Monday, January 12, 2015

The West and the Rest

In today’s post at 3 Quarks Daily I argue that while the West has a certain historical reality, it is not a coherent cultural identity. We may talk of Western culture as though there is such a thing, but that’s doubtful. The cultural practices within Western nations are too diverse, and from too many sources, for Western culture to be a coherent notion.

It is an ideological fiction, one invoked in making large-scale statements about the world that have more to do with current politics than with cultural reality. And if the West is a fiction, then so is the East, and Africa. Ideological fictions, all of them.

In the small, we can see such a fiction a work in an article in Krin Gabbard’s anthology, Jazz Among the Discourses (1995), one of a pair of anthologies arguing that “jazz has entered the mainstreams of the American academy” (p. 1). The general purpose of the anthology is to help ensure that this new discipline is in harmony with the latest developments in postmodern humanities scholarship. One Steven Elworth contributed a paper examining the critical transformation of jazz into an art music: “Jazz in Crisis, 1948—1958: Ideology and Representation.”

In the course of his argument, Elworth offers this observation (p. 65):
The major paradox of all writing about culture is how to take seriously a culture not one’s own without reducing it to an ineffable Other. I do not wish to argue, of course, that one can only write of one’s own culture. In the contemporary moment of constant cultural transformation and commodification, even the definition of one’s own culture is exceedingly contradictory and problematic.
While the entire passage is worthy of comment, I want to consider only the first sentence: “The major paradox of all writing about culture is how to take seriously a culture not one’s own without reducing it to an ineffable Other.” When I first read that statement, many years ago, my immediate reaction was: “Right on, brother!”

But then I wondered: Just what “culture not one’s own” is Elworth talking about? Since this article is about jazz I assume that jazz culture is what he’s talking about. While the jazz genealogy has strands extending variously to West Africa and Europe, has been and continues to be performed by Blacks and Whites, before audiences both Black and White – though, in the past, these have often been segmented into different venues, or different sections of the same venue – the music is conventionally considered to be Black. That convention is justified by the fact the music’s major creators have been overwhelmingly Black. Thus it follows that jazz culture is, as these conventions go, Black culture.

That convention leads me to infer that Elworth is White. I do not have any hard evidence for this assumption; I’ve never met the man, I’ve seen no photographs, and the contributor’s blurb certainly doesn’t indicate race. But the same set of conventions that dictate that jazz is Black music also make it unlikely that any Black scholar would refer to jazz culture as “a culture not one’s own.” It follows that Elworth is White, or, at any rate, not-Black.

I don’t know anything about Elworth beyond this article and a note indicating that, at the time of publication (1995), he was completing a doctorate at New York University. The fact that he is writing about jazz suggests that he likes it a great deal and knows more than a little about it. It is quite possible that he grew up in a house where folks listened to jazz on a regular basis. If not that, perhaps he discovered jazz while among friends or relatives and came to love it. He may also attend live performances, perhaps he is a weekend warrior, jamming with friends either privately or in public. He may well have been to weddings where a jazz band played the reception. He is comfortable with jazz; it is not exotic music. That is to say, it is unlikely that Elworth discovered jazz in some foreign land where no one speaks English, nor eats and dresses American style, nor knows anything of Mozart or Patsy Cline, among many others. Jazz is a routine and familiar part of Elworth’s life.

So why doesn’t he think of it as his culture? Why must he caution himself (and us) against “reducing it to an ineffable Other.” On both counts the answer is the same: convention. The same set of conventions would require that Leontyne Price think of Puccini’s music as belonging to someone else’s culture, though she sings the music superbly. And what do we do with Wynton Marsalis? Is he playing his music when he plays “Cornet Shop Suey” or “Epistrophy” but someone else’s music when he plays Haydn’s trumpet concerto? That doesn’t make much sense.

Well neither does Western culture, and for a similar reason. Cultural-identity is a mess. But then, culture is rather poorly understood, even among the professors.

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I have assembled last year’s 3QD columns into a single down-loadable PDF: 42 Quarks: Getting from here to there.

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