The Other Important Musical Release in 1991, or, McClary’s Feminine Endings is 20 years old, but there’s still no feminist philosophy of music
Feminist musicology as we know it is only 20 years old. Susan McClary’s landmark book Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality was released in 1991—the same year that Nirvana broke on pop radio. While the latter release is being widely commemorated, there’s not much noise being made outside of feminist musicology about the former anniversary. I’d speculate that this is due to the fact that feminist musicology has not made much of an impact outside of musicology—not unlike feminist philosophy, it is still struggling to be taken seriously within the broader discipline of musicology. Feminist film theory—especially the psychoanalytic stuff—has been widely and deeply influential on feminist theory generally, and in feminist philosophy more narrowly. Similarly, feminist art historians have been influential in feminist philosophical aesthetics, and in feminist theory generally. But feminist musicology, while itself often interdisciplinary, has not really been taken up by scholars outside musicology and popular music studies. Notably, there is, as far as I can tell, no feminist philosophy of music, at least in the Anglophone world (by which I mean both “analytic” philosophy, and “continental philosophy” as practiced in the English-speaking world). Sure, there’s me, but one person does not a subfield make. But why aren’t there more feminist philosophers of music?
As far as I can tell, there are a number of reasons for this, most of them political. Philosophy and music are the most conservative fields in the humanities. If you look here, you will see that Music Theory and Composition is the only humanities field that awards even fewer doctoral degrees to women than philosophy’s measly ~30%. (General history is right there with philosophy hovering around 30%.). So, (1) music and philosophy don’t have many female PhDs, so with few women, there is less overall interest in or focus on women, gender, and related issues like sexuality. Not to say that all women do feminist work, but most feminist work is done by women.
Second (2), philosophy as a whole continues to marginalize feminist philosophy, and this is especially true in philosophical aesthetics. There has been some progress, both in the field as a whole and in aesthetics, since I began my doctoral program back in 2000, but looking at the American Society for Aesthetics’ 2011 program, you will find panels that demonstrate the influence of feminist work in aesthetics (e.g., the panels on beauty and on cooking), but there is only one paper about “sex” (and presumably gender—and it’s by none other than the fabulous Sherri Irvin), and there are no other papers or panels that label themselves as explicitly about feminism, gender, sexuality, or race. It seems like there is implicit feminist content, but why can’t that content be labeled as such? Looking more specifically at the panels on music, none are even remotely political at all; there’s not even that “implicit” influence of feminism. The only explicitly “political” panel is about the environment—so it’s interesting that environmental issues are deemed “appropriate” for philosophical aesthetics, but identity issues are not. Music, as it is taught and studied in colleges and universities, still focuses overwhelmingly on the Western art tradition—so even at the beginning of the pipeline, music undergraduates tend to be those who are at least aesthetically more conservative, if not also politically more conservative as well. Sure, there is a robust field of popular music studies, but this often doesn’t include the detailed technical and music-theoretical work that music students are required to do. So because music and philosophy are such conservative fields that marginalize work in feminism, their disapproval of or disregard for feminism is mutually-reinforcing. This leads to the third (3) reason: music students who are interested in gender either stay in music and do feminist musicology, or they go into popular music studies via a literature, WGSS, or cultural studies program. They don’t go into philosophy…well, unless they’re me. I have benefited enormously from the “philosophical” work by feminist and queer musicologists and popular music studies scholars. But I want there to be room in philosophy for feminist work on and approaches to music.
