warning: this is an insider-baseball tl;dr epic, responding to various questions frank kogan asked in comments on the oasis post (i.e. here and here and here and here and here and here), which i’ve placed here^^^ so as not to further derail that discussion (and also so that I could edit and link more easily, w/o risk of losing the whole thing while the FT back-end is being somewhat flakey). It’s about (among other things) Burke, Keats, Wallace Stevens, the internalised bureaucracies of the institutionalised intellect, and where music fits into them; and what we variously mean by the words “thinking” and “clarity”: it includes several more-than-usually digressive (!) notes-to-self abt things I need to think about further. Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate!
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
PART ONE: The above is a 1919 poem by Wallace Stevens, Anecdote of the Jar (from his first book of poetry, Harmonium), notoriously ambiguous of interpretation. Certainly it has somewhere in mind Keats’s Ode to a Grecian Urn, though in lots of ways it isn’t very like it. It’s about the encounter between the man-made and the unshaped-by-man, and how the poet responds to this — but there’s no evident deciding whether the man-made is the Dominion wide-mouth canning jar (the industrial readymades apparently suggested by Roy Harvey Pearce), or the craft-fashion pot of tradition, or a classical or neo-classical piece facing down the untamed sublime, or something of arts-and-crafts provenance, or a work modern and modernist, minimalist, even brutalist. The man-made object might actually be a poem! Some take the sides drawn to stand for for male (ordered) versus female (untamed), so it’s about (or against) feminism; or else see it as a parable about colonialism, pro or maybe con.
But is the location described even a battlefield? “Gray and bare” to me does not read negatively, because it always calls to my mind the vessel mum and dad kept on the shelf by the gramophone, in our first house, round from the top and round from the side, a light grey-brown ungrazed earthenware. Broken long ago, I assume; perhaps lost in the move from that house, or left behind. It had pencil stubs and paperclips in, and a lovely texture. Obviously Stevens can’t have meant my family’s jar specifically (he died in 1955, before mum and dad even married): my dad was a botanist and a naturalist, and for him and mum the relationship between the wild and the garden was one of mutually illuminating neighbourliness or companionship (a marriage more than a war, you might say). If it’s a poem about garden-making — which obviously in a sense it is — then once again, it has a whole unfolding history of styles and approaches and political symbolisms to be adverting to. A history that contains radical opposites. The ordered and the unordered; the yet-to-be-ordered and never-will-be-ordered.
I’ve picked on Anecdote partly because I like it and like thinking about (I find the image it conjures in my head soothing); and partly because George Steiner deploys it as an example in his essay On Difficulty: “So far as I am aware, no reading of the text has come up with a coherent parsing or equivalent transposition into normal syntax. To transpose, to paraphrase into correctness, is to relinquish both the motion and the meaning of the poem’s meaning.”
To turn from Steiner to a critic I far prefer, William Empson: while the Anecdote itself is not discussed in Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, that book very much sets out the ways that refusal of clarification are part of the deep project of poetry, itÆs value and its use to us, in many linked and sometimes unlinked ways; as weapons (or tools or gifts) as well as subjects and as ends.
Ask the questions, then: Is Anecdote a clear poem? And would it be a better poem if it were clearer? It seems to me the answer to the second is very likely no: not, anyway, as a poem. To clarify would be to cut away its richness — the way in which it seems to bring together so many eras and their perspectives; the way it seems to establish a poised and suggestive connectivity between the worked inside of a given subculture, and the world beyond.
So there’s that. What about the first question? I think you have to answer, it depends what you mean by clear. And this is where we can circle back to Burke’s cheeky claim: “a clear idea is a little idea” — it’s from his 1757 essay “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful”, part two of a section called “Of the Difference Between Clearness and Obscurity with regard to the Passions”. Part one ends thus: “In reality, a great clearness helps but little towards affecting the passions, as it is in some sort an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever.“
Now this is Romanticism 101, a world of mountains and forests, cataracts and icefields; the pleasantly terrified will to imagine the infinite (see the essay’s contents list for amplification here). And there are by now many ways out of the labyrinths of Burke’s precepts, which are after all less laws than cultural fashions. (Stevens was not a Romantic, though like all poets since he was deeply read in its works; Keats of course was a Romantic historically, but he was quite an odd one, the more misread the closer he is read as if he cleaves to its conventions. Ode to a Grecian Urn is arguably a pretty counter-Burkean poem.)
Here’s a third question (and now we’re finally moving into my real subject matter): is what we choose to call clarity in a poem at all similar to what we call clarity in science, or very different from it? What about clarity in music? Clarity in science — for example — must distinguish between two meanings for the word planet, the post-Copernican and the pre-Copernican: in the first a planet is an unfixed “wanderer” — from πλανάω, I wander — in contrast to the fixed stars; in the second the planets were defined as bodies with established elliptical orbits, the sun at one focus of the ellipse. (The meanings are incommensurable because something can’t be at once wild-wandering and fixed into a knowable path.)
So which sense is Keats using the word planet in On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer (1816)? Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/When a new planet swims into his ken
Homer of course used it in the pre-Corpernican first sense. George Chapman’s English translation of Homer was published in 1616 (Chapman being an Elizabethan playwrite by then writing in the Stuart era). The watcher Keats probably had in mind was the astronomer (and composer) Sir William Herschel, who discovered Uranus in 1781. He was well acquainted with Copernican thought, but he wasn’t using it to predict the existence of an otherwise unseen cosmic object — he had an excellent telescope and good eyes.
