Over a long period, I have repeatedly considered the question of ‘practice’ in an academic context, its meanings and implications, following on from earlier writings on the relationship between practice and research (see an index to earlier blog posts on this subject here), then most recently two articles in the Times Higher Education Supplement arguing for the need of different means to integrate practitioners into academia (see here and here) and then a blog article intended as a dialectical response to those articles, drawing upon a wider debate of the relationship between ‘advocacy’ and ‘criticism’, mapped by some onto ‘practitioners’ and ‘scholars’ respectively.
These subjects remain not only complex, both in theory and literally in ‘practice’, but also touch upon raw nerves amongst various scholars and practitioners. I have encountered significant rage from some composers at the suggestion that perhaps, just as few would suggest that musicological scholars are experts in the practice of composition, maybe they might show some humility towards musicologists as well, rather than assuming they know just as much about their discipline and are equally adept at teaching it. Much of this anger likely relates to competition for positions in an ever-more competitive and narrowing academic job market, especially at the current time, when at least in some other arts/humanities subjects (not music as of recently, though over the last two decades a significant number of music departments and programmes have closed), departments have been making sweeping cuts (for example Roehampton University).
There are those who choose to view the humanities on one hand, and practical work and the sciences on the other, as fundamentally opposing groups of disciplines, not only in their subject matter, but also in approach, method, ethos, and so on, so that any teaching which relates to the former is antithetical to the latter. I fundamentally disagree, and believe this view is at odds with the defining aspect of a university (as also argued back in 2010 in an article by Terry Eagleton, claiming that a university without humanities would be like ‘a pub without alcohol’). But that issue, which leads back to C.P. Snow’s 1959 essay on The Two Cultures, is extensive and for another article.
What I want to consider here is the role of universities in terms of engagement with practice, both practice undertaken by academics themselves, and that conducted in external institutions. In many ways I believe this is not just important but quite vital in a range of disciplines. Those working in medicine or other health sciences need to draw upon knowledge garnered through practical medical work, and conversely develop research with practical application. The same is true in study of business and the law. A literary scholar is engaging at a deep level with literary practice, just as is a music analyst with the musical equivalent. The extent to which academic research into the arts does or should feed into practice is more open to question, however. Certainly in the case of music there is a body of musicological opinion which is markedly sceptical about the value of performers using the findings of analytical and other research to inform their own performances, noting the extent to which a great many important performers have not done so over history, and how often their performances are quite distinct from what might be implied by such research. The same is true of composition – someone once wrote sardonically about composers who think that if one can analyse music, one can compose it, it is just a matter of doing the process in reverse! Nonetheless, in other ways performers do frequently draw upon knowledge in the business of crafting a performance (sometimes simply that garnered from listening to other performances), as do composers, and so such criticisms may in reality relate more to specific strategies than the use of external knowledge per se in the process of artistic creation.
Some areas such as pure maths (at the heart of my own first degree) may be different with respect to practical engagement; certainly from what I recall 35 years on a good deal of pure mathematical research was undertaken without primary consideration for its potential application, which was something to be discovered later on. I believe (but am no expert) that a similar approach underlies some work in other ‘pure’ sciences, and this is certainly true of those non-empirical branches of philosophy which believe in the possibility of synthetic a priori knowledge.
But in fields for which large areas of practical activity exist, it would be foolish to deny the value of engaging with knowledge drawn from this realm. I will from this point limit my discussion to artistic areas, as they are those which I know best. The key issue, in my view, is not whether but how one should do so. And this is where I would emphasise the vital aspect of a critical engagement with practice, and also of academic independence. When dealing with external practitioners or institutions dedicated to practice, one is confronted with those who have their own distinct desires, needs, economic imperatives, possible rivalries with others, and so on. Not all of these things would make for good scholarship if taken at face value. An artist may prefer a scholar to focus exclusively on their most successful work, not that whose merits might be more questionable, but a scholar who did so and claimed to be examining the work in its entirety would be disingenuous. The same is true of one examining a theatre and the responses of its audiences, who chose to bracket out from their study those audience responses which were less positive, in order to avoid upsetting the theatre owners. To use a dichotomy underlying a blog post from almost a decade ago, this is the difference between scholarship and PR. The scholar’s task is to follow where the results of their research lead them; to bury some of these in order to keep an external partner happy, or for that matter to undertake the research in such a way as to make such an outcome inevitable (as I have criticised sharply in some varieties of ethnographic work which eschew a critical view of the views and perceptions of their subjects, and as such can amount to hagiography), is to foresake one of the most fundamental aspects of being a scholar.
