With Great Sound Comes Great Responsibility

by Megan Volpert

15 November 2016

Cheng's Just Vibrations poses the only essential question left unanswered by the academy and the secret of its truly massive failure: an absence of any instinct to repair.
cover art

Just Vibrations

William Cheng

(University of Michigan Press)
US: Jul 2016

In my experience, which I have been given every reason to believe is archetypical, graduate school is more about stomach than mind. You don’t really go deeper into the netherworld of the ivory tower in order to grow as an intelligent human; you go to test the limits of alcohol abuse and hack your own ability to be critical until it becomes functionally delimited.

Indeed, grad school is an extremely suspicious endeavor. On television, it’s easy to find depictions of cutthroat competition amongst medical students or young lawyers. I would love to see a show track the stunningly ugly and paranoid orbits of a couple of 20-somethings in an MFA program.

When I arrived to pursue a PhD in critical theory and contemporary American literature, the ultimate plan was to write a book about the work of Bret Easton Ellis. Immediately following my orientation in the English Department, where I announced this lofty and frankly useless intention, some second or third year student jerked a finger over his shoulder at me and popped his neighbor with a one-liner that she’d better look out—I was a slightly younger and possibly intellectually hotter model of the personal brand and specialization this other student had been cultivating for the past couple of years. She was all about Jay McInerney, not Ellis, but that’s a semantic distinction that didn’t give either of us cause for relief.

So now we each had our target, and acting as frenemies, would work very hard to bloodlessly destroy each other by passive aggression for the next two semesters. I eventually bailed on the PhD for an MFA, in part because the poets were nicer people than the doctoral students, but in large part because the poets didn’t know anything about how to read or discuss Derrida and I would be able to dominate them with comparative ease.

This is bragging, but it’s still true: I am equally conversant in French, German and American philosophy and gifted enough to synthesize connections between them in improvised conversations, even after the hurdle of three whiskeys. This is known as “strong theory”—densely transitioning, keyword heavy, supersaturated with footnotes, largely lacking in pragmatic or real world value of any kind, insular and selfish, destined to cement a tenure-track professorship quickly.

What an asshole I was! This is Machiavellian, but it’s still true: in practice, there’s little value distinction between being formidable and being respectable in the academy. When I took a job as a high school English teacher instead of moving to New York to begin my life as one of America’s cultural elite, everybody was simultaneously relieved and disappointed in me. See, I did it for love. I found my person and began to settle down, lead a comparatively normal life with her instead of going in search of tenure and awards. My peers were uncomprehending; why would I choose to try to be a caring person in a mutually supportive long-term relationship when I could keep winning at the game of academics?

I was a very successful commodity. Rehabilitating my interpersonal skills and reviving my ability to empathize was a long and difficult—in fact, still ongoing—process in which I am continually beholden to my wife of 11 years for her patience and commitment to helping me lead a full and satisfying life that considers and even sometimes prioritizes the welfare of others above my own needs. We take it day by day and I have had to apologize often; I don’t think I ever issued a genuine apology to anyone about anything until after graduate school.

One of the more impactful academic events in my life actually happened a year after I finished my MFA: I went to a reading by the poet Jennifer Bartlett. This was part of a series I regularly attended at a local university, so I didn’t bother reading about her at all before I went. When she opened her mouth, my world kind of fell apart in ten seconds.

Bartlett has cerebral palsy. Her reading was full long pauses, the occasional stutter and slurring, guttural throat-clearing, salivary noises of various kinds, and so on. She was perfectly comprehensible, but she could take a fair amount of extra time to get through reading a single page. As a fast talker and faster thinker, the first five minutes of this reading were agonizing to me. I had an alarming amount of extra thinking space during her reading, which left me unsettled. Having done a decent amount of disability studies work in grad school, I fell back on what I knew in order to give the appearance of accommodation and support, which in retrospect led me to kind of baby her and shy away from any deep conversation or critical engagement with her work. In truth, I could barely get to the content because I was so preoccupied with her form of delivery.

