Archive for April, 2005

Once More With Feeling

Friday, April 29th, 2005

So, I am continuing to work my way through Buffy the Vampire Slayer, watching all the episodes in order, as I have been doing for quite some time. I am now about a third of the way through season 6. I’m getting there.

There are many reasons why I love Buffy. (This is a topic that I will not exhaust anytime soon). A lot of it, of course, has to do with the particulars of the characters, the changes they go through, their relationships, their transformations and growth. (By season 6, the teen angst of the first two years has been left behind, for other — equally heart-wrenching — difficulties). But rather than writing a dissertation on Willow, or Giles, or Spike (let alone Buffy herself), I want to work through something about the generic aspects of the show.

Buffy works for me largely because it’s melodrama: you know, like Douglas Sirk, or daytime TV soaps. Melodrama is a machine for producing and amplifying affect. It gets its “truth” by abandoning naturalism and verisimilitude in favor of a certain kind of artifice, in which emotions are frozen and held static, and magnified and intensified through a kind of collapsing of time and place. “Melodramatic” often means “exaggerated”: and melodramas get their power by exaggerating the fluctuations of feeling, by stretching everything out into a roller-coaster ride of extreme ups and downs, and especially by theatricalizing emotion, so that all the situations and relationships the characters are trapped in seem operatic, or — to give a more postmodern turn to it — are ostentatiously placed “in quotation marks.” This artifice is a sort of distancing, which is what often makes melodrama ridiculous; but at the same time, the melodramatic focus can be intense and devastating, in the way a more naturalistic treatment could never be. At the movies or on TV, I only cry when emotions and situations are placed “in quotation marks”; if they are presented naturalistically, I remain completely unmoved. (Think of the climactic scene in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, at the Club Silencio, when Betty and Rita are utterly moved to tears by the ostentatious fakery of Rebekah Del Rio’s lip-synching of her own over-the-top Spanish-language rendition of a Roy Orbison song).

Melodrama is not quite “psychological” in the way we usually understand this word. It’s at the opposite extreme from modernist or Freudian “depth psychology.” Psychology in melodrama is literally without depth, because the psyche and all its affects are externalized. Todd Haynes, commenting on Sirk’s melodramas, said that the characters are “pre-psychological.” But I’m not convinced they are any more “pre-” than “post-”. The characters in melodrama don’t have “inner lives,” because everything they feel is acted out, made overemphatic or “melodramatic”, and “sublimated into gesture, decor, color and music” (here I am inaccurately quoting Thomas Elsaesser, who has written the best account of 1950s Hollywood melodrama). Instead of cognition, we get passion: in the literal sense that the characters suffer what they do not understand. And instead of repression and symptom-formation we get expression and objectification, often in the form of character doublings, or episodes of hypnotic influence and of possession (Personality-changing possession, or occult influence, is of course a continual theme in Buffy; and there are lots of character doublings as well, literally in the episode when Xander gets split in half, more metaphorically in rivalrous pairings like that of Buffy vs. Faith, who actually exchange bodies in one episode).

It’s precisely because melodrama is not “psychological,” not oriented towards interiority, that it so often functions as social critique. Sirk’s 1950s melodramas, as is well known, work through the gaps between what women want (or emotionally need) and what they are actually able to get; as well as the gaps between the American promise of happiness, and the dissatisfying emptiness of material wealth or commodities. More generally, and still in social situations that differ as much as middle-class American life today differs from middle-class American life in the 1950s, melodrama is always about desire as unfulfillment (or what the Lacanians call “lack”): for even if it is a general psychological truth that desire always exceeds its objects, so that it is intrinsically unfulfilled, still the hole of this unfulfillment is always filled by the social, or (better) is where the social can be located within the psyche. Because melodrama exteriorizes everything, it is always social and political, often more so than other genres that have political themes as their more explicit subjects.

There is melodrama in books and plays and of course in the movies; but melodrama really finds its home on television. The intimacy of the small screen, and the serial structure of televisual narrative, are ideal conditions for melodrama. In daytime soaps, but also in weekly evening shows with a melodramatic tinge, character is iconic, conveyed by definite, recognizable gestures; devastating plot turns are frequent, multiple plot strands can be carried through at once, and narrative closure is almost never really attained (since there always has to be something to justify another episode). One might even argue that the continual transformations of melodrama, and the continual repetitions of the same configuration in sitcoms, are the two most basic televisual forms. In TV melodrama, there’s leisure for repetition and amplification, as well as for the characters’ gradual growth on the one hand, and sudden transformations on the other. A TV series also allows for multiple allusions (e.g. to other TV narratives and genres, and more general features of popular culture) as well as self-referential turns self-parody, and so on. Dramatic television series these days tend to alternate between self-contained episodes and ones that advance the overall “plot arc,” to include topical episodes now and then (like a Christmas episode — or in Buffy, a yearly Halloween episode), and occasionally to involve crossovers with other, related shows (especially with spinoffs: in the case of Buffy, this of course means Angel). One should also mention the ways in which TV series allow for a particularly intense sort of contact with the shows’ fans, who argue online in astonishingly minute detail about the pros and cons of every episode, as well as writing fan fiction and otherwise offering alternative directions in which the show and the characters might have proceeded, but did not. (This has to do with how television remains, as McLuhan said it was, a “cool” medium, one which therefore solicits its audience to project themselves into it, and participate in it in depth: the artifice and artificiality of melodrama are strongly consonant with the artifice and artificiality of the televisual medium itself).

Buffy, of course, is something of a closeted melodrama. Its official genre, I suppose, is horror, or more precisely the supernatural thriller. And we expect that every episode will contain at least one good fight scene, where Buffy kicks ass. And that there will be some comedy to leaven the prospect of apocalypse, or Buffy’s pain at always having to do what she does. Nonetheless, melodrama is never far from the surface. Buffy’s relationship with Angel in season 2, and the death of her mother in season 5, are perhaps the two most obvious examples of melodramatic plot lines. But melodrama is everywhere in the show: it’s all about impossible situations, unfulfillable desires, and people confronting passions that they didn’t know they had, or that feel to them as if they were coming from elsewhere. Relationships frayed, and yet inescapable. The supernatural elements of the show — the vampires, the demons, the multiple Hell realms outside our own, and always threatening to break in — these are all othernesses that yet seem all too close to us, intimately close, closer perhaps than what we take for granted in the everyday. In the course of the seven years of Buffy, vampires become everyday. And if horror as a genre is about our intimate contact with radical otherness, then melodrama is precisely its obverse, the genre that projects everything intimate into the outside, into otherness. Horror, and supernatural excess, become mundane, even as the mundane is the realm where the most unbearable things continually happen. And Buffy is all about this identity-by-inversion; indeed, it’s only through Buffy that I have come to understand it. This inversion is what grounds all the great, heart-wrenching moments of the show: Buffy’s having to kill Angel precisely at the moment when, after so much suffering, she has gotten him back; Buffy having to sacrifice herself to save Dawn; the tenderness of Faith’s daughter/father relationship with the Mayor, even as this relation has drawn her into the utmost abjection; Spike’s pained lust and crippling inhibition beneath his punk sneer; Willow’s moments of desperation and grim determination and rage…. The list could go on. What Buffy does is to linger on all these moments, to draw them out, to make them both painful and awkward (I mean both the awkwardness that the characters often feel, as well as the frequent awkwardness of the show itself, as if it were continually trying to express something that went beyond its means, and that it could not portray quite convincingly). (This is also why the show’s bizarre juxtapositions, its invocations of the most unlikely and artificial genres — like the 1950s musical in the “Once More With Feeling” episode — work so brilliantly. There’s an arbitrariness that fits perfectly with the strained unnaturalness of melodrama itself).

