24 July 2013

[sc]airquotes (v)


Instead of repeating such Western myths of the noncontingency of artworks, why not search for jazz meanings behind the music, in the life-shapes that gave rise to it and that continue to sustain it? Why not, in other words, scrutinize the interactions between our own rules of formation and those we impute to the makers of jazz as the source of our evaluations of it? Why not create a jazz pedagogy in which our construction of the varieties of black life experience takes priority, saving the music–intricately bound up with those experiences, after all–for last, construing it in light of them and resisting the aestheticizing tendency to exaggerate its differences from other manifestations of expressive culture?

...Placing the music first will always distance it from the complex and largely extramusical negotiations that made it and that sustain it. It will always privilege the European bourgeois myths of aesthetic transcendency, artistic purity untouched by function and context, and the elite status of artistic expression. (Such myths concerning the composers of the European canon badly need to be exploded, so it is all the more troubling to see them neatly transferred to African-American composers and performers.) Emphasizing the musical appreciation of jazz only transfers to the study of African-American music the formalist view that remains debilitatingly dominant in Eurocentric musicology, with its continuing emphasis on internalist music analysis." (89)

Gary Tomlinson. Cultural Dialogics and Jazz: A White Historian Signifies. Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 22, Supplement: Best of BMRJ (2002), pp. 71-105.


The academic compartmentalization of scholars and practitioners of music is constructive for neither group. That their respective functions, needs and goals are often quite different is clear enough, but this hardly excuses an insensitivity to each other's necessary roles in a musical tradition. The issue of a musico-academic division of labor is never explicitly raised in this paper, the explosion of conservatory-style education in public colleges and universities goes unremarked upon (perhaps it was not yet so widely observable in 1991, when the paper first appeared), and the notion that a musico-technical bent to jazz appreciation may reflect the particular needs of student practitioners, who I have to think vastly outnumber pure scholars of jazz in most student bodies, is not articulated. These are, at most, minor omissions in the context of Tomlinson's larger objectives, but they do point, along with so many other aspects of the worldview he outlines here, to a certain scholarly obliviousness-verging-on-contempt.

Historically, of course, the Ivy League schools and their institutional peers have always been disproportionately concerned with scholarship at the expense of practice. This tendency was once described to me as a reluctance on the scholars' part to "dirty their hands" in the work of performing or composing music. Tomlinson, who has taught at both Penn and Yale, reflects this old world in new and insidious ways. He rails against its formalist analyses, Eurocentric attitudes, and institutionalized elitism, yet his soft contempt for music-makers themselves merely perpetuates another of musical high academia's concurrent degeneracies. It is, in fact, not reading too far between the lines to detect in the passage above a desire to depose the practitioners entirely ("saving the music...for last?!"), to eliminate their influence on the way jazz is taught to aspiring scholars and practitioners alike, and to install in its place a puritanical irreverence for musical content whose faux-egalitarianism is somehow thought to outweigh its repressiveness. Below, I discuss some reasons why I think this is neither societally just nor artistically advantageous.

•••••

I first must grant that Tomlinson's deconstruction of valuation, institutionalization and canon formation is valuable, compelling and brilliantly argued. Central to these arguments are attractive-sounding notions such as the following:

Parallax is a metaphor for the decentered, dialogical construction of knowledge. It represents a way of knowing in which all vantage points yield a real knowledge, partial and different from that offered by any other vantage point, but in which no point yields insight more privileged than that gained from any other. It represents, in other words, a knowing in which none of our vantage points grants us a claim to any more singular status than that of being an other among others. It suggests that our knowledge is fundamentally indirect, not a knowledge of things in themselves but a knowledge of the negotiations by which we make things what they are. Parallax also configures the most effective means to gain knowledge in a decentered cosmos: the deepest knowledge will result from the dialogue that involves the largest number of differing vantage points. Knowledge is a product of the differing displacements of reality perceived from different viewpoints rather than of a singular, authoritative perception. (82)

