Ecomusicology and Listening Beyond Categorical Limits: 4. There’s No Place

 

by James Currie (University at Buffalo)

 

The attraction that is exerted by ecocriticism arises through the force with which it invokes pressing aspects of the real.   Even though the total scholarly field of such study is not singularly concerned with the indisputable fact of environmental catastrophe in the anthropocene, such horrors constantly make their presence felt, creating an almost guaranteed aura of relevance that can rarely be expected by other pursuits within the humanities. What, after all, could be more pressing than turning the gaze of our objects of study to face the fact of the destruction of an environment fit for human habitation? Surely we should not shy away from acknowledging the shudder that passes across the visage of art when she is made to interrupt her self-involvements and confront the devastations without! In Anglo-American public life, where intellectual pursuits are so easily deemed risible, scholars faced with the question as to what point there is to academic work frequently find themselves at sea, muttering convoluted excuses as they tread water to delay the moment when they start to drown. But the ecocritic reaches dry land quickly and thus has more breath left for effective rhetoric; the clear focus generated by seemingly direct engagement with the dangers of our time allows her to find her place within the presently existing scheme of things with prompt efficiency. We know where she is. Other lines of inquiry, by contrast, easily seem a little mandarin—inscrutably performed in the shadows of a decadent realm of dreams, artifice rather than reality.

I am pushing this representation of ecocriticism towards the doorway of parody, for exaggeration can sometimes give us a vantage on proclivities that day-to-day professional life too easily masks. Exaggeration here is thus more knowledge than entertainment. If ecocriticism more immediately forms lasting relationships with the real constituted by the environment where then does that leave the products of human artifice born from the imagination? Are such things divorced from reality? Does the ecocritic thereby act as a kind of marriage guidance councilor between nature and culture, convincing art to know her place and to come back home? Are things now, in fact, surreptitiously gendered so? Is ecocriticism a little too straight? If so, what would happen if we performed an almost hackneyed conventional move of queer studies, and assert artifice over nature? What would be gained from setting up our home in fabrication, in that “somewhere” where for queers there has sometimes been “a place for us”? And since I am improvising here, what if that “somewhere” were a song? To riff further—a song that is one of the most densely populated of queer places, “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” from the 1939 MGM classic, The Wizard of Oz?

In the first part of the film, this iconic song

caters nicely to my questions, since Dorothy, weighted down by the restrictions of her immediate world, sings the tune in the name of imaginative escape. The song offers her momentary respite from reality, a respite that will then find a more full, complex elaboration in the land of Oz itself.[1] Here the song is queer. But at the end of the film, the song

is under contract to bring Dorothy home from her time in exile. So it is now an ecocritic—or at least according to the terms of my parody. The time has come to get back to business, to wake up from the defamiliarizations of dream life—where old friends appear as machines, or animals, or stuffed like a doll with straw—and once more to put things in their proper place and learn to make of that the dream that had inspired us to run away in the first place. We must know where we are.

Reminding ourselves of the ending of the film, however, suggests that such a reading is a little too neat. Dorothy wants to return to Kansas, and the Wizard has offered to chauffer her himself in a hot air balloon, since it turns out (oddly) that he is from Kansas too. The people of the Emerald City gather. Before them, the Wizard transfers his powers and authority onto the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion. But at this moment of departure, Toto the dog sees a cat, a rather acid Siamese with ice blue eyes, a being seemingly devoid of sentiment. Oddly mirroring Toto in relation to Dorothy, the cat is nestling in the arms of a young woman. But the visual repetition is uncanny, for the cat’s porter, briefly glanced at by the camera, is no other than Dorothy’s sinister Doppelgänger, whose gaze is as malevolent as that of her feline familiar.[2] In the binary logics of Oz, all good witches come shadowed by their moral negatives; no sooner has Glinda the Good Witch of the North floated down in her pink soap bubble, than the Wicked Witch of the West churns up out of the ground in an orange column of fumes. Since Dorothy herself was assumed to be a witch upon her initial arrival in Oz, she is as subject to this formal law as anyone else, however much she may have initially protested against such identification: “I’m not a witch at all. I’m Dorothy Gale from Kansas!”[3] And so at the moment when she is just about to escape and return back to the comforts of Kansas, to a place where distorted reflections are unknown and people only come in ones, her payment is due and for the only time in the film (literally for a second[4]) we are allowed to witness something Other than the wholesome image of innocence and good that Dorothy sustains so successfully throughout the rest of her odyssey. Toto, seemingly asserting animal instincts over Dorothy’s conscious human desires, darts off to fight the good fight against the evil cat, and Dorothy, asserting her instinctual love of animals over her own purported agenda, joins the chase and so misses her ride home. In Oz there is perhaps no free lunch, and Dorothy’s fidelity to her affections here comes, on the cusp of the film’s conclusion, with an accompanying sacrifice that recapitulates the behavioral pattern that got her into all this trouble in the first place.[5] But perhaps, as this essay suggests, God writes in crooked lines, through the excited scamper of a small dog, and so Toto’s indifference to Dorothy’s plans is inadvertently but the manner of their attempted realization.

