In a recent social media post, cellist, composer and musicologist Franklin Cox wrote something I found inspiring and rather beautiful, and wanted to make public (with permission). The idea of musicians and scholars as ‘custodians’ of a tradition is deeply unfashionable, especially in academia, as historical or other study not concerned with maximum commercial utility are increasingly marginalised. There is plenty of work for those dealing with commercial pop music or ludomusicology (the study of music for video games) but dwindling numbers of positions for historical or analytical musicologists other than in the most elite institutions. The ‘contemporary’ is viewed as synonymous with ‘relevance’, and the mindset of former Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast Patrick Johnston, who told the Belfast Telegraph that ‘Society doesn’t need a 21-year-old that’s a sixth century historian’, appears to be relatively commonplace amongst many educators, educationalists, and politicians dealing with education.
But I do believe very strongly in the responsibility of scholars for maintaining, extending and supplementing knowledge of thousands of years of music, culture, language. To be such custodians need not preclude a rigorous and critical attitude towards such a tradition, or critical engagement with its more questionable associated or embedded ideologies or practices. On the contrary, such approaches, when undertaken constructively and intelligently rather than simply in a spirit of off-hand dismissal, are essential in order to keep such a tradition a living concern. But to stand by and do nothing as study of this tradition (or of languages, or any art form) is allowed to wither is an act of profound irresponsibility on the part of any musician or scholar. When one has a situation as related to me recently in one leading music department, when not one third year undergraduate was able to hum the opening theme of the Eroica (though plenty of those will have heard about how canonical works such as this represent hegemony, white supremacy, and so on), there is something very seriously wrong.
The depth and potential of any given present is dependent on its knowledge of the past. By default, the animal needs will define any present–food, reproduction, entertainment, war, and so forth.
It is only owing to the depth of the historical heritage of English literature that Joyce’s work reached the level it did. He was acutely conscious of the high standards of the literary tradition he was working in. There was great literature in this tradition ages ago, and the tradition has been nourished continuously. If you are immersed in this heritage, you have some notion of what is required to contribute to it; second-rate work is bound to appear shoddy. But if people surrender the effort of learning this heritage, it’s probable that second-rate work will become the norm. Unfortunately, this process is sweeping through the American educational system.
There’s a similar heritage in art music. You have access to all of the historical music you were referring to owing to the immense efforts of earlier musicians. I feel a duty to learn about, cherish, and pass this tradition on to the next generation. It’s increasingly difficult to do this as higher education is converted into a fast food education industry.
These traditions won’t be passed on automatically; by default, the cheapest and easiest solution will be found. Each generation will have to find a new way to defend these traditions.
I am writing this piece during what looks like the final phase of the USS strike involving academics from pre-1992 UK universities. A good deal of solidarity has been generated through the course of the dispute, with many academics manning picket lines together discoverying common purpose and shared issues, and often noting how the structures and even physical spaces of modern higher education discourage such interactions when working. Furthermore, many of us have interacted regularly using Twitter, enabling the sharing of experiences, perspectives, vital data (not least concerning the assumptions and calculations employed for the USS future pensions model), and much else about modern academic life. As noted by George Letsas in the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), Becky Gardiner in The Guardian, Nicole Kobie in Wired, and various others, the strike and other associated industrial action have embodied a wider range of frustrations amongst UK-based academics over and above the issue of pensions: to do with casualisation and marketisation in academia, the growth of bloated layers of management and dehumanising treatment of academics, the precarious conditions facing early career researchers (ECRs), widespread bullying, and systemic discrimination against female academics, those from minority groups, and so on. Not least amongst the frustrations are those about various metrics employed to judge ‘performance’ relating to the government Research Excellence Framework (REF, formerly the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE)), and new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).
In this blog post, I will outline a short history of the RAE/REF with relevant links, and collect together recent comments about it and suggestions for alternatives. For most of this (except a few places), I will attempt to outline the arguments of others (including my own expressed online) on either side, rather than try to unpack and critique them – this blog is undoubtedly a ‘survey text’ in the sense often dismissed by REF assessors, though hopefully should serve some useful purpose nonetheless! In an academic spirit, I would welcome all comments, however critical (so long as focused on the issues and not personalised towards any people mentioned), and will happily correct anything found to be erroneous, add extra links, and so on. Anyone wishing to make suggestions in these respects should either post in the comments section below, or e-mail me at the addy given at the top of this page.
One of the most important pieces of sustained writing on the RAE and REF is Derek Sayer, Rank Hypocrisies: The Insult of the REF (London: Sage, 2014), a highly critical book which carefully presents a large amount of information on its history. I draw extensively upon this for this blog, as well as the articles by Bence and Oppenheim, and Jump on the Evolution of the REF, listed below. A range of primary documents can be found online, provided by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and its counterparts in the rest of the UK, on RAE 1992, RAE 1996, RAE 2001, RAE 2008, and REF 2014. These are essential resources for all scholars investigating the subject, though obviously represent the perspectives of those administering the system. Equally important are Lord Nicholas Stern’s 2016 review of the REF, and the 2017 key policy decisions on REF 2021, made following consultation.
There are many other journalistic and scholarly articles on the REF and its predecessors. Amongst the most important of these would be the following:
Michael Shattock, UGC and the Management of British Universities (Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press, 1994).
Valerie Bence and Charles Oppenheim, ‘The Evolution of the UK’s Research Assessment Exercise: Publications, Performance and Perceptions‘, Journal of Educational Administration and History 37/2 (2005), pp. 137-55.
Donald Gillies, ‘How Should Research be Organised? An Alternative to the UK Research Assessment Exercise’, in Leemon McHenry, Science and the Pursuit of Wisdom: Studies in the Thought of Nicholas Maxwell (Heusenstamm: Ontos Verlag, 2009), pp. 147-68.
Zoë Corbyn, ‘It’s evolution, not revolution for REF’, THES, 24 September 2009.
John F. Allen, ‘Opinion: Research and how to promote it in a university’, Future Medicinal Chemistry 2/1 (2009).
Jonathan Adams and Karen Gurney, ‘Funding selectivity, concentration and excellence – how good is the UK’s research?’, Higher Education Policy Institute, 25 March 2010.
Ben R. Martin, ‘The Research Excellence Framework and the ‘impact agenda’: are we creating a Frankenstein monster?’, Research Evaluation 20/3 (1 September 2011), pp. 247-54.
Dorothy Bishop, ‘An Alternative to REF 2014?’, Bishopblog, 26 January 2013.
University and College Union, ‘The Research Excellence Framework (REF): UCU Survey Report’, October 2013.
Paul Jump, ‘Evolution of the REF’, Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), 17 October 2013.
Peter Scott, ‘Why research assessment is out of control‘, The Guardian, 4 November 2013.
John F. Allen, ‘Research Assessment and REF’ (2014).
Teresa Penfield, Matthew J. Baker, Rosa Scoble, Michael C. Wykes, ‘Assessment, evaluations, and definitions of research impact: A review’, Research Evaluation 23/1 (January 2014), pp. 21-32.
Derek Sayer, ‘Problems with Peer Review for the REF‘, Council for the Defence of British Universities, 21 November 2014.
‘Telling stories’, Nature 518/7538 (11 February 2015).
Paul Jump, ‘Can the research excellence framework run on metrics?’, THES, 18 June 2015.
HEFCE (chaired James Wilsdon), ‘The Metric Tide: Report of the Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management’, 8 July 2015.
James Wilsdon, ‘The metric tide: an agenda for responsible indicators in research’, The Guardian, 9 July 2015.
Paul Jump, ‘Is the REF worth a quarter of a billion pounds?’, THES, 14 July 2015.
J.R. Shackleton and Philip Booth, ‘Abolishing the Research Excellence Framework’, Institute of Economic Affairs, 23 July 2015.
James Wilsdon, ‘In defence of the Research Excellence Framework’, The Guardian, 27 July 2015.
Alex Jones and Andrew Kemp, ‘Why is so much research dodgy? Blame the Research Excellence Framework’, The Guardian, 17 October 2016.
James C. Conroy and Richard Smith, ‘The Ethics of Research Excellence’, Journal of Philosophy of Education 51/4 (2017), pp. 693-708.
A Short History of the RAE and REF to 2014
There were six rounds of the RAE, in 1986, 1989, 1992, 1996, 2001 and 2008, with the gaps between each becoming progressively larger. The REF has run just once to date, in 2014, with the next round scheduled for 2021.
The first ‘research selectivity exercise’ in 1986 was administered by the University Grants Committee (UGC), an organisation created after the end of World War One. As noted by Bence and Oppenheim, there was a longer history of the development of Performance Indicators (PIs) in higher education through various metrics, but definitions were unclear, so this exercise was viewed as an attempt to convert other indicators into a clear PI, which it was thought would add efficiency and accountability to university funding through a competitive process, in line with other aspects of the Thatcher government’s policies.
The 1986 exercise involved just the traditional universities, and only influenced a small proportion of funding. It consisted of a four-part questionnaire on research income, expenditure, planning priorities and output. Assessment was divided between roughly 70 subject categories known as Units of Assessment (UoAs). There were wider criticisms of the 1986 exercise, to do with differing standards between subjects, unclear assessment criteria, and lack of transparency of assessors and an appeals mechanism. As such it was much criticised by academics, and reformed for 1989, in which ‘informed peer review’ was introduced for assessment, following wide consultation. This year, a grading system from 1 to 5 was also introduced based upon national and international criteria, 152 UoAs were used, sub-committees were expanded, and details of two publications per member of staff submitted were required, as well as information on research students, external income and plans. It was used to allocate a greater proportion of funding. There were still many criticism, to do with the system favouring large departments, a lack of clear verification of accuracy of submissions, and late planning causing difficulties for institutions preparing their submission strategies.
Other important changes affecting higher education took place during this early period of the RAE, including the abolition of tenure by the Thatcher government in 1988, then the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act , which abolished the university/polytechnic distinction, so that the latter institutions could apply for university status, and then be included in the RAE. The Act also established four funding councils for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to replace the UGC, and made research funding allocated entirely on a selective basis, replacing previous systems of funding based upon student numbers. There had been no formula funding for research in polytechnics, so the new system radically altered the balance, allowing them to compete openly with the more traditional institutions for such funding.
RAE 1992 then brought major new changes, with institutions able to select which ‘research active’ staff to put forward, a longer timescale allowed for research in the arts and humanities, improved auditing processes, and reduced assessment down to 72 UoAs. 192 institutions participated, covering over 43,000 full-time equivalent researchers. Practically all university research funding from this point was determined by the exercise, based upon a quality rating, the number of research-active staff, amount of research income and some consideration of future planned activity. Departments which were given an assessment of 1 or 2 would not receive any funding. The result was that the older universities received 91% of the available funding, new (post-1992) universities 7% and colleges 2%. 67% of departments were ranked 1, 2 or 3. This led to objections that the system was biased in favour of the older and larger universities, which had supplied many of the panelists for certain UoAs. Some results were challenged in court, and a judge noted a need for greater transparency.
Changes for RAE 1996 involved the submission of four publications for selected research-active staff, and stiffer requirements on a cut-off date for outputs being placed in the public domain. Rating 3 was divided into 3a and 3b, and an extra 5* rating introduced, while each panel was required to make clear their criteria for assessment. 60 subject panels, with chairs appointed by the funding councils on the basis of recommendations of previous chairs, and other panel members selected on the basis of nominations from various learned societies or subject associations. These considered 69 UoAs on the basis of peer review. This was also the first RAE which allowed performance submissions for musicians (see below), which was encompassed in the following definition of ‘research’ provided by the funding councils:
‘Research’ for the purpose of the RAE is to be understood as original investigation undertaken in order to gain knowledge and understanding. It includes work of direct relevance to the needs of commerce and industry, as well as to the public and voluntary sectors; scholarship*; the invention and generation of ideas, images, performances and artefacts including design, where these lead to new or substantially improved insights; and the use of existing knowledge in experimental development to produce new or substantially improved materials, devices, products and processes, including design and construction. It excludes routine testing and analysis of materials, components and processes, eg for the maintenance of national standards, as distinct from the development of new analytical techniques.
* Scholarship embraces a spectrum of activities including the development of teaching material; the latter is excluded from the RAE.
One of the major problems encountered had to do with academics moving to other institutions just before the final date, so those institutions could submit their outputs, as well as early concerns about the power invested in managers to declare members of staff ‘research-inactive’ and not submit them. Furthermore, it was found that outcomes were biased towards departments with members on assessment panels. Once again, no funding was granted to departments graded 1 or 2. This time, however, 43% of departments were ranked 4, 5 or 5*, a rise of 10% since 1992.
The changes to RAE 2001 involved panels consulting a number of non-UK-based experts in their field to review work which had already been assigned top grades. Sub-panels were created, but there were also five large ‘Umbrella Groups’ created, in Medical and Biological Sciences; Physical Sciences and Engineering; Social Sciences; Area Studies and Languages; and Humanities and Arts. Some new measures also acknowledged early career researchers, some on career breaks, and other circumstances, and a new category was created for staff who had transferred, who could be submitted by both institutions, though only the later one would receive the resulting research funding. Expanded feedback was provided, and electronic publications permitted, though different UoAs employed different criteria in terms of the significance of place of publication and peer-review. 65% of departments were now ranked 4, 5 or 5*. 55% of staff in 5 and 5* departments were submitted, compared to 23% in 1992 and 31% in 1996.
The Roberts review of 2002 expressed concern about how the whole exercise could be undermined by ‘game-playing’, as institutions were learning to do. Furthermore, there were concerns about the administration costs of the system. A process was set in place, announced by Gordon Brown, to replace the existing RAE (after the 2008 exercise) with a simpler metrics-based system. As detailed at length in Sayer, despite major consultations involving many important parts of the UK academic establishment, an initial report and proposals of this type were quickly changed to a two-track model of metrics and peer review, then the whole plan was almost completely abandoned.
RAE 2008 itself had fewer major changes. Amongst these were a renewed set of assessment criteria, especially as affected applied, practice-based and interdisciplinary research, a two-tiered panel structure, with sub-panels undertaking the detailed assessment and making recommendations to main panels, who made broader decisions and produced a ‘quality profile’ for a department, in place of the older seven-point system. Individual outputs were now given one of five possible rankings:
4*: Quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour
3*: Quality that is internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour but which nonetheless falls short of the highest standards of excellence
2*: Quality that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour
1*: Quality that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour
Unclassified: Quality that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work. Or work which does not meet the published definition of research for the purposes of this assessment
By 2008-9 (before the results of RAE 2008 took effect) about 90% of funding went to just 38 universities, but from 2009 48 institutions shared this amount (after 15. As Adams and Gurney have noted, the weighting of the 2008 exercise meant that the difference between obtaining 2* and 3* was greater than that between 3* and 4*, or between the previously 4 to 5 or 5 to 5* rankings. 54% of 2008 submissions were ranked either 3* or 4*, 87% 2*, 3* or 4*.
The plans for post-2008 exercises were finally published in September 2009 by HEFCE, indicating a new name, the REF, but otherwise the system was much less different to those which preceded it than had been assumed. Now the ranking was to be based upon three components: ”output quality’ at 60%, ‘impact’ at 25%, and ‘environment’ at 15% (later revised to 65%, 20% and 15% respectively). Outputs were to be assessed as before, though for sciences, citation data would informed various panels. ‘Environment’ was assessed on the basis of research income, number of postgraduate research students, and completion rates. But the most significant new measure was ‘impact’, reflecting the desires of the then Business Secretary Lord Mandelson for universities to become more responsive to students, viewed as customers, and industry, defined as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’. Each department was to submit a general statement on ‘impact’ as a whole, and could submit between 2 and 7 impact ‘case studies’, depending upon the number of research-active staff submitted to the REF. This was a huge shift, and restricted to impact which could be observed during the cycle between exercises, and derived from research produced when the academic in question was already at the submitting institution.
Other changes including a major shift in the number of UoAs and sub-panels to 30, and just four main assessment panels. One single sub-panel would assess outputs, environment and impact. However, the same number of experts were involved as before.
Since REF 2014, the Stern Report has informed significant changes to the system, in part intended to avoid the potential for gaming. Following further consultations, it has been announced that a minimum of one output and a maximum of seven from each member of a department will be submitted. Further measures have been introduced to ensure that most short form text-based submissions must be ‘Open Access’, available freely to all, which generates its own set of issues. Further plans for REF 2028 indicate that this will also apply to long form submissions such as monographs; the situation for creative practice outputs currently appears not to have changed, but this situation may be modified. HEFCE was abolished at the end of March 2018, and replaced in England by the new Office for Students (OfS) and Research England, the actions of which remain to be seen.
The RAE and REF have caused huge amounts of resentment and anger amongst academics, and produced sweeping changes to the nature of academic work as a whole. Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, architect of the first RAE (interviewed in Jump, ‘Evolution of the REF’) argued against many of the subsequent developments, and with every reform to the system, institutions would put greater pressure on individuals, especially those in junior positions, leading to some of the awful cases of chronic stress, mental illness and bullying which have been detailed recently on social media.. Many report that REF submissions constitute the only research valued by their institutions. A Head of Department (HoD) or other REF supervisor who achieved a high REF scoring could expect to win favour and further promotion from their management; in practice, this often meant cajoling and bullying of already-overworked staff with threats and intimidation about whether they would maintain their job, and and little favour or support shown to those who might not produce the right number of 3* or 4* outputs. Those dealing with mental health issues, trying to balance impossible teaching and administrative workloads (all fuelled by the Mandelsonian idea of the student-as-consumer) and research demands with major care commitments for children or the elderly, were often driven to breakdowns or to quit academia; some cases of this are documented below. Academics ceased, in the eyes of many managements, to be human beings towards whom they had a duty of care as their employers, but merely as potential cash cows, to be dispensed with if there was any pause in this function.
Gaming of the system continued in many forms from RAE 1992 onwards. Many institutions would award 0.2 FTE or short-term contracts in the run-up to the RAE/REF, so that institutions could profit from particular individuals’ outputs (not least ECRs who might have a monograph and were desperate for any employment record on their CVs). All of this could mean that rankings were unrepresentative of the research carried on by the majority of a department’s full-time, permanent staff. Research projects taking more than 6-7 years were greatly disadvantaged, or at least those embarked on them would still have to produce four other world-leading outputs in during a RAE/REF cycle, in many institutions, sometimes in order to retain a position at all. Callous HoDs or other REF managers could dismiss some work which had occupied academics for years (whilst maintaining hefty teaching and administration workloads) as merely 2*, on the grounds of its being ‘journalistic’ (often it was relatively readable), a ‘survey text’ (if it drew upon a wide range of existing scholarly literature), or the like, often with crushing impacts on the academics concerned.
