Disciplinarity (Or, Musicology is Anything You Can Get Away With)

I like musicologists. I like books and journals of musicology, musicology conferences and symposia, dinners with musicological colleagues near and far, musicological gossip and chit-chat. I like the concrete manifestations of musicology in the world. But I do not love that abstraction, “the discipline of musicology.” Like every academic discipline, musicology is nice in the concrete but lousy in the abstract.

A discipline is the claim of the general against the particular, the many against the one. It represents a limit placed on individual intellectual autonomy. For this reason alone I would not cross the street to save “the discipline” if were being attacked by a giant octopus.

octopus attack

Let’s face it, I only wrote that last sentence so I could use this image.

When you come upon a piece of scholarship that looks relevant to something you’re working on and yet also looks like it will take a tiresome lot of extra work to figure out (like if it’s something in a style that you don’t especially enjoy reading or involves things you don’t do well), invoking “the discipline” is a great way to say “not my job.” If an idea is not widely discussed in “the discipline,” you can say it’s marginal or unimportant. If a lot of people are suddenly talking about that same idea, you can say it’s “trendy.”

trendy flowchart“Trendy,” in this case, would mean you’re saying that an unwelcome idea is in the discipline but not of it; you can’t say it’s not already here, but you can deny it full rights of citizenship. No matter what, you have a reason not to consider new ideas. You therefore also have a reason not to talk to new people.

Too bad. The primary pleasure that scholarship offers is the chance to encounter other minds and thereby expand one’s own. The full range of other minds constitutes the true horizon that bounds the humanist; nothing human should be alien to us. The horizon of a discipline is inevitably smaller and more limited. If you choose to live within the latter, you are necessarily accepting a more limited participation in the expressive realm of the human. And that seems like a drag, giving up that pleasure for . . . for what?

In part, for power. It’s “the discipline” that tells you what matters; you don’t get to decide. “The discipline” stands over your work, telling you how much it matters and where it belongs. Unless you work your way up to being the discipline, in which case I guess the reward is getting to push people around. “The discipline” is an enabling ideology, a validation of power and hierarchy. To assimilate your own values to “the discipline,” to make “the discipline” the object of your care and protection, is to take on the role of the gatekeeper. And there are always academics with a lot invested in gatekeeping.

But do we have to have gates in the first place? There is a word I’ve borrowed from Teilhard de Chardin, the nöosphere, which relates to the idea that the entire world is a networked system of information within which ideas constantly circulate. A conversation between any two people within the nöosphere would constitute a single strand of it; conversations among multiple interlocutors are ganglions, knots of exfoliating thought-branches. But the whole networked structure, like the structure of the internet, is just that, networked.

map of the internet

A map of the internet.

There are no gates anywhere; people talk; talk gets out. You see concentrations within a vast cloud of interconnections that perhaps relate to particular kinds of conversation, talk about politics or sports or music. But they are only regions of greater or lesser density within the cloud of connections. Nothing is really separate from anything else. Why treat music as if it were? As if it were a family quarrel or an inside joke? Again: do we need gates at all?

Of course we do. You can’t just be a professor of “various awesome things.” A professor’s academic appointment is always in some field and indeed in some particular and advertised subfield. The discipline is constituted in the jobs we apply for: 19th-century opera, popular music and jazz, music and disability, etc. Academic appointments serve academic fields that exist so we can give degrees in them. Make no mistake, we provide a consumer product, and that product is a diploma.

The departments so formed will determine what it thinks a well-trained professional in the field should look like. Students so formed will go on to perpetuate some version of the same disciplinary identity or perhaps to challenge it, but either way their conversations will assume the priority of whatever disciplinary boundaries they have been given. Those boundaries continue to live on, if only as phantoms to be invoked and then banished. Fields exist because boundaries exist. Once a boundary springs up, it simultaneously defines both an inside and an outside.

