Shhhh! Or, the Methodological Earplugs of Cultural Studies in Popular Music: A "Re-Sound" of Swiss, Sloop and Herman's Mapping the Beat.

Matthew A. Levy

Enculturation, Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 1999

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Swiss, Thomas, John Sloop and Andrew Herman, eds. Mapping the Beat. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998. ISBN 1-57718-077- 1 

This collection of interesting essays is about things I like. The subtitle is "Popular Music and Contemporary Theory," which promises an all out battle between the "What is Happening?" (knowing) and the "Is it Happening?" (feeling). Or in the language of pop music, between Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" and REM's "It's the End of the World As We Know It." The fisticuffs between philosophy and rhetoric reverberate here in an articulation specific to cultural studies: The conflict between critic and fan. Is the goal to chart how capitalism and hegemony maintain their grasp on the culture industry or to celebrate the defiances and transgressions that make the Billboard charts a tally in the continual victory of life over death?

Mapping the Beat wants to chart a course between these extremes by tapping the critical powers inherited from Adorno and others without accepting his blanket rejection of popular music. Jacques Attali's Noise, with its Foucault-inspired historicist approach to music and culture, offers a way to conceptualize this methodological pathway. "Mapping the beat," the collection's introduction explains, means following Attali's lead in tracing the shifting boundary between what culture understands to be music and noise. Because the designation of 'music' is given to sound with order and because the perception of order is ideological, the boundary between music and noise is a political one. The boundary always reflects a political reality; the structure of music reveals/conceals/becomes/reflects the order of things. 

The understanding that epistemological assumptions have political ramifications is not new, but Attali's work is important because it provides a conceptual starting place for a serious study of popular music. For one, Attali's celebration of jazz and especially free jazz contradicts Adorno's rejection. Adorno preferred the atonal algorithms of 12-tone compositions, in which all 12 tones of the scale have to be sounded before one is repeated so that one key does not become dominant. Adorno wanted the musical symbolic to be thwarted consciously, in an approach that could be justified in the abstract. Attali goes the other way, into the material use-value of sound as its own justification, in which improvisational composition reconfigured social relations immediately. Attali's Noise is a high theoretical expression of DIY attitude. 

Attali's discussion is exciting because it tells us that noise is prophetic. We can look at contemporary music from the self-conscious compositions of John Cage, Brian Eno and Negativland on the one hand to the more visceral sound critiques of Bikini Kill and the Pansies on the other, and consider what the shifting boundaries between music and noise hearken. In this way, mapping the beat is about the relationship between "What is happening?" and "Is it happening?" At its best, the mapping of the beat would be a ritual examination of bones in the hopes of putting language to this feeling of impending we-know-not-what. 

The conflict between the pop-music critic ("How should we study this thing?") and the fan ("This blows my mind!") that has famously inscribed itself on the formation of cultural studies is really about methodology. What is this methodology, formulaically announced-as-such by the introduction's subheading "Towards a Mapping of the Beat"? The dominant mode of pop-music analysis is to examine a piece of music at the site(s) of production, textualization and/or consumption. It asks how the music industry created a given product, what the product means symbolically as a text, and who is its audience. By contrast, "mapping" hopes to "cut across the division and links between institution, text, and consumption by focusing on how popular music constitutes a terrain of social and cultural identity that can be mapped in terms of its spatiality or, more precisely, as spaces of noise and places of music" (6). A spatialized analysis recognizes (with Lawrence Grossberg) that "economic, bodily, libidinal, emotional, and political effects, some of which are material and some of which are ineffable--cannot be reduced to the meaning of a cultural text and how that meaning is inscribed in production or interpreted in consumption (7). The significant effects of music have to be accounted for in relation to the physical spaces in which it lives. 

With Lefebvre's opposition between representations of space (in which the powerful EYE surveys a field) and spaces of representation (where living practice occurs in quotidian, underground, embodied spaces), "mapping" charts a move from visual models of knowing to aural models of feeling. Much like McLuhan's movement from the visual and linear logic of print to the aural and spatial logic of television, the move from traditional Frankfurt-style analysis to "mapping" constitutes a desire to include the grounds of material existence in any consideration of the figures of popular music. 

This move--from a practice of representing space from the imaginary subject position of omniscient third-person analyst towards an appreciation of spaces of representation--is illustrated in the introduction through the difference between an "Action Plan" map for the development of a community in Des Moines and a description of one of the author's own experiences living in that neighborhood. One representation seeks to control the community from afar, while another seeks to reveal it from an internal vantage point. In a certain sense, this is simply a move from critic to fan. In another sense, it is a profound relinquishment of the epistemological power that has traditionally been afforded the scholar in the name of a so-called objectivity. Spatialized analysis, it seems, is at least somewhat similar to situated analysis (a la Haraway). 

I can only applaud this approach insofar as it underlines that politics are at stake both in knowledge and in music. The use of a run-down American community as an example reminds us that a 'beat' is not just what the quarter note sometimes gets, it is also the territory assigned to a police officer that pounds it. And if the beat is a territory, then a mapping is always a reterritorialization. 

As these essays were gathered from a Drake University conference on popular music and therefore not conceived together, I can suggest an interesting game for the reader of this collection: Ask yourself to what extent the essays follow the methodology or aesthetic whose outlines are traced in the introduction. 

If "Mapping the Beat" turns out to be a theoretical aesthetic and not a methodology, all the better!  Method, after all, is the ideology of academic conservatism. 

In "Mapping the Beat," you may have noticed the italicization that creates a pianissimo in the center of mapping. Is this just a precious typographical tidbit? Was the point only to introduce a visual pun on the topic of music, for which any musical symbol would do? Or is this pianissimo in mapping an injunction to map more subtly, to decapitalize the M in Method . . .  or to, as Otis Redding might have suggested, "Try a Little More Epistemological Tenderness." 

Copyright © Enculturation 1999

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