Archive for December, 2004

Top Six

Sunday, December 26th, 2004

I’ve been meaning to do an end-of-year musical Top Ten for a while, but I’m not sure there are really ten albums from 2004 I love enough to make up a full list. So I’ll restrict myself to just six. Also, looking at all the Top Ten lists out there, I realize that I haven’t heard many of the albums other people are raving about. (Not to mention the hipster lists that are filled with music by groups or artists I haven’t even heard of). So my list is partial, not just in the sense that it reflects my own idiosyncrasies, but also in that I may well discover belatedly that there were other albums released in 2004 that should’ve been on it.

Nevertheless, here goes:

  1. Ghostface,
    The Pretty Toney Album
    (or here)
    . I wrote about it here. It still holds up better than any other hip hop I’ve heard in 2004: the mixture of moods, the way the words both work with and cut against the (excellent) 70s soul samples, the modulations of Ghostface’s voice (boasting one moment, whining the next; now tender, now tough, now hilarious).
  2. The Kleptones, A Night at the Hip-Hopera.. I wrote about it here. A brilliant (both conceptually and sonically) mash-up of the music of Queen with a variety of hip hop vocal tracks. An absolutely brilliant terrorist mindfuck; of course, it’s completely illegal, which means it’s our moral duty to disseminate it as widely as possible.
  3. Bjork,
    Medulla
    (or here)
    . This mostly a capella album is as beautiful and haunting as anything she has ever done. Cyborg music, except that here it’s human voices that serve as prosthetic digital machines, rather than the reverse. Less erotic than
    Vespertine
    , but perhaps more sensuous, in the sense of full-body, full-voice immersion.
  4. Brandy,
    Afrodisiac
    (or here)
    . Actually, I only rate it this highly when I listen just to the nine Timbaland tracks, skipping over the ones produced by Kanye West and others. The nine tracks form a cohesive more-than-EP (about 45 minutes), moving through different emotional registers, and ending on a note of hope. Brandy is alas not as strong or subtle a singer as Aaliyah was, but Timbaland’s production has never been better. This is R&B, of course, not rap, but it crackles rhythmically without losing either tenderness or smoothness, a combination I find affecting and compelling.
  5. Blonde Redhead,
    Misery is a Butterfly
    (or here)
    . I wrote about it here. I don’t have much to add. Seductive melancholy, like Faure’s Requiem.
  6. P J Harvey,
    Uh Huh Her
    (or here)
    . I love P J Harvey. This isn’t her best album, by any means, but it’s a return to form after her rather lame previous album. I’m not generally a fan of the strictly (and in this day and age, quite aesthetically conservative) blues-based hard rock that is Polly’s bread and butter; but there’s so much emotional intensity and perplexity roiling under the surface of her music that I’m utterly won over.

I should also mention some albums I’m just not feeling. It’s not that I hate these albums, just that I am unable to share everyone else’s enthusiasm. Kanye West’s The College Dropout just sounds kind of smug and self-congratulatory to me; the production is solid, but to my mind not extraordinary. I don’t get why it seems to have been proclaimed, by general consensus, the hip hop album of the year. People with more offbeat sensibilities are instead in love with MF Doom and Madlib’s Madvillain; all I can say is that it’s clever and all, but it doesn’t really do that much for me (maybe because I gave up smoking pot over a decade ago). The (illegal) mash-up that’s gotten the most attention this year is not the Kleptones, but DJ Dangermouse’s Grey Album; it was definitely a clever conceptual coup (Jay-Z’s Black Album + the Beatles’ White Album), but I just didn’t find it all that interesting to actually listen to.

In Praise of Plants

Saturday, December 18th, 2004

In Praise of Plants, by Francis Hallé, is a pop science book (i.e. scientifically informed, but aimed at a general, non-specialist audience) about the biology of plants. The author, a French botanist whose speciality is trees of the tropics, writes explicitly to correct the zoocentrism of mainstream biology: its tendency to take primarily animal models, and to generalize what is true of animals into what is true of biological organisms generally. Hallé argues that this not only does an injustice to plants and other organisms — one rooted in the narcissism and navel-gazing of human beings as a species, since of course we are animals ourselves — but also gives a constricted and distorted view of life’s potentialities.

To a certain extent, In Praise of Plants could be described as an old-fashioned work of “natural history.” This is the sort of biological writing that preceded all the last half-century’s discoveries about DNA and the genome. Such writing is anecdotal, empirical, and broadly comparative; it emphasizes historical contingency, and it pays a lot of attention to morphology, embryology, and other such fields that have been largely ignored in the wake of the genetic revolution. I myself value natural history writing highly, precisely because it presents an alternative to the genetic reductionism, hyper-adaptationism, and use of mathematical formalization that have become so hegemonic in mainstream biology.