The period of the RAE’s history saw other sweeping changes to Higher Education in the UK. Between 1963 and 1970, numbers of young people attending university had doubled following the Robbins Report, but then remained essentially static until the late 1980s, when over a decade numbers rose from 17% in 1987 to 33% in 1997 (see Ann-Marie Bathmaker, ‘The Expansion of Higher Education: Consideration of Control, Funding and Quality’, in Steve Bartlett and Diana Burton, Education Studies: Essential Issues (London: Sage, 2003), pp. 169-89). Since then numbers participating have continually risen, to a peak of 49% in 2011. This was an unrepresentative year, the last before the introduction of trebled tuition fees, which were a disincentive for students to take a gap year, followed by a concomitant dip of 6% (to 43%) in 2012, then a further rise to 49% in 2015, exceeding the pre-2011 peak of 46%, thus confounding (at least to date) those who predicted that increased fees would lead to decreased participation.
Sayer points out that there are few equivalents for the REF elsewhere in the world and none in North American or Europe. Furthermore, few have sought to emulate this system. Some of those cited below argue that most of the known alternatives (including those which preceded the introduction of the RAE) may be worse, others (including myself) cannot accept that this is the ‘best of all possible worlds’. I would further maintain that the human cost of the REF should not only be unacceptable, but illegal, and that only a zero tolerance policy, with criminal charges if necessary (even for the most senior members of management) could stop this. Dignity at work is as important in this context as any other, and little of that is currently on display in UK academia.
Creative Practice and Non-Text-Based Outputs
An issue of especial relevance to those engaged in performing-arts-based academic disciplines such as music, theatre, or dance (and in many cases also creative or other forms of writing, the visual arts, and so on) is that of outputs submitted to the REF in the form of creative practice. By this I mean specifically outputs in the form of practice (i.e. practice-as-research), as opposed to those simply documenting or critically analysing one’s own or others’ practice. I have previously blogged extensively on this subject, following the publication of a widely read article by John Croft (‘Composition is not Research’, TEMPO 69/272 (April 2015), pp. 6-11) and replies from me (‘Composition and Performance can be, and often have been, Research’, TEMPO 70/275 (January 2016), pp. 60-70 ) and from Camden Reeves (‘Composition, Research and Pseudo-Science: A Response to John Croft’, Tempo70/275 (January 2016), pp. 50-59), and a subsequent public debate on the subject. Amongst the issues raised, some of them familiar from wider debates on practice-as-research which are referenced in my own article, were whether creative practice on its own can stand as research without requiring additional written documentation (not least the now-familiar 300-word statements which can be regarded as deemed essential by the REF, as I argue in response to a claim made by Miguel Mera in that debate), whether creative work which most resembles ‘science’ is regarded as more ‘research-like’, an implicit claim unpacked by Reeves (as one colleague put it to me, ‘if it has wires going into it, it’s more like research’), with all this implies in terms of (gendered) views of STEM versus the humanities, or whether certain types of output are privileged for being more ‘text-like’ than others (scores versus recordings, for example) and thus some practitioners are at an advantage compared to others (here I give some figures on the relative proportions of composers and performers in different types of music departments). Attitudes to the latter vary hugely between institutions: at least one Russell Group department was happy to award a chair to a performer whose research output consists almost exclusively of performances and recordings, mostly as part of groups, while at others, especially those without strong representation of the performing arts amongst managements, such outputs are hardly valued at all and are unlikely to be submitted to the REF, nor win promotion for those who produce them.
Another issue is that of parity between creative practice outputs and other types. Many creative practitioners will never have had to submit their work to anything like peer review in the manner known for articles and monographs, and questions arise as to, for example, what number or type of compositions or recordings, visual art works or dance performances should be viewed as equivalent to the production of a monograph, when assessing promotion and the like? Music departments in which half or more of the faculty is made up of practitioners (usually composers) may have limited experience of peer review, or for that matter of wider academic debates and discourses, and some might argue that they are able to get ahead in their professions with considerably less time and effort than their equivalents who produce more traditional outputs. This is, I believe, a very real problem, which then maps onto questions of the significantly different requirements for producing different types of creative practice outputs, and needs serious consideration if there is to be any semblance of fairness within such academic departments.
Sayer also notes how many works in the humanities gain impact over an extended period of time, giving works of Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault and Benedict Anderson as examples, and also notes how many can remain intensely relevant and widely cited long after publication, in distinction to a science-based model of cumulative and rapidly-advancing knowledge, whereby a certain passage of time leads to some outputs being viewed as outdated.
Over the last few days, various academics have been commenting on the REF, mostly on Twitter. I attempt to collect the most important of these here.
One of the first important threads came from geographer Julia Cupples (@juliecupples79). In this thread, she called the fundamental status of REF classifications ‘ludicrous’, argued how problematic it would be to direct research exclusively for REF and elite British academics, called the demands of ‘originality’ for a single publication ‘masculinist and colonial’, argued that female authors and those from ethnic minorities are at a disadvantage, not least because of less likelihood of citation. The ranking of junior colleagues by senior ones was labelled ‘one of the most toxic mechanisms in place in the neoliberal academy’, making a mockery of most other means of achieving equality, and so that the REF works against attempts to ‘dismantle discrimination, build collegiality, prevent academic bullying, and decolonize our campuses’. This thread was widely tweeted and praised, inducing others to share similar stories, with Cupples responding that the REF is ‘a means to discipline, humiliate and produce anxiety’. Not all agreed, with Germanist Michael Gratzke (@prof_gratzke) arguing that the peer review element for arts and humanities was a good thing, and that as the scheme would not disappear, one needed to deal with it reasonably. More respondents were sympathetic, however. Urban Studies Professor Hendrik Wagenaar (@spiritofwilson) cited the REF as a cause of ‘the demeaning command-and-control management style that has infected UK universities, and the creation of the soulless apparatchiks that rise up through the ranks to take every ounce of pleasure out of research and writing’, and how it prevents ‘a climate of psychological safety, trust, mutual respect, and togetherness; a place where it is safe to take risks’. Molly Dragiewicz (@MollyDragiewicz) asked whether metrification fetishises ‘engagement’, though a different view was taken by Spanish musicologist and novelist Eva Moreda Rodriguez (@TheDrRodriguez), in response to some queries of my own to Cupples. Cupples had said that it would be ‘deeply problematic if we started writing for REF and a panel of elite British academics rather than for our research communities’, to which I asked about the definition of a ‘research community’ and why they should be exempt from external scrutiny and issues of parity with other (sub-)disciplines, also pointing out that both the Chicago School of Economics or some groups of racial theorists would have fitted this category. Cupples maintained that such communities were not groups of academics, but Moreda asked in return how ‘we avoid academic work being judged on the basis of whether it reinforces& confirms the basic tenets & prejudices of said research community?’, as well as whether such community engagement was already covered through impact assessment?
Around the same time, drama lecturer Kate Beswick (@ElfinKate) blogged on ‘REF: We need to push back against a system that has lost its way’. Whilst accepting the need for assessment of academic research, she noted how layers of bureaucracy were created to game the system, the growth of internal practice REFs, the pressure to produce outputs simply to satisfy the REF rather than for any other value, and the new pressures which will follow implementation of open access policies. This, argued Beswick, would force scholars to find ‘REF compliant’ publishers, which would compromise academic objectivity, rigour, reach and international credibility. However, she did not suggest any alternative system.
However, the first major thread in defence of the REF came from historian David Andress (@ProfDaveAndress). Andress argued that the RAE/REF enabled quality research funding to go to post-1992 institutions, that every alternative had worse biases, and that the distributive mechanism was so wide that it could almost be called ‘a relic of socialism’, concluding with the confident claim that ‘If you get rid of it, you will definitely get something worse’. This was sure to produce many responses. Clinical psychologist Richard Bentall (@RichardBentall), who was a panelist in 2008 and 2014, argued that the process was ‘conducted with absolute fairness and integrity’, but the problem was with the interpretation of it by universities (a point which many others would also evoke in other threads). Bentall noted how his own former institution gave an edict telling no researcher to publish 2* papers, which constitute 80% of world science, so that the REF ‘has become an end in itself’. I myself responded that many places have concluded that research is of no value unless beneficial to the REF, also raising the question (about which I am most definitely in two minds) as to whether we need to accept that some institutions need to be focused on teaching rather than research, rather than all scrambling over a sum of government money which is unlikely to increase. Some subsequent interactions have however made me rethink this. I also noted how some assessors have little knowledge of anything beyond their own narrow and underdeveloped fields, but which nonetheless are felt necessary to be represented on panels, noted (as would many others) how a similar process is not used in many other countries, and was sceptical about any ‘better than any conceivable alternative’ argument. Andress responded that he was not saying that, but that better alternatives which can be conceived cannot be easily put into effect, and also that, in light of the expansion of the sector, ‘RAE/REF is on the positive side of the ledger’, and shouldn’t simply be dismissed. In a series of tweets, I also expressed some questions about whether all aspects of the expansion had been positive, without corresponding increases in the level of secondary education, which can have a net levelling effect when the Oxbridge/Russell Group model is applied to institutions with very different types of student bodies, from this arguing that REF was a part of a process which pretended there were not major differences between institutions, and causes huge pressures for academics at institutions where the teaching demands are higher for students with less inclination towards independent study. These are highly contentious arguments, I realise, which I want to throw out for consideration rather than defend to the last.
Moreda also responded to Andress, taking a medium view. In a thread, she acknowledged the potential of the REF for management to use to bully academics and the inordinate use of resources, but noted that it had enabled her to gain an academic position in the UK, which would otherwise have been very difficult without an Oxbridge pedigree, also on account of having a foreign accent, with little teaching experience at that point, and so on. However, she did also temper this by noting that the ability to produce REFable publications relied upon her being ‘able-bodied and without caring duties’, and that a continued discourse was required in order to consider how to accommodate others.
I asked REF defenders whether REF panellists ever read more than a few pages of a monograph, because of the time available, or listened carefully to audible outputs (rather than reading the 300-word statements which can act as spin)? Moreda responded by framing the issues as whether the REF or equivalent can ever be free of corruption, and whether such a system needs to exist at all. She was ambivalent about both questions, but also disliked the implied view of some REF-opponents that ‘research shouldn’t be subjected to scrutiny or accountability’. Whilst agreeing on this latter point, I argued that REF does not really account for parity between disciplines and sub-disciplines, some with vast differences of time and effort (especially where archival or fieldwork are involved) required for producing an equivalent output. I proposed that no output should receive 3* or 4* where authors ignore relevant literature in other languages, and that the standards of some journals should be scrutinised more. Moreda essentially agreed with the need for wider factors to be taken into account, whilst (in somewhat rantish tone!) I continued that examiners needed a wide range of expertise across multiple sub-disciplines, and asked how in historical work like hers and mine (I work on music in Nazi and post-war Germany, she works on music in Franco’s Spain and amongst Spanish exiles) how many would know if we were making up or distorting the content of the sources? Knowing of a time when there was a leading REF assessor who could not read music, I asked how they could judge many music-related outputs, and both Moreda and I agreed there could be merit in using non-UK examiners, while I also suggested that a department should be removed from the REF when one of their own faculty members is on a panel, because of the potential for corruption.
Theatre and Performance/Early Modern scholar Andy Kesson (@andykesson) posted a harrowing thread relating to his early career experiences at the 2014 REF, for which his outputs were a monograph and an edited collection. In the lead-up, he was informed that these were ‘”slim pickings” for an ECR submission’, and pushed to get them out early and develop other publications. This came at a time when Kesson’s father died and he was forced to witness his mother in the late stages of a long-term fatal illness. Whilst deeply upset by these experiences, Kesson tried to explain that he would struggle to fulfil these additional publication demands, and was told this work was non-negotiable. After the death of his mother, her own father also became extremely ill, and Kesson was forced to do his work sitting next to his hospital bed. When offered a new job, his previous institution threatened legal action over his ‘slim’ REF submission, leading to a dispute lasting two years. Many were upset to read about the callousness of Kesson’s former institution. Social identity scholar Heather Froehlich (@heatherfro) responded that ‘academics are the most resilient people on earth, who are willing to endure so much yet still believe in their absolute singular importance – only to be told “no, you are wrong” in every aspect of their professional lives’. However, one dissenting voice here and elsewhere was that of Exeter Dean and English Professor Andrew McRae (@McRaeAndrew), who cited Wilsdon’s defence of the REF mentioned earlier, and argued that no QR money would ever be given without state oversight, asking whether a better model than the REF existed? Engineering Professor Tanvir Hussain (@tanvir_h) argued that the problem was with Kesson’s institution’s interpretation of REF rules rather than the rules themselves, a theme which others have taken up, on how the ambiguities of the REF are used as a weapon for favouritism, bullying and the like.
Geographer Tom Slater (@tomslater42), having read many of the worst stories about people’s experiences with the REF, called out those who serve on panels, making the following claims:
A) you are not being collegial
B) you are appallingly arrogant if you think you can offer an evaluation of the work of an entire sub-discipline *that has already been through peer review*
C) you are not doing it because somebody has to
D) you are not showing “leadership”
E) you are contributing to a gargantuan exercise in bringing UK academia into international disrepute
F) you are making academia an even more crappy for women, minorities, critical thinkers, and great teachers
G) if you all stood down, HEFCE would have massive problem
Various people agreed, including in the context of internal pre-REF assessments. Another geographer, Emma Fraser (@Statiscape) suggested simply giving any REF submission a 4*, a suggestion Slater and sociologist Mel Bartley (@melb4886) endorsed, and was made elsewhere by novelist and creative writing lecturer Jenn Ashworth (@jennashworth). Linguistics scholar Liz Morrish (@lizmorrish) was another to focus on the behaviour of individual institutions, maintaining that ‘the
#REF was NEVER intended to be an individual ranking of research. It was intended to give a national picture and be granular only as far as UoA. What you are being asked to do is just HR horning in on another occasion for punishment’. Slater himself also added that ubiquitous terms such as ‘REFable’ or ‘REF returnable’ should be abandoned.
Paul Noordhof (@paulnoordhof) asked in this context ‘Suppose there were no REF, or equivalent, linked to research performance. What would stop the University sector achieving efficiency savings by allowing staff numbers to reduce over time and doubling teaching loads? Especially for some subjects’, but Slater responded that collective action from academics (as opposed to the more common action supporting and promoting the REF) would stop this. Slater also responded directly to McRae’s earlier post, including the statement ‘Careful what you wish for’, by arguing that ‘most would wish for a well funded sector where we don’t have to justify our existence via an imposed, reductive, compromised, artificial assessment system that destroys morale. Careful what you lie down for’.
Italian social scientist Giulia Piccolino (@Juliet_p83), responding to my retweeting of Slater’s original thread, called herself ‘the last defender of the REF’, which she felt to be ‘a bad system but the least bad system I can imagine’, a similar position to that of Andress. In response, I suggested that a better system might involve the submission of no more than two outputs from any department, allowing much more time to be spent on peer review. Piccolino noted that in other countries where she had worked, appointments depended simply on one’s PhD supervisor (a point she also made in response to Cupples), that scholars stop researching after receiving a permanent job (but still try and control junior figures) (something I have observed in some UK institutions), and so argued that while the REF could could be improved and humanised, it seemed a break on arbitrary power as encountered elsewhere. Piccolino’s returned elsewhere to her theme of how the transparency and accountability of the REF were an improvement on more corruptible systems, with which many UK academics were unfamiliar.
The debates with McRae continued, after his response to Cupples, in which he called the REF ‘an easy target’ and suggested that its demise would leave academics reliant on grants (a view endorsed wholeheartedly by Piccolino), claimed that many would prefer to replace peer-review with metrics, and that impact produced some important activity. Legal academic Catherine Jenkins (@CathyJenkins101) asked if things were so bad before the introduction of the RAE in 1986, to which McRae responded that he did not work in the UK then, but saw the problems of an Australian system in which publications in ‘a low-achievement environment’ in which many had not published for years, did not help a younger academic get a job. Modern Languages scholar Claire Launchbury (@launchburycla) argued that the modern Australian system (despite, not because of, its own ‘Excellence in Research for Australia’ (ERA) system for research evaluation) was practically unrecognisable in these terms. In response to a query from Marketing lecturer Alexander Gunz (@AlexanderGunz) relating to the lack of a REF equivalent in North America, McRae responded that that system was radically different, lacking much central funding, but where ‘state institutions are vulnerable to the whims of their respective govts, so in that respect greater visibility/measurability of performance might help’. Cupples herself responded to McRae that ‘The vast majority of universities in the world have no REF (and neither did British universities not so long ago) and yet research gets done and good work gets published’. Historical sociologist Eric R. Lybeck (@EricRoyalLybeck), a specialist in universities, echoed the view of Swinnerton-Dyer in hearkening back to the ‘light touch’ of the first RAE, which ‘would be an improvement’, and also argued against open access, saying this ‘distorts and changes academic practices’.
Film lecturer Becca Harrison (@BeccaEHarrison) posted her first REF thread, detailing her disillusion with UK academia as a result of the system, noting that she was told when interviewing for her first post-PhD job that her research ‘had to be world leading’ (4*) in order to get an entry-level job, and feeling that even this might amount to nothing because ‘there are 100 ECRs with 4* work who need my job’. This led her to support calls to boycott preparations for the REF as part of continuing industrial action. Another thread detailed common objections to the REF, then in a third thread, Harrison detailed her experiences with depression and anxiety attacks during her PhD, leading to hair loss and stress-induced finger blisters making it impossible to type, as well as early experiences with a poorly-paid teaching fellowship together with a non-HE job to pay bills, working 18 hour days in order to produce a monograph and endlessly apply for jobs. In her first full-time job, Harrison encountered bullying, misogyny from students, a massive workload and obsessiveness about production of 4* outputs. This did not lead to a permanent contract, but a new job offer came with huge requirements just for grade 6/7. She rightly said ‘please, people implementing REF, people on hiring committees, please know that this is what you’re doing to us – and that when we’ve done all this and the system calls us ‘junior’ and treats us like we don’t know what we’re doing we will get annoyed’.
