Going Nowhere Fast: Notes on the AMS Self-Implosion

The pitched battle which recently erupted at the blog of the American Musicological Society (the field’s pre-eminent professional society) naturally generated considerable interest among members of the tribe. It even, to some degree, reached outside of it, though most will likely concur with a friend who dismissed the entire affair with the pithy phrase “Academics gonna academic”.

Insofar as it is more than a dog bite man story, its relevance has less to do with the content of the exchange than what it tells us about academics’ conceptions as to their real and imagined role within the broader culture. The latter will be the subject of a few remarks here.
Before I get to them, it is necessary to recount the outlines of what, at least in its general essentials, should be by now a fairly familiar trajectory. This specific instance began with a musicologist, Pierpaolo Polzonetti (hereafter P), posting about his having conducted a class on Metastasian opera, one of his academic specialities.

As is by now routine, he related that, in conducting the class, he made reference to the sorts of music likely to be relatively familiar to his students, in particular, rap which he describes as having “a pounding beat” and “blatant lyrics”. He also alluded to the various functions of the “rage aria” with specific reference to “Ah chi mi dice mai” from Don Giovanni. This elicited a lively classroom discussion which P channelled into a technical exegesis, “encourag(ing the class) to look closely at the score and analyze Mozart’s dramatization of emotions.” P eventually derived from this a familiar albeit somewhat pedantic conclusion:

Mozart’s Don Giovanni gave these students a chance to better understand real-life emotions that, when repressed or out of control, can be destructive: fear and fearlessness, guilt and remorselessness, sexual passion leading to compulsion, sexual abuse, even to rape and murder.

None of this would have elicited any comment or probably even been published on the AMS site were it not for the circumstances under which P. was conducting the class. For P was not, as is usually the case, delivering the academic goods to a relatively privileged, predominantly white student body. Rather he was serving the largely African American inmates of Indiana’s Westville Correctional Facility.

This, according to a significant fraction of the readership of the AMS blog, made all the difference in the world. And after expressing serious reservations with respect to the “tone” adopted by P, they were quick to unleash direct, personal attacks against P, who was immediately characterized as “racist and elitist and entitled.” Others weighing in denounced P’s lack of understanding of “the deep institutionalized racism that underpins the US prison-industrial complex” attributing it to his being a “native of Italy” and consequently, according to this commenter, “substantially less sensitive . . . to institutional racism” than those of us who are native born citizens of the world leader in mass incarceration.

When P meekly defended himself as having been a citizen and a resident of this country for 20 years, the counterattack was swift and furious-albeit not substantive: P’s “tone” again betrayed him in his protesting that his immigrant experience was no less authentic for his not having arrived “in the trunk of a car.” This brought forth a new round of denunciations, with accusations of xenophia now included in the mix.

The push back would reach a fever pitch, moving on to topics such as the overwhelmingly white complexion of the musicological profession, the condescending treatment experienced by women and minority junior faculty members extending all the way to the field not having sufficiently commemorated the death of Michael Jackson some years back.


At this point, it should have come as no surprise to have found leading “new musicologist” Robert Fink saddling up his high horse. His doing so rang a bell for me as in our exchange a year back he had charged similarly that my defense of the Minnesota Orchestra workforce from attacks by its corporate board constituted a musical application of the “one drop rule” based on “the presence or absence of melanin”.

Whereas Fink was implicitly impugning my integrity by suggesting my alleged sympathy with a Jim Crow statute, his charge of “casual racism” against P is explicit. According to Fink, P’s description of rap should be seen as “the musicological equivalent of using the N-word.”
It should be noted that P escapes Fink’s full condemnation as these attitudes are relics, according to him, of longstanding white supremacist prejudices of the musicological profession.

Fink sees himself as having moved beyond his benighted mentors in this respect. Now he “winces on behalf of the tweedy prep school classical snob I once was, enthralled with Mahler and dismissing disco as repetitive trash.”

