Monday, 8 October 2007

An Oblique Strategy: How Ironic is Brian Eno?

Here is a rejoinder to my previous post. I made some brief critical comments about Lou Reed and Gary Numan, but neglected to mention Brian Eno. Afterall, who can forget his endorsement of Richard Rorty's "contingency", suggesting that Eno's "ironic" persona is predicated on the promise of release from the ego as a paranoid authoritarian structure. Or rather, as Simon Reynolds has more aptly put it, Eno subscribes to a program for creatively shaping the self that is directed by zen and cybernetics. Scary how Eno here is seemingly close to some of the territory broached in my comments on information theory, but with the qualifier that he appears ill-equipped to tackle the danger of the "erasure" strategem with respect to the violence foregrounded by Brian Dillon? Afterall, the problem for Rorty, and by extension, Eno, is that they can't consistently explain why or how would it matter to such a contingent, ironic "self" if it experienced any form of violence (remember, protection from "cruelty" is Rorty's baseline minimal condition of mutual respect) when it could presumably just "siphon" them off?
Why is Eno so taken by Richard Sennett's The Uses of Disorder rather than his coauthored book with Jonathan Cobb, The Hidden Injuries of Class? Is the former more compatible with a liberal tolerance for contingency? Is it coincidental that Sennett later became by default Tony Blair's "house philosopher"? (as revealed in Sennett's interview in The Guardian). Again, with Cobb, Sennett focused more on gradations of value, leading the reader to understand how living in a society based upon injustice cannot leave one content to merely adjust to a series of negative prohibitions. Sennett subsequently appeared to neglect this aspect for the next twenty years or so, (until he revisited his interviewees from Injuries in a study of the "new capitalism"), turning his attention to dramaturgical metaphors of selfhood, and one might surmise that herein lies some of the appeal to performers such as Brian Eno. According to Sennett, living with contingency, or "disorder", comes to require a similar process experienced by musicians who learn to play and listen with their "third ear"; by withholding some personal resources during performance, the musician can learn to judge themselves more objectively, ensuring the availability of energy reserves which allow them to subsequently refine their work. Sennett thus gradually developed the more expansive thesis that a degree of [ironic] detachment ensured a public life outside of the self remained intelligible, in the sense that such a self becomes strong enough to move around in a world dominated by injustice.
There is not a great deal of difference between Sennett and Rorty in this regard. While Rorty doesn't seem to think, with Sennett, that anything like a "third ear" is integral to the conduct of "private life" [sic], he in effect agrees with Sennett that such a form of detachment is an essential ingredient of the public sphere.
To borrow the title of Cary Wolfe's telling critique of Rorty, the problem in both instances though has to do with how they might make "contingency safe for liberalism". As demonstrated by Injuries, sometimes it is important to distinguish between a self's prospective ideals that should not be deterred from realisation, forced into ironic resignation, by systemic asymmetrical distributions of power. For this reason it is inadequate to soley rely on dramaturgical metaphors of selfhood, because they can't offer much clarification on the relationship between personal and social autonomy. The important difference has to do with how rigorous the ethic adopted by a self is; can it distinguish between and thus prioritise a value system capable of identifying forms of "disorder" that are damaging to its integrity? In other words, while it may be useful to some degree to acknowledge how disappointment can socialise a person in ways preventing them from becoming a megalomaniac, not every effort to collectively redress social injustice is deserving of such liberal accommodation. The problem then is how modernity may provoke some suspect features of autonomy, witness Eno's "aesthetic" flirtation with the ethical dilemmas following from "revelations of erasure". Perhaps this means that it is not so much the self that is erased in toto, but rather its potentially most radical impulses. Were this true, it would seem to indicate that the connection between the technological functionalism of autopoiesis and liberalism did not materialise for the first time when Brian Eno started dabbling in electronic music, cybernetics, and liberalism. No, this conjunction has been ascendant since the the 16th and 17th Centuries, as pointed out in Otto Mayr's Authority, Liberty, and Automatic Machinery in Early Modern Europe. This book convincingly demonstrates that ideas of self-regulation (autopoiesis) were instrumental to the shift in European political philosophy away from authoritarian centralism to Enlightenment philosophies of democratic liberalism. The self-regulating Invisible Hand of Adam Smith's market philosophy is one of the latter's most resurgent characteristics, up until today's neoliberal climate where liberal humanism is increasingly imperilled by association with possessive individualism and self-regulating machinery. This might also explain the ambiguous status of the intellectual property rights accruing around artists who deploy autopoietic techniques: they are in effect cyborgs who are also rational subjects already constituted by capitalist forces. How comfortably does this sit with what N.Katherine Hayles calls the "constitutive premise for liberal humanism", that one "owns" oneself? This might go some way towards explaining why "loops" (not coincidentally, also a fundamental term in the autopoietic sciences) and "samples" are sometimes controversial in musical circles, with respect to sacrosanct notions of "originality" and copyright.
