Linda Schwartz


Mourning and responsibility: music scholarship and the spectral cracks of institution


According to Derrida (Spectres of Marx,1994), there are two types of scholarship: 1) The scholarship of denial – an hysterical utterance that conjures against the arrival of “unfavourable spirits,” a worried, anxious acknowledgement that the thing which has been buried is not really dead; 2)The scholarship of responsibility – a fidelity to the tradition which practices resistance without reducing gaps left by the trace or the question; the spectral body (resistance to the tradition) that refuses to be covered over in hegemonic or totalizing narrative. Engaged in continual dialogue with tradition (the task of inheritance), the gift or promise to the responsible scholar is the possibility of inhabiting these spectral spaces.
Freud described the hysteria of the scholarship of denial as “the triumphant phase of mourning work,” an obsession with maintaining or conserving something that can never be re-constructed. This spectre haunts much of what is transmitted as music theory in the academy, denying the possibility of different musical utterances, the validation of other voices or narratives within the preserve of dominant aesthetic discourse to live, to survive. Transmission of the tradition allows no possibility of alterity of the text or of its movement through historical or material specificity; authorized works are subsumed in an architectural formal space that is static, idealized.
But Derrida reminds us that a text is never an organic, unified whole. It is always corrupted, already fissured, inhabited by something alien (Wigley, 1997). Heidegger (1971) also posits that a work of art does not stand on its own, uncontaminated by the institutions that frame it. Within the music academy, the tradition is already disturbed by cracks that are showing in its own discourse -- ruptures of inquiry over privileging of certain canonic texts, and critique of analytic methods (veiled ideologies) used to validate them (Kerman, 1980; Morgan, 1984). As with Heidegger’s institutional construct, the unfamiliar in music scholarship is now “overflowing the familiar.” What appears stable invites or contains instability, maintaining a façade of order, while masking internal disorder (Wigley). Declarations of uselessness (high art music having transcended social context) are now widely perceived as admissions of uselessness (McClary, 1989). By retreating to the entrenched canons of literature and method, the scholarly musical establishment denies the ideological fissures, and carries on with orthodox, self-contained analyses, consigning itself to marginalization.
Two areas in which music theory scholarship in the academy could meaningfully resist the tradition and thereby become responsible to it: 1. Pedagogical method and content – The study of music has been restricted to that which conserves, reproduces, and transmits a common practice. Here, oppositional practices of responsibility and denial in the early 20 th c. harmonic theories of Schoenberg and Schenker are examined at length. Music theory might use its own technical apparatus in search of ruptures and slippages in the literature of the canon, and then look beyond the canon for other interesting sites of resistance (Cook, 2001). 2. Creating new forms of expression - Hainge (2002) calls for the possibility of theory to practice “good philosophy” by acknowledging the irreducible relationship between the work of culture and the theories that critique it. Example: electro-acoustic feedback or digital “glitch” created out of the fault lines of technology exceed the structural confines from which they emanate. Such “noise” performs a critique of the system that produces it, and thrusts the listener-scholar back into the world, open to the question of possibility (Attali, 1988).
Texts call for translation (Derrida, 1994). But translation necessarily abuses the text, transforming it rather than replicating or transmitting it. Translation is called in to cover gaps in the structure of the text, by forcing it open and liberating what is hidden. This is the scholar’s “mourning work,” the spectral trace left by the question, which leave the scholar so much to think about and to do. Responsible scholarship undertakes this lonely, haunting work, continuing to force open and reveal what remains within the spectral body of tradition, in order for it to live on, and for us to inscribe ourselves in it.