Sunday, 23 August 2009
‘What sucks is when metal is co-opted by wannabe academic nerds’.
The hostility to academic commentary on popular culture that unites conservatives with pop journalists and bloggers everywhere surfaced again with knee-jerk predictability at the prospect of a Black Metal Theory symposium in Brooklyn this coming December. Both positions assume that either popular culture does not deserve critical inquiry or does not require it. Theory is either redundant or it misses the point which can only be grasped in authentic, inexpressible experience. See also here and here.
All this is jolly good fun and publicity for the event (so thanks again, guys) but I do feel professionally obliged to point out the irony that this hostility is precisely informed by (theoretical) assumptions that are themselves academic, though of a 19th-century Romantic variety. For example, Ben Jonson’s trenchant criticisms of his contemporary, Shakespeare, that he a) ‘knew small Latin and less Greek’ (hence his plays were one big Gothic mess), and b) ‘never blotted a line’ (and could therefore have done with some serious editing), were taken by the Romantics as evidence of Shakespeare’s Natural Genius. True artists must always be essentially unreflecting, intuitive, natural, and art always ‘beyond the last instance of criticism’ (Frank Kermode). All this does is to empower the Romantic critic who somehow knows (even better than the artist) without having to demonstrate or account for that knowledge, or indeed place it under scrutiny. I assume that this form of criticism is routinely trotted out by pop journo-jocks (often wannabee academic nerds themselves) because it is self-empowering and self-pleasuring. The discourse of the master: ‘I want to know nothing about it except that it gives me pleasure’.
Yes indeed it is about enjoyment and authority (and the enjoyment of authority) that is erected on the basis of the bizarre fear that academics might steal it. The fear is strangely paradoxical because, on the one hand, the cloistered ‘wannabee nerds’ can only press their noses up against the window of authentic experience, and on the other hand, there’s the threat that they might ‘co-opt’ it. The journalist must stick his fingers in his ears and shout it down, or present some caricature. This fear of the academic is completely imaginary and simply (re)produced in order to bolster the journalist’s authority and passion for ignorance: passion for the ignorance of the artist, for the incomprehensibility of the work, and the ineffable authenticity of his experience about which she wishes to know nothing except that she experiences it. But that’s cool, it’s important to be passionate about stuff.
Academics are fans too and can say just as many dumb things as anybody else, not necessarily because they are fans but usually because their discourse has become formulaic and predictable. As such academic discourse can be very boring indeed, especially if you compare it to the popular cultural objects that it talks about (although boredom is often, paradoxically, the interesting marker of a limit). Popular culture, which can also be incredibly boring, is informed (even or especially Black Metal) to varying degrees by academic discourse (art, literature, philosophy, religion etc. etc.), more or less interestingly. Whatever the use artists make of theory, academic discourse can only become interesting if it is modified and changed by its object in some way and is engaged by readers on its own (modified) terms.
This is what we are looking for: Black Metal fucks up academic discourse SHOCK! Now that would be a headline.
Monday, 17 August 2009
There’s something magical about having all your equipment in the same room as your bed, and you just get out of bed and like do a track and go back to sleep and then get up and do some more and do tracks in your pants and stuff.
Richard D. James (Aphex Twin)
... While the bedrooms of most otaku chime and pulse to the sounds of anime pop and game electronica, the form of music that corresponds, in its mode of production, to the experience of the hikikomori is the ambient work of Richard D. James, also known as Aphex Twin. Works such as Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2 (1994) were produced from a bedroom-studio in a state of ‘semi-reverie’. This double CD of ‘chilly soundscapes’ evokes a world that knows no day or night, produced in the sleepy sleeplessness of perpetual bedroom existence known to adolescents and students the world over. Working live to tape, his studio equipment within arm’s reach, scattered around his bedroom, 'sleep deprivation and marijuana lent Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2 the quality of spectral music' (Prendergast). Speaking of SAWII, James recalls, 'that was all done lucid dreaming. This was me basically going asleep, dreaming up a track ... in an imaginary studio with imaginary equipment and then waking myself up and re-creating that track' (Prendergast).
Critics have noted however, that while SAW II’s use of 'enormously long reverberation' and 'forests of digital delay' produce a mood that is apparently calm and reflective, 'repeated listening reveals a fundamental instability: tones waver and wobble, recording levels nudge into the red of distortion, rhythmic traces never quite assert themselves' (Shaughnessy). The expression of an 'informatic whatever' that is materialized between an ensemble of electronics and a receptive yet semi-conscious brain, James’s ambient music is not fundamentally relaxed and reflective, it is tense and dissonant, even as that dissonance is echoed into infinity by the enormous delay and reverberation.
