What Am I Looking at?

At the end of last year, Phil Ford completed a cycle of short essays on modes of academic inquiry inspired by magical practice. In a post entitled Is This Anything?, Ford explores the problem of presenting oneself as a legitimate academic while still getting away with weirdness by way of an analogy to David Letterman’s classic bit called of the same name. For the uninitiated, Ford briefly summarizes Is This Anything?: “Paul Schaffer would lead off a fanfare, the curtain would open and close on some weird act, and then Dave and Paul would decide whether it was anything. Mostly, they decided it wasn’t.”

Shortly after reading Ford’s posts, I ran across an experimental performance piece in the The Experimental Music Yearbook called “I DIDN’T REALLY PREPARE FOR THIS BUT PROBABLY THAT IS BEST” by Kara Feely. In her introduction to the piece, Feely comments:

“when it comes to making [art…] I am interested in that middle ground between incompetence and virtuosity (‘what am I looking at?’) because often when something seems wrong, it begins to get interesting.”

In my judgment, Feely’s What Am I Looking at? is related to Letterman’s Is This Anything? But what kind of relative is it?

Thinking with Ramsey Dukes, we might say that they address the same problem while facing in different directions. Dukes has written several books on magical thought and practice, including S.S.O.T.B.M.E. in which he describes with extraordinary clarity and eloquence the state of magic in the world today. Dukes argues that, throughout [capital “H”] History, the general orientation of the world cycles between the four dominant attitudes: Art, Religion, Sciences, and (of course) Magic.*

Screenshot 2016-02-09 02.49.59

In (painfully reductive) summary: Art is driven by the intuitive appeal of glamour and style; Religious orientation is based on an dogma-driven logic that appeals to the piety of rigid categories; orientation toward Science is grounded in observable data and skepticism; while Magic depends upon feeling one’s way through a world in which everything is bursting with meaning.

Feely’s What Am I Looking at? demonstrates no interest in the meaning of the performance (i.e., “what is this supposed to be?”) nor does it wish to judge aesthetic merit (i.e., “is this any good?”). On the contrary, a bit of aesthetic uncertainty is precisely what makes something “get interesting” for Feely. This suggests, in Dukes’ terminology, a quite refined Artistic (no surprise) orientation that is concerned only with “style” in an undistilled-yet-undefined sense. So, not with a style (too Religious/dogmatic) nor with aesthetics as system of valuation (a la Kant’s Religio-Scientific moral philosophy), but with an intuition that emerges from the performance itself. Feely, we might say, is facing about half-past-ten on Duke’s compass and refusing to blink.

Perhaps Letterman, by contrast, is staring down the Religious-Scientific boundary (three o’clock). Is This Anything? is a near-perfect blend of Scientific skepticism inflected by a vestigial Religious dogmatism manifesting in the need to classify everything that comes its ways as either “Anything” or “Not Anything.” The point is, while Letterman’s query definitely helps to locate the fascinating problem that Ford’s post discusses, addressing unfamiliar objects with the demand “is this anything?” is not particularly generous.

As Ford elaborates, Is This Anything? is an expected question from (for example) a dissertation committee or a teacher grading a student’s term paper. Such Evaluators have the task of systematically adjudicating the piety of an object. Questions like, “is this a dissertation?” or “is this a B paper?” are manifestations of the Is This Anything? attitude. The Evaluator’s job is to be oriented between the two o’clock range and four o’clock range on Dukes’ compass… meaning that they assume any academic work is meant to be pious. As Ford argues, this presumption works to the decided disadvantage of some forms of thought that, while intellectually rigorous, look a bit unorthodox or outright impious.

And so, in addition to Ford’s rumination about how best to assert our weird projects’ “Anything-ness,” it might be wise to try to prompt a totally different question as well. That is, if our Evaluators were to ask, “what am I looking at?” instead of/in addition to, “is this anything?” perhaps things would turn out more favorably.

Of course, we probably need more than the question to shift. For the thinker with a Religious/Scientific orientation, a question is merely a means for gaining an answer upon which to pass a definitive judgment. As such, simply giving the skeptical-dogmatist a new question does not necessarily move the needle. If the set of allowable responses to “what am I looking at” is too narrow, then it simply becomes a cipher for Is This Anything? E.g.:

Senior Scholar: What am I looking at, here?
Graduate Student:
It’s a mythopoieic exploration oriented toward “oceans” instead of “fields” in a world where the gods are present, capricious, and demanding but cannot be appeased by logics of exchange or mastery.
Senior Scholar:
So, what does that mean? In other words, is that… Anything? I don’t think it is…**

For Feely, it is clear, no answer is wanted or required in response to her What Am I Looking At? She doesn’t concern herself with answers but with the “where it gets interesting” that the question generates.

At this point we also need to remember that, for Dukes, the quadrants of his compass are not “locations” so much as orientations. He says:

…the diagram is actually meant to be more of a direction indicator —
like the compass North/South/East/West in the corner of a map. In
this case the placing of specific disciplines depends upon where you
are standing. A more strictly ‘Scientific’ bias would shift the above
placings so that economics and psychology fell into the ‘mumbo
jumbo’ Magic sector, whilst mathematics would fall with philosophy
into the Religious sector. A more extreme ‘Religious’ bias would lump
a lot of Art and Science subjects in the Magic sector as ‘the Devil’s
work’. A more ‘Artistic’ bias would consider astrology and cabalistic
philosophy, for example, to be “all too frightfully Scientific, my dear.”

As such, the Is This Anything? orientation I have been characterizing as paradigmatically Scientific/Religious could just as easily lead to some squirrely results if asked while standing in a properly Magical place:

Letterman: Is this anything?
Schaffer:
I feel like it is something. Why don’t we follow that impulse and see where it takes us!

