Happy new year

Phil Ford

You know how different people have different new years days? Like Chinese New Year is a few weeks after the ball drops in Times square? Academics have their own New Years Day — it's the first day of fall classes. It's different for everyone, but at IU, New Years is today. 

I teach two classes today, a total of 4 1/2 hours in the classroom — kind of a brutal Monday but basically welcome, since it frees up another day later in the week that I can spend a bit more time working on the current chapter of my book. Anyway, in lieu of anything more substantial, I'm posting the syllabus course description of my doctoral methods seminar, "Current Readings in Cultural Studies." I like doing long, ruminative, blog-post-like course descriptions in my syllabi. A course is a course, of course, of course, but it also represents the unfolding of an idea — an idea of a topic, an idea for something you can offer that the students might find useful, an idea of how to take a given topic and frame it in some interesting way. In this case, I wanted to create a current-readings course that would give our doctoral students some practice in the border-language of the present-day interdisciplinary humanities, the creole of notions derived from (at times quite distantly) the "hard theory" days of the 1980s and 1990s. One idea that motivated this course is the odd situation of cultural-studies scholars working at this particular historical moment, living after the rampage and ruin of the Bush years and still very much in their shadow, working in a conceptual domain whose best and formative years now feel rather distant, and unsure how to proceed. In some quarters there is a feeling that we are living in a "post-theoretical" age. I'm not sure how much of this mood has seeped into musicology, but even a few years ago when I was working at Stanford it was pretty noticeable across the humanities. A friend of mine, a formidable cultural theorist in the art history dept., told me he found himself defending his syllabi from students who regard the classic theoretical texts he assigned as just another imposition of passé academic dogma. And my friend ended up using the same “you have to walk before you can run” arguments on his students that an earlier generation of teachers used to warn their students away from theory.

So what's going on in journals like Representations and Critical Inquiry these days? I actually think there's a lot of pretty funky stuff going on these days. Uncertainly and free-wheeling eclecticism can be a pretty productive state. Anyway, that's what my course is about. Here's what I wrote in my syllabus:

The mood of the academic humanities is always one of crisis, but the present mood of crisis has its own particular coloration, a tinge of mingled disappointment and indecision. We are not so many years away from the gilded age of the late 1990s, whose economic optimism and reckless plunging investment in barely-understood technology stock was strangely mirrored in the speculative bubble of postmodern cultural theory. The euphoria of the age was marked by a collective sense of living at the brink of a whole new mode of economic production, and it found its echo in cultural theory’s claim to have begun a new mode of scholarship, perhaps even a new mode of consciousness and communication. 

Well, that sure didn’t happen. We have settled into a post-euphoric age, where claims so confidently made a decade ago ring hollow. In the humanities, there is an anxiety that theory has not brought the gains we thought it might, that the paths we followed have led nowhere, and that, in the absence of theory, we have nowhere to else to go. Current scholarship speaks in the canonical idioms of cultural theory and is shaped by theory’s characteristic problematics of race, class, gender, and sexuality, even as the “hard theory” orientation of the 1990s has given way to an uneasy pluralism. 

So this while this course has something of the unexciting aspect of a salad bar—it is a general survey of interdisciplinary music-related scholarship published within the last eight years—it does nevertheless have a point. Our goal is to investigate what interdisciplinary scholarship looks like now, which means how it looks at a historical moment where old and hardened positions have softened but the new ones have yet to shape up. This in turn means thinking about disciplinarity and language. If we begin by asking how music fits into the wider culture, we will soon start asking where musicology fits into cultural studies; if we question what we write about, we will soon start questioning how we write about it.

The very first class I ever took as a graduate student in musicology was a version of this course that James Hepokoski did in the fall of 1993 — a long time ago, at the beginning of the disciplinary realignment that the New Musicology precipitated, and it was a "hard theory" class indeed. This book was one of the main texts, and even looking at the cover at Amazon still gives me pain. My god, that was a rough introduction to academia. On any given page I was given to read, half the words were words I didn't know and the other half were familiar words being used to means things I could only guess at. I hated, absolutely hated, the whole cult-studs enterprise, which (insofar as I could understand it) seemed to be some kind of empty mockery of everything I actually liked. One of life's more enjoyable ironies is to see how some of your most passionately-held convictions will eventually turn inside-out. 

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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4 Responses to Happy new year

  1. jonathan says:

    Jerry Stiller as Woody Hayes: “Welcome to the NFL, tough guy.”

  2. David Cavlovic says:

    “On any given page I was given to read, half the words were words I didn’t know and the other half were familiar words being used to means things I could only guess at.”
    Funny, I felt that way about Helmholtz.

  3. My first PhD seminar (my masters was in composition, so I didn’t have the joy of doing this at age 21) was on Christopher Hasty’s Meter As Rhythm.
    It was a lean year, so there were only two of us in the seminar, and the other student dropped after a couple of weeks.
    Three hours, every Tuesday, one-on-one with the smartest guy I know.
    Yeah, Phil, I dig what you’re saying.

  4. Pingback: IASPM-US Interview Series: Phil Ford, “Dig: Sound & Music in Hip Culture”

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