Why Zappology? Performance VERSUS Art
Contingency & Improvisation as Plops in the Platonic Supreme, or, Why Angel Delight Won't Suit Evil Dick: a Paper delivered by Out To Lunch to the Musique et Poésie Conference at Liège University: 3 April 2001
What follows is a hysterical polemic, unjustifiable and tendentious. As one wag put it recently, `You are about to witness the strength of street knowledge'. And its Achilles Heel. This is an argument in favour of contingency and improvisation by someone who is incapable of stand-up comedy. I'm aware the word `plops' sits strangely in the midst of my coded aesthetic position-taking. After all, in duplex form, `plop' serves as a nursery word for defecation. The Oxford English Dictionary calls `plop' `echoic'. Such a description is preferable to the usual English term for words which echo sounds, which is `onomatopoeic', from the Greek for `name' - onoma - and `make' - poieo. As a child I recall being horrified that such an obvious idea as mimicking a sound should be given such a difficult and forbidding name. It's almost as if Henry Peacham, who coined the word in 1577 (in The Garden of Eloquence, Conteyning The Figures of Grammar and Rhetorick) needed to hide its infantile lack of decorum beneath a decent screen of Greek. The Oxford English Dictionary compares `plop' to `plump' and traces it to a verb in low German and middle Dutch - plompen. `Plump', it says, is also `echoic', expressing `a sound and action akin to those of "plop", but with more distinct expression of the liquid "gulp" made by water when a body falls into it'. Because of its historical, etymological principles the Oxford English Dictionary is sensitive to echoic elements and evolutionary accidents, though in this case it doesn't quite get it right. The `o' of `plop' is short in comparison to the `um' of `plump' and so signifies a smaller object falling into water: such direct mimicry of differences of size exerts a continuous pressure on verbal choice, challenging Ferdinand de Saussure's doxa that signs are `arbitrary'.
The first attested use of `plop' in English is of comparatively recent date. It was used in 1821, in the poem The Village Minstrel by John Clare. It's right by `ploot' and `plouk' in the Oxford dictionary, occupying the same alphabetical zone as such unacknowledged word-manglers as Ronnie & Kenny Williams and Mrs Willis. `Plop' also describes the sound heard when the plosive labials `p' and `b' cause a microphone to send an overload signal down the wire (Sony provide ECM-909 mic users with a foam-rubber protective to minimise this effect). So `plop' is also symbolises the eructation of noise into the semiotic signal, an embarrassment like the bloody thumbprint on the page that tells us more about murder than the unsullied pages of conventional detective fiction. The `plops' in my paper's title are therefore a spell versus Saussure: being onomatopeic, they resist linguistic structuralism, and remind us that signs were originally made by echoing the external aspects of the world. Walter Benjamin called this relationship `indexical'(1), a word he coined to describe how photographic plates or sensitive films relate to the realities of light and shade they are exposed to. For the materialist monist, human thought and speech rely on sensuous traffic with the external world; they (or rather we) are an instance of the world's natural forces, not a separate encampment on the side of the eternal transcendent divine, sundered forever from what Immanuel Kant called the Ding-an-sich, and Jacques Lacan called the innomable, or Real.
It is worth looking more closely at Saussure, because a structuralism derived from his linguistics remains the theoretical ground - or common nonsense - of the liberal and not-so-liberal intelligentsia. Examine any variety of `post' and you see his dualist imprint. The rediscovery of Saussure's course on linguistics in the 70s was part of a neo-Kantian reaction to dialectics and materialism, a tendency which continually deflects thought to the Right (or produces such attention-seeking grotesques as Slavoj Zizek, the born-again Leninist). Saussure was too conscientious a linguist to deny the existence of onomatopeia, but he nevertheless excluded it from his linguistic system. In contrast, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno made mimesis the crux of their interpenetration of aesthetic subjectivity and historical science, making the Marxist leap o'er the stuck antinomies of Kantian reason.