The Magician’s equivalent to Letterman’s Is This Anything? is something like the Kids in the Hall’s recurring bit: “It’s a Fact!” In these brief interstitials, a teen in a lovely forest runs toward the camera, looks the audience in the eye, and declares “It’s a fact!” before presenting some bit of spurious information that would absolutely fail to pass skeptical-dogmatic muster (e.g., trivia about Big Foot’s singing voice and Uncle Tony’s spitting ability; observations about the neighbors’ love life; lies about the Queen’s literacy). These “facts” are then enacted for the audience, not as evidence of their facticity but as a reality that has been conjured into being by the girl’s heartfelt assertion within that enchanted Ontario forest.

it-s-a-fact-o

But, again we shouldn’t come down too hard on Letterman and Schaffer here. While I have been using Is This Anything? as a demonstration of a repressive order driven by equal parts piety and skepticism, we ought to bear in mind that, in the context of Letterman’s The Late Show, even the acts that were deemed not to be Anything, still did appear on network television. That is, by aping a skeptical-dogmatic framework, Letterman and Schaffer got away with filling valuable (and costly) network television minutes with utterly absurd acts which, by their own judgment, were not Anything at all! By speaking the language of piety, not as devotees but as Tricksters, Letterman and Schaffer themselves present a very clever model for getting away with weirdness.

*-Note that Dukes is not really proposing a grand theory of History. Instead, in keeping with his understanding of the magical orientation, he is proposing it for us to accept, not as Truth, but simply as a thing to try on. When we take up this fanciful notion of four historical epochs, we can understand the world in new ways, see things that were perhaps hidden before. But then why the chart? Because we are in an age intoxicated by Science (with a Religious hangover) so the image of History can be best presented in those terms. At some other moment, Dukes might have selected a different image of History to better appeal to the sensibilities of his readership (e.g., in a Magical age, Dukes might have picked the Tarot as a more sensible metaphor).

**-Based on a true story.

A Good Man Speaking… Adequately.

A number of people have commented on Bernie Sanders’ response to interruptions at the Netroots Nation conference last week. While recognizing Sanders’ history of support for civil rights activists and the reality that he is (despite running as a Democrat) a legitimately Left candidate, Sanders made no friends with his sulky response in Arizona.

As summarized by Electablog:

At times he [Sanders] plunged on, talking over the protesters as if they weren’t there. While he is largely a supporter of civil rights and is, in general, right on the issues of the Black Lives Matter movement, he came across as a self-important know-it-all who has better things to do than to listen to uppity black kids who are disrupting HIS speech. In the end, he took off his microphone and left the stage without as much as a wave to the audience.

This response is entirely understandable. In watching video of the event, I found his petulance, turning to moderator Jose Antonio Vargas and asking “shall I continue or leave” particularly uncharismatic. It is certainly important to remember that the previous speaker, fellow candidate Democratic candidate,  Governor Martin O’Malley had been totally derailed by audience intervention. That Sanders wanted to establish he would not be put in a similar position is understandable and not at all inappropriate. Many (justifiably) read Sanders’ attitude as dismissive and patronizing. I think such readings are fair.

But what should we make of these assessments of Sanders?

My criticism of Sanders is situated primarily around his failures as an orator. IN particular, Sanders failed to allow his oratory to be guided by and adapted to his audience. When he took the stage, Vargas invited Sanders to engage the concerns that the audience had expressed to O’Malley:

Vargas: Did you hear from the back, what was happening here? I would love for you to talk about this in specifics. Not the usual political stuff–

Sanders, at this point, interrupted Vargas, waving him off.

Sanders: Whoa whoa whoa. Let me talk about… what I want to talk about first, for a moment.

Again, it is fair to read this dismissal of the moderator as putting Vargas in his place. Yet, given the circumstance, one might read Sanders’ response charitably and note that he claimed to want to read his prepared statement first and (presumably) address the audience’s concerns about white supremacy later. Critics who see this as a telling articulation of Sanders’ priorities or as an embodiment of white supremacist attitudes make good points.

Still, there was something honest in Sanders’ voice when he told the audience “Black lives of course matter and I spent fifty years of my life fighting for civil right and for dignity.” The “of course” is particularly compelling to me– he is not merely repeating the slogan but seems to consider it so natural as to be redundant. Not redundant in an AllLivesMatter kind of way but obvious in a way that he and the audience both understand. The “of course” is an artistic development of the ethos he deploys by invoking his fifty years of service. Lamentably, he squanders that ethos by refusing the exigence of this moment. In a sense, Sanders demonstrates that he views his fifty years of “fighting” as license of speak over (rather than to or for the rights of) the audience.

Compounding the damage done by avoiding the exigence of the moment is the fact that his next line was about wealth distribution. Why is that a problem? Because, to be honest, if anyone in that room had wanted to know Bernie Sanders’ thoughts on income/wealth inequality, they could go read about them in 1000 different places. Here we see Sanders’ “experience” actually working against him: since he has been pretty consistent about wealth disparity issues for nearly half a century, the nobody in that room needed to hear him talk about what percentage of people own what percentage of media outlets right then. They, and every other politically minded American knows what Bernie Sanders has to say about wealth disparity and could probably give his platform on redistribution for him.

On the other hand, some people in the audience did absolutely need to hear Sanders talk about 21st century white supremacy. They were compelled and driven to interrupt two presidential candidates whom, Tia Oso (among others) feared would not address this issue. To be fair, Sanders has done a fine job of addressing violence against black bodies and provided a very nuanced take on politicians parroting (or failing to parrot) racially progressive slogans without any teeth. So, it is easy for me to imagine that Sanders didn’t mean to dismiss the issue at Netroots Nation and yet his performance told another story. I don’t believe that he is a bad man and yet he is certainly a man in need of some oratorical refinement.

Stories For Black Folks

Just as entertainers, through or by association with blackface, could render permissible topics that otherwise would have been taboo, so American writers were able to employ an imagined Africanist persona to articulate and imaginatively act out the forbidden in American culture.

