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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Environmental Toxicity, Narrative Ecology, Perspectivism and a Sound Ecology: The 2018 AFS Conference


The annual conference of the American Folklore Society took place in Buffalo, New York last week. It is always good to connect and re-connect with folklorist friends and colleagues in person, especially now that I’ve fully retired and don’t see the students and my friends and colleagues at Brown on a daily basis anymore. Of course I connect via email, but the internet doesn’t provide anywhere near the same feeling of presence that in-person does. For folklorists this is felt especially strongly because one of the best definitions of folklore was Dan Ben-Amos’ in the 1970s as “artistic communication in small groups” that were present face-to-face. Besides, presence by means of sound plays a very important role in my developing theory of a sound ecology. 

I went to a number of presentations, especially those where folklore is shading over now into the environmental humanities, and activists are increasingly concerned with ecojustice. I was present at the founding meeting of the folklore and science section, a group of folklorists interested in the interface between the two areas. And I presented on a panel called “Sensate Worlds,” in which four of us in turn summarized our research in areas related to folklore and sense perception. 

Several panels were devoted to folklore, oral history and environmental toxicity. They took up the question I addressed in my Yoder Lecture last year; namely, how can folklorists, whose skills in interpreting life stories of so-called ordinary citizens have been well developed, contribute to society’s recognition and amelioration of the environmental damage that unfairly targets rural areas and disadvantaged populations? The flood waters from Hurricane Florence only weeks ago released many tons of toxic metals, including mercury, in the coal mining waste into the Cape Fear River. It’s been an open secret that the mining corporations that blast off the tops of mountains and the electric utilities that burn coal store this waste in vulnerable sites. The Obama Administration strengthened regulations of coal waste storage, but under the current Administration the EPA has relaxed these (and other) regulations, and the resulting harm was far worse than it otherwise might have been. One panelist addressed the environmental and human health impacts of fracking in eastern Ohio, through interviews with farmers whose land and water was poisoned. Stories like this have been in the news, but folklorist activists have long-term listening and policy-influencing skills in the public arena that journalists who report on fracking and other environmental impacts do not. It’s heartening to see folklorists move back, after decades of work inside academia adding to the storehouse of knowledge, and decades of work in the public sector celebrating the diversity of community folk arts, into the activism that characterized folklore in the US during the Great Depression of the 1930s. This activism fell victim to the mobilization for World War II and the fear of Nazism and Communism after the War, accompanied by a nativist turn, the HUAC hearings, and a retreat among folklorists to the safety of the ivory tower. Today’s nativism, however, is resulting in the feeling that this is not normal, and among folklorists as others who celebrate cultural diversity, it is a time to resist. 

The “Sensate Worlds” panel brought me together with Danille Patterson (who organized it as part of her folklore and science initiative), Mary Hufford, and John McDowell. All of us had participated in the groundbreaking folklore and environmental humanities panels that ran throughout an entire day at the meetings two years ago; and John was one of the organizers of the DERT (Diverse Environmental Research Team) group of folklorists, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists and ecomusicologists who got together in the spring of 2016 (I could not attend on account of knee surgery) and who will be bringing out a book edited by John and the other founders sometime next year, we hope. Mary has been pursuing several research projects simultaneously; she presented here on her “narrative ecology” project, linking it with the senses, phenomenology, and Merleau-Ponty’s “flesh of sensibility” theory. Like me, Mary is especially interested in the natural environment; and for more than 25 years she has been studying the ways people tell stores about environmental history and change as it impacts various named places, particularly in Appalachian West Virginia, with a time depth going back to pre-European contact. John’s presentation was both an acknowledgment and critique of de Castro’s perspectivism, a theory of New World native Americans’ ideas about the relations of humans with plants and animals that is far more sophisticated than anthropological theories of animism. As we increasingly recognize that we are in a post-human era, with a relation to the environment that can no longer be exploitative, indigenous perspectivism offers a possible pathway to a new and healthier relationship to nature. Is the Western world ready to learn from our Native brothers and sisters at last? Danille spoke about how the use of the senses (especially smell, and of course taste) was an integral part of cooking as revealed by cookbooks prior to the scientific revolution wtih recipes ushered in by Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School, where precise measurements and ingredients and directions largely supplanted the uses of the senses along with less precise indications of the amount of ingredients along with more general directions. This scientific revolution in cooking occurred in the late 1800s, and I believe it ushered in a trend that peaked in the mid-20th century with its gleamingly modern, clean kitchens and grade-school classes in home economics. My own presentation represented a small portion of my sound ecology project and asked whether a phenomenological approach to animal sound communication would yield information and insights. I described recent research in the field of ecological psychology, specifically the so-called phenomenological proposal theorizing direct social perception and direct perception empathy, and in the area of mirror neurons that, combined with a phenomenology of umwelt and affordances offered a way of thinking about the expressive culture of nonhuman animals in their own terms.

In one way or another, all four of us were working at the interfaces of folklore and science. It might not seem as if John’s work with perspectivism did so, but consider that indigenous ecological knowledge does what Western science does in offering an explanation of nature and a means of prediction and, to some extent, control. The inaugural meeting of the folklore and science section revealed quite a variety of interests, matching the four of ours and extending them in various directions. It will be exciting to see how this develops. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t close by mentioning a supper and reunion that I had with some of the graduates of Brown’s doctoral program in ethnomusicology: Cliff Murphy, now head of the Folk Arts Division of the National Endowment for the Arts; Bradley Hanson, now the Tennessee state folklorist; and Maureen Loughran, deputy director of the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, in Manhattan, New York. We spoke about old times at Brown, and about new concerns. Each of them has their PhD in ethnomusicology and each is working in the field of public folklore, where ethnomusicologists have contributed mightily since, well, the 1970s as far as I know. It was in 1976 when I had been teaching ethnomusicology for only two years (and folklore for five) that I worked as a public folklorist for the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, in Washington, DC, in its bicentennial gala year when the Festival ran all summer long, with seven different performance stages and seven more interpretive stages showcasing and celebrating the expressive cultural diversity of the traditional folk arts in the United States along with their counterparts in other nations.  
Big Joe Williams and friend at 1976 Smithsonian FAF.
Photograph by Jeff Todd Titon
So, for example, there were music performances and crafts demonstrations from the Franco-American and Cajun communities side by side with the same from Quebec and from France. The synergy was something to behold. I couldn’t have had a finer introduction to the joys and problems of public folklore. In the next two decades I served as a consultant and panelist and site visitor for the Folk Arts Division of the National Endowment for the Arts, and when I began directing the PhD program in ethnomusicology at Brown, I could not—and didn’t want to—avoid introducing students to public folklore as well as to applied ethnomusicology along with their education in the more standard academic subjects of fieldwork, ethnography and musical analysis. It’s gratifying to know that some of our graduates—these three are by no means all—have found satisfying careers as ethnomusicologists working in the field of public folklore, while others have found more traditional careers as college and university professors.


