the aesthetics of politics, part XXVIII

Phil Ford

Deepest respect and gratitude to Jonathan for the beautiful memorials he posted to his father. Deep bows of regard to Samuel Irving Bellman, whom we did not know, but whom we would have liked to.

A random cranky political observation (did you miss those?): I’ve been following the Henry L. Gates imbroglio in a very vague way, mostly by reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog, which is almost the only political blog I still read. (Also: Dave Chappelle.) So I don’t know all the angles. I feel I ought to, since this seems like a good academic-blog post topic, but there it is. But the unpleasant experience of seeing cable-news hamsters trotting out the old it-would-be-the-same-if-it-were-a-white-guy, you’re-just-playing-the-race-card lines, has recalled to my mind something James Baldwin wrote in his essay on Norman Mailer: “the really ghastly thing thing about trying to convey to a white man the reality of Negro experience has nothing whatever to do with the fact of color, but has to do with this man’s relationship to his own life. He will face in your life only what he is willing to face in his.” Being an anglo Canadian I don’t have anything to say about what it’s like “trying to convey to a white man the reality of Negro experience.” But I do have experience being a white man, and I say Baldwin got it right. There is this reluctance in some quarters (including, at a certain point, in myself) to admit that other people’s experience might be different from your own, not for reasons of individual and contingent experience, but for impersonal systemic reasons. Especially if that system is racism, which would imply that we have something we might feel bad about. God forbid anyone should harsh our mellow.

I’m a big fan of James Kochalka, so this might be a good time to post the video for his song “Don’t Trust Whitey.”

I love Kochalka as the embodiment of whiteness, dressed up in a 18th-century perruque and knee breeches, running around stealing a kid’s tricycle and grabbing fistfuls of a stranger’s dinner. There is just the right degree of irony in the line “don’t trust whitey/he lies and he lies and he lies/I’m not whitey/this is just a disguise.” This is often sort of there in the background when white people write about race; there’s this half-buried hope that you can disavow white privilege just by saying you have. I’ve gotten interested in whiteness as a concept (Richard Dyers’s White is a must-read), and there’s a lot more to be said about it all — but then I would be doing that white thing of always wanting to put whiteness back in the picture. There I was, starting in on Henry Louis Gates and now I’m just talking about being white. The usual thing, I’m afraid. Dyer is remarkably good at avoiding the obvious pitfalls.

Anyway, on another topic, I have a couple of new articles out. Actually, one is not so new anymore, but I have unaccountably not mentioned it. It came out when I was sick back in December/January, so I guess it slipped my mind. It’s in Jazz Perspectives, which is for my money the best and most necessary new journal in music academia, and it’s called “Hip Sensibility in an Age of Mass Counterculture.” Download it. Back when it first came out, Michael Kramer, a historian at Northwestern who deals with American rock culture and is a generally awesome guy, wrote a great blog post about something about “radical parallelism” that I had written. Michael wrote one of the most perceptive things anyone has ever said about my stuff. I’ll quote lavishly, so you have something meaty to read (god knows I haven’t given you much lately):


. . . making politics the causal factor has been one of the markers of radical parallelism. The more unlikely the linkage, the more scholarly chips one acquires in placing the bet. “My little corner of specialized cultural scholarship matters,” this approach proclaims, “because it reveals the operations of a larger political power guiding everything.” This perspective has been important for overcoming antiquarianism (though one might argue that something was lost when we started to insist that everything had to be politically relevant or was pointless to study). It was also crucial for previously marginalized topics: legitimizing their political importance was a way of staking a claim for the study of women, the poor, and others who used to get left outside the old-fashioned historical record of great (usually white and typically elite) men.

But now that antiquarianism is a bad word in academia, and since previously marginalized topics have increasingly moved to the center of scholarly focus, the problems of privileging the political have become more apparent. In particular, the more narrowly-defined idea of the political tends to monopolize the more elastic and curiously multivalent cultural domain.

I think what Ford’s post hints at, in some fashion, is a de-privileging of the political. What if we flipped it? What if the political was subsumed in larger cultural forces? Culture, in both the abstract, anthropological sense of beliefs and the material, artistic sense of artifacts, is so dense — so able to contain tensions, incoherencies, conflicting tendencies — that it might be the better realm to privilege. Making culture the dominant track rather than politics might take pressure of the reduction of epochs to one dominating element. Maybe cultural containment shaped political policy during the Cold War?

