Friday, October 17, 2008

Terrible History!

It's funny how you perceive with much horror and trepedition the "gesamt" musik program that Oxford seems to pride itself on, only to saunter into a postgraduate seminar and realise that everyone rattles on the same slates of anxiety as you did. Dr Leach commenced the table session by inviting us to voice our loopholes, as it were, in our own musical education. Although by practice, my jarring episode of lack (I have not even finished my undergraduate course), I felt much better prepared to discuss issues of disciplinary reflexivity in musicology. Most avoided was talk on Baroque music (for more than philological reasons), and most scholars present at the table pointed out their inadequecy at many historical topics. Quickly it became clear to me that even at the collegiate level, great leaps in scholarship were being taken as students struggled, in their undergraduate years, to compile a course of study that would be most rewarding. The quick remedy, of course, would be a recourse to a musical historical survey.


Today I flipped open the first of the breathtaking work "The Oxford History of Western Music" stunningly penned by single author Richard Taruskin - a sort of a enfant terrible in the musicological community. Mr Taruskin has been known for his fascist insistence in a particular brand of history, namely his own, striking out harsh and usually effective at seminars and symposiums, of which he quite regularly attends. There, in the introduction, was the troublesome indication which I had been suspicious of. Confidently, Taruskin wrote himself into a teleological lineage, a straight line of inheritance if you will, originating in Hobbes (I think, let me check my sources). With florid rhetorical ease, Taruskin proudly announces that he is, finally, writing a "true history".

Anyone even vaguely familiar with poststructuralism and the "linguistic turn" in philosophy would reel at Taruskin's audacity. Such arrogance! Such ignorance! Such blithe dismissal of years of corrective reflexivity! And amongst the critics, Cook and Tomlinson have been quick to retort with their slew of accusations agains the man chattering "true history". But the thing is, Taruskin goes on to possess his entire encyclopedia with a forceful notion of cause-and-effect, with broad overarching metanarratives including a preference for selfmade catchwords like "absolutism", regarding developments in the 20th century. It is as if Taruskin is saying: As long as we fancy ourselves with the semantic implications of "absolutism" as a concept, we have successfully grasped the lynchpin, the dynamo of 20th Century narratology. But we risk mixing hierarchical structures in our hermeneutical endeavours, obfuscating mere categorical initiatives of convenience with categories of essence. And no, Mr Taruskin, categories of essence are not universally strategic essentialism, although it may be a formidable strategy of Taruskin to terrorize those underserving scions of "New" Musicology into a kind of sublated reverence for the ancien regime.

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