Hum me a few bars

A stupid joke for April Fools Day, in honor of my Dad, who knew a million of ’em:

A guy walks into a bar and orders a beer. There’s a piano player entertaining the clientele, and his gimmick is, he has a monkey that walks down the bar collecting tips. The guy with the beer doesn’t give him anything, so the monkey keeps coming back and trying to get a tip. Finally the guy (a cheapskate and a mean drunk besides) smacks the monkey, which retaliates by jumping up on the guy’s beer glass and lowering his genitals into the guy’s beer. The guy angrily strides over to the piano player and yells “hey, do you know your monkey dipped his balls in my beer?” And the piano player responds, “No, but if you hum me a few bars I can fake it.”

Well, maybe that’s not the best joke in the world, but (1) it’s music-related, and this blog is after all about “music and related matters,” and (2) it’s a good example of what you can do in an academic blog that you can’t do in an academic publication. That’s something I like about blogging: I get to do whatever the hell I want to do. Think I’m being self-indulgent? Insufficiently music-related? Reinscribing phallogocentrism?


And I don’t have to. That’s the best part.

In academic essays and monographs, you have to care, pretty much by definition. Caring what other people think of you is the engine that drives academic writing. And yet it’s more complicated than that, too, because you also have to be original. The academic-humanities biz is founded on a contradiction between its demand for novelty and the mechanism by which novelty is judged.

On the one hand, newness is the coin of the academic realm. The final test of all Ph.D. graduate students, the dissertation, demands that they say something that no-one has ever said before: maybe it’s a study of a previously unstudied manuscript, broadcast, genre, idea, etc., or maybe it’s a a new way of looking at something already well-known, but either way, it has to be new. In this way, the dissertation is the model for all forms of academic communication. Every piece of academic writing takes place in a virtual space of conversation, a nöosphere, for which the price of admission is saying something new. And while there are greater and lesser forms of newness, it is still nonetheless true that new newness, real originality, is what wins you the biggest rewards. To do what Edward Said did when he wrote Orientalism — to give fellow scholars a new vocabulary to describe the world and and even a new way of seeing it, and to change the game so profoundly that for generations no-one will be able to enter your part of the nöosphere without invoking your ideas, even if they don’t like them — this is the greatest glory to which an academic can aspire.

But: how do you know what’s new? How do you know if something is represents a useful or relevant kind of newness? The only way to tell is by showing it to experts in the field — that is, through peer review. And how will your peers judge your work? Inevitably, in terms of what’s already been done, what is already known. If you start off an academic essay with the monkey joke, even if you have a good reason for doing so,* you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do.


I’m pretty sure every published academic has worn that look at one time or another. You try something in a piece of academic writing that you know is a little out, but you want to see if you can get away with it, and then you get back comments from peer reviewers. Shit, they didn’t go for it. “Revise and resubmit.” You lose the monkey joke. Your writing gets more normal-looking, less personal, more like everyone else. You have to be original, but it has to be a kind of domesticated originality. Be original, but be original in a recognizable and respectable way. All academic writing is impaled on the horns of this dilemma.

The last time I wrote, I ended up saying that a lot of the books I’ve assigned in my “current readings in cultural studies” class seem to be exercises in rattling the bars of the cage — that is, they seem to show that their authors have become aware of some taboo (often unspoken) in academic writing. They reach the point where any well-socialized academic knows that s/he will be going out, walking on thin ice, getting into the realm of can-I-get-away-with-this — in short, they discover for themselves the limits of the cage that has been fashioned for them by the peer-review structure of academic knowledge production. And they begin to test the bars of that cage, sometimes one at a time, sometimes banging away on a bunch of them at the same time.

