Sunday, February 21, 2016

Musicology, Freedom, and the Uses of Anger

by William Cheng

Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” – Bryan Stevenson (on working with the incarcerated), Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Fast and furious reactions to Pierpaolo Polzonetti’s essay belie the silences stirring just beneath our moral sonars. For wherever one stands on the issues here, I urge every reader to recognize the voices thus far disproportionately missing from this chorus of commentary: our junior colleagues and students, fearing the professional repercussions of speaking out on public forums; our colleagues of color, trying to sidestep precarious stereotypes of the always-pleading and never-appeasable minority; our colleagues with disabilities, who may not have the resources or energies to respond as swiftly as many others have done; and our colleagues who are so overworked and underpaid by multiple adjunct positions that they haven’t even had the time to check their Facebook feeds or to notice this commotion at all. In short, even if we’d like to think we’ve heard every possible stance on this controversy by now (via hundreds of replies), let’s err on the side of humility and assume we haven’t. As I read the visible responses to Prof. Polzonetti’s post, I continually attempt—and yes, continually fail—to remind myself of this fact: plenty more voices, still unsung.

Defenders and detractors alike have homed in on questions of Prof. Polzonetti’s language: how we should say what we say, and how words matter, good intentions and noble actions notwithstanding. Let’s also remember, however, to take a step back and ask ourselves: in this situation, who feels comfortable or capable of saying anything to begin with?

First, in the spirit of transparency, I offer a few disclosures. Due to health challenges, I hadn’t planned to write anything on this matter, although I have followed its conversations and offshoots (see here, here, here, and here). On Thursday night, I did write privately to Prof. Polzonetti (whom I’ve never met) to inform him that while I take issue with what he wrote and how he wrote it, I imagine he must be going through an extraordinarily difficult time, and I hope that some hint of good comes out of this storm. On Friday, Drew Massey, editor of Musicology Now and former grad school colleague, emailed me asking whether I would be interested in penning a brief post. I was grateful to receive his request and now acknowledge the privilege of addressing my peers publicly. Yet this privilege is not without peril: I do not have tenure, I do not possess a fully able body (meaning I cannot always defend myself reliably and rhetorically if the need arises), and I do not presume to speak adequately on others’ behalf.

In my view, aesthetic autonomy and academic freedom are a pair of specters looming over our debate on Musicology Now. Aesthetic autonomy: its connotative stains of paternalism, insularity, and colonialism have seeped into the fabric of our disciplinary conscience. Academic freedom: an ideal that many of us applaud and champion. But to my ears, aesthetic autonomy can actually sometimes bring echoes of academic freedom. It’s not that they’re identical in sense or syntax, but that recommendations of Let music be music bear injunctive similarities to Let scholars be scholars, the notion that academics have a de facto right to pursue their work free from political pressures and without fear of termination. Such freedom can nurture creative, progressive thought. But how can one ethically claim this extreme immunity without simultaneously attending to others’ extreme vulnerabilities? How can one feel entitled to speak with full exemptions without paying dues to the systemic silences that make selective free speech audible in the first place?

For scholars fortunate enough to land on tenure tracks or obtain positions of influence, the tasks of caring and outreach become that much more pressing. Cynthia Wu declares that we shouldn’t “forget about the original purpose of tenure—to protect academic freedom.” Yet Wu also implores us not to forget one of the duties of academic freedom—namely, to advocate for people who do not possess such privileges. If reparative work is a privilege, then its exigencies should weigh that much more heavily on the shoulders of those who are in the most secure positions to undertake the deeds.

Even scholars with tenure, to be sure, don’t get a free pass. Even if they face relatively little risk of losing their jobs or income, the weight of social retribution can be tremendous nonetheless. Public shaming has reached fever pitch in the age of online media. We shackle people to the worst things they’ve ever said. We tie them down to their most offensive phrases and tweets. And we keep them pinned down on the basis of Better safe than sorry! and Us versus them! Our conversation here has been as much about prisons—their cultural stigma, institutional violences, structural prejudices, symbolic thresholds—as about freedom. Not just the freedom to speak, but also freedom from the traps of antipathy, and freedom from playing into the very tendencies we excoriate.

One might argue that Internet exchanges are fortuitous in how they afford anonymity to those who seek it. A black, queer, crip, junior, outraged scholar can comment with impunity on this website, so long as they redact their identity. Yet this hardly poses a consolation prize, especially given how some of the commenters so far have been senior scholars whose real names do appear in plain view—names that, by virtue of status, lend authority to the statements delivered. Despite seductive illusions to the contrary, the Internet is not a democratizing agent. Not everyone gets an equal say.

To reprise Bryan Stevenson: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” I would add that each of us is potentially more than the worst things we’ve ever said. It’s hard to live by such a beautiful mantra when cuts get ugly, when anger runs high. Because anger is necessary, after all. Anger, as Audre Lorde proclaimed during a 1981 keynote, has its uses.