The thing that I find most fascinating about it all, however, is something that includes but goes beyond melodrama, or (better) something that Buffy shares, not with other melodramas, but with other examples of science fiction or speculative fiction. This is the need to take the show’s situations literally. By this I mean that the supernatural elements of the show’s melodramatic situations cannot be read as allegories of more familiar emotional states, but have to be taken precisely for what they are. When Buffy can’t have sex with Angel, because of a Gypsy curse that means such consummation will take away his soul and turn him back into an evil vampire; when Buffy, returned from the dead, cannot experience life with anything but pain and dread, because she has been riven away from Paradise: these do not symbolize or allegorize any actual or possible situations that you and I might really experience ourselves. They are impossible, strictly unimaginable situations; and their emotional intensity depends on the fact that we cannot really conceive of their possibility, and yet we have to accept them (in the “suspension of disbelief” — a formulation I am not at all happy with — of our immersion in the show) as being not only “real,” but even mundane. This is the part of the experience that I find it most difficult to “theorize,” or to make sense of in terms that satisfy me.

On and On

Friday, April 29th, 2005

“On and On,” the new Missy Elliott song from her forthcoming album Cookbook, is really amazing: gurgling synthesizer lines over a heavy booming beat, and the art of declamation honed sharp as a razor. Wow. Produced, not by Timbaland, but by the Neptunes, and one of their best tracks ever (enough to make you forget “Milkshake”or “Drop It Like It’s Hot”).


Friday, April 29th, 2005

He’s so entertaining a speaker, I can’t wait to see Zizek! The Movie.


Thursday, April 28th, 2005

I just finished reading Isabelle Stengers’ great book Cosmopolitiques (originally published in seven brief volumes, now available in two paperbacks; unfortunately, it has not yet been translated into English). It’s a dense and rich book, of something like 650 pages, and it’s forced me to rethink a lot of things. I’ve said before that I think Stengers is our best guide to the “science wars” of the last decade or two, and more generally, to the philosophy of science. In Cosmopolitiques, she massively extends and expands upon what she wrote in earlier books like The Invention of Modern Science.

Stengers, like Bruno Latour, wants us to give up the claim to absolute supremacy that is the greatest legacy of post-Enlightenment modernity. The point is not to abandon science, nor to see it (in cultural-relativist terms) as lacking objective validity. The problem is not with science’s actual, particular positive claims; but rather with its pretensions to universality, its need to deny the validity of all claims and practices other than its own. What Stengers, rightly, wants to take down is the “mobilization” of science as a war machine, which can only make its positive claims by destroying all other discourses and points of view: science presenting itself as rational and as objectively “true,” whereas all other discourses are denounced as superstitious, irrational, grounded in mere “belief,” etc. Stengers isn’t opposing genetics research, for instance, but she is opposing the claim that somehow the “truth” of “human nature” can be found in the genome and nowhere else. She’s opposing Edward O. Wilson’s “consilience” (with its at proclamation that positive science can and will replace psychology, literature, philosophy, religion, and all other “humanistic” forms of knowledge) and Steven Pinker’s reductive, naive and incredibly arrogant and pretentious account of “how the mind works”; not to mention the absurd efforts of “quantitative” social scientists (economists, political scientists, and sociologists) to imagine themselves as arriving at “truth” by writing equations that emulate those of physics.

Stengers wants to understand science in the specificity of its practices, and thereby to reject its transcendent claims, its claims to foundational status which are always made by detaching it from its actual, concrete practices. She defines her own approach as, philosophically, a “constructivist” one. Constructivism in philosophy is non-foundationalist: it denies that truth somehow comes first, denies that it is just there in the world or in the mind. Instead, constructivism looks at how truths are produced through various processes and practices. This does not mean that truth is merely a subjective, human enterprise, either: the practices and processes that produce truths are not just human ones. (Here, Stengers draws profitably upon Whitehead, about whom she has written extensively). For modern science, the constructivist question is to determine how this practice is able (unlike most other human practices, at least) to produce objects that have lives of their own, as it were, so that they remain “answerable” for their actions in the world independently of the laboratory conditions under which they were initially elucidated. This is what makes neutrinos and microbes, for instance, different from codes of justice, or from money, or from ancestral spirits that may be haunting someone. The point of the constructivist approach is to see how these differences work, without thereby asserting that scientific objects are therefore objective, and out there in the world, while all the other sorts of objects would be merely subjective or imaginary or irrational or just inside our heads. The point is not to say that scientific objects are “socially constructed” rather than “objectively true,” but precisely to get away from this binary alternative, when it comes to considering either scientific practices and objects, or (for instance) religious practices and objects.

The other pillar of Stengers’ approach is what she calls an “ecology of practices.” This means considering how particular practices — the practices of science, in particular — impinge upon and relate to other practices that simultaneously exist. This means that the question of what science discovers about the world cannot be separated from the question of how science impinges upon the world. For any particular practice — say, for genetics today — the “ecology of practices” asks what particular demands or requirements (exigences in French, which it’s difficult to translate precisely because the cognate English word, “exigency”, sound kind of weird) are made by the practice, and what particular obligations does the practice impose upon those who practice it, make use of it, or get affected by it.

Constructivism and the ecology of practices allow Stengers to distinguish between science as a creative enterprise, a practice of invention and discovery, and science’s modernist claim to invalidate all other discourses. Actually, such a statement is too broad — for Stengers also distinguishes among various sciences, which are not all alike. The assumptions and criteria, and hence the demands and obligations, of theoretical physics are quite different from those of ethology (the study of animal behavior, which has to take place in the wild, where there is little possibility of controlling for “variables,” as well as under laboratory conditions). The obligations one takes on when investigating chimpanzees, and all the more so human beings, are vastly different from the obligations one takes on when investigating neutrinos or chemical reactions. The demands made by scientific practices (such as the demand that the object discovered not be just an “artifact” of a particular experimental setup) also vary from one practice to another. Constructivism and the ecology of practices allow Stengers to situate the relevance and the limits of various scientific practices, without engaging in critique: that is to say, without asserting the privilege of a transcendent(al) perspective on the basis of which the varying practices are judged.

Much of Cosmopolitiques is concerned with a history of physics, from Galileo through quantum mechanics. Stengers focuses on the question of physical “laws.” She looks especially at the notion of equilibrium, and the modeling of dynamic systems. Starting with Galileo, going through Newton and Leibniz, and then continuing throughout the 18th and especially the 19th centuries, there is a continual growth in the power of mathematical idealizations to describe physical systems. Physicists construct models that work under simplified conditions — ignoring the presence of friction, for instance, when describing spheres rolling down a plane (Galileo) or more generally, motion through space. They then add the effects of “perturbations” like friction as minor modifications of the basic model. Gradually, more and more complex models were developed, which allowed for more and more factors to be incorporated within the models themselves, instead of having to be left outside as mere “perturbations.” These models all assume physical “states” that can be said to exist at an instant, independently of the historical development of the systems in question; and they assume a basic condition of equilibrium, often perturbed but always returned to.

