November 02, 2006



Naked Punch Magazine is looking better every quarter, I must say (they even have a very decent new blog!).  Warm welcomes all around.  From some of the front matter, here is a funny bit by Nadim Samman in the latest issue:

Nietzsche rightly points out that 'what makes people rebel against suffering is not suffering itself, but the senselessness of suffering'.  If suffering is given a 'sense', or justification, then it is easier to bear–and may even be sought out–provided that the justification is powerful enough.  Our mustachioed friend claimed that 'early man' invented gods to perform this function.  The gods acted as 'divine audience' or witnesses to the spectacle of mankind's torments, redeeming them through their regard.  What is the Curriculum Vitae if not a secular god, bearing witness to the misery of the Intern?...
I plead with you, recognize the will to power–the pseudo-employer's 'sense of function'–in the exhortations 'It'll be good for your career', 'It'll be good for your CV', and 'It'll be good experience'.  Remember that an exhortation is not the same as promise, or a contract.  Beware!  Such exhortations are calculated appeals to vanity.

...the Intern should be characterized as someone undergoing internment–detention.  By detention I mean separation from 'good' where you are.  In the realm of pseudo-employment 'good' is elsewhere; deferred.  Such is the ascetic–life-denying, career-denying–principle of work experience...

If you must suffer, let your 'good' elsewhere be something other than a list–mere sheets of paper.  Let your 'divine audience' reflect your deepest sense of function.

The focus of the issue, as you can see, is on Latin America (yes, that's a discreet pointer to Jon's new project), with an added dossier on contemporary Lebanese art, and a precise, realistic and responsible statement of solidarity with the people of Lebanon).  This opening bit from Fernando Coronil I found particularly striking (and it is perhaps loosely indicative of the general refreshing tone*):

A ghost travels through a continent full of enchantments:  the disenchantment with capitalism.  The third millennium gives us surprises as soon as it starts:  history is not presented as it has been announced (by those who have the power to do so).  Just when the confrontation between socialism and capitalism appeared to be a thing of the past and the free-market shimmered in the horizon as the reign of progress, its promise of universal welfare was revealed to be nothing more than a sham, an elusive mirage, even among those who stood by it..."Curruption" (a term that condenses multiple meanings in relation to the violation of public in favour of private benefit, from slack attitude at work, clientelismo–the practice of obtaining votes with promises of government posts and illegal commissions, to blackmail and murder) has become a structural endemic and a cultural phenomenon accepted as part of everyday life...
Particularly in the "South", the false advent of a world defined by the manta of the "end of history" announced by Fukuyama, or the "post-ideological ideologies" discerned by Zizek, appears more like a science fiction fantasy that could only be imagined in and for the "North".  In a Latin America full of memories of struggles for justice, enriched with ideals and riddled with frustrations, fragmented by poverty and confronted by deep social and cultural heterogeneity, the spectral disenchantment with capitalism takes more and more the shape of the old ghost of socialism.  This moribund spectre, which has been thought as missing so many times and reappeared so many others in the crevasses of capitalism, is encouraging radical sectors of many social movements from Patagonia to Rio Grande:  the "piqueteros" of Argentina (unemployed workers using disruptive tactics to force government to remedy social grievances), the landless people of Brazil, the workers of coca plantations in Bolivia or the "Zapatistas" of Mexico, but also the radical wings of progressive governments, from Kirchner and Lagos in the south of Latin America, Lula in the middle, to the governor and former Presidential candidate Manuel López Obrador in the north.  But no one has incarnated and reincarnated this spirit like President Hugo Chavez, generating immense hope or exorbitant panic, depending on the way you look at it....

There are also interviews with Spivak and Laclau, and a particularly moving short essay by Simon Critchley.  Please consider giving Naked Punch your support (small independent magazines need this sort of thing, especially today).  Thanks. 

(Full disclosure:  I recently received enough money for a French restaurant dinner (with wine and one person company, of course–though the restaurants in Asheville are not yet civilized enough to permit dogs, alas) upon completing some proofreading/light editing work on their behalf.  According to them I do a very decent and reasonable job, should anybody (anybody interesting) also be in need.)

*Sometimes the writing (or translating) suffers, say, from mixed metaphor, and the tone of the longer pieces errs into ponderous repetition, or even what the common Joe Shmoe would call theoretical or jargon-laden pose.   But this issue is by far the least so afflicted, and by a tremendous shot (not that the previous ones were anything terrible, mind you). Highly recommended, especially for those craving a more contentiously overt political, philosophic flare.  All in all an impressive, bold, and very responsible publication, and I am extremely proud to be a small part of its growing success.

Speaking of the free market, one really cannot recommend The Yes Men movie/documentary heartily enough.  What are they up to these days, anyway?  (There was that Bhopal/Dow Chemical hoax, but that was ages ago.)     (It's like flirting with Popeye's wife, or lifting a sleepy jailor's keys with a long fedora feather, what they do.  Only when the jailor/waterboarder comes for The Yes Men, someone had better speak up.)   I'm curious though, have others seen the film?  Man, those guys are cool as shit.

October 18, 2006

dualism in phlosophy

Everyone is familiar, even if they haven't come across this particular quotation from Rorty, with the comment that Western metaphysics is grounded in 'dualisms.'

'Platonism'...refers to a set of philosophical distinctions (appearance-reality, matter-mind, made-found, sensible-intellectual, etc.): what Dewey called a 'brood and nest of dualisms.'These dualisms dominate the history of Western philosophy, and can be traced back to one or another passage in Plato's writings. Dewey thought, as I do, that the vocabulary which centers around these traditional distinctions has become an obstacle to our social hopes. (Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, xii)

What do we think of this claim? It's a characterization about fundamental ways of thinking specific to the West. A geographically specific area is being talked about. Not everyone, in other words, on the planet earth who thinks about philosophic topics employs the kinds of dualisms Rorty says mark Western philosophy. "Europe" is the specific territory where we come across this kind of thinking.

Is it valuable to speculate about the unseen unfelt habits of thinking that characterize the Western tradition? If so, what does learning that European philosophy is rooted in dualisms, as Dewey claims, help us with?

Imagine an alien arriving to survey Earth as part of an inter-galactic project to collect studies of species that have developed a self-consciousness along the lines of Fichte's description of it. The researcher doesn't want the most detailed depiction of philosophic developments -- that's too much data to handle. Instead, reliable general characterizations of the mental 'environment', if you will, of fichtean-level beings are needed. (This then gets compared to a wide range of other instances that have been collected so far.) Would such a researcher be well served to refer to arguments like Rorty's? The Researcher (that's what we'll call the character. The Researcher. Can a graphic novel be far behind? Everyone seen 'V' for Vendetta?) could write:

We have about ten thousand similarly situated worlds in our database that roughly correspond to what is found on earth: that is, a world that has been taken over and redirected to serve the needs of a hominoid population that has achieved 'level seven' mental capacities. [The Researcher is on level ten. Figures. - swifty] But there's one subset of this population, located geographically in an area known as 'Europe' (though migrants from this area have also established themselves elsewhere), that has adopted a way of thinking that we've rarely seen in so highly developed a form on other planets. Quite recently, the more advanced thinkers among them have even themselves become aware of the overarching pattern of 'European thought' that has ruled it, unawares, for almost three millennia. This is the phenomenon of a stark dualism that produces fixed, uncompromising absolutes on either side of a potential scale. The result on this planet especially, but also on others that share this foundational approach to thinking about the world, is a strong tendency to reflections about 'essences,' whether the topic is something obscure like 'truth' or more day-to-day, such as gender. We also note a lively streak of near schizophrenia especially among religious types who wrestle with an especially unforgiving earth-heaven here & go to verses 7-24 .

Would the Researcher's characterization of European thought above be a valid one?

October 18, 2006

dualism in phlosophy

Everyone is familiar, even if they haven't come across this particular quotation from Rorty, with the comment that Western metaphysics is grounded in 'dualisms.'

'Platonism'...refers to a set of philosophical distinctions (appearance-reality, matter-mind, made-found, sensible-intellectual, etc.): what Dewey called a 'brood and nest of dualisms.'These dualisms dominate the history of Western philosophy, and can be traced back to one or another passage in Plato's writings. Dewey thought, as I do, that the vocabulary which centers around these traditional distinctions has become an obstacle to our social hopes. (Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, xii)

What do we think of this claim? It's a characterization about fundamental ways of thinking specific to the West. A geographically specific area is being talked about. Not everyone, in other words, on the planet earth who thinks about philosophic topics employs the kinds of dualisms Rorty says mark Western philosophy. "Europe" is the specific territory where we come across this kind of thinking.

Is it valuable to speculate about the unseen unfelt habits of thinking that characterize the Western tradition? If so, what does learning that European philosophy is rooted in dualisms, as Dewey claims, help us with?

