Thursday, February 02, 2017

so there was this thing called Books & Culture?

D. G. Hart has blogged a bit on the passing of Books & Culture.  I admit I only heard of this thing within the last few years but it apparently had a decades-long run.
Like many little magazines, Books & Culture was a response to a problem. As Wilson remarked in a recent podcast, "It was not accidental that The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind came out in '94 and the first issue of B&C in '95." Lamenting the persistence of anti-intellectualism within American evangelicalism, Scandal was an "epistle from a wounded lover," articulating Mark Noll's "hope that we American evangelicals might yet worship God with our minds."

In so many ways, Books & Culture was the concrete expression of this ideal. ...

Somehow missed the thing until just a few years ago.  So it's reach was ... well ... limited I guess.  I'd heard of Mockingbird thanks to Michael Spencer.  I've loved writing for them and have been writing things for Mockingbird off and on since 2010. 

One of the things I've noticed about the writings on evangelicalism and intellectualism is dismay at the loss of the evangelical intellectual.  But ... Alastair Roberts raised a point that the intellectuals he heard people talking about within evangelicalism were not themselves evangelicals but mainline Protestants.  While that's a point worth consideration in its own right I'm skipping ahead to my own concern, which is that it seems to one degree or another the trouble with evangelicalism in America is that the only crisis it seems particularly concerned with is the self-perceived loss of its own prestige.  If evangelical intellectuals are out there and want to know where the other evangelical intellectuals have gone let's propose an idea, that what we try to do is not merely solve the prestige problem we perceive for ourselves but attempt to meaningfully address some problem that other people consider an actual problem.

As an amateur musician and composer I've spent much of my adult life ruminating on the problem of how the divide between high and low cultural expressions of music seem to be pretty rigid in one sense and expanding in another sense.  As Richard Taruskin's liked to put it, the gap between the academic canon and the vernacular canon has gotten really, really big.  But the controversy surrounding whether or not jazz was considered part of the Western art music canon over at Yale a few years ago was a vivid reminder that there's the white/black side of all this, too.  You could imagine, perhaps, that evangelicals white and black who are musicians and worship the same risen Jesus as Lord could perhaps do some scholarly exploration.  That the boundaries between styles like ragtime and early 19th century guitar sonatas by composers from Spain or Italy or Bohemia are permeable was something I spent an entire week blogging about.  It's not something I've seen even secular academics discussing seriously over the last ten years.  Unfortunately, but particularly with debates about cultural appropriation raging, it seems that groups have been fixated on who does or doesn't get the credentials of club membership for this or that guild of the champions of a particular style.  If the mainlines have caught up to the polystylistic pluralism of music that is the present evangelicals have their respective ... neighborhoods. 

I've had my doubts about academics on other grounds.  It's taken me a while to catch up with arts criticism and critical theory stuff but it seems as though American colleges have been swamped with some kind of ethos in which people who can afford to get liberal arts degrees that cost more than twice what a lot of Americans can make in a single year are, somehow, exempt from being part of America's ruling castes because ... they can quote Walter Benjamin?  Benjamin's easier to read than Adorno but still ... .

It's been hard to shake the sense in the last ten years as I've read on the edges of academic publishing and read some actually pretty lively academic books that the thing "is" still a prestige racket.  There's still some fine stuff I've read from formal academics.  That's how I learned about Hepokoski & Darcy's inspired cumulative work on sonata forms, for instance, and I think the Type 2 sonata explains a lot of the most substantial early 19th century guitar sonatas by the likes of Sor and Giuliani.  So it's nice that academics are making works available to read for free for the public good.  That would seem to be the ideal of scholarship ... but I bet textbook prices are still absolutely obscene. 

In an era when little magazines fight to survive, where can evangelical eggheads go for intellectual edification?

the author had some specific publications in mind ...

My own pet interests have been establishing that genuinely contrapuntal music for solo guitar is not merely possible but practical.  I've also been interested in exploring ways in which a non-dogmatic approach to eighteenth century developmental procedures (i.e. sonata and fugue) can take on vernacular American idioms such as ragtime, blues, country and jazz.  It's taken years of shaking off what largely amounts to the vainglorious 19th century German idealist position as it was conveyed through music education to get back to what the 18th century composers actually did and not what 19th century and even 20th century pedagogues claimed they did.  It's impossible to describe in words the realization that Anton Reicha wrote a fugue in 5/8 that had its subject in A major but its answer in E flat major in a work from the early 1800s.  Somewhere along the line we got sold a bill of good about the 18th century being more staid and in need of Beethoven shaking it up than was actually the case.  Beethoven thought some of Reicha's experiments were just too weird to condone. 