Stengers suggests that we should celebrate these accomplishments as triumphs of scientific imagination and invention. At the same time, she points up the baleful effects of these accomplishments, in terms of how they got (metaphorically) transferred to other physical and scientific realms. The success of models, expressible as physical “laws,” has to do with the particular sorts of questions 19th-century dynamics addressed (having to do with the nature of forces in finite interactions that could be treated mathematically with linear equations). The success of dynamics, however, led physicists to expect that the same procedures would be valid in answering other questions. This extension of the dynamic model beyond the field of its experimental successes, and into other realms, led to the general assumption that all physical processes could similarly be modeled in terms of instantaneous “states” and time-invariant transformations of these states. That is to say, the assumption that all physical processes follow deterministic “laws.” When the “perturbations” that deviate from the ideal cannot be eliminated empirically, this is attributed to the mere limitations of our knowledge, with the assertion that the physical world “really” operates in accordance with the idealized model, which thereby takes precedence over merely empirical observations. This is how physics moved from empirical observation to a quasi-Platonic faith in an essence underlying mere appearances.

It’s because of this underlying idealism, this illicit transference of dynamic modelling into realms that are not suited to it, that the ideology of physics as describing the ultimate nature of “reality” has taken so strong a hold on us today. Thus physicists dismiss the apparent irreversibility of time, and the increase of entropy (disorder) in any closed system, as merely artifacts of our subjectivity, which is to say our ignorance (of the fact that we do not have access to perfect and total information about the physical state of every atom). But Stengers points out the arbitrariness of the generally accepted “statistical” interpretation of entropy; she argues that it is warranted only by physicists’ underlying assumption that the ideal situation of total knowability of every individual atom’s location and path, independent of the atoms’ history of interactions, must obtain everywhere. This ideal is invoked as how nature “really” behaves, even if there is no empirical possibility of obtaining the “knowledge” that the ideal assumes.

There are similar problems in quantum mechanics. Most physicists are not content with Bohr’s injunction not to ask what is “really” going on before the collapse of quantum indeterminacy; they can’t accept that total, deterministic knowledge is an impossibility, so they have recourse to all sorts of strange hypotheses, from multiple worlds to “hidden variables.” But following Nancy Cartwright among others, Stengers suggests that the whole problem of indeterminacy and measurement in quantum mechanics is a false one. Physicists don’t like the fact that quantum mechanics forbids us in principle from having exact knowledge of every particle, as it were independently of our interaction with the particles (since we have to choose, for instance, between knowing the position of an electron and knowing its momentum — we can’t have both, and it is our interaction with the electron that determines which we do find out). But Stengers points out that the limits of our knowledge in quantum mechanics are not really any greater than, say, the limits of my knowledge as to what somebody else is really feeling and thinking. It’s only the physicists’ idealizing assumption of the world’s total knowability and total determinability in accordance with “laws” that leads them to be frustrated and dissatisfied by the limits imposed by quantum mechanics.

Now, my summary of the last two paragraphs has actually done a disservice to Stengers. Because I have restated her analyses in a Kantian manner, as a reflection upon the limits of reason. But for Stengers, such an exercise in transcendental critique is precisely what she wants to get away from; since such a critique means that once again modernist rationality is legislating against practices whose claims differ from its own. She seeks, rather, through constructivism and the ecology of practices, to offer what might be called (following Deleuze) an entirely immanent critique, one that is situated within the very field of practices that it is seeking to change. Stengers exemplifies this with a detailed account of the work of Ilya Prigogine, with whom she collaborated in the 1980s. Prigogine sought, for most of his career, to get the “arrow of time” — the irreversibility of events in time — recognized as among the fundamentals of physics. We cultural studies types tend to adopt Prigogine wholeheartedly for our own critical purposes. But Stengers emphasizes the difficulties that result from the fact that Prigogine is not critiquing physics and chemistry, but seeking to point up the “arrow of time” in such a way that the physicists themselves will be compelled to acknowledge it. To the extent that he is still regarded as a fringe figure by most mainstream scientists, it cannot be said that he succeeded. Stengers points to recent developments in studies of emergence and complexity as possibly pointing to a renovation of scientific thought, but she warns against the new-agey or high-theoretical tendency many of us outside the sciences have to proclaim a new world-view by trumpeting these scientific results as evidence: which means both translating scientific research into “theory” way too uncritically, and engaging in a kind of Kantian critique, instead of remaining within the immanence of the ecology of actual practices, with the demands they make and the obligations they impose.

The biggest question Cosmopolitiques leaves me with is precisely the one of whether it is possible to approach all these questions immanently, without bringing some sort of Kantian critique back into the picture (as I find myself unavoidably tempted to do, even when I am just trying to summarize Stengers’ arguments). One could also pose this question in reverse: whether Kantian critique (in the sense I am using it, which goes back to the Transcendental Dialectic of the First Critique, where Kant tries to use rationality to limit the pretensions of reason itself) can be rescued from Stengers’ objections to the modernist/scientific condemnation of all claims other than its own. The modernist gesture par excellence, in Stengers’ account, would be David Hume’s consignment of theology and speculative philosophy to the flames, as containing “nothing but sophistry and illusion.” Are Kant’s Antinomies and Paralogisms making essentiallly the same gesture? I regard this as a crucial question, and as an open one, something I have only begun to think about.

I have another question about Stengers’ conclusions, one that (I think) follows from that about Kantian critique. Stengers urges us (in the last section of her book) “to have done with tolerance”; because “tolerance” is precisely the condescending attitude by which “we” (scientists, secular modernists in general) make allowances for other world-views which we nonetheless refuse to take seriously. Stengers’ vision, like Latour’s, is radically democratic: science is not a transcending “truth” but one of many “interests” which constantly need to negotiate with one another. This can only happen if all the competing interests are taken seriously (not merely “tolerated”), and actively able to intervene with and against one another. To give an example that Stengers herself doesn’t use: think of the recent disputes over “Kennewick Man” — a 9,000-year-old skull discovered in 1999 near the Columbia River in Washington State. Scientists want to study the remains; Native American groups want to give the remains a proper burial. For the most part, the American press presented the dispute as one between the rational desire to increase our store of knowledge and the irrational, archaic “beliefs” of the “tribes” claiming ownership of the skull. Stengers would have us realize that such an indivious distinction is precisely an instance of scientific imperialism, and that the claims of both the scientists and the native groups — the demands they make and the obligations they feel urged to fulfill — need to be negotiated on an equal basis, that both are particular interests, and both are political: the situation cannot be described as a battle between rationality and superstition, or between “knowledge” and “belief.”

In this way, Stengers (and Latour) are criticising, not just Big Science, but also (and perhaps even more significantly) the default assumptions of post-Enlightenment secular liberalism. Their criticism is quite different from that espoused by such thinkers as Zizek and Badiou; but there is a shared rejection of the way that liberal “tolerance” (the “human face,” you might say, of multinational captial) in fact prevents substantive questions from being asked, and substantive change from happening. This is another Big Issue that I am (again) only beginning to think through, and that I will have to return to in future posts. But as regards Stengers, my real question is this: Where do Stengers’ and Latour’s anti-modernist imperatives leave us, when it comes to dealing with the fundamentalist, evangelical Christians in the United States today? Does the need to deprivilege science’s claims to exclusive truth, and to democratically recognize other social/cultural/political claims, mean, for instance, that we need to give full respect to the claims of “intelligent design” or creationism, and let them negotiate on an equal footing with the claims of evolutionary theory? To say that we shouldn’t tolerate the fundamentalists because they themselves are intolerant is no answer. And I’m not sure that to say, as I have said before, that denying the evolution of species is akin to denying the Holocaust — since both are matters of historical events, rather than of (verifiable or falsifiable) theories — I’m not sure that this answer works either. I realize I am showing my own biases here: it’s one thing to uphold the claims of disenfranchised native peoples, another to uphold the claims of a group that I think is oppressing me as much as they think I and my like are oppressing them. But this is really where the aporia comes for me; where I am genuinely uncertain as to the merits of Stengers’ arguments in comparison to the liberal “tolerance” she so powerfully despises.