Richard D. James's notion of braindance implies a certain scientific materialism unusual in dance music. Conventional pop music appeals to ‘body and soul’ generally by-pass the brain, at least where it is understood conventionally as an organ of thought rather than feeling. The notion of braindance displaces that opposition, however, opening up the cranium to the pulse of electronica in the same way that the bedroom of the hikikomori is linked to the audio-visual virtual world of online entertainments. Braindance is consistent with the old house trope, borrowed from the cyberpunk of William Gibson of ‘jacking in’ to cyberspace. Braindance establishes, through multiple rhythms, tones and timbres, electronic continuity between neural circuits and circuits of digital information. There is, then, a different relation to a collective or an assemblage than strictly on the dance floor, one that is in common with the online world of work and play that takes place primarily though interaction with a screen or headset. Braindance music unravels, neuron by neuron, silcon chip by silicon chip, the audio unconscious of the drive towards complete interactivity within a human-machine system. It is the pulse and rhythm of neural electrical stimulation that promises to take emotion, feeling and the thought that follows in its wake, into the extrinsic networks of information. The dancing brain, neither inside nor out: 'welling up and rolling over in a perpetual ever-changing pulse. Amid motions that never start nor end, a sea-consciousness of crystalline clarity and fractal simplicity, without centre or horizon' (Fred Botting, Extimatrix).
In this context we cannot read the unconscious simply as an effect of language, but rather look at how a multiplicity of different forces produce effects of meaning and memory, that is of resistance and the dream. ‘Psychic life is neither the transparency of meaning nor the opacity of force, but the difference within the exertion of forces’ (Derrida). All that is left of humanity, perhaps, as it is neurocomputationally wired into the online universe is the dream that is produced by the difference within the exertion of forces, by the resistance that is implied in that difference and its return in the effraction of the trace. So as humanity dies and becomes post-humanity, as it shuffles off this mortal coil and de-evolves into multiple individualized units of fractal simplicity, what dreams may come? If it is no longer a human subject that dreams and desires, what kinematics of dream-cognition finds expression nevertheless in activation patterns across the populations of nodal points whose differential of force produces the psyche of the networked brain?
James has been accused of a kind of solipsism or creative hedonism with regard to his music as if it concerned no one but himself. Shaughnessy argues that the 'overriding point' of James’s work is that 'all of this music is about himself', citing the multiple anagrams of his own name, various aliases and personal associations that he uses for song titles, assuming that all the music must be made to refer back to himself. But if he is solely interested in himself, that notion of self is subject to same ‘sampladelic’ logic as techno: it is set free from any point of origin. Evident perhaps in the music but certainly in the artwork, graphics and especially the videos made with Chris Cunningham is a replicant form of self unleashed to 'mutate and spread virally across the musical landscape' (78). The anagrams do not therefore refer back to a single name or origin but are the linguistic equivalent of an endless fractal mutation. Language is subject to the same process of reproduction and mutation as the music and images. This is especially the case with the albums that followed Selected Ambient Works II: Donkey Rhubarb (1995), I Care Because You Do (1995), Come To Daddy and Windowlicker (1999). The cover of I Care Because You Do depicts a digitally modified image of James’s bearded face sporting his characteristic sinister grin, as if he were Richard Branson’s evil double and apotheosis. In the accompanying artwork and window displays this face is multiplied in various sizes while the cover of Donkey Rhubarb details the grin which is again repeated 30 times. Like these images the title of the album I Care Because You Do evokes the me-me structure in which the notion of ‘care’ is fractured to infinity in an endless series of self-reflecting interests: 'I care because you care that I care because you care that I care because you care ...'
The technique is again repeated to spectacular effect in the famous videos for ‘Come to Daddy’ and ‘Windowlicker’ by Chris Cunningham. In the former, a “horror-jungle piece”, James’s face is multiplied and morphed on to midget children, in the latter it becomes the ubiquitous face of US corporate dance music and sexual excess.
