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Postmodernism in Music by Kenneth Gloag (review)

From: Notes
Volume 70, Number 1, September 2013
pp. 116-119 | 10.1353/not.2013.0098

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The most immediate question raised by this book is “Why now?” Even in a field as fickle as cultural theory few terms have seen such a dramatic career as “postmodernism.” While, with the customary delay compared to neighboring fields, postmodernism suddenly became the buzzword of choice in musicology during the 1990s, it just as quickly faded from view shortly thereafter. In this respect, it inversely mirrored the fortunes of modernism, which served as the preferred object of ritual denunciation at the end of the last century, only to be revived with surprising zeal and used with inflationary tendencies in our own. For me personally, the tipping point was illustrated during a discussion on research centers at the (then) School of Humanities at the University of Sussex where I used to work, in the course of which the Dean, to the chagrin of the assembled luminaries, suggested that there were some advantages to the difficulties in setting up such centers, since without these the University would have founded a center on postmodernism long ago and what an embarrassment that would have proved (the University had and still has a thriving Centre for Modernist Studies).

Whether such criticism of postmodernism is due to a negative (re)evaluation of the art and theories associated with it, or whether it is based on the view that the concept has little explanatory power is difficult to decide (although “a bit of both” is probably the best guess). In any case, it always seemed to me that such wholesale rejection is as shortsighted as the often un-critical embrace that preceded it before the pendulum swung in the other direction. What would be required, however, is a critical approach to the subject that places it in its historical context. In what, in my view, is the strongest part of his book, the postscript, Kenneth Gloag demonstrates that he is fully aware of the issue, stating that “[h]ow, or when, we begin to theorize culture, and hear music, after postmodernism, and how that might be both conceptualized and represented, may well require … new theories and concepts that subject post-modernism to the kind of critical response that was once projected against modernism” (p. 161). Unfortunately, however, the bulk of the book reveals little historical distance or critical perspective and no attempt to develop the “new theories and concepts” mentioned here. Indeed, much of it reads as if it could have been written twenty years earlier.

Gloag’s view of postmodernism is based primarily on Jean François Lyotard’s oft-cited notion of “incredulity towards meta-narratives,” in which place Lyotard puts “little histories” (pp. 5ff.). This is complemented with a historical perspective supplied by the work of David Harvey (writing in the 1980s) and, in terms of music-specific terminology, Jonathan Kramer. More demanding constructions of post-modernism that focus on its purported kinship with Derridean deconstruction or notions of decentered subjectivity as suggested by Lacanian psychoanalysis are only touched upon (in the former case) or ignored altogether (in the latter). Although this can be justified on account of the intended undergraduate readership of the book, for whom this kind of theorizing may well prove too challenging, it is somewhat regrettable since these theories have on the whole proved of more lasting value than Lyotard’s, whose explanatory power seemed overstated at the best of times and which in retrospect has been largely overtaken by historical developments. To illustrate Lyotard’s “shift in scale from large to small,” as Gloag describes it, he quotes an observation by Jean Baudrillard, who in 1983 (four years after Lyotard’s seminal publication of The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge [trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi; Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984]) declared that “we are no longer in the age of grandiose collapses and resurrections … but of little fractal events” (p. 6). This statement may have described the paralysis of that particular phase of the Cold War very well, but it only goes to show how distant that age now seems, after the fall of the Berlin Wall (surely one of the most “grandiose collapses” in world history), 9/11, the Arab Spring and the financial crisis—to...

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