Construed at the institutional rather than the individual level, there is indeed something deeply appealing about such an idea. Having myself once had a paper proposal on Thelonious Monk rebuffed in a 20th century music history class and, at the same school, essentially been blacklisted by the orchestra conductor for playing jazz, calls for greater equanimity in quotidian musico-institutional behavior will always resonate with me in the same immediate, pragmatic way that Tomlinson's abiding love of Miles Davis' electric period led him to question the jazz-critical establishment's ideologically-driven unreceptiveness to this music. Indeed, I recall well the shock of discovering my own affinity for this music despite everything I had heard and read about it. Yet from the perspective of an individual practitioner of jazz music, I would insist that forbidding musicians consideration as experts in their own field of endeavor is far too steep a price to pay for better behaved institutions. This not only deprives musicians of their due, so to speak, but more importantly, effectively outlaws their potentially most vital contributions to society, shutting down the mechanisms by which such contributions might be made.

Many musicians, especially African-Americans, do feel, with Tomlinson, who is white, that the sociological dimensions of jazz history are too frequently given short shrift. Even so, I don't think it's putting words in anyone's mouth for me, also white, to observe that African-Americans generally are in no similar hurry to deconstruct cultural authority, and for good reason: they are sick and tired of the idea that everyone and no one is an expert on their work. Marion Guck hits the nail on the head in her reaction to another of Tomlinson's papers when she points to "the observation of some feminists that, just when women and minority peoples have become visible as subjects, individual subjectivity is being questioned."

In any sociological approach to jazz pedagogy, the people who live(d) the sociology, for lack of a better way of putting it, need to be accorded their rightful expert status. Tomlinson's sociocultural profile of Davis is trenchant and veracious, but are we really to believe that it is of no greater or lesser value than Davis' own words and deeds? Than those of Davis' direct acquaintances? Than those of other pure scholars whose depth of engagement with Davis' life and music exceed Tomlinson's? These various observers are not mere "others among others," at least not vis-a-vis this particular avenue of inquiry. The "decentered" construction of knowledge fails here, and the notion that "the deepest knowledge will result from the dialogue that involves the largest number of differing vantage points" is untenable without at least cursory consideration of sources and agendas. There is thus an element of the parallactic approach, though it surely was not intended this way, which, given the facts on the ground, unmistakably threatens the particular disenfranchisement of African-American jazz-historical voices, most especially the voices of musicians themselves, holders of the most esoteric knowledge and experience who thus have the furthest to fall.

Of course, I myself, to open an even bigger can of worms, am thoroughly ambivalent about the sociological approach to music pedagogy and scholarship. Certainly I find much musico-sociological scholarship interesting, even entertaining; as a thinking musician, natural curiosity is reason enough for me to engage with it, sometimes in great depth. My chief practical motivation for doing so, however, is not to inform my own musical work, but simply to be better equipped to debunk the myopic and wide-ranging absurdities that sociologically-inclined non-practitioners so often perpetrate against the world of nitty-gritty music making with scarcely an inkling of just how profoundly their ideas threaten to undermine the work for which they purport to advocate. And so here we are. As primary teaching tools, analyses such as Tomlinson's screed on Electric Miles neither enrich the experience of hearing music nor leave the student with any practical insight into how to perform it. Sociology does not so much explain the music here as explain it away. In "resisting the aestheticizing tendency to exaggerate [music's] differences from other manifestations of expressive culture," the study of music ceases to have a clear purpose, justification, or reward. With this line, it becomes fair game to ask Tomlinson why he bothers at all.

There are, of course, some cynical answers which I have hung onto since my less-informed younger days without yet having been convinced that they are entirely off base. Like the "internalist" musical analysis Tomlinson decries, the sociological approach creates a scalable business model for the professional scholar. The parallactic conception dictates that a new research topic can always be found, no matter how cluttered the landscape in that area of inquiry has already become: subjects (people) are always coming and going even where objects (texts) stay the same, thus generating infinite parallax (and, potentially, publication). Further, far from playing opposing roles, internalism and sociology are merely two parallel avenues (historicism is another) by which those in left-leaning scholarly circles sublimate their true feelings about artworks into more socially graceful false consciousnesses. Musico-scholarly activity, whatever its other redeeming qualities, inevitably becomes a wellspring of faux-equanimous defenses of personal taste, a peculiar, isolated realm of thought where facts are offered in place of opinions more often than the other way around.

