24 February 2012

burning down the (glass)house: The Architecture of Failure

Just started reading The Architecture of Failure by Douglas Murphy and finding it fascinating so far. I won't attempt to paraphrase it all, I haven't even got to the bits about Derrida yet, but if you like the sound of reading about nineteenth-century structures of iron and glass, eg the Crystal Palace, as inchoate modernism with added meditative discursions on transience, this is the book for you. This passage in particular caught my eye:
of all cultural forms, architecture is the one that requires the largest amounts of capital to produce; not only the huge masses of material that must be assembled, but also the huge amounts of labour that go into the erection of buildings. If we (not unproblematically) think of architecture as an artform, then it is the art form that is still most directly tied to its patrons, with all the ideological problems that entails.
...as it reminds me of a theory I put forward about film, which suggested, pretty crudely, that as it required massive lumps of capital to make a film, film-making could reasonably be alleged to skew towards capital and serve its interests. (With the obvious caveat that there is also money to be made, or at least money in the possession of people willing to spend it, from attacking or threatening capitalism and the established order of things, whether from genuine principle or from a cynical desire to ventilate build-ups of radical pressure).

But it also struck me how thoroughly the spectacle of Die Hard depends on the destruction of a steel & glass C20 descendant of precisely the iron & glass forms discussed by DM. And that the destruction of these architectural great-grandchildren is quite a trope, almost an obsession, within 80s-90-00s action films: Terminator 2, the Transformer films... Is it just coincidence? just the case that in films that rehearse and glory in the destructive sublime, they are naturally going to destroy the urban environment closest to hand? is it that there's something visually captivating about the transformation of a smoothly geometric series of lucid panes into chaotic cloud-bursts, galaxies of dying twinkles? (This must come into it, the physical fragility of the iron & glass structure naturally inviting thoughts of its own potential for spectacular dissolution, and as a visitor to Kew Gardens I've often daydreamed of how its glasshouses could be used as the setting for a Bourne style shoot-out sequence) or practically speaking that blowing up a glass-house is cheaper, easier to fix, easier to rebuild? or a latent hostility to the modernist genealogy these buildings represent? I don't know: I nominate Douglas to research these burning questions and report back with relevant findings.

22 February 2012

Retromania notes 3: the critique that disappears?

Thoughts prompted by Retromania's sheer quantitative scope. The first is that, arguably, the more examples of retro Reynolds marshals from the aesthetic width, geographical breadth and chronological depth of pop music, the more it begins to seem an inherently retro form: always and already nostalgic, from Chuck Berry's rehearsals of teenage lust, and the 'high school' genre as discussed by Nick Cohn in Awopbop onwards. In other words, it threatens to move beyond being persuasive and into a zone where the critique essentially disappears and you almost have to disavow pop music itself as a futuristic form except in a very small number of strictly exceptional cases.

There's a lot of truth in that model. One of the things that troubles me about it is the way it seems to acquiesce or feed into the strange complacency or faux wisdom of the twas-ever-thus brigade. People who, when challenged with the moribund state of genre X, insist everything moves in cycles, the critic must just be too old or out of touch to enjoy it, as if there is always a fixed and stable quotient of good/innovative music out there, like some kind of mathematical constant. Even though genres and forms do dissipate, dismantling themselves entropically, as the energy of their original algorithmic arc plays itself out completely. Even though pop music as we understand it simply did not exist in 1932, and we have no right to blindly assume it will continue to exist as we know it indefinitely. At almost every level the means to produce, distribute, obtain, and consume/absorb (and then discuss/dissect) art has been transformed in the last half century. This now is new, and we have to talk about why its music might not be (or if it is, then talk about how to articulate its newness, and why it should be that this new-newness requires explication and advocacy at all if it's so fresh and unprecedented).