Dorothy’s distress at having missed her one opportunity to get home is cut short by Glinda’s return and pronouncement: “You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas.” That power, however, could only be accessed once a lesson had been learnt, a lesson that Dorothy then proffers: “It wasn’t enough to want to see Uncle Henry and Aunty Em.” Rather, “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again”—which, we should remember, was the desire to save an animal!—“I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”[6] The film does not extend far enough into the future for us to see if the era of Toto’s agency within Dorothy’s heart has now been eclipsed by a prioritization of the human over the animal. Glinda merely confirms that Dorothy’s rendition is correct and begins teaching her the art of her final journey: “close your eyes, and tap your heals together three times, and think to yourself, ‘there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home…’” At the third rendition Dorothy joins in, thus kick starting the engine of her final descent.[7]

Repetition can open up access to zones from which we are otherwise barred. This is why psychotherapy has at times employed the technique in the form of hypnosis. Keeping this in mind, we might therefore ask why it is then that Glinda deems it necessary to hypnotize Dorothy through repetition of the phrase “there’s no place like home.” In the scene of psychotherapy, we are hypnotized because it is only through this magic repetition trick that we can be transported to the Other scenes of our truth. Hypnosis distracts us into confronting something that otherwise we would do every thing we could to avoid; in his early treatment of neurotics, Freud used the technique as a means of helping his patients overcome their amnesia, so they could re-confront events otherwise too disturbing to remember. This being the case, we might therefore be forgiven for assuming that Dorothy, in fact, does not want to go home. Why, otherwise, would hypnosis be at all necessary? And so why does she not want to go back—to the place of her family, to her friends, to a community tied together through the fact that it is tethered to agrarian culture and thus tethered to the ground? Surely such a place would be desirable to her, comforting, and in all sorts of ways, both literal and figurative, grounding. After all, Dorothy has just been thrown up into the air, into what we might easily think of as a thrilling and terrifying taste of modernity at its most mad. Oz is a world in which, to pilfer Marx’s famous phrase, “all that is solid melts into air.”[8] Indeed, this is the fate of the wicked witch, and it occurs merely as a result of her having an encounter with a bucket of water. It is disturbing that a force so terrifying can be erased by so seemingly meaningless a detail; it bespeaks, alarmingly, of a defining instability at the heart of Oz. And so once more: why on earth is the prosthesis of hypnosis necessary in order to propel Dorothy back to earth—towards being grounded, towards being back in place?

As minimalism teaches us, repetition can make us hear things differently; it can disturb us by making meanings proliferate with alarming ease. At this moment in the film, what Dorothy says is as shop-worn as it gets: the tired sampler wisdom of “there’s no place like home,” to the gentle background accompaniment of the 1823 tune by Henry Bishop. The well-known tune, which Judy Garland was then famously to sing in full later in the 1944 Meet Me in St. Louis, subtly displaces the currently playing background music, which is made up out of a soft-focus texture of leitmotivs drawn primarily from the movie’s most famous hit, “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” The conflation of “There’s no place like home” with “Somewhere over the Rainbow” draws attention to a dialectical contradiction that is characteristic of the film in general: at this moment, the identity of a place, sublimely located over the rainbow, turns out to be the place where one already is: i.e., at home. Infinite distance short circuits with the immediate location. There is a slightly mad superimposing of universal and particular that, once one starts to get close to it, unravels in a strangely fecund plurality of directions.

For example, if the immediate place constituted by home is also sublime (beyond the rainbow) then we might start to hear a certain Utopian strain in “there’s no place like home.” As is oft noted, utopia quite literally means “no place.” And so we could rephrase the mantra as follows: There is a no place, a utopia, and that utopia is home.  But we might also hear something more sinister starting to loom from out of the repetitions, something to the effect of a denial: “there is no place like home”—in other words, there is no such place, because such a home does not exist, it is a fantasy. If the background music at this point helps to keep a conflation of particular with universal in place, allowing us to believe that home is sublime, then Dorothy’s spoken mantra, by contrast, could now be heard as a piece of pragmatic realist sobering up, an attempt, figuratively speaking, to bring us back down to earth, and thus a means of curtailing our flights of fancy. As if to spell the point out, we see the house at this moment swirling back down to earth from out of the great heights into which it had been initially thrown by the cyclone. However, the fact that Dorothy nevertheless keeps banging on about the fact that “there’s no place like home” even once she has “woken up” from her concussion and, moreover, that the final “The End” returns us to the sublime by means of a Romantically-tinged skyscape, suggest that perhaps she is still not yet ready to accept the full repercussions attendant upon her new realist manifesto. She is back in her place, but she cannot properly place herself there, and we should ask: why not? What is wrong with her relationship to place?

