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Rise Like Lions After Slumber

Posted by , November 11th, 2011
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Smiling still a despot dies
For he knows, on his demise

New hands wield the tyrant’s power
It is not yet freedom’s hour
Heinrich Heine (King David, 1848)

 

Amidst all the fervor and misinterpretation surrounding the Occupy Wall Street movement, there is, largely, a presumption that the binary political system can atone for the inequities that have so angered the unruly, leaderless mass. The occupation process, however vague and “directionless,” is a spontaneous display of what Benjamin Tucker called “unterrified Jeffersonianism” — an exercise in non-hierarchical, transparent democracy that moves sideways through linear time, and, as such, remains largely “unseen” by traditional viewpoint. It’s not so much “directionless” as it is moving in all directions simultaneously. The occupation has gained popular support in no small part because of its honesty, behavior that is a novelty and stands in contrast to the immorality of political theater. As Heinrich Heine so poetically described, a tyrant can die smiling because he knows that after his death, power only changes hands, and tyranny has no end. The duopolistic structure of left and right party politics acts as its own counterbalance, its own safety net, trading power between tyrants. What this occupation does is short circuit that binary process of continual transfer of power, voiding the presupposition that the answer lies within politics as such, and asks instead, “if not this, then what?”

 

In 1976, Jean Baudrillard forecasted both Occupy Wall Street and the false sense of free choice within the structure of democratic capitalism:

 

The system of the ‘advanced democracies’ becomes stable through the formula of the two-party system. The de facto monopoly remains in the hands of a homogenous political class, from the left to the right, but must not be exercised in this way. This is because single party rule, totalitarianism, is an unstable form which drains the political stage and can no longer ensure the feedback of public opinion, the minimal current in the integrated circuit that constitutes the transistorized political machine. The two-party system, by contrast, is the end of the end of representation since solicitation reaches its highest degree, in the name of a simple formal constraint, when you approach the greatest perfect competitive equation between the two parties. This is only logical: Democracy attains the law of equivalence in the political order, and this law is fulfilled by the see-sawing of the two terms, which thus maintains their equivalence but by means of this miniscule divergence allows for public consensus and the closure of the cycle of representation: a theatre of operations where only the smoky reflections of political Reason continue to function. Democracy’s credo of the individual’s ‘free choice’ effectively turns into its exact opposite….
Jean Baudrillard (Symbolic Exchange and Death, 1976)

 

 

Isn’t it exactly the illusory nature of binary democracy — limited to a preordained duopoly, offering miniscule divergence, a simple format of constraint — that functions as “free choice” today? It’s this illusion of choice, a choice between the lesser of two evils, between an already narrowed field of left and right that is growing more homogenized each election cycle, that intensifies the occupational rage.

After the Cold War, the two-party structure of “good” and “evil” was effectively defunct, as democratic capitalism reigned supreme, a Heine-esque King. As Baudrillard explained, such an autocratic system is an inherently unstable form that drains the stage, leaving the political theater of choice anemic, an unconvincing performance. With the attack on the World Trade Center, and the wars that followed, there’s been resurgence in simulated opposition. Baudrillard offered eerie prescience about the financial collapse in his architectural survey of the World Trade Center:

 

 

Why has the World Trade Center in New York got two towers? All Manhattan’s great buildings are always content to confront each other in a competitive verticality, from which there results an architectural panorama that is the image of the capitalist system: a pyramidal jungle, every building on the offensive against every other… The buildings stand next to one another like the columns of a statistical graph. This new architecture no longer embodies a competitive system, but a countable one where competition has disappeared in favor of correlation. This architectural graphism belongs to the monopoly: the World Trade Center’s two towers are perfect parallelepipeds, four hundred meters high on a square base; they are perfectly balanced and blind communicating vessels. The fact that there are two identical towers signifies the end of all competition, the end of every original reference. Paradoxically, if there were only one, the WTC would not embody the monopoly, since we have seen that it becomes stable in a dual form. For the sign to remain pure it must become its own double: this doubling of the sign really put an end to what it designated.
Jean Baudrillard (Symbolic Exchange and Death, 1976)

 

 

With the collapse of the World Trade Center came the collapse of the tactical division of the monopoly, and, in hindsight, it seems inevitable that without such a symbolic division, the totalitarian single-party marketeers would steer us straight towards instability.

The obvious question remains: what the fuck does this have to do with music? It is both unbelievable and unmistakably clear; there is a curious correlation between Occupy Wall Street and the punk band Crass.

 

 


 

 

 

Do They Owe Us A Living?” (The Feeding of the 5000, 1978)

Do they owe us a living?
Of course they fucking do!

 

 

From 1977 to 1984 Crass took the anarchist impulse from the first wave of punk and followed it to its obvious fulfillment: a completely different way of living. As a band, they articulated their rage completely outside the rock ‘n’ roll arena, manufacturing their own records (to circumvent censorship), avoiding conventional concert halls and operating without any business apparatus (managers, lawyers, PR, etc.). Despite any popular fanfare Crass not only managed to sell tens of thousands of records, but more importantly, they forced the government and the public to deal with issues they raised (the Falklands War, nuclear disarmament, globalization, animal rights, environmentalism). As a social force, Crass was remarkable. The band lived all together at Dial House, a collective home with an open door policy that recognized no ideology: anyone was free to come and go and the house was used as a free space to realize creative endeavors.

Musically, Crass not only stood in stark contrast to other punk groups like the Sex Pistol and the Clash, who enjoyed commercial intercourse with the entertainment industry, but they sounded different than other punk bands. While the Sex Pistol were a slightly rough-around-the-edges variation on rock ‘n’ roll, Crass used sound as a function of their praxis. Under traditional criteria, e.g., melody, harmony, timbre, pitch and rhythm, Crass could be described as unbearable. Listen to any Crass song and it should be abundantly clear, the sound is ugly, and the sound has less to do with entertainment or sing-a-long-ability and more to do with acting as a conduit for their message of total rejection.

Theodor Adorno denounced protest music, explaining that by coupling the voice of dissent with entertainment, the music and the message is doomed. “The entire sphere of popular music is inseparable from consumption,” Adorno explained, and “taking the horrendous and making it somehow consumable makes the music unbearable.” The idea of the inseparability of entertainment and consumption, and how that is at odds with the subversive intent of punk, seemed to be clear in the Crass “sound.” Being “terrible” at music made Crass that much better as a punk outfit. In the Adornian sense, Crass did what it set out to do musically, to be perfectly horrendous. And the fact that the band operated as an informal non-profit, turning their earnings to investments towards other anarchistic endeavors, insured not only that they remained broke, but that their practice never involved intercourse with the culture industry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Understanding Crass — ugly, loud, discordant — as an anarchist movement is quite easy, one only needs to hear them, or see an album cover to reconcile some vague idea of anarchy with the band. Beyond the noise, Crass promoted ideas of individual freedom and autonomy, which, when viewed through the skewed lens of Western understanding, is usually seen as “disorder.” What’s missing in this view of anarchy vis-à-vis disorder is precisely the thing that makes anarchy so compelling: love. And more than anything, Crass were compelled by love. It’s hard to reconcile the ugliness of Crass with the hippy image of them living together, tending their organic garden and promoting love, precisely because their existence rejects the presupposition of such binary regulations.

The same inability to amalgamate seemingly contradictory practices is at work in the perception of Occupy Wall Street. The term “anarchy” has been frequently thrown at the occupation as a way of slandering the intention, painting the anger as juvenile spectacle instead of warranted response. This tactic is a throwback to McCarthyism, in much the same way that the term “socialist” has been slung at Obama’s presidency. For anyone with an understanding of the Cold War, it’s not only clear that communism failed completely, but the only state to propagandize communism more than the Soviet Union was the United States. That is because to paint the Soviet Union as an example of “true communism” only strengthens America’s claim to being the leading exemplar of “true democracy.” The false choice of communism or democracy offers two options in a binary operation not unlike the preordained duopoly of the political theater of left versus right. What Occupy Wall Street does, is, first, reject the premise of such a binary presumption, and second, instead of being one among many to offer answers to today’s political problems, the occupation asks, “if not this, then what?” and by doing so, redefines the problems of today’s politics.