No doubt Fink has long since traded in his academic tweeds for the hipster academic uniform of choice.

But by invoking his sartorial preferences Fink probably doesn’t recognize that he gives the game away. For in doing so he concedes that academic positions are just that, namely fashions which have as much to do with substantive political attitudes and convictions as do decisions to order from Etsy, L.L. Bean or Urban Outfitters.

Indeed, as I had previously noted, the entire “new” musicological program of which Fink is a foremost exponent should be seen in this light. Fink’s “celebration of ‘pre-bop jazz’ and ‘Mississippi Delta blues’ displacing white European males from the canon of Western classical music,” and other exercises in “now dominant academic multiculturalism” are, I argued, nothing more than “a way of purchasing leftist bona fides on the cheap through symbolic concessions in the aesthetic and cultural realm.” For what these efforts conspicuously fail to do is play the slightest role within a substantive “challenge to capital’s virtually uncontested string of triumphs in the political and economic spheres.”

And if we did not know that back then, we should know it now: The negative evidence on this score, after all, is explicit and overwhelming in the form of metastasizing rates of child poverty, a massive drop in aggregate wealth, and depression level rates of unemployment co-occurring among marginalized groups with the victories of post canonic musicology achieved by Fink’s new musicological cohort. What is their value when it is now obvious that for three decades they have been correlated with the declining prospects and often complete devastation for minority and working class communities?

This critique, associated with Walter Benn Michaels, Adolph Reed, and Karen and Barbara Fields, among others should by now be familiar. Among those who are aware of it, it will provoke an obvious question. Why have so many managed to convince themselves that the new multiculturalism in musicology and other academic disciplines constitutes anything more than a rhetorical shift of fashion. Why do so many appear to be invested in believing that what happens in academic seminar rooms and tenure hearings has any bearing on the substantive material conditions of marginalized constituencies far outside its walls.

The answer to the question returns us to the opening allusion one which is obvious to everyone besides the academics themselves. The kilobytes of high dudgeon invective invested in this thread is us parading our self-importance, our pretentious assumption that the stakes involved in out sectarian squabbles-even vicious ones-have some ultimate meaning or utility.

So why even bother to discuss behavior which, after all, merely typifies our species, just as much as a cow chewing its cud, a dog butt-sniffing or a plant photosynthesizing. The reason has to do with is its timing. For it’s hard to avoid noticing that the frantic denunciatory energies are being expended at a time when an actual, as opposed to merely rhetorical, political conflict is occurring, one which, depending on its outcome, has the potential to tangibly benefit the lives of the marginalized and immiserated constituencies which are the supposed object of these academics’ passionate advocacy.

For the first time in decades, there is a viable political campaign based on formerly taboo issues including not just mass incarceration, economic devastation of low income communities but the system of neoliberal governance and ideology which is ultimately responsible for the human wreckage on display most conspicuously in prisons, inner cities and elsewhere.

It might be assumed that those who most ardently proclaim their solidarity would be aligned with the candidate who has forced these issues onto the table. That matters are not so simple is apparent when we observe that the candidate most willing to deploy the most stridently anti-racist rhetoric, and whose supporters have been eager to brandish the charge of “white supremacy” and white skin privilege is, in fact, the candidate of elite, neoliberal capital.

What this suggests is that we can no longer assume that “anti-racism” no matter how ardently protested overlaps with a commitment to the kind of egalitarian politics and redistributive economics which is required to begin to address the root causes of the conditions experienced by the inmates of Westville, their families as well as others in the dispossessed 99%. Rather, as Adolph Reed has suggested, anti racism, particularly in its most theatrical varieties can function as a distinctly reactionary class politics, one “that expresses and connects with the interests of an aspiring or upwardly mobile stratum of the professional managerial class that scoffs and sneers at programs of material redistribution.” While surely not all of those denouncing P are in this category, much of the tenor of the discourse is consistent with viewing them in this light.

