Sunday, April 13, 2008

Minefield here, minefield there, interdiscipline warfare!


Even musicology-wannabes get more-than-slightly peeved when it comes down to the exhausted talk of interdisciplinary studies. As Frogley mentioned the other day, now everything is interdisciplinary. But as I had to convince a fellow colleague some weeks before, interdisciplinary can only exist by acknowledging the autonomous spheres of disciplines as totalized discrete entities. And as "interdisciplinary" continues to grow in slogan strength (my my... it looks contemporary, hip and oh so culturally adept on those resumes!), so does our somewhat flaccid lip service continue to mask its deep anxieties, that is, the deep disciplinary fears of infiltration and decentralization. This is especially so for Musicology, the once paraded field of study that, in its earliest German incarnation, strove to be a hothouse of knowledge about all-things-musical. But where are we today? In the much-cited compilation The Cultural Study of Music, Rob Wegman's article "Historical musicology: Is it still possible?" attempts to deflect the incriminating gaze of the textual critic (usually transported from literary criticism). More urgently, his plea for a recourse to the lies of empirical historical musicology in a warts-and-all approach is useful for surveying exactly what musicologists of his caliber and breed are precisely so anxious to preserve.

For Wegman, the secularized messianic call once proudly brandished by the Musicologist (with a big M) was one of historical interpretation and factual accounts, that is, attempting to craft compelling historical narratives that display a degree of internal consonance. Although Wegman does not necessarily imply that musicology should strive to the order of Taruskin's totalizing "Oxford History of Music", Wegman does argue for the scholastic necessity of musicologists in society as an antidote to pure empirical chaos and heterogenity. This is, of course, an absolutely essential mode of epistemology, but what is at stake here is Wegman's own convictions about what Musicologists should be. Simply, Wegman prefers us all to be music Historians. With a capital H. If the disciplinary production of music History (note the capital emphases), as Wegman himself admits, depends on narratology, then why a radical suturing of History to the study of music itself?

As Zizek has argued, the problem with "suturing" is that the privileged signifier (he uses the example of the King) radically "de-sutures" his subjects, who become subjected to the social contract articulated (indeed activated) by the centralization of the King. And no prizes in guessing what has served as Musicology's little Master Signifier cum disciplinary enabler, neither as to what the author is feeling. Indeed history haunts all specters of music-making, as if the former was a validation ticket to the latter. Perhaps, given Foucault's gentle promptings, we should remind ourselves that an accepted disciplinary chronotype (i.e. a system of temporal unfolding - past/present/future - that is theorized and assumed) is not an immanent one, but also a necessarily "historical" one too. History cannot forget to historicize itself. History is what keeps the mausoleum of performances of great works compelling, and history is what keeps many minion-cologists hard at work with the next earth-shattering project. And so if history, the necessary illusion of many faces, is what can be transcended (or, as Wegman will have it - its fallacies very much ignored), then shouldn't there be an ethics of musicology involved somewhere, lest we rehearse the Nietzschian lie?

Can musicology survive without History? At this moment, I doubt anyone even dares to raise the possibility. Indeed with the publication of Joseph Kerman's 1985 decree towards New Musicology, the way forward never involved the relinquishment of History. In fact, it assumes - by way of interdisciplinary ventures - to reinforce the suturing of History to music and musicology by means of co-option. And this has led to some very confused musicology and critical (and crossover) landscapes. Consider Leo Treitler's forceful distinction between purely empirical musicology and "postmodern" musicology (see Rethinking Music, ed. Cook), in which he rejects either epistemological paradigms for various implicit faults, then comes to a strange poetic standpoint from which to re-mysticize music, indeed to imbue it with as much subjective meaning as possible in order to "plumb" its depths for a narcissistic image of ourselves.

Criticisms aside, it is easy to confuse Treitler's definition of "postmodern" musicology. In particular, his definition has been confused with New Musicology itself, and has been raised as a war-flag against it. What Treitler means by postmodern musicology is a particular form of criticism fashioned along the (usually misread and much abused) lines of Deconstruction by enthusiastic discipline-crossing musicologists. The problem with these armchair critics are twofold (in my opinion): Firstly, they often are quick to jump into the tools of deconstruction without realizing where and how the paradigm emerged (AND - Derrida never pioneered Deconstruction; the term was attributed to him by literary theorists and philosophers who felt energized enough to enact the fame game) and secondly, deconstruction can never be productive (in a Foucauldian sense). Deconstruction can only but peel away at the onion, one skin at a time, till the palm is left clutching at nothing, but reeks of odour all the same. There is no musical knowledge created - rather, it is the destruction of the legitimacies of knowledge in itself. Now this can't be good for people who want to write about music, and not want to write about why the author isn't really there.

So what? Are we really at a disciplinary dead end? Or an interdisciplinary minefield? Personally, I cherish Kevin Korsyn's own proposition of the term "post-disciplinary", where at once we acknowledge that our positions of disciplinary security are slipping, and yet be engaged with writing about music as creatively as possible. After all, it's about putting the M back into MUSICology. It's about letting the squabble between Theory/Analysis or Musicology/Theory or Musicology/Ethnomusicology rest, because an absence of disciplinary boundaries evoke a ghostly nostalgia as forceful as presence, which leads back to another squabble about whether the wall should never have been torn down in the first place. Even perhaps, it means tracing our steps back into German-Ideology-land of Musikwissenschaft, where the only glue that holds us together is the curious and wonderful world of music.

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