Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Globalization, "Napsterification" and World Music

Is “Globalization” a dirty word? A brief survey of google.com cites over 19 million web pages devoted to the scrutiny and discussion of this topic, proof that even if no final verdict had been issued regarding the subject, then at least it has been the grounds for much heated debate. “Globalization” as of today is still a young term, a neologism that gained rhetorical value in the 1980s through the work of various socio-economists attempting to re-theorize the effects of late modernization and capitalism. Most famously, globalization theorists assert the miniaturizing features of the modern world, claiming that the world is essentially “shrinking” due to advances in transportation systems, info-communications and the international compatibility of mediums of dissemination and reproduction (such as the internet, satellite phones et al) which seem to transcend national borders. “Seem” is the right descriptive here, since, as Allen and Hamnett remind us, globalization tends to ignore the fact that not all global communities enjoy equal access to these technologies of interconnectivity. Even “liberal” mediums such as the (once called) world-wide-web tends to be not-so-world-wide, considering the fact that a major proportion of the world’s population still live without access to the internet. Most recently a spate of editorials has further explored issues net-surveillance and censorship which enforce virtual state-specific boundaries, curtailing this so-called transgression of local constraints.

Charting the history of new media technology and its complementary political modes of surveillance would be complex terrain; one could easily get lost and wrongly assume logics of causality. Take the Napster case-study for example, a highly popular peer-to-peer file-sharing program that sent music industry giants into sweaty panic. Created by an enterprising 18-year-old who went by the name of Shawn Fanning, Napster was initially birthed as a student-to-student collective. What was refreshing about the application was the way in which:

“[Napster] collected and provided a centralized list of the music that most students had on their hard drives, and a convenient way to search that list. Using Napster, people could easily search through what amounted to a giant shared music collection, taking whatever they wanted ... for free, instead of [US] $15-20 per CD”

Symbolically, Napster embodied the ideology of a universe of free information, granting its virtual participants a passport to freely “own” whatever other participants had placed on the file-sharing network. Of course, Napster fell short of its near-hippie liberal wonderland goals: in December 1999, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed a suit against Napster. Liberal Disneyland became discredited as insouciant piracy, and Napster was forced to close, though not without making a terrific splash in the press. The end of the story is an equally paradoxical one; even though the “free” ideals of Napster were ruthlessly truncated by copyright laws and legal issues of intellectual ownership, the formal popularity of a “Napsterian” interface spurred already-rich media corporate giants such as Apple to formulate their own peer-to-peer systems: Napster was given a (white) facelift and emerged as I-tunes. But we rush ahead of ourselves. How did “music”, a primarily embodied, “auratic” (as Walter Benjamin describes it) praxis develop into a few megabytes of information? A historical trajectory would attempt to chronicle the rise (and fall) of gramophone technologies and records, the emergence of the radio, the “cassette revolution”, CDs, DVDs, and computers. But does “music” remain ontologically unaltered by its Darstellung? Furthermore, does the rise of recombinant media products such as Music Videos suggest different modes of perceiving and conceiving music?

Another problem seems to loom overhead: if self-recorded musics unbound by intellectual copyrights were, too, circulated on Napster, did they ultimately fall under the same laws that governed artistic and corporatist ownership – is it acceptable, perhaps even ethical to assume that all sonic traces that lent themselves to aural reproduction through technological Darstellung shared the same ontological status as each other? Any respectful religious Muslim would attest to the fact that the “melodic” chanting of the Koran is not music. And yet, years ago when participating in a choral music festival in Bandung, Indonesia, the heavily mellismatic chanting of the Koran could indeed be heard at daybreak, amplified from the speakers atop a nearby mosque. Though channelled through the same mediums as other commodified aesthetic products, different cultural and ethnic groups’ conception of “music” differ from each other. What should be made clear, then, is the way in which media’s blind (or deaf) processing of sonic entities open up new pathways of misrecognition, misappropriation and misinformation. In the afternoon, speakers in a neighbouring public park begin to blare Indonesian “popular” music: are these two products of the otological mode of reproduction therefore ontologically alike? It is not difficult to imagine how they could be mistakenly assumed to be so.

Thus, although transnational medias and technologies have brought us closer in (virtual) proximity in which “to connect presence and absence”, what has to be queried here is virtual “relations between ‘absent’ others” that displaces face-to-face presentism with an illusory one. For Anthony Giddens, this new proximity is a “phantasmagoric” one, which, like the case of amplified Koran chanting, appears to speak a ‘neutral’ language while masking complex differences, or latent relations of power. There is another word proposed for this ‘missed’ encounter, what Jonathan Xavier Inda and Renato Rosaldo call “de/territorialization”:

“There is no dislodging of everyday meanings from their moorings in particular localities without their simultaneous reinsertion into fresh environments. You can’t have one process without the other. It is a matter of both at once. It is a matter of de/territorialization.”

De/territorialization also refers to the stripping and eventual re-accruing of meaning of certain cultural practices once they are uprooted from their originating geographical location and “grafted” into a new culture through diasporic communities. De/territorialization should, in extension, remind us that the cultural meanings of technologies and medias may not be innocent or equally shared across national or continental boundaries. Concepts such as “authenticity” or “originality” are hence problematic when they are used to describe large communities, disregarding the possibility that these cultural objects, such as musical practices, have been themselves subject to evolution through the encounter of Others via communicative technologies. In other words, such narratives assume a “hypodermic” model of passive reception of the Other’s cultural products, without undergoing “local” reinterpretation or meaningful transformation. Xavier and Rosaldo, for example, point out the ways in which Indian film songs are borrowed by religious singers who change the words to sing praises to the Prophet Mohammed in northern Nigeria. The appropriation non-western popular culture in Hausa, as Brian Larkin suggests, is predicated on a specific strategy that bypasses difficult colonizer-colonized power-relations to “envision new styles of fashion, beauty, love, and romance”. For Larkin,

“Indian films [and songs for Hausa viewers] offer images of a parallel modernity to the West ... but rooted in conservative cultural values. [...] Moreover, when Hausa youth rework Indian films within their own culture by ... copying the music styles for religious purposes, [...] they can do so without engaging with the heavy ideological load of “becoming western”.”

Though the de/territorialized encounter and appropriation of Indian popular song for local purposes, the Hausa example reveals the ways in which seemingly innocent cultural objects of exchange become embedded in a wed of meaning, sometimes meanings quite distinct from their reception at their originating scene. “Hybridization” is another such concept to track the mutation of cultural products within differing receptive and semiotic spheres, although one holds reservation for the term, as “hybridization” all too often stresses the plurality of the final product rather than real systems of power and domination that are wired into the figuring of the final article. Most alarmingly, however, under the purview of narratives regarding the music industry and Capitalism, these power-struggles achieve another level of complexity altogether. Take for example the popularization of “Reggae” in the West, which success, as John Connell and Chris Gibson point out, can be traced back to colonial power binaries of the colonizer/colonized whereby the exoticized product (colonized) performs for the gaze of the purchaser (colonizer). The case is further problematized in the case of so-called “World Music” where “authenticity” and “originality” is prized as an exotic commodity to excite the (colonial?) imagination of the West. Of course, sonic realities of “authenticity” are ultimately constructs, fabrications to the extent that truly “authentic” music sometimes becomes significantly altered to appeal to the consumer’s idea of authenticity. Amidst many examples, the Real World music company’s recordings of qawwali were heavily criticised for ignoring “the crucial religious and socio-critical elements of the music,” attempting “to reduce the music to an aesthetic form”.