I define “cultural studies” very loosely: in my syllabus, I write that “cultural studies” is more an idiom than a discipline, methodology, or genre. The term denotes a motley assortment of scholarly topics and approaches that have little in common save a kind of lingua franca that lets their parent disciplines talk to one another. A lingua franca is a border language that allows neighboring peoples to trade with one another; this particular lingua franca is marked by its oppositional temper, its interpretive templates of race, class, and gender, and its “theoretical” (i.e. sort of like philosophy but not exactly) style of thought. But it seems to me that as we get further and further away from the heroic era of “high theory” that gave us the basic vocabulary and race-class-gender problematics of present-day cultural studies, that identity is shifting somewhat. It now seems to me that “cultural studies” is (or at least can be) that area of the academic humanities in which every publication can be an opportunity to test the bars of the cage.

Here are one such bar: obviously shitty writing. Let’s face it, a lot of the time, reading academic writing feels like chewing through cinderblocks, and this can be especially true of cult-studs writing. I’m not talking about difficult or obscure writing; I’m talking about a fugliness born of a utilitarianism that treats words as a mere delivery device for “content.” As if “style” and “content” were separable; as if beauty of language must always be subordinate to message, Expression the poor relation of Idea.

Joshua Clover’s 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About bills itself as an exercise in “lyrical theory,” which is to say, it is a difficult and sometimes obscure work in the Adorno-Benjamin mold, but it is also the work of a working poet who can use lyrical language to do the work of theory. The sometimes surprising beauty of its sentences introduces a vector of complexity that is not simply assimilated to “content.” Even if you aren’t a true-believer Adornian (and I’m not) — even if you think everything Clover says is bullshit — the performance of the text is valuable in its own right. In this way it’s a lot like Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queen’s Throat, which is likewise the work of a poet.

But most humanities academics take it for granted that while good writing will improve their chances of getting published, it’s not anywhere near the main point of the exercise. The idea that one’s writerly expression might be part of the intellectual substance of one’s submitted work — as if the proper qualification for writing were not a Ph.D. but an MFA — is alien and even upsetting. And yet there are some ideas that simply cannot be approached without lyrical virtuosity; I’ve often felt that some aspects of musical performance (saying what something actually sounds like) call for these kinds of skills. The fact that academics don’t usually see those skills as something that can reasonably be demanded of us means that the ideas that call for those skills will remain unexplored. A taboo; a bar of the cage.

I have a bunch more bars to hum for you, but I have to run off and teach . . . .

*See my essay, “We’re in the Monkey: Mediated Simian Presence in the Interwar American Film Musical,” forthcoming in the Journal of the American Musicological Society 67, no. 2 (2014).**

**April Fools.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
This entry was posted in Academia, Books, Criticism, Performance, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Hum me a few bars

  1. Hollacopter says:

    “Chewing through cinderblocks” is a new favorite analogy. I dropped out of a masters in musicology largely because of an inability to cope with the volume of cinder blocks to be chewed – then turned around and taught myself Chinese to fluency in three years, because apparently “the world’s hardest language” is easier to cope with than Culturalese.

    While we’re at it, something else that’s easier than reading Dahlhaus: playing devil’s advocate. I contend that stretching to masticate enormous lumps of freeze-dried polysyllabism not only stretched my capacity for juggling unwieldy (and sometimes pointy) concepts (with apologies for the mixed metaphor) but also challenged my capacity for objectification. Uberobjectification is *good* methinks, though it’s not *god* – just one of several necessary perspectives.

    I know that a key part of your point is that this “uberobjectification” is itself a red herring – but it seems to me that the same could be said about “saying what something actually sounds like.” I stodgily maintain that chewing cinderblocks has its value as an exercise, but agree that entrance to the dialogue should not be based on the muscularity of the jaw. Inasmuch as the aim of the humanities is understanding (or at least jiggling the handle on) humanity, a wide variety of perspectives and approaches (even ones that taste like concrete) is one of its chief vitalities.

    (FYI – I took Dr. Ford’s upper-division 20th-century mus-his survey back at UT, and it was a divine inspiration.)

  2. janesugar says:

    Clover probably is all bullshit. Strangely, I don’t much like Adorno — Clover

  3. janesugar says:

    I think everything Clover says is bullshit. But strangely, I don’t much like Adorno — Clover

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