Saturday, February 03, 2007

Fatigue and Barbarism Converge

Are weird juxtapositions cool or lame? I don't even know anymore. But I have been thinking about them lately.

Our friend Becky stopped by and played us "The Slack Album," the latest chapter of the Jay-Z "mash-up" saga. You probably remember Danger Mouse's "The Grey Album," which was a clever and surreal crosspollination of Jay-Z's "The Black Album" and The Beatles' "White Album." Well, some wiseacre named DJ N-Wee decided to do Danger Mouse one better and splice "The Black Album" with Pavement's "Slanted and Enchanted." I was mostly entertained by the result. On "13 Jackals, Allure - The Lonesome Era," for instance, the oddness of the original's fuzz-guitar line is ramified by its imbrication in a hip-hop loop. It was a nice reminder of one of the original appeals of Pavement: the fearlessness with which they embraced trashy sonics and formal awkwardness as aesthetic virtues.

Other tracks on "The Slack Album," however, seem to illuminate the very ordinariness of Pavement's musical vision. The strummed clusters of "Here," meant to evoke laughs when situated aside Mr. Hova's rhymes, provide instead a horrible sense of deja vu. For you, it will likely be different. For me: Songbird Music guitar store on Queen West in Toronto in 1998, 81 fellows with clumpy hair playing Neil Young sliding triads against chiming open high E strings on overpriced Fender Jazzmasters through overpriced Hi-Watt stacks. I'm not sure music has ever been worse. Like, The Three Irish Tenors? Probably better.

With weird juxtapositions on the brain, I paused to consider TW Adorno's essay "Valery Proust Museum" (brought to mind by a call for papers in my inbox) and an interview with Texas hip-hopper Pimp C (in AllHip-Hop.Com) that Cogburn was kind enough to send me, even though I owe him 500 emails and 3000 hours of phone catch-up time. Cogburn that is, not Pimp C. Or Adorno. If only I had a friend named Pimp C to whom I owed emails and phone calls! Adorno, even in his current state, would be too high-maintenance to maintain regular correspondence with.

Pimp C's answer to a question about Pro Tools recording software is one of the favorite things I have ever read:

"Do I like Pro-Tools? I like some things about it, but I feel real nervous knowing my songs are still in some motherf**ker’s computer and I can’t even get my s**t out of there when I leave. That s**t is some bulls**t designed by people that like to steal records." As Cogburn likely predicted, this insight sent my intellectual property-addled brain a-reeling. Not only does Pimp C make fascinating connections between uneven property relations, the materiality/ontology of recorded music, and conflicting notions of ownership, but he also points to emerging battles between producers and studio bosses in hip-hop.

On a related note, Pimp C observes that the use of Pro Tools has introduced palpable differences in the sound of hip-hop:

"Do I think that all studios having that computer s**t has cheapened the quality of the music? Of course it has, records don’t sound like they used to bro. There’s too much technology involved and you can hear it. Go listen to some of those old records that we were doing in the studio with SSL boards and a two-inch tape machine. You can hear the difference between that s**t and what these n****s are making right now. The game is popcorn, it’s like comparing something that was cooked in a microwave to something from a gas stove. It might be the same ingredients and even the same recipe, but it don’t taste quite the same in the end. It’s gonna to go back to the real and people are gonna figure it out. It’s all about finding a happy medium between the technology and the old way of doing things. Some will perfect that and some won’t, some just don’t care."

Speaking of weird juxtapositions, "Valery Proust Museum" is Adorno's meditation on the museum and the museumification of culture; and what is a museum but a temple of unintentional weird juxtapositions?

"Museum and mausoleum," Adorno notes, "are connected by more than phonetic association. Museums are like the family sepulchers of works of art. They testify to the neutralization of culture. Art treasures are hoarded in them, and their market value leaves no room for the pleasure of looking at them" For Adorno, the presentation of music is increasingly becoming museum-like: "In efforts to retrieve music from the remoteness of the performance and put it into the immediate context of life there is not only something ineffectual but also a tinge of industriously regressive spite."

Adorno pursues his analysis by contrasting the views of Paul Valery and Marcel Proust on the museum. For the poet Paul Valery, Adorno says, the modern museum sucks the "feudal" delights out of art-viewing. From the "no smoking" signs to the "tumult of frozen creatures each of which demands the non-existence of the others" the museum provides disorientation and anomie, not pleasure and edification. "One does not know why one has come," writes Adorno, "in search of culture or enjoyment, in fulfilment of an obligation, in obedience to a convention... Fatigue and barbarism converge."

Of great interests for our purposes is Valery's comparison of the overhwelmed eye of the museumgoer and the comparatively fortunate ear of the music listener. Notwithstanding Charles Ives, it is true that "no one can ask (the ear) to listen to ten orchestras at once." Nevertheless, the effects of museumification afflict music as well as the plastic arts. The presentation of culture in museums and concert halls weakens our ability to attend to any one work in particular and discern its unique qualities. Adorno detects in Valery a radical Marxist critique of the corrosive political economy of art. Rephrasing Valery's argument, Adorno waxes eloquent on the deadly business of art in the age of capitalism: "Whether artists produce or rich people die, whatever happens is good for the museums. Like casinos, they cannot lose, and that is their curse. For people become hopelessly lost in the galleries, isolated in the midst of so much art... Art becomes a matter of education and information... Education defeats art."

Proust's thoughts on museums, like those of Valery, are motivated by nostalgia. But unlike Valery and his elegy for art displayed within the private artistocratic home, Proust objects to the new bourgeois fashion for art as "trivial decorative display," hung in the dining room to be enjoyed during a meal. Museums for Proust are not the depressing institutions hated by Valery; on the contrary they are spaces of sublime revery. The "masterpiece observed during dinner," Proust wrote, "no longer produces the in us the exhilirating happiness that can be had only in a museum, where the rooms, in their sober abstinence from all decorative detail, symbolize the inner spaces into which the artist withdraws to create the work."

Despite the differences between Valery and Proust, Adorno finds a common thread connecting their thoughts on museums: "they share the presupposition that works of art should be enjoyed." For Adorno, of course, nothing should be enjoyed, except perhaps for Webern bagatelles and run-on sentences. But enjoyment for Valery and enjoyment for Proust are two different things. Valery is interested in art as it captivates the viewer in real time, art that demands "absolute, unwavering concentration"; and since the age of these works is over, there is nothing left to do "but mourn for works as they turn into relics."

Proust, on the other hand, values the retrospective over the immediate. As Adorno writes, "because nothing has significance for him but what has already been mediated by memory, his love dwells on the second life, the one which is already over, rather than on the first... In a famous passage he glorified inferior music for the sake of the listener's memories, which are preserved with far more fidelity and force in an old popular song than in the self-sufficiency of a work by Beethoven."

One of the continuing appeals of Adorno is the sustained negativity of his writing... not in terms of being a "bummer," but in the logical sense of refusing the false resolution of a bogus synthesis. Putting Valery and Proust in tension with one another is not a project undertaken to prove a point: for Adorno, it is the effort of laying out and explicating the contradictions and dilemmas of the contemorary crisis of culture and humanity that is in and of itself productive.

PS: Here are the two orphans left after the editing of this post:

"Gold fronts didn't originate in Texas. My aunties and s**t from Louisiana have golds in their mouths. People in the South have been wearing gold in their mouths for years."

"The only relation to art that can be sanctioned in a reality that stands under the threat of catastrophe is one that treats works of art with the same deadly seriousness that characterizes the world today."

I like when barbarism happens as a result of fatigue.

great post, sb.
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