Q&A: Professor Robert Jensen on “Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialog”

Laura Byerley shares this Q&A from the College of Communication.

arguing_for_our_livesRobert Jensen, professor in the School of Journalism at The University of Texas at Austin College of Communication, is the author of “Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialog,” (City Lights Publishers, March 2013). The book explores issues with public discourse, trust in the leadership of elected officials and what Jensen calls an “Age of Anxiety.” It also offers strategies for addressing these crises.

In late April, Jensen spoke about his book at BookPeople. Here, he answers questions about his book and future projects.

What inspired you to write this book?

The inspiration was really more of a slow-building awareness of two simple but important points: information isn’t knowledge, and knowledge isn’t wisdom. We live in a society awash in information, yet more and more people report being unable to arrange all that information to come to social and political analyses that help them understand the world. And we live in times where seemingly knowledgeable people routinely act in very unwise ways. I wanted to use the material I had developed in the classroom and in community organizing to offer a framework for analysis and action that might help people sort out all that information and use that knowledge as wisely as possible.

In your book, you talk about how we live in an Age of Anxiety. How would you define today’s Age of Anxiety?

We all experience anxiety as individuals in our personal lives. But in this context, I am talking about a larger anxiety about the state of our society, and the health of the larger living world on which we depend. All the human systems that structure our lives –political, economic, cultural – are failing us, and all the news about the health of the ecosphere is bad and getting worse. That is bound to produce anxiety, whether people acknowledge it or not.

Where have we gone wrong in public dialog today, and how can it be improved?

The main problem is fear. People are understandably afraid to face the depth of the failure of our systems and the severity of these multiple, cascading ecological crises. Rather than grapple with the complexity of the questions, people are more eager than ever for simplistic answers and more prone to ideological rigidity.

You say that our culture has attacked the idea of critical thinking. Why is this – and how can we create a culture in which people aspire to be critically thinking intellectuals?

A number of factors undermine critical thinking. In the public schools, the obsession with standardized testing is an obvious problem. More generally, we are the most propagandized society in history, targeted by the massive advertising, marketing and public-relations industries. And we live in a hyper-mediated, entertainment-saturated culture that has made it easier to tune out than to take responsibility for thinking critically.

People routinely talk about politics and economics separately, compartmentalizing them. Why do you argue that the two systems cannot be understood independently of each other?

It’s obvious that the distribution of wealth in a society will affect the distribution of power. In a system that dramatically concentrates wealth, such as contemporary corporate capitalism, meaningful democratic dialogue and deliberation based on equal access is going to be difficult to achieve. Many people recognize this and argue that “we have to get money out of politics,” but it’s impossible to ever do that effectively – concentrated wealth simply can’t be kept out of politics. So, we have to face the fact that in some ways capitalism and democracy are incompatible.

Toward the end of the book, you say that we should shift from an Age of Anxiety to an Age of Anguish. Can you explain this?

Rather than stay stuck in that state of anxiety over these crises, it’s healthier and more productive to recognize reality. We’re in big trouble, and there are no easy answers. People who are aware of that often feel a deep grief, which is a healthy emotion. Denying reality is a bad strategy for coping with reality. Coming to terms with reality makes sensible action possible.

What future projects are you working on?

The most important projects I’m working on involve community organizing – promoting critical thinking about politics and building strong local networks of people committed to progressive change. My efforts at the moment are focused on a local community center and the worker cooperative movement.

As for writing projects: Tucked in the back of my mind is the possibility of a book about a friend, Jim Koplin, who died last year. It wouldn’t be a standard biography but more the story of how we can live our lives with integrity and contribute patiently to the slow work of making the world a better place. He was one of those extraordinary ordinary people who had a profound effect on thousands of people, not only through his teaching and activism but by the example he set.

More about the author: Jensen joined The University of Texas at Austin faculty in 1992 after completing his Ph.D. in media ethics and law in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota. Before his academic career, he worked as a professional journalist for a decade. He teaches courses in media law, ethics and politics.