Some further questions were raised by several on the new rules on open access, for example from Politics scholar Sherrill Stroschein (@sstroschein2), who argued that this would ‘just make book writers produce best work outside of REF’. But this important debate was somewhat separate from the wider question of the value of the REF, and what system might best replace it, which I decided to raise more directly in a new thread. There were a range of responses: musicologist Mark Berry (@boulezian) argued for a move away from a model based upon the natural sciences, and claimed that ‘Huge, collaborative grants encourage institutional corruption: “full economic costing”‘, while Moreda alluded to an article from 2017 about the possibility of a ‘basic research income’ model, whereby everyone had a certain amount allocated each year for research, so long as they could prove a reasonable plan for spending it (David Matthews, ‘Is “universal basic income” a better option than research grants?’, THES, 10 October 2017, though engineer David Birch responded that this would ultimately lead to another system similar to the REF). She saw how this would be insufficient for most STEM research and some in the humanities, but this could then be supplemented by competitive funding, as is already the case. Berry made a similar point to Moreda, also noting how much money would be saved on administration, whilst Cupples also agreed, as did sociologist Sarah Burton (@DrFloraPoste). Sums of up to around £10K per year were suggested; Burton also added that larger competitive grants should be assigned on a rotating basis, so that those who have had one should be prevented from holding another for some years, to create openings for post-graduate researchers (PGRs) and ECRs. I responded that this might exacerbate a problem already prevalent, whereby time-heavy species of research (involving archives, languages, old manuscripts, etc.) would be deterred because of the time and costs involved; Burton agreed that ‘slow scholarship’ is penalised, especially ethnographic work (this type of point was also made by archaeologist Rachel Pope (@preshitorian), comparing time-intensive archaeological work with ‘opinion pieces’ judged as of similar merit), while Moreda suggested that some ‘sliding scale’ might be applied depending on whether research involves archives and the like, though acknowledged this could result in ‘perverse incentives’.
I also noted that one consequence of Burton’s model would be a decline in the number of research-only academics, but that it would be no bad thing for all to have to do some UG core teaching (with which Cupples agreed). Burton’s response was ambivalent, as some are simply ‘not cut out for teaching in a classroom’, though I suggested similar problems can afflict those required to disseminate research through conferences and papers, to which Burton suggested we also need to value and codify teaching-only tracks for some. Moreda was unsure about the proposal to restrict consecutive grants, especially for collaborative projects, though also suggested that such a model might free up more money for competitive grants. Noting earlier allegations of careerism, etc., Berry argued that one should not second-guess motivations, but there should be space for those who are not careerists, and that it would be helpful for funds to assist with language or analytical skills or other important things.
I asked who might have figures for (i) no. of FTE positions in UK academia at present (to which question I have since found the figure of 138,405 on full-time academic contracts, and 68,465 on part-time academic ones, in 2016-17); (ii) current government spending on research distributed via REF (the figure for 2015-16 was £1.6 billion), and (iii) the administrative costs of REF (for which a HEFCE report gives a figure of £246 million for REF 2014). This latter figure is estimated to represent roughly 2.4% of a total £10.2 billion expenditure on research by UK funding bodies until REF 2021, and is almost four times that spent on RAE 2008. Nonetheless, its removal would not make a significant difference to available research funds. If one considers the ‘basic research income’ model (in the crudest possible form) relative to these figures, an annual expenditure of £1.6 billion would provide £10K per year for 160,000 full-time academics, which would be a very large percentage. if the part-time academics are assumed to average 0.5 contracts.
An arts and humanities scholar who goes by the name of ‘The Underground Academic’ (@Itisallacademic) (hereafter TUA) felt the basic income model would prevent a need to apply for unnecessary large grants, and also expressed personal dislike for collaborative projects, a view which runs contrary to orthodox wisdom, but was backed by Moreda and Berry. I agreed and also questioned the ‘fetishisation of interdisciplinary work’ as well. TUA responded with a pointer to Jerry A. Jacobs, In Defense of Disciplines: Interdisciplinarity and Specialization in the Research University (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), which is a sustained scholarly critique of interdisciplinarity, so often assumed to be an unquestionable virtue. Burton also asked that employers and funders value book-based research more, and expressed frustration that her own work on social theory is deemed ‘easy’, to which I added an allusion to a common situation by which reading-intensive work, often involving carefully critical investigation of hundreds of books, can be dismissed as entailing a ‘survey text’.
There were a range of other more diverse responses. Cupples also argued that the New Zealand system, the Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF), whilst imperfect, was ‘a thousand times better than the REF’; Cupples and Eric Pawson authored ‘Giving an account of oneself: The PBRF and the neoliberal university‘, New Zealand Geographer 68/1 (April 2012), pp. 14-23. Amongst the key differences Cupples outlined were individual submissions, crafting of one’s own narrative, own choice of most suitable panel, own choice of nominated outputs, information on how one did oneself (not available to others), and greater support from departments.
Piccolino returned to her earlier questions about the potential for corruption in non-REF-based academic cultures, and asked ‘which system guarantees that people are hired for being committed, dedicated researchers vs being friends, friends of friends, products of elite institutions etc?’. Following Cupples mention of the PBRF, Piccolino also mentioned the Italian abilitazione nazionale, providing criteria for associate and full professors, but she suggested it was of little effect compared to patronage and the need for compliant researchers. This system was, according to Piccolino, closer to the REF than the German Habilitation. She also drew attention to a scathing article on corruption in Italian academia (Filippomaria Pontani, ‘Come funziona il reclutamento nelle università’, Il post, 11 October 2016).
Social scientist Gurminder K. Bhambra (@GKBhambra) pointed out the intensification of each iteration of the REF, with the current post-Stern version more individualised and pernicious than before. Medievalist James T. Palmer (@j_t_palmer) argued that REF is not the primary means of distributing research funding, because the majority is distributed through competition, though the REF may determine university funding in general (a profound observation whose implications need wider exploration).
Medieval and early modern historian Jo Edge (@DrJoEdge) asked why, in a REF context, peer-reviewed book chapters are seen as inferior to journal articles, to which Andress replied that (a) some believe book peer-review is less rigorous, as chapters are pre-selected and reviewed collectively; (b) the chapters will have less impact since less easy to find through the usual search engines (a point which Burton said she had also heard); (c) old-style elitist prejudice.
A sardonic exchange proceeded between three musicians or musicologists : composer Christopher Fox (@fantasticdrfox, himself a REF 2014 panelist), Berry, and me. Fox felt that ‘the current UK research model is counterproductive in the arts’ and that ‘Competition is a useless principle around which to organise our work’. I asked what it would mean to rank the work of leading late-twentieth-century composers such as Pierre Boulez and Jean Barraqué, Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono, Brian Ferneyhough and Robin Holloway, or the playing of pianists Aloys Kontarsky and David Tudor, or clarinettists Harry Sparnaay and Armand Angster, as 3* or 4*, especially if non-musicians were involved in the process? Fox also referenced US composers Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros, and as how one can fix criteria which account for the disparities in their aesthetic intentions, while Berry pointed out that Anton von Webern (almost all of whose works are short in duration) would ‘never have been able to “sustain his invention over a longer time-span”‘, alluding to a common criteria for composition. Conversely, I asked if Erik Satie’s Vexations (which consists of two lines of music repeated 840 times), or the music of La Monte Young (much of it very extended in duration) should ‘have been regarded as streets ahead of most others, if submitted to REF?’, in response to which musicologist (French music expert) Caroline Potter (@carolinefrmus), author of several books on Satie, alluded to an upcoming ‘REF-related satire’ which ‘seems like the only sane way to deal with the business’. I asked about whether all of this contributed to a ‘a renewed, and far from necessarily positive, concept of the “university composer” (or “university performer”)’ (terms which have often been viewed negatively, especially in the United States), when academia is one of the few sources of income. Fox felt that this culture encouraged ‘the production of compositions that only have significance within academia’. I also raised the question of whether academics looked down on books which could be read by a wider audience, which Berry argued stemmed from envy on the part of those with poor writing skills.
Independently, cultural historian Catherine Oakley (@cat_oakley) echoed the views of Kesson and Harrison, as regards the impact of REF upon ECRs, who need ‘monograph + peer-reviewed articles’ to get a permanent job, yet start out after their PhDs in ‘precarious teaching posts with little or no paid research time’.
Elsewhere, industrial relations expert Jo Grady (@DrJoGrady) advocated boycott of preparations for the REF and TEF. In a series of responses, some asked how this could be done, especially when individuals are asked to submit their own outputs for internal evaluation. Further questions ensued as to whether this might lead to some of the worst (non-striking) academics undertaking the assessment.
Sayer himself (@coastsofbohemia) also contributed to these Twitter exchanges. In a first thread, he alluded to a passage from his book: ‘In a dim and distant past that is not entirely imaginary (and still survives for the shrinking minority of faculty members in N America) research was something that academics undertook as a regular part of their job, like teaching … Universities … expected their staff to publish … and academics expected universities to give them sufficient time to pursue their research … There was no *specific* funding for time for research but … the salary was meant to support and remunerate a staff member’s research as well as his or her teaching … [whereas today] Because the only govt support for universities’ “research infrastructure … and pathbreaking research …” comes through QR funding and QR funding is tied to RAE/REF rankings, any research that scores below a 3* necessarily appears as unfunded. The accomplishment of the RAE/REF … is to have made research *accountable* in the literal sense of turning it into a possible object of monetary calculation. This makes the REF a disciplinary technology in Foucault’s sense … which works above all through the self-policing that is produced by the knowledge that one’s activities are the subject of constant oversight. Both inputs (including, crucially, academics’ time) and outputs (as evaluated by REF panels and monetized by the QR funding formula) can now be *costed.* The corollary is that activities that do not generate revenues, whether in the form of research grants or QR income, may not count in the university’s eyes as research at all.’ In response to a question from me about his feelings on the argument that RAE/REF had helped post-1992 institutions, Sayer argued that there were other alternatives to no funding or REF-based funding, alluding to some of the suggestions in his article on peer review listed earlier. In a further thread, he summarised these arguments: the relative merits of peer review vs. metrics was ‘not the issue’. Sayer asserted that ‘Peer review measures conformity to disciplinary expectations and bibliometrics measure how much a given output has registered on other academics’ horizons’, and that neither of these are a reliable basis for 65% of REF ranking. Instead, he suggested that more weight should be allocated to research environment and resources, research income, conference participation, journal or series editing, professional associations, numbers of research students, public seminars and lectures, all of which are measurable.
Literature and aesthetics scholar Josh Robinson (@JshRbnsn) joined the discussions towards the end of this flurry of activity. Coming into one thread, he noted that internal mock-REF assessments meant ‘that the judgements of powerful colleagues with respect to the relative merits of their own & others scholarship can never be held to account’, since individual scores are not returned to departments, also arguing that this would be exacerbated in REF 2021. In response to McRae, Robinson added his name to those advocating a basic research income, which McRea said would technically be possible, but in practice ‘would redistribute tens of millions per year from RG to post-92 unis. Try that on your VC!’. Robinson’s response was to quote McRae’s tweet and say ‘the manager at a Russell Group insitution shows what he’s actually afraid of.’ But in response to a further statement in which Robinson thought that what his VC ‘would be afraid of would be a generally good thing’, McRae suggested that this might simply lead VCs to make redundancies. Robinson pointed out that an allocation by FTE researcher would provide an incentive to hire more people with time for research. Robinson has indicated that he might be able to make available a recent paper he gave on the REF, which I would gladly post on here.
But Morrish, responding that McRae’s claim that the REF is ‘the price we pay, as a mechanism of accountability’, retorted that ‘the price we pay’ is ‘a) Evidence of mounting stress, sickness and disenchantment among academics REF-audit related; b) Ridiculous and career-limiting expectations of ECRs’.
A few other relevant writings have appeared recently. Socio-Technical Innovation Professor Mark Reed (@profmarkreed) and social scientist Jenn Chubb (@JennChubb) blogged on 22 March calling on academics to ‘Interrogate your reasons for engaging in impact, and whatever they are, let them be YOUR reasons’, referencing a paper published the previous week, ‘The politics of research impact: academic perceptions of the implications for research funding, motivation and quality’, British Politics (2018), pp. 1-17. Key problems identified included choosing research questions in the belief they would generate impact, increased conflicts of interest with beneficiaries who co-fund or support research, the necessity of broadening focus, leading to ‘shallow research’, and more widely the phenomenon of ‘motivational crowding’, by which extrinsic motivations intimidate researchers from other forms, and a sense that impact constitutes further marketisation of HE. Chubb and Richard Watermeyer published an article around this time on ‘Evaluating ‘impact’, in the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF): liminality, looseness and new modalities of scholarly distinction’, Studies in Higher Education (2018), though I have not yet had chance to read this. Historian Tim Hitchcock (@TimHitchcock) also detailed his experiences of the RAE/REF from the late 1980s onwards, first at North London Polytechnic. Hitchcock argues that:
I have always believed that the RAE was introduced under Thatcher as a way of disciplining the ‘old’ universities, and that the 1992 inclusion of the ‘new’ universities, was a part of the same strategy. It worked. Everyone substantially raised their game in the 1990s – or at least became more focussed on research and publication.
Hitchcock goes on to detail his experiences following a move to the University of Hertfordshire after RAE 1996. He notes how hierarchies of position (between Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Reader, Professor) became more important than ever, and recruitment was increasingly guided by potential RAE submissions. However, Hitchcock became more disillusioned when he took a position at the University of Sussex after REF 2014, and saw how the system felt ‘more a threat than a promise’ in such places, in which REF strategy was centrally planned. He notes how ‘The bureaucracy, the games playing and the constantly changing requirements of each new RAE/REF, served a series of British governments as a means of manipulating the university system’, the system was increasingly rigged in favour of ‘old’ universities, and made life increasingly difficult for ECRs, who had to navigate ever-bigger hurdles in order simply to secure a permanent position. Hitchcock concludes that:
Higher education feels ever more akin to a factory for the reproduction of class and ethnic privilege – the pathways from exclusion to success ever more narrowly policed. Ironically it is not the ‘neo-liberal’ university that is the problem; but the ‘neo-liberal’ university dedicated to reproducing an inherited hierarchy of privileged access that uses managerialism and rigged competition to reproduce inequality.
He does not write off the potential of the REF to change this, and appears to see the particular ways it is administered and used (and viewed by some in ‘old’ universities) as the problem.
There is more to say about the Thatcherite roots of the RAE, her disdain for the ‘old’ universities, especially after her alma mater, Oxford University, refused in 1985 to award her an honorary doctorate, and what the 1992 act meant in terms of a new vocational emphasis for higher education in general, to which I may return in a subsequent blog post.
It is very clear that the majority of Academic Twitter are deeply critical or bitterly resentful of the RAE/REF, and most believe reform to be necessary. Editorial director of the THES, Phil Baty (@Phil_Baty) offered up a poll asking whether people thought the REF and RAE had been positive or negative; the results were 22% and 78% respectively (and further comments, mostly making similar points to the above, followed). The arguments pro and contra, as have emerged over the weekend can be summarised as follows:
Pro: provides some transparent external scrutiny and accountability; enables funding for post-1992 institutions; enables some to find work who would find it impossible in other systems dominated by patronage; is a better model than any other which has been discovered; employs peer-review rather than metrics.
Contra: invests too much power in managers; creates bullying and intimidatory atmosphere at work through REF preparation mechanisms; makes job market even more forbidding for ECRs; highly bureaucratic; very costly; dominates all research; time-consuming; discriminatory; sexist; colonialist; makes few allowances for those with mental health, care, family, or other external commitments; uncollegiate; employs assessors working outside their area of expertise; uses too many UK academics as assessors; marginalises 2* work and book chapters; fetishises collaborative or interdisciplinary work; falsely erases distinctions between institutions; relies on subjective views of assessors; artificially bolsters certain types of creative practice; is not employed in almost any other developed country; employs mechanisms more appropriate that STEM subjects than arts, humanities and social sciences; has increased pressure on academics with every iteration; causes huge stress and sickness amongst academics.
Stern has not been enough, and there is no reason to believe that those making the final decisions have much interest in the welfare of lecturers, or for that matter the creation of the best type of research culture. Major reform, or perhaps a wholly new system, are needed, and both government and the OfS and Research England should listen to the views expressed above. And new employment laws are urgently needed to stop the destruction of academics’ lives which is happening, regularly as a result of the REF.
The cover story of today’s Sunday Times indicates a plan on the part of the UK government to reduce fees in higher education.
According to the story:
He [Education Secretary Damian Hinds] revealed that future fees would be determined by “a combination of three things: the cost [to the university] to put it on, the benefit to the student and the benefit to our country and our economy”.
Ministers expect this to lead to dramatic cuts in fees for arts and social science courses, which universities have expanded because they are the cheapest to run and make them the most money.
Under the plans, universities will be told to offer: more two-year degrees; sandwich courses, where students spend time in the workplace; and “commuter courses”, where they live at home to cut costs.
Various television interviews today with Hinds and also with Universities Minister Sam Gyimah have done nothing to dispel such suggestions, though precise details are vague. A statement from the Prime Minister is promised tomorrow, though it is unclear how much has yet been decided, how much will be the outcome of a review.
There are various outcomes I could envisage, few of them likely to be positive for those working in the arts and humanities in British universities. The items on the following list are not mutually exclusive.
- A re-introduction of the pre-1992 divide (though ministers will be at pains to stress how different it is), whereby the sector will once again divide into a series of universities in the traditional sense (probably the Russell Group and a handful of others) and others offering more vocational and technical courses (most of those which became universities after 1992 and maybe some others as well). This will be spun as entailing a new level of support for technical education, with the second group of institutions intended to be akin to German Technische Universitäten. The latter institutions will receive little or no support for research, and most lecturers will be on teaching-only contracts. The government money thus saved will be used to finance a cut in some tuition fees.
- A push for many degrees, especially in the arts and humanities, to be able to be undertaken in two years, delivered by a mixture of lecturers on teaching-only contracts (whose increased teaching burden would leave little time for any research), casual academic staff without permanent contracts, and postgraduates.
- A limitation of practically all government research money to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects, with nothing for the arts and the humanities, though the social sciences may keep some.
- A variant of 3, in which all or the bulk of arts and humanities research money is only available to those in Russell Group institutions.
