Sunday, 26 February 2012

Brother, can you spare a paradigm?

I recently submitted my first essay for my current graduate degree, in which I argue that the academic study of music tends to ignore things we learn in other disciplines, such as neuroscience. In an limited (but, I would say, important) sense, neuroscience has made the specific branch of aesthetics that deals with music-theoretical analysis.

Not obsolete like an old computer; obsolete like photography made painting obsolete. We still value painting and painters, but we don't use painting to 'faithfully' record a scene anymore. Now, there's an interesting issue there in that both painting and photography are always the filtration of someone's experience through an interpretive artistic practice. But functionally we use photography for things that we used to (sort of) use painting for, before we had photography. So it's this sense of obsolescence that I'm talking about. Music-theoretic analysis is, I say, sort of an obscure performance art, practiced mostly for the benefit of other theorists.

That's all just background, though, what I really want to post about is this ridiculous string of metaphors I go through toward the end of the paper. See, on the official grading rubric one of the criteria for getting a 'distinction' (a first, an A+, a Lisa Simpson, whatever policy your institution uses) is that, in addition to being clearly and concisely written, showing an understanding of the relevant literature, and making a substantial contribution to current scholarship, "the thesis must show flair".


That is a dangerous thing to encourage in my writing. Aside from 1,000 words of footnotes on a 3,600 word essay, here's what they got as I lead into my conclusion. (Although this is in a specific context in th essay, you can read it as talking about why people in general fear new ideas that come from science)

Why do we so often find these potential insights threatening? Do we worry because we wonder which sacred cows these picador-scientists might next torment? Is it insecurity, a fear that known and loved pet theories face trial in the ring? Or is it instead a doubt in science’s objectivity or potential; the suspicion that rather than our theories playing the metaphorical bovine role, instead, science is rather a bull in the musicological china shop, knocking over valuable, if dusty, concepts and leaving nothing in their place but shards and a cleanup bill?

I was very tempted to go on by comparing science instead to 
...a panda in a china shop, endangered, at times inconvenient, in need of our preservation and support, slow to produce offspring, and feeding only on the intellectual bamboo other organisms find too difficult to digest.

But that would have been too much even for me. Thanks to the internet, though, I have an outlet for my overblown metaphors! Hooray!