1.12.2009

Music Post-Baudrillard

Words banned from 2009:
White, Black, Authentic, Fake.

These words lead us away from the truth, because they no longer describe anything else but themselves, or possibly, their speaker. And, like any opposed concepts, they are only two sides of the same coin. Neither word can undo the other. The more vehement the defense of "the real", the more starkly defined the fake becomes. If you believe so passionately in one versus another, the only way out is to deny both. While this is true for both those that believe in the fake, ie those that relish the role of postmodern magician (best exemplified by Cindy Sherman and other photographers), and those that believe in the real, the authentic, this will be a harder challenge for the latter. Those that love their little referential games can only gain pleasure from what must seem like the tedious and pitiful defense of the real that the real's defenders mount. As soon as something is declared authentic, that is when it is at its most ripe for the playful to consume it, chew it up, and spit it out. The digested thing that was real becomes a shadow of itself, "real" still on it's surface, even to those who defend it, but unable to function.  

So even though the ghost of authenticity is harder to give up to the actual "real", which is the real of play, of consumption, those that believe in the authentic have more to gain by giving it up. Why? Because another word for authentic is roots. The authentic is self-sustaining life form. The real of the fake is more like a scavenger, contingent on other life forms. In a sense, any new form of the authentic is an invitation to its own consumption, its own destruction. Better to abandon the concept all together, to leave scavengers to their own starvation.  

All of this being said, while I have never enjoyed the work of Koons, of Sherman, or even of Beck, I am one to find the defense of the authentic tedious and pitiful. I never know what the word means. It always seems to boil down to a lack of agency or intelligence. The authentic blues artist is one who has never heard any other music? Who has never even seen another county than the one they grew up in? Who has never had an impure motive for creation? The one who has never read a book of cultural criticism, or criticism in general? Perhaps authenticity in the artist has something to do with belief? But even then, theology changes, and the authentic artist with it (in fact, reality is change, preservation is fake). So does authentic mean to change without being an agent of it? What worth does this have? Why, even though my taste runs more towards music that is passionate, music that "means something", am I not tempted to develop autism and retire to a shed in the woods to survive only on the cosumption of my own flesh?

In his liner notes to Arvo Part's Alina on ECM, Hermann Conen writes "...in an era that admits of no overall style, only personal idioms... the more highly developed a style, the more it excludes." This exclusion reveals another side of creation. On the one side, the actual music produced and, on the other, "the well-developed sense of responsibility" that the "artists' pre-eminent position imposes on them." Put another way, the more developed the artist and his or her idiom, the more responsible they are for what they exclude. In fact, the artistic process becomes a process of explicit exclusion, as opposed to incidental exclusion.

In earlier times, when it was actually feasible not hear, well, any style of music at all, the case could be made for the possibility of authenticity (but even then, my original complaints about the retroactive claim of authenticity still hold).  However, in the current postmodern age, ie the age of the flat, compact, and easily traversable space of information, there is no excuse anymore. All artists must bear the responsibility mentioned above. All must come to terms with all, and make their choices informed ones. The defense of the authentic is a defense of the irresponsible. 

And what holds for genre, which is what I have been thinking of mostly, holds for instruments, for sounds, as well. Who can mount an argument for any one sound over another? Who can claim the authenticity of the guitar? The futurism of the synthesizer? All sounds are car commercials! We are truly at the end of the era of aesthetics, the point at which all symbols are empty signifiers, incapable of denoting whatever lies behind them, incapable of even ensuring that something lies behind them, if there was even anything at all. And since discussions of both the fake and the authentic rely on these symbols themselves, these discussions are bound to fail. 

And the music fails. The more reliant the music on signifiers, on referents, on anything but itself, the more weightless it becomes. The desire for roots, for connectedness, for history, undoes itself. The perfect analog is the icon sitting right on your computer desktop, which only refers to the real program, but is not the program itself.

So what is the solution? All music is under fire here, everything. The only options left seem to be noise or silence, which, even given the above, are the worst options available. Silence, inaction, the absolute lack of communication, is not an end worth seeking. There is nothing vanguardist about saying nothing. Art itself is born of lack. It cannot succeed in undoing its own rationale, its own motive. Even the desire to communicate nothing, perhaps borne of a desire to not add to the endless stream of information, to not be part of what is may be the problem, is a desire, and must be manifested. The lack of manifestation becomes the lack of the desire, there is no other possible interpretation. There is no martyr without an explicit cause.

And what of noise? Well, there is noise music, and, outside of the general tame critical statement about any genre, ie there must be a good album of it out there somewhere, noise is possibly even more irresponsible than silence. Depending on your perspective on postmodernity, as defined above, there is either too much information, all valueless and flat, or, too much detail, too many lines on the map, too much delineation (or both). Noise, as a style of music that is, at least according to one practitioner I have discussed it with, concerned with these issues and yet fails to resolve either issue. It is either just adding to the stream of crap, just "representing", ie giving up on interpretation and/or communication, redundant, or it is too delineated, an avant-garde of aesthetics, not of practice. Music that is, in its own way, just as conformist as any other, only seen as superior for conforming to artists that are more likely to appear in The Wire than Rolling Stone.   

So silence and noise are out, we must deal with what is left between these poles, the landscape of empty signifiers. We know we cannot seek out the authentic for fear of destroying it (in fact, Baudrillard said somewhere that retro itself is demystification, a way of undoing the power that the past could hold. Retro makes the past valueless, seamless and integrated to the present, which I would contrast with nostalgia, which, defined here, means missing the power of the still-mystic). We also know that the endless recycling of signifiers will not create the New.  What is left?

(I plan on answering that question, but only after these ideas have been applied more specifically.) 

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