- The introduction of a direct link between ’employability’ (as measured by the Teaching Excellence Framework) and the level of fees which an institution is allowed to set.
- An insistence that the majority of academic jobs be teaching only. Having a research position will then become one of the most sought-after things in HE.
Most of these measures, or some variants thereof, will be designed to enable the government to cut fees without having to pledge any more money for HE. I believe strongly in the abolition of tuition fees and re-installment of maintenance grants for all, but realise at present this is unlikely to be on the cards (even with a Labour government which pledges to abolish fees, but will be hit by the dire economic consequences of a Brexit they are doing little to stop).
The outlook for the arts is bleak, and especially for degrees in performing arts such as music, theatre, dance, or various types of spatial arts, which include a practical element requiring significant resources for appropriate facilities. Already, as a result of the introduction of the Ebacc (English Baccalaureate), there was a five-fold fall in the numbers of pupils taking arts subjects at secondary school in 2015-16, while other evidence points to a special fall in take-up and provision of music. When combined with other likely problems relating both to recruitment and access to research funding following Brexit, this will put various music and other arts departments in a highly precarious position, as some already are.
The arguments for the employment benefits of arts and humanities degrees have been rehearsed often, as for example in response to politicians such as former Conservative Education Secretary Nicky Morgan dismissing arts and humanities subjects and urging pupils at school to concentrate on STEM if they want a better career. I do not wish to dwell on these further here, not because I do not believe them to be true, but because I resent the debate always being framed in such narrowly utilitarian terms. Rather, I want to ask why many – including some in academia – have lost such faith in the value of the study of the arts and humanities as an end in itself, and are submitting to terms of reference which will always place them at a disadvantage?
In many continental European universities, there are battles to save rare subjects in the face of declining student numbers, but at least some measures are being taken to prevent these from extinction. It would be nice to imagine that the UK government (or the opposition) were backing similar measures, but evidence of that is in short supply. I wonder in how many other developed countries one would find a vice-chancellor of a major university declaring the irrelevance of the study of sixth-century history, as the late Patrick Johnston, of Queen’s University Belfast, did in 2016. I refuse to accept that the study of early medieval (or ancient) history is somehow automatically less ‘relevant’ than modern history – or that the study of Guillaume de Machaut is less ‘relevant’ than that of Madonna. Any measure of the relevance of history in proportion to the temporal remoteness of the period in question ultimately undermines the case for the study of history at all. There has also been, in the UK, a marked decline in foreign language degrees, no doubt linked to a decline in their study in schools. It is dispiriting and more than a little arrogant when those in Britain no longer feel it important to engage with any of the world’s many other languages.
There have been, and will be for a long time, heated debates about the value to individuals and society as a whole of various types of art, and especially regarding their purported humanising or civilising potential. Overwhelming evidence exists from the fascist era that individuals with a love for and firm schooling in high culture could still commit crimes against humanity. At the very least, this renders automatic assumptions of such culture’s civilising potential impossible to maintain. But one need not subscribe to the views of Matthew Arnold (themselves more complex and nuanced than sometimes credited) in order to believe that a society with only minimal support for and education in the arts and humanities to be one which is deeply impoverished.
So what should be included in teaching and research of these disciplines? I would argue that at the very least, students should be encouraged to explore not only the forms of culture that they would encounter anyhow, but also those of different times and places, not to mention less familiar or commercially successful genres. Such culture can benefit from being examined in its social, historical, geographical, political, ideological contexts, without in any way neglecting its specifics and technical details, which are not merely the by-product of such contexts. The relationships between different cultural forms (between music and theatre, between theatre and performance art, between literature and film, just to give a tiny few obvious examples) are also greatly important, as are the relationships between culture and the intellectual environment of its time/place/social milieu, the societal functions of various cultural forms, the nature and demographics of those who partake of such culture and their responses (i.e. the study of reception), the economic situation of cultural production, the role of changing technology, and much else.
Yet so often I encounter the dismissal of many of these things, including by some academics, in ways which mirror government ideologies, despite being presented in somewhat different language. In the case of my own field, music: government emphasis on STEM subjects is mirrored in increasing emphasis on technological skills in music over other varieties of musical study and musicianship (and in the case of research, favour bestowed upon anything which has a contemporary technological dimension), as if musical study is somehow more acceptable when it has some of the veneer of science. Positions become available for the teaching of commercial music, or functional music for another commercial medium (such as popular film or video games), more frequently than those requiring expertise in a historical field, or in musical cultures outside of the Western world. I was recently informed by one Professor of Theatre that historical study of that discipline has all but disappeared except in Russell Group institutions (though am interested to hear of any evidence to the contrary).
I accept that some of this is pragmatic, borne of desperate attempts to recruit and maintain students who have less and less of a foundation in music and the arts at primary and secondary school than ever. But I am dismayed at how many embrace rather than tolerate this situation. There was a time when the study of popular music (see this debate from two years ago on this blog) could reasonably be argued to inject increased diversity into rather rigid curricula. At best, this can entail the study of many different popular musics from various times and places, critical interrogation of the concept of the ‘popular’, consideration of various social contexts, means of production and distribution, not to mention relationship to other cultural traditions, languages, and so on. But when it means limiting a good deal of musical study to Anglo-American popular music of a restricted period (essentially that music which is already familiar to students), then the net effect for diversity is negative rather than positive. Ethnomusicologists (see another debate on this blog) eager to decry not only relatively traditional approaches to teaching Western art music, but also older approaches to their own disciplines which involved Western scholars spending considerable amounts of time in remote places, absorbing as best as they can the language, cultural practices, and so on, might reflect upon how precarious their own discipline might become if there is less of a place or welcoming environment for those interested in such things. The more musical study becomes simply about the application of a selection of methods derived from sociology or cultural anthropology to fields of musical activity close to home, the less reason there will be for institutions to support music as a separate field of study. The sociology and anthropology of music are vitally important sub-disciplines with multiple intellectual trajectories of their own, but if those engaged with them are housed solely in sociology and anthropology departments, they will then be in direct competition for students, funding and positions with the rest of those fields.
More widely, in many fields of cultural studies, especially the populist varieties which, as I have argued in some recent papers, are rooted in the work of the Birmingham School and especially that of Stuart Hall, commercial utility is equated with relevance, musical engagement is viewed as just another consumer activity, and research can amount either to conducting focus groups, or dressing up familiar informal chat about popular culture with a modicum of jargon. Any deeper critical engagement with popular taste, the latter empirically measured at one particular time and place, is dismissed as elitism. This amounts in many ways to an eschewal of arts education itself, and can lead to rather patronising ways of patting students and ‘the masses’ on the back simply for having the tastes they do, rather than encouraging them to venture beyond their comfort zones.
I do believe, after working in HE for 15 years (in multiple institutions), that most students who study arts subjects at university do so after having read some literature, heard or played some music, seen and acted in some theatre, looked at or produced some visual art, etc., and care about these and want to know more. They often seek help and guidance to navigate an overwhelming range of available culture, and also learn technical skills so as to be able to engage with this more incisively. Certainly not all will become equally drawn to all the manifold areas of study, methods, or emphases involved, nor could any realistically study all in detail in the limited time available for an undergraduate degree (for which I think we should be looking towards four- rather than two-year degrees, ideally) which is why we offer some degree of elective options. But I do believe it is important, indeed vital, that educators attempt to broaden students’ horizons, encourage them to explore beyond what they already know, and also consider the familiar from unfamiliar angles. Those educators, with years of experience in their own fields, are in a position to facilitate all of this. Not through spoon-feeding, teaching-to-test, or rote learning, but introducing what to students will be a plurality new ideas, new cultural forms, new contexts, and encouraging them to consider these critically.
I also realise this type of humanistic approach may not be attractive or feasible to some potential students, and this situation is unlikely to change without wider changes in primary and secondary education. With this in mind, I would not rule out questions as to whether the removal of the pre-1992 divide has been wholly beneficial, and whether a need to maintain the pretence that all degree courses are roughly equal just entails a race to the bottom for all. But technical colleges are not universities in the traditional sense, and it benefits nowhere to pretend otherwise, as argued well by Marxist scholar Terry Eagleton:
Just as there cannot be a pub without alcohol, so there cannot be a university without the humanities. If history, philosophy and so on vanish from academic life, what they leave in their wake may be a technical training facility or corporate research institute. But it will not be a university in the classical sense of the term, and it would be deceptive to call it one.
Neither, however, can there be a university in the full sense of the word when the humanities exist in isolation from other disciplines. The quickest way of devaluing these subjects – short of disposing of them altogether – is to reduce them to an agreeable bonus. Real men study law and engineering, while ideas and values are for sissies. The humanities should constitute the core of any university worth the name. The study of history and philosophy, accompanied by some acquaintance with art and literature, should be for lawyers and engineers as well as for those who study in arts faculties.
I would not like to live in a narrow, utilitarian, technocratic society in which there is little wider societal interest in other times and places, in all the questions which the humanities raise, or one in which such interest and knowledge is limited to the upper echelons of society. Nor a society in which art has no meaning other than as a form of commercial entertainment, as some right-wing politicians in the UK have been urging for many years (see the notorious 1990 Westminster speech by then-Tory MP Terry Dicks, and the spirited and witty response by then-Labour MP Tony Banks). And I doubt that this type of society would be attractive to many, especially not those working in arts and humanities fields. But if many of them are not prepared to defend the ideals of the arts and humanities, acting instead as advocates for narrowly conceived notions of social ‘relevance’, defined in terms of being contemporary, technocratic, and generally restricted to the place and milieu of them and/or their students, what are the chances of any meaningful opposition to governments who would happily slash most of these?
Universities, the arts and the humanities, are not just means to ends but valuable in their own right. Cultures and cultural histories are far from unblemished things, to say the least, but it would still be negligent in the extreme to let them fade into oblivion. And allowing students to retreat into the comfort zone of the already-familiar is damaging to global citizenship. In some ways, those who advocate such an approach to education are already doing the Brexiteers’ work for them.
This coming Sunday, February 12th, will see a mini-conference, the second major event organised by Music into Words, whose declared aim is ‘to bring together all kinds of writers about classical music – journalists, musicians, academics, bloggers and music lovers – to share their perspectives and discuss common issues in a positive, inclusive and friendly environment.’
This event will take place at The Holst Room, Morley College, London SE1, from 1:15 to 5 pm on Sunday, February 12th, 2017, and I will be on the panel. Other participants are world-leading pianist Peter Donohoe, Deputy Arts Editor of The Times Neil Fisher, writer, musician and researcher Katy Hamilton, music researcher and journalist Leah Broad, conductor Tom Hammond, clarinettist, composer and creative producer Kate Romano, and writer Adrian Ainsworth. It will be hosted by Frances Wilson (whose blog Cross-Eyed Pianist is here – you can read my interview with Frances here) and founder and editor of Corymbus.co.uk, Simon Brackenborough. Tickets, which are selling fast, can be booked here. Fees are £10 + £0.75 booking fee through Early Bird, £5 + £0.58 booking fee for students.
The order of events will be as follows:
1.15pm – arrival/registration and welcome
1.30 – Panel 1:
Speakers: Katy Hamilton, Adrian Ainsworth & Tom Hammond
with Peter Donohoe and Neil Fisher
Followed by audience Q&A/discussion
3.00 – Tea break (the refectory Morley College will be open for refreshments)
3.30 – Panel 2:
Speakers: Ian Pace, Kate Romano, Leah Broad
Followed by audience Q&A/discussion
5pm – event ends.
My own contribution will concentrate on the thorny questions of the differences between journalistic and scholarly writing, and in particular the use of jargon (as distinct from technically precise or conceptually rich language), and its use for a play of power in order to mystify academic writing and render it artificially inaccessible. My short talk will be accompanied with hand-outs giving some examples of the phenomenon I describe, and of writing for which these categories are ambiguous. This is designed to encourage a wider discussion on the purpose of writing on music carried out in an academic context, drawing on my own parallel experiences as musicologist, professional musician, and blogger on music and other subjects. Some of my earlier writings on this blog relate to this subject, including my posts on scholarship and new music, the need for musicology to distinguish itself from promotional writing, the question of how much some musicologists are vested in their subject, whether it is acceptable for scholarly writing on music to draw upon monolingual sources, and on deskilling and musical education.
I am very pleased to have been invited to take part in this mini-conference, and hope many will come to lend their input to what is sure to be a fascinating series of debates.
In my last post following the ethnomusicology debate at City University, I gave links to two responses to the event, and also to the position statement by Laudan Nooshin [ADDENDUM: see also the position statement by Michael Spitzer). I will post a more detailed reply to this latter soon, believing it to be disingenuous in various ways and in others to confirm a lot of what I was arguing. But here I just wanted to post a longer section from one text cited briefly by Nooshin, J.P.E. Harper-Scott’s The Quilting Points of Musical Modernism: Revolution, Reaction, and William Walton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). Here I should not hide the fact that Paul Harper-Scott is a friend and someone with whom I have had many discussions about these types of issues, as I have with many other musicologists and others. A good deal of Harper-Scott’s work entails revisionist views of composers and aspects of nineteenth- and twentieth-century history, from a perspective broadly sympathetic to a modernist aesthetic and firmly opposed to the values of late capitalism, from which context he can re-assess figures such as Elgar and Walton, never merely in an over-generalised fashion, but backed up by analytical detail. Quilting Points is a remarkable book with an ambitious scope; I certainly do have some reservations, not least the employment of aspects of Freudian psychoanalysis (a discipline for which I have little time), and some other theorists about whom I have serious doubts, but it is endlessly stimulating and also extremely clearly written, with incisive points springing out from almost every page. Harper-Scott, as a real expert on the music on which he writes, can move from musical detail to social and political context extraordinarily convincingly without relying merely on vague allusions, in a manner which I think many of those whose work I have criticised in my earlier piece would do well to study.
This book is one of the very few which includes a critique of ethnomusicology from an ‘outsider”s position (i.e. one who does not identify as an ethnomusicologist), and I value it especially for that reason. For too long ethnomusicology has sought to present itself as a self-regulating enterprise (often, in my experience, in a jealously defensive fashion), and the lack of proper external scrutiny and critique has in my view enabled some very poor work to sail through PhD examination, peer review, and so on,when ratified by those with an obvious vested interest in so doing. This passage in Harper-Scott’s book is part of a wider critique of various recent Anglophone musicological trends (not least the ‘new musicology’ and the work of Richard Taruskin), many of which he links to a xenophobic Anglo-American variety of late capitalism. I want to quote in full the section ‘Ethnomusicology and pop musicology as class enemies’. This I found very impressive, not least because of my own long-term disdain for Western intellectuals’ romanticising and idealising of massively unequal and reactionary social and cultural practices just because they happen to be in the third world (a legacy of Maoism, an ideology which enforces a conformity to romantic ideals in murderous fashion), an issue touched upon in the commentary by Ben Smith on the debate, and which lies at the heart of a remarkable book I have recently been reading, Leigh Phillips’ Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff (Winchester: Zero Books, 2014).
I was also deeply drawn to Harper-Scott’s description of his own class background and readiness to entertain the possibility that a good deal of the liberal grandstanding to be found amongst ethnomusicologists, popular music scholars and new musicologists primarily relates to a conscience-soothing exercise for sons and daughters of privilege feeling a bit guilty for that very reason (just as the Indian Marxist writer Aijaz Ahmad has pointed out how the narrative bequeathed by Edward Said suits the interests of the sons and daughters of the ruling classes in formerly colonised nations, for they definitely need a narrative which takes class out of the equation – see the bottom of this post for the passage in question). I come from a background not so different to Harper-Scott (indeed today our parents live less than a mile from each other in Hartlepool, though are not personally acquainted). I grew up in West Park, Hartlepool, to a reasonably comfortable family, though the circumstances in which my parents themselves grew up were very different – my father was born into deep poverty in 1931, and during the Depression he and his family would be moving house every three months or so in a desperate trek for work; his father found some construction on a huge cooling tower together with a friend during this time and through inappropriate safety regulations watched his friend plunge to his death. Both parents left school at 16; I was the first in this strand of the family to go to university (both my younger sister and I went to Oxford), which naturally was a source of great pride. I learned about music and much else in large measure through the resources available at my local library, before going to music school at age 10. My background is far from typical for a musician (even less typical today than it was in some of the post-war era in the UK), and I have had to fight for it in the face of snobbery and privilege. As such, I feel nothing other than total and utter contempt for the patronising nonsense presented by academics, including some sociologists and ethnomusicologists, who would have denied either Harper-Scott or me the chances we had, by trying to make musical education more ‘relevant’ and ‘inclusive’. One of my greatest joys is when I am able to introduce students of all types of background to many types of music, literature, visual arts, complex ideas, and so on, which they would have been unlikely to encounter otherwise (and will be unlikely to in many university departments if some have their way), and to hear their own individual responses (often very different from my own), and help them gain tools for developing and framing these ideas – and also push them to read and listen widely! – such as facilitates critical perspectives which are based upon detail and real knowledge rather than generalities and stereotypes. In short I want them to have the opportunities I had; this is one of my main reasons for wanting to teach in a university, and I would like to think I achieve this reasonably well. One reason for embarking on a critique of some varieties of ethnomusicology (as well as being shocked by what passed for scholarship in many cases) is the identification of a group of scholars essentially working to deny students much of what I have described, instead using them and curricula as vehicles to flatter those very ethnomusicologists, under the auspices of spurious rhetoric of diversity and relevance, or turning wider deficiencies in British education into virtues. These are worrying trends which can be found in many places.
One factor which Harper-Scott identifies very precisely is the limitations of the empirical mentality of those people who patronise the lower classes (this is one reason why a truly progressive left is in short supply in the empiricist Anglophone world): they can only imagine what has been, can be experienced, not what might be, and thus to what various members of social groups might aspire. In short, they treat the lower classes as another variety of noble savages, just as (as documented in David Cannadine’s Ornamentalism: How the British saw their Empire (London: Allen Lane, 2001)) there is a long history in British society of portraying the poor using similar concepts and categories as used to dehumanise colonial subjects of non-Caucasian ethnicities.