Furthermore, by articulating the idea of “world music” as a distinct “marketing term”, “world music” fosters an internal paradox whereby “third-world performers ... gain more effective access to global markets” based on marketability. The question “who is listening?” becomes deeply embroiled in acts of performative agency, for, to succeed in the international “world music” market, one must play by its rules. “International success”, Connell and Gibson opine, “required artistic compromise”. Xavier Cugat, for instance, recalls the paradoxical move he had to take in order to please the musical tastes of (foreign) mass markets: “To succeed in America I have the Americans a Latin music that had nothing authentic about it ... Then I began to change the music and play more legitimately.” “Authenticity”, seemingly, is in the ear of the beholder. The difficulty of shoehorning radically different musical worldviews into the neat economic category of “world music” means inevitably contorting the cultural significance of differing musical ontologies upon a single, marketable, commodifiable – hence selleable – plane. This is the troubling question which Steven Feld attempts to unpack, zooming in on the cultural and capital politics at stake in Deep Forest’s use of pygmy tracks for a mix-track in a 1992 album, backed by UNESCO.

Feld’s essay “A Sweet Lullaby for World Music” is a complicated romp through the politics of ownership and musical ethics in Deep Forest’s contested digital sampling of a Baegu lullaby from Northern Malaita. The sample, which appeared in Deep Forest, was then used by Jan Garbarek (a Norwegian saxophonist) as raw material for his ECM CD entitled Visible World. Since Deep Forest failed to reproduce the origin of the lullaby, Garbarek misapprehended its origin to be an “African traditional melody”. When Feld attempted to point out these misappropriations and possible power-inequalities (in what way was the singer of the lullaby credited?) apparent in this cycle of borrowings, a messy fiasco of point-and-blame ensued, and Feld was eventually accused of wrongful defamation. But the primary question remained unanswered: in what way did either company or artist respect the originating context of the lullaby? Afunakwa’s name (the singer of the recorded lullaby) hardly surfaced in the litany of accusations, with Deep Forest representatives and Garbarek adopting angry, reactionary polemics defending the integrity of their “original arrangements”: another way of jokingly calling something an “authentic replica”. “World music”, therefore is far from symmetrical in its structures of accrediting and respectful artistic license. In no way was the community to which the lullaby was attributed to contacted or consulted; instead, heated exchanges were held over board-room tables and manager-to-manager phone calls. Perhaps “world music” corporate protectionists hoard exclusive telecommunication pathways while bypassing the very source of their revenues.

Media has simultaneously made the global flow of music (as a cultural capital) easier, though not symmetrically. Copyright and intellectual property laws continue to curb the disseminative power of these technologies – virtual space is not as liberal as McLuhan’s utopian “Global Village”. On the other hand, the increased mobility of music has led to those of privileged access to new and vast territories of musical encounters. A quick entry into google.com or youtube.com opens hundreds of pathways, allowing one to sample cultural products, or to construct assemblages of wide-ranging musical tastes. Yet, beneath this veneer of mobility lies the complicated and sometimes contradictory mechanisms of the consumer industry to which music (to be enjoyed via medias of reproductive technology) is increasingly bound to. These are, in turn, mediated by marketing conceptual frames of (sometimes) breathtaking triviality such as “world music”, which potentially threaten to reduce musical value to a single barometer of loss and profits. But de/territorialization and “live” musical practices do trouble the hegemony of the international music-industry circuit, often creating intersections of productivity where new musical lives flourish.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Lacanianizing the Media

Jacques Lacan is a curious figure. Spouting cryptic semi-messianic universalizing statements such as “there is no sexual relationship” or “the unconscious is structured like a language”, Lacan’s psychoanalytical re-engagements with Sigmund Freud’s theories since the 1930s have been the subject of much controversy and debate. Nonetheless, Lacan-speak (or what Slovenian theorist Slavoj Zizek calls “Lacanese”) gained significant (if not notorious) currency in the language of new Media Theory, an intellectual marriage fostered in the 1960s partly through the arrival of “French” theory on American shores, and a growing desire to understand the powers of these media in shaping contemporary subjectivities. Particularly potent to these theorists was Lacan’s 1930s formulation of the “mirror stage”, which suggested that the social subject was precipitated through a primal act of “misrecognition”. According to Lacan, the pre-mirror stage infant experienced the self and the world as fractured and heterogeneous; it was only through the process of “misrecognizing” the image of the self in the mirror as the self could the infant then posit a homogeneous, totalized and self-enclosed ‘subject’ (what Lacan called the “Ideal-ego”), ultimately an illusion which serves as a focal point for the subject’s hopes, fantasies and desires.

If the subject’s entire experience of the self was predicated upon a function of “misrecognition”, indeed an internalized illusion of totality, then it followed that cultural products in society were equally functional sites of identification, conceptual “mirrors” which appeared to “reflect” what socially acceptable subjectivities produced by agents outside the subject. In short, culture itself could be conceived as a mirror upon which the subject misrecognizes him/herself, assuming the images and products he or she encounters as “ideal-egos” on which the self is regulated, constructed and kept in check. Because of the primacy of visual identification in Lacan’s mirror stage, it should come as no surprise that film theorists were the first to pounce on psychoanalytic modes of identification through the cinema. In Britain, the film journal Screen edited by Colin MacCabe and Stephen Heath embraced Lacanian psychoanalysis with much enthusiasm, combining it with Louis Althusser’s theories of subject-formations in the matrix of ideology of the 1970s. Althusser’s essay Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (a Marxist analysis of Ideology that incorporated Freud’s psychic topologies) strongly suggested that ideology “hails” or “interpellates” its individuals as subjects, cueing early film theorists to the possibility of cinema’s subversive potentials as a giant “interpellative” machine of ideology. As such, early incarnations of ‘screen theory’ in the 1960s and 1970s attempted to:

“... uncover the symbolic mechanisms through which cinematic texts confer subjectivity upon readers, sewing them into the film narrative through the production of subject positions.”

Particularly productive in film theory was the notion of the “gaze” of the filmic actor and how audiences misconceive the “gaze” as intended for them. MacCabe’s highly influential essay Realism in Cinema (1974) proposed that the staging of the “gaze” through clever film editing ultimately produced a hypothetical subject-to-be-looked-at. This ‘receiving subject’, so to speak, was less offered to the spectator that had it thrust upon him; the spectator misrecognizes himself as the recipient of the “gaze” (just as he misrecognizes his image for himself in the Lacanian mirror stage), and rather passively occupies the receiving role structured for him by the film. As a heuristic tool, Lacanian psychoanalysis provided these early theorists with a persuasive insight into the “socio-political context of production” as to how “the filmmaker’s (and by extension the culture’s) view of the world became confused with, or displaced by, the spectator’s view”.