So if you have colleagues who are expressing anger toward Prof. Polzonetti’s article, do not ask them to calm down, to adopt more constructive feelings, to move forward, or to stop overreacting. Ask them why they feel the way they do; then, listen, converse, and learn together.

As this debate proceeds, let’s not instantly assume the worst about voices with which we disagree. But let’s also not assume we’ve sufficiently accommodated all of the heretofore muted voices yet to be fairly heard. By freeing ourselves from such presumptions, some good may come to pass.

William Cheng (@willishire) teaches at Dartmouth College. The Eileen Southern Travel Fund of the Committee for Cultural Diversity enabled him to attend his first AMS conference in 2006. His current project, Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good (University of Michigan Press, forthcoming 2016), calls for an ethics of care, compassion, and outreach in music and musicology. Website here.


  1. I'm encouraged that MN has posted this as a response to PP's original essay. This fracas has spilled out into so many social media spaces; it has been difficult to keep up with the conversations happening in so many places and it would be impossible to respond to them all here, to account for the particulars of my response. (Someday we may need a stemma.) But in one of PP's many responses to those who objected to his original essay, he muses about which musicologists he could take on in a prison fight. Leaving aside that he called out my spouse in particular, and understanding that (a) he's likely feeling embattled and (b) this is an attempt at humor (although not an appropriate one, under the circumstances), note the chasm between the prison fight scenario and Will's call for reparations, care, listening. I can't change anyone's mind here, but I can echo Will's plea. Can we please begin listening to each other? Can we please begin to understand that even if we don't feel / experience what other people feel / experience, that it could still be true? This is a really important moment, AMS. Let's take a breath, extend compassion for each other, listen, and then (re)create our professional society in a way that reflects ALL of our members.

    1. Including my name: Felicia Miyakawa.

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    3. And I suspect we will need to many deepy breathes. This will be a long process and one that is long overdue. The key is probably that it wont get done quickly. In fact taking on the originating blog post and this blog and thinking the work was close to done would be a huge mistake. Including my name. Bonnie Gordon

  2. For whatever reason a wonderful critique of Mr. Krupke from West Side Story by philosopher Zizek in the Pervert's Guide to Ideology on Netflix keeps coming to mind in the fracas. Listening and then unpacking ideologies in all these exchanges in a networked digital economy is a labor we musiciologists and ethnomusicologists of a certain age are not fully used to but this baptism by fire is perhaps good. Good to teach us how judicious we must become when engaging online in real time and how ethics matter in addition to black lives or others. Carrie James writes in DISCONNECTED: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap that "The key targets of ethical thinking include distant, unknown individuals and the integrity of larger communities... [it must consider] complex perspective taking...[about] how one's online actions may affect multiple distant stakeholders" (2014. 7). There is a need for communal thinking and a lack of it. As Andrew Keen argues, based on his book The Internet is Not the Answer, social media is NOT social at all. It's about narcissistic rants clashing and collapsing upon one another. Cage would be stunned! But proud of the cacophony. The silence(s) of what really is underneath it all is what amuses and captivates me here. This is as much about social media's unintended consequences as it is about larger ecological discourses like #blacklivesmatter and what musicology is up to in the larger world. Opera in prisons is a good thing, speaking as a trained classical musician who is a black woman. I've never ventured into prison teaching but I so admire anyone who does it. Perhaps we all should seriously consider taking THAT on!! Enlisting our institutions to do THAT work! "Laugh oh the tears that would embitter my heart" That is the English translation from the first opera I ever participated in as an undergrad at a community college. The dark tragedy with a side of comedia dell arte in Pagliacci. To wear masks. To understand the sociology of all that factors into this current fracas. That is what interests me.

  3. PS> Great job William Cheng!! Enjoy your beautiful writing and pivotal ideas and sentiments.

  4. Well said, Professor Cheng! What you say in the quotation below truly shines the light on the path to turning this — or any other impassioned exchange wherever it might arise — into an opportunity for expanding our individual and collective world views:

    "... if you have colleagues who are expressing anger toward Prof. Polzonetti’s article, do not ask them to calm down, to adopt more constructive feelings, to move forward, or to stop overreacting. Ask them why they feel the way they do; then, listen, converse, and learn together."

    Thank you for the post.

  5. I am grateful that William, Felicia, and Kyra have asked for listening. Some of the comments upset me a lot, not because they called out the problems readers saw in Polzonetti's language, but because I wish they had done so with an open heart and a more generous reading of the essay's message. Yes, certain passages in the essay made me wince and think, "ouch, this could be taken the wrong way." And yes, as one of the commenters wrote on Facebook, "language matters." But actions matter more. Polzonetti's action was to teach in a prison, sharing his knowledge with society's most marginalized and creating human connection through music. Then he wrote about it, sharing with us one way that musicologists and academics can get out of our ivory tower. This was both brave and generous.