To repeat a familiar but timely complaint, it seems to me that the pre-emptively stated anti-goal-orientedness of musico-sociological pronouncements and the inherently vague, inexact nature of sociological inquiry into the realm of art is symptomatic of this larger charade. No one seems to be able to say just what the rest of us are missing here, just that we are missing something, and how dare we doubt its existence? But what is it? A deeper appreciation for the plight of African-Americans? Music is a third-rate proxy for that incredibly complex and pressing issue. Publicly, I cede authority to older musicians who claim a central place for the music in this task. Privately, I look around at the world I and my peers have inherited and wonder what has really been accomplished this way.

I am certainly not stumping here to outlaw any particular form of scholarship. I simply cannot imagine any other area of academic endeavor which saves the law, the chemistry, or the language "for last." I offer that outwardly simplistic view less as a matter of direct analogy than out of the innate pragmatism of a workaday practitioner, someone whose understanding of the multiple musical cultures he inhabits is informed by the uniquely powerful experience of grappling with their widely divergent technical demands. I am convinced that there is deep extramusical understanding to be had in that task, deeper in fact than distanced scholarship could ever hope to cook up by way of either internalist analysis or sociological excursus. As Christopher Small would admonish us, music is not a noun but a verb, not an object but rather something that people do. Where I must respectfully part company with Small, Tomlinson and other deconstructionists is in my belief that the question of why people make the music they do is frequently more interesting for its own sake than it is essential to the living of our lives, whether we are professional musicians, hobbyists, leisure listeners, or philistines. Specifically, as a pacifying mechanism among cultural groups who dislike each other across the board, ostensibly the particular function of asking "why" in which such theorists locate its gravest justification, answering the question can only be as effective as music is central to such conflicts, and that is to say superficially at best. I would have less faith in our world if no one were compelled to ask "why," but I remain unconvinced that there is a pressing need in any corner of that world for an answer.

And all of this does not yet go quite far enough. With specific regard to jazz, I have always found a unique brand of soft racism in the sociological emphasis. Again, it does not so much explain as explain away. Bebop: black people get hip. Free jazz: black people get angry. Fusion: black (and white) people (try to) get rich. Pardon them; you see, it's a sociological thing. Here, then, is a meta-sociological critique: these musicians did not actually live in a parallactic world! They lived in a deterministic, aestheticizing one. Their music was one consequence of sociology; it was not the inevitable consequence of sociology. Not every black person became a jazz musician! The relativistic steamrolling of art by "vernacular theory" which politely "emphasizes its own boundaries, its own range of authority and territorial claims, in counterpoint with other theoretical domains" (73) is anathema to the black milieus of the jazz era. Seriously! No one would have fucking survived! "Jazz is power" is no less an aestheticist than a sociological explanation for the music's existence. But really, who's demanding an explanation? What justification should anyone need to give for their music? Who's going to sit still for so much as 3 minutes of ugly (to them) music, whether it's played by a notorious asshole like Miles Davis or by Gandhi himself? How good a reason could there ever be for them to do so? Who are the real philistines here?

Devoted as he may claim to be to tearing artistic practice down from its elite, aestheticist cultural pedestal, Tomlinson thus betrays his motivations to lie in an equally specious elevation of art to a different kind of "elite" status, I would dare say, based on the insight it is thought to provide into graver matters than itself. Certainly this posture contradicts a stated aversion to the notion that "the meaning and expression found in artworks are of a different, higher order than those found in all other cultural acts." (84) as well as a naive fixation on aesthetics does. But of course I believe wholeheartedly in the primacy, if not the universality, of the aesthetic experience, regardless of its political implications, a point on which I suspect Tomlinson and I ultimately can do no better than agreeing to disagree.

