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Music in the World
By Timothy D. Taylor
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
The Absence of Culture in the Study of Music
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. KARL MARX, THE EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE OF LOUIS BONAPARTE
I begin with the famous statement by Karl Marx to make a point not about history but about culture. Few concepts are bandied about with the regularity of that term while at the same time being set aside. While plenty has been written about the overuse of the term "culture" or its limitations (see, e.g., Abu-Lughod 1991; Gupta and Ferguson 1992; and Troulliot 1991), I continue to find it a useful concept. My concern here is the absence, or feeble presence, of it in many studies of music.
In the American context, at least, this problem is exacerbated by centuries-old ideologies of individualism (see de Crèvecur 1981 and de Tocqueville 2003), ideologies that are extremely difficult to overcome. American individualism has fostered the understanding of the world as a congeries of cultures, but normally stops short of using the concept to understand ourselves, except as a means of differentiating ourselves from other (usually ethnicized or racialized) groups.
In the American context at least, "culture" has usually come to refer not to the anthropological concept, but, simply, to difference: my culture is different from yours. "Culture" in this sense is thus a concept that merely replaces older ideas of race, ethnicity, or blood in American parlance.
The elision of culture is perhaps nowhere clearer than in the reception and studies of music, in which individual creators are seen as just that: music is thought to emanate directly from someone's head. Concepts of genius and talent are too often taken as axiomatic, not as ideologies with specific histories. Musicians lead complex lives (as does everyone), but are reduced to being isolated individuals who emit music, not people with various amounts of different forms of capital, people situated as subjects in different class, gender, generational, racialized, ethnicized (and still other) positions.
This sort of focus is one of the challenges facing any field that studies a particular aspect of a culture rather than "culture" (as in anthropology), "society" (as in sociology), or "history" (as in history). Focusing on a single practice, no matter how broad and variable, can lead to a view of its practitioners as nothing other than practitioners; culture can be rendered secondary, if it enters the analysis at all. There is thus a general tendency in many music studies to examine the people who make culture, not how they are made by culture; study of music as (anthropological) culture becomes just the study of music as (non-anthropological) culture. Ethnographies of musicians who are people in a culture too often become just biographies of those musicians. Biographies are useful in and of themselves, of course, but do not always shed light on the cultures that shape musicians and their music.
Culture and Ethnography Revisited
Let's revisit the culture concept as promulgated by its most celebrated and influential proponent of the past half century, the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz. I am sure it is not necessary to rehearse Geertz on the culture concept, save to reiterate this famous formulation: culture is "a historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life" (Geertz 1973, 89). Clear enough, one would think: meaning is our focus, what is meaningful for social actors. The analysis of culture is the study of shared meanings.
This sort of analysis was famously characterized by Geertz (drawing on philosopher Gilbert Ryle) as "thick description." I would like to go back, briefly, to Geertz's classic article, for it seems to me that it is too often taken as an advocation for copious description, as if that somehow is an end in itself. But for Geertz, thick description involves the search for what is meaningful for social actors, which makes the analysis of culture the sorting out of "the structures of signification" (Geertz 1973, 9). "Ethnography," he writes, "is thick description" (Geertz 1973, 9–10), and its proper object of analysis is "the informal logic of everyday life" (Geertz 1973, 17). Geertz then writes:
If anthropological interpretation is constructing a reading of what happens, then to divorce it from what happens — from what, in this time or that place, specific people say, what they do, what is done to them, from the whole vast business of the world — is to divorce it from its applications and render it vacant. (Geertz 1973, 18)
Yet, there are plenty of examples of studies of music that serve up this very sort of vacancy. Geertz also admonishes that "anthropologists don't study villages (tribes, towns, neighborhoods ...); they study in villages" (Geertz 1973, 22; ellipsis and italics in original). That is, the object of analysis is not something concrete, tangible — the goal is the interpretation of the "flow of social discourse" (Geertz 1973, 20).
There are, unfortunately, many sorts of inquiries, including those employed by students of music, that avoid the sort of analysis advocated by Geertz. He lists what he calls "escapes," approaches that have the result of "turning culture into folklore and collecting it, turning it to traits and counting it, turning it into institutions and classifying it, turning it into structures and toying with it." But I would insist with Geertz that these are escapes (Geertz 1973, 29) — they are not enterprises in search of what is meaningful to particular social actors in particular places and times. And this is what our studies ought to privilege.