The video parodies a Miami-style rap video in which the uncompromising courtship of two young women by a pair of stereotypically foul-mouthed boys from the ‘hood is interrupted by James in the guise of a pimp multi-millionaire tycoon. Arriving in an apparently infinitely extendable limousine (38 windows long), wearing a white suit and wafting a white parasol bearing the morphed ‘AT’ of the ‘Aphex Twin’ corporate logo, James is immediately the focus of the young women’s avid attention. Consistent with music video male fantasy more bikini-clad women are discovered on the Miami seafront dancing to the master’s tune. But this masturbatory hip-hop reverie lasts only for a second as all the women are revealed to be James himself complete with sinister grin and straggly red beard. The finale, in which James’s head, with its digitally-enhanced ugliness and evil morphed onto the virtually naked bodies of glamour models, becomes as Garry Mullholland writes, 'genuinely terrifying, and by the end of the promo all notions of money, fame, physical attractiveness, sexual identity and American excess had been surgically exposed for the empty charade that they are' (Mullholland).
The braindance of the windowlicker, a term in colloquial English that denotes someone mentally handicapped or psychically disturbed, is conveyed through the amusical arhythmia of the machined beats. At the same time, the title’s reference is also presumed to be a translation of faire du lèche-vitrine, in a tribute to his French partner at the time, meaning ‘window shopper’. In a crude and no doubt offensive way, then, ‘Windowlicker’ conjoins psychosis and consumer capitalism. The correlation suggests that this is the fevered erotic dance of a brain ‘interacting’ with a screen, a ‘window’ on to a pornucopia of electronic sounds and images. The latter is of course evoked in Cunningham’s video where the ubiquity of James’s face suggests the reflection of the windowlicker in the screen that overlays the images of micro-bikini-clad models. It is the braindance of the porn-obsessed hikikomori, but also by extension of the whole bio-electrical erogenous zone that is online consumer capitalism.
But further, from a psychoanalytic perspective we can not only clearly see, in the foreclosure from a principle of prohibition (the name-of-the-father), the return of the spectre of père jouissance in the form of the brain-dancing master of the primal horde, but also that the primal horde is itself a series of clones of the father of enjoyment, that the father/phallic principle has become subject to bio-computational reproduction and gender mutation. As Aphex Twin’s electronic music splurges towards its machined climax and whimper, below slo-mo images of champagne ejaculation, we are presented with the ambivalent sound-image of the realization of scientific jouissance: the order of joy in all its monstrous poly-pluripotency.
Extract from a paper to be delivered at the 'Psychoanalysis and the Posthuman' conference, University of Nottingham, UK, 7-8th September 2009
Monday, 10 August 2009
It’s a fact that in my personal life music played a great role. The first friend I had when I was twenty was a musician. Then afterwards I had another friend who was a composer and who is dead now. Through him I know all the generation of Boulez. It has been a very important experience for me. First, because I had contact with the kind of art that was, for me, very enigmatic. I was not competent at all in this domain; I’m still not. But I felt beauty in something which was quite enigmatic for me. There are some pieces by Bach and Webern which I enjoy but what is, for me, real beauty is a ‘phrase musicale, un morceau de musique’, that I cannot understand, something I cannot say anything about. I have the opinion, maybe it’s quite arrogant or presumptuous, that I could say something about any of the most wonderful paintings in the world. For this reason they are not absolutely beautiful’.
Michel Foucault, ‘The Minimalist Self’.
Discontinuity – the fact that within the space of a few years a culture sometimes ceases to think as it had been thinking up till then and begins to think other things in a new way – probably begins with an erosion from outside.
Michel Foucault, The Order of Things.
How then is thought to carve out a path towards the outside for itself?
Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude.
Unlike Freud, for whom the pleasure of music was foreclosed by its imperviousness to rational inquiry (see below), Michel Foucault’s ignorance of music guaranteed its absolute beauty. Music’s invulnerability to reason, however, is not limited to these specific examples that illustrate how it generates the three passions of love, hatred and ignorance. The pure facticity of music is notorious. As Roland Barthes noted, in famous disappointment, the discourse of musical criticism is dependent on description: ‘Music, by natural bent, is that which receives an adjective. The adjective is inevitable: this music is this, this execution is that’. Accordingly, in his now canonical essay, Barthes largely foregoes music in favour of a semiotic and psychoanalytic analysis of various qualities of voice (see ‘The Grain of the Voice’).
