May 14, 2009
An article of mine, one of several pieces I have authored in past years on the state of American academia, has appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education (issue of May 8). I am informed it has raised passionate feelings and violent reactions among active members of the American Musicological Society. They have my sincere thanks.
The article was written a year ago as a response to the Society’s statement on something called music torture. I kept it in my drawer for months to test its worthiness (and my ambition) and finally sent it to the Chronicle in September. Although accepted on October 14, and ready for print in late January, it suffered delays owing to a new submission on “music” torture (or rather Suzanne Cusick’s work in this area). The Chronicle decided to pair them, although neither would have enjoyed the company of the other (mine is clearly an op-ed with Swiftean undertones). Their common appearance in the issue’s “Review” offered strong publicity to musicology. On the other hand, it dragged my piece into a different territory, from AMS’s social practices to the use of music in torture.
I thus offer a postlude hoping to restore the proper frame of reference for my contribution:
The article’s original title was
Music, Torture, and the Drama of American Musico(torturo)logy,
and I signed it as follows:
Ilias Chrissochoidis joined the American Musicological Society during Clinton’s second administration and leaves it at the dawn of Obama’s presidency. His critique of the Society draws on personal experiences and observations, as well as discussions with fellow members, over the past five years. Somehow Bush’s evangelical radicalism did penetrate the thinking and practice of the Humanities in America, yet another bubble waiting to burst.
Two paragraphs (the size of Professor Cusick’s photo in the preceding article) were taken out for reasons of space:
... critical impotence.
There are more pimples to scratch here. The weapon used in music torture is not exactly proper works, say the Guantanamo Rhapsody, Waterboard Lake, or Eine laute Nachtmusik, but music performances technologically enhanced to inflict pain and psychological breakdown. In this sense, Manuel Noriega’s surrender to American troops does not qualify as Rock n’ Roll’s greatest victory; it only proves the effectiveness of sound amplification systems. It is curious that AMS should deliberate on how loud or often an employer should play commercial recordings in his premises. And I assume that aural torturers, men with sensitive ears to certain vocal utterances as any American musicologist, have nothing against the Western performance canon. They probably would exchange conventional records with lab-designed soundscapes to better achieve their freedom-imposing goals.
... throughout the world.
No less puzzling is the AMS’s reference to the “contamination of our cultures by the misappropriation of music.” This display of ecological sensitivity unfortunately clashes with the bread-and-butter practice of musicological modernism, which is to “baptize” music works and artists in the swamp of sociopathology through often outrageous claims. One composer is an anti-Semite because the biblical passages he set to music nearly three centuries ago happen to offend some present-day Jews. Another must be a proto-Nazi because an opera he wrote decades before Hitler’s birth became one of the Führer’s favorites. And yet another is gay (and “musicologists now seem to agree” on this, The New York Times misinforms us) because he never got married. Given the scholarly mud circulating in this latter-day musicology, I am not sure who should be charged with “contamination” and “misappropriation.”
Don’t get me wrong....
The subject of the article is certainly not “music” torture (a phantom discourse to my simplistic mind). I don’t believe that torture and abuse have brands, divisions, and qualifiers. The purpose of state torture is to “break” enemy captives, not to engage in cultural politics. I don’t think that subjecting prisoners to declamations of Hegelian prose qualifies as “philosophical” torture, or banging them in the head with Taruskin’s Stravinsky makes the assault more learned than physical. Whether torture afflicts someone’s eyes, ears, nose, nails, spleen or brain is indifferent to me (and, I assume, to the poor bastard who suffers it). Abuse is abuse.
If you want to stop torture, you take action. Should the AMS board had gone to Condi Rice demanding an explanation for the reported aural abuses in US prisons, it would be honest. But unable to reconcile fervent wish with powerlessness, they issued a statement so timid and vague that they, not I, opened the door for satirical invective.
Here’s the problem: on the one hand you have the Chomskean aspirations of many musicologists (how to become socially relevant), which I fully share (though, like Chomsky, I keep my activism separate from my scholarship). But on the other hand, there is AMS’s notoriously apolitical culture, let alone musicology’s post-facto condition (we arrive at the scene after music has been written, performed or abused). Trying to infuse the one into the other leads to monstrosities, outcomes that are neither intellectual nor political. Hence my descriptions “humanistic spoof,” “platitude,” and “critical impotence.”
