In a discussion of applied and activist ethnomusicology, Henry Stobart tentatively invoked the idea of “critical distance”, warning (if I remember correctly) that it might be something worth holding on to whilst we attempt to act ethically in the field, or as advocates for our informants.
It is hardly surprising that most of us avoid talking about critical distance when we relate our experiences in the field. We are aware of the impossibility of achieving “scientific” objectivity in studies of human culture; we realise that the illusion of such objectivity has long legitimated highly subjective and frequently misleading accounts of the music we are studying; and we feel deeply suspicious of any attempts to privilege the understanding of the researcher over that of the researched, particularly if the researcher’s only qualification is a generalised training in the arts and humanities from an academic institution (probably in Europe or America) and particularly when the researched may lack the agency and economic capability to be able to represent themselves in writing.
And yet, I couldn’t help feeling glad to hear this brief mention of critical distance in the roundtable last week. In my own work, I value the fact that there is relatively little for me to gain or lose in telling one story about Indian classical music over and above another. Where the status of certain genres is contested, I feel happy that I can simply detail the different, competing interpretations of those genres without my career’s depending on which interpretation becomes the dominant narrative. Were I primarily a professional performer of Indian classical music, I would not be so lucky: my very livelihood might rely on the circulation of certain stories about the origins and past performance contexts of Indian classical music, regardless of their historical accuracy. Distance, in this case, makes it possible for me to explore and potentially to deconstruct a variety of different (and contradictory) narratives and ideologies in my work.
I don’t want to over-simplify things. As with anyone else, my position is necessarily clouded by ideology and an agenda of which I may largely be unaware. And my situation in the field is complicated by my sense of loyalty to my teacher and an ethical obligation not to damage the reputations of my informants through my research. There are a great many Indian classical musicians who would be just as capable as I am at deconstructing the rhetoric that surrounds Indian classical music. Still, I can’t help but feel that critical distance is something to which we should continue to aspire, even while we acknowledge that it is impossible to do fieldwork without becoming directly and emotionally implicated in the culture we are studying.
So I am left wondering: what would ethnomusicological research be like if we abandoned the idea of critical distance altogether? If we don’t, how can we do research ethically and responsibly and how do we frame our scholarly objectives such that we don’t assume the intellectual superiority of researcher over researched? Is there any advantage in “coming from the outside”, in writing about a musical culture that initially feels alien and in which, at least at the beginning of our research, we are not personally involved? How might one achieve critical distance when studying a musical culture in which one is an insider, born and raised? How might one achieve critical distance after a long period of participant-observation in the field? Is critical distance necessarily undermined by the nature of our personal relationships (friendship, for example, or, I suppose, mutual dislike) with the people we encounter while doing research?