Imagine an alien arriving to survey Earth as part of an inter-galactic project to collect studies of species that have developed a self-consciousness along the lines of Fichte's description of it. The researcher doesn't want the most detailed depiction of philosophic developments -- that's too much data to handle. Instead, reliable general characterizations of the mental 'environment', if you will, of fichtean-level beings are needed. (This then gets compared to a wide range of other instances that have been collected so far.) Would such a researcher be well served to refer to arguments like Rorty's? The Researcher (that's what we'll call the character. The Researcher. Can a graphic novel be far behind? Everyone seen 'V' for Vendetta?) could write:

We have about ten thousand similarly situated worlds in our database that roughly correspond to what is found on earth: that is, a world that has been taken over and redirected to serve the needs of a hominoid population that has achieved 'level seven' mental capacities. [The Researcher is on level ten. Figures. - swifty] But there's one subset of this population, located geographically in an area known as 'Europe' (though migrants from this area have also established themselves elsewhere), that has adopted a way of thinking that we've rarely seen in so highly developed a form on other planets. Quite recently, the more advanced thinkers among them have even themselves become aware of the overarching pattern of 'European thought' that has ruled it, unawares, for almost three millennia. This is the phenomenon of a stark dualism that produces fixed, uncompromising absolutes on either side of a potential scale. The result on this planet especially, but also on others that share this foundational approach to thinking about the world, is a strong tendency to reflections about 'essences,' whether the topic is something obscure like 'truth' or more day-to-day, such as gender. We also note a lively streak of near schizophrenia especially among religious types who wrestle with an especially unforgiving earth-heaven here & go to verses 7-24 .

Would the Researcher's characterization of European thought above be a valid one?

March 06, 2007

adbusters and the "existential divide"


I wasn't quite a charter subscriber to Adbusters, but fairly close to it. Maybe issue 10 or so, if memory serves. I cancelled about a year ago. While it has a certain connection to some of my perennial interests (see the name of my personal blog), I just started to feel increasingly out of touch with, what was it, the tone, the tonal politics, and the plain old politics of the magazine.

Here's part of a post salvaged from my old site, just about when I wrote Adbusters to cancel out:

I've always been unsettled - in the wrong way - by the approach to politics embraced by Adbusters and the like. Seems to me to be an infinitely foreseeable adaptation of left politics to the self-help, self-fulfillment culture that marks the current tidal mark of the American experiment. Marie Antoinette-ism... What the magazine prescribes for its readership is something other than politics, I think. At base, it's a strange sort of "lifestyle" magazine. It is full of stuff like this, from the current issue...

Here in rural Telemark, Norway, my husband and I have an ancient, 100-acre farm without a road, without electricity, without running water, without a computer or mobile telephone or washing machine or CD player or remote-control carrot-dicer... without corporate products, including Barbie dolls or Nike sneakers. We have a fjord-horse to do most of the heavy farm work (and so on...)

And a subscription to Adbusters, it would seem...

Anyway, they sell the magazine at the snazzy co-op where I buy my food, and the other day I bought a copy to see if anything has changed, either about the magazine or about me or both.



Right from the first pages - which feature a "visual essay" by Kalle Lasn, the founder and editor - I found some material that I can only classify as disturbing, symptomatic, symptomatically disturbing. Here are a few snips:

a passionate struggle for freedom is deeply embedded in the history of the western world. it still inspires us today. and it still inspires oppressed people everywhere. freedom is our great meta-meme, the crowning jewel of our civilization... but lately in our own back yard, freedom has taken a perverse, hyper-individualistic turn.

The start is not promising - that's basically a version of the "From the dawn of time, man has loved art/literature/freedom/money/sex" that I prohibit my students from using as an opening move in their essays for my classes... And the thing is, it's not just a style issue. The universal sweep of the intro (in my students' papers) tends to give on to overly-broad, unspecific, and often erroneous arguments. Here, Lasn's probably a bit too vague to be "erroneous," though the "inspires oppressed people everywhere" jive is a bit scary. In the end, though, it's the "perverse, hyper-individualistic" part that's going to cause the most problems. I'll continue:

we now drink more, do more drugs, live more promiscuously, spend more money, use up more resources, create more waste, and deliberately flaunt our wealth, power, and sexuality more than any other culture on earth.

when a modest, pious man living in a poor village a world away looks at us, what does he see?

OK. So much to say here. The first issue is obvious. "live more promiscuously?" Are you serious? Before we get to the sexual panic, we might think that Lasn is worried about our drinking and drugging because they are bad reactions to a bad situation - we are self-medicating because we are trapped in desiccating system or whatever. But the anxiety about "promiscuity" shed as a different light, retroactively, on what's come before. Pleasure-seeking itself - even pleasure-seeking that it not easily or ambiguously folded under the rubric of exploitation - is his target.

The point is confused. There just is not the connection between the two strands of his argument confuse both. There is no easy connection between drinking, sex, and the like and the despoliation of the earth, the wasting of resources. If the latter is what he is really after, then he should have chosen different examples. But that's not what he's really after. The pleasure itself is the issue.

I am far more worried about what the "modest, pious man... a world away" eats, where and how much he works, the chances for his children to thrive, and the possibility of his being shredded into bits by cluster-bombs than what the west looks like to him. Lasn's call directs us inward instead of outward in our attention - the pious guy becomes a mirror that we use to establish an ultimately aesthetic rather than political or economic vision of ourselves. This is the problem.

For lack of a better word, the argument seems painfully Christian to me. And like Christianity itself, it is characterized by a collection of a few good ideas (and some very bad ones), but a collection structured by a completely perverse hierarchy of values. It pays lip service to actual pressing issues and effects, but urges us, in the end, toward a new wardrobe, a new look, new lifestyle choices, a new and reinvigorating asceticism.

Rather than clean water for those who lack it, the most likely and immediate effect of this sort of rhetoric is to turn us from bottled to tap, and finally for once to truly taste and savor the tap water. To thank Christ or Kalle for re-enchanting our lives, purging the limpidity, and rendering the personal forcefully political.


we kill ourselves slowly, by eating too much or too little, becoming fat, or anorexic, or diabetic. physically and psychologically we whither away in our culture of collective self-absorption and material sloth. and our boundless, insatiable greed now threatens to drag the entire planet down with us.

meanwhile, in our eyes, the islamist suicide bomber has come to epitomize "the terrorist", a modern savage, a psychopathic degenerate utterly disconnected from any redeeming social or moral values. yet, in fact, this "other" is a man whose life revolves around the mosque, daily prayer, restrained dress, modest fasting, a tight-knit family and community. When pushed to the limit, a committed muslim may decide to sacrifice his own life, his own body for what he sees as a greater social and spiritual good. which one of us in the west will do this now.

this is the existential divide.

In between the previous passage and this one, there is an utterly baffling clipping from a newspaper (I guess) piece decrying the "decline in Australian male culture" and the rise of "metrosexuality." In light of the last passage, what Lasn thinks he's doing with this snippet is beyond me. Fight Club, anyone? Seriously?

I'm not really sure I need to do the close reading of this comparison between fat "us" and "moral" them, in light of what I've said above. But do you see the way a sociopolitical system and distinction gets blurred into moral evaluation? The pressing divide, in other words, isn't existential (whatever he wants that to mean) so much as material and political. And where it's an "existential" issue, or a religious one, I'm afraid you can count me out.


Whatever my politics are, they most distinctly do not involve nostalgia for a church or mosque centered existence, for smothering family relations, or, um, restrained dress. (See how it keeps sneaking in here, the What Not to Wear fixation...) And further, I really don't begrudge people - the rich or the poor - their pleasures, even those of the most material varieties. Pleasure, even or especially the pleasure of consumption, is not the problem - it's the unequal distribution of resources that afford pleasure, or before that, sustenance, comfort. I am not sure, in other words, that the fine people in their lonely farm in Telemark, for all their pride and excitement, are really doing anything to benefit anyone other than themselves. Which is fine, but it is important not to delude ourselves that we are acting effectively when we really aren't.

Adbusters is probably, in many ways, an important influence on certain aspects of how I think about culture and politics today. And while I'm not quite a "no enemies on the left" sort of guy, I would in general rather spend my time working on something other than the unsympathetic critique of radical journals. Our culture kills them off easily enough without my help. But this magazine, which is in many ways so promising, seems locked into a strain of political perversity that renders it either something between useless and dangerous. Unhelpful at least. Frightening at the most.

What do you think?

February 24, 2006

W(h)ither the Philosophy of Pop?