When I’ve presented my work at gatherings in the interdisciplinary humanities (which 90% of the time means cultural studies in literature and film) I suddenly feel the boundaries of my own disciplinarity, if only because of the boundaries I encounter in others, and the way I see myself reflected in their perception. “Your work is so . . . phenomenological,” they say. That means that I am inclined, at some point in my talk, to consider what something sounds like.* But I can’t help but hear a tinge of suspicion, or maybe disdain, when people call my stuff “phenomenological”– the more political cult-studs types harbor a lingering prejudice against what they take to be a fetishistic and bourgeois attachment to the form and appearance of an artwork, perhaps out of a lingering Brechtian assumption that critique confronts (and trumps) the aesthetic, and that if you are too busy listening you won’t be thinking. And I bristle at this, and what comes to my mind is such scholars believe their job is only to fashion an abstract socio-cultural theory such that, should some expressive text wander across their path, they’ll be able to decode the everliving shit out of it. Which, entranced by “theory,” they almost never get around to doing.

You see how, whenever a boundary appears, it suddenly marks an inside and an outside? There we were, getting along so well, and now we’re quarreling.

You can’t just treat these boundaries as if they aren’t there. Where are you going to get your stuff published? If your stuff doesn’t get published, you won’t get a job, or you won’t get to keep the job you already have. That’s real. You better believe you’ve got something invested in the discipline.

But disciplinary boundaries change over time, clearly, and they do so because individuals question and overwrite them. Resisting disciplinarity is a gamble, but a calculated one, and sometimes it pays off. Look at Susan McClary. You don’t have to be a huge fan of McClary’s particular brand of hermeneutics to appreciate the license her work gave to all of us coming up behind her. She took a lot of crap — the critical response to Feminine Endings was perhaps the most epic bout of mansplaining in the history of musicology — but she got the chocolate of old-school musicology in with the peanut butter of cultural studies, did it with style, and she got away with it.** And once you know someone has gotten away with something, you can try to get away with something of your own. Andy Warhol liked to say (and Marshall McLuhan liked to repeat) that art is anything you can get away with. That’s my definition of musicology, too: musicology is anything you can get away with. Inasmuch as I’ve been published in musicological journals, read by musicologists, presented at musicological conferences, and engaged in musicological chit-chat, I’m a musicologist. I’m happy to wear that jacket.

Now, the example of Susan McClary might have some of you scratching your heads: if anyone has set the terms of “the discipline of musicology” in the past 20+ years, surely it would be her. How is she some kind of rebel against the system? Well, she isn’t anymore. This brings me to what I might call Ford’s Law of Interdisciplinarity:

Any successful interdisciplinary work will reconstitute the discipline on new ground.

You can’t have a permanent site of interdisciplinary anarchy for the same reason you can’t have a stable anarchist utopia. As the anarchist theorist Hakim Bey wrote,

The slogan ‘Revolution!’ has mutated from tocsin to toxin, a malign pseudo-Gnostic fate-trap, a nightmare where no matter how we struggle we never escape that evil Aeon, that incubus the State, one State after another, every ‘heaven’ ruled by yet one more evil angel.

Or, put in academic terms: once someone has written something successful in, say, sound studies, soon there will be other sound-studies scholars, then AMS evening sessions on sound studies, edited anthologies of sound studies, and then someone will post a job description for a “scholar in 20th century music and media, with an emphasis in sound studies.” And so it goes. Something that started off sounding the notes in the cracks between the keys has become its own tuning system. And this is inevitable.

So what I want imagine here is a humanist’s version of Hakim Bey’s “Temporary Autonomous Zone.” The TAZ is anarchist utopia on the model of a big party: people show up, make their own rules, get away with stuff, and disperse before the law shows up or before they themselves become the law. Burning Man is probably the most famous example of the TAZ in action, although Burning Man has recently incorporated itself as a nonprofit, which doubtless does not surprise Bey at all. Bey is notable (and often reviled) among anarchists for conceding that power and hierarchy are unavoidable in all human institutions, and that the dream of a true anarchist utopia — a stable, permanent state of statelessness — is just that, a dream. For Bey, freedom is to be found in those transient moments between its emergence and its institutionalization; the moment freedom takes institutional form, it is no longer freedom. Freedom is bounded not only by limits of space, but time.

Interdisciplinarity is likewise a TAZ. It is not a thing, and certainly not a durable thing, but a process, an action, and it must always make itself anew in cycles of birth and death. Interdisciplinarity is an event. A scholar doing interdisciplinary work is like someone throwing a party. It’s fun while it lasts, and you can take pictures, but you can’t make the party last forever: sooner or later, everyone has to go home. Don’t get too attached; call it beautiful, and move on.

