Bibliography, Peer Group, and Framing

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Back when I used to teach musicological skills to postgraduates, I used to encourage them to think about their bibliographical work in terms of defining the academic community which their work would enable them to join. The people you read to develop your ideas are also your ideal readers: your aim is to persuade those with whom you argue to adapt their views, and to offer something back in thanks to those whose work has facilitated yours.

Philip Ewell’s work on music theory’s White racial frame has got me thinking about this idea in a new light. This is how he opens his blog post on ‘New Music Theory’:

In Living a Feminist Life Sara Ahmed adopts a simple citation policy: she does not cite any white men. Further, she speaks of how “citations can be feminist bricks: they are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings”. Citations can also be antiracist bricks from which to create our dwellings. In citing an author we grant them legitimacy and authority, potentially turbocharging their worth to the field. Historically, the only authors who get so turbocharged in music theory are white males.

Reading through the responses to Ewell’s SMT keynote in the Journal of Schenkerian Studies with this thought in the back of my mind revealed a quite stark difference in approach to citation between those who were picking up Ewell’s thesis and running with it and those focused on closing him down. The former cited authors from outside of music theory, the latter mostly stuck to a roll call of other Schenkerian scholars.

It really brought into focus how the institutionalisation of a discipline operates to create a closed shop. The standardised list of names of big players in the citations lists shows how mutuality of reference shores up each others’ status. Then, the requirement for scholars entering the field to know the literature (aka ‘complete bibliographic control’) serves also to boost established scholars further, since the only way to get into the published literature where you might get cited is to cite heavily those already in there. You gain status by association in quoting the big guns, but you also thereby amplify the power they already hold.

This not only controls the entry gates in terms of what counts as knowledge, but limits the opportunity to explore wider knowledge bases, since any perceived lacunae in the grasp of the ‘core’ literature is used as reason to reject ideas brought in from other disciplines. In the case of the JSS responses to Ewell, where much of the push-back was predicated on correcting his supposedly faulty understanding of Schenker’s work, I think this perception was mistaken – he looks as bibliographically in control as any of them – and as such it demonstrates all the more vividly how the system works.

The problem with this closed shop, to my mind, is not just the way it facilitates the hoarding of power and other controlling behaviours. It’s also the way it allows people to imagine that they’re achieving depth, when from the outside it looks merely like narrowness. It makes me think of David Wright’s comments about the obsession with controlling the barbershop style in the late 1980s: ‘We became a circle of inward-looking hobbyists, clinging to a shrinking collection of musical habits that were becoming more and more peculiar as time went by.’ Except of course that music theorists aren’t hobbyists; they get paid to pontificate to each other.

Anyhow, the thing I like about Ewell’s proposition, following Ahmed, that our bibliographies are a great starting-point for deframing and reframing the discipline is that it is something that can be done, right now, by the people already in the field. Whose voices I choose to amplify is something I am alert to in writing this blog, and scholarly citation is the formalised version of this type of amplification – and one with significantly more impact on people’s careers.

I’m not so sure I’d be so hardcore as Ahmed and refuse to cite white men (there are some whose ideas I may yet like to play with), but I’m going to have a good hard look at the balance of my referencing, and give myself some clear quotation quotas to abide by. From a standing start, I’d say that if white men account for more than half of my citations, in either formal or informal contexts, I need to open up some more space for other voices. If I were still teaching bibliographical skills, this is also something I’d add to the rubric of how to assess a decent bibliography.

The value added by making our referencing more balanced in terms of author demographics comes in an interesting variety of forms. There’s the immediate impact of requiring people to be more aware of the backgrounds of the authors they are reading; simply making people ask the question adds perspective on an otherwise unchallenged sense of ‘normality’. Then of course there’s the message to people who don’t fit the standardised white male frame of the discipline: look, we’re interested in people like you too.

Most important, though, is that it makes people from privileged demographics actually pay attention to what people from marginalised groups have to say. There’s a classic Gary Larson cartoon about human interactions with dogs, and both women and people of colour often describe a similar experience in trying to interact with white men. When they’re not interrupting us or talking over us, our words simply wash over them except any bits that tickle their egos.
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But if they got used to the exercise, they’d find it actually quite interesting. Lots of ideas out there waiting to be thought about, all offering new and enlightening insights into music and musicking. And once the fragile white boys had grown accustomed to absorbing the ideas of people not like them in the quiet sanctuary of the library, they’d be better prepared to cope with the reality of listening to people not like them in the seminar room and lecture hall without getting so freaked out by the experience that they can’t process the content.

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