    "Do you realize how ridiculous you must sound when you bring into the classroom, the place where should be taught universal truths, this [spluttering]…this rubbish. This is little more than a propoganda campaign for MTV. Pop caters to the lowest common denominator; the energy of pop is too often the testosterone-fueled energy of male adolescence; the languages of pop are impenetrable, ephemeral jargons; it locks into stereotypical patterns which relate purely to physiological artefacts and thus have no significance whatever to philosophy. Man will always have need of entertainment; this is not, however, philosophy; or even philosophically interesting. There is no philosophy, nor politics, in pop."
    -Grayson Darkling-Furniss 

    "All poetry [Dichtung]"
    -Martin Heidegger

Having heard the phrases, "pop philosophy" or, "the philosophy of pop" resonate in certain corners of the 'sphere, having read this generous transcription by Robin; (from whence the quote above); or this post in particular by K-Punk (since followed up by many others); or, going even further back, this good interview by Infinite Thought...well here a mammoth post, with generous (but hopefully not ponderous!) excerpting from an article by Mark Greif follows...

Granted, these discussions have been taking place for awhile, and one hardly proposes to make a survey here.  For one thing––if you'll permit a bit of self-indulgent personal digression (this is after all, a "blog")––the present author is not qualified.  He wouldn't really know Deleuze, for instance.  His own musical tastes, not that they are relevant, tend toward the sort of incurably melancholic.  He confesses that their possible antiquation may be a source of some small pride.  Such traditional, outmoded things as lyrics, melody and harmony matter to him greatly.  For dissonance on most days he prefers Debussy, or Schubert maybe, to Rage Against the Machine.  He has been known to weep at certain Bach and certain Shostakovitch, and occasionally, when drunk, at opera.  He adores the late, raspy Dylan especially, Steve Earl and Greg Brown, Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams, Smog, the Bill Evans Trio, solo Monk and post-70's Roy Haynes, the early Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, and the mid-to-late Chet Baker.  And yet, to recall a popular phrase handed down to Roy Haynes--incorrigable, aging hipster that he is--and that he has been known to deploy on more than one occasion:   what makes these artists or composers great is, in the final analysis, neither technical mastery nor classical proficiency, but rather the simple fact of their having "something to say." 

To choose the obvious counter-example, at least from jazz–which is surely something of an antiquated pop all to itself––Wynton Marsalis is someone who quite clearly has nothing to say.  (Consequently, neither does Ken Burns, though that is yet another, far graver matter.)  A general enough distinction, maybe, and demanding complication, but is it one that might be fleshed out and put to some good use?

Haynes, still going strong into his eighties, would seem to be a percussionist of infinite original things to say, though what is said hardly ever gets in the way of the saying.  (This distinction, it seems to me, could be taken even further.  The poetry or truth of song seems to consist precisely in the manner of its failure, or more precisely of its falling.  A failure to achieve unity and self-presence or even, one might say, to ward off death.  A saying, therefore, which may be sensed to be taking place elsewhere, as if always just a little to the side of things, or a fraction of a beat behind.  A saying and also a listening, alongside itself, perhaps listening for a certain echo; in any case, that seems to me to be 'clearing work' of song.)  And yet, Roy Haynes performs identifiably within a genre--if we ignore the strictures of this word--where the distinctions between man and machine, rhythm and voice, percussion and melody are still more or less clearly, structurally defined. 

Of course in a sense the piano (and the keyboard) are percussion, and so predisposedly background instruments.  They hardly sing, that is, in the sense that one's control over the note, once deployed, is no longer bound up with the body in quite the same way as is the human voice.  With certain traditional instruments, the potential to carress, fall off or even abuse the note remains restricted.  One gets the impression moreover, that some singers (or trumpeters, for instance) have earned their right to say certain things, which they prove, again and again at every moment, by saying them in a certain way.  I am thinking, of course, of Chet Baker, who still insisted that songs needed to sound a certain order to be beautiful, that is.  (What was most beautiful about his singing/trumpeting, paradoxically, was its certain 'resisting/desisting', if not exactly dwelling, in a dialogue with failure always at meeting this ideal––one way of describing his unique brokenness (especially in competition–with Mulligan, but not only him–for the melody).  Indeed, one could write a dissertation or three on Chet Baker and mimetic rivalry, music, autobiography and madness...)

But maybe this is one area, to be vulgar, where a certain paradigm--namely that of the (unified) Subject who speaks--is understood to have shifted (perhaps onto a subject who murmurs, and echos...?)  In any case, this facile opposition of "unity" with "de-centering" is perhaps today often enough assumed, and too quickly, rather than understood.  But then we are still grazing along the plane of (introductory) generalities.  And if you'll indulge him a little further yet, in this occasionally ponderous and personal digression, let it be because there is something more interesting and rigorously argued in the tail (in other words, you have been warned; this is...a lenghty post).

Such distinctions, between "speaking" and "singing," or "producing" may sound outmoded today (though again, one should resist, he thinks, mapping them directly onto any "competing conceptions of the subject," not least of all as "the subject" may have survived the last century just fine, somewhat deconstructed but hardly dissolved, in any case) .  He wonder if they might still be turned, at least toward the questions that are most obvious.  Namely, is it even possible, let alone advisable or productive, to pursue the articulation of such a thing as a "philosophy of pop" (run for the hills if you must dear Daniel Green, or reach for your special revolver, Ellis Sharp).  Indeed, can the definitions of "art" and "poetry" even be bent to map onto such a "philosophy" without losing something crucial.  What sort of genealogy is traceable here, and what binds it together?  Also, what might be at stake in any careful distinction between 'pop' and poetry?  Such big questions, and all over a bit of kid's music, you may say!  Let us at least avoid getting into Husserl, Heidegger and competing phenomenologies, or the primacy vs. metaphysics vs. transcendence vs. untruth of 'the origin'  all at once, as best we can!

He may be something of an elitist, though not in the manner commonly sneered.  When school friends were listening to Beck and then Radiohead, his inner monologue was proudly dominated by "Visions of Johanna" and, occasionally, "Rocking in the Free World."  For a brief, convoluted moment there was grunge and Pearl Jam, and The Beastie Boys of course, who will never, ever fade.  (The Counting Crows, mercifully, did fade.)  But like other Americans of his reluctant generation, born into boredom with a Cold War that had overstayed its welcome (and would continue of course to overstay it's welcome)––those who may or may not have kept listening to real music through the awful eighties in an unapologetically retro sort of manner, and to an odd yet politically suggestive blend of say, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Phish, Tupac and Public Enemy––well in any case, he largely missed the pop and punk and post-punk 'moments' that seem––though he may get flack for this, if not for the gratuitous eighties swipe––so formative for, and perhaps still haunting of Great Britain. 

Some would of course sneer that what "pop" means today is merely displaced, or unduly dignified nostalgia (for childhood, perhaps).  Others find it harmless, humorous and entertaining (everthing in moderation!)  Others would lament that it is often tiresome, product strangely and menacingly out of time yet still prepackaged.  Product whose adherance to our lives is therapeutic, yet dubious, product watered-down or frozen, and chemical-treated surely.  "Pop" is sometimes, pretentiously or ignorantly, labeled "pure" commercialization, "pure" this or that.  What is meant by this may be something very simple:  that while "pop" is assumed to be sterile and formulaic, or part and parcel of a lingering "60's" or "hippies" denial, "pop" in fact belongs to none of this.  "Pop" does not quite belong this way.  To say that "pop resists" these things is likewise a refrain, one bordering on cliché, becuase while it does sometimes seem as though producing a "cultural phenomenon" has become merely the latest hobby of an advanced, ever-ready "hip" Capital,   "pop" signifies, perhaps, a potential even greater indifference to the "culture" in which it swims.  "Pop," or rather the experience of pop may be, in the end, nothing less than profoundly neutral.

"Pop" is neither good nor evil.  Some people like the VH1 neoliberal "hip," after all.  They think it keeps them from taking themselves too seriously, and it might!  But   there are after all vast expanses and sub-genres of 'pop', and 'pop' potential.  A great, and yet semi-permeable membrane may separate what is mass produced on demand and what is, especially if cut-up, resampled and remixed, often more "original."  Phorias and Phobias conspire against careful articulation on either side.  As do people who take themselves too seriously.

The label is itself too broad, certainly.  Approaching the subject in any meaningful manner, other than with language ready-made or content with vague generalities, seems an impossible task.  But if there is a certain timely or defiant political potential––one hesitates, of course, to call it "revolutionary"––in some good pop music, ––a potential for resistance and for paradoxically re-claimed privacy, perhaps, then this would be a good thing to explore, if not strictly philosophically, at least to try to think more clearly and more critically about.

In light of which, I would like to pull down from the print-world moon (ever-closer though it hovers), rip from its proper environment and begin to sink my teeth into this one article, wonderfully written by Mark Greif for n+1 magazine.  These are, after all, some of his questions. 

