Real Existing Pop Dystopia

13 Apr

Continuing dialogue in a case like this might be of limited productivity – there’s much talking at cross purposes, for many different reasons, but I’m still very pleased that Trevor Link took the time to write a considered response to my broadside (all one really can ask) as a means of clarifying his own position, even if most of my points were either not understood or flatly rejected. I’ll take the opportunity to also write a second rejoinder in which I can strive for further clarity, even if most of his points I will not understand or flatly reject.

 

While I believe there are some irreducible differences in opinion here, much of the misunderstanding or disagreement may stem from very different definitions and usage of language. This was probably inevitable when the word most central to the discussion was “pop,” a word that has been stretched near the point of illegibility. One of my the two main motivations for writing “We Need To Talk About (The Intrinsic Fascism Of) Manufactured Pop Music” was to try to work out exactly what Link meant when he used the word “pop” in talking about music. His pop utopia doesn’t include the music that those fascistic rockists might enjoy (how odd is that he says “How many sophisticated consumers of music wouldn’t be caught dead listening to, say, the Beach Boys” when, have you ever heard of Pet Sounds, one of history’s most critically fawned-over albums? Or does “The Beach Boys” here mean “Surfin’ USA” and “Kokomo?”), and the “sophisticated” music “which strives for the pleasureableness of pop music but which intellectualizes this pleasure and subdues it.” This could not be the world of pop I recognized, that gloriously multivarious constellation of all those musics that come from outside the academy and the court and don’t aim at abstract extremes (Serialism, Noise, and certain other explicitly experimental genres – not that they don’t have their merits, but they could quite reasonably denied the label ‘pop’) that I derived great pleasure from. The pop that Link discusses must be something different, something narrower, and there must be some attributes that delineate it from the greater body. From what I could tell, what set the ‘pop’ he was discussing apart was that it did not have any ‘limits’ – that it took its focus on ‘pleasure’ to extremes. This was something that seemed familiar – this described as a category so many of the unpleasant songs that I had been made to listen to by radio stations, bars, clubs, and those friends and acquaintances who will justify the worth of any song with the phrase “it’s so catchy!” or “I miss the 90’s!” ‘Manufactured Pop,’ then, to describe this subset of pop music which passes the test of being ‘unintellectual’ enough to be authentic and truly pleasurable. (And may I note how bemusingly surreal it is be called over-intellectual for my response to a 7600+ word essay on pop utopianism that cites Deleuze. DELEUZE.)

 To mirror the numbered list of replies in “’Pop Utopianism’ And Its Discontents” at times perhaps being indulgently glib, before making a final attempt at clarity:

1. Link writes:

If I do focus on chart-based pop, it’s precisely because there is a tacit assumption in, at the very least, North American culture that it’s okay to dismiss and ignore this type of music. Until that changes, I’ll continue to champion it, though wholly out of love and never out of mere contrarianism.

First of all, this ignores a distinct shift in “alternative” and “mainstream” music criticism in the last decade towards an embrace of more and more chart-based pop music in the last decade – simply find search for Pitchfork Media’s reviews from the 90’s, then compared those to their list of Top 20 albums of 2000 and then to their track and album best-ofs for the last few years. If you’re feeling a bit masochistic, you could even subject yourself to the writing of Sasha-Frere Jones. The image of the snooty music journalist dismissive of “pop” is outdated, at least among the under-60 crowd. That’s only focusing on critics and those who actively seek out their advice – on a broader view, it’s simply absurd to say about “chart-based pop” that in North American culture “it’s okay to dismiss and ignore this type of music” – exactly the music that more than any other (except perhaps a few classical pieces which have been given particular social functions) is impossible to dismiss and ignore because there are commercial and social structures which deliver it to as many physical and social spaces as possible.
2. I failed to engage with the ideas about the politics and taste of music “i.e. how rock can be linked to authoritarian ideologies” because it was easily the weakest part of “Pop Utopianism.” Rock music (entirely ignoring Rock’s root identity as, and frequent return to, hip-swiveling R&B) is, via Dyer, assigned “thrusting and phallic qualities…which in turn suggests a verticality, an “up-and-down”-ness, that is very potentially authoritarian and hierarchical at root (hence the elitism so prevalent in rock music cultures.)” This is garbage pseudo-Freudianism which doesn’t hold up to any interrogation. (Is the up-and-down-ness in the bodily movement that accompanies some rock subgenres and subcultures? Are mosh pits authoritarian? Are the screaming teenage girls at a Beatles concert jumping up and down all trying to assert their dominance over the lowly subordinate screaming teenage girls who are merely clapping and swaying? Are they subliminally embodying the hierarchical patriarchy that flows through that Liverpudlian White Male Rock & Roll? Is the up-and-down-ness sexual? Is all male sexuality authoritarian? Is the ghost of Andrea Dworkin haunting this space? All of this would hardly, in any case, seem consistent with the pleasure-above-all mentality of “Pop Utopianism.”)

More importantly, this attempt to brand rock snobs authoritarian drastically misconstrues the nature of authoritarianism, particular its fascist strands. No fascist movement I’m familiar with has ever been about cultural distinction, sophistication, or intellectual purity. They instead focus on the right and necessity for certain groups to have power over others due to tradition, strength or notions of purity – inherent qualities which put them at the apex of a natural order. The qualities of those chosen groups cannot be reasoned with or denied, just as we are asked not to reason with or deny “pure” pop music and the pure, uncomplicated feelings they engender. My reference to Führerprinzip was in no way facetious; the Führer is supposed to function as the conduit and amplifier for the collective desires of the volk (excluding those nasty degenerate intellectuals who spoil all the fun) in a similar way the pop mega-star functions as the conduit for the collective desires of the modern consumer-citizen. Fortunately, the pop mega-star does not have the same evil role, but the logic is analogous.

It’s a bit hard for me to understand how one criticizes the hierarchical nature of rockism and then turns around to credit the church with a function of “actualizing social desire” similar to the dance floor (is David Guetta Cardinal Ratzinger?) but that is a small point that doesn’t go much of anywhere, except to Lady Gaga, who, again, is a chart-pop figure we have been told to take very seriously by many critical voices in quite a number of publications, and again, I find largely but not entirely unlistenable, due in large part due to awful, overloaded production.

