‘The universe’, wrote poet Muriel Rukeyser, ‘is made of stories, not of atoms.’ Narratives bind together the fabric of society — they help us to make sense of ourselves, of the world around us, and of where we fit within it. Anybody who has been engrossed by a novel, watched a child’s wonderment at the new worlds contained in the pages of books, or seen a storyteller performing live will bear testament to the rhetorical power of these fantasies and fables. Stories have withstood postmodern attempts to fragment the way in which we present the world: indeed, the claims of postmodernism are narratives in and of themselves.
It’s tempting to think of narratives as fictional — confined to the realms of Hogwarts, Middle Earth, and Narnia. But perhaps the most compelling stories are found in the pages of histories. These are tales that structure our world and perspectives just as much as those that are explicitly imagined. Historians choose their protagonists — Henry VIII, Winston Churchill, Malala Yousafzai — and construct the world in which they exist as carefully as the novelist or poet. The viewpoints that pervade histories both reflect and alter the parameters within which we conceive of ourselves and others. Read Alan Bullock’s Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, and you get the impression that the will of one man alone shaped the fate of the world throughout much of the twentieth century. The individual, here, is paramount — we shape our own futures, and create our own failures as well. On the other hand, Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen tells quite a different story. In his rendering, the Holocaust could not have happened without mass acceptance within Germany, whether passively through fear, or actively through agreement. Individuals here exist in a dense network of collective responsibility and actions; in Goldhagen’s story, without a wider societal framework Hitler would never have succeeded.
In other words, stories are ideologies, the systems that provide the parameters in which political decisions are made. Narratives are some of the most powerful political tools available, because they encourage you to believe in the values of the tale being told (illustrated by the proliferation of children’s books on contemporary scientific issues, such as Debi Gliori’s The Trouble with Dragons, about climate change). Stories endure because we believe that their morals are, in some sense, true. Their structures are designed to convince and enthral: they follow a familiar arc (beginning, middle, end), weaving a whole from threads of seemingly unconnected material or insurmountable problems. The protagonist(s) encourage identification — if you echo their ideals, you, too can be the hero of your own life story.
With this in mind, particularly pertinent at the moment are narratives about modernity and culture. Within histories of the twentieth century, one of the most enduring stories is that of the superiority of European modernity. Whether the individual or collective is the focus of study, democratic and secular societies stand as a pinnacle of achievement in Western narratives that perceive of history as a linear progression. The political theorist Chantal Mouffe writes that when democracy is being discussed, ‘it is clear that to present the Western form of democracy as being the “modern” one has been a powerful rhetorical weapon used for some time by liberal democratic theorists to establish its superior form of rationality and its universal validity.’ One doesn’t have to look far for this kind of literature; researcher J. P. E. Harper-Scott wrote in 2012 that academics (and, by extension, policy makers and world leaders) should be unafraid to adopt a ‘universal moral position’, to bring international societies closer to Western (specifically Marxist) ideals. He asks: ‘Are we supposed to tolerate … misogyny merely because it is an expression of an Other who we … are forbidden to criticize?’ The inference is clear: there is a moral obligation for developed countries to raise living standards for those living in poverty. The way to do this is to adhere to a model of Western democracy, ‘to make the systemic political changes that are required to lift these people out of their situation, to emancipate rather than to romanticize.’
However his words are not written about government policy. They are words written about culture — specifically, music. At first glance, academic musicology has little to do with government policy, whether at a local or international level. As a musicologist myself, the question I am most often asked is ‘What instrument do you play?’, not ‘What are your political beliefs?’. But the second question is by far the more relevant. As a fundamental means of human expression and method of collective identification, the terms in which we couch our explorations of culture have explicit ramifications for wider political discussions. Books like Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise or Carolyn Abbate’s Unsung Voices will not directly impact how much money my local council will spend on affordable housing this year. But what they will do is influence ideologies. These narratives are the wider framework in which policy discussions take place. It is because of ideological changes that spending money on affordable housing is on a council agenda at all. Researchers, legislators, and politicians exist in a network of mutual interaction, and the stories told by academics both contribute to and provide justification for the values and rights upheld by policy makers. While this is more obviously apparent for scientific research, the same is true of the arts and humanities — one only needs to look at Justice Kennedy’s ruling that allowed same-sex marriage within the US. His justification cited the work of cultural historians, whose research demonstrated the gradual evolution of marital norms over time. Without these stories being told, same-sex marriage might not have been legalised.