21 February 2012

Retromania: in/out of fashion etc

Fashion emerges as a real bete noire in Retromania: the industry is characterized as retromaniac all the way down at one point, and music's current doldrums are summed up as essentially the consequence of its 'fashionization'. I haven't thought this through entirely, but it intuitively feels... rockist and harsh to me. Tilting towards a probelmatically literal-minded assertion that fashion is simply style over substance, form and no content. Style and content are not strictly co-terminous but they do overlap inextricably, fused like conjoined twins. Fashion's cycles are like a hyper-acceleration of the dialectic engine that turns over movements and scenes in music/literature/film. Trouser widths widen, widen, then suddenly go superskinny; rock expands, goes progs, bloats, then savagely cuts its own hair into a punk birds-nest. Plus the absolute intertwining of fashion (as clothes) with music, passim. Fashion is a key part of the holistic depth you get in all retromania. Adam Harper has a tendency to discuss retromania musicologically, as a formalist, in terms of certain melodic/harmonic echoes/revivals. But it's not just that Oasis pinched that bit of Imagine's piano, it's the John Lennon glasses, the Beatles duffles; ditto with The Strokes and their skinny jeans. Retro invokes the context of the cultural text, bringing with it a web of other artefacts.

Fashion at times seem to be doing two things very intently, while insisting it only does one: it's committed to formalism, but really, more perhaps than any other field/activity, it goes about the business of Bourdieu's distinction, drawing up complex aesthetic cartographies that allow people to socially (and economically) orientate themselves. Clothes are a marker of class to a far more reliable extent than musical taste. I'm not suggesting fashion and music sit on a flat plane of equivalence, but I would rather brand the instrumentalization of music that SR complains about the 'lifestyling' of music than the 'fashionizing'

EDIT 22/2
couple of things via twitter. From Dan Barrow:

Adorno's 'Aesthetic Theory' on fashion: fashion as the seizing of a zeitgeist that "goes deep into artworks & does not just manipulate them"; cf Baudelaire: fashion as the dialectical partner of the eternal

and Bat disagrees on class/clothes; fair enough, I'm not sure I agree with myself on skimming back, but I've realized I'll never post anything on here if I don't remember that it can work as a notebook for provisional/essayistic (in the experimental sense) thoughts. A clearer version might run something like this. By 'orientate themselves' I've made it a lot more autonomous than it often is; all too often other people do the orientating for you. And maybe I shouldn't have invoked Bourdieu's weighty apparatus so blithely, but 'Bourdieu' is like a private shorthand for me, a 'file under...' for the bleaker thoughts I'm prone to having about much discussion about music/books/aesthetics generally, those discussions in which you hear people - hear yourself - referring strictly to what you think are the formal properties of the work, and their wider significance, and that underneath this is a different series of discursive negotiations, social adjustments, not necessarily 'vertically' within a class hierarchy, but 'horizontally' (I am like you; I am not like you & you like this, ergo I refuse to like this) and that at times this might even be the most useful or predominant function people find in music etc.


Grime and dubstep don't get much attention do they? They feature in passing, presented essentially as blips, promising but limited. Presumably because the whole nuum debate exhausted the subject?

20 February 2012

Retro-Retromania-mania: Ideas for appendices

Retromania beyond Pop Music (of the 1950s-2000s)
Modernism as belated Romanticism: Eliot's elegies, his texts-as-tissues of quotations; Joyce's fixations on his adolescence, on 16 June 1904; Pound's obsessive worship of medieval Provencal. Wordsworth's spots of time; Schlegel's ironic fragments. Ossian. The Hellenism of pre-Romantic literary culture; the battle between Ancients and Moderns. Medieval concepts of authorship.

The teenager
An extension of Retromania which cross-references it with a continuation of Jon Savage's Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture beyond 1945 to the present day. The sociology of the teenager feels crucial to the most pathological of the symptoms SR discusses. Obviously retromania as defined by SR is a condition made possible in its most frantically becalmed state by technology: cheap storage (MP3, .rar, upload sites), cheap transport (broadband, wifi) and cheap manipulation (samplers, ableton etc) of digitized cultural data. But that technology has entered into and mutated a particular social formation: one essentially unprecedented, in which huge swathes of youth in the developed world enjoy privileges hardly imaginable even in the first half of the C21, let alone before: freedom from responsibility, a freedom from work, along with disposable income, and are thus courted aggressively by advertisers and corporations (NB all those freedoms are relative of course). A post-war paradigm that's seen progression to the ranks of adulthood increasingly postponed or even deferred altogether, with the average age of parenthood and independent living rising, and careers put on hold to allow for the middle-class version of the Grand Tour, the secular rumspringe of the gap year.