Saussure recognises the existence of echoic words, and performance practices such as mime, but nevertheless insists
`the main object of study in semiology will none the less be the class of systems based upon the arbitrary nature of the sign ... signs which are entirely arbitrary convey better than others the ideal semiological process.'(2)
Which is like saying, if this piece of music includes notes which do not fit my Schenkerian analysis, I'll ignore them. Allegiance to the concept rather than the thing conceived makes Saussure ideal for academic system-building, but it's disastrous for semiotic productivity and invention. Disastrous, too, for those who crave dialogue with the world. Despite being taken up by a stream of structuralist and post-structuralist cultural critics intent on justifying the avantgarde grotesques of James Joyce, Robbe Grillet, Jean-Luc Godard and Cindy Sherman, in his linguistic science Saussure is as anti-poetic as the Socrates of Plato's Republic. According to him:
`The individual has no power to alter a sign in any respect once it has become established in a linguistic community.'(3)
Such assumed antagonism between individual and society - language as a contract which leaves the individual sign-bender powerless - hypostatises bourgeois social relations (an error which allowed Samuel Beckett to produce many amusing texts, but it's still philosophically mistaken). Saussure's dualism anticipates the tragic antinomies which litter post-structuralism: between society and self, structure and agency, fate and accident, langue and parole. Contra Saussure, the historical materialist understands that every use of a word, by giving it a specific spin in an unrepeatable moment in the onward processional unfolding of the universe, subtly alters its meaning and helps it evolve. Valentin Volosinov admired Dostoyevsky's Diary of a Writer for its description of six tipsy workers using a single expletive in order to express six different ideas. This orientation towards the living body of expression rather than the dead letter of structural linguistics was forced on Volosinov by the Russian Revolution, but it's also forced on the critic by the poesie sonore of recorded music - by the blues, Henri Chopin, punk, pop and Hip Hop. Anticipitating such technologies, the linguistic riot of Finnegans Wake was written to sabotage non-dialectical meaning: hence Joyce's controversy with Wyndham Lewis, whose Time & Western Man had attacked Joyce as a `time' philosopher. To read the Wake is to improvise meanings yourself, to bring your immediate contingency to consciousness. The tragic antinomies of post-structuralism - derived from bourgeois property relations, with its internecine competition and universal alienation - are utterly incapable of enjoying the communist exchange of a text like Finnegans Wake. Further, the meanings produced by the Wake's reader are driven by historical and sexual necessity. They have a lurid tang and spike lacking in the liberal and contentless free-play of postmodernism, which claims to free the reader to make meaning, but actually condemns him/her to genderless oblivion. However valiantly American PoMos lay claim to the heritage of the European pre-war avantgarde, they lack its orientation towards social revolution, and their literary productions cannot help being vapid and formal (or, in the case of Charles Bernstein's libretto for an opera about Walter Benjamin, in its failure to grasp Benjamin's critique of the myth of genius and the aura of the `great man', completely imbecilic). To find anything that matches the immanent logic and virulent energies of Dada, you'd have to look to American blues, Soul and Free Jazz. This is what Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa did, and is why their art has none of the highbrow immateriality of postmodernism - and why Angel Delight won't suit Evil Dick.
Evil Dick is a presentday composer whose musical non-releases, like those of Pence Eleven and the other Middle Class Records alumni, understand that the strength of Frank Zappa's music is its refusal of class-bound definitions of musical genre: whereas the Kronos Quartet and John Zorn evade class by presenting baby-boomer audiences with an angelic postmodernism, these pranksters rub their audience's faces in grimy contradiction; Angel Delight, by the way, is a cornflour-based preparation which turns regular cow's milk into vast volumes of shiny pink stuff tasting of nail-polish; while we are identifying ludicrous brandnames, here's another ...
The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play is a name for cultural criticism which degrades every aspiration to serious status by reference to motifs in Frank Zappa, and in so doing flouts all distinction between individual consciousness and socially-produced significance. Zappa claimed he'd never read any books of philosophy, yet his satire on Plato's Phaedo in Apostrophe(') is consummate: Socrates' interlocutor is reduced to Fido, the craven poodle-dog. Revealing the species of coincidence which gives Poodle Play its faith in contingency, Saussure himself can only deal with echoic words by resort to doggie talk:
`As for genuine onomatopoeia (e.g. French glou-glou (`gurgle'), tic-tac (`ticking (of a clock)'), not only is it rare but its use is already to a certain extent arbitrary. For onomatopoeia is only the approximate imitation, already partly conventionalised, of certain sounds. This is evident if we compare a French dog's ouaoua and a German dog's wauwau.'(4)
I am immediately chastened by the idea of reading these words to an international audience where it's easier to pronounce the name of Saussure than nursery words for pooh or woof-woofs. `Ouaoua' and `wauwau' correspond to the English `bow wow', famously attested in global pop music by the band Malcolm McLaren created after the Sex Pistols, Bow Wow Wow, by the Japanese heavy-metal band Bow Wow, and by Johnny "Guitar" Watson's final album, Bow Wow (Wilma Records BR71007, 1994), and by the emergence of the rapper Lil' Bow Wow.(5) In his lecture on Bertolt Brecht yesterday, Joachim Lucchesi showed a slide of Carl Valentin's Cabaret, a populist entertainer much admired in Brechtian circles: one of the cartoon panels displayed on stage was titled `Mister Wau Wau' (legible despite the fact the slide was back-to-front). If you want to speak material truth to the masses, the dog clause always helps.