The poem continues:
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise
Silent, upon a peak in Darien
Cortez (1485-1547) more or less exactly coincides with Copernicus date-wise (1473-1543): I’ve no idea if the explorer was keeping abreast of the latest developments in astronomy. As for Keats himself, he was a chemist’s assistant, so presumably reasonably literate in this branch of not-then-quite modern science, but this doesn’t tell us how much post-Copernican cosmology he knew: and of course the (excellent) word he actually uses from planetary motion is swims. If the heavens are oceanic — and the seas are, in the Romantic lexicon, vast and turbulent and awe-inspiringly unknowable — can bodies in it be movng with pre-set purpose, or at the not-quite-chaotic (but still possibly sublime) whims of tide, wave and wind? The conclusion of the poem is — of course — that these varied encounters leave us wide open for who knows what adventures; the future as unimagined peril, pleasure, whatever…
This wide-openness is I think what Burke is contrasting “little” with. A little idea is a CONTAINED idea: and — if you’re thinking like Keats, which is to say, like a Romantic poet (albeit a somewhat contrary and unBurkean one), then scientific discovery, whether or not it’s clearly expressed at the moment it needs to express its newness and important difference to other scientists, is a wide-open prospect, uncontained because the precision of the expression cannot possibly encompass all the perturbations of experience and understanding it will ultimately bring.
To zigzag onwards: here are links to four pieces of music.
Can you order these in terms of clarity? What does it mean to say that a piece of music has “clarity” — or indeed that it has an argument, or a logic, or even a stance? If you feel you can assign clarity — or indeed logic — to a piece of music, what are the links you intuit (perhaps conventional, perhaps deeper) with the same words used in scientific or poetic or critical situations? In science — for certain words — the progression from an old meaning to a new doesn’t allow overlap; this is exactly not the case in poetry. What are the respective pragmatics (and/or necessities) of usage?
PART TWO: All of which is, as Frank has more or less guessed, at a tangent to the original purpose of the piece. But not entirely. I’d quoted his 2002 essay “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” (not least because I think it’s one of his most important pieces, despite or more likely because of its extreme compactness); he (very reasonably) linked to a version of it on ilx, and appended some additional notes; I skim-read the thread, rediscovered some chatter of my own — a conversation started but not pursued much at the time — and posted that also. This material does not necessarily much amplify the argument I’m making in the post. Except once I started thinking through it, I realised it DID somewhat overlap. How, exactly?
Back in 2003, when the ilx thread mostly came into being, I had Jacques Attali’s Noise essay on my mind — I was working on my demolition, which contrasts Lester Bangs’s and Richard Meltzer’s ways of thinking about noise w/Attali’s, rather to the latter’s detriment. But I definitely had not thought fully through the noise issue; I certainly was not yet sure what my stance on it was.
(Nor was I in the completed piece, actually. Am I ever?)
(Sadly links to the noise piece on my old blog are currently all futzed up. Some time this year I must get all this stuff back up.)
Anyway, one of my solutions — enacted but really not explained — was to hurl a whole bunch of different types of noise at the Attali theory, out of Bangs’s and Meltzer’s and my own writing lives, probably not randomly but certainly not in analytically orderly fashion — and see where it got us. Which is — after all — my default mode as a critic: Here’s a turbulent scene! Let’s together unfvck our enviroments! I’ve started, your turn now!
Time to restate the four questions Frank asks me in the Oasis comments thread.
1: how do I think the following quotation plays in my piece: “changing not just our idea of who gets to be an artist but of who gets to be a thinker. And not just who gets to be a thinker, but which part of our life gets to be considered ‘thought’” ??
2: how do I thinks it plays in his piece?
3: are we off on a tangent regarding clarity, or is it directly germane to the ideas mark is presenting in his original post?
4: In what ways do Jobson, Gallagher, and Scargill illustrate frank’s idea (or my idea of his idea) of who gets to be a thinker and which part of our life gets to be considered “thought”?
[further exegesis from Frank: "My idea isn’t, e.g., “Scargill, a union leader, turns out to be knowledgeable and thoughtful when discussing art, and can even relate it to his experiences as a miner,” but rather, “Elvis, in coming up with new singing and dancing, was also thereby inventing new ways for him to relate to others, who in, following and responding to his moves, were themselves thereby inventing new ways to relate to each other; and these therefore are cognitive as well as aesthetic achievements.”]
At some level, my post is about is the fact of — and meaning of and uses of — opacity between blocs of knowledge and understanding, some tacit and semi-private and unverbalised, some academic, some painstakingly cultivated in public; why this opacity arises and how impenetrable it may be (or otherwise); what the politics of the entire phenomenon is going in, and what it is coming out (mapping it all onto class politics in the UK specifically, and shifts — you could call them fashion shifts, but I think they run deeper — in the types of culture associated with specific socio-economic layers and microlayers).
[Not entirely digressive speculation 1: Academia’s map of its bureaucratic self treats departments and disciplines as established blocs representing/reflecting forces and structures in the wider world -- which they do and they don't. Because out in the world -- in rockwriting, for instance -- music and critical theory and poetry and politics all exist as relatively distinct forces and structures, that nevertheless interact -- or are interacted with -- in highly adaptive, reactive and occasionally interventive ways that academic departments and disciplinary bureaucracies really don’t and possibly can’t. But the zones or tranches I am trying to describe -- poetry, rock music -- are much less tidy than the ones academic bureaucracies have set up. In rock in particular, the “discipline” at issue has already gone very granular: I suspect that one of the reason the musicians in many rock bands seem so inarticulate is that the discourse they've opted into to explain and descrbe to one another how best to get the sound and the effects they’re after is more or less semi-private and particular to themselves; even a quite similar band might not qiuickly follows its assumptions and shortcuts. This varies a lot with genre and with relevant technology: digitalisation brings back a large element of shared wisdom.]
