15 October 2009

Music and theory

Very late on this, but Simon Reynolds on theory and music for Frieze is an excellent read (… and p.s. thanks to Dan Fox for the link to this in the comments)

Via that I found this dialogue (also from Frieze) between Simon R and Kodwo Eshun, from all the way back in 1999. Essential reading as a whole I think, but Kodwo’s first response caught my eye in particular. After that Nuum conference back in the spring, a lot of the Reynolds & nuum naysayers seemed very keen to approve of the presentation by Kode9 and Kodwo… sort of as ‘theory we can believe in’, a move to give them more leverage with which to bash k-punk and SR… if they approve of Kodwo and Kode9, it pre-empts the charge of being knee-jerk anti-theory philistines. But this quote from Kodwo shows the degree to which they’re trying to line up with someone who‘d repudiate much of their standpoint:
Music [has] changed so drastically that it was more pressing to analyse the widening gap between how music sounded and the terms we used to understand it. When I started writing in 1992, most dance writing was still at the level of ‘kicking’ and ‘banging’. There was a fiercely-held anti-intellectual drive that made writing about dance music more of a challenge. […] You get people writing things like ‘the music speaks for itself’ as if it’s the most admirable thing you could say - but it’s just a cop-out. There’s an idea that the writer’s aim is to empathise, to intuit, on the side of the producer against the world.

For me, it seems far more urgent to understand what computerisation is doing to rhythm than to understand that a particular musician was a bad boy who grew up in care and had a really hard time. […] 99% of writing is still socio-historical and my attempt to totally destroy that is probably doomed to failure, but it’s an experiment to show that it’s viable, using the particular example of black electronic dance music, machine music, computer music.
. . .

The Frieze Theory print issue was excellent too. But there's something about the entirety of, or the presumed possibility of, any debate about ‘Theory’, whether for or against... When you read some depressing ‘common sense’ reductive write-off of theory it’s (usually) impossible not to think a) there’s no engagement with the actual ideas in question going on, but instead a flat objection to complexity and/or abstraction in principle and in general, and b) even if you were presented with a compelling take-down of say, Paul de Man’s entire philosophical project from top to bottom, how does that impinge on Foucault? Theory is a sufficiently heterogenous body of critique and inquiry that any generic attack is going to struggle for traction. The flipside of this is that defending ‘Theory’ as a whole skirts dangerously close to being futile and/or reductive.
. . .

Reading around and about the theory debate over the last couple of months, the word ‘precisely’ seemed to leap off the page. It often seems to serve more of a rhetorical function than an author would probably like to admit, cropping up just at the point where two slippery concepts are being linked together, and the more counter-intuitive or unlikely the link, the more likely it is that ‘precisely’ will pop up. It suggests a residual anxiety about abstraction, a will-to-exactitude that kicks in when talking about the conceptual and the conceptualization of the conceptual; so ‘precisely’, with its connotations of incisive, surgical specificity, is often as much the writer assertively reassuring or reaffirming themselves as anything else.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

not sure how writing "socio-historically" is anti-intellectual; indeed, it just isn't. being anti-"theory" (by which theory dudes mean an extremely narrow part of the intellectual spectrum - foucault has been taken down pretty comprehensively, e.g. by historians who tend to care about his use of evidence) is not necessarily anti-intellectual.

but you nail the problem with "precisely". is it a zizekism? he uses it a lot, anyway. "is it not precisely...?"

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ZoneStyxTravelcard said...

Sorry Anon, I meant to reply to your post ages ago, and now some spam has come between us. Agree entirely that socio-historical analysis is not anti intellectual. And the common lightning rods for criticism within theory (eg Yale school deconstruction) cannot simply represent the whole... but in my experience any number of materialist theorists can elicit sceptical eye-rolling too, not just Foucault but Bourdieu, Adorno, Habermas...

Re the Kodwo Eshun quote, More Brilliant than the Sun is a deliberate polemic turn to formalism, formulated in response to a critical norm which took no account at all of the sensory, phenomenological nature of those areas of dance music. It's partly a rebuke to journalism at a level local to the time and place of 90s dance music writing, and partly to the wider historical problem of black music culture being discussed reductively as products of an environment: blues as a metabolism of plantation/Depression misery, Motown and civil rights, hiphop as informed by the crack epidemic of the 80s/90s... So there's a critical balance to be restored, to prevent the object of study becoming society, with the music as a lens through which to study it. What about the music itself, in all its strange, incommensurable richness and complexity? etc