New E-Book Offers Valuable Career Tips for Business

17205886Art Markman, author of several books on analogical reasoning, categorization, decision-making and motivation, has written a new book, “Habits of Leadership” (Perigee, Jan. 2013). In the e-book, now available online, Markman addresses how aspects of personality influence the habits one brings to leadership situations. He does this by demonstrating the correlation of personality and habits, and the impact they have on leadership potential and innovation success.

In a recent interview on Fox 7 Good Day Austin, Markman shared insight into how people with highly agreeable personalities can have difficulties leading unless they find ways to overcome their discomfort with being critical and preference for being indirect.

Here are some highlights from his on-air interview:

“Certainly if you want to be a leader you need to establish a rapport with others. But direct communication leads to efficient leadership.”

He recommends that those who have such agreeable personalities and find themselves in a position of leadership develop a script to deliver criticism such as: “I know it’s hard to hear this type of criticism, but…” and follow with a clear, direct statement.

“Not everybody is a natural leader, but if you find yourself in a situation in which you need to be a leader, you can learn to do it more effectively. And ‘Habits of Leadership’ can help.”

For more information about the book visit his Smart Thinking website. To learn more about Markman’s publications, laboratory, blogs, and courses he teaches, visit his faculty profile.

More about the author: Markman, the Annabel Iron Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology, is the founding director of the Human Dimensions of Organizations, a new program at The University of Texas at Austin. The program offers professional seminars, and, beginning in fall 2013, a Masters of Arts degree program for working professionals in a variety of career fields.

Tis the Season to Buy Books

pHumanities Texas will host its annual Holiday Book Fair in Austin at the historic Byrne-Reed House, 1410 Rio Grande on Saturday, December 8, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Noteworthy authors, including H.W. Brands, Jan Reid, Sarah Bird, John Spong, Mark Updegrove, David Dettmer, Katherine Catmull, Paul Woodruff, George Bristol, Jacqueline Kelly, Gilbert Garcia, Shana Burg, Peter LaSalle, Sarah Cortez, Martha Braniff, Diana Untermeyer, John Kerr, Jenna McEachern, Arturo Madrid, David Bush and Jim Parsons, will visit with holiday shoppers and sign copies of their latest books.

Humanities Texas will have books available for purchase at a discount, along with a sale of homemade pastries and baked goods.

Free parking will be available in St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church’s large parking lot on the northwest corner of 15th and Rio Grande Streets.

All proceeds will benefit Texas libraries.

Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark to present “From Civil Rights to Human Rights” on Monday, Nov. 12

Attorney General Clark and President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967.

Attorney General Clark and President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967.

Ramsey Clark (Plan II, ’49), who served as attorney general under President Lyndon B. Johnson, will present a talk titled “From Civil Rights to Human Rights” on Monday, Nov. 12, from noon to 1 p.m. in the Law School’s Eidman Courtroom. The event is free and open to the public.

William Ramsey Clark was appointed assistant attorney general of the Lands Division by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, when Clark was only thirty-three years old. After his tenure as assistant attorney general, Clark served as deputy attorney general from 1965 until 1967, when Johnson appointed him the 66th U.S. attorney general. Clark served as the attorney general until the end of the Johnson Administration in January 1969, and played an important role in the administration’s civil rights agenda, including supervising the drafting of the 1968 Civil Rights Act.

Following his term as attorney general, Clark worked as a law professor and was active in the anti-Vietnam War movement. He undertook two unsuccessful Senate campaigns in New York. Clark became an anti-war and human rights activist, founding the International Action Center, and speaking out against the United States’ 1991 and 2003 military invasions of Iraq. Author of New York Times best-seller “Crime in America,” Clark served as legal counsel to many controversial figures, including Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein. In 2008 he received the prestigious United Nations Human Rights Prize.