It's a trivial point to make, but previous forays (not to play favorites but, see especially Aenesidemus if you have not already) –were severely bounded and borne by lack of context.  So much so that responding––though I am grateful others did––seemed somewhat beside the point.  A less trivial thing to note, at least in passing, is the indeed rare manner in which the print version of this new magazine, for those who still do read, maintains an unusually persistent integrity and depth "all of its own."  There is more than just economic wisdom in insisting people read this way, with care, and with an ear for the potential music of a larger pastiche or composition, though such patience is uncommon.  Taken together, the pieces resist/desist in often subtle, sometimes unintentional dialogue with each other.  Certain proper names are summoned (though rarely ever cited) at once discreetly and with discrete concentration, under penetrating barbs of light.  It is, in other words, a damn fine literary/philosophical little magazine.  And, what is more, it is both highly intelligent and dedicatedly, concisely readable.  But don't take my word for it.  Albeit yanked from it's brethren, and although his particular choice of an "important" band may jar with certain people's sense of taste (it certainly did with mine), Mark's piece undoubtedly presents a worthy contribution to these debates (I wouldn't deign to call it "serious," since you at least will remember, as good readers of Derrida,  how that particular distinction has its limits).

Here is Mark Greif:

I've wondered why there's no philosophy of popular music.  Critics of pop do reviews and interviews; they write appreciation and biography.  Their criticism takes many things for granted, and doesn’t ask the questions I want answered.  Everyone repeats the received idea that music is revolutionary.—Well, is it?  Does pop music actually support revolution?  We say pop is of its time, and can date this music by ear with surprising precision, to 1966 or 1969 or 1972 or 1978 or 1984.—Well, is it?  Is pop truly of its time, in the sense that it represents some aspect of exterior history apart from the path of its internal development?  I know pop does something to me; everyone says the same.—So, what does it do?  Does it really influence my beliefs, or actions, in my deep life, where I think I feel it most, or does it just insinuate a certain fluctuation of mood, or evanescent pleasure, or impulse to move?  [The Arctic Monkeys!]

The answers are difficult not because thinking is hard on the subject of pop, but because of an acute sense of embarrassment.  [Freud:  "be ashamed; but say so!"]  Popular music is the most living art form today.  Condemned to a desert island, contemporary people would take their records first; we have the concept of desert island discs because we could do without most other art forms before we would give up songs.  Songs are what we consume in greatest quantity, they’re what we store most of in our heads.  But even as we can insist on the seriousness of value of pop music, we don’t believe enough in its seriousness of meaning outside the realm of music, or most of us don’t, or we can’t talk about it, or sound idiotic when we do.  And all of us lovers of music, with ears tuned precisely to a certain kind of sublimity in pop, are quick to detect pretension, overstatement and cant about pop—in any attempt at a wider criticism—precisely because we feel the gap between the effectiveness of the music and the impotence and superfluity of analysis.   This means we don’t know, about our major art form, what we ought to know.  We don’t even agree in what sense the interconnection of pop music and lyrics, rather than the words spoken alone, accomplishes an utterly different task of representation, more scattershot and overwhelming and much less careful and dignified than poetry —and bad critics show their ignorance when they persist in treating pop like poetry, as in the still-growing critical effluence around Bob Dylan.

[...]If you were to develop a philosophy of pop, you would have to clear the field of many obstacles.  You would need to focus on a single band, to let people know you had not floated into generalities—to let them test your declarations.  You’d have to announce at the outset that the musicians were figures of real importance, but not the “most” anything—not the most avant-garde, most perfect, most exemplary.  This would preempt the hostile comparison and sophistication that passes for criticism among aficionados.  Then you should have some breathing room.  If you said once that you liked the band’s music, there would be no more need of appreciation;  and if it were a group whose music enough people listened to, there would be no need of biography or bare description.  So let the band be Radiohead, for the sake of argument, and let me be fool enough to embark on this.  And if I insist that Radiohead are “more” anything than some other pop musicians—as fans will make claims for the superiority of the bands they love—let it be this, that this band was more able, at the turn of the millennium, to pose a single question of pop precisely: how should it really ever be possible for pop music to incarnate a particular historical situation?

adiohead belong to “rock,” and if rock has a characteristic subject, as country music’s is small pleasures in hard times (getting by), and rap’s is success in competition (getting over), that subject must be freedom from constraint (getting free).

Yet the first notable quality of their music is that, even though their topic may still be freedom, their technique involves the evocation —not of the feeling of freedom—but of unending, low-level fear.

The dread in the songs is so detailed and so pervasive that it seems built into each line of lyric and into the black or starry sky of music that domes it.  It is environing fear, not antagonism emanating from a single object or authority.  It is atmospheric rather than explosive.  This menace doesn’t surprise anyone.  Outside there are listeners in, watchers, abandoned wrecks with deployed airbags, killer cars, lights going out and coming on.  “They” are waiting, without a proper name.—Ghost voices, clicks of tapped phones, grooves of ended records, sounds of processing and anonymity.

An event is imminent or has just happened but is blocked from our senses: Something big is gonna happen/ over my dead body.  Or else it is impossible that anything more will happen and yet it does:  I used to think/ There was no future left at all/ I used to think.  Something has gone wrong with the way we know events, the error leaking back to occurrences themselves.  Life transpires in its representations, in the common medium of a machine language.  (Arrest this man: He talks in maths, he buzzes like a fridge, his voice is like a detuned radio.)  A fissure has opened between occurrence and depiction, and the dam bursts between the technical and the natural.—These are not meant to be statements of thoughts about their songs, or even about the lyrics, which look banal on the printed page; this is what happens in their songs.  The technical artifacts are in the music, sit behind our lips, and slide out when we open our mouths—as chemical and medical words effortlessly make it into the lyrics (“polystyrene,” “myxomatosis,” “polyethylene,” “melatonin”).

Beside the artificial world is an iconography in their lyrics that comes from dark children’s books: swamps, rivers, animals, ominous arks and rowboats riding ambiguous tracks of light to the moon.  Within these reassuring lyrics—and also in the musical counterpoint of chimes, strings, lullaby—an old personal view is opened, a desperate wish for small, safe spaces.  It promises sanctuary, a little house, a little garden, a bit of quiet in which to think.

Such a pretty house
and such a pretty garden.
No alarms and no surprises,
no alarms and no surprises,
no alarms and no surprises please.

But when the songs try to defend the small and safe, this comes hand-in-hand with grandiose assertions of power and violence—which mimic the voice of overwhelming authority that should be behind our dread-filled contemporary universe but never speaks.  Or else the words speak, somehow, for us.

This is what you’ll get.
this is what you’ll get.
this is what you’ll get
when you mess with us.

It just isn’t clear whether this voice is a sympathetic voice or a voice outside—whether it is for us or against us.  The band’s task, as I understand it, is to try to hold on to the will, to ask if there is any part of it left that would be worth holding onto, or to find out where that force  has gone.  Thom Yorke, the singer, seems always in danger of destruction; and then he is either channeling the Philistines or, Samson-like, preparing to take the Temple down with him.  So we hear pained and beautiful reassurances, austere, crystalline and delicate—then violent denunciations and threats of titanic violence—until they seem to be answering each other, as though the outside violence were being drawn inside:

Breathe, keep breathing
                                                            We hope that you choke,
                                                            that you choke.
everything in its right place.
                                                            You and whose army?
We ride--we ride--tonight!

And the consequence?  Here you reach the best-known Radiohead lyrics, again banal on the page, and with them the hardest mood in their music to describe—captured in multiply repeated little phrases, stock talk, as words lose their meanings and regain them.  “How to disappear completely,” as a song title puts it—for the words seem to speak a wish for negation of the self, a last singularity, nothingness and non-being:

For a minute there
I lost myself, I lost myself

I’m not here.  This isn’t happening.

description of the condition of the late 1990s could go like this
: At the turn of the millennium, each individual sat at a meeting-point of shouted orders and appeals, the TV, the radio, the phone and cell, the billboard, the airport screen, the inbox, the paper junk mail.  Each person discovered that he stood at one knot of a network, existing without his consent, which connected him to any number of recorded voices, written messages, means of broadcast, channels of entertainment, and avenues of choice.  It was a culture of broadcast: an indiscriminate seeding, which needed to reach only a very few, covering vast tracts of our consciousness.  To make a profit, only one message in ten-thousand needed to take root, therefore messages were strewn everywhere.  To live in this network felt like something, but surprisingly little in the culture of broadcast itself tried to capture what it felt like.  Instead, it kept bringing pictures of an unencumbered luxurious life, in vacation sensuality, and songs of ease and freedom, and technological marvels, that did not feel like the life we lived.

And if you noticed you were not represented?  It felt as if one of the few unanimous aspects of the network was that it forbade you to complain, since if you complained you were a trivial human, a small person, who misunderstood the generosity and benignity of the message system.  It existed to help you.  Now, if you accepted the constant promiscuous broadcasts as normalcy, there were messages in them to inflate and pet and flatter you.  If you simply said this chatter was altering your life, killing your privacy or ending the ability to think in silence, there were alternative messages that whispered of humiliation, craziness, vanishing.  What kind of crank needs silence?  What was more harmless than a phone or a billboard?  The messages did not come from somewhere; they were not central, organized, intelligent, intentional.  It was up to you to change the channel, not answer the phone, stop your ears, shut your eyes, dig a hole for yourself and get in it.  Really, it was your responsibility.  The metaphors in which people tried to complain about these developments, by ordinary law and custom, were pollution (as in “noise pollution”) and theft (as in “stealing our time”). But we all knew the intrusions felt like violence.  Physical violence, with no way to strike back.

