Presentation Abstract

The Humanities Studio: Sun Records as a Guide to Invention Within the Academy

What if being a student in the Humanities of the future was like being Elvis at Sun Records? Like Elvis, students would be oriented towards "original mistakes" -- valuable creative results that could not have been predicted. Like Sam Phillips, owner and operator of Sun Records, Humanities teachers would organize the electronic classroom to capture those "mistakes." To suggest how we might establish such an institution, I analyze the history of invention in 20th century popular culture; Sam Phillips' example is to pop culture what the avant-garde is to the arts and what "pure research" is to the sciences -- the motor that produces innovation, spreads new ideas, and changes the cultural landscape. It is also a prototype of creativity for me in my chosen field - Cultural Studies. My study raises the following questions: 1. Are recording technologies (sheet music, the studio) necessary conditions for certain forms of music (classical, rock)? 2. What is the relationship between the history of music and other histories? 3. How do compositional strategies associated with music relate to writing in other disciplines? 4. If music communicates information, what are the modes by which it does so?

We need a methodology for teaching creativity in the humanities, so I draw my methodology from Michael Baxandall's Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures . Baxandall reconstructs the reasoning process of innovative painters, such as Picasso and Chardin, by speculating from their paintings and the critical stories about them to the problems that occupied them (the makers' "charge" and "brief"), yielding numerous insights about creativity in general. Baxandall's method enables us to approach Phillips' and Elvis' creation, less specific records and more a new institution -- rock'n'roll. Rock'n'roll grew out of musical predecessors but adopted new institutional forms with new sets of myths, media, and practices, much as the Humanities needs to do in order to adapt itself to the emerging electronic culture.

We also need a theory of innovation so that students can understand how to make new ideas and new modes of discourse. A creative personality goes about developing a "personal culture," which enables him or her to think and communicate differently from the commonly accepted modes. Elvis and Phillips crossed the boundaries of culture in the South, which is akin to crossing disciplinary lines in the academy and crossing lines between academic discourses and pop discourses. Phillips mis-read American roots music (blues and country) as potential "pop" music. Michel Leiris' The Rules of the Game discusses how he mis-heard lyrics when he was a child and drew his own meanings for songs, leading to his creation of imaginary worlds. Leiris' theory of perverse listening might explain how rock'n'roll pioneers were able to hear something in the music of their day that few others heard and then made use of their mis-readings in imaginative ways. From Leiris and his insights into perverse listening practices I suggest creative "misreading" practices of literature and criticism in the classroom in order to generate new products.

But how does a creative person know whether their new products are of value? Baxandall's notions of "charge" and "brief" help us understand how a creative person establishes criteria for value. Phillips did not want to operate the same way the large record companies did because he valued what they did not. His goal was to transform society, based on his image of Beale Street in Memphis (a hybrid culture) as a prototype for a new nation-wide culture. To this end, he put his musicians in unusual musical contexts and used the studio to capture the "mistakes" that most polished live acts would eliminate in rehearsals. The studio affords the opportunity to capture the opportune moment, just like the science laboratory does. Recordings and radio supply an archive of recordings from which an artist or producer can draw materials, much like the library functions as an archive for scholars. Also like the laboratory (and the writing process), the studio allows for elaboration and refinement through revision. Finally, the studio allows for sounds that could not be reproduced live. These advantages to studio-produced music apply equally to the electronic classroom, if we can learn how to extend our teaching methods beyond oral and print modes.

Next, we need to explore how ideas become popularized, or how a "personal culture," such as the one developed by Elvis and Phillips, can become the culture. The goal is to demonstrate to students how they can introduce their new ideas and modes of discourse to target institutions: how to make their ideas "catchy." Students can practice these methods in the classroom, using rock'n'roll as an analogy. Rock'n'roll led to a new sense of collective belonging across geographical boundaries made possible by electronic media, namely the 45 rpm single and live television. The goal here is to learn from the ways in which rock artists adapted to new media so that students can do the same. To make new ideas appropriatable, one must learn how to negotiate the existing contradictions of the culture in order to "write" with them intelligibly. Phillips' work with Elvis provides a model for how to identify and write with cultural contradictions and make them intelligible to a target audience. I thus treat the case of Elvis at Sun as an example of rhetoric, or the application of persuasive techniques through electronic media. Writing persuasively means understanding choices within a marketplace of competing ideas, practices, technologies, and values. Phillips' collaboration with Elvis represents an example of how to identify and make the most of those choices.

Finally, we can more fully grasp the idea of the academy as studio by treating rock'n'roll as information and as a model for academic writing. Leonard Meyer's Music, Information, and the Arts helps us distinguish between the modes of rock & roll and earlier forms of popular music such as big band and vocal music (like Sinatra). According to Meyer, meaning increases with uncertainty, and uncertainty is produced by deviation. He describes three types of musical deviation: delay, ambiguity, and surprise. Pop musicians until Elvis had employed mainly delay and ambiguity. Rock'n'roll (when it's not schlock) is a music of surprise. Its strategies of surprise are generalizable and can be employed in academic writing.

Phillips' creative process translates well to the electronic classroom, where collaborative work and a studio-like environment can produce unexpected moments of surprise and insight. We need to understand how to create them and how to recognize them when they occur. We should re-evaluate the role of chance in the discovery/invention process by discussing ways in which electronic media, namely sound recording, photography, and film, enable chance to intervene in texts. Theories of chance, including Barthes' "Third Meaning," Derrida's "Mes chances," and theories by Bazin, John Cage, Brian Eno, and others, offer an alternative to the positivist models currently governing most areas of science, entertainment, and education, and lead the way toward the reintroduction of chance into Western rationalism.

Author: Barry Mauer


Target Audience: Not Applicable

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