According to the French anthropologist Marc Augé, the intense and traumatic state of interconnection created by our late stage of global capital means that all places are now as much sites of infinite dispersal as they are places that can conceivably cohere into an identifiable place in the anthropological sense: as somewhere where a culture and its practices can be localized in time and space. For Augé we inhabit a paradoxical condition whereby the places constituted by particular locales are immediately connected with universal forces, but without that creating a broader sense of belonging. As he writes: “never before have individuals been so explicitly affected by collective history, but never before, either, have the reference points for collective identification been so unstable.”[9] I would argue, that one could effectively apply this formulation to the notion of place, too. Within the socio-political we are, to a certain degree, increasingly forced to inhabit the universal, but our habitation cannot constitute a home, and so we are, to all extents and purposes, without place. Faced with the anxieties of this radical displacement, the symptom that emerges is an intense over-determination of the value of the locality and place. Again, as Auge writes: “at the very same moment when it becomes possible to think in terms of the unity of terrestrial space, and the big multinational networks grow strong, the clamor of particularisms rises; clamor from those who want to stay at home in peace, clamor from those who want to find a mother country. As if the conservatism of the former and the messianism of the latter were condemned to speak the same language: that of the land and roots.”[10] In a sense, “There’s no place like home” is the anthem of this condition of overdetermined particularism. And it is given such incredible force in our present ecological condition, because of the irrefutable relationship between the growing strength of “big multinational networks” and the destruction of the “land” itself—the literal fact that the increasing toxicity of the planet and soil means that “roots” cannot flourish, so that even plants cannot be placed.

The connections between the flow of capital, the destruction of the environment, and the resultant destruction of place is prophetically waiting to be made in The Wizard of Oz, but not yet fully manifest. It is more a boil on the cusp of bursting. Evidently, since this is a film from the 1930s, the time of the Dust Bowl and the great depression, real-life and man-made natural disasters pervade the peripheries of the framing Kansas scenes of the film. The combination of intense droughts and ill-considered farming practices (basically a failure to employ dryland methods that help to lessen the possibility of wind-erosion) had by the mid-1930s decimated many farming families in the Great Plains, with the result that many of them were eventually forced to abandon their homes and leave, thus creating one of the largest forces of migration in US history, the famous Oakie migration. In the film, Dorothy’s own displacement, both her decision to leave home and her eventual transportation away from home by the twister, creates an interesting sequence, which, as I say, does not quite fully allow the political-economic-environmental networks at play in the realities of the 1930s to be spelled out, but which nevertheless remain implicit. She has had an encounter with money’s power over land and its decimating effects on the people who work it: Elmira Dultch, we should remember, is able to wield power over decisions to have Dorothy’s dog removed because she owns half the county. Dorothy’s response to this dissonance that interrupts her consonant relationship to her place is musical: she takes solace in dreaming her own displacement into another place (“somewhere”) via taking up temporary residence in the oddly displaced location offered by musical performance: she sings the famous “Somewhere over the Rainbow.”

This can alert us to the following temporary conclusion about music in a time of ecological disaster: when one’s place is threatened with destruction, one of the places that one can take up residence is in the oddly displaced place that is musical performance itself.[11] Or: if we take seriously the heft of the real created by the environmental disaster, we must acknowledge the import that artifice will increasingly hold for our world. For not only is artifice the realm of art (a solace), it is also the realm of the self-consciously made (of action). And since, like Dorothy, we can no longer in good conscience take easy comfort in the sentimentally tinged notion that we might still return home to a balanced sense of belonging to the earth, we need to start waking up to the reality of whatever artifice we might effectively make of our future and learn to live in full Technicolor in Oz.

 

Part of the panel “Ecomusicology and Listening Beyond Categorical Limits”:

  1. “An Introduction.” By Tyler Kinnear (University of British Columbia)
  2. “The Naturalization of Built Environments: Two Case Studies.” By Alexandra Hui (Mississippi State University)
  3. “Sibelius Beyond Categorical Limits.” By Daniel Grimley (University of Oxford)
  4. “There’s No Place.” By James Currie (University at Buffalo)

 

 

Notes:

[1] In the iconic moment when Dorothy opens the door on Oz after her house has landed, thus flooding her quotidian sepia world with the healing rays of Technicolor, the tune is playing as part of the background instrumental soundscape. A few moments later, after her famously funny observation to Toto, that “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” the musical cue is given linguistic validation and Dorothy exclaims: “We must be somewhere over the rainbow!” Victor Flemming, The Wizard of Oz, 75th Anniversary Edition (Warner Home Video, 2013), track 11.

[2] Although I have not been able to verify this fact, the actress holding the cat is seemingly no other than Judy Garland. Flemming, The Wizard of Oz, chapter 51.

[3] Flemming, The Wizard of Oz, chapter 11.

[4] The exact point in the film (occurring in chapter 51) is 1 34’ 52”.

[5] In the opening Kansas sequence, Dorothy abandons her home rather than lose Toto, and as a result is unable then properly to get back home to her family and friends when the twister arrives.

[6] Flemming, The Wizard of Oz, chapter 52.

[7] Ibid., chapter 53.

[8] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in The Marx-Engels Reader, Second Edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: Norton, 1978), 476.

[9] Marc Augé, Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity (London and New York: Verso, 1995), 30.

[10] Ibid., 28.

[11] As Holly Watkins writes: “Music of all sorts takes place in place, so to speak, and it also takes part in place. But music also is a place of sorts.” “Musical Ecologies of Place and Placelessness,” Journal of the American Musicological Society, 64/ii (2011), 405.