And if the feeling of violent intrusion persisted?  Then it added a new dimension of constant, nervous triviality to our lives.  It linked, irrationally, in our moods, and secret thoughts, these tiny private annoyances to the constant televised violence that we saw.  Those who objected embarrassed themselves, because they likened nuisances to tragedies—and yet we felt it, though it became unsayable.  Perhaps it was because our nerves have a limited palette for painting dread.  Or because the network fulfilled its debts of “civic responsibility” by bringing us twenty-four hour news, of flaming airplanes, and twisted cars, and blood-soaked screaming casualties, globally acquired, portioned out between commercials, at which it was supposedly our civic duty to look—and put this mixture of messages and horrors up on screens wherever a TV could only be introduced on grounds of “responsibility to know”—in the airport, and the doctor’s office, the subway, and any waiting room.  But to object was demeaning—who, really, meant us any harm?  And didn’t we, truly, have a responsibility to know?

Thus the large mass of people, huddled in the path of every broadcast, who were really only those who were spoken for, who received and couldn’t send, were made responsible for the new Babel. Most of us who lived in this culture were primarily sufferers or patients of it, and not, as the word had it, “consumers.”  Yet we had no other words besides consumption or consumerism to condemn a world of violent intrusions of insubstantial messages, no new way at least to name this culture or describe the feeling of being inside it.

So a certain kind of pop music could offer a representative vision of this world while still being one of its omnipresent products.  A certain kind of musician might reflect this new world’s vague smiling threat of hostile action, its latent violence done by no one in particular; a certain kind of musician, angry and critical rather than complacent and blithe, might depict the intrusive experience, though the music would be painfully intrusive itself, and it would be brought to us by and share the same avenues of mass-intrusion that broadcast everything else.  Pop music had the good fortune of being both a singularly unembarrassed art, and still a relatively low-capital medium in its creation—made by just a composer or writer or two or four or six members of a band, with little outside intrusion, until the money is poured into the recording and distribution and advertising of it.  So, compromised as it always was, music still could become a form of unembarrassed and otherwise inarticulable complaint, capturing what one could not say in reasonable debate, and coming from far enough inside the broadcast culture that it could depict it with its own tools.

historical paradox of rock has been that the pop genre most devoted to the idea of rebellion against authority has adopted increasingly more brutal and authoritarian music to denounce forms of authoritarianism.  A genre that celebrated individual liberation required increasing regimentation and coordination.  The development could be seen most starkly in “hard rock,” metal, hardcore, and a current rap-metal—but it was latent all along.

Throughout the early 20th century, folk musics had been a more traditional alternative to forms of musical authority.  (The ambiguous other alternative was avant-gardism, in serialism and bop.)   But amplification alone, it seems, so drastically changed the situation of music, opening possibilities in the realm of dynamics and the mimesis of other sounds, that this created avenues for the musical representation of liberation that had nothing to do with folk music’s traditional lyrical content or the concern with instrumental skill and purism.  Specifically, it gave pop ways to emulate the evils liberation would be fighting against, to go along with folk’s righteous indignation or celebrations of the good times of those the music was for.  Pop could become Goliath while it was cheering David.  One aspect of amplification by the late 1960s stands out above all others: It opened up the possibility, for the first time, that a musician might choose to actually hurt an audience with noise.  The relationship of audience to rock musician had to be based on a new kind of trust.  This was the trust of listeners facing a direct threat of real pain and permanent damage that bands would voluntarily restrain—just barely.  An artist for the first time had his hands on a means of actual violence, and colluded with his audience to test its possibilities.  You hear it in The Who, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix.  In the 1960s, of course, this testing occurred against a rising background of real violence, usually held in monopoly by “the authorities,” but being manifested with increasing frequency in civil unrest and police reaction as well as overseas war.  This is sometimes taken as an explanation.  But once the nation was back in peacetime, it turned out that the formal violence of rock did not depend on the overt violence of bloodshed, and rock continued to metamorphose.  The extremity of its dynamics towards metal during the 1970s—and some connected this to industrial collapse and economic misery.  Later it was refined in punk and post-punk, in periods of miserable political defeat—and some connected the music’s newest violence and lyrical alternations of hatred of authority with hatred of the self to the political, economic, and social outlook.  Maybe they were right.  But this is perhaps to give too much automatic credence to the idea that pop music depicts history almost without trying—which is precisely what is in question[...]

o leap all the way into the affective world of our own moment, of course, would require something else: electronic sounds [...]  “Electronica,” as a contemporary genre name, speaks of the tools of production as well as their output.  The laptops, ProTools, sequencers and samplers, the found sounds and sped-up breaks and pure frequencies, provided an apparently unanchored environment and a weird soundscape that, though foreshadowed decades earlier in the studios at Westdeutscher Rundfunk in Cologne or the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, didn’t automatically fit with the traditions of guitars and drums that pop knew.  But the electronic blips the music used turned out to be already emotionally available to us, by a different route than the avant-gardism of Stockhausen, Berio or Cage.  All of us born after 1965 had been setting nonsense syllables and private songs to machine noise, then computer noise, since the arriving sounds first reached our cradles.  Just as we want to make tick and tock out of the even movement of a clock, we wanted to know how to hear a language and a song of noises, air compressors and washer surges, alarm sirens and warning bells.  We hear communication in the refined contemporary spectrum of beeps: the squall of a microwave, the chime of a timer, the fat gulp of a register, the chirrups of cell phones, the ping of seatbelt alerts and clicks of indicators, not to mention the argot of debonair beeps from the computers on which we type.

[...]One [early,] well-known and well-loved but clumsy [Radiohead] song sang about the replacement of a natural and domestic world by plastic replicas (“Fake Plastic Trees.”)  That account was inches away from folk cliché—something like Buffy St. Marie’s “Little Boxes.”  Its only salvation may have been the effect observed rather than the situation denounced:  It wears you out, describing the fatigue human beings feel in the company of the ever-replaceable.  The Bends, the last album produced before their major period, had this steady but awkward awareness, as the title implies, of being dragged through incompatible atmospheres in the requirements of daily life.  But the band didn’t yet seem to know that the subjective, symptomatic evocation of these many whiplashing states of feeling—not overt, narrative complaint about them—would prove to be their talent.

On the first mature album, OK Computer, a risk of cliché still recurred in a song of a computer voice intoning Fitter, Happier, More Productive—as if the dream of conformist self-improvement would turn us artificial.  But the automated voice’s oddly human character saved the effect—as if automated things, too, could be seduced by a dream of perfection equally delusory for them; as if the new commensurability of natural and artificial wasn’t a simple loss, but produced a new hybrid vulnerability where you thought things were stark and steely.  This was the breakthrough.  The band was also, at that time, mastering, formally, a game of voices, the interfiling of inhuman speech, and machine sounds, with the keening, vulnerable human singing of Thom Yorke.

Their music had started as guitar rock, but as they continued with the albums Kid A and Insomniac the keyboard asserted itself.  The piano dominated; the guitars developed a quality of organ.  The drums, emerging altered and processed, came to fill in spaces in rhythms already set by the frontline instruments.  Orchestration added brittle pieces of strings, a synthetic choir, chimes, an unknown shimmer, or bleated horns.  The new songs were built on verse-chorus structure in only a rudimentary way, as songs developed from one block of music to the next, not turning back.

And, of course—and as is better known, and more widely discussed—on the new albums the band, by now extremely popular and multi-million selling, “embraced” electronica.  But what precisely did that mean?  It didn’t seem in their case like opportunism, as in keeping up with the new thing; nor did it entirely take over what they did in their songs; nor were they particularly noteworthy, as electronic artists.  It is crucial that they were not innovators, nor unusually competent electronically, nor did they ever take it further than halfway—if that.  They were not an avant-garde.  The political problem of an artistic avant-garde, especially when it deals with any new technology of representation, has always been that the simply novel elements may be mistaken for some form of political action or progress. Two meanings of “revolutionary”—one, forming a turn-about in formal technique, the other, contributing to social cataclysm—are often confused, usually for the artist’s benefit, and technology has a way of becoming infatuated with its own existence.

Radiohead's success lay in their ability to represent the feeling of our age because they did not insist on being too much advanced in the “advanced” music they acquired.  [pop is retro!  "il faut être absolutement moderne" mais pas futuriste!]  The beeps and buzzes never seemed like the source of their energy, but a means they’d stumbled upon of finally communicating the feelings they had always held[...]  And they did something very rudimentary and basic with the new technologies.  They tilted artificial noises against the weight of the human voice and human sounds.