Hallé emphasizes precisely those aspects of plant life that are irreducible alike to animal paradigms, and to the hardcore neo-Darwinian synthesis. Plants’ immobility, and their ability to photosynthesize, are the two things that differentiate them most radically from animals, which are usually mobile and unavoidably predatory. But these differences lead to many astonishing consequences. For instance, plants’ inability to move is probably what has led to their astonishing biochemistry: since they cannot defend themselves by running away, they have evolved all sorts of complex compounds that affect animal behavior (from poisons to psychedelics to aphrodisiacs). For similar reasons, plants don’t have fixed “body plans” the way most phyla of animals (like vertebrates or arthropods) do. Instead, plants have far fewer organs than animals, and these organs can be (re)arranged more freely; this allows for a far greater diversity of shapes and sizes among even closely related plant species than would be possible for animals.

More importantly, reproduction is much more fluid and flexible among plants than it is among animals. Plants can — and do — reproduce both sexually and asexually. They are able to hybridize (with fertile offspring) to a far greater extent than animals can. They have separate haploid and diploid life stages, which greatly extends their options for dispersion and recombination. Where mortality is the compulsory fate of animals, most plants (all except for the “annuals”) are potentially immortal: they can continue to grow, and send out fresh shoots, indefinitely. This is (at least in part) because plants do not display the rigid separation between germ and soma that animals do. Acquired characteristics in animals cannot be inherited, because only mutations to the gametes are passed on; mutations to the other 99.999% of the animal’s body play no part in heredity. But since plants do not have the germ/soma distinction, and since all the cells of a plant remain potentially capable of producing fresh shoots and of flowering, plants can accumulate mutations both in themselves and in their offspring (they can exhibit Lamarckian as well as Darwinian inheritance). They are also far more capable than animals are of receiving lateral mutations (i.e. when a mutation is spread, not by inheritance, but by transversal communication, via a plasmid or virus that moves from one species to another, taking genetic material from one organism and inserting it into another). For plants, natural selection therefore takes place less between competing organisms than among the different parts of a single organism; large trees will often contain branches that have different genotypes.

All this is quite mindblowing, and suggests a far broader picture of life than the one derived from zoology alone. The only scientist I can compare Hallé to in this regard is Lynn Margulis, whose now accepted theories about symbiosis, together with her still unorthodox theories about the mechanisms of evolution and speciation, derive to a great extent from her focus on bacteria and monocellular eukaryotes instead of animals. Hallé doesn’t have Margulis’ theoretical breadth, but his presentation has equally subversive implications vis-a-vis the neo-Darwininan orthodoxy.

One consequence, for me, of In Praise of Plants is that Deleuze and Guattari’s distinction between “rhizomatic” and “arborescent” modes of organization needs to be rethought. In point of fact, trees are far less binaristic and hierarchical than Deleuze and Guattari make them out to be. D&G are really describing both the rhizome and the tree in largely zoocentric terms. A better understanding of botany would actually fit in quite well with D&G’s larger philosophical aims. (Deleuze does show a somewhat better understanding of botany in his treatment of the sexuality of flowers in his book on Proust).

The main (and only substantial) flaw in In Praise of Plants is that, in his desire to emphasize the difference between plants and animals, Hallé gives short shrift to the third kingdom of multicellular organisms, the fungi. He basically spends just a single paragraph on them, in the course of which he presents them as intermediate between plants and animals. This means that he sidelines and belittles fungi in precisely the same way that he (rightly) accuses mainstream biologists of sidelining and belittling plants. Since Hallé is a botanist and not a mycologist, I wouldn’t expect him to give a full account of the fungi. But he ought at least to acknowledge that such an account is needed, since fungi are arguably as different from both animals and plants as the latter are from each other. This would certainly seem to be the case from the tantalizingly little I know about the sexuality of fungi. Where will I find a book that does for the fungi what Hallé’s book so magnificently does for the plants?

Race in the US Elections

Wednesday, December 15th, 2004

This article by Bob Wing (found via zentronix) convincingly argues that race is the crucial (but totally ignored by the media) element in the 2004 US Presidential election (as it is in American politics and social life in general). Bush won, less because he mobilized the evangelicals (since black evangelicals, for instance, voted very strongly for Kerry despite the predictions that they would swing towards Bush for reasons of morality), then because he increased his share of the votes by white people — which effectively outbalanced the mobilization of people of color at the polls (which is the main reason why Kerry, despite losing, received far more raw votes than Gore did).