The accusation of ethnocentricity is quite easy to laugh off: I’m accused of displaying “no real knowledge of what K-pop means in the Korean context or what makes K-pop different from other forms of pop music.” But “Pop Utopianism” / We Need To Talk About K-Pop is centered around the idea that K-Pop exemplifies the positive qualities found in manufactured pop universally, so I’m not even sure what I’m being accused of. Yes, K-Pop as a phenomenon is portrayed by Link as superior – especially in its sincerity – to American strains of global manufactured pop, and I would agree that the pop mixtures being made now in Korea are distinctive. If it’s agreed that both strains are, fundamentally, Link’s Pop, what I label manufactured pop, then it’s irrelevant to the argument what exactly the smaller differences are. In regards to Link’s “formative academic period in life…spent researching indigenous cultures and religions” which makes my supposed “suspicio[n] of anything that overturns individuality” he finds in my writing to be “somewhat offensive,” I find the implied flattening of difference between “indigenous” socialities and the socialities of industrialized, specialized, mass-media connected cultures to be deeply puzzling coming from what is portrayed as an anthropological perspective.

3. Link dismisses my “reductive,” “simplistic,” ‘endlessly repeated’ use of the phrase “manufactured pop music,” which, again, is a term summoned to deal with the narrowing, reductive definition of pop used in the Manifesto. One of his reasons for casting doubt on the phrase is its power to invoke critiques of the classical Hollywood system. I actually think this is a productive analogy: both genres produced many works of worth and diverse qualities, and many works of questionable worth, but the system in which all these works are produced and distributing has problematic, ideologically destructive and dystopic elements; there’s a reason why Godard could love Hollywood films and so hate Hollywood.

Link casts the assembly-line metaphor as denigrating the care, attention and artistry put into the actual creation of pop tracks:

Teddy Park can be a hit-maker for YG Entertainment, but he’s also purely an artist as well, no different from any other artist throughout history. (And if you ask me, he’s a really good one too.) The author’s description of “a new hit pumped out of YG Entertainment” strikes me as crude, a degrading way to describe what is a highly creative process.

But each pop song can be both – the specific creation of an individual and the interchangeable new hit pumped out of YG Entertainment – there’s nothing contradictory about this. Stargate and Ester Dean can care greatly about the music they make, but ultimately most of their material will also be input for a system seeking revenue and market share.

The maximization of hookiness and forcefulness in manufactured pop music is also responsible for how tiringly formulaic it can be if the system calls for a musical product that can reliably command the widest possible spectrum of listeners, then the music will tend to use a narrow set of elements and structures, in a more limiting way than the sense in which any music of an identifiable genre must use some common and therefore predictable elements. That Nickelback is both singularly horrid and hugely successful is tied to the fact that you can play two of their hits over each other. Certainly artists can innovate at the same time they aim for the common denominator, and there are plenty of good to great songs that can be found within the system of manufactured pop. (I invoked Motown in a clumsy attempt to preempt questions of well-pop-has-always-been-manufactured-what’s-different now? I certainly have no desire to valorize any period as a golden age of pop music – plenty of the material released on Motown and contemporary labels is rather forgettable, no less than in any era, but a particular production aesthetic renders that forgettable material less actively unpleasant as bad or mediocre pop music from other pop eras. While I do delight in connecting with a well-written pop song, my listening is broadly more driven by considerations of timbre and overall sonic texture. There’s no reason to deny that production sounds change withtechnology and fashion, and that along with new creative opportunities come misuses and new chances to bludgeon listeners.)

4. Link contests that as my rebuttal gets closer to speaking directly about K-Pop, it gets worse. I “express surprise” (actually, I don’t, but thanks anyway) that I actually find “a couple” of K-Pop songs I can enjoy (in the We Have To Talk About K-Pop mix, I have heard K-Pop before and they number more than two) and my implication that “K-pop as a whole is largely unlistenable” is “rather offensive…mostly because it assumes that there might be some objective grounds on which he can write off and condescend to an entire nation’s pop industry.” For Link,

personally, I could never imagine making such statements about any country’s musical output, even if I had little interest in it, because what I value as a music listener is the idea that there’s good music everywhere.

On the other hand, its easy for me to imagine making such statements about any country’s musical output because I would make that statement about ALL countries with pop music, and I would do so precisely because I deeply believe in the idea that’s there good music everywhere. That belief has lead me to spend enough time searching for good music from anywhere and everywhere that I have encountered very large volumes of bad or painfully mediocre music from all around the globe. For each sublime tune or intoxicating eddy in the global pop flows, there are many blandly derivative copies of commercial forms and schmaltzy traditional performances. Music is amazing and there’s a terrible lot of it that’s not very good. Bad music, however, can not only vary in how good or bad – how pleasurable or unpleasant – it is judged to be from the perspectives of different listeners, it can take on new qualities in different times and different places and when it is taken as inspiration or reappropriated for sampling – small moments in otherwise unremarkable bodies of work can become the nutrient matter for rich, lively new forms.

The one statement to which I actually do take offense comes when Link says he “hate hate hate[s]” the “facile comparison of pop music to junk food” because it’s “silly and ungrounded, and again, it betrays another kind of class prejudice.” Here, the accusation of class prejudice actually bristles: if you (this is the generic ‘you’) can’t accept that any serious opposition to the system of industrial agriculture, which has fast food as its quintessential distributional form, includes a fundamental insistence to the right of all people to the healthy food denied them by the socio-economic system of which agro-industrial production is a central part, and instead fall back on lazy stereotypes of privileged Whole Foods Liberals (and, by the way: fuck them) then you’re a slimy reactionary who has no right to speak of utopias.

The analogy holds. Preparing sweet or fatty foods is not evil, just as making saccharine pop songs is not evil. Some of the end results may be transcendently delicious, many will be basically satisfying in expected ways, some will be unpleasantly overwhelming in their over-use of certain ingredients, and this reaction will be determined to a great degree by the predilections and sensitivities of the recipient. None of the results is unethical. However, the system of fast food and industrial agriculture that commoditizes and distributes sweet or fatty foods on a massive scale is harmful in very real ways that are much more than a matter of aesthetic snobbishness.