That same redefining of problems was apparent in Crass, who screamed their anarchic message of love through songs of cacophonous noise, which were contained on records that were covered in vile imagery. When detractors and reactionaries demand the occupation answer such charges as, “are you just an anarchist who hates America and capitalism?” the impulse should not be to answer within the binary regulation of yes or no, but instead, to reject the premise of such a notion. The refusal to submit to being a single-issue protest renders Occupy Wall Street “uncoverable” in conventional media terms. There’s no single sound bite, there’s an overabundance of sound bites. The egalitarian structure makes every interviewee just a participant and not a spokesperson. Rather than listing issues that can be addressed by the current system, the occupation cites the system itself as the single-issue problem. Here, again, the movement shares likeness with Crass, who practiced a form of anarcho-syndicalism:

 

 

Liberalism and Democracy were pre-eminently political concepts, and, since the great majority of the original adherents of both maintained the right of ownership in the old sense, these had to renounce them both when economic development took a course which could not be practically reconciled with the original principles of Democracy, and still less with those of Liberalism. Democracy with its motto of “equality of all citizens before the law,” and Liberalism with its “right of man over his own person,” both shipwrecked on the realities of the capitalist economic form. So long as millions of human beings in every country had to sell their labor-power to a small minority of owners, and to sink into more wretched misery if they could find no buyers, the so-called “equality before the law” remains merely a pious fraud, since the laws are made by those who find themselves in possession of the social wealth. But in the same way there can be also no talk of a “right over one’s own person,” for that right ends when one is compelled to submit to economic dictation of another if he does not want to starve.
Rudolf Rocker (Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice, 1937)

 

 

It’s in this moment of spontaneous “unterrified Jeffersonianism” that the occupation, hearing Jefferson remark, “that government is best which governs least,” shouts back Thoreau’s anarchist retort, “that government is best which governs not at all!” And it is here that we find ourselves at the deadlock of capitalism. That is to say, crisis is inherent in capitalism. There is a sign that frequently appears at occupy rallies, “capitalism IS crisis,” which perhaps best summarizes the entire movement. And yet, in just three words, the apparently simple redefining of the problems confronting us has no equally simple answer.

 

 

 

 

 

Taking Sides” (Yes Sir, I Will, 1983)

We must be prepared to oppose them on every level,
To fight back in the knowledge that if we don’t
We will have failed in our responsibility to life itself.

We must not be intimidated by the authority that they appear to have.

 

In an interview, Penny Rimbaud said of the Crass agenda, “We got out on the streets and we really tried it out — and we failed.” How did they fail? Crass deliberately presented their music not as a sound commodity but as a natural extension of their way of life. Through shared living at Dial House, and the community centers and actions they funded with proceeds from the band’s activity, Crass assumed other punks and anarchist equally invested would do the same. The idea of thousands of Dial Houses all over England was an early dream of Crass, and that is all it ever was, a dream. Rather than hearing “There is no authority but yourself” and taking those words as a call to autonomous action, the listeners, for the most part, acted like fans, and sang along, just as they would with the Sex Pistols. Rather than being inspired to create their own autonomous, anarchist squats, most punks adopted Crass as a badge, an ideology, and preached it. Crass was quite successful as a band, selling records, garnering followers, influencing other groups, but failed in that by becoming a force of the underground, they managed to create an alternative binary system rather than uproot the existing binary system.

 

There are occasions when it pays better to fight and be beaten than not to fight at all.
George Orwell (Homage to Catalonia)

 

Crass disbanded in part due to a division between members who believed in pacifism and those who believed in reactionary violence. Is this not also an antagonism in the occupation? As the balaclava-clad bloc came out during Oakland’s General Strike, though overwhelmingly in the minority, it can be seen as the logical conclusion to the “if not this, then what?” question. As Occupy Wall Street, echoing Rudolf Rocker, undermines democratic capitalism’s credo of rights and equality, revealing the perpetual state of shipwrecked-ness, the “then what” is the face-off between society at large and those in possession of social wealth. We only need to look back at the history of radicalism to see that going head-to-head with the controlling minority has rarely been able to, as the rallying cry pleads, “remain non-violent.” The history of reactionary violence — tens of thousands guillotined during the French Revolution, burning the Tuileries palace to the ground during the Paris Commune, systematically destroying the churches in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, Molotov cocktails hurled in every direction during May ’68, the poison and bombing campaigns of “propaganda by the deed” individualists — finds itself in the same frustrated deadlock time and again, as the issues central to radical protests (liberty, equality, fraternity) have never been resolved within democratic politics. The realization that civil rights, gender equality or suitable living conditions for all are among the many issues that remain perpetually unsettled return again and again as a statement of war against what Rudolf Rocker called the “pious fraud” of the minority (i.e., the 1%) in control of social wealth.

 

 

 

 

 

Crass was instrumental in organizing a proto-Occupy Wall Street in the early ‘80s, called “Stop the City.” Without permit or notice to authorities, thousands of activists occupied the area of the London Stock Exchange, preventing brokers and bankers from getting to their offices. Protestors were, in turn, truncheoned and tossed into paddywagons, only to return in record numbers the following year to do it all again. Before the anti-globalization movement was identified as such, Crass was a part of it. Nearly three decades before people were willed to fill public squares en masse, Crass had the same idea.

There’s a tendency, likely born from a combination of suspicious wonderment and jealous misdirection, that’s common among the view from outside the occupation, which extends beyond the name-calling and jokes of hygiene and hair color, to reveal a hesitation that should be considered a vote of confidence. Because it’s within this impulse to apply a title to the character of revolt, to look upon protestors and call them madmen, where true identity is revealed, where what is unbearable is being uncategorized. So by designating oneself “sane” in the act of calling the other “mad,” we can see the locus of illusion: by insisting the other is under the illusion of madness, the sane one falls victim to the ironic illusion of his own madness. Or, to use a Lacanian aphorism: “If a man who believes himself to be king is mad, a king who believes himself to be king is no less mad.” The impulse to denigrate, which is in abundance with critics of Crass and the Occupy movement, should be seen clearly as an impulse towards solidarity masked by contemptuous envy. It’s this sign of discomfort that signals the slow overturning of public conscience, when the tenuous link to the belief that there is an answer to the problems slowly turns to the realization that the problems themselves should be redefined, as the previously specious set of beliefs is put to torch.

Le roi est mort, vive le roi. “The king is dead. Long live the king.” When one king dies, another king is crowned, and the kingdom continues…  until it doesn’t.

 

Banned from the Roxy” (The Feeding of the 5000, 1978)

The government protecting their profits from the poor,
The rich and the fortunate chaining up the door.

Afraid that the people may ask for a little more

Than the shit they get. The shit they get.
The shit they get. The shit they get.

 

While there are plenty of parallels to draw between Crass and Occupy Wall Street, the two are fundamentally different in their intent. Crass operated as an underground movement while the occupation specifically aims at the majority, the ninety-nine percent. This principal distinction, paradoxically, makes the two more similar than separate. While Crass subscribed to a punk ethos, operating as a subversive counterweight to popular culture, the occupation aims at the subversive counterweight that maintains cultural social order, that is, the plutocratic minority that bang the drum of democratic capitalism against the better judgment of the majority. Crass was critical of the Sex Pistols singing, “I believe in anarchy” alongside “there’s no future in dreaming,” because, for Crass, the only future was in realizing the anarchist dream. In much the same way, the occupation endeavors a monumental overturning of everything; instead of banging the drum of cynical partisanship, which sees no future, the movement, instead, asks for a waking up from this nightmare, allowing another impossible dream to be dreamt.

 

 

 

 

 

However unconscious, it seems the occupation has learned from the mistakes of Crass. Rather than operating as a traditional organization, with a figurehead easily toppled, the occupation’s egalitarian approach offers an answer to Crass’s failure to become one among many collective anarchist groups operating around England. And it’s no coincidence that the brave souls who camped out at the very beginning of this occupation, those very same people that current supporters of the occupation are quick to relegate as not indicative of the whole, who critics continually point to as typical examples of the occupation, are the very stripe familiar to Crass fans: the dreadlocked ‘n’ mohawked, Mad Max looking gutter punks. Among those first to feel the swing of a police baton, the first to familiarize themselves with the taste of pepper spray, the first to be hauled off in cuffs, the first to become dispossessed of their reasonable expectation of privacy, the first to volunteer to sleep in a park, the first to march fearlessly into a confrontation with police knowing it ends with a ride in the paddywagon, are those who look like extras cast in a Hollywood-produced “tell-all” Crass biopic. No coincidence. Like Crass, let’s not disregard them just because they are unbearable.

 

Those who are willing neither to suffer nor to possess the means of oppression, who want freedom both for themselves and for others — they, in an age that poverty or terror condemns to the excesses of oppression, are the seeds beneath the snow of which one of the greatest among us spoke.  Once the storm is over, the world will live off them.
Albert Camus (Resistance, Rebellion and Death, 1960)

 

Crass has largely been left out of the history of punk rock, because much of that history has been produced to satisfy the evidence of the very forces Crass sought to overthrow. In the Adornian sense, history, commissioned through industrial institutions (government, entertainment, academic) that further the obligation to consume, makes Crass not only unbearable, but also irrelevant. However, as Camus points out, Crass act as “seeds beneath the snow,” and the occupation we see sprouting “out of nowhere” today can be easier comprehended as the later part of a gestation period that found genesis with Crass and their ilk.

With respect to the Great Recession we find ourselves in today, we can use an instrument of “financial innovation” as an analogy for how we view the historic authenticity of Crass and Occupy Wall Street. A financial derivative has no independent value; its value is derived from the value of an underlying asset. In the case of Crass and the occupation, the underlying assets are peace, resistance, autonomy. This impulse towards human welfare is both monumental and desired, but you can’t sell something that is free, ergo, such an impulse is out of place in our society. The West has slowly created a historical practice that describes itself to itself while erasing all that does not satisfy its rules of evidence. And while there are many noble elements found within Crass and Occupy Wall Street, both derive their value from outside the laws of democratic capitalism, not only positioning themselves to be constantly misconceived, but to become historically inauthentic within Western historicity.