Because explorations of Lacan’s mirror stage in media theory tended to (over)privilege the visual over other sensorial facilities, musicologists required another heuristic model in order to access the shifting boundaries of sonic subjectivities through the technological encounter. Their source of inspiration ultimately lay with Lacan’s reconfiguration of Freudian psychic topologies, which Lacan reformulated as the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real. For Lacan, the order of the Imaginary was the site upon which the subject’s fantasy of the “Ideal-ego” was projected as total and unfragmented. The Symbolic order marked the infant’s entry into the realm of language – by appropriating and mastering the use of language, the subject carved a linguistic space of inhabitation within a field of signifiers. However, entrance into the Symbolic through the mirror stage meant forfeiting the infant’s pre-Symbolic state of heterogeneity (his or her relationship with the mother) for illusory totality and self-determination. This introduced a “lack” into the psychic structure of the newly-formed subject (since his/her relationship with the mother is perceived as a unity, a lack-of-a-lack); there is no subject first without lack. The order of the Real thus designated the pre-Symbolic space of inhabitation, and occasionally perforates the Symbolic through trauma and severe psychic perturbation.

For Friedrich A. Kittler, these three orders corresponded directly to the three media technologies of the gramophone, film and typewriter. These three psychic orders bore more than just a passing affinity to these technologies; according to Kittler, Lacan’s tripartite topology effectively theorized the separation of psychic life according to the spaces of inhabitation afforded by these machines in the first place. That is, the machine was no longer neutral territory upon which subjects played out their desires and fantasies. Rather, the machine and the subject enjoyed a symbiotic relationship through which the specifications of the mechanical medium organized the subject’s psychic reality. In fact, Kittler goes so far as to suggest that the Lacanian division of the psyche was an epistemological model which was historically enabled through the production of these media, as Geoffrey Winthrop Young and Michael Wutz point out:

“Hence, the distinctions of Lacanian psychoanalysis ... appear as the “theory” or historical effect” of the possibilities of information processing existent since the beginning of this century.”

Specifically, Lacan’s order of the Symbolic “now encompasses linguistic signs in their materiality and technicity” as made possible through the typewriter: first through the production of standardized “alphabetized” readers, then through higher forms of encoding via computers and the binary system. Recalling Saussure’s famous description of language as a system of “differences” without “positive terms”, Kittler argues that both people and computers are “subject to the appeal of the signifier”, disciplined according to an abstract chain of endless signification without a final “positive” term or destination. With sound recording, however, Kittler designates the gramophone Lacan’s order of the Real, since “only the phonograph can record all the noise produced by the larynx prior to any semiotic order and linguistic meaning”. Alongside the reproduction of phonemes (which conceals the pure, abstracted signifier), the phonograph simultaneously stores the “waste or residue” of “noise”, a sonic excess that is never fully soluble in the realm of the Symbolic. Finally, the medium of film is matched with Lacan’s order of the Imaginary much in the same way the early film theorists sought a relationship between image and subjectivity. Nearly reproducing their claims word for word, “Film”, Kittler claims, “was the first [medium] to store those mobile doubles that humans ... were able to (mis)perceive as their own body”.

It is in Kittler’s insistence once subjectivity as psychic symbiosis between man and machine that leads Nicholas Gane to view him as a theorist of “Post-humanism”. For Gane, Kittler’s exploration of the psychic landscapes between man and machine recasts Lacan’s discourse as a “material definition of consciousness” which (like information theory) “does not start from the question of meaning” but focuses on the ways in which “meanings are generated by an underlying technological framework”. Kittler, Gane asserts, bears the bright new torch of “post-human sociology”. But perhaps Gane’s joyous verdict steps too far ahead of a pressing question too quickly. If Gane’s evaluation of Kittler locates him within the coordinates of an epistemological counter-move (one is tempted to believe as reactionary to human-sociology), then are Kittler’s arguments rhetorical or descriptive? To put it another way, are Kittler’s post-human (cyborg?) psyches the well-paced products of strategic writing in order to overcome certain problematic binaries latent in academic writing (such man/nature or man/machine binary logics), or do they actually articulate a current state of reality?

For Richard Middleton, the answer is the latter; or rather, the latter made possible through the former – new strategies of binary subversion enabling a new logic of social inhabitation beyond power-impasses. Middleton’s work has already invigorated the field of popular music studies through the appropriation of vast Lacanian topics, and in the essay Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, argues that new music technologies (especially that of the DJ “mix”) allow listeners to transgress embodied categories of identification (like race, age or gender) in embrace of a post-human existence. Indeed for Middleton, the (often dense though virtuostic) force of his polemic revolves around the peculiarities of the voice as a bearer of Symbolic meaning and (recalling Roland Barthes) traces of the body. Reproduction technologies and recording apparatuses act as:

“... an acoustic mirror [...]. ‘Reflections’ of the vocal body, traversing anamorphically the gap between mouth and ear, have a capacity to short-circuit the ‘normal’ distinctions between inside and outside, self and other – for ‘the moment we enter the symbolic order, an unbridgeable gap separates forever a human body from “its” voice. The voice acquires a spectral autonomy, it never quite belongs to the body we see.’”

Virtually paraphrasing Kaja Silverman’s concept of vocal “projection” and “introjections”, Middleton offers us a psychoanalytic sonic counterpart to filmic “gaze” theory by theorizing the fundamentally split nature of the sounding voice. There is something “excessive” about the voice that escapes pure acoustic reflection, a dimension of its production that is inevitably “lost” whenever we speak or sing. What Middleton also draws attention to is the extra-Symbolic aspect of the voice, or what Mladen Dolar calls its “third level”, the “object voice” which stubbornly resists symbolisation. For Dolar, this spectral “object voice” is literally what Lacan called the “object petit a” (the little object/the object cause) beyond the mere Symbolic or the aesthetic, a “lever of thought, as opposed to the anthropomorphic masquerade of thinking”. But what is Lacan’s object petit a? To put it crudely: an impossible object of pure alterity that produces a horizon of desire just out of reach, a desire that can never be satiated. As Tood McGowan describes:

“Desire is motivated by the mysterious object that the subject posits in the Other – the object petit a – but the subject relates to this object in a way that sustains the object’s mystery [i.e. sustains his desire]. Hence, the object petit a is an impossible object: to exist, it would have to be simultaneously part of the subject and completely alien.”

Phonographic technologies reproduce precisely this “spectral” quality of this forbidden, disembodied voice, amplifying its “impossible” qualities (in the absence of an originating body to verify its “true” source) through its mechanical mode of presentation. But transfixing oneself upon the qualities of the object petit a as a site of barred jouissance (enjoyment, the threshold of pleasure/pain) in the (re)produced voice “places previous systems of both gender and race relations into crisis ... whose underlying mode ... is one of hysteria”. After all, the very “barred” qualities of the object petit a renders this transmogrified voice thoroughly inconceivable, throwing familiar epistemological structures of elucidation and familiarity into disarray. However, there is a positive note at the end of all these “impossible” objects. Examining the strange vocal qualities present in the tracks of ‘Dr Funkenstein’ (“strangely positioned in a frame of reference between the simian and the avian”), Middleton suggests that these yet-(epistemologically)-identifiable “creatures” may provide (sonic) platforms to rehearse our encounters with post-human Others as a template for intersubjective ethics. On the other hand, “changes in cultural technology” help to illuminate the pre-existing complexities of body politics, allowing us to materially “grasp ... the potentially fluid and always problematic nature” of these social relationships, and to articulate/inhabit new bodies – and possibilities – of being.

