Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Cultural Nudity: No Shirt, No Shoes, No Being

I was having trouble getting started on a post today. I've had an idea brewing since about the time I made that first post after a long break, but I haven't been able to find the time amidst my personal and professional chaos to sit down and write it. I started something an hour ago, involving tortured references to Foundationalism and Coherentism (which only applied in the most slanted possible way to the matter at hand), in addition to an attempt to tie it to this post and rumors of someone's misunderstanding thereof, and . . . well, it was just too dang thinky for me to parse out the relevant bits and get to the story I wanted to tell. What sucks is that all those connections--even the skewed philosophical ones, and especially the one relating to the other post--were actually quite real, and quite important, in my mind, whereas the story itself lacks resonance on its face. Could I rely on most readers to make the proper inferences? Would this post be of any worth without them?

I'm not gonna get into the whole debate as to whether blogs are supposed to be good writing or not, except to say that I try to keep things at least nominally thoughtful and somewhat (anti-)intellectual to differentiate it from the multitudes of bloggers who seem to think that their journals are interesting to anyone (though I certainly think some of them are correct; indeed, my hope is that my concepts, and the ways in which I write about them, will interest the reader in the being who formulated them, thus finding them willing to engage with my autobiographical details and prosaic musings). No, what just occurred to me was a conversation I had with 'Stine sometime in the last day or two. I was coming home, exhausted from a day at work following a weekend of some serious writing. See, I had a big deadline for the summer issue of ALARM on Monday, so I had three features and eleven reviews to write (actually, I'd already written four of the reviews, and transcribed all the interview text for the articles, but STILL . . . ) over the weekend. And quite accidentally, I said something to 'Stine that was more true, more profound than anything I could actually have cooked up from my arsenal of noetic recipes.

"If there's one thing the deadlines and money help me with, it's getting over any worry about whether my writing is any good. My title is 'contributing writer,' after all, not 'good writer.'"

Okay, it doesn't look so profound now that I've put it down. But it's still true, and truth trumps profundity. See, it doesn't really matter if I get the best of my craft out there; that's between me and whoever prints, publishes, edits, or markets my work. That's what those people are for. Since this is a forum where I rarely rewrite, and where all middle-men/-women are removed from twixt my readers and myself, I'm actually even LESS obligated to produce good writing, and more obligate to WRITE, to tell the damn story I wanted to tell.

So as far as either my philosophical interest or the connection to the other post goes, we can either address that in the comments, or--should this fail to draw any comment--in a future post, where the dialectics can be unburdened by mere observation. Here's what I was interested in noting, and what it seemed to mean aside from its relation to either big philosophy or its relationship to my other ideas.

I was listening to one of the CDs I'd requested from the list for review. I don't get everything I ask for from every list--there are other writers to take into account--but I don't get anything I didn't ask for, unless my review editor thinks there's something I'd enjoy based on her (remarkably astute) understanding of my tastes. In order to avoid falling into a rut, and only reviewing one or two kinds of music, I do like to shake my own foundations up a little, and request something that resides outside my tastes, if not entirely outside my musical values. **
The process can be a little risky, but it's often quite rewarding.

So I'm listening to one such gamble--we'll leave the artist's name out of it for now--and I'm finding myself a little put out, at least for the first track. It might be because it's blues rock, and I'm just suffering from precisely the prejudice I was trying to address in picking the CD; post-punk theory (because post-punk is nothing if not theoretical) has traditionally demanded that the blue be bled from the blues, hollowing out the recognized emotion constructs in order to create music that is resolutely deconstructionist, situationist, etc. This was partially a function of European bands trying to de-Americanize the essential tools of rock & roll, but, considering that American bands like Devo, Mission of Burma, Talking Heads, and Pere Ubu also engaged in this, it's also fair to say that they were rebelling against the Rousseauist warmth of '60s ideology (it's no coincedence that Rousseau's number one rival, the Marquis de Sade, was such a profound influence in the industrial camp, one of post-punks most easily recognizable sub-genres).

