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Monday, May 16, 2011

On Writing - Again

Okay, I will have to admit it. I have given it up. I have given up reading Aaron Fox’ Real Country (see my blog entry from April 3d 2011). I guess I have read about one third of the book but then started reading a book on the Bosnian War (My War Gone By, I Miss it So, by Anthony Loyd – well written thus far, horrible, and for me impossible to personify with the author because I cannot imagine why someone wants to see war with his own eyes) and have not yet re-opened Fox’ book.

Basically there are two reasons why I stopped reading Real Country. I already wrote about one of them: the horrible jargon written in much of the book. I recognize much of the jargon as coming from the direction of Cultural Studies, a field I am not specialized in and feel not attracted to although I am slightly curious about what they actually have to say. But whenever I read something from this field, I stumble on jargon – when they write about identity it is always about “negotiating identity” but in at least ninety percent of the cases it stays unclear what exactly this “negotiating” is: who negotiates? With whom? And about what exactly? What is the difference with “constructing” an identity? And why is that difference so important?

I feel like I am encountering a problem the famous Dutch professor in Russian Literature Karel van het Reve describes when he talks about the people doing “Literature Studies” (“literatuurwetenschap”, in Dutch): it is not so much that he does not want to know what they write about, but it is kind of physically impossible for him to read their prose – he keeps losing track of, and interest in, their message. 
So jargon (voiced paths, and networks of interrelated tropes configuring music and language) is one thing. The other thing is that I am doubting more and more that what Fox is telling is not in a way rather circular. I think one of his big points is to show that country music shares a world view and a way of expressing with the way Texan “blue collar workers” talk in general; and that both (country music and talk) are tokens of a Texan blue-collar “culture”.

But the thing is that Fox, at least in the first third of his book, has very carefully selected the places and people he describes – they are not random blue collar workers but all immersed in country music. They seem very monodimensional to me, and there is nothing wrong with that, but I wonder how many “blue collar workers” in Texas are like that, and how many do occasionally of their own free will listen to other music than country, or to no music at all. It is as if he has constructed a fairly small tribe and focuses on those persons that seem to belong most to this tribe in order to show that the tribe exists at all, and then goes on to say that this is actually quite a big and important tribe.

I know I should not write this, having read only 1/3 of the book, and maybe all answers come in the remaining pages. Please tell me, and encourage me to read on (I need that badly). But it may be that the book actually shows one of the huge ethnomusicological problems: how to write ethnographically about music in late-modern western society. I believe that many ethnomusicologists underestimate the methodological problems of such an endeavour, and feel that, as long as they adhere to “participant observation” (in ethnomusicology often too simply translated as ”learning to play the music as good as possible in order to really understand what really is going on”), not much can go wrong.

But it is not as simple as that. Ethnography in your own society misses the fundamental methodological point of participant observation: the road you travel from being an outsider to becoming an insider. It is this road that creates enough distantiation to write with some objectivity. And this distantiation misses in fieldwork at home. It is not enough to create distance artificially by for example claiming you look through the glasses of “an ethnomusicologist from Mars” (as Bruno Nettl once did) or by constructing your own small and strange tribe, as Fox to me seems to do; that denies the complexities of our society.

I believe methodological more advanced principles should be adhered to, and actually I do believe ethnomusicology might learn something from research done in qualitative sociology these days: grounded theory, theoretical sampling, hermeneutic approaches – not that there is no jargon there (on the contrary – but it is the task of “us writers” to avoid words as “hermeneutic” as much as possible), but the methodological thinking behind it points at important problems as well as at possible solutions.

So no Real Country for me, for some time. At least not in book-form. But you can always wake me up for country sung and played.

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