Saturday, 9 March 2019

Some of my Glenn Gould-esque retirements

Glenn Gould famously announced in 1964 that he was retiring from live performances to focus on recorded and broadcast music-making - and kept his vow for the next 18 years until he died.

This ceasing of public appearances created considerable international criticism and debate; since Gould was one of the most famous and successful solo pianists of his (or any) era; and no-one of his stature had ever previously done anything like this. But Gould had his reasons.

I too have, at times, made vows about retiring from activities - and stuck by them, mostly - but I, of course, did not announce my resolutions, nor would anyone have been interested if I had!

Probably the first was back when I was an Anatomy lecturer at Glasgow University, doing research on the human adrenal gland and its nerve supply; when I resolved not to apply for any more research grants. And I never did.

My reason was that I had failed to get several grants in the previous year, yet wasted considerable time and energy (and morale) applying for them - until it became clear and undeniable that the adrenal was too 'unfashionable'. To get funding, I would need again to do 'neuroscience', as I had for my doctorate - when I had not failed at getting grants.

But I had some work I wanted to 'finish' on the adrenal; and did not want my research to be controlled by the grant-awarding authorities - so I made this resolution.  I would do the addrenal research as best I could without external funding - using whatever resources I could muster.

Clearly, by never getting any research funding, I paid a price in terms of career progression. But it was the correct decision for me - since it enabled the subject matter of my scholarship, and therefore my 'life', to be 'free' for a further couple of decades; while nearly all my colleagues and contemporaries became, what seemed to me, self-deluded technicians and project managers.

Another retiral (to use the Scottish term) was from laboratory work specifically, and empirical science more generally. This was not a strict rule, nor was it done on moral grounds; it was simply based upon the recognition that because I was merely adequate at laboratory work (and not very interested by it), I could and should focus instead upon theory - which was both my aptitude, and the mode of work in which I was most spontaneously motivated.

I did not stick to this completely - because in the middle 2000s I got so interested in 'scientometrics' (the numerical measurement of scientific work) that I did, and published, some statistical analyses. Much of the heavy statistical work was done by a computer scientist colleague, but I did some of my own - such as looking at trends in Nobel prizes and other awards.

But my concentration on theory was regarded as making me 'research inactive' in the eyes of the UK academic bureaucrats (despite a prolific publication record) because only empirical publication (of 'new' data) was regarded as 'real' (and because grant income was what defined 'real' research). Also, the scientometrics (which had had a pretty high impact) 'did not count', because it was outwith the official boundaries of the psychology category.

So, this retirement also took its toll on my career.

After I was sacked from editing Medical Hypotheses - on the specific technical grounds of my refusal to introduce Peer Review (albeit with a real background in issues of political correctness); I vowed not to participate in peer review in any fashion from that point.

This meant that I did not publish any peer reviewed articles, and I stopped peer reviewing for journals, grant applications and the like.

Building on this, I soon realised that all forms of voting were immoral - including in the many and various meetings of institutional life; so in recent years I vowed not to attend formal meetings or to be otherwise involved in voting; or, indeed, in surveys.

This resolution was quite difficult to stick-to, and had potential to cause serious trouble, but in the event it did not prove catastrophic - although it certainly would have done, sooner or later.

Looking back across these retirements - it is easy enough to see that they were all related to personal autonomy; and the fact that I did not acknowledge the authority of others to control my scholarship and research.

There was a price to pay, in terms of diminished resources and status (and income) but it was a worthwhile price for so long as I could retain my traditional academic autonomy.

But nowadays that autonomy has become institutionally impossible, and has in practice disappeared - at least among younger generations (there are probably a very small and diminishing number of old, employed, still-autonomous academics - living on borrowed time...).

Science, and all other forms of research and academic scholarship are - in their strategic elements - now wholly externally controlled by linked managerial and bureaucratic structures - so the 'job' of an academic or scholar is now merely concerned with the detailed implementation of already-prescribed agendas.

Partial retirements no longer suffice to maintain autonomy: the future belongs to the amateur outside of the system and independent of all funding, salary, status, honours, terms and conditions.

To the amateur; or to nobody.


Epimetheus said...

You're not the only one. I wonder how much has been lost from all the individuals who've been discouraged by society. All the happy families, innovation, exploration, and construction that might have been...

Annie T. said...


As Epimetheus said, you're not the only one, and I can't begin to imagine has been lost. Yet, perhaps something is also gained. I also had a choice between two paths, and a combination of circumstance and disposition led me to choose the uncredentialed life. It's been a burden that constantly limits what I can do, but that's only when I fall into adopting the values of the culture. The relief is that it has forced me to consider roots, the nature of labor, place, and transcendence.

