Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hermeneutic Hem & Haw

Boredom is time's parasite, suckling & growing stronger in tandem with its host. Boredom is the devil on time's shoulder, advocate of ill deeds for the sake of novelty. In its unending quest for surprise & sensation, the human brain finds a special joy in complication and, unfortunately, the greatest trick boredom plays upon the conscious is making convolution almost indistinguishable from experimentation & exploration.

This is the boondoggle of cultural theory: where does purposeful deconstruction end and abstract masturbation begin? Beyond what boundary does analysis dissolve into self-serving shit-talking?

The more time spent pursuing a given subject, connections will be made to, and curiosity will be invested in, tangential areas of interest. I've yet to meet a graphic designer who wasn't also an impeccable dresser, or an archeologist who preferred the confines of the classroom to digging in the dirt. This is how hobbies become careers and how nerds become critics & cultural theorists.

Post-modernism was given popular currency by Generation-Xers who made a fetish of their mass-media-steeped childhoods. More recently, the portmanteau hauntology has been claimed by counter-cultural early adopters in England, as it invokes a spectral, analog, left-leaning potential they glimpsed during their childhoods, subsequently trampled under thirty years of digital & neoliberal hegemony. Meanwhile, the current proliferation of horror-movie & black-metal theory is the obvious product of an early-'90s adolescence locked in basement bedrooms, losing sleep to John Carpenter flicks & Cannibal Corpse albums.

But at what point do the questions become excessive? Is Watchmen actually just fairly crap science fiction? Is The Big Lebowski really "about" anything? Wasn't G.G. Allin just a raging asshole? "Sometimes a pig is just a pig."

This month, I'm working on the sound design & musical score for a zombie movie by some friends of mine. Brief mention of this endeavor prompted an acquaintance to wax philosophic about how Japanese horror films, with their ubiquitous onryō, attest to a culture irredeemably haunted by a past from which it's been traumatically severed. By the time he unfurled his interpretation of Versus as an elegy for bushido, I had to meekly explain that, actually, the film I'm working on is just a slapstick punch-up between zombies having a picnic.

But I'm more often on the receiving end of such conversational shut-downs. My latest micro-screed about The Arcade Fire caught the attention of a former high-school classmate, who closed a decade-plus gap in correspondence with the following communiqué:
don't you think you're getting a little old for this "my opinion is the only opinion" crap?
Clearly, she's never heard of Robert Christgau. But to be fair, why would a margin-walker like myself care about mainstream rock stars receiving mainstream acclaim? As I elaborated in the comment thread, my problem specifically with The Arcade Fire has to do with their histrionic populism & pseudo-dissident posturing. Their pose as a "true alternative," as an irreverent fringe element convinces their audience that they - both the band and its fan base - are far more artistically fearless & politically radical than they actually are. The Arcade Fire are musical Soma, tethering listeners' imaginations to a beige middleground.

Mind you, the audience often doesn't care to be fooled into thinking themselves audacious or unconventional - they're perfectly happy with a toe-tappin' beat and a karaoke chorus, thank you very much. It'd be silly to expect dogmatic vanguardism of everyone, given that most people have concerns more pressing than music. It's disappointing, though, to see those who have as much as (if not more than) I invested in music being lazy as listeners to the point of belittling the sonically inquisitive. I was surprised, for example, to see Simon Reynolds chuck the following barb at cult icon Scott Walker:
I thought, yes, yes, a campaign petitioning Walker to stop recording angst-wracked avant-garde Masterpieces (that you never feel like playing) and write/sing/release an actual, you know, tune
...which is a silly complaint, not the least because we already know what Scott Walker courting the mainstream, dutifully trend-hopping, adopting & discarding musical personae, would sound like: David Bowie. And is anyone particularly pleased with the self-impersonating mediocrity into which Bowie and so many other over-50 rockers settled? Worse still, what sadist would doom Walker to spend his autumn years grudgingly running through the Belgian bagatelle "Jackie" for the millionth time? (Besides Marc Almond, of course.)

I also feel there's a slight double-standard at work, hinging on the Scott Walker brand. Let's imagine The Drift had been released as the new Swans album, exchanging Walker's honeyed croon for Michael Gira's croakier baritone. Walker's always been framed as a wounded bourgeois romantic and consequently never had much rebel cachet, whereas Gira has long been cast as one of rock's great primitivists. Thus, my guess is that those who wish Walker hadn't stretched conventions any further than "Plastic Palace People" would absolutely puke superlatives over The Drift, were it released under the Swans imprimatur.