•••••

According to Tomlinson, "the memorization of names, style periods, titles, dates, and other facts" explicitly disavowed by one author of a widely-used jazz appreciation text in pursuit of a music-centric approach amounts to nothing more than "a strawman caricature of extramusical historical understanding." (88-9) One could say much the same, though, of Tomlinson's equation of music-centric approaches with "the formalist view that remains debilitatingly dominant in Eurocentric musicology, with its continuing emphasis on internalist music analysis." Such a maneuver does not demote formalist navel-gazing alone: rather, it posits that the experience of active participation, of creating music, be that a formalist experience or any other kind, confers no particular wisdom that would distinguish the music-maker from any other observer.

Mystification and indignity define such a worldview. The "life-shapes that gave rise to [jazz] and that continue to sustain it" cannot be understood as vague archetypes; they are, rather, the specific life-shapes of jazz's human conduits. The "complex and largely extramusical negotiations" reflected in jazz are entered into and grappled with by them. These are "negotiations" which kill and maim more readily than they deify, yet in Tomlinson's musico-sociological utopia, which no longer "emphasiz[es] the musical appreciation of jazz," and where the "parallactic," "decentered," "dialogical" construction of knowledge forbids the very notion of cultural authority, the people who make the music cease to be experts on their own creation, and the sacrifices they necessarily make in order to "negotiate" the relationship of their work with its social and physical environments are callously disregarded. I might add, to the detriment of all involved. A musicological dialogue in which "no point yields insight more privileged than that gained from any other" (82) is a dialogue in which practitioners as a group are uniquely disenfranchised. Such a society is fundamentally mystifying, repressive, and unjust. The practitioner is the one who stares into the abyss, and who thus risks falling in; he or she is not simply an "other among others," certainly not vis-a-vis his or her own artistic tradition. In any society that encompasses art and artists, the tenability of cultural authority is a precondition to justice.

In rationalization of their demotion, practitioners are reminded that the social conditions under which they operate are inescapable; that they are broadly shared with non-practitioners; that no one creates in a vacuum; that good composers borrow while great composers steal; that cultural ownership is illusory. All true, I believe, but utterly irrelevant here: the peculiar "negotiation" of these and all other "life-shapes" undertaken by the practitioner yields a peculiar wisdom which is inaccessible from a distance. This wisdom is the practitioner's contribution to society. Sharing it is a matter of justice and dignity, equally so for both senders and receivers of such messages. Notions of authority are benign and inherent to this process. In a society comprised of artists, professionals, artisans, tradespeople, service workers, stay-at-home parents, athletes, professional criminals, and others, each individual has wisdom to contribute that is valuable precisely in being otherwise inaccessible to the other groups. Parallax is thus tenable only in this most global sense; within each sector, meanwhile, the practitioners must remain the experts. Otherwise, dignity shrivels and chaos reigns.

Some will object, as many have ever since Milton Babbitt's infamous article crystalized the issue, that the arts are not directly analogous to all or many of these other vocations; that while there is an objectively correct way to bake bread or remove a spleen which requires specific, privileged knowledge, there is no similarly objective beauty or ideal functionality to be prescribed for art; and thus that there is no particular difficulty or injustice in conferring a certain kind of authority upon selected bakers or surgeons and yet grave difficulties and injustices in conferring it upon only some artists. I am inclined to be sympathetic to that argument to a point, but I also think that emphasizing art's inherent subjectivity, and also its "contingency," as Tomlinson might say, makes it difficult to argue that politicization of internal art world dynamics by style and taste could ever rise to the level of injustice. To elevate art's disaffinity with other vocations in this way is to carve out a special place for it in our culture, something Tomlinson is otherwise bent on opposing. But if surgery is life-or-death and art is not, then this place is not so "special" after all, less an elitist pedestal than a padded cell of escapism. In that sense, he has made his own bed here: he can deny practitioners their expert status either in society or in art, but not in both at once.

