Polymerous Plainsong: Or, a coffee break for Foucault

 This post differs somewhat from my usual offering.  Rather than giving a decent review of the Plainsong and Medieval Music Society annual meeting, I will summarise the events of the day only briefly, referring those interested to the PMMS website for detailed abstracts of the papers.  Instead, I have decided to focus on a thought that was planted in my mind by chance at the meeting, and has since germinated into the content of this posting.  In all likelihood this is a veiled attempt to avoid the challenge of writing an exciting conference report (a difficult task!); what I am telling myself is that the format will make the post more invitatory for response and discussion.  Facetiousness aside, this post combines a review of the PMMS 2013 meeting with a discussion of philosophical holism as it might relate to medieval studies.
 
 
The Plainsong and Medieval Music Society held its annual meeting, study day, and 125th anniversary celebrations at Bedern Hall during the York Early Music Festival on 10 July.  The prompt for papers was twofold in intent: first, to examine the role of musical centres in pre-modern Europe; and second, to explore the different ways in which the idea of a ‘musical centre’ can be utilised in study.  With this in mind, the presenters took every opportunity to explore and challenge gustily not only the historiography of medieval musical centres, but the definition of the word ‘centre’ itself.  James Borders complicated the history of Rome’s adoption of the pontifical of Guillaume Durandus used in Avignon by arguing that the Pontificale Romanum more closely reflects North Italian variants of the Durandus, thus making North Italy a medial centre of influence.  Emma Hornby presented preliminary findings from her and Rebecca Maloy’s work on Old Hispanic chant, arguing that it was a decentralised tradition where variation and mutability were, to one extant or another, defining features.  Andrew Kirkman used the collegiate church of Saint-Omer to illustrate how we can reverse our impression of centrality, to view smaller institutions—or any institution, for that matter—as the centre of its own musical world.  Thomas Schmidt’s portrayal of the musical liturgy at the Papal Chapel in the early sixteenth century eschewed the more famous polyphonic music sung there, focusing instead on the genres of plainchant and improvised contrapunctus that formed the main bulk of the singers’ lives and aural worlds; his ‘centre’, rather than geographical, was repertorial.  Hana Vlhová-Wörner used case studies of the very personal centres surrounding three men involved in different aspects of musical production to reconsider the enterprising spirit toward music and liturgy in late medieval Prague.  Matthew Ward contextualised the editing of Ordinary tropes in St Albans manuscripts in the milieu of the abbey actively styling itself as a liturgical centre in England, and Roger Bowers provided an overview of the logistical problems inherent in providing music to the many diverse places of worship in and around Westminster and London in the early sixteenth century.  The day ended with Lisa Colton, James Borders, Emma Hornby, and Helen Deeming leading a panel discussion on the conference theme.
 
The portion of the panel discussion I would like to focus on here was regarding the ever-imminent question of how we ought to perceive geographical and repertorial centres of medieval music in a research field where such centres usually reveal themselves to be far more elusive than we expect.  This is a favourite problem of mine, and as usual I found myself ruminating on the discussion for several days afterward.  The problem of being able to say anything definitive about anything as a medievalist is a very real one, in part because of the nature of our sources,  and in part because the persistence of the discipline’s founding historiography inevitably causes friction between the centralised frameworks we conceive from the historiography and the realities we perceive in the sources.  As such, I am always interested in exploring new frameworks to deal with these problems as a medievalist, and it was in this state of mind that the use of the word holistic caught my attention at the conference.
 
During the course of the day, holistic was used a small number of times as an informal way of describing a particular methodological attitude.  In that cavilling spirit people will adopt at conferences I suddenly found myself intrigued with the word, and since then have been spending more time than is probably warranted considering its various definitions and implications.  If I say that I am taking a holistic approach to my topic, what exactly am I saying, and does that successfully reflect what I am actually doing?  When someone uses the word holism in relation to the humanities, is that person’s intent carried reliably to others working in the field?
 