 

The Five Knuckle Shuffle” (Yes Sir, I Will, 1983)

If there was no government, wouldn’t there be chaos
Everybody running round, setting petrol bombs off?
And if there was no police force, tell me what you’d do
If thirty thousand rioters came running after you?
And who would clean the sewers? Who’d mend my television?
Wouldn’t people lay about without some supervision?
Who’d drive the fire engines? Who’d fix my video?
If there were no prisons, well, where would robbers go?

And what if I told you to fuck off?

 

 

Aren’t we seeing, as a natural side effect of the occupation, a slow dismantling of those rules of evidence that shape Western historicity? Throughout the first month of the movement, the restrictions, corruptions and outside interests, mediated through Western historic authenticity, promised to be the death knell of the occupation. They can’t sleep outside indefinitely? They can’t survive being co-opted by outside interests? They can’t resist the violence and crime inherent to such groups? The snow came, and the occupiers found a way to sleep. The unions, teachers and marginalized infested the occupation, and found a welcoming ear for their concerns. The gas-powered generators were confiscated, and the occupiers found a bicycle-powered alternative. Violent elements inserted themselves into Oakland’s General Strike, and the occupiers, echoing the declaration adopted by the Amsterdam anarchist international convention in 1907, acknowledged that, “such acts, with their causes and motives, should be understood rather than praised or condemned,” and not only worked to repair the damage, but debated the acts at their assembly. As each new challenge presents itself — police agent provocateurs, right wing saboteurs, a rise in homeless, crime and sexual violence visited upon encampments — the occupation defies those rules of evidence that satisfy ideas of Western newsworthiness. The problem the mainstream media faces is that the occupation resides in a blind spot, outside the view of Western historicity, and so, situations such as sexual violence or homeless visiting the encampments are reported as outside problems thrust onto the occupation. Instead, we should view the occupation as a microcosm of a different history being made, one that operates through egalitarian consensus, and such issues (sexual violence, crime, homelessness) are elements within the culture that are addressed, debated and hopefully, further prevented. A human approach, instead of the Western binary us versus them.

The mainstream media — by reporting issues discussed at general assemblies as “dilemmas” or “arguments,” by “building narratives” of the occupation through interviewing individuals rather than observing assemblies — reveals its blind spot to methods foreign to Western historical practices that don’t satisfy its rules of evidence. When such questions came framed with a blind spot (“If there were no prisons, well, where would robbers go?”), Crass answered in kind (“And what if I told you to fuck off?”). The occupation’s open-ended, anamorphic culture of love is a similar “fuck off” to traditional Western historic authenticity.

The Austrian art historian, Alois Riegl, sought to change the manner in which history was authenticated, and, in some measure, shared the Crass worldview. Riegl’s theory of Kunstwollen, or the artistic will-to-form, worked to unite activities in high and low art with the culture of its time, which was contrary to the anthropological impulse of history to excavate and separate, dividing material culture from mental culture. Rather than separating ideas from things, Riegl chose to see history as a sequence of ideas and materials that were formed by the same interconnected culture. The history we know is a history already mediated through cleaving of that cultural continuum, restructured through the tools of historic efficiency, derived from its value to the body commissioning such a history. What Riegl sought was a view of man’s will to see the world as he imagines, and everything — art, law, science, philosophy, craftsmanship — is an obligation to meet such a desire.

 

Beg Your Pardon” (Christ – The Album, 1982)

I don’t believe the things you say
You make bullshit of the truth
The game you play’s offensive
And your life’s the living proof

 

Taking a Kunstwollen view of Occupy Wall Street, it is much easier to see how seemingly contradictory ideas of peace and anarchy, anger and love, autonomy and organization, form the character of the will contained in the occupation. The genesis of the movement is found as much in the financial collapse as it is in the resurgence of interest in anarchist movements, underground music and hacktivism. Wikileaks, Anonymous and the Arab Spring can be seen as societal forms that are mirrored artistically in, as an example, the rash of recent reissues of subversive music from the past (e.g., Crass, Faith, Void, Death, East of Underground, The Ex). Similarly, in film and literature we find an abundance of new material about the Red Army Faction/Baader Meinhof, May ‘68, the Black Panthers, Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, the Situationists, as if we’re experiencing a spontaneous will-to-form of reconsideration for those radical movements, looking forward to our future through a re-informed hindsight, trying to determine if similar actions can derive their value from something other than the violence that brought an end to past radicalism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t even there yet. NASA didn’t exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology -– (applause) — an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.
President Obama, 2011 State of the Union Address

 

 

 

Obama’s call for “our generation’s Sputnik moment” was a retooling of the binary regulation that sustained the ideology of the Cold War. There is a Baudrillardian “theater of operations” in phrases such as, “research and development,” “information technology” and “biomedical research,” which seem harmless in their hopefulness – or hopeful in their harmlessness, but such phrases usually signify other, more harmful, more hopeless, phrases: “defense contracts,” “NSA eavesdropping,” “pharmaceutical lobby.”

Obama’s acknowledgement of our slump in innovation is tied to our slump in human development, equality, literacy and quality of life. What if there is another way to view such statistics? What if our slump is, in itself, a sign of a nascent resistance, a will-to-form, however latent, against turning our Sputnik moments into tools for the de facto homogenous ruling class to use against us, or people elsewhere who are like us? Perhaps it is too optimistic a view, but can’t our dire statistics also be seen as a sign of change, as an unconscious un-tethering from Western hegemony?

Democratic capitalism functions in much the same way as religious fundamentalism. The people act as pious adherents, sacrificing themselves in support of divine principles, which are suspended by faith. In the case of capitalism, the faith resides in the belief that heavenly judgment will reward devotees with a bounty of riches. The inconvenient truth, paradoxically, is that while the majority of devotees work, a small minority is richly venerated, and while this cycle continually repeats, the faith of the poor, devoted majority remains unshaken. Heaven is reserved for the minority, and on the ground, the reality is faith functions as a belief in a freedom that’s never free. Or, as Baudriallard said, a democracy whose credo of free choice effectively turns into its exact opposite, an obligation to consume. Perhaps we can view the rise in self-described atheists as a nascent resistance to democratic capitalism?

 

 

Demoncrats” (Stations of the Crass, 1979)

They believed in democracy, freedom of speech
Yet dead on the flesh piles I hear no breath

I hear no hope, no whisper of faith
From those who have died for some others’ privilege
Out from your palaces, princes and queens
Out from your churches, you clergy, you christs
I’ll neither live nor die for your dreams
I’ll make no subscription to your paradise

 

This obligation to consume was made clear in the death of Steve Jobs. Westerners far and wide revered Jobs like a deity, and praised his innovation and brilliance in bringing the world to our fingertips. Much noise was made of him being a genius, dropping out of college, having a propensity to indulge in crazy ideas, tripping on LSD and his Christ-like ability to convert followers with his “reality distortion field.”

 

 

 


 

 

 

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
Apple, “Think Different” advertising campaign, 1997

 

 

It’s this anti-establishment idolatry that Steve Jobs originally intoned upon twentieth century personalities that was, in turn, intoned upon him, creating a horrendous Adornian coupling of consumption and innovation. Just as Exodus reminds us, “You shall have no other gods before me,” the unlimited freedom that Jobs brought to us, mediated through consumption, as a derivative of Apple’s profits, has an unsightly, dare I say ungodly, obverse. The idolatrous legacy of Steve Jobs that we celebrate, that “pushed the human race forward” and was “crazy enough to change the world,” is sustained by Chinese workers committing suicide in the factories that produce Apple products, mass graves in Kashmir where multinational mining and infrastructure corporations vie for land rights, the rape of Congolese women and children by militias who control the export of minerals needed to produce our “smart” devices.

Perhaps it’s too optimistic, but maybe what’s forming now, amidst the occupation, is a will to think differently about our “Sputnik moment.” We’re “suffering” a spontaneous disentanglement from our involvement in the inhumane practices that sustain our “freedom.” Perhaps part of the question, “if not this, then what?” involves questioning the worth of insurmountable debt in pursuit of an education that leads to a profession where the best ideas are commandeered by the government for purposes of “defense,” “finance” or “intelligence.” Perhaps we’ve grown tired of seeing our ideas turned into killing machines, financial instruments of greed and tools to invade privacy. Perhaps the political theater is finally being rendered irrelevant. Perhaps we’re beginning to see the blind spots in our history. Perhaps our “Sputnik moment” is not developing something new, but rejecting old presuppositions: that we can’t stay safe and still make awesome affordable things, that it’s impossible to have health care, education, social security and a stable economy, that we must always be at war, that we need kings or leaders or cops at all.

 

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where Next Columbus?” (Penis Envy, 1981)

 

Do you watch at a distance from the side you have chosen?
Whose answers serve you best? Who’ll save you from confusion?