Whether or not any of these artists actually read Saussure, they are all aware of the subversive charge of referring to man's doggie nature, and all wish to parade defiance to the Platonic-Christian concept of the transcendent soul. This is where mechanical recording does inaugurate the possibility of new epoch: `bow wow' - HMV's listening Nipper - stands as a symbol of the way that mechanical recordings of cooing sex-sounds or baying threat-sounds can communicate regardless of national tongues. I'm talking here about the universal appeal of blues, reggae, punk and funk: a dialectic as universal as the baby's recognition of the meaning of a wrinkled and an unwrinkled brow. Or, as Finnegans Wake puts it:
`Put price pon patrilinear plop, if the osselation of the onkring gives omen nome?'(6)
In other words, what price the inheritance of property and the bourgeous patriarchal order if, rather than rules and regulations, the vibration of air waves (`onkring' = circular device which goes `onk!', or a lasting analogue of airwaves, ie a record) makes significance?
Saussure adduces a further argument against the significance of onomatopoeic words:
`In any case, once introduced into the language, onomatopoeic words are subjected to the same phonetic and morphological evolution as other words.'s(7)
Saussure has a point, though he fails to recognise the dialectical corollary of his observation. Onomatopoeic words are certainly worked on like other words, often being brought into grammatical order or assigned particular genders, but onomatopoeia isn't only present at the birth of certain rather low-level words. Even words derived from `arbitrary' syllables encountered in foreign languages are embraced in their native language according to unconscious sound-clusters which give them resonance and power. Poetry is therefore not an activity confined to a few effete specialists, but an ongoing actuality of mass dialogue, especially in zones of trade and innovation. When the Arabs brought orange trees to Spain, they called the fruit naranj, a word derived from the late Sanskrit naranga. The loss of the initial `n' in English, French and Italian is ascribed to its absorption by the indefinite article - `a norange' became `an orange' - but this process was helped in France by associations with their word for `gold', or, which seems appropriate given the fruit's colour. William of Orange became king of England after the Glorious Revolution of 1689. The `Orange' in his name derived from a town on the river Rhone, and had nothing to do with the fruit, but the association with a favourite luxury snack did him no harm. Onomatopeia is badly named. Words are not simply made by echoic association, they are impacted by sonic echoes and parallels throughout their existence. The task of the poet, like that of the social revolutionary, is not to devise an arcane specialism set above the sorry corruption of the mass - Ezra Pound's fascist vision of a new, unambiguous, uncorrupted language - but to articulate and defend the ongoing social dialectic which is mass development of language. Poets are not the gatekeepers of a citadel of higher consciousness: they are the tribunes of popular expression. This was what William Wordsworth meant in his preface to Lyrical Ballads, when he said that poetry must be written in the language of the middle and lower classes. Today, this democratic impulse can only be saved from the revolutionary bourgeoisie's post-1848 defection to the camp of reaction by a turn to the proletariat and revolution.
In his eagerness to lay down the preeconditions for scientific study of language, Saussure didn't just misapprehend its historical actuality. His doxa on the arbitrary nature of the sign is also a tried-and-hoary strategem for refuting materialism. In the Cratylus, Plato has Hermogenes argue that the arbitrary name imposed on a slave by his or her master is a model of naming and language. The suggestion that things could name themselves is antithetical to the idea of order in a slave state. The Platonic supreme is not a transhistorical truth but an advocate for oppression.(8) If you locate any reactionary trope favoured by radical intellectuals, you can be sure Pierre Joseph Proudhon got there first, and Marx castigated him for it. In his outline for Capital - written in October 1857 and usually referred to as Grundrisse - Marx wrote:
`The study of the precious metals as subjects of the money relations, as incarnations of the latter, is therefore by no means a matter lying outside the realm of political economy, as Proudhon believes, any more than the physical composition of paint, and of marble, lie outside the realm of painting and sculpture.'(9)
It's astonishing that Louis Althusser believed Saussurean structuralism could articulate the truth of Capital: structuralism is diametrically opposed to the materialism and hunger for real-world facts which drove Marx's research. As against the pure study of the mutual relation of arbitrary signs - the self-reflecting Glass Bead Game of structuralism - Marx says that artists need to investigate the physical properties of pigments and marble.