I also suspect one of the reasons that Reynolds dislikes Scott Walker's recent work is that it's "inside baseball": the only people who will listen to a song from the perspective of Mussolini's dead mistress are the kind of people who actively seek such esoterica. Put another way: the only people who listen to Einstürzende Neubauten are the ones who can spell the band's name. Junk culture, on the other hand, can potentially infect a larger audience than any deliberately high-minded art-house fare. Most people don't know what "post-serialist composition" is, but many of them have heard it in The Shining, Shutter Island, even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

This is why junk culture is such a potent target for criticism. Art is never apolitical, ergo within even the most apparently banal & crass cultural detritus lurk multiple meanings & encrypted themes. Critical overreach can imbue easily-dismissed dreck with radical portent, as in Zizek's famous rendering of They Live! as covert Marxist screed. Intellectual rigor can also guard against more dangerous & reactionary subtexts: the Saw series, for example, was clearly an attempt to anesthetize American audiences to scenes of gruesome torture so that when Abu Ghraib blew up, it was met with raised eyebrows instead of shrieking outrage.

Critical overreach will not always produce useful or true results, but critical underreach never will. The only caveat is to temper evaluative exercise with a healthy heap of self-skepticism. As I've mentioned before, obscurantist indulgence is often a smokescreen for personal fancy, "a far more noble & ego-inflating position for a writer, rather than have to admit that, for reasons as inarticulable & irrational as emotions, they just don't dig something."


JM said...

Speaking of Zizek, there's now analysis of his analysis and what they have to say ain't pretty:

On the other hand, this guy's a bit of a nutter.

And The Watchman and Beastie Boys' videos are both great. I agree about Arcade Fire being generic despite Suburb's awesome production

Seb said...

Zizek's critics have been around as long as he has, and I think that some of them (Qlipoth included) do have a point - certainly as Zizek's been growing slightly sloppier in recent years. But it's important to have an open Marxist with as broad an appeal as his to keep the Left talking amongst itself to refine its politics - especially to correct mistakes Zizek might make.

And I was referring to Watchmen the comic series, not the band The Watchmen, whom I don't particularly care for.

Tim Donderevo said...

Criticism is more voguish than ever, thanks to empowering yahoos with phone-votes and the power to decide who the best singer in the world is. You make a great point about the balance between criticism acknowledging potential meaning (your example is art) and criticism imposing meaning (or worse, hyping pastiche where neither critic or artist acknowledge or understand the source material. I've had countless arguments pertaining to this, about the scruples of Tarrantino.)

Now there's nothing wrong with Elitism - but I draw the line at haters. This Scott Walker thing is nothing less than punching the girl you fancy in the playground. I read a similar thing in the Onion, about Michel Gondry receiving a new cardboard box and getting very excited about all the films he could make in it. Funny - but ill-conceived criticism. The Over-reaching critic thinks: Ha ha ha - but - surely Gondry is innovative and ego-less and one of the only alternative film makers in Hollywood - and the Onion is entry-level frat-boy satire. The Under-reaching critic thinks: Ha ha ha - yeah - that smug French bastard - stoopid cardboard and shit.

It seems inevitable then, that the only authentic voices of our times are thrown into the cultural blender to enrich the ever-thickening smoothie. But Scott Walker doesn't give a shit - he doesn't even listen to his own music so its unlikely that he cares what Simon Reynolds thinks - and neither should anyone that understands Scott Walker. I WOULD like to see him tour doing Jacque Brel - so long as he performed in front of a crucified Marc Almond.

For years I kept hearing chatter about Arcade Fire, and every time I heard them I would instantly forget they existed, and then feel guilty about being unfashionable. Are they emblematic of post-modern mediocity? No more so than any popular band today or in the past. They're just shit. Boring and wanky - which is the benchmark of credibility in this climate.

I only know one real punk - y'know - one that doesn't have any hippie leanings (like me). Sometime last year his facebook status read 'Everything's boring except the Pistols' - the familiar moan of late 70s British counter-culture. But I can't deny that he (or they) are right. I can't imagine an anti-social star in the present day. It might be impossible for a modern entertainer to stop themselves from buying into celebrity and its trappings.

I fully agree that post-modernism has gone systemic in the X-gens - and the net result of our over-saturated-culture-pastiche homage-melange-mixtape is total mediocrity. Like one of those huge wobbly blancmanges from the sixities with too many layers and decorations.

