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.