July 4, 2016

The Blah-Blah Studies

A couple of days ago, against my better judgment, I picked up Edward Said's book Musical Elaborations at my local library.  The title of the fist chapter - Performance as an Extreme Occasion - sounded intriguing.  The expression "extreme occasion" seems apt for describing an armed bank robbery or a jetliner's engine fire during takeoff, which is why I could not wait to find out what exactly is "extreme" about playing a musical instrument for a paying audience.

I never got an answer.  What I did get instead was a lesson on how to use language in accordance with the standards of the interdisciplinary academic racket known as Cultural Studies.  The lesson is remarkably simple:  1) Begin with an unsupported yet categorically asserted generality,  2) elaborate it with a paragraph worth of irrelevant trivialities, 3) repeat steps (1) and (2) until you fill the desired number of pages.
     Here is a typical example, in which Said begins by telling us why people attend concerts[1]:

What attracts audiences to concerts is that what performers attempt on the concert or opera stage is exactly what most members of the audience cannot emulate or aspire to.

Since the question of what attracts people to concerts is an empirical one - much like the questions of why people buy Toyota automobiles or vote for a particular political party - I expected Said to mention some empirical evidence (e.g., surveys conducted by the marketing departments of musical organizations) supporting his general claim.  Alas, no empirical evidence of any kind was mentioned.  Nor was there any kind of supporting argument.  But then Said's Ph.D. was in English, so he must have been taught that what matters about a proposition is not whether it is true, but only whether it sounds good.  After all, didn't Shakespeare himself achieve immortality with such well-worded empirical falsehoods as "That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."[2]  

Be that as it may, for those of us without a Ph.D. in English Said's pronouncement may sound as laughable as the claim that what attracts people to air travel is that what pilots attempt in the cockpit of a jetliner is exactly what most of the passengers on the plane cannot emulate or aspire to.  People are attracted to air travel because they want to get from one place to another as quickly and safely as possible.  With the rare exception of a guy who flies his single-engine Cessna on weekends, air travelers don't care one bit about what it takes to become a jetliner pilot (or even about what exactly goes on in the cockpit, so long as the pilots do not give each other blowjobs during takeoff and landing).  
     Similarly pedestrian common sense suggests that people are attracted to concerts because they want to hear music they are interested in, performed in real time, preferably by artists whose musical personality promises to generate special tension and excitement.  Except for a relatively small percentage of amateur musicians and music students, concert-goers no longer have the experience of having studied a musical instrument and thus have no idea about, let alone any interest in, what it takes to solve the technical problems posed by a Chopin etude or a Paganini caprice.  And even if they did, a typical conservatory graduation recital would already offer them music-making they "cannot emulate or aspire to."  Yet music-lovers prefer to pay good money to hear a Horowitz or a Perlman instead of attending graduation recitals for free.

So much for Part 1 of my lesson.  Having told us the real reason why we attend concerts, Said next proceeds to open our eyes to the hidden level of reality behind our experiences in the concert hall.  This he does by revealing to us that a musical performance
depends on the existence of unseen faculties and powers that make it possible: the performer's training and gifts; cultural agencies like concert associations, managers, ticketsellers; the conjunction of various social and cultural processes (including the revolutions in capitalism and telecommunication, electronic media, jet travel) with an audience's wish or appetite for a particular musical event.

At this point I closed the book, muttering to myself that only a mind subjected to advanced training in the humanities, followed by many years of existence in the fantasy world of tenured professoriate, is capable of so deluding itself about the utter triviality of its own thoughts.  How else can one write as if the rest of humanity thinks that a musical performance could take place simply because a Steinway grand just happened to stand next to a park bench and anyone passing by could sit at the keyboard and let loose with Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata?

Embarrassing as it is, Said's academically flavored graphomania is relatively harmless compared to the mountains of intellectually and morally toxic drivel generated by cultural theorists sheltered in various humanities departments of American universities.  And since it is the writings of cultural theorists that tend to get the most publicity outside academe, the much discussed 'crisis in the humanities' cannot be blamed entirely on philistine politicians, business leaders, and university administrators.  One need not be a philistine to feel contempt for academic disciplines which have enthusiastically embraced indiscriminate venting of sexual, racial, or social grievances on defenseless works of long dead artists, composers, and writers.  I'm still waiting to hear a good reason why an academic discipline in which one can launch a major career by claiming that Beethoven's Ninth Symphony expresses "the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release"[3] should be respected by administrators and politicians, let alone elicit from them the same fiscal generosity as engineering or biochemistry.  Disciplines which encourage and reward vacuous free associations and shrill infantile tantrums as legitimate academic research should blame their own sadly diminished quality control for their loss of respect in the eyes of the outside world. 
1.  Edward Said, Musical Elaborations, Columbia U. Press, 1991, p.17.

