06 April 2014

Pink Guitars vs. the Negative Dialectic, II (Slight Return)

Aaron at ATTT, once again, with the followed belated (very belated) observations about Daniel Lopatins’s “Eccojams”:

“...Most of the rest of vaporware, not so much. I understand the gesture, understand the nostalgia, miss the bright techno future-vision of the capitalism of the late 1980s/early 1990s, but a lot of the music seems to get by just on the mere gesture of evoking that era. As if simply the choice to compose in a certain style were enough all by itself, with the actual composition a mere afterthought.

"To the point that the critique is almost lost and the composer has just substituted demo tracks of late 1980s synthesizers for, say, Italo disco or 1960s garage rock, as the thing to sound like with no desire to communicate anything beyond the aesthetic predilections of the composer.”

Which precisely gets at some nagging suspicion I’d had lurking in the back of my head ever since all the discussion about defining musics of the hauntological or vaporwavey pedigree – works by artists whose efforts pioneered or epitomized the micro-/sub-genres in question – was being kicked about so heartily some 5 or so years ago.

Nostalgia through a glass darkly: The loss of childhood innocence, via deferred and unrealized futures, and something something neoliberalism. I actually thought of some of it in similar ways myself, upon initial exposure. But that was my own subjective reaction, based upon an impression based in a network of association from my youth. And admittedly I’ve contributed to some of that discourse mentioned above, having written down my thoughts on it a while back.

But to Aaron’s remarks, especially the bit about “getting by just on the mere [musical] gesture of evoking an era.” Dicey business, that; especially if the era in question is exists in the minds of most listeners as a vague impression or set of clichés, on account of it falling – by dent of their age – outside their own direct experience. Musically, its mainly an example of form becoming content in the most “meta” of pomo ways, inthat it’s music referring to itself, or to its former self as it may have appeared in a previous incarnation. Music that is now looked back upon – through ironic twists of canonical filtering, an upended hierarchy in which the kitsch and marginalia of the past are given top ranking – as definitive of a previous zeitgeist. (And really, what age doesn’t/wouldn’t want to think of itself as some sort of zeitgeist?) Mere style as a sort of semantic signifier. Skrewd, woozy, deliberately degraded – a corrupted signal, at once both allusive and elusive in its suggestion of a particular point in time. A moment that long ago unmoored from its particulars, drifted well beyond the gravity of its original context. But of course we know that context is usually the first thing lost in the data stream, the news cycle, the deluge of information in an information age. In this instance the instance at how we arrived at this socio-political-economic moment, a moment in which the idea of “the future” might provoke as much anxiety as optimism: the context is a not-so-distant past that might recalled in some hazy or second-hand fashion, but can’t be reconstructed, reverse-engineered, let alone reclamated or redeemed. That’s the nature of the past – what’s done is done. And memory – be it personal or collective – is of little remedial use in such matters.

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image: Mitch Epstein

Relatedly, I was recently prompted to think of the James Ferraro interview that appeared at The Quietus a while ago, coinciding with the release of Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual album. A sample of Ferraro’s banter therein:
“Each track is - for the lack of a better word - an element of society, the album being the whole of this society. Musically it's a PIXAR meme. Rubbery plastic symphony for global warming, dedicated to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This is ringtone music meant to be experienced on the post-structuralist medium, the smartphone.”
Ferraro’s yammering came to mind because I’m resently re-reading Don DeLillo’s White Noise, having only read it once, and then nearly three decades ago. There’s much that I had forgotten about the book.* Reading it now, I’m struck at how DeLillo-esque the Ferraro interview was in hindsight. Ironic, given that Delillo’s novel was published in 1985, which is the exact era that Ferraro has musically mined on albums like Last American Hero and Night Dolls with Hairspray.

The ultimate white noise in DeLillo’s novel has to do with the big D – i.e., the suppressed awareness of one’s own mortality, thoughts of which stain the edges of daily experience. But the other white noise is the peripheral-yet-saturating mediated babble of American life in the latter years of the 20th century, the loud voices carrying through whatever walls – one might try to put up - advert glossolalia and the marketplace catechisms that coalesce around the surfeit of consumer goods, litanies of brand names, random flotsams of information pouring in from a proliferating array of channels, the ceaseless caveats of possible hazards or ill-effects from use or misuse of any given product or technology, etcetera. Ultimately, however, the noise has to do the reified character of American life. As in the narrator Jack Gladney describes an experience in a supermarket...
“I realized the place was awash in noise. The toneless systems, the jangle and skid of carts, the loudspeaker and coffee-making machines, the cries of children. And over it all, or under it all, a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension.“
And later, after a transaction with an ATM:
“...The system had blessed my life. I felt its support and approval. The system hardware, the mainframe sitting in a locked room in some distant city. What a pleasing interaction. I sensed that something of deep personal value, but not money, not that at all, had been authenticated and conformed. ...The system was invisible, which made it all the more impressive, all the more disquieting to deal with. But we were in accord, at least for now. The networks, the circuits, the streams, the harmonies.”

DeLillo being of course an author and cultural chronicler of a specific generation – that commonly labeled “Boomer.” In that respect, one might argue there’s a different, earlier semi-hauntological aspect that appears in many of his works, serving as a unifiying thematic subtext – that being a how-did-we-get-here-from-there survey of the American cultural landscape, a purview that covers and connects the post-war affluency and Cold War paranoia to the postmodern (in the David Harvey/Fredric Jameson sense) America of the 1980s. And always narrated from a p.o.v. anchored in a cool, detached sense of unheimliche detachment.

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*  As many DeLillo novels as I’ve read over the intervening years, and as many of them which have made him one of my favorite contemporary American authors, I had long been meaning to double back on White Noise, but am only now doing so. Not sure what took me so long. Also not sure where my head was at when I first read it, because I wasn’t too impressed with it at the time. Wasted on me because I was a little too young? Or I t simply wasn’t the type of thing I was up for reading for at the time? Can’t say. It’s far funnier and more deeply satiric than I remember, which isn’t a mode DeLillo dips into very often, his general mode of social critique or observation usually being much more dry, cold, removed. There’s also some elements of absurdity in the thing that probably seemed a bit befuddling at the time of its publication, but (I think) have taken on a more canny resonance in the past decade or so.

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