As far as I know, there is not yet any sort of manifesto for a holistic methodology in the humanities (I could, of course, be entirely wrong, and I would appreciate correction from anyone who is familiar with any foundational literature on holism in the humanities).  As a result, it has some widely variable meanings.  As a colloquial term, my initial suspicion is that it tends to be used simply as an off-the-cuff alternative to other, enervated words that signify some kind of contextual totality or wholeness, like ‘comprehensive’ or ‘interdisciplinary’.  Instead of presenting a list of methodologies, one can say, 'holistic, if you will’, to communicate an idea of methodological totality, side-stepping any unwanted connotations found in other words.  As a technical term, however, holistic seems to be used in musicology primarily to reflect a type of methodology in analysing how people engage with music; I have no idea of what sort of technical use it has in other humanities.  For the use of holism in music literature, I took an exceptionally unscientific survey by doing a title search for holistic or holism in the RILM database, and found that virtually all of the listed articles use the word specifically in reference to learning, performing, or (especially) listening to music.  The actual methodologies used to describe holism run the gamut from the traditional visual-aural-kinaesthetic triumvirate of learning styles, to biopsychology and medicine, to engagement with the listener as creator of personal meaning in music.  It seems fairly clear, then, that not all musicologists infer the same meaning from holism.  How, then, do we use it?
 
 
The Oxford Dictionary of English has two definitions for holistic, one philosophical, one medical:
 
1.  ‘[chiefly Philosophy]: characterized by the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.
2.  ‘[Medicine]: characterized by the treatment of the whole person, taking into account mental and social factors, rather than just the symptoms of a disease.’ (emboldened emphases mine)
 
Even though some of the uses I found take a decidedly philosophical approach to holism (such as Peter Schneider and Martina Wengenroth’s article on sound perception in Contemporary Music Review 28, vol. 3), my sense is that the prevailing use of holistic in musicology draws more on its medical definition, especially in acknowledging the interconnectedness of ‘mind, body, and spirit’ to create a total image of human engagement with music.
 
The Oxford English Dictionary, however, only gives the word’s roots in evolutionary philosophy.  It defines holism as a coining of J.C. Smuts, ‘to designate the tendency in nature to produce wholes (i.e. bodies or organisms) from the ordered grouping of unit structures’.  This is what Smuts himself had to say of it in his 1926 book Holism and Evolution:
 
 ‘This character of “wholeness” meets us everywhere and points to something fundamental in the universe.  Holism (from holos = whole) is the term here coined for this fundamental factor operative towards the creation of wholes in the universe.’ (Smuts, 86).
 
‘The whole-making, holistic tendency, or Holism, operating in and through particular wholes, is seen at all stages of existence.’ (Smuts, 99) (enboldened emphases mine)
 
The definitions presented here are another notion entirely from egalitarian music-making and generic interdisciplinarity, neither of which always reflect in practice the idealised wholeness of their approach, and as such can be useful additions to research theory.  The Smutsian concept of holism also has the benefit of being more or less familiar to musicologists through other theories, as well, and so provides another way of looking at conventional ideas: holistic can be used in some instances for discursive, for example, not just to allow Foucault a coffee break, but to shift stress to the notion that those discourses are inherent to the creation of a perceived totality.
 
 
Several of the points raised during the PMMS meeting showcase the utility of adopting this interpretation of Smuts’ holistic theory rather well.  In fact, they show that musicology is no stranger to holistic theory, though we might know the practical concepts by a variety of other names.  James Borders described the nature of geographical music centres in the Middle Ages as ‘moving targets’ requiring constant re-identification, especially after scribal workshops caused a separation between the groups responsible for the production and dissemination of sources.  Without saying as much, I believe he summed up rather succinctly the tenets of a philosophy-oriented ‘holistic methodology’, wherein the centre is not just the sum of its parts, but only the sum of its parts.  Likewise, when Andrew Kirkman re-conceptualised Saint-Omer as the centre of its own world rather than as a satellite participant of a larger urban musical world, one can find the assertion that the ‘whole-making, holistic tendency’ means that wherever we decide to look, those ideas will combine to form their own central existence.  In her contribution to the meeting, Emma Hornby called Old Hispanic chant a ‘decentralised’ tradition, where a variety of local practices interacted with each other without conscious recognition of a central repertory.  The resultant image, that of a Foucauldian weblike network of discursive liturgical practices spread across early medieval Iberia, calls to mind the last part of Smuts’ definition.  The conceptual totality we see as Old Hispanic chant, ‘operating in and through’ the stages of its multifarious traditions, can be seen in its entirety 'at all stages of [its] existence'.
 