This is the second and much more important reason I had for writing “We Need To Talk About (The Intrinsic Fascism Of) Manufactured Pop Music” – the conception of “Pop Utopianism” needs to be problematized and interrogated because it ignores the ways in which manufactured pop is embedded in the real existing dystopia of the contemporary global economic system, which functions by presenting us with a continual supply of commodities which provide certain narrow, easy forms of pleasure, and it asks us to not think further about or reassess this initial pleasurable reaction, instead continuing to acquire similar commodities (perhaps with some added superficial novelty) which will elicit similar pleasurable reactions. This is precisely what the Manifesto asks of us – don’t over-intellectualize, simply be happy with a product so wonderfully tuned to illicit pleasurable reactions in your brain-body interface.

Pleasure is vital to any true utopian vision, because it is vital to human experience and any true utopian vision has a deep consideration for human wellness and flourishing (but it can’t just be one person being “really really happy,” unless you’re arguing from a solipsistic or peculiarly monist perspective.) Yet we can see that the simple vision of unreflective pleasure presented in “Pop Utopianism” cannot serve as a utopian model because it is already the model of the still far more dystopian economic model that rules the world around us. The effects of production, distribution and consumption for manufactured pop music are innocuous compared to most of the tangible commodities we consume – some artists are taken advantage of, some music industry executives get too much money they don’t deserve, some snobs like me have to repeatedly hear a set of songs they don’t like (one can also consider the socially corrosive settings that manufactured pop is often experienced in – the “dismal clubs of forced-fun music” that Gavin Mueller dubbed “utopias of date rape;” I wouldn’t emphasize this aspect as much, first due to the troubles of proving causation, and second because the manufactured pop form Link is specifically celebrating may not have the same correlation.) The point is that the uncritical relationship to superficial pleasures is much the same. Moving beyond our real existing dystopia will involve reflecting deeply on the pleasures presented to us, their richness or shallowness, their quickness or longevity, and their wider implications. As rhetorically or personally abrasive as I may have been at times in this essay, I am sorry that Trevor Link experiences clinical depression, and (I think) I can understand how that could make intense pleasures all that more important, but it must be recognized that pleasures can be qualitatively different from each other, that they can be deep or fleeting, healing or destructive.

We inch closer to utopia by both celebrating and critiquing our pleasures; by constructing truly wild, diverse, changing, decentralized, heterodox ecologies of music, which will include ABBA, Juke, K-Pop, and all the “over-intellectualized” “half-pleasures” that “Pop Utopianism” maligns.

If we can imagine evolving beyond capitalism and the other dystopias we struggle with, we can imagine moving beyond pop music and non-pop music.

We can keep the music.

We Need To Talk About (The Intrinsic Fascism Of) Manufactured Pop Music

9 Apr

Eventually, copyright law will dictate that all songs include a Diplo co-production credit by default.

This piece derives from years of simmering misgivings about how some music critics have been writing about the mass-market, Top 40 pop music which, we are told, has experienced a renaissance in the last decade, what could be called, and will be here, “manufactured pop music.” It is more specifically a response to “Pop Utopianism: A Manifesto,” written by Trevor Link (@loosejoints) and posted on the Occupied Territories tumblr, where it accompanies an MP3 and video mixtape called “We Need To Talk About K-Pop.” I’ll try to provide a brief summary of what I think “Pop Utopianism” is about, but the following will still make more sense if you read that first; it should be said that is of some length. This work is shorter, but, mercifully, it contains no references to Freud, which should count in its favor.

“Pop Utopianism” is an impassioned explanation of why Link finds K-Pop enthralling, placed in the context of wider plea for what he refers to pop music. The four foundational points of Pop Utopianism are, in brief:

 (1): Pop music is at its most utopian when rooted in our experience of pleasure. This is because pleasure confronts us with an inescapable sensation of how we would like life to be like, a glimpse of utopia.

(2): Pleasure in itself is hardly controversial, but in order for this pleasure to be truly utopian or transformative, it must be ecstatic pleasure without imposed limits.

(3): Pop’s unrestrained sense of pleasure strongly aligns it with play, as well as fantasy.

(4): Perhaps more than most forms of music, pop music (including disco) is not only rooted in the body but is also embodied.

Link connects his argument to past debates about whether Disco was reactionary, Capitalist, inauthentic when compared to folk and rock music (this was preceded by debates about folk vs. rock, a “body music” in its time, to be sure) and to the concept of “rockism” in which music critics treat other genres as fundamentally unserious. The arguments, both borrowed and original, are convincing enough, however I don’t think they are convincing when used to make the arguments Link does about modern pop music. Debates about folk vs. pop (the distinction being entirely artificial, pop music simply being folk music written after the introduction of recording and mass media) rock vs. hip-hop and pop vs. the academy should be long buried by now. We all, or at least anyone remotely interested in discussions such as these, accept Pop in its many forms. Link, however, wishes to actually narrow what can be considered pop to the Top 40, its direct stylistic forebears and its transglobal cousins, such as K-Pop. “Sophisticated” music which “strives for the pleasureableness of pop music but which intellectualizes this pleasure and subdues it” is disqualified as providing only “safe, intellectually satisfying half-pleasures, “clever, yet ultimately tepid.” Link goes on to say that those who enjoy this “sophisticated” put themselves ‘above’ pop music “because it cannot serve their fascistic, anti-social, and narcissistic (not to mention non-pleasureable) aims.” Well, now that the F-word is out of the box, there’s no point in resisting it:

We need to talk about the intrinsic fascism of manufactured pop.