 

Who’s your leader? Which is your flock?
Who do you watch? Who do you watch?

 

 

 

 


Fetish Music

Posted by , January 18th, 2011
Category: Abstraction Tags:   RSS | Comments | Trackback from your site
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As was the case in the first Lacan Survey, let me again circumvent introducing or defining this series and, instead, offer broad questions in place of answers.

What do we mean when we say, “I like this song”? To see what’s beyond truisms like “the words are great” or “I like the beat” or “it just makes me feel good” means seeing how the song is integrated into our worldview, symbolically. The song has a totemic significance, as it allows the listener to perpetuate the experience of the song—or, more precisely, to perpetuate the experience linked to the song by the listener. The listener’s experience becomes embodied in the song. Is this not the definition of fetish?

I’m not talking about a dude in a latex suit licking a woman’s toes, though there’s room for that in fetish; I’m referring to associations made, the accidentally simultaneous presentation of a song and an experience. Attaching a song to an experience, however unconsciously, often suspends the song in a kind of sentimental abeyance—“this was our song” or “I spent my first year of college totally fucked up listening to this album” or “this song got me through some shit, man”—and allows us to either re-live the experience through an attachment to the song or distantiate ourselves from a reality we can’t wholly, consciously consider.

As an example, I will offer my own fetishistic associations and sentimental attachments between sound and experiences, and it makes sense to start with an extreme example.

 

 

 

I See a Darkness” — Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy

A handful of my friends committed suicide in the beginning of the 2000s, the last of which was my friend Charles, and it was his death that unraveled me. In the weeks shortly after Charles died, I was prone to fits of unpredictable, hysterical crying. I don’t subscribe to the notion of “boys don’t cry,” but paradoxically, I don’t often cry myself, so my crying jags were extremely hard to recover from. I was terribly despondent. I began carrying a snapshot of Charles around in my pocket. If while at work I felt the wave of tears coming on, I would sneak out of the miserable office and lock myself in a stall in the bathroom, take the picture of Charles in my hand and silently weep into his mangled face. Seeing a “real” version of him was the only way I could bear the experience. The snapshot was the embodiment of a belief that I couldn’t allow to be true. It was keeping him alive long enough for me to get through his not being alive.

Around this same time I was introduced to the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy song, “I See a Darkness.” In many ways this song explains the end of my friendship with Charles.  He was strung out, living again with his parents, I had moved away, and while I still loved him, he and I simply didn’t have as much in common. The last time I spoke with Charles he called me under the auspices of plans to write music together again, but what we spoke mostly of was his addiction, his problems in his relationship and his poor health. A few times during the conversation he said, quite frankly (and comically, though the humor is bittersweet now), “I’m a fucking loser, man” and chuckled. At the time it was a very normal conversation to have with Charles. Afterwards, however, it was this conversation that haunted me, gave me tremendous pangs of guilt, and left me wondering if I’d not done enough. Listening to “I See a Darkness,” the pre-chorus, “this isn’t all I see,” and the post-chorus, “a hope that somehow you you can save me,” were, when reexamining that last phone call, prophetic intimations of what was to come.

Eventually, the crying fits became less severe, I quit carrying the picture of Charles around with me, and the guilt wasn’t as sharp a pain. “I See a Darkness” became totemic to the experience of losing Charles. Not just his suicide, but all the commitments we had made to each other, and how his death affected the rest of us—all of his friends—and what changed in us as a result of him being gone. Through this entire time (3 years?), I would listen to this song quite frequently. Charles continued living in my observance of, and attachment to, the song. The song embodied my refusal to let him die; it was a living disavowal of death. And most importantly, it helped me grieve. Paradoxically, thinking of him through repeated listenings allowed me distance from him. As my need to hear the song diminished, it became easier to accept his death.

 

 

 

Almost Was Good Enough (Once)” — Magnolia Electric Co.

In the years following Charles’ suicide, productive activities had a sense of defiance against all the defeat symbolized in his death. Being in a band or making a record felt, in some ways, like a “fuck you” to the spirit of his giving up. Carrying on with my life, without him, made me feel both guilty and subversive. For those of us that had “gotten out” before the rash of suicides struck our hometown, we looked at one another as survivors, the remnants of what had happened. Those suicides were such an ending, that continuing to do anything afterward felt uncomfortable.

It was in these purgatorial years that “Almost Was Good Enough” came to be more than just a song. Molina sings

Did you really believe
that everyone makes it out?
Almost no one makes it out

with the same sense of finality heard in “I See a Darkness.” It’s analogous to the clichés we all told each other while grieving—“you can’t blame yourself for what happened,” “it will get easier”—that are used to accept something unacceptable. These clichés are tempered with Molina’s reification:

But if no one makes it out
How come you’re talking to one right now
for once almost was good enough

These three lines sum up, quite perfectly, the feeling of defeated accomplishment in being the one who “made it out.” While it’s good to come out the other side, realize you’re alive and be filled with a renewed sense of self, you’re still dragging your dead friend around behind you, and what should be “good” is actually “good enough.” The guilt is real, and it’s too much to ask for more than good enough. While “I See a Darkness” allowed me to keep Charles alive in the years immediately following his death, “Almost Was Good Enough” allowed me to keep myself alive—and more importantly, moving.

The fetishized song can function in two opposite ways, either its role remains unconscious, as in the case of “I See a Darkness” where I was unaware of the song’s assistance in allowing me to live with death, or, the role of the song can be a conscious one, as “Almost Was Good Enough,” where the association with the song is reflected in the sublimation of the grief and guilt in continuing on with the plans made before Chuck’s death.

In both cases the fetishized song helped me to grieve. Unconsciously, I could displace that which I was incapable of dealing with (the actual total loss of Charles from reality) in “I See a Darkness.” Listening to that song allowed me to revel in his life, to relive that final conversation differently, until I was able to see him totally dead. Obviously, I knew he was dead the entire time, but it’s interesting to look back at what I was doing while being unaware of doing it. In contrast, I used “Almost Was Good Enough” as a fetish consciously, invoking it as a mantra of solidarity among my fellow survivors, acknowledging what we’d been left with and how to make enough sense of it to carry on.

 

 

 

 

V.A. Rocks Your Liver” — Verbal Abuse

It’s an understatement to say I was a “troubled child.” I was, literally, a poster child for juvenile delinquency: I appeared in low budget public access awareness campaigns, education panels and after school programs for people trying to understand problem children. Before my service work in helping people understand problem children, I did extensive fieldwork as a problem child. I’ll spare the details, and just skip to my friend Aaron and I running away.

Aaron was from another town (I can’t remember where), had a shitty car, and when we decided to run away that shitty car was our ticket out. The only tape I remember him having was Verbal Abuse. Paradoxically, neither Aaron nor I drank, so in retrospect, it seems strange that this anthem to drunkenness was our anthem, but we were fairly dimwitted. Our time on the outs was a time of true liberation, in direct opposition to our unbearable teenage lives. It was two decades ago, so the details have faded and the injustices seem comical now, but at the time the pain was very real. Our decision to runaway, to leave family, school and friends behind, was a refusal of the status quo. Aaron and I had no idea where we were going or what we were going to do when we got there. It was a salto mortale, a leap of faith from the known into the unknown, and in that act of un-knowing our entire lives, we were briefly, completely free.

Of course, the reality of undoing everything we had known up to that point was far less romantic than the picture painted in reminiscing. Aaron’s car broke down several times — the car we were sleeping in, we had no money, and all we had to eat was a wholesale-size package of hot dogs that rolled around in the backseat. The package had been torn open so dogs would occasionally shake loose onto the floorboards. Disgusting, but there was something heroic and martial in brushing most of the dirt off your cold dog before eating it; crunching of dirt was the sound of our freedom. I still smile at the thought of Aaron and I pushing his car while “V.A. Rocks Your Liver” (our “Star Spangled Banner”) blasted from his tape deck.

As I’ve grown older I’ve re-bought some of the records from my youth, records I had either lost in bouts of homelessness or sold for food, or, in the case of Verbal Abuse, never owned in the first place. Finally hearing “Rocks Your Liver” again after twenty years was certainly a nostalgic reward, but the song itself had lost it’s meaning outside being a placeholder for those memories. With the song sitting silently for so long, going unheard, how could I not be disappointed in hearing it again? Everything in my life had changed around that memory, and if my association with “Rocks Your Liver” (liberation, the frivolity of youth, girls underwear) remained static, hearing it again—outside that freedom—would inevitably be a different experience. I have more memories of remembering the song than the song itself.

“Rocks Your Liver” is a song that, if I heard it today, would leave me indifferent. As emblematic of those days of freedom, though—eating dirty hot dogs, breaking the law, and pushing that fucking car around—the song is overwhelming. I have no idea what became of Aaron, I have no souvenirs of that time, and I live across the country from where we roamed, so “Rocks Your Liver” is the only perceptible artifact of a time far from today with a valley of experienced life between then and now. In acquiring the record I learned I didn’t actually need it for it to be a favorite in my collection.