Harper-Scott also touches on another point, in which context he cites Slavoj Žižek, specifically how self-styled Western multiculturalists are happy to tolerate an idealised ‘Other’, and ignore an actual ‘Other’ which might not correspond to many of their preconceptions. As a sceptic about multiculturalism myself (influenced by the thinking of Kenan Malik on this subject), I consider this to be a symptom of an ideology – certainly common amongst plenty of ethnomusicologists and anthropologists – which fetishes culture (especially local cultures) and is blind to the very universal workings of global capitalism and its effects upon peoples and cultures. As Terry Eagleton put it in his pungent critique of Gayatri Spivak (Terry Eagleton, ‘In the Gaudy Supermarket, London Review of Books 21/10 (May 13, 1999), pp. 3-6):
Much post-colonial writing behaves as though the relations between the North and South of the globe were primarily a ‘cultural’ affair, thus allowing literary types to muscle in on rather more weighty matters than insect imagery in the later James. Spivak, by contrast, has a proper scorn for such ‘culturalism’, even if she shares a good many of its assumptions. She does not make the mistake of imagining that an essay on the figure of the woman in A Passage to India is inherently more threatening to the transnational corporations than an inquiry into Thackeray’s use of the semi-colon. The relations between North and South are not primarily about discourse, language or identity but about armaments, commodities, exploitation, migrant labour, debt and drugs; and this study boldly addresses the economic realities which too many post-colonial critics culturalise away.
A ‘culturalist’ view, on the other hand, can lead to some of the most crazy conclusions, such as Germaine Greer’s defence of female genital mutilation, or Julia Kristeva’s of Chinese foot-binding, presented as some beguiling alternative model of feminine physical demeanour (in Des Chinoises (Paris: Editions des femmes, 1974), available in English as About Chinese Women, translated Anita Barrows (London: Marion Boyars, 1977)).
Anyhow, here is ‘Ethnomusicology and pop musicology as class enemies’. Below this is a passage from the conclusion from which the quote by Nooshin comes (‘According to ethnomusicology, the cultures of the non-western world should take intellectual precedence, and those of us who spend our time focusing on Western [classical] music should feel ashamed of ourselves (there is quite an irony in the fact that ethnomusicology, in the UK at least, increasingly attempts to colonize the Western-music syllabuses of our universities’). Nooshin may not ‘recognise the ethnomusicology described here and would be interested to know what it is based on’; I am sure Harper-Scott could provide plenty of examples, as could I (including some of Nooshin’s own work). As regards syllabuses, I wonder how the faculty at the School of Oriental and African Studies would feel if they were made to have a few Western art music historians/analysts on their faculties, who could then insist that the ethnomusicology core curricula must in part be fashioned around their activities and specific interests and expertise? But it is important to see this in the wider context of the critique presented in the book.
I would like to encourage others not simply to adhere to my view on this text, but submit their own thoughts and responses to this and the wider issues, whatever those may be, though keeping such responses focused on the specifics in question and refraining from personal attacks.
4.12 Ethnomusicology and pop musicology as class enemies
‘Henry Stobart’s study of music and potato farming in the Bolivian Andes can be taken as representative of this risk as it manifests itself in ethnomusicology.74 It is certainly not representative of ethnomusicology as a whole, though there are plenty of other ethnomusicologists like Stobart. Nor is the foil I shall use later (some work by Martin Stokes) the only example of an alternative ethnomusicological approach. The exact proportion of these kinds of studies in ethnomusicology is not germane to the theoretical use I am putting this material, which is to demonstrate the possibility for the obscure subject to emerge in this subdiscipline. My arguments may be met by one of three arguments academics habitually wheel out when their field is under attack: the ‘non-articulation’ argument, the ‘one rogue reporter’ argument, and the ‘you can’t read’ argument. The non-articulation argument says that ‘the individual or group you direct your criticisms at is of course profoundly aware of the issues you raise, even if they do not articulate them’. I am at a loss to see why we are to believe that someone has an articulable understanding of anything, if they do not evidence it, particularly when (a) it harms them not to articulate it and (b) there is no bar to them articulating it. The only possible reason for remaining silent in such circumstances is that they must be consciously deciding, perhaps for reasons of intellectual masochism, to bare themselves to attack – in which case they will enjoy what I have to say. The ‘one rogue reporter’ argument (made famous by News International in defending charges of phone hacking at its newspapers; it was plausible until further evidence revealed the alleged abuses to be more or less systemic) says ‘yes, of course, the target you have chosen here is guilty as charged, and if what you say were generally true across the subdiscipline then of course I would agree with you – but this individual is alone in doing this, and as a whole the subdiscipline is sound’. The answer to this is first that Stobart is certainly not alone, and second that even if he were, the existence of even ‘one rogue reporter’ would be sufficient evidence of the possibility of the obscure subject presenting itself within ethnomusicology in terms of the formal theory I am elaborating in this chapter. The third argument, ‘you can’t read’, which implies that the critic fails to understand the subtlety or intellectual context of a position in such a way as to undermine their criticism, is the last resort, and requires rather a lot of support if the mud is to stick. But it is at least the basis of a meaningful discussion, since it requires the rearticulation of the criticized position that explains why the criticism is wrong. I would welcome that.
In Stobart’s study, non-Western music is not only declared to be interesting, to a sympathetic and accustomed Western ear, but – and here a simplistic liberal move that is widespread but not wholly permeating in these disciplines shines through – also to evince an essential authenticity in its production and consumption that is lost, to our great discredit and disadvantage, in the West (this by way of a pseudo-critique of capitalism).75 The tacit contention is that we would all do rather better (morally, not intellectually) as musicologists if we turn away from our Eurocentric focus on Beethoven and so on. The fractured body of modernist works is therefore denied as a focus for study (¬c) and the emancipatory truth claim of modernism is denied (¬ε) and replaced by a new ‘emancipation’ for the West’s neglected Other (in this case, the potato farmers of Bolivia).
Stobart’s essay follows an exemplary democratic-materialist logic. First, six lines into the essay, he reminds us that ‘music is not the universal language that many [implicitly bad] people have often claimed it to be’, paralleling the logic that ‘there are only bodies and languages’, nothing universal in musical experience, but only a multiplicity of musical languages and persons who (re)create and experience it: this is true so far as it goes, but banal. Second, in the very next sentence, he declares with beautiful capitalist ingenuousness: ‘this does not prevent us deriving great pleasure and inspiration from the music of other cultures’.76 This statement has a double edge. On the one hand we are to submit to the superego injunction to enjoy this music: and if it sounds unlovely to an unaccustomed Western ear, Stobart proves his aretē (and his moral worth) by his capacity to love it.77 But on the other hand, the intellectual and material poverty of the farmers whose music this is should inspire us. This is the democratic-materialist manifestation of the (ironically!) disavowed Rousseauian ‘noble savage’. The authenticity of the Bolivian farmers casts our privileged Western consumerism into shameful relief. The paradoxical solution, of course, is for us to buy into the Bolivian culture, by visiting, buying CDs of the music, and so on.
The tale Stobart tells of these farmers’ use of music in the different seasons of the potato-growing year is unquestionably interesting. ‘The pinkillu flutes and kitarra of the growing season are said to call the clouds and rain up from the valleys and to help the crops to grow. In turn the dry season wauqu and siku panpipes blow the clouds away causing clear skies and frosts.’78 The farmers believe it to be vital that they play the right tunes, because both their diet and their livelihood depend utterly on the success of the potato harvest.79 Stobart is careful, early in the essay, to report that the connexion between certain instruments and tunes only has a direct climatic effect according to the beliefs of the locals, but it is essential to the ideological trajectory of the essay that by the end, all the qualifications are removed, and the music does, in all actuality cause the the right weather conditions to produce the successful potato harvest. 80 Here is the kernel of the ‘inspiration’ we are to draw from the Bolivians: their closeness to their natural world has been lost to us, and it is through their musical practices that we see it. We may not return to the subsistence farming they endure (though we may dabble in a 1970s, Good Life-style small-holding lifestyle, cultivate an allotment, or have grubby-looking organic vegetables delivered from local farmers in weekly boxes), but through their music we can approach their perception of the world, and see that ours is neither the only one (which is banally true) nor one that we could hope to universalize (which is wrong, as I shall argue, and is in fact a quintessential manifestation of the obscure subject).
I do not for a moment question the need for the West to rethink its relation to nature, and the positive component of the Bolivian experience here has a basic appeal (though the need to prevent environmental devastation is scarcely a realization that requires the reports from Bolivia to bring it to Western attention). But a nastier failing is also present here: the consequences of a refusal to speak from a universal moral position.81 One of the dances the farmers perform while they think they are aiding the growth of the potatoes involves the circling and ‘trapping’ of the male flute players by a group of women. Stobart interprets the symbolism: ‘it would seem that the dancers represent the soil or mother earth which protects, but also imprisons and ultimately destroys the parent seed potato when it has given birth to the next generation’.82 Considering this comment in the light of Stobart’s final words reveals a rich subtext. For my hosts the potato is no mundane staple, but is an enchanting and magical being whose life is seen in many ways to parallel and enable their own. Potatoes must be loved and cared for, just like human children. This sentiment is expressed through music, song, poetry and dance which, in turn, are some of the ultimate expressions of human feeling. For the people of this highland hamlet, at least, it would seem that the potato must count among the most important organizing principles of musical performance. Or rather, might it be more accurate to say that music is one of the primary expressions of the potato?83
It is easy to itemize the components of this ideological message:
• subsistence farming is not a burden, a stressful hand-to-mouth existence, but a genuine spiritual wonder that rich Westerners might in some ways envy;
• potatoes are like children, and (implicitly) children are one of the greatest things on earth, and the procreation of them is or should be the generic pursuit of all humankind;
• women, whose role is clarified symbolically in the Bolivian dance, are meant to cultivate and destroy: they should as surely be rearing children as the earth produces the potatoes.
This message of the musical and farming practices of these Bolivians is clearly both anti-feminist and pro-natalist in its focus on the reproductive duty of women. And yet, in line with the democratic-materialist refusal to acknowledge a universal moral position, this is never once questioned in Stobart’s essay. I would not accuse him of sympathy with this position, but his intellectual commitment here prevents him from raising an objection (this is the mystery of the ‘non-articulation’ argument). Not even a disarming remark that this focus on women as mere wombs and (even worse) deadly ensnarers and destroyers surfaces in the text, and since by the end of the essay we could be forgiven for thinking that the author believes, with his hosts, that the right tunes bring the right weather, Stobart forces himself into the invidious position of failing to address the unpalatable parts of the ideology of the Bolivian farmers. Are we supposed to tolerate this misogyny merely because it is an expression of an Other who we – nasty imperialist Europeans – are morally forbidden to criticize? This is of course only a single essay, and in other cases, where the misogyny is even more extreme, we might encounter criticism of the Other – but far from demonstrating the consistency of the scholar’s multiculturalist position, that of course reveals its Eurocentric basis. Such a critical form of liberal democratic materialism
tolerates the Other in so far as it is not the real Other, but the aseptic Other of premodern ecological wisdom, fascinating rites, and so on – the moment one is dealing with the real Other (say, of clitoridectomy, of women compelled to wear the veil, of torturing enemies to death . . . ), with the way the Other regulates the specificity of its jouissance, tolerance stops. Significantly, the same multiculturalists who oppose Eurocentrism also, as a rule, oppose the death penalty, dismissing it as a remainder of primitive barbaric customs of vengeance – here, their hidden true Eurocentrism becomes visible.84
Stobart’s silence on the misogyny of the Bolivians is the flip-side of this refusal to tolerate more obnoxious prejudices.85 But his message in the study of the potato farmers is also profoundly, and I am sure unintentionally, neoliberal in an economic sense, which concerns me even more. Where Stobart romanticizes his hosts’ relation to their ‘enchanting and magical’ potatoes, the materialist-dialectical response is to ask fundamental questions:
• Must we tolerate a global economic order in which it is possible that people can live in this subsistence manner?
• Can nothing be done to improve the education of these people, to give them proper scientific understanding of agriculture, so that they can take proper steps to ensure the success of the potato crop on which their entire life depends instead of just playing music and hoping for the best?
In the face of such an ethnographic study, the materialist-dialectical response could never be: well, these people live in this manner, and who am I to judge? The proper response from the Left has to be to universalize from its position of economic and material advantage, to look at the appalling material conditions of these people and, rather than to cherish and preserve (draw ‘inspiration’ from) this way of life, to strive towards the creation of a new world in which it is simply not possible for human beings to live in such precarious economic and dietary conditions. Instead of valorizing forms of life such as this, the response of ethnomusicologists who undertake fieldwork in these situations should be to encourage the rest of the West to make the systemic political changes that are required to lift these people out of their situation, to emancipate rather than to romanticize.
The error in not taking this step is redoubled by the way such relatively rich liberal Westerners use their enthusiasm for these appalling ways of life – which is tantamount to complicity in economic violence against their various Others – as a stick with which to beat their Leftist counterparts on moral grounds. Those Leftists who would like to see the end of these ways of life are of course damned for being Eurocentric imperialist monsters. The cause of this purblindness, I suggest, may be the class experience of the scholars in question. It appears to some members of the congenital middle classes that what the less fortunate majority in their own country or the rest of the world requires is respect and tolerance, rather than a means of escape. To suggest that the poor may wish to escape their poverty is, on this view, to demean them, when the reality is of course that the way to love the poor best is to stop them being poor – in theoretical terms, to break the connexion between their economic situation and their subjective existence. It is precisely this connexion that democratic-materialist musicology sets up by confusing the situation of people with the people in the situation.
As I noted first in Chapter 1, I speak from a radically different experiential position from virtually any academic I know. I used intellect and a set of cultural interests as a means of escape from the doom of living out my life in one of the greatest centres of unemployment and poverty in the country, the colliery-dominated east coast of County Durham, and from the myriad limitations inbred in a family whose education never (before me) progressed beyond the age of 16. I can therefore personally corroborate one of Žižek’s more pertinent observations about the tension between (a) the liberal bourgeoisie’s essentializing conjoining of the poor with their culture and (b) the equal and opposite non-identification of the poor with the material limitations of their existence. Here the critique should be broadened back out from ethnomusicology to include also pop musicology, thus focusing attention on the principal organs of the obscure subject that attempts to occult the truth claims of modernism in music. For just as ethnomusicology can have the unintended effect of commending the cultural practices of economically subject external Others, the pop musicologist (or, in other disciplines, the scholar of mass-market literature, art, and so on) can make a virtue of the cultural practices of the lower social orders, to valorize their educational and economic position and make an inextricable link between it and the people who occupy it. The assumption is that since the majority of people think and behave in certain ways, they must want to do so, and the duty of the privileged elite is therefore to learn to love what the masses love, to hide their privileged cultural forms away. What happens in both these cases is that the scholar fails to perceive the fact that the Other is split in itself – that members of another culture, far from simply identifying with their customs, can acquire a distance towards them and revolt against them – in such cases, reference to the ‘Western’ notion of universal human rights can well serve as the catalyst which sets in motion an authentic protest against the constraints of one’s own culture.86
Proof, if it were needed, was again seen in the Arab Spring of 2011, where far from identifying with their otherized position (‘Arabs seem naturally disposed towards dictatorships or Islamic fundamentalism; we can’t expect them to want our Western democratic values’), the people of Egypt and elsewhere rose up against their governments in pursuit of precisely the democratic freedoms and human rights that their luckier brothers and sisters in the West enjoy. Here was the universal human striving for emancipation, for political freedom, emerging autochthonously from the Other. The suffering of the Bolivian farmers, or of children educated in failing comprehensive schools during the miners’ strike in County Durham, may be worlds away from the immediately life-threatening reality of an attempted revolution, but that does not deprecate them as matters of concern.
Of course ethnomusicology is not blind to this danger of occultation. Resisting this line of thought from within both ethnomusicology and pop musicology are Martin Stokes’s studies of Turkish arabesk, popular music from the 1970s onwards whose critique of official nationalist ideology turns specifically on questions of identity. In arabesk we find another faithful response to the emancipatory truth claims of modernism. Its singers are mostly ‘migrants from a remote and barbarised Turkish “orient”, the Arab speaking and Kurdish regions of south east Anatolia, who occupy the urban spaces between squatter town and metropolitan centres’; they are also often tranvestites and transexuals.87 Far from presenting a uniform and transcendent national Body (C), these internal cultural, economic, and sexual Others more properly epitomize the ‘image of an urban lumpen proletariat dislocated and alienated through labour migration’.88 The quality of the dissenting voices in this music might be more subdued than those of protestors on Tahrir Square – the music ‘calls on listeners to pour another glass of raki, light another cigarette, and curse fate and the world’89 – but it is clearly recognizable. This dissenting quality led to its condemnation by the Turkish state as ‘foreign’ music, its filigree melodic decorations too pan-Arab, the influence of Egyptian film music (Egyptian films were banned in 1948) too strong and obvious, its ‘orientalist sophistication in the use of sitars and rhythmic techniques learned from Indian tabla playing’ and its melodic dependence on Middle Eastern modal theory (makam) both profoundly corrupting, the latter as a remnant of the culturally dangerous pan-Islamic civilization that was an external limit for the young Turkish state.90 Perhaps more treacherous still in political terms, ‘arabesk has pointed to migration and class issues as lying at the heart of Turkey’s social and economic problems’.91
Arabesk singers neither collapse their identities into one imposed by the official ideology (and understood by Westerners to be constitutive of their character as Other) nor, on the other hand, seem to proclaim a wholly universal conception of common humanity that would eradicate the particular nature of their status as internal Other. In short, arabesk neither over-particularizes nor over-universalizes, which is what demonstrates its potential as a resurrection of the universal emancipatory truth of modernism in the particular world of 1970s–90s Turkish experience. This move, essential to maintain the focus on the (disavowed) rift in all human societies, is possible only when scholars refuse to too closely identify people with a particular cultural identity; the alternative is to give the mythical impression of unity which is essential to the ‘all in this together’ ideology of the economic slash-and-burn policies dreamt up by the ruling elite in response to the international capitalist crisis of 2008 onwards.