[Not entirely digressive speculation 2: that critical theory caught on so potently in academia, bcz it intiially functioned as a handy lingua franca uniting all these disparate voices and structures of knowledge -- or not so much uniting them, as that would require mastering them all, but as a SUBSTITUTE for any such mastery; it retained the illusion that you grasped them, or grasped all that was needed to be understood, without actually having to do much at all of the legwork. Hence the extent to which critical theory appealed to/combined with academic bureaucracies? I’m also wondering if -- off in cultural journalism land -- the phenom that Frank calls PBS-ification (see below) is doing a similar job? Causing the extant stuff under scrutiny to mutate -- in our conversations -- into mere symbols of itself (which all too soon the stuff being made begins to imitate…)]
In particular the piece is very much about the fact that writing about music is not — and can never be — a SUBSTITUTE for music. So what IS it? Why do we need it? And can it go wrong? Presumably if writing about music — explaining it, exploring it — can enhance the experience and understanding, then it always risks doing precisely the opposite. This is (after all) Frank’s 1987 argument (in PBS and the Lonely Hearts Club): “I mean an imaginary PBS of the future, with pro-wrestling, splatter films and leftist analyses of the Capitalist Entertainment Industry (scored by a reformed Gang of Four). All rendered lame in the context of our appreciation.” [PBS stands for Public Broadcasting Service, btw]. I’m arguing that this is also (some of) Oasis’s position, some of the time — and (even though I don’t think there’s total or even significant overlap in sensibility and implication between Kogan’s position and Oasis’s), I’m pushing back against the argument that, just because the Gallagher brothers appear to believe it, it’s an *intrinsically* philistine or an anti-intellectual position.
Because — like clarity — intelligence is contingent. What I’m worrying at is the question of how transferable it is, between zones of expertise (and also how transferable it ought to be: is there a social value to the various opacities I’m poking away at; some perhaps more than others).
Qs 1&2: I’ve swapped these round because itÆs easier to précis and critique Frank’s piece first.
(And I should I guess admit here that I had thought through literally NONE of this when I was actually writing the Oasis post…)
Here’s the quote again: “changing not just our idea of who gets to be an artist but of who gets to be a thinker. And not just who gets to be a thinker, but which part of our life gets to be considered ‘thought’” ??
so, 2: how’s this fit into Frank’s piece. Roughly and quickly, Frank’s piece — including the commentary (which can be found in his book, which you should right now seek out and purchase) — deploys what he calls the schoolroom-hallway split as a metaphor for a habitual and practical separation in the way we think and the way we categorise thought. He does this because he argues that rockwrite — potentially, at its best, in some ideal mode, when inspired by rocknroll (in some ideal mode; at its potential best) — calls social status and social relations into question: as does good criticism and good intellectual activity. And what he means by this — calling social relations into question — is that all this good stuff does NOT respect the classroom-hallway split, but instead finds a way to continue the fighting-and-flirting-and-self-exploration-and-definition of hallway thinking WHILE doing the valuable classroom work of learning and analysis and understanding and close-reading and exploratory discussion. That — somehow, by virtue of style and temperament, mind and movement — it has (now and then) combined these two modes, which we are largely inclined to think must be kept separate, to protect one or other or both. Rockwrite has known how to use haircut in the room — as performance or seduction or weapon, or all three and more — as well as knowing the wider language and history and art history and sociology and geography and psychology and economics and biology and politics and chemistry and physics and mathematics of haircut. (You could say that — in ambition if not fact — it smashes the twinned modern-day perils of narcissistic individualism and intellectual bureaucracy into one another, to trace where the fragments fly.) (But see also his own commentary, at the various posts he makes he makes on the oasis thread: esp.here and here…) (relinking to get you to click thru!!…)
Frank is also noting that the ethos and practice of magazine journalism largely reinstates this split, banishing into relative marginality those writers who genuinely do challenge or ignore it, as too wildly irresponsible on one side, and too academic on the other. And (though he doesn’t quite say this) those that have the profile to push back against banishment — Meltzer, Marcus, Xgau — are routinely and misleadingly misread by their fans and their foes, as symbolising and repping for one or other side of the split, to the detriment of those elements of the other side that they also rep for.
(And sometimes they misread themselves, especially when fighting among themselves.)
What he does not entirely do — which is what leaves a space for others (me, or worse) to flood it with their own explications and obfuscations — is much explore what he feels he MEANS by status in this context. And partly this is actually because he is using school as a metaphor for the psyche: which makes it quite hard also to use school as a description of real life non-metaphorical school, schooling and scholarship, and the actual social effects of same.
(Including in particular the effects of challenging and/or reinforcing any hierarchies of status as they exist prior to any given person or generation of persons arriving in any given school.)
And what he concludes (this is the commentary, dated 2004 in his book: which is material he wasn’t allowed space for in 2002, plus thoughts since further developed) is this: “In the average white high school, over the last 50 years, the refusal groups are — depending on time and place — rocks, greaseballs, hoods, greasers, grits, rednecks, farmers, burnouts, stones, jells, dirts, dirtbags, skaters. And if greasers etc. want to join the Intellectual Gang, they have to stop acting like greasers. It’s a vicious circle: the greasers are anti-intellectual because they’ve been excluded from the ‘Intellectual’ group, and the ‘intellectuals’ exclude the greasers because the greasers are anti-intellectual. But excluding the greasers is itself anti-intellectual.”
