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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Desperately Seeking Relevance: Music Theory Today [6.1]


Rubbish Theory
and Music Theory Today

What is it to supply a theory? It is to offer an intelligible, systematic, conceptual pattern for the observed data. The value of this pattern lies in its capacity to unite phenomena which, without the theory, are either surprising, anomalous, or wholly unnoticed. [my italics]
Norwood Russell Hanson, Patterns of Discovery 


1. Tripping over Rubbish

I was on my way out of a used book store when I spotted a spine title that made me stop. I pulled the book off the shelf and began to thumb through Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value [1] by Michael Thompson. I had never heard of the book or the author before. It had a lengthy section on catastrophe theory and a foreword by E.C. Zeeman. The used book price of $9.50 seemed a bit steep, but how could I resist having the title Rubbish Theory on my book shelf?

The little gray book I purchased was the 1979 first edition – actually, it remains the only edition as far as I know. Thirty years later, I still have the book. Unknown to me at the time I purchased it, the book had created somewhat of a stir among anthropologists and economists when it came out. The reviews were mixed. It clearly rattled some cages. In some cages it went unnoticed.[2] Google Scholar currently lists over 650 citations for the book. It's now a collector's item with prices varying between $250 and $500. But even if I wanted to sell it, which I don't, I could never get near those prices. The reason? The used book I bought in nearly pristine condition (a discard from the "Army Library"(?) that appeared to have never been checked out) now has my pencil and ink scribbles on half the pages. Another book ruined by my overwrought conversations and arguments with the author.

Despite all those cites, I'm not certain of the status of either the book or its author within the social sciences at this point (I've only taken the time to check out a relatively small sample of the citing articles). Still, it has become clear to me that Thompson's work was among the first in cultural anthropology to recognize rubbish as an indispensable object category in the study of "the creation and destruction of value." Curiously, as I write this, neither Rubbish Theory nor Michael Thompson have an entry in Wikipedia, the final word on stuff to be taken seriously. The book's lack of an entry in Wikipedia (making it invisible to the bulk of on-line humanity) coupled with its increasing market value and citation history (suggesting it has a persisting value to collectors and scholars) is an ironic demonstration of Thompson's central thesis.

In this final relevance-thread entry (due to length I've broken it into two three parts) I'm not going to attempt to "apply" Thompson's rubbish theory directly to music theory today. Rather (in part 2) I am going to steal some of Thompson's ideas and adapt them into a meta-theoretic model to help focus on some significant blind spots in music theory and the wider field of musicology. My intention is to lay the foundation for an actual discussion/debate, or at the very least, to demonstrate the need for a serious reexamination of the discipline. In today's climate, I doubt any of that will happen, and my essay will be no more than a passing curiosity at best.
.    .    .    .    .

Here is what rubbish theory is all about.

On page 9 Thompson gives an introductory summary:
[The two overt categories,] the durable and the transient, do not exhaust the universe of objects. There are some objects (those of zero and unchanging value) which do not fall into either of these two categories and these constitute a third covert category: rubbish.
      My hypothesis is that this covert rubbish category is not subject to the control mechanism (which is concerned primarily with the overt part of this system, the valuable and socially significant objects) and so is able to provide a path for the seemingly impossible transfer of an object from transience to durability. What I believe happens is that a transient object gradually declining in value and in expected life-span may slide across into rubbish. In an ideal world, free of nature's negative attitude, an object would reach zero value and zero expected life-span at the same instant, and then, like Mark Twain's 'one hoss shay', disappear into dust. But, in reality, it usually does not do this; it just continues to exist in a timeless and valueless limbo where at some later date (if it has not by that time turned, or even made, into dust) it has the chance of being discovered.
He then gives a diagram that represents a first approximation of his theory:


Thompson contends that these arrows represent the only allowable transfers between the three categories –– no left-pointing arrows are valid, and no transfers between transient and durable can occur directly. At creation, objects start out in the transient category where, at varying rates of decay, they begin to lose value until they fall into the rubbish category. Here they not only have no value, they are so worthless as to be invisible.  Any rubbish object will remain at zero value (invisible) theoretically forever unless it is "discovered" (made visible) in which case it pops into the durable, value-increasing category where it remains (theoretically forever).

In a 2003 article, John Frow gives a helpful summary from a different vantage point:
Rubbish is a zero-degree of value; and as such it's either the invisible limit point of social value, or it's something we actively conspire not to see. It is thus in an asymmetrical relation to the two major categories of value, which Thompson calls the transient (this is the normal state of things: a state of decreasing value) and the durable (an exceptional state in which objects have permanent and increasing value). Consumer goods are the paradigm case of the former, works of art, perhaps, of the latter.
... [T]he corollary to this view of function as a matter of use rather than an entelechy of intrinsic properties of the object is that objects are likely, in a complex world, to have a number of actual or potential overlapping uses. No single game exhausts their function; no single description exhausts the uses to which their properties might appropriately or inappropriately lend themselves. Indeed, objects don't simply occupy a realm of objecthood over against the human: they translate human interests, carry and transform desires and strategies.[3] [my underlines]

Before noting all the problems that immediately come to mind, and trashing the theory before it's fully unwrapped, the reader should note that the summary just given is a "naive" first-approximation which works quite well in ideal applications, especially for physical objects traded on the market. It's beyond these applications (where the theory at first might seem to fail) that it provides an expanding analytical framework for less tractable examples.  Thompson takes most of the rest of the book exploring many theory-related complications, explanations, caveats, and implications.