Their new kind of song, in both words and music, announced that anyone might have to become partly inhuman to accommodate the experience of the new era.

hom Yorke’s voice is the unity on which all the musical aggregations and complexes pivot.  You have to imagine the music drawing a series of outlines around him, a house, a tank, the stars of space, or an architecture of almost abstract pipes and tubes, cogs and wheels, ivies and thorns, servers and boards, beams and voids.  The music has the feeling of a biomorphic machine in which his voice is alternately trapped and protected.

Yorke’s voice conjures the human in extremis.  Sometimes it comes to us from an extreme of fear, sometimes an extreme of transcendence.  We recognize it as a naked voice in the process of rising up to beauty—the reassurance we’ve alluded to in the lyrics hope—or broken up and lost in the chatter of broadcasts, the destroying fear.  In the same song that features a whole sung melody, the vocals will also be broken into bits, and made the pulsing wallpaper against which the vulnerable pale voice of the singer stands out.  Only a few other popular artists build up so much of their music from sampled voice, rather than sampled beats, instrumental tones, or noises.  The syllables are cut and repeated.—A “wordless” background will come from mashed phonemes.  Then the pure human voice will reassert itself.

A surprising amount of this music seems to draw on church music.  One biographical fact is relevant here: they come from Oxford, England, grew up there, met in high school, and live, compose, and rehearse there.  Their hometown is like their music.  That bifurcated English city, split between concrete downtown and green environs, has its unspoiled center and gray periphery of modest houses and a disused automobile factory.  Its spots of natural beauty exist because of the nearby huge institutions of the university, and standing in the remaining fields and parks you always know you are in a momentary breathing space, already encroached.  But for the musically-minded, the significant feature of Oxford is its Church of England chapels, one in each college and others outside—places of imperial authority, home to another kind of hidden song.  The purity of Yorke’s falsetto belongs in a boys choir at evensong.  And then Yorke does sing of angels, amid harps, chimes and bells: Black-eyed angels swam with me./ . . . And we all went to heaven in a little rowboat./ There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt.

And yet the religion in the music is not about salvation—it’s about the authority of voices, the wish to submit and the discovery of a consequent resistance in oneself.  It is anti-religious, though attuned to transcendence.  The organ in a church can be the repository of sublime power: a bundling of human throats in its brass pipes, or all the instruments known to man in its stops.  You can hear your own small voice responding, within a musical manifestation of the threat of that voice merely being played mechanically and absorbed into a totality.  To sing with an organ (as Yorke does at the end of Kid A) can be to discover one’s own inner voice in distinction to it; and at the same time to wish to be lost, absorbed, overwhelmed within it.  A certain kind of person will refuse the church.  Even one who refuses the church will not forget that feeling.

(This recalls a tradition Americans don’t possess, a Church of England consolidation by which the modern State assumed dominion over the spirit.  But if it sounds parochially English, it isn’t.  Yorke sings once explicitly of “Holy Roman Empire”—and unless these are cast-off words, I sometimes think he is thinking there of America, the newer empire.  Their music is in fact unusually non-national.  They come after the Americanization of the world scene.)

Sublime experience, the tradition says, depends on a relation to something that threatens.  Traditionally it depended on observing from a point of safety a power, like a storm, cataract or high sea, that could crush the observer if he were nearer.  (By compassing the incompassable power in inner representation, it was even suggested, you could be reminded of the interior power of the moral faculty, the human source of a comparable strength.)  Radiohead observe the storm from within it.  Their music can remind you of the inner overcoming voice, it’s true.  But then the result is no simple access of power.  This sublime acknowledges a different kind of internalization, the drawing of the inhuman into yourself; and also a loss of your own feelings and words and voice to an outer world that has come to possess them.

he way Yorke sings guarantees that you often don’t know what the lyrics are; they emerge into sense and drop out—and certain phrases attain clarity, while others remain behind.  This de-enunciation has been a tool of pop for a long time.   Concentrating, you will make out nearly all the lyrics; listening idly, a different set of particular lines stand out, and are sung along to and remembered.  This way of focusing inattention as well as attention is an aspect of pop lyric.

The most important grammatical tic in the lyrics, unlike the habitual lyrical “I” and apostrophic “you” of pop, is the “we.”  We ride.  We awake.  We escape.  We’re damaged goods.  Bring down the government—they don’t speak for us.  But also We suck young blood.  We can wipe you out – Anytime.  The pronoun doesn’t point to any actually existing collectivity; the songs aren’t about a national group or even the generic audience for rock.  So who is "we"?

There is the scared individual, lying to say he’s not alone—like the child’s “we’re coming in there!” so imagined monsters won’t know he’s by yourself.  There’s the “we” you might wish for, the imagined collectivity that could resist or threaten; and this may shade into the knowledge of all the other listeners besides you, each in their rooms or cars alone, similarly singing these same bits of lyric.

There’s the “we,” as I’ve suggested, of the violent power which you are not, the voice of the tyrant, the thug, the terrifying parent, the bad cop.  You take him inside you and spread him over the others who—somewhere singing these words for just a moment—feel as you do. You experience a release at last, so satisfying does it feel to sing their unspoken orders out loud to yourself, as if at last they came from you. You are the one willing the destruction—like Brecht and Weill’s Pirate Jenny, the barmaid, washing dishes and taking orders, who knows that soon a Black Ship will come for her town, bristling with cannons.  And when its crew asks their queen whom they should murder, she will answer: “Alle.”

So the characteristic song turns into an alternation, in exactly the same repeated words, between the forces that would defy intrusive power, and the intrusive power itself, between the hopeful individual and the tyrant ventriloquized.

It has to be admitted that other memorable lyrics sing phrases of self-help.  Plenty of these important lines are junk slogans from the culture, and part of the oddity of pop is that the junk phrases are moving, they do their work.  In a desperate voice: You can try the best you can – you can try the best you can – the best you can is good enough.”  “Breathe, keep breathing. – Don’t lose your nerve.  “Everyone—everyone around here—everyone is so near./ Just holding on.  Just holding on.  On the page, these make you cringe, unless you can hear them in memory, in the framing of the song.  Again, one has to distinguish between poetry and pop.  The most important lines in pop are rarely very poetically impressive; frequently they are quite deliberately and necessarily the words that are most frank, unredeemable, and melodramatic.  And yet they do get redeemed.  The question becomes why certain settings in music, and a certain playing of simple against other more complex lyrics, can remake debased language as art and restore the innocence of expression.  (Opera listeners know this, in the ariose transformation of “Un bel dì” [One fine day] or “O mio babbino caro” [Oh my dear papa].4  But then opera criticism, too, has a longstanding problem with lyrics.)

I think, in the midst of all else the music and lyrics are doing, the phrases of self-help may be the minimal words of will or nerve that you want to hear.

[...]Pop does, though, I think, allow you to preserve certain things you’ve already thought, without necessarily having been able to articulate them, and to extend certain feelings you have only intermittent access to, in a different form, in which the cognitive and emotional are less divided.  I think it allows you to steel yourself or loosen yourself into certain kinds of actions, though it doesn’t start anything.  And particular songs, and bands or careers you like, dictate the beliefs you can preserve and reactivate, and the actions you can prepare—and which songs and careers will shape your inchoate private experience, depends on an alchemy of your experience and the art itself.  Pop is not a mirror nor a Rorschach blot, into which you look and only see yourself; nor is it in general a lecture, an interpretable poem, or an act of simply determinate speech.  It teaches something, but only by stimulating mutation and preservation of things that you must have had inaugurated elsewhere.  Or it prepares the ground for these discoveries elsewhere—often knowledge you might have never otherwise have really “known,” except as it could be rehearsed by you, then repeatedly reactivated for you, in this medium.

[...]There is no logical sense in which pop music is revolutionary.  That follows from the conclusion that pop does not start beliefs, or instill principles, or create action ex nihilo.  It couldn’t overturn an order.  When so much pop declares itself to be revolutionary, however, I think it’s correctly pointing to something else which is significant but more limited and complicated.  There is indeed an anti-social or counter-cultural tendency of pop that does follow logically from what it does.  That is to say, there is a characteristic affect that follows from a medium that allows you to retain and reactivate forms of knowledge and experience which you are “supposed to” forget or are “supposed to” disappear by themselves—and “supposed to” here isn’t nefarious, it simply means that social forms, convention, conformity, and just plain intelligent speech, don’t allow you to speak of them, or make them embarrassing when you do.  Pop encourages you to hold onto and reactivate hints of personal feeling that society should have extinguished.  Of course this winds up taking in all classes of fragile personal knowledge: things that are inarticulable in social speech because they are too delicate or ideologically out of step, and things that are not allowed to be articulated because they are selfish, thoughtless, destructive, and stupid.  That helps explain how these claims for “what I learned from pop” can go so quickly from the sublime to the ridiculous and back to the sublime.  It explains why we are right to feel that so much of what’s promised for pop is not worth our credulity.  But, again, risking ridiculousness, I think the thing that pop can prepare you for, the essential thing, is defiance.  Defiance, at its bare minimum, is the insistence on finding ways to retain the thoughts and feelings that a larger power should have extinguished.