2.  The Bard obviously never met a person with lexical-gustatory synesthesia.  And while we are on the subject of well-worded empirical falsehoods in English poetry, let us also mention the sulky Lord Byron to whom it never occurred that Nature, which he professed to love more than Man, may show that his question "What deep wounds ever closed without a scar?" is not at all rhetorical.

3.  Susan McClary, 'Getting down off the beanstalk', Minnesota Composers Forum Newsletter, Jan. 1987, p.7.


upkerry14 said...

Hence the birth of Identity Politics, BLM, micro agressions, safe spaces etc...... thanks Cultural Studies....... I hope you are not too afflicted by this poison on your campus.

Boom said...

I do not know if there is a causal connection (or at least one that can be so easily claimed) between Cultural Studies and some of the social developments you mention.

Boom said...

In a comment mistakenly sent to an adjacent post, reader Mulvya said...

>> Shakespeare was referring to the smell of the rose, not that evoked by encountering its label, whether written or spoken.<<
Shakespeare was expressing what he obviously thought was a tautological claim - namely, that the linguistic practice of naming objects has no influence on how the named object causally interacts with our sense organs. In the case of olfactory sense, this claim is empirically false.

Also, at the risk of sounding pedantic, The Bard could not have referred to "the smell of the rose" for the simple reason that objects (including roses) don't have smells (or tastes, or colors). These, unlike mass or chemical composition, belong to the mental states of observers, which occur as a result of causal interactions between the observer's sense organs and objects in the world. (In the words of Galileo, smells, tastes, and colors are "secondary qualities" which - unlike the "primary qualities" such as mass or volume - are not observer-independent.)

Mulvya said...

the linguistic practice of naming objects has no influence on how the named object causally interacts with our sense organs.

This is irrelevant to your initial point. Wikipedia says, "Lexical-gustatory synesthesia is a rare form of synesthesia in which spoken and written language (as well as some colors and emotions) causes individuals to experience an automatic and highly consistent taste/smell."

Nothing to do with how the label modifies the smell sensation produced by the object.

The Bard could not have referred to "the smell of the rose" for the simple reason that objects (including roses) don't have smells (or tastes, or colors).

I'm not aware of what theory of folk physics Shakespeare subscribed to, but I know of no lay person who has been at pains to distinguish whether the smell is inherent in the object or simply elicited in the mind by it. Smell of the rose just means smell associated with a rose.

Boom said...

Mulvya said...

>> Nothing to do with how the label modifies the smell sensation produced by the object.

On the contrary, it has everything to do with it: under a different name the rose would not smell as sweet (to some folks), contrary to The Bard's claim.

>> Smell of the rose just means smell associated with a rose.

Associated by whom? You? A person with synesthesia? My labrador?
You seem bent on clinging to something invariant/universal about the smell of the rose, whereas there is no such thing (other than the rose's chemical properties, which may produce different olfactory sensations in different observers).

RonanM said...

I too abandoned something or other by said Said, but felt that he was writing for people who wanted to believe that what they thought must be right because a very respsected person had written them in a book. Hence the numbing repetition of the obvious that you point out.

The most telling point you make is 'where's the data?'. I note that even the comments seem to suggest that common sense will answer questions. What makes us think we can answer empirical questions by logic?

Boom said...

RonanM said:
What makes us think we can answer empirical questions by logic?
This attitude, I believe, should be blamed on the Greeks who fell in love with the delusional idea of apriori knowledge about the world. In their case, I see it as an honest mistake. They viewed (Euclidean) geometry as a theory of physical space, yet also recognized that geometrical knowledge is obtained by purely deductive reasoning from self-evident postulates. (Never mind that the postulates were neither self-evident nor logically sufficient for valid deduction of many theorems in Euclid's "Elements".) Hence their belief in the possibility of gaining apriori empirical knowledge by pure deduction from self-evident first principles - e.g., Parmenides' 'proof' that plurality is impossible, or Plato's 'proof' that all knowledge is recollection by the immortal soul.

No excuse, however, can be given to philosophers two thousand years later, who continued to pursue this delusional enterprise on the basis of a rather pathetic idea of 'logical rigor', as witnessed by Descartes' 'proofs' of the existence of God, or Kant's so-called antinomies, or Hegel's infamous 'proof' that there MUST BE SEVEN (7!) planets in the solar system.

A proper history of ideas would have to acknowledge that a short treatise of Archimedes has been infinitely more valuable to humanity than all of philosophy from Thales to Wittgenstein and beyond.