Monday, September 24, 2018

Sound Baths and Sound Walks


Soundwalks are popular among ecomusicologists. Walking amidst any environment we pay attention to the sounds we hear while walking (or stopped to hear more closely a sound in a particular place). At some ecomusicology events and conferences, and in a growing number of college and university courses on sound, walkers accompany a leader on a nearby soundwalk during the first class, take mental notes only, and then right afterwards they talk about what they heard. Needless to say, the walkers listen to environmental sounds; if they are used to walking around with mp3 players and earphones on, they put these away. The leader usually has done the walk before and identified certain sounds at certain places where they may stop—water moving along a stream, the sound of an HVAC, places where they are likely to hear birds, traffic, airplane fly-overs, and so on, including relatively silent spots (if there are any). 
     Soundwalks usually combine indoor with outdoor places, but they may be taken anywhere. The main object is to increase one’s awareness of the surrounding soundscape. A secondary aim is to reflect a little about what those sounds may signify—how the sounds interact with one another (interference, blending, etc.), their impacts on all the creatures in the landscape and our well-being, and so on. Some soundwalkers bring along sound recorders and microphones, sometimes fairly elaborate ones, along with headphones, transforming the soundwalk experience into a less reflective experience. Some later create sound environmental compositions using what they recorded, along with synthesized sounds and music. But although these too are called soundwalks, their purposes are quite different from the kind of soundwalk I am writing about.
     A soundwalk is a deliberate ear-opening experience that leads to reflection. A sound bath is meant to be a healing experience. Sound baths have become commercialized, with any number of therapeutic benefits supposedly resulting. Predictably, they have become a fad. An internet search reveals articles with titles such as “I Tried a Sound Bath and Learned I Am Definitely Not a Sound Bath Kind of Girl,” with descriptions of sound bath emporia that make their activities appear like restorative yoga to “activate the chakra points” while listening to singing bowls, gongs, and so on. All very New Agey. Somewhere in the middle between soundwalks and sound baths fall the sound environment Apps which supposedly help put one to sleep or wake one up gently, or ones that encourage meditation. 
     Thoreau was the original model for my own soundwalks in the woods behind my house. As his journals reveal, he walked (or boated) nearly every afternoon in the woods and hills and meadows and streams and rivers around Concord, Massachusetts. Of course, a soundwalk needn’t last for several hours every day, as Thoreau’s did. On his walks he brought a notebook, and from time to time he would stop, think, perhaps meditate, and jot down a few words about what he saw and, also, what he heard. He sought certain sounds, like the wind in the wires of the telegraph lines that vibrated the air and the telegraph poles (to which he pressed his ear), or the sounds of the crickets, or the spring peepers, and especially the birds. Right now, as I write, I just heard the sound of a pileated woodpecker in a tree not far from the house. A pair have lived nearby all summer, as last. 
     Thoreau’s walks were deliberate attempts to keep his senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, even taste, in good condition and in tune, so to speak, with nature. This was not merely restorative, but also a kind of necessary maintenance for body and soul. It wasn’t exercise. There were exercise fads in Thoreau’s day. Predictably, he thought it ridiculous to do exercises to build muscles and endurance when one might instead keep them in shape by daily walking, cutting wood, and so on—including work for a living (he earned money as a surveyor). Being in shape involved all the senses, and balance—something that sound bathers must understand—for well-being, and of course for personal sustainability. Ironically, Thoreau himself was predisposed genetically to tuberculosis, and he succumbed to it in middle age; but his soundwalks made a lot of sense (no pun intended) and were, I know, personally sustaining. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

Going to Graduate School in Ethnomusicology -- 2018 update


       Since 2015 when I first wrote this entry for anyone contemplating graduate school in ethnomusicology, I’ve heard from dozens of people with questions about their particular situations, and I’ve tried to answer as best I could. But what I wrote was meant as a general statement for prospective students—pros and cons, along with some advice. In the three years that have passed, I have not changed my mind, but I have learned a few things about my audience. So let me write a few things that I overlooked or didn’t emphasize enough in my earlier entries first, and then condense and update some of the things I wrote three years ago.
     Several people emailed me saying that they wanted to combine a life of musical performance with a life also spent thinking about it. I had written that this is difficult to do because there is not enough time in graduate school to maintain professional musical performance ability, let alone a career, while learning what is required in order to become a scholar, learn the theories and methods of ethnomusicology and related fields, and complete the dissertation (which requires research and a book-length piece of writing). Unless one already is a gifted, world-class performer I would say that this is impossible, but for the musician of truly outstanding talent it is possible, particularly if one's dissertation research centers on one’s native musical tradition. But only a tiny percentage of ethnomusicologists are this gifted, talented, and accomplished. 
     Several people wrote asking whether I thought that the academic job market for PhDs would continue to worsen, or if I thought that the market would go in cycles, poor now but better at some future date. The sage Yogi Berra is supposed to have told his ballclub that predictions are difficult, especially about the future. His team had finished in last place and some thought the team had nowhere to go but up; but in fact they could—and did—remain in the cellar. Anyone entering a PhD program now would want to know what the job prospects will be 6-10 years from now when they start looking for a position. I don’t think that the job market will change for the better until and unless some of the reasons why it’s been increasingly poor change; and I don’t foresee that happening anytime within the next ten years. The graduate schools still produce many more ethnomusicologists with PhDs every year than there are decent academic jobs for them. Only if they cut back the size of their programs, or if fewer people make it all the way through to the PhD, or both, will the supply become more in line with the demand—if the demand for ethnomusicology professors stays roughly the same. But will it? 
     Probably not. On one hand, for the past forty-five years the number of colleges and universities with ethnomusicologists on their faculties has increased. The typical top and second-tier college now has one ethnomusicologist, while similar universities have at least one—more if they offer graduate degrees involving ethnomusicology. It’s not unusual to find them at third-tier colleges and universities either. But on the other hand, the typical academic job available for ethnomusicologists, as for other professors, now is a part-time or adjunct job, with low pay, no benefits, and no job security. Forty-five years ago, even twenty-five, the typical academic job was a full-time, tenure-track position, with better pay, full healthcare and retirement benefits, and the promise of lifetime job security if one earned tenure. What now? I don’t think that the number of institutions hiring ethnomusicologists will grow at the same pace as in the past 45 years, while I do think that the percentage of part-time and adjunct positions will continue to increase, simply because hiring adjuncts and part-timers, or full-time lecturers (also with lower salaries and without job security) enables a college to distribute its resources more flexibly elsewhere, whether in facilities, athletics, student support systems, or in shrinking the number of faculty teaching unpopular majors and expanding in those areas where there is more student demand. It also puts more money into the pot for student scholarships, and helps the institution offset reductions in financial appropriations from state government and gifts from private donors in an uncertain economy. 
    As I wrote earlier, the chief motivation for graduate school in ethnomusicology (as in the other arts, humanities, and social sciences) today ought to be a love of learning and a desire to spend several years learning and mastering a body of knowledge. But what then? The graduates, if they don’t get jobs as professors, can, with luck, become public ethnomusicologists—that is, put their knowledge and skills to work for the public good, employed by NGOs, or client organizations (private corporations) involved with music. Or they may become what is known as an “independent scholar,” doing their research and writing in their spare time for the love of it while employed in some tangentially related, or completely unrelated job—like the classic case of the actor who drives a cab (or these days, an Uber)—and hoping that they may some day be able to find a position that encourages their scholarship.
     Overall, a bleak picture. But if one is absolutely determined to go to graduate school in ethnomusicology, what then should one do? Apply only to the graduate programs most suitable for your particular interests, with the professors whose work you most admire. Once in the program, work diligently towards an understanding of ethnomusicology, its history, its theories, methods, techniques. Support the work of your professors and fellow graduate students and they will support yours. Take your time to find an original problem to work on for the PhD, one that you will love working on (because you are going to be with it for a long time) and one that has both narrow appeal to specialists yet will also interest most every ethnomusicologist and a portion of the general public as well. Read as much as you can in related fields such as anthropology, folklore, history, sociology, philosophy, literary theory, and so on that bear on the original problem you’re working on. Talk with scholars in these fields. Borrow ideas (but always credit the source) for inspiration, but do original work. Be generous in acknowledging the work of others; learn the art of critique through suggesting how this or that argument could be better, rather than by tearing it apart or, worse, attacking the person along with the argument. But don’t make a habit of giving props to others at all times, or your praise will become meaningless or even suspect. Be reasonable. Try not to be cynical, even though at times it will be hard not to be. There is more that can be said; indeed, books have been written on navigating one’s way through graduate school, including establishing and maintaining relationships with dissertation advisers, and so on; but that’s enough for here, and now.
     Finally, the annual rankings of the national universities have been updated once again on the US News and World Report website. Those with PhD programs in ethnomusicology are the only ones relevant to this discussion. Find out all you can about the graduate ethnomusicology programs in advance. Read the Society for Ethnomusicology’s guide to programs in ethnomusicology, available on their website—even though some entries are outdated. Look for those with PhD programs. Read each ethnomusicology PhD program’s self-descriptions on their university’s websites. (Some of them name the degree as one in ethnomusicology, some say music, some say musicology, some in various combinations.) When you find a program that seems interesting, look at the kind of research that students and professors in the program are doing. Read some of the professors' writing and see if it excites you. Narrow the list down to the four graduate programs that interest you the most. Visit the programs if you can afford to do so; consider it a good investment. Speak with the professors and graduate students to learn what it is like to be there. Some lower-ranked universities have programs and professors that are more suitable for particular students on account of their special strengths and emphases within the field of ethnomusicology, because these strengths and emphases match up well with what the student wants to study. Among the top twenty ranked universities, nine have PhD programs in ethnomusicology. Some excellent programs also exist at lower-tier universities: for example, Virginia and Michigan (tied at 27), NYU and the University of California at Santa Barbara (tied at 30), Illinois (46), Washington (59), Florida State and Pittsburgh (tied at 70), SUNY at Stony Brook (80), and Indiana (89). 

