Parallel-o-gram Part 1

shall we rewire the methodological links between culture and politics?

Once an explanatory structure of sufficient abstraction is in place, almost anything can be fit into it. – Phil Ford, Dial “M” For Musicology

Phil Ford has a nice post on Dial “M” For Musicology that attempts to articulate a new kind of cultural history.

In his work on music, Ford rejects the trendy pursuit of total explanations, in which the zeitgeist influences everything and politics and culture run on perfectly parallel tracks (examples: everything in Cold War culture and politics was about containment; everything in the 2000s is related to the War on Terror).

Instead of this model, Ford wants his work on music to “refine those explanatory structures enough that they work to illuminate certain pieces of music but don’t seek to explain everything.” His point is a good one: “when you explain everything, you explain nothing.”

As Ford notes, the temptation for academics and popular intellectuals alike is to “find the master key for history,” but we might best be served by “just trying to tidy up one little corner of history, make connections, find patterns.”

I would add that in the recent incarnations of the search for what Gerald Graff called “radical parallelism,” the tracks are in fact usually not radically parallel at all. Instead, politics saturates culture with some kind of political totality. In radically-parallel Cold War U.S. history narratives, for instance, containment spreads everywhere, but it begins first with politics and then taints all facets of the cultural realm.

That is, making politics the causal factor has been one of the markers of radical parallelism. The more unlikely the linkage, the more scholarly chips one acquires in placing the bet. “My little corner of specialized cultural scholarship matters,” this approach proclaims, “because it reveals the operations of a larger political power guiding everything.” This perspective has been important for overcoming antiquarianism (though one might argue that something was lost when we started to insist that everything had to be politically relevant or was pointless to study). It was also crucial for previously marginalized topics: legitimizing their political importance was a way of staking a claim for the study of women, the poor, and others who used to get left outside the old-fashioned historical record of great (usually white and typically elite) men.

But now that antiquarianism is a bad word in academia, and since previously marginalized topics have increasingly moved to the center of scholarly focus, the problems of privileging the political have become more apparent. In particular, the more narrowly-defined idea of the political tends to monopolize the more elastic and curiously multivalent cultural domain.

I think what Ford’s post hints at, in some fashion, is a de-privileging of the political. What if we flipped it? What if the political was subsumed in larger cultural forces? Culture, in both the abstract, anthropological sense of beliefs and the material, artistic sense of artifacts, is so dense — so able to contain tensions, incoherencies, conflicting tendencies — that it might be the better realm to privilege. Making culture the dominant track rather than politics might take pressure of the reduction of epochs to one dominating element. Maybe cultural containment shaped political policy during the Cold War?

Or maybe an infinite loop develops between culture and politics, so that we need new terms, particular to their specific contexts, that identify more fragile, tentative, overlapping tendencies rather than one coherent, all-powerful logic? Can we re-purpose the liberating but clunky tools of social theory for subtler interpretive projects?

At the very least, Ford is right to issue a call for a more supple sense of the endless seams, rips, and tears in the totality.

[Continued in #264]

2 thoughts on “Parallel-o-gram Part 1

  1. Word! It’s the beginning of your manifesto. Though I must admit that I pretty much teach cultural history this way — as a way to “see” larger historical forces.

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