-Toni Morrison Playing in the Dark

From Morrison’s perspective, whiteness is a covering that appears transparent but whose primary purpose is to obfuscate the blackness that exists always just beneath the surface. She asserts that the “forbidden American culture” of blackness is inherent in every public discourse, from the Constitution to Women’s Suffrage movements to finance to America’s colonial project to immigration. “Africanism,” Morrison argues, “is inextricable from the definition of Americanness.”(65) Throughout Playing in the Dark, she makes the case that all American literature is about Africanist personae, even if it is not for them. While, in Morrison’s words, “certainly no American text of the sort I am discussing was ever written for black people— no more than Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written for Uncle Tom to read or be persuaded by,” it is equally clear that these texts make manifest the forbidden American imaginary about black lives.(16-17) Thus, Morrison might understand the film The Birth of a Nation as a white fantasy (Frantz Fanon might substitute the word “fetishization”) of black folks; an indication that Griffith’s myth of the United States’ foundational whiteness is underlaid by that whiteness’ obsession with black men. Thus, for Morrison, the inherent blackness of white culture is always present.

Frank Wilderson (Red, White and Black) takes a less playful attitude, perhaps agreeing that blackness underlies all white cultural expression, though only because black non-existence is “that outside which makes it possible for White and non-White (i.e., Asians and Latinos) positions to exist and, simultaneously, contest existence.”(65) Counter to what he terms the “second wave” black film theorists, Wilderson understands Black, not as a position of subaltern (dominated, oppressed) subjectivity but as a non-existence. Thus, unlike Morrison, Wilderson would argue that, despite the focus on Blackness, a film like The Birth of a Nation is not telling a story that is secretly about Black people.

Indeed, The Birth of a Nation is uniquely exemplary of Wilderson’s point. In the aftermath of Reconstruction and black enfranchisement, Griffith shows black folks installed in the judiciary and legislative branches of government. An interstitial title card claims to depict a “historical facsimile of the State House of Representatives of South Carolina as it was in 1870” in which blacks outnumbered whites in Congress. While many of the 101 black representatives are played by actors in blackface, the number of African American actors portraying members of congress in this scene likely exceeds the total depictions of black politicians in every Hollywood film produced in 2015. That is, Blacks, when absent from the screen (or the page) may indeed be present, as Morrison argues. Wilderson, however, notes that they are not present for themselves. Instead, they are present as a parody of humanity, represented by shoeless, alcoholics who would impede our nation’s birth through their sub-human negligence. Rather than a playful and lively “forbidden Americanism” under the surface of American cinema and literature, for Wilderson the unspoken and ever-present Black-ness is the accumulated corpses of Blacks/Slaves killed in the production of America’s imagination of itself.(65)

The Whiteness of the possibility of being-for oneself is central to my reading of the first season of the Serial podcast as well. The series imagines itself as a story about Adnan Sayed. He is, after all, the focus of Sarah Koenig’s investigation. Aside from Sarah, Adnan is the only character who is mentioned in every episode of the podcast. Yet, it is clear that the story is, at minimum, a manifestation of Sarah’s fantasy. Isolated moments like her ability to finish Adnan’s story when his call is cut short by a prison guard in “Route Talk” make clear Adnan’s superfluity. Sarah simply picks fills in Adanan’s words by reading a letter he had written to her. This elicits the question: “why do we hear Adnan talk at all if Sarah can ventriloquize for him any time she wants to?” Adnan’s presence in this story, we could argue, is for Sarah, not for himself. When he disappears from the microphone and back into the silence and invisibility of prison, Sarah’s fantasy of him persists on the air. At the same time, it is on the basis of our ability to forget him with impunity that the story of Serial can be told at all. Note that we must understand Wilderson’s raced categories as positional rather than biological. As such, Adnan, though of Pakistani ancestry, occupies the position of Black/Slave by virtue of his incarceration.

For Wilderson, Black can fight against its oppression but does not occupy a position in which a “fighting for” can have meaning.(66)` We might note that this logic underlies, (though is not explicitly expressed nor fully articulated in) the numerous commentaries and essays about the Baltimore rebellion this week. For example, DeRay McKesson’s refusal to condemn destructive protests (”I don’t have to condone it to understand it.”) despite Wolf Blitzer’s goading is a fine demonstration. Similarly, Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby seemed to be tacitly aware of the Wilderson’s formulation by which the infrastructure that is present in black neighborhoods, is not for those black neighborhoods. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ historical case for reparations stops short of Wilderson’s conclusion as he argues that Blacks have been systematically divested of their lives and labor as a condition of possibility for building the United States. Yet, Coates (unlike Wilderson) sees monetary remuneration as a possible remedy. Yet, in his “Nonviolence as Compliance” article during the rebellion in Baltimore, Coates recognizes destruction of property as a response that is neither “wise” nor “correct.” Rather, it is merely a natural outcome given the state of violence within which Black lives exist.

Works Cited
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.”
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Nonviolence as Compliance.”
McKesson, Deray. “Wolf Blitzer interviews Deray McKesson about violence in Baltimore.”Youtube video, 3:55, posted by “RawStory,” April 28, 2015.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
Mosby, Nick. “Kept It Real: Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby Owns Snobby News Reporter!” Youtube video, 4:54, posted by “NewsMedia,” April 28, 2015.
Wilderson, Frank B. Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Worth 1,000 pages… [part 2]

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, by Zach Weiner

If you would like to read Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern, I cannot discourage you. As far as theory texts go, it’s relatively “readable” and has delightfully inane charts. If you are not interested in reading it, though, this comic works out one of the points he addresses in WHNBM and throughout his career. The notion that mature thinking is “critical” pervades what Latour identifies as modernity. This critical approach is supposed to allow the modern thinker to peel back the false perceptions of degraded culture, ideology, the devil, or whatever boogieman is haunting your particular moment’s Enlightenment dreamland. In “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam,” he argues that critique’s reliance upon skepticism and debunking perhaps facilitates scientists trying to solve the world’s problems but is perhaps even more likely to produce conspiracy theorists who will invent ways to blame those problems on degraded culture, ideology, the devil, etc… Later, Latour would develop a more complete theory of “composition” as an orientation to imaginative putting-together rather than cynical critique. Of course, he was far from the first to propose this. Arguably, Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) was on the same trip when he proposed a set of “Study Methods” that backed away from the critical project of rationalism and invited students to embrace classical rhetoric. For Vico, a student who knew how to debunk before he knew how to invent could never truly make any significant intellectual strides. Note that the adult in the comic is not fulfilled by his critical stance. It does not reveal the truth. (nor can it) It does not make him modern. (nor will it)

In any event, you could read a bunch of Latour and Vico (I also recommend Ramsey Dukes’ analysis of the scientists’ impulse to falsify rather than verify their experiences, S.S.O.T.B.M.E.) or you could just read this comic. Either way…

1427978448-20150402

[the “Worth 1,000 pages…” will be an ongoing feature (I hope) in which I discuss brilliant graphic/comic art that manages to say in 9 panels or fewer what it would take someone like me hundreds and hundreds of pages to express.]