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Surveillance, Fieldwork, and Sustainability


Ninostoko interprets a song he sang, as recorded by Frances Densmore, 1916

Secret recordings made in the workplace, surveillance videos made in public spaces, smartphone recordings that capture police brutality—these have been in the news for the past few years and have come to be accepted by the news media, if not the general public or the law. National Public Radio (NPR)’s All Things Considered broadcast a news story about them on August 28th, highlighting workplace recordings (those made in the White House, and others made by a federal employee whose boss, Mel Watt, was interested in sexual favors in exchange for a pay raise). NPR was interested in whether these surreptitious recordings were legal, even when this was the only way the complainant could provide what seemed like incontrovertible evidence. Undercover workplace recordings are now commonplace, according to NPR. But the laws covering them are complex. In most states they are legal; in eleven states, however, consent of the recorded is required. NPR was interested in how this atmosphere is changing the atmosphere of the workplace, making everyone far more careful about what they say to each other. The result is an increasingly toxic workplace culture. On the 29th, during a related discussion of the news media itself, a NPR interviewee pondered whether the public thought internet searches were reliable, and whether their technology was sustainable.
     Listening to this, it occurred to me that somewhere, when a recording is played back as evidence in a court of law, the defendant will reply, “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying ears?” For recordings are easily edited, just as pictures are easily photoshopped. Reality itself is challenged; but that is not news in a post-truth society that challenges the rule of law. But laws are one thing, and justice is another. Thinking about this in the last couple of days reminded me about the debate in the 1970s among those of us who did and do fieldwork, over whether, transcribing the contents of the interviews we recorded, to transcribe every word or only what we thought were the important parts, to be edited into a more coherent conversation or narrative than the original had been. 
     There was no debate over secret recordings, then. We chose not to make them. The people we recorded in the field, still called informants (they would later be called field partners or consultants), had the right to know they were being recorded, and the right to know what would happen to those recordings—would they be deposited in an archive, might they be published at a later date, what control would they have over what they had said after they said it—because the words they spoke, or the songs they sang, were their property, not the property of those of us who were recording them, even if we possessed the tapes. For those reasons, secret recordings were unethical. Also, if an informant objected to being recorded, we didn’t record. We recognized that setting up a recorder would make the events un-natural to some degree; but then interviews were un-natural in the first place, while the very presence of the fieldworker, whether recording or not, altered the events being documented. We felt that the more honest and trustworthy the fieldworker, the more accurate the documentation would be. Ethics was aligned with truth. There was no "speak my truth" then; there was only one truth, the truth.  
     In the early 1980s I learned about Lawrence Gellert, a folksong collector in the 1930s who was said to have made secret recordings of direct racial and social protest songs sung by African Americans. (Although other contemporaries had recorded protest songs, the lyrics were coded as metaphors, not direct.) During the Depression era he published two books featuring these songs, but the accuracy of his work was challenged because he refused to name the singers, the places where he recorded them, and so forth. He was accused of making the lyrics up. After many years researching his life and examining his papers and his recordings, his biographer, Bruce Conforth, concluded that he did fabricate lyrics; nonetheless, his collection of blues and religious songs is valuable even if the songs do not differ much from the songs recorded by other collectors in the 1930s. Yet a reviewer, Jerrold Hirsch, contends that Conforth is wrong and that Gellert’s collection was genuine. 
     When challenged, Gellert said he could not reveal names, dates and places because he had gone undercover to make the recordings. To my generation of scholars, he stood as an outlier, an example of someone whose work was compromised by a failure to provide proper documentary annotation, by his secrecy in making the recordings, and by his supposed fabrications in presenting the songs to the public. Hirsch, on the other hand, in a review coincidentally published today (August 30), takes a much more positive view of Gellert and calls for revisiting his work. “Gellert . . .  looked not to a folklore from the past, but to a folklore of the present, a folklore-in-the-making, as a contemporary creation contributing to the understanding of American class conflict, emerging class consciousness, and realization of liberal/Marxist radical ideals on the American left,” Hirsch writes in the Journal of Folklore Research, reviewing Conforth’s 2013 biography of Gellert.
     Gellert's recordings were published in 1983. They were not remarkably different from recordings of African American songs other collectors had recorded during the 1930s. In the early 1990s the subject arose yet again, this time in a presentation before the Society for Ethnomusicology, in a paper that I heard when it was delivered there. Its author, Jay Pillay, had gone undercover in apartheid South Africa, recording conversations that revealed the prejudicial use of music in education for non-White youth. The project, and the paper, was annotated insofar as possible, and the documentation was not doubted; in fact, the paper won the Seeger Prize for the best student paper presented at the annual conference, and as a result it was published in Ethnomusicology, the Society’s official scholarly journal. And yet although this project continues to have admirers, it's thus far remained an outlier, not a signal of a new direction or a model for future research.
     These examples present contemporary fieldworkers with a dilemma that goes beyond the current discussion of de-colonizing ethnomusicology and other fieldwork-based disciplines. A pervasive atmosphere of surveillance works against the possibility of trust in any field research situation. Smartphones and smart homes may be too smart for us. Apple’s facial recognition program for the iPhone X, coupled with the possibility of constant smartphone GPS tracking our whereabouts, to send it—where?—along with reports that so-called smart speakers like Alexa are recording us in our homes, is enough to make anyone refuse to cooperate with anyone who proposes a documentation project, without, perhaps, a legal contract. And, I would argue, a legal contract is a far less trustworthy instrument than the trust that arises from rapport that is achieved over time, much time, that fieldworkers and field partners spend together when working toward the same agreed upon goals. Of course, fieldwork changed in the last century, becoming more self-conscious, more tentative, and more reflexive. But today, recording has become a victim of its own success. What resilience strategies will fieldworkers adopt to maintain the integrity of ethnographic research and writing in the face of the challenges and opportunities posed by a surveillance society?

