- Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good by William Cheng
William Cheng's most recent monograph, Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good, is an optimistic book for an audience of students and scholars grappling [End Page 153] with the ethical concerns of academic life in both the discipline of musicology and its relatives as well as on a larger institutional and political level. His driving question, "What is the purpose of sounding good?" is a somewhat open-ended one that echoes on multiple levels, not least thanks to his skillful blending of memoire-like episodes with theoretical ruminations. Cheng's proposal, "What if the primary purpose of sounding good isn't to do well, but to do good?" particularly resonates with the anxieties of academic life (8). Why put oneself through the perils of graduate work, the stress of the academic job hunt, and the varying hazards of contingent or tenure-track employment if the ultimate goal isn't to do good, whether in an academic position or elsewhere? Despite the inclusion of weighty examples of violence (or, rather, perhaps because of the way they are presented), Just Vibrations' hopeful exposition of a care-oriented approach is a salve for scholars concerned about the more harmful aspects of working in academia and seeking ways to mitigate or even repair some of that harm through their own work.
Just Vibrations is a difficult text to categorize: Cheng calls it a "thought experiment," and it moves freely between various modes of investigation and support (17). Drawing primarily on the theoretical foundations of affect theory, care ethics, and queer theory, the author argues that academics should resist enacting paranoid and adversarial readings in our work. Instead, he maintains, we should replace them with reparative strategies that aim to uplift and amplify rather than antagonize or silence the most vulnerable among us. Furthermore, Cheng asserts that we have an ethical imperative to do so. In this short text, he leads us through a line of inquiry that asks what might happen if we stop focusing on sounding good and instead concern ourselves with doing good.
The book presents a series of personal anecdotes, case studies, and theoretical musings that explore the questions his premise—that scholars should aim to do good—raises and gestures toward ways in which we might put this approach into practice. Just Vibrations is framed by an introduction and a coda that include reflections on childhood, a rhetorical move that reminds us of a period in our own lives when we may have needed the most care ourselves. The first chapter, "Aching for Repair," focuses on the author's personal experience with chronic pain, putting a new spin on the well-worn feminist axiom, "the personal is political," reinterpreting it as "the personal is scholarly." Cheng reminds us that critical writing that attempts to preclude the author's subjectivity often does so to promote the illusion of pure objectivity. Here, he includes his own autobiographical account neither to universalize it nor to point to it as exceptional but to demonstrate both the root of and the need for his reparative approach.
Chapter 2, "Sing the Ivory Tower Blues," focuses on reparative scholarship: its purpose, what it might sound like, and its shortcomings. In this chapter, Cheng draws on examples from the field of musicology, as well as the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and other queer and/or disability scholars. Rather than examining more recent controversies in the discipline, Cheng looks back to past ruptures related to the emergence of feminist and queer methodologies, many of which [End Page 154] proved to be important flashpoints. In outlining this historical trajectory, Cheng demonstrates the need for reparative approaches in the field, as well as models for future reparative work.
In chapter 3, "How Hopeful the Queer," Cheng explores the tensions between paranoid and reparative modes within queer theory. Here, too, Cheng refers back to queer episodes in musicology, particularly Philip Brett's groundbreaking work on the relationship between musicality and homosexuality, as well as sessions at...