 

 

 

 

For Want Of” — Rites of Spring

Admittedly, I took this song, and the album it’s on, too seriously. Through most of the early ‘90s I practically pushed this album down the throats of everyone around me. Nearly everyone I knew got a copy as a gift, though more as an explanation of my condition.

One such recipient was Joann, one of the first friends I made outside my close-knit circle of degenerate creeps. Our friendship grew despite not having much in common, and eventually we traded favorite albums. I remember sitting in Joann’s house listening to her explain all the things she loved about Sade’s Promise album and being so excited because I felt exactly the same about the Rites of Spring album, except when I played it for her she looked as though I had just shit on her coffee table. At first Joann thought I was playing a joke on her, trying to humiliate her. “How is this anything like Sade?” What Joann responded to was the sound of the music (screeching, off key voice, brash noise) and I responded to the content (fervency, love, pain). To my senses, Sade and Rites of Spring were equivalent, while Joann perceived them antithetical to one another. It took much explanation, but Joann eventually, and reluctantly, conceded my point with the rejoinder, “this music is terrible.” We learned to celebrate our differences.

Unlike Verbal Abuse, Rites of Spring remained by my side through all of my tempestuous relationships, and I used lines from this album in defense of and as excuse for my recklessness, although, like Verbal Abuse, Rites of Spring doesn’t mean the same thing to me now. Fifteen years ago just hearing “I woke up this morning with a piece of past caught in my throat… and then I choked” could make my insides squall. The experience of my life then — tripping over my heart running from one woman to another — was measured in those words. Today I am different, and the song, certainly full of sentimental attachments, doesn’t operate as the embodiment of feelings, either conscious or not, that I’m experiencing.

Having an album as a sort of “constant companion” through life is interesting in how the symbolism changes (or doesn’t change) through life. Our experience with music is temporal, and is dependent on our view of things — and our view includes whatever blind spots exist in our perspective. How we hear the music will change as our worldview changes, and as the things that dominate our life (consciously or not) change. It’s only in hindsight that certain aspects come out of a former blind spot in our perception and seem legible, new to the current listening experience.

To this end, I enjoy hearing stories about other people’s sentimental songs. Most people explain it similarly (“Oh shit, this was my fucking jam”), though when pushed for more, it gets really interesting. The explanation reveals a great deal about how conscious one is of the symbolic weight of the song. Of course a good song can sometimes just be a good song, but once an examination of why a song is good begins what’s revealed is the amount of courage one has to examine himself. Telling the truth allows suffering to speak, and when we tell the truth we reveal our own parallactic finitudes. What’s real is a matter of how we arrived at truth, and that truth is tied to our inability to fully grasp the nature of truth.

 

 

 

 

Is It Because I’m Black” — Syl Johnson

As Cornel West talked of being introduced to the stank of life, so I found myself there while scouring the Internet looking for rare records. For me, a white dude in his 20s, this song represented a “holy grail” among record collectors, an obscure artifact from the civil rights era that was known in the hip-hop/sample-spotter world, and unknown to everyone else. My first access to a computer came through a desk job I had and any spare time was devoted to searching for records, back when dogpiling (remember life before Google?) “Is It Because I’m Black” would only return porno sites (Ahh, the days of unregulated metadata!). Before I had ever seen a copy of this record I found a soundfile (when .ram was the .mp3) and was so juiced to hear it I played to it through my speakers (no headphones) at my desk (a practice generally frowned upon). There I sat in the privacy of my own cubicle, with the volume as low as it could possibly go, getting so fucking into it when my boss, a black woman at least twenty years my senior (who had lived through the civil rights struggle) heard the song and completely marched into my personal space.

What happened next remains one of the most surreal and uncomfortable musical experiences of my life. My boss reached over my shoulder and turned my computer speakers up, way up, and while standing behind, sorta leaning on me, proceeded to sing along with and ad lib through the entire song. Most of the other cubicles were filled with middle-aged white women, all of whom answered to the same woman I did, that same woman who was singing, “something is holdin’ me back… is it because I’m black?” at each and every one of them. Everyone in the office was already afraid of my boss, as she had been the office manager for decades, since the office was just her and the owner, and she had no problem telling anyone what she thought of anything. This made me love her, but most people (me included) were fucking petrified of her. And there she was, moaning, ooh-ing, ahh-ing and “keep on holdin’ me back”-ing along with Syl, who was blasting out of my computer. All the while my co-workers looked at me with astonished what the fuck looks on their white faces. Jesus Christ! It was the race conversation that you always want, but are always to chickenshit, to have, and it was happening more to me than with me, and it wasn’t a conversation as much as a living disinterment of shame. When the song finished, my boss said, “goddamn, what a song” and casually went back to her desk.

My reality before listening to the song (in short: post-civil rights white man working for a black woman under the assumption, “the world ain’t perfect, but…”) was completely different after listening to the song. Everything was still the same, I was still a white man working for a black woman in an imperfect world, but the façade had cracked. It was a façade that all of us—my boss, me, my co-workers—were aware of and discussed as such (“equal opportunities, huh, right?”). Of course institutional racism worked in place of overt racism, and of course we aren’t all equal and of course things aren’t perfect, but it’s okay, right?

What my boss did by elevating Syl Johnson as a one-sided conversation was to acknowledge what Lacan refers to as the big Other. Our work place was operating under the guise of a paradoxical reflexive order which allowed symbolic order to function. This is similar to Marx’s explaination of how states function; we only imagine that we believe in order and demand that others believe in that same order as we do—no one really believes, but it functions. My boss, causing torsion in the façade, brought the Symbolic into view of the Real and all the rest of us saw the contradictions of multiple truths existing simultaneously.

Much like Cornel West explained, my boss had tremendous courage in allowing truth to speak through suffering, by acknowledging finitude, by showing how my truth was tied to how I came to that truth, by introducing me to the stank of life.

The whole experience was terribly uncomfortable, and I would not change that. Before, I saw the record as an artifact, something rare and obscure, a relic from the near past, but still the past, and afterward I saw my view of the record intersected by other realities, in parallax, discordant and uncomfortably true, coinciding all around me. The record never had a chance to become a fetish as my unconscious blind spots were revealed before I owned it.

 

 

 

 

“I Don’t Wanna Cry” Mariah Carey

(File under: Guilty pleasure!)

My senior year of high school I made friends with a foreign exchange student from Spain who dated my best friend. Of course, as all high school relationships go, my best friend dumped her and things got sad and ugly. I spent many weekday afternoons with my Spanish friend, eating her host family’s food and watching MTV. Mariah Carey was kinda huge then, and her multi-octaved only-dogs-can-hear vocal range was still a novelty. “I Don’t Wanna Cry” became a theme song for my Spanish friend’s bouts of tears and, at some point, she gave me a copy of Mariah’s first album as a kind-of funny acknowledgment of what we’d been through. It wasn’t so much about Mariah Carey as it was the experience, but the album was the perfect token of the experience.

From the outset I had detached myself from Mariah’s music, being a boy who really only responded to testosterone-enraged guitar music. Not to typecast myself, but let’s be real, I was immature and angry, so the Misfits blew my mind and Mariah Carey was a whatever thing that I only acknowledged ironically. My friend moved back to Spain after graduation and I kept the album as a memento. Over the years, other friends, aware of this random softie-pop aberration in an otherwise agitated oeuvre, bought me subsequent Mariah Carey releases. It became a funny thing, me being an un-closeted fan with sentimental attachments to her music. Ten years later I was a “regular” Mariah Carey fan who, of my own volition, bought albums, singles, remixes, etc. It was usually a noteworthy thing for anyone browsing my stacks, “What’s the story with all these Mariah Carey albums?”

There’s nothing really remarkable about my attachment to Mariah Carey. It happens with people and pop music all the time, the, “I know, I know, but I just like it, ya’know?” worldview. In some way pop music exists to fill this place in our lives. Pop music is ubiquitous, and it’s a forgone conclusion that some Top 40 song will be playing when shit happens. It’s unavoidable. Everyone I know has a similar fetish with some artist or song. Like I said, it’s not remarkable. What is remarkable is when I decided to abandon Mariah.

That last year of high school was particularly painful for me. I didn’t really graduate, all of my friends were going to college (or moving to another country), my home life was totally fucked and it seemed like everything was falling apart. Once high school was over, I bounced around from girlfriend to girlfriend, apartment to apartment, roommate to roommate, town to town, trying to just figure it out, ya’know? It wasn’t easy. Through the next fifteen years I maintained this ironic Mariah Carey collection that functioned as a sentimental tether to my Spanish friend on the other side of the world. I was conscious of this and spoke of it as such. In 2000, I moved into a studio apartment, it was the first time I lived alone, and that’s when I decided to part ways with Mariah.

I didn’t think it was significant at the time; I’d had the albums for over a decade, hauled them from apartment to apartment, town to town, and regarded them as mementos the entire time. So why didn’t I get rid of them earlier? Or, why did I get rid* of them then? Looking back, it’s interesting that the Mariah collection started when I was terrified of being left alone, and it was only when I was able to live on my own that I didn’t need the sentimental token any longer.

