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  • Stance: Ideas about Emotion, Style, and Meaning for the Study of Expressive Culture
  • Jan Baetens
Stance: Ideas about Emotion, Style, and Meaning for the Study of Expressive Culture by Harris M. Berger. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2010. xxi + 167 pp. ISBN-13: 9780819568779 (cloth), 978-0819568779 (paperback).

A former president of the U.S. branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music and co-editor of the Journal of American Folklore, Harris M. Berger has written an interesting study on the way we make meaning of music. The "we" in the previous sentence is highly inclusive, since it entails not just the listener, but also the composer, the performer, the producer, the teacher, the reviewer, the critic—in short all those involved in music as a cultural practice.

Berger's ambition in this book is twofold. First of all, he wants to criticize what he calls the obscurantism of Yeats's famous line on the impossibility of telling the dancer from the dance. What Berger aims to do here is exactly the opposite: Instead of confusing the various roles, positions, objects, actors and senses in a global approach as to some holistic phenomenon (which music also is, of course), he tries to distinguish and to "decompose" (yet not to "deconstruct"!) the various aspects of this phenomenon with unusual meticulosity. Second, he also proposes to defend and illustrate a scientific method that has been insufficiently used in the analysis of music: phenomenology—more particularly the type of phenomenology represented by philosophers such as Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, who were interested in both the dialectics of the intentionality of our consciousness (i.e. the fact that our attention is always turned toward something else) and the noema (i.e. the physical or nonphysical objects that we are engaged with).

The first key word here is experience, whose various modes can be labeled as perception, imagination, memory, judgment and anticipation, while their corresponding objects can be called things in the world—fantasies, memories, judgments and anticipations. The second key word is stance, which Berger defines very generally as "the affective, stylistic, or valual quality with which a person engages with an element of her experience" (Introduction, p. xiv). In a sense, the aim of the book is not only to demonstrate the validity of this approach but also to develop an appropriate vocabulary for the analysis of the dizzying diversity of stances that can be discovered while exploring our engagement with music and other forms of expressive culture.

Both aspects of this program are exemplarily performed in this book. From a theoretical point of view, it is important to stress the great clarity of Berger's writing, which manages to focus on the twin notions of stance and experience without leaving out too much in the field of phenomenology. Although the author offers a very rich description of what the conception of stance may entail, he resists the temptation to add to his book a reading of stance and experience in related fields: His starting point is exclusively phenomenological, and he sticks to it in a way that explains a lot of the pedagogical qualities and merits of the book. One can always regret that Berger does not start any discussion with the American pragmatist tradition, more specifically with John Dewey's notion of experience (as developed in his classic book Art and Experience) or with Simon Frith's more sociologically oriented readings of the musical experience. Yet this restriction is also what makes a prize of Stance, which is the kind of study that many can only envy for its plain and WYSIWYG approach. From a more practical point of view, Berger succeeds in showing the great utility of phenomenology by introducing a wealth of real-life examples from all kinds of fields (from heavy metal to boxing or dancing, although with a slight preference for the former rather than the latter). One feels throughout this book that the author is not only putting in practice what he is defending at a theoretical level, namely the absolute necessity to study expressive culture in a lived, concrete, personal and material experience, but that this practice and this...


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