This weekend saw the inaugural annual conference of the new RMA Music and Philosophy Study Group, organized with brilliant success by musicologists and philosophers around the UK. I was chairing a session and was invited to join a group of three musicologists live-tweeting the event (the others were @eeleach and @laurenredhead). Since the study group itself is an interesting new venture and the experience of live tweeting from a conference both a relatively new idea and a curious experience, I thought it worth blogging about my reflexions.
On live tweeting
The first and most immediate problem with live tweeting from a conference that offers discussion of ideas about which one has personal views is that the process soon turns into a torment of self-censorship. Although I made a number of pointed remarks on speakers and questions from the floor (which can be found among other contributions from inside and outside the conference by reading the Twitter hashtag #MPSG11) I nevertheless suppressed many more than I published. It is difficult to make the argument of a conference paper (when one is discernible) compatible with the Twitter medium, and often little more is possible than to tweet a remarkable comment, either from the speaker or the floor. So, the essence of James Young’s paper on Peter Kivy’s writing on the philosophy of music was perfectly summed up by his early statement:
Similarly, various comments from the floor by Roger Scruton seemed to resolve to the same kind of aristocratic disdain:
More substantial comments are also possible, though the character limit means that they rely to an extent that is common on Twitter but manifests itself most clearly perhaps in situations like this, on a great deal of contextual understanding. Only musicologists could hope to know what I meant by this, for instance (it refers to Catherine Abell, the respondant to the second keynote paper, given by Kendall Walton):
And that brings me to my next point about the conference.
On music and philosophy
The aim of the RMA study group is to bring together philosophers who are interested in music and musicologists who are interested in philosophy. It certainly managed that, at least on a superficial level: this was one of the best-attended musicological conferences I have ever attended in the UK (better than the ‘main’ RMA conference!), a triumph of advertising and organization by the committee. There were stellar performers from both disciplines. But there was virtually no connexion between the two, little true sense of interdisciplinarity. (I attended only half of the conference but my impressions were supported by everyone I spoke to over the real business of any conference – tea.)
Putting it simply will cause offence, but it must be said. The musicologists at the conference are interested in philosophy. They read major figures such as Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and so on, and they read the secondary literature too, if not to a degree of professionalism that would pass muster in a philosophy department, then at least enough to gain perspective on the principal debates and main current interpretations, and so on. In the main, however, philosophers who are interested in music (and this seems particularly to be the case with analytic philosophers) do not read musicology. If they did, then their frequently catastrophic failures of definition and unwillingness to engage with – or even conceive of – political, economic, cultural, and historical context for the music, composers (where there are any), performers, listeners, and critics who jointly make up the world we call ‘music’ would show up to them as glaringly as an elementary error in a syllogism. The short form: there will never be meaningful exchange between philosophy and musicology while philosophers fail to read anything as obvious as the major writings of Richard Taruskin.
It was typical for philosophers to open their papers by announcing that ‘by music I mean instrumental music of the 18th and 19th centuries’. Well, fine – a specific focus is OK – but then they proceeded to make universalizable claims about ‘music’ that actually even sat very uncomfortably alongside that narrow range they wanted to talk about. One (analytic, of course) suggested that the only way to influence a listener into thinking that music was ‘sad’ or ‘happy’ or whatever was to ask a leading question such as ‘how happy or sad does this music make you feel’, quite ignoring the complex process of enculturation that could lead to learned responses to any kind of music. Another suggested that ‘music’ (on another limited definition), uniquely among the arts, provokes bodily responses such as foot-tapping. I tweeted an immediate response, and asked a question in the hall, but it went unanswered:
As analytic philosophy, no doubt these papers were good and interesting, but from the perspective of someone with some expertise in music, they were theorizing about something that with more (by which I mean some) reading of the work of musicologists they would realize is an internally inconsistent starting point for a discussion. To go back to the last-but-one tweet I quoted: the suggestion that ‘we’ are mostly interested in what a composer meant would lead to the academic evisceration of an undergraduate student in musicology. A glance at Taruskin’s thoughts on ‘the poietic fallacy’ is all it takes to correct this – call a spade a spade – ludicrously ill-informed conception of what musical engagement and experience (the only areas of interest to analytic philosophers) are about.
