Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Mechanical Reproduction

To be perfectly honest, I feel ambivalent about Walter Benjamin’s work for the very reason it is great: He seems to invent a new poetics in each of his essays. Thus his work is an expansive and idiosyncratic collection of suggestive observations that never appears, at least to me, to come together as a coherent analytical system. Compare it to the massively totalizing perspective of Lukács, for example. It was impossible for Benjamin to be as rigorously and uncompromisingly systematic as Lukács, which for Benjamin’s admirers is part of his appeal. This lack of systemic coherence operates at the level of the essay for Benjamin. His essays are full of parallactic moments of poetic beauty in which things are brought into stunning relief by an eye that sees like few others. These moments are generally surrounded by a bunch of gibberish. (Please take these “criticisms” of Benjamin with a large heaping of salt. He is Benjamin, and I’m some asshole “writing” on the interwebs.) But it’s the lyrical/philosophical/speculative images that one remembers, even when they’re wrong.

Benjamin’s extraordinary “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is rightfully influential and thought-provoking. Benjamin undertook in this essay the task of trying to understand the status of art in an era that saw the emergence of mass media and what later thinkers like Marcuse and Adorno would call “the culture industry.” The questions he generated, which have only become more relevant as time has passed, centered on the impossible relationship between the ephemeral quality of aesthetics and the material reality of actual artistic objects. Benjamin hypothesized that what he called art’s “aura”—the immaterial, essential, and quasi-religious element of art that distances many viewers from the work—dissipated in the industrial process of mechanical reproduction. Labor, therefore, demolished the mysticism that kept people from enjoying art. Thus Benjamin linked this process to Marx’s understanding of capitalism more broadly: capitalist production created the condition of possibility for dismantling the social relations that capitalism sought to maintain and reproduce.

Benjamin’s argument is seductive, but I find it hard to accept. If anything the trend has moved somewhat in the other direction. Many people now consider advertisements, commercial products, and even product packaging artistic. Rather than do away with the aura of art, capitalism has managed to illuminate its consumer products with that very aura. (Yes, I understand that you think that your computer and cell phone are “beautiful” but they are not art. Get over it, you gross philistines.)

I’m not sure that anything can destroy art’s aura, and I’m also tempted to believe that that’s a good thing. I love Miguel’s “Adorn,” an exceptional song whose very purpose is to get couples to put to use, in the words of a smart lady I know, their “lets-get-down” scented candles. From the illusion of a needle hitting vinyl that opens the song, to the subsonic vocals that punctuate its rhythms, to Miguel’s pleading and warm voice, “Adorn” perfectly evokes love and desire in a way that is familiar to fans of Marvin Gaye. “Adorn” is in important ways a pitch-perfect cover of a non-existent Marvin Gaye song. It is a reproduction without an original. Someone who knows the technical language of music would probably give a better explanation but for me what “Adorn” reproduces is the aura of Marvin Gaye. It copies, without in any way diminishing, the unobjectifiable essence of what made Marvin Gaye's music indescribably great, and this reproduction makes me happy.

Friday, May 11, 2012

This One Is Just For Me

When The Beastie Boys' “Make Some Noise” first appeared on the interwebs I was pretty happy to play it for everyone. I played it for my buddy Tres, and I was surprised by his tepid reaction. “Meh,” he said, “it’s just The Beastie Boys.” Tres is a good man, and he usually has a fine taste in music, but I guess he was not too impressed with The Beastie Boys simply being themselves. Few things please me more.

I have always been hooked by the opening bars of a Beasties' single; the beats transforming me into a metronomic bobble head. And the beats of “Make Some Noise” are particularly good. By the time Ad-Rock snaps into his lyrics the song has dug in deep. The verses of all three MCs here, as in nearly all of their songs, are silly, clever, archaic, anachronistic, bombastic, witty, and formulaic. There is no need to overstate their rapping skills; they’re not the best and they’re not trying to be, no matter what they claim. What they are is a satisfying interplay of vocal textures and trippy word play. While it is clear that a lot of thought and work goes into constructing their songs, the dominating nasally delivery and the general goofiness gives the sense of people always on the verge of breaking into a party.