Whatever the reason, my relationship with the blues is tenuous. I love the old, scratchy stuff; I enjoy some revivalists like Mark Lanegan or Hillstomp; I LOVE artists like P.J. Harvey or the Kills who have appropriated aspects of the blues to tell stories that have more personal resonance with me than the ones usually held out by the old masters. But this recording struck me, on first listen to the first track, as belonging more to the school of '70s classic rock (which, if you haven't gathered yet, ain't my bag), with a vaguely Bob Seger-ish tinge that had me sulking.

Now, the album got a LOT better over the rest of the tracks, and I should note that, although that sense that this was sorta my parents music more than mine didn't quite dissipate, I was almost won over by the music itself. I can thank Quentin Tarantino (among others, probably) for contextualizing classic rock in a way that I could appreciate, and the right flavor of Americana can remind me of dusty road trips back in my old college stomping grounds in the SW, and the notion that this music could go quite well with a smoldering joint, a cheap (3.2%) beer, and a desert sunset did warm me to the whole enterprise. But my impulse was still to write this off as something that was only worth having if I was dying for something I could share with my friends who have no interest in motorik, post-punk, drone, dub, techno, hip-hop, art-punk, prog-metal, freak-folk, or anything else that I might refer to as my bread-and-butter.

Since it always behooves me to research an artist's past projects, I looked this guy up on Turns out his music is most often classified as indie-rock, and is usually compared to post-hardcore acts like the Jesus Lizard. What the hell? Thing is though, as I'm reading his history, the bands that he's toured with, and the way previous reviewers had described his sound, I'm starting to wonder: Did I give the album a fair hearing? Was I tricked into thinking this music was something it wasn't because the blues element was up front, rather than subverted? Did my prejudices against a certain kind of sound make me miss something hiding in plain sight?

So I listened to the album again with new knowledge . . . and it was better. Oh, it still sounded the same, and it's not gonna be something I play all the time. But when I know who I'm listening to, where he comes from, what his widely-perceived intent is in appropriating the sounds he's appropriating, I hear the music differently.

All of this had me questioning . . . well, everything. Had my theory unduly prejudiced me against the music? Had that same theory converted me back? Did knowing this gentleman's history open my mind to his music, or had it blinded me to its flaws? Do we apprehend art with the raw senses or with the whole mind? Does how we absorb a message depend on who delivers that message? Is it shallow to prefer the music when I know it's been delivered by a tattooed (in theory; I don't know that he has any tats) punk rather than some red-state fogey?

Can we approach anything--art, family, politics, religion--culturally naked, without the noetic baggage accumulated over a lifetime? I tend to think not. Maybe when we were younger, more literally naked. But we DO come to define ourselves by the roles we play, because without those roles, we're more and more like everyone else. C.S. Lewis once noted the irony of people insisting that they were "more themselves" when nude, because the opposite is, in fact, true: any one man is more like every man without his trousers, and any one woman more like every woman. Individuation is a result of serial affectation, calcification, rejection, appropriation, socialization. These labels, identities, archetypes do bind us to other people, but we still find space in the contradictions to free ourselves from those binds, and even that would be impossible if we truly shed everything--language, culture, preference, ethics, philosophy. A human without theory--whether or not he or she calls it that--is an organism, a collection of biological needs with few, if any, strategies for fulfilling them.

Truth be told, my review of this record wasn't that far from my original impression (though another CD on which the same artist played with a trio was a slam-dunk, a fulfillment of the furious promise hiding under the surface of the solo work, so I like to think everything came up [bloody] roses in the end); I just softened the criticisms and looked a bit more closely at the silver linings. But I like to think I listened more completely in knowing what the music's context was. Maybe we should be able to consume art without this knowledge. But do we? Ever? It seems to me that by the time we even started to develop musical preferences, we already had language, already had friends who recommended music to us, templates and paradigms by which we judged good from bad. Maybe we've never arrived on art's doorstep without the requisite shirt and shoes (and trousers, of course, though that was always omitted form the convenience store signs).

** - I differentiate between values and tastes because tastes usually speak to matters of genre, where values can transcend genre. I hate to say I don't like x kind of music, but like y kind of music. More correct would be to say that x kind of music tends to operate from a value system different from my own, but when it does address my musical values, I CAN like it (say, Neko Case helping me like country); y kind of music reflects my values as a matter of its construct (say, dub music already being an intrinsically postmodern form), and therefore it doesn't necessarily have to work as hard to meet my criteria. But even that ties me to genre more than I prefer, because there's a lot of suck-ass dub out there, and one really oughtn't criticize country music for BEING country music.

