This blog post discusses an article that was part of the Special Issue entitled ‘Politicizing Artistic Pedagogies: Publics, Spaces, Teachings’ published in late 2021 in the journal Art & the Public Sphere, edited by myself and Mel Jordan. In doing so, I finally managed to write about my long-standing experiences of utilising some of my music taste in the course of teaching students at undergraduate and postgraduate level.
The article opens by acknowledging the notable upsurge of interest in aesthetics in politics and international relations scholarship, especially regarding popular culture. Within this, there have been valuable contributions on teaching, especially when related to the aim of enabling students to think critically about their topic. However, there has been a lack of sustained reflection on what it means to take this approach to teaching – for example, why and how can a more aesthetically informed pedagogical practice help us encourage students to think critically and creatively? Second, the accounts of the aesthetic form, genre or device utilised by the tutor have tended to be stylised and rather bloodless – reflecting the wider politics and international relations literatures on aesthetics and/or popular culture – which has diverted attention away from the visceral essence of aesthetics.
The article explores the potential for sensorily-oriented modes of teaching to disrupt students’ commonsensical understanding of the world they live in. In doing so, it takes inspiration from three key sources. Firstly, across a number of contributions, Matt Davies has pushed back against the tendencies, in many academic disciplines, to define aesthetics primarily in relation to art and/or to (dematerialised) symbolic representations; instead, he positions the lived, material body as the point of reference. Secondly, and building on these insights, Jennifer Mason has published extensively on the entanglements between our sensory, lived and embodied ways of knowing and experiencing the world and ‘objective’ understandings of politics, society and culture; we regularly make connections between a plethora of experiences in imaginative and socially potent ways. Thirdly, Cynthia Enloe highlights the value of surprise for shaking us out of well-worn modes of thinking about aspects of the world as ‘natural’, ‘traditional’ or ‘always’ having been in existence. Yet, this also threaten our credibility in the eyes of others, and to pursue our curiosity about the world is thus emotion- and energy-sapping.
Hence, our bodily capacities for perception and interpretation will tend to push in certain (well-used) directions, and it would require conscious, purposeful endeavours to rethink and modify such perceptions and interpretations. On the other hand, this also suggests that tutors could disrupt students’ entanglements between their ways of knowing and experiencing the world and their normalised understandings of ‘politics’, ‘society’, ‘culture’ etc. Moreover, sensorily-oriented modes of teaching have the potential to encourage students to follow their bodies in response to various aesthetic stimuli, and thus think critically and creatively inside and outside the seminar room. Regarding music, Matt Davies and Marianna Franklin argue that musicological modes can render audible different political registers. Over the years, I have sought to achieve this with regard to especially the extreme side of my music taste: in the article I follow Keith Kahn-Harris’ approach to extreme metal as a musical radicalism quite different to other forms of metal, and thus so distinct from other forms of popular music as to make it difficult for non-fans to appreciate its richness and diversity.
The article discusses three examples of my utilisation of extreme metal with the aim of cultivating surprise, curiosity and critical thinking among students: (1) a song by the band Converge is played in order to encourage critical thinking via provocation; (2) the profile of an academic/singer is presented to students in different ways so as to illustrate the importance of seeing the ‘big picture’ in analytical terms (and of reflecting on how it is seen); and (3) songs from multiple musical genres are played in the name of encouraging students to produce a lucid argument via the construction of a rich range of bibliographical sources. These examples come from undergraduate and postgraduate modules covering theories of International Relations/European integration, comparing capitalisms, European capitalisms, and European politics and society.
Here I discuss the first example, as it has been in use for the longest amount of time. ‘Concubine’, the first song from Converge’s legendary album Jane Doe, is an imposing and celebrated statement of intent, which after fifteen seconds launches into a wall of sound that does not relent for another twenty before crashing into a groove that ends the song after little more than one minute. To an ear untrained for listening to such music – which would extend to many fans of metal, let alone further afield – Jane Doe’s uncompromising artistic outlook is little more than primitive noise. I wonder how many people reading this believe that…? Maybe, just maybe, it’s actually a work of art.
Put concisely, I have often played Concubine with the aim of offering critiques of mainstream and ‘alternative’ theories of European integration and International Relations, such as realism/intergovernmentalism, liberalism/neofunctionalism, and constructivism. I align the more mainstream theories with classic artists such as the Beatles. But how to progress to Concubine? My answer has been to play a song – often ‘Sex on Fire’ by Kings of Leon – which, as with constructivist approaches, gives the impression of being ‘alternative’ to the mainstream. Yet it is actually a highly conventional pop song: 3.5 minutes long, standard verse-chorus structure, and a (nonsensical) memorable lyric. Think of the analogies between these conservatisms and constructivists taking crucial parts of the world for granted and thus adhering to many mainstream tenets – for instance, Alexander Wendt’s claim that states are pre-social, as if they are somehow natural phenomena.
This is not enough for critique to be effective, so I ask students to consider what a different kind of theory would look like instead of that which is being deconstructed – for example, Marxian, feminist, postcolonial theories. So I ask for hands to go up in response to these questions about ‘Concubine’: is this noise?; is this music?; is this art? Very few (and often nobody at all) agree with the last of these statements. At this point, I reveal that, to me, it is evidently art and that I am a huge fan of Converge. Because I do not look like a caricatured fan of extreme metal, this often comes as a surprise to the students. On one occasion in 2013, the shock in the room was palpable – combined with some students clearly being fans of Kings of Leon – meaning I had to quickly point out that I had never done my two cats, nor my wife, any harm…as we all ‘know’, fans of this music are inherently violent people…aren’t they?
Therefore, my use of ‘Concubine’ speaks to the pedagogical importance of strategic, deliberate provocation as one means of generating surprise and subsequent curiosity. By confronting students with their own conservatisms and prejudices about music – i.e. an area of cultural life where, normally as an older person, I would exhibit these traits more readily – I suggest that their interpretations of the theories they read about could be equally prejudicial and without a defensible justification. Further, I seek to show that in all parts of life humans theorise, because the world is too complex in order to capture in its entirety. Students are asked to reflect on how they go about their everyday life – for instance, why and how they disagree with their friends and family about ‘facts of life’ such as what constitutes good/bad music – because to theorise is to be human and to engage in practical activity. This means that it is not enough to dress up prejudice as informed opinion; the theories being studied must be engaged with, and immanently dismantled, on their own terrain, prior to a new and alternative terrain being established instead. In other words: extreme metal = critical thinking.
The article focuses on my teaching strategies, and the pedagogical commitments underpinning them. Therefore, no survey of students was conducted for the article, unlike many on teaching politics and international relations. While future work could include surveys suited to the specific teaching practice under consideration (i.e. not generic end-of-module feedback forms), it is useful to remember that student feedback often comes in a more collective form, via ongoing interactions inside and outside the seminar room. These interactions produce a totality of micro-experiences that sediment into something of consequence for how teaching practice evolves. Overall, my use of music has been remarked upon positively over the years – sometimes well after the course has ended, such as when a former MA student recently contacted me to say he is now using extreme metal in his teaching at another university.
Therefore, I hope that other fans of traditionally derided forms of music, but especially extreme metal (in all of its richness and diversity), are encouraged by what I have attempted in my own teaching practices and forge their own creative, personally affirming, path.