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  • Ethnomusicology without Erotics
  • Deborah Wong (bio)

Most ethnomusicologists write about a bleak world devoid of desire and empty of erotics. Naturally there are notable exceptions, but we often emphasize nationalism and globalization, manifesting a deeply internalized need to prove our discipline is doing important work (i.e., just as important as anthropology) despite the double feminization of our field.1 We show how our teachers and friends—the musicians we spend so much time getting to know—negotiate a landscape shaped by those macroprocesses. When we write about our friends’ and teachers’ gendered lives, we tend to note this in a sentence that includes a list of many differences outlined with commas: she is a woman, an ethnic minority, from the working class, and from a certain religion. But the commas can’t do the necessary critical work: we have trouble living up to the intersectional analyses we know we need.2 As Sherrie Tucker [End Page 178] observes, the problem is “the all-too-common tendency for historical work on gender to be short on sexuality and historical work on sexuality to be short on gender.”3 Yet as Robert Buffington flatly reminds us, “We literally cannot imagine our world or make sense of our place in it without referencing sexuality.”4

How, then, do ethnomusicologists say so little about sexuality? What are the implications of erasing, ignoring, refusing, and disarticulating erotics from the musics we study?5 Why would we do so, and how did that become standard practice? Twenty years ago, writing on the cusp of the decade when historical musicologists turned to erotics, Fred Maus identified the “terrible discretion that muffles and closets sexuality” in music scholarship.6 Sara Ahmed writes that “it is crucial to give problems their names,” so I aim to name the absence in ethnomusicology.7

An erotics is the place where the affective and the structural come together and where corporeal control is felt and made visible. Erotics are simultaneously material and immaterial. Corporeal control is experienced at the meeting point between a body and a social system, where it is “felt” tactilely through the fingertips and the skin and “felt” emotionally and spiritually. Erotics are where bodies meet bodies and where subjectivity comes home to roost in a body. Erotics are not only about women, sex, queer experience, or misogynist representation. Erotics are about all those things, as well as many other things we never seem to get to, especially heteronormative values. Erotics are central to our fieldwork, wherever (or whenever) it takes place.8 All musics rely on erotics, even those focused on spiritual ecstasy rather than corporeal sexuality or pleasure. [End Page 179] Sexuality is one of many places erotics are learned and where erotics are understood as desire.9

Feminist music scholars often listen to music with both pleasure and bifocal discomfort, knowing that our pleasure is at odds with our political beliefs. We listen to music with the utopian hope that the patriarchal politics of sexuality and erotics can be redirected, even if we can only partially imagine what that might look, sound, and feel like. This is a permanently suspended and anticipatory erotics of musical pleasures directed toward social equality and justice. Feminist scholars know that gendered inequality is deeply eroticized and that the objects of our research are shaped by erotic attachment.10

Relativist Inattention

Ethnomusicologists ignore sexuality for many reasons and often argue that our interlocutors don’t talk about it. Our deep commitment to cultural relativism is a firewall that often prevents any engagement with work on sexuality from other disciplines, especially the powerful scholarship in musicology. Sexuality studies have focused on the West, sometimes quite narrowly, and ethnomusicologists are of course quite attuned to this.11 Ethnomusicologists quickly get stuck on whether the basic musicological handles for erotics and gender are Western-centric, and the conversation stops there.12 Ethnography can teach us a lot about erotics, regardless of our location (e.g., native ethnomusicologist, empathetic interloper, etc.), but it can’t do all possible critical work any more than any other method.

Ethnomusicologists are uniquely positioned to address two matters if we are willing to think beyond cultural relativism.13...


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pp. 178-185
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