What I am arguing here is that critical scholarly engagement with practice (which can certainly involve partnerships and the like) should not be confused with a subservient relationship to this. This may not be the preference of some external practitioners, but if they wish for academic input, they need to respect the integrity of the academics involved.
But what about if the scholar is also the practitioner, as is the case in various forms of practice-as-research, artistic research, and so on? I have argued repeatedly that the question of whether certain practice is research is rather banal. In some ways most practice can be construed as such (as most practice requires answering certain types of questions to which there are multiple possible answers, and a range of methods for doing so), but what really matters is the quality of the research. This is not necessarily synonymous with what satisfies other aesthetic criteria (in an artistic context), but has to do with the generation of new knowledge expressed in the form of practice, which can have at least potential application for others. So an artist who develops new approaches which are found to bear aesthetic fruit, and upon which others can draw, would in an academic context generally be thought of as having done valuable research of a type.
Not all do accept this view of research (certainly artistic researchers have on the whole rejected the idea that research can simply be located in practice itself). I do accept it, but I am less sure of the extent to which it maps onto other forms of research, or qualifies the practitioner to undertake the latter, other than in some exceptional circumstances. Furthermore, while the quality of such research can, I believe, be gauged simply by close inspection of the practical work engendered, I wonder of the extent to which those engaged in assessment really do those to an intense degree (hardly possible if one has a wide range of things to assess), or whether the research quality is based upon finding the work more-or-less seems to resemble some of the qualities presented in associated verbal material (see my post on the 300-word statements that are essentially mandatory for submission of practice-based outputs to the REF).
Once again, I return to the question of critical engagement, or self-critical engagement. A practitioner can describe their work, even give a significant amount of detail about how it was put together, upon which ideas, philosophies or other determinants they have drawn (as one will find in many an ‘artist’s statement’), but that does not amount to this form of engagement. What can be difficult for practitioners is an attempt to ‘stand outside’ of their own work (and the immediate concerns of their own self), especially when in other contexts they are required to ‘sell themselves’ and in the process hide any acknowledgement of weaknesses, doubts or other more ambivalent self-reflection. Of course academics are far from immune to the latter tendency, which can sometimes dampen the possibilities of their own self-criticism, but they do function in scholarly arenas where if they do not do so, others can and often will follow up on vulnerabilities in their work, which is not always the case in more precious artistic circles.
The much-debated and contested field of autoethnography appears to me to hinge on the critical element; critical self-reflection upon personal experience, for the purposes of generating new knowledge which wider potential application is not the same thing as simply writing about oneself (which would be closer to autobiography), though a fair amount of writing and lectures I have encountered which is billed as autoethnography comes closer to the second category.
One anecdote may explain how these different attitudes and approaches can also inform teaching and its relationship to external practice. At a former institution, I was once tasked with developing a module on ‘Music and the Marketplace’, which I conceived as a broad consideration of the ways in which market forces inform music and music-making over a period of history, how other forms of music-making less subject to market forces might be different in nature, and so on. I had to be away for a period for some external performing work, so someone else took over the module design in my absence. When I returned, it had been changed to something like ‘How to get ahead in the musical marketplace’, which was a long way from my original design. What is the difference exactly? The module as originally conceived was about a critical engagement with the practice of music-making and its economic context. This by no means need imply a primarily negative view of market forces or their effect upon music, but should have been able to entertain a plurality of possible perspectives based upon careful and critical study of the phenomenon. The latter would have been entirely an ’employability’ module. Now I am certainly not going to deny the importance of such things. Some aspects of such teaching, such as how to write a CV or design a business plan, I would categorise as ancillary rather than academic skills – certainly they are things which do not necessarily require a university in order to be learned. But if employability skills become the only or primary things taught in a university context, or the attitude associated with them underlies the majority of teaching, I wonder then if a university degree has become more of a training course, lacking true intellectual inquiry and critical thinking that is more than purely functional. This touches on the question of a humanities approach – critical thinking in that context I would associate with a relatively dispassionate search for ‘pure’ knowledge, rather than subsuming that knowledge to narrow external criteria such as ‘how do I get ahead?’ or ‘how do I keep certain people happy?’