Clark was born in Dallas. At the age of seventeen he joined the Marine Corps and served in Europe in the final months of World War II. He received a bachelor’s degree in Plan II from The University of Texas at Austin and a law degree from the University of Chicago. After completing his education, Clark joined his father’s Texas law firm, Clark, Reed and Clark, where he remained until he was appointed assistant attorney general. Clark’s father was former U.S. Attorney General and Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clark, ’22. Justice Clark’s papers are housed at the Law School’s Tarlton Law Library.

The talk is co-presented by the two centers at the Law School — the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice and the William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law. Student organization co-sponsors include the Public Interest Law Association, the Texas Journal for Civil Liberties and Civil Rights, and the Thurgood Marshall Legal Society.


Round-Up: The 2012 Presidential Election

With the presidential debates complete and the upcoming election only a day away, many voters still remain uncertain about whom to vote for.

ShelfLife@Texas’ political round-up offers shrewd governmental, political and historical insight on the current affairs, both domestic and international, that these candidates can expect to face as President of the United States of America. Topics range from presidential leadership in divisive times to the controversial topic of nation building to the development of a “presidential accountability system.”

“Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from The Founders to Obama,Jeremi Suri (Free Press, Sept. 2011)

12040417Nobel Fellow and leading light in the next generation of policy makers, Jeremi Suri, looks to America’s history to see both what it has to offer failed states around the world and what it should avoid. America’s earnest attempts to export its ideas of representative government have had successes (Reconstruction after the American Civil War, the Philippines, Western Europe) and failures (Vietnam), and we can learn a good deal from both.

The framers of the Constitution initiated a policy of cautious nation building, hoping not to conquer other countries, but to build a world of stable, self-governed societies that would support America’s way of life. Yet no other country has created more problems for itself and for others by intervening in distant lands and pursuing impractical changes.

Looking to the future, Americans acknowledge that our actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya will have a dramatic impact on international stability. Suri, provocative historian and one of Smithsonian magazine’s “Top Young Innovators,” takes on the idea of American exceptionalism and turns it into a playbook for the president.

“Presidential Power and Accountability: Toward a Presidential Accountability System,” Bruce Buchanan (Routledge, July 2012)

presidential-power-accountability-toward-system-bruce-buchanan-paperback-cover-artIn response to the belief held by many political analysts that the growth of presidential war power relative to Congress is irreversible, Bruce Buchanan identifies what would be required to restore presidential war power to constitutional specifications while leaving the president powerful enough to do what is truly necessary in the face of any emergency.

Buchanan focuses mainly on diagnosing the origins of the problem and devising practical ways to work toward restoration of the constitutional balance of power between Congress and the president.

Offering specific remedies by identifying the structure and strategy for a new think tank designed to nudge the political system toward the kind of change the book recommends, Buchanan shows how a fictional policy trial could take a practical step toward in rebalancing the war power.

This is a crucial examination of presidential power and the U.S. separation of powers system, with a focused effort on making a course correction toward the kind of power sharing envisioned in the Constitution.

“Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the U.S.-Egyptian Alliance,” Jason Brownlee (Cambridge University Press, Aug. 2012)

15842334When a popular revolt forced long-ruling Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign on Feb. 11, 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama hailed the peaceful demonstrators in the heart of the Arab World. But Washington was late to endorse democracy.

During the Egyptian uprising, the White House did not promote popular sovereignty but instead backed an “orderly transition” to one of Mubarak’s cronies.

Even after protesters derailed that plan, the anti-democratic U.S.-Egyptian alliance continued. Using untapped primary materials, this book helps explain why authoritarianism has persisted in Egypt with American support, even as policy makers claim to encourage democratic change.

Written for students as well as specialists, the book is the first to combine extensive archival evidence, including access to all of the Wikileaks cables and interviews with more than two dozen top Egyptian and American decision makers.

“The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace,” H.W. Brands (Doubleday, Oct. 2012)

13531850From New York Times best-selling author H. W. Brands, a masterful biography of the Civil War general and two-term president who saved the Union twice, on the battlefield and in the White House, holding the country together at two critical turning points in our history.