Thursday, April 28th, 2005

It’s very strange to imagine — let alone to actually see — the insides of one’s own body. Today I went to the hospital and had a flexible sigmoidoscopy: the bottom third of my colon was examined for polyps, or other signs of incipient cancer. (Nothing was found; I got a clean bill of health, at least as far as the lower third of my colon is concerned).

The procedure is done without sedation, and it didn’t hurt — it was barely noticeable. After I had cleansed myself with the requisite laxatives and enemas, the doctor inserted a small tube, with a light and a miniature video camera, up my rectum. I was lying on my side, and I could see the camera’s output on a video screen. The camera went up my insides for a distance of 60 centimeters. I saw the opening of the rectum, some minor hemerrhoids just inside, then a sort of glide through the twists and turns of my colon: it was a fleshly tunnel, mostly smooth, with networks or meshes of blood vessels visible just beneath the surface of the skin. At one point, a bit of excrement — which appeared somewhat greenish in this light — floated in the tunnel, but the doctor (I mean the device he was controlling) pushed it aside and continued inward. Finally things became a bit congested, at which point the instrument reversed and came back out. The whole thing was over in ten minutes.

Now maybe this is the sort of thing you (my readers) might rather not hear about. But it wasn’t grotesque, or even particularly scatoalogical or sexual in how it felt. It was more just the odd sense of displacement, seeing an unfamiliar, indeed alien, landscape that yet exists just inside me. When we speak of “interiority”, we usually are referring to the mind, to the recesses of thought that other people can’t know, that even I myself can’t really know, but only vaguely feel and sense. And yet what I saw on that video monitor, although in a certain sense it isn’t me at all, but merely part of a hole that runs right through me — correction: not although, but precisely because it is a hole connected on both ends to the outside — was a deeper “interiority” than any to be found in depths of my thought (or in the convolutions of my brain). We are living organisms, which means that we exist by separating the inside from from the outside; but the Inside really is nothing other but the Outside, folded back upon itself to constitute the interiority that is “me.” (This is what Deleuze says, more or less). To see inside myself (with all the sexual, as well as mental and physiological, connotations of “inside”) is to sense both my precariousness, and the miraculous strangeness that I should exist at all. It’s to be displaced from myself, to realize that intimacy — including self-intimacy — is always with someone who remains a stranger.


Saturday, April 23rd, 2005

The look of this blog has completely changed; I’ve decided to switch over from Movable Type to WordPress, which is much easier to use.
It was easy to import all the entries from the old blog, but the internal links (from one entry to another) are completely messed up, and some of the images are missing. Still, it should work for the most part.
Also, the RSS feed url is different, I hope this doesn’t screw up too many people.

Confidence Games

Tuesday, April 19th, 2005

Mark C. Taylor’s Confidence Games: Money and Markets in a World Without Redemption is erudite, entertaining, and intellectually wide-ranging — and it has the virtue of dealing with a subject (money and markets) that rarely gets enough attention from people deeply into pomo theory. Why, then, did I find myself so dissatisfied with the book?

Taylor is a postmodern, deconstructionist theologian — if that makes any sense, and in fact when reading him it does — who has written extensively about questions of faith and belief in a world without a center or foundations. Here he writes about the relations between religion, art, and money — or, more philosophically, between theology, aesthetics, and economics. He starts with a consideration of William Gaddis’ underrated and underdiscussed novels The Recognitions and JR (the latter of which he rightly praises as one of the most crucial and prophetic reflections on late-20th-century American culture: in a book published in 1975, Gaddis pretty much captures the entire period from the deregulation and S&L scams of the Reagan 80s through the Enron fiasco of just a few years ago: nailing down both the crazy economic turbulence and fiscal scamming, and its influence on the larger culture). From Gaddis, Taylor moves on to the history of money, together with the history of philosophical reflections upon money. He’s especially good on the ways in which theological speculation gets transmuted into 18th and 19th century aesthetics, and on how both theological and aesthetic notions get subsumed into capitalistic visions of “the market.” In particular, he traces the Calvinist (as well as aestheticist) themes that stand behind Adam Smith’s vision of the “invisible hand” that supposedly ensures the proper functioning of the market.

The second half of Taylor’s book moves towards an account of how today’s “postmodern” economic system developed, in the wake of Nixon’s abandonment of the gold standard in 1971, the Fed’s conversion from Keynesianism to monetarism in 1979, and the general adoption of “neoliberal” economics throughout the world in the 1980s and 1990s. The result of these transformations is the dematerialization of money (since it is no longer tied to gold) and the replacement of a “real” economy by a “virtual” one, in which money becomes a series of ungrounded signs that only refer to one another. Money, in Taylor’s account, has always had something uncanny about it — because, as a general equivalent or medium of exchange, it is both inside and outside the circuits of the items (commodities) being exchanged; money is a liminal substance that grounds the possibility of fixed categories and values, but precisely for that reason, doesn’t itself quite fit into any category, or have any autonomous value. But with the (re-)adoption of free-market fundamentalism in the 1980s, together with the explosive technological changes of the late 20th century — the growth of telecommunications and of computing power that allow for global and entirely ‘fictive’ monetary flows — this all kicks into much higher gear: money becomes entirely “spectral.” Taylor parallels this economic mutation to similar experiences of ungroundedness, and of signs that do not refer to anything beyond themselves, in the postmodern architecture of Venturi and after, in the poststructuralist philosophy of Derrida (at least by Taylor’s somewhat simplistic interpretation of him), and more generally in all facets of our contemporary culture of sampling, appropriation, and simulation. (Though Taylor only really seems familiar with high art, which has its own peculiar relationship to money; he mentions the Guggenheim Museum opening a space in Las Vegas, but — thankfully perhaps — is silent on hiphop, television, or anything else that might be classified as “popular culture”).

I think that Taylor’s parallels are a bit too facile and glib, and underrate the complexity and paradoxicality of our culture of advertising and simulation — but that’s not really the core of my problem with the book. My real differences are — to use Taylor’s own preferred mode of expression — theological ones. I think that Taylor is far too idolatrous in his regard for “the market” and for money, which traditional religion has seen as Mammon, but which he recasts as a sort of Hermes Trismegistus or trickster figure (though he doesn’t directly use this metaphor), as well as a Christological mediator between the human and the divine. Taylor says, convincingly, that economics cannot be disentangled from religion, because any economic system ultimately requires faith — it is finally only faith that gives money its value. But I find Taylor’s faith to be troublingly misplaced: it is at the antipodes from any form of fundamentalism, but for this very reason oddly tends to coincide with it. In postmodern society, money is the Absolute, or the closest that we mortals can come to an Absolute. (Taylor complacently endorses the hegelian dialectic of opposites, without any of the sense of irony that a contemporary christianophile hegelian like Zizek brings to the dialectic). Where fundamentalists seek security, grounding, and redemption, Taylor wants to affirm uncertainty and risk “in a world without redemption.” But this means that the turbulence and ungroundedness of the market makes it the locus for a quasi-religious Nietzschean affirmation (“risk, uncertainty, and insecurity, after all, are pulses of life” — 331) which is ultimately not all that far from the Calvinist faith that everything is in the hands of the Lord.

