While I only read about 70 books cover-to-cover last calendar year, I've been doing lots of slow, intensive reading and re-reading of texts that my nervous system perceives as extremely dense, endlessly fascinating, and challenging to my self-miseducation. Scholars of reading like David Hall and Rolf Engelsing have confirmed and drawn out something I'd assumed: around 1750 or so, "intensive" reading - in which a reader reads a book or books over and over - gave way to our modern "extensive" way of reading a book, rather quickly, then moving on to the next thing. I know certain 20th century writers - Robert Frost comes to mind - were known for reading the same 20 books over and over. I think many of us do both types of reading. Some of the books I've been reading "in" without any real goal of "finishing," over the past year are: The Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, ed. by Sloane; How We Think, by Fauconnier and Turner; A Thousand Plateaus, by Deleuze and Guattari, and George Lakoff's Philosophy In The Flesh. Each of these represent a boundless rich intellectual environment and they all intersect with each other...because I make them intersect.
One of the main themes of How We Think is that the highwater marks of 20th century thought were all formalist in assumption. Incredible formalist works were produced in cybernetics, linguistics, math, and psychology, but they all ran dry when they bumped up against meaning. In art there's no problem with formalist work, because it has no assumptions about finding some ultimate key to unlock the final secrets of the universe: Schoenberg's stuff is perhaps the ultimate in formal thought in music, and if you dig serialism, cool. If formalist thinking in color and shape is your thing in painting, rush to the Kandinsky exhibit post-haste! Schoenberg and Kandinsky (or Elliot Carter, Paul Klee and James Joyce) produced work that did not call for formal proofs from the rest of the community in order that research may build from there.
Currently I see the formalist works of Godel, Chomsky (in linguistics), Minsky and the pre-1980s AI giants, and all modes of structuralism as odd, wonderful intellectual works of art. They all ran aground and could not - will not - account for the way human nervous systems make meaning. Are they formally elegant works? I think so. But what I'm trying to do to my mind by immersing myself in the works cited supra is to get it out of the 20th and into the 21st c. I think it would be easier if I were 23, but I am not 23. Still, it's fun. And I'm not sure there is as clean a break between formalist modes of meaning and embodied ones. But the break seems fairly sharp. Hence, the re-re-reading of those dense texts and a few others like them.
Ted Gioia and Universality In Music
Which reminds me: every now and then I read some article about "human universals" in some domain, and I remain piqued, even though I associate the search for universals with the 20th c. and hence formalist assumptions about "reality."
Which brings me to Ted Gioia's piece on universality in music from last October. He sees lots of new neuroscience as pointing to music as universal, but says musicologists seem to feel threatened by the idea. Historically, ethnomusicologists have always strived to show how each peoples' music was different from others. There were fears about ethnocentrism and Western hegemony, ideas about technology and "race" and complexity and who was "advanced" and who wasn't, etc. I still see their point; but Gioia's impetus was his own research for his books on music. It's a wonderful article and you really ought to read it. I think he brings up some very rousing issues: examples of musical similarities in emotional types of music that share striking similarities with peoples so far-flung that it's difficult to account for except by universality; Witzel's recent work in 50,000 year old monomyths that seem virtually worldwide - how come almost everyone has a Flood Myth, a creation-destruction myth, an Orpheus, a trickster?; how, against anthropologists of music, there have always been great systematizers and taxonomists who tabulated and cross-collated data in an attempt to obtain a universalist Grand Schema; how the current work in historical genetics in search of the African "Eve" is a universalist idea; how Jung's collective unconscious might have a resurgence with new neuroscientific/math techniques (even though I think Gioia's reading of synchronicity as merely a re-naming of "coincidence"- a Begging the Q - isn't nuanced enough); and I particularly like how he laid out six "Possible Explanations of Human Universals, which are:
- Diffusion: transfer of social practices from one group to another (Gioia ain't buying)
- Common Origin: when social groups separate and migrate, they retain their practices (sorta maybe-ish, not really)
- Shared Biology/Brain Structure: humans share physiology and basic neurological tendencies (this is Gioia's main squeeze here)
- Shared Archteypes (Ted G seems to think this too woo-woo, but I see it the way Joseph Campbell saw myth: Jung and others like Frobenius and Eliade pretty much see archetypal templates as metaphorical biology)
- Similar Contextual Situations (Both Gioia and I like this idea. Ever since I first started reading cultural anthropology, the idea that hunter-gatherers would have different modes of thought than pastoral-herding peoples made sense to me. Ideas about universality get a bit dicey here, but it's a good kind of dicey. This guy said it better.)
