie, album, TV show, etc.) that “exemplifies what it was like to be alive in the age of George W. Bush.” So 24, Battlestar Galactica, American Idol, Borat, etc. (Nominate your own in the comments.) It’s a great question because it asks us to start writing notes towards a future history of right now; it asks us to look at our own time, the Bush II era, as if it were something that happened long ago, as if we could look at it as a bounded and complete thing, like the Reconstruction or the Great Depression, and see the ways the fears of the time (and it certainly has felt like a time when Americans, who have less to fear than almost anyone on the planet, started being afraid of everything) are made manifest, unconsciously or semi-consciously, in its self-expression. This is a style of thought we have cultivated for other periods of American history. For example, library shelves groan with books on cold war America that seek to find the total logic of the era in its culture. “Cold war culture,” in such studies, is not just culture created in the time of the cold war, but culture whose inmost cells contain the DNA script of cold war geopolitics. The script, the DNA of history, is (we would like to think) found equally in George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” and Disneyland, the Army-McCarthy hearings and Frank Sinatra’s Capitol records: the script lies buried at the root of collective consciousness and writes itself into parallel political, social, and cultural expressions.
There is doubtless something to this. Historical epochs do have deep structures of sensibility, and I spend most of my time trying to find out what they are. (And in the cold war, no less.) But as I’ve written elsewhere, it’s a dangerous game. It is telling that Newsweek asked its critics a question that assumes this kind of thinking-in-parallels; it shows how an academic habit has become part of the intellectual vernacular, which is also the point at which people don’t bother to stop to ask questions about logical warrants — like, you know, is this how cultural history really works? I used to teach a course on American music in the 1950s, and one of the pieces I would assign was Elliott Carter’s String Quartet no. 1. Now, what does that have to do with containment, red-hunting, paranoia, or any of those other durable tropes of cold war explication? Carter himself would doubtless answer “nothing at all” — the work occupies itself with certain musical and aesthetic problems (especially problems of time), and if it is “about” anything, it is surely these. Ah, comes the reply, but the ideology of high modernism (with which Carter’s music is richly imbued) is a classic cold-war maneuver of containment. (In this case, it is the culture of the lower orders, the middle- and low-brow, that is being contained.) So if the music has no apparent connection to its time, it is in fact all the more covertly connected to it: the appeal to “purely musical” problems and concerns comes to look like an excuse. Heads I win, tails you lose. This game can be played with anything. We might take “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” as a somber memorial to its time, but the opposite kind of piece, a cheesy featherweight pop song, sounds sinister when thrown into the harsh raking light of the Bomb, so with very little effort “How Much Is That Doggy In The Window” can become a somber memorial to its time, too. Once an explanatory structure of sufficient abstraction is in place, almost anything can be fit into it.
So we can all see how the torture apologetics of 24 play into the Bush II zeitgeist. I’m not going to argue against that — any future study of American culture in the Bush II era will doubtless (and correctly) point to 24 as Exhibit A of an America scared shitless and consoling itself with the spectacle of tough guys torturing bad guys. But the details, the details . . . what would you do with Ghostface Killah’s insanely great Fishscale or The Big Doe Rehab? What about The Runners Four by Deerhoof or Final Fantasy’s He Poos Clouds? And here I’m only naming CDs I have in the car — I could make the list a lot longer if I thought about it for longer than a blog second. Classical music, and particularly classical music performance, is particularly hard to historicize in this way. OK, so Phil Kline’s Three Rumsfeld Songs recommend themselves to the zeitgeist, but what about Hilary Hahn’s excellent recording of the Bach concertos? Does zeitgeist-hunting in the particular cultural-studies way we’ve become accustomed to simply become another way of making historical narratives to which some things belong and other things don’t? I seem to recall a certain amount of heavy breathing at this most recent AMS about Carl Dahlhaus’s notion of music that belongs to history, that participates in a certain state of the musical material, etc. Well, such notions now seem like just another excuse for canonizing Schoenberg and leaving out Rachmaninoff, or teaching Babbitt and leaving out Barber — an excuse for Germanocentrism or the modernist old-time religion or both. But the newfangled way of writing “history in the strong sense” is not to proceed from compositional technique but from those “explanatory structures of sufficient abstraction” I just wrote about.
This is one of those complicated problems I have no ready solution for, partly because these are problems I’m trying to work through in my own work. I’m all about explanatory structures of sufficient abstraction — it’s what I do. I suppose what I’m trying to do in my own work is to refine those explanatory structures enough that they work to illuminate certain pieces of music but don’t seek to explain everything — because when you explain everything, you explain nothing. Marxism, Freudianism, post-structuralism, Schenkerian analysis, etc. can become all-encompassing systems, the belief in which (and fanatically intense commitment to) manifests the academic’s perennial enthusiasm for
monisms, great big single things that can explain everything and subordinate all competing systems. The flip side of this enthusiasm for monisms is a mania for decoding: the more intellectuals aggrandize the power of a totalizing system, the more they aggrandize their own power and extend the reach of their interpretations. So perhaps one thing that might be useful in writing interdisciplinary history would be a little humility: you’re not trying to find the master key for history, you’re just trying to tidy up one little corner of history, make connections, find patterns. You can talk about Les Baxter or Elliott Carter and don’t have to worry about which one is more zeitgeisty or participates more fully in the state of the musical material or whatever; you can burrow into the logic of each thing on its own. Or, god knows, you can hook them up, try to see what interesting patterns are created when you look at them together. Carter’s first string quartet and Baxter’s hit album Ritual of the Savage are from the same year, 1951. Is this a meaningless coincidence or is it interesting? Who knows — try and find out. But if it doesn’t want to fit, don’t force it.