We may be discouraged by society, and we should have no illusions of changing the system, but it may indeed be a great blessing that our fruits weren't handed over to society at this moment in time.

dearieme said...

I noticed late in my career that the new, young academics all had more credentials than such people had had thirty years earlier, but were perhaps less intelligent and certainly less intellectually high-spirited. So where have all the bright buttons gone? Are they really wasting their lives in Law, Finance, and IT?

dearieme said...

By the way "retiring from live performances" was commonplace in the classical jazz era of the 1920s and 30s. People got weary of the travel. Some settled for playing in recording or radio studio bands in Hollywood or New York. That way a man could have a wife and family.

And, of course, they could occasionally meet with old pals to play the sort of music they enjoyed.

Bruce Charlton said...

@e and d - There are several key things at work and amplifying each other with the decline - I tried to cover these in The Genius Famine book, if you want to know my views in detail (free online). But in a nutshell; I have observed that the very best people of whom I know directly have been actively discouraged by The System; and also there are fewer of them; and also those few are of lower ability and creativity than 100 years ago.

d - wrt musicians retiring - What happened in jazz was not regarded as relevant to classical music - although Gould did cite pop musicians as working primarily on the recorded medium, not live performance.

And Gould was (although The Establishment in Britain were the only ones who did Not recognise it) regarded by highly authoritative people as maybe the greatest pianist since Busoni (died in the 1920s) - and he was only 32.

Bazzana reprints fairly extensively from contemporary reviews of Gould's concerts - and some (from top scholars, critics, musicians, composers) praise him beyond anything I have ever read about any other performer of the twentieth century.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AT - "it may indeed be a great blessing that our fruits weren't handed over to society at this moment in time. "

I agree. Our society has astonishing ability at turning Good to evil usage, to use breakthroughs to enhance evil (e.g. the computer, the internet, medical research) - so it seems likely that divine influence may be limiting this possibility.

John Douglas said...

This is a perfect example of why Gould is from 'another planet' inaccessable to normal humans!
Other pianists play this at breakneck speed; it is a march, not a sprint!

Long time ago I saw something about Bach where he was asked 'where his music came from' to which he replied 'it is lying all over the floor when I get up in the morning, I'm knee deep in quavers and semi-quavers'
At a more mundane level, Keith Richards was asked more or less the same question and he said 'I stick my hand in the air and catch a melody/riff as it is flying past'

This is one of the books on my shelves -
And this is a quote from it -
“Music is…….the breath of the soul, the contours of the path of a hummingbird in flight, and the wind that carries it, music shapes and shivers into endless colours, nuanced and diverse, and eternally creative. It is spirit taking form.”
– Dr Jason Martineau

That phrase 'spirit taking form' is what you were trying to express in your previous post about Gould. It is one of the beautiful mysteries of life.

As to your own journey through academia. You were quite correct to follow your own instincts despite the obvious disadvantages to your career. You were following where your heart was leading you -
“The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of... We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart." - Blaise Pascal”

Michael Bentine got it right when he defined 'career' as "travelling downhill very rapidly out of control!"

Bruce Charlton said...

@JD - Gould's Mozart - this being a good example - is an example of how participative/ collaborative his performance was - especially in his later career.

Have you read the Bazzana bio of Gould? I am currently re-reading and it's a superb book IMO.

BTW - If you are new to this blog, you may be interested in my Gouldian Radio Drama broadcast on the BBC - which (partly) features Gould playing and speaking.

the outrigger said...

What would amateur neuroscience look like? (or perhaps) Is a primary thought neuroscience possible?

the outrigger said...

What would amateur neuroscience look like? (or perhaps), Is a primary thought neuroscience possible?

weka said...

As someone who lives and dies on questionnaires and double blind trials -- I can confirm that it is not the academic doc driving things. It is the manager, who looks at your H factor and if you can get grants.

(Confession time: I am writing serveys at present and fixing systematic reviews. I am one of the guilty parties in a Royal (antipodean) college guideline).

Since I spend most of my time burning the idols of this age -- religious and pseudoscientific -- the biggest amount of money I have personally had to handle was around 60 thousand. Which paid for a trial of interventions to prevent violence. (and failed).

The best work I know of is being done by old scholars and academics. I hope to be one of them soon. When you are emeritus, Human Resources cannot harm you and the political beast cannot complain.

Bruce Charlton said...

@o - You can't give truly scientific answers to general questions about method. But an example of amateur (unfunded) 'neuroscience' (which is, itself, not a genuine scientific field) would be the work done in cognitive neuropsychology or neuropsychiatry. Here is an example I did, which has gathered about a hundred citations (moderately influential, by professional standards):