Thursday, November 1, 2007


Returning to an earlier post about Spivak and Agawu: When our guest speaker talked about Agawu's book, he said Agawu was making use of Spivak's "strategic essentialism" in order to establish a politics of the same in which music, on a global scale, is defined by the immanence of tone. Leaving aside for the moment what tone is, and why it is could be said to define music without also incorporating speech and lonely trees, I'd like to comment a bit on what I see as Agawu's misuse of Spivak.

Because of Spivak's intellectual debt to Derridian deconstruction, I think it's unlikely that she would deploy strategic essentialism to buttress or even quarantine a concept. Agawu's claim seems to be that, since we have to have a working definition of music in order to study it in a cross-cultural context, we need to chose a solid definition that will serve our strategic ends. For Agawu, those ends are the disruption of Western (or Northern) aesthetic hegemony. Whether it is possible for a metropolitan scholar, even one from the third-world intellectual diaspora, to accomplish this--whether it is indeed even possible to think the non-Western in the context of late capitalism--doesn't seem to be questioned. But again, I digress.

My understanding of "strategic essentialism" is from Spivak's phrase: "One cannot help but essentialize, but one must essentialize strategically." (I don't know the book or the page, but I'm pretty sure that's close to verbatim) When Spivak says this, she's coming, according to her, directly from Derrida. Derrida, something of a defeatist, but in an empowering way, has also claimed that narrative is inescapable, and that feminism is another form of phallocentrism. What s/he is pointing at here, I believe, is the impossibility of beginning (without a ground). Because knowledge is abyssal, because it does not stand on firm ground but instead only upon knowledge, there must be those "facts" which we implicitly take to be true. And in order for our discourse to be both critical and mutable, we must take these essentials on implicitly, but be able to undermine them when confronting them. So reifying tone as the essential quality to all music is precisely not what Spivak is advocating. On the contrary, what she's saying is that when we say "music," the implication of tone already exists: stating it outright does nothing to clear this up (unless it is done critically) but does do much to reify the term, preventing it from being mutable. In short, Agawu takes the fluid term (the catachrestic term) "music," and makes it rigid, erecting it as the center for his new hegemony. It is, it seems to me, the opposite of a deconstruction.

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