Ulysses Grant rose from obscurity to discover he had a genius for battle. After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the disastrous brief presidency of Andrew Johnson, America turned to Grand again to unite the country, this time as president.

In this sweeping biography, Brands reconsiders Grant’s legacy and provides a compelling and intimate portrait of a popular and compassionate man who saved the Union as a first-rate general and consolidated that victory as a resolute and principled political leader.

“The Triumph of Israel’s Radical Right,” Ami Pedahzur (Oxford University Press, Oct. 2012)

13689877To understand the seemingly intractable situation in Israel today, acclaimed scholar Ami Pedahzur offers a comprehensive account and an invaluable and authoritative analysis of the radical right’s ascendance to the heights of Israeli politics.

After dissection what they believe in, Pedahzur explains how mainstream Israeli policies like “the law of return” have nurtured their nativism and authoritarian tendencies.

He then traces the right’s steady expansion and mutation, from the early days of the state to today. Throughout, he focuses on the radical right’s institutional networks, how the movement has been able to expand its influence of the policy-making process.

His closing chapter is grim yet realistic: Pedahzur contends that a two-state solution is no longer viable and that the vision of the radical rabbi Meir Kahane, who was a fringe figure while alive, has triumphed.

Truths Universally Acknowledged: English professor reveals how Jane Austen’s characters and settings are fact as well as fiction

BarchasIn “Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity,” (The Johns Hopkins University Press, August 2012) Janine Barchas, associate professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin, boldly asserts that Jane Austen’s novels allude to real names of glamorous people and places.

The first scholar to conduct extensive research into the names and locations in Austen’s fiction, Barachas offers scholars and ardent fans of Jane Austen a wealth of historical facts, while shedding an interpretive light on a new aspect of the beloved writer’s work. Other projects Barchas is working on include a website titled What Jane Saw that reconstructs a museum visit attended by the Austens in 1813 as well as an investigation into the marketing of Jane Austen through book cover art from 1833 to the present.

Barchas kindly answered some questions for ShelfLife@Texas about Jane Austen’s “subtle manipulation” of celebrity culture, current trends in Austen studies, and why timeless classics like “Pride & Prejudice” and “Persuasion” continue to fascinate readers.

In your opinion, why do Jane Austen’s novels remain on best-seller lists? Have you noticed a modern resurgence in her popularity?

Well, her novels are really good, so quality may play a role! In addition, the many Hollywood movies and BBC bonnet dramas have further propelled Jane Austen to literary stardom in recent decades. As someone who also teaches many lesser knowns (such as Samuel Richardson who, alas, has no action figure or major motion picture to promote his fine novels), I am delighted that Hollywood is recruiting students to our English Department who want to follow up a film by reading the original book. We now cannot supersaturate the demand for classes on Austen in, well, Austin.

How did you come to realize there might be a strong connection between actual high-profile politicians, contemporary celebrities and famous historical figures to the characters in Austen’s novels? Can you describe your research process?

As a researcher of “the long 18th century,” I found myself initially distracted when teaching Austen (who published her first novel in 1811) by the historical associations conjured up by the leading names and settings in her stories. For example, the real-world family of Dashwood (also the name of protagonists in “Sense and Sensibility”) was a notorious and disreputable lot, who in the 1750s and 60s became known for a Hell Fire Club and a naughty landscape garden with female shapes and priapic statuary. At first, I dutifully shook off such well-known associations from my own “historical field” as unsuitable to her Regency fiction.  But once these associations reached a tipping point, I began to wonder whether or not they were part of the fun that a historically savvy Jane Austen had intended to create with her stories. Her stories are so daring and witty if you know the reputations and names that she is reworking into her fictions. The collection at the Harry Ransom Center was such a key element in the early stages of my search for books about history, travel and famous landscapes that Austen could or would have read.

Could you elaborate more on Austen’s “subtle manipulation” of the celebrity culture she saw around her?