Impromptu Music Review: Live Versions of PJ Harvey’s “Shame”

[Album Version]
First, the Album Version, for reference. This song is really spectacular.

[Jools Holland Version]
After extensive and diligent research, I have determined this to be the best live version of PJ Harvey’s “Shame.” Note the relatively straight-forward strumming and chord changes. Also, guitarist Josh Klinghoffer has moved over to supplement Rob Ellis on percussion. (skip ahead to 3:30)

[St. Luke’s Church Version]
In other versions like this one, the guitarist (here Josh Klinghoffer rather than Harvey) slides between chords. This perhaps reproduces the performance of the [Album Version] in a technical sense but fails to capture the spirit of it. On the album, the slides mute transitions between chords. Live, Klinghoffer’s sliding calls attention to the changes.

[Jonathan Ross Version]
This one might be the nearest approximation of the guitar performance on the album in terms of the slides’ function in the song and for that it is noteworthy (a second runner-up in my judgment). But the guitarist (Klinghoffer, again) is much more bombastic in places. This makes sense with the drums which are much more rock-ish than the [Album Version] but I think this is a mistake. Note again that the [Jools Holland Version] had two drummers playing in such a way that it felt, ironically, less constrained from a rhythmic standpoint.

[KCRW Acoustic Version]
The one is clearly quite different. I think the vocal performance is remarkable for certain. Yet, in general, this version seems doomed to inferiority by two factors: It doesn’t 1) dodge the “rock” vibe like the [Album Version] does, nor does it 2) keep the spirit of the original within the more rock-like setting as the [Jools Holland Version] does.

[Moscow Solo Version]
This is the runner-up. It is a total deviation. There is no instrumentation but the guitar thus it is reasonable for it to be foregrounded in this version more than perhaps any other– certainly more than in the [Album Version]! Yet, it is less intrusive than Klinghoffer’s performance in the [Jonathan Ross Version]. Harvey makes herself a sonic bed and settles into it. That said, Harvey absolutely plows through the song. This must be the fastest version of the bunch. Still, I think it might capture the [Album Version]’s spirit as well as any of them.

Eruptive Eloquence in Live Music

This week, Johnny Greenwood wrote an article for The Guardian in which he came out as a late-in-life devotee of live art music concerts. Despite being raised on (and producing several albums worth of) recorded rock music, Greenwood notes that he recently became enamored of the live music– particularly live “classical” music. Why is this interesting? Partly, it is a push to increase attendance among the first generation born after the rock record was invented. More notable, however, is the case Greenwood makes for what makes live classical music special. His first move is to note that seeing a live performance of chamber music (like the London Contemporary Orchestra) has an auratic quality that cannot be produced by a recording nor by the mechanical copies thereof. As Walter Benjamin discussed the distance that a painting keeps from its viewer, Greenwood notes that a similar dynamic abides in the live musical performance. While the record can be replayed at will and approached with ease, the live performance is almost too intimate. That is, while a mechanical reproduction admits a surgical approach that is both proximal and abstract, the mystification of the “unmediated” work of art demands reverence.

Further, Greenwood notes: “Unlike recordings, [a live performance] isn’t identical to the previous performance or the next one. It can go slightly (or badly) wrong at any time. And all that is shared equally by everyone in the room.” Anecdotally, the possibility of failure seems to be a significant part of the appeal of live music. That is to say, the ability to “pull off” a difficult or complex musical feat on-demand trumps that of having been able to cobble it together “in the studio.” As multi-track recording became available in the mid-century and as awareness of in-studio editing became common knowledge, the notion of “authenticity” in recorded music shifted. Phillip Auslander documents audiences’ loss of investment in imagining “live recordings” that documented a specific moment. By the 1970s, listeners were aware that the music on the record wasn’t played live but simply needed to be able to believe that it could have been. That is, audiences were willing to suspend their disbelief such that, if the recording could have been made by the band, listeners were generally willing to believe that is had been.

By 2014, Greenwood suggests that the persistent element of “liveness” might be the possibility of imagining that the performance could have failed. In the realm of speech, Josh Gunn has suggested a definition of eloquence that centers on the fact that a live-address speech is in constant danger of ineloquence, failure. In particular, there is a risk that the speaker’s bodily frailty will impinge on and upset the myth of the purely rational, masterful, and/or in-control orator. Similarly, part of the thrill of a live performance is witnessing the “eloquence” (perhaps the proper musical analog is “virtuosity”) of a performer who could, at any point, fail but performs masterfully nonetheless. What is vital about Gunn’s construction of eloquence is that it cannot exist without the risk of the body losing control.

The emergence of electronic sequencers in live performance has muddied the waters of this discourse. Existing somewhere between “recording” and “performance,” the sequencer sends electrical signals to a synthesizer, telling it which notes to play and when. While the notes themselves are synthesized “live,” many features including melody and rhythm[1] are predetermined and theoretically perfectable. As such, there is almost no risk of failure on the level of playing the notes as-composed. Yet, the possibility of the sequencer or synthesizer’s circuit-body imposing its presence upon the idealized string of pure information is alive and well. That is, the sequencer is not always an eloquent performer.

