Pure har­mony

Can we stop wor­ry­ing and love the pol­i­tics in­her­ent in schol­ar­ship?

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Ross Cole is a re­search fel­low in mu­sic and cul­tural stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge.

In an en­vi­ron­ment where uni­ver­si­ties are por­trayed as “madrasas of the left”, mu­sic ap­pears to be a safe haven. How could you politi­cise some­thing as ab­stract and ethe­real as the rules of har­mony? Yet with the rise of so-called griev­ance stud­ies and calls for de­coloni­sa­tion, some fear that mu­sic is at risk of suc­cumb­ing to the rad­i­cals.

On Twit­ter, the Scot­tish com­poser James MacMil­lan re­cently com­plained about stu­dents hav­ing “to en­dure so much po­lit­i­cal mind con­trol” in their univer­sity ex­pe­ri­ence.

If Twit­ter is any­thing to go by, he is far from alone in hold­ing these views. Com­ments re­veal a sur­pris­ing level of anger sur­round­ing the pol­lu­tion of higher ed­u­ca­tion with pur­suits such as crit­i­cal race stud­ies, fem­i­nism and queer the­ory.

I can’t help but think of the Cold War para­noia con­cern­ing in­fil­tra­tion, in­doc­tri­na­tion and sub­ver­sion so bril­liantly satirised in Stan­ley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove by the fig­ure of Gen­eral Rip­per, com­mit­ted to de­fend­ing “our pre­cious bod­ily flu­ids” against an in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nist con­spir­acy.

The lib­er­tar­ian fear is un­can­nily sim­i­lar: sub­ver­sive tac­tics prac­tised at uni­ver­si­ties on a global scale that might turn free­think­ing peo­ple into lib­eral, close-minded sheep.

The ar­gu­ment that this fac­tion re­lies on is that as aca­demics we have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to teach all man­ner of opin­ions on any given is­sue, priz­ing im­par­tial rigour over po­lit­i­cal sym­pa­thy.

For all its out­ward com­mit­ment to lib­erty, this line of ar­gu­ment serves the op­po­site end. It runs up against what Karl Pop­per re­ferred to as the para­dox of tol­er­ance: “Un­lim­ited tol­er­ance must lead to the dis­ap­pear­ance of tol­er­ance.”

In cer­tain cir­cum­stances, he ar­gues, we must ex­er­cise a right to sub­due ha­tred in or­der to pre­serve democ­racy. It fol­lows that work sup­port­ive of racism, misog­yny or ho­mo­pho­bia must be chal­lenged and sup­pressed if rea­soned de­bate is re­jected.

In this light, the os­ten­si­bly benev­o­lent call for bal­anced and ob­jec­tive rigour be­gins to look a bit flimsy. In fact, it risks le­git­imis­ing not di­ver­sity of opin­ion but the re­verse – il­lib­er­al­ism and ir­ra­tional­ity.

We may even see it as a way of smug­gling re­ac­tionary think­ing into the academy un­der the cam­ou­flage of neu­tral­ity. This is pre­cisely the tac­tic that Don­ald Trump uses to give cre­dence to white supremacy, abus­ing the con­cept of equal­ity to ex­plain that there are “very fine peo­ple on both sides”.

We’ve come a long way from mu­sic, it seems. Or have we? Writ­ing in 1993, the eth­no­mu­si­col­o­gist Philip V. Bohlman made a sim­ple but pro­found claim: the act of view­ing mu­sic as an au­tonomous, apo­lit­i­cal ob­ject of study – what he refers to as “es­sen­tial­is­ing” it – is the most dom­i­nant way mu­sic has been politi­cised.

In con­se­quence, mu­si­col­ogy as a dis­ci­pline is able to imag­ine it­self into a world with­out pol­i­tics – with­out mu­sic by women, by African Amer­i­cans, by an ar­ray of colonised oth­ers across the globe through­out his­tory. Although much has changed since the 1990s, what we have at present is still a largely seg­re­gated ped­a­gog­ics of mu­sic drawn along lines of race, class, gen­der and em­pire. To avoid own­ing up to these short­com­ings is to make a point about what mat­ters in so­ci­ety at large.

There’s a bad faith in be­liev­ing that schol­ar­ship and pol­i­tics can be neatly un­cou­pled. Who, we might want to ask, are the Gen­eral Rip­pers: those who aspire to un­der­stand and chal­lenge in­jus­tice or those who re­sent the in­cur­sion of pol­i­tics into some­thing as pure as mu­sic? The an­swer, it seems to me, is ob­vi­ous.

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