Friday, July 27, 2018

Experiential Ethnomusicology (Phenomenology and Ethnomusicology, 2)


     In 1976 I began to undertake ethnographic field research in religious folklife, beginning with projects with Rev. John Sherfey and his congregation in Stanley, Virginia, and also with Rev. C. L. Franklin of Detroit, the best-known and most popular of the whooping African American preachers. The Virginia project resulted in a book, Powerhouse for God (University of Texas Press, 1988; 2nd edition, University of Tennessee Press, 2018). The Detroit project resulted in another book, Give Me This Mountain (University of Illinois Press, 1989). When I started I was not concerned so much with sustainability as with making a contribution to knowledge by documenting religious traditions that were little known to scholars. Although I had studied philosophy in college, it was chiefly pragmatism and analytic philosophy in the Anglo-American tradition that I learned, in addition to a general course in the history of philosophy that did not get very far into the 20th century, nor did it include phenomenology. Starting this ethnographic project, I felt familiar with the field research methodologies of ethnomusicology, folklore, and anthropology, but beyond that I wanted to explore how scholars in religious studies approached their subject. Analytic philosophy of religion was congruent with a field calling itself the scientific study of religion, presumably to highlight sociological explanations and distinguish them from theology. I did not find this field helpful; in attempting to explain religion, this analytic scientific approach explained it away.    
Ninian Smart (1927-2001)
     As I recall, it was in the fall of 1977 that I discovered the writings of Ninian Smart on phenomenology of religion. In them I found a more agreeable methodology, one that was compatible with ethnomusicology’s insistence on avoiding ethnocentrism and instead learning to understand the expressions of a culture different from one’s own on its own terms. Smart advocated adopting Husserl’s phenomenological method of epoché in the study of comparative religion. The observer should “bracket” or set aside the truth-claims of the religion under study, suspending both belief and disbelief. Meanwhile, the student of a religious group should try to understand its worldview, doctrine, system of beliefs, practice, and expressions as a system that functioned in its own way and on its own terms. It’s possible that Smart had read Gerardus van der Leeuw’s Phanomenologie der Religion (1933). Van der Leeuw suggested that the student adopt Husserl’s epoché so as to suspend one’s own beliefs about the sacred so as to describe a religion in way consistent and empathetic with the way their adherents understood it. 
       The implication for ethnographic fieldwork, as I saw it, was that regardless whether the researcher was a member of the religious group under study or not, bracketing was called for in order to achieve the subject position best suited toward documenting the group’s expressive culture while relying on members of that group to explain it. This, I felt, was best done by thinking of my subject position as that of a long-term visitor or guest. Smart was suggesting relativism for he felt that the sacred manifested itself in different ways wherever human life could be found. One of those ways was in the dimension of lived experience, something that I knew resonated deeply in the musical preaching and its affective presence in the churches I was studying. As I learned more about Husserl’s phenomenology, I understood that experience was at the center of its inquiry—how experience was presented to consciousness. I made this one of my chief areas of research inquiry during my fieldwork; that is, I asked the preachers and members of the congregations to tell me about their experiences of the sacred, both in general and in response to musical preaching. 
     The sacred was manifest in a spiritual presence (the Holy Spirit) not only in inspired preaching but also singing, praying, and testifying (witnessing). Smart had written that each religious tradition had an overarching narrative that explained its worldview and justified its practices. Among the people I was visiting, the Bible provided the overarching narrative; but narrative itself as a speech mode was not confined there. Rather, it was a habitual mode of thinking about, organizing, and expressing experience and its meaning. The church members' narratives of conversion to Christianity were their most important; but they also, habitually, thought of their daily experience as an ongoing story of how God was present in their lives—and their task was to understand its meaning by interpreting the pattern in the narrative as it went along. In addition to their conversion narratives, each preacher also had at the ready the story of how they became preachers—not by deciding on their own as one might decide to become a professor or an entrepreneur, but always because they were called, or inspired, by God. Usually after resisting for some time, they bent to God’s will and gave up whatever else they might have intended to do, in order to go and preach the gospel. These narratives were, foremost, stories of personal experiences of the sacred; and they were the generative centerpieces of religious experience for these preachers and the members of their congregation. And as I puzzled over the meanings and significances of these narratives, I found hermeneutic phenomenology to be the approach that yielded the most satisfying interpretations.
     In his article on the history of phenomenology in ethnomusicology, Harris Berger singles me out as a pioneer in this area and points to my book, Powerhouse for God (1988), along with Timothy Rice’s book, May It Fill Your Soul (1994), as the earliest ethnomusicological instance of hermeneutic phenomenology—that is, our “approaches to issues of [meaning and] interpretation in music . . . are grounded in the writings of hermeneutic phenomenologists.” Indeed, I wrote Powerhouse from the standpoint of hermeneutic phenomenology; but it never occurred to me that this was pioneering work. I chose this approach to interpretation because it seemed the most suitable to the experiences described and re-lived in the expression of sacred language. I made my debt to that philosophical tradition and especially to Paul Ricoeur explicit in the Introduction to the book and elsewhere. But it is worth mentioning that before I came to hermeneutic phenomenology while writing the book in the 1980s, I depended on a Husserlian strain of phenomenology while undertaking most of my field research in the 1970s—specifically, as I indicated earlier, the methodology advocated by Ninian Smart, which derived from Husserl’s epoché, or “bracketing.” In other words, whereas hermeneutic phenomenology enabled me to do the work of interpretation, Husserlian phenomenology enabled me to do the prior work of documentation.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Experiential Ethnomusicology (Phenomenology and Ethnomusicology, 1)


     In the last month I spent the better part of two weeks at academic conferences, one in California on cultural sustainabilities, the other in Newfoundland on phenomenology and ethnomusicology. Typical of academic conferences, those who gathered presented their research and exchanged ideas; but atypically, these were small conferences, with about twenty presenters at each one. Small conferences where academics gather over a single topic are more frequent in the humanities nowadays and, because they are focused on topics of special interest to those who participate, they can be more rewarding than the large, annual, professional disciplinary ones. On this blog I’ve had a lot to say in the last ten years about musical, sonic and cultural sustainabilities. I haven’t written much about phenomenology here, though, so perhaps it’s time to say something about it in connection with the history of ethnomusicology.
     Phenomenology is a word that sends most people to the dictionary. Seldom heard outside of academia, for decades it inhabited the discipline of philosophy, and then in the second half of the 20th century it escaped to other branches of the humanities. The key word in phenomenology is experience. Phenomenologists study experience, experience as presented to consciousness. More generally, phenomenology is the study of phenomena as presented to awareness. Physics, of course, studies phenomena—but as external objects, independent of personal observation. Experiences presented to my consciousness will differ from your experiences presented to your consciousness; but that table over there exists whether or not you and I are aware of it. When we are aware of it, it is present to our consciousnesses individually. You may be experiencing its shape while I may experience its shiny surface. Experience is personal and individual; and phenomenologists study it as it is present to consciousness. A phenomenological ethnomusicology emphasizes musical experience. Musical experience would appear an obvious direction for ethnomusicological inquiry; but according to Harris Berger, the convener of our conference in Newfoundland, and the editor of and a contributor to a book-in-progress, the Oxford Handbook of Phenomenology and Ethnomusicology, phenomenology didn’t enter ethnomusicology until fairly late in its history, the 1970s and 1980s. Why not?
     It wasn’t because ethnomusicologists were unconcerned with musical experience altogether. The early ones (the comparative musicologists, beginning in the 1880s) were most interested in comparing how music was structured—scales, rhythms, melodies—among different social groups throughout the world. A notable exception was Carl Stumpf, interested in music psychology; but let that be. In the 1920s comparative musicology began to take social and cultural context more seriously, as evidenced in the work of Constantin Brailloiu in Romania and George Herzog in the US. In the 1950s, two American anthropologists, David McAllester and Alan Merriam, were asking their Native American informants (Navajo and Flathead, respectively) about their ideas about music—what it was, what it was for, and how they felt about it. Asking how they felt was to ask about experience. McAllester told me his Navajo friends found those to be very odd questions; they just didn’t habitually think about those things.  And so the answers he got were brief and not very informative. In the 1960s, when as a blues musician I asked my blues-playing friends the same kinds of questions, I got pretty much the same kinds of answers—it wasn’t something they thought about. Happy to talk about their careers in blues, some going back to the 1930s, and willing to critique other (usually more famous) musicians, they had not developed what might be called a theory of blues experience. When I told them that the blues historians and jazz critics wrote that blues is a cathartic experience, they laughed. They were professional musicians, after all. Blues was a way to make a living, not personal drama. They wouldn’t last long as performers if they had to purge themselves of melancholy night after night. 
     What Merriam, McAllester, and I had in common, in addition, was ignorance of the phenomenological tradition—or at least, I was ignorant, and I’m not aware that Merriam or McAllester ever indicated their debt to it. But in the 1970s I stumbled onto it in connection with a new research project, where experience was at the center of authentic performance, and where a rich tradition of talk about that experience had developed. In fact, talk was expected, as a way of validating the experience’s authenticity. My research project began in the mid-1970s, around the same time or possibly somewhat earlier than two other research projects where musical experience also was at the center, one undertaken by Ruth Stone and the other by Tim Rice. Even though each of us did something a little different, what we all had in common was that in that decade we encountered phenomenology. When we wrote about this research, we acknowledged how phenomenological methods had guided it, and our interpretative conclusions. Stone employed classic phenomenology to study the experience of time among Kpelle musicians in Liberia. Rice, drawing on the phenomenology of bodily experience, wrote about how his fingers learned to play the Bulgarian bagpipe when his mind was unable to grasp the technique by means of musical analysis. And I employed what my friend and colleague Dan Dennett later termed heterophenomenology, after I had read Ninian Smart’s brief on behalf of phenomenology in the study of comparative religion. I should add that Berger writes that it was with this research and writing by Stone, Rice, and myself, that phenomenology entered ethnomusicology. I’m not sure where Stone encountered phenomenology but I would guess through Husserl. Rice may have found it through Merleau-Ponty, and possibly he also had read the work of David Sudnow; but like me, he soon moved into the field of interpretive, or hermeneutic, phenomenology. I only know for certain the details of how I stumbled onto it, and how helpful it was to me as I was doing my research and writing about sacred speech, chant, and song in the 1970s and 1980s. That will be the subject of my next blog entry.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Cultural Sustainabilities: Music, Media, Language, Advocacy--A Conference at UCSB May 24-26, 2018

