Thursday, November 15, 2007

Our Theories, Ourselves

Kariann has just discussed the tension a lot of musicologists feel between the music they study and the music they love. The tension is of course not actually about studying versus loving, I think, but about the different kinds of love we can have for music. Some music I study feels "important" in an aural hygiene sort of way, other music I study makes an excellent soundtrack for a roadtrip. (Don't try to combine the two. My partner still enjoys telling people the story of when, at about 1:00 am at the end of a long day's drive to get up to a vacation in the Adirondacks, I started playing Robert Ashley's She Was a Visitor. Somehow, the combination of twisty mountain roads and a chorus of whooshing vocables was not soothing to her.)

I think the tension between studying/loving is something that is dissipating somewhat from our discipline. This is not just that we are now allowed to study popular music, which for many was less a change in mindset and more a "baby boomer gets tenure and starts to work on the Beatles" sort of thing. But with all music, I sense that it is okay to be passionate in a way that I'm not sure it always has been. It's okay to give papers that show enthusiasm, and that actually try to communicate something. And giving a good, communicative conference papers means several things:

1) The scholar cares.
2) The scholar realizes that his or her own performance instrumentally affects the material--the medium is a big part of the message.
3) The scholar therefore has to embody the scholarly material in a way that a simple dry reading will not require. Material and person become a little closer. Do a little dance. Make a little love.

(Incidentally, I hope you all read Tenured Radical's guide to giving good paper.)

But I'm getting off track here. What I actually wanted to talk about was another part of the studying/loving tension, methodology. Here's the dark secret of scholarship: we don't choose our scholarly approach because we think it is the best way. We choose it because it feels good.

Example: a Schenkerian can justify for hours about why Schenker is the best way to analyze music, but when it comes down to it, they chose Schenkerian analysis because they enjoy doing it. (Poor souls.) They like the answers it gives, they like the questions it asks. And I would argue that deep down, the same holds true for all of us. Choosing a theoretical framework is an aesthetic decision. As such, it is not arbitrary, but is a mediation of our own history, our politics, our priorities, our psychology, perhaps even our biology. What any theoretical framework is most certainly not is right or wrong.

Another example: myself. There is of course a lot of theory out there that I can use fairly confidently. There is the stuff I have studied (see above, Schenker), the stuff I force myself to use because it is historically appropriate--I've read a lot of fifties social theory, for instance, which I find decidedly unsexy. But if there is theory I study, there is also theory I proudly love. For me it is nineties queer theory. Those heady days of my youth when it felt like Eve Sedgwick and Judy Butler had single-handedly figured out the meaning of the world. Michael Warner, David Halperin, José Muñoz, Leo Bersani, Lisa Duggan....yum. I've been through enough grad school to be able to say in more intellectual terms why this theoretical repertoire was great, and even to be fairly critical of a lot of it. But I also find it liberating to admit that the real reason I like it, and use it, is that I find it sexy.

Now, this sexiness is an aesthetic reaction, and I know where it comes from. It has to do with the early days of my academic training, with some political things I've been involved in. But most of all...well, you know, that's an awfully personal question!


Caroline said...

The chapter-that-shall-not-be-named was about a band that my committee all assumed I love. I really, really don't. Barely ever listen to them, just interested in what they do. I actually went over the chapter carefully to see if there was a rhetorical reason why they would think this.

But, the chapter never came together, and my committee thought it was because I "too invested." RW actually brought up _Bad Music_ during this discussion, too. I wish I could remember what he said! (I had read the book, too.)

KG said...

Good point! Just today as my partner and I were driving our new cat to the vet's office, some really interesting polka-influenced music came on the car stereo. I responded almost immediately with enthusiasm and declared that post-PhD I want to work on the polka's influence in South America. My partner, on the other hand, turned down the music and said, "I'd rather hear our cat cry than listen to this."