Sound Matters: The SEM Blog

The official blog by the Society for Ethnomusicology

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Waiting for Aspiring Progressives

by Gavin Lee (Soochow University)

I recently decided to revisit the issue of teaching opera in prison again with colleagues. Despite insightful responses by William Cheng and Bonnie Gordon to the widely condemned post “Don Giovanni Goes to Prison” by Pierpaolo Polzonetti (all on the Musicology Now blog, published by the American Musicological Society), it seems that musicologists[1] as a community have not developed a deeper understanding of the issues related to racial dynamics in the US as expressed through music and musical institutions.[2]

The reaction of many in the musicological community reflected a progressive commitment to anti-racism and anti-colonialism as anchored in the concept of cultural difference. Accordingly, many regard it as unacceptable for a professor who is “white” in the contemporary US context[3] to impose his music on students who are drawn from a prison population which is majority people of color. “Colonialism” is a term I’ve heard in discussion with colleagues which was used to describe Polzonetti’s educational endeavor. Implied in “colonialism” is the power differential between the educator and students, and the cultural mismatch between the “white” music and the target audience consisting primarily of people of color.[4] Many read Polzonetti’s post through discursive lenses: Polzonetti’s portrayal of a black male student protesting Donna Elvira’s shoddy treatment (by the title role in Mozart’s Don Giovanni) was interpreted as an instantiation of the racist stereotype of the violent black man; Polzonetti’s self-described attempt to get his students to “chill out” by focusing on the music analysis of emotion was interpreted as a discourse of the civilizing force of white opera on a black man.

Much more needs to be said about opera and Western empire, including opera’s racism and orientalism, and the contemporary globalized reverence for Western art music. Here, I’ll focus on the reception of Polzonetti’s post and suggest alternative strategies for the progressive movement in musicology, which is unavoidably contextualized by heightened racial tensions in the US: recall that Polzonetti’s post appeared in February 2016 as Trump was emerging as a presidential candidate and running a campaign characterized by abhorrent racist discourses. What if, instead of assuming the worst about Polzonetti, we had given him the benefit of the doubt, assuming that educators who volunteer in prison have good intentions? Can we regard Polzonetti’s work in prison, crossing racial and class lines, as progressive to some extent? I wonder what the effect of the “calling out” of Polzonetti through public denouncement on social media has been on him as a scholar, educator, and individual. And I wonder if Ngọc Loan Trần, who has critiqued call-out culture for alienating instead of engaging those deemed to be offenders, would approve of calling “in” Polzonetti, which means inviting him to join an even more progressive agenda by developing conceptual and pedagogical frames together with him.[5] Is there a way in which we could have acknowledged Polzonetti’s effort to reach across the aisles of race and class—albeit in a highly problematic way—and persuade him to revise his position and adopt what progressives would accept as a more ethical way of relating to racial others?

This is a question that has been bothering me, and not just because of the “reparative” view that seeks to acknowledge at least some traces of good intention, versus a “paranoid” view that Polzonetti’s efforts were made in the name of naked oppression.[6] The question bothers me because call-out culture is fragmenting progressive communities at large (which aim for social, cultural, and legal reform) through policing in public platforms and a tendency to shame and cast outside those aspiring progressives who are deemed not progressive enough. The more pressure that is applied on race in the Trump era, the more aggressive call outs are likely to be, and the less patient progressives are likely to be with one another. The result is that instead of coalition building, parts of the progressive movement seem to aim to become more and more progressive by slicing off other unwanted portions of itself. This revolutionary avant-garde mentality that insists on the purity of resistance seems a little paranoid—“You are not progressive enough, and so you must be here to destroy the progressive movement by watering it down.” Sedgwick appropriately describes the stylistics of paranoid readings as that of “minimalist elegance and conceptual economy”—sounds like call-out culture?

There are of course inherent problems with certain practices of pedagogy which focus on the transmission of knowledge from expert to novice, problems exacerbated in prison context; Polzonetti’s account seems to suggest that he opted to convey specialized knowledge (the musical analysis of emotion) as a response to the emergent feminist narrative of the student protesting Donna Elvira’s treatment. In doing so, Polzonetti appears to have missed an opportunity to create a community of learning where students collaborate in the making of musical knowledge—this is particularly disappointing given the dire need for avenues for negotiating the personal and social spaces of a harsh carceral environment (Harbert’s research is instructive in this regard[7]). Teaching is a relational activity where race relations are often unavoidable and can even be instructive. A unit on opera as part of a larger course can become a chance for everyone in the classroom to participate in a discussion of the history of the adoption of Western art music, including opera, by the white majority in the US, and from there move on to the general racialization of music. This could lead to further discussion of issues like the acquiring of cultural capital (through opera courses) as well as sheer musical enjoyment, and the complicated ways in which race, history, social status, and musical joy intersect. Most often, however, many of my colleagues attach a “racist” label to teaching opera in prison and stop there; and many of them, including opera specialists, have yet to develop a conceptual frame for thinking about the racial dynamics of the teaching of opera. This does not necessarily mean that they hold beliefs about the superiority or inferiority of races; it means that musicology as a whole is lagging behind other disciplines in its racial reckoning. In the context of institutional racism, individuals may unwittingly perpetuate a racist system or “formation” by maintaining conventions (such as doctoral translation exams in the key operatic languages of German, French, and Italian). They may even be aware of personal culpability within a racist system without knowing how to walk out of it. It is a mistake to lump together those opera scholars with no interest in reaching beyond racial lines, with opera scholars who teach in prisons with good intentions and might even want to develop a pedagogical framework that addresses race in a responsible way—if only we had waited. In the age of online social media, literally waiting in terms of quantitative time is improbable as we rush to comment. But what I mean is waiting in the sense of withholding judgement, and opting instead to sow the seeds of change in others’ minds. Is it possible that this less radical approach might be able to achieve something that fiery critiques can’t?