*For musicologists, talking about “the notes on the page” (or, more recently, the sounds in my ear) is second nature. Right now UCLA is the hottest place for cultural-studies approaches in musicology, but even so the books its faculty have published (Elisabeth Le Guin’s Boccherini’s Body, Mitchell Morris’s The Persistence of Sentiment, and Robert Fink’s Repeating Ourselves all come to mind) have a lot of musical specificity. That Teutonic sauropod, Carl Dahlhaus, might irritate some of us when he insists that the proper business of a musicologist is write about (say) the C major prelude and fugue from WTC I in such a way that we will have something different to say about the C major prelude and fugue from WTC II. But we all have been trained to think this way, and, regardless of our chosen idiom within musicology, this is usually how we write as well. I’m not saying that this is always the case or that it necessarily should be — it’s just that musical specificity, in whatever form it takes, lies at the heart of our disciplinary identity, and that you only realize how true that is when you hang out with humanities people from outside our field.

**The fact that she was (and is) such a stylish writer is very much to the point here. McClary was not the only scholar making the Reese’s peanut butter cup of cultural musicology in the early 1990s, but it’s the brilliance and dash of her writing that makes her stand out in our collective memory. There is a lesson in this, graduate students.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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5 Responses to Disciplinarity (Or, Musicology is Anything You Can Get Away With)

  1. Pingback: Disciplinarity (Or, Musicology is Anything You Can Get Away With) | Dial M for Musicology | SanfOhBlog

  2. JoeL says:

    Reblogged this on Idols & Icons and commented:
    Boundaries in Musicology?

  3. Laura says:

    Thanks, Phil. This is exactly what I needed to hear today!

  4. Pingback: Disciplinarity and Gatekeeping | Dial M for Musicology

  5. David Hunter says:

    Traditions die hard; that’s why they are traditions. But eventually they tumble if sufficient weight can be brought to bear. They are the Kuhnian normal science, the present paradigm. One of our number, though he probably doesn’t think of himself primarily as a musicologist, is Maynard Solomon (85 this year). His efforts to shift the biography of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert away from hagiography and/or mere documentation were met with derision or spite. The strong reaction derived in part from his willingness to consider taboo subjects. By speaking out, he caused offense to those who wished to maintain the silence of taboo to protect from contamination either themselves or their beloved objects. He had a fascinating article published in “American Imago” 64 (2007):7-21 to which I direct all y’all’s attention.
    As Phil and Jonathan imply it can seem lonely and unforgiving even for established scholars trying to break the mold. Whether we are trying to understand the place of recorded music in our lives, or the audience (both present and historical), or music’s role in brain development or physical and mental therapy, it is a struggle to bring new knowledge into existence and to disseminate it widely, let alone have it accepted.
    So students, accept that your teachers may be wrong and unwilling to change, but by building strong arguments drawn upon the widest horizons of human understanding, you can at least satisfy yourselves. Encourage your advisers to accompany you on the intellectual journey by pointing them to readings of special resonance.
    If, like me, you are attempting to come to terms with music’s involvement in the entirety of the slave economy (a taboo subject if ever there was one), then the six months it will take to read the hundreds of books and articles that have appeared over the last 70 years analyzing trans-Atlantic slavery in all its permutations, locations, and periods, will be well spent. Not only will you see how little attention music history has paid to THE topic of significance in the founding and maintenance of the USA (and Canada, the Caribbean islands, etc.) but also how long it has taken for an accurate picture to emerge of how slavery worked, where exactly people came from, where they went, what they did, how they lived, and how the profits from the sale of persons and the products they produced worked their own way through colonial and imperial economies. That our universities have been complicit in the cover-up was made clear by Craig Wilder’s “Ebony and Ivy” (2013).
    It may be obvious in other fields that paradigms do change (the sciences have a way of showing that!). It may be that there is more room to debate (a larger field on which to play; a larger population to engage). But don’t let that stop you from innovating, demonstrating, and campaigning for the broadest and deepest possible understanding of music of the past and the present.

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