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  • Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good by William Cheng
  • Everette Scott Smith
Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good. By William Cheng Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-472-05325-4. Paper. Pp. xix, 160. $24.95.

Serving as a much-needed musicological call to action, William Cheng's monograph addresses the need of care pedagogy and the creation of more humane environments within academic communities. Weaving his own personal and professional experiences through his prose, Cheng explicates some of the problems currently plaguing academia and, more specifically, musicology as a subdiscipline. He discusses and examines these problems through interdisciplinary scholarship and the methodologies of various critical theories, including gender and sexuality studies, queer theory, disability studies, affect theory, and care ethics.

Cheng frames his introduction in what appears to be a nod to Roger Caillois's 1961 Man, Play and Games, which interprets social structures as derisions of games.1 He further illustrates how academia mimics these structures of play, specifically in regard to adversaries and monsters (both real and imagined). Citing Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's idea of "paranoid readings" and the drive toward authority, Cheng seems to be describing a scenario too often witnessed at a musicological conference reading or in our publications: "Academics . . . writ[ing] in a manner that preemptively repels potential knocks against their work. With abundant qualifiers, quotes, caveats, and precautionary self-disparagement, the savvy scholar anticipates and suppresses others' grievances before they can be aired" (3–4). Musicology, too, is a game of paranoia to be played according to a set of guidelines firmly established in both our academic training and mimesis of those in the field who have established authority. Cheng questions what important things we are ignoring in the quest for authority, to win, to "be the boss."

To illustrate our responsibilities beyond disseminators of content, Cheng cites an account at the 1988 meeting of the American Musicological Society where a male professor "suggested that it wasn't his problem if his female students couldn't work late in the library because they feared walking across campus late at night" (6). Cheng goes on to ask, "What institutional and intellectual alibis could lead a scholar (or any person) to voice a disregard for students' safety?" (6). He advocates that while musicology is not the study of well-being, the three areas of care, compassion, and interpersonal concerns should be integral parts of that study and its pedagogy. In discussing the enormous scholarly cache of rhetorical ability, writing well, and "sounding good," Cheng asks, more importantly, "What if the primary purpose of sounding good isn't to do well, but to do good?" (8). His elegant writing sets an example of the type of scholarship for which he is advocating. Meticulously researched and including refreshingly vulnerable personal accounts, "Just Vibrations listens for voices across diverse sources and mediums—not solely peer-reviewed print scholarship (still upheld as a gold [End Page 394] standard in academia), but also trade books, queer memoirs, illness narratives, polemical blog posts, personal anecdotes, emotional email correspondences, and anonymous pleas for care on Internet forums" (14).

Chapter 1 discusses the author's struggle with a chronic pain condition that became the impetus for writing this monograph. Although he had taken for granted his ability to "sound good," his personal account of debilitation and recovery not only serves as an inspirational tale of overcoming adversity but also makes a case for reparative readings. If the narrative feels a bit foreign to the reader, Cheng has impressed a key point. Most scholars are not used to the mixing of academic and first-person writing outside of subdisciplines like queer theory and disability studies. That mixture here feels at first jarring and then new and refreshing. He posits that the safety of critical writing often disregards human interests and humane scholarship, particularly troublesome within the humanities. In retelling his struggle to perform the drag of able-bodied, producing scholar, he raises several questions. Invoking queer methodologies, Cheng asks what the point of our scholarship is within the context of suffering: "What is the purpose of sounding smart and writing well? Amid the imperatives of knowledge...


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pp. 394-397
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