A claim that is (a) somewhat attractive to me temperamentally and politically and (b) definitely has resonance in terms of what I’m poking about at in the Oasis post: to only be looking for modes of thinking that are already recognised and categorised and officially approved is to close off any possibility of finding modes of thinking that do challenge the status quo. And here I’d certainly add another Oasis-relevant “refusal group”, which is much more UK-specific, and which was very much on my mind as I was writing, courtesy Ian Penman’s monumental (and superb) essay in the LRB: mods. Mod meaning — though not always meaning, as Ian argues — a stylish working class aesthete’s self-taught and self-motivated saunter through whatever was sharp enough in the world-at-hand to catch his or her eye and ear…
So Frank is using the “who gets to be a thinker” phrase to move us (the community of rockwriters) beyond xgau’s arguably more conventional call that (in light of the facts of Chuck Berry and James Brown et al) we re-define and expand the approved use-meanings of the word “art”, to go after bigger, deeper game: Frank wants us to redefine and expand the approved use-meanings of the words “thinking” and “thought”. Xgau argues that Berry’s and Brown’s music be explored and discussed alongside, I don’t know, Mozart’s and Da Vinci’s and Blake’s and Warhol’s works (to contrast as much as to celebrate, let alone to absorb into some weird smothering omni-canon). But Kogan wants Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley and etc etc to be considered as thinkers — not least because this is how we (as critics) will best understand what Christgau and Meltzer and Bangs and Marcus (and others) contribute as writers; which at some point at least we, as fellow writers, ought to be doing. How do we have to adapt/expand what we currently to think of as “thinking”, to encompass and explore and challenge, respectfully or disrespectfully, what they are all doing.
It’s a move in two directions at once, though. Just as the activity in hallways and playgrounds entails thinking (making distinctions and judgments, analysing and imagining), so the thinking that already goes on in schoolrooms and seminars, libraries and journals, the close-reading and the critical unpacking, are also vital aspects of thought (to be found in Xgau and Meltzer and Bangs and Marcus). But what I think Frank skips too quickly past in this essay — which was a festschrift for Xgau 60th, and so inevitably primarily about music writing, and which had to be very sharply cut backl for page-space — is what exactly we might mean when we talk about thinking as it’s found in music-making itself. Not just music-making as an exploration and shaking up of the relationships between the performer and the audience — which he does advert to — but music-making as the unfolding of activities and decisions within groups of more or less learned and/or experienced musicians. Because the latter does not simply fold into the former, at all.
and 1: how’s the quote fit into mine. And this, really, is where the Oasis piece is trying to come in. At time of writing, and quite early on, I set the xgau epigraph quote against Frank’s, in my mind, and later added Noel G’s. Now this is a kick-off manoeuvre I routinely use, to get myself thinking: deploy a mini-constellation of quotations, to mark out the territory I’m going to be exploring, on the assumption (more intuition than close annotated reading) that they don’t simply collapse into one another in a big warm yawp of comity. It gives me yardage to make up; geography to wander. And — I hope — the reader too: basically I assume the reader will do some of the wandering on their own; through spaces I’ve neglected, for whatever reason. And will — perhaps — pick up on things I’ve just not seen.
In this case, what spoke to me was the distinct feeling that, in the shift from xgau’s proposal to Frank’s, considered as a straightforward expansion of the project at hand, we risked missing that certain fissures and conflicts in the terrain were already exposed, undiscussed.
And of course what I then did is what I generally do next — which is to take a bunch of instinctively selected and underexamined and (again, I hope) interesting-in-themselves particulars from the recent history of UK pop and avant-garde culture and its discussion, and work through enough of them to generate a bunch more complexities and ambiguities, and step away just as all the plates were spinning! As if to say: this is a thing, an actual real thing, and haha I’m off, so it’s up to you to sort it out all because that’s not really my jam! As Frank says in the thread, “[R]ock criticism, including Freaky Trigger, almost entirely capitulated to the hallway”: and certainly if “hallway” is primarily where performance takes place, then “capitulation” is totally a fair jibe to toss at me. I dislike digging out the backroom thinking; I find what I’m even doing in this essay not just hard because it’s work, but hard because it doesn’t (to me) generate good writing or reading. When I’m boring even myself, I know my brain is switched off. (And Frank’s quite right: this means all kinds of valuable schoolroom-based stuff is basically being left unused; or anyway used only by the usual half-thinkers who always use it…)
Anyway, to try to be more schoolroomy for a moment, what exactly is it that gets missed when we move from xgau’s proposal to Frank’s? While we’re all looking to reconfigure and expand what we consider to be thought and thinking at some general or abstract level — a move I should again stress that I’m in favour of — it’s extremely easy to overlook that the types of thinking relevant to what xgau is calling “art” — the thinking you’d respectively find in, for example, in poets or scientists or jazz-funk rhythm-sections — actually arrives on the expansion table pre-divided. Xgau is using the generalised word to cover an extremely wide-ranging landscape of activities (which he proposes to make even more wide-ranging). But even so, it’s a less wide-ranging landscape than covered by the word “thought” — which Frank proposes to make more wide-ranging. What I’m bothered by is this: as we move out from “art” to “thought” as the project to be expanded, what are we doing about all the baked-in subdivisions. Are they imported as is, or do we get to muss them up?
To operate for a moment in a mathemetical-type species of generality — let’s say that we have a specific mode of thought X (with its associated practice, which will include all kinds of embedded or tacit thinking) that we roughly agree is one that can call social status into question (whatever we actually mean by status). However radically open we want to hope specific mode X can be, it necessarily arrives before us with a bunch of divisions baked into it (not least because this is what “specific” means).
Let’s define rockwrite as an approach to writing that encompasses everything about living our own lives as well as everything about examining the world beyond our own lives (the “subject matter”, as schoolroomishly defined); and let’s also say that rockwrite really does creatively explore how these different things interact. (Acknowledging that most of it, as it actually exists today, doesn’t, at all.) At what point do we stop having trouble with the idea that rockwrite therefore includes, I don’t know, making a salad. Meltzer knew that (post-Duchamp) hypermodern art was keen to break down all such barriers (except that it very much wasn’t succeeding in doing so), and prankishly argued in The Aesthetics of Rock that rock and pop were breaking them down a lot better, or perhaps that loving and exploring them both in the spirit of their own best modes, would break them down a lot better (it wasn’t Sergeant Pepper breaking them down so much as The Aesthetics of Rock). But the fact is that even as we’re announcing that they’re gone, they’re snapping back, in under all radars. “ending all X/non-X distinctions forever, or until someone forgets”: it’s a phrase-form that occurs more than once in AoR. It’s a joke! (It’s not a joke.)