Wing writes: “The Republican victory turned almost exclusively on increasing its share of the white vote. In 2000 Bush won the white vote by 12 points, 54-42; in 2004 he increased this to a 17-point margin, 58-41. That increase translates into about a 4 million vote gain for Bush, the same number by which Bush turned his 500,000 vote loss in 2000 into a 3.5 million vote victory this time around.”

The very fact that there is such a division between how white people voted, and how people of color voted (in all groups, overwhelmingly for the Democrats, despite Bushite claims that Asian Americans and Latinos were swinging more Republican) shows how significant the color line is in this country, despite the efforts of the media, and of mainstream political commentators, to pretend that it does not exist. In particular, the fact that 62% of white males voted for Bush (and only 37% for Kerry), in itself shows why the United States today is a cesspool of bigotry, xenophobia, smug conformism, self-congratulatory ignorance, and violence directed against any sort of otherness and difference.

On Beauty and Being Just

Tuesday, December 14th, 2004

Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just is one of the strangest books I have ever read; certainly the oddest I’ve ever encountered that was written by a literary scholar. (Scarry holds an endowed chair in Aesthetics at Harvard; she is the author also of The Body in Pain, which at its best is a powerful and provocative book).

I read On Beauty and Being Just because I am interested in aesthetic theory, and particularly in the revival of interest in the notion of beauty in the last decade or so, after a century during which it was pretty much disparaged (modernism either preferred the sublime to the beautiful, or disparaged beauty as being an atemporal and apolitical ideal). In my own work, I have been trying to look at how Kant’s theory of Beauty is really a theory of singularity, how this resonates with certain themes in the work of such more recent philosophers as Whitehead and Deleuze, and how this way of looking at beauty can illuminate the phenomena of consumerism and commodity fetishism in our current cultural moment of frantic sampling and recombination, and of networked, informational capitalism, (what Virginia Postrel calls the “Age of Aesthetics”). I have also been concerned to distinguish what I am saying about the beautiful from the (unfortunately all-too-prevalent) neocon argument that seeks to invoke Beauty as an alibi to dehistoricize and depoliticize art (to emphasize its supposed atemporal absoluteness and High Quality, and to deny precisely the singularity, contingency, and evanescence that I find in Kant’s discussion of Beauty).

Scarry writes her book as a defense of beauty, and a protest against “the banishing of beauty from the humanities in the last two decades” as a result of “a set of political complaints against it” (57). Yet she is certainly no neocon. She strives rather to align beauty with a liberal (Rawlsian) account of justice, something that no “high standards,” anti-“political correctness” neocon would ever do. At the same time, far from preaching the “virtue” to be found in the canonical Western tradition (as neocons like Allan Bloom and William Bennett do), Scarry comes off rather as an enthusiastic, sensitive, and slightly deranged aesthete, positively gushing over the sheer loveliness of Homer and Dante and Matisse (as well as palm trees and flowers and the sky at sunset). All this is rather wonderful, because it is so ungrounded and unlikely and (above all) unmodern. Despite one relatively long passage about the Matisse prints on her walls, Scarry basically writes as if the twentieth century had never happened. I must confess to being rather charmed by this; there are so many academic critics who pretend to be oh-so-informed and up-to-date, but whose conceptual categories nonetheless fail to reckon in any way with the immense scientific, technological, and socio-economic changes of the last one hundred or so years, that it’s a relief to find someone like Scarry who is so utterly frank and straightforward about her untimeliness. Unlike nearly every other academic critic whose work I have read, Scarry is utterly unconcerned by the possibility that she will be judged naive; as a result, she’s free from the all-too-frequent academic vice of disguising simplemindedness behind long sentences and fussiness about methodology.

Where does that leave me, as a reader of On Beauty and Being Just? I cannot say that I found the book to be intellectually stimulating or useful to me in any way whatsoever — but in matters of beauty, perhaps usefulness is beside the point. Nor do I wish to bash the book for its incoherences of logic and argument — something that is all too easy to do (as Denis Dutton does, for instance, from something of a neocon perspective).

Rather, I would praise the book (though Scarry might not appreciate the praise) for its sheer otherness. On Beauty and Being Just seems to be written by someone from another planet, or better from an alternate universe, a Bizarro World whose subtle yet profound difference from ours is the result of some quantum bifurcation. Scarry appeals repeatedly to common sense: or more precisely to psychological observations that she assumes her readers will share with her. Yet in every case the observation is one that is not only counter-intuitive, but so odd as to be unreconcilable with any known human psychology.