Investigation into the actual constituents of semiotic materials is not an abuse of Marxism (citing some stray quote to address an effete topic `proper' Marxism ought to ignore). It's where Marx actually began. By assessing the sublime in art according to historical principles, Goethe, Hegel, Winckelmann and Wölfflin progressively developed a materialist understanding of the historical nature of consciousness: civilisation as something achieved by societies rather than individuals. Their scholarship chipped away at notions of the transcendent ideal and anticipated socialism. It was precisely this scientific historicism that came under attack during Stalin's counter-revolution. Writing in 1926, Georg Lukacs defended his History & Class Consciousness against attacks by Stalin's henchmen, pointing out that in genuine Marxism,
`forms of thought, [previously] accepted in their immediacy as natural, as eternal, are elucidated as products of the socio-historical process of development.'(10)
The dispute mattered. By hypostatising alienation as a permanent feature of human labour, Stalin's apologists obscured Marx's criticism of the factory system. Lukacs accused them of calling all labour `praxis' and thus establishing `the essential identity of capitalist society and communist society'(11). In contrast, revolutionary materialism insists that every abstraction is a historical achievement, every fact about the universe is discovered by the labour of humanity as a whole: what you think is as far as we've got, it's a crushed-box compact of historical determinations, and if you'd only acknowledge that, we might get further. Innovation is not divine inspiration, the jammy preserve of souls untouched by other minds, it's something achieved by those who think in tissues of quotes.
It was with Dada that the collage principle - the discovery that consciousness is a social rather than a private phenomenon - became screamingly explicit, proletarian and revolutionary. However, effective artists have always known that shows of mastery relies upon the deployment of other people's material scraps (aka RUBBISH). A recent analysis of Titian's Venus and Adonis from 1560, now in the J Paul Getty Museum in Malibu in California, showed that the red used to depict the cloth draped over Venus's seat had some textile fibres within the lake pigment. These fibres contained dyes derived from both madder root and the cochineal beetle.(12) Dada understood the revolutionary implications of making such steals explicit, though it was actually Picasso and Braque - dressing in workman's overalls rather than the artist's smock - who began to mock the bourgeois fetish of representation by gluing the very newspaper or wall-paper they were `depicting' on their canvases. Cubism and Dada brought to consciousness deployments of `the real' which artists had always used. In order to achieve his lowering crimson, Titian ground into his pigment the very cloth he was depicting. He was a dada collagiste who hadn't yet brought his methods to consciousness. Petit-bourgeois ideologists like Proudhon and Saussure insist that the substance of the sign is `arbitrary': what they are really saying is that matter doesn't matter. There is a short step from their idealism to the proudly-irrational pragmatism of Ronald Reagan, who said `facts are stupid things'. Actually, it's the idealists who are stupid, because what's wrong with the concept is not that it's insubstantial, a tiny nerve-end twitching in the brain of a sapient ape - that's one of its good points - but that it's received, monotonous and empty. Or, as Frank Zappa put it: `Round Things Are Boring'.
Saussure's first example of an echoic word - glou-glou (`gurgle') - provides a striking moment in Finnegans Wake. It occurs among footnotes supplied by the `little girl' principle, or Issy, to the text being studied in the schoolroom chapter (a text which is suspiciously like a condensed version of Finnegans Wake itself). The lisping transcription `tho if it theem tho and yeth if you pleathes' is footnoted with the remark `googla pluplu'(13). Joyce's homely, anti-monumental babytalk indicates something the supposedly `free' verse of the Cantos cannot encompass.
In a context of global conflict - Finnegans Wake was published in book form in 1939 - it's not irrelevant to point out that early drafts of Finnegans Wake, then called Work In Progress, were first published in transition, a journal edited by Eugene Jolas, an American citizen and first-generation immigrant, who was living at the time in Paris. He'd been brought up in Lorraine speaking both his mother's Rhenish German and his father's French. Since the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, part of Lorraine, rich in iron-ore deposits, had been annexed by Germany and renamed Alsace-Lorraine. The dispute over this territory fuelled the war between France and Germany 1914-18, and caused diplomatic tensions throughout the 30s. Jolas embraced James Joyce's polyglot as an attempt to write beyond the national distinctions of literature.
When New Criticism arrived in literary studies in the United States in the 1940s, it did incomparable harm to literary modernism. It conflated the avantgarderie of James Joyce and Ezra Pound, thus equating Joyce's anti-nationalist defence of subaltern energies with Pound's fascistic idealism. New Criticism was an academic version of the compromised politics of post-war liberalism. Despite the different dynamics of fascist defence of bourgeois property values in western Europe and Stalinist counter-revolution in the state-capitalist countries, in order to justify American hegemony after World War II, American liberals found it convenient to equate fascism and communism. Political regimes were defined abstractly by reference to `human rights' without reference to the particular strategies being mobilised to divide, confuse and exploit the working class. For all their carefully-staged disdain for academic time-serving, The Beats were no better, and made exactly the same equation. If the art was weird and unAmerican, it was good, wherever it actually came from. This denial of material history shaped the post-war concept of the artistic `avantgarde'. It became a separate sphere, quarantined from mass culture, thus preparing the ground for the phony war between low and high culture that characterised postmodernist journalism of the 80s and 90s. The real war, I need hardly add, is that of capital versus humanity, as capitalism seeks to maximise profit no matter what the consequences in humanitarian or ecological terms. This grand conflict is reproduced in every cell of the system, and is the sole orientation that can place cultural criticism on solid ground and can deal with high and low culture without becoming cretinous.