While it may be recognized that Geertz's focus was on meaning, signification, it isn't always as well understood by some just what this means for the study of culture. First, some critiques of the culture concept raise the problem of homogenization, reducing complex and messy social practices to, simply, "culture" (see Abu-Lughod 1991 and Ortner 2006). But, as Sherry B. Ortner points out, culture as the shared practices of a group was only one aspect of Geertz's conceptualization; the other, as I have emphasized, was concerned with meaning (Ortner 2006). The centrality of meaning in Geertz's thinking presupposes subjects for whom objects, relationships, practices, events, are meaningful. It is nonetheless true that he did not always focus on individual subjects or questions of agency (see Ortner 1996 and 2006), but that doesn't mean that his concept of culture no longer has anything to offer.
It must also be remembered that ethnography is actually quite a radical methodology, and a much different one than the conducting of surveys or other sorts of sociological inquiry, or historical inquiry, or philosophical inquiry; the first two are closer to what one could call scientific studies in which the main goal is to attempt to uncover objective social structures and practices (sociology) or the objective historical record as it shapes people's thoughts and actions, characterizations I do not mean to be negative in any way, for these are all valuable endeavors; and philosophy, which attempts to address itself to transhistorical and transcultural sorts of questions (if indeed there can be any such things). But because ethnography is so comfortably the main methodology of ethnomusicology, I think that it is sometimes easy to forget just how radical it is, for it is less concerned with what is true or objective than with what people believe to be true and objective — what matters to them, and how this mattering, these beliefs, shape thought and practice — the flow of social discourse. Thus, while one can often find strong commonalities between historians' conceptions of history and anthropologists' and ethnomusicologists' conceptions of culture, there can also be dramatic divergences, which can be no more or less enlightening. Actually, I would not even refer to ethnography as a method (that term is probably better reserved to describe fieldwork) — it is a perspective, an interpretive framework that forces us to wonder about somebody else: What is meaningful to them? Why? What kind of lives do they lead? What kind of lives do they lead that makes this music (or whatever practice) meaningful to them?
Some music studies still suffer from their employment of the more scientific and less qualitative approaches by asking questions that are less ethnographic, less thickly descriptive, less about meaning for social actors, and more about imposing "scientific" — including quantitative — questions on what people do and why they do it. Or some get bogged down in the sorts of questions that could best be described as ontological — that is, What is authentic? What is this or that genre? What is an ethnic group? These latter sorts of questions can't ever be answered; they can only be addressed ethnographically or historically: What is (or was) said and done in the name of authenticity? What is or was said and done in the name of this or that genre? What is or was said and done in the name of this or that ethnic group?
Other approaches have also ended up pushing culture to the sidelines. The uncritical importation of theories from fields that do not possess a culture concept (or that don't bother to historicize) is a perennial problem. Perhaps the best example is the widespread popularity of practice theory in some of the music fields, which has yielded much productive research. Some of the most influential practice theorists, however, are sociologists (Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens, most prominently), whose object of study is not culture but society. How useful is a practice theory of society if one is interested in culture? What, to be a little more specific, does one learn in Bourdieu's classic Distinction (Bourdieu 1984) about French culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s (when Bourdieu's survey data was collected)? Do we learn anything about real people, which one would in an ethnography (even if their names are changed)? It is thus necessary, I would argue, not only to be wary of "applications" of practice theory that render culture vacant, but to culturalize practice theory, as Sherry B. Ortner (Ortner 1996 and 2006) and William Sewell (Sewell 2005) have usefully attempted in some of their work.
Another theory that has had the unfortunate and unintended effect of pushing culture to the side, at least in ethnomusicology, was Timothy Rice's influential promotion of "subject-centered musical ethnography" (Rice 2003), which begins with rehearsing the various problematizations of the culture concept in anthropology and elsewhere. Rice also visits various theorizations of globalization, which foreground the movement of peoples around the world, to advocate our focus on individuals rather than culture (Rice 2003, 152). He then surveys some ideas about the nature of the individual, drawing from Giddens the idea of self-reflexivity (Giddens 1990) to justify greater ethnomusicological attention to the music-making self and the prevalence of self-narration in the late modern world. Rice is careful in his attempts not simply to abandon the anthropological concept of culture, and does not say that moving the focus from culture to the individual will answer all questions. Nonetheless, the result has all too frequently been simply a revalorization of the musician as individual creator.