And what of the patrician, meliorist do gooderism of the sort represented by P and his supporters on the thread? While it has been routine to view these as the legacy of Boston Symphony founder Henry Lee Higginson’s attempts to to control the restive impulses of a potentially revolutionary working class, this view itself is highly ahistorical. Indeed, for much of its history, working class movements have viewed high culture as a possession which they actively sought to acquire and put to their own uses. This comports with P’s experience as well as those of others who have been brought into contact with those in the vast gulag through the sorts of programs P has enrolled in.

As for P’s political commitments one can make no assumptions along these lines: they might range from minimally tolerant (and tolerable) Rockfellerism right to the centrist New Deal liberalism of Leonard Bernstein to the radical leftism of classical music devotee Noam Chomsky.
In any case, the attacks against him serve no purpose other than self-aggrandizement and the entire discussion goes nowhere fast.

Like any other display of adolescent destructiveness, it needs to end now so we can make ourselves useful.

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4 thoughts on “Going Nowhere Fast: Notes on the AMS Self-Implosion”

  1. Janis says:

    a “native of Italy” and consequently, according to this commenter, “substantially less sensitive . . . to institutional racism”

    Oh god, the irony …

  2. guess who! says:

    It’s the Minnesota Orchestra, not the Minnesota Symphony.

  3. Robert Fink says:

    What an amazing overreaction to a few lines of musicological self-critique! It seems characteristically uncharitable of you, John, to take my deliberate attempt to implicate myself in the critique I was leveling and twist it into an indictment of my failure to believe in anything.

    Let me tell you why I changed my attitude about African-American music. It had nothing to do with fashion, which is not a concept that interests me much, as anyone who looks inside my closet will be happy to attest.

    The reason I once thought “disco was trash” compared to classical music was that I was 16 going on 17 and just didn’t know very much about the world. I sure as hell didn’t know any black people, and most of what I saw and heard about black culture came through implicitly racist media, at a moment of gathering white backlash against black (and queer) culture’s influence in the mainstream of popular music.

    In the intervening years I have struggled with the fact that the fantasy world of classical music I imagined for myself was entirely white, straight, and male. I certainly didn’t set out to overturn this world; I wanted to be a part of it more than anything. I loved classical music with a puppy-love that still animates me today (ask my professors in college and graduate school, or my bemused grad students now). I am a typical upper middle-class art-music lover: I subscribe to the Los Angeles Philharmonic; I go to the Long Beach Opera; I have an aging Steinway piano in my living room.

    But while immersing myself in the study of music, I began to grow up. This is not to imply that I “outgrew” classical music; but I did start to develop more critical chops, and more life experience. Structural issues that arose in the study of the canonic classics of Western art music started to lead me toward modern, then experimental, then electronic music. Soon, I was immersed in underground repertoires where the canonic borders between “classical” and “popular” were weak. To understand those musics, it was necessary to know their history. That eventually meant dealing with the general history of mainstream popular music, and running smack into the racist attitudes about musical rhythm, sex, and the body that a younger version of myself had once, unthinkingly, echoed (without knowing much about any of those topics, least of all the sex stuff).

    Now I teach both classical and popular music, trying to think critically about both. And — at the very real risk of self-parody, I say this — I now actually know some people of color, who study music professionally as well. And I’d like to say that witnessing hip-hop, musical culture they care deeply about, casually reduced on the blog of their professional society to “blatant lyrics” and “pounding beats” doesn’t bother them. But, as I found out over the last week or so, it does. Many of them are unwaged, or precariously employed, or not secure even on the tenure track, or, if tenured, tired of being the one POC in the room that everyone looks over at in situations like this.

    So I decided it was my turn to say something. I’m happy to take my lumps for it.


    PS: There is much in your post that is excellent, and I agree with large swaths of your analysis of the larger situation. (Maybe not the parts where I am an asshole and the only thing I’ve ever written is that one “Elvis Everywhere” piece from back in 1998.)

    Peace out, and feel the Bern. b.

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