In addition to political reasons, there are content-based reasons why there is no feminist philosophy of music. I would argue that it is indisputable (I know that’s a strong claim, but I am confident in making it) that there are political reasons why the ‘preferred’ issues in phil of music are ‘preferred’—but that’s an argument for another time. Here, I just want to focus on the absolute absence of critical political work in the philosophy of music. The Stanford Encycolopedia of Philosophy entry on “Philosophy of Music” focuses on three main issues in the subfield: ontology, emotions, and value. I find it striking that, given the quantity quality of the impact that feminist work on emotions and value/ethics have had on the larger discipline, the philosophy of music still actively ignores feminist work in philosophy, let alone feminist musicology. A fifth (5) reason, also content-based, for the non-existence of feminist philosophy of music, is the subfield’s tendency to privilege “art” musics over popular music. Sure, there is some discussion of jazz, and even the blues and rock. But nowhere, and I mean nowhere, would anyone even think of talking about “pop” music—Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, you know, music by women. (For more on this—and I mean a lot more on this—see chapter 6 of my book.) Angela Davis, of course, has a great book on female blues singers, but this book has had little to no impact in philosophy, and when it is taken up it is mostly used as a black feminist text, not a text on music. But it is both. But we philosophers of music can’t seem to get that it is both about music and about black feminism, because we think that in philosophy those things just don’t work together. Which is wrong! Philosophers of race do attend to the musical—but often not in conjunction with gender. I am aware of only one other philosopher, Devonya Havis at Cannissius, who combines an interest in gender with an interest in “the musical” broadly construed. As much as I love and am excited by her work, her interests are not really in the philosophy of music so much as they are in black feminism, and social/political. And this is great, this work needs to be done, but it also needs to be done by philosophers of music.
Sometimes I feel as though philosophers of music are just too sensitive about the implicit feminization of music—remember, Plato has to kick out the flute girls before the actual philosophical discussion in the Symposium can begin. This sensitivity breeds defensiveness—we have to “prove” that phil of music is “real” philosophy by only engaging in the most mainstream, most conservative types of philosophy—rather than openness to experimentation and innovation. But I also want to acknowledge that a majority of the “avoidance” of feminism (and social identity generally) by philosophers of music does not take the form of active bias—though some of it does. Mainly, the avoidance is of a seemingly more “benign” type—e.g., that’s not what will get me published in the JAAC, there’s just no literature on that, no encouragement from profs or advisers to think about these issues, etc.
There should be more feminist philosophers of music; there should be lots of different kinds of feminist philosophers of music. I hope I’m not the only one. It gets lonely. I would love to be more than an AOS of 1.
But back to McClary. What can 1991’s Feminine Endings offer feminist philosophers of music?
Here’s a list, which is not necessarily exhaustive:
1. The idea that Western music is always-already political. It is NEVER NOT about gender, or race, or sexuality. Gender is a system for organizing relationships among people, among types of food (think Carol Adams here), among styles of clothes, and among genres of music, types of cadences, listening and performance practices, etc. The same with race, and the same with sexuality: as systems of organization, they manifest themselves in our musical theories, practices, habits, and values.
2. That music itself is “feminized.” Those flute-girls, again.
3. That we need to consider the conditions for the possibility of musical pleasure, and that these conditions also include things like sexual politics.
4. That it’s OK to write “risky” work, work that many in the discipline might just outright reject.
I hope that the comments can be a space for talking about feminist phil of music. If other philosophers are out there working on gender and/or race and/or sexuality and music, I want to know you and your work! Let’s put together a panel for the ASA.
First, I want to just say that my university didn’t have a copy of your book and now, because I interlibrary loaned it, they purchased a copy for our music library. I’m looking forward to reading it.
I feel compelled to weigh in on this, not for any real reason other than I consider myself both feminist and a philosopher of music – but have not seen the need to combine them. I’m still working that out, but I’m also having trouble thinking of what a feminist philosophy of music would address. I say this as a post-McClary student, perhaps even post third-wave feminism, where I don’t have the context of what feminism was reacting to. I mean, I’ve read some of it – but it doesn’t actually seem realistic to me.
My blind spots aside, I am also wondering what the usefulness of a feminist philosophy of music in philosophy would be useful for – and this is based on my understanding of the discipline of philosophy today. In most departments, my MA included, Aesthetics and Art are already on the margins. The drive towards a more scientific, empirical philosophy is all around. I see an exodus of most strands of Philosophy into Comparative Literature, English, and Musicology (of which I am one). This is, I agree, unfortunate but, I also don’t see myself as wanting to fight my way back into philosophy. I think it’s more useful to have philosophers all around – in other departments – because it’s the first step to regaining a holistic educational approach and research standard. Some departments are adjusting and gaining more philosophical grounding, and more need to do it – because philosophy is not just a set of knowledge, but a viable methodology that needs to be used in all scenarios (this is where I show my Ancient Greek roots).