Taylor at one point works through Marx’s account of the self-valorization of capital; for Taylor, “Marx implicitly draws on Kant’s aesthetics and Hegel’s philosophy” when he describes capital’s “self-renewing circular exchange” (109). That is to say, Marx’s account of capital logic has the same structure as Kant’s organically self-validating art object, or Hegel’s entire system. (Taylor makes much of Marx’s indebtedness to Hegel). What Taylor leaves out of his account, however, is the part where Marx talks about the appropriation of surplus value, which is to say what capital does in the world in order to generate and perpetuate this process of “self-valorization.” I suggest that this omission is symptomatic. In his history of economics, Taylor moves from Adam Smith to such mid-20th-century champions of laissez faire as Milton Friedman and F. A. Hayek; but he never mentions, for instance, Ricardo, who (like Marx after him) was interested in production and consumption, rather than just circulation.

Now, simply to say — as most orthodox Marxists would do — that Taylor ignores production, and the way that circulation is grounded in production, is a more “fundamentalist” move than I would wish to make. Taylor is right to call attention to the eerily ungrounded nature of contemporary finance. Stock market prices are largely disconnected from any underlying economic performance of the companies whose stocks are being traded; speculation on derivatives and other higher-order financial instruments, which have even less relation to actual economic activity, have largely displaced productive investment as the main “business” of financial markets today. But Taylor seems to celebrate this process as a refutation of Marx and Marxism (except to the extent that Marx himself unwittingly endorses the self-valorization of capital, by describing it in implicitly aesthetic and theological terms). Taylor tends to portray Marx as an old-school fundamentalist who is troubled by the way that money’s fluidity and “spectrality” undermine metaphysical identities and essences. But this is a very limited and blinkered (mis)reading of Marx. For Marx himself begins Capital with the notorious discussion of the immense abstracting power of commodities and money. And subsequently, Marx insists on the way that circuits of finance tend, in an advanced capitalist system, to float free of their “determinants” in use-value and labor. The autonomous “capital-logic” that Marx works out in Volumes 2 & 3 of Capital is much more true today than it ever was in Marx’s own time. Marx precisely explores the consequences of these developments without indulging in any “utopian-socialist” nostalgia for a time of primordial plenitude, before money matters chased us out of the Garden.

Let me try to put this in another way. The fact that postmodern financial speculation is (quite literally) ungrounded seems to mean, for Taylor, that it is therefore also free of any extraneous consequences or “collateral damage” (Taylor actually uses this phrase as the title of one section of the book, playing on the notion of “collateral” for loans but not considering any extra-financial effects of financial manipulations). Much of the latter part of Confidence Games is concerned with efforts by financiers and economists, in the 1980s and 1990s, to manage and minimize risk; and with their inability to actually do so. Taylor spends a lot of time, in particular, on the sorry story of Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM), the investment firm that went bankrupt so spectacularly in 1998. After years of mega-profits, LTCM got called on its outrageously leveraged investments, found that it couldn’t repay any of its loans, and had to be bailed out to avoid a domino effect leading to worldwide financial collapse. In Taylor’s view, there’s a kind of moral lesson in this: LTCM wanted to make hefty profits without taking the concomitant risks; but eventually the risks caught up with them, in a dramatic movement of neo-Calvinist retribution, a divine balancing of the books. Taylor doesn’t really reflect on the fact that the “risks” weren’t really all that great for the financiers of LTCM themselves: they lost their paper fortunes, but they didn’t literally lose their shirts or get relegated to the poorhouse. Indeed their losses were largely covered, in order to protect everyone else, who would have suffered from the worldwide economic collapse that they almost triggered. The same holds, more recently, for Enron. Ken Lay got some sort of comeuppance when Enron went under, and (depending on the outcome of his trial) he may even end up having to serve (like Martha Stewart) some minimum-security jail time. But Lay will never be in the destitute position of all the people who lost their life savings and old-age pensions in the fiasco. Gaddis’ JR deals with the cycles of disruption and loss that are triggered by the ungrounded speculations at the center of the novel — but this is one aspect of the text Taylor never talks about.

Taylor sharply criticizes the founding assumptions of mainstream economists and financiers: the ideas that the market is “rational,” and that it tends toward “equilibrium.” And here Taylor is unquestionably right: these founding assumptions — which still pervade mainstream economics in the US and around the world — are indeed nonsensical, as well as noxious. It’s only under ideal, frictionless conditions, that almost never exist in actuality, that Smith’s “invisible hand” actually does operate to create “optimal” outcomes. Marginalist and neoclassical/neoliberal economics is probably the most mystified discipline in the academy today, wedded as it is to the pseudo-rigor of mathematical models borrowed from physics, and deployed in circumstances where none of the idealizations at the basis of physics actually obtain. It’s welcome to see Taylor take on the economists’ “dream of a rationally ordered world” (301), one every bit as out of touch with reality, and as harmful in its effects when people tried to bend the real world to conform to it, as Soviet communism ever was.

But alas — Taylor only dismisses the prevalent neoclassical version of the invisible hand, in order to welcome it back in another form. If the laws of economic equilibrium, borrowed by neoclassical economics from 19th-century physical dynamics, do not work, for Taylor this is because the economy is governed instead by the laws of complex systems, which he borrows from late-20th-century physics in the form of chaos and complexity theory. There is still an invisible hand in Taylor’s account: only now it works through phase transitions and strange attractors in far-from-equilibrium conditions. Taylor thus links the physics of complexity to the free-market theories of F. A. Hayek (Margaret Thatcher’s favorite thinker), for whom the “market” was a perfect information-processing mechanism that calculated optimal outcomes as no “central planning” agency could. According to Hayek’s way of thinking, since any attempt at human intervention in the functioning of the economy — any attempt to alleviate or mitigate circumstances — will necessarily have unintended and uncontrollable consequences, we do best to let the market take its course, with no remorse or regret for the vast amount of human suffering and misery that is created thereby.

Such sado-monetarist cruelty is clearly not Taylor’s intention, but it arises nevertheless from his revised version of the invisible hand, as well as from his determination to separate financial networks from their extra-financial effects. I’ll say it again: the more Taylor celebrates the way that everything is interconnected, and all systems are open, he still maintains a sort of methodological solipsism or blindness to external consequences. The fact that financial networks today (or any other sort of self-perpetuating system of nonreferential signs) are ungrounded self-affecting systems, produced in the unfolding of a “developmental process [that] neither is grounded in nor refers to anything beyond itself” (330) — this fact does not exempt these systems from having extra-systemic consequences: indeed, if anything, the system’s lack of “groundedness” or connection makes the extra-systemic effects all the more intense and virulent. To write off thesse effects as “coevolution,” or as the “perpetual restlessness” of desire, or as a wondrous Nietzschean affirmation of risk, is to be disingenuous at best.