Or maybe an infinite loop develops between culture and politics, so that we need new terms, particular to their specific contexts, that identify more fragile, tentative, overlapping tendencies rather than one coherent, all-powerful logic? Can we re-purpose the liberating but clunky tools of social theory for subtler interpretive projects?


Worth saying again: “What if we flipped it? What if the political was subsumed in larger cultural forces?” This is exactly what my whole thing is about. It may not be your thing, but it is my thing. The goal of pop music scholarship has almost always been to find a political understanding of the aesthetic: my goal is to find an aesthetic understanding of politics. I particularly like Michael’s notion of the “infinite loop between culture and politics.” Which brings me to the other article I’ve published, this one just out in the Journal of Musicology: Music at the Edge of the Construct. It’s maybe the closest I’ve come to really twisting those strands of politics and representation into a loop, or maybe a Möbius strip. It’s part of JM’s double issue on the Cold War. I haven’t yet sat down to read most of the other articles, but still it’s clear this publication is gonna put y’all on notice and bring Cold War studies into musicology with a sharp call to order. We’ve long needed some sort of between-two-covers survey of current musical work in the Cold War studies field, and now we have it. It should go without saying that there are many more excellent music scholars working on the Cold War, including musicoloblogger Phil Gentry, so interested parties are encouraged to dig deeper and find out what’s out there. (For a start, here’s the AMS Cold War interest group member list.) Peter Schmelz’s introduction and Richard Taruskin’s afterword are particularly worth reading, the former as a fine overview of the conceptual and methodological problems of coupling politics and music, the latter a powerful critique of the perennial (and typically Cold War) desire to uncouple them.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
This entry was posted in Cold War, Current Affairs, Historiography, Musicology, Research. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to the aesthetics of politics, part XXVIII

  1. rootlesscosmo says:

    Thanks for the link to your article on the changing meanings of hipness. As a trailing-edge midcentury bebopper (and thanks for the Bird transcription) I think you get the story right, mostly. Two places where I’d question your account, though:
    How is this
    Song words work as speech and speech acts, bearing meaning not just semantically,
    but also as structures of sound that are direct signs of emotion and marks of
    character. Singers use non-verbal as well as verbal devices to make their points—
    emphases, sighs, hesitations, changes of tone; lyrics involve pleas, sneers and
    commands as well as statements and messages and stories (which is why some
    singers, such as the Beatles and Bob Dylan in Europe in the sixties, can have
    profound significance for listeners who do not understand a word they are
    materially different from the experience of (say) opera audiences?
    And this
    individuals whose alienation from mass culture was worn as a badge of
    I think misses the mark; Modernist alienation wasn’t displayed, it was selectively disclosed according to the rules of the hipster freemasonry.

  2. jonathan says:

    Damn. SOMEone’s back with a vengeance. The idea of situating politics in culture, rather than defining an entire culture by a two-dimensional oversimplification of a political perspective, and relating THAT to music in some kind of interrelated, ongoing-conversation way really appeals to me. One has to see it teased out and argued, but it is a fact that this is how music *works* in culture: played, reheard, shared, transformed, all bouncing off the infinitely sided and kaleidoscopically morphing echo chamber of culture.
    A hell of a lot more fun than one would conclude from reading the cultural criticism/social theory perspectives, IMHO.
    Re Gates: there’s a major dollop of stupid on his plate, too. I recommend Larry Wilmore’s merciless take on the episode, from Jon Stewart’s *Daily Show* of July 28 (available on the website). I don’t think that showing a picture of a relaxed Gates on one of those big tricycles, I think on Martha’s Vineyard, and commenting, “What’s his motto? ‘We shall overeat!’?” can be improved upon. Loads of us white-phenotypes face glaring ironies in our own lives, and to be honest maybe it’s OK to note one or two in Gates’s. This probably would not, of course, have been what James Baldwin meant.

  3. PMG says:

    Good to see you back on the weblogging!
    regarding whiteness, although I know what you mean about the pitfalls of re-inserting one’s own whiteness back into the picture, I do think the rewards outweigh the risks. For me, that was one of Dyer’s best points in that book–if you doesn’t investigate the qualities and characteristics of whiteness on its own terms, you just end up re-inscribing a “white-is-universal vs. Others” kind of thing, constantly defining it by contrast to more marked racial formulations.
    As long as it’s not accompanied by too much obnoxious navel-gazing of course!

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