The difference between revolution and defiance is that between an overthrow of the existing order and one person’s shaken fist.  When the former isn’t possible, you still have to hold on to the latter, if only so as to remember you’re human.  Defiance is the insistence on individual power confronting overwhelming force that it cannot undo.  You know you cannot strike the colossus.  But you can defy it with words or signs.  In the assertion that you can fight a superior power, the declaration that you will, this absurd overstatement gains dignity by exposing you, however uselessly.  Unable to stop it in its tracks, you dare the crushing power to begin its devastation with you.

Power comes in many forms for human beings; and defiance meets it where it can.  The simplest defiance confronts nature’s power and necessity.  In the teeth of a storm that would kill him, a man will curse the wind and rain.  He declares, like Nikos Kazantzakis’s peasant Greek, “You won’t get into my little hut, brother; I shan’t open the door to you.  You won’t put my fire out; you won’t tip my hut over!”  The will is not Promethean, simply human.

In all forms of defiance, this little contingent being, the imperiled man or woman, hangs on to his will—which may be all he has left—by making a deliberate error about his will’s jurisdiction.  Because the defiant person has no power to win a struggle, he preserves his will through representations: he shakes his fist, announces his name, shouts a threat, and above all makes the statement that “I am,” “we are.”  It becomes even more necessary and risky when the cruel power is not natural, will-less itself, but belongs to other men.  Barthes gives the words of the French revolutionist Guadet, arrested and condemned to death: “Yes, I am Guadet.  Executioner, do your duty.  Go take my head to the tyrants of my country.  It has always turned them pale; once severed, it will turn them paler still.”  He gives the order, not the tyrant, commanding necessity in his own name—defying the false necessity of human force which has usurped nature’s power—even if he can only command it to destroy him.

The situation we confront now is a new necessity, not blameless like wind or water and yet not fatal as from a tyrant or executioner.  The nature we face is a billowing atmospheric second nature made by man.  It is the distant soft tyranny of other men, but wafting only in diffuse messages, in their abdication of authority to technology, in dissembling of responsibility under cover of responsibility and with the excuse of help—gutless, irresponsible, servile, showing no naked force, only a smiling or a pious face.  The “they” are cowardly friends.  They are here to help you be happy and make fruitful choices.  (“We can wipe you out—Anytime.”)

At its best, Radiohead’s music reactivates the moods in which you once noticed you ought to refuse.  It can abet an impersonal defiance.  This is not a doctrine the band advances, but an effect of the aesthetic.  It doesn’t name a single enemy.  It doesn’t propose revolution.  It doesn’t call you to overthrow an order that you couldn’t take hold of anyway at any single point, not without scapegoating a portion and missing the whole.  This defiance—it might be the one thing we can manage, and better than sinking beneath the waves.  It just requires the retention of a private voice.

One of the songs on Hail To The Thief, the last album released (at this writing, the band is back in Oxford, working on new material), has a peculiar counter-slogan:

Just ’cause you feel it
Doesn’t mean it’s there.

To sense the perversity of the appearance of these words in a pop song, you have to remember that they occur inside an art-form monomaniacally devoted to the production of strong feelings.  Pop music always tells its listeners that all their feelings are real.  Yet here is a chorus that denies any reference to reality in the elation and melancholy and chills that this chorus, in fact, evokes.  Yorke delivers the lines with an upnote on “feel” as he repeats them, and if anything in the song makes your hair stand on end, that will be the moment.  He makes you feel, that is, what he’s warning you against.  Next he sings a warning not to make too much of his own singing: There’s always a siren – singing you to shipwreck.  And this song, entitled “There There,” was the first single released off the album, pressed in many millions of copies; and it was played endlessly on radio and MTV.

The purpose of the warning is not to stop feelings but to stop believing they always refer to something or deserve reality, or should lead to actions, or choices, or beliefs—which is, of course, what the messages you hear by broadcast like you to make of them.  The feelings evoked by a pop song may be false, as the feelings evoked by all the other messages brought to you by the same media as pop songs may be false.  You must judge.  If leading you to disbelieve in broadcast also leads you to disbelieve in pop, so be it; maybe you believed in pop in the wrong way.  You must distinguish. 

The broadcast messages are impersonal in one fashion.  They pretend to care about you when actually they don’t know or care that you, as a single person, exist.  Impersonal defiance is impersonal in another way; it encourages you to withdraw, no longer to believe that there is any human obligation owed to the sources of messages—except when they remind you, truly, of what you already have subtly sensed, and already know.

You can see a closed space at the heart of many of Radiohead’s songs.  To draw out one of their own images, it may be something like a glass house.  You live continuously in the glare of inspection, and with the threat of intrusion.  The attempt to cast stones at an outer world of enemies could shatter your own shelter.  So you settle for the protection of the transparent house, with watchers on the outside, as a place you can still live, a way to preserve the vestige of closure—a barrier, however glassy and fragile, against the outside.  In English terms, a glass house is also a glasshouse, which we call a greenhouse.  It is the artificial construction that allows botanical life to thrive in winter.

Radiohead's songs suggest that you should erect a barrier, even of repeated minimal words, or the assertion of a “we,” to protect yourself—and then there proves to be a place in each song to which you, too, can’t be admitted, because the singer has something within him closed to interference, just as every one of us does, or should.  We’ll all have to find the last dwellings within ourselves that are closed to interference, and begin from there.  The politics of the next age, if we are to survive, will be a politics of the re-creation of privacy. +   

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There is something of the authentic hipster in the good 'pop', yes?  A part of himself killed-off?  Something in the gaze turned not exactly inward, and not looking for anything / in anybody's eyes. 

And something of the parrhesiaste as well.

Does Greif finally present us with anything like a philosophy? 

I confess to finding these last words deeply compelling, and while this post seems to have grown a bit lengthy, I'd like to risk veering into supreme overstatement and even the realm of unwitting self-parody (yet again?) by adding, very loosely and generally, some of my reasons.

The re-assertion and re-vival of a place of possessive privacy strikes not a few familar (and distinctly USian) chords, to be sure.  And not all of whose horizons are maybe closed (if chords may have horizons).  For me, speaking bluntly, and again risking the ridiculous in such a context, the articulation of this 'place' might certainly suggest more a simplicity and solitude in the 'face' of 'death' than any (again, USian) delusion of fiercely reactionary or antagonistic conformity––one belied as always, and as is inevitable, by a banal and increasingly homogenizing culture of individualization  (c.f. Ulrich Beck)...  Quite simply, if we don't begin from this solitary 'place' of nurtured privacy, or if we presuppose it or ignore it, "we" don't begin at all; we are only ever play-acting at being human~animal, or truly open to others.   But, what marks this 'place' exactly?

Well, I could go even farther off the deep end.  I could say that my conception of, and indeed solitary belief in death, and in this un-foundational solitude stripped of origin, and in relation to a death that is never one's 'own,' is informed more by Blanchot and by Derrida than it is by Heidegger.  That, properly understood, death (strictly as the im-possible) is what binds me to the other, though always in a nonrelation amongt strangers and enemies, a non-relation, as Blanchot says, from which no-one is excused.  We may as well call these strangers to us, with a brave and sober welcome, to open our arms widely and hospitably, as potential friends, in-amicus

One could conceivable turn Mark's closing words into a Heideggerian defense of poetry as origin (one could turn them any which way really), but along with others I prefer to think of poetry as concerned with a loss of origin, and I think this could be mapped onto the experience of Radiohead as well (they do grow on me, you know).

There is a risk of melodrama, always.  One cannot feel this intensity of friendship and lost origin all the time––that way lies madness!  Either madness or compulsory seclusion away behind a heavy door, or off in the woods somewhere.  Better to put on a pair of earphones, and remember what it first felt like to be alone, from time to time, and though, in the end, it will be no substitute for touching.

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Greif's last words seem to speak to the example of Bob Dylan most of all...a performer and storyteller just like any other, surely, but one who doesn't feign superior status in any falsely-posited hierarchical community (he never mocks the imposition of an iconic status merely), however superficially and cynically glossed the community or culture may become.  Rather, a singer whose deliberation in songs insists on a certain anonymity and distance if it insists on anything at all.  (It is unfashionable these days to speak of a "voice from the outside," especially with any hint of a  linguistically conflicted, overdetermined relation with one's subconscious––but in Foucault's and Blanchot's profoundly less than psychoanalytic reading, this is nevertheless what I have in mind.)   Call Dylan's prose poetry if you must––it is often utterly banal if not flat on the page, often composed of literary theft and pastiche, always borrowed and handed-down (just as the singer's voice, or rather the place from which he speaks, is in a sense already handed-down, and addressed, in a language of slightly other-worldly register, to a community of both living and the dead).  Dylan's is a voice at times almost unbearable sentimental (though often he is so cute), at times viciously cruel, at times tender and vulnerable and loving––but it is never fully graspable as one's own.  To address an irriducible "you" or a singing-voice "you" as if speaking merely to oneself is to resort to the laziest of mimetic violence (and to signal the need for a gaze turned not superficially but truly outward).