In the age of Trump, it is important that we examine how racial critique has had to suffer the additional burden of speaking ever more loudly against power. Lived racial lives and race as a concept and symbol have had to carry the heavy responsibility of serving as vanguards of the resistance against Trump, which must surely have had the effect of sharpening progressives’ racial awareness. But racisms within and without AMS are not one-of-a-kind necessarily—they exist on a continuum of the capacity for physical and social harm, have different genealogies, and call for different responses. Where there are good but misguided intentions, where there are willing interlocutors, we might create room for patient conversation. To recognize when and where “calling in” might be appropriate, we have to differentiate: the institutional racism of AMS that musicologists today inevitably and perhaps unwillingly inherited is not necessarily the same as the kind of racism wrought alongside political and economic forces in global hyper-mediatized neoliberal context. It is not necessarily of a kind with racism wrought in the heteronormative imaginaries of reproductivity and the organic body. We need to think in terms of radical intersectionality between racial scapegoating and off-shoring of jobs in the US, between race and its symbolic reproduction, between organic and inorganic racial bodies, and between anti-racisms that limit rather than expand agency and participation—that is to say, we need to think of race as part of a much larger material “assemblage” (after Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari)[9] or “queer assemblage” (after Jasbir Puar) of different components that continuously change in terms of relationality to another, relative visibility, and impact on racial lives.[10] Racism is real. It relies on, has a complex relation with, and can sometimes even distract us from the equally devastating effects of poverty, capitalist exploitation, psychological manipulation, and environmental degradation. Because racism is rampant and is deadly, we can become impatient—in light of that simple truth—for scholars undertaking European-focused musicological or music theory studies to develop a critical awareness of race. In not waiting for that, we risk closing our ears to any anti-racist voice that is not already amped up to the highest volume. “No aspiring progressives allowed!”

Particularly in a moment of impending, intertwined ecological, economic and social disasters brought on by global predatory capitalism that has been practiced by appointees of the Trump administration (drawn from Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil etc.), it is more important than ever that progressives find strength in one another and work to broaden their base of support. We must apply innovative approaches to address the rise of racial and other forms of social reactionism, and understand the alignment between reactionary politics and ideologically coherent, profit-driven practices (job offshoring, weakening unions, climate change denial etc.) that have created a fertile ground of white poverty for hate to fester in. It is against this background that we must ask, How should those of us who are in relatively less precarious situations develop a strategy for the complexities and ambiguities of confronting and working through our national legacy of institutionalized racism and the current neoliberal racial regime, so that we all are given a chance to evolve and build a stronger movement together?


[1] “Musicologists” in this post denotes the contemporary North American understanding of term as referring to scholars involved mainly in the study of primarily Western art music and to a lesser extent popular and global music.

[2] Pierpaolo Polzonetti, “Don Giovanni Goes to Prison: Teaching Opera Behind Bars,” Musicology Now, February 16, 2016.

William Cheng, “Musicology, Freedom, and the Uses of Anger,” Musicology Now, February 21, 2016.

Bonnie Gordon, “The Perils of Public Musicology,” Musicology Now, February 22, 2016.

[3] It should be noted that historically Italian-Americans were not considered “white,” which is a continually negotiated category.

[4] The historical and contemporary construction of opera as white is a complex process that involved multiple moving parts, of which pedagogy is a key component. Vocal programs in conservatories play a part in the construction of operatic and art song singing as white through their admissions process, by admitting only candidates who adhere to those forms of singing, while rejecting those who sing in the style of blues and jazz—i.e. black music. See Julia Eklund Koza, “Listening for Whiteness: Hearing Racial Politics in Undergraduate School Music,” Philosophy of Music Education Review 16.2 (Fall 2008): 145-155.

[5] Ngọc Loan Trần, “Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable,” BGD Blog, December 18, 2013.

[6] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You Are So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You,” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).

[7] See e.g. Benjamin J. Harbert, “Only Time: Musical Means to the Personal, the Private and the Polis at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women,” American Music 30.2 (2013): 203-240.

[8] See Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States (New York: Routledge, 2014).

[9] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

[10] I suggest that we need to go much further than analyzing race in relation to nation, ethnicity, class, and “color blind” ideology, as outlined in Omi and Winant. In order to counter the politically constrictive forms of identity politics which fail to be intersectional, Jasbir Paur, for instance, disarticulates identity using the figure of the material terrorist body dismembered by a bomb, such that notions of self and other are radically reconfigured. See Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).