2013 AMS breakdown, and moving forward

I’m back from AMS, which means I should write an AMS wrapup post. No—I get to write an AMS wrapup post.

Things that happened:

1. I got stuck in the aptly-named Dulles airport for seven bloody hours, waiting for a 40-minute puddle-jumper flight that was delayed by mechanical problems. But as luck would have it, Jim Buhler (University of Texas at Austin) and Andrea Bohlman (UNC Chapel Hill) were there too, and had the opportunity for a leisurely talk with two old friends—an enforced opportunity, yes, and in a context in which one is stripped of all agency and basic human dignity, but still, it was nice. For the rest of the AMS, dinners/drinks with other AMS friends, old and new, were for me (as for most, I guess), the highlight of the meeting.

2. My book was for sale at the Oxford booth. Wow, that’s weird, seeing your book just matter-of-factly offered for sale. Even weirder to see people buy it. There’s no accounting for taste.

3. I chaired a panel on marketing and branding in classical music. It was one of those uncommon sessions where the papers were uniformly good and the session tightly-wrapped around a single coherent theme. Most of my AMS papers over the years have ended up in those sessions where the organizers were obviously faced with a few odd leftovers they wanted for the conference but couldn’t fit anywhere obvious; my usual gig is the session with the really abstract topical heading (“Music Related to Things That Manifest In Space and Time”), ideally at 10:30 on Sunday. But this was not that kind of panel. It was a happening session, well-attended and with a sense of building momentum and a topic whose Time Has Arrived. (Edited anthology, anyone?) I didn’t need to do anything but announce the papers and stroke my beard thoughtfully: the audience was keen and energized and the session mostly ran itself.

4. I didn’t go to all that many papers, I’m afraid — they don’t tell you this, but finishing a book makes you stupid, and I can’t concentrate on anything. But I managed to make it to the Pisk-prize winning paper (David Chapman) and to Alex Reed’s talk on “Brown Baby,” which was weird and fantastic (in both senses of the word) and probably my favorite thing from the weekend.

5. A lot of people talked to me about Dial M. And it dawned on me that my blog writing is a lot more valuable to (or at the very least has been read by) a lot more people in the biz than are reading anything I’ve written in articles or, for that matter, in my book. And this gave me furiously to think.

I know that some scholars use blogging as a place to air serious scholarly writing, but I tend to use it to record ideas that occur to me in passing, and what I get out of it is the semi-improvisatory activity of working those ideas out on the fly. For me, book- and article-writing is composition; blogging is improvisation. And that’s what I like about it. It means that much of what I write here is of ephemeral interest, and some of it is frankly bad, but talking to people at AMS made me realize that readers get something from this kind of writing they don’t from my more composed stuff — a feeling of engagement with a lived process, a human being thinking, rather than reading some kind of product, the published and reified thought.

That’s not to say that these two things are strictly opposed or even easily differentiated, but still.

When I was stuck at Dulles, my companions asked me what I wanted to work on now that Dig has been published. I hemmed and hawed, and finally said that what really motivates me right now is pedagogical. Something to do with the humanities. Something to do with articulating some value that the humanities still holds for us, or at least me, even after we have acknowledged all the failures and futilities of the postmodern academy. To characterize this, even briefly, is more than I feel like managing today, with my musicology hangover still in full effect (sleep-derived, throat still raw from too much talking, digestion still in an uproar at all the AMS-weekend abuse it’s taken). But if I had to put it very briefly, I would say that I want to find a way to articulate a value to the study of arts and the humanities that does not merely assume and conform to the terms by which the “crisis of the humanities” is generally discussed. The values by which I believe the study of arts and the humanities can be framed are also the values that inform a particular kind of pedagogy that matters to me. I might mention John Dewey in this context. (There’s a hint.) But it will take some time to explain what I mean by all this. So what you are reading (if anyone is reading) is, I think, the first in what will probably be a rather long series of posts. The title of that series is “This is Our Wisdom Tradition.” I’ll let you ponder that for a while.