When I first began to read this book 30 years ago, I started out being mildly amused and slightly bored. I have no abiding interest in snot (yes, you read that correctly) or Stevengraphs. But about 50 pages in, when he started talking about the Knockers-Through vs. the Ron-and-Cliffs, I started to perk up. (Readers wishing to decode the last two sentences will just have to read the book –– sorry.)

At Chapter 4, "From Things to Ideas," he had me. Metaphors became apparent, and I began to test rubbish theory for its applicability for music. By "applicability" I mean, first, does it conflict with any well-established historical models? It seems to pass this first test. As an obvious example, using what is known about the reception history of J.S. Bach's music from the 18th century to the present, Thompson's model doesn't yield any new facts; but it does provide a complementary interpretive framework to hang those facts from, taking Bach's music from creation as it descended quickly through the transient category down into rubbish where it remained (to general audiences) at the "invisible limit point of social value" for a century –– and then popped into the durable category where its value began to climb to its present value. But does rubbish theory add anything new to acceptable approaches in musicology? Here, it seems to me, comes the big crunch. It's time to leave musicology's –– and music theory's –– comfort zone.

There are two sides to the "canon" problem. First is the obvious: how does an object get into a "canon"? This is effectively identical to the question and example just discussed of how an object escapes the rubbish heap to become durable. But there is a dark side to selection: to select something we must not select other things. Selection is necessarily biased. Whether it is unintentional or an "active conspiracy not to see" (Frow), the only way to create and maintain a "canon" is by keeping out the majority of candidates according to some written or unwritten rule or constraint. This brings me to this statement at the opening of Thompson's Chapter 7, "Monster Conservation":
[T]he charm of rubbish theory is that it seems always to lead straight into illogicality, anomaly, and paradox. Regrettably, there are many who find these qualities not so much charming as monstrous, and there are some who would go so far as to maintain that the proper aim and object of serious thought should be the systematic exclusion of such monsters. Monster exclusion is, at its worst, intolerant, puritanical, and repressive. At its best, it reveals a dubious prettifying intent that leads to the pretence that things are tidier than they really are.
     Monster exclusion is a distinct, and often dominant, intellectual style. (p. 131)
. . . .
[M]onster exclusion can all too easily become monster extermination. Monster extermination can result in the permanent removal of the exceptions to a social theory and, in consequence, monster exterminators are particularly prevalent in the social sciences. The result is that social processes that rely on contradictions for their very existence are almost invariably described by theoretical models of impeccable internal consistency. (p. 133)
We'll meet "monster extermination" up close and personal in Part 2 Part 3 which will be posted soon.

I don't particularly look forward to walking the high theory wire from one praxis to another without the aid of a net.  Fortunately, I have such a net handy.  I'll end this part with an observation that indicates rubbish theory is grounded in an intellectual tradition more broadly based than its limiting sphere of application in the social sciences –– a tradition that echoes throughout the entire "cultural sensorium." This net is a general strain of criticism found in the philosophy of culture. It's nicely summarized by the late David L. Hall (my underlining):
It is essential that one not succumb to the fallacy of completeness in either of its guises––namely, either in the sense that one claims completeness with respect to evidences employed, or in the sense that one requires completeness in the use of evidence. Some degree of specialization is essential. The question is this, however: Has the specialized employment of evidences determined the omission of important areas of experience which may in fact be seasonally relevant in our period of cultural activity? To respond affirmatively to this question involves one in the criticism of the manner in which the inertial character of the past has overdetermined the nature of the cultural present.[4a]
.  .  .  .
Strictly systematic theory is more often than not an ideological epiphenomenon functioning apologetically with respect to current modes of practice. Thus theory is practical by definition if one means no more by theoretical endeavor than that systematic, principled form of thinking shaped by the desire for application.[4b]
.  .  .  .
[T]he attempt to avoid contradiction leads inevitably to the exclusion of experiences or claims about experience which are consistent with alternative explanations of the way of things that, by virtue of their internal consistency and applicability to the world of experience, have an equal claim to be counted as theory.[4c]
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_________________________
[1] Rubbish Theory : The Creation and Destruction of Value (Oxford UP, 1979) can still be found in many libraries. Those wishing to read a condensed version of Thompson's thesis as an introduction can read a pre-publication article he wrote in 1979 that was recently put on the web.
[2] Michael J. Kowalski, "The Curatorial Muse" (In Contemporary Aesthetics, vol. 8, 2010) FN 34:
The ramifications of the complex embedding of the system of aesthetic validation within a broader context of social validation are explored in Michael Thomson's brilliant and unjustly overlooked study, Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value (Oxford University Press, 1979). The fact that Peter B├╝rger's ponderously agued theories of avant garde literature, which appeared in English five years after the publication of Thompson's essay, should have become a canonic text for art critics, while the deft and humorous argument of Rubbish Theory was largely ignored, says a great deal about North American writers' knee jerk obeisance to Continental theory. I do not exempt myself from the charge.
[3] John Frow. "Invidious Distinction: Waste, Difference, and Classy Stuff."   (In Culture and Waste: The Creation and Destruction of Value. 2003. Ed. Gay Hawkins and Stephen Muecke).
[4] David L. Hall. Eros and Irony: A Prelude to Philosophical Anarchism.  (Albany : SUNY, c1982) [a] p. 41, [b] p. 45, [c] p. 46.