Thursday, September 6, 2007

85. Globalization, Cultural Inequity, and Academic Complicity

The promised collaboration is under way! Peter Jones has responded to post 82 on his own Blog, Indigenous Issues Today, mainly with some (quite favorable) comments on the long quote from Alan Lomax, whose ideas he hadn't been aware of before. He notes that all cultures have elements of both weakness and strength, and I concur. I'm sure he'll agree that, nevertheless, certain cultures are without doubt endangered -- regardless of the many strengths they may have and the many gifts they can offer humankind as a whole. He promises another more specific post on cultural equity soon. Meanwhile I'm going to continue ranting and raving on the same topic over here in the hope that he'll want to "stay the course" (in the words of our "beloved" leader) and continue our dialogue.

To continue from where I left off in post 83, I must register my extreme disappointment with the views expressed by a man from whom I’ve learned so much and been so inspired by so many times in the past. First of all, David McAllester, like Michelle Kisliuk and so many others in ethnomusicology now actively proselytizing for “change,” is simply wrong. There is nothing “natural” or “constant” about change. According to noted evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould, “The oldest truth of paleontology proclaimed that the vast majority of species appear fully formed in the fossil record and do not change substantially during the long period of their later existence (average durations for marine invertebrate species may be as high as 5 to 10 million years).” Homo habilis fossils span a period of 500,000 to 750,000 years without significant change in either their physical appearance or their toolkit. The Neanderthal toolkit also remained essentially the same over a period of roughly 250,000 years. (See, which includes an extensive list of sources.)

Secondly, McAllester sometimes appears to be implying that the changes he celebrates are a “zero sum game,” in which weakly supported traditional practices must inevitably give way to newer and stronger ones, through a process dangerously akin to social Darwinism. I knew McAllester well enough to know how alarmed he’d be at such an interpretation, but for many younger colleagues influenced by him, social Darwinism was only a launching pad. It took hardly any time at all for me to find the following all too typical pronouncement during a cursory Google search on something like “ethnomusicology AND popular music”: “Popular music performance is a special context for the public construction and evocation of indigenism; through popular music many indigenous performers employ musical and cultural signifiers to reinforce their status, illustrate commonalities between indigenous communities, and challenge western demands for cultural authenticity. . . I argue that the issue of representation in ethnomusicology is directly challenged by these complex constructions of identity in musical performance, and by a new understanding of the world music aesthetic employed by many indigenous performers” (from an abstract for the MACSEM meetings of 2005: "Sámi Popular Music and Identity in the New Millennium," by Rebekah E. Moore, University of Maryland).

Whereas McAllester noted with astonishment the transfer of interest from authentically indigenous to popular music, Moore celebrates the use of popular music as itself a tool for the “construction and evocation of indigenism”; and moreso, as an effective means for indigenous performers to “challenge western demands for cultural authenticity” (my emphasis). The example of “world beat” music she offers as a “complex construction of identity” and a challenge to “the issue of representation in ethnomusicology” in the hands of “indigenous performers” looks suspiciously to me like a variant of some of the most naïve forms of “new age” dilettantism as practiced by individuals, “indigenous” or not, seeking a safe and hopefully lucrative niche in the global marketplace. As for “western” demands for cultural authenticity, this sort of typically “postmodern” rhetoric is particularly unfortunate, as it effectively marginalizes any truly indigenous voices that might still remain to speak on behalf of their own dying traditions, with or without the support of “western” sympathizers.

One finds similar sentiments expressed almost routinely in the ethno literature these days; for example, in the following abstract, by Professor Paul Greene of Penn State, for a panel on “Global Rock” at the annual meetings of the Ethnomusicology Society in 2005: “The panel thus not only offers new research directions; it also inspires much needed reflection on the past and future of our field, and a reflection on the efficacy of rock music as a vehicle of self-advocacy for marginalized voices around the world today.” Marginalized by whom, one is tempted to ask. Could rock music itself be part and parcel of the same global forces responsible for the same marginalization? Just raising such a question would already brand one as an “elitist” in this milieu.

One thing I particularly like about Peter Jones (see previous post) is his unusual combination of compassion and sense of justice on the one hand, and hard-nosed critical thinking on the other, a clear headed sophistication that prevents him from falling into some of the traps encountered by well meaning, but often naïve and overly idealistic, advocates. As he states in a recent post, in which he takes a native American group to task for manipulating the legal system to its own advantage, “Indigenous peoples’ issues are perhaps some of the most complex issues in the human rights arena today.” A good example of such difficulties arises when one considers what sort of policy one might want to recommend with respect to the traditional musical cultures of indigenous peoples, threatened by globalization in the form of the mass marketing of commodities such as “Rock,” “Country,” etc. – and the valorization of this process by the academic establishment.

There’s no point, of course, in ranting and railing over the triumph of what Lomax would call “cultural pollution” (or, perhaps, in more timely fashion: “Global Yawning”). What’s most important is not whether Rock or Country is more or less valid, meaningful or “authentic” than any other type of music, but what sort of role it plays in today’s world, and especially the world of the young. And in this case one is forced to admit that, for whatever reason -- marketing, aesthetics, crisis of identity -- young people all over the world are drawn to Western values, products, mass media – and music. If traditions are to have a future, it must be among the young, the younger generation must become involved. This is as true of courting practices, marriage customs, dietary habits, etc. as it is for music. The older generation may be set in its ways and unwilling to change, but their children seem to have another idea these days. If there is such a thing as “human rights” or “cultural rights,” then what about the rights of young people to choose for themselves the type of culture and the type of society they’d prefer?

How are we to think about that? What can be done? What should be done?

I have some ideas on the above but am curious to see what Peter might have to say – and of course anyone else who might want to chime in with a comment.

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