•••••

Though he never puts it quite so plainly, Tomlinson is clearly pursuing a sublimation of the will in a particular manner which aligns him unmistakably but confoundingly with the experimental tradition. I say confoundingly not out of contempt for experimentalism, but out of a recognition (it takes a practitioner) that jazz is profoundly and thoroughly willful music, diametrically opposed to experimentalism, and indeed despised by notable experimentalists since time immemorial for precisely this reason. I would similarly suggest that the will is a necessary evil in the institutions where such musics are practiced and taught as well as in practitioners' "negotiations" of their societies. About this issue, Tomlinson says:

Difficulties arise not in our inevitable making of personal canons but rather in our move to empower them by uniting with others who hold fundamentally similar personal canons. This move toward the communal solace of a shared, metapersonal canon is a play for the political power of an institution. It is a shift away from dialogue with others whose personal canons diverge widely from ours, dialogue by which we might sustain a healthy flux of impermanent and intersubjective canons. It is a bid for control and domination that stymies the parallactic, dialogical play of evaluations. (84)

CalArts, where I attended graduate school for the previous two years, is one of the highest profile attempts at pluralistic institution-building in the arts, as well as, not coincidentally, a notable experimentalist outpost. To be sure, both of these factors contributed to my interest in studying there. But of course, the irony of "outsider artists" who don't believe either in institutions or in the primacy of the will nonetheless insisting on being accorded the opportunity to pursue accredited graduate degrees on their own terms is not lost on many of us who operate in the more traditional ways. It is more than a mere harmless, abstract irony, and that is the crux of this matter as I see it. Whereas the first generation of electronic musicians, for example, fought to be institutionally recognized for their strictly musical abilities and contributions vis-a-vis the Western tradition as it then stood, it seems many of their progenitors, now granted full institutional citizenship, autonomy, and even the possibility of doctoral level study in some locations, cannot typically be bothered with anything that happened before about 1987. CalArts is teeming with cliques and sub-cliques in this mold: jazzheads, experimentalists, tabla players, conservatorists, technologists, and others. Tolerance, exchange, impermanence and parallax abound, as does the black sheep of the family, ambivalence. There are always enough stalwart eclecticists to keep things operational, but we are outnumbered, here as elsewhere, by specialists with minimal truly abiding interest in areas of study outside of their own.

The absence of shared tradition Tomlinson celebrates is palpable at CalArts, and of course, while I had once wished I could share in less of it than the University of Minnesota School of Music so often dictated, I have to admit that the alternative was strangely unfulfilling. Ambivalence is highly destructive, if not to creation, then certainly to implementation. Competing wills, on the other hand, create friction, which is a precondition for gaining traction. I'm sure that sounds too cute and philosophical to be of any value, but to me, it was a defining characteristic of my CalArts experience, and especially palpable when I was new and had no personal relationships with anyone that might compel them to want to play with me solely for that reason.

Tomlinson pays lip service to the notion that judging and ordering are "basic needs" of the subject, but argues for a self that nonetheless "always recognizes and is brought up short by the otherness in its midst and at its horizons" (86) as an antidote to the politicization inherent in institutions formed out of coalitions of taste. The ultimate destination of that outlook is, as the CalArts experience points to, pure individualism, definition by opposition, and a gridlocked musical culture of affected eccentricities without the possibility of common cause. It is precisely at this point that left becomes right, freedom becomes repression, and political correctness becomes injustice; where a pathological distrust of aestheticism drives its detractors well and truly over the edge to steamroll the very concept of beauty right out of their own lives before setting about the business of performing the same service for everyone else. And as such, it could not be greater anathema to the jazz tradition.

