The New Consensus?

November 11, 2007 at 2:22 pm 4 comments

A little less than twenty years ago, The Journal of American History had a special issue entitled “A Round Table: What Has Changed and Not Changed in American Historical Practice?” This issue, like many other bits of scholarship both in history and in musicology around 1990, was concerned with assessing the impact of the rise of radicalism – particularly Marxism –  in American academe in the 1960s and beyond. As usual, radicalism was set up in opposition to so-called “consensus” historiography that preceded it, with its emphasis on historical U.S. political conflict operating within a larger theatre of consensus on the merits of the liberal tradition (the venerable Arthur Schlesinger has a concise exposition of the “consensus” view). With the fundamental problem of the nature of U.S. political process “solved” by describing it as “consensus,” the radical historians argued, the discipline was caught in a straitjacket of groupthink.[1] Over time, the word “consensus” has morphed from a descriptor of the political process to an adjective applied to the historians themselves, and has acquired the connotations of conformism, cronyism, and conservatism. To read the responses to Jonathan Weiner in this issue of JAH, nothing could be more stifling to a discipline than a consensus view of any historical problem.


Musicology, too, has weathered a  disciplinary crisis, in the form of numerous bold declarations of  a “new musicology” in the early 1990s, led by Susan McClary, Lawrence Kramer, and others. Anyone who has matriculated at a musicology PhD program in the United States in the last 10-15 years has most likely rehearsed the issues surrounding our own disciplinary crisis in their intro & methods coursework.


In a real sense, new musicology won. Radical scholars of all stripes have tenure, sit on hiring and firing (I mean, promotion) committees, make decisions about what gets published and what doesn’t, and so on. McClary was awarded a MacArthur fellowship for her efforts. In other words, new musicology, and radical voices now have been acknowledged by the establishment, and have seats at the table(s) of power. And why not? McClary’s work is firey, thought-provoking, and rigorous. In indirect ways her scholarship has influenced my own, and in person (I got to sit next to her at dinner one night one night when she visited Harvard – ooh!) she is a gracious and brilliant conversationalist.


My question is “now what?” Now that scholars who have made their careers critiquing existing power dynamics themselves occupy leading positions in the field, what happens? Everyone can think of their favorite article where an established scholar writes in a hushed tone about how their true scholarly love was cruelly suppressed in graduate school, and they could not explore it safely until they were cloaked in tenure and beyond the reach of their intellectual detractors. Without making light of academically stifling departments of years past, what is the present-day message of these tales, now that one of the most successful young musicologists in America recently completed a dissertation which features a whole chapter on music at the Super Bowl?


I think there could be many answers, but, in the interest of polemics, I would like to suggest that we might be operating in a new era of consensus. The consensual contract could be bluntly stated as follows: anything goes. However, Rob Walser, in a recent book review, gives a hint of a more precise formulation, when he writes that “The elevation of judgment over understanding excuses many … from having to deal with … cultural complexities.”[2] And indeed, this reversal of relationship between judgment and understanding in the scholar’s outlook seems to be a key feature of what I’m calling the new consensus.


Obviously, simply inverting this relationship is neither good nor bad, per se, nor is it particularly new: one need only review the main themes of the positivism vs. criticism debate that preceded New Musicology to flesh out the major themes. At the same time, I wonder if a new trend is also apparent. While I’ll stop short of mentioning names, most readers can think of a conference paper or recent article which not only seemed to attempt to understand a rather obscure topic, but seemed to have as its subtext a fascination with the deliberately trivial. “We shouldn’t judge!” these bits of scholarship seem to claim – or even more pointedly “You can’t judge my scholarship, because you don’t understand it!”


I don’t think that this new consensus is necessarily bad – scholars should be free to study whatever is of interest to them, and the last thing I think anyone wants is some sort of plutocracy coming up with a rigid answer to the question “what do musicologists properly study?” At the same time, it is a not-too-often discussed irony that radicalism seems, at times, to have solidified into an orthodoxy of its own.

[1] Oscar Handlin and others say this view massively oversimplifies the work of so-called consensus historians. See the introduction to Handlin’s work Truth in History.

[2] Rob Walser, review of Washburn and Derno eds., Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate (New York: Routledge, 2004), Journal for the Society of American Music 1 No. 4 (November 2007), 511.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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  • 1. Josh Craft  |  November 15, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    Although I not a musicologist, I think that this is an excellent take on a new “radical chic” or radical orthodoxy within academic disciplines. I think that Richard Hofstadter, himself both in and out of the camp of post-World War II consensus historians, speaks to this topic in the final essay in his Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, “The Intellectual: Alienation and Conformity.” Hofstadter argues that intellectuals (inside and outside the academy) struggle as much with acceptance as with rejection by the larger world. “Being used to rejection…many [intellectuals] continue have come to feel that alienation is the only appropriate and honorable stance for them to take” (393).

    Perhaps, as a way to square their own secure positions with their desire to avoid creating their own “establishment”, consensus “radicals” within musicology feel the need to hush criticism of more obscure work? Comformity and success come with power that some intellectuals may not feel comfortable with. It will be interesting to see how this plays out as a the views (or non-views) of the new establishment become clearer and consensus begins to crack.

