Chords of Inquiry

Late one night when sleep wouldn’t visit, I stumbled across a stirring and revelatory documentary called Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind. I’ve long loved Joni’s music and the sensibility behind it. I once gave a talk in which “Amelia,” my favorite of her songs, played a central role. I know few artists who are as consistently witty, poignant, and searching as Joni Mitchell. Funny, too. She has been an essential companion, even or especially when I had to strain to bridge what seemed the distance between her older, more sophisticated and artful life and the life I was trying to shape as an adolescent growing up in southwest Virginia, not so very far from where I’m typing these words.

Though she is most commonly typed as a “singer-songwriter,” in truth Joni Mitchell is as far from that folk-derived genre as I can imagine, largely because the structure of her songs is so unusual and exploratory–while also very often being as catchy and propulsive as a good pop song. How she can combine those apparently incompatible excellences is a good question.  Perhaps it has something to do with her habitual use of open and unusual tunings for her guitar. When her version of “Urge for Going” was released several years back, commentators noted it was one of the very few Joni Mitchell songs to use the standard E-A-D-G-B-E tuning. The other songs, well, not so much.

Which brings me back to the documentary, and perilously near my point. At one moment early in the film, the topic of Joni’s tunings comes up, and Joni herself speaks to her renowned oddity in that department. What she says has haunted me ever since. She says that she thinks of her unusual chords as “chords of inquiry,” and presents them as if there’s a question mark after each one.

“Chords of inquiry.” A harmony that proposes exploration and curiosity. Notes resonating together but not reaching a conclusion or advancing an argument.

The phrase itself sounds such a music: “chords of inquiry.”

This is the music I yearn for and try to encourage in our Awakening the Digital Imagination seminar each time we convene–in fact, each time the seminar has convened from its very beginning (as a faculty-staff development seminar) back in 2009. It’s not an easy music to sound, especially with a pride of highly trained academics all ranging the veldt of the seminar meetings (online and in real space), all ready to engage with (necessary, certainly) critical thinking, subtle distinctions, spirited polemic, all the academics’ discursive tooth and claw. That which does not kill us, etc. And besides, this is what we (and I do mean we) were taught to do in graduate school. To inculcate a kind of ruthlessness, a kind of skepticism and scrutiny before which all wooly thinking would simply wither.

And yet, what of these chords of inquiry? I do think a provisional acceptance of the essential frameworks of each essay we read, a kind of readerly version of Keats’ “negative capability,” can animate a renaissance of wonder and is indeed a good spiritual discipline in itself. I think of the distinction I was taught at Baylor University by my late colleague Susan Colon, a distinction between “implicative criticism” and “argumentative criticism” she worked through in her review of Andrew Miller’s The Burdens of Perfection: On Ethics and Reading in Nineteenth-Century British Literature:

Implicative criticism, according to Andrew Miller, is writing in which the writer’s thinking is unfolded and made visible to the reader so as to generate a multiplicity of responses, all of them transformative. Its foil, argumentative criticism, seeks closure rather than disclosure; it elicits agreement or disagreement but not transformation.

Argumentative criticism is the coin of the realm in academia. We are rewarded for it, and give up our claims to depth of knowledge and sophisticated methodologies when we do not practice it. Yet implicative criticism is every bit as important, as any sympathetic reader understands. It may be even more important, ultimately, if we do indeed seek transformation. Implicative criticism does unavoidably put the self at risk, it’s true. And some things do need protection, and a vigorous argumentation to pursue that need.

Yet among the many heard and unheard melodies that play through my mind, the chords of inquiry bring the deepest haunting and the most powerful insights. The writers we read in this seminar sound to my ears many deep chords of inquiry, as they imagine Doug Engelbart’s “thought vectors in concept space,” as they strive toward Alan Kay’s beautiful aphorism that “the computer is an instrument whose music is ideas.” Each chord followed by a question mark, like Vannevar Bush’s provocative little “presumably” as he ends “As We May Think.”

Unresolved, yet yearning, and musical for all that.

5 thoughts on “Chords of Inquiry

  1. Amen! Joni Mitchell is yet another musician you introduced me to (yes, through that Last Lecture you gave) and I will have to watch that documentary.

    I find myself continually drawn to implicative criticism. It seems more honest and open, invoking a sense of wonder. Asking questions and not being afraid of doubt and uncertainty (maybe “doubt” and “uncertainty” come to mind because I was reading Richard Feynman today and because of him I no longer fear those words).

    Thanks for sharing this. Just know this carvanista appreciates the heartfelt words of another traveler.

  2. Gardner,

    When I had read what you had written, it reminded me of an interview with Toni Onley, a Canadian landscape painter (documentary He told us about learning to paint with a floppy Japanese brush and how difficult it was to allow yourself to be in the moment, because it was the only way he had found to be precise without having control. I think he would have understood Joni’s open tunings and the challenges of implicative criticism very well. Ideas that open us are always more difficult than ones that focus us.

    Thank you for treating us to your high wire act on this blog.

  3. Thanks for the referral to the Joni doc, and the framing of these ideas, Gardner. Where you’ve run with the ‘chords of inquiry’ idea with regards to implicative vs. argumentative criticism is an inspiring extension of your Ecologies of Yearning talk, and your poetic and heartfelt exploration of these ideas continues to be a guiding light even in the wilds of Canadian K12 Ed.

    Rocking with you in the free world,

  4. I like the phrase “implicative criticism” and wonder if it’s actually a necessary approach to writing at the undergraduate level as well as the graduate level. As a former instructor of Freshman Comp, I certainly tried to beat argumentative criticism into them (hating it all the while, because it seemed so contrary to the reason I had become a Lit major in the first place). But now, as someone involved in teaching students to write in an open-audience web context rather than a closed-audience paper context, I’m inherently asking students to use implicative criticism because otherwise you risk losing your audience due to a lack of identity and personality. I don’t think it weakens a writer’s argumentative critical stance if he or she lets their strain of inquiry shine through, and I DO think that the more students and educators alike write in open spaces, the more likely we are to see the rise of the kind of open ended thinking and writing you’re talking about.

    At least I *think* this is the case. I’m not really sure…

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