AHRC Fellowship: Modernism’s Quilting Points

I’ve been awarded an AHRC Fellowship from January 2011 to January 2012 to work on my next book, Modernism’s Quilting Points: Heidegger, Žižek, Walton’, which will result in a Cambridge University Press monograph (with the slightly different title The Quilting Points of Musical Modernism: Revolution, Reaction, and William Walton). A summary of the project follows.

Modernism is both a contested aesthetic category and a powerful political statement. Modernist music was condemned as ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis and forcibly replaced by ‘socialist realism’ under the Soviets. Sympathetic philosophers and critics have interpreted it as a vital intellectual defence against totalitarianism, yet some American critics have labelled it ‘elitist’, ‘undemocratic’, and ‘unnatural’. Despite its evident importance, there is little agreement among this range of critics as to what the canon of modernist music actually comprises, or what its aims are.

This project proposes that modernism is not a single entity but a set of constructions of wildly differing ideologies, and that labelling music as modernist or not is not a neutral aesthetic judgement but always a political act.

Drawing on the philosophy of Slavoj Žižek, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, and Martin Heidegger, it examines the processes leading to the imposition of the various ideologies that use modernism as their object. The project introduces a psychological focus on modernism’s ‘quilting points’, which is the term given by Jacques Lacan to the psychological symbols that lead to psychotic fixation on something that seems to ‘explain everything’. For example, a conspiracy theory might stitch separate items of bad news together into a ‘quilt’ of covert government scheming which in turn creates an illusion of fixed meaning. Modernism’s quilting points reveal fixations on a particular critic’s items of derision or fear – communism, fascism, elitism, anti-democratic or anti-American sentiment, etc. – in a trend that is still in process, and still largely unacknowledged today.

This project offers both a diagnosis of and proposed solution to the problem. The New Grove article on ‘modernism’ defines it as music ‘adequate to the unique and radical character of the age’. This project instead frames what could be interpreted as a ‘psychotic’ political question in more properly historical terms: ‘what did the artistic products of the 20th century – all of them, whatever aesthetic label we might assign them – contribute to humankind’s understanding of its situation in modernity?’

The project’s musical focus is the doubly peripheral figure of the ‘non-modernist’, English composer William Walton, who has never been the focus of a scholarly monograph. Modernism is often defined in terms of what it is not, what it sidelines or replaces, and although no sane person would treat Walton as an example of modernism, this is exactly what I propose to do. Approaching modernism from these divergent perspectives,  the project fills out the definition of 20th-C music’s contribution to an understanding of modern humanity by examining the historical and existential challenge of postwar destruction in Walton’s later music, and the modern deconstruction of gender binaries in his opera, Troilus and Cressida. In this way it broadens and deepens our understanding of modern artistic production while highlighting the ideological dangers of categorization.

The AHRC page about this award can be read here.

Information on the AHRC (provided by the funding council)

Each year the AHRC provides funding from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities. Only applications of the highest quality are funded and the range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK. For further information on the AHRC, please go to: www.ahrc.ac.uk

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