Now, I can’t stress enough that I’m not suggesting that Trevor Link is a fascist or that his passionate enjoyment of K-Pop is fascistic. It’s telling, though, how his manifesto and mixtape are sprinkled with fascistic language. We’ve already seen the denunciation of sophisticated intellectuals and their devitalizing intellecualization. In writing about K-Pop, the songs are described with words like ‘undeniable,’ the performers as ‘commanding,’ Link often asks in bewilderment how anyone could not like a particular song, and what might possibly be wrong with someone who doesn’t. Pop music defined in this manner is that music which speaks directly to a some pure, untainted and authentic human nature, presumed to be shared by the mass of society. Those who lack this nature or would turn against the spirit of purely pleasurable music are perverted intellectuals. This music is in turn performed by pop singers who “are constructs pulling together material from a kind of collective unconscious, the actualization of social desire,” which would also function as a concise description of the theory behind the Führerprinzip.

If the pop music Link is talking about encompasses certain pleasurable musics but not others (the ‘tepid’ ones) then we need to find a good way to distinguish what exactly the pop under discussion in the Pop Manifesto is; it will also serve as a good definition of ‘manufactured pop.’

I suggest that manufactured pop music is characterized by a central concern to maximize two attributes: ‘hookiness’ and forcefulness. Forcefulness commands the body to join in certain physical rituals; hookiness commands the mind to return again and again to certain sets of tunes. The myriad hooks in any particular manufactured pop track serve a second purpose of making it even more indistinct: not sticking with any single element for long enough to distinguish the song, the entire body of contemporary manufactured pop becomes an inseparable set of hooks and commands.

I label it “manufactured” not because it is made with computers or other machines It is manufactured because it is made in an assembly-line process to function as an interchangeable commercial commodity. The use of machines only determines its manufactured quality to the extent that technology is used a) to increase efficiency and b) to increase the power of command. Synthetic sounds can be given an overwhelming power; new production methods attempt to subdue the listener, keeping ahead of its audience as the public ear becomes accustomed to an ever wider range of sounds. Motown could be seen another assembly-line system for creating pop music, and should be seen as a historical predecessor of modern systems of pop music manufacture, of studio systems in both Korea and the US. An important difference for the listener is that Motown’s sound was finely-tuned decades before the loudness wars, so while the songs may have been created purely to illicit the most direct forms of pleasure, the forcefulness of the music was not overloaded, and it was not yet necessary to have four ‘hooks’ per song. This is a quantitative difference which I think becomes a qualitative difference: Motown and other pop-music factories of the past may have been making manufactured pop music, but it was different in kind from the music we are increasingly being asked by critics to openly embrace.

This recent contestation that we should all be listening to manufactured pop music because it efficiently delivers certain narrow forms of pleasure, that if we refuse there is something wrong with us – this is a distinctly fascist impulse. That is not to say that I believe that manufactured pop music creates fascists, or that Trevor Link is consciously or unconsciously acting as a fascist, or even that I have no interest in K-Pop or any song to be found on American charts. I find K-Pop fascinating enough as a specific instance of manufactured pop music that each time I discover a K-Pop song I can actually listen to, I’m filled with a particular delight. Any pop music that we discover anywhere can be included in our personal or social utopic visions and used along the path to them. If you like a song, that’s fine. If you like an entire genre, good for you. We can listen to pleasurable, worthwhile music from production centers in Motown or the Brill Building in decades past or a new hit pumped out of YG Entertainment last month. However, privileging a particular form of pleasurable popular music as the only legitimate form of Pop (Link executes a simple reversal of rockism by implying that the inauthenticity and artifice of pop music is actually what makes it authentic) denies listeners the choice of which qualities in music, in which combinations, are important to them: the hookiness and forcefulness of the music is instead held aloft as the supreme values for pop music, the songs with the most force and the strongest hooks are judged better than other songs in an imagined competitive arena (and performers can literally be judged in competitive arenas which are then broadcast on television.) This is an attempt to strangle the wonderful, messy heterodoxy that has emerged with the Internet. At the time that Richard Dyer wrote his “In Defence of Disco” (it’s the article that comes right after two defences of paedophilia in the summer 1979 edition of Gay Left) it would have made sense to simply appropriate the pop music that was widely available for purposes of pleasure, spontaneous community creation, identity play, and the like. There is no reason to accept this state of affairs today. We have as both listeners and producers of music an unmatched power to create a thriving ecology of pleasurable music on local and global scales.

So, there: I’m bothered by being told that I should be listening to more Top 40 pop, and that if I don’t enjoy it, I’m stuck up, over-intellectual, and just plain wrong. “Pop Utopianism: A Manifesto” and this piece and Link’s are both the results of immediate reactions: Link would never think to write such a lengthy exposition on K-pop if he did not find the direct experience of K-Pop to be exceedingly pleasurable, and I would find no need to label manufactured pop ‘intrinsically fascist’ if I didn’t find the experience of listening to much of it to be viscerally unpleasant. Again, if those K-Pop songs do bring Link pleasure, and that pleasure holds up to later scrutiny, as it seems to have done, then good for him, and plentiful thanks for creating an annotated mixtape that serves as a nice introduction to the genre for outsiders – a number of these songs I hadn’t heard before, and a few of them I can even tolerate or enjoy (if you’re curious, “Nu ABO,” which is toned down just enough to be listenable, and “Lucifer,” which sounds like it comes from an alternate universe.)

That being said, while the enjoyment of manufactured pop is defensible, I don’t think the idea that it can serves as a utopian model withstands scrutiny. The utopian model of manufactured pop is false because it is based on a ‘limitless pleasure’ which is only poorly simulated by maximizing and overloading a few narrow pathways of pleasure, just as the huge amounts of high-fructose corn syrup in a soda assaults our receptors of sweetness, and a fast-food hamburger latches on to our umami receptors while overloading our senses with a bevy of added chemicals. In both manufactured food and manufactured pop, we see a product designed to be a commodity which will impel its consumers to return again and again. This sort of utopianism based on the illusion of limitless pleasure fails because any inspiration to think of a better future is rerouted to a media that invites us to the false, shallow utopia it has constructed in the present day. The actual products that Coca-Cola and McDonald’s sell may do work on the body to prepare us, but it’s the advertisement that they and other corporations broadcast that really insist that these commodities function as a direct link to utopia. In K-Pop this link to images and in turn to the broader consumer society are very clear: K-Pop videos are even more overloaded than the songs that accompany them, and most of them are little more than a hyperactive succession of the alluring limitless number of colorful, shiny, and novel material objects that a commodity-producing world economy promises us; the experience of watching could only be replicated by candy-flipping in a haute shopping center.

