The Teh-drinking Musicologist: Ethnomusicology vs Musicology: The paradox of Productivity

Friday, April 25, 2008

Ethnomusicology vs Musicology: The paradox of Productivity

This is Musicology:

This is Ethnomusicology:

And this is Kofi Agawu:

Agawu, the famed postcolonial music theorist of Princeton University has been exceptionally effective in arguing against the position of "difference" assumed by Ethnomusicology in attending to Otherness. His claim, echoed by many other musicologists, is that "difference" is produced in order to give authorial voice to the ethnomusicologist, who speaks for the Other. In a Said-like swindle, Agawu characterizes ethnomusicology as a ventriloquist act, verifying the hypothetical native by distorting him into the discursive universe of ethnomusicology, carefully controlled by other power-hungry ethnoids. What Agawu argues for is a careful unmasking of voices of authority as constructed paradigms of Symbolic colonization of the Other, which can only be defined as such by the production of difference by the former.

While Agawu's critique of ethnomusicology comes fast, furious and effective, rejecting difference can offer no positive way forward for the study of ethnomusicology, nor can it prescribe an alternative to theorizing Otherness. In fact, "sameness" as a category risks becoming hegemonic. One should not forget that the implicit ideology of egalitarianism saturates notions of "sameness" with a historical sheen of Liberal Democracy, and ends up acceding to the reinforcement of Western/Eastern difference as predicated on political ends and means. In other words, the impulse towards Otherness as "sameness" smuggles a loaded inclination towards American models of subjectivity, indeed masquerading as THE model of subjectivity whatever the cultural context the inquisitor is dealing with.

To put a Platonic spin on the notion of "sameness", perhaps we would do better to conceive of "sameness" as a radical imagining of an absence, indeed "sameness" not as a positive value but as an absence of difference. The key, then is then understanding how boundaries of "sameness" are drawn by deftly delimiting "difference". If we throw a psychoanalytic frame on the issue, one may even conceive of "sameness" as the precipitate between primary difference and secondary difference. "Sameness" cannot be foundational, Lacan argues, who conceives of the perceiving subject as intrinsically heterogeneous. "Sameness" therefore implies the subjective delimitation of and endless chain of signifiers, isolating THE signifier (or subject position) which will "signify for all other signifiers". The trick then, is producing "sameness" by manufacturing secondary difference.

Zizek identifies this as a primordially political act that resembles the recognition (production) of stable identity by first figuring the kernel of pure absence, the chaotic cycle of signification, then by according the absence a positive value, the signifier for which will signify all others. But this involves an act prior to naming, it involves a consensual "clearing-out" of the absence which is first and foremost not (and opposed to) all other signifiers, then allocating that negative a positive value as the signifier. The formation of a discipline adopts the same exact principle in clearing out a position of distance from all others, which then allows it to articulate itself as homogeneous.

If we push Agawu's faulty line of reasoning a little further, I argue that one of the reasons Musicology still exists today is predicated upon its difference (even opposition) to that of ethnomusicology. Turning the table, it may be argued that Musicology's hidden reliance on difference is what gives currency to a certain discursive practice as discipline, in order to stratify a certain mode of production intrinsically dependent on numerous ideologies. One of these ideologies is the illusion of an essentially "Western" Canon of Musical Works which may be plundered for productive knowledge. What musicology risks in New-Musicology (so-called Kermanesque interdisciplinary infusionary knowledge) is the bleeding of discursive practices into Ethnomusicology, and the audacious proposition that someday, ethnomusicology may eventually overtake or replace musicology. What, then differentiates both disciplines? Simply, the orientation of either discipline towards Otherness. For Ethnomusicology, Otherness forms the essential kernal of study. Though, as Agawu has pointed out, this may be problematic, one also can conceive of the possibility of the self turning to the self as other. Indeed, exploring the territory of assumed "sameness" as a playground of difference can be productive. For Musicology, however, is towards disciplinary Otherness.

Within the past decade, Musicology has refashioned its ideological territory, embracing values that deliberately contrast with the discursive practices of Ethnomusicology. Ethnomusicology, for Musicology, is "the Other". What I am identifying here is a subtle adjustment in the mode of knowledge production predicated upon the "gaze" of its "Other" discipline, Ethnomusicology. Again, I am not claiming that this reorientation has worked to solidify the stronghold of the Western tradition as a bearer of authentic knowledge; rather, I am identifying how the reorienting of Otherness can drive the productivity of disciplines such as Musicology into avenues which are perceived to differ. But this is not an ethical judgment; on the contrary, the paradox of this produced difference between disciplines is that the construction of difference is essentially productive, as long as the boundaries of "discipline" are still valued metaphysically.

1 comment:

Annaliesa_Rose said...

I'd just like to say that as you don't have your name written anywhere I am not allowed (using chicago method) to use you as a reference with this article because you are therefore not seen as a 'scholarly site'.
anyhow good article though