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Home » Stephen Amico – “Ethn[…]’s” Elisions: Toward a Culturally Situated Musicology

Stephen Amico – “Ethn[…]’s” Elisions: Toward a Culturally Situated Musicology

Stephen Amico

The arguably bizarre quality of my argument’s framing is one I will ascribe to (or blame on) a conglomeration of both random and considered personal choices, material circumstances, and sleep deprivation – among many other variables – all of which converged over the course of four transatlantic flights within a period of eight weeks. To clarify as much as possible: owing to the reading materials carried on board (most dealing with what I have generally viewed as the internecine conflicts among the various sub-diciplines comprised under the broad rubric of “academic studies of music”), stretches of hours in a relatively circumscribed media space (that is, without access to the internet), and the increasingly affronting bottom-line strategies of most contemporary U.S.-based airlines, I was forced (or chose) to sit through one of the latest and most predictable “buddy cop” films, The Heat, two and a half times. These viewings alternated with readings chronicling the performatively enacted battle lines among the main “-ologies” through which “humanly organized sound” might be approached in the 21st century western academia, including ethnomusicology and “in-need-of-no-qualifier” musicology.

For those who have not seen The Heat even once, a quick overview of the two paint-by-numbers main characters will almost immediately reveal the boilerplate plot in terms of both narrative and character “development”: uptight, meticulous, anal-retentive, career-driven, sexually frustrated FBI agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) is compelled to work with slovenly, iconoclastic, foul-mouthed, sexually voracious Boston detective Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) in order to crack a major drug ring. The denouement is, I suspect, already known, as are the contents of the scenes leading to it: Ashburn and Mullins initially loathe one another, continually and comically butting heads, but through a series of trials (replicating dynamics found in such diverse sources as Die Zauberflöte or any number of contemporary video games) they bond, engendering a dialectic that is essential not only to their ability to vanquish the villain, but also to their emotional and psychological transformations. The viewer sees that without these subjective changes, wherein both characters admit to and learn from the acceptance of their faults, good’s triumph over evil would not be possible.

And now, the bizarre part: mixing the images and texts at my disposal in that cramped and circumscribed space, jumping from Bullock to Middleton (2003), from McCarthy to Cook (2008), it seemed apparent that this trope-laden narrative enacted in the arena of popular culture might actually mirror supposedly far more weighty academic concerns: McCarthy was the prefix, the rebel, the “ethno-,” Bullock was the establishment, the (no-prefix) “musicology,” and the productive dialectic they achieved, the synthesis, read again in terms of musical disciplinarity, might well be cultural musicology – the holistic catholicism of which may stand in stark contrast to the parochialism of the two more deeply institutionalized (sub-) disciplines. I think there are numerous productive possibilities for reading the scholarly through the popular, although I will save discussion of this until the end of my paper. But accepting (if only provisionally) that The Heat might reveal, through its use of tropes and stock devices, something important about disciplinary, methodological, and ideological clashes between ethnomusicology and musicology, and the ability to synthetically transform, I want to focus on the essential element of anagnorisis, the protagonist’s comprehension of her or his failings, without which synthetic transformation would not be possible. And in this regard, donning the persona of Detective Mullins, and speaking as an almost-ex-ethnomusicologist, I want to highlight what I believe to be the major failings of the discipline whose strictures and dictates structured my graduate work, as well as the important elisions which have arisen from and, in a circular fashion, continue to feed them.

