Pleasure's Discontents 

Journal of the American Musicological Society 66:3 (2013), 840–44

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At times, those of us who identify as musicologists may find ourselves facing similar kinds of responses when describing to non-musicologists (say, while on a plane) what exactly it is that we do. Invoking the very name of our discipline can be enough to elicit courteous yet uncertain nods from new acquaintances. Such puzzled reactions, we might imagine, are aroused largely by the ology—the intellectualizing appendage that makes a big scholarly deal out of this common thing called music. For the general public, the everyday values of music arguably lie above all in its recreational, pleasurable, and material dimensions. It remains telling that no matter how we frame our work in terms of more familiar subjects and vocations—by introducing ourselves, for example, as historians, theorists, anthropologists, philosophers, or instructors of music—one of the first questions from our in-flight companion will almost always be about what instruments we play. Indeed, ordinary perceptions of music as played (as performed, leisurely, ludic, and sonically manifest) are likely to persist irrespective of the profound social import, fraught cultural contexts, and intriguing aesthetic (de)formations that much of our scholarship painstakingly demonstrates. And so by the time our plane touches down, perhaps we’ve done a good job explaining what musicology is, why it exists, and how it matters. Or perhaps we don’t quite succeed—and instead, our fellow traveler’s disinterest or skepticism brings our high-flown words down to earth, prompting us to reflect in turn on the relevance and impact of what it is we think we do. Exchanges of this sort may ultimately suggest that, according to popular conceptions of musical engagement, it is musicologist—not musician—that represents a marked, mystifying category.

In this essay, I discuss some manners in which music’s reputed pleasures inform how we, as musicologists, negotiate our scholarly tasks and intellectual orientations. I propose that an ambivalence toward pleasure can go quite a ways in explaining the field’s initial resistance to feminist and queer musicology, with its unflinching queries into desires, erotics, and haptics. More broadly, I contemplate how this ambivalence continues to impact our profession’s social etiquette, topical vogues, and disciplinary identity. I close with brief thoughts on ways in which recent developments in online technology stand to shape musicology’s public role and image. At the heart of this thinkpiece is an investigation into how pleasure bears on professional as well as personal epistemologies—on ways of knowing music, musicology, and ourselves.