For example, Scarry writes: “It seems a strange feature of intellectual life that if you question people — ‘What is an instance of an intellectual error you have made in your life?’ — no answer seems to come readily to mind. Somewhat better luck is achieved if you ask people (friends, students) to describe an error they have made about beauty” (11). Now, I have never met a single person about whom this statement might even possibly be true (though, admittedly, I have never met Scarry herself). But Scarry goes on to derive from this observation the most broad and astonishing consequences. What’s more, the blithe tone of Scarry’s prose suggests an utter unawareness that anyone might not find her formulations as self-evident as she does. (It reminds me of the beginning of a Jane Austen novel — “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” — only where Austen ironically deconstructs the seemingly obvious sentiment with which she begins, Scarry conversely treats her own unusual assertions as if they were transparently obvious to everyone).

I can only conclude that Scarry does indeed live in the world she describes, a world I find utterly unrecognizable. And I find the report she sends back from this world to be strangely beautiful, even though I cannot say it is a place that I myself would want to inhabit.

The Substance of Style

Friday, December 10th, 2004

Virginia Postrel‘s The Substance of Style is a book that argues we have entered an “Age of Aesthetics” in which mere utility is no longer enough: we care passionately about the sensory pleasures we get from the “look and feel” of everything that surrounds us, from our home interiors to our computers (witness the success of the iMac) to even our toilet brushes (“Every day, all over the world, designers are working to make a better, prettier, more expressive toilet brush for every taste and every budget” — 56). The Industrial Age was all about uniformity; but now, we live in an age of abundant choice, where every taste can be satisfied, and everyone is free to express their own sensibility. “Look and feel appeal directly to us as visual, tactile, emotional creatures” (171). Surfaces are important, and we should not devalue them in favor of hidden depths; “by experimenting with surface, we may also reinvent ourselves, emphasizing and developing previously unknown or subordinate aspects of our personalities” (117).

Sounds great, doesn’t it? So au courant and postmodern? Then why do I find myself so dissatisfied with Postrel’s arguments? After all, I too have been arguing for a new aestheticism, emphasizing singularity, opposing essences, denying that taste can be governed by objective, universalizing criteria, celebrating novelty and opposing purist claims for “authenticity.” I could say, as she does, that “aesthetics is prerational or nonrational, not irrational or antirational” (171). And I am as uncomfortable as she is with the puritanism that all too often crops up in leftist social critiques. (She particularly targets Stuart Ewen and Naomi Klein).

Nonetheless, there’s something in Postrel’s aesthetic hedonism that really rubs me the wrong way. Let me try to put my finger on what it is.

For one thing, Postrel’s incessant Pollyannaism, or Panglossianism, sets my teeth on edge. She really seems to think we live in the best of all possible worlds. The most negative thing she can bring herself to say about style and aesthetics is that “anything in which we invest so much significance, of from which we draw so much pleasure, inevitably becomes a source of conflict” (121). But she doesn’t seem to think this “conflict” is a serious problem. If you don’t like one alternative that is offered to you, there’s always another choice somewhere that might be more to your liking. If you don’t like the homogeneity that’s imposed by the restrictive building codes and homeowners’ association bylaws of one gated community, you can always buy your home instead in that other gated community down the road, with different bylaws meant to appeal to a different sensibility. “If you don’t like the green-dominated Starbucks,” she writes, “you can go to the blue-dominated Starbucks two blocks away — or to the bright-green-and-orange tea bar or the Populuxe diner down the street” (147).

Isn’t Postrel defusing conflict merely by trivializing it? “Choice,” for Postrel, is never anything more pointed than deciding between coffee and tea, or green and blue. Part of her argument — and with this part I agree — is that we shouldn’t dismiss such alternatives as being merely trivial and unimportant, just because they are superficial (taking this word in the literal sense of having to do with surfaces). Since we are sensuous beings, who see and feel and touch, rather than disembodied brains, these aesthetic considerations are deeply meaningful and worthy of attention. But still, it seems disingenuous to reduce disagreement and conflict to differing “preferences” among items that could all be listed on the same (restaurant or computer) menu.