Anyway, my point — I think — is that it’s all too easy to bamboozle yourself up at this level of generalisation: to conjure seeming revolution out of algebraic air. Which is why I want to bring it back to specifics: in this case the specifics of what it seems to be about music. What role is it playing in all this imagined expansion — and hidden maintained conflict — that making salad and its associated saladwrite probably aren’t?
(Semi-clarification, maybe: the divisions I’m worrying about — the ones smuggled back in even as we celebrate the dissolve of barriers — aren’t so much class divisions in the sense of variously empowered social layers, howsoever stacked, the haves enacting thought thus, the have-nots enacting thought so, and more the way thinking arrives at us pre-configured into five dozen professional or disciplinary matrices or tranches: viz class in the sense of classroom. The latter are not (intrinsically, necessarily) ordered vertically, or in terms of social hierarchy: bureaucratically they’re taken to stand in parallel to one another, as interchangeable projects you can timetable. I’m suggesting — see part one for something like an actual argument — that these tranches often fail mutually to communicate: that they exist in relationships of mutual (learned/experience) opacity; and not always benign relationships. Indeed the primary issue I have with Attali’s concept of noise — noise as the blunt howl of the community of all refuseniks — was that he never examines how this community too will be necessarily striated by subcultures of of knowledge and capability. Recalcitrance of communicative meaning doesn’t emerge from absence of ordered understanding: quite the reverse. Attali never chases up how politics continues to exist outside the beseiged city: that the outside is never a monolithic blob of transcendant solidarity, but as a world just as rich and layered and entranched as that it is resisting and assaulting.)
Q 3: a tangent? So yes, while we are off on a tangent in the sense that I didn’t (at all) have the Burke quote in my head when I was writing the post, brought it up more irresponsibly than thoughtfully (hullo from the hallway, it’s where I mainly live!), I am actually persuading myself it *is* somewhat germane. When Noel Gallagher encounters music-writing, he sees pseudo-intellectual opacity, irrelevance and lameness-in-the-context-of-critical-appreciation (though obviously he doesn’t describe it this way); and when (as a defensive and self-interested tribe) critics hear in the Oasis bellow anti-intellectual opacity, frivolous meaninglesness and the encouragement of lairy oafishness, they sense a refusal that’s merely a diminution.
From the outset, Britpop was interpreted as a battle between higher and lower status-layer (the unschooled vs the schooled, working class lads vs posh no-mates college kids), though which was seen as which varied from commentator to commentator. I want to pick a bit more at what I’m seeing as a horizontal face-off (a battle between parallel classrooms, even when they’re self-convened classrooms), and (for the duration of this essay and its comments thread aftermath) to push into the background the various symbolico-hierarchical wars being variously projected onto it. It’s not that the larger war is unimportant — it’s all important. But the actual lie of the local land is what determines the outcome of the local battle.
Which is a fancy way of saying, I keep coming back to music versus writing — and a face-off of mutual understanding vs mutual opacity that, as I say, I think Frank’s essay skips too easily through: and these are not necessarily terms that get used the same wasy on either side of the face-off. Easy to see how writing versus music gets misread as the analytical versus the visceral (especially in discussions of rap or rock); easy also to see how it gets misread as high versus low. But both readings really are misreadings: a musician who can play effectively — and play with and compose with others effectively — may well pose as on oaf onstage and behave like on off-stage. But I want to look (and listen) beyond this misdirection and dress-up.
4: Jobson, Gallagher, Scargill. How do these figures illustrate frank’s/mark’s idea of who gets to be a thinker, or which part of our life gets to be considered “thought”?
(I’m going to take them in a slightly different order, since the post is actually notionally about Oasis more than it’s about Jobson or Scargill…)
Jobson: Jobson I selected for two reasons.
(i) he clearly fit the bill of “new wave/post-punk performer of working class background who left school early who was nevertheless unafraid to be seen to be interested in modern art” — so in a strong sense he counters the Oasis attitude to culture beyond the approved realms of dadrock; culture many see as only of interest to the fancy middle classes, and
(ii) his success in exploring these interests was nevertheless pretty contested. Rockwriters — some of impeccably working-class and autodidact backgrounds themselves — were (as I recall it) more inclined to mock Jobson from the shallowness of his approach in the Armoury Show project than (for example) to cheer on him for his cheeky iconoclasm. Fans I imagine were a lot more charitable: but fans did not arrive in vast numbers during these years (The Skids had had bigger hits; and basically were better). I didn’t want to pick on someone with a free critical pass in this territory (such as Ian Curtis or Green Gartside). I wanted someone where you saw both aspects simultaneously: the way in which it would be possible to argue that something was being pushed at (viz who gets to play with modern art how); plus against this the way in which Jobson nevertheless did NOT get to be acknowledged as a worthwhile thinker, even by his rockwrite peers. And indeed — in the context of his music-making — by himself, since he quit music and went on to be a TV presenter, a film-maker and a writer.
At this particular moment in UK pop (roughly 78-85), there was indeed a concerted push — by a variety of young working-class folks who’d left school rarely — to to be seen to exploring a much wider range of cultural (and political) things than “just” rock’n’roll, but nevertheless to try to feed them back into and through the shared group of responses that constituted UK-based rock/rockwrite thinking. Which generally meant refusing — in classic glam/neo-glam/new-pop style — to cloak the discussions in any extant exogenous language of justification. We’re urchins not ushers! Flaunting our tastes as a fashionable flavour IS our intervention! Fuck you!