But what is it that is said in such singing?  Nothing of course purely didactic, or direct.  The said is inextricably bound up with, contaminated and ultimately left aside by the saying.  The patience (Blanchot, or Levinas might call it "infinite") with which the anonymous 'it' speaks (and yet, never quite patiently enough), seems to spring from an almost untouchable, if not hollow and contradictory place with-in the artist (Dylan, you'll recall, once referred to it as "ruthless"), and as such it is permitted, sometimes, to 'touch' on some-thing deeply intimate, and deeply other.  The future, also.  Well that is saying lots and lots, and so maybe very little.  How about this:  within a tradition of roots extending back to folk and blues, and beyond, perhaps, and risking cliché as it may be to say so:  the song itself resists/persists/desists despite the artist but not despite the ears of others. 

There is a rhythm and sense of time, a listening as if always alongside itself, that may be more accurately said to condition the song alone, and remains irreducible to the artist.  When it comes to the listener (including, perhaps, the artist hirself), the 'author' may as well be speaking from another planet.  It is this quality, one of distance and ultimate inaccessibility, that the song alone gives back as it's peculiar (or perhaps not so peculiar) form of uncertain intimacy, or un-common presence. 

If there is a space for a "we" made or cleared away by this anonymity (a space among half-embarassed, half-defiant listeners?), one is tempted to agree that it is only present to itself in brief flashes, or flickers, and that it remains by necessity and definition a "we" devoid of any permanent, founding or universal essence.  Well that is perhaps all vague enough.  Let us flick the remote on this particular paragraph and allow it to deservedly fade.

Kevin Hart remarks in his essay, "The Experience of Poetry," though hardly as a final definition, and only "as a placing shot...that poetry answers to what consciousness registers, not to what is actually lived through, and that it opens onto the truth that experience does not mean the same thing in every region of being." 

And so maybe, if 'pop' is really to be considered art, then in this expansive and yet elegantly simple sense, (if still a bit too noble), Bob Dylan and Radiohead may both be said to give voice to a sort of poetry after all?

June 06, 2006

The Becoming-Partisan of Thought: Fragments on Schmitt and Deleuze/Guattari

(The following is a guest post by Anthony Paul Smith, a contributor to The Weblog.)

First, let me voice my thanks to the powers that be at Long Sunday for allowing me to participate in this event. Reading Schmitt for the first time a few months ago (Political Theology) I had the feeling of aporia, that this was a thinker who causes a pause and then a speeding up of thought if one thinks first with and then past him. I’ve been working my way through Deleuze and Guattari as of late for a variety of projects and Schmitt’s thought kept creeping into my thoughts on their philosophy. I’ve presented some fragments here, as I lack a full picture of the problem currently, that I hope will be interesting for the symposium.

Deleuze and Guattari are famous for making thought political. For attempting bring attention to thought as it was already political. Following the many failures and weaknesses of commentary on Deleuze and Guattari this is usually taken to mean something carrying with it a moral goodness. Deleuze and Guattari resist stratification! Vive le différance! Becomings! The Body without Organs is magic! But it seems that this is preciously what politics is not. Schmitt’s thesis on the political is that it is the distinguishing between friend and enemy; this is the political project par excellence. The political is a stratification and that goes for the micropolitical.  Here I realize my reading may be contested and is not standard in the blogosphere, but let it be said that Deleuze and Guattari in their collaborative work show that the micropolitical is not resistance qua resistance as most people tend to suggest in blog commentary. Rather, the micropolitical is a site where one can resist at a ‘molecular’ level just as fascisms arise out of the micropolitical happenings within macropolitics (and this is why Goodchild’s attempt to create a transformer to wield the power of Deleuze and Guattari thought is appropriate). (Let it be noted that Guattari is less explicit about this in his singular work.) Micropolitics and macropolitics are not a moral binary and they tend to fall into one in the hands of socialists, anarchists, and communists (among whom I count myself).

So what would it mean to make thought political in the Schmittian sense? Is it not deciding the distinction between friend and enemy on a conceptual level? There is an interview in Desert Islands and Other Texts, which I don’t have near me currently, where Deleuze says that he has made Hegel the villain or the enemy because every good story (l’historie) needs one in this case the history of philosophy (I’ve always been somewhat fascinated, surely naively, that the French language uses the same word for story and history). He has distinguished within conceptual thought an enemy (Hegel). Are we not to understand that to make thought political or recognize that it is already political is to say that we must or we have distinguished friend and enemy within our thought? It would seem to me that we do indeed make thought political in this manner (but we shall have to engage the question of the political more deeply). So when Deleuze and Guattari employ the Bergsonian binaries we must distinguish what is a friend and what is enemy, but not to a State. This is the addition that Deleuze and Guattari make to the concept of the political, in this odd and experimental reading I’m employing here, rather than the State it is life that becomes the plane upon which the distinctions are made. It is a non-stratified space upon which we stratify thought. This surely risks the worst kind of abuse, the worst kind of totalizing political actions. If you are an enemy to life than you are a friend to death. And, like Schmitt, they warn us against such an absolute distinction between friend and enemy, though for them it is a warning against the war machine (the deterritorialized partisan) being plugged into a State and taking it to its suicidal limit.

So do Deleuze and Guattari really want to make thought political, or are they attempting to make us recognize that thought is already political in this stratified way and that the trick is to move beyond the political, the stratified, through a series of cut-ups, becomings, lines of flight, creative assemblages, etc.? A politics that goes beyond stratification? Initially I would conceive of this as a way of going beyond the friend/enemy distinction, but would we not still stratify by making the going beyond a conceptual friend and the stratified a conceptual enemy? A meta-stratification. The friend/enemy distinction becomes a plane upon which singularities are laid out in different intensities, but with which we cannot still escape from the war machine. We cannot call for justice, even as we are able to construct a political ethics, which in this case means figuring out what a body can do and then putting it in such a position that is able to flourish to its limit. How do we remain political and not stratify, how is thought to be made this non-stratified political? Is it possible?

Philip Goodchild’s new book, described on the faculty bio page as a ‘theology of money that determines our everyday’, may be helpful for deepening the concept of the political. Following Schmitt’s formulation he conceives of the political as a combination of the two kinds of power in modern thought – the purely physical and the human will. The political, as that which may wage war, is simply an authority of the will over another will through the exercise of a superior physical power. However, Goodchild discloses that war is simply one example of ‘accurate distribution or restriction of [physical] power.’ “The political, more broadly, may take as its foundation the determination of the use of resources. While war enables the possibility of an enemy, sharing resources enables the possibility of a friend.” But this political will to distribute physical power must derive it’s authority from something other than physical power, and Goodchild notes Schmitt’s concession that the political derives its energy from a variety of human endeavors – three inter-related ones being economic, religious and moral activities. Should we then admit of three kinds of power? Goodchild believes so, he names it the intangible energy of the political. (Should we ignore the resemblance this third kind of energy shares with the third kind of knowledge (beatitude) in Spinoza?)

The partisan, in Schmitt’s theory, comes across as a force that comes from the earth. He speaks of the ties the partisan has with the land, they are not citizens so much as a war machine, though not an absolute deterritorialized war machine for they have stratified to a geographic region. I’m reminded of the scene from Eisenstein’s Strike! where the unscrupulous provocateurs arise out of the Holy Earth to assist the State in bringing down the strike. Only, they take it to the suicidal limit when they perish in the fire they’ve set to frame the striking workers. Though one is drawn to the workers in Eisenstein’s movie, these dis-figures arising from the earth have something about them which is also attracting us to them. I’d venture a guess that it is their tellurian character (the King’s abode is a hollowed out car). But Schmitt is wrong to say, due to his prejudice against technology, that the motorized partisan loses this tellurian character, it would be more accurate to say that the motorized partisan takes the whole earth for it’s territory. The motorized partisan more fully moves towards the war machine.

But what of the political in thought? Is there a becoming-partisan in our way of thinking? It seems, in the terms I’ve sketched above, that any becoming-partisan within thought is a threat to the political nature of thought itself. That is, the becoming-partisan in our thought, when fully deterritorialized and thus tied to the full earth, is a partisan of humanity – it is stronger than its enemies and it has no enemies. Is the trick not to make thought political, but to make it a partisan of humanity?

February 27, 2006