Hence for both Kittler and Middleton, Lacanian psychoanalysis possesses more than a mere casual relationship with reproduction technologies. Granted, their theoretical theses are inverted: while Kittler fathoms Lacanian distinctions of the psyche as beholden to technological changes, Middleton believes that phonographic technologies allow us to perceive our problematic (Lacanian) subjectivities with greater perspicuity. Nonetheless, mapping the nebulous terrain of the human psyche is a difficult one; what Lacanian psychoanalysis allows theorists to do is to creatively imagine new wirings of the unconscious amidst shifting social, cultural, political or technological geographies by stressing the horizons of thought and language. Paradoxically, it is these restrictive horizons in the first place that allow us to articulate different possibilities of being, construing the subject as a problematic yet exciting canvas upon which to paint (many) alternative future(s).

"Jesus Rocks it out!", or, the political mediatisation of religion

In a suburban America household, a mother survey’s her children’s addiction to their television set not without scepticism and reserve, worried that the pervasive use of “secular” references such as sex and violence may shake the staunch Christian orientation of her family. Perhaps the 1999 Columbine massacre orbits at the back of her mind, an event of shocking proportions that incited religious organizations to blame the “popular media”, and its depictions of violence. Grassroot inspired demonstrations speaking out against the socially corrosive effects of the “popular media” wasted no time in signalling out various forms of represented violence ranging from “violence on television, in the movies, and in video games” as affective rehearsals for copy-cat crimes enacted in the real world. Rachel Scott and Cassie Bernall (who both were fatally wounded), both invested evangelical Christians, dominated press headlines, portrayed as religious victims persecuted on the basis of their faith. According to Bernall’s father:

“When that young man asked Cassie if she believed in God, she boldly said yes, and he shot and killed her. The reason he did that was because she believed in God.”

With this statement, a linear pathway of logic linking violence, popular media and anti-Christianity (or hyper secularization) was established that framed Cassie Bernall as a victim of a larger de-sacralising media system that produced what Glenn Muschert calls the “Juvenile Superpredator”. The “media-threat” narrative clearly is not unheard of in larger discourses of the effects of the media on religion. In a sociological project examining the attitudes of American Christians towards media technologies and popular programming, many interviewees eloquently elaborated their views on the “power and pressure” of media influences on the home, while simultaneously expressing their concern for the influence of popular programming on young minds. Stewart Hoover’s research findings, however, suggest a startling degree of self-reflexivity on the part of the survey participants:

“Most of our interviewees readily talked about these things in terms of “accounts of media” through which they positioned themselves on the media landscape.”

Can these accounts therefore be easily trusted as evidence of the media’s threat to religiosity, or is there a flip-side to this coin, suggesting the confluence and conflict between different discursive teams of media technology “played out” over and through these mediums? For Hoover, what this degree of “reflexivity” seems to articulate is not so much the polluting of the ideological hegemony of religious beliefs through the increased encounter with counter-beliefs, but an increased participation and awareness about discourse models of media and technology that have come to dominate public discourse. Furthermore, Hoover points out that despite their mounting concerns over programmatic issues over the media, most Christian families interviewed presuppose the dumb innocence of these broadcasting technologies, treating their “relationship to media as a mediation” between their households and the discursive topics of the public sphere. Television, in particular, is conceived as a window to a garden of shared cultural commodities, representing “symbols, events, and ideas that are both important and lodged in a broader social and cultural context”. As much as televised programs threaten to penetrate the hermetic barrier of Religious censorship, one may also posit that televised content helps to fashion a discursive public sphere heavily reliant on these media as fodder for discourse.

What is problematic, then, by such “hypodermic” models of passive reception (and hence narratives of victimization), is the ways in which religious discourses thrown into relief against media discourses fashion a sense of collectiveness, self-determination, identity and temporal stability. Put another way, by adopting the conceptual framework of victimiser/victimised, religious organisations and subscribing individuals appeal to a mode of ahistoricism, worse – transcendental essentialism – which easily conforms to narratives of decline and corruption by so-called secular media content. Furthermore, “hypodermic” models tend to obscure the (often messy) negotiations that occur at the intersection between religion and the media, masking internal divisions within religious institutions as well as its participation in larger modes of discourse (such as politics and economics) which are tightly woven into the scaffold of their very ontology. To do so would be to deny the dialectical, albeit evolutionary, nature between religion and the media. Jeremy Stolow suggests we place a Foucauldian spin on the matter, and closely examine the “deep entrenchment of religious communities, movements, institutions and cultural forms in the horizons of modern communication technologies and their attendant systems of signification and power.” Indeed for Stolow:

“[The] field of religious symbols, practices, and modes of belonging has been radically extended through the colonization of a dizzying range of genres, technologies and forms: from popular history and pop-psychology books to websites, cartoons, trading cards, posters, rock music, bumper stickers, television dramas, scientific treatises, package tours and sundry forms of public spectacle.”

The very platforms of “secularization”, then, offer religious institutions surfaces for self-expression and Althusserian “interpellation”, offering a counterbalance to what is delineated as “secular” media. The differentiating barrier between the former and the latter, of course, is clouted with grey areas and blurred distinctions, as exemplified in the case of the 1960s Christian Rock Movement (CRM) initially established “by American evangelicals as an alternative to the mainstream ‘secular’ entertainment business”. As “clean” alternatives to hypersexualized MTV spectacles, CRM gained enormous popularity, occupying (and incorporating) diverse commercial rock genres from “soft and MOR through rock, heavy metal, punk and new wave.” As a mode of interpellataion, participating in CRM (though listening, album purchase and discourse) offered Christian youths a platform upon which to articulate difference and, correspondingly, the construction of “social reality” and shared communities of faith, bound by acts of consumption. And yet, this very act of appropriation (or hybridization) troubles simple categorizations of sacred/secular boundaries: how, for example, does one identify a “religious” rock song from a “non-religious” secular one?

One way, as John Reid notes, in which such difference is produced is through characterizing “themes” in lyrics such as “1) personal salvation, 2) witnessing of one’s faith, 3) living by example, 4) human frailties, 5) rebellion, 6) sin, 7) forgiveness and 8) God’s love and mercy.” However, this radically simplified delineation tends to produce examples that overlap with other non-sacred songs and songwriters; can we take, by extension, Bob Dylan’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (the latter an ordained Rinzai Buddhist monk in 1996) as a sacred song? The reverse formula produces a similar paradox: not all self-proclaimed “Christian rock bands” (such as popular Nashville group “Jars of Clay”) continually produce Christian-themed songs. How are we inclined to view the degree of “religiosity” of their secular products? Does the band members’ self-proclamation of faith thereby guarantee the “sacred” status of all their musical products? Last but not least, does the shift of emphasis from the “music-itself” to “lyric contents” as a defining factor indeed suggest a strategic moving away from metaphysical debates that attempt to puppeteer the “ineffable” nature of “autonomous music”, for the productive purposes of Christian/rock music hybridity? The musical aesthetics of the “Other”, it seems, are not simply absorbed or grafted without mutual transformation. What this illustration shows is that existing discursive models that frame the epistemological object of inquiry too, have to change in order to strategically accommodate hybridized entities.

