The current issue of the Journal of Musicology hosts a forum on “Centering Discomfort in Global Music History.” We asked contributors Daniel Castro Pantoja and Olivia Bloechl to talk a little more about the forum’s genesis and the questions it asks.
Daniel Castro Pantoja (DCP): This forum’s genesis was a panel titled, “Centering Discomfort in Global Music History,” that you and Yvonne Liao organized for the AMS annual meeting in 2021. What led you to propose this theme for the panel? Why discomfort?
Olivia Bloechl (OB): Yvonne Liao and I came up with that together when we were co-chairing the American Musicological Society’s Global Music History study group and were developing ideas for the study group’s panel that year, and we started with something along the lines of hospitality, as in, what makes a framework, an epistemology more–or less–hospitable? And how, then, do we ask these questions of global music history? As I recall, we pivoted from there toward comfort/discomfort as important affective conditions for thinking about such questions. We hoped that thinking from discomfort was something people could get on board with, could access, with its affective charge. But we were also struck by how comfortable these modalities of inquiry were becoming, in their signposting and methodological expression, and the likelihood that they would just be integrated into our existing subdisciplines (and their classroom extensions). We knew that we wanted to provoke a conversation about how to address that possibility, which I think you’re talking about in different but related terms in your essay. There was this sense of wanting to maintain critical purchase, and asking how can we keep the entwined energies of politics, scholarship, and advocacy at the heart of the discussion? This is a concern that characterized earlier conversations too that I’d had with Katherine Schofield and Gabriel Solis, who’ve been foundational interlocutors for me on these issues, and with Hedy Law, one of the original panel presenters who graciously agreed to convene the forum.
DCP: I think the provocation of comfort vis-à-vis the global was very successful in creating a space to discuss the politics and ethics of global music history. Interestingly, I perceive that many of us in this forum used this provocation to write about dis/comfort in our own homes: physical homes, disciplinary homes, political homes, linguistic homes, institutional homes, etc. But then the question was how to connect the (dis)comforts experienced in relation to one’s home(s) to “the global,” this putatively all-encompassing, transcendental-spatial whole? Since I hadn’t really thought about discomfort in any critical way, I first turned to what was immediately familiar to me, making me reflect on the affects and intimacies of the places I have called home. It’s curious how the global, this, brings you back to the proximate, even to the minute.
OB: I think you’re right. And I guess I would ask you in return, why do you think that is, this proximity between home and world? Is it something about the question of comfort/discomfort that does that, or do you think it’s the nature of framing it in terms of the global? Or could it be something specific to music or sound histories?
DCP: All of the above. Thinking about comfort within the walls of my own home pushed me to question how (dis)comfort is politicized beyond the private, including the politics of emotions such as guilt or shame associated to different forms of musicking in communities that are larger in scope. That’s why I opened my article stating that to think about discomfort in global music history is to think about scalar interaction. This is also the reason why I gravitated towards the concept of the “global intimate,” coined by feminist geographers in the early 2000s (“Feminist Approaches to the Global Intimate.”) I love this concept because it exposes the constructedness of two scales that on the surface appear antithetical. I have also been writing about cultural intimacy during these past years— about national shame in particular—and so I tried to link that research to global music history. Nations often capitalized on their shameful histories, creating a feeling of intimacy through guilt, for example; the next step was to ask: Can thinking globally about music history be shameful?
OB: Well, I think you argued convincingly that yes, there is shame that can attach to addressing the global, or to facing a global formation. I also appreciate that you introduced the global intimate into the conversation. And it seems like nobody I’ve encountered is comfortable with the global. I don’t know how you possibly would be. So it could be that bringing that situation to the forefront phenomenologically—that this is a discomforting situation, addressing the global—could be useful. This articulated world (as you put it in your essay) addresses us or maybe, in ethical terms, issues a demand that we can’t fulfill. And that puts researchers in a situation that feels a lot like what we’re faced with all the time, just as people. It doesn’t feel like home, but like a familiar discomfort, in a way.
We invite you to read the forum, “Centering Discomfort in Global Music History,” for free online for a limited time.
DCP: Global music history or globally oriented music research seems to be appealing to many of us right now. When we have talked about why this might be the case, you have mentioned that Global Music History is a provocation for musicologists, particularly regarding historical methods and the very idea of history itself. Why do you think that is the case? Could the familiar discomfort you mentioned be part of why many people find this to be relevant now?
OB: That could be. It’s not new to say that that living in an academically and economically globalized world probably accounts for part of what people find as a draw in this framework, if they do. That it gives us a chance to address an overwhelming situation that we’re all being asked to respond to in our sentient realities and our creative or scholarly imaginaries, from our different contexts. I think that response is what we ended up with as a group, trying to address this lived situation of thought. It’s also just been such a provocation in the best way to have to think again about these big processes and practices from our training. For example, I was trained in a 1990s and ‘00s musicological tradition of thinking critically about historicism, much of it post-Marxist and postcolonial in a North American interpretation. But that turns out to be very partial and under-articulated in its contingencies.
DCP: Indeed! As music historians, we’re always dealing with contingent historical formations, but in engaging with how different communities have imagined the world through musickings of diverse sorts, we also must address the political operation by which these contingencies exceed their own particularity—of how something becomes global, if you will. I think this is a big challenge, particularly because it pushes us to deal with the thorny issue of universals and its potential recolonizing gesture—perhaps this is why global music history raises so many eyebrows, branded at times as a World Music 2.0 but with a historical twist.
OB: Yes, global music history is attracting a lot of attention and dynamism in our fields, and so it’s also attracting big concerns. One of those that you mention, that thinking with universals is recolonizing, risks reiterating the canard that universal imaginaries or values are somehow unique to the global north (a racist claim that Mohan Dutta and Mahuya Pal ably refute in their article, “Theorizing from the Global South.”) One way of unsettling that assumption is by thickening the archive of musical pasts grounded in globalities, or by probing more deeply, and with sustained nuance, the archive of musicking that has generated universals.
DCP: Yes, I agree with you. I think it’s politically naive to frame universals as something necessarily Eurocentric. My training was also post-Marxist, so I’ve found Ernesto Laclau’s definition of a universal as a symbol of a missing fullness particularly useful to address the political construction of totalities such as the global, the universal, the social, “the people,” etc. Similarly, as you know, I believe Chantal Mouffe’s notion of agonistic pluralism can also provide us with a good framework to historicize multipolarity, recognizing how different globalities or world-making projects can be at play at one given time.
OB: That seems really promising for scholarly practice too, since working through big, uncomfortable questions together, across significantly different globalities, disciplines, and languages, does seem to be a core and nourishing challenge raised by global music history and global musicologies.
 We would like to thank Hedy Law and Yvonne Liao for their helpful comments on this post.