 

 

….

 

 

Thinking about music in this way, as a fetish that allows us to either re-live experiences through an attachment or distantiate ourselves from a reality we can’t wholly experience, is an interesting process. Revealing unconscious fetishes that have never been fully in our view can stir aggravation or defensiveness. Engrained fetishes are especially perceptible when reading record reviews or listening to people discuss why they hate artists. In addition, looking at “phases” we went through with certain songs or artists will often coincide with experiences that were significant at the times we were getting “into” and “out of” the music. While we may passively listen to music, there is a lot of activity in the process, and I would venture to guess it’s rarely ever, “just a good song, ya’know?”

What song do you fetish. And why?

 

 

….

* As a footnote, when I got rid of the Mariah collection, I brought a box of random CDs to a record store to trade for used LPs. While the young, know-it-all clerk looked over the box I browsed. Some 45 minutes later, I’m deep in the middle of the Buck Owens section and a voice comes over the store loudspeaker: “Would the guy who brought in all those Mariah Carey singles please come to the front of the store.” —What a little dick! Trying to shame me even as I’m relinquishing my fetish. No wonder people are so defensive!

Songs About Fucking

Posted by , January 11th, 2011
Category: Abstraction Tags:   RSS | Comments | Trackback from your site
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In lieu of a proper introduction let me acknowledge that borrowing a restaurant review format and applying it to the examination of music is fairly absurd. What’s more, focusing these sound-as-sustenance reviews through a lens of Lacan psychoanalysis is wholly absurd. To stand on a dictum where Francis Bacon once stood: “Truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion.” It’s from this point—absurdity, obviously in error—that these surveys begin.

Examining sound from this skewed vantage point, anamorphically, with absurdity as the jumping-off point, our blind spot in how we perceive music is altered, which allows new experiences; more truths.

 

 

 

Moanin’ and Groanin’” — Bill Withers

Sound: Bedclothes duet
Impulse
: Sensual
Praxis
: Works every time
Price
: Who cares?

The quintessential fuck song, unarguably. All that is embodied in the sex experience distilled to its absolute essence, as if it were a fine salve that you could spread on those parts of you hurting for love. Sung in duet with himself, Mr. Withers makes interesting Lacanian intimations toward an “object gaze,” suffering a blind spot in his perception of a visual reality, presenting an inability to bear witness to his subject “in full,” so to speak. This is further confirmed in the line, Young girl turned out to be two times twice the woman that I thought she was; the subject of desire, once possessed—in full view—becomes anamorphic and the suitor must see her re-doubled in his reality. The gap between the Symbolic and the Real is revealed in the line, if she ain’t the best in the world/ she’s as good as the goodest one. The fundamental fantasy of the experience is confirmed, and almost unconsciously, Withers concludes, “I feel real good,” with an extraordinary emphasis on the “Real.”

Despite the barred reality present in the tune, still, one of the best songs to be playing should you find yourself naked — alone with your fantasies, or otherwise.

 

 

 

Come On Baby” — Natural Four

 

Sound: Falsetto fondling
Impulse
: Epicurean
Praxis
: Sincerity with a touch of sax
Price
: Worth it’s weight in gold

The recurring supplication throughout this song, come on — come on, however loaded with double entendre, begs, on one hand, for consummation, and yet, on the other hand, looks to Lacan for a guarantee of the “experience’s existence”: Baby this love I feel/ I wonder if it’s for real. Here, the suitor wills his conquest in words, and, likely, into a reality. That is, the pleading for the will to be Real. The I’m so lonely for you baby confession has obvious Freudian connotations, and after the first climax” of the song there is a retreat to cliché (confession interposed over a saxophone solo), a few bars reprieve from the Real intent of the song, before the begging begins again — this time with more oomph. If we are, as Freud claims, fixated with maternal love, then the crying pleas, the falsetto (from the Latin “false,” a condition most common in pubescent boys), the unrequitedness, certainly lends credence to that particular worldview.

Don’t let this stop you, however, from using this song to woo someone other than your mother. It’s a lot to deal with, what with the umbilical cord and the nipple and all…

 

 

 

Back Door Man” — Howlin’ Wolf

Sound: Low end
Impulse
: As old as the ages
Praxis
: Backwards (*wink*)
Price
: Initially, tight-fisted, much looser later

This song’s for all you naughty types, as it contains the taboo trifecta: cheating, underage girls, and anal sex [which reminds me of a joke: Q: What do spinach and buttfucking have in common? A: If it’s forced on you as a child you won’t enjoy it as an adult]. The obvious double entendre aside, Howlin’ Wolf really delivers with this Willie Dixon classic. And let’s be clear, fuck you square in the eye if you would rather hear Jim Morrison sing this. There’s a certain je ne sais quoi that Wolf embodies when he confesses, I eats mo’ chicken/ any man seen. No doubt Jim Morrison ate some chicken in his day, but we can be sure The Wolf ate much, much mo’.

Blues woman of note, Sara Martin, said of this song, “every sensible woman got a back-door man,” which implicitly confirms what we privately understand, though we deny it explicitly in public.

The supporting characters in this story are interesting cases: the nurse: professional care provider to the infirm; the wife of the judge: partner to impartiality; and the cop’s wife: consort of the constable — all these women overexert their role in favor of this “gut shot dog,” as he’s viewed by their leading men. Though I lack any clinical case studies to back this, I would venture to guess the world has been supported “from behind” in this way since we were hunched primates. Gives new meaning to “Cave Man,” if you know what I mean?

 

 

 

 

Game is My Middle Name” — Betty Davis

Sound: Dominatrix-informed deep funk
Impulse
: Mess up my mind
Praxis
: Do me in
Price
: If you have to ask…

As a counterbalance to Howlin’ Wolf’s back door creep, Betty Davis comes out “on top,” “full frontal,” completely willing to “take” whatever can be dished out. And one gets the impression that she can take quite a bit, yaddamean? The admission, whatever you want/ that’s what I’ll be, has heavy chimerical signifiers. The kind that suggest she’s not unfamiliar with a request such as, “set me on fire and mash my nuts with your hooves while asphyxiating me with your serpent’s tail.” And Betty handles it: whatever you wanna play/ I said, I’ll play it witcha. I mean, what kind of “stable” woman asks you — no, begs you to, just mess up my mind.

Hearing the song in this light it’s not hard for one to envision a Blyian men’s group huddled around a fire somewhere in the wilds of Minnesota backcountry—having paid a small fortune for their “portable talisman” and “archetypal shaman’s kaftan”—and just as things are getting really myopoetic and the men can almost “touch” Iron John himself, footsteps from the distance grow louder… Out of the worst fairy tale of their New Warrior Training imaginations, the men are greeted by a Betty Davis-like sphinx with patricidal fangs and an unquenchable concupiscence:

 

Go on and open up your bag of tricks
Anything you got to give, I’ll take it

 

Listen to how she’s screaming at the end. I mean, just sit back and absorb how profoundly unhinged she sounds through the shrieking. Granted, she’s talking about “playing,” but I suggest coming up with a “safe word” before players advance to this level of the game. If Miles Davis couldn’t handle it, I ask, what makes you think you can (Yea hooo!, yea hooo! — yea hooo!)? “Come on, now.”

Again, no data to support this claim, but I bet when Betty Davis passes, should an autopsy be performed, they will find remnants of several suitable swains in her stool.

 

 

 

 

You Can Leave Your Hat On” — Etta James

Sound: Role-play R&B
Impulse
: To know what love is
Praxis
: With the lights on
Price
: Come on, just do it

Similar to the sadomasochistic spirit of “Game is My Middle Name,” Etta brings a better nine-to-five balance to the boudoir. While this is customarily a “behind closed doors” practice, this variety will likely see more travelers as it has an everyday flavor— tempting enough to draw in those lubricious-leaning types, but familiar enough to seem just-this-side-of-illegal. This jam is decidedly a lights on affair. What Etta receives from her man standing on a chair, “arms in the air,” shaking, is a little outside my wheelhouse, but if it gives her “reason to live,” who the fuck am I to argue?

When she comes on with the repetitions of “they don’t know what love is,” and the jousissanceinduced cries that complete them, there begins the slow fade. A song structure of Gräfenbergian device, as it “hits” the “spot.” Feel me?

 

 

 

Never Felt Like This Before” — Charlie Smalls

Sound: SSSW (sincere singer-songwriter)
Impulse
: Positive vibes
Praxis
: Serenade where possible
Price
: Ask Cassavetes

Off the soundtrack to the Cassavetes film Faces, a wholehearted song, caught unawares, amidst the véritély focused scenes full of drunkards, cheats and disappointed prostitutes. Faces is weighty with the conflated muse of newfound freedom, as the recently divorced “clumsy fuck” their way through—or, more precisely, out of—their unfulfilled lives. The realism of the film finds a strange bedfellow in Charlie Smalls, with his short, unassuming heartfelt proposal to spend a quiet life together.

