Saturday, 23 January 2010
The Enoic Sublime (or 77 Million Reasons to Hate Brian Eno)
‘When I look at this I see things that I didn’t predict because I can’t possibly have seen 77 million combinations, and I probably never will do.’ Brian Eno.
Probably? Let your undead unconscious do the talking, Brian. On the Brian Eno-athon festival on BBC 4 last Friday that repeated the hagiographic documentary on Roxy Music, Phil Manzanera (or was it Mackay?) disclosed the fine critical faculties of Sid Vicious by recalling the latter comment that he ‘really likes Roxy Music, but that Brian Ferry is a cunt’. While it’s difficult not to concur with this appraisal, it is impossible not to sympathize with Ferry nevertheless in the face of the monstrous ego of Brian Eno. Ferry of course won the Brian wars and kicked Eno out of the band unceremoniously. It is just surprising that it took him 2 albums. Centrepiece of BBC 4's evening was a long Arena documentary on Eno himself (theme tune by Eno) that culminated in the great man’s recent stuff on generative systems in music, art and animation (portfolio: Spore, the Bloom app. for iphones, animatronic popstars U2 and Coldplay ...). It also reminded me of Eno’s return to Art with his project of a couple of years ago that raised narcissism to the point of sublimity.
Eno’s multiscreen sound and light installation, Constellation (77 Million Paintings) (2007) is generated by a computer that is programmed to create 77 million unrepeatable aural and audio experiences. Reporting on the installation, Rachel Campbell-Johnston wrote, ‘appearing on a pattern of screens, the images transmute to the accompaniment of an entrancing electronic tune. The sounds cluster and recluster in strange unearthly songs (Campbell-Johnston, 2007). She quotes Eno gazing at one of his images and saying, ‘What absolutely intrigues me ... is that I've never seen this before and I'm never going to see it again. Each image is unique ... and each moment in the music is unique’. Even at the fastest speed available to the software, it would apparently take 9,000 years to view the entire show. So – probably – Eno won’t be able to enjoy the full extent of his generative genius.
Eno’s art and music is not, I would wager, the art of the future, even if it is programmed to exist and continually create in a time and society further away than any futurologist could imagine. Eno’s art and music is, however, an interesting sign of contemporary cultural production and its ambient joy of subjective erasure in the depths of the abyss. Even though it escapes the grasp of discursive knowledge, music can legitimately be regarded as a sign. In a Lacanian sense, music can be regarded a sinthome in so far as it is the effect of the know-how of a practice in which is embedded the jouissance that is specific to it. Music can be regarded as something like a sinthome because it can give a singular consistency to the knotting of real-Symbolic-Imaginary in the savoir-faire and jouissance of the composer or musician (see Lacan, Seminar XXIII).
But to read Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings as an audio-visual sign, symptom or even sinthome necessarily involves considering Eno as part of an assemblage. Eno is not an artist so much as a creative consultant. He stands at the juncture where artist and worker are conjoined in a completely different creature of econopoietic management; he's a system and a brand. So while it is not the specific jouissance of the body that generates the music and the image, but a software programme, nevertheless, inherent to the programme and its particular organization of noise is a structure of desire related to an imaginary utopia of social order based on neoliberal biotechnology. Immanent to this assemblage is not jouissance but anorganic joy to which one can have no access and about which one can know nothing except that it distributes a variety of affects, most notably amusia.
Ever since Music for Airports (1977) Eno’s ambient music has not failed to evoke discontents provoked by the demands of new techno-bureaucratic imperatives. The audio symptomaticity of Eno’s music is most clearly heard in the intense irritation that greets so many every time The Microsoft Sound and its derivatives herald life at the screen. Eno’s sound intensely exacerbates, even as it is supposed to ameliorate, the anxieties surrounding contemporary existence. Eno’s music is the answer to anxieties concerning the erasure of the subject of culture and society: the death of the artist and worker and the econopoietic rise of me-me performativity.
Eno’s Constellation (77 Million Paintings) with its performance-presentation of the beauty of a turbulent art-nature of continual and indefinite change, mutability and expenditure is consistent with mainstream, econopoietic processes. Indeed, it is ‘homoeconopoietic’ because while the software programme allows a finite number of audio-visual elements to yield a practically unlimited diversity of combinations, each one is perfectly equivalent and exchangeable. The automata of the symbolic (algorithms, numerical systems, digital biology) erase the letter and overwrites the real in the sense of generating a fulminating ground in which nothing repeats but everything returns to the same place. Everything is unique, nothing is repeated, everything is in a constant churn of creation and destruction, life and death. But there is no life or death, no trauma that testifies to the irruption of the real. As such this art is the perfect sign of a techno-science that is divested not just of all meaning but all utility. Its scientific death drive has foreclosed the imaginary dimension in which death might become meaningful for a subject; it has divested function of all purpose. There is no subject, no musician, no artist, no listener or viewer, just an undead process of emergence and disappearance programmed to last 9,000 years. Not marble nor the guilded monument of princes shall outlive it. And yet it has Brian Eno’s brand signature.
If The Microsoft Sound gave 77 million reasons (or however many copies of Windows 95, 2000, or XP were sold) to hate Brian Eno, Constellation gives him 77 million reasons to love himself back. Even as the notion of the artist-as-producer is effaced in the generative process, the work promises to commemorate his name for ten millennia. The effacement of the artist, therefore, is predicated on a monstrous narcissism. This narcissism gives imaginary consistency to the piece as a joy-sign in its support of the symbolic that became more and more detached in the age of generalized psychosis promised by techno-neoliberalism. The narcissism of the work stops the symbolic becoming completely operational in its scientific (mathematic, algorithmic) reformatting of the real through its hyperbolic doubling of the order of simulation.
In the correlation that he makes between art and science, Eno likes to draw an important distinction. For Eno, the key difference between art and science is that art is safe (‘Gossip is Philosophy’). The role of art is to render safe the violence of the real and the effects of science -- its waste products, pollution, damage, mutation and death, ‘the symptom in the facts’ (Lacan, ‘Lituraterre’). The idea of a wholly aestheticized science is therefore to simulate the violence of the real, accommodating it within the order of production as a leisure activity, rendering it safe. But of course Eno’s project is thus consistent with the general goal of the techno-scientific, biopolitical order of total positivity from which all negativity is purged. Eno’s repetition and uncanny doubling of this project, that does nothing other than monumentalize his own idiotic egotism, resonates therefore with a profound dissonance, heralding its death. The desire to abolish death that is the most characteristic feature of the biopolitical order that seeks to govern in the name of life is doubled by the undead generation of art-life that can continue almost indefinitely in Eno’s brand name. But the presence of the name seals its meaning as the tomb of a dead man, a monumental folly testifying to the very traditional hubris of attempting to sustain one’s name in the name of the brand as if it constituted an aesthetic overcoming of death.