Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Vic Gammon: The Past is not my Home

Let me try to sum up. There is no knowledge without implicit or explicit theory. That theory both enables knowledge and sets limits on the knowledge it makes possible, it both guides our sight and blinkers it. There are more and less likely theories but there is no place from which to criticise theories that is not itself already theorised explicitly or implicitly. There is no neutral place; there is no human understanding that is not structured by culture and by academic traditions. Our knowledge of the real is cultivated by our ideas and concepts. This is the human condition; there is no escaping it. We cannot transcend it we can only be aware of it work within it.

No form of total knowledge is a possibility. We all encounter only fragments of the total cultural experience that is potentially available to us. One of the ways in which we are active in our self-making is through selecting from the total cultural experience available. This can be done in a more or less informed and critical way. We cannot get away from the fact that our cultural experience (and in the case of academics our intellectual life) is both partial and fragmentary.

If total knowledge is not a possibility there is a sense in which academic enquiry is privileged, it can provide a perception of the area under investigation that is simply not available to native participants of that culture. I have just been reading David Atkinson’s excellent book on the English ballad. In assembling the different versions of these oral sung narratives, looking at their similarities and differences, their patterns and anomalies, Atkinson is doing something that simply was not possible for the thousands of people who over centuries were the carriers of these songs.

Another example: in an enthusiastic review that discussed my essay on the social background of the musical tradition of the Copper Family from Sussex, one reviewer expressed surprise that we discover the socio-political background in which the Coppers flourished and in which their songs survived, in the sort of detail which members of the community would have been only subconsciously aware of. Indeed, we learn that some members of the community were actually mistaken in their view of it!

If the researcher cannot get a more synoptic and synthesised view of social and musical phenomenon than is generally held by those who are ‘native participants’, then we must seriously doubt what the research is achieving. The reviewer might be surprised to learn that one inspiration behind my essay included historical and anthropological studies of witchcraft in small-scale communities.

The ideas and categories of ‘native participants’ are important but they should not be the ends of the story. It is in the encounters between different systems of classification that I believe that significant knowledge is produced. To impose our categories on another culture is ethnocentrism, to engage with those categories questioningly and reflectively, so that they modify our views, is to pursue knowledge and understanding. As Iragary has written ‘...if we continue to speak the same language to each other, we will reproduce the same story’.

Bakhtin gets close to my understanding of intellectual enquiry and has some interesting things to say about the self-deception that may be involved in intellectual work.
Bakhtin uses the term exotopy to mean that state of being spatially, temporally or culturally ‘outside’:

There is an enduring image, that is partial, and therefore false, according to which to better understand a foreign culture one should live in it, and, forgetting one's own, look at the world through the eyes of this culture. As I have said, such an image is partial. To be sure, to enter in some measure into an alien culture and look at the world through its eyes, is a necessary moment in the process of its understanding; but if understanding were exhausted in this moment, it would have been no more than a single duplication, and would have brought nothing new or enriching.

Creative understanding does not renounce itself, its place in time, its culture; it does not forget anything. The chief matter of understanding is the exotopy of the one who does the understanding - in time, space and culture - in relation to that which he wants to understand creatively.

Even his own external aspect is not really accessible to man and he cannot interpret it as a whole; mirrors and photographs prove of no help; a man's real external aspect can be seen and understood only by other persons, thanks to their spatial exotopy, and thanks to the fact that they are other.
In the realm of culture, exotopy is the most powerful lever of understanding. It is only to the eyes of an other culture that the alien culture reveals itself more completely and more deeply (but never exhaustively because there will come other cultures, that will see and understand even more).

I would not want to ally myself too strongly with what would seem to be the optimism of the end of this passage but in terms of what constitutes human understanding I am drawn to it strongly. Understanding is a creative act. In a memorable metaphor, the historian Christopher Hill wrote ‘Statistics and imagination are for the historian what oil and petrol are to the internal combustion engine: an excess of one will not compensate for the lack of the other’.

The healthy effects of ‘postmodern’ critiques of historiography are to make us more circumspect in terms of our claims as to the truth of the research we produce. There is no ultimate truth to it. What we produce is always an observation on phenomena from a position that is always-already culturally situated. Some of the old arguments still hold good, there is better and worse historical and ethnomusicologal writing, but I make those judgements from a position that cannot claim access to, nor even make aspiration to, an ultimate truth. We never reach ultimate understanding of the other.

Ethnomusicologists and social historians have to use evidence, select and combine it to tell stories about the subjects of their study. In certain ways those stories are given, pre-formed and conventional. Each discipline is in the business of making meaning.

Neither ethnomusicologists nor social historians will ever achieve a total re- presentation of the cultures with which they are dealing – not even native cultural participants can achieved this although it is entirely possible for such people to grow in understanding and self-awareness to do ‘ethnomusicology at home’ that may well provide insights not available to the extrinsic observer. In so doing they transform themselves and assume a cultural position this is both part belonging and part alienated.

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