Charlie Smalls is remembered without much aid from popular media (outside of this particular song and his work on the Broadway show The Whiz), which seems unfortunate given the gentle candor of “Never Felt Like This Before.” There are those who “commission their own immortality” — a quote attributed to marchesa Casati —and then there are the rest of us. Semiotically speaking, it’s often the case, continuing to use Casati as an example, that the signifier (Casati all dolled up) has a relationship to the signified (dandy splendor) through this commissioned immortality that is not shared in the same way with those of us (“slobs,” let’s call us) who also interpret the signs. For the Casati caste, and to employ a Barthesian Fashion System process, “a little braid gives elegance,” while for us slobs, “a little braid” makes you look like a “stuck-up” “gorgon.”

The resistance, however purposeful or not, to immortalizing oneself by way of a medium that increases public exposure, is a sign many of us slobs use to signify our own brand of elitism. For example: “This song is an obscure track off a rare indie film soundtrack.” While the level of percolation into popular awareness is different, the representation of status is quite the same. In other words, being a snob works with or without an audience.

The idea of a cinéma vérité—watching an actor play a “real” experience—is ripe with semiotic implications. Ask yourself if your participation in such a cinema, as an interpretant, decoding the signs, would be more or less “real” in a Cassavetes film than in, say, a Ridley Scott film? We value the “truth” of a Gena Rowlands-played-prostitute (humble, obscure) differently than the “truth” of an Angelina Jolie-played-prostitute (glamorous, famous). The meaning, the representation of signifier and signified, suffers more divergence in the case of Jolie, thereby diluting the authenticity of her character. She’s less “real” as a prostitute, as it were.

“Never Felt Like This Before” is a song, just like Katy Perry’s “Firework,” or any other song. The place the song occupies in culture—it’s obscurity or prevalence—has a diverging factor on how we interpret the sign, but what we respond to, ultimately, is the belief in the artist’s ability to transcend the static, and reach the ecstatic. How each artist approaches that ecstasy is different, and while some feign and some force, the listener has a keen perception, as interpretant, with a built-in bullshit detector that can seek out the truly transcendental in any performance.

So while some respond to Charlie Smalls, acknowledging his place among the shadows, as an obscure singer who appeared on a lesser-known soundtrack, what’s “Real” about that response is Smalls’ ability to transcend the rigidities of recorded media and bring ecstatic “truth” to life in song.

File under: Musique vérité!

 

 

 

You Can Have Him (I Don’t Want Him)” — Nina Simone

Sound: Piano paramountcy
Impulse
: Romantic devotion
Praxis
: Post-coital nostalgia
Price
: One’s life

Speaking of transcending the terrestrial and harnessing the ecstasy of creative infinity, Nina Simone’s performance here is the pinnacle of such an endeavor, making it the best kind of love song. Simone makes a unique experience of the mundane (“mend his underwear and darn his socks”) through an extraordinary amalgam of deliberation and inventive freedom. Musically, Simone unpremeditatedly spans between arabesques engulfing the entirety of the keyboard and buoyant whispers of notes that only hint at the melody, leaving her nearly acapella at times. The determination and contagious spirit Simone winds herself up in while singing is Stendhalian, transcendently pure, and that effect washes over the listener in a very capital R “Real” sense.

The obvious gestalt of the song—that she does want him—is betrayed in the title’s parenthetic admission (that she doesn’t want him), which, in a Lacanian view, could be construed as a “master signifier.” That is, the one thing that the subject most identifies with, and which, accordingly, has a key role in the way she gives meaning to everything. Of course, the problem with a “master signifier” is that it is also an “empty signifier,” a transferential supposition, or a blind faith in that which doesn’t really exist.  Here, the empty signifier works like the experience of Stendhal Syndrome (an assault of aesthetics). There are “real” physical effects but the sufferer can’t clearly identify a cause. “It’s just so beautiful.” Overwhelmed with her experience.

The paradox of Simone’s performance is multi-layered. First, at once she’s denying what she wants (“I don’t want him”) while confessing a contradictory truth through the signs of the song (she really wants him).  Second, there’s likely no real Object. That is to say, even if there exists a real man, the love described in the song is virtually unattainable. A love of this nature would be so overwhelming it would likely leave Nina in a Standhalian coma. The love is a sign, signifying an idea of what love could be. Finally, Simone’s performance, a live story telling, is a re-redoubling of events: Art (the song) imitates life (the love), which is then re-imitated (the performance). The song is a simulacrum of something that was never hers to begin with (Irving Berlin wrote the song).

In pure essence of Baudrillard’s simulacrum theory, Nina Simone’s performance doesn’t conceal a truth—it’s the truth which conceals that there is no truth. The performance, then, is Real. The “how deep the rabbit-hole goes” paradox of this proposition is the very thing we exalt in our faith in gods that don’t exist. For a mortal to be allowed to straddle such territories she must be damaged and difficult, like Nina Simone. We know, absolutely, that what she’s telling us is not real, but through her simulation, and the signs she conjures, we incant a truth that allows us to love, completely and freely. And that love is real.

It’s a pure faith in this complete and free love that so overwhelms Nina Simone herself in this performance. I wasn’t at Town Hall when this song was recorded, but I like to think that for the nearly six minutes that she was singing, Nina fell far, far down the rabbit-hole into a totally pure, transcendent ecstasy, and it wasn’t until the end, jarred out of her Stendhal Syndrome by the roaring applause, that she screamed back in feverish resuscitation at the audience.

Listen for yourself and hear how surprised she sounds, as if she forgot she was on stage.

 

 

 

Just Me and You” — Jane Birkin

Sound: Lolita lullaby
Impulse
: Retrieval
Praxis
: Temporary
Price
: Not worth it

 

The romantic impulse of retrieving a lost love in this song comes from the same place as Nina Simone’s “You Can Have Him,” though, here, with Jane Birkin, the longevity of this prospect seems slim. While the passion is present, and a genuine desire to revive the love once known is what Jane is asking for, there are some troubling symptoms afloat.

First, Jane starts out on a course of second chances with a focus on the “jealousy and pain” that likely ended the romance the first time. Her insistence for isolation—“it would be just me and you, fuck the rest of the world”—is an unconscious admission of her inability to integrate this ideal relationship into the rest of her worldview. Further, he desire to return to a former version of herself, “if I could be twenty-one again,” when “everything was fragile,” is a defense mechanism, classic Freudian regression.

It’s clear here that Jane’s continued nescience of her desire is not nescience of what she demands, but nescience of whence she desires.

I don’t need to tell you that Jane Birkin is dumb hot; she oozes “fuck me.” Her sex appeal has Stendhalian effects on the world. So whoever she’s addressing here was likely unable to resist. And who can blame him? Carnal satisfaction aside, you know this isn’t going to last, so, enjoy the ride, and… take pictures!

 

 

 

Maybe Liquor, Maybe Blood” — Judith and Holofernes

Sound: Fateful fado
Impulse
: Unholy
Praxis
: Predestined
Price
: Going to hell is free

 

Suppose you’re in a bad place. You’ve been there a while. And you’re not alone. Suppose you’ve fucked up a few times already. Like we learned from Jane Birkin’s misguided impulse in “Just Me and You,” being ignorant of whence you desire can lead to dark places. Those dark places are where we find the couple in this song. A “flood” of “lust,” “ill-will,” “vendetta,” “regret,” a “promise,” a “curse,” and “whiskey” on both party’s “lips.” These conditions are ripe for bad choices. Unable to sustain what little composure is left, the singer acknowledges the instability and forecasts, “I call out at night/ warning of a flood.” Unable to differentiate the symbolic from real, with a largely unconscious, dynamically repressed, Oedipal phantom overcoming him, he unleashes, “in the mood to fight or maybe in the mood to fuck.” At this point the actual act of maternal sex or patricidal rage is irrelevant, the singer is fully eclipsed by his neurosis.

Keep your distance.

 

 

 

S.D.B.J.” — Jesus Lizard

Sound: Projectile vociferating
Impulse
: Prurient
Praxis
: Preferably blacked out
Price
: Too much

 

This tableau vivant cannot fail to bring to mind a certain kind of “theater of cruelty” most have witnessed either in college or in some art house film whose images are not easily erased from the mind’s eye. This song, a life-threatening mixture of alcohol and sex, removes all pleasure from either drinking or fucking. A subject such as this is often viewed with curiosity-driven disgust. Much in the same way we are shocked at children who repeatedly cut themselves or smash their faces into walls yet can’t not watch as we’re baffled by the behavior, we find ourselves watching this song unfold. Perhaps the satisfaction — of both the self-inflicting children and the singer of this song — does not pertain so much to the way the feeling of intense bodily pain brings the subject back to reality but, rather, to the fact that inflicting this pain on oneself is a form of making a mark, thereby shifting the anamorphic blind spot, allowing a clearer view of the self. The “zero” of the subject’s existential confusion, of their blurred virtual existence, is transformed into the “one” of a signifying inscription. By engaging in these baffling activities they’ve made themselves Real.

 

Some doors are better left closed.

Lyin’ around
Like some goddamn walrus
You make me
Sick to my stomach

The smell is here
Hangs like a killer
Hangs like a deadman
And I can’t take another day

 

SICK!
DRUNK!
BLOW!