Now, I’ll admit to being someone who goes to Starbucks frequently. I know this will destroy my credit with all those who think one should always patronize independent businesses in preferences to international mega-corporations; but both here in Midtown and Downtown Detroit, and formerly when I lived in south Seattle, I found the independent coffeehouses lame and with atmospheres that were boring and uninviting — I simply like Starbucks better than the alternatives. When necessity strikes, I will take the drug to which I am addicted — caffeine — anywhere. Given the opportunity, however, I will go for more pleasant surroundings in which to imbibe, just as Postrel suggests large numbers of consumers do. But I would never think of going so far as to praise Starbucks, as Postrel does, for “delivering a multisensory aesthetic experience,” or to extol the way it “employs scores of designers to keep its stores’ ‘design language’ — color palettes, upholstery textures, light fixtures, brochure paper, graphic motifs — fresh and distinctive” (20). That all seems a bit over-the-top, more in line with corporate propagandaspeak than with anyone’s actual experiences.

Philosophically speaking, the problem with all this is not that Postrel overvalues aesthetics, but rather that she fails to take it seriously enough. Say that I like chocolate ice cream the best, while you prefer pistachio. That isn’t anything to fight about; all we have to do is go to Baskin-Robbins, or some other place that serves both. But really, aesthetics is about more than such personal preferences. As Kant says, the difficulty of aesthetic judgment comes from the fact that we demand universal assent for our aesthetic claims, even though we also know that these claims have no objective basis. (Yes, any serious discussion of aesthetics inevitably comes back to Kant). What this means is that we do argue about aesthetic differences, in a way we never would about mere “personal preferences.” It would be idiotic for me to try to convince you that you ought to like chocolate better than pistachio; while it makes perfect sense that we should argue endlessly about the relative merits of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.

Of course Dylan and Cash, like chocolate and pistachio, are commodities; but the argument over the first pair is very different from the “choice” between the second. Their common nature as commodities cannot, in itself, account for this difference. And indeed, it’s not in the marketplace that the argument over Dylan vs. Cash gets fought out. I have purchased CDs by both artists; I suppose this means that I “prefer” them both to Celine Dion, whose CDs I wouldn’t accept even if they were given to me for free. (Chalk this up to misogyny or anti-French sentiment if you wish, though I would dispute you on both counts). But the point is that, if you refer only to “revealed preferences” in the marketplace, you leave out aesthetics altogether, along with anything else that’s interesting and important. Postrel, as a free market economist, can’t see beyond the “choices” we make “on the margin” in our purchasing decisions; which is why her presentation of the Age of Aesthetics is so relentlessly banal.

Actually, there is something important going on here — more important, perhaps, than Postrel realizes. It has to do with the very nature of Capital, as the atmosphere that entirely surrounds us, in which we are immersed, without which we could not breathe. As Zizek likes to point out, global capitalism today is (contra Naomi Klein) not about imposing uniformity and homogenization, but precisely about niche marketing and expanding consumer “choice”: “Is not the latest trend in corporate management itself ‘diversify, devolve power, try to mobilize local creativity and self-organization?’ Is not anticentralization the topic of the ‘new’ digitalized capitalism?” I do think this is a legitimate question (even though I do not endorse Zizek’s employing it to score points against Deleuze; but that is the subject for another essay). In a certain, very real sense, “choices” are homogenized by being coded exclusively in terms of money value, or commodity exchange; but this should not be confused with homogeneity of content. Indeed, it is only because content is more and more heterogeneous and diverse, all the time, that it can be homogenized on another level: by making consumer “preference” the only arena in which differences can be negotiated. The point here is not to call for some sort of higher value system, or collective frame of reference, that would supersede the merely quantitative values of the market; but precisely the reverse, to insist that the “aesthetic” marks an aspect of things that cannot be captured and decided by any such “objective” system of values, whether economic or religious or moral or communitarian. This excess, this singularity, is what is left out of Postrel’s account.

For instance: Postrel argues strongly in favor of plastic surgery and (in the future) genetic self-manipulation; there’s nothing wrong, she says, with wanting to look more attractive than we “naturally” are. “The more power we achieve over how our bodies look, whether through genetics, surgery, drugs, or other means, the more we will alter our outer selves to match our inner selves” (187). She adds that, since people are different, there is no worry that this might lead to everyone looking the same, or “want[ing] the same color eyes” (188). Nonetheless, all the examples she gives move in one direction only: towards the most cliched conventional definitions of beauty. She writes of women who move from a more androgynous look to a more conventionally “feminine” one (117-118), or who realize that they love the gorgeousness of Rodeo Drive fashions after all (77-78); she can’t seem to imagine that anyone might ever “choose” to move in the opposite direction (from the stereotypically dominant mode to a less socially sanctioned one).