As for Plato and the feminine, it’s a complex issue. He’s also pretty befuddled by music – and I think rightfully so given the subject. Sound, philosophy of sound, ontology of sound, aesthetics of music – these all are under-researched fields because sound is hard to talk about – there seems to be a problem of sound investigating itself just like philosophy trying to investigate itself. Plato dismissing the flute girls in the Symposium is an important moment, but I don’t think it can be seen as definitive as Plato’s stance or the stance of western philosophy. The Phaedrus, a dialogue I’ve spent a lot of time with, specifically focuses on the issue of voice and music – and a semi-recent book called “Listening to the Cicadas” by GRF Ferrari works through a lot of the implications via the talk of sex, pleasure, and rhetoric. The dialogue is, to me anyway, essentially talking about how bodies should relate to each other – and in a critical way of some dominant theories of the time.
The reason I go on about Phaedrus is that I think a feminist philosophy of music seems, perhaps, redundant on a purely philosophical definition. The political identity and aims of a feminist philosophy of music, however, are not redundant – but when philosophers start talking about music and listening, feminist themes begin to arise. The ontological status of sound and music is outside of the ‘eye-centric’ model of Western Philosophy. This leads to the underdevelopment of research into sound and music, but also into the disciplining of sound. Plato can’t think straight when the flute girl are playing, especially in the republic – does that mean he wants to think straight? Given the proclivity of Socrates’ daemon to show up, no – he doesn’t, or at least he acknowledges he can’t help it. When German philosophy assumes an autonomy in music, it means that music is outside of our humanity – a force that we can’t get a hold of with our eyes, so we must discipline its exposure to our ears. These are glib examples, but I think they show my point – Philosophy has a deep issue with voice and music in its study and understanding.
When philosophers begin to unpack sound and music, they begin to show all the signs of a feminist philosophy. Embodied time and temporality, especially fluctuations in subjective temporality, become necessary to understand the ontology of a sound. Pleasure and the passions become things we have to wrestle with – leading to (good) philosophers having to look into culture and history to parse out what was acceptable, what kinds of subjectivities could be around, and from there begin to see (hear) what might be music’s relationship to a culture.
Basically, I think that music is feminized but that philosophers have been trying to deal with it. This needs to be made more explicit that, while Plato is not a feminist because that’s ahistorical, his explorations can be seen as such. I suppose this has been my assumption all along – that there are ways of understanding some dominant philosophical systems as having inherent feminist subtexts or, in critical engagement, give rise to feminist philosophy that is not a reaction but a reframing or development (a reverse scenario I can think of is Derrida’s indebtedness to de Beauvoir and French Feminism – his philosophy tends to be divorced from its feminist background).
Anyway, I look forward to reading your book and your comments on this (if you have the time). I would be interested in storming the Philosophy world, if you like, because I find myself still straddling the two disciplines. I’ve stayed with Musicology because I get to perform more, but still have many ties and allegiances to the love of wisdom.
Hi Chris: Thanks for your comments-these are exactly the sorts of conversations I was hoping to catalyze!
I’ll respond to your comments more or less in order. Please let me know if I’ve misunderstood or mischaracterized your remarks 🙂
1. The post-feminism issue: As I read it, post-feminism is really a sort of liberalist stance, a gender-blindess 2.0, if you will. It thinks that feminism is mainly about identities and not also about the deeper issue of “gender” as a system of social organization. Maybe your post-feminism doesn’t look like this, and I’d say that is a good thing! But, when I say “feminism” I guess I really mean “critical theory of gender” which includes things like sexuality, race, queer studies, postcoloniality, transnationalism, masculinity studies, etc. If gender is a system of social organization, it’s deeply embedded even in apparently gender-neutral or non-gendered phenomena. So we need feminism to help analyze, critique, understand, etc., the ways that gendered systems of organization are at work in things like: society, politics, language, scientific research, the artworld, music making and music fandom, etc. I think we still need feminism because gender is still around, and only getting more complicated.