     In an earlier entry I mentioned the upcoming conference on cultural and musical sustainabilities, at the University of California at Santa Barbara, to take place later this month--May 24-26 to be exact. If you're in the Los Angeles/Santa Barbara area, it might be of interest to you. There is no admission charge. Here is the flyer advertising it:


Sunday, April 1, 2018

Dark Sustainability




     A recent essay in the New York Review of Books, by Shakespeare scholar Joseph Shapiro, connects a dark interpretation of Hamlet with the dystopian climate in academia today. A young scholar just published a book whose thesis is that all the older literary critics were wrong about Hamlet: he didn’t hesitate to kill Cluadius because he had an Oedipus complex, nor because he was a coward, nor because he was depressed. He didn't oppose murder on religious grounds. Rather, he was the embodiment of a Renaissance humanism that was collapsing because it failed to reckon with the predatory force of a heartless world. Hamlet is a weak idealist. 
     This kind of claim, coupled with the ascendance of dystopian visions among millennials (such as the author of the Hamlet study), made me wonder whether sustainability itself isn’t the product of a weak idealism in the face of a worldwide struggle for existence, to use the Darwinian metaphor. In other words, why think that it might be possible to sustain a sound commons, music, people and cultures, the environment of planet Earth? And yet, dark interpretations are just that: dark interpretations. Dark money and the dark internet are new, but dark, apocalyptic visions have been around at least since the Book of Revelation. Dark interpretations of sound as an instrument of power and control dominate contemporary scholarship on sound studies. To those writers, a sound commons appears unrealistic and utopian in the face of a crisis that is deeper than environmental. I agree that it is deeper than environmental. Since 2015, in my lectures and writings I have contended that sustainability is, ultimately, a crisis in ontology (being) and epistemology (knowing). 
     But since these dystopian visions are, after all, projections of the future, it’s possible to ask what it is in the present that gives rise to them. It’s not difficult to understand why they’re ascendant now, given the current political climate—one that threatens the institutions positioned to do something about sustaining music, culture, the environment, energy, food and agriculture, and so on. Shapiro, a professor of English at Columbia, muses on the possibility that the dark future for humanities scholars is reflected in this writer’s new theory about Hamlet. He wonders if the writer is a scholar who, “Hamlet-like, expected, when their turn came, to inherit an academic kingdom”—that is, to become a tenured professor of literature at a college or university. But cutbacks in funding, coupled with those institutions’ turn to a corporate model of economic efficiency, have resulted in dismal prospects in this century for professors in the humanities—that is, many fewer tenured jobs, and many more bad (part time, underpaid) ones. Embittered, the scholar doesn’t blame the politicians or the political climate. Instead, the scholar blames the failure on the liberal arts themselves, which equips educators to think, and ponder, and contemplate, and cogitate, on political philosophy; but not to act on it, to fight back against the forces allied against it—and this failure, it seems, grows out of the very idealism built into the humanities themselves: not only that persons could be educated into wisdom, but that the world could be educated into justice.
     Of course, although Hamlet himself failed, Renaissance humanism did not fail. Yoking Hamlet to a collapse of humanism makes little sense, if history is consulted. Humanism’s educational values broadened and deepened, giving way to an even greater reliance in the 18th century on reason, then a period in which reason was coupled with feeling, followed in the later 19th century by the rise of science and the modern liberal arts university. To be sure, dissenting voices of modernism and post-modernism undermined humanist ideals, while powerful contemporary voices rise in a post-human assault on the humanities, sometimes in the name of a deeper ecology, but also (as in the case at hand) arising from a darker, dystopian vision of the world. Nor is this pessimism new: Hobbes and Malthus had it during the so-called Age of Reason, while the optimism fueled by the new science and technological advances of the late 19th century was also the time when the pessimism of social Darwinism implanted the struggle for existence into human nature itself.
     As it happens, this scholar who threw up the dark vision of Hamlet seems already to have inherited the kingdom. He's a “research scholar with the rank of professor,” at an Ivy-league university. It's not clear whether he holds a "continuing appointment" (tenure); but his research and writing accomplishments are significant, and his perch in the profession of English does not appear in doubt. His interpretation of Hamlet doesn’t arise from a personal failure to thrive within the diminishing world of scholarship and universities. The dystopian vision seems to be a contemporary cultural phenomenon, especially among millennials; and anyone who advocates for sustainability needs to reckon with it.