Austen is minute about location, taking her characters to street corners in Bath where famous people lived or specific locales where great historical events of national importance occurred. Real history is then allowed to intrude upon her stories in animating ways. Her leading names are also as if plucked from the history books, resonating with celebrity associations. For example, one famous political family in Austen’s time, the Wentworths of Yorkshire, included on its family tree the names of Woodhouse, Fitzwilliam, Darcy, Vernon, and Watson (all leading names in Austen’s stories).  Imagine a novel today about, say, a fictional Kennedy family with a plot that takes a son named John to Cape Cod.  Would you not wonder what other knowledge might be rewarded by such a cheeky reference to history?

Why do you think other scholars had yet to make this important connection?

There was a unique delay in the literary reputation of Austen, who was not popular in her lifetime. Even after her death in 1817, her reputation slumbered until she began to be reprinted in 1833. And only in the 1850s did her work become truly celebrated. So Austen — born in 1775, writing in the 1790s, and published in the 1810s — was not taken seriously until after 1850. I argue that she has been read out of time. As a result, scholars must combat the narrow Victorian view that saw her stories as confined merely to the domestic, because decades of delay in her popularity muted her daring historical and political allusions. Austen died long before Queen Victoria took the throne, and yet she is often grouped with Victorian writers like the Brontës who published decades later. I am simply resituating her in the culture, stories and history of her own youth by pulling her back into the 18th century. You see different things if you look at her as a Victorian precursor than if you look back over the books and stories that influenced her own work.  We know from her brother Henry that Jane was a keen history buff.

What are the current trends in Austen studies, and do you see your book affecting them?

Historicizing is back. New editions are encouraging the reading of Austen’s novels in their original historical context, with new notes and increasingly fuller explanations of how a contemporary reader might have understood a detail of dress, money or manners. This is a different impulse from the prior view of celebrating Austen as “timeless” (that view is only partially true).  My own book is part of a trend in scholarship that would historicize Austen to her time and place.

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

That Jane Austen was even smarter and more politically daring than they’d thought! That every detail in her stories deserves to be savored and pondered — in the same way that scholars acknowledge similar details in James Joyce or Shakespeare.

What’s next for you and Ms. Austen?

I have started new project called “Jane Austen between the Covers,” which tracks the marketing of Austen through book cover designs from 1833 to the present.  Because of Austen’s broad and sustained popularity since the invention of publisher’s bindings in the mid-19th-century, her cover art not only generates local insights into her reception history but also tells us how novels, as a popular genre, were marketed and consumed during the 19th and 20th centuries. 

Peter LaSalle’s new novel looks at life in the shadows

M song smPeter LaSalle uses a single book-length sentence in his new novel, “Mariposa’s Song,” to tell of a twenty-year-old Honduran woman in the United States without documentation.  Mariposa is working as a B-girl and taxi dancer in a scruffy East Austin nightclub called El Pájaro Verde in 2005, and her story takes readers into the shadowy world that undocumented workers are too often forced to live in due to current immigration laws.

“‘Mariposa’s Song’ is a tragedy that rings distressingly true to the bone,” says novelist Madison Smartt Bell in a prepublication comment, “and never has Peter LaSalle’s prose sung so melodiously.”  And Publishers Weekly notes: “LaSalle’s new novel is brief, but it feels expansive with its continued breathlessness.”

The novel is published in The Americas Series from Texas Tech University Press.  Edited by Irene Vilar and with a national advisory board, the series issues mostly work by Latin American writers in translation—recent releases include Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal and Brazilian novelist Moacyr Scliar—but also the occasional original book on a Latino subject that reflects the series’ stated mission of “cultivating cross-cultural and intellectual exploration across borders and historical divides.”

LaSalle will talk about “Mariposa’s Song” at the Texas Book Festival on Saturday, Oct. 27 in a three-author panel discussion on immigration narratives, “Nunca Volver: New Lands, New Lives,” moderated by Melissa del Bosque.  An excerpt from the novel will be featured in the December issue of The Texas Observer.