Part of my concern here was spotlighted quite naively by Nick Zangwill in his introduction to Walton’s keynote. He wanted to explain the difference between analytic and continental philosophy by clearing up what analytic philosophy was not. It was not, he said, concerned with endlessly stalling discussion of the quality of blue by retracing ‘what Hegel said about blue’. Why not? Hegel was kind of clever. He said a lot of interesting things. ‘Some of us are not only ignorant of history but proud of it’, he said. While devotion to the authority of a historic Great Man (they’re usually men) is of course potentially intellectually and politically hazardous, the thoughtful re-engagement with (and, where necessary, radical rethinking of) thoughts that have been useful in the past is a vital part of scholarly practice. Nobody would suggest that Žižek’s quite idiosyncratic reading of Hegel amounts to slavish citation. Give me thought that builds on past thinkers – particularly those who we humbly acknowledge to have thought rather better than us – over what can from the outside seem like self-regarding talk like this.
It was not all like that. From the best quarters came a sense that musicology and philosophy could be equal partners. The jointly delivered paper by musicologist David B. Levy and philosopher Julian Young (on Wagner) was the best example of what the conference should have been about. They had productive disagreement that betrayed their disciplinary allegiances, but there was mutual respect, and both engaged deeply with the other’s disciplinary perspective. But mostly the traffic was one way, with musicologists reading philosophy and philosophers reading philosophy. (I’d be interested to hear whether philosophers felt that the musicologists were similarly incapable of engagement across the disciplinary boundary.)
One truism was significantly absent from the spirit of the conference: philosophers are not the only people who read philosophy well and intelligently, and few of them are individually as intelligent or interesting as Plato. Individual philosophers have no greater powers of mind than academics in any other discipline, and deserve no more or less respect than any other academics. Therefore, one speaker’s comment that he pays ‘no more respect to psychology than any other philosopher, but this experiment was well put together – almost as intelligent as if a philosopher had done it’ made my blood boil. He was roundly attacked from all sides during the questions, though not on this point (Zangwill redoubled the insult to other disciplines, in fact). I have never encountered this kind of scorn for other disciplines among musicologists, literary scholars of any language’s or culture’s literature, art historians, and so on (though I have from scientists: read more or less anything by Dawkins or Hawking to get a sense). This sort of thing is hard to bear at a conference that is meant to be (mutually respectfully) interdisciplinary. The sense of a senior and junior discipline at the conference was, then, quite palpable, and only reinforced by the one-way nature of the intellectual traffic (which one person at the conference described to me as ‘willy waving’).
There was a strongly anti-analytic philosophy mood at the conference, which partly reflected other people’s concerns with this dreadful model of engagement with other disciplines. But equally important, I think, is that musicology as it is currently constituted is, like its neighbouring disciplines in literature, a product of a revolution based on the reading of continental philosophy. We came to it later than our literary colleagues, and digested it less comprehensively (no space, for most musicologists, for Marx, Freud, Heidegger, Gadamer, Lacan, Derrida, or contemporary thinkers like Žižek, Badiou, Nancy, or Agamben). But our focus on the very broadest and irreducibly contingent contexts in which musical production, practice, and reception can be seen to operate makes ours a discipline alien to one which is ‘not only ignorant of history but proud of it’. Papers dealing with connexions between music and continental philosophy were more productive – and the philosophers had read more musicology.
I’m glad I went to the conference. In the same way that trips to America make my cultural closeness to Europe much more obvious, this latest encounter with analytic philosophy’s approach to questions about which I think I have a certain expertise made me recognize my family resemblance to colleagues in literary scholarship and musicology. That was not the intention of the conference, but unless the study group develops more along the lines of a group for musicologists who are interested in philosophy and philosophers who are interested in music and musicology (rather than just telling musicologists that the only relevant questions are a rather dull list of old-fashioned aesthetics), I fear for its future.