2. The “why philosophy?” issue: It is my impression that every continental philosopher, every feminist philosopher, and every theorist of race, African-American philosopher, etc. often struggles with the “should I stay or should I go” question. Mainstream philosophy has always been very, very narrow. But I say this as a continental philosopher. I was and never will be in the philosophical mainstream. I was trained to view the philosophical mainstream in the same way that the people at Kill Rock Stars or Rough Trade view the major labels: who cares what they are doing, we’re doing our own thing, which is just as legit. Through my work on gender, race, and aesthetics, I’m often in conversation with mainstream analytic philosophy of gender, race, and art. It’s not the devil. In fact, it’s often quite interesting! But it’s not entitled to dictate what philosophy is and isn’t. But why should anyone care about conforming to the norms of mainstream analytic philosophy? Or even mainstream continental philosophy (which I myself often deviate from quite substantially)? Philosophy needs margins. We shouldn’t cede it to the mainstream. This is actually also bad for the mainstream.
One thing a feminist philosophy of music might do is draw increased attention to the philosophical work of African-American women, which is historically pursued far beyond the “center” of the philosophical mainstream. Angela Davis’s book on the blues is an example of this. Another thing it might do is help re-frame issues both narrowly, in the philosophy of music (i.e., through attention to the gendering of concepts in a text) or in aesthetics, and more broadly in, say, feminist philosophy. I’m working on a project that argues that feminist philosophy is overdetermined by a centering of the visual, and that thinking about other sensory modalities, and thinking from other, non-visual sorts of examples, might usefully reframe central ideas in feminist theory (e.g., intersectionality). A feminist philosophy of music might also be another bridge between feminist theory and more music-centric theoretical paradigms, such as African-American philosophy (this is sorta like my first point), critical race theory, etc. And finally, I think feminist musicologists would benefit from the existence of feminist philosophers of music. My training is in philosophy, so my feminist approach to music is somewhat differently oriented than the feminist approach to music taken by feminist musicologists. And that conversation between these approaches would likely be really productive and interesting.
3. I completely agree with your statement: “I think that music is feminized but that philosophers have been trying to deal with it.” I actually think they’ve been dealing with it rather poorly. They try to appropriate music’s perceived “femininity” as a way to distinguish themselves from “hegemonic” philosophy. It’s pretty much the same strategy that Eric Lott or Ingrid Monson describe white musicians using in their instrumentalization of “blackness” in order to appear more aesthetically and politically progressive/radical than other whites. Nancy clearly does this. Deleuze sorta does this. I even think Kristeva does this. “Music” is the feminized “other” that these philosophers like to flirt with in order to prove their own “radical” relation to the staid tradition.
4. I’d love to talk more sometime about your reading of Plato—I’m absolutely not an ancient person, so I’m really interested in your take on that material. Maybe a conference panel sometime? (I’m serious!)
Thanks again for your response! Like I said, I really hoped to start a conversation, and you’ve certainly helped with that!
Hi Robyn and Chris,
I haven’t much time to chip in here on these very interesting discussion threads but thought I’d say that I find Deleuze and the feminist Deleuzian work a very useful, productive way to deal with issues surrounding the marginalisation of women’s (classical new) music. I’m also taking a different tack, as a result of this reading, to thinking about how difference arises in the musical work – the idea that women compose differently. This is a deeply problematic area – as I discovered when writing my first book, Feminist Aesthetics in Music (drawing on Irigaray and Cixous in particular), but with the second book, Towards a Twenty-First Century Feminist Politics of Music, I try to work out different strategies for advancing the case for difference without falling back on the oppositional paradigm. My current project, which is a study of a female Australian composer, wants to shift into the territory of affect and sensation – the kind of stuff Grosz has been writing recently. I don’t know what this will yield but it’s a never ending musico-philosophical journey. Any thoughts? All the best, Sally
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