- Coincidence: which Gioia thinks is functionally the same as Jung/Pauli synchronicity.
Gioia thinks ethnomusicologists should work with brain researchers on this project, and I agree. Let's see what can be figured out! This exhortation to get the musicologists with the cognitive scientists seems to hermetically traverse boundaries, which we're all for. Why not use techniques once reserved for Naturwissenschaften to impinge on Geisteswissenschaften? Wot?
At the same time, the phenomenology of listening to "world music," for me, will not be changed much no matter how much is "proved" about the universality of music. When I listen to Tuvan throat singers, Balinese "monkey music," some Greek wiz on the Bouzouki, koto virtuosos, Zakir Hussein playing with anyone, any of the Alan Lomax recordings, jazz, The Master Musicians of Jajouka, Hank Williams, Eno, Laswell, Kronos Quartet, or Celtic music: it takes me somewhere else. I want - and will inevitably find - an exoticism that alters my sense perceptions. Your personal "reality" and imagination will always be some remainder in the Total Equation, eh?
Ted G says a great many of us are interested in ideas about universality in music, and he cites Oliver Sacks's book Musicophilia and Daniel J. Levitin's This Is Your Brain On Music. Hey, I loved both books. Here's Levitin, after citing Chomsky's idea of our innate capacity to learn any of the world's languages, due to genetic endowment and merely hearing the language during childhood:
"Similarly, I believe that we all have an innate capacity to learn any of the world's musics, although they, too, differ in substantive ways from one another. The brain undergoes a period of rapid neural development after birth, continuing for the first years of life. During this time, new neural connections are forming more rapidly than at any other time in our lives, and during our midchildhood years, the brain starts to prune these connections, retaining only the most important and most often used ones. This becomes the basis for our understanding music, and ultimately the basis for what we like in music, what music moves us, and how it moves us. This is not to say that we can't learn to appreciate new music as adults, but basic structural elements are incorporated into the very wiring of our brains when we listen to music early in our lives." (p.109)(This idea may answer some of the Qs I posed back in this blogspew?)
Now: is this part and parcel the same argument Ted Gioia makes? Or does it modify it? Does anyone think the implications here modify Ted G's idea about universality to the point a qualitative difference arises? Does this idea I've selected from Levitin have nothing to do with what Gioia's tryna get at? I'm not sure...Ted G says in his article that the "modern age of research on brainwaves and music can be dated back to the 1960s," citing Neher's "Auditory Driving Observed With Scalp Electrodes In Normal Subjects." Well, it may not have been "brainwaves" but Seashore's work in The Psychology of Music dates to 1938 and attempts to chart enormous amounts of data about the human nervous system and perception of music. It's not massively cross-cultural, but we can assume - because of #3 on Ted's chart: "Shared Biology/Brain Structure," that it has at least some relevance.
Robert Crumb: Some Sort of Wonderful Musicologist Too
Get a load of Public Radio International's Marco Werman visiting Crumb, the giant of counterculch comic book artists in his house in Southern France, in 2004. I knew from the documentary Crumb that Robert was a tremendous collector of old 78s, but this interview yields proof of Crumb's cantankerous erudition and reverence for roots music that would put the most serious hipster to shame. Crumb asserts that when we listen to some of his very rare recordings, we "time travel" to some "lost world" and I couldn't agree more. Listen to the quote at 2:45 in the second sound bar, when he talks about the "effort"it takes to listen to some of this non-Western, alien, wonderful music. Note Crumb's delineation between the ethnomusicologist's strategy of going into some remote village and asking, "Who knows the old songs?" and the Music Business people, who ask, "Who are the best players around?"
What kills me - and maybe you too, if you listen to Crumb - is that he sounds dubious that anyone will want his massive collection when he dies. He says the idea that some university will want it is mistaken: he found Alan Lomax's recordings untended, falling apart. He was even allowed to take some home, as a gift, apparently. Jeez.