They exploit that impression in this song. “A party on the left/A party on the right,” goes the chorus, placing the Beasties right in the middle of a world of lovable scoundrels and reprobates, in which their role is to voice the unending imperative to “make some noise.” They have changed over the years of course, and the call for shenanigans is tempered by the subtle political awareness that to invoke carnival is to question the rules through which society maintains order: “We gonna party for the motherfucking right to fight.” With that line, The Beastie Boys echo something that Public Enemy was trying to tell them years ago.

MCA is dead. I have never been saddened before by the death of a famous person that I only knew through their work. I’m not imaginative enough to believe that I have a personal relationship with someone I see only in mass media, and I didn’t believe I had one with MCA either. It’s just that The Beastie Boys have been part of the background of my life since I was a very young man. In them there was something of that youth and its passing. God, whatever phrasing I try out sounds melodramatic and false, that last sentence included. I guess I just wanted The Beastie Boys around to help me make fun of getting older while recognizing that it was happening. I wanted them to continue to take the piss out of squares that don’t understand the joy of not giving a fuck—not you Tres, you’re not a square, even if you don’t like this song. Instead, MCA is dead.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Variations of the Truth

Little Talks” by Of Monsters and Men stages the old problem of synthetic knowledge. Throughout the long history of philosophy there have been many partial and unsatisfying answers to the question of the objectivity of knowledge that is produced through subjective experience. How can we be sure that what we know through our subjective experience of the world is objective and true? This is a question that has troubled philosophy from its earliest days. “Little Talks” addresses that dilemma in familiar ways.

Taking the form of a dialogue, the song renders the discrepancy between one speaker’s perceptions of things as they are registered by her sensuous experience and the contrasting explanations of the same events by another subject. “The stairs creak as you sleep/It’s keeping me awake” says one singer. “It’s the house telling you to close your eyes,” says the other. What is for one subject the violation of sleep by an insistent voice that will not let her rest is for the other a soothing voice beckoning one to sleep. The same physical manifestation produces not only two separate explanations but also two explanations that cancel each other out. It’s not simply that there are two ways of understanding an identical experience but that to claim the truth for one explanation necessarily falsifies the other.

The inability to communicate experience has very poignant consequences in this song. Later, one of the performers sings, “Soon it will be over and buried with our past,” and the other responds, “We used to play outside when we were young/And full of life and full of love.” What is nostalgia for one, the longing to feel again as he felt in his youth, is for the other the resignation that the past never returns and in it are buried all the good and bad things that happened and cannot be lived again. Their inability to find common meanings for their shared experience anticipates the way their voices intertwine around their understanding of loss. Both sing: “We’re torn, torn, torn apart/There’s nothing we can do.” The failure to comprehend together is symptomatic of a broken relationship in which the only thing the couple shares is their knowing that it’s over. Tragic shit that, and we’ve all been there. Ironically in this context, it’s one of those things that is easier to understand than it is to accept.

Husserl argued that if we subject experience to a rigorous analysis in which we describe all of its possible contingencies and variations we will discover that what we call the real world is never available to us in an unmediated way. What constitutes it is in part the consequence of the presuppositions and assumptions of something we might call the idea of objective consciousness. What stands in for truth, then, is a response elicited by the world outside of the subject, a response that does not and cannot fully encompass the empirical event. “Little Talks” grasps this idea intuitively and deeply. They sing: “Don’t listen to a word I say/The screams all sound the same/Though the truth may vary/This ship will carry our bodies safe to shore.” In the heady lyricism of the brass notes that elevate the chorus these words remind us that while understanding fails and truth sometimes has the materiality of shadows, our embodied selves remain the only vessels through which we traverse this ocean of sorrow.