Which brings me back to modernity. While I disagree with the theoretical arguments by Harper-Scott quoted above, I nonetheless consider his book a brilliant and thought-provoking piece of scholarship because it makes explicit how interwoven ideological and cultural perspectives are. His subject of study is the music of the early twentieth century. He places the rise of Marxism as the pivotal event of the late nineteenth century, defining the experience of modernity, and divides artistic responses to this event into three pathways, of which one is seen as the most revolutionary. For Harper-Scott, the atonal music of Viennese composers like Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and Alban Berg (the kind of art that Will Self described as having ‘a reputation for being a forbidding phenomenon’) represents ‘the best hope for humanity’. It is valued for its difficulty; that many considered it inaccessible at the time is proof of its intellectually progressive status. Societies are interwoven with their cultural output, and the story he tells is that of a line of progress moving towards a singular socio-cultural state of enlightenment. The unforgiving musical language of these composers — and the ideas about modernity that come with it — are described as the embodiment of a universal ideal towards which society should strive, representing intellectualism, emancipation, and secular individualism. The story he tells about music, that one form of musical expression is superior to others, justifies the idea that Western secular modernity has a ‘universal validity’.
But this is not the only story being told about European modernity and modernism, the artistic output of the twentieth century that is considered to self-consciously express the experience of “modernity”. The more material is uncovered from this period of history, the more it seems that there were, and are, multiple ways of being “modern”. As researchers widen their geographical and conceptual borders, atonal music is slowly being considered just one of many, equally valid ways of expressing ideas about modernity. Rather than trying to impose a universal model based around a particular type of music and designating music which does not fit this model as “unsophisticated”, “backward”, or otherwise in need of improvement to reach desired moral and aesthetic standards, what we now think of as “modernism” is becoming increasingly pluralistic. Just as the term ‘marriage’ has been expanded to encompass same-sex ceremonies, the label “modernism” is being expanded to accommodate multiple modes of expression.
Take, for example, the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Until recently, he has not been thought of as “modern”: his music is too tuneful, too popular, too appealing. His symphonies do not sound like Schoenberg’s dense, chromatic offerings — compare, say, Sibelius’s The Swan of Tuonela, and Schoenberg’s Erwartung. (He is consequently only placed into the second most revolutionary category in Harper-Scott’s model.) But Sibelius was concerned that his music be considered progressive and contemporary, and he was thought of as “modern” during his lifetime. A review of his Fourth Symphony in The Times called him an ‘important factor in modern music’ (1912), while the Danish critic Gunnar Hauch wrote that he ‘stands for the modern direction that is rooted in naturalism’. In Hauch’s view there is no one, singular, universal modernity. There are many different types of modernity, of which Sibelius represents one.
Simply juxtaposing composers like Sibelius and Schoenberg also fails to account for the considerable similarities between the two. They were interested in many of the same ideas, but chose to explore them differently. Sibelius himself acknowledged this, writing in his diary ‘Arnold Schoenberg’s theories interest me. However I find him one-sided!’ They both composed music for Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelleas and Melisande, a drama that explores ideas about betrayal, love and destruction, and the value of marriage. They shared a mutual interest in Symbolism, a literary and artistic movement which saw the perceivable world as being full of signs and symbols signifying aspects of the divine, mystical, or otherworldly, as well as emotions and states of mind. Focusing on how these two composers departed in terms of their musical language can obscure the more significant (and perhaps more important) similarities between them: they were interested in the same questions, the same ideas, exploring what it meant to exist in a ‘modern’ age.
Translate this back to the political sphere, and the ramifications are dramatic. Thinking about modernity as multiple interlocking networks rather than a single set of criteria impacts on how the West approaches international relations, and international development. To take one example, once secularism is not taken to be a prerequisite for modernity, it facilitates moving towards reconciling divine and popular sovereignty in countries in which many hold strong religious beliefs. Religion, modernity, and democracy are not mutually exclusive, and it is counter-productive to hold to the idea that a democracy is any lesser for not adhering to a Western secular model. To quote Chantal Mouffe again, ‘epochal transitions, such as the one that we recognize as modernity, took place in different civilisations and have produced different results. Modernity should therefore be conceived as an open-ended horizon with space for multiple interpretations.’ With the realisation that there is no ‘one size fits all’ modernity which is nationally, let alone internationally applicable, the emphasis is thrown onto the local. The grandiose terms used by policy makers and industry experts, like ‘international development’ and ‘economic sustainability’, can hide the people whose lives these policies will affect. But conceiving of the world in terms of multiple localities that interact within a broader international sphere, rather than a set of agents all striving towards a single homogenous purpose, focuses primarily on regional sustainability. The policy making that results from such a view works from the ground up, fostering the development of local ideas rather than the imposition of external ones.
The way we talk about culture matters. The arts in particular are so bound up with ideas about identity that their presentation becomes vital in how we choose to interact, both with other societies and within our immediate social circles. Musicology is just one example from within a far wider sphere of research in the arts and humanities. Our interpretations of historical material, the perspectives we use for visual media, the language we choose to discuss art, music, dance, literature: these not only reflect but actively shape the world around us. The effects may not be immediately apparent – they may manifest over a period of years rather than days – but they can be part of the seismic shifts that influence the ideology of generations and change lives, for better or worse. The stories of today are the policies of tomorrow, no matter where they are told. If you want to change policies, you could do worse than to become a storyteller.