Musicology and Peter Wolfendale

There are two reasons I am bringing up Peter Wolfendale here. One is that I was just reminded of him when I noticed that a fellow named Louis Morelle has recently applauded Wolfendale in an article titled “The Trouble With Ontological Liberalism.” Wolfendale, the confident anti-follower of Graham Harman, need no longer proclaim in a published book that his voice has been silenced, since it echoes unchanged in the hills of France.

My second reason has to do with my own project in musicology. At a baby shower in Brooklyn some time ago, I met a philosophy graduate student who had glanced through Wolfendale’s article “The Noumenon’s New Clothes.” He said he thought it did a good job, even though he was not up on speculative realism. (In other words, the article plays its role well for non-readers of its target.) “Very rigorous,” he said, and did I know it was expanded into a whole book? I was appreciative. I wanted and still want to avoid writing a dissertation that applies object-oriented ontology (OOO) to musicology without incorporating some good criticism. My own evaluation of what it does and doesn’t do for musicology would then get strong support…

Image result for emperor no clothes obamaImage result for emperor no clothes trump
Ce n’est pas un cliché banal.

Wolfendale’s project, “The Noumenon’s New Clothes,” was supposed to be the most serious attempt at a critique of OOO out there. It was also very difficult to read (qua bale of jargon) and required a lot of grunt-work through Heidegger. Then, while parsing it out, I realized it was so riddled with errors and seemingly deliberate poor reasoning that I could not even incorporate bits and pieces of it into my project like I might with other critics. In short, I was surprised by how stupid the article was. (The book is the same, with additional similarly argued material and plenty more of Wolfendale’s signature ad hominem stuff.)

My attempt at a summary of just the article became a full-on response that I still plan to toss in as an appendix. Slogging through it made for yucky work, though. I needed a long break after each little section. My last break has lasted several months. So far, my commentary has come to about sixty double spaced pages; something tells me my appendix will be no easier or more enjoyable to read than what it responds to.

I’ll save commentary on the content of Wolfendale’s thought for some other time. (Indeed, I’d like to limit posts about it as much as possible.) By way of intro, though, here is what makes Wolfendale relevant to my own work, and is probably the aspect of his oeuvre that will carry into the body of my dissertation. Wolfendale says the following about suckers like me at the end of his book:

If you listen closely, you can already hear the clacking of keyboards as a plethora of new Object-Oriented essays are written: ‘An Object-Oriented Approach to Tattoos as a Means of Cultural Expression’, ‘Object-Oriented Solutions to Urban Gentrification’, ‘Angels and Vicarious Causation’, ‘Are Hipsters Independent of their Relations?’, ‘Sensual Objects, Quantum Consciousness, and Meister Eckhart: Towards an Object-Oriented Mysticism’… or so I fear. The hard question that anyone tempted to add to this hypothetical litany has to ask themselves is this: Do you like OOO because you agree with its basic tenets, or do you like it because it lets you do whatever you want? Are the concepts you are borrowing from it placing explanatory constraints upon your project that lead you to draw more interesting and powerful explanatory connections, or are they simply permitting you to pick and choose whichever constraints you want, while at the same time signalling your affiliation with a new and exciting theoretical trend? If your use of OOO has less to do with constraint than permission, and less to do with explanation than affiliation, then you are repeating a pernicious social dynamic that has been festering at the core of anglophone Continental philosophy and the disciplinary groupings that lie intellectually downstream from it for decades.

I can speak for myself. As someone who takes OOO seriously enough to try to use it, I am now confident that it places strict constraints upon my project, and that it has already lead me to draw interesting and powerful new explanatory connections. It has also been difficult to fit some of my pre-OOO work into that sphere of thought, and I’ve tried.

Other than the chapters introducing OOO and a newly planned chapter that uses it to critique/expand upon the wonderful musical schema theory of Robert Gjerdingen, much of the raw musicological research of my dissertation was done before I dived into OOO. This makes my project a particularly good candidate for Wolfendale’s test. Am I just adding the words “object-oriented” to my work, linking them by arbitrary affiliation? Am I joining myself to a “vapid philosophical fashion” out of blind enthusiasm, even after a Socratic pathologist has performed an expert autopsy on it and written its obituary? (Those are his metaphors, by the way.)

It has proven difficult to fit my observations and arguments into the explanatory world of OOO. Doing so has required much more reworking than I initially thought. A case in point is an essay I wrote right before reading Graham Harman for the first time. It is the one that made me think, “wow, this Harman guy gives philosophical voice to something I’m already doing…” But I wasn’t there yet.