And so there’s really were a local set of habits being improvised here, of ways to move back and forth across what was presented as a cultural divide.
Just to amplify what I’m trying to get at, here’s Adam Ant pre-breakthrough, singing about the Italian Futurists. How good is his thinking in this song? I’d say he has a crisper grasp of the underlying dynamics — intentions, absurdities — than many people whose academic living depends on discussing the history or the philosophy of art (but of course I’m invested in him currently). By contrast, I’m not so convinced that Jobson’s version of the (1913) Armory Show — or his wider exploration of early 20th century whatever — flies very far. And the writers who were pursuing a similar trajectory — Paul Morley mostly obviously — tended to be quite sceptical of Jobson’s achievement (they only belatedly caught up with and came alongside Adam’s). But I’d except it to be in this borderland of doubt and possibility that we’d find where and how the split is sneaked back in, however inadvertently.
Because even within this improvised attempt to erase a boundary, there nonetheless remained a divide, as regards who felt what was a success. And the line of the divide does seem more or less to fall between the stage-performers and the writers.
Scargill: By contrast, the point here — beyond simply recounting the Beuys story, which is intriguing and suggestive in itself — is not simply that Scargill is a professional politician, and a politician dedicated to organise a communal act of refusing to enter the mainstream consensus, a master technician in obstinacy if not strictly speaking opacity (whose disciplinary expertise nevertheless somewhat explains why Attali’s should think to associate “noise” with the radical political stance). It’s also that he’s deftly refusing to entertain an associated cliché as it arrives from a different direction (easily sidestepping some of the self-cripplingly contorted justifications that professional far-left intellectuals might have smothered themselves in at this point).
Born 1938, Scargill is more or less the same generation as the first cohort of British rock’n’roll. His territory of expertise — union activity, socialist and marxist politics — is as unadjacent to the avant-garde conceptual art you’d usually find at the Anthony D’Offay as it is to the 60s counterculture.
Of course the way he uses his own experience (as well as his politics) to explore aspects of Beuys’s work, his actual thoughtful discussion, is interesting in itself: he sees things that discussion within the confines of routine professional art history, art criticism and exhibition journalism, has largely missed. But it’s also interesting simply because it’s unexpected: thought as dance and stance outside what you’d consider his comfort zone. He refuses to be coaxed into NOT taking Beuys’ project seriously — though of course he does this by discovering the roots of seriousness in his own life. He allows Beuys to let him play with this. In general, politics is much more schoolyard than it’s schoolroom (whatever it claims about itself).
So yes, there’s a “new dance” of sorts being carved out here, if only in terms of the challenge to the class cliché (though see below for my reservations and complications of the word “new”). Scargill as the Elvis of stubborn recalcitrance: the dance of NOPE. Where the refusal is a move — in itself contentful or not — causing the rest of the room to have to think about moving with or moving around. I wanted to set up a not-entirely-distant echo with what it is that people were celebrating in Oasis’s self-enclosed stubbornness: to set up a potential crossply of comparison and contrast: how do these various people move across an apparent split in established ways of thinking?
(Of course the 84-85 miners’ strike was lost: the how of this particular dance was/is NOT established in any widespread sense: and the Beuys encounter is today more or less forgotten. But I don’t think this failure is a good argument against my underlying idea, that all this sort of stuff belongs in our idea of what thinking is.)
Gallagher: I’d brought Jobson and Scargill as limit-points on either side of the Gallagher brothers, to elucidate by implication where I felt Oasis might appear, in this argument: to do some of the work of sketching what the band were and weren’t.
But though by profession Scargill works crowds — he IS a performer — he absolutely isn’t a music-maker. As for Jobson, the hits were few and he didn’t stick around; he moved on, to writing and film-making; he’s been out of music far longer than he was ever in it.
Music-making — I’m insisting — is a distinct species of thinking, with its own shapes, devices, habits, logics and demands. I’m calling Jobson and Scargill “thinkers’ in the sense that I think they operate on both sides of the split Frank delineates — or more accurately, on both sides of some kind of split, which may or may not map onto the spit Frank delineates. And even though there’s an element of neo-glam urchin-refusal to the former, and even though revolutionary strike action is a tactic favoured by the latter, I never see either as any kind of ‘anti-thinker’.
(I don’t think Jobson is a very effective ‘thinker’ compared to Adam Ant, say, but they are coming from a not dissimilar space — and anyway, I would say that right now.)
But Noel Gallagher really does quite often mask up as an “anti-thinker”: with his brother always on his mind, it may actually be his most common mode in interview.
Nevertheless, HE REALLY IS A MUSICIAN. So why is this — of all trades or tranches — so important to my argument? Why has it become so EASY for better-than-capable musicians to act as if they hand’t a thoughtful bone in their body? Why has it become so easy for us to be taken in by their charade?
This is my (very speculative) explanation, elaborated out of the following sequences of developments (and it may only really apply in the UK).
W: during punk, the fact of being a capable musician became a drawback, at least rhetorically. Even ppl who were actually good tended to pretend they were less knowledgeable than they probably were. (It may be the phenom that Chuck Eddy noted — of the decline in the quality of drumming in the UK — dates from this period…)
X: so for a while there was a distinct fashion for anti-art/anti-technique stances and poses among performers, eagerly embraced by the writers following them. And anyone-can-do-it was an appealing watchword in a country which has across-the-board an unending fondness for the plucky amateur.
Y: by the early 80s — the post-punk and neo-glam/nu-pop era — this had somewhat flipped back over; wider cultural interests were once again fashionable, even if rock itself continued to be somewhat derided. Musicianliness continued to be suspect (rock musicianliness especially). Even the increased interest in jazz and funk did not really remove the fatwa: the blues as an element in music more or less vanished at this time (complicated exception: metal, except metal was ALSO pushed towards a partitioned niche, critically and journalistically, albeit a large one). As I say, this is a UK thing — matters were very different in the US and elsewhere. And it was relatively shortlived: by the mid-80s, speed metal was re-opening the gates for the rest of metal (and noisier alt-rock genres were mutating to welcome it). Nonetheless, it’s striking how little blues-metal affect Oasis manifest: this is (some of) the reason.
