Thursday, March 6, 2008

The sublime ethics of a non-listening musicologist

The other day, crouched behind the music building, I hauled up composition student Bryan, sharing a smoke in the bitter cold. Somehow, we got to talking about music making, and he confided in me: "I really hate listening to music". On first encounter, I nearly doubled, but the ethics of anti-listening (a kind of prescribed silence to the vestiges of the grad student's symptom of overlistening) may have more serious claims that a mere perfunctory statement.

I, for one, share Bryan's sentiments about anti-listening. For starters, I'm not a very good listener. On a calm day, I'd rather be out running in the streets, mollycoddling a hot cup of cocoa with a group of close-to-hearts than sitting on my bench intently piecing out the different motivic varations of a Beethoven string quartet. To make matters worse, in the umbrella of listening, I'm probably the worst musician. Once my structural capacities (more strained to attentiveness than honed attuned-ness) grasp a work, I spend the next ten minutes busily chasing that little fractal of musical sound around like an enraged housewife running after a rat with a broom. No points scored there for either the rat or the housewife, but we've been led to believe that by appreciating the mere trajectory of the chase, we'll find a certain bend that speaks to our scholarly sensibilities. For this reason, and other more practical ones, I have never been one to sit through Mozart - forget Wagner.

This, of course, has had its multiple repurcussians. As a musicology minion, perhaps it is somewhat ghastly that I cannot list the opus numbers off the top of my head, nor can I recall major works as if it were the weekend top hits. Rather, I have been the academic parasite, homing in on certain areas of interest and exploding from within. On the other hand, the ethics of anti-listening may signal the rise of a new class of scholars - the theory is not a new one - entirely invested into the production of knowledge and the proliferation of new structural methodogies of entrainement. It would be naiive to simply attest that every knowledge worker who engages in the production of musical discourse inherently 'loves' the music. Academia cultivates, arranges and controls a certain stream of pleasure, jouissance, or what Zizek may even refer to as irrational enjoy-meant. Leaping off the Aristotelian board, perhaps there is striking wisdom in his claim that the highest pleasure of mankind is education, and the academic instution as a machine of endless texts can be even ascertained as a perverse pleasure machine. Certainly, as much as one may truly indulge oneself into a passionate desire-discourse with one's object of study, the reverse is no less true. Perhaps the disinterested philosopher is one that can mediate the problems of subjectivity, and signpost, with scrutiny, the effect from the affect.

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