There’s a larger question here, that goes far beyond Taylor. When we think today of networks, or of chaotic systems, we think of patterns that are instantiated indifferently in the most heterogeneous sorts of matter. The same structures, the same movements, the same chaotic bifurcations and phase transitions, are supposedly at work in biological ecosystems, in the weather, and in the stock market. This is the common wisdom of the age — it certainly isn’t specific to Taylor — but it’s an assumption that I increasingly think needs to be criticized. The very fact that the same arguments from theories of chaos/complexity and “self-organization” can be cited with equal relevance by Citibank and by the alterglobalization movement, and can be used to justify both feral capitalism and communal anarchism, should give us pause. For one thing, I don’t think we know yet how well these scientific theories will hold up; they are drastic simplifications, and only time will tell how well they perform, how useful they are, in comparison to the drastic simplifications proposed by the science of, say, the nineteenth century. For another thing, we still need to be dubious about how the idea of the same pattern instantiated indifferently in various sorts of matter is just another extension — powerful in some ways, but severely limiting in others — of Western culture’s tendency to divide mind or meaning from matter, and to devalue the latter. For yet another, we should be very wary of drawing political and ethical consequences from scientific observation and theorization, for usually such drawing-consequences involves a great deal of arbitrariness, as it projects the scientific formulations far beyond the circumstances in which they are meaningful.

Attali’s Noise

Friday, April 15th, 2005

Jacques Attali’s Noise: The Political Economy of Music made something of a stir when it was published roughly a quarter-century ago (it came out in France in 1977, and in English translation in 1985). Noise comes from a time when “theory” had greater ambitions than it does today; it’s an audacious, ambitious book, linking the production, performance, and consumption of music to fundamental questions of power and order in society. I read it for the first time in many years, in order to see how well it holds up in the 21st century.

Noise presents itself as a “universal history”: it presents a schema of four historical phases, which it claims are valid for all of human history and culture (or at least for European history and culture: Attali, like so many European thinkers, consigns everything that lies outside Europe and its Near Eastern antecedents to a vague and undifferentiated ‘primitive’ category, as if there were no differences worth noting among them, and nothing that any of these other cultures could offer that was different from the European lineage). The mania for “universal history” was strong among late-20th-century Parisian thinkers; both Deleuze & Guattari, and Baudrillard, offer such grand formulations. Though I doubt that any of these schemas are “true” — they leave out too much, oversimplify, reduce the number of actual structural orders — at their best (as, I would argue, in Deleuze & Guattari, in the “Savages, Barbarians, Civilized Men” section of Anti-Oedipus, and in the chapter “On Several Regimes of Signs” in A Thousand Plateaus) they are richly suggestive, and help us at least to trace the genealogy of what we take for granted in the present, and to see the contingency of, and the possibility therefore of differing from, what we take for granted in the present. Attali’s “universal history,” however, is much weaker than Deleuze and Guattari’s; it really just consists in shunting everything that is pre-capitalist, or simply non-capitalist, into a single category.

Still, Attali offers some valuable, or at least thought-provoking, insights. Music is the organization of sound; by channelling certain sounds in certain orders, it draws a distinction between sounds that are legitimate, and those that are not: the latter are relegated to the (negative) category of “noise.” Music, like other arts, is often idealized as the imposition of form upon chaos (Wallace Stevens’ “blessed rage for order”). Attali rightly insists that there’s a politics at work here: behind the idealization, there’s an act of exclusion. The history of music can be read as a series of battles for legitimation, disputes over what is acceptable as sound, and what is only “noise” (think of the rise of dissonance in European concert music in the 19th and early 20th centuries: or the way punk in the late 1970s, like many other movements before and since, affirmed “noise” against the gentility of mainstream pop and officially sanctioned rock, or why Public Enemy wanted to “Bring the Noise,” a gesture at once aesthetic and political).

Now, the imposition of order is always a kind of violence, albeit one that claims to put an end to violence. The State has a legal monopoly of violence, and this is what allows it to provide peace and security to its citizens. This is why, as Foucault put it, “the history which bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of a language: relations of power, not relations of meaning.” Attali draws an analogy — actually, more than an analogy, virtually an identity — between the imposition of order in society, and the imposition of sonic order that is music. Social order and musical order don’t just formally resemble one another; since music is inherently social and communal, music as an action (rather than a product), like Orpheus’ taming of the beasts, is itself part of the imposition of order, the suppression of violence by a monopolization of violence. Music excludes the violence of noise (unwanted sound) by violently imposing order upon sound. And music is addressed to everybody — it “interpellates” us into society. Music thus plays a central role in social order — which is why Plato, for instance, was so concerned with only allowing the ‘right’ sorts of music into his Republic; and why the Nazis paid so much attention to music (favoring Wagner and patriotic songs, and banning “degenerate” music like jazz).

Attali specifies this further by assimilating music to sacrifice, as the primordial religious origin of all social order. I find this a powerful and deeply suggestive insight, even though Attali understands the logic of sacrifice in the terms set forth by Rene Girard, rather than in the much richer and more ambiguous formulations of Georges Bataille.(To my mind, everything Girard says can be traced back to Bataille, but Girard only offers us a reductive, normalized, idealized, and overly pious version of Bataille. The impulsion to sacrifice, the use of the scapegoat as sacrificial substitution, the creation of community by mutual implication in the sacrifice, and so on — all these can only be understood in the context of Bataille’s notion of expenditure, and in relation to Maussian gift economies; only in this way can we see how sacrifice, in its religious and erotic, as well as political dimensions, doesn’t just rescue us from “mimetic rivalry,” but also institutes a whole set of unequal power relations).

In any case: music as a sacrificial practice, and more generally as a form of “community” (a word which I leave in quotes because I don’t want to forget its ambiguous, and often obnoxious, connotations), is central to the way that order exists in a given society. Music is not a mere part of what traditional Marxists called the “superstructure”; rather, it is directly one of the arenas in which the power struggles that shape and change the society take place. (These “power struggles” might be Marxist class warfare, or Foucauldian conflicts of power and resistance seeping up from below and interfering with one another, or indeed the more peaceful contentions, governed by a “social contract,” that are noted by liberal political theory). Attali argues that music is one of the foremost spheres in which the struggles, inventions, innovations, and mutations that determine the structure of society take place; and therefore that music is in a strong sense “prophetic,” in that its changes anticipate and forecast what happens in society as a whole.

All this is background, really; though music’s “Sacrificing” role is the first of Attali’s four historical phases. Attali’s real interest (and mine as well), and the subject of his three remaining historical phases, is what happens to music under capitalism. The 19th century concert hall is the center of the phase of “Representing.” The ritual function of music in “primitive” societies, and even in Europe up to feudalism and beyond, gets dissolved as a result of the growth of mercantile, and then industrial capitalism. Music is separated from everyday life; it becomes a specialized social function, with specialized producers and performers. The musician becomes a servant of the Court in 17th and 18th century Europe; by the 19th century, with the rise to power of the bourgeoisie after the French Revolution, the musician must become an entrepreneur. Music “become[s] institutionalized as a commodity,” and “acquire[s] an autonomous status and monetary value,” for the first time in human history (51). The musical emphasis on harmony in this period is strictly correlated, according to Attali, with an economic system based upon exchange, and the equilibrium that is supposed to result from processes of orderly economic exchange. Music and money both work, in the 19th century, according to a logic of representation. Money is the representation of physical goods, in the same way that the parliament, in representative democracy, is the representation of the populace. And the resolution of harmonic conflict in the course of 19th century compositions works alongside the resolution of conflicting desires through the (supposed) equilibrium of the “free market.” In the cases both of music and the market, sacrifice is repressed and disavowed, and replaced by what is both the representation of (social and musical) harmony, and the imposition of harmony through the process of representation itself. Playing on the multiple French meanings of the word “representation,” Attali includes in all this the formal “representation” (in English, more idiomatically, the “performance”) of music in the concert hall as the main process by means of which music is disseminated. The links Attali draws here are all quite clever, and much of it might even be true.

