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David E

Stance: Ideas About Emotion, Style, And Meaning For The Study Of Expressive Culture

by Harris M. Berger
Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2010
200 pp. Trade, $70.00; paper, $24.95
ISBN: 978-0-8195-6877-9; 978-0-8195-6878-6.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

A former president of the US branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music and co-editor of the Journal of American Folklore, Harris M. Berger has written an interesting study on the way we make meaning of music.  The “we” in the previous sentence is highly inclusive, since it entails not just the listener, but also the composer, the performer, the producer, the teacher, the reviewer, the critic, in short all those involved in music as a cultural practice.

Berger’s ambition in this book is twofold. First of all, he wants to criticize what he calls the obscurantism of Yeats’s famous line on the impossibility of telling the dancer and the dance. What Berger aims to do here, is exactly the opposite: instead of confusing the various roles, positions, objects, actors, and senses in a global approach of some holistic phenomenon (which music also is, of course), he tries to distinguish and to “decompose” (yet not to “deconstruct”!)  the various aspects of this phenomenon with unusual meticulousness. Second, he also proposes to defend and illustrate a scientific method that has been insufficiently used in the analysis of music: phenomenology –more particularly the type of phenomenology represented by philosophers such as Husserl and Merleau-Ponty who were both interested in the dialectics of the intentionality of our consciousness (i.e. the fact that our attention is always turned toward something else) and the noema (i.e. the physical or non physical objects that we are engaged with).

The first key word is here experience, whose various modes can be labelled as perception, imagination, memory, judgment, anticipation and son, while their corresponding objects can be called things in the world, fantasies, memories, judgments, and anticipations. The second key word is stance, which designates which Burger defines very generally as “the affective, stylistic, or valual quality with which a person engages with an element of her experience” (p. xiv of the Introduction). In a sense, the ambition of the book is not only to demonstrate the validity of this approach, but also to develop an appropriate vocabulary for the analysis of the dizzying diversity of stances that can be discovered while exploring our engagement with music and other forms of expressive culture.

Both aspects of this program are exemplarily performed in this book. From a theoretical point of view, it is important to stress the great clarity of Berger’s writing that manages to focus on the twin notions of stance and experience without leaving too much the field of phenomenology. Although the author offers a very rich description of what the conception of stance may entail, he resists the temptation to add to his book a reading of stance and experience in related fields: his starting point is exclusively phenomenological, and he sticks to it in a way that explains a lot of the pedagogical qualities and merits of the book. One can always regret that Berger does not start any discussion with the American pragmatist tradition, more specifically with John Devey’s notion of experience (as developed in his classic book Art and Experience), or with Simon Frith’s more sociologically oriented readings of the musical experience. Yet this restriction is also what makes the prize of Stance, which is the kind of study that many can only envy him, for its plain and WYSIWIG approach. From a more practical point of view, Berger succeeds in showing the great utility of phenomenology by introducing a wealth of real-life examples from all kind of fields (from heavy metal to boxing or dancing, although with a slight preference for the former rather than for the latter). One feels throughout this book that the author is not only putting in practice what he is defending at a theoretical level, namely the absolute necessity to study expressive culture in a lived, concrete, personal, and material experience, but that this practice and this experience are also his own. It is rare to read a book in which the examples and even more the discussion of these examples feel so authentic, and this makes the reading always illuminating, even in those cases where the average does not have the field experience of the cases under discussion (not all Leonardo reviewers are specialists of the different ways amateurs and would be rock stars without any formal training are changing their techniques of for instance striking a chord when they enter a class room and start taking lessons, yet Berger explains very well how stance plays a crucial role in what is happening in this process).

Bringing together folk studies and philosophy, Berger had to meet of course cultural studies and sociology of culture, and his reading of Bourdieu and other theoreticians in the last chapter of his book is also very useful in their typical mix of ecumenism (Berger is not someone who attacks or criticizes other theories) and precision (he knows the art of making other theories accessible and to include other insights and concepts in his own way of thinking, which never indulges in jargon or complexity for the sake of complexity).

Last Updated 7 July, 2010

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