What emerges out of this “tight weave” between media technologies and religiosity is the way in which such “media” (as employed by religious institutions) “have become central to the terms of interaction within and among the embodied regimens and imagined worlds that constitute the sacred in the global present”. As Stolow suggests, what might be worth investigating is not an imagined “impossible” gap between religion and the media, but a fundamental reconceptualising of the nature of religion itself as media. For Stolow:

“The problem with the phrase ‘religion and media’ is that it is a pleonasm. Whether as the transmission of a numinous essence to a community of believers, the self-presencing of the divine in personal experience, of the unfolding of mimetic circuits of exchange between transcendental powers and earthly practitioners, ‘religion’ can only be manifested through some process of mediation.” (My emphasis)

That is, instead of clinging on to conceptually limiting binary opposites, Stolow’s suggestion of viewing religion as media allows us to pursue two tributaries that diverge around an initial epistemological obstacle: the mediation (or mediatisation) of the sacred, and, conversely, the sacralising of the media. Indeed the application of the latter heuristic framework upon case studies in Christian Rock helps us to visualize Christian Rock aesthetics as a (cultural?) sacralising of technologies of reproduction and representation. CDs, DVDs or live performances of contemporary “worship music” (such as the internationally famous Australian “Hillsongs” praise and worship conference) co-opt mediatised Darstellung (modes of presentation) into sacred spheres of signification, re-“auraticizing” supposedly “innocent” medias as religious relics, or sites of religious praxis and collective identification. One may even go so far as to conceive the fanatical “stockpiling” of religious media as a form of religious object-fetish, imbued with a transmogrified form of mobile “liquid aura”, not unlike fascinations with the Shroud of Turin or the respected status of the Bible itself.

On the other hand, the mediation/mediatisation of the sacred attempts to shed light on the ways in which religious organisations recruit technology for their own purposes and, in the process, alter or infuse these medias with cultural, religious and institutional meaning. For example, Charles Hirschkind’s illuminating 2006 study of cassette sermons in urban Cairo districts reveals how the very material qualities of recorded Islamic sermons accrue extra-religious agency, which, in turn, reflect, inflect and transform the very institution(s) from which they originate. According to Hirschkind’s findings, the social mobility of cassette recordings and its “acoustic architecture” it enabled was instrumental in the production of what he calls an “Islamic counterpublic” – an interpellated public organized around the sonic reality governed and potentiated by these cassettes. The “extra-religious” dimension of the cassette tapes, for Hirschkind, lay in its complex interaction between state-politics, institutions and individuals, eventually playing a key role in a nation-wide “Islamic Revival” (ak-Sahwa al-Islamiyya) that led to the critique, interrogation and transformation of existing structures of religious and secular authorities. The ubiquity of the cassette sermons gave a young, rising class of University-educated intellectuals easy accessibly (not to mention easily smuggled) to vast and differing religious opinions, providing, as it were, the “glue” for new discursive forms for “arguing about and acting upon the conditions of social and political life”.

Most importantly, Hirschkind notes how the proliferation of cassette sermons led to an implicit decentralization of religious and secular power by the dissemination of competing points of view and religious interpretations. Counter-opinions were sought beyond state boundaries, assigning the slowly accumulating “counterpublic” the agency to give “public prominence to these orators that the Egypt State ... has been able to do little about”. These sonic discourses occupied a symbolic battle-space outside the cloistered arena of the mosques, deterritorialized, as it were, to spaces wherever cassette-players were available. These mobile soundscapes, Hirschkind argues, created “the sensory conditions of an emergent ethical and political lifeworld [outside the jurisdiction of the mosque], with its specific patterns of behaviour, sensibility, and practical reasoning”. Through Hirschkind’s analysis, the mediatisation of the sacred does not merely reproduce a “hypodermic” model of transformation. Rather, the media “speaks back” to religion, albeit through the fashioning of new technologically-influenced “modern [sonic] subjectivity” which conceives agents of the new Islamic “counterpublic” as human mediums – mediums with transformed “perceptual habits” that constitute:

“A unique religiopolitical configuration that simultaneously compliments and challenges both the secular-bureaucratic rationalities of the state and Egypt’s longstanding institutions of religious authority.”

Though discerning of the wider implications of mediatising religion, Hirschkind’s employment of the “counterpublic” (as a privileged site of resistance or contestation) does not sit easy with Stolow. According to Stolow, the problem with “counterpublic” is ultimately a problem with the question of agency; the notion of a “counterpublic” does nothing to conceptualize the possible contradictions, fractures and fissures imminent in its relation to other co-existing communities. Every “counterpublic”, Stolow reminds us, “is still a ‘public’ – subject to the same performative demand to win legitimacy through claims of representativeness, and the need to marginalize those within and without who threaten to subvert this effort”. As such, Hirschkind’s emphasis on the “counterpublic” tends to over-romanticize the autonomy of such spheres without paying enough attention to “the nature of religious publicity and its relationship with what are purported to be the ‘non-religious’ dominant public spheres” especially in multi-ethnic, multicultural societies. The consideration of the “Other” within the context of plural postmodern communities provide a challenging nexus of intersubjective negotiation in which modes of self-determination of religious organizations undergo compromises under the purview of egalitarian governance.

Tong Soon Lee’s essay on the role of loudspeakers and the Islamic call to prayer (adhan or azan) precisely performs the tricky operation of teasing apart the politics of representation and self-determination in postcolonial Singapore. Owing to the culturally diverse makeup of Singapore’s demographics, the use of loudspeakers atop mosques to broadcast the adhan underwent a series of contestations in the 1970s due to political and ideological social restructuring projects implemented by the government. During the second half of the 1960s, a politically-driven program on “nation building” saw the destruction and local deterritorialization of urban villages or rural kampungs which (due to earlier colonial arrangements by representatives of the British East-Asian Company) were ethnically and hence racially distinct. The resettlement of villagers to multi-ethnic districts was (and still is) highly regulated by the government in order to microcosmically reflect the macroscopic ethnic makeup of Singapore, creating ethnically heterogeneous areas of population. As such, the reterritorialization of the adhan amidst an locally intense heterogeneous environment gave cause for complaint that the sonic universe of the “Other” was unnecessarily “polluting” the sonic terrain of non-Islamic residents. In 1974, despite drawing harsh criticisms from grassroot Islamic groups, the government and Islamic organizations “decided to re-direct the loudspeakers of the mosques inward” in order to minimize the sonic encroaching upon the Other’s space. Eventually, radio was mobilized as a solution to tensions between the public and the authorities, which “broadcast[ed] the call to prayer five times a day” in recompense for reducing “the amplitude of loudspeakers in existing mosques”.

For Lee, the redefinition of an Islamic “acoustic community” via the radio had a profound impact on the way the Islamic faith was practiced in Singapore. Faced with the problem of ethically dealing with the newfound spatial proximity of Others, Lee notes how it was “necessary for Muslims to reinterpret their tools of culture production and adapt to changes in social space”. Through fostering spaces of religiosity by adapting its method of mediatising interpellation, this new ontic property of the adhan subsequently redefined the reception and cultural, embodied response to these new adhan Darstellung. For Lee, “what was previously an inclusive, community-wide tradition has now become decentralized and individualized, reduced to an almost personal, private act of worship”. Lee goes further, claiming that the very production of gender difference in the remediated adhan positions women “equally to men ... in terms of their reception of the Islamic call to prayer” whereas previously, women were not expected to attend prayers.