Any academic department without critical scholars will be impoverished in terms of the wider mission of a university. Practitioners can be critical scholars/thinkers as well, as can external partners, but one should not assume this is necessarily the case and certainly not ignore the possibility that other agendas may condition their thinking, either as expressed explicitly or implicitly assumed. In order that universities fulfil their central mission, it is vital to engage with practice, but in a critical and independent manner, whilst recognising that simply undertaking practice and promoting it in a certain way is not at all the same thing. And institutions must take care to guard and protect scholars’ independence from external pressures, simply to ensure that what they do remains scholarship. Then there is no reason to worry that engagement with practice entails any necessary conflict with the imperatives of research.
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.
The UK EU Referendum and the decline of democracy in a time of social media, safe spaces and postmodern relativismPosted: June 19, 2016
The 2016 UK referendum campaign on EU membership has not been a happy time for democracy, even before the tragic murder of Jo Cox. There have certainly been decent and principled protagonists involved with both the Remain and Leave campaign who have drawn upon issues and data to form solid arguments (and I think here the role of Jeremy Corbyn, perhaps the ultimate politician driven solely by issues, has been underestimated). But to a very high degree, the campaign has not been like this, and has been saturated with cheap populist pandering, lies and misinformation, conflation of the EU with only tangentially-related issues (such as that of refugees from the Middle East), and above all, a type of campaigning which appeals on an emotional rather than rational level, by stoking fear, playing to tribal identity (including racism and xenophobia), crudely dismissing opponents’ positions without proper argument, and so on.’Experts’ have been summarily dismissed and denigrated, facts have been little-appreciated and understood, and the whole campaign has played out in sitting rooms, offices, bars and cafés amongst large numbers of voters who I would wager know very little about the actual nature or workings of the EU, the policies and voting records of their democratically elected MEPs, which of the EU horror stories reported by the tabloid press are fact, which fiction or gross distortion, and so on.
This is all a very great shame, as this campaign should have provided an opportunity for a new level of public education about the EU, its history, and operations, and indeed about Britain’s relationship to continental Europe as a whole. I realise that it is over-idealistic to expect all or even most of the population to make highly intelligent, rational and educated decisions based on issues rather than personalities, but the referendum campaign has sunk to new lows in this respect.
Many have not unreasonably questioned the wisdom of holding a referendum at all on such an issue, in the knowledge that it would likely be determined more by prejudice than any more mature politics. I have little doubt that it was called because of David Cameron’s needing to temper a split down the middle of the Conservative Party, just as Harold Wilson did the same in 1975 when his own party and cabinet were deeply split on the same issue. But I am hesitant about saying that referenda on major constitutional issues are wrong; if one accepts the validity of those referenda on devolution (and independence) in Scotland and Wales, for example, it is hard to argue against giving the British people a chance to vote on this.
However, I think we are now living in the worst possible time for such a campaign, and a low point for cynical dismissal of all politicians (at least those who have ever held any power or office) and democratic debate in general. And I wish to suggest a few hypotheses about some factors which have brought about this situation.
