- Experience, Borders"How, therefore, must we live?": A Response to James Robert Currie
While taking markedly different paths, James and I arrive eventually at the issue of subjectivity as it has been figured in musicological thought at the turn of the millennium. I am in total sympathy with his points and share with him a sense of unease about the outcomes of some particular trajectories of musicological thought. I don't share with him what appears as a weary pessimism, but that is probably more a result of disposition than anything else.
Our papers are "about" identity and sublimity and how the construction and use of these concepts within recent musicological thought have reinscribed that which they sought to overcome. For James, the individual subject, once covertly stereotyped and oppressed as a representative of some particular category of the Other (queer, woman, minority, etc.), is once again stereo-typed and oppressed through the commodification of a particular category within the economy of identity politics, the stereotyping now overt, while the oppression remains covert. For me, the postmodern embrace of the sublime and the ineffable entails an unquestioning acceptance of the individual subject's aesthetic experience, since both exceed the possibility of linguistic and conceptual understanding. The lack of a critical perspective on subjective aesthetic experience thus perpetuates a host of sedimented meanings that have figured in concepts of the sublime and ineffable. The uncritical turn to subjectivity necessarily entailed by the embrace of the sublime and ineffable as aesthetic categories allows the reinscription or veiling of attitudes toward the Other that such a turn was meant to counter. As Joan Scott has observed, subjective experience is that "which we seek to explain, that about which knowledge is produced" rather than that which provides "authoritative evidence" for knowledge (1991, 779–80). [End Page 94]
The focus on individual subjectivity that underlies writing on identity and on the sublime and ineffable is motivated in each instance by significantly different approaches to borders: writings about identity seek to dissolve borders between different identity groups, and writings about the sublime and ineffable seek to erect borders between the presentable and the unpresentable. By making visible the excluded Other through articulation of the experience of a specific group, writers assumed that borders would dissolve in the process and understanding would follow. As James points out, borders have not dissolved—they have just been repainted, often in brilliant colors. The fascination with the unpresentable underlying current interest in the sublime and the ineffable grows from, at least in part, a rejection of the belief in the possibility of certain knowledge that characterized early- to mid-twentieth-century philosophy, including the positivism of the Vienna Circle, the analytic philosophy of the Anglo-American tradition, and the structuralism of the European continent. That is, the fascination grows from a rejection of metaphysics. The border established between the "knowable" and the "unknowable" has resulted, however, in a postmodern sublime that serves as the "modern transcendent" (John Milbank) or an "absolute" of "obscurity" (Timothy Engström). That is, the border enforces a new form of metaphysics.
In drawing attention to the reinscriptions that have resulted from how scholars have utilized concepts of identity and of the sublime and ineffable, I do not mean to play the "more postmodern than you" game. Rather, my goal is to echo James's eloquent query, "How, therefore, must we live?" J. M. Bernstein warned over a decade ago that the path of "increasing immanence" leads inexorably to a loss of critical perspective (1992, 67). Since, as I believe, what we write and think channels subjectivity and identity in ways that matter both within professional music scholarship and the broader world, then we can't afford to lose that critical edge. That our work matters mandates an awareness and understanding of the implications and outcomes of our work. And, as such, James's question—"How, therefore, must we live?"—should always be with us.
Judy Lochhead, Stony Brook University, is a theorist and musicologist whose work focuses on the most recent musical practices in North America and Europe. Utilizing concepts and methodologies from postphenomenological and poststructuralist thought, she develops modes...