So, the problem with Postrel is not merely that she writes as if everyone in the world had the living standard of the top 10% of the American population (a group in which she and I are both certainly included); it is that, even if everyone were to attain such a standard in some utopian-capitalist future (which I very much doubt is possible, given the differential way capitalism operates), nothing would be resolved. There would still be an excess that Postrel’s smugly reductive “aesthetics” wouldn’t be able to account for.

But this opens out on questions of temporality, and of the logic of a gift economy (in contrast to one of commodities), that I no longer have the energy to deal with in this (already lengthy) post…

The Invention of Modern Science

Tuesday, December 7th, 2004

Isabelle Stengers’ The Invention of Modern Science is pretty much the best thing anyone has written about the science wars (the disputes between scientists and those in the humanities and ‘soft’ social sciences doing “science studies”: the biggest battles were fought in the 1990s, but I think the issues are still very much alive today). Stengers is close to Bruno Latour (about whom I have expressed reservations), but she goes into the theoretical issues about the status of science’s claims to truth more deeply, and — I think — more cogently and convincingly, than he does.

Stengers starts by asking where science’s claims to truth come from. She goes through various philosophers of science, like Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, and Feyerabend, and notes the difficulties with their various formulations, as well as how their various accounts relate to scientists’ own images of what they are doing. All these thinkers try to balance the atemporal objectivity of science with their sense that science is a process, which therefore has a history (Kuhn’s paradigm shifts, Popper’s process of falsification) in at least some sense. But Stengers argues that none of these thinkers view science historically enough. The emergence of modern science is an event: in the way he appeals to facts, or more precisely to experiments, to back up his arguments, Galileo introduces a new mode and method of discerning truth into our culture. And every new discovery, every new scientific experiment, is in similar ways a new event.

Understanding science historically, as an event, goes against the claims made for science as revealing the deep truth of the universe, as being the ultimate authority, as promising to provide a “theory of everything.” But it doesn’t really go against how scientists actually work, most of the time, when they perform experiments that lead them to certain results about which they then make theories. The novelty of science, compared to other ways that we make distinctions, account for facts, or explain processes, is that, in science, we put ourselves into an experimental situation, which is to say, into a situation in which we are forced to accept certain results and consequences, which come to us from the outside world with which we are interacting, even when these results and consequences go against our own interests and predispositions. In doing this, science becomes a method for separating truth from fiction — at least in certain well-defined situations.

From this point of view, it’s obvious that science is not merely an arbitrary “social construction” (as scientists often accuse “science studies” people of believing, and as some naive “science studies” people actually may believe). But Stengers’ account also means that “hard” science’s claim to authority is not unlimited, but is grounded in particular events, particular experiments, a particular history. Scientific practice doesn’t vanish into the truth disclosed by that practice. To the contrary: scientific truth remains embedded in the historical practice of science. This is where Latour’s explorations of concrete scientific practices come into the picture. This is also where and why science is, as Stengers repeatedly says, intrinsically political. It’s a matter of scientific claims negotiating with the many other sorts of claims that it encounters, in culture and society, but also in the “natural” world.

In other words: science produces truths, but it doesn’t produce The Truth. It isn’t the sole authority on everything, or the one and only source of legitimate knowledge. To say that science produces truths is also to say that it’s meaningless to ask to what degree these truths are “discovered,” and to what degree they are “invented.” This just isn’t a relevant distinction any longer. What matters is that they are truths, and our very existence is intricated with them. We can’t deny that the Earth goes around the Sun, rather than the reverse, just as we can’t deny the legacy of wars and revolutions that have led to our current world situation. And this is all the more the case when we expand our point of view to consider historical sciences, like biology, alongside experimental ones like physics. Despite the current mathematization of biology, the story of how human beings evolved is an historical one, not one that can be ‘proven’ through experiment. If physics is a matter of events, then biology is even more so. Stengers notes that American creationists explicitly make use of the fact that biology isn’t experimental in the sense that physics is, in order to back up their claims that evolution is just a “theory” rather than something factual. One problem with scientific imperialism — the claim that science is the ONLY source of truth — is that its overreaching precisely encourages these sorts of counter-claims. I’d agree with the creationists when they say that the theory of evolution is not established in the same way as, say, Newton’s laws of motion are established. (Though remember that in quantum situations, and relativistic near-speed-of-light situations, those laws of motion themselves no longer work). Rather, our answer to the creationists should be that denying that human beings evolved through natural selection (combined, perhaps, with other factors having to do with the properties of emergent systems) is exactly the same sort of thing as denying that the Holocaust ever happened.