My contention is that the “eth-” of the discipline – audible, visible in the prefix, “ethno-” – owing to its de facto (and indeed performatively enacted) suggestions of and relations to ethnicity (or race) as well as ethnography, has been instrumental in an unfortunate intellectual circumscription that rivals the supposed narrowness of straw man constructions of musicology; indeed, it is arguable that this newer discipline, over the span of the past several decades, has erected its own set of exclusionary (and ideologically motivated) desiderata, many of which I maintain are connected to an obsession with a certain social group’s chimerical constructions of a specific type of “authenticity.” Although ethnomusicologists will surely argue that ethnicity or ethno-geopolitical location is no longer a foundational concern of ethnomusicology, and although Blacking (1987) articulated the belief that it was methodology and not object of study that defined the field (if only it were so), the retention of what many see as a colonialist, atavistic, and highly problematic appellation has certainly been instrumental in the assumption by both laypersons and non-in-group academics alike that the focus of the discipline is indeed “ethnic music” (or, at the very least, “music of ‘other’ cultures”). And while there are numerous examples of work by ethnomusicologists that problematize and interrogate the very idea of a stable, univocal ethnic identity (Aubert 2007; Jones-Bamman 2001; Stokes 1994), it is perhaps in such putatively “pragmatic” actions as job searches (“seeking a scholar of Indian/African/Caribbean music”), unremarkable artifacts such as syllabi (“Music of Africa”), as well as the very logo of the U.S.-based Society for Ethnomusicology – a rendering of a sculpture of an ocarina-playing male figure from the Coclé people of Pre-Columbian Panama, “affectionately” (or, better, tellingly) referred to by many of the society’s members as “the little man” – which serve to perpetuate the not entirely mistaken view that the “eth-” indexes specifically that to which it is phonetically kin. That the logo, which practically reeked of and summoned every highly problematic connotation that the word “ethnic” might possibly have, was retained for more than five decades, despite the protestations of (largely younger) members of the society (Koskoff 2003; Witzleben 2013) is an occurrence and history ripe for the type of academic and interpretive scrutiny that ethnomusicologists themselves generally save for (their) Others.

This creation of (ethnic) Others is, in my estimation, a defining and perpetual aspect of many ethnomusicological tracts (see Agawu 1997), one that is intimately bound up with the previously noted (unacknowledged) obsession with authenticity, one most certainly related to a perceived anomie or loss engendered by “(post) modern” society (Bendix 1997; see also Torgovnick 1997). For if musicology has been lambasted for its own supposed myopic preoccupation with “the text/music itself,” with claims of “universality” based upon a transcendent aesthetics, then ethnomusicology has been no less universalizing in its feverish attempt to find and examine (read: construct) the “real,” to build musical actors and actions seen as embodying a pre- or anti-capitalist authenticity, an idea(l) that seems only to lie in the realm of the non-Western or subaltern (see, however, Cooley 1999). If, as Erlmann (1996) suggests, the world music phenomenon of the 1990s was marked by an attempt to “[coat] the sounds of the fully commodified present with the patina of use value in some other time and place,” I would further suggest that the “objective” “social science” of the same era, engaging some of the very same ethno-geographical sites and sounds, was involved in enterprises that were, although possibly more complex, circuitous, or opaque in terms of the routes through which such constructions ultimately manifested, not entirely different.

Such obsessions are clearly responsible for longstanding suspicions by many in the discipline of Western popular musics as legitimate sites of legitimate ethnomusicological inquiry – another major elision – and although this particular lacuna has in more recent years been redressed in the works of some scholars (Cheng 2012; Gay 1998; note also the existence of the PMSSEM, the Popular Music Section of the Society for Ethnomusicology), numerous others remain as blindingly glaring signifying absences, as “preteritions” (Sedgwick 1990) testifying to the fact that constructions of (ethnic) authenticity are not simply generic or without intention; as only one example, the mind-boggling lack of attention to homosexulaities (despite the creation of the Society’s Gender and Sexualities Task Force), coupled with the still colonialist impulse to treat musical Others as those who are looked at, who are the object of the gaze, who submit to scrutiny and inscription in another’s textual representations (rather than co-creators of their own exegesis; see Solomon 2012) – who are, in many ways (in current symbolic logics) feminized – suggests that the creation of authenticities are deeply imbricated with constructions of masculinity and heteronormativity, that the ultimate (again unacknowledged) goal is less the “understanding” of the Other, than the creation of “acoustic mirrors” (Silverman 1988) or repositories for unbearable attributes of one’s self (van de Port 1999). Such power dynamics dovetail with hooks’s (1992) contentions that the Western man’s intercourse with the dark Other is predicated upon a one-way power dynamic; the Western/white/male self is only concerned with his supposed psycho-sexual growth, not the ways in which contact has impacted upon the other necessarily silent interlocutor. Moreover, this particular elision of LGBTQ persons suggests an exceptionally narrow (and indeed atavistic) concept of “culture,” one that appears almost inevitably based upon ethno-geographic specificity: for example, Walker (1996), in his discussion of postwar “culturalist” theories and their connection to and support of the assignation of “nation” status of various groups, argues that the refusal to see gays and lesbians as anything more than an interest group “underestimates the complexity and multifunctionality of lesbian and gay culture, while at the same time overestimating the ‘thickness’ or density of the culture which other national cultures provide” (521).