Where that move is lacking in studies of popular and non-Western music, we therefore witness the declaration of a transcendent body, C, a body of uniformly ‘national’ or at least communal music whose practitioners uniformly compose that body (a body which is both complete and different from us, and cannot be admitted to the general, universal, fractured body, c). The Turkish state broadcasting organization, TRT, proposes just such a ‘transcendence through the characterisation of regional difference in terms of a centralised style of musical performance emphasising the role of the bağlama (a longnecked lute) orchestra, “correct” Turkish pronunciation and vocal techniques associated with the microphone and recording studio rather than unamplified singing’, and so on.92 This appeal to transcendence is just one form of the democratic-materialist insistence that no universalist position may be taken in the face of a legion of (equally transcendent) Others, and consequently that the only morally responsible intellectual possibility is to produce endlessly expanding banal lists of difference: peoples, pop bands, potatoes. And under the democratic-materialist heading for the body C we naturally also, aesthetically rather than (obviously) politically, find the insistence, in the art market, that art’s function is essentially to shock – but not in a truly shocking way, only in a way that will demonstrate the moral superiority of the middle-class consumers of it. In the proclamation of this transcendent body the democratic materialists attempt to drown out any Leftists who might say that Emin’s art is trash, or that the poor of the West or the rest of the world can find an escape route by expanding their minds beyond the narrow cultural experiences they have been exposed to. An internal Other myself, I have nevertheless more than once (by a member of the class that historically subjugated my own within my own country) been accused of ‘imperialism’ for having such a heretical thought in the democratic-materialist world. Once more we can use a Badiouian matheme to summarize the formal structure of this occultation, one which, at its (sadly common) worst, is shrouded in a holier-than-thou sententiousness that threatens to chase politically valuable study of the Western canon – and its focus on the centuries-long unfolding of the project of emancipatory modernity – into oblivion.
C [democratic materialism]⇒(¬ε [no antagonism]⇒¬c [no non-mass art])
π [modernist art as ideology critique]
Could there be anything more distasteful than the comfortable bourgeois who wears the clothes and listens to the music of the poor, while living in perfect material security in Highgate, sending his or her children to a high performing local state school whose catchment area prevents the poor from attending, and pointing an accusing finger at new members of their class, escapees from poverty, who want to open up rather than restrict access to the emancipatory potential of humankind’s greatest intellectual and artistic products? For the last and longest rhetorical question of the chapter I reserve my most thunderous and angry no.
A truly Leftist, even communist, musicology extends the emancipatory potential of modernism – in its faithful and reactive forms – to all, not just to the congenital middle classes who have benefited from it and now, under the conditions of postmodern late capitalism, wish to discountenance it for the sake of adopting unreflective multicultural attitudes that are calculated to demonstrate their superior difference from the lower classes. Yet as we have seen, even their obscure subjective response is motivated, albeit negatively, by the eternal communist present that the third sequence of communism will resurrect for a new day. What remains is to discern some of the signs of this resurrection, which can be seized on even in reactionary music – to reveal the political potential of musical works that have traditionally been seen to be regressive.’
 Henry Stobart, ‘Flourishing Horns and Enchanted Tubers: Music and Potatoes in Highland Bolivia’, British Journal of Ethnomusicology 3 (1994): 35–48, doi:10.1080/09681229408567224.
 Pop musicology falls foul of the presumption of authenticity too: for a critique see
Elizabeth Eva Leach, ‘Vicars of “Wannabe”: Authenticity and the Spice Girls’, Popular Music 20, no. 2 (2001): 134–67, doi:10.1017/S0261143001001386. The particular form that this error takes in studies of the Western canon is of course in its focus on the authority of the composer. The difference here is, however, that that authenticity is not then taken to extend across the entire range of performers, listeners, and writers who engage with the music. The classic critique of this is Richard Taruskin, ‘The Poietic Fallacy’, Musical Times 145, no. 1886 (2004): 7–34, doi:10.2307/4149092.
 Stobart, ‘Flourishing Horns and Enchanted Tubers’, 35.
 Here for a moment his aesthetic superiority overlaps with that of the dyed-in-the-wool modernist who is in the rare minority of superbeings capable of enjoying serialism.
 Stobart, ‘Flourishing Horns and Enchanted Tubers’, 37.
 Ibid., 36.
 Cf. the quotations given above with the summary of the research in ibid., 45 and 46.
 The irony that liberal thinking of this sort does speak from a universal and Eurocentric moral position in its insistence on universal human rights and the empowerment of the meek is of course seldom if ever acknowledged.
 Stobart, ‘Flourishing Horns and Enchanted Tubers’, 43; cf. the return to this symbolism, now expressed as a ‘uterine embrace’, in the summary at ibid., 47.
 Stobart, ‘Flourishing Horns and Enchanted Tubers’, 47.
 Žižek, The Ticklish Subject, 262–3.
 Žižek says of this that ‘the tolerant multiculturalist liberal sometimes tolerates even the most brutal violations of human rights, or is at least reluctant to condemn them, afraid of being accused of imposing one’s own values on to the Other’ (ibid., 263).
 Žižek, The Ticklish Subject, 263–4.
 Martin Stokes, ‘Islam, the Turkish State and Arabesk’, Popular Music 11, no. 2 (1992): 213, doi:10.1017/S026114300000502X.
 Martin Stokes, The Arabesk Debate: Music and Musicians in Modern Turkey, Oxford Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology (Oxford and New York: Clarendon Press, 1992), 108.
 Ibid., 1.
 Stokes, ‘Islam, the Turkish State and Arabesk’, 215.
 Ibid., 217.
 Ibid. This is treated at length in Stokes, The Arabesk Debate. At the same time as they objected, the Turkish state broadcasters of course paradoxically promoted arabesk singers when it suited the capitalist ideology of the state: ‘The lifestyles of the stars, often described in promotional material as the Kings, Queens, Princes and Princesses of arabesk, suggest possibilities of social mobility which are quite unrealistic for most of the population, and obfuscate the processes of class stratification which are continuing to emerge in modern Turkey’ (ibid., 221).
From ‘Afterword: what to do?’
‘The ideological frame of modern musicology, democratic materialism, is seldom brought into the clearing. The revolution of the ‘new musicology’ has bequeathed a proliferating collection of subdisciplines, all of which inevitably vie for position, most of them picking the easy target of ‘elitist’, ‘Eurocentric’, faithful modernism. I share many of my colleagues’ suspicion of the masculinism of some of this music’s champions but am concerned by the political risk posed by attacks on it – and through it, in scholarship on pop music, film music, and particularly ethnomusicology, an attack on Western art music as a whole. Even among musicologists who still work on Western art music there is a tendency to equate canonicity of the major composers of the first two communist sequences (Beethoven, Wagner, the faithful modernists, et al.) with political configurations in the twentieth century’s second communist sequence – essentially, ‘totalitarianism’ understood in the broadest terms.
All attacks on this tradition share the banality of the democratic-materialist mantra: there are only bodies and languages, there is no truth. According to ethnomusicology, the cultures of the non-Western world should take intellectual precedence, and those of us who spend our time focusing on Western music should feel ashamed of ourselves (there is quite an irony in the fact that ethnomusicology, in the UK at least, increasingly attempts to colonize the Western-music syllabuses of our universities); according to pop or film-music scholarship, the ‘democratic’ (read: successfully marketized) forms of music should be examined as a way of valorizing the economically underprivileged (the problem here, as I explained in Chapter 4, is the facile judgement that such listeners have an essential bond with this music, which cannot be broken, and from which they can certainly never dissent); while according to scholars of the Western ‘periphery’, including Britain, Scandinavia, and Russia, there is a danger – sometimes baldly stated as a Nazi danger – of Germanophilia in perpetuating the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century musical canon, and so on. The banality inheres in the conclusion of the mantra: there is no truth. Of course I defend the interests of scholars, musicians, and listeners in all of these traditions, and no ethically responsible musicology could ever sideline or – which is what many people seem to fear – hope to obliterate them: it goes without saying, and therefore need not be said, that the different bodies and languages of the world require fair treatment. But failing to give that fair treatment is precisely the danger that faithful and reactive modernism protects us from, and which these intellectual approaches I have just enumerated – in the form of the obscure subject – are at a particular risk of falling into.1 I have absolutely no desire to reduce the quantity of research published in any of these fields, but as they come increasingly to dominate the discipline it is vital that a strong and politically radical response comes from scholars of modernism. I strongly suggest that modernism continues to offer the best scholarly locus for an emancipatory musicology to develop, though I am delighted when, as in Stokes’s work (cited in Chapter 4), I see it elsewhere.
The neoliberal global economic system may be in its last phase. Its ideology has forced its tentacles into the heart of the universities, the home of those minds – students and their teachers – that are capable of formulating a principled and effective resistance. Academic departments are closing in the UK at an alarming rate and academic research is being pushed into ever more narrowly conceived furrows of ideologically approved ‘impact’. Academics understandably flick jaundiced eyes at the craven managers who increasingly run universities as businesses, exploiting intellectual property for profit’s sake and imposing a neoliberal quilting point in which students show up as consumers
and degrees as commodities that can be sold for better jobs. But it is not only the managers who are colluding with the democratic materialist ideology that threatens the preservation of the commons – the ideology is vibrant in much of the universities’ scholarship too.’
From Aijaz Ahmad, ‘Orientalism and After: Ambivalence and Metropolitan Location in the Work of Edward Said’, in In Theory: Nations, Classes, Literatures (London: Verso, 1992).
For in one range of formulations, Said’s denunciations of the whole of Western civilization is as extreme and uncompromising as Foucault’s denunciations of the Western episteme or Derrida’s denunciations of the transhistorical Logos; nothing, nothing at all, exists outside epistemic Power, logocentric Thought, Orientalist Discourse- no classes, no gender, not even history; no site of resistance, no accumulated projects of human liberation, since all is Repetition with Difference, all is corruption – specifically Western corruption – and Orientalism always remains the same, only more so with the linear accumulations of time. The Manichaean edge of these visions – Derridean, Foucauldian, Saidian – is quite worthy of Nietzsche himself.
But this vision, in the case of Orientalism, gains further authority from the way it panders to the most sentimental, the most extreme forms of Third-Worldist nationalism. The book says nothing, of course, about any fault of our own, but anything we ourselves could remember – the bloodbath we conducted at the time of Partition, let us say – simply pales in comparison with this other Power which has victimized us and inferiorized us for two thousand five hundred years or more. So uncompromising is this book in its Third-Worldist passion that Marxism itself, which has historically given such sustenance to so many of the anti-imperialist movements of our time, can be dismissed, breezily, as a child of Orientalism and an accomplice of British colonialism. How comforting such visions of one’s own primal and permanent innocence are one can well imagine, because given what actually goes on in our countries, we do need a great deal of comforting.
But it was-not within the so-called ‘Third World’ that the book first appeared. Its global authority is in fact inseparable from the authority of those in the dominant sectors of the metropolitan intelligentsia who first bestowed upon it the status of a modern classic; while, perhaps paradoxically, its most passionate following in the metropolitan countries is within those sectors of the university intelligentsia which either originate in the ethnic minorities or affiliate themselves ideologically with the academic sections of those minorities. In Chapter 2 above, I discussed the connection between the emergence of the category ‘Third World Literature’ and the key changes that occurred in the patterns of immigration from the late 1960s onwards, with substantial numbers of Asian immigrants being based now among the petty-bourgeois and techno-managerial strata. Those who came as graduate students and then joined the faculties, especially in the Humanities and the Social Sciences, tended to come from upper classes in their home countries. In the process of relocating themselves in the metropolitan countries, they needed documents of their assertion, proof that they had always been oppressed. Books that connected oppression with class were not very useful, because they neither came from the working class nor were intending to join that class in their new country. Those who said that majority of the populations in Africa and Asia certainly suffered from colonialism, but that there were also those who benefited from it, were useless, because many of the new professionals who were part of this immigration themselves came from those other families, those other classes, which had been the beneficiaries; Said would pose this question of the beneficiaries of colonialism in very peculiar ways in his invocation of Ranajit Guha, as we shall soon see.
Among critiques that needed to be jettisoned, or at least greatly modified, were the Marxist ones, because Marxists had this habit of speaking about classes, even in Asia and Africa. What the upwardly mobile professionals in this new immigration needed were narratives of oppression that would get them preferential treatment, reserved jobs, higher salaries in the social position they already occupied: namely, as middle-class professionals, mostly male. For such purposes Orientalism was the perfect narrative. When, only slightly later, enough women found themselves in that same position, the category of the ‘Third World female subaltern’ was found highly serviceable. I might add that this latter category is probably not very usable inside India, but the kind of discourse Orientalism assembles certainly has its uses. Communalism, for example, can now be laid entirely at the doors of Orientalism and colonial construction; caste itself can be portrayed as a fabrication primarily of the Population Surveys and Census Reports- Ronald Inden literally does this, 32 and Professor Partha Chatterjee seems poised to do so .. 33 Colonialism is now held responsible nor only for its own cruelties but, conveniently enough, for ours too. Meanwhile, within the metropolitan countries, the emphasis on immigration was continually to strengthen. I have written on one aspect of it in relation to Salman Rushdie, but it is worth mentioning that the same theme surfaces with very major emphases in Said’s latest essays, with far-reaching consequences for his own earlier positions, as we shall see.
The perspectives inaugurated in Orientalism served, in the social self-consciousness and professional assertion of the middle-class immigrant and the ‘ethnic’ intellectual, roughly the same function as the theoretical category of ‘Third World Literature’, arising at roughly the same time, was also to serve. One in fact presumed the other, and between the two the circle was neatly closed. If Orientalism was devoted to demonstrating the bad faith and imperial oppression of all European knowledges, beyond time and history, ‘Third World Literature’ was to be the narrative of authenticity, the counter-canon of truth, good faith, liberation itself. Like the bad faith of European knowledge, the counter-canon of ‘Third World Literature’ had no boundaries – neither of space nor of time, of culture nor of class; a Senegalese novel, a Chinese short story, a song from medieval India, could all be read into the same archive: it was all ‘Third World’. Marx was an ‘Orientalist’ because he was European, but a Tagore novel, patently canonical and hegemonizing inside the Indian cultural context, could be taught in the syllabi of ‘Third World Literature’ as a marginal, non-canonical text, counterposed against ‘Europe’. The homogenizing sweep was evident in both cases, and if cultural nationalism was the overtly flaunted insignia, invocation of ‘race’ was barely below the surface – not just with respect to the United States, which would be logical, but with reference to human history as such. Thus, if ‘Orientalism’ was initially posited as something of an original ontological flaw in the European psyche, Said was eventually to declare: ‘in the relationship between the ruler and the ruled in the imperial or colonial or racial sense, race takes precedence over both class and gender. I have always felt that the problem of emphasis and relative importance took precedence over the need to establish one’s feminist credentials.’34 That contemptuous phrase, ‘establish one’s feminist credentials’, takes care of gender quite definitively, as imperialism itself is collapsed into a ‘racial sense’. In a Nietzschean world, virtually anything is possible.
 See my ‘Between Orientalism and Historicism: Anthropological Knowledge of lndia’
Studies in History vol. 7, no. 1, (New Delhi 1991) for detailed comments on Ronald lnden’s
Imagining India (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991).
 See Panha Chatterjee, ‘Caste and Subaltern Consciousness’, in Ranjic Guha, ed.,
Subaltern Studies, vol. VI (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989).
 ‘Media, Margins and Modernity: Raymond Williams and Edward Said’, Appendix to
Raymond Williams, The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists, (London: Verso,
1989), pp. 196-7 The transcript of that public discussion- and, indeed, the whole book ends on that sentence about ‘feminist credentials’
The following is a text from which I read an abridged version at the debate at City University on ‘Are we all ethnomusicologists now?’, which took place on June 1st, with panelists Amanda Bayley, Tore Lind, Laudan Nooshin, Michael Spitzer and myself. This entailed a series of statements and then a debate following on from Nicholas Cook’s article ‘We Are All (Ethno)musicologists Now’, in The New (Ethno)musicologies, ed. Henry Stobart (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008), pp. 48-70.
The text and powerpoint slides used by Nooshin for this event can be viewed here. This statement contains the outlines of arguments I will be pursuing in more detail, with full references, in a forthcoming article. The filmed debate will be made available online soon, and furthermore some accounts and responses to it will also be going online at the Music at City blog. [EDIT: These are now online here. Furthermore, Michael Spitzer’s statement can be viewed here]
I have also posted a long section from the earlier ‘outsider’ critique of ethnomusicology by J.P.E. Harper-Scott, which is given with commentary (and a related passage from Aijaz Ahmad) here.
Are We All Ethnomusicologists Now?
Position Statement by Ian Pace, for debate at City University, June 1st, 2016.
The Term ‘Ethnomusicology’
The very term ‘ethnomusicology’ has obvious implications through the use of the prefix ‘ethno’, which Nooshin and others have suggested is itself problematic. Despite the non-geographically-specific origins of the Greek term, nonetheless the long history of ‘ethnomusicology’ having dealt with musical cultures outside of the Western art tradition, whether folk and vernacular traditions in the West, or musical cultures (including ‘high cultures’) from the non-Western world in particular, together with the contemporary resonances of ‘ethno’ or ‘ethnic’, all suggest something post-colonial, anti-imperialist, on the side of the wider masses, and so on. Who of an even vaguely left-of-centre political persuasion would want to be seen opposing such a thing? But this is different when the object of study for this sub-discipline is Western art music, and it is on this body, or even canon, of work in English that I intend to concentrate today. In general, I believe it is always a cause for concern when any type of scholarship is judged more for its politics than its scholarly rigour, whatever those politics might be, and ethnomusicology of whatever type should not be immune from critique for purely political reasons.
Own positions – introduction
The very last thing I would want to do is in any sense deny the value of studying music from outside the Western art music tradition; on the contrary, I believe it is essential. In the context of my own work on Michael Finnissy I have drawn extensively on ethnomusicological and folkloristic work, including John Blacking on Vendan African music, Alexis Chottin on Moroccan and Berber music, Habib Touma more widely on Arabic music, Diego Carpitella and others on Sardinian folk music, Samuel Baud-Bovey on Cretan folk music, Michael Hauser on Traditional Greenlandic music, any number of writers on African-American spirituals, and much else, not to mention related issues of orientalism and exoticism in music. These latter concerns have involved engagement not only with the tradition of Edward Said and later post-colonial theorists, but also alternative perspectives and critiques provided by the likes of Albert Hourani, Maxime Rodinson, Aijaz Ahmad and others.
I do not think however that we should have to be over-apologetic about a certain Eurocentrism in music study in Europe. Nor for the fact of being drawn to various types of music from very different social contexts primarily as a result of attraction to the sounds they make.