PeteAs the Susan Taylor McDaniel Regents Professor in Creative Writing at UT, LaSalle teaches in both the English Department’s New Writers Project and the Michener Center for Writers. He’s the author of several books of fiction, including the story collection “Tell Borges If You See Him,” winner of the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award, and his work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories, Best American Travel Writing, and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, among many others. A new short story collection, “What I Found Out About Her and Other Stories,” is forthcoming from University of Notre Dame Press.

ShelfLife@Texas asked LaSalle a few questions about “Mariposa’s Song.”

Did you do intensive research, or how did you come to know about the lives of undocumented workers?

In recent years I got to know quite a bit about the world of the undocumented. I did so through time spent in the Mexican bars and nightclubs that used to line 6th Street in East Austin and now have all but vanished—almost overnight, actually, in the sudden so-called gentrification of the area. I also spent some time in the home of an immigrant family in Austin’s Dove Springs neighborhood, where I went with a friend who volunteered as an English instructor to new arrivals from Latin America. I think that those experiences, meeting the people I did in the course of it all, made me begin to better understand what it’s like to survive in the United States without documentation.

So you decided to write about it?

Looking back on it, I guess I almost had to write about it.  I remember that I saw a rather absurd locally produced TV show celebrating the supposed urban wonders of downtown Austin.  One sequence showed a group of happy young professionals (does anybody say “yuppie” anymore?) who had just come out of a trendy bar at maybe 2 a.m., guys and girls. They were filmed standing on the sidewalk, gazing up at what they saw as the wondrous beauty of a scene—men working construction on a new downtown high-rise, the site lit up bright in the darkness. I realized that those people, and a lot just like them, had no idea what life was really like for such workers, that there was nothing romantic about their long hours of hard labor, sometimes even right through the night. Having worked a job in construction myself at least one summer during college, I could assure them of that. More significantly, many of those workers were probably without documentation, facing life every day with the added threats posed by our outdated and thoroughly contradictory immigration policies. I don’t know if that was exactly when I decided to start writing “Mariposa’s Song,” but it was one thing that contributed to my decision to use a novel to maybe tell others what I knew about such lives, including those of the young women who worked in the East Austin bars, hustling drinks for the owners or dancing with customers, like the old dime-a-dance arrangement.

And the entire novel is basically a single book-length sentence. Can you explain how that works?

Well, first of all, I hope it does work. I’ve written and published several short stories that use just a single sentence, though this is my first time trying it on something longer. The novel takes place in the course of one Saturday night in a rough East Austin nightclub, where my protagonist—a gentle, pretty, and very hopeful young woman from Honduras named Mariposa—works as a bar girl and gets in a nightmarishly bad situation when she meets the wrong guy at the decidedly wrong time, a smooth-talking Anglo from out of town who calls himself Bill. In starting to write, I soon found that a single continuing sentence captured perfectly the cadence of a night at that club, where the norteño and cumbia music the DJ plays goes on uninterrupted, no breaks between songs, flowing. It also seemed to capture the way Mariposa’s own thoughts meander through her mind, maybe her soothing personal song of herself, very much a music, too.

Well, it certainly seems like a fresh idea.

As said, I sure hope so.

Psychology Professor James Pennebaker Wins $10,000 Hamilton Book Award

book.pennebaker

James Pennebaker, professor and chair of the Department of Psychology, won the $10,000 grand prize at the Hamilton Book Awards for his book, “The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us” (Bloomsbury Press , 2011) on Tuesday, Oct. 16 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin.

The awards are the highest honor of literary achievement given to published authors at The University of Texas at Austin. They are sponsored by the University Co-operative Society.

In “The Secret Life of Pronouns,” Pennebaker uses his groundbreaking research in computational linguistics – in essence, counting the frequency of words we use – to show that our language carries secrets about our feelings, our self-concept, and our social intelligence. Our most forgettable words, such as pronouns and prepositions, can be the most revealing: their patterns are as distinctive as fingerprints.