I bring this up because I find that everyone's preferences look snobbish to someone who doesn't share them, and I'm always taken aback when I--who like more individual bands and more individual kinds of music than pretty much anyone I know--am accused of elitism by people who surely dislike at least as many forms as I do (I remember being accused of elitism because I didn't like Neil Simon by someone who didn't like Theatre of the Absurd; I wondered why one set of preferences was perceived as affectation and the other as enlightened populism).

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Blogger the beige one said...

gonna need a couple of days to process all of this, particularly how it pertains to me (because it's all about me, quit kidding yourself).

Well written, though, and I wonder what the backstory is.


motorik, post-punk, drone, dub, techno, hip-hop, art-punk, prog-metal, freak-folk


they're kinda driving me crazy right now, in my own writings.

4:04 PM  
Blogger thelyamhound said...

Yeah, I get frustrated with the whole label thing, as well. On the other hand, they DO help when you're limited by word count; when you only have, say, 250 words in which to review a CD, "druggy, sample-based music composed largely of antiquated samples and Brian Eno-style filtering techniques with an overlaying of Jamaican dub" is certainly more unwieldy than "trip-hop" . . . and I even used another label (dub) in that longer explanation.

Of course, the labels are useless if your audience doesn't know what they are. That's the trouble with writing about music/dancing about architecture--you're trying to save someone the trouble of experiencing something you perceive as bad, or turn them towards the experience of what you see as good. Aside from the standard worry that stymies all criticism--the question as to whether your judgements have any meaning outside the circle of people who share the same values as you--there's also the fact that all description fails, on some level, to accurately replicate experience.

4:42 PM  
Blogger JJisafool said...

Ly, you ask a couple of times and in different way whether we can engage art free of cultural context, and my answer, as yours seems to be, is nope. It just isn't possible when identity is so wrapped in cultural construction to step outside your subject position.

Is there a possibility to get closer? Maybe. I think we experience art through drugs in an attempt to do that. I think we actually do as you did, try to experience the art pointedly within a context, for the same reason. Something like a triangulation or parallax based on our knee-jerk/immediate and pointedly mediated perceptions. Which won't take us without, but at least makes us more conscious of the effects of our subject position.

Can we approach anything--art, family, politics, religion--culturally naked, without the noetic baggage accumulated over a lifetime? I tend to think not. Maybe when we were younger, more literally naked.

Now, this is something I've wondered about a lot, because one question the above formulations beg is when does a personal aesthetic start? At what point does it become culturally-constructed, as it must inevitably be?

I've mentioned before that Liv hated Walt Whitman from the moment, sometime before three months, that I first read it to her. I know that now her tastes are influenced by what we buy for her, what was handed-down to her, what we like and expose her to, but what about when she was maybe eight weeks old? And what does it say that she still doesn't like Whitman?

I liked this post. Good chewin'.

10:48 AM  
Blogger thelyamhound said...

JJ--I like your use of the word "triangulation" here, because I think that's kinda, sorta what I'm getting at: We zoom in on "objective" receptivity by immersing ourselves in the subjective, and enough different angles of subjectivity that we can actually hear/see/read the damn thing. Which is either paradoxical (we reach objectivity through increased subjectivity) or self-deceptive (we pile so many reasons why we might like it, why we should like it, that we don't engage with the work, but with the reasons and status symbols we've attached thereto). Of course, finding post-punk reasons to like blues-rock inevitably begs the question: Do I even like post-punk? Or is that perceived preference itself a result of academic theory, the attempt to get under that skater chick's Black Flag T-Shirt junior year (didn't happen), or a broad revision of personal history?

Your example with regards to Liv is interesting, but I have to say, when I was a child, I remember really enjoying my parents' Roger Whitaker and Neil Diamond albums (I've come to appreciate Diamond as kitsch since then, thanks largely--once again--to Quentin Tarantino). I don't know that I like ANY "adult" poetry, and didn't really even get exposed to Whitman until my teens. I took to Whitman and Blake pretty easily, but who's to say whether that was already the function of a construct.

