Sustainable Music


Saturday, May 31, 2014

Sustainability: Adaptive Management as Coaching

Photograph by Jeff Titon, Providence, RI, 2002.

    What prompts this entry is a sentence from an anonymous external evaluator of an as-yet unpublished article. Last fall I completed an essay for the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, on music and sustainability. After reviewing sustainability and its cousins—preservation, conservation, and safeguarding—from a historical perspective, I proposed that applied ethnomusicologists undertaking cultural interventions with the goal of sustainability employ strategies involving resilience and adaptive management. The external evaluator, whose response came to me from the press only a few days ago, liked the essay: “This thought-provoking piece does an excellent job of exploring the concepts of preservation, conservation, safeguarding, sustainability, and resilience, considering environmental literature, economics, folklore studies, and ethnomusicology (the latter both within and outside the United States). More broadly, it examines how the ‘ecological trope’ has influenced ethnomusicology, considering what is at stake in using such language, and arguing for ‘resilience’ as a concept that improves upon ‘sustainability’. At the opening of the chapter, I wondered whether the length of the essay and the breadth of its scope would pay off, and they do.”  Next the helpful sentence: “Do the apparently benevolent, enlightened, and consultative interventions of applied ethnomusicologists have commonalities with the forms of human management the Foucauldian tradition expresses concern about?” In other words, if I am going to advocate adaptive management for music cultures, I ought to assuage readers who would look askance at management as a powerful, controlling mechanism characteristic of modern nation-states. My initial thoughts follow.
    Foucault coined the term “biopower” to describe the way modern nation-states regulate their citizenry, particularly in reference to controls over excesses of the body (and body politic). Their disciplinary power is even more effective because the regulations become internalized as culture. Foucault is working in a tradition pioneered by Karl Marx, who wrote about the Protestant religion’s emphasis on bodily discipline (drunkenness, for example, as a sin) effectively providing efficient, submissive factory workers for the capitalists. George Orwell’s prophetic 1984 portrayed a such a society as a police state. These, of course, are forms of management; and the reviewer worries that readers may be concerned about its dangers when strategies of adaptive management are advocated for musical and cultural sustainability.
    A quick response to this apparent problem is to say that the kind of cultural management I’ve been advocating (and practicing) for nearly five decades is not and never has been top-down, but rather grows out of a partnership between the culture worker and the community leaders and tradition-bearers. In an ideal case, the culture worker learns the music culture’s sustainability goals and helps its people plan and then implement a sustainability strategy in which they self-manage, relying on the culture worker as a collaborator and consultant. True enough, but I believe deeper resistances to management need to be engaged, especially where people are involved. It is one thing for a conservation biologist to adopt a strategy of resilience and adaptive management for ecosystems; it is quite another to manage people who have intentions of their own.
    I’ve written earlier in this blog about some of my reservations about resilience and management. The popular idea of resilience, which I shared as recently as a year ago, is that it is a kind of hunkering down, a defensive strategy of resistance. The more that I learned about its implementation, whether in medicine, psychology, or conservation biology, the more I realized I’d been wrong. Resilience is better understood as an ability to bounce back. A resilient system, in other words, whether a human being, a culture, or an ecosystem, has the capacity to respond to a disturbance by bouncing back to a former state, at least far enough so that its integrity remains and its core functions continue. This is not the same thing as resisting disturbance. Think of a resilient system as bending but not breaking, then bouncing back. Think of a resistant one as not bending until the disturbance is too great, then breaking.
    Adaptive management is. moreover, a special kind of management: one that expects sometimes to fail but then also expects to learn from failure and do a better job in the future. In a sense, most management seeks to be adaptive; but the phrase emphasizes that failure is inevitable and leads, ideally, to more effective management. It emphasizes the pragmatic nature of management. For better and worse, it characterizes many contemporary practices, such as medicine.
    Still, many people don’t like to be managed. Earlier, I wrote about management and coaching: in baseball we have managers, but in football and basketball they’re called coaches. Of course, both manage the games employing short- and long-term strategies, and by putting the players in positions where they have the best chance to succeed. Both coach their players, teaching them better techniques. Interestingly, coaches appear in contemporary Euro-American cultures in “the game of life”: people hire coaches for public speaking, for dress and appearance, for health, for social relationships, for business negotiations, and so forth. We don’t seem to mind being coached. Some of us want it, thinking it will advantage us. Why, then, the resistance to being managed, if we’re willing to be coached?
    Marx, Orwell, and Foucault shared that resistance. It impinged on autonomy and freedom; it abrogated natural rights. Being managed meant being told what to do, what to say, even what to think, when one didn’t want to be told--and then being coerced to do it. The difference, with coaching, is the willing partnership: presumably we want to be coached, even if we don’t want to be managed, because we conceive of the goal as our own. Adaptive managing may be regarded as coaching, then, when applied ethnomusicologists partner for sustainability.
    It's a helpful stretch to try to “think” like an animal, or like an ecosystem, or even like a mountain. Poets and environmentalists understand this impulse and have written about it, though scientists are understandably wary of imputing motives to nature. Conservation biologists managing ecosystems would do well to attempt, imaginatively, to enter into their mode of being, which may be done without attributing intentionality to nature. “It’s not what they ‘want,’ it’s just how they ‘are.’” An adaptive manager, as a culture worker partnering with communities over the future of their music, would do well to examine his or her role. Music cultures are like ecosystems, yes; but it’s important to bear in mind that is is only a trope, an analogy. In modern, Euro-American societies they do better when coached. But the culture worker also requires coaching, from the community that carries the music culture. Otherwise there cannot be any hope of partnership.