Two faculty members from the College of Liberal Arts received $3,000 runner-up prizes for their books. The honorees are:

books

Sheldon Ekland-Olson, Department of Sociology
“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Decides?: Abortion, Neonatal Care, Assisted Dying, and Capital Punishment” (Routledge, 2011)

Circe Sturm, Department of Anthropology
“Becoming Indian: The Struggle over Cherokee Identity in the Twenty-first Century” (School for Advanced Research Press, 20111)

The Hamilton Awards are named in honor of Professor Robert W. Hamilton, the Minerva House Drysdale Regent Chair-Emeritus in Law. Professor Hamilton was chair of the Co-op Board for 12 years, from 1989 to 2001, and was in large measure responsible for the Co-op’s uncommon growth and profitability during that period. Visit this website for more about the 2012 award winners.

A Q&A with Kathleen Marie Higgins, Author of “The Music Between Us”


978-0-226-33328-1-frontcoverFrom our first social bonding as infants to the funeral rites that mark our passing, music plays an important role in our lives, bringing us closer to one another. In “The Music between Us: Is Music a Universal Language?” (University of Chicago Press, June 2012) Kathleen Marie Higgins investigates this role, examining the features of human perception that enable music’s uncanny ability to provoke — despite its myriad forms across continents and throughout centuries — the sense of a shared human experience. Her interdisciplinary and richly researched study showcases the ways music is used in rituals, education, work, healing, as source of security and, perhaps most importantly, joy.

Higgins, who is a philosophy professor at The University of Texas at Austin, recently answered some of our questions here at ShelfLife@Texas about the transcendent power of music – and how it is one of the most fundamental bridges in human society.

What is your musical background, and how did you become interested in the philosophy of music?

I was a music major as an undergraduate, playing piano and organ. I was especially interested in the way music related to ideas and culture more broadly, and taking a course in the music of India led me to start reflecting on the differences among musical traditions. I did graduate work in philosophy, but among my philosophical interests from the beginning was philosophy of music.

What are some modern discussions being held by philosophers who study music?

One set of issues concerns the ontology of music — questions about what constitutes music, musical performances and musical works. Another focuses on why music affects us so powerfully. Philosophers of music consider such issues as whether or not emotional arousal and/or expression is the purpose of music or whether these are simply byproducts; the basis for the connection between music and emotion; whether music that expresses given emotions also arouses these same emotions; and what the object of the emotion is in the case of emotion generated through music.

Philosophers of music also discuss the ways that music relates to ethics. Can it make us a better or worse person, and if so how? What is involved in musical understanding? For example, how much attention to structure is essential? How music is like or unlike the other arts? How music is like or unlike language? What is the proper basis for evaluating and valuing music? How and why music functions politically? And what does music reveal about our minds and our world? I’m tempted to say that music offers an angle on just about any topic in philosophy.

In the book you mention the qin, a Chinese unfretted lute, which is so sensitive that ambient air currents can produce sounds and even the grain of the musician’s fingerprints on the strings can be heard. What other unique musical instruments or musical techniques have you encountered in your research about the universality of music?

Probably the most interesting I’ve come across is a practice in one New Guinea society of putting drone beetles in one’s mouth in order to use one’s own body as a resonator for the sounds of the beetles. Another New Guinea people, the Kaluli, perform duets with various natural sounds, such as those of waterfalls and cicadas. The ghatam, a South Indian instrument, is a clay pot. One of the things I notice when I encounter instruments and techniques such as these is the tendency to find musical possibilities in materials and phenomena in everyday life.

I’m often struck by the various timbres utilized in music, whether produced by instruments or the musical voice. The first time I heard a crumhorn, I found the character of the sound rather humorous, even though the crumhorn was not designed for that purpose. I also find highly nasal vocal styles a bit comical, but in some cultures they are standard and highly prized. My reactions in these two cases makes it clear to me how much the musical practices of our own society determine what we take to be the norm, and how sounds that aren’t utilized (or utilized much) in those practice can strike us as aberrant.

In my opinion, one of the most interesting chapters in your book is “What’s Involved in Sounding Human?” At the risk of being reductive, can you explain some of the research you included in the chapter to answer the question, “What is it to sound human?”

