Saturday, August 31, 2013

Strategic versus revolutionary thinking

This is a quick hit: haven't time today to really unpack this in any kind of reasoned or polished way [And before anybody gets all het-up a la Clausewitz or Sun-Tzu: no I do not intend to oppose one to the other; that is to say, "versus" in the sense of "Strategic in contrast to revolutionary" thinking].

In conversation with a PhD advisee the other day, we were working with the idea that, in her body of historical investigation, certain individuals seem to have sought and/or found ways in which to "subvert" canonic social expectations about identity: gender markers & behavior, class markers & behavior, and so forth. These individuals are often comparatively though modestly successful at shifting the very social expectations they are subverting. Duke Ellington might be an example: though his 1920s and early '30s compositions were labeled and framed as "jungle music," because of the racist expectations of the time, and though his artistic opportunities were channeled and constrained for similar reasons, Ellington found ways to subvert the most restrictive elements of those expectations, to conduct himself in a "ducal" fashion, and to write extraordinarily original and imaginative music beneath the primitivist surface that was imposed upon that music's presentation.

Such thinking is "strategic", in the classic military sense: it is the ability to observe both available resources and unavoidable situational restrictions, to deploy those resources with maximum positive impact, and in a fashion that minimizes the negative impact of the situational restrictions. In the semiotics of art forms like politics and musical composition, these individuals tend toward recognizing and exploiting opportunities provided by existing power structures, even if the eventual intent is the subversion or dismantling of those structures. In the world of politics, the strategic impulse is captured with incredible energy in The War Room, about the Carville/Stephanopoulas experiencing running the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton. In the world of women's rights, Hillary Clinton might be an apposite related example. In the world of composition, Ellington's an example; we might cite the example of academic composers who wish to create very new sounds but experience an imperative to accommodate, "rationalize" or otherwise operate within the aesthetics of a tradition they've inherited (Second Viennese School, maybe?).

In contrast, there are those individuals (generals, political activists, composers, musicians, authors) who seem to manifest a more "revolutionary" impulse, the Hippie/Yippie/Panther "Up against the wall, motherfuckers!" of the 1960s Cultural Revolution. This "tear down the castle" impulse might be described as "revolutionary"--as intending, not just to succeed within (and perhaps subsequently modify) existing power structures, but to deny and/or dismantle their power. This revolutionary impulse tends rhetorically and tactically to reject the idea that it is even possible to work within the existing power structures without being destroyed or co-opted. In the world of politics, the aforementioned Hippies/Yippie/Panther/Weather Underground cadres might be an example. In the world of composition, the ultra-modernists like Varese or the avant-garde/"anti-academic" composers like Cage or Nancarrow might be suit.

I should emphasize that I have not worked this out in any detailed, consistent or cogent way. But it seems important to me, even in this preliminary form, because of the particular set of factors which seem to me to link parallel cases of "strategic versus revolutionary thinking" in politics and in composition.

It has to do with class and privilege. If you are a political person or a composer, whose background, lineage, inheritance, or economic class admit to you at least the hypothetical possibility of success within (perhaps a modification of) the system, then you are likely to follow that path toward success: it is easier, it is subtler, it is infinitely less dangerous, and it provides at least the possibility of significant reward within the system. But if your background, lineage, inheritance, or economic class (or a combination therefore) seem inescapably to deny you that hypothetical possibility of success within the system, why would you even wish to preserve it? What wouldn't you wish to tear it down?

This may explain why, at least in the world of composition, "strategic" thinkers tend to come from within relatively privileged middle-class-or-above backgrounds: these admit of at least the hypothetical possibility of success within the power structure. Revolutionary thinkers, at least in the world of composition, tend to be individuals who don't see the hypothetical possibility of success.

Of course personality and individual priorities come into this. Of course there are many exceptions. Of course "revolutionaries", not infrequently, come from the privileged (or at least well-read) bourgeois. But if I'm right, and the individuals who think and succeed strategically within the system tend to come from one matrix of relatively privileged circumstances, and those who seek the destruction of the system from outside those worlds of privilege, it might provide a tool for linking class, politics, gender, education, ethnicity, immigrant/native identity, to the kinds of artistic choices composers take. It might also explain why composers tend to be revolutionaries when they are young (unprivileged, outside the existing artistic power structures, with little positive investment in those structures) and to tend toward conservatism as they age and if they succeed.


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