The fact that music can only be subjectively described, correlative to its objective technical description, suggests that it is the art that supremely designates the limits of reason. Indeed for Lacan beauty generally, especially ideal beauty, designates a limit not just to reason, but to desire. This is the essential function of beauty: ‘it is the cloak of all possible fantasms of human desire’. But this is because beauty both masks and protects us from the real of the object. Commenting on Claudel’s study of Dutch painting, Lacan suggests that it is because the nature mort of the still life ‘both reveals and hides that within it which constitutes a threat, denouement, unfolding or decomposition, that it manifests the beautiful for us as a function of a temporal relation'. While beauty may be only for us, its vibrating ‘unbearable brilliance’ is an effect of the contemplation of that within it that is inaccessible to contemplation, that affects, even in its sovereign indifference, the viewer (and the artist) whose thought and intuition it circumscribes in both preceding and succeeding it. Beauty marks not just a limit, then, but a (non)relation with the outside constitutive of desire. Is this the case a forteriori for music, as Foucault seems to suggest, since he finds it perfectly possible to talk about painting? And, moreover, could it be argued that it is in this way that the beauty of music discloses, even as it veils, the absolute, even for Foucault, these days castigated in new realist circles as an arch ‘correlationist’ (Brassier, Nihil): Nietzschean propagator of the Kantian ‘catastrophe’ (Meillassoux, After Finitude) that sees only discursive objects of a will to truth as an effect of power?
In his discussion of the French Serialism of the 1950s, Alex Ross cites Foucault almost as the ideal listener or destination of the music’s ‘objectified mechanical savagery’ and ‘cerebral sexuality’. Foucault, ‘the great theorist of power and sexuality’, writes Ross, ‘seemed almost turned on by Boulez’s music, and for a time he was the lover of Boulez’s fellow serialist [Jean] Barraqué’ (The Rest Is Noise). Consistent with Foucault’s interest in formalism generally, Serialism adheres to strict yet simple mathematical principles related to tone and duration in order to make beauty the contingent effect of shifting tonal patterns. ‘The serialist principle’, writes Ross, ‘with its surfeit of ever-changing musical data, has the effect of erasing at any given moment whatever impressions the listener may have formed about previous passages in the piece’ leaving only, as Foucault suggests, the fleeting ‘phrase musicale, un morceau de musique’, that encapsulates absolute beauty because it absolutely escapes understanding. As such, it seems, the serialists represented for him ‘the first “tear” in the dialectical universe’ that Foucault inhabited in the French academy of the 1950s.
Music also enabled Foucault to break out of the well-known impasse that his archaeological and genealogical studies had constituted in the mid-1970s. The ‘Death Valley’ biographical anecdote documented by James Miller on the basis of Simeon Wade’s detailed diary account is now famous as the event that transformed Foucault’s project on sexuality, indeed partly through disclosing for Foucault a new understanding of his own sexuality (Miller, Passion).
In the spring of 1975 Foucault was taken to the great outdoors by Wade and his pianist lover Michael. On Zabriskie Point, after having taken a tab of acid and with Stockhausen’s Kontakte blasting out of a portable tape recorder so that it reverberated over the awesome rift of the valley of death, the deep gorge separating humanity from the depths of geological time, Foucault contemplated the universe. Then, recalled Wade, ‘Foucault smiled’ and ‘gestured towards the stars: “The sky has exploded”, he said, “and the stars are raining down upon me. I know this is not true, but it is the Truth”’ (Miller).
Perhaps this event can be read as a beautiful revelation of the revelation in beauty of the Meillassouxian absolute: the absolute contingency of the laws of nature. In this respect the anecdote is also comical as the so-called arch correlationist perceives the Truth in the explosion of the sky heralding the extinction of all things. All he needed was a tab of acid and some Stockhausen. (Though of course Foucault always considered thought with respect to its Outside – in relation to Blanchot among others).
It could be added, here, that the designation of music has no basis in reason, and the distinction between music and noise while always cultural is also in the last instance purely contingent, as disclosed by amusia, whether the latter is regarded as either a psychic or physical phenomenon. Is music a mathematical or an aesthetic form? Certainly, it is more than a Pythagorean form, since it unfolds not simply a determinate area in space or time, but in melody, harmony and rhythm, the spaciotemporal dimension of movement itself. Indeed, from the astrophysics of Whittle to Deleuze and Guattari’s territorializing refrain, new conceptions of natura musicans are being posited that rival the mathematicization of nature currently envisaged by the new real Platonists.
It is the shattering dissonance of amusia, however, that registers, in its breaching of the (psychic) sensorium, the absolute contingently as either ‘absolutely beautiful’, as Foucault suggests, or absolutely agonising. It is the amusical effect, no doubt, of an outside indifferent to us, an outside that means nothing to us, since we know nothing about it, but that nevertheless afflicts or delights us in the unbearable brilliance of its vibration.