This is a valorization of youth which writes and re-writes itself (as retro) in looping feedback through the decades of the second half of the twentieth century, from The Catcher in the Rye (1951: disgruntled adolescent as touchstone defense against corrupt 'phonies') to the present, a process which culminates in a sense with Lee Edelman's discussion of 'reproductive futurism'. There's a kind of ideological default to the child as sacred, as cultural 'value' in if not its purest, then its least arguable or controversial form, a common-denominator market-friendly appeal to biological imperative, because all sides in the culture wars, left/right, religious/secular agree the children are our Future. But once we were children/teenagers too, and retromania must be bound up here - a sublimation in which the post-adolescent is displaced and then displaces their own envy/fury into extending the legitimacy of their own cultural moment, not purely as a return/restoration, but as an ongoing cultural form.

18 February 2012

all culture, no class

Melvyn Bragg in the New Statesman, 20 Feb 2012:
While class has been a most useful social marker in these islands for centuries, it is now, I suspect, well on its way to losing its authority to culture. People today are more comfortable identifying themselves by their cultural choices than by their class. They are likely to say 'I'm a Radio 4 person' or that they like grime, or jazz, or film, or opera. The class barricades have been stormed by the forces of a broad culture, which is made up of clusters of individuals who have decided for themselves what they will be in society.

I am fascinated by that 'most useful'.

And yes, nothing screams post-political classlessness than someone self-describing as a 'Radio 4 person.'

Or as 'an opera person'.

And hey, according to Melvyn, 'it was the Beatles who nailed it. No longer could anyone condescend to working-class culture.'

And Dizzee Rascal just goes to prove it, so there! Just so long as you forgot that time he was condescended to on an olympian scale by Paxman on Newsnight. That was just some weird outlier. What book about chavs? I can't hear you! So yeah, culture and class completely and successfully decoupled. Good old Britain. Onward and upward!

14 February 2012


Ayo, remember back in 2011 when everyone was reading Retromania?

Good times. Well I've found the notes I made at the time and thought I would put them up here in expanded-to-the-point-of-readability form.

They don't take the form of a sustained argument, more miscellaneous points of departure so I'll post them up in a series of separate chunks.

10 February 2012

the synthesizer: 'devoid of its own identity'

From that Kodwo Eshun talk, Philip Brophy discussing the synthesizer:
The role the score performs in these films is integrally tied to Tangerine Dream's use of the synthesizer as a non-definable, distanced instrument, devoid of its own identity yet capable of calling up simulated timbres in a breathy, hazy way.

Fascinated by this notion of the synth as a kind of phenomenological identity / personality crisis [got it while it was hot]. Wonder if Brophy has ever written on the sampler, which operates/sounds on/in a similar space/axis: purest identity crisis, zero content of its own, the ambiguous double flicker occurring not within the sound 'of' the instrument 'itself', but at the ragged (or immaculately clipped) edges of the sampled sound. Missed it at the time but there's an intersting post at Cold Calling about the edges of a sample, those perforations where it's been pulled from the source text.

A bit more Brophy, on John Carpenter's use of synth:
Through a brutish yet economical employment of this trait, he helped crystallize the synthesizer as an instrument of indifference and asynchronism - that 'hovering still' sensation - which then became the perfect foible against which changing degrees of dramatic tension could be measured. This was, in effect, a narratological transposition of Minimalism's drone/loop states, where the absence of 'horizontal' melody aided in one's awareness of the 'vertical' depth to any one note or musical fragment.

The whole essay can be read here.

09 February 2012

four types of raindance

herbie hancock


mark one

marc ambiance