Deflecting criticism of manufactured pop music by making dated claims that such critics are over-intellectual elitists who hate or misunderstand pleasure and the body is akin to branding a critic of fast food a health nut or giving the label of teetotaler to anyone who points out that methamphetamine is too powerful a stimulant. The idea that consumer goods, pop music among them, are appropriated by consumers in creative ways was an important one when it was introduced many decades ago, but since then we have seen that these activities have their limits. A commodity system cannot be defeated by the many small actions of consumers integrating products into their lives and personal narratives in ways unintended by producers. Capitalism is entirely capable of adapting to such.

Manufactured pop music cannot serve as a utopian model because it is already part and microcosm of the dystopian economic model of the present.

It may also fail as a model for utopia, but I’d like to briefly present another musical form that has existed for some time now but is only very recently receiving broad attention and increased critical appraisal, and which I think is intrinsically more transgressive.

Juke, even more than K-Pop, is centered around a dance culture. Unlike the dancing that one encounters in a K-Pop video or the dismal setting of a typical American club playing manufactured pop, where dancing is routinized, directly or indirectly choreographed, the “footwork” dance culture surrounding juke involves explosive, unbounded bodily self-expression (point number two in the manifesto) in a social setting. With its unconventional rhythms, abrasive textures, and counter-intuitive structures, it demands little but attention to the ways in which it subverts expectations. The lyrics of manufactured pop are generally agreed to be fairly meaningless (not a problem in itself) the words instead functioning as “vocalized beat” which add to the hookiness of each song. Juke, built upon unceasing repetition of words, phrases, or vocal noises, brings this pop logic to the fore, and plays with it in productive ways. Some Juke tracks are built around words or phrases that could easily be seen as violent, casually misogynist, or as objectifying women. The most interesting work done by Juke occurs when words and phrases are repeated so many times, in such rapid succession, that not only do they cease to hold any meaning, they actually begin to sound like other words and phrases. The function of the voice in manufactured pop music is taken to such an extreme that the music travels through meaninglessness and discovers a new territory of possible meanings. These are possible meanings, and are very much undetermined, as the new meanings will be decided upon by the brain of each listener as it begins to test different interpretations of the vocal sounds being heard. (“When I came?” “When I gave?” “When I cave?” “Spinn?” “Spit?” “Spill?” “Rashad?” “Ur-sher?” “Watch out?”) This is an crucial part of Juke’s transgression and even perhaps its utopian potential.

Whereas manufactured pop presents its listener with a centrally produced object of narrow, superficial perfection, Juke takes rough, imperfect elements from the world around it, combines them in an initially jarring manner, and in the process creates transcendent, ecstatic moments which are legitimately surprising. Absolutely nothing is surprising about the feelings which manufactured pop music is supposed to instill in you as a listener and a body; each element of the music is engineered to sickly extremes in an attempt to elicit specific, expected reactions, inviting you into a false contemporary paradise. Juke invites listeners to join in an unfolding process of creating utopian situations. It suggests that utopia is not something that that will be sold to us, but that utopia is something we can find, something we can construct from elements of the world around us, even if they may be ugly and mundane.

The World’s Only Iron Giant In A Unipolar World

20 May

The Iron Giant, Brad Bird’s 1999 directorial feature-length animated debut, is, a first and foremost a feel-good children’s movie, yet as a film set in the earlier years of the Cold War, half a decade after The Day The Earth Stood Still was released, it also tackles the same issues surrounding violence as a methodology and provides an intriguing counterpoint and complication of the earlier work.

Iron Giant opens with the recently achieved launch of Sputnik and explicitly deals with anxiety about annihilation, which was not yet so fully developed when The Day The Earth Stood Still was made, and as Iron Giant is a product of the 90’s, it is clearly a retroactive commentary on Cold War anxiety, and not a representative product of it. The central problematic figures of both, however, are quite analogous: seemingly all-powerful robotic beings from outside the Earth who use violence to counter violence. In Day, the purpose of the robot Gort is laid out very plainly by the alien emissary Klaatu, but in Iron Giant  the titular robot arrives on Earth with no explanatory companion, and a case of amnesia which leaves his true purpose unclear even to himself. This makes the Iron Giant a more complicated figure, more in line with actors in the real world that attempt to use violence to quell violence.

So: Sputnik is launched and not too long afterwards, a skyscraper-sized metal creature plummets into the sea off the coast of Maine, a young boy finds it, discovers it has a (metaphorical) heart of gold, finds a beatnik artist-run scrapyard with metal for it to eat, and hides it from the federal agent who is sure that it’s a dangerous Soviet weapon. Along the way, boy and ‘bot come across a deer felled by hunters, ‘bot learns that guns kill, and, when boy then plays with a toy ray gun, the sight of the fake gun activates some as-yet latent weapon that shoots from his eyes.

They killed Bambi...again.

This leads to a series of events in which the US Army attacks the metal creature, who, when it thinks the boy has been killed, transforms from cute tin man to frightening killing machine, straight from War of Worlds. Those being attacked by the robot don’t know that it has, so far, been a friendly companion to a young boy, learning about the world in a childlike manner, and is now reacting to violence done against himself and his human friend. They do not associate their actions with his, and have no particular reason to think that the robot was not in fact sent as an instrument of destruction. In fact, as viewers even we cannot be sure of this: the Iron Giant’s transformation into a weapons platform is accompanied by the fixing of a dent in his head that is suggested to be the cause of his amnesia. He may, in fact, be reverting to his original programming to destroy Earth’s inhabitants, and when he sacrifices himself to save the townspeople from the nuclear missiles that were foolishly launched at him, we cannot be sure if this defensive, sacrificial act is in his original nature, or if it derived from traits learned during his time with the boy.

Whether the original intent behind sending the giant to Earth was a friendly or aggressive one, whether it is armed for war or armed to function as a Gort-like anti-violence police, there is very little way for the inhabitants of Earth to ascertain the truth, they can only directly react to what they see: a super-weapon spreading devastation. As viewers of the film, we have an emotional connection to the robot and believe that if the Army had not attacked him, he would not be attacking them.