At the beginning of his essay “History in the Service and Disservice of Life,” Nietzsche wrote “I have attempted to describe a feeling that has frequently tormented me; I take my revenge on it by making it public.” This is partly what I want to do. Every time I read something like this, I feel myself getting pulled into a vortex of hate and despair. The hate comes when I read the piece; the despair comes a split-second later, when I remember that Mark Oppenheimer, like FDR, welcomes my hatred. Hatred—or any other hooting, jeering, tribalistic reflex—is exactly what they want. They don’t care if you like them; they only want a reaction. Returning from a vacation this summer in which I consumed almost no media whatsoever, I realized that all American culture these days basically involves trolling. Sarah Palin is the presiding spirit of the age.

I’m sick of seeing the assholes win. Yet even framing it in that way means they have already won. That’s how they get you: they convince you to let them live (as Dear Abby put it) rent-free in your head. But not fighting is also letting them win. Decisions, decisions.

An IU musicology grad, Jon Yaeger, has written an outstanding dissertation on the Gewandhaus and its relations to the GDR officialdom. After reading it, it occurred to me that the old Soviet bloc represented a kind of Tyranny 1.0: it was afraid of the truth, and so worked to suppress it. The United States in the present age has figured out a better system, a Tyranny 2.0: it, too, fears truth, but has created a system in which the truth doesn’t matter. Marc Maron said somewhere that in the U.S. you can say anything you like, so long as it doesn’t make any difference. The media is so constituted as to ensure that nothing makes a difference — everything becomes just another opinion.

Despair is the only reasonable response to this state of affairs. Or so it would seem. What can I do? I’m just one person. In the last chapter of my book, I write, you can do what one person can do. The context is a bit different (you’ll have to read it to find out what I’m talking about), but the advice is still pretty sound. Or at least it’s what I’ve got. At any rate, it’s what motivates the interminable series of posts on the arts, humanities, and pedagogy I have planned. If it makes no difference (as seems likely), then at least I did what one person can do. And that is obscurely comforting to me.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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7 Responses to 2013 AMS breakdown, and moving forward

  1. I know a great journal on where you can submit an essay on pedagogy…

  2. jdjplocher says:

    Reblogged this on Walking Ledges and commented:
    Musicologist Phil Ford is smart. In my limited encounters with him, he’s also smart about the things that matter. Assuming you’re not a musicologist and don’t care about the particulars of last weekend’s conference, skip down to his fifth point. His discussion about blogging, and more particularly the points he builds out from there about improvisatory scholarship and the necessity to do what one person can do, are worth keeping in mind as we engage in our myriad projects.

    A particularly striking way of describing something many of us have felt in recent years: “…it occurred to me that the old Soviet bloc represented a kind of Tyranny 1.0: it was afraid of the truth, and so worked to suppress it. The United States in the present age has figured out a better system, a Tyranny 2.0: it, too, fears truth, but has created a system in which the truth doesn’t matter.”

  3. I heartily endorse your resolution to blog!
    And I heartily endorse your desire/resolution to defy the glib, anecdotal, overstated, polarizing, click-baiting, inflammatorily headlined rhetoric that passes for public intellectual activity…
    That Oppenheimer/Berman exchange re: “forcing” kids to study classical music and instruments exemplifies the “Is Not/Is Too” approach to “thought-leadership” [eyeroll].

  4. Merie says:

    What I like about reading Dial M is that I can imagine I am once again in conversation with you. Admittedly, you do all the talking, while I thoughtfully down my Manhattan, but it works for me. I come here to see a thoughtful person at work, often on ideas of interest to me personally even though we are in different disciplines.

    When you said Tyranny 2.0 I thought of Brave New World (vs. 1984), but somehow without as much pleasure as Huxley imagined. Meanness seems to have replaced it in many venues. But I think there are also refuges – the “New Sincerity” – though that label triggers my contrary impulses.

  5. PS I’m still chuckling over the “aptly named Dulles Airport” – maybe they should add a silent t? Dulles(t) Airport?
    PPS you inspired me to blog my own AMS debrief, 2 posts out and one to go!

  6. Jill M. says:

    Enjoyed reading this, Phil! I love hearing your voice in this piece — I can imagine you saying these things and just how it would come out. (Example: “I’m sick of seeing the assholes win.”) And yes, blogging is an odd and wonderful thing. Keep it up.

  7. Pingback: The Hand Experiment | Dial M for Musicology

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