Monday, August 3, 2009

A correction

We all make mistakes. Those of us who have blogs, of course, are prone to a different class of mistake than other life-forms.

Regular visitors to this page (as opposed to those who follow TBWCTW by RSS reader) will recall my rather poorly-written "About Me" blurb, which for some eighteen months graced the right-hand sidebar. In the course of general site updates, I finally decided to slash the blurb down to a more manageable size. This reflects the fact that I, a mere mortal, am simply not a good enough writer to handle this most challenging of forms. To avoid on the one hand the Scylla of Too Much Boring Personal Information, and on the other the Charybdis of Trying To Be Funny And Not Succeeding, is flatly beyond my powers. So I've given up; my new "About Me" blurb states the necessary information in as few words as possible, as if urging you to go read something else instead.

The essential futility of "About Me" blurbs, of course, extends not only to blurbs on Blogger but to those on any form of communications platform. Having read innumerable such blurbs on Facebook and various other dark corners of the Internet, I have never encountered one that I would consider a successful example of the form. The Internet pioneers can congratulate themselves on having created a form of literature that defies mastery; while the sestina, villanelle and the other fixed forms of past generations have been mastered by many talented poets, no author has yet demonstrated a command of the "About Me" blurb. The first to do so may well revolutionize English literature.

My first mistake, therefore, was a certain artistic hubris: I thought I could succeed at a literary form where all others had failed. I was wrong. But paring down my "About Me" blurb to a more manageable size has also given me the excuse to correct a second mistake: the inclusion of the phrase "radical positivist."

Anyone who has spent more than ten minutes in a university musicology department is familiar with the tired debate between "positivist" and "hermeneutic" interpretations: the former supposedly treating only the formal characteristics of the music under consideration, the latter incorporating social-science methodology to treat the music's social context. Now, it should be perfectly obvious to any thinking person that neither method is sufficient. On the one hand, no-one wants to read your wonderful Roman-numeral analysis of Beethoven's Fifth unless you have something interesting to say about it; on the other, no Beethoven scholar wants to read your wonderful paper on gender studies or comparative religion or whatever unless you also have something to say about music. The fact that musicology is still taught in this manner has nothing to do with current scholarship and everything to do with professors who went to school in the 1980s.

In any case, I felt a strong sympathy with the sort of scholarship that was labelled "positivistic," primarily because it was unpopular, but also because I found much of the "New Musicology," despite its pluralist pretensions, to be crudely prescriptive and Neon Arrow in its approach to music. And so, within the musical community, describing one's approach as "positivist," especially if understood ironically, signifies a mistrust of fashionable postmodernism, a somewhat old-fashioned orientation with which regular readers will by now be familiar. Yet the term has always bothered me, because to those coming from outside the musical world, "positivism" is the biggest Neon Arrow of all - the scientistic assumption that only positively verifiable facts have any meaning, and that anything else (especially metaphysics and theology, and by extension art itself) is utterly useless. Someone with that orientation, of course, couldn't possibly be a professional musician.

And so it's with great relief that I finally drop "radical positivist" from the masthead. Chaucer's warning still stands; if you don't like my aesthetic orientation, you can read a more politically correct blog instead. But I think TBWCTW has been running for long enough that the warning is no longer necessary, especially when the term "positivism" is meaningful only within the world of musicological in-fighting. I wouldn't want you to think that I'm a disciple of A. J. Ayer, or anything like that.

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