The formula `performance VERSUS art' in my title was intended to set up an antagonism between two terms which are often taken to be complementary. Since at least 1848, the bourgeoisie has been incapable of achieving any authentic art which does not refer to its own disintegration and collapse. In music, the fetish of the score arrived when capable improvisors such as Mozart and Beethoven - authentic expressions of bourgeois revolt and freedom - could no longer be found. The work of art became the Ming vase rhapsodised in T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets in 1944, an eternal form which stands outside time and history. It is not for nothing that Frank Zappa's `A Nun Suit Painted On Some Old Boxes' from 200 Motels contains the words `four-four, an aura'. `Four-four' was T.S. Eliot's numerological spell of fixity and stability versus a postwar capitalist order that, by unleashing unheralded forces of production, put every cultural value in question. In Four Quartets, `performance' becomes a passing of the eternal object through our time-space vector, a temporary visit from an eternal messenger. This was a sentimental consolation for the fact that new artistic expressions of value were no longer possible. A critic deaf to the burgeoning vitality of black American expression had to hypostatize creativity as unworldly and transcendent.
In 1968, with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and the May événements in Paris, the global bourgeois order was rocked to its foundations. The period was accompanied by a crisis in orchestral music, with widespread interest in graphic scores and indeterminate compositions, plus mutiny in the ranks of orchestral musicians. In 1974, Deutsche Grammophon issued a three-album box-set called Free Improvisation, showing the revered lines of the printed score being set alight by a match, like an anarchist lighting the fuse of a bomb. Performance is set versus art in my title because revolution sees `art' as capital, the result of dead labour weighing on the minds and lives of the living. Performance does not `realise art'. That would be like the fascist `revolution' which smashes trade unions and restores the mastery of capital. Performance exceeds art, and takes it to a new level.(14)
Of course, the custodial museum of eternal art - or its commercial agent in the mundane sphere, the commodity - cannot see performance as anything important. Claims to be interested one-off events in particular places must be riddled with bad faith, irony and deception (and when it's done by artists, rather than musicians, it usually is).(15) According to Hans Richter, the epochal contribution made by Dada was the discovery of contingency. Although the artworld is replete with references to Dada (with car manufacturers close behind, naming a new model the Citroen Xsara [=Tristan Tzara], for example(16)), Dada's discovery of the possibilities of contingency can't survive inside the institution of postwar Modern Art. Marcel Duchamp expertly injected the dada strain into the American art scene, but at the cost of constructing works that are schematic, juiceless and morbid (if Duchamp was the solution, then how come his work is so dry?). Following on from Dada and Duchamp, artists have tried to replace the discrete artwork with installations, performances and happenings, but these have been mediocre events compared to those that occur regularly in music. They rely on the semiotic systems of the artworld for their affect, so they fail the test of anthropological universality which characterises '20s modernists like Mondrian, Kandinsky and Varse. Because of Coltrane, Hendrix, Punk and Free Improvisation, radical music has inherited the practical, inventive and socially-oriented motivation that powered the visual arts in the 1910s and 1920s. It fights at the front line against bourgeois-idealist hypostasis of form.
Perhaps the most self-conscious, articulate and pure version of this subaltern revolt is Free Improvisation. `Musical genre' is a term which typologises and trivialises music, akin to the effect of conceiving political struggle in terms of `identity', or the designation (red star, yellow triangle, black square) sewn on the uniforms of concentration-camp internees. However, when it becomes pertinent and vital, every so-called separate genre ignites as Free Improvisation. Psychedelic guitar solos in rock, `free style' in Hip Hop, DJs playing Techno for Reclaim The Streets, punk bands refusing conformist business manoeuvres - all these are outbreaks of Free Improvisation. Rather than the permanent work of art or the fetishised conmmodity, the situation - a specific and unrepeatable collection of determinants - becomes the focus.
Free Improvisation supplies the musical theory, the technical criterion of judgment, for such practice. The free improvisor uses whatever sonic materials are at hand - including the specific acoustics of a particular place, the tensions caused by audience expectations (or the lack of audience), the melody or sound of a pop song heard or sampled on the way to the gig - to create a poetic event, a situation. Although not often mentioned by the ideologues of a retrogressive black bourgeoisie intent on turning jazz into dead-letter classicism, this was actually the practice of Charlie Parker in his day, cracking up fellow members of the Jay McShann Orchestra by mimicking car horns, other saxophonist's licks, phrases from pop hits with verbal associations.(17) Of course, to survive and communicate in a capitalist system, no-one evades commodity transactions completely - an improvisor like Eugene Chadbourne opens up suitcases of `product' after a performances - but it's possible to make distinctions between musicians whose raison d'être is shifting units, and therefore degrade performance into an inert, undialectical and tedious `show', and those who create a specific event. Iggy Pop has released many records on corporate labels, but he is never boring to see. Why? Here is someone who exceeds Guy Debord's strictures about the impossibility of authentic art in a commodity system.