Watchmen '...just bad sci-fi' (???) Not at all - in 1985 I thought Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns were the final nails in the Cryptonite coffin of tedious American comics. But there seems to be a lot of people around for whom it instead added reinforcement to the American Hero monument. To me those comics were incendiary to the genre-comic - and still are - but comic nerds are too thick-skinned or thick-skulled to care. I will concede that the physical climax of Watchmen is kinda stupid - but its at least one post-modern conceit to the bad sci-fi it was supposed to debunk. The notion of Dr Manhattan alone (superman becomes god and abandons man) is unquestionably great sci-fi.

And Bowie - I kinda agree - he is certainly a vampire, feasting on the artistic vitality of whoever is hottest - so its telling that his supply dried up some years ago. Thankfully the same can't be said for Walker.

JM said...

I meant the comic book was brilliant, sorry.

JM said...

And Bowie's 70 stuff is good, damn it.

Seb said...

Tim - I'm all for elitism of a particular kind in art. Why not be demanding of both the audience & the artists? How could that be anything but good? On the other hand, glib dismissal of anything that doesn't inhabit the gated cul-de-sac of personal taste is just reactionary & conservative.

And the dig at Watchmen was more troll-bait than anything else. I'm personally not a big comic guy, so I'm largely indifferent to it. I don't honestly think it's bad, but I would never put it on the same level as Philip K. Dick, Douglas Adams, or even Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (though Miller's flirtation with fascism makes me really uncomfortable).

Funny you should mention Tarantino; a good friend has recently gone on the warpath (again) about what an unrepentant thief the guy is. "The only defence you could make of [Tarantino]," he said, "is he's taking a kind of hiphop approach to film-making, lifting bits and bobs to make a better patchwork." I responded thusly: I think the hip-hop analogy actually works pretty well. Plenty of hip-hop producers are really coy about revealing their sample sources (you don't have to pay to clear a sample if no one knows what it is, after all). But if a listener happens to hear a loop or sample in its original context, it's often disillusioning. "C.R.E.A.M." is absolutely killer, but it knocks the wind out of RZA's sails to know the whole track is just the first 4 seconds of the Charmells' "As Long As I've Got You". Tarantino's films are deftly executed and usually damned entertaining, but he's just counting on his audience not being as studiously nerdy as he was.

Jeffrey said...

Post-modernism was given popular currency by Generation-Xers who made a fetish of their mass-media-steeped childhoods.

As an aside, the interesting thing about this is that though the Brave New Digital World gives all you youngsters more resources at you finger tips ("Search the stacks? What for?"), much of what passes for criticism today is based on a platform a mile wide and inch deep. Old stuff still has meaning and import.

Tim Donderevo said...

The Hip-Hop analogy is a very good one - I've never thought of it that way, but I admit its exactly the same thing. Tarantino then, is more of a Jay-Z than a DJ Shadow, unconcerned with the craft of re-purposing found material, and hell-bent on transplanting art into his pastiches. Hip-hop producers certainly are protective of their sources, but they do at least credit them. I'm a sucker when it comes to suspension-of-belief in movies, but watching Tarantino films as a fan of Alex Cox and Jim Jarmusch makes enjoying Tarantinos films impossibly generic. I enjoy Hard-Boiled Hong Kong, Chop-Socky or Spaghetti Westerns well enough, but not through kitsch-coloured glasses. Regardless of his style-stealing, his dialogue is so one-note, it may as well have been written by Woody Allen.

Jeffrey - you're right about kids having incredible resources these days - and I think the next generation will make the most of their situation. Its never been easier to be in a band or make movies - or harder to have an authentic voice.

J.H.M. said...

I may be very, very late to the party here, but Reynolds' actual comments on The Drift at the time of its release are worth noting: "Astonishing, at points terrifying (that track with the ungodly, subhuman, gargoyle-gloating howls), but I fear it's the kind of record one admires but seldom actually pulls out to play."

I think that he was having more of a playful go at Walker's impenetrable recent releases than actually demeaning them. After all, even great work can be wearying in large doses—although I agree that there is an element of "inside baseball" logic at work... much like reading Reynolds' blog in the first place.

On a semi-related note, I enjoy late-era Scott Walker, Swans and Arcade Fire all quite a bit, thank you very much! As such, I resent the implication that my enjoyment of the latter somehow makes me less sophisticated as a listener or as a thinker than you are. I have no belief that said band are anything radically new, sonically speaking, and I can understand being seriously peeved at people who treat them as something messianic and revolutionary when they simply aren't. But this doesn't mean that everyone who enjoys this band buys into that hype. Frankly, it's a very narrow-minded and self-satisfied position to take.

Do I think that you are necessarily a narrow-minded and self-satisfied person on the whole? No. But on this subject, you seem to have a bit of a blind spot.