    Experience also matters more than language. Certain experiences have made me aware of the effects of economic inequality, racism, and my own privilege in immediate ways that I could never learn from language or academic theorizing. I think it's because of those experiences that I read Polzonetti's piece with an open heart and with gratitude. But I would not try to write publicly about them, in part because I know I couldn't do so without revealing my own privilege and the assumptions it carries. Unfortunately, that's the society we live in. We ought to be generous to each other as we navigate through it and do our best to contribute something useful. I'll sign my name too, Rebecca Maloy

  6. What I particularly appreciate in William's elegant response to the recent imbroglio is his call for a degree of mindfulness with respect to differentials of power in the academic world, and our own relation to them. One line of reasoning that emerged from the response to the original debate was an implication that those who were offended by it -- meaning, in many cases, those who approached the text with the view that it potentially reinforced many longstanding and problematic cultural narratives -- did not have a monopoly on the text's interpretation. There was an insinuation that taking offense from the post was simply one of many subjective responses one could make to it, a response somehow compromised by its fidelity to the old saw of "political correctness."

    But the thing I would say about this is that many of those who responded in this way are speaking from a position of genuine knowledge and authority about these matters. They study hip hop and African diasporic musical practices; they grapple with social scientific paradigms in their day to day lives; their work in the classroom and in the library carrel relies upon a thoroughgoing familiarity with critical race theory, gender critique, queer theory, and any one of a variety of critical apparatuses that were themselves designed by people who think about these things for a living.

    At the same time, as William notes above, many people engaged in this kind of work may be our junior colleagues, and may occupy this or that position of precarity in relation to the larger labor market of the field. In other words, they may not feel wholly empowered by their professional standing to speak to the things that they know a fair bit about. And this in itself results in a distortion of the conversation that can be had about the subject.

    All I would add to the above conversation, then, is the suggestion that many emerging scholars have spent a great deal of time thinking about precisely these issues. We should endeavor to take them seriously.

    Thank you again, William, for your thoughtful words.

    Dale Chapman

  7. Indeed isn't listening supposed to the the thing we are all trained to do; perhaps the thing we most have in common.

  8. I think this was derailed when the insults starting flying as opposed to thoughtful critique. The posts began to seem more like Facebook exchanges versus the well reasoned arguments of seasoned and junior scholars. But this of course is emblematic of arguments that dominate our larger social and political discourse and I don't think as academics, we are immune from this. Taking a breath and hugging my cat!!!

  9. Thank you Will for this thoughtful posting. It is indeed extremely important to protect people, in particular the most vulnerable, from a practice of bullying and violence that, in my experienced, can be worse in academia than in prison. Bullying and violence kill dialogue and ultimately will prevent us from building a better society for all of us. We need to develop a better practice of writing respectfully, both as authors and as critics of other authors’ writings. As I suggest in my closing comment to my own blog posting (no. 109), we also need to develop a practice of reading carefully, respectfully, and with an open mind, in order not to project our biases and fears into what we read. The same applies to the way we experience opera and music.

  10. In identifying “aesthetic autonomy and academic freedom” as “a pair of specters looming over our debate on Musicology Now,” William Cheng signals his attempt to address the recent controversy over Professor Polzonetti’s essay at the level of basic questions or concepts—Grundfragen or -begriffe—of musicology. This is an important and necessary task—even if we are more likely to associate a “looming,” or, better yet, “haunting” specter with the imminent overthrow of political and social authorities than with the maintenance of existing powers. Yet by training his sights on aesthetic autonomy, Professor Cheng—and he’s not alone in this—seems to be aiming in the wrong direction.

    It should go without saying, should it not, that today even many scholars working on the Central European high-art repertories of the long nineteenth century—the age and place in which autonomy flourished—recognize its historicity? Yet reading a polemic like this one, it's difficult not to get the sense that many musicologists haven't gotten past the mid-1990s. Since the advent of writings like Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (1975, English translation 1984), an increasingly number of scholars has come to recognize the historicity of the concept of the aesthetic. It was and remains necessary both to historicize the concept of aesthetic and to discard it as one of the presuppositions we rely on to legitimate the disciplines of musicology and music theory. Yet that does not imply that the next step be to denigrate the entire tradition associated with the concept as, say, hegemonic, nor, does it mean that we need to regard those who continue to study of that tradition as beholden to the notion of aesthetic autonomy.

    A central task remains: to reconstruct and reconstitute those histories of musical production and reception that had been understood in light of the concept of aesthetic autonomy as something more or other than a large collection of power plays. Surely the practice of aesthetic autonomy is much richer and more complicated than our interactions with the theory have led us to believe. Such undertakings would entail, for example, a deep awareness of the philosophical and theological anthropologies underlying these histories, the secularization of practices such as self-cultivation (Bildung) with the aim of constituting personal and corporate humanity, the vicissitudes of modern notions of humanity, and so on.

    Is it too much to ask some of today’s American musicologists to adopt a charitable hermeneutic when they approach the Western art-music tradition? For any music historian working in the twenty-first century, that tradition is very much their Other—perhaps even more so than many of the popular musics that we’re likely to encounter in our own day.