Compared to the other words of my title, `plops' is silly. In this sense, it salutes the `cheerfulness' which Goethe said was incumbent on the humanist, and the `silliness' which Theodor Adorno said was central to the aesthetic principle. Monkeys in the zoo imitate their visitors, infants mimick the sound of mobile-phones and washing machines and call their shit `plop-plops'. No matter how you philosophise, problematise or complexify the difficult matter, you'll never get rid of the essential silliness of art, any more than the American phrase `going to the bathroom' can make defecation virtuous and odour-free. However - and even Eugene Jolas failed to see this - not all sillinesses are the same. Joycean play is not the same thing as the blithe evasion of those who wish to hide the material facts of a life maintained by skimming off the surplus of other people's labour, the millionaires who buy a few Cubist paintings and deem themselves avatars of the European avantgarde. Since the second-world war, confusion between these two poles of Modern Art - the productive side and the consuming side - has been assiduously cultivated. Hence the need, in a dawning epoch of Anti-Capitalism, for critique, polemic and judgment.
So this paper is delivered in the spirit of the supplement of the journal transition published in February 1935 called Testimony Against Gertrude Stein, one which today's dealers in transatlantic high-modernism - a reflection in the clouds of anglo-poesy of what Bush and Blair call the United Kingdom's `special relationship' to the USA - prefer to ignore. Eugene and Maria Jolas, Tristan Tzara, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and Andr Salmon were responding to the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933. Using language which is not often heard in the fragrant world of academico-postmodernist back-scratching, Jolas damned Gertrude Stein to hell in a breadbasket for her `tinsel bohemianism and egocentric deformations.' Jolas believed Stein's work `may very well become one day the symbol of the decadence that hovers over contemporary literature'. Unfortunately, postwar US hegemony - expressed in art by the victory of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art over Cobra and the Situationist International, and in literature by the New Criticism - has meant that, far from being held out as a symbol of babbling decadence, an autistic defence of private self against the barbed actuality of the world, Stein is now held up as an ideal exemplar of the international avantgarde. As the American universities send out feelers towards hitherto unexploited examples of unapologetic modernism in Europe - for example, the poetry of J.H. Prynne and Johan de Wit, the Free Improvisation of Derek Bailey and Lol Coxhill - we need to remain vigilant and pugilistic, if not downright cussed. The bargain with American postmodernism is not so much `Faustian' as a complete betrayal of the major motivational forces exemplified in our presentday theatre of the absurd.
Resistance to the recuperation of our avantgarde is not going to be achieved by high-minded rejection of commodified culture, but by recognition of the class struggle which cleaves every realm exploited by capital. America's anglophone elite can buy into our `rejections of commercialism', but only by travestying the revolutionary principles that motivate them. The concept of `art' generated the paradoxes of commodification and recuperation which informed Conceptual Art. These ideas are now so ubiquitous they've been naturalised, and constitute the illconsidered commonsense of the sensation-seekers of young Brit art. If we break, though, with `art' and decide to judge specific performance, things become different: instead of a move within advertising, aesthetics becomes a critique of everyday life. The craving for entertainment under capitalism is not a distraction from class struggle, but a legitimate demand on the part of the masses. The point is to criticise the quality of that entertainment, a criticism which immediately raises political questions.
This explains the relevance of Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa. Their records haunt the candyasses of pop-music sociology just as they taunt the anti-macassers of smart-art nihilism. After you've experienced Bongo Fury, the high/low debate of the `Culture Wars' means precisely nothing at all. A genuine proletarian realism - one which abandons the concept of `art' - has no time for Stalinist representations of the heroic worker. We are the heroic workers - those without access to capital - realistically searching for a good time. We do not respect the Eternal Monuments of pop culture, but on the contrary, like dadaist Willi Baumeister, we doodle cartoon faces on the genitals of the massive marbles of Arno Breker. The abject and unredeemable are the necessary constituents of anti-fascist entertainment because they refuse the lift-off of spirit from letter, that elevation to the Platonic heaven from which all merely human things look perishable, damaged, imperfect and untrue. We expose The Eternal Idea as boredom, an eversame imposed by social repression, while the contingent is revealed as the practical actuality gleaming with all the traces of the movement of the real.