Z: the upshot. While “theory” allowed all kinds of “difficult” jargon to run rampant across rockwrite (as part of the trendy manifestation of interest in wider non-rock cultures), “music theory” (in its various forms) remained more or less verboten. You could talk semiotics but you couldn’t talk semiquavers. (Ian Penman, writing recently on Charlie Parker, and no stranger in his day to hardcore Hegel and or the densest Derrida: “Even if you’ve loved this music for half a lifetime, you can find the algebraic lingo of jazz theory about as clarifying as a book of logarithms baked in mud”).
(Adding: in the 70s and 80s, “theory” [to adopt the silly shorthand for an entire evolving and variegated critical tendency] was largely associated with avant-garde artforms, which were in turn all scrambled up in various anti-art and anti-technique tendencies beyond and before punk. There were various vectors: it’s a tangled story I should tell some time.)
It’s also worth noting that (however it began) the spread of the taste for critical theory coincided with the professionalisation of music writing; anyone-can-do-it as an ideology with the subsequent middle-classification of pop music in the UK. College kids becoming writers or editors likely arrived well suffused with theory’s buzzwords: they weren’t a challenge to decode, they were a (sometimes proudly) acquired habit hard to break. (By contrast, someone like Penman — who was never a student, but was a mod — was pretty much entirely self-taught as a reader, with a far more playful attitude to everything he was reading and deploying).
What I’m suggesting is that — simply by virtue of this anomaly — hard-won musicianship and musicianliness ended up left out of this tendency; hence retained — which other artforms did not — an element of truculent resistance, Not all theory manifests merely as a top-down imposition and recolonialisation. Like thought, theory is something that can springs up wild-style in the hallway; ditto jargon, if we include slang and patois and street-speak. Music theory — including school-taught theory, scales and staves, keys and modulation-talk, but more especially all the practical, self-taught/learnt-from-records semi-private small-gang aspect that any given semi-successful group or band is built round — can indeed be a kind of bulwark AGAINST critical theory. (Or perhaps I’d better say “critical theory”: meaning the bad lazy all-too-widespread easyreach versions, which allow journalists and academics to make casually dismissive judgments about vast areas of culture, high and pop, that they’ve not made any effort to explore or engage with. And what I’m actually using “critical theory” to mean here — perhaps not entirely fairly — is bad and unexamined journalistic or critical assumption.)
(Semi-interesting mini-digression: Music — of any kind — is after all one of the things that the various French thinkers spoke least about: Barthes a little; Badiou ditto more recently. Adorno obviously, but his writing about music is a mess an precisely because his feelings for it — and best insights — don’t really square with his public theoretical-polemical stances (or anyway the ones that academics and cultural journalists seem to favour). And anyway he’s not French. Long point short: “theory” never dealt with music much — or well — because music-making was a kind of stubborn implicit refutation of the tendency’s more self-regarding beliefs about its radical itself.)
All of which may simply be a longwinded way of restating Frank’s main generalised claim about rock and rockwriting: that it seemed — in its dreamform — to allow social status to be called into question (including such recent innovations in social status as the “critical theorist” as an upper-level cultural bureaucrat assigning value and approval and — all too often — funding). But what I’m outlining is culturally specific too, to the UK scene that Oasis arrived in; which had come to maintain a recentish post-punky kind of backstory for rock — including pre-punk rock, which had become part of the “wider culture” you were allowed to dabble in. An anti-rock kind of pre-punk rock, in which blues and metal barely figured (let alone jazz or funk or disco).
Which in itself is a way of placing Oasis in their real context: of a cultural narrowing that sold itself as a cultural broadening. (And if ‘Britpop’ has become the dismissive shorthand for it, all many commententators quite hostile these days to Britpop still in their day worked as hard at the narrowing as they did the broadening. But this is a story for another day.) What I want to come back to is the shared, semi-private, in-group expertise that any semi-successful rock band or pop group is based on. And (whether I’m right or wrong in my explanation) the present cultural FACT that this expertise is NOT easily caught up in or translated into wider shared feelings or attitudes. Where the varied practices of film or gallery art have very much been absorbed into routine newspaper chatter — perhaps via art history as a discipline and professional criticism’s attempts to engage with conceptual or “critical” art, certainly via media studies and similar prep-for-the-professions-type Further Education courses — music as a practice somehow remains knotty, stubborn and indigestible, mysterious and even daunting. Even when it’s been folded into FE, it remains in a curious kind of internal intellectual exile. Which runs deeper, I believe, than anything I’ve sketched here.
(Digressive query to self: surely some of what I’m getting at could be termed the Dialectics of Mass Education, Secondary and Tertiary levels? Because while on one hand, Mass Further Ed = VERY GOOD THING, shd be freely available and not subject to the whims and cruelties of levels of wealth and power, it is likely, on the other hand, that all manner of problematic stuff enters into our educated understanding of the wider world simply through the many administrative decisions and rulings and structures that allow the whole thing to happen at all. Such as mutual inter-disciplinary opacities; such as all kinds of implied hierarchies inculcated by scheduling priorities in schools and universities: Who gets which room? Who gets shunted into evenings and weekends?)
