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Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
Between Genres
Back at the end of January, when I went to the Bay Area for my friend Joel's birthday party, I reaped a huge windfall of music. Because I've been so busy, however, I've only just now started to make meaningful headway in the process of sorting the wormy apples from the tasty ones. Today I decided I'd make more progress in this task if I created subcategories on the hard drive I brought back. So far, it's working pretty well.

And the process has been intellectually fruitful for me. I'm writing a lot about the concept of genre right now, particularly as it applies to popular music. I think we can learn as much by interrogating the way people classify their collections as we can by considering those collections as a whole. It's the limit cases that interest me most in this regard, those artifacts that do not fit comfortably into any of the taken-for-granted categories -- I also try not to take the "taken-for-granted" for granted -- that record stores and online emporia typically deploy.

Not surprisingly, I'm finding that the music I'm most eager to hear with greater care is the same music that I've been placing in a category I've coined specifically for these limit cases: "Between Genres." The artists it contains have little in common other than having little in common with artists who fit readily in traditional genres. That makes for a strange common denominator, but also one that opens up a pathway for thinking about music in relation to philosophical considerations of classification, such as Ludwig Wittgenstein's work on language games or Alain Badiou's exploration of set theory.

This is the terrain sociologist Pierre Bourdieu covers in his landmark book Distinction, which reflects on surveys of taste conducted in France in the 1960s. Taking as his implicit starting point the overlap between the concept of "class" in a political sense and the definition of "class" in a strictly formal sense -- an obvious point, but one which, like the purloined letter of Poe's story, tends to be overlooked precisely because it is in plain view -- he draws attention to the ways in which power relations are manifested in the process of classifying culture:
Those who classify themselves or others, by appropriating or classifying practices or properties that are classified and classifying, cannot be unaware that, through distinctive objects or practices in which their 'powers' are expressed and which, being appropriated by and appropriate to classes, classify those who appropriate them, they classify themselves in the eyes of other classifying (but also classifiable) subjects, endowed with classificatory schemes analogous to those who enable them more or less adequately to anticipate their own classification (482).
While the repetitions in this passage give it a quality of the absurd, they serve to reinforce Bourdieu's thesis, which is that it is never fully possible to get outside of the process of classifying: we are always already within it, making it, in a sense, a set with universal membership.

As I was typing that passage from Bourdieu in, I realized more viscerally the filum that threads his work together with that of his sometime antagonist Michel Foucault as well as Badiou, who seems, on the surface, to have markedly different preoccupations. Like Wittgenstein, all three of these important French thinkers were interested in what I'm calling "limit cases," as well as with the power to set limits that renders them appreciable as such. I would be remiss here if I failed to note, as I periodically do when I'm teaching, that our word "genre" derives, obviously, from the French, in which it doubles also as the equivalent of our English concept of "gender."

To be "between genres," then, might also be to be "between genders," suggesting, among other things, that Foucault's interest in a famous case of hermaphroditism also represents a concretization of his interest in taxonomy more generally. But what does this have to do with music? Well, I'm coming to that, though the Hauptbahnhof is not yet visible in the distance. Stay tuned for the portion of the book I'm writing that will explore the topic in depth. For now, though, I can state, provisionally, that I'm reading the process of classification that increasingly dominates popular culture -- think of all the sorting that goes on in the interaction with digital music or YouTube -- as a response to a world in which taken-for-granted categories are proving less and less commodious. There's a hunger, in other words, to order what falls in between the cracks, even if it is accompanied by the desire to fall freely.

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2 comments or Leave a comment
lalalayla From: lalalayla Date: April 9th, 2007 05:13 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)


you teach at uofa right? I've been picking up bits in your journal and I'm curious as to what it is you teach and what you're researching to sorta put it all together. I have no idea if that makes any sense. For some reason I thought you taught english, but it seems almost as if you're teaching sociology or researching for a soc. thing - not that the two can't be married together in fact one could easily argue that to study something through the eyes of only one dicipline gives you very little that's worth anything - but I'm totally rambling off the subject now. Here, short and sweet, my undergrad is in sociology and one could call me a little punk rock chick so yeah that's why I'm interested to find out what exactlly it is you're researching/doing.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: April 9th, 2007 05:24 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: curious

Thanks for asking! I presently teach in the U of A Department of English. It's not the best fit for what I really want to do, which falls somewhere between traditional literary study and what you rightly take to be a more sociological approach. The name that comes closest to defining that space is "Cultural Studies," but the term has been diluted to the point of incoherence over the past fifteen years, at least in the States.

The book is on the concept of punk. I write about music, but I'm most interested in how the word gets deployed in different contexts. There's a chapter with a section on the Buzzcocks, for example, but I focus more on something their manager said about the cover to their famous first record, the Spiral Scratch EP, than I do on their musical career.

More broadly, the thing I want to explore in a variety of ways is taste and how it shapes our sense of the world, from the personal to the political. Shoot, I'm starting to sound like a letter of application. This is shorthand for what I should be able to say more elegantly. But you get the idea.

Nice post about being 31, BTW. I've been feeling similarly about the need to break patterns, though I'm seven years older than that. I was late to mature. I mean, I'm late maturing, since I still feel like I'm not a grown-up exactly!
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