The essay is about how the ragtime musician Eubie Blake studied the idiosyncratic music theories of Joseph Schillinger around 1950. The engine of both the original essay and the version I’m working on now is the question of influence. This has connotations for scholarly propriety (what to emphasize, etc.), racial politics, and so on. The first half deals with the music theorist’s influence on Blake’s style along with some complicating factors that make the apparent influence more ambiguous. In the second half, I criticize some prior scholarship for too quickly dismissing Schillinger’s influence on other musicians, and I take a stab at what Blake was up to both in studying the theory in the first place and in his unique application of it in a tune titled Dictys on Seventh Avenue, using interviews and other textual evidence. (My basic interpretation from written music, recordings, and text is that Blake incorporates a non-Schillingerian distinction between written music and performance, treating the latter as the final act of composition. There’s also some stuff about the obscure “dicty” stereotype and “signifyin(g)” in the sense described by Henry Louis Gates Jr.)

Looking back at the article, I appreciate where it goes and I remain attached to my critique of other scholars who tend to use the theme of influence as a measure of what they like or don’t like (especially memorable is an essay by Allen Forte on Gershwin and Berg). But it is also a bit aimless. Barely holding it together are (1) my attempt to keep the theme of influence grounded in reality and (2) a cyclical tendency to go back and forth between signs of Schillinger’s impact on Blake and signs of Blake’s autonomy. There’s also something arbitrary about mostly splitting the evidence in half between musical (first half) and textual (second half). What I’m really trying to do is get at the shape of the Blake-Schillinger connection itself, but my organizational and conceptual constraints don’t quite cohere.

Two good things about my original essay are its polemic against “inscription” and its (overdone) battle cry in favor of “affinity.” Inscription refers to direct influence, with old examples being “ragging the classics” and “classicizing rags,” along with recent scholarship that favors the inscribing agent, whether in clueless historical partisanship or in sophisticated twenty-first century attempts to define race music in terms of wider discourses (I’m thinking of an anti-racist theory of ideological inscription). Affinity refers to commonalities between Blake and Schillinger’s theory that enabled and reinforced their interaction, which inscription-driven scholars would suppress (as they do when they discuss George Gershwin’s own Schillinger studies). The worst thing about my original essay is my hand-wringing and waffling. I intuit that the theme of influence in musicology needs a good theoretical underpinning, but I can only perform that need by going into a Fiddler On the Roof spiral of “on the other hand…on the other hand…but on the other hand…”

Harman’s philosophy demands that my Eubie Blake essay’s interpretive framework and organization be totally reworked. In fact, I’m still trying to figure it out. What I’m really after in the theoretical background is not inscription vs. affinity, but inscription vs. symbiosis, in which affinity plays a supporting role. Both terms refer to rather different regimes of interpretation.

Following an object-oriented perspective, my essay now has to explain exactly what’s wrong with inscription. Previously there were only three paragraphs on the topic, each one describing a negative example, and each one content to sit back and let the implication of a wonky social perspective do its work. But I can’t just rest on the reader being convinced by a reasonable political attitude. Inscription is a broad concept. With OOO, I now have to argue the opposite of what I was letting my examples do before; I have to argue that we lose something by judging inscription mainly on its political or social ramifications. Indeed, such a focus on effects assumes the same interpretive strategy that I wish to criticize, namely that one thing (the patient) is the material means of another (the agent). The gap between Blake and his influences can’t just be explained away as an inherent dynamism or magical human creativity, as some of the best music scholarship today is content to do.

I am also drawing stronger distinctions between different aspects of Blake’s theory studies, such as their selective or “ethical” aspect, their affinity-driven elements, and their unstable consequences. And I have to foreground OOO’s preference for “is” over “does” in any study of his work. Finally (and this is less relevant to the Wolfendale stuff), Eubie Blake accidentally raises an interesting issue within object-oriented social scholarship that Harman introduced with rule #6 in Immaterialism, which is that late life symbioses are atypical. Blake was 60 when he studied Schillinger. If anything, though, the general descriptive prohibition against late-life symbiosis in Harman’s social theory helps me to marshal the contradictory aspects of Blake’s response to Schillinger, even if I don’t yet understand what motivates the rule other than observational inference.

In short, I think OOO can help the humanities in precisely the ways Wolfendale and his ally Morelle want their readers to think it cannot. Of course, it doesn’t do everything, nor should it. Any search through books and articles, archive work, labeling of chords, keys, and themes, certain other aspects of music-analytical methodology…such things are not immediately at issue for OOO in my application, even if they cannot be ignored. The simplest way I can put it is that we can’t escape the surface of the world, and we have to use the best tools available. But that which is “literal” can be directed at surprise, contradiction, and allusion, and in an organized way that draws attention to one’s own metaphysical assumptions. With regard to the humanities, OOO asks what literal information might reveal about the form of its objects. It seeks ways to finesse a thing’s inner style from the surprises of its parts and its relations.


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