As informed Westerners, we may think that the United States and the rest of the International Security Assistance Force had good reason to invade Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda training camps and deny them a safe haven, and we may think that remaining there can be justified as necessary to prevent the takeover of that country by violent extremists and to improve the “quality of life” of those living there. (Leaving aside for the moment how flawed this thinking may be.) However, when surveys show 92% of Southern Afghans never having heard of the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, it’s hard to see how this narrative can be communicated or accepted by Afghans themselves: they are much more likely to see Western military forces as a metallic, mechanized giant on a rampage. Even as informed observers, can we really be sure that the actions taken by this mechanized system are purely defensive in nature, and not an emotional outlashing or the expression of some fundamental programming?

By making drawing out the complications that arise from the sort of armed enforcement of order present in the Day The Earth Stood Still, The Iron Giant comes closer to portraying how such an approach often plays out in the real world, and suggests that the nature of armed intervention is largely determined by how it seen: it is only a paranoid, militarized mindset that turns the giant into a problem to be tackled by the military, and an outlook with such a limited toolset will tend to create more and more problems that appear to be thusly fixable.

Making Eye Contact

10 May

(Cross-posted on O(h)rtlos)

It’s a well-established cliché that telecommunications technology and high-speed transportation methods make the world a smaller place – that they modify (shrink) space, or the experience of space.

It might be more useful to say that communications technology contracts time, and that with the creation of the Internet, time has shrunk to nearly a singularity in much of the world, communication becoming sufficiently dense to create an moment of simultaneous awareness. However, this in turns problematizes the distances of space in new ways.

There are plenty of empirical phenomena that can be used to gauge series of events, and to thereby say that certain events happened at the same time, others before or after, but in terms of subjective human experience, time has traditionally passed not simultaneously, but in parallel. We can say that a certain event in human history occurred somewhere in Mesoamerica in what we now call 1000 CE and that another event happened in the same year in a region of the Ural mountains, and this will be empirically true so far as it can be measured against another event which happened simultaneously to both (a certain volcanic eruption, say or the passing of a comet) yet in terms of human experience, time was passing in Mesoamerica and the Urals in parallel: while they were both happening at the same time, the lack of interknowledge between the two experiential time streams separates them. This is true of smaller distances: Early Medieval Spain and Early Medieval France may have been closer to having simultaneous streams of time, but events (or information about the events, or meaningful effects stemming from that event  that happened in a Spanish village would still take time to reach a French village, and this is part of what imbued time and space with meaning: space was what it took time to travel through. Space separated times and time separated spaces, they were measurements of each other.

With contemporary telecommunications and data storage, there comes a deep spatio-temporal disorientation. If I can follow events in, for example, Cairo’s Tahrir Square in real-time day after day via Twitter and al-Jazeera, it becomes increasingly uncanny that my quotidian experience, as dictated by interaction with my direct physical environment, stays the same, that I do not find myself swept up in a factory strike or swept away by military police. As time shrinks we are confronted by the fact that space has not shrunk commensurately, and the increasing disconnect makes space considerably weird.

There is a simultaneous effect working on the past as more and more cultural material and information is stored and made increasingly available: the singular moment fostered by communications technology reaches further and more widely into the past. If, for example, the most-recently released English fusion of dubstep and Chicago footwork and the most recent “Cold Wave” compilation of Belgian synth-pop come to me simultaneously, in the same formats and through the same channels, both seem equally contemporary and of the present moment. This phenomenon then goes on to influence the creation of new cultural materials, and one hears more and more artists influenced equally by bands of young white middle class Americans from four years in the past and compilations of West African guitar pop recorded in the early 1970’s that were re-issued four years in the past, and in a few more years I would be completely unsurprised to hear newly created works that split the difference between Cold Wave and second-decade dubstep. Materials spiral steadily toward the center of the temporal singularity, and in being transmitted through a global communications network, works that were once tied to a place more and more lose spacial specificity due to temporal simultaneity.

It becomes easier and easier to absorb without a second thought these combinations of what were previously spatio-temporally disparate influences. 70’s afro-pop and mid-aughts indie rock combine to the extent that a fusion of the two (controversially at first) eventually it becomes its own strain of pop music. We listen to post-dubstep R&B and begin to forget that we didn’t listen to R&B in the first place. Eventually, people who only listened to post-dubstep R&B will make their own R&B, and it will eventually seem to fit perfectly next to R&B made two to three decades previous.

However, there are artists that can still create their own powerful disorienting effect, and again this disorientation is spatial.

All of which is to say that today, May 10th, is the release date of Gang Gang Dance’s Eye Contact, and the foremost question in my mind when I listen to that album is: where and when will people listen to music like this? It is full of songs that, if I try fumbling towards a description, I would have to call New Age Stoner Jam Old-Skool Rave Revival Chinese-Pop from the 2030’s. Where would such a music be made? In what contexts would people listen to it, what will the physical environment in which that they negotiate their quotidian lives be like? To respectfully disagree with Mark Abraham in Cokemachineglow, I believe he sells the album short when he says that “the band is demanding we hold their gaze while they school us on the finer points of the popular music of the last 30 years,” thereby making it less exciting than the more ahead-of-the-game Saint Dymphna (2008). I wouldn’t say that Gang Gang Dance is deliberately and self-consciously mining the past, they are merely operating in a space in which the past (and future) have collapsed; Mark Abraham seems slightly annoyed that the album opens with the quote “I can hear everything–it’s everything time,” but he may be reading it incorrectly. The phrase doesnt’ mean that it is “time for everything” – that is, time for Gang Gang Dance to combine everything they can muster over the course of the album following that introductory quote, but that the album takes place in “everything time,” the temporal singularity in which past, present and future are folded together. (On a sidenote, It’s also more likely — certainly more appropriate — that the increasing-infinity interludes refers less to “the ten-year-old’s game of ‘infinity x 3′ trumping lesser infinities” and more to the Georg Cantor’s concept of the transfinite.)