When perceived as media, religion is understood to be an open-ended process rather than an enclosed hermetic system of static knowledge, beliefs and practices. Indeed one is able to focus on the act of transmission and the structures of knowledge that enable transmission, or problematize transmission. Conversely, the recruitment of new media technologies to widen the girth of possible transmission pathways inevitably tamper with the ontic properties of the transferred, revealing cracks and inconsistencies (or the locatedness) of existing knowledge-structures of transmission. Slowly but subtly, the alteration of these knowledge-praxis structures in order to validate or expedite these new pathways of transmission changes the features of the system itself, leading to the formulation of new beliefs, new challenges, and perhaps new media.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Marilyn Manson: That Cyborg/Posthuman Thing!

Kin Toffoletti's "Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls" is a great read: the first chapter alone lays bare some of the crucial tensions within the cyborg/posthumanist and feminist debate; each theorist generally views the possibilities of posthumanity very differently, and some criticism is aimed at the "post" prefix as a mode of political transgression. As Middleton suggests, stupid machinery may be easily absorbed into phallogocentric (I really think that's Irigaray's word...) rationality - he cites the "body" of the gramophone in its sexed implications and wonders if the mere materiality of technology may not reproduce conceptual binaries of masculinity/femininity or penetrative/receptive logics.

On the other hand, there are two other strands of thought that emerge beyond the domestication (Symbolic dissolution) of the machine into these simple categories. Sherry Turkle (The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, 1984) engages playfully with reconstructive subjectivity (with her spin on Simone de Beauvoir), with particular attention to Multi User Domains (MUDS) amd virtual chat rooms. These spaces are evacuated of the body, though they (re)present forums upon which electronic identities coincide and negotiate, upsetting previous forms of embodied essentialism which Middleton also pays attention to. With a nod that anticipates Judith Butler's "Undoing Gender", MUDS may funciton as theatres of masqued confusion, where "users" perform potentially subversive subjectivities (eg. Woman masquerading as a man, vice versa).

Even though the counter-argument is that these playful games of masking reinforce the abysmal dislocation of the self from the Other and reifies old articulations of difference, one may propose that the very ambiguity - that is, the very possibility of subverting (transgressing) the boundaries of one's (over)determined bodies online is reason enough to imagine a "nervous" citizenship in Cybertopia. Thus, the possibility that this always-anticipated "nervousness" (or, for Middleton, "hysteria", the lack of voice-knowledge) can either reformulate models of (cyber)intersubjectivity or illuminate the body as a site that is already (for Lacan) "overloaded with signifiers" beyond the "subject's" control.

Another train of thought is the machine as the anthromorphocized Other. This notion, of course, is frought with theoretical pitfalls that (perhaps) erase the easy distinctions between natural/artificial: as machine thinks more like man, man thinks more like machine? There is a vague echo of Arendt's "banality of evil" residing in the machinic, almost evacuated and sanitized extermination of the Jews as a consequence of systematization, of Heideggerian "enframing" of Otherness as (non/post-human) "standing reserve". Or take Deleuze and Guttari's oft appropriated notion of the post-psychoanalytic BwO that operates without lack, regulated by flows, sites of intensities, and "plugged in" to the sphere of the social/material through compatability with assemblages of desiring machines. There was a recent article (I have to check this up) on an Islamic terrorist group using D&G's (sounds like the Oxford ice-cream chain!!) concepts of "territorialization" and "deterritorialization" to inform their violent activities. "Plugged in" to war machines as modes of desire production, that is.

Even Virilio in "Speed and Politics" (plus Kittler too!) recruit military violence as a genealogical narrative in the formation of contemporary media-politics, and (especially Virilio) warn of the future deployment of these media as mobilizing devices. Or, as Baudrilliard warns us, a war faught upon the mediation of digital interfaces which keeps the soldier's hands clean; in a perverse reversal of logic, the Other that appears on the soldier's screen is already a machine, an image reduced to essentially (pun intended) "null" value.

Where does this take us to in music? Or, perhaps more specifically, the politics of music? Recall Michael Moore's biting inquiry into youth culture, media, representation and 1999 Columbine High School massacre, released in
2002. Moore's journalistic scrutiny parses apart the deeply tangled debate
between representations of violence, and the possibility of these representations in encouraging real "copycat" acts at the fringes of reality/representation. Here, Marylin Manson comes back into the picture, a figure who was automatically blamed as a contingent cause of cultural violence which (at least by Christian political groups) propagated or encouraged real acts of violence. (There is a fantastic related study into fringe violence by Mark Pizzato called Theatres of Human Sacrifice: from ancient ritual to screen violence (SUNY Press, 2005), see especially chapter 3 on "Natural Born Killers") These charges of culturally embedded violence in Manson's music and music videos were caustic enough to cause Manson to cancel the last leg of his American tour in honour of the memory of the victims of the Columbine High School massacre - does this suggest consent of his role?

Manson acutely points out that on the day of the Columbine massacre, American violence on foreign territory had multiplied exponentially, noting that in a cultivated atmosphere of American "fear", the public had hypocritically forgotten the acts of violence carried out in their name on alien soil. That is, to put it in Lacanese, "violent music" is but the object of fetish for subjects in need of verification, of reason, which allows them to "ignore" the wider systematic violence carried out upon the turf of American self-determination. Simple fetishistic disavowal... perhaps... But Manson goes further: "I am fear," s/he says, "I am the embodiment of fear", a monster, an intense locus of abjected being that embraces the radical alterity of the Other (implicit within the split self) upon him/herself. Perhaps this is why s/he is such an easily targetable icon.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Back to the Musical Other...

What's at stake in Music Theory? After all, isn't it a harmless set of formal procedures set out to (in Ian Bent-ism) find out how music "works"? Then again, we'd better check the ground for landmines (or shards of mirrors) lest we delve into the depths of musical mystery and gaze deep into the reflection of our own bewilderment. In other words, what we risk is "discovering" traces of a logic that we've epistemologically mapped to discover. The same way any text could be correctly 'Marxist', correctly 'psychoanalytical' or "(fill in your own analytical blanks)", the nugget of gold we've found may turn out to be the child-treasure we burried in our backyard years ago in a frisky game of "Cowboys and Indians". "Hang on!" say the neo-Hermeneuticists (Gadamer and Co.) who insist that any productive academic-textual adventure is necessarily an encounter, more, a dialogue. After all, how can you "see yourself" without the mirror being there in the first place? Perhaps, the trick is to recognize the contingencies of one's own values, and the inevitability of getting tangled up in subject/object ambiguities. What I'm trying to say is that faced with the abysmal musical mystery, that dark unknowable plot of nebulous woods, the heuristic tools we manufacture to navigate "construct" the epistemological Object. Das Ding, as it is, is presupposed in some way via the materials we use to dissect it.