[OTL shows slides of collages while reciting Finnegans Wake:] `And it's time that all paid tribute to this massive mortiality, the pink of punk perfection as photography in mud. Some may seek to dodge the gobbet for its quantity of quality but who wants to cheat the choker's got to learn to chew the cud. Allwhichhole scrubs on scroll circuminiuminluminatedhave encuoniams here and improproperies there. With a pansy for the pussy in the corner.'(18)
There follows a final concluding benediction called: `No to Celebrity, No to Profundity, but Yes to Surface Scavenging':
An aesthetic modelled on bourgeois property relations assigns artistic production to the signature, solving the problem of expression by reference to the individual. Genuine aesthetic dialogue is blocked by reference to the name. The miserable evidence of this ideology is mass media discussion of films and music in terms of star performers, and novels in terms of celebrity authors. A framed poster presently hanging on the north-facing interior wall of the Crescent Cafe on Camden High Street reproduces the waterlilies of Claude Monet - except the image has been excerpted from a much larger picture. Just to assure people that they're looking at art, and not some bizarre conjunction of vertical blue/greens and stippled kiss-my-oral pinks, the artist's signature has been blown-up out of all proportion and superimposed on the bottom. It's so big its white letters occupy a full third of the picture's width. This is how the spectacle deals with aesthetic intention: it cauterises material affect by deploying a tiny constellation of iconic names standing for success, money and power.
These days any interpretation which reads past the boundaries of individual talent to the social determinants of form - which finds the brand of toothpaste used by the star in the film more interesting than his or her carefully-packaged persona or the negotiated morality of the storyline - is deemed illegitimate, outrageous, even demented. It's true that Roland Barthes is now taught in schools. However, his `death of the author' has been diverted from materialist critique to another reason to repress the subject, a high-brow acceptance of allusive inconsequentiality, a recipe for yet more wan, milk-and-water postmodernism, rather than the full-on assault on commodity fetishism he craved and we crave. Back here in the cheap seats, we don't want tasteful withdrawal and the death of the subject, we want class war.
Am I demanding a `sociological' art criticism? The problem with the sociological, anti-individualist approach to art is its specious objectivity. It conceals the subject-position of the sociologist by presenting the social facts in a scientistic manner, thus recycling the neo-Kantianism common to both Weber and Durkheim. The reason that Dada could use the contingent was that it examined every contingency - however trivial, degraded and rejected - in relation to the universal. The logo on the sugar-lump wrapper is related to world war, social revolution and all the pressing geopolitics of the day (which is not stupid if you consider the relationship between Sir Henry Tate, the sugar magnate, and the institution he founded in London, the Tate Gallery [founded 1897, Henry Tate 1819-1899, slavery abolished 1834 when Tate was 15]). To bypass the abstract moralism of Cultural Studies and truly engage with mass culture, we must begin with the contingent in all its absurd specificity. I would contend that there is actually no better place to start than with Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, because they confronted an American mass audience with the most technically-advanced examples of European avantgarde anti-commercialism: the Theatre of the Absurd, the music of Edgard Varese and Pierre Boulez, the intuitive animalism of Jean Dubuffet and Asger Jorn and Cobra, the spectacle-critique of the Situationist International.
In the late 1940s, Jorn declared `Darwin, Marx and Freud are the three scientists who have created the basis for a modern materialist attitude to life and world-view.'(19) However, although these names are acknowledged in theory, social practice rejects them. It was the task of art to reorient the feelings of everyday life according to their materialist philosophies: the `acid test' of a life view is whether or not it come to terms with the fact that `the human is an animal'. In 1963, Jorn expanded on this, saying in Alpha and Omega that the denial of man's animality is the basis of the oppression of women from the ancient Greeks onwards.(20) In 1966, in Gedanken eines Kunstlers, he distinguished between orientation, or a philosophy that can take account of the contingent, and meaning:
`The meaning that is non-oriented has to be called non-sense, and the Platonic ideal of beauty, the symbol of perfect symmetry, the perfect sphere, is at the same time the definition of pure nonsense.'(21)
Asger Jorn's radical anti-Platonism is directly comparable to the delinquent scepticism of Zappa and Beefheart, who proclaim that beauty is repression and a lie. This corresponds to new research in cosmogeny and biochemistry, which affirms the teaching of Epicurus, that the atoms do not follow perfect lines, but swerve. Material existence itself is a flaw in nothing. A.G. Cairns-Smith, in his book about pre-DNA genetic life-forms in mud, says:
`Let us not suppose, then, that microcrystalline minerals, such as clays, could never have very interesting properties because the stuff at the end of the garden spade does not look very interesting. (And let us not be too put off by the unfortunate term `defect' - a `defective' silicon crystal can be a micro-processor - it is a question of what `defects' and where they are.)'(22)
It is the flaw or defect in perfectly balanced matter/anti-matter that caused the Big Bang; it is the flaw in the surface of the crystal that enabled genetic coding and evolution. Zappa and Beefheart denounced white-bread America's concept of beauty because it is flawless and untouchable, a Platonic sphere outside the dialectical process, a sexless rigor mortis. Like Asger Jorn, they understood that the right kind of ugliness is actually vitality and movement: a genuine elective affinity, a magnetic attraction.
