Against Parallelism

Phil Ford

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.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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7 Responses to Against Parallelism

  1. Jonathan says:

    Newsweek: I immediately picked *American Idiot*, too, but it really doesn’t count–I don’t know all that much. Also, the question of what it feels like for a youngish, coming-of-age person to live in the age of Bush II vs. a cynical prof who is largely insulated from the ugliest aspects by family and steady paycheck and the tattered remains of the Constitution. It is a personal failing that I tend to provide myself instant thick context–so, for example, what I did with my two Springsteen posts was what I was doing with American Idiot. Hard to focus on the immediacy of a musical statement if one is gleefully–and pedantically–constructing footnotes for this or that lick.
    One issue facing the interdisciplinary historian is the nature of the task itself. I’m often disappointed by non-musicians writing on music, even if they are world-class in their own fields: Peter Gay, Edward Said, Wolfgang Hildesheimer, etc. It’s not a matter of jargon so much as fluency; it is too easy to slip into mere unfounded impressions and, perhaps aided by a natural eloquence or musical prose quality, give the impression of having more to say about one discipline or another than one really does. And how many truly interdisciplinary readers are there?

  2. In popular music, I nominate Johnny Cash’s 2002 cover of “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails. Cash takes a 90s classic of adolescent angst which seemed real at the time but in retrospect was more like a bourgeois affected whining and turns it into a heartfelt, world-weary despair articulated by a ravaged American icon who remembers the good and the bad of the past, feels the weight of past, present, and the future, but still perhaps harbors some small hope for redemption. Cash died on May 15, 2003, less than a month after the Iraq war started.
    In classical music, I nominate David Lang’s “Men,” which he describes as “a sad march for the hopes and dreams of men.” Lang wrote the piece immediately after September 11. It is relentlessly somber, uncompromisingly severe, and absolutely gorgeous.

  3. lylesan says:

    Hi – just a non-specialist lurker here. This bit really struck me:
    >>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.<<
    I was last in academia in the 60's, and I thought that was the point of it all, piecing together small parts of knowledge to find patterns. A lot of post modern academic writing, when I can parse the lingo, seems to want to have the voice and authority of the shaman. That can work if, as Kesey said, "You're on the bus", but if you're not, it doesn't connect. I wish more folks would heed your advice to "not force it".
    Regular reader of Dial M – appreciate the effort to keep it up and keep it fresh.

  4. Michael says:

    Great post!
    I think Napoleon Dynamite exemplifies the Dubbya years:
    – kind of, but not really, funny from start to finish
    – I paid to much just to see it
    – voters elected a minority
    – the title alone might be read allegorically
    – “What are you going to do today, Napoleon?”
    “Whatever I feel like I wanna do. Gosh!”

  5. Michael says:

    “too much”

  6. rootlesscosmo says:

    I think your safely-in-the-past analogies–the Great Depression, the Reconstruction Era–illustrate what bothers me about this. What if you were asked to pick “a piece of culture that exemplifies what it was like to be alive” in those periods? Just about anything would do, and just about anything would be hopelessly inadequate. As you say, “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” and “How Much is that Doggy in the Window?” are both plausible exemplars of their moment; I don’t see that either, or any other choice, has a stronger claim. I think the Newsweek question is trivial, as the claim “I can solve polynomial equations of any degree” is trivial–sure I can, provided all the terms have a coefficient of zero. (Your post, I hasten to add, isn’t trivial at all, so I guess I’ll give Newsweek props for evoking it; all the same I decline to play Newsweek’s parlor game.)

  7. MJ says:

    Well, parlor games are still fun, so I throw LOST’s hat into the ring. Its title alone could be seen as a metaphor for how so many of us feel, no matter what political belief we hold, especially now, after late 2008’s economic downturn. More than that, the constant shifting of loyalties and time frames and perspectives in the TV show is another way of looking at us, post- post-modernism. Bush himself has a lot to do with it, but so do other world players and factors (9/11, Katrina)that Bush turned on their heads, leaving us not knowing where our loyalties should lie. It’s a confusing world out there, and LOST is a good metaphor for the WTF feeling I think many people have had for a long time now.

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