This distinction between sequencer and a recorded tape/record/CD/sample is not purely technological but has to do with the cultural practices that attend each object[2]. In my “home scene” (EBM/Darkwave/Industrial), the use of a Digital Audio Tape (DAT) recording of backing track, for example, was derided throughout the 2000s[3], while the use of a sequencer remained legitimate in the eyes/ears of fans. On one level, this is an extension of the calculation of authenticity/liveness in a rock context. That is, many EBM songs were originally composed, rehearsed, and developed on sequencers thus, to bring that tool to the stage is to perform a sort of “EBM authenticity.” Just as the listener to the Sex Pistols wants to hear what can be imagined as a single bass, a single guitar, a drum beat that all comply with the physical membership of the band, the listener to Skinny Puppy might be wary if the Prophet 5 synthesizer appears to be producing two different voices simultaneously. The difference is no more than a different technical expertise. As such, one can imagine the sequencer in the same way as any other instrument when considering authenticity.

A second mode of considering the sequencer is as an analog to the performer herself. Thinking about a live rock concert by a rock band with a Top40 hit, the sequencer is not too great a departure. The Rollings Stones, for example, do no play an all-new show every night of a tour and rarely inflect any given performance with nuances particular to the moment. In high school, I was a big fan of Metallica and would collect bootlegs of their shows. What became apparent was that they were playing the same songs the same way night-after-night. At that point, the authenticity of the live music performance is not contained within the uniqueness of the show. At best, it is in the potential for uniqueness, that is, the potential for failure. Functionally, then, Kirk Hammett is little different than a sequencer. Even though he could play the solo at the end of “Fade to Black” differently every night, he doesn’t. Similarly, a sequencer could fail to function on any given night but rarely does. Here, we begin to see an overlap between liveness and potential to fail…

[1] A sequencer can, of course, send many other sorts of information as well as (or instead of) pitch and duration.
[2] See Jonathan Sterne’s definition of “medium.”
[3] This despite the fact that rock bands were increasingly using DAT recordings, especially to reproduce strings or other non-standard instruments that appeared on the album.

Review/Response: Poetics Out of Time

Sterne, Jonathan, and Tara Rodgers. “The Poetics of Signal Processing.” Differences 22, no. 2–3 (2011): 31–53.

I. On Myth
In “Poetics of Signal Processing” Jonathan Sterne and Tara Rodgers promote a mythic approach to the analysis of auditory culture. Here, I mean “myth” in the sense that Jim Buhler discussed it in our conversation with him [as part of a seminar on cultural studies in musicology]: a world-making impulse that eludes fixity. It affords a background system of beliefs that interpellate the believer into it. Myth then, according to Buhler, requires a level of investment and proximity; practices that run counter to the disinterest and critical distance valorized by demystification-minded scholars.

Extrapolating from Buhler’s “Enchantments of Lord of the Rings: Soundtrack, Myth, Language, and Modernity,” myth serves two functions: 1) it theorizes that which gave birth to the world, and 2) it narrates the fall from an Age of Heroes to an Age of Humans. In this essay, I will focus explicitly on the former but the latter informs much of my thinking as well. Buhler notes that music (of particular types) helps to chart the birth-through-disenchantment of a world that exists in historical/diegetic/narrative time. Sound (of particular types) can confound issues of authorship, underwriting, and ownership and thus place us on the cusp of myth, which exceeds the framing authority of capital control. When it appears in advance of the filmic image, cinematic sound, Buhler argues, draws the world of images into being and raises questions of origin: Where does the film begin and what came before? This enigma in turn presses an ontological question: Where does the world itself begin?

Myth is concerned with the stuff of (our) origins.

II. On Cosmology
My last trip to Minnesota coincided with the announcement that cosmologists had found evidence of gravity waves that support the Big Bang hypothesis about the beginning of our universe. Minnesota Public Radio was jubilant, both because this story was so easily mobilized as counter-evidence to Creationist hypotheses that are anathema to MPR’s northern liberal secular mythos and because one of the authors of the paper, Clem Pryke, is on the faculty of the University of Minnesota Physics Department. Pryke attempted to explain the phenomenon his team had measured when he appeared on “The Daily Circuit” on March 19, 2014:

The Big Bang is the creation of space-time. It’s an explosion of space-time, if you want to think about it that way. It’s unfortunate that our puny human brains are three-dimensional, and we can’t think in this warped four-dimensional space-time. But people always want to think … if it’s an explosion, it must have been exploding into something, right? And that’s because we’re locked into this three-dimensional thinking that we evolved on the plains of Africa because it was perfectly appropriate.

Pryke struggles to locate the beginning of time in a past which could not yet have existed and to wrap his head around an expansion of space that creates the possibility for such an expansion. In essence, Pryke appeals to a mythic origin outside our “fallen” age of humanism. He laments the circumstances that led to our disenchantment, that led to to our loss of the fourth dimension of “warped” space-time.

III. On Technology
Jonathan Sterne and Tara Rodgers’ article is suffused with indirect references to Martin Heidegger’s 1954 essay, “The Question Concerning Technology” which theorizes a poetic response to dominant twentieth century understandings of technology. In it, Heidegger argues that obsession with causality has rendered us unable to experience the world that technology reveals or “discloses.” Instead, we tend to use technology instrumentally, to become ever-more efficient at mining our current conception of the world for raw resources. Worse still, our instrumental application of technology compels us to refashion this world as one in which things are increasingly likely to appear to us as instruments that might be used to conceive of more of the world in terms of exploitable resources.

This distanced—Heidegger might say “de-worlded”— approach to the world is one that seeks to stand outside, to explain, to demystify and disenchant, to debunk. Debunking does not challenge or dispel the mythic formulations it apprehends, however. Rather, debunking simply fails to understand the truth that is only possible through experience and practice. That is, demystification does not disenchant but simply describes the epiphenomenal myth of Science while missing the more fundamental “myth”— the structured holism of which detached reflection is a component. Or, in the words of Giambatttista Vico (referenced but not cited in Sterne and Rodgers): “myth is defined as vera narratio, true narration.” This is starting point for Sterne and Rodger’s exploration of signal processing technologies in the production for contemporary sound cultures. They advance their argument for a technological poiesis of signal processing by critiquing two prominent metaphors in the industry: rawness and voyage.

