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Saturday, August 29, 2015

"Where Ethnos Fear to Tread"

I would like to write a little follow-up on the previous blog on public space. I was in Kazakhstan this summer, at the bi-yearly world conference of the International Council for Traditional Music ICTM. ICTM is the worldwide organization for ethnomusicologists, and in spite of its rather old-fashioned name it is a conference where ethnomusicologists of all plumage from all over the world come together and discuss their very current research. Research which ranges from the traditional ethnomusicological (research into 'traditional music' from the 'non-western world') to a huge variety of other domains: pop musics in non-western countries; traditional musics in western countries; revivals of traditional musics; safeguarding of traditional musics; or - and that is where I fit in - simply the study of music in/as culture - the study of music as human social behavior. This last category is, when carried out in western societies, rather small, so small that I sometimes wonder whether I am not too much the odd one out at ethnomusicological conferences, but in Kazakhstan I found it reconfirmed that there are enough points of convergence between me and all those other ethnomusicologists to be part of ICTM. So yes, ICTM is my academic home; and yes, I am an ethnomusicologist. Good to know who you are and where you belong, academically speaking. And looking forward to the next conference, 2017 Ireland.

'But anyway.' A conference, and especially a world conference, is a specific form of public space. Public in the sense that 600 very heterogeneous academics come and visit each other's presentations. And public in the sense that presenters share their presentation with an unknown audience, who will come to listen on the basis of a very short written abstract, or, more often, just the presentation title. So in a sense, it is a meeting of people who often don't know each other, on terrain that is home to none of them. In that sense it has a form of publicness.

In my opinion it means that a certain carefulness should be in place. Carefulness in the best sense of the word, circling around the idea of 'care': care for those other people whose backgrounds you do not know and who are there not only as 'academics' (whatever that may mean) but also as full human beings. This form of care implies a certain cautiousness surrounding topics which you know may be socially awkward - 'sex and violence', for instance (which is, by the way, also the title of the second episode of the first year of Monty Python's television series).

Earlier I wrote about a presenter at the previous ICTM conference showing, without warning, the image of the head of a freshly decapitated sorcerer being carried on a stake by a mob through the streets. This edition, I witnessed a presentation which was far more cautious - and much more interesting - but still raised questions. So let me just share the questions with you.

A young scholar gave a presentation based on the famous 'Leekspin' video, which uses a Finnish song called the Ievan Polkka (Wikipedia tells us the words are from the 1930s but the music is - maybe much - older) in the version of a Finnish folk group called  Loituma (you see the connection to ICTM's 'traditional music' at work). The video, with a Japanese anime girl, went viral; it became an internet-meme, which gave the presenter the opportunity to use a beautiful quotation from Richard Dawkins concerning the superiority of cultural memes over biological genes: "We should not seek immortality in reproduction. But if you contribute to the world's culture, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool." The presenter had tried to figure out where the Leekspin video came from, and found out that it was based on a pornographic shock video called Meatspin. Funnily enough, the presenter said, most people seem to think Meatspin is based on Leekspin, but it seems to be the other way around.

But although this was interesting, the topic of the presentation was different. By presenting his example, the presenter wanted to draw attention to two phenomena which are under-studied in ethnomusicology: the virtual world ('cyber-ethnography'), and pornography. In his abstract he wrote: "The lack of study on music associated with pornographic images (...) provides an excellent opportunity to understand the motivations and biases behind all ethnomusicologists' choices of research topics." So the presentation (called "Where Ethnos Fear To Tread: Criticizing Our Aversion To The Electronic And The Erotic") functioned as a mirror, and although I cannot judge whether pornography and, especially, cyber-ethnography are really so underrepresented in ethnomusicology (the virtual musical world is rather a topic at present, and eroticism, sex and pornography may not be widely studied but neither are they absent, I think) the point the presenter made was worthwhile and courageous.

But now the thingy. In order to make his point, the presenter first showed various examples of Leekspin-videos and remakes of it, and then a very explicit still of the pornographic Meatspin video. When I talked with the presenter afterwards, he said that he showed a still because for some reason he couldn't get the video to play, otherwise he would have shown the video. He also said that he had given the presentation on earlier occasions sometimes with and sometimes without the porn clip, and both varieties yielded strong reactions: with he porn clip he was offensive, without it he was an example of the cowardice he tried to discuss.

Personally I felt that the pornographic still came too much as a surprise. The title of the presentation would not give you a clue of its coming - it mentions 'the erotic' which is at best a euphemism but probably something completely different - nor did the abstract; and in his presentation he did not offer audience members who might not want to be confronted with pornographic images the opportunity to close their eyes or look away for the time being. I considered it unfair, but I understand the presenter's point. In our talk afterwards het stressed that the point I tried to make was a concern for him too, with no fixed answers as yet for him.

At the back of all this may lie ideas that in research ("in academia" as some of my colleagues say, often pronouncing "academia" in the same way believers pronounce the word "church") we express the objective truth and therefore any topic or finding of research must be expressed freely anywhere, without restraint; a bit like medical doctors showing disgusting pictures of horrible wounds of sometimes very private bodily parts as interesting footage. I think this idea that research is beyond/above the norms of sociality - of which I do not suspect the presenter I write about in this blog - is wrong; research in the social sciences, indeed, has to shed new light on everyday life and may make implicit norms explicit and hence understandable; but at the same time the academic community is a community - a social community functioning in the same way as any other community.

I wonder what you think, so let's have a chat about it when we meet. And what do you think: should I have incorporated the Meatspin video in the blog? Or a still? Or a link? Or should I not even have mentioned its name but spoken about "a pornographic video on YouTube"? Is the solution I chose careful, or is it cowardice?

Let me know.

1 comment:

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