JOB!

Some kind of bra-wearin’-hairy-fish
Droolin’ into your dish

 

 

 

 

Soul On Fire” — Lavern Baker

 

Sound: Vatic ballad
Impulse
: Ego-Incinerating effigy
Praxis
: A game I’ve always won
Price
: Eternal

 

What better ending than self-immolation?

 

Descartes famously wrote, “I think, therefore I am” — the very act of doubting one’s own existence serves as proof of the reality of one’s own existence. In his seminar on the logic of fantasy, Lacan revised Descartes’ posit thusly, “I am not where I think.” A similar revision happens with Lavern Baker here, when she says, “goodbye to everyone but you, my love.” With this seemingly simple admission of true love, Lavern actually reveals a fully conscious perception of self, or what Kant called Transcendental Apperception.

Lavern resolves herself in parallax, with the ability to see her life through all perceptions simultaneously. Her experiences, her iterations of self, have all been a succession of content combined in her consciousness, though she’s “still had to walk this road all by myself,” the unity of experience is a unity of the self, or, as Lavern says, “I put them all on the shelf.”

In psychoanalysis, the investigation of the gap between the Symbolic the Real is referred to as “Symbolic Castration,” and here we see Lavern resolving her “barred subject,” when she sings, “I found my true love, with you forever, and my life has just begun.”

It’s no coincidence that this song (given it’s weighty implications: Oedipus complex, symbolic castration, burning oneself in effigy to unite the Symbolic and the Real) was used in the film Angel Heart to articulate the symbolism in the sex scene with Harry Angel and Epiphany Proudfoot. Under the auspices of finding Johnny Favorite, a “lost man,” Angel interviews Proudfoot, and learns Favorite had a relationship with Proudfoot’s mother. It’s not until the sex scene that the façade of Johnny Favorite starts to crumble. As “Soul On Fire” plays, and Harry Angel and Epiphany Proudfoot fuck, blood rains from the ceiling and scenes of a barbaric orgy quickly flash on screen. It’s not until the end of the film, when Harry Angel returns to this bedroom and finds Proudfoot dead, that he is slowly awoken by the revelation that he is Johnny Favorite, and Proudfoot was his daughter.

Hegel said, “beyond the veil of phenomena, the consciousness finds only what it itself has put there.” And so Harry Angel fucked his own daughter and burned in hell. The symbolic “dis-barring” of the Transcendental Apperception, eliminating the dual relationship of self (shattering the mirror stage, as it were), self-immolation—setting one’s soul ablaze… all of these phenomena coalesce beautifully in “Soul On Fire.”

Imagine Lavern Baker, in parallactic duality, with the ability to see all the mirror images of herself — all perspectives simultaneously, singing, in child-like abandon:

 

 

For me
You’re the only one
Who makes me shiver
Makes me tingle

 

 

 

 

 

A Being is at Each Moment Itself and Yet Something Else

Posted by , September 29th, 2010
Category: Abstraction Tags:   RSS | Comments | Trackback from your site
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For this, the first salvo of “In The Key of Correlation,” where parallels, however wide, are drawn between two things (music and something else), it makes sense to unleash what my man Bumpy Knuckles would refer to as a full clip / of unstoppable shit. Here goes:

 

 



Mao Tse-Tung’s On Contradiction = James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”

By way of introduction on his theory of the universality of contradition, Mao offers this Engelian postulate:

 

Life consists precisely and primarily in this — that a being is at each moment itself and yet something else. Life is therefore also a contradiction which is present in things and processes themselves, and which constantly originates and resolves itself; and as soon as the contradiction ceases, life, too, comes to an end, and death steps in.
— Friedrich Engles (Anti-Dühring, 1877)

Through this lens of constant contradiction we can look at Chairman Mao and James Brown, two erstwhile rulers, in an absurdist panorama, nosing out analogies not immediately apparent.

CORRELATIVES:


Stockpiling Sobriquets

  • The Chairmen of The People v. The Godfather of Soul
  • Savior of The People v. Soul Brother Number One
  • Never Setting Red Sun v. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business
  • “Long Live Chairman Mao for Ten Thousand Years” v. “I Feel Good”

 

OFF THE PIGS!

  • Mao was required reading for would-be members of the Black Panther Party.
  • “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” was anthemic for the Black Panthers.

 

 

Cult of Personality

  • Posters hung in homes all throughout China that read, “The happy life Chairman Mao gives us.”
  • Aggrandizing fanfare in introducing James Brown (notably memorialized on Live at the Apollo).
  • Mao’s face is plastered on currency, posters and badges, he’s venerated in musical scores, plays and dances.
  • James Brown’s famous “cape routine.”

 

Beating Them At Their Own Game Is Still Losing

In their own way, both men changed the game, so to speak.

  • Mao revolutionized China, transforming the country from an agrarian society into an industrial world power.
  • James Brown revolutionized music by thrusting funk into the mainstream, creating an empire as a musician, songwriter, bandleader, A&R man, entertainer, activist and label and radio station owner.

 

“Doin’ It To Death” b/w Totalitarian Formula

In their rise to fame and power, both men adopted a mode of “reactionary ruling” indicative of the system that their followers accredit them with bucking.

  • Mao’s People’s Republic was communist by name, though negated, by the means employed, what Marx called, the “emancipation of the individual,” which is the very aim of communism.
  • The Godfather’s brand of “I Feel Good” funk involved hefty fines for his band members who were tardy, played sour notes, dressed shabby, or forgot to shine their shoes.
  • Mao’s “proletarian reform” included systematic imprisonment, execution, famine, forced suicide, the destruction of traditional culture, repression of religion, and the persecution of critical opponents.
  • When “Cold Sweat” broke out as a #1 hit it sparked a catalytic conversion in Brown’s oeuvre, framing the formula for many, many songs to come: rhythmic declamation, horn stabs, call-and-response, breakbeats, repetitive riffs, building one instrument atop the next by incanting the players, e.g., “Let’s give the drummer some? Wanna give the drummer some? Can the drummer some? Can the drummer some? Can the drummer some? Can the drummer some? YOU GOT IT DRUMMER! … Uhhh! … Help him out Bernard…”

 

 

The Devil is in the Details

  • In On Contradiction, Mao alludes to class struggle but contends that while contradictions will always exist, those contradictions can be made harmless. Just a short twenty years later Mao would boast of killing a hundred times more people than the first emperor of China. How do you say, Uh, with your bad self?
  • “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” is one of the most popular Black Power anthems. The song is hopeful in classic JB-styled simplicity. James exclaims, “Say it loud!” and a chorus of children shout back, “I’m black and I’m proud.” It quickly became a #1 hit, and embodied an age of self-reliance, self-determination and mass mobilization. In actuality, the chorus of kids used to sing “I’m black and I’m proud” were mostly Asian and white suburbanites.

 

 

Notable Quotables — Four Duets

There is always a gradual growth from the knowledge of individual and particular things to the knowledge of things in general.
—Mao Tse-Tung

Some people say we’ve got a lot of malice
Some say it’s a lot of nerve
I say we won’t quit moving
Til we get what we deserve

—James Brown

°°°°°


The matter does not end with their dependence on each other for their existence; what is more important is their transformation into each other. That is to say, in given conditions, each of the contradictory aspects with a thing transforms itself into its opposite, changes its position to that of its opposite…. By means of revolution the proletariat, at one time the ruled, is transformed into the ruler, while the bourgeoisie, the erstwhile ruler, is transformed into the ruled.
—Mao Tse-Tung

I’ve worked on jobs with my feet and my hands
But all the work I did was for the other man
And now we demand a chance
To do things for ourselves
We’re tired of beating our head against the wall
And working for someone else

—James Brown


°°°°°

 

The contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is resolved by the method of socialist revolution.
—Mao Tse-Tung

Now, we’re people
We’re just like the birds and the bees
We’d rather die on our feet,
Than keep living on our knees

—James Brown

°°°°°


It is of great importance to study these problems. Lenin meant just this when he said that the most essential thing in Marxism, the living soul of Marxism, is the concrete analysis of concrete conditions.
—Mao Tse-Tung

Oooh weee
You’re killin’ me

—James Brown

 

°°°°°

 

While there are correlations, the difference between “Get on the Good Foot” and the Great Leap Forward are clear. James Brown didn’t kill millions, and Mao couldn’t dance the motherfucking mashed potato. What’s the point, then? As a revolutionary once said, “if you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao / You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow.” Put another way, “we all want to change the world,” yet instead of changing the world we relinquish that want to idols who represent change. Put yet another way, the most urgent expression of changing the world should be the destruction of idols, especially when they claim to represent changing the world.

Karl Marx said his view of a socialist society is that which “permits the actualization of man’s essence by overcoming his alienation. It is nothing less than creating the conditions for the truly free, rational, active and independent man; it is the fulfillment of the prophetic aim: the destruction of the idols.”

See also: When I woke from my dreaming my idols were all clay / All portion of love had all flown away.