But if the seed of analysis we plant blooms into a plant that was "already ours" in one sense, we forget that the same plant is nourished by the dark earth that enables its blossoming in the first place. But let's twist logic a little more, and consider if the deep abyss of unknowability is precisely a symptom, an inevitable remainder of our cognitive and linguistic procedures. It is precisely these hermeneutic structures which de-mystify and instrumentalize our immediate reality that "digs a mysterious hole" in itself, preparing, as it were, spaces of ineffability in which these musical mysteries inhabit. The "ineffable", Abbate reminds us, remains the sailent feature of "Absolute Music" and the point de capiton of Ideological Musical Autonomy. And how does this relate to the musical Other? Can we not examine our critical approaches to analysis as a sort of rehearsal for the encounter betweeen ourselves and radical Otherness, the mysterious Abyss of Radical Alterity as Zizek would put it?

The academic field is indeed replete with examples. Take Susan McClary, whose "thick" investigations into sexual politics in music suggests that language and metaphor suffuse the scaffold of musical structure. We should read McClary more defectively, I think, and wonder if Music's relation to linguistic tropes in a field of historical discourse contributes actively to the "pasting over" its own epistemological insufficiency by trying to define (hence control) its epistemological object. These signifiers, then, orbit about the insoluble kernel of music's Other-space in a frenzy: all McClary can do is to attempt to reconstruct the linguistic politics (the invisible Big Other) that somehow "vanishes" in the act of naming the Object. But the reverse holds true. McClary's investigations are similarly predicated upon a different hold on sexual politics that figures the musical object into a field ready to receive (or to give up) the ghostly secrets of its oppressive Fathers.

We've reached a terrific vanishing point for this stupid slippery object called music. Like Marx who insisted that his revision of Hegel's topology would not reveal the secret of the commodity, but the secret of the system Of commodities itself, perhaps certain Music Theorists should give up the (unconscious) bluff that their tools are overloaded with their fingerprints.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Teleological Polarities, or, making the vanishing mediator (Adorno) reappear!

No one could have more harshly criticized poor Stravinsky for his culturally destructive objectives than Adorno. According to the latter, Stravinsky signposted the very real material effects of the decline of music qua the culture industry which could not but lead to the "liquidation of the individual" (see Philosophy of New Music), worse still, "Auschwitzch" itself (see Negative Dialectics). Perhaps Stravinsky should have been a little wiser; critical sharks roam fast and hungry in a war-ravaged world plagued by the real ideological threat of Nazism and Fascism (which many intellectuals happily grouped together under the same presuppositions of totalitarian manipulation), bouyed with the still-festering revolutionary ideals of socialism and the utopianist enterprise. By positing such a fiercely nostalgia-presuming title such as "Neo-Classicism", Stravinsky no doubt tossed himself on the grill to be flayed, conceptually bifurcated into two receptive modes of understanding. The first was (perhaps childishly conceived) "anti-modernism", better still, "anti-modernism anti-romaticism" which implied a renewed reverence for the Kantian "thing-in-itself" of objective reality; a critical position. The second, even more infantile than the first, was nostalgia for a utopianistic agenda that was precisely soaked in Romatic German Ideology for a sort of seamless language that resutured the signifier to the signified. A musical objectivity would assume to deliver the "musical object" through a "musical language" to speak of, no less, no more: "for Christssakes Igor, call the spade a spade!"

But is there a peverse "third way", a constructive strategy that troubled the assumptions of the Frankfurt School by precisely working through the conceptual models of Stravinsky and Schoenberg? Here we encounter no simple dichotomy cut-and-dried; in fact, we find Schoenberg straying much farther from the resistive dimension Adorno tried so hard to articulate in order to preserve an "elite" form of critical listening as opposed to anti-teleological "regressive listening". Far from casting himself as revolutionary reactionary, Schoenberg dumbed the axe he first grineded to sever the consonance/dissonance binary. Chaos ensued: without an organizing principle articulating hierarchy, the centripetal pull of tonality was a supernova, blasting a well-organized system of orbiting celestial (tonally pitched) bodies into a constellation of free-roving stars. Musica Mundanna was now a white dwarf, floating sheepishly in space and dimly remnant of the divine light it once showered upon a Republic of happy Platonic composers. No wonder Schoenberg quickly reverted to other forms of teleology to make up for this musical embarrasment: not only was the "emancipation of dissonance" prefigured in Beethoven, Wagner and Debussy, Schoenberg was the latest captain of music's teleo-Logical ship, steering it into the mysterious waters of an exciting future.

And we think - so much so for the Adorno-esque hero that represents a full resistance to the destructive compulsions of Capitalist anti-dialectics. Or, we could simply imply that Schoenberg's 12-tone serial technique announced in the 1920s had reverberant effects beyond what he had originally imagined. That is to say culture misinterpreted what Schoenberg had produced, never mind what he had in mind. On the other hand, we have Stravinsky whose witty transfiguration of historical style pushes merely beyond blind mimesis or self-depricating parody. Let's forget the surface implications of "New-Objectivity" and "Neo-Classicism" for a while, lending our ears, as it was, to the strange twists and turns he inflicted on a growing sense of a (musical) historical universe. History, it seems, was the key word. With the professionalization and institutionalization of the discipline in the late 18th and 19th century, followed by numerous Bach and Mozart revivals, composers, performers and intellectuals at the first unfoldings of the 20th century were immersed in a sense of continuity, and at the same time reverence for so-called "origins". Like incestuous siblings, Origins and Historical consciousness were authors of power (even though along the way they begot some truly disfigured scions), upon which the "new" and the "contemporary" were foregrounded. History and geneaology would triumph over the war-loving grenade-licking tendenceis of the Avant-Garde world who were all to simply linked with the Futurists. Now was not a time to think of the new: now was a time to think of how the new subjectivized, indeed politicized!

And yet we forget that the condition of exile, the condition of displacement pronounces real diasporic effects on composers and long-cherished ideas of teleology. Adorno (and Benjamin) got the drift, forsaking traditional dialectical structures for a more pessimistic tone of an anthropocentric critical subject (just a different kind of utopianism - elitism), holding the deadly abyss of docile conformism at bay with the sheer force of negative dialectics: "If you can't beat 'em, make sure they don't win!!" But perhaps for all his caustic waggings, Adorno just failed to see that the polarity between Stravinsky and Schoenberg was contingent upon his role as the vanishing mediator. That is, contingent upon Adorno subjectivising himself IN the works of either composer. To make Adorno reappear, we have to conjure Brecht, whose own "alienation" (exile) from Berlin to the experience OF "alienation" (foreignness) in America, possibly led him to conceive of a theatrical strategy (no points for guessing what its called) - indeed a Darstellung (presentational mode) - that adressed the spectator as exile in his own cultural space of inhabitation. That is, critically "alienated" from the nonseductive mechanisms of "Epic Theatre", the spectator is free to make critical comparisons that may just ignite that little bit of resistive spirit in us all.

And was this not, too, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Adorno and Benjamin, who sought to verbalize the full condition of the "Unheimlich" in its original form? Perhaps the Freudian condition had its worth of critical truth for these thinkers, since the "return of the repressed" meant, on the flip-side of its definition, a return to a cognitive state prior to the injunctions of the consumer industry. It was precisely being "not at home" where one finally understood how one's apperception of "homeliness" was constructed in the first place. But how does Stravinsky deal with this displacement? Strangely, not through some defacement of a prior system in order to purify the "condition of alienation" musically, but an engagement in bizarre masque ball, whereby historical cosciousness itself as a source of authorative power is questioned. In fact, we can track Stravinsky's long musical development from Russian Nationalism, Neo-Classicism, Jazz-influenced works and late serialism as one long trajectory encapsulated as a single critique, as a single process. It is not that Stravinsky simply appropriates these masks as a peverse game of fort-da ("now you see Stravinsky... oh wait! now you don't!), but rather, Stravinsky's struggle with musical style is precisely one that flattens an idea of historical telos, one that refutes its conceptual categories of "high" and "low", "serious" and "light" or "past" and "present" by simply presenting to us a different form of subjective struggle. In other words, Stravinsky's seemingly "surface" (simulacra) engagement with these materials throw the entire condition by which we judge the veracity and authority of cultural or historical difference and distance into relief, into question.

