Michael gave a fantastic talk on Alan Lomax and Harry Smith today. I was struck by Lomax’s role as an unwitting anthropologist who took up in the 60s and 70s (what must have appeared to be) a deeply suspect, almost neocolonial project to categorize and staticize world music and dance. As one astute commenter on BoingBoing puts it, Lomax “seemed to hold his subjects in contempt [...] preferring to keep his ‘peasants under glass.’” His cosmopolitan and, as Michael termed it, “democratic” vision must have seemed dangerously close to that of the cosmopolite cum cultural imperialist, a position Derrida ventriloquizes best: “I am (we are) all the more national for being European, all the more European for being trans-European and international; no one is more cosmopolitan and authentically universal than the one, than this ‘we,’ who is speaking to you.” Okay. So that’s one way to think of Lomax: as engaging in a specific type of anthropological project, a type of project that (thanks to Clifford Geertz and the publication of Malinowski’s diary) was passing out of style at the time and had become deeply morally suspect.
Michael’s talk also suggested to me another way of thinking about Lomax. Rather than only seeing him as carrying the torch for an anthropological approach and perspective that would soon–and rightly–come under attack, we can also see him as a precursor to what Franco Moretti calls “distant reading.” That is, Lomax’s Global Jukebox anticipates, and perhaps in part is the inspiration for, a style of scholarship popular today, one which privileges connection over content, the collective system over the individual item.
I wonder if Lomax is a link between a discredited perspective in anthropology and perhaps its revivification in the field of digital humanities and literary studies. I wonder what this tells us about the new privileging of ”networks,” “interconnectedness,” and “systems” made possible by digital technologies and expanding sets of data. I wonder what this tells us about the unconscious assumptions we hold when we approach and try to parse this data.
Significantly, as the Q&A to Michael’s talk made clear, the Cantometrics coding system that Lomax pioneered was designed to forge connections; in other words, the 37 criteria did not reflect, so much as they created, patterns and commonalities among disparate musical cultures. The same (as Moretti admits) goes for distant reading; the criteria, the units of analyses, imposed upon texts necessarily yields connections and patterns because that’s what they are designed to do. They create the supposedly “objective” connections they are looking for (Moretti flirts with objectivity, I think). Lomax’s Cantometrics, as Michael noted, appear dated, arbitrary, and a bit bound up in assumptions of the cultural superiority of Western mode of measuring “difference” and “commonality.” As inspirational as Lomax clearly is as a sort of proto-digitalist, I wonder if he is also a cautionary tale, making visible the pitfalls inherent in today’s digitally-driven “distant” scholarship.