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Response to chapter "The Smallest Cell Remembers a Sound" from Dear Science and Other Stories, Katherine McKittrick (2021)

This is the script for my response to Katherine McKittrick's plenary based on the chapter "The Smallest Cell Remembers a Sound" from her 2020 book Dear Science and Other Stories at the Society of American Music's 2021 annual conference. Responses were also given by Tiffany Lethabo King and Kwami Coleman. All quotations from Dear Science are italicized and are from the Kobo edition of the book.

I’m so glad to be here to respond to this chapter, thank you Katherine McKittrick for your book and for sharing it with us today. In the spirit of Aimee Cox’s opening reflection on listening as always individual and collective, and McKittrick’s generous and generative citational practice I would first like to thank my friends and colleagues A. Kori Hill and Brian Barone for our conversations as we read Dear Science.


Method. Discipline. Theory. Method-making, disciplining, theorizing.


In “The Smallest Cell Remembers a Sound” McKittrick makes verbs out of the nouns that are the building blocks of academic knowledge creation; she invites us to rethink method, discipline, and theory, to make them strange, and to imagine the liberatory possibilities that may occur when we are honest about the kind of racialized disciplining that certain methods inevitably reproduce, and if we are brave enough to seek out knowledge, not knowing where it will lead us.


And over and over we hear the chapter’s hook:


Description is not liberation.

Discipline is Empire.


Almost all of us in this zoom room are in the business of describing music and disciplining it through argument, and of making music legible to a particular knowledge-economy, and so this refrain is challenging to hear and re-hear, especially considering our discipline’s long relationship to love, and uneasy embrace of black music. Description is not liberation. Discipline is Empire. We so often study music that we love, but in that love are we sometimes shielding ourself from the mechanics and economies of what we are doing to music when we make it an object of study?


McKittrick asks us to Honor the creative text as a theoretical text. She demonstrates this in her citational practice in Dear Science. I laughed then breathed deeply when I followed a footnote that instructed, simply: Listen to Jimmy Cliff, Many Rivers to Cross. I heard my remembered version first, before pulling it up to listen. it would be hard to argue against the theoretical and affective work of those opening bars, that opening solo organ, hymn sliding in to gospel, and then an amen-cadence out of which comes Cliff’s plaintive vocal, before the drums, guitar and bass kick in. As a child I found this song unbearably sad, and on listening to it as I read this chapter that Sunday-night-blues feeling returned. I listened, then returned to the text.


As McKittrick explores in the second chapter of Dear Science, although citations are a place where a certain type of knowledge is legitimized, footnotes can also be a space for unknowing, for collaborating, for the showing of the process of the sharing of ideas, rather than a rigid defense of an argument. (And I would point everyone here to read and dwell in footnote 27 of the chapter “footnotes,” in which McKittrick deals so beautifully and painfully with the politics of citation for black graduate students, and contains the perennial reminder that in the academy “‘Doing Race’ is not the same thing as undoing racism.”)


And so, the footnote that instructs us simply to listen is a fulfillment not only of McKittrick’s direction to honor the creative text as a theoretical text, but it is also a practice against what McKittrick pinpointed earlier as two bothersome analytical habits. The first habit is the tendency to seek out and find marginalized subjects, who then serve as academic data and provide authentic knowledge about oppression. The second is the tendency to privilege some theoretical or academic work as the methodological and intellectual frame through which to analyze the data. The use of these processes describe and reinscribe black objecthood, sometimes even as they are used to focus on resistance and liberation. In McKittrick’s Jimmy Cliff footnote she is not referencing an article analyzing “Many Rivers to Cross,” she is not citing lyrics, or suggesting what a particular reading of the song through some theoretical lens or concept may offer: the song stands as something that contributes in itself, as an invitation to engage with the personal experience of listening. The citation is not an allusion, but requires action and thought and feeling from the reader/listener. For the sentence that the footnote is attached to, is one of the chapter’s hooks I opened this response with:


Discipline is Empire.


There is a whole lot of trust here in the reader/listener as to how our thoughts will connect the empirical nature of academic disciplining to Jimmy Cliff, wandering, lost, traveling along the white cliffs of Dover.


In Dear Science, listening interrupts. Later in the book, McKittrick wonders how the interlacing of sound-waves and cultural work and consciousness asks us to pause, at least for a minute, and go listen to the song.


Go listen to the song.


But listen, how? As scholars trained in music, we are trained to listen, but often with the goal of mastery. Writing about narrative, McKittrick cites Dina Georgis, who situates her work in the fields of sexuality and postcolonial studies, who argues that stories “incite a listening practice that is “neither disengaged nor wanting to master what it sees and hears.”


What would it mean for music studies if we oriented our training in listening away from mastery? The idea of the musicological ear that masters I think is why the act of citing a song not as a reference but as a contribution without accompanying commentary seems so radical to me: it is something that I don’t think I have done. This train of thought led me to a question that still lingers as I reflect on "the smallest cell remembers a sound.” That question is:


“What is the relationship of the academic study of black music in the disciplines of musicology, ethnomusicology, and music theory, to Black Studies?”


I would like to invite us in the Society of American Music to dwell on that question. As I dwell on this question, I wonder:


  • What have we sacrificed by valorizing the analytic of “difference” over solidarity and liberation?

  • Does our push to expand canons and extend syllabi without necessarily rethinking method merely perpetuate what Sylvia Wynter pinpoints as the deliberate splitting of “the still ongoing struggles of the black lower and underclasses” from the “affirmative action programs which enabled the incorporation of the Black middle classes […] into the horizons of expectation,” i.e. who is really profiting — and I mean that in an economic sense — from the study of Black music in the academy, and does such profit leave room for solidarity and meaningful change?

  • Does the way we write about black music, categorize it, and make claims about it unwittingly stabilize the concept of race and thus perpetuate racism?


At the end of Dear Science, in what I have been trained to call a bibliography, and what McKittrick styles as a list of storytellers, to my eye there is only one, or perhaps two, people cited who we could claim as a musicologist or who did graduate studies in a music department.


I am not asking McKittrick to speak to this, and I am not saying that it is a problem, but rather that I think that we as a society could reflect on the absence of music studies in this book, a book which has full faith in the theoretical work of music, and in which McKittrick is so deliberate, so exacting and forthright in her citational practice. Does the study of black music have a safer home and future in communication studies, cultural studies, American studies, literary studies, or even philosophy, than in musicology, music theory, and ethnomusicology? 


Description is not liberation. Discipline is Empire.


Go listen to the song.

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