Thursday, March 8, 2018

Sustainability and the National Endowment for the Humanities


I’ve written more about the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) than the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) on this blog, because the NEA is more directly concerned with music and sustainability. Of special interest to ethnomusicologists and folklorists is the NEA’s Folk and Traditional Arts division, which supports the diverse musical expressions across the US that don’t fall into the category of fine arts. Even though within their ethnic communities—particularly those with roots in Asia and the Middle East—they are regarded as fine arts, the NEA has always classified them as folk arts. 
     The NEH does support efforts to sustain musical expression and musical communities, but chiefly in the form of documentary film, archival preservation, research and scholarly publication. I’ve been fortunate to have received NEH support with two year-long research fellowships (in effect they replaced my salary), one in the 1970s and the other in the 1980s, each of which resulted in books about grass-roots religious music, preaching, belief and culture in the US—Powerhouse for God, and Give Me This Mountain. And because the NEH also is an ally to cultural and musical sustainability efforts, we’ve been wondering whom President Trump will nominate as the new NEH chairman.
      As the agency leader, the chairman sets the tone for the agency, and has a good deal of say in determining its emphasis. When Bill Ferris was NEH chair in the late 1990s, he supported studies of regional and local cultures, a bottom-up approach. Other chairs have emphasized a top-down approach in which the NEH encourages humanities scholars to teach classics of American thought (history, literature, the law, and so on) to the general public, in a sort of free adult education, conducted with lectures and discussions in public libraries and similar venues. I say top down because this approach is open to the critique that in choosing the reading list, the NEH is conducting a kind of cultural imperialism by telling the less-educated masses what they should read. Of course, the curriculum these days is more diverse than fifty years ago, but that may not matter as long as the public has no input. 
      At any rate, Trump’s nominee for head of the NEH is Jon Peede, whose brother Robert is a former top aide to Vice President Pence, and who is currently head of Trump’s advance operations. The prediction here is that Peede will be top-down. When the director sets this tone, it becomes hard for scholars to get NEH grants to support diverse musical and cultural traditions. I found this to be true for my own research efforts in the 1980s when the NEH was led, during the Reagan Administration, by Lynne Cheney, wife of politician Dick Cheney (who later was to become Vice President under G. W. Bush). Three of us were making a documentary film about expressive culture in a small church in rural Virginia. We’d already received support from the NEA and the Virginia Humanities Foundation, but the NEH denied us twice. After the second refusal, we found ourselves in Washington on an errand, with some time to kill. So we stopped in at the NEH and spoke with their program officer who’d been assigned to our application and asked her to elaborate on why our application had been turned down once, and then after we’d revised it, once again. She couldn’t really find a reason, except to say that it wasn’t competitive with more mainstream subjects. “You’re good scholars and film makers,” she said. “Couldn’t you choose another subject—say, a film about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln?” We just looked at each other, shook our heads, and left. A film about Great Men in American History wasn’t what we had in mind. Those films were plentiful. They clogged the PBS-TV channels. We thought as independent film makers we were breaking new ground.
      Later, after we’d made the film we intended, we met with the program director of the PBS station in Harrisonburg, Virginia, the public broadcasting outlet that was closest to the church we’d filmed. He was no different from the NEH program officer. In this case, we’d already obtained a grant of $4,000 to pay the PBS station to help defray the costs of broadcasting the film locally and then mounting a campaign to offer it to PBS nationally. All the station had to do was accept the grant and follow through; but although the program director had been delighted with the project in its planning stages, once he saw that the film was not critical of this rural church, he refused to broadcast it or sponsor it up to PBS nationally. Our film didn’t align with his station’s mission. Eventually we found a PBS station in West Virginia, in Beckley, that did show and sponsor it. It turned out that the program director in Beckley had his PhD from the University of Texas. The director in Harrisonburg, we learned, was worried that the film wasn’t highbrow enough for his audience. “If they want to see worship like this, they can just turn on the commercial stations on Sunday morning,” he said. Not true, but that was the basis for his decision. Our documentary film can still be viewed, for free, here.
      Yet naming a new NEH had may not matter. Trump nominated him, but his 2017 budget proposed eliminating the agency (along with the NEA and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting [CPB]) altogether. Congress pushed back and funded the agencies anyway. Trump’s 2018 budget once again proposes their elimination, while including $49,000 to pay for the “orderly closure” of the NEH. Strong protests from teachers, scholars, scientists and students, along with public intellectuals, independent scholars, and other supporters of intellectual life and public discussion and debate in this country, wouldn't likely be very orderly. Congress will probably ignore Trump’s proposal once again, but just as when a lie is told often enough it tends to become a truth, unless the opposition mounts an equally strong campaign, so supporters of the NEH and the NEA and the CPB will need to renew their support for these agencies, and lobby their Congressional representatives once again, for these agencies that support musical and cultural sustainability are thought to be endangered just as the traditions they support are. Write your representatives and tell them to fund the NEA, NEH, and CPB at least at their current levels.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Listening and Sustainability in the Atomic Age



     Recently the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its “doomsday clock” indicating the imminent danger of nuclear war to 2 minutes before midnight, the closest it has been since 1953 when Russia tested its first hydrogen bomb. Although climate change, cyber warfare, and increasing stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons were cited as factors, the main reason for advancing the doomsday clock was the danger of a nuclear confrontation between North Korea and the United States. The potential for catastrophe places the idea of musical and cultural sustainability in a planetary environmental context. 
     A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of reading an essay about sounds in an earlier time during our atomic age, specifically the sounds of Civil Defense during the 1950s. These alarm sounds including not only air-raid sirens but also public service radio broadcasts warning people to "stay alert, stay alive," as well as school exercises such as "duck and cover" and shelter drills. Civil defense issued LP records with one side dramatizing the effects of an atomic bomb dropped on a US city, and the other side instructing listeners to pay attention to the air-raid sirens and descend into their well-stocked fallout shelters so they would be able to survive. According to Civil Defense propaganda, civilization could be sustainable in the face of a nuclear war if only people listened closely, heeded the alarms, and sheltered themselves properly. Some cities and military bases would be bombed into oblivion, but the propaganda maintained that in other parts of the US people would be able to withstand the attack if they stayed in their shelters long enough to avoid the radiation fallout.
     Lyrics from two popular songs from the period were analyzed: "Sh-boom" and "Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town)." The chorus to "Sh-boom" went, "Sh-boom, sh-boom, life could be a dream, sh-boom, sh-boom, if you would take me up to paradise up above, sh-boom, sh-boom, life could be a dream sweetheart." And "Thirteen Women" imagined a nuclear war in which one man survived, with thirteen women survivors fawning over him. According to the author, “Sh-boom” was intended to mimic the sound of an atom bomb, while the singer envisioned a life in heaven afterward; both song lyrics were said to reflect the atomic age in which people might survive a nuclear war if they heeded the sounds of the radio and the sirens and bells, while schoolchildren followed the sounds warning them to duck and cover or descend to the bowels of their school buildings. These sounds were the “alerts that triggered responses,” similar to the Pavlovian reactions to our smartphone notifications today; and they were the sonic texts that the author read to construct a history of the listening culture of the atomic age. 
     Yet the author wrote about this listening culture without listening to the people who lived through it. Many did not respond to those sounds as the Civil Defense intended. I am old enough to have lived through this period as a boy. I recall the duck-and-cover exercises we went through in elementary school. We used to repeat the instructions with our own variation: “Now children, go under your desks and bend over, put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye.” In junior high, after the proper alarm sounds signaled, we practiced shelter drills, lining up in size order from shortest to tallest, and moving in a very orderly way down the stairs to the building’s sub-basement, where we stood silently for a few minutes until the all-clear alarm went off and we walked back up to our classrooms. I recall the air-raid siren tests that went off every Friday at noon without fail. 
     When I was a boy, my family listened regularly to the radio. Although I recall the Civil Defense pamphlets, and the upside down triangle signs on radio dials and elsewhere, I can’t recall hearing the public service announcements for civil defense, and “alert and alive” never registered with me. At about eleven or twelve years of age I was gifted with a pocket sized transistor radio, and I listened to a wide variety of radio stations and yet I can’t recall those announcements. I must have heard them, but for some reason they didn’t make the kind of an impression for me to recall what was in them. Duck-and-cover, shelter drills, air-raid sirens, and other exercises signaled by alarm sounds quickly became routine. We children made fun of them. Imagine a deliberate march in size order to a bare, underground hallway where we would wait for the building to collapse on top of us in any attack.
     Perhaps our ironic stance was an existential reaction, although at ten years old we knew nothing of Sartre and Camus. That I don’t recall the civil defense radio spots also suggests that at some deeper level I must have shut off my sense of alarm in the face of the un-faceable. I did not participate in the “listening culture” of the atomic age as it was intended for me to do. Neither did my friends. My parents might have encouraged me to participate, but I don’t recall they initiated any conversation about an atomic attack. In other words, I don’t know how they felt about Civil Defense and whether they listened carefully or had turned themselves off. Certainly, we never had a fallout shelter of our own nor made any preparations as a family for a nuclear attack. 
     The ways in which these alarms affected the lifeworlds of those of us who lived through the period were left out of this writer’s essay. Older people, children, men, women, wealthy people and those not so wealthy, people living in cities that would be sure targets and others living in remote areas, all participated to some degree in this Civil Defense listening culture, while most people listened to radios. If I had been asked, I could have said that the sounds did not have their desired effect on me and my cohort. We could not take them seriously. To survive, if we were forced to confront them, we had to take the sounds of alarm bells, sirens, CD radio spots, and song lyrics ironically.
Foam gnome, object and photo by Jeff Todd Titon
     Although I well recall “Sh-boom” from my pre-teen years, any sound and symbolism of the blast and a life afterward in Paradise was completely lost on my friends and me, who simply enjoyed the clever sounds without thinking much about the meaning of the lyrics. If we’d been asked, we’d have said that “Sh-boom” was about romance, not about a bomb and its aftermath. And “Thirteen Women” didn’t register on us because it wasn’t a hit song. (The flip side, “Rock Around the Clock,” registered very loudly. And schools regularly made up cheers for sporting events, imitating the song and adapting it.) Rock and roll lyrics weren’t meant to be taken seriously, anyway. Those of us old enough to recall the Steve Allen show on television will remember that this talented comedian regularly spoke rock and roll lyrics out loud as if they were profound poems, while the audience in the studio and at home laughed at them. For some of us, it was the first time we actually heard them as words, rather than as something different (sung sounds). This is an important point, I believe, for anyone who wants to understand the meanings of popular song lyrics from this era as they were experienced. Interpreting song lyrics as if they were poems overlooks the different meanings we took from them, not as verbal messages but as rhythmic sound clusters. Indeed, this was the only way we could experience the doo-wop layers of the songs. 
     Tom Lehrer, an important singer-songwriter in the folk music revival of the 1950s, laced his songs with satire and irony. To lyrics like Lehrer’s, some older teenagers (and adults, too) listened as if they were popular poems. One of them, explicitly about a nuclear holocaust, was “We Will All Go Together When We Go.” Among its increasingly outrageous rhymes are these: “Universal bereavement / an inspiring achievement” and “With complete participation / in the grand incineration” and “Just sing out a ‘Te Deum’ / when you see that I.C.B.M” and “When the air becomes uranious / and we all go simultaneous.” Irony would be a useful hypothesis for anyone interested in understanding the listening cultures of this atomic period from the point of view of the listeners. In our contemporary era of bigger nuclear buttons, and missiles and bombs, Lehrer’s songs and the desperate humor they carried are just as relevant, while music and sustainability takes on a different relation: singing for humans and for sustaining the environment by singing for peace. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Sustainability is Environmental, Economic, and Cultural