A. Cookery
The “rawness metaphor aims at how everyday engineering talk represents the work of signal processing and elevates it as a kind of culturing process, a readying for the consumption of sound by others.”(36) That is to say, some engineers use signal processing technology to afford themselves a view of the world as full of raw resources. This enacts something very like Heidegger’s instrumentalist view of/through technology. When they take up signal processing as a tool for readying the raw world for consumption, engineers step back from—alienate themselves from—involvement in the world. Sterne and Rodgers explain this relationship in Heideggerian terms as follows:

Raw sound is sound that is ready-to-hand, that is available to be processed. It comes not to the sonic world as it is contemplated, but rather, rawness emerges from a relationship to the sonic world where sounds are used and manipulated (the latter word containing within its etymology a reference to the hands and to bundling up).(38)

As a metaphor, “rawness” not only helps engineers deal with the world as it lies but creates a world full of raw things that appear as “to-be-processed.” Note here that Vico (a self-proclaimed mythic poet) understands metaphor as a myth-in-miniature. He states, “the most luminous figure, and hence the most basic and common, is metaphor… it confers sense and emotion on insensate objects.” By doing this, the great poets of history “created myths about [the origins of humanity]; and every such metaphor is a miniature myth.” In other words, the move to capture the world in a web of instrumentality creates a myth from within which all relations are instrumental. To the extent that this instrumental(izing) myth works against itself by denying its own mythic character, instead declaring itself disinterested reality), it does not achieve disenchantment so much as mis-enchantment.

Those who mistake mis-enchantment for disenchantment too-easily adopt discourses that urge a return to raw, auratic aurality. That is, when we think the world has been reduced to resources due the pervasiveness of “processing,” critiques of consumer capital find themselves painted into a corner: concede that there is no way out of capital or seek a way back to the time before time. Neither is particularly appealing.

B. Cartography
The design and fabrication of electroacoustic instruments often describes a realm in which the conception of signal processing is particularly instrumental. Many synthesizer designs (”topographies”) are based on Hermann von Helmholtz mythology of sound. The twin of visual color perception, sound has three ears called loudness, pitch, and timbre, analogous to the former’s three eyes: brightness, hue, and saturation.(44) From these fundamental materials, Helmholtz theorized, one could build any sound imaginable:

For Helmholtz, [sound] is a thing in the world, a material with definite qualities. The analog synthesizer circuit animates this legacy and takes it literally. If we can analyze sound and break it down into its fundamental components, we can also create it.(44)

In resistance to Helmholtz’ instrumentality, engineer Jessica Rylan takes a poetic approach to synthesis that prefers creating rainshowers to drawing maps of the sea.(44-45) By “poetic, Sterne and Rodgers mean the condition of being a “maker;” not necessarily a maker of poems but, more importantly, a maker of meanings.

IV. After Myth
Sterne and Rodgers articulate a way of being with technology that diverges from Buhler who suggests that time begins “after myth.” The poetics of signal processing that Sterne and Rodgers describe does not ask us to choose “myth” over “disenchantment” nor does it necessarily promote the adoption of better myth over worse. Instead, Sterne and Rodgers (by way of Vico and Heidegger) position myths that allow for future re-invention against those which pretend to have moved beyond mythology. That is, the myth of “after-myth” evacuates the possibility of creation in its poetic sense, while a “poetics of signal processing” turns attention to signal processing as a process. In a world of disenchant, technology must be realistic; it cannot reshape reality. It has no recourse but to serve as tools for efficient production—it becomes picks and shovels and the world looks ever more like a vein of coal ready to be mined, processed, and burned.

Works Cited
Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In The Question Concerning Technology, 3–35, 1977.

Pryke, Clem. “’Puny human brains’ and the beginning of time.” Daily Circuit, MPR, March 19 2014. Web. http://www.mprnews.org/story/2014/03/19/daily-circuit-big-bang

Vico, Giambattista. New Science: Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations. 3rd ed. Penguin Classics. London ; New York: Penguin Books, 1999.

Review/Response: Monstrous affinities.

Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou. Dispossession: The Performative in the Political. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013.

Near the end of Dispossession, Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou hit on the idea of resistive political alliances that go “beyond claims of similitude and community.”(187) That is to say, they wish to exceed the crudity of “identification” as the basis of collective action. This is hardly a new problematic, nor do they pretend that it is. Rather Butler and Athanasiou offer a theory of non-identificatory alliance by way of dissolving the unitary-subject-who-possesses-things.(ix) They argue that one might dispossesses herself only by avowing the “differentiated social bonds” by which she is both constituted and obligated. These bonds deny the possibility of mastery or possessive ownership over anything including the subject’s own being. Not surprising for two theorists heavily invested in performativity, the fact that “we are interdependent beings whose pleasure and suffering depend from the start on a sustained social world”(4) is not nearly so important as one’s avowal of that fact. The act of (false) mastery is the denial of our necessary dependence upon and dispossession by a sustaining World.

And so, while identification posits a similitude between two or more already-extant individuals, it is often the case that a “body politic” can only appear when it is collective. This exceeds a crude “mass politics” argument that suggests a movement must reach a certain cumulative volume before anyone will take notice. Such an aggregative-democracy model of alliance is insufficient to produce real transgression because, again, it depends upon unproblematized “subjects” either working in unison or as harmonious-yet-autonomous entities. In neither case does the multiplicity of individuals constitute a body politic–a collectivized political organism. Proper bodies politic, Butler and Athanasiou theorize, are the path to a mode of appearance apart from interpellation into possessive, stabilized social normativity (in the form of land-ownership, wealth, an able body, a phallus, women). Bodies politic must avoid speaking in a single voice (identification) and yet ought to assert “presence as a plural and obdurate bodily life.”(196) To appear as a life that speaks in multiple voices (or no voice) of its own irreducible right to live(197) is, in a word, “monstrous.” That is to say, it is a creature that appears to be constructed of incongruous parts; it is both a warning and a marvel.(Oxford English Dictionary, “monster”)

While Butler and Athanasiou prefer to focus on the “politic” aspect of these bodies, through Donna Haraway, the metaphor of a (political) body constructed of many biological entities comes to life. From her “Cyborg Manifesto”:

From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point. Single vision produces worse illusions than double vision or many-headed monsters. Cyborg unities are monstrous and illegitimate; in our present political circumstances, we could hardly hope for more potent myths for resistance and recoupling.