The last decade has seen the growth of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. As a regular user of both, I would be the last person in a position to start arguing that these are a bad things, but I do see some major problems they engender. Facebook is ubiquitous, especially amongst younger generations; Twitter is particularly favoured by journalists, media types, many politicians, and others, which gives it a different general political complexion. Online communications are not so new – many used online messageboards and chatrooms before either Facebook or Twitter were created – but these more recent sites create a means by which many people’s whole lives are partially spent, and documented, online, to be seen by others, who often provide solace by expressing their approval. But of course, on Facebook in particular, one gets to choose who is in one’s circle (Twitter is much more public, a likely reason why it is used less often by those who simply wish to communicate with their friends). That in itself is not so different from some of the wider world, though it is hard to avoid coming into contact with strangers and those who might look at the world in a quite different way, unless one lives a relatively hermetic existence. That is not the case on Facebook; one can inhabit a realm entirely populated by like-minded people. In the face of cyber-bullying (much easier from the safety of a computer screen or smartphone than face-to-face bullying), many increasingly choose to do this. This is more than understandable, but with it comes the problems of creating an ‘echo chamber‘, whereby one puts out views and opinions mostly in order to have them echoed by others (at least this can be the result, if not the intention), and gain self-esteem by being regularly ‘liked’.
In itself, this phenomenon might not be so bad, except for when it blinds some to the possibility that the wider world might be quite unlike the comfort zone they inhabit on social media. Worse, it can generate a good deal of in-group/out-group hostility, leading to disdain, dismissal or even hatred towards anyone who breaks with a narrow consensus. This is how group bullying works in general (and mirrors wider prejudice and ostracisation of minority groups), but the relative safety of social media makes the bullying easier for the bullies, and arguably even more devastating for the victims (perhaps especially in the case of Twitter storms against those who have made some careless, ignorant, or mildly bigoted remarks there).
As the new Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, Louise Richardson, recently argued on a radio interview, a new generation of students have grown up spending their formative years within the echo chambers of social media, and these are the ones now demanding trigger warning, safe spaces and the likes (I would extend Richardson’s arguments to include many older adults too). Whilst it is perfectly reasonable for individuals to ask for some protection from hatred, highly personalised attacks, harassment and bullying, I fear many have lost a sense of the distinction between these and proper argument and robust debate, or rational critique (even if severe) of work, when applied fairly (i.e. not applying radically different standards to different work or individuals because of other motivations).
In many ways I do believe that many students and academics are attempting to demand that their working lives resemble the type of pampered realm to which they have become accustomed on social media, or simply from surrounding themselves with crowds of acolytes and other true believers. This is especially detrimental to academia and education in general, which should provide spaces where all types of positions and arguments can be presented and properly debated, and which can militate against easy complacency and unexamined positions. Lecturers should challenge students, students should challenge lecturers, members of each group should regularly challenge each other, and the frameworks of the institutions should ensure that this can happen. Safe spaces and trigger warnings are the very opposite of this, as are highly emotive or rhetorical modes of argument or teaching. Obviously not all students, or lecturers, necessarily have the emotional or intellectual maturity to cope with proper debate and challenge when they start out in these places, but I believe it is imperative that they learn to develop such maturity. Other factors can work against this though; one is the simple narcissism of some students and lecturers, in the latter case countenancing no dissenting viewpoints or literature, and seeking to personally demean or undermine anyone who thinks otherwise; such individuals are invariably extremely poor teachers, rarely interested in learning, only in being adored. Another is the growth of corporate academic culture, by which top-down directives are issued for management, and the wider culture rewards all types of conformity, in flagrant contradiction of the principles of academic freedom. Also, I see many academics organising into narrow factions, only containing those who agree or at least share a range of basic assumptions, with the same techniques of ostracisation of dissenters to be found in social media. This is another form of bullying which I have experienced and witnessed far too often.
This may seem a big tangent, from an academic too focused upon the type of environment in which they work. This may be the case (I would mention that I do also inhabit a very different – if equally problematic – realm as a professional musician), but I think when even the most hallowed spaces for free debate and argument are becoming corrupted in this manner, then this bodes very ill for other areas of public life. If those in academic life cannot separate issues and personalities, what are the chances of the wider public being able to do the same?
But the type of ideal democratic debate I have been outlining does require a belief in the very possibility of facts and rational debate; a belief which some who identify as ‘postmodern’ do not hold. On a feature earlier this year on BBC Newsnight, the reporter suggested that US Republicans had been having a ‘postmodern moment’ with the rise of Donald Trump, who ultimately does not care that much about facts, nor really hides the fact. It may seem very surprising to link a right-wing demagogue like Trump to postmodernism, and I would hesitate to do so, but I do see reasons why the phenomena may not be unrelated.