In other words, if the ‘Old Hispanic’-ness of Old Hispanic chant is not in its uniformity, but its mutability, then we can describe Old Hispanic liturgy as a reflexive totality, meaning that it can only be characterised by the sum of its parts, and as such, forces a reconsideration of its parts and how they interact with the whole totality; a process that can be repeated ad nauseam.  The whole is not central, and the parts are not central: both create a reflective feedback loop whereby whole and part perpetually re-inform and re-examine each other, and the centre that we ultimately see as Old Hispanic chant is found not in what its components are, but in how they interact.  To draw again on James Borders’ example of the moving target, if the details of a topic change, the whole conception, the target, has to change with it to reflect the new totality, or ‘centre’.
 
This is all essentially a laborious way of saying, ‘Context is vital to understanding a case study,’ and, ‘Case studies are necessary because they verify the wider context.’ Regardless, I think it is worth considering how these two fairly self-evident research maxims relate to an ideology of holistic reciprocity, and give them a useful framework.  The profile it gives to Old Hispanic chant, for example, works especially well for conceptualising decentralised and polymerous traditions, and I can immediately sense the utility of approaching my own dissertation topic of early Scandinavian chant sources from that point of view.  When regarding Scandinavian liturgy within the paradigm of holistic reciprocity, I might argue that ‘Scandinavian liturgy’ as an integral totality does not and never has existed, and as such we cannot define any one thing with the label ‘Scandinavian liturgy’.  The best we can ever do is to attribute the label to any number of finite wholes that are the precise phenomenons currently in view at the time of labelling.  I can gather up a set of geographical, chronological, and methodological coordinates and make a historical ‘snapshot’ that can be called Scandinavian liturgy; if I change any of those coordinates at all, the result is another snapshot that I can call Scandinavian liturgy, as wholly as it was before, even though both historical snapshots may be categorically different.  Eventually, as the coordinates change enough in time, place, and matter, the resultant picture will fade into something I might be more comfortable calling Continental or English liturgy, with distinct Scandinavian influences, and so on until eventually I have a totality that I call something other than Scandinavian liturgy.
 
The skeptic in me still feels very suspicious about this point, not least because if it is not qualified in some way it gives license to divorce instances from their definitions.  If a holism of this kind recognises that any amount of data is imminently as whole in itself as any other, whether considering a single text or the entire universe—much in the same way as a little rock and a large rock are both equally ‘whole’ rocks—then it allows those who use it without qualification to construct wholes not in what they see before them, but in whatever they want them to be, freely altering their definitions so that they never require any kind of referral or contextualisation.  I would like to imagine that there is a way of qualifying holism so that it avoids this, but at the moment I have no idea what that might be.
 
 
At any rate, I am still unsure if a Smutsian holism can ultimately prove useful as a theoretical tool in research, as these thoughts are still immature—since the meeting I have had only one conversation on the subject with Helen Deeming, and none since my initial thoughts have become anything resembling coherency.  Also, I am especially aware that facets of this idea have long been assumed by many medieval musicologists as self-evident, by means of acknowledging the interplay between an instance and its context.  Nonetheless, the utility of a theoretical tool comes not in its innovation, but in its ability to signify a self-evident framework.  For example, one can argue that there is an intuited understanding of what we might now call ‘discursive power formations’ in the lateralised society of oppressed oppressors in Ecclesiastes, which I believe predates Foucault; I am sure the idea that social relationships represent a negotiation of power can probably be traced as far back as human written sources go, in fact.  Still, the theories and frameworks surrounding discourse do prove very useful, enough for me to reference three times in the space of this write-up.  In light of that, I am hoping that this post will encourage others to engage with the idea at least for a moment, and consider how a ‘holistic approach’ might (or might not) be useful for their subject areas.