The question itself suggests that human beings employ only a subset of the available sonic possibilities in music, and this is certainly the case. Not surprisingly, we make music in the area where the human powers of hearing are most acute. The octave above a note is treated as the “same” note in most respects. Human beings prefer intervals of relatively simple ratios of frequency vibrations, and the simplest (the octave and the fifth, in particular) tend to be prominent in most musical systems around the world.

Human beings typically make music in “pieces.” We tend to use a centering tone (called the tonic in the West), which is perceived as the tone of a scale that is the most stable, and other tones have various degrees of relative instability by comparison. Music tends to employ lots of repetition within a piece and within smaller components of a piece. There is some tendency in most musical cultures for musical utterances to end with a descent in pitch. All these tendencies show up virtually everywhere that people make music. Human beings have a signature way of making music, just as songbirds and humpback whales do.

What do you find most fascinating about the connecting power of music?

What interests me most about all this is the fact that even though music from another culture might be formulated on very different principles than the music we are most familiar with, and even though it might sound exceedingly foreign, it is geared to our perceptual faculties and is structured of patterns that can be recognized quite readily if one is familiar with the musical idiom. This is not to say that it is easy to “get” foreign music right away; some of our perceptual habits may even interfere, as when we are expecting one kind of tuning or rhythmic organization and encounter another. But it does suggest, and some experimental evidence bears this out, that we can improve in gaining an orientation in foreign music in a relatively short time. So we shouldn’t conclude from the fact that it is challenging that an unfamiliar type of music is foreclosed to us. The popular claim that music can communicate across cultural boundaries may understate the challenges in some cases, but the basic idea is right.

Are there any non-musical societies that we know of? Or are there societies scholars consider decidedly less musical than others?

No, it appears that music plays a role in every human society, and that it serves a cluster of functions (creation of social cohesion, emotional regulation, indication of socially significant occasions and promoting health, for example) virtually everywhere.

What’s next for you and philosophy?

I’ve been working on issues in the philosophy of emotions, in particular on the nature of grief. I’m interested in how grief motivates and is expressed through art and other practices that have an aesthetic dimension. Music plays an important role in this connection; lamentation is one of those ubiquitous ways that we humans use music. So although this new project isn’t about music as such, music will be a part of it, and no doubt other projects I pursue in the future.

Government Professor Wins Major Grant to Curb Violence, Urge Diplomacy in Egypt

lg Jason Brownlee, associate professor in the Departments of Government and Middle Eastern Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, has received a $109,484 grant to examine peace-building efforts in Egypt.

The funding, provided by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), will enable Brownlee to determine whether the rise in Egypt’s anti-Coptic violence comes from underlying social tensions or from lack of government interventions.

Nationally known for his expertise in authoritarian rule in the Middle East, Brownlee studies democratization and U.S. foreign policy. In his new book “Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the U.S.-Egyptian Alliance” (Cambridge University Press, September 2012), he explains how America’s alliance with Egypt has impeded democratic change and reinforced authoritarianism over time.

As Egypt moves forward in its effort to consolidate a democratic transition, this initiative will provide timely and informed guidance for nongovernmental organization workers, policymakers and officials in Egypt who are working to reduce societal conflict in a country pivotal to U.S. policy in the region, said Steve Riskin, the special assistant to the president for grants at USIP.iran_election1

“The study, which accords with USIP’s mandate to resolve violent conflicts and promote postconflict peace-building, will yield important insights for other Middle Eastern countries with religious minorities, including Syria and Lebanon with Christian and other minority groups,” Riskin said.

Created by Congress to be independent and nonpartisan, USIP works to prevent, mitigate and resolve international conflict through nonviolent means. During the past 20 years, the institute’s grant program has awarded more than 2,100 grants in 46 U.S. states, the District of Columbia and in 87 foreign countries. The grant program increases the breadth and depth of the institute’s work by supporting peace-building projects managed by nonprofit organizations including educational institutions, research institutions and civil society organizations.