In the postmodern realm (about which inevitably I generalise a little), truth says more about the power held by those proclaiming it, ‘subject positions’ (which, as Terry Eagleton has argued, are the nearest contemporary thing to older ideals of ‘authenticity’) matter more than the cogency of arguments presented, ‘facts’ are mostly an illusion, rational debate is little more than an ideological conceit of the privileged, and ultimately arguments are better judged on political allegiance than any supposedly more disinterested criteria. These are the extreme positions, for sure, not all of which are held (or held in such a fundamentalist fashion) by all of those identifying as postmodern, but they are not imaginary. In certain modified forms, I would not disagree that some of these positions have value; some ‘facts’ are somewhat spurious, but have been accepted because certain people have propagated them, whilst certain narrowly ‘rational’ approaches to debate can have a dehumanising effect through the ways in which they are framed (with associated rhetoric, for example that of ‘collateral damage’). But I would challenge these in the name of better conceptions of facts, rationality, and so on, not in order to dismiss the concepts in general. Experts should be challenged, including by political campaigners in a referendum such as this one, but in order that they are required to substantiate and explain their expert views and conclusions, not because anyone else can lay an equal claim to expertise.
As Richard Evans pointed out in his book In Defence of History, when a position appeals purely on the basis of the politics it espouses, there is little if any chance of ever being able to convince someone of a different political persuasion, for that requires some appeal to wider knowledge beyond allegiances. I would say the same applies to appeals to identity; most fatally, the very legitimation of identity as a criterion of political value has ultimately emboldened most the right-wing Leave campaign, enabling them to appeal to a sense of national belonging and identity, with a concomitant fear of and hostility towards foreigners, amongst white working-class and older people (see this pertinent article by John Harris).
Modern democracy is a deeply flawed system in many ways. It has developed in line with the modern Western nation state, and no-one has yet really found a workable system which is not enclosed within the borders of such nation states (ironically, the European Parliament might be one of the better attempts at so doing). The late historian Tony Judt (in interview in the volume Thinking the Twentieth Century) pointed out that with the fall of the Hapsburg monarchy, Jewish people in Austria faced a new threat as a minority within mass democratic society, after having received some degree of protection Emperor Franz Joseph II. Democracy within a nation state will always be problematic for minority groups within that nation state, for simple numerical reasons, when there is some degree of conflict. And beyond this, it is no easy task to convince an electorate, especially one undergoing difficult economic and other conditions, to factor in the interests of other non-citizens (here including other Europeans, migrants and refugees) when this is presented as being against their own self-interest.
But I do not believe these problems cannot be at least mitigated, with a properly operative media representing a genuine plurality of opinion, a high degree of education about the political process and issues at schools, a functioning public sphere (for which a different type of social media can play an important role), and an acceptance that ‘democracy’ is a wider concept than simply putting some Xs in boxes from time to time, and involves a degree of engagement and respect for all types of groups in society. I wish I could say I see this happening in the UK, but am currently pessimistic. There is a growing level of generalised disenchantment with the political process and politicians in general, declining turnout at elections, especially amongst the young (though the Scottish Referendum was a marked exception), and a wider culture which is increasingly anti-intellectual and even tribal. Unelected and unaccountable celebrities, media personalities and even industry leaders seem to garner more respect than those who regularly submit themselves to electoral ratification.
The writer Edward Bernays, father of modern propaganda and public relations, realised the much greater potency of campaigns which operate on an emotive or atavistic level than those involving rational decisions (Bertold Brecht would have agreed, but drawn very different conclusions). Bernays’ ideas, and their application in PR, advertising, politics and more have been explored and chronicled in Adam Curtis’s documentary The Century of the Self. In the process, powerful tools have been developed which feed into an increasingly irrationalist political sphere. Extreme relativists, those cocooned in social media and echo chambers, and many of the advocates of safe spaces, should all consider whether they are playing a part in forfeiting the possibility of any alternative.
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’