Some thrown-together thoughts on this exile: Music is often voice-like even when the voice is not involved; it isn’t all non-verbal but a lot of it is — and the non-verbalness is (surely) part of why we find it socially valuable. The relative opacity to non-musicians (or non group-members) of the inner thinking that goes towards its being made in any given corpus of work — about how melodies move and combine, how harmonies evolve and clash and resolve, about how timbres and textures and surprises are organised — can be of social benefit precisely because, by virtue of being untranslateable yet familiar (and familiar, moreover, beyond tidy social or cultural boundaries), it promotes conversation. Much-needed conversation. In ways that clarity of speech or writing maybe can’t (because clarity is contingent: because discourse- or context-bound, and thus parochial, it’s not clear but obscure to outsiders, sometimes in a socially threatening way). There’s a shared (and joyful bcz recognised as shared) impulse to decode something that’s at once somehow familiar and yet literally untranslateable — and the recognition of this sharing of the need becomes a spur to conversation and mutual exchange of responses.
(Except of course when it leads to a fight: the other side of fandom. Where the possibility of conversation across borders is a glimpse of the potential for peacemaking, so that shared recognition of opacity-as-mystery can have a utopian appeal for audiuences, “noise” is — as Attali too readily came back to — also an indicator of extant or soon-to-erupt conflict: differing translations taken to be socially or politically (as opposed to scientifically) incommensurable.
So what I’m claiming — and I guess this is the very-long-delayed recognition of what Attali kinda sorta got right, in among all his foolishness and poor grasp of music history — is that if there was no opacity (i.e. no noise) there’d be no (sense of a need for) conversation — and yet conversation is humanly necessary for more reasons than merely exchanging and clarifying plain information. Jokes and riddles aren’t optional/parasitical extras: they’re fundamental. And I’m entirely happy to accept that the Gallaghoid Dance of Nope is not at all my best friend in this argument — that some disruptions of settled ideas of class and cultural status favour the haves over the have-nots, even they seem to be being brought to us by self-evident children of the have-nots. Hard as it is for foax of Frank’s and my generation to acknowledge this: that rock and rockwrite as projects have maybe long ago had their capacity to raise questions about status filtered out of them, if they even ever had it.
But to put the tail back in the dragon’s mouth, it nevertheless that the relevant disruption arrives in the form of a mass-pop blob that everyone in the room has to thinking about moving with or moving round. The “noise” I have in mind is NOT the silly idea of difficulty that avant-gardes tend to claim for themselves — ideas only too easy folded back into the haircut dance of the faculties. It’s much more about persistent oddities that you catch jumping out of the charts every week (or out of hymns or incidental music on TV). Wow! What happened there? I love it! So did I!
[and the conversation starts, and it may or may not even lead to any kind of competent decoding of what both listeners just heard: maybe kissing is what comes next instead, and maybe that’s better]
Frank in the Oasis comments: “Whereas I think Mark wants to add something to my idea, wants to add to it the idea of music provoking thought via its inarticulateness, or semantic recalcitrance, or some such. Which I don’t buy into. At least, I’m 98% not buying into it. Almost all misreadings take the form of projecting onto something what you expect will be there; which means you don’t learn anything via those misreadings, but rather fend off any new or challenging content.”
OK, but “new and challenging” is a red herring here; and so — actually — is the issue of provoking thought, in the sense of thought directly about the object briefly at issue. It may be the outcome when two music writers meet — or two particularly thought-inclined fans — but I too don’t believe it’s the usual outcome listening to music, and I don’t believe it needs to be. This is not the primary social value we find in music; there may even be something quite flawed about the kinds of music where it IS the primary value (if there actually are any).
“Elvis, in coming up with new singing and dancing, was also thereby inventing new ways for him to relate to others, who in, following and responding to his moves, were themselves thereby inventing new ways to relate to each other; and these therefore are cognitive as well as aesthetic achievements.”
But (as you admit in your book, in the commentary to Self-Presentation) they weren’t new. Or least, only if we treat the word new as merely contingent, to use your word. New (possibly) to suburban white teens of repressed genteel upbringing. Not IN ANY SENSE new to the world: r&b was a black music before Elvis took it where he took it. When Cortez and his men stood on a peak overlooking the Pacific in Darien, staring at one another “on a wild surmise”, they were hardly the first people to live in Darien or to gaze out at the Pacific. Cortez, also known as Cortez the Killer: we have to be careful when we’re using the word “new”, in regard to culture (as opposed to science): the phrase “discovering the Americas” doesn’t at all map onto “discovering the trans-Uranic elements”, because people with a significant (if forgotten; if not suppressed) history had of course already “discovered” them, just by living nearby.
(Darien btw is in Panama; also it wasn’t actually Cortez, bcz Keats was misremembering: it was Vasco Nuñez de Balboa)
(which doesn’t harm the poem at all: and correcting it wd fuck with the scansion)
As for my phrase “suburban white teens of repressed genteel upbringing”, this is simply the kind of cliché that gets brought in to save — by rendering circular — a very dodgy argument. This “new way to relate to each other” was surely not actually unknown to white Europeans of previous eras. Think of the Celtic traditions of song and dance that reached the Appalachians; the ecstatic Pentecostal rites of worship in the Southern States; and Italian peasants were dancing the Tarantella who knows how many centuries ago (some trace it back to pre-Christian Dionysiac cults). Wasn’t Elvis simply finding workable expression in modern media formations for relationships we always already knew about? (Though, yes, we had maybe been taught to disrespect them; perhaps when schools moved from the wall-less Groves of Academes into carefully policed buildings…)
And the bring this all back to Burke, if his conception of the terror of the infinite — as a root element in the psychology of the sublime — is at all religious (and given that it’s an 18th century idea, it’s never not going to be religious), then what he’s scrabbling at is the notion of an overwhelming alien encounter that’s also a recognition of and a return to God, from whence we all came. The sublime isn’t the shock of the new, it’s the shock of the Ancient.
(Final beckoning rabbithole: Meltzer’s term “unknown tongue” — and off I go down it, oh my ears and whiskers… )