Listening beyond modernity: race, radicalism, and folklife

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In 2020, the George Floyd Uprisings introduced abolitionist praxis to white America. For a while, questions like this one posed by one of my study participants, became ubiquitous: “what does the Black Lives Matter movement mean to us? How are we gonna, you know, address these things?” Scholars have asked parallel questions about decolonization since decolonial movements reshaped the global political order in the middle of the last century. In both cases – two years following the uprisings and after decades of decolonial scholarship – the questions tend to beget more questions than tangible change. Why is it so difficult to hear and address abolitionist and decolonial imperatives in spaces outside of direct abolitionist or decolonial struggle?In this dissertation I suggest that attempts to address radical movements outside movement spaces effectively create transcriptions of struggle. This concept from music studies centers the structural issues that, when not confronted, allow only circular questions. I explore these politics of transcription across a wide range of spaces by bringing ethnographic research conducted over a period of eight years into dialogue with scholarship as well as reflections on my own engagements in decolonial and abolitionist movements. The dissertation that results is less an ethnography of a single fieldsite than an ethnography of whiteness. In my first chapter, I show how transcription helps explain why decolonial scholarship turns decolonization into a metaphor even when it explicitly seeks not to. I suggest that the methods through which musicians transcribe their aural musical traditions provide more strategic models for transcription. In my second chapter, I describe how a loose community of homesteaders and folk musicians in midcoast Maine transcribe their egalitarian musical practices into writing without abstracting them into metaphor. Following the George Floyd Uprisings, some in this overwhelmingly white community are attempting to transcribe their musical practices into explicitly anti-racist forms. Central to their efforts are emerging notions of anti-racist listening. In my fourth chapter, I argue that these exert a counterintuitively conservatizing influence on the community. In my third chapter, I suggest that the community’s folklife, rooted in the North American back-to-the-land movement, provides a stronger historical and strategic linkage to abolition and decolonization through the antimodernism broadly shared by all three movements. Both the limitations of listening and the potential radicalism of antimodernism suggest very different approaches to anti-racism than those usually pursued by communities and institutions imbricated with whiteness.

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298 pages


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Abolition; Antimodernism; Decolonization; Folklife; Transcription; Whiteness


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Appert, Catherine

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Richardson, Troy
Piekut, Benjamin

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Ph. D., Music

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Doctor of Philosophy

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dissertation or thesis

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