Finally, though, however important a role representation continues to play in the ideology of late-capitalist society, the twentieth century has effectively moved beyond it. For Attali, the crucial development is the invention of the phonograph, the radio, and other means of mechanical (and now, electronic) reproduction and dissemination: this is what brings music (and society) out of the stage of “Representing” and into one grounded instead in “Repeating.” Of course, Attali is scarcely the first theorist to point out how radically these technologies have changed the ways in which we experience music. Nor is he alone in noting how these changes — with musical recordings becoming primary, rather than their being merely reproductions of ‘real’ live performances — can be correlated with the hypercommodification of music. More originally, Attali comments on the “stockpiling” of recordings: in effect, once I buy a record or CD or file, I don’t really have to listen to the music contained therein: the essence of consumption lies in purchasing and collecting, not in “using” the music through actual listening. He also makes an ingenious parallel between the pre-programmed and managed production of “pop” music, and the instrumental rationality of musical avant-gardes (both the serialists of the 50s and the minimalists of the 70s). But all in all, “Repeating” is the weakest chapter of Noise, because for the most part Attali pretty much just echoes Adorno’s notorious critique of popular music. I’d argue — as I have implicitly suggested in previous posts — that the real problem with Adorno’s and Attali’s denunciations is that they content themselves with essentially lazy and obvious criticisms of commodity culture, while failing to plumb the commodity experience to its depths, refusing to push it to its most extreme consequences. The only way out is through. The way to defend popular music against the Frankfurt School critique — not that I think it even needs to be defended — is not by taking refuge in notions of “authenticity” in order to deny its commodity status, but rather to work out how the power of this music comes out of — rather than existing in spite of — its commodity status, how it works through the logic of repetition and commodification, and pushes this further than any capitalist apologetics would find comfortable.

Such an approach is not easy to articulate; I haven’t yet succeeded in doing so, and I can’t blame Attali for not successfully doing so either. “Composing,” the brief last chapter of Noise, at least attempts just such a reinvention — in a way that Frankfurt School thinkers like Adorno would never accept. Which is why I liked this final chapter, even though in certain respects it feels quite dated. Attali here reverses the gloomy vision of his “Repeating” chapter, drawing on music from the 1960s (free jazz, as well as the usual rock icons), in order to envision a new historical stage, a liberated one entirely beyond the commodity, when music is no longer a product, but a process that is engaged in by everyone. Attali doesn’t really explain how each person can become his/her own active composer/producer of music, rather than just a passive listener; but what’s brilliant about the argument, nonetheless, is that it takes off from a hyperbolic intensification of the position of the consumer of recorded music (instead of negating this consumer as a good Hegelian Marxist would do). As the consumption of music (and of images) becomes ever more privatized and solipsistic, Attali says, it mutates into a practice of freedom:

Pleasure tied to the self-directed gaze: Narcissus after Echo… the consumer, completing the mutation that began with the tape recorder and photography, will thus become a producer and will derive at least as much of his satisfaction from the manufacturing process itself as from the object he produces. He will institute the spectacle of himself as the supreme usage. (144)

Writing before the Walkman, let alone the iPod and the new digital tools that can cut, paste, and rearrange sounds with just the click of a mouse, Attali seems to anticipate (or to find in the music of his time, which itself had a power of anticipation) our current culture of sampling, remixing, and file-trading, as well as the solipsistic enjoyment of music that Simon Reynolds finds so creepy (“those ads for ipods creep me out, the idea of people looking outwardly normal and repressed and grey-faced on the subway but inside they’re freaking out and going bliss-crazy”). And if Attali writes about these (anticipated) developments with some of the naive utopianism that has been so irritating among more recent cyber-visionaries, he has the excuse both of the time in which he was writing AND the fact that his vision makes more sense — as a project for liberation, rather than as a description of what technology all by itself is alleged to accomplish — in the context of, and counterposed to, the previous chapter’s Adornoesque rant. Despite all his irritating generalizations and dubiously overstated claims, Attali may really have been on to something here. The problem, of course, is how to follow it up.


Friday, April 15th, 2005

One of the more amusing features added to recently is the inclusion, for many books, of SIPs: Statistically Improbable Phrases. As it is explained on the website:’s Statistically Improbable Phrases, or “SIPs”, show you the interesting, distinctive, or unlikely phrases that occur in the text of books in Search Inside the Book. Our computers scan the text of all books in the Search Inside program. If they find a phrase that occurs a large number of times in a particular book relative to how many times it occurs across all Search Inside books, that phrase is a SIP in that book.

Just now I was looking at the page for an academic essay anthology called The New Economic Criticism: Studies at the Interface of Literature and Economics, and among the SIPs I found the following:

gold humbug, rentier culture, ersatz economics, scriptural money, imperial grammar, rhetorical tetrad, symbolic money, critical economists, economic genre, constitutive metaphors, ethical economy, universal equivalent, metaphorical field, novel machine, doing economics, realistic writing, economic discourse, feminist economists, general equivalent, hot pressure, beautiful shirts

Maybe I should leave this list to speak for itself. I don’t fined “general equivalent” or “doing economics” or even “feminist economists” to be all that surprising… but “beautiful shirts”?

Pop Music

Thursday, April 14th, 2005

The yearly Pop Music Conference at the Experience Music Project in Seattle takes place this weekend. I’ve gone to all the previous conferences, and they have been great, but unfortunately this year I am unable to attend, due to family circumstances. I was supposed to be giving a talk on the Kleptones, but I had to cancel.

The conference has always had a wide and open definition of “pop” — pretty much anything goes — but this doesn’t really address the question of what it might mean, in somewhat narrower terms, to talk of “pop” as a genre (alongside, and only partly overlapping with, genres like rock or heavy metal or alternative, or hip hop or crunk or grime or reggaeton. These days, invoking “pop” is inherently problematic: in some contexts, it sounds like a dated term from the 1960s; and in others, it bears a weight that certainly is not innocent, when it is invoked in relation to “rockism,” or when it is contrasted to music that is deemed more adventurous, more experimental, or more authentic.

Woebot raises the question with his usual sharpness and polemical verve in a thread on dissensus. I suppose it is a bit crass of me to respond with my thoughts here, instead of joining the dialogue there; but I need the space the blog affords me — rather than the rapid fire of post and response — to really work things out to my (at least semi-) satisfaction.

Anyway: Woebot doesn’t find the term “pop” to be either coherent or interesting; he works through several possible definitions, and finds them all to be lame, self-contradictory, and (to the extent that they do articulate any sort of identifiable tendency) worthy only of being resisted. It’s too vague, he says, to define “pop” as whatever music is in the charts, or to think that the Top Forty any given week somehow mirrors with precision what is happening in (American or British) society that same week. And it’s tired and unilluminating to trot out the old cliches of high culture vs. low. That doesn’t explain, Woebot says, what the positive appeal of “pop” — of defining “low” or “mass” culture in that populist way — might be, given so many other ways of working through the issue.