Eye Contact is the exemplar of a field of work being released this year that could be called “Futuristic Non-Anglo-American Pop Made By Anglo-Americans,” along with Rainbow Arabia’s Boys and Diamonds and, to some extent, Battles’ Gloss Drop (they decided to borrow a Chilean on Köln’s Kompakt label and a Japanese mad visionary to speak for them) and Ponytail’s Do Whatever You Want All The Time.

Like Boys and Diamonds, Eye Contact suggests a kind of conjectural or imaginary world music. On that album, Rainbow Arabia summons the strand of Swedish pop that combines 80’s synth memories with chintzily borrowed africanisms, and stretches it into an invented future, perhaps one in which Chinese artists begin to borrow cultural elements from the countries (many African) which the PRC has, in the past half-decade, begun to send investment dollars and Chinese workers to, forming a new syncretic music based on new conceptions of periphery and core. Of course, it’s unlikely that such music will ever come to pass in such a context: even if the 2030’s do see a wave of Chineseafrosynthpop, it will probably sound unlike either of these albums. However, when technology continues to compress time into a singular moment, why wait to create a music until it’s chronologically or geographically appropriate? The deep spatio-temporal disorientation brought about electronic telecommunications creates a confusion in both listener and artist: how can Gang Gang Dance not feel that they are perfectly capable of using the elements of the past to create the future music of other peoples, and how can I, as a listener, wary as I try to be of “appropriation” and allow Euro-American subjectivities to speak for the “other,” not somehow believe that this band, and those like them, are able to do just that?

Eye Contact ends with a robot voice whispering “live forever,” and this is the ultimate effect of the squashing of time, perhaps one part of why so many tech-optimistic futurists insist on predicting some sort of  human immortality by the end of the century: if one is constantly in an eternal moment, how can one ever expect to die? That voice commanding us to “live forever” may as well be the voice of the Internet itself.

Oh, and if you were wondering: it’s a very enjoyable listen, too, synthy, percussive, complex and messily beautiful music that sounds like what the future used to sound like, what the future sounds like now, and quite possibly what the future will sound like in the future. I’m not sure if, come December, I will consider Eye Contact to be the “best” album of the year, or the one I enjoyed the most, but I have no doubt that it will win the Zeitgeist Award for 2011.

Strange vibrations.

t.

On Libel? (Academic Freedom, Truth and Whatnot)

10 May

In this lecture delivered at The New School, Akeel Bilgrami has a number of incisive things to say about what academic freedom is, how it should be justified and the deeper ways in which it is stifled or blocked in contemporary academic discourse. En route to his conclusion he attacks what he calls a “classically liberal” fallibilist defense of freedom of speech (academic and otherwise) that he identifies with John Stuart Mill, and if I may make the unwise decision of picking nit with a professor of Philosophy at Columbia, I think his critique is unneccessary for making the very good points he concludes with, and flawed in and of itself.

He identifies Mills argument for freedom of speech thusly:

Premise 1:  Many of our past opinions, which we had held with great conviction, have turned out to be false.  

Premise 2:  So, some of our current opinions that we hold with great conviction may also turn out to be false. 

From these premises, he drew a conclusion about tolerance and free speech,

Conclusion:  Therefore, let us tolerate dissenting opinions just in case our current opinions are wrong and these dissenting opinions are right.

Bilgrami’s begins to attack this reasoning:

To begin with, even at a cursory glance, you will notice that the judgement in the first premise is made from the point of view of one’s current opinions and convictions.  It is from our present point of view, from what we currently take to be true, that we are able to say that our past opinions are false.  But the judgement in the second premise is telling us that our current point of view may contain false views and therefore to be unsure and diffident about them.  Now, if we are unsure about our current beliefs, and our judgement in the first premise is made on the basis of our current beliefs, then to that extent we must be unsure of our first and basic premise.  Any conclusion based on it therefore is bound to be, to that extent, itself shaky and uncertain.

This idea, that the fallibility of past opinions cannot be known because “some past opinions have turned out to be false” is, itself, a held opinion, and can therefore be false, does not, for me, hold water, because “some past opinions have turned out to be false” and “some of current opinions may also turn out to be false” are both neccessarily true because the only alternative possibility is for there to be a point in time at which all current opinions are true. This would seem to me to be an obvious impossibility: knowledge must be limited and therefore imperfectable: to store all information about the universe, it would be neccessary to use an amount of matter equal to all the matter of the universe, and if one were to somehow store information about the universe outside the universe, that would demand a recognition that there is even more outside the universe which we cannot have perfect knowledge of. These theoretical extremes have very little to do with the sorts of opinions that both Mill and Bilgrami are talking about, but they do function to show that Premise 1 and 2 are neccessarily true. They can be supported against Bilgrami’s objections by the addition of the premise:

Premise 0: At no point will all currently held opinions be all perfectly true.

Bilgrami prefers Mill’s other arguments for freedom of speech, for example that it breeds creativity, diversity and moral courage, and while I may agree that these are more noble and attractive, I see no reason to throw out the “meta-inductive” reasoning presented above. To me, the oddest part of Bilgrami’s complaint is this:

But, now, if that is so, there is something internally peculiar about an argument that appeals to the value of truth and the goal of pursuing the truth, as it does, while also implying, as the second premise does, that we can never know that we have achieved the truth.  How can we claim to have a goal that we can never know we have achieved, when we have achieved it?  What sort of goal is that?  It is not perhaps as peculiar as having a goal that we know that we can never achieve.  That is outright incoherent.  You cannot coherently strive to achieve what you know to be impossible.  But to allow that we can achieve a goal and yet insist that we can never know we have achieved it when we have, though not perhaps outright incoherent, is a very peculiar understanding of what goals are. 

Truth-seeking is not a “goal” in the sense he wants to insist upon, it functions more as an orientation or an attitude. He is essentially calling the scientific method incoherent: this central axis of modern truth-seeking is not at all about finding things that are true and knowing with certainty that they are true, it is an attempt to compile an increasing number of correlations between theory and observed reality while striving to falsify previously held opinions and theories, thereby aligning it quite closely with Mill’s meta-inductive argument. Falsification is possible while absolute verification never is; without the assumption that some past and current opinions must be false, there is little reason to continue the pursuit of truth.