As Butler would have suggested, Stravinsky's masque of New-Objectivity does not "liquidate" the subject, it necessarily implicates him by revealing the works as a performative encounter of the alien, the struggle to conform and the will-to-hybridity (Homi Bhaba). By doing so, Stravinsky composes (performs) his own attempts to hybridize the subject with a foreign culture, itself a reverse form of "alienation" that, in retrospect, critically espies systems of culture that are often "essentialised" or taken as "givens". But what of his apparent "give-away" quips about "order" and "disciplinarity" to the extent of leaving much musical material excised in order to speak? The contradictions of New-Objectivity are surface, just as the masks culture employs to preserve a sense of its uniqueness. In other words, culture is an intricate fabric of discipline and order in itself that "subjectivizes" the individual, curtails his speech by clearing away and authorizing Symbolic spaces of discourse that are recognized amongst participating subjects. To this effect, any mode of alien "incorporation" to a foreign discursive model must necessarily entail the reconfiguration of one's Symbolic Universe, and reconstitution (hybridization) of such through operations of discipline and control, "repression" as some might negatively call it.

Stravinsky's "hybridization" phase, therefore, is a failure, and a necessary one. For it is through the failure to conform that the mechanism of the diasporic's struggle to assimilate becomes clear, a clarity that works on both levels since to identify the vagrant is to be aware of the system that works to exclude the vagrant. It is through Stravinsky's necessary failure on a mimetic-syntactical level that lends his critique of culture dynamism, a construction that deliberately eschews the telos of style as well as the telos of the compser-individual by treating the musical dimension as surface to begin with. It is only then that we gain an understanding of Stravinsky's anti-utopianist critique that disregards sources of power by penetrating deep into the performative structures that enable supposedly "closed" authoritarian systems of discourse, chiding us to start taking off our masks (or putting on new ones), plunging into a difficult discourse of guess-and-tell by leaving the comfortable armchair of the parade of fools.

Postscript on the picture of Stravinsky's arrest by the Boston Polics Department (see above):

"Stravinsky was arrested by the Boston police for the unconventional major seventh chord in his arrangement of the "Star-Spangled Banner," illustrated with a reproduction of Stravinsky's mug shot" (source: http://www.artsjournal.com/postclassic/2006/09/stravinsky_captured_in_words.html)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Robin Hood: A Second Glance

I was watching Michael Curtiz and William Keighley's "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938) in a class yesterday, which, while marketed for a mass Hollywood audience, employed the cryptic tag line: "Only the rainbow can duplicate its brilliance!" Of course, this referred (almost) explicitly to the fact that "Robin Hood" was produced in Technicolour, then a major market selling-factor for audiences eager to see the virtual approach the tangent of reality with each passing technological marvel.

But doesn't the very implications of the statement already insinuate some kind of "inner-work", some sort of subliminal replacement of the system of signification for an economy of endlessly deferred signifiers? You weren't merely simply watching man's mastery over the optical in a re-presentation of the visual spectacles of nature: you were watching the rainbow itself, in all its exorcisms of nature. You were watching the new nature, the economy of the sign standing as "integral reality" (Baudrilliard). The plot, in the full throes of post-Great Depression optimism, heralds a bygone era of:

"sublime innocence and breathtaking artistry, at a time when its simple values rang true. In these cynical days when swashbucklers cannot be presented without an ironic subtext, this great 1938 film exists in an eternal summer of bravery and romance. We require no Freudian subtext, no revisionist analysis; it is enough that Robin wants to rob the rich, pay the poor and defend the Saxons not against all Normans, only the bad ones: "It's injustice I hate, not the Normans." (Robert Ebert, 2003, Chicago Sun-Times)

Guised through the battle between the Normans and the Saxons is a thin veil barely suggesting the triumph of Liberal Democracy over Fascism. Will Scarlett (played by Patrick Knowles) adopts a gender-queering role as Robin's (Errol Flynn) partner-in-crime, the youth adonis not quite conquered by the vestiges of sexuality, not fully mature enough to grasp the intricacies of the closet binary (Eve Sedgwick). Scarlett is knowingly cast in brilliant red (not simply a play on his name), trotting through the woods of green-ochre-and-brown Merry Men, sticking out like a visual sore-thumb, a bull's eye point on the target with an arrow tagged for the sexual, or communist deviant. It is Scarlett who appropriates the male Orpheus stereotype, bewitching the battle of Robin Hood and Little John with the sensuous strummings of his lyre. Unlike real men, Scarlett cannot fight: he sits, ousted from the orbit of homosociality in the other men's Hegelian master/slave fight for recognition, while knowingly understanding that he is a force of repulsion that keeps their economy in centripetal orbit.

But the main mystery belongs to Maid Mirian (Olivia de Havilland), forever sutured to the self-negating soaring orchestral strings of Korngold's richly-imagined score. Mirian's theme persists only within the community of the (fascist) Normands; like Scarlett, Mirian is subjectively desexualized, though continuously cast as a regelia of sexual desire - her sexuality has outrun her own sex. In a crucial turning point, Mirian "opens her eyes" (aided by Robin) to the deplorable conditions of the working class, "taxed" beyond their abilities to sustain her hedonistic upper-string wails. Only then can Mirian, as a self-determining woman, consider the advances of the vagrant "outlaw" as primal and possible: shattering the master-signifier of the Normands, Mirian's Symbolic world shatters in her "second death" only to find Robin as the only possible crutch. Zizek was right: in a world of reversals and outlaws, "evil" transgressions can only be accorded by a prior "ultimate" form of transgressive evil itself: The Law (of the Normands).

The complete and utter fragmentation of Mirian's Symbolic Universe de-sutures her from Korngold's score - she has no "place" in the Symbolic economy of signification, since her renunciation of beliefs exiles her from that position of privilege, de facto. Shedding the "master-signifier", Korngold's score (like a Peter-Pan shadow) unstiches itself from Mirian's body and unleashes a trap-door beneath her feet by way of falling out - Mirian is now the liminal being, left to reconstruct a universe of meaning based upon a Robin Hood as a new Sinthome. But her new self-determination contains a peverse narcissistic secret: impassioned as she is from breaking out of her initial blindness, it is the fantasmic desire of Robin Hood that sustains her entire being: fulfillment would surely close the impossible gap. Therefore, by saving Robin's life, Mirian's "love theme" returns, but it is not she that is signified, she becomes her own signifier, propelling the music, as it were, by her own will. This is the secret to Mirian's peverse statement to Robin as he climbs through the windows of her castle and proclaims he loves her. She simply replies "I don't love you." Of course she doesn't. She loves herself.