Here, Haraway too stresses the obdurate vitality of the social as a way to destabilize the relative blindness of illusory, subjective unity. While doubled vision may be a monstrosity, the disavowal of the monstrous that is implicit in the claim to a singular perspective is far more destructive to the body politic. This is a delicate balance between affirming the necessity of legibility and embracing normativity: “This question of who can appear gets complicated, and occasionally gets into trouble when a realm of appearance comes face to face with an uncanny stranger whose appearance and claim to public space are taken to yield a dissonance.”(195) That is, Butler and Athanasiou worry that monstrosity is an appearance that disqualifies itself from the public– thus, the monster appears (in a phenomenological sense) as that which is, by definition, non-public (extra-public?). Haraway, in contrast, privileges monstrous appearance as the site upon which appearance can uniquely take place. That is, only that which is monstrous will exceed both the liberal myth of individual-life and exceed the background wrangle and make itself available as that-on-the-basis-of-which one can take a political stand.

Haraway makes this point elegantly in her emphasis on anti-bodies as the model for non-identificatory co-habitation. While proponents of identification posit bodies that come together (e.g., LGBT activists and Palestinian activists (***)) as agents of coalition, Haraway locates agency in this in-between space of becoming-with– in the anti-body. Haraway uses the (immunological) anti-body’s attributes of affinity (“related not by blood but by choice, the appeal of one chemical nuclear group for another”) and avidity to describe transgressive alliances. (“Cyborg Manifesto,” 155) Avidity, in its bio-chemical sense, describes the degree to which an antibody can bind with (certain) antigens. High avidity describes an anti-body’s ability to bind to many antigens; low avidity means few antigen-binding sites. Thus, we speak of the anti-body in terms of its ability to become-with antigens: it’s ability to become monstrous in coalition with unlikely others.

Coalition-building and the formation of queer/monstrous bodies politic then, ought to be focus on that body’s immune system. In his Immunitas, Robert Esposito agrees, arguing that “immunity” is not an attribute of being impervious to the outside world but that immunity is better considered as the teche that makes relationality possible. Immunity is a sort of Heideggerian “readiness-to-hand” that is the anti-body’s way of being which makes other bodies appear as openings onto the world. For Heidegger, the ready-to-hand works best when it works transparently. That is, the carpenter’s hammer works best when it “disappears” from her thoughts and and she is able to “fall to” hammer without considering either her activity or the tool in abstract terms. That is to say, the ready-to-hand experienced subjectively and thus, for Heidegger, it is experience in its most basic form. Conversely, to apprehend the hammer objectively (“It weight 900g, has a rubberized handle, etc…”) occurs only in situations in which one is not actually hammering with it. Such objective awareness is called “present-at-hand.” The present-at-hand appears as an object with a set of distinct attributes while the ready-to-hand, again, appears as an opening onto the world as an affordance.

But it is important to note that, in Heidegger’s phenomenology (painstakingly laid out in Being and Time) which celebrates the “ready-to-hand,” he also theorizes an “unready-to-hand.” This is equipment which makes itself known but does not abstract itself into present-at-hand objects. It is a hammer which affords “hammering” but does not do so transparently or newpaper that we understand as a newspaper but which is written in a language we do not understand. In either case, the object resists becoming a transparent opening onto the world while pointedly cuing us to understand that the opening exists. In this sense, we might, then understand this failure to recede–when the hammerer finds herself shockingly aware of her relationship to the hammer–as same sort of “monstrous” appearance that Butler and Athanasiou and Haraway articulated. These monstrous appearances are neither abstractions nor transparent affordances. (see also Sarah Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology for an extended discussion of such objects.)

As Butler and Athanasiou caution, “the challenge is to mobilize ‘appearance’ without taking for granted its naturalized epistemological premises.”(195) This is precisely the business of the monstrous appearance of a queer phenomenal object. The monstrousness calls attention to the connection, denying the possibility of complete identification. It denies disavowal of our interdependence and, indeed, celebrates this collective embodiment by publicly goading others to marvel at its invention.

They blew the nose off the sphynx

Okay, take a minute to dig this.

What I like about this track is that it not only works as a critique of Lorde’s “monogenre” (more on this later) megahit but it also helps me re-organize the way I think about hiphop.

To take a step back: last fall, my colleague, David Maxson, brought “Royals” into our seminar on race and rhetoric. It served as a coincidentally apt reiteration of the white supremacist attitude David Stern exercised when he instituted a dress code for the NBA in response to Ron Artest “standing his ground” against a violent fan in Auburn Hills. That is, in times of tension, it becomes all the more important to assert control over the consumptive practices of black bodies. In 2004, Stern had to remove bling from the public image of the NBA to reassure the white patrons that his boys were domesticated. In 2013, world-wide austerity measures have pushed the working-classes’ noses into the mess the one-percent left on the carpet. Lorde’s response was an anthem to conspicuously inconspicuous consumption that turned its ire on (black) hiphop culture rather than (white) Wall Street.

Verónica Bayetti Flores said it quite well:

While I love a good critique of wealth accumulation and inequity, this song is not one; in fact, it is deeply racist. Because we all know who she’s thinking when we’re talking gold teeth, Cristal and Maybachs. So why shit on black folks? Why shit on rappers? Why aren’t we critiquing wealth by taking hits at golf or polo or Central Park East? Why not take to task the bankers and old-money folks who actually have a hand in perpetuating and increasing wealth inequality? I’m gonna take a guess: racism. I don’t have to explain why wealth operates differently among folks who’ve grown up struggling because this shit has been explained already: If you grew up with holes in your zapatos you’d celebrate the minute you was having dough.

