Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Totality, dude

The Marxist tradition gives us many useful terms, but we are too often guilty of using the same three over and over again. "Totality" is one term that gets less play than it should. It helps us focus on the real difference between Marxist political economy and the bourgeois variety, and it additionally helps us name a crucial aspect of alienation, which most of us experience as a response to the degradations visited by capitalism on the human spirit.

Martin Jay wrote a great book on this topic called Marxism and Totality. He distinguishes between "normative totality" (the idea that fullness, completeness, and integration are goals to which individuals and societies should strive) and a second, for lack of a better term, "methodological" conception of totality. "Methodological" totality is an intellectual imperative: it derives from the insistence that social scientists and philosophers can hope to gain an "adequate understanding of complex phenomena" only by appreciating their "relational integrity" (23-24). When we examine a complex phenomenon such as contemporary bourgeois society, we should insist on treating all of the seemingly disparate and unconnected elements, of which it is made up, as parts of a whole (24).

How does "totality" help us understand anything about music? Well, let's distinguish between the spheres of production and consumption. "Normative" totality maps nicely onto the activity of listening to music, while "methodological" totality helps us understand the processes by which music is made, performed, recorded, and distributed.

Rock writers like Simon Reynolds have long treated the "listening" part of music as connected to "totality" in the realm of "bliss" and "jouissance"-- that is, music as a kind of sonorous envelope, chora, or womb in which the listener feels complete, integrated, and bathed in powerful feelings. Deleuze's notion of the ritornelle should be viewed within this framework, not as some flaky, metaphysical-poetic croissant. Music works on the model of the lost child in the woods walking in a circle, singing herself a little tune that repeats itself infinitely. As such, a space is created that forms a real enclosure (the return, the round) superimposed on heterogeneous space (the forest). The enclosure of the ritornelle is like the science fiction trope of the enlosed space (the phone booth, the closet, etc) that seems tiny from the outside, but infinitely vast once one enters inside its walls. Instead of the existential fragmentation that characterizes everyday life, then, we experience in music a sense of wholeness, plenitude, and abundant affectivity.

Turning to the sphere of production, we can think about totality in an entirely different way: as an alternative to the ethos of acquisitive individualism that prevails in capitalist culture. Capitalism encourages us to pursue our own self-interest, and ignore collective social responsibility. An ideological corollary of this ethos is a belief that politics, culture, economics, religion, etc. are all discrete and unconnected. For the capitalist, the sum of society's parts never add up to a whole. As Margaret Thatcher once said, "there is no such thing as society, only individuals." This is one reason that totality is only ever present in the conservative imagination as a paranoid fantasy of coherence-- conspiracy theories about the Trilateral Commission or jewish bankers or evangelical insistince on the orderliness of chaotic world events as signs of the coming Rapture.

Capitalism's hacks-- Adam Smith, Ayn Rand, George Gilder-- have always been consistent about one point-- a collectivity of individuals narrowly pursuing their own self-interest in a market society will always result in the greatest good. For capitalism, the only totality that matters is the market, which is properly the subject of theological rather than scientific inquiry.

Leftists err, however, when they identify market-worship as the only ideology of capitalism. It is, arguably, the central belief-system of speculative finance-capitalists and hedge-fund managers, and others that 19th century populists and socialists used to group together as parasites on the wealth produced by labor. But for the rest of the billions of people who work under capitalism, the market is secondary to a more elementary deity, which might be best identified with the Lacanian term "the Big Other": the symbolic order, in toto. The hidden hand, supply and demand, "politics", Jesus, the Federal Reserve, the American Way... an oozing mass of confusing and contradictory forces. Understanding how the whole thing works seems as daunting as figuring out why tornados happen, and assuming that this knowledge will be helpful in making decisions in one's daily life is obviously crazy. We divide labor in our society, and others are supposed to know about economics and tornados. We leave the thinking to the Big Other, while we do our work, live our lives, etc. (which, incidentally, is also justified in the name of the Big Other).