Which leaves the most polemically charged of Woebot’s possible definitions of “pop”: he suggests that it is just a marketing term:

When I discovered that by Pop music people meant “music for imaginary rather than real communities” I was depressed for about a month. That people could consume Grime as “Pop”, that they could do the pick’n’mix shake and vac ting and “consume” something oblivious to its source, well for me it just didn’t bear thinking about. That all music could be subjected to the whim of the consumer like this, that there were people out there for whom all music was essentially reducible to a quotient of it’s entertainment value (a mark out of ten, an “A” minus, a four star rating in their iPod ratings menu)…… sad innit. Each song becomes a unit, an equal unit, stripped of anything approaching life. How murderously void.

I think that there is a real issue here, an unavoidable one, since recorded music today really is on the leading edge of consumerist commodification. (A situation that is not really undermined by the nonetheless delicious irony that I, like millions of other people, choose on principle to download music for free as much as possible; I’ll spend hours of my time to find a song that I could order almost instantly from the Apple Music Store for 99 cents. This is not out of penny-pinching — since the time I waste tracking down the song is worth far more to me than 99 cents — but out of a kind of Kantian categorical-imperative sense that it is morally wrong to remunerate the record companies and the current copyright system).

Getting back to the main point: the fact is that music is one of the most social of all human activities (I risk this assertion despite the fact that all human activities are social, that ‘human’ and ‘social’ are virtually synonymous). Because music is so social and collective an activity, it is inevitably tied, in modern societies, to money and the commodity form (which capitalism makes into the primary, if not exclusive, conduits of sociality). Which paradoxically means, in turn, that music today is close to being the most reified and privatized of all human activities. I take myself as an example: a quintessential music consumer (even if I often don’t pay). I download music online, or order it over the web — I’m scarcely ever in one of those quaint old places formerly known as ‘record stores.’ I don’t listen to vinyl, or even very much to CDs: I rip whatever music I get in CD format, and listen to music almost exclusively over headphones, on my laptop or my iPod. Though I live in Detroit, a center of musical activity and production, I’ve never even gone to a live gig here, which means I’ve never listened to music here in the company of other people. What’s more, most of my favorite genres of the moment — grime, reggaeton, baile funk — are produced geographically far away from me, for audiences with whom I will probably never enter into contact (for reasons of race and class and age as well as geography). What’s more, I’ve ‘softened’ considerably since my twenties and early thirties, when I would never listen to music that was less grating than the Sex Pistols or Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, or less hardcore than Run/DMC, or less dissonant than Sonic Youth. Now I’m at the point where I listen to a lot of “pop”: my favorite songs of the moment include (alongside a bunch of heavy grime tracks) things like Amerie’s “One Thing” and Tweet’s “Turn Da Lights Off” and Tori Alamaze’s “Don’t Cha” and M.I.A.’s “Pull Up the People.”

I suppose this makes me into Woebot’s “Online Pop Straw-man”, listening to all sorts of cultural detritus indiscriminately while being ignorant of its particularities and its provenance, “cautious about aspiring to belong to subcultural groups (like, er, Grime) on the basis that he’s Middle Class, White and Old,” and ultimately only willing “to accept something less-threatening and fake in some compromised quasi-ironic manner. To give up on the real because it underlines the uncomfortable reality of one’s own situation.”
The very fact that I like M.I.A. so much pretty much convicts me of these charges. (“In fairness,” as Jerry Springer likes to say, Woebot never makes this point explicitly; but blissblogger — Simon Reynolds, I presume? — pretty much does, later on in the thread. Referring to the M.I.A. controversy, he complains about “the tone of sheer indignation voiced” by M.I.A.’s supporters responding to the criticisms of her: “how DARE you interfere with my pleasure, how dare you pose any impediment to my unproblematic enjoyment of this thing… that debate was so fierce because of a displacement involved… they weren’t defending M.I.A.’s right to be a dilettante-producer, they were defending their own right to be a dilettante-consumer… pop is invested in so intensely i think because it’s about the right to consume, and in this day age consumerism, that’s one of the few areas of power and agency anyone has”).

An anecdote: a couple of years ago, in a class I was teaching, a student gave a presentation on “underground hip hop,” and the dangers of its co-optation by the commercial manistream. His definition of what made the music “underground” was pretty vague; I pressed him, and he ultimately came to the position that it had to be music that I (as an outsider, from an older generation) had never heard of, let alone actually heard. But when it came down to listing specific examples of what he considered “underground hip hop,” it turned out all to be stuff that I was familiar with, and even had on my iPod.

My point in recounting this story is not to boast of my extensive musical connoisseurship (which really isn’t all that extensive, anyway). But rather to suggest that the widespread dissemination (precisely via reification and commodification, enabled by the global communications networks of transnational capital) of all sorts of music (together with all sorts of other things, from sexual fetishes to images of celebrities) makes any sort of “alternative” or “underground” position untenable. Even if you accept (as I am pretty much inclined to) that NOTHING is ever invented by Capital, that creativity is ALWAYS from below, from outside, from “the streets”… and hence in the public sphere, in that very “society” whose existence Margaret Thatcher denied — still, at the very moment that creativity is first expressed, it has already been privatized, commodified, locked up as “intellectual property,” and sold by massive corporations to individualized/privatized consumers worldwide. It has already become solipsistic jouissance, or what blissblogger describes as “the absolute denial of the producer’s existence — the absolute blanking out of the actual material origins and conditions of existence of the pleasure-source you’re enjoying — something for nothing.”

To decry this situation — as blissblogger and woebot seem to do — and to suggest there is a more acceptable alternative to it, is really to contribute to the very myths (of authenticity, of “realness”, of plucky underground inventiveness at odds with mainstream pop) that support the situation of capitalist appropriation and bourgeois-consumption-as-private-jouissance in the first place. Which is why I don’t accept woebot’s maxim that “meaning is always dwindling in Pop, it’s never accreating in the way it does in the underground rhizomes.” Rhizomes aren’t underground anymore; it’s the whole Net, the whole so-called “market”, that is now a rhizome (or, more accurately, that is now rhizomatic). And movements of both accretion and diminution are pretty much going on everywhere.

Or again: blissblogger says, summarizing the situation: “everything that once exploded into public space, becomes interiorized, corralled, quarantined from the world, insulated from ever changing anything.” Here it’s that “once” that I’m suspicious of; the same way I’m suspicious when Guy Debord writes that “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation.” The point being, not that things are always the same, but that — in both blissblogger and the translation of Debord — the “once” has no historical applicability, for it is merely a back-projection from, and inversion of, our current circumstances. It’s a fictive negation of the oppressive circumstances of the present; it provides no path to freedom, no “line of escape,” for it is only a reflection and a symptom of the oppressive circumstances.

Which is why, though I don’t really think of myself as a devotee of “pop” — and in cultural politics terms I am not in the least a populist — I am also unable to join the anti-pop bandwagon. Brecht said somewhere that we shouldn’t start with the good old days, but with the bad new ones. I seriously think that the only way out is through, and that we have to find some way of working through the paradoxes of solipsistic, hedonistic consumerism, pushing them to their limit, rather than moralistically condemning them by refusing to listen to M.I.A. or go to Starbucks.