What I am saying is that Rice's turn away from culture to focus on individuals has had the unfortunate effect of taking us away from culture, in particular, the Geertizan concept of it that is concerned with what is meaningful for social actors. We should, of course, attend to individuals — it would be difficult not to. But we need always to keep in mind that the relationship between individuals and culture is extremely complex. Culture does not "determine" individuals' thoughts and actions, and cultural forms are not simply products of individuals' thoughts and actions. All coexist in complex dynamics, which, I believe, are best understood by employing a practice theory that has been politicized and culturalized. Ortner's updated definition of culture productively imports practice theory thinking: culture consists of "(politically inflected) schemas through which people see and act upon the world and the (politically inflected) subjectivities through which people feel — emotionally, viscerally, sometimes violently — about themselves and the world" (Ortner 2006, 18).
A weak or absent culture concept has also, I believe, led to seemingly endless formulations of "music and —" (e.g., music and identity, music and difference, and many more). Linkage between music and something else is a kind of lateral move, instead of a conceptualization that connects music to culture or history, identity (for example) to culture or history, and all three together. The problem of music and identity is particularly salient, for it exploded on the ethno/musicological scene a couple of decades ago, but, as Timothy Rice (2007) has shown, it was never interrogated or treated reflexively (Rice 2007). Identity was treated as natural, a given in the ethnomusicological literature he examined. Yet, identity as a self-conception — and self-construction — is not "natural," or it is, of course, social, historical, and cultural.
Any sort of cultural analysis of music needs to be conducted with the utmost reflexivity so as not to regress to pointless positivism, in which culture is rendered vacant. We must be vigilant. If we are not studying culture, why are we doing what we are doing? What is our music analysis for? Is it necessary to transcribe this or that musical performance? What questions about culture does music or performance analysis help us address? If we get bogged down in what we believe to be knowable through quantifying and scientizing, we may be rich in facts and figures but we will certainly be poor in our understanding of culture and what individual social actors say and do, and why they believe themselves to be saying and doing what they are saying and doing.
Let's turn to some more concrete examples of how culture shapes the production and understanding of forms in music. That culture plays such a role should surprise no one. Yet, there are a number of ways that those who attempt to "read" culture out of forms do so that need to be examined but ultimately discarded. The first is the idea of reflection, that music, or literature, or visual art or other forms, "reflect" the society or culture that produced them. This idea, as Raymond Williams points out, enjoyed a long history, stemming from Marxist demands that cultural forms must "reflect" society as it really is. But the idea of reflection found usages outside this framework as a general theory of how society shapes cultural production. Williams critiques the concept nicely:
The most damaging consequence of any theory of art as reflection is that, through its persuasive physical metaphor (in which a reflection simply occurs, within the physical properties of light, when an object or movement is brought into relation with a reflective surface — the mirror and then the mind), it succeeds in suppressing the actual work on material — in a final sense, the material social process — which is the making of any art work. By projecting and alienating this material process to "reflection," the social and material character of artistic activity — of that art-work which is at once "material" and "imaginative" — was suppressed. (Williams 1977, 97; emphasis in original)
Related to the concept of reflection is that of "expression," as in the idea that musicians and their music are "expressing" their culture. Like "reflection," this formulation presupposes the idea that musicians and/or music are somehow separate from their culture, so that they are in a position to "express" it. Yet, many studies of music remain studies of form and style as "expressions" of an individual, all divorced from the cultures, histories, and social worlds that produced them. Or, an individual's emission of music is taken to be somehow representative or constitutive or reinforcing of her group, which is the sort of functionalist interpretation that Geertz also argued against.
Last, there is the notion of homology. This is primarily associated with the Frankfurt School and is usefully summed up by Williams thus: "It extends from a sense of resemblance to one of analogy, in directly observable terms, but it includes also, and more influentially, a sense of corresponding forms or structures, which are necessarily the results of different kinds of analysis" (Williams 1977, 104 – 5; emphases in original). The use of homology has become somewhat common in some some analyses of music, in large part as a result of the influence of Theodor Adorno. In his hands or those of other skilled interpreters, this approach can sometimes yield convincing results. But, more often, there is a sense of a mechanical relationship that is being forced by the analyst and is frequently ignorant of history, society, and culture.
Excerpted from Music in the World by Timothy D. Taylor. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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