We began an email correspondence in which I sought her assistance on a matter that was challenging my will to live: I’d been in severe chronic pain for awhile and had just achieved a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis. Treatment was not yet successful and I was selfishly so glad that I’d chosen a wife and a high school gig over the ivory tower. I was too weak now, physically and consequently emotionally, for professoring. I was disabled by disease, but the disease itself was invisible to others. Bartlett was wonderfully helpful, challenging me on my instinctive desire to pass as normal, or as strong. I learned a lot from talking to her about her own life’s challenges as a professor with cerebral palsy.

Six months later, I attended another reading given by Simon Pettet. Pettet read each of his poems two times, and the first time for each poem he went quite slowly. There was no physical reason why he needed to do this; he simply wanted each piece to linger in the audience’s thinking space. I found it delightful, primarily because of the interval of time that I was obsessed with and the many issues presented by engagement with Bartlett. The rest of the audience, primarily comprised of people still enmeshed in the competitive trappings of grad school, did a bunch of grumbling about how stupid it was for Petit to repeat everything twice. I stayed mum; its’s so hard to map how one has begun to lean toward an ethic of care over competition. I knew I was standing on terrain where they wouldn’t hear me calling back to them about it, as the terrain was still rocky even to me.

There were a few times during my three years of grad school when my personal life or biological needs became overwhelming and I sought care from my professors. One of them always responded to this in a supportive manner. My clearest memories of those three years are the times I sat in her office, crying or yelling or generally raging against the dying of my own light. We remain the very best of friends—actually, chosen family. I was less than ten pages into the 100 pages of William Cheng’s Just Vibrations when I texted that professor to say she needs to read this book immediately.

Cheng’s work poses the only essential question left unanswered by the academy and the secret of its truly massive failure: an absence of any instinct to repair. Cheng is a musicologist utterly capable of strong theory—a capability he has abandoned for weak and low theory, for personal narrative and disjointed anecdotal investigations into why his profession must turn toward what high school teachers used to call “whole child education”. Brains live in bodies; bodies have needs and feelings have failures. Cheng tells his own story about these considerations, which include being Taiwanese and gay, as well as suffering years of chronically disabling pain due to a nerve disorder in the wall of his abdomen. He has not played the piano in a very long time and he teaches at Dartmouth College.

Building on foundations laid by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Jack (Judith) Halberstam, he crafts four achingly lovely chapters that meditate on the necessity of hope in an institutional system that has paradigmatically relied upon suspicion, cynicism, and competition to the detriment of everyone invested in that system. It’s not a “scathing” book. It’s a gentle inquiry supported through the firm positing that a better academy is possible. It’s not prescriptive as to how a graduate program might accomplish this, except that he makes clear that the powerful professors—those who already have tenure and awards—should make this leap first.

It’s all too easy for me to say that my experience jives with Cheng’s assessment and that I could have been a better person all along if I had not been so rewarded for my ugliness—I’m not a tenured professor. But I’m reminded of my wealthy brother-in-law who votes for Democrats even though it’s surely somewhat to his own fiscal detriment. I’m also reminded of the general consensus that successful professional comedians are all substantially self-loathing individuals. My experience is that tenured professors must also be comedians. Those in the academy who are capable of strong theory are currently most able to turn their resources to Cheng’s less self-serving ethic of care. The world could easily get better.

Except I’m afraid that not nearly enough people will read Cheng’s book. It’s for academics and those of us who made it out alive. Many people will write it off because he’s a musicologist, even though theory is theory and his varied examples are highly accessible throughout. Some people will write it off because there’s sizable consideration of sound as a weapon—personally, I found his consideration of the militarization of music and the under-researched impacts of Long Range Acoustic Devices against protesters by police to be highly interesting. Is it so hard to see that if one sounds good, one should use that power to effect good in the wider world? So very many people should read Cheng’s book, teach it in grad schools and continue to pass it along. I suppose pretension and coercion do have their place, but must they pervade the academy to the point of totally excluding collaboration and reparative dialogue?

How can I convey the urgency with which I recommend this book to everyone? I’m sure more people who need to read it would order a copy if I went back and dotted every I-statement with some Foucault. I’m strong enough to opt to showcase my humanity, instead. Isn’t it messy and so much less persuasive, though?

Just Vibrations


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