The fact that Liv isn't liking Whitman to this day only says to me that there's nothing truly instinctive--no matter how much we'd like to think there is--about responding to "good" art (by any of the controversial, and largely bullshit, definitions conferred upon us by the canon OR by our own subjective finding). Does Liv's natural aversion to Whitman mean that she lacks some key inborn element that would allow her to love him later? Nah, I don't think so. She my find whole new reasons to hate Whitman when she's ready, but most great art requires, I think, a fair amount of cultural influence on the receptive individual for her to either love it OR hate it on a reliable basis.

Not only that, but these things change, even in adulthood. I didn't used to like art films; I was well into my 20s before the whole idea of "independent cinema" and such were really on my radar. I didn't really even know what "alternative music" was 'til I was almost 19, and I'd been listening to it for almost four years by then. My valuing those things was largely a reaction to my feeling like an outsider in the small towns where I grew up and went to school, based on an assumption that the seeds of my escape lay somewhere, encoded, in this art that the people who seemed content to go native couldn't enjoy or understand.

Back to Liv: Even if she didn't have a cultural context, per se, at eight weeks, she had a way of being in the world that was influenced by her age, the aesthetic capabilities both sharpened and limited by her physical development, lack of language, etc. The nature of her context has changed, and she's had time to be influenced by things, but probably doesn't have the level of language understanding that would even allow one to appreciate Whitman (hell, I don't think it even occurred to me to appreciate POETRY 'til I was about 9).

I mean, do ANY of us like the same things now that we liked at age 3? I don't even like the same things I liked at age 23 (though the essential pattern that governs my preferences was in place). We often chalk it up to being wiser, but that's kinda bullshit; it's like when people say that becoming republican has anything to do with maturity. What it has to do with is the contexts in which you function changing, and the role that politics, art, family, etc. come to play in your ability to function in those contexts.

11:59 AM  
Blogger Missuz J said...

Internal monologue:

Damn. I really liked that post. I should comment because when people read something they like--the should comment, but dude--I don't think I dare. I'm feeling very much the dumb girl here, which I know I'm not. The thing is I really don't speak either of these languages--that of music (prog metal?) or of cultural based perception--or maybe it's perception based culture. Plus, there's that thing where I kind of love country music. Not crappy country music mind you, but sweet, sweet down home country like Gillian Welch (sp?) and Billy Joe Shaver. Shit. Why do we like the things we like? And is why do we care so much, at times, that others approve of our choices? I know I used to say I hated country because, well, country wasn't cool. But then I just had to decide that I liked it and so there. Like Cheetos. Maybe I'll just say something short and possibly clever. Maybe just short.

Sweet post. Bye.

6:05 PM  
Blogger thelyamhound said...

Heh, heh . . . Oh, Missuz J.

"Prog" is short for progressive, which tends, in music-geek-speak, to be shorthand for weird time signatures, surreal effects, and epic pretense that resembles '70s progressive rock bands like Yes, King Crimson, early Genesis, Rush, Queen, etc. Metal is, well, metal (though one could be forgiven for failing to fully grasp that one, since it's managed to pass from Zeppelin/Sabbath through hair bands like Def Leppard, speed/thrash bands like Iron Maiden, and arrive at ambient bands like Sunn O))) or Earth).

But there's not really any reason for anyone to know that unless they're doing what I'm doing; like TBO says, labels are frustrating (but, unfortunately, necessary for the critic in a way they're not for the consumer, especially if you only get 250 words a review).

I'd say that ALL culture is perception-based, and all perception is culture-based. I was talking more about culture-based perception, but that inevitably refers to perception-based culture, I suppose.

Thanks for stopping in. Always a pleasure. :^)

10:23 AM  
Blogger thelyamhound said...

BTW - I love Gillian Welch, and would say that she represents the same side of the country spectrum as Neko Case and the like. So you needn't treat your enjoyment of such as something worthy of "confession."

Not familiar with Billy Joe Shaver, and as for Cheetos, well, I don't profess to like them, but I've eaten a few in my day.

3:10 PM  

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