Flores is right on and Mumu Fresh’s cover translates these sentiments back into rhythm and rhyme in her reworking of the chorus to excise Lorde’s inadvertent perpetuation of racist attitudes toward black consumption. If these were the only updates that would have been enough but where Mumu Fresh absolutely kills it is in her reclamation of the track as hiphop. While Mumu Fresh’s re-write of the chorus brings Lorde’s tone-deafness to racialized consumption practices into sharp relief, her history lesson in the rap section to close out the song and her voice call the capitalist experiment itself to task.

Over at Stereogum a few months back, Chris DeVille took a run at deconstructing what he sees as an emergent “monogenre” in pop music. Using Lorde (along with Miley Cyrus and HAIM) as an exemplary case, DeVille suggested that we are reaching a musical-historical moment when it makes little sense to distinguish indie rock from hiphop from pop. His point was well-made and convincing and it led me to consider the stakes of erasing these genre barriers. What is lost when hiphop and its history of political discontent is swept up in the self-conscious classlessness that marks both indie and pop? Isn’t this just another iteration of the old story of appropriation and neutralization of black artistic forms?

But then, the loss of political edge is hardly a new concern for hiphop. In the late 1980s, my favorite artists like Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy, and X-Clan were actively distinguishing between “conscious” hiphop and the rest (Top40, sucka-boy style, party rhymes, radio, gangsta). These distinctions always made me itchy. In part, even though I always preferred the conscious rappers, it drew too clear a line between these black nationalist types and everyone else. For one thing, there was a big difference between N.W.A. and MC Hammer in terms of political content. Though neither passed muster in terms of “consciousness,” gangsta artists’ attention to the violence that America had exported to its black communities in the 20th century was hardly apolitical. While they did not maintain an explicit connection to the Black Nationalist imagery and Pan-Africanist history of X-Clan, BDP, or even Arrested Development, many gangsta rappers located themselves within a political history of American violence against blacks.

This need not be a condemnation of monogenre, however. In 1989, Joshua Clover argued that the fall of the Berlin Wall and attendent “End of History” essentially produced a moment of monogenrification within pop music. He identified Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance” and Jesus Jones’ “Right Here, Right Now.” as such products. While Jesus Jones spoke to the time in its own tongue, Neneh Cherry, Clover argues, managed to keep it real despite speaking the tongue of the time. I am inclined to agree with him.

Extending Clover’s insights the, Mumu Fresh (like Neneh Chery) articulates monogeneric hiphop within a black, politically conscious context. Though it is a note-for-note cover of Lorde’s track, Mumu Fresh’s version differs dramatically in the “grain” of her voice, that is: the ability to make present the body that produces it. While Lorde’s Australian-accented English denies an absolute disappearance into anonymity, this inflection seems more like the “trivial innovations” that grumpy, Frankfurt School philosophers decried as the hallmark of the culture industry’s product. The danger of the monogenre (as well as other appropriative styles) is that it renders the black voice extraneous to hiphop. Perhaps it need only be a person who sounds black or a woman like Lorde whose accent codes as exotic. This is not to say white folks can’t rap; it simply asks about the stakes of rendering black folks extraneous to the form they created. In this case, the musical exchange between Lorde and Mumu Fresh makes the stakes clear. By re-locating the stylistic markers of synthetic finger-popping and a rhyme-dependent Sprachstimme to a place of black politics, Mumu Fresh put Lorde’s lyrics in a mouth with teeth.

Other reviewers have addressed her adaptation of the chorus and but Mumu Fresh’s rap verse to close out “We Already Royal” exhumes the black bodies that Lorde buried and makes them intelligible on a textual level as well as a vocalic one. Tapping into the “people’s history” of American wealth distribution, Mumu Fresh first addresses the history of poverty within black communities:

The ones you see stuntin’
are the ones who never had nothing
so first piece of the pie we tryna’ grab something
snatching and running
packing in gunning
landing a hundred
Flashing n’ frontin’
scared of everything but call it nothing

In many ways, this chunk would fit into Lorde’s original without much trouble. It is a story of poverty and underclass culture inherent in late capital. It bears no particular racial markers but it does take on special significance within the black context elaborated in the next bit:

We don’t know that old true blue blood slave money
slave money
war heroes take it to their grave money
cotton money
cane money
Diamond blood stain money
They tell us to save money
we know getting paid money

Here, the particularity of black experience on the production end of cotton, diamond, and sugar cane comes into relief as well as the historical accolades given to the perpetrators of slavery as heroic architects of the nation. The disconnect between being hailed as a “father” (of a nation or an industry) and being regarded as a “player” with some gold and a nice car is thrown into high relief.

Only talking small money
2 for 5 pack of pampers, black n’ mile money
mattress piled high money
we know sneaker fly money
we know racks on racks on racks on racks on racks money
what about that tax money
oil money
Africa’s rich soil money
so thick you cant fold money
British East Indian company old money
Gold money
Lime stone
Coal money

Here Mumu Fresh makes a turn from a critical history of American wealth to set her eye on transnational wealth accumulation built on the natural resources of Africa. Not only does she take the problem beyond the borders of the United States, she also shifts the scale. While Lorde is chastising African Americans for irresponsible spending in lean times, even Jay-Z’s the putative half-billion dollar net worth is a pittance compared to the wealth of institutions that exploited the labor of Africans for centuries both here and around the world. If the opulence of black hiphop artists merits a song, how many double-albums does Lorde plan to release taking the 1% to task?

Its like the whole world’s up side down
And the real royalty has been reduced to clowns
Lost in the sauce and we don’t know which way to go
They blew the nose off the sphinx so we’d never know… We royal

This is where Mumu Fresh takes us home and the last line give chills every time. Moving from transnational exploitation of capital, resources, and labor this final stanza moves back into the realm of 1990s conscious hiphop framing a pan-African history. The Royal-ty Mumu Fresh evokes in not a trite metaphor: it is connected to a deep, black mythology of an African royal past. Mumu Fresh connects the musical universality of monogeneric hit to the race-conscious, politically radical, counter-liberal discourse of hiphop’s black nationalist origins by uncovering the black bodies (noses and all) at the heart of the genre.