Bilgrami asks

If the goal of inquiry into the truth that all academic institutions embrace is really to pursue in this way something that we never can be sure we have achieved, then we must be assuming that what we do, in pursuing it, is a bit like sending a message in a bottle out to sea.  We never know what comes of it, we never know that it has arrived.  What sort of epistemological project is that?

and I would suggest that it is the only sort of epistimelogical project possible, thank you very much.

Bilgrami then states that this Millian meta-inductive argument, which he finds so much fault in, is directly tied to the form of “balance” in academic life which is used not to inspire the full consideration of all available evidence but to require that two sides of a disagreement be presented, which often amounts to a bullying tactic for the side with little or no evidence at all to be included in a discussion. While I agree that this conception of balance is unacceptable, I don’t see that Bilgrami even bothers to explain how Mill’s reasoning leads directly to.

After he leaves Mill be, Bilgrami’s piece becomes much more illuminating, as he moves to discuss his idea that the most subtle, and therefore in some ways the most injurious form of academic unfreedom is the exclusion of alternative frameworks of investigating, thinking and knowing, which also excludes the evidence and arguments that might arise from that framework, which are never taken into consideration, but also never consciously excluded because they are never even brought into the awareness of the guardians of academic orthodoxy. It’s worth reading, and he ends by making a point I myself tend to emphasize: that academics (and people in general) have more of a moral responsibility to criticize those systems of which they themselves form a part, or to which they are more directly connected.

It is said that whenever Sakharov criticized the Soviet Union’s treatment of dissidents in the fifties, he was chastised by his government for showing an imbalance and not speaking out against the treatment of blacks in the American South.  That is precisely the kind of imbalance that courageous academics are going to be accused of by the enemies of academic freedom in this country, and I hope that all of us will have the courage to continue being imbalanced in just this way.

Liberal Interventionism & Space Esperanto

30 Apr

On Thursday, I had the opportunity to attend a 35-mm screening of 1951’s The Day The Earth Stood Still, a film I’d actually not yet seen, although my penchant for bad Keanu Reeves vehicles had previously brought me in contact with the forced, formulaic 2008 remake.

While many of the plot points have since become the stuff of sci-fi cliche, it still has considerable charms – the central acting duo is superb, with a nuance performance from Patricia Neal’s and Michael Rennie’s bemused but earnest professorly Klaatu seemingly planting the seeds for both Spock and David Bowie. Compared to any movie made for mass consumption today, it gets straight to the point, the premise being well established within the first three minutes, mercifully sparing the audience from the boilerplate character introduction that has become de rigueur. The dramatic event that serves as the film’s namesake is also refreshingly low-key: most of the Earth’s electric devices stop working for 30 minutes, something that no-one would bat an eye at in a more contemporary sci-fi film.

Of course, The Day The Earth Stood Still isn’t really a science fiction thriller, it’s a classic Cold War “why can’t we all get along” nuclear-anxiety lecture piece. However, the mechanism through which this lesson is imparted by Klaatu (the assembled species of the other planets apparently speak Esperanto) works to remind us of the common ideological roots of neo-conservatism and liberal interventionism, and how the Beltway view of the world has developed over the last 50 years.

Klaatu comes to visit “in peace and with goodwill,” but the message he  delivers at the end of the film contains an odd sort of peace. He states that the peoples of other planets now live without violence between them, but if the aggression and war that humans currently practice on Earth is brought out beyond its atmosphere, they will have no choice but to destroy the entire species, perhaps the whole planet, although what exactly all other species of flora and fauna have to do with it is never made clear.

This kind of peace – be nice or be destroyed – seems to have become the guiding principle of a military superpower which for the last few decades has been utterly incompetent in attempts to negotiate the prevention or termination of violent conflict elsewhere in the world, but has, with some regularity, been willing to summon the Iron Smiley Face of armed intervention, from the troubled actions in the Balkans and Libya to the clearly deranged neo-imperalist invasion of Iraq. (While there were enough commercial and geostrategic interests in the later case for the idea of “intervention” to be bypassed entirely, enough of the people who planned and supported the invasion believed it for it to be relevant.)

What’s more interesting is the method by which the other planets came to live in peace in the first place – they built robots that would destroy them if they acted aggressively against each other. So, while The Day The Earth Stood Still might seem to be a cry against the madness of a nuclear-armed world, the answer presented in the plot is actually just another form of mutually assurred destruction. A galaxy of Gort-enforced order reminds one of America’s position in today’s world a technical sense, as we, too, are now instructing machines to enforce a moral order, as with the increasingly visible unmanned aerial vehicles that run illegal CIA assissination campaigns over Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen,  and now appearing over Libya (or, leaving the UAV’s aside, as with a military whose freedom of action is based entirely on technological superiority).

Klaatu’s solution to violence shares with the dominant Western order a basic inability to craft solutions with tools besides those which created the problem under consideration. This conceptual trap leads to the tremendous waste of using foreign occupation to try to fix Afghani problems that have in large part been caused by decades of foreign occupation, the waste of spending over $500,000 per missle to destroy miltiary vehicles on Libyan highways that the major Western powers were only all too eager to sell to Qadaffi mere years ago.

50 years, ago, the well meaning American idea of  peace was a world of robots poised to violently punish the violent, and it’s only too easy to see how that contradiction has remained and festered in the national imagination since.

Moral Snails

26 Jan

This New York Review of Books piece places a meditation on observing the behavior of snails next to an account of Siberian tiger management, and both species display behavior that appears to be similar to human behavior. Snails help each other to find food or escape from crates they are trapped in, while a tiger tracks down a person who had been capturing tiger cubs, killing him and destroying everything with his scent.

This leads me to an additional thought extending of the previous post’s discussion of the cyborg ethics of eating. Might animal behavior such as this suggest that human judgements on the morality of food consumption in nature are actually not so much inappropriate insertions of moral concepts into a moral vacuum as they are an imposition of human ethics on living beings which possess their own ethical systems? Would attempts to modify existing ecological systems in order to make them more ethical in our eyes then not be a form of inter-species cultural imperialism?

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