•••••

...aestheticism, the view that the meaning and expression found in artworks are of a different, higher order than those found in all other cultural acts; transcendentalism, the view that artistic value and significance can somehow travel with an artwork outside of the specific contexts that determine or redetermine them; and formalism, the view, closely related to transcendentalism, that meaning and value inhere in the internal formal arrangements of artworks themselves, independent of their contexts of creation or recreation. (84)

The musical practitioner as sharer of "wisdom," as I call it above, is in fact wise only if their discipline somehow "matters." It is at this point that I must ultimately confess to being non-plussed by Tomlinson's assault on "the view that the meaning and expression found in artworks are of a different, higher order than those found in all other cultural acts." (84) The "higher" part is more easily conceded. The "different" part, meanwhile, is simply mind-boggling, sheer nonsense talk. It seems self-evident to me, having observed them closely for most of my life, that domestic felines can distinguish orders of cultural acts; mustn't humans be able to as well? Similarly, just how "specific" are the "specific contexts that determine or redetermine" artworks? What exactly constitutes a thorough "independence" from an artworks' "context of creation?" Clearly, like art itself, you know it when you see it, but that is not an adequate philosophical maneuver. If the slipperiness of these concepts doesn't necessarily impact their relevance, it at least makes explaining Bach, Satchmo and Hendrix quite a bit more difficult than it needs to be. Certainly if Tomlinson sees them going out of style, I would like to mark my calendar.

To wit, I would argue that no self-respecting aesthete would ever claim or imply that all artworks are "of a different, higher order" than "all other cultural acts." To do so constitutes precisely the variety of pseudo-relativism that us hardcore aesthetes have to fight against much more directly in our everyday relationships with less discriminate peers: make an artwork, transcend a culture, have a beer, repeat. If this is the posture that Tomlinson is writing against, I am with him; I would humbly submit, however, that it is a posture which is in fact anathema to aestheticism properly understood, and concurrently, that the more properly we understand aestheticism, the less there is to get upset about.

Instead, writing as a captial-r Relativist, Tomlinson does not so much define aestheticism as flatten it. The concept is thereby reduced to a fixation on a crude and absolute dichotomy between artworks and other cultural phenomena, a distinction which misses the mark in two important ways. One is this: a truly hedonistic preoccupation with gratifying one's particular aesthetic desires and nothing else is the surest path to a healthy irreverence for airtight distinctions between art and non-art. As "money talks" to the businessperson, so "beauty talks" to the aesthete. I am reminded here of one CalArts instructor's insistence that "some of my favorite musicians aren't human." Indeed, only at CalArts, but this time at least, I think it's a lovely (and timely) thing. Secondly, there is in fact an aspect of hierarchy which concerns the aesthete, but it is one which exhibits far more porous boundaries and variegated contours than Tomlinson's hardline definition implies. Aesthetes in fact understand more immediately than any other group that "the communal solace of a shared, metapersonal canon" is never better than illusory. "A play for the political power of an institution" by "uniting with others who hold fundamentally similar personal canons" is out of the question for us; we do not (cannot) play nearly that well with others. Such coalitions of musico-academic dogmatism sell out aestheticism at every turn by repressing case-by-case judgment in favor of crude dichotomies of "same" and "other."

All of this is to say that aestheticism, if it has any power at all, derives this power not from dealing in broad classes of cultural artifacts (i.e. "artworks" or "symphonies"), but from the human capacity (tendency? dare I say need?) to judge these artifacts case-by-case, even moment to moment in the case of the temporal arts. Nor is the aesthete forbidden from leveling outwardly conflicting concurrent evaluations of the same artifact based on a multitude of its components and/or properties, issues of "surface" and "depth" making for a particularly obvious example that will be familiar across disciplines. By the same token, the transcendentalist contends that some "artistic value and significance" travels, the formalist that some "meaning and value" inheres, and both contend, unless they are in fact closet relativists themselves, that this happens only some of the time. And only if these hypothetical spokespeople possess a child's view of the world together with a woefully shallow survey of the technical and historical development of their respective artistic disciplines do they refuse to grant that some of the time in practice means exceedingly rarely.