Marxism takes aim precisely at the assumption that economics is primarily a technical science like meteorology, inaccessible to all but an expert class of technocrats. The reason is this: human history (virtually irrelevant to making sense of natural phenomena) reveals the hidden secrets of capitalism. Tracing the transition from one economic form to another exposes the continuity of themes in economic life: class exploitation and struggle, protection of forms of property and the development of legal superstructures, and conflicts over the distribution of the surplus produced over and above the demands of subsistence. Within this framework, we can indeed think of totality as a sum of social processes, not a mystical chaos as unknowable as the flows of numbers and symbols on LCD stock tickers.

If we accept the insights of Marxism, we can no longer accept individual self-interest as a rational basis for a just society. I cannot pretend that the seller of goods with whom I deal as a buyer is somehow a different individual than the person with whom I deal as a neighbor, a friend, or even as a seller of my own goods. As artists and musicians and music-lovers, at some point we have to stop pretending that economics is akin to the weather, something that somebody else will interpret and tell us about... and take stock of the material processes and relationships that make us rich or poor, powerful or powerless, productive or burnt-out. We should go one step further, and situate our activities and survival strategies within the singular totality of Western capitalism. What is nice about this totality is that while total, it is also plastic and volatile. As the man once said, people do make history, if not under circumstances of their own choosing.

Having sufficiently buried the lead, I can now reveal it: to the degree that we subscribe to a competitve, individualistic, opportunistic ethic, we, as experimental artists and musicians are making a bad kind of history. The "devil takes the hindmost" attitude among avant-garde musicians is utterly counterproductive.

The mandarin fallacy. This is especially true when we think of ourselves as some sort of elite class of cultural saints, deserving of support and patronage from wealthy individuals and institutions. We should insist on differentiating between the social contexts of free improvisors and jazz musicians and rock bands, visual artists and composers, the academically affiliated and the not academically affiliated. Experimental/improvised music is domain of those who either lack or have chosen to reject conventional training in music production. This is a politically charged choice-- the renunciation of musical skill as an exchange-value, and the recovery of a process of music-making outside the power relations of capitalism (even the power relation that says: hold your drumstick like this, sing your song with this kind of vibrato, subordinate creative impulses to the demands of received forms, etc). It is what I like most about improvised music.

But it also means that I have chosen to foresake financial compensation for my music, (since audiences are rarely larger than 30, it sucks to charge more than 5 bucks, and usually there are between 4 and 8 performers who need to be paid, plus expenses, venue rental, gas, strings, picks, dinner out and wear and tear on instruments) in exchange for the possibility of a more authentic interaction between me and my listeners. Because the music is demanding, and is by nature set up to fail a lot of the time, I appreciate the attention of listeners who tune in. At times, I think that this attention is all the payment I can really expect from people... which is fine, except for the fact that one needs to eat and survive and all the rest.

Anticipating the question that pesky Mr. Lenin always asks, here is what is to be done: improvisors should ally with working stiffs, not art-elites. We should accept that music-making is an activity we do alongside working for a living, not a vocation that will somehow become financially viable in the not too distant future. We should acknowledge that so long as we all live under capitalism, the majority of people who work must work jobs that are idiotic, brain-sucking, and for the benefit of others, and that therefore hours should be limited, paid vacation-time should be ample, and health-care should be universal. My desire to play an improv show is not different than my co-worker's desire to attend a model-train convention or go hiking with her kids.

Since American capitalism is currently staying afloat via the capture of employee benefits for the sake of profitability (plus a huge debt to overseas lenders), musicians are well-situated to make common cause with others who recognize this taking for what it is: class struggle. But as capitalists acheive record profits by stealing pensions and ramping up workweeks to Dickensian levels, a terrible alternative lurks: that we musicians will look to this new class of aristocrats for handouts, instead of joining the fight against the radical redistribution of the social product to a tiny fraction of property-owners. If that happens, we will truly be the court jesters of the new barbarism.

I have a grant proposal I need you to write a recommendation for. :)
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