And so, at least for the moment, I find myself returning to Alessandro Ferrara (much by way of critical response to Sennett) and Hans Joas (eloquent replies to Rorty) for a more constructive alternative.....
Richard Rorty and Brian Enoby Gregory Taylor
In addition to his activities as a composer, producer, and performer, Brian Eno reads. Anyone who is at all familiar with either his interviews and/or writing will occasionally catch a name dropped here and there: Stafford Beer, Morse Peckham, and - a bit more recently - the American philosopher Richard Rorty. I think that much of Brian's recent thinking and writing on the relationship between kinds of decision-making and the language with which we make judgements of value in a world where all kinds of views are represented owes a lot to the Rorty that Brian's read. In fact, I don't think Eno's antiessentialism would be as articulate without Richard Rorty's writings. The following is a very brief description of Rorty's philosophical writings. Although Eno most often refers to the book "Contingency, Irony and Solidarity," I'll try here to provide a little background to the whole of Rorty's writings; I think that to do otherwise would be a little like describing Eno's output *only* in terms of "Music for Airports/Thursday Afternoon/Neroli."
Richard Rorty's career bears some superficial resemblances to Eno's, in that he begins his career in a position in which he's essentially located somewhere in the "mainstream" (as Eno's first exposure occurs in the context of British "pop" music with Roxy Music), at some point heads off in what seems to be a radically different sort of territory (which leaves some of his philosophical colleagues longing out loud for his "early stuff"), and in the process finds himself drawn into quite another set of alignments. And - this is more of a stretch - *both* Rorty and Eno are in some respects interested in looking at the work of "non-practitioners" - the notion that one occasionally finds novel solutions to a given dilemma by consulting people who are "nonmusicians" or "nonphilosophers."
When asked about his work, many philosophers (those in the Anglo-American tradition, anyway) will generally say something supportive about his earlier work as one of the major American analytic philosophers. They're referring to his work in the philosophy of mind, language, and truth, and will usually mention his 1979 book "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature."
But of late, his interest for folks like Eno and people interested in cultural studies and literary theory begins when he pretty much completely repudiated his earlier analytic work for a kind of pragmatism which is a lot more in sync with the philosophical positions of continental European philosophers and theorists such as Heidegger, Derrida, Lyotard, Habermas, and Foucault.
By now, your little PostModern Theory detectors should be clicking away (should that surprise *any* serious Eno fan?); but I think it's helpful to pause for a moment and provide a brief outline of Rorty's earlier work: it's easier to see where he wound up if you know where he started.
"Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" was an important work for analytic philosophers in its radical critique of the traditional ideal of knowledge as a faithful representation of reality. In this traditional view, the mind is a kind of mirror which reflects the real, and Philosophy has the job of testing and repairing this mirror so that our propositions will do a better job of "reflecting" reality. Rorty is critical in his book of this idea that Philosophy can somehow "fix" the conditions of knowledge in a way which is unaffected by social practices, or the games and vagaries of language itself. In short, he argues that this notion that Philosophy's ability to fix these things in a way that's ahistorical or independent of any and all "frames of reason" (to quote from the Eno/Cale song) is a hollow pretension.
Proceeding from this, he comes up with three basic ideas which are pretty far outside of the traditions of the analytical tradition from which he comes, but a lot more like the kind of Phenomenology that one finds in European philosophers.
1. Irrationalism - You begin by recognizing that there is a kind of contingent character of the context of any kind of inquiry. A consequence of this contingency is that you're not so much "discovering" truth in inquiry, but "making" it, using the tools given you by your frame of reference.
2. This kind of antiessentialism is applied to the language that we use for things that philosophers try to describe in *noncontingent* terms - that is, notions like "truth" and "language" and "morality".
3. Instead of philosophical theorizing (which cannot escape the trap of contingency), we ought to substitute a more modest kind of "practical reason." In this sense, he can be thought of