The political dimension of these three -isms that gets self-righteous cultural critics in such a tizzy of course derives from just this Darwinistic view of artistic creation, grading artists as it does on an impossibly steep curve, and thereby fanning the flames of inequality and, inevitably, dogmatism within artistic traditions. Such it is that a fourth -ism, escapism, inevitably enters the discussion, threatening as it does to redeem this Darwinistic worldview by creating a padded cell for it to inhabit isolated from "real" political issues and art-institutional power struggles alike. Thus there is an internal consistency here, a symbiosis, perverse perhaps but undeniable, between aestheticism and escapism, a point often raised in service of harsh criticism of artists who espouse either or both, or who otherwise disavow political art. The validity of such criticism of course hinges, among other things, on questions of what art is truly able to accomplish politically, questions for which I haven't the space or energy at present, but about which I must take the opportunity to say that the aesthete's proclivity to judge case-by-case certainly would come in handy for those artists so inclined to act as political conduits. Indeed, was it not at precisely that juncture when radical artists ceased speaking of activism as something their art can do and began to define it as that which their art does that they officially stooped to the level of their reactionary counterparts?

That Tomlinson's definitions of aestheticism and formalism read as absolute could as easily be the result of carelessness or expediency as of malice (and as easily on the part of the editor as the author). However, seeing that they are allotted only a sentence each in a 30-page journal article by an Ivy League professor, it seems safe to assume that if there was more to say it could and would have been said. And it is in the first place a bit unusual to see dictionary definitions of foundational philosophical concepts offered at all to the readership of an academic journal, a gesture which betrays an underlying desire to frame them in a particular way. To my admittedly rather unusual sensibilities, they are strawmen of a sort, describing an extremism of which I'm hard-pressed to locate an example. I'm not even sure they apply to a classic Old World asshole in the mold of, say, Wagner, who had to be aware of the Other in order to loathe it.

The academicians most vociferously distrusted by practitioners have traditionally not been the scholars but rather their own kind, academically-inclined faux-practitioners, eminent life-suckers whose codified rigidity hits closer to home than pie-in-the-sky post-structuralism ever could. Though a few such practitioner-scholars never fail to make positive contributions, it is in any case shocking to ponder (not to mention to hear) their impact on the jazz of the last 40 years. The pure scholars, conversely, have never had the standing or the influence beyond the walls of their own institutional perches to pose such a threat to musicians in the trenches, which it's safe to say reflects a general state of affairs in American culture more so than any dynamic particular to the jazz world. I am normally inclined to lament this for all the usual left-wing reasons, but after reading this article, a screed so far left it is right, I was perversely thankful for a change. The academic who codifies and prescribes musical practice is far less hazardous than the one who shows a sociopathic disregard for it.

1 comment:

Deborah said...

Very interesting. Just a few comments on some of the details touched on above, which is not to ignore the overall thrust of this critique or its conclusion -- just some particular things that struck me.

The idea that we humans are historically and culturally determined beings is a fairly recent insight, tho’ there are clearly many people alive today, even in the industrialized western world, who have yet to gain this understanding. So the idea that there is always an “other” out there who challenges our own particular point of view – as well as our status -- strikes me as morally and politically useful. To pretend that whole working systems can be based on some kind of radical notion of equality of view points, however – be they intellectual, artistic, commercial, or political -- seems downright nuts. Not only does such a notion run the risk of everyone potentially being in conflict with every “other” one (albeit equally), there is no real mechanism for any sort of collective action, as you so correctly point out. And while one might easily concede that no one should be valued above any other in some essential sense, functionally this is simply untenable. Suffice it to say that it is possible to acknowledge the on-going and inevitable tension that will always exist between individuals themselves as well as between individuals and their communities without so privileging each unique individual that we become completely paralyzed. Perhaps certain kinds of academics can promote and defend this kind egalitarian fantasy, because they know that there is not a snowball’s chance in hell that they will ever have to actually live out this nightmare.

Secondly, I was particularly struck by the connections you make between ethics and aesthetics. Even as an aspiring arm-chair ethicist, I have not thought nearly enough about this connection. But I am thinking about it now, so, thanks!