As for science, the problem comes when it claims to explain everything, when it arrogates to itself the power to declare all other forms of explanation illegitimate, when it abstracts itself away from the situations, the events, in which it distinguishes truth from fiction, and claims to be the repository of all truths, with the authority to relegate all other truth-claims to the status of discredited fictions. As Stengers notes, when science does this (or better, when scientists and their allies do this), science is not just political, but is playing a very particular sort of power politics; and in doing so, science is certainly not disinterested, but in fact expressing extremely strong and powerful interests Whether it is “for” or “against” current power arrangements (in the past, e.g. the eighteenth century, it was often against, while today scientific institutions are more frequently aligned with, and parts of, dominant corporate and governmental powers) science has become a political actor, and a wielder of power in its own right. The point of “science studies,” as both Stengers and Latour articulate it, is to democratize the politics in which science is inevitably involved: both pragmatically (e.g., when the authority of “science,” in the form of genetic engineering, is tied in with the marketing muscle and monopolistic position of Monsanto) and theoretically (there are other truths in addition to scientific ones; science does not have the monopoly upon producing truth; other practices of truth, in other realms, may well necessarily involve certain types of fabulation, rather than being reducible to the particular way that science separates truth from fiction, in particular experimental situations, and in particular ways of sifting through historical evidence).

One way to sum all this up is to say that science, for Stengers, is a process rather than a product; it is creative, rather than foundational. Its inventions/discoveries introduce novelty into the world; they make a difference. Scientific truth should therefore be aligned with becoming (with inciting changes and transformations) rather than with power (with legislating what is and must be). Scientists are wrong when they think they are entitled to explain and determine everything, through some principle of reduction or consilience. But they are right when they see an aesthetic dimension to what they do (scientists subject themselves to different constraints than artists do, but both scientists and artists are sometimes able to achieve beauty and cogency as a result of following their respective constraints).

Haunted Weather

Thursday, December 2nd, 2004

David Toop has long been one of my favorite music writers. His new book is called Haunted Weather: Music, Silence, and Memory. It’s about various modes of contemporary experimental music, including free improvisation, environmental (ambient) music, music produced entirely on computers, music produced by chance procedures or by generative algorithms, music that is so minimal, and at such low volume, that it is barely distinguishable from silence, and so on. It’s also about the psychoacoustics and affectivity of playing music and of listening to it, the blurriness of the distinction between music and other types of sound, the way we relate to sonic environments, the effects of digital technology on the musical experience, listening as an experience of space, the way sound evokes memory, and so on. Toop’s approach is not systematic or theoretical, but associative and evocative: he slips and slides from topic to topic, from musical piece to musical piece, from interview to anecdote to description to open questioning. He rarely states specific theses, but continually provides suggestive formulations, food for thought. I love his writing for the rich, emotionally charged detail with which he describes musical compositions, most of which I am unlikely ever to actually hear. (Though Toop has compiled a CD to go along with the book). Haunted Weather is a book as beautiful, and almost as impalpable, as the music it evokes: its prose flows along lightly, and its ideas haunt the reader, without ever congealing into statements you can actually pin down.

A Night at the Hip-Hopera

Wednesday, December 1st, 2004

A Night at the Hip-Hopera, by the Kleptones, is the best mash-up I’ve heard, at least since Strictly Kev’s Raiding the 20th Century. (The Disney Corp. is taking legal action to suppress Hip-Hopera; the Kleptones are no longer allowed to host the mp3s on their own site. But they list other sites that carry the files; these won’t go offline until Disney gets around to contacting each of them individually with cease-and-desist orders. And if these don’t work, Google has a lot of links to it too).

A Night at the Hip-Hopera consists of music by Queen (whose copyright is owned by Disney, hence the cease-and-desist orders), together with vocal tracks taken mostly from various hip hop artists (both current and old skool, ranging from Afrikaa Bambaataa to Vanilla Ice to the Beastie Boys to Grandmaster Flash to Dilated Peoples to Missy Elliott) together with a few non-hip-hop bands (Electric Six, Morris Day), plus a montage of soundbites from (real and fake) news broadcasts, interview tapes, and old low-budget SF movies (not to mention attacks on copyright law and exhortations in favor of piracy/sampling/remaking). (There’s a fairly complete list of sample sources here).

Now, the name of the game in mash-ups of this sort is matching the vocal track with the musical track in some sort of convincing way. One strategy is purely musical/formal; The Freelance Hellraiser’s meld of The Strokes and Christina Aguilera a few years ago is the classic example of a mash-up that produces a hybrid pop song that’s superior to either of the originals. Another strategy is conceptual; thus Danger Mouse’s Grey Album combined Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album to provocative, if not always musically satisfying effect.