The unwieldiness of a “culture” that is in many ways “unsited” furthermore troubles the other “eth-” previously noted, that of ethnography; although ethnomusicologists have certainly added to deeper understandings of geographically diffuse “communities,” of diasporas (Ramnarine 2007; Turino and Lea 2004; Um 2005), the sine qua non of much ethnomusicological work (in terms of funding proposals, doctoral dissertations, and in-group cachet) appears to still be prolonged fieldwork in a specific site. Such a requirement contributes not only to the discipline’s near reification of fieldwork, an enterprise reliant upon relationships to “real” people in “real” places, but also, via this reification, to the tacit dismissal of other, more theoretical, more experimental, types of methodologies. Although Nettl (2010) suggests that “we [ethnomusicologists] haven’t really figured out our intellectual contours, our essential goals as a profession, the central questions we wish to ask or answer” (170), in effect, both the de facto foci on race and ethnicity (continually revealed through signifying absences) and the vaunting of fieldwork as the conduit to truth, do indeed paint a rather detailed picture of both the stated and repressed goals of the discipline, and the methodologies through which such goals might be achieved.

I am not suggesting that fieldwork is of negligible value; although it is deeply problematic (and has indeed been interrogated by ethnomusicologists themselves; see Barz and Cooley 2008), even as an almost-ex-ethnomusicologist, it is a methodology on which I have relied in the past, and will likely continue to do so in the future, depending upon the specific exigencies of a specific project. But in order to do true service (as opposed to lip service) to the various ways in which music both manifests itself – as text, as performance, as discourse, as materiality, as affective conduit – and the equally manifold ways it may be received, any type of academic, institutionalized study of music in the twenty-first century and beyond must holistically engage a myriad of methodological possibilities, must grapple with the various fits of theoretical apparatuses to specific sociomusical circumstances, must be malleable enough to accommodate and do justice to the complexity of the social, the arena in which technology, affect, materiality, discourse, ideology, kinship, geopolitical location, aesthetics, and formal structure – to name but a few – are all implicated in any number of instantiations of things we might call music. And in this regard, it is the elasticity and the openness of cultural musicology that holds, I think, the most promise for musical studies, insofar as methodologies from the ethnographic to the cognitive to the musical-analytical might all be engaged with the goal of more global and nuanced understandings of musical phenomena and practices, rather than the production of disciplinary turf. And it is exactly within a cultural musicological paradigm that the relationship of The Heat to the ethnomusicological ceases to be bizarre, a paradigm in which “culture” – an admittedly loaded term, to which I’ll shortly return – is seen not as a space in which atomistic, isolated processes and productions exist one apart from the other, but as a maddeningly complex and kinetic site of production and reception in which relationships “over there” are essentially and inextricably related to productions “over here,” a site in which the reliance upon sedimented, socially comprehensible tropes and narratives in one forum or text (the popular arena, The Heat) must be seen as related to dynamics in supposedly incommensurable fora, texts, or practices (the “objective,” “academic” study of music).

That being said, understanding the very burdened nature of words such as “culture” or “cultural” – and, as such, the likelihood that they might, in twenty years time, look as dated and problematic as the prefix “ethno-” does to many of us today – I am on the precipice of suggesting not a capitulation to the term musicology, but its (re)appropriation and possible rehabilitation. To suggest that we are all musicologists now – to play on the title of an article by Cook (2008) – is to envision a move toward a less acrimonious, more mutually respectful future, a move that should not to signal victory or defeat of one side over or by the other, but a desire to jettison accretions of meanings, and to challenge meaning via linguistic and symbolic recuperation – think, for example, of the word “queer.” It is a move that may (or indeed must) signal an inclusionary site, minus qualifying adjectives, wherein the very the very word “musicologist” will come to signify and include the previously excluded disciplinary others; the day that researchers of music previously identified adjectivally are all known only via the nouns (musicology, musicologist) is a day when suzerainty of one type of disciplinary chauvinism beings to fade to silence.


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