Asger Jorn's Comparative Vandalism required a detour via the Situationist International and Punk to reach the mass audience. Because they were a direct implant in mass culture, Zappa and Beefheart provide a still better key to understanding cultural struggle in the postwar period. Indeed, anyone who talks about culture today without refering explicitly to the difference between freaks and hippies, without adoring the irrational metrics of Captain Beefheart and the perverse interpolations of Frank Zappa, without attempting to explain what is fascinating about poodles, demonstration dirt, theater piss and sinister midgets with buckets and mops, such people have a `Pachuco Cadaver' in the mouth. If we in the Zappa camp are accused of having no sense of proportion, we reply that the world today is disproportionate to our desires, and we will have no truck with a reason that denies both our instinct for play and our passion for justice.
(1) I'm aware that I've jumped from words to images here, accessing a later - more rational and Marxist - Benjamin than the earlier writer who indulged mystical speculations concerning language. At the Lige Conference, people giving papers on poetics continually fell into crude oppositions between the senses (`was early-20th-century modernism a turn from the ear to the eye?' `isn't "performing" a visual poem to betray its achronic logic?'). As against such Kantian categoricalism, Materialist Esthetix notes that inspiring and undefended poets (eg Bob Cobbing, Maggie O'Sullivan, Ulli Freer) write as whole persons experiencing a monist universe, making the specialised exponents of `sound', `visual' or `straight' poetry look extraordinarily narrow, formalist and tendentious.
(2) Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, edited Charles Bally, Albert Sechehaye, Albert Riedlinger, 1922, p. 101; translated Roy Harris, Lasalle, Illinois: Open Court, 1992, p. 68.
(4) Saussure, Op. Cit., p. 102, translation, p. 69.
(5) On the preceding Sunday in Liège, Lil' Bow Wow's single `Bow Wow (That's My Name)' was being sold (price 120 BEF) from a stall in the market which stretches along the north bank of the River Meuse. Showing that he is fully aware of the roots of canine funk, Lil' Bow Wow namechecks both Snoop Doggy Dogg and George Clinton's `Atomic Dog', whose `bow-wow-wow-yippee-ow-tee-ay' recalls the `yippy-ty-o-ty-ay' of Frank Zappa's `Montana' from Overnite Sensation (1973). In his paper at the conference, Michel Delville pointed out that Ed Dorn referenced `Montana' on the penultimate page of Gunslinger (1975): `Moving to Montana soon/going to be a nose spray tycoon'. A significant wave of the cowboy hat. Dorn diverts Zappa's materialist, non-transcendental meditation into matter-defying drug territory (cocaine). Nevertheless, the link to Zappa demonstrates that the lyrical, reason-defying arbitrariness of 60s pop-surrealism cannot help drawing a picture of doggie nature and capitalist commodity production.
(6) James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, London: Faber & Faber, 1939, p. 279.
(7) Saussure, Op. Cit., p. 102, translation, p. 69.
(8) Plato, Cratylus, 430BC, 384d; see also Ben Watson, Art, Class & Cleavage: Quantulumcunque Concerning Materialist Esthetix, London: Quartet, 1998, pp. 346-347.
(9) Karl Marx, `The Chapter On Money', October 1857, translated Martin Nicolaus, London: Penguin, 1973, p. 174.
(10) Georg Luk cs, A Defence of History and Class Consciousness, 1925/6; translated Esther Leslie, London: Verso, 2000, p. 131.
(11) Ibid, p. 135.
(12) Robert Chenciner, Madder Root: a History of Luxury and Trade, Richmond: Curzon, 2000, p. 154.
(13) James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, London: Faber & Faber, 1939, p.265, n. 4.
(14) This claim is derived from discussions with Derek Bailey - and he means it, maaaan.
(15) Which is presumably why art-critic John Roberts considers that in his field `the stakes are higher' than in mere music criticism.
(16) I must credit T.H.F. Drenching with this observation.
(17) Carl Woideck, Charlie Parker: His Music and Life, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998, p. 216.
(18) James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, London: Faber & Faber, 1939, pp. 277-278.
(19) Quoted by Peter Shield, Comparative Vandalism: Asger Jorn and the Artistic Attitude To Life, Aldershot: Ashgate/Borgen, 1998, p. 184.
(21) Op. Cit., p. 132.
(22) A.G. Cairns-Smith, Genetic Takeover and the Mineral Origins of Life, Cambridge: CUP, 1982, p. 290.
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