Three Spheres of Sustainability, from Joshua J. Yates, "Abundance on Trial," The Hedgehog Review, Summer 2012.

     Musical and cultural sustainability are inseparable from environmental ecosystem sustainability. That’s been one of this blog’s themes from the outset. I advanced an ecological approach to musical sustainability beginning about 2006 with the Nettl Lecture at the University of Illinois, followed by presentations and panels at the American Folklore Society and Society for Ethnomusicology conferences—the latter published in a 2009 issue of the journal, The World of Music. Now a dozen years later, in May 2018, there will be a conference at the University of California, Santa Barbara, based on this very same proposition, that environmental and cultural sustainability are inseparable. 
     The conference announcement reads, in part: “Cultural Sustainabilities is a two-day conference driven by the proposition that environmental and cultural sustainability are inextricably linked. This conference brings together leading social scientists, humanists, and activists to address the premise that reversing or ameliorating the negative impacts of human behavior on the globe’s environment is at its core a human cultural question.” The conference is sponsored by the University of California, Santa Barbara, departments of Music, Anthropology, Media Studies, and Environmental Studies, with support from UCSB’s Center for Interdisciplinary Study of Music and the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center. The list of sponsors indicates that sustainability today is considered an issue for the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. In 2006, of course, that was not the case; beginning in that year I spoke, and then wrote, that in the university world of theoretical and applied knowledge, sustainability discourses resided primarily in economics (particularly developmental economics) and ecology (particularly conservation biology), while in the public arena sustainability was associated with environmentalism, energy conservation, and living a “green” life. In addition, sustainability thinking led to ecological economics, an alternative to neoclassical economic theory. Today a robust discussion of sustainability is occurring in the arts and humanities. Indeed, sustainability is now mainstream enough for it to be critiqued in the environmental humanities, who (mistakenly in my view) believe that it promotes a version of deep ecology as the sustainability ideal. 
     I’ll have more to say about that sustainabilities conference at UCSB as this coming May approaches—it is free and open to the public, and parts or all of it may be streamed on the internet—but what prompts this post is the assault on environmental and cultural sustainabilities underway by the current US federal Administration, personified by the policies put in place by the heads of the US Department of the Interior (Ryan Zinke) and the Environmental Protection Administration (Scott Pruitt). Yesterday, it was announced that 9 of 12 members of the US National Parks Advisory Panel resigned en masse, in protest, because during the year 2017, the first year that Secretary Zinke was head of Interior, he never once convened or consulted his advisory panel. After they resigned, a spokesperson for the Department of Interior told the board chair, Tony Knowles (former governor of Alaska) that their resignation was “welcome” because the board had ignored sexual harassment in the Parks, and that they had also ignored an invitation to meet on January 8th. Knowles told a NPR interviewer that these charges were laughable; no invitation for a meeting had ever come to the board, while they had in fact offered advice to the previous Administration on sexual harassment policy, which was a serious problem in the Parks (and in the Interior Department as a whole). Knowles suggested that the Adminstration’s spokesperson, associate deputy secretary Todd Willens, was inventing facts to fit the false narrative he wanted to present. Willens' moral condemnation of sexual harassment, like that of his boss, rings false considering the history of sexual predation that accompanies the nation's chief executive. Having served on an advisory board myself, and having experienced something similar when the organization got a new leader, I know what it means when the new head is unwilling to follow the advisory board’s advice. But seldom does the new leader ignore the board entirely. 
     The Parks represent natural ecosystems set aside for conservation and preservation, in a nation where for centuries economic development has exploited natural resources without much regard for sustainability. But now, according to former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel, even the Parks themselves are at great risk. They face a $12 billion backlog of deferred infrastructure maintenance already, and it is clear from the environmental policies being put in place by the current Administration, that the Parks will not receive much federal help. One “solution” to their financial problem, scheduled to be implemented this year, is a rise in the Parks’ admission fees, by roughly 350%. Where it used to cost $20 to visit Acadia National Park in Maine, for example, this year the admission fee will rise to $70. (The advisory board had opposed the rate raise.) For a working-class family of four, part of the voter base that elected this President, a cost of nearly $300 in admissions alone would put such a vacation out of reach. And yet, these were meant to be “national” parks, available to all, not private land. As Woody Guthrie wrote in the song, “This Land Is Your Land,”

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me; 
Sign was painted, it said private property; 
But on the back side it didn't say nothing; 
That side was made for you and me. 