(Despite the best of intentions, statements like AMS’s may actually be counterproductive. By introducing specialization (“music” torture is of a different order than other types and so has to be treated separately), musicotorturology detracts attention from torture as a total experience and shifts the discursive center of gravity from results to means and instruments. Excessive publicity and scholarly engagement with specialized terror can then become an incentive for its further development. If we start labeling torture by body part affected, instrument and technique used, ethnic and religious background of the tortured and the torturer or any other division, we’ll end up with the fragmentation we already have in the Humanities: minuscule discourses with no impact outside small groups of devotees. Every second spent in intellectualizing torture is a minute taken away from political action against it. Let’s protect the integrity of human rights activism from imperialist scholarship.)
I didn’t write a commentary on aural abuse, then, but a response to the AMS’s sorry statement, which I, a member of the Society back then, had never been informed about nor asked to approve. I would rather donate $1000 to Amnesty International than endorse any moral flatulence. Indeed, I would stay the farthest removed from musicotorturology. Who can assure me that the ruler of an unnamed republic won’t make me an offer I cannot refuse, say music “consultant” at his correctional facility?
Although the AMS statement collapses by its redundancy (the equivalent of “As a garbage collector, dedicated to keeping our streets clean, I condemn littering in public spaces”), it did offer the perfect excuse to engage with the Society’s chronic problems (for us the silenced members, that is). Whether the mistreatments I describe are owing to bad-luck and accident, personal sensitivity, or abuse is something for outside parties, not the alleged abusers, to determine.
Scholars are in the business of judging others, especially dead people and younger colleagues. They are accustomed to peeling off their ideological layers, marinating them with a theory of personal choice, grilling them for their flaws and mistakes, and serving them with novel side dishes. But when somebody turns the mirror around to reveal their own social practices in the now and here, they often shriek in horror. Well, they should.
All groups have problems. Those who conduct their affairs by the law of justice (the law of correct relationships) manage at least to address them. Others who subscribe to the law of power and coercion decide to ignore them until the problems lead to revolt and violence. Over the years many proposals have been made to improve this Society’s affairs. There were efforts to regulate the length of JAMS articles, to lower membership dues for unemployed musicologists, to remove restrictions on the papers read at the annual meeting etc. Nothing happened. One needs to argue harder than John Cleese in the “parrot” sketch to bring about any change. Two years ago I warned of the embarrassingly low representation of 18th-century topics in the AMS annual meeting and proposed that all submitted abstracts be made available online so that we know who is working on what. Nobody responded. Comfort remains this nation’s favorite drug.
When nobody listens to you at home, you have no choice but to go outside. In criticizing the AMS, I did nothing more than many of you, my fellow citizens, had done 40 years ago, when you were protesting the government for the unfair war in Vietnam. And by censuring the practices of the Society, I rendered it the kind of service Fulbright praised back then.
I take no pride in having caused violent responses. But I am content that I performed my duty in describing what I see to be happening in the Society, a description now confirmed by others. Personally, I would take any blow of criticism from active musicologists living on $1000 per month. If they still do research while starving, they are heroes, and as I often muse, the child and the martyr have it always right. By contrast, I would need a convincing bribe to accept the sincerity of attacks from pockets of professorial comfort and security.
My professional demise or physical injury won’t alter much. I have lived sufficiently long to know that domestic violence is the ugly mutation of peer review. More important, the article is out and will remain there for everyone to see. The only meaningful action is to go forward and address some of the society’s chronic problems. Here are some of the issues I tried to raise:
The content of AMS membership (“that this society shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the members, by the members, for the members, shall not perish from university campuses”)
AMS’s social structure and its impact on scholarly quality (medieval guild or village fair? is the profession killing the discipline? do politics and careerism weaken the intellectual strength of American musicology?)
Methodological discrimination against discourses of permanence (archival research, documentary studies and textual criticism, even historiography), with special attention to
The pandemic of theory (is theory used for scholarly or political objectives, dividing us into first- and second-class musicologists? should we start wearing positivistic masks when attending AMS’s annual conference?)
Generational conflict (baby-boomers and the future of the AMS: will they leave anything for us except the bill?)
Those who take heed of world developments sense that justice (the science of exact relationships) is the key issue of our times, the umbrella concept to unify all human discourses. I think a just musicology, where excellence, not methodology, determines one’s career, and where decent research is allowed to reach and stimulate others, is a cause worth defending and to the bitter end, if necessary.
Sincere thanks again to all who have engaged with my published thoughts.
Ilias Chrissochoidis, Ph.D.