Meditations on Objective Aesthetics in World Music

Author: Tenzer, Michael
Publications details: Ethnomusicology, 59/1: 1–30
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Abstract: This essay opens a dialogue between ethnomusicology and neo- Darwinism as promulgated by biologist Richard Dawkins and others. The first half engages quantum physicist David Deutsch’s much-discussed The Beginning of Infinity (2011), which integrates neo-Darwinism with the epistemology of objective knowledge developed by Karl Popper. Along the way Deutsch suggests that aesthetics with universal reach, akin to scientific facts, must be discoverable. Both Deutsch and Dawkins argue that traditional (meaning nonpost- Enlightenment) societies squelch unfettered knowledge creation in order to preserve themselves, and hence are unlikely to develop objective knowledge. Yet ethnomusicologists show that music can express social values but also point beyond them to unsuspected realms. If there exist aesthetic facts with universal reach in traditional music, can they be identified in these realms? Can ethnomusicology be an arena for discussing such questions? The second half of the essay engages in an analysis of a Ba-Benzele Pygmy tune in search of its objective aesthetic properties and their implications.