This verse is not listed in the Wikipedia entry for this song, by the way. Someone should update it. 
      I’ve posted blog entries here about partnering with Scott McFarland at the Great Smoky National Park in the spring of 2016, on a soundscape project, part of the Park’s “natural sounds and night skies” initiative to preserve the sonic ecosystems of the Parks for visitors and also for the benefit of all Park inhabitants (plants, animals) that cannot survive without sound communication. But the assault on the Parks is just part of a larger agenda, a policy encouraging coal mining, timber cutting, oil and gas drilling, and so on, in environmentally sensitive areas such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as well as federally owned lands; and in areas where an environmental disaster such as an oil spill would have adverse economic impacts on local and regional industries. Opening up the Gulf of Maine, for example, to oil drilling—which the current Administration may well accomplish, despite opposition from all the state's Congressional representatives, including the very conservative Republican, Bruce Poliquin—could destroy the fishing and tourist industries that the state of Maine’s population greatly depends on. The impact of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico stood as a warning to the previous Administration; but under the current one it’s open season on the environment, for the benefit of the oil corporations and the wealthy who have effectively bought the government (see Citizens United) at the expense of the people. 
     No clearer examples of the interlinks between environmental and cultural sustainability can be found than in the damage done to people and their ways of life caused by environmental disasters. The fact that these environmental disasters result in large part from human economic activity fueled by belief in maximizing material wealth in the short run, does not prevent those presently controlling federal policy from exacerbating the problem and causing further environmental injustice while mounting a propaganda campaign of denial and reversal. Such policies may yet trickle down to reduce and then eliminate federal support for the arts and humanities, for public media (NPR and PBS). The propaganda campaign infects the public sphere and threatens academic freedom while it gaslights scientific truth, and puts colleges and universities’ disinterested pursuit of knowledge at risk, in the same way that the Parks, the environmentally sensitive areas, and American cultural values (such as democracy, equal opportunity, civil rights, and human rights) are also under assault. It’s taken a dozen years, but now sustainability is understood to be cultural and social, as well as economic and environmental, with important connections among them. 

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Natural Selection and the Invisible Hand

   
Invisible path to Oxford, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

     My sound ecology project led me to study animal sound communication, from three points of view: the modern science of behavioral ecology; indigenous ecological knowledges; and poetics, including zoomusicology. Zoomusicologists are especially interested in birdsong, from an aesthetic point of view. Sound functions for indigenous peoples as an indicator of nature: weather and climate, for example, and the locations and activities of animals, as well as spirit-persons. Behavioral ecologists study sound communication as part of the science of animal behavior: they are interested in understanding how, what, and why animals (and plants) signal information to one another by means of sound. Music may be understood as a special form of communication among human animals. Of course, compared with other animal sound communication, human music is thought to be complex in structure, to have aesthetic qualities, and to operate as part of the cultural matrix—that is, it varies among different peoples, it is learned and transmitted from one group and generation to the next, it is creative, and so on, making it different in degree (if not in kind) from the croaks of frogs and the chirps of crickets. And yet, I’ve wondered whether insights from the study of animal sound communication have bearing on music and sustainability, on the one hand, and on the place of sound and music in the contemporary environmental and cultural crisis, on the other.
     In reviewing the literature of behavioral ecology, I found that explanations of animal sound communication were based in the neo-Darwinian paradigm of fitness combined with modern gene theory. That is, individual animals communicated (in sound and by other means) in a struggle for survival with the result that those better adapted to their ecological niche would have the best chance of living longer, mating more often, and contributing their genetic inheritance to the ongoing gene pool of their species. Those better adapted exhibited advantageous variations compared with other members of their species: bigger, stronger, “smarter,” more flexible, and so on; or in the realm of sound communication they could vocalize louder, or longer, or in a more elaborate way, or more often, or when there was less interference from other sounds. As Darwin’s theory of natural selection proposed, then, the animals who were better at vocalizing (all other things equal) would gradually comprise a greater percentage of their species, and over very long (geological) periods of time, would “transmute” (or mutate) into new species. 
     One of the things that struck me immediately about Darwin’s theory of natural selection was that its evolutionary algorithm operated like Adam Smith’s "invisible hand." In both, individuals acting in their self interest—that is, selfishly—were said to produce an overall outcome for the common, or public, good: whether for the better adaptation of a species, or the benefit of society (the market economy, with opportunities and benefits for more individuals). Darwin himself credited the genesis of natural selection to his reading of Malthus on population: “In October 1838 I happened to read . . . Malthus . . . and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favorable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavorable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species.” 
    But recently in reading Silvan Schweber’s detailed examination of Darwin’s reading during the period that led up to his eureka moment, I found confirmation that Smith's "invisible hand" had also been an influence. With natural selection, as in the free market, there was no external intervention or regulation; things were said to work out for the best naturally, and of their own accord, as if guided by an invisible hand. Also, in reading Stephen Jay Gould’s summary of Darwin’s “middle road” the other day, I ran across a similar reaction to Darwin’s theory from none other than Karl Marx. Writing to Engels shortly after reading Darwin, Marx put it this way: “It is remarkable how Darwin recognizes among beasts and plants his English society with its division of labor, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘invention,’ and the Malthusian ’struggle for existence.’” Nature, in other words, operated in the plant and animal kingdoms as the free market did in the sphere of human economics.
     Gould himself had come to the same conclusion after reading Schweber’s 1977 essay. He wrote, “I believe the theory of natural selection should be viewed as an extended analogy—whether conscious or unconscious on Darwin’s part I do not know—to the laissez faire economics of Adam Smith. The essence of Smith’s argument is a paradox of sorts: if you want an ordered economy providing maximum benefits to all, then let individuals compete and struggle for their own advantages. The result, after appropriate sorting and elimination of the inefficient, will be a stable and harmonious polity. Apparent order arises naturally from the struggle among individuals, not from predestined principles or higher control." Gould was quick to demur from Smith's classical economic theory: laissez-faire economics leads to oligopoly and inequality, not a stable and harmonious society. 
     Gould also went on to point out that just because natural selection and laissez-faire economics were analogous, that in itself did not mean they were wrong. Even so, I believe there are reasons to be skeptical. For one thing, it is also possible that Marx was right, in that natural selection is anthropogenic, projecting our human understanding of behavior onto the animal kingdom because we have no alternative: we can’t comprehend what it is to be a nonhuman animal. And for another, as I learned just recently, from a 2011 essay by Peter Harrison in the history of ideas, Adam Smith didn’t mean what Marx, Schweber, Gould, and I thought he meant by the invisible hand. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” was understood, by Smith and others at the time he was writing, as deliberate intervention, “higher control” —in fact, it was taken to be the hand of God, hidden and invisible, yet working for the good of mankind. In other words, Smith’s free market was not free from the direction of God’s invisible hand. The irony is that Darwin’s natural selection was free from it. And so in this important aspect, Darwin’s evolutionary theory and the classical economic theory of Adam Smith are quite the opposite. Darwin himself would have liked to believe that God’s invisible hand was operating in the natural world, but could not bring himself to that faith, for various reasons that can be found in the voluminous literature about Darwin.
     Metaphors and analogies are necessary in scientific theories. Mathematical formulas represent ideas; Newton’s f=ma and Einstein’s e=mc squared are meaningless until the concepts are explained in words. “Relativity” is both a fact and a metaphor. Smith's "invisible hand" is a metaphor. In The Origin of Species, Darwin wrote that he used the phrase “struggle for existence” in a “large and metaphorical sense including the dependence of one being on another.” And this is to say that for Darwin the “struggle for life” involved not only selfishness, but also interdependence and cooperation, something that is sometimes forgotten by contemporary neo-Darwinians fixated on what Richard Dawkins famously called “selfish gene theory.” Interdependence, after all, is the cornerstone principle of ecological science—the study of the relationships among organisms and to their environments—and one of the four principles of an ecological approach to musical and cultural sustainability.