  • 2. Emily Abrams Ansari  |  November 15, 2008 at 2:27 pm

    Great entry, Drew. Got me thinking. For me, academia has always been an intriguing mixture of the radical and the ultra-conservative. The world of pop music scholarship is an interesting case in point: what was radical 20 years ago has, in some cases, become downright tedious and repetitive, with students at some institutions taking a previously unconsidered work and applying the same old regurgitated approaches to it that their profs have taught them to use.
    I think we must all, in the end, strive for something fresh–but it doesn’t have to be radical to be good. I hope what has happened in the last few years is that, rather than a new move toward consensus, we have embraced a multitude of new approaches into our discipline, while simultaneously working to sift the wheat from the chaff with the regard to the efforts of “new musicology.” For myself, while I felt somewhat paralyzed as a musicologist at the turn of the century (where the hell were we to go from there?!) today I feel there are a multitude of “acceptable” paths I could take, but I will only succeed on these paths if my work is careful, thoughtful, and intelligent. Good luck to all of us.
    In a fit of enthusiasm for, my mouse and I set out on a brief exploration of the academia blog world (OK–I am procrastinating this afternoon), and I came across a woman whose blog name fits rather well with your story here. She is a history prof at Wesleyan who calls herself “Tenured Radical.” I just read her article called “Giving Good Paper,” which some of amusicology’s fans might find useful too.

  • 3. John Pippen  |  November 15, 2008 at 2:27 pm

    I am not convinced that the applications of post-modern ideas of gender and sex as analyzing methods warrant an anything goes approach. I think that Kramer and McClary are arguing for cultural signifiers. Indeed, is not the aim of New Musicology to tear down the absolute and unquestionable status of classical music? The Walser article, in my opinion, speaks to this. In his review Walser dealt with music that was often assumed as bad, and Walser knows that when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me. Interpretive approaches can demonstrate much, but frankly, if you can’t explain it well, it probably doesn’t work.

    Drew’s entry also seems to speak to the idea of Structure vs. anti-structure. The anti-structure is a reaction to the structure, therefore the anti-structure is dependent on the structure for power and meaning. I think that new musicology is not an anti-structure as much as a call for a new structure.

  • 4. Aaron Fox  |  November 15, 2008 at 2:28 pm

    I disagree strongly with this, and especially in the use of Walser’s snarky comment from his (awful) review of Bad Music in American Music.

    Here’s my view, having started out as a grad student in music at Texas in 1988, and quickly switched into anthropology for the PhD when I realized how backwards “New Musicology” and “Ethnomusicology” both were.

    The problem with the New Musicology is that it is the Old Musicology with a new suit on. The idea that what we study is “music” as such (whatever that is) is the problem. As a social scientist, I am interested in what music tells me about society, not in music per se, or illuminating the canon (or the non-canon) for new generations of listeners. I find classical music interminably boring to listen to, and usually even more boring to read about. There is little it can still tell me about class, power, patronage, and social hierarchy in Europe in the 17th-20th centuries that I can’t learn more directly from other sources, especially because despite protestations to the contrary most “new” musicological research has worked within the same frame of canonization and textuality that “old” musicology did.

    As an anthropologist, and a musician, what matters to me is how socially important and relevant any particular “musical” object of study is. There must be 200 American PhD students (mostly males, interestingly) currently studying some version of “avant garde,” “experimental,” “free jazz,” etc. musics right now. It’s been the topic du jour for a few years,

    But nobody cares about it outside of music departments and a few hipster circles in major cities. Commercially, all that “experimental” music is nothing. It pales by comparison with Bollywood, country and western, or smooth jazz in terms of its social significance. Yet it predominates all out of proportion to its trivial significance in the real world within contemporary musicology, as if John Zorn were the equivalent of Lata Mangeshkar, or John Cage the equivalent of Chuck Berry. We still subdivide European music into canonical historical periods that must be “represented” on faculties, exams, and curricula. Yet we treat “world” and “popular” musics as interchangeable examples of something.

    Another problem with “New Musicology” is its hijacking by a peculiar west coast obsession with a very narrow conception of “culture” as “identity,” as in “identity politics.” This is a pretty well rehearsed critique by now, but as long as musicologists feel they must “represent” some form of “cultural identity politics” in their work, they will be partisan, subjective critics, not scholars or scientists in any real sense. Music does so much more socially than stand for whatever cultural identity is being proclaimed on the literal level of performance.

    So I’m not at all in favor of “anything goes.” I am in favor of doing away with “value” as a framework entirely — at least the musicologist’s personal (and usually very class-based) “values.” Value is a social phenomenon, a discursive construction, implicated in real world social processes and conflicts that transcend music fundamentally, and in which music plays a bit role. We *must* “decenter” music as such, not just the “kinds of music” we write about.

    There was nothing “radical” about New Musicology in the 1990s. It was a desperate attempt from within the profession to reclaim *some* degree of relevance, some participation in the theoretical and critical conversations then animating the humanities, and as usual for musicology, it came a decade late and on the back of a rather shallow and secondary-sourced encounter with “theory” as such.


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