Saturday, February 03, 2007

an application of the principles of canon formation II

This is nowhere near the same league as the other case, but I have to admit to some ambivalence to the Behearer project.
Okay, I’ve been sitting on this for a few days, wondering if I should post this: I am not here to diss Behearer, or discourage the project, or preach from on high. I’m mostly just trying to examine my own responses—some of it irrational, some of it, perhaps, not. If I frankly interrogate my own reaction, I’m not sure I can honestly say that there isn’t more than a little exclusivity about my reaction. I hope not, but it’s possible. I certainly hope it’s not sadness about leaving the cultural ghetto.
Nevertheless, there is something else that worries me about this: that we are not only creating a canon, but very much following the established models of canonization. We love these musics, these practices, these practitioners. We love and value them for, among other things, their iconoclasm, for their resistance to the norms of dominant culture and ideology; but are we now doing exactly the opposite? Are we now adhering to, giving into, dominant culture and ideology? It’s right that this (semi-fictional) transnational tribe of musicians should leave this cultural ghetto, that we should be seeking escape from marginalization, but I worry about the public face that is being constructed.

So I was reading John Fordham’s blog entry about Behearer (I got to the article via ‘samiland is my land’ on be.jazz so thanks to Mwanji Ezana):

"Multiplicity" is the key word, and it may help explain why the 70s was such a black hole for informed jazz commentary about all the fascinating stuff that was really going on. Taking their lead from the American free-jazz movement… jazz musicians around the world realised they could make their own music, with their own local materials, without necessarily having to copy the licks….
Well, fine, but….
…I, and a growing band of like-minded writer-fans…came in.
‘Like-minded’? Hey, wait, what happened to ‘multiplicity’?
…The story finally begins to take its proper place in the cultural history of the late 20th century.
What would a story’s proper (rightful?) place in history be? And by whose reckoning? And by what process of judgment? Perhaps (at this time and place) the entries in the canon are not conventional, but is this not the rhetoric of the (conventional) construction process of a (conventional) canon? Does anyone else smell a hegemonic impulse?
Not for the first time, Dave Douglas has made a big difference.
Uh-oh. Did Fordham just reduce the work of the many to the one? Do we really want to be in this synecdochic business in which the whole is boiled down to the most easily identified appendage?

We need a context, we need a history, and we can’t always trust others to write it for us—we desire self-definition—but if the practitioners and practices of these musics were as diverse as we are making out (and I think they were), I worry that any historiography (no matter how well intentioned, how well researched) will not capture that diversity: canonization has, in other cases, led to an ever diminishing number of ‘greats,’ not the celebration of a community. …but I’ve got no answers, and I have no solutions.


Rob Ewing said...

I don't get your concern. It seems to me there is a fundamental difference between Behearer and the sort of canons people like to criticize as exclusive. Namely, Behearer is not exclusive. Any records from the time period can be added to the list by anyone at any time. From that list, perhaps some sort of consensus will emerge over time about the most important/popular/influential records, but the list will still be open for anyone to contribute to, no credentials required.

And I don't think it's right to look at Dave Douglas as some sort of gatekeeper here. More of a catalyst I would say.

the improvising guitarist said...

“It seems to me there is a fundamental difference between Behearer and the sort of canons people like to criticize as exclusive.”

You’re right, there are big differences between Behearer and other canonizing projects, but I’m worried that, despite the best intentions and vigilance of the Behearer community, it could be made into a king-making enterprise.
Canons are not exclusive simply because the socio-cultural makeup of the canon committee, but its commitment to (internally or externally defined) hegemony. I’m asking if such a process is possible without a consensus being constructed, especially as this represents an attempt to put a ‘public face’ on these musics and traditions—all of this will be out of Behearer hands soon enough.

“…I don't think it's right to look at Dave Douglas as some sort of gatekeeper….”

I agree, Dave Douglas is not the gatekeeper nor is he the sole contributor to this project. I was arguing that Fordham (who I was quoting) was putting Douglas on a pedestal, betraying a simplifying, hero-making commitment. This is one of the things that worries me: that the community at Behearer are to some extent powerless to prevent the outside world from super-imposing a simpler, neater, historiography (admittedly, in this case, this had to do with the history of Behearer itself).

You’re comments are well made—I can’t even quite put my finger on what it is that worries me—thanks.

S, tig

Rob Ewing said...

The funny thing about it for me is that I'm much more excited reading Ethan Iverson's annotated list then I am looking at an anonymous database like Behearer.

Because I'm interested in Ethan's music and opinion, I'll seek out records he personally recommends more than I'll trust a list that anyone can contribute to.

Word of mouth works by getting recommendations from people you respect. I think interest in Behearer has fallen off a bit at this point because it's creators have tried to open it up to anyone's opinion.

Basically I'm supporting the argument that gatekeeper's do provide a valuable function, even if the gatekeeper is someone like Iverson or Douglas who may not think of himself as a gatekeeper.

Good Times said...

You know Harold Bloom wrote a book about The Canon...

the improvising guitarist said...

Hey sjz, been a while. You know I can’t figure out how you can get yourself to (mis)read Bloom—I personally don’t think I could stomach the stuff. Seriously, what do you get out of it (the (mis)reading I mean)?

S, tig

Good Times said...

I personally don’t think I could stomach the stuff.

How will you know until you try?

Seriously, what do you get out of it (the (mis)reading I mean)

The hope that someday This Music will have as intelligent and devoted a 'critic' as Bloom. And so, in the mean time, I just change the literature words to music words (just like how Lemony Snicket told me to do.)

And in the absence of vision and creativity of my own, it does a great job generating content.

the improvising guitarist said...

“How will you know until you try?”

A very good point. To answer your question, no, I can’t really—not for sure—but Bloom’s a little too pre-post-structuralist (if that makes any sense) for me, and I’m not the biggest fan of, say, psychoanalytic readings.
However, by bringing Bloom into this, you got me thinking about The Canon (in contrast to ‘the canon’) again. Specifically, I’m wondering if, to paraphrase Derrida, there is no (The) Canon, but there is canonizing. To think of The Canon as performative. (How’s that for an anti-Bloom formulation? ;-)
Anyway, I will be “generating content” soon by (mis)applying Bruno Latour…. See you ’round (always cool when you drop by).

S, tig