The Kleptones, however, take the art of mash-up as provocation to a new level. The album works both musically/formally and abstractly/conceptually, in a way that creates a wonderful cognitive-dissonance confusion. The choice of Queen as musical source is itself inspired, since they are so oddly contradictory: a monster success in their time, they represented the ne plus ultra of bombastic and ponderous arena rock, combining the worst of heavy metal declamation and prog symphonic pretentiousness; except that their pounding unilateral heavyhandedness was also leavened by a ludicrous, campy theatricality, and by a flirtation with disco. The macho implications of the music were constantly being undermined by Freddie Mercury’s performative excesses (even if nobody knew he was gay/bi at the time).

The contradictory strangeness of Queen is brought out and amplified by the way the Kleptones match their music to hip hop vocals. Sometimes the juxtapositions are just really weird (ODB’s “Got Your Money” over “Another One Bites the Dust”); other times they are wonderfully subversive (the quasi-fascist pounding of “We Will Rock You” becomes the backing for a militantly anti-racist rap, apparently by Killa Kela, with whom I am unfamiliar); still other times they suggest parallels and affinities where one would never have suspected them (the anthemic, soaring “Bicycle Race” melds all too perfectly with Eminem’s “Slim Shady” sarcasm: it’s hard to say here which one is a comment on the other).

Beyond these specific examples (and I could comment on the aptness/cleverness/revelatory force of just about every individual track), A Night at the Hip-Hopera as a whole excavates the fault lines that underlie Anglo-American popular music on the deepest levels: black vs. white, gay vs. straight, confrontation vs. entertainment, organic vs. mechanized, populist vs. elitist, artifice vs. sincerity, utopianism vs. cynicism, and so on. The rhythms of Missy Elliott or De La Soul oughtn’t to match with those of Queen, but somehow they do: yet this doesn’t efface the sense we have of totally separate musical universes somehow clashing and (at the same time) existing secretly in parallel.

Queen’s music is pretty white-sounding; by which I mean that it appropriates black musical sources (mostly the blues) but in doing so deprives them of energy, soul, funkiness, and grace, substituting a plodding insistence, a deadening literalism, and an almost unbearable earnestness. Yet this is the normative musical atmosphere we all (white, black, or other) live in, in American imperial culture today; black music (hip hop as much as blues) still today largely exists only to be appropriated, even when it is black artists themselves doing the appropriation (there’s more minstrelsy in hip hop than most of us would like to acknowledge). A Night at the Hip-Hopera somehow dramatizes this situation, with the way the various sources it orchestrates together are contradictorily made to cohabit with one another. At times the cognitive dissonance is too much; at other times, the consonance we are actually hearing override these dissonances. Voices of protest are chained to sounds of conformity (if only by virtue of Queen’s gigantism and lockstep rhythms); or is it that this depressingly massive and normative music is releasing bubbles of perversity and queerness even when we fail to notice? (I don’t think I’d be able to endure listening to an entire album of Queen’s greatest hits; but the Kleptones succeed in releasing the beauty and strangeness of these overly familiar dinosaurs). The album stages a series of anarchic clashes which themselves embody the transformative vitality that “popular culture” continues to offer, even when (at its frequent worst) it is being monopolistically controlled from above, and squeezed as tightly as possible into the straightjacket of the (heavily cross-promoted) commodity form.

I don’t believe in redemption; I’m suspicious of a con whenever it’s offered. But The Kleptones suggest a kind of reaching — precisely because they don’t paper over the contradictions that they are rubbing our ears in, but gleefullly insist on them — that turns even the corniness of Queen into something: not redemptive, quite, but at least possessing a secret reserve of utopian hope, of potentiality — a potentiality that can only be released when creativity is not constrained and chained by copyright, by so-called “intellectual property rights,” by the privatization of culture. So that A Night at the Hip-Hopera ultimately becomes a meta-commentary on its own mutant procedures. In other words, if this album is illegal (as it apparently is), then creativity, innovation, and joy are illegal too.

The final cut of the album is a soundbite collage, to the background accompaniment of Queen’s “Who Wants To Live Forever?” All the quoted comments relate to copyright and free expression, presented in various juxtapositions and with differing levels of irony. The last voice we hear says: “Without free communication, you don’t have a free society. Democracy’s based on it.” (Does anybody know the source of this?). That’s why A Night at the Hip-Hopera is such a brilliant and powerful accomplishment, and that’s why it needs to be disseminated as widely as possible, in deliberate defiance (if need be) of the law.