I still dream of composing a guitar sonata that formulates a fusion of fugue with blues riffs and sonata form with the style of ragtime.  If mainstream academics haven't explored this in a systematic or theoretical way why should I be surprised to find that it doesn't seem evangelicalism has done this, either?  Theoretically the possibilities of pan-stylistic gestural mutation was laid out by George Rochberg and if the name didn't tip you off in itself he wasn't exactly what you'd call an evangelical.  Still, Rochberg's got some ideas I find interesting. It's just too bad that the most vocal advocates of Rochberg seem to be ardent defenders of the stratification of high and low musical styles where the implications of Rochberg's proposal that gesture, and not style or language or system or method, would be the path to living in a world that must take musical pluralism for granted, would suggest that these boundaries can be obliterated.  Given how balkanized our era seems to be perhaps those boundaries even "should" get obliterated.  We've had centuries of stylistic profusion and splintering and we've had centuries of stylistic consolidation and integration.   The early period of the Baroque had a lot of stylistic differentiation and fragmentation. The late Baroque was a consolidation process thanks to a number of figures.  We seem to have an educational system that wants innovation rather than consolidation and I don't think the reason for that is copyright law but the residual ideological commitments of Romanticism.  If evangelicals persist in being functionally reactionary rather than exploratory then the life of the mind evangelicals want to sustain isn't going to happen. 


Eric Love said...

In Australia the intellectual evangelicals are quite significant, given how small the whole Church is here (though maybe I define it more broadly than you).

I'm not understanding your analogy - what are you hoping to see that is analogous to mixing musical styles?

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

the stuff about musicology wasn't an analogy, it was a complaint. There are doctoral dissertations on how Nikolai Kapustin has spent the last half century experimenting with ways to hybridize jazz and the "classical" traditions, for instance, but Kapustin's a Ukrainian whose work has only started to get some attention in the West within this millennium, basically. With the end of the Cold War there has been time for stuff to get around, such as that half a dozen polyphonic cycles for piano were written in the Soviet Union. Stuff like that matters when the prevailing Cold War academic narrative was that forms like sonata or procedures like fugue were "obsolete" don't hold water if it turns out that at a global level there were more people writing cycles of fugues in the 20th century than were at the time of J. S. Bach. Now, sure, obviously we could say they aren't written at as high a level of quality as what J. S. was doing but to say that the fugue became "obsolete" is ridiculous.

My skepticism about evangelical intellectual life is, in a way, a skepticism about the life of the "public intellectual" in the post-industrial West.

People can fret about the lack of prestige academics have in the UK but the British Empire has been dead on arrival for generations. Where academic culture has been preserved a lot of useful stuff can get discussed but in the Anglo-American scene a lot of what passes for a crisis in the lack of prestige accorded public intellectuals really seems to be anxiety about the diminished imperial glory of Anglo-American empires vis a vis a lack of "world class" academics. Blaming the mass media does nothing to convince me because, per the blog post, if academics were looking to address problems non-academics want addressed they might have something to contribute.

Per musicology, there have been some academics who have addressed polyt-stylistic fusions but by and large practical musicians have been exploring this since Miles Davis launched his fusion phase or David Bowie or Johnny Cash fiddled with cross-genre song performances.

Where I'm trying to go with that is to observe that polystylistic integration and fusion happened between the middle and late Baroque eras in the 17th to 18th centuries and Christians were pretty obviously at the forefront of that (Bachs, for instance). If American evangelicas are fretting about pluralism at an ideological level they can miss the boat about how if Christ is the savior of people from every tribe and language then we can regard all musical languages and methods as equally available via that redemption of people. In other words American evangelicalism tends to regard pluralism as prima facie bad and to some degree polemicists like Francis Schaeffer played a big role there. Or you have the more Anglo-conservative wing with Roger Scruton presenting pop music and art music as somehow separated by a gigantic gulf that's not impassable at all. The trouble is that if academics spend their time delineating boundaries across styles rather than exploring gestural overlap across styles they're looking for the differences rather than the possibilities for overlap.

So globally I wouldn't say evangelicals have a problem with significant intellectual or artistic life but the conservative evangelical Anglo-American discourse on the role of evangelicalism in the Anglo-American context presupposes its marginal status. I've gotten to a point where my suggestion to fellow Anglo-American evangelicals is that if we want our intellectual lives to be taken seriously it might help if we start addressing ideas that more than just Anglo-American evangelical conservatives care about.

As chris e and I were discussing a little last year some of this hand-writing may forget that public intellectuals as a whole have not been as big a deal in the big picture as public intellectuals have liked to believe.

Eric Love said...

In Australia we're got the Centre for Public Christianity -

Their founder John Dickson is a bit of a hero for Aussie evangelicals. He & his colleagues get occasional airtime including as panelists on the atheist-left dominated Q&A, and represent the faith well.

Who gets to be a public figure in any area, particularly intellectual areas, is not always decided on merit but by media power or presentation skills. And the public today only has moderate interest in intellectuals.