Nor would I wish in any sense to deny the vital importance of studying the social and political context of music and music-making. Ten years or so ago, I would get into furious arguments with some conservative musicians and others who were adamant that it was wrong to ‘bring politics into music’, and all my teaching and research into music history and other subjects involves a good deal of wider consideration of history, society, ideology, economics, the workings of musical institutions, and so on.
Yet nowadays I am deeply concerned, not about the incorporation of a plurality of approaches to music, but at the potential for subsumation of musicology into other disciplines, to such an extent that it loses any distinct identity of its own.
The Canon of Ethnomusicology of Western Art Music
On the hand-out you will find a bibliography I have compiled of relevant texts. I do not claim this to be comprehensive, but do believe it gives a fair range of what I would characterise as canonical works in this tradition. To keep the list within manageable limits, I have omitted studies of the performance and reception of Western art music outside of the Western world, such as the interesting work of Rachel Beckles Willson, Ben Etherington, Geoff Baker or Suzanne Wint, or various work dealing with the role of Asian musicians and music in Western traditions, such as that of Yayoi Uno Everett and Frederick Lau, Sheila Melvin and Jindong Cai, and Mari Yoshihara. There are three texts on the bibliography which time has not permitted to read: Livingston, which I haven’t been able yet to obtain (but am working on it), Chaikin and the full dissertation by Usner; so I will not refer to these.
I would separate out from my critique the excellent book by Michael Chanan which is really of a quite different nature to most of the others. This is really a social and economic history of music, in a long tradition of the work of Combarieu, Weber, Bloch, Mellers, Blaukopf, Raynor, Durant, and others, including some working in the former Soviet Bloc. Also I feel the work of Peter Jeffrey, to which I will return, is on another level of depth and expertise compared to most of the others, though not without some significant problems.
Sub-disciplines and issues of territory
As many have commented, defining ethnomusicology as a sub-discipline can prove elusive. But we still have scholars who self-identify as ethnomusicologists, and others who do not. Now there are very few ethnomusicology degrees in the UK, and as such ethnomusicologists have to find work on degree programmes simply identified as ‘music’. And while many popular music or music technology degrees are allowed to have dedicated degrees in which specialists in those fields can choose the whole core curriculum, those courses centered upon Western music, history, analysis, etc., are most frequently the ones which need to incorporate the ethnomusicologists. This can cause a good deal of tension, as found in various faculties.
In much of the literature I am considering (and also in the so-called ‘new musicology’), the writers spend a lot of time maligning Western art music, and so-called ‘traditional musicology’, often without detailed knowledge of either field – straw man characterisations are frequent, as for example in the work of Henry Kingsbury, Bruno Nettl, Stephen Cottrell or Pirkko Moisala. At the same time, I have seen no other sub-discipline so jealously defensive and keen to assert its own superiority, nor which spends so much time talking about itself in a somewhat cliqueish manner, endlessly telling its own story and creating its own canons of hallowed figures, as for example with Shelemay’s recounting of the figures behind the great ‘milestones’ of ethnomusicology: Alan Merriam, Alan Lomax, Timothy Rice, Mark Slobin, and equally revered non-musical sources such as the work of Clifford Geertz and Arjun Appadurai. Almost every writer in the canon I have drawn up cites most of the others before them, not least the work of Kingsbury, Philip Bohlman, Ruth Finnegan and Nettl, thus locating themselves within a newly constructed ‘great tradition’. Internal critique is very rare.
It often appears as if the simple fact of having employed what is identified as an ethnomusicological approach to the study of Western art music is enough to win any such writer a seat at the top table, and this overrides any more sober critical investigation of their work. This is the attitude I find in the work of Kay Kaufman Shelemay, Jonathan Stock, Cottrell, Tina K. Ramnarine, Moisala, Laudan Nooshin and some others. As such, in a relatively self-regulating world – through the processes of peer review, external examination and so on – what I believe to be very serious flaws in a good deal of this work, in terms of relatively standard scholarly criteria, are frequently overlooked. This is an approach which says as much about territorial motivations than any concern for fair and rigorous assessment of scholarship, and I find it very unhealthy.
Now I want to give you two quotes from John Blacking and Henry Kingsbury.
It is not enough to identify a characteristic musical style in its own terms and view it in relation to its society (to paraphrase a definition of one of the aims of ethnomusicology by Mantle Hood, who has done more for the subject than almost any other living ethnomusicologist). We must recognize that no musical style has “its own terms”: its terms are the terms of its society and culture, and of the bodies of the human beings who listen to it, and create and perform it.
John Blacking, How Musical is Man? (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1973), p. 25)
The standard rhetoric for this is that music be studied “on its own terms,” a phrase which generally means that certain abstract concepts (“melody,” “harmony,” “rhythm”) are to be analysed in terms of other similarly abstract terms (“structure,” “form,” “development”). The prevailing idea is that music is not to be understood in terms of its sociocultural context, but rather in terms of its internal organization and cohesion.’
Henry Kingsbury, Music, Talent, & Performance: A Conservatory Cultural System (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), p. 16.
I was once told that if I did not judge ethnomusicology, or some other types of research, on their own terms, I should not be assessing them at all. But I believe that what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. I do not identify as an ethnomusicologist, but I have read a reasonable amount of such literature. Some would say though that I am unqualified to have a view, but by the same token, many ethnomusicologists would be disqualified from speaking about other musical disciplinary areas or fields of practice about which they do not hesitate to pronounce – not least, for example, Born and others on modernist music, about which there is little evidence of any detailed engagement or familiarity.
This is one reason why I want to concentrate my own critique on a limited sub-section of ethnomusicology, rather than claiming to be able to make sweeping statements about a whole discipline, something I doubt many, including many ethnomusicologists, could really do, unless able to read a huge number of languages and derive expertise in practically all the musics of the world.
Music in social and cultural context – dialectical approaches
The study of music in a wider social context is actually nothing like as new as sometimes suggested; even Nicholas Cook concedes this when mentioning musicological traditions from outside of the English-speaking world. But this can take various forms. I want to consider the following statement from Bruno Nettl, which appears in his book Heartland Excursions:
A major theme of ethnomusicological discourse is that fundamental values of a culture are expressed in its music.
The word ‘society’ could also be substituted for ‘culture’ if one wishes to give this statement a more sociological rather than anthropological feel. I do find this statement, at least if applied in a general manner, to be reductive and limiting. In its most fundamentalist manifestation – and I do recognise that this is not true of all ethnomusicological work – it resembles what was once called a ‘vulgar’ form of Marxism, by which all elements of a societal superstructure are nothing more than a by-product of the economic base. Engels in particular in some important late letters rejected this view and argued Marx also did (and there is significant evidence for this in his writings), maintaining that the relationship was more dialectical, and that the superstructure could reflect back upon and affect the base. Acceptance of this dialectical formation underlies a good deal of continental Western Marxism in the 20th century, and I would argue strongly for a similar model for the relationship between music or any other specific cultural form and the wider social and cultural context in which it occurs. I do not believe that there are many contexts which one can use to account for every detail of the music emerging from therein (I will concede there are a few), and so this makes for degrees of ‘relative autonomy’. In some societies, not least advanced industrial ones, is there not an important place for some dissident culture, which wishes to confront that society? In contrast to this, the reductive view I describe ultimately leads to the politics of Zhdanov, and I would characterise hostility towards consideration of aspects of musical autonomy in such a fashion.
Nettl also writes about how the ethnomusicologist should try to avoid doing anything to affect the culture being studied. Over and above the question of whether this is indeed possible, even just through writing and publishing about it, I wonder why this should always be paramount? As Marx famously said, philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it; the same might be said of some anthropologists and ethnomusicologists. But many of these latter are not, say, education reformers with positive proposals for meaningful change, but those embroiled at the heart of academic systems and seeking academic capital through the allegiances and ideologies of their work. I find this somewhat futile and symptomatic of an academic world whose social engagement is little more than skin deep.
Walter Benjamin argued that there no record of culture which is not also a record of barbarism; even if this is hyperbolic, there are plenty of cases for which this is true. Instead of fetishizing cultures simply by being able to be labelled as such, I believe we might do better to look for those aspects of cultures which are worth valuing in contemporary contexts.
Much of the ethnomusicological work I have been looking at does not simply consider the relationship between sounds and contexts, but brackets out sounding music out entirely. Without detailed consideration of the specifics of musical material, it is impossible to gauge the possibility of a dialectical relationship between sounds and context, and I believe this is one reason why many writers do not do so.
What remains is what I call ‘musicology without ears’. This requires little in terms of traditional musical skills (in whatever tradition), and I believe the more this achieves a dominant or hegemonic place within contemporary musical education, the more it contributes to what I have referred to elsewhere the deskilling of a profession (meaning the loss of many skills specific to that discipline). Musicology can become little more than a more elementary sub-section of sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, but rarely with the breadth or depth of methodological awareness to be found in some of those other disciplines (though I have wider doubts about cultural studies/industries in general). This can facilitate the ominous possibility of musical departments being closed or simply incorporated into others. With this in mind, I would suggest that musically deskilled ethnomusicology might itself be better housed within these other disciplines already.
The Limits of Ethnography Alone
Now I have another quote on slide from a 2014 article by anthropologist Tim Ingold, ‘That’s enough about ethnography’, which I would just like to give as background to what I am about to say.
“Ethnographic” has become the most overused term in the discipline of anthropology. It is hard to say exactly when the term broke loose from its moorings, or what the reasons were for its subsequent proliferation. These reasons are undoubtedly complex and could be the subject for a separate historical study. My concern in this article, however, is prospective, not retrospective. For I believe that this overuse is doing great harm to anthropology, that it is holding it back while other fields of study are surging forward, and that it is actually preventing our discipline from having the kind of impact in the world that it deserves and that the world so desperately needs. And because the cause is desperate, I shall not refrain from polemic. The tenor of what follows is partisan, and deliberately so. I am sick and tired of equivocation, of scholarly obscurantism, and of the conceit that turns the project of anthropology into the study of its own ways of working. A discipline confined to the theatre of its own operations has nowhere to go. In its spiraling descent into irrelevance, it has no-one and nothing to blame other than itself.
My aim is not to eliminate ethnography, or to expunge it from our anthropological consciousness. Nor is it to underrate its significance, and the complex demands it places on those who practice it. Rather, I am concerned to narrow ethnography down so that to those who ask us, in good faith, what it means, we can respond with precision and conviction. Only by doing so, I contend, can we protect it from the inflation that is otherwise threatening to devalue its currency to the extent of rendering the entire enterprise worthless. For it is not only within anthropology that ethnography is on the loose. I am sure I speak for the majority of anthropological colleagues in deploring the abuse of the term that has become commonplace in social sciences beyond our shores. How many research proposals have we read, coming from such fields as sociology, social policy, social psychology and education, in which the applicant explains that he or she will conduct “ethnographic interviews” with a sample of randomly selected informants, the data from which will then be processed by means of a recommended software package in order to yield “results”?
Such a procedure, in which ethnographic appears to be a modish substitute for qualitative, offends every principle of proper, rigorous anthropological inquiry— including long-term and open-ended commitment, generous attentiveness, relational depth, and sensitivity to context—and we are right to protest against it. And, we are equally entitled to protest when those who assess our own proposals demand of us, in the name of ethnography, the same slavish adherence to the protocols of positivist methodology, by requiring us to specify—for example—how many people we intend to talk to, for how long, and how they will be selected. Against such benchmarks, anthropological research is bound to be devalued.
I do not deny the value of ethnographic approaches, but I do have severe doubts about their exclusive or simply primary use, especially when this entails an ideological opposition to combination with other methods. It can be as if it is more important to maintain a territorial ‘purity’ than draw upon the widest range of possible strategies to help with producing the result.
In the work of Kingsbury, Nettl and Cottrell, one encounters very crude historical and analytical approaches. For example, Kingsbury’s consideration of the pedal marking in the second movement of Beethoven’s C minor Piano Concerto takes no account of the type of instrument involved, which can profoundly affect the sounding result, and seems to imagine that it is impossible to execute opposing dynamics in two hands on the piano. Furthermore, his comments on Marcus Goldmann’s thoughts on Chopin editions shows little awareness of the real complications entailed, as Chopin published most of his works simultaneously in slightly different versions in three countries (and which differ in the specific case cited here). I believe he is dead-set upon setting up a clear dichotomy between fidelity to a text and some nebulous notion what is ‘expressive’, the latter defined with minimal thought to the historically problematic nature of such a category.
In the case of Shelemay’s article on the Boston early music movement, to my mind one of the weakest articles I have read, here are some of the findings (there are numerous others of a similar nature):
Early music practitioners, speaking from their own experiences, referred often to the scholarly literature and critical editions, which they know intimately and on which they draw in preparing detailed notes for concert programs and published recordings.
Thus the early music movement, while drawing on music of the historical past, is powerfully informed by the creative impulses of its practitioners and the aesthetics of the present.
Musicians in all of the ensembles with which we worked testified to the centrality of creative activity in their conceptualization and performance of musical repertory.
Many of our associates provided considerable detail about their instruments, conveying not just extraordinary technical knowledge, but the instrument’s history and social significance with great elegance.
For example, violinist Daniel Stepner noted the creative role of members of the Boston Museum Trio, consisting of himself, gambist Laura Jeppesen, and keyboardist John Gibbons, in such basic and little discussed processes as selecting and formulating their own repertory:
There’s lots of music that’s appropriate for us to play together, but very little, relatively little music that was written specifically for these instruments. (Daniel Stepner, 22 October 1996)
That musicians discuss performance practices in detail is no surprise, but the manner in which they were able to articulate details of musical practice as well as values behind them was one of the richest outcomes of the ethnographic process. For instance, while testimony about musical instruments is perhaps more easily rendered because of the easy availability of the instruments themselves, we found that singers also provided nuanced discussions of vocal production as well speculated on the difficult philosophical issues surrounding the voice and textual articulation.
I would have to say that this is all extremely basic (as is, say, the work of Frederick Seddon and Michelle Biasutti), certainly in comparison to a wide range of scholarly historical work on these areas; engagement with this work would have enhanced this study very considerably.
Finnegan admits reasonably that she does not feel qualified to engage with the music she encounters, but ultimately I feel her survey is quite limited as a result, and in many ways serves more as a list of data rather than critical analysis. Catherine M. Cameron tries to define ‘experimental music’ but with no evidence of familiarity either of later traditions to which this term has been applied, the history of the term, or perhaps most significantly of music created in Europe at the same time as that she studies. As such, I do not believe she is really in a position to argue for American ‘experimental music’ as a distinct field from European traditions, in the manner she does, though this is also true of others who have written on the subject, which is the subject of another paper!
In particular, in the majority of the work in my bibliography, there is little or no engagement with sound – this is true of the work of Marcia Herndon, Finnegan, Georgina Born, Vicky L. Brennan, Shelemay, Cottrell, Stephanie E. Pitts, Seddon and Biasutti, Eric Usner and Hettie Malcolmson. Instead the writers use comments from others about music, mostly of a very vague and general nature, without much consideration of what self-fashioning might be involved; Cottrell even cites xenophobic comments from musicians about making the Hitler salute at a conductor who rehearsed in German, without further comment. If there were no attempts to draw conclusions about the sounding music, that might not be so bad – as with Finnegan, say – but some do. But even with more modest aims, I feel such work to be flawed – it is almost like assessing a performance or piece simply by asking the performer or composer their view of it, and reproducing that as one’s own view – indeed Moisala does precisely that.
When I taught at Dartington College, I sometimes found students would undertake a project simply by asking a handful of questions of their friends, then using their answers as data for a supposedly scholarly and statistically representative survey. I feel some ethnography essentially does this on a slightly bigger scale, not least because of a lack of critical and analytical perspective on the data sourced and its limitations.
There is an understandable post-colonial reticence on the part of many Western ethnomusicologists and anthropologists for engaging in critical views of non-Western societies and cultures they encounter. When this attitude is carried over into the study of Western art music, however, and text is padded out with long ethnographically sourced quotations (often from those who are not necessarily very verbally articulate) presented without much commentary, critique or analysis, one is left with a type of writing which resembles nothing so much as casual journalism or even a publicist’s material, as in the work of Brennan, Cottrell, Moisala and Ramnarine.
In many classic ethnographies (for example Bronislaw Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, William Foote Whyte’s Street Corner Society, or Paul Willis’s Learning to Labour), the collation and presentation of ethnographically sourced data, especially quotations, is a starting point for the study, leading to detailed critical analysis. Some of the work on Western art music essentially omits the second stage, or renders it rather trivial. I would not claim that description is a neutral activity, and can be undertaken with great care and skill, but in many cases here it amounts to little more than reportage, perhaps ‘filed’ in a handful of unremarkable categories. In a similar manner Finnegan’s long book does read rather like a government inspector’s report. Other work, such as that of Pitts, resembles feedback surveys conducted by marketing departments for musical institutions. Other work like that of Moisala can read like a hagiographic publicity piece, not so different from a much earlier type of ‘life and works’, but with much less analytical detail on the works.
Those entail one type of approach; another is very agenda-driven, and most phenomena are described in extremely loaded language. This is true of the work of Christopher Small, Kingsbury, Nettl, Born, Malcolmson. It is hard to imagine work with such a strong axe to grind being viewed so favourably if applied to a group of South Pacific Islanders, as Björn Heile has pointed out in the context of Born.
Ethnography also relies upon the investment of a good deal of faith on the part of the reader that the author has represented their source material in a fair manner, not distorting, misattributing, quoting radically out of context, fabricating, or blatantly ignoring substantial amounts of data which might not suit an argument. Where documentary sources are available, these can at least be checked by another where there is reason for doubt. I have to say that in some of these cases, seeing how information which can indeed be checked is treated in such a cavalier manner, I am not always sure I feel prepared to invest this faith, and might be sceptical about some of the writers’ other work as a consequence.
Oral Tradition, Jeffrey and Lind
I have had chance just to skim Tore Lind’s book The Past is always Present: The Revival of the Byzantine Musical Tradition at Mount Athos, which is fascinating, and clearly very far from being narrowly territorial or ideological – it combines fieldwork with other forms of evidence, paleographic, historical, etc. And I am aware that there is a wide range of other scholarship identified in one way or another as ethnomusicological for which this is the case; and for that matter other scholarship where very little other sources are available than those provided by fieldwork. But this is patently not the case with Western art music.
Lind writes about the concepts of ‘real’ and ‘reinvented’ pasts, with relation to Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s work on the ‘invention of tradition’. If I cannot buy into the characterisation of modern social theory cited from Arjun Appadurai which argues that such theory posits a ‘single modern moment’ – I find that too crude a characterisation on Appadurai’s part – I do believe there can and should be some type of middle way. This is where I think ideologies self-identifying as postmodern have been far from enlightening when presenting stark alternatives between the idea of history as some utterly objective body of facts on one hand, or completely unknowable on the other. I know of no serious historian who would argue the former position, but few other than the likes of Keith Jenkins or Patrick Joyce would deny there are some things which can be construed as facts with a fair degree of certainty. And there have been and will be many who would prefer that some of these are removed or at least marginalised from the historical record. Not just nationalistic politicians, but also many others associated with some institution or set of cultural practices in whose positive reputation they have much vested. Many in the Catholic Church might not like the long history of the abuse of children by priests, and their protection by the higher church authorities, to feature prominently in histories of that church, but I believe these are absolutely a part of that culture. For ‘traditions’ to be ‘invented’ does not require that nothing about these traditions has some palpable historical basis, but can simply mean that the particular selections are too narrow, idealised, and so on, and often used simply to legitimate present practices even where there exists historical evidence to the contrary. And for that reason I find Lind’s suggestion of allowing ‘various culture members to determine what they themselves believe to be authentic’ problematic – I would ask which culture members are granted such authority, and why should one necessarily privilege their view over that of others, including those who might have less obvious vested interests, and may be more subject to proper scholarly critique? When practitioners lay claim to historical foundations for their practice, as so many do, then it appears entirely legitimate to me to investigate critically the basis upon which those claims are made. This is not, of course, to say that there would necessarily be anything less worthy per se of a contemporary tradition which has no basis for such claims and does not make them.
Lind himself makes a critique of Peter Jeffrey’s work which concurs with that to which I was arriving – he says ‘It is a fantasy to imagine that some contemporary (“primitive”) practices exist untouched by time, making themselves available for chronological comparison, and, equally, to suppose that medieval chant has existed in a static form throughout history’ (p. 30). This indicates a wider problem with the use of ethnographic approaches alone to establish historical information, in cases where there are no living witnesses to the historical time in question, and especially where a long period of time has elapsed, as obviously with medieval chant. But even where living witnesses do exist, even then oral testimony can be problematic, not least because of the fallibility of human memory, as has been studied in detail by scholars working with survivors of genocide or other atrocities.
Lind does make the point that checking contemporary practice against historical evidence would not work in his study of Mount Athos, as the monks use the same historical evidence – though I presume he does not rule out the possibility, in this or other contexts, of discovering new historical evidence of which practitioners are unaware, and which might problematize such practice in terms of historical questions? Nonetheless, he says that ‘the ways that the monks interpret and relate to historical evidence become the central issue’ which seems eminently reasonable as an approach, and has some parallels with historically-informed performance of Western art music (bearing in mind that a large number of performers of such music, including those who would not self-identify as ‘historically informed’, appeal to some concept of a historical tradition to legitimate their practices).
Kingsbury, Nettl, Cottrell and Jonathan Shull all comment on the extent to which classical performers are often keen to present their pedagogical lineage – their teacher studied with X, who studied with Y, etc., etc., who studied with Beethoven, and so on. All except Shull view this unfavourably, and I would agree, seeing it as akin to a game of Chinese Whispers. Yet I do not see how then one can maintain that similar processes are so reliable with respect to oral traditions in other cultural environments, some of which have experienced major historical upheavals.
Kingsbury notes how any study of modern American culture is lent an ‘anthropological aura’ by referring to ‘the tradition of studying “simple” or “primitive” societies’. He gives as an example J.M. Weatherford’s ethnography of US Congress, uses of terms like ‘shamans’, ‘bigmen’, ‘warlords’, etc.
Many of the phenomena for which ritualistic or other anthropological explanations are given in this body of work, as in the work of Small, Kingsbury, Hearndon and Nettl, can be explained in practical terms. For example, the fact of not having doors opening directly into a concert hall can simply be a way of avoiding extraneous noise generated by latecomers. Kingsbury insists that when students contrast administrative weaknesses of an institution with the strength of teachers, they ‘conceal the fact that these factors are elements of a single organizational structure’. Well, many of the staff on the second floor of the Juilliard School during my time simply couldn’t care less about practical student matters, sometimes acting as if we were trespassing upon their time and space. I can’t see how asking them to buck their ideas up would have undermined the artistry of the faculty members.
It can seem, in line with Ingold’s critique, various writers including Kingsbury, Cottrell, Pitts, Malcolmson, and Shull are more concerned with forcing far-fetched analogies with other anthropological findings than the investigation of specifics relating to the matter under investigation. And this is part of a wider tendency to clothe the work in a good deal of jargon in ways I believe to be unnecessary.
Academics need to show in this day and age how they are supposedly connecting with a ‘real’ world, so often choose areas of study accordingly. But they also need to prove their writing is ‘academic’; simple liberal use of jargon serves this purpose, and will impress some naïve people belonging to management, REF examiners, or research council board members, even where the underlying thought and research is banal and unremarkable. I have seen countless examples of this not just in this body of ethnomusicology, but also new musicology, popular music studies, music sociology, film and media music studies, acoustic ecology, and so on.
A wider question exists of this work serving as a substitute for other political engagement, such as through industrial action within higher education, but that is beyond the scope of this talk.
Wider Politics and Aesthetics
Whilst the likes of K.A. Gourlay, Chanan, to some extent Nettl, and for that matter Howard Becker, come from slighter older traditions in the social sciences still showing the influence of Marxism – albeit frequently of the empirical and Stalinist variety dominant in the English-speaking world – the work of many younger figures demonstrate clearly the influence of ideologies frequently identified as postmodern. I would associate these strongly with the growth of neo-liberalism during the Thatcher-Reagan years, and then continuing after the end of the Cold War. This is most explicit in the work of Born, who has elsewhere expressed a clear view of the superior virtues of culture supported through ‘petty capitalism’ than by institutions supported by the state (which I would categorise as democratically accountable institutions financed through taxation and public spending), referring back to her IRCAM study in such a context. This accords perfectly with David Cameron’s ideal of the ‘big society’, and is music to the ears those who want to cut arts funding generated through taxation even further. One might conclude from Born’s work that the remoteness of the possibility that a UK or US government might ever give financial backing to similar institution should presumably be welcomed?
In general, in a lot of this work musical institutions are viewed very critically, but it is rare that industries – in many cases institutions funded by private capital rather than through taxation, as with much of the popular music industry – are subject to the same level of critique (as in Cottrell’s essay on ethnomusicology and the music industries). This is quite emblematic of an ideological phenomenon which some radical thinkers, including critics of cultural studies such as Todd Gitlin, Robert McChesney, Keith Tester or Joseph Heath, or anti-capitalist thinkers like Naomi Klein, have identified: whereby a superficial politics of ‘diversity’ is not so much a moderate call for a modification of capitalist society, but actually a means of giving new life and purpose to high capitalism, not least through the destruction (rather than reform) of existing social democratic institutions.
Similar views can be found in the writings of Nicholas Cook, in whose wider work one can encounter harsh criticism of the ‘disdain for the marketplace and its discourses’ in various European writers. When a French musicologist, Anne Boissière, criticised his Music: A Very Short Introduction for nihilism, his response was to accuse her of being part of ‘the attack on capitalism and consumerism that developed throughout the German-speaking countries in the 19th century (where it was associated with the nostalgic values of an idealised rural past), and fed ultimately into the Nazi creed of “blood and soil”’. Dismissing social democratic European thinkers by contrived association with the Nazis is one of the least edifying aspects of our profession.
Timothy Rice writes in his Ethnomusicology: A Very Short Introduction (2014)
Ethnomusicologists do not begin their research with a judgment about what they imagine is “good music” or “music worthy of study” or “music that has withstood the test of time.” Instead, they assume that whenever and wherever humans make and listen to music with the keen devotion and attention that they do, then something important and worthy of study is going on.
Elsewhere one can often find ethnomusicological rejection of aesthetic value judgement – how do those coming from such a position really mark compositions or performances?
Cook rejects aesthetic valorisation directing study, arguing that musicologists should instead, like sociologists, ‘study social reality as they find it’, so that ‘The point is not that Madonna is good or bad but that she’s there’. But to bracket out or otherwise marginalise anything which is not ‘there’ (assuming ‘there’ means something which has gained some degree of prominence, for otherwise everything is ‘there’) renders invisible that cultural work whose producers have been unable to garner public visibility. Only a belief that the market will always provide the most fair selection could legitimise musicologists and others neglecting all else.
In place of explicit aesthetic judgement, in this work and much new musicology one encounters politically and morally loaded characterisations which I believe serve principally to attempt to close down debate. I find it sad when musicology has moved from a position of intense interest in music to one of morally self-righteous judgement, which as I have written about elsewhere, I believe derives in part from a desire to dominate one’s subject, a charge which can be laid at the door of aspects of some other disciplines, including anthropology and psychoanalysis, as well.
There are numerous moral grounds with which some will condemn the ethnomusicological work and ideologies of Bartók, or some of the work upon which Finnissy draws. But to me the value of that work is palpable because of the vital creative composition which would not have been possible in the same way without it. The same is true of some of the amazing music which has come out of IRCAM: amongst which I would include Boulez’s Répons, Berio’s Chemins ex V, Aperghis’s Machinations, Harvey’s Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, Risset’s Inharmonique, Saariaho’s Verblendungen, Manoury’s Pluton, Dillon’s Introitus, Murail’s L’Esprit des dunes, Nunes’s Lichtung I & II, Dusapin’s To Be Sung, or Czernowin’s Hidden. Ultimately I do believe that the importance of this type of compositional work (and its performance) exceeds that of any musicology, ethno- or otherwise.
I will end with a reapplication of Marcel Mauss to this field of ethnomusicology itself. Its participants offer up endorsements for the right theorists, the right canonised and revered ethnomusicologists, the right political outlook, generally that sort of ‘consumerist multiculturalism’ which accords well with modern neo-liberalism, to those who are in a position of power above them, and are rewarded for this through promotion and research grants in a process of exchange. Collegiate relationships within hierarchical academic structures are made possible through this process of reciprocity. This may be an unfair caricature, but no more so than many of the analyses in this body of work.
ETHNOMUSICOLOGY OF WESTERN ART MUSIC
Robert Faulkner, ‘Orchestra Interaction: Some Features of Communication and Authority in an Artistic Organization’, Sociological Quarterly 14 (1973), pp. 147-157.
Catherine M. Cameron, ‘Dialectics in the Arts: Composer Ideology and Culture Change’ (PhD dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL, 1982). Modified version published as Dialectics in the Arts: The Rise of Experimentalism in American Music (Westport, CO, and London: Praeger, 1996).
Christopher Small, ‘Performance as Ritual: Sketch for an Enquiry into the Nature of a Symphony Concert’, in Lost in Music: Culture, Style, and the Musical Event, edited Avron Levine White (London: Routledge, 1987), pp. 6-32.
Henry Kingsbury, Music, Talent, & Performance: A Conservatory Cultural System (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988).
Marcia Herndon, ‘Cultural Engagement: The Case of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra’, Yearbook for Traditional Music 20 (1988), pp. 134-145.
Ruth Finnegan, The Hidden Musicians: Music Making in an English Town (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
Bruno Nettl, ‘Mozart and the Ethnomusicological Study of Western Culture (An Essay in Four Movements)’, Yearbook for Traditional Music 21 (1989), pp. 1-16; republished in Disciplining Music: Musicology and its Canons edited Katherine Bergeron and Philip V. Bohlman (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 137-155.
Philip V. Bohlman, ‘Of Yekes and Chamber Music in Israel: Ethnomusicological Meaning in Western Music History’, in Ethnomusicology and Modern Music History, edited Stephen Blum, Philip V. Bohlman and Bruno Nettl (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991), pp. 254-267.
Peter Jeffery, Re-envisioning Past Musical Cultures: Ethnomusicology in the Study of Gregorian Chant (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
Tamara Elena Livingston, Community of music: an ethnographic seminar in Champaign-Urbana (Champaign, IL; Elephant & Cat, 1993)
Michael Chanan, Musica Practica: The Social Practice of Western Music from Gregorian Chant to Postmodernism (New York: Verso, 1994).
Bruno Nettl, Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1995).
Georgina Born, Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the institutionalization of the musical avant-garde (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1995).
Vicky L. Brennan, ‘Chamber Music in the Barn: Tourism, Nostalgia, and the Reproduction of Social Class’, The World of Music 41/3 (1999), pp. 11-29.
Kay Kaufman Shelemay, ‘Toward an Ethnomusicology of the Early Music Movement: Thoughts on Bridging Disciplines and Musical Worlds,’ Ethnomusicology 45 (2001), pp. 1-29.
Stephen Cottrell, Professional Music-Making in London: Ethnography and Experience (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004).
Stephanie E. Pitts, ‘“Everybody Wants to be Pavarotti”: The Experience of Music for Performers and Audience at a Gilbert and Sullivan Festival,’ Journal of the Royal Musical Association 129 (2004), pp. 143-160.
Stephanie E. Pitts, ‘What Makes an Audience? Investigating the Roles and Experiences of Listeners at a Chamber Music Festival’, Music & Letters 86/2 (2005), pp. 257-269.
Jonathan Shull, ‘Locating the Past in the Present: Living Traditions and the Performance of Early Music’, Ethnomusicology Forum 15/1 (2006), pp. 87-111.
Pirkko Moisala, Kaija Saariaho (Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009).
Frederick Seddon and Michele Biasutti, ‘A Comparison of Modes of Communication Between members of a String Quartet and a Jazz Quartet’, Psychology of Music 37 (2009), pp. 395-415.
Yara El-Ghadban. ‘Facing the Music: Rituals of Belonging and Recognition in Contemporary Western Art Music’, American Ethnologist 36/1 (2009), pp. 140-60.
Paul Chaikin, ‘Circling Opera in Berlin’ (PhD dissertation, Brown University, 2009).
Eric Martin Usner, ‘Cultural Practices of Classical Music in 21st Century Vienna’ (PhD dissertation, New York University, 2010).
Tina K. Ramnarine, ‘The Orchestration of Civil Society: Community and Conscience in Symphony Orchestras’, Ethnomusicology Forum 20/3 (December 2011), pp. 327-351.
Melissa C. Dobson and Stephanie E. Pitts, ‘Classical Cult or Learning Community? Exploring New Audience Members’ Social and Musical Responses to First-time Concert Attendance’, Ethnomusicology Forum 20/3 (December 2011), pp. 353-383.
Amanda Bayley, ‘Ethnographic Research into Contemporary String Quartet Rehearsal’, Ethnomusicology Forum 20/3 (December 2011), pp. 385-411.
Eric Martin Usner, ‘‘The Condition of Mozart’: Mozart Year 2006 and the New Vienna’, Ethnomusicology Forum 20/3 (December 2011), pp. 413-442.
Pirkko Moisala, ‘Reflections on an Ethnomusicological Study of a Contemporary Western Art Music Composer’, Ethnomusicology Forum 20/3 (December 2011).
Hettie Malcolmson, ‘Composing Individuals: Ethnographic Reflections on Success and Prestige in the British New Music Network’, twentieth-century music 10/1 (March 2013), pp. 115-136.
Karen Burland and Stephanie Pitts (eds), Coughing and Clapping: Investigating Audience Experience (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014).
Bruno Nettl, ‘A Technique of Ethnomusicology Applied to Western Culture’, Ethnomusicology, 7/3 (September 1963), pp. 221-224.
Fredric Lieberman, ‘Should Ethnomusicology Be Abolished?’, with responses by E. Eugene Helm and Claude Palisca, Journal of the College Music Society 17/2 (1977), pp. 198-206.
K.A. Gourlay, ‘Alienation and Ethnomusicology’, in The Ethnography of Musical Performance, edited Norma McLeod and Marcia Hendon (Norwood, PA: Norwood Editions, 1980), pp. 123-146.
Klaus Wachsmann, ‘Applying Ethnomusicological Methods to Western Art Music’, World of Music 23 (1981), pp. 74-86.
Marcia Herndon and Norma McLeod, Music as Culture (Darby, PA: Norwood, 1980).
Joseph Kerman, Musicology (London: Fontana Press, 1985), pp. 155-181.
Stephen Blum, ‘Ethnomusicology vis-à-vis the Contemporary Fallacies of Musical Life’, Pacific Review of Ethnomusicology 8/3 (1986), pp. 1-19.
Kay Kaufman Shelemay, ‘Crossing Boundaries in Music and Musical Scholarship: A Perspective from Ethnomusicology’, The Musical Quarterly 80/1 (1996), pp. 13-30.
Jonathan Stock, ‘New Musicologies, Old Musicologies: Ethnomusicology and the Study of Western Music’, Current Musicology 62 (1997), pp. 40-68.
Gary Tomlinson, ‘Musicology, Anthropology, History’, in The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction, edited Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert and Richard Middleton (New York and London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 31-44.
Henry Stobart (ed), The New (Ethno)musicologies (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008). Includes essays by Jim Samson, Michelle Bigenho, Fabian Holt, Nicholas Cook, Laudan Nooshin, Caroline Bithell, Tina K. Ramnarine, Philip V. Bohlman, John Baily, Martin Clayton, Abigail Wood, Jonathan P.J. Stock, Martin Stokes.
Stephen Cottrell, ‘Ethnomusicology and the Music Industries: An Overview’, Ethnomusicology Forum 19/1 (June 2010), pp. 3-25.
Georgina Born, ‘For a Relational Musicology: Music and Interdisciplinarity, Beyond the Practice Turn’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association 135/2 (2010), pp. 205-243.
Laudan Nooshin (ed), ‘The Ethnomusicology of Western Art Music’, special issue of Ethnomusicology Forum 20/3 (December 2011). Includes essays by Nooshin (‘Introduction: The Ethnomusicology of Western Art Music’, pp. 285-300), Rachel Beckles Willson, Tina K. Ramnarine, Melissa C. Dobson and Stephanie Pitts, Amanda Bayley, Eric Usner, Pirkko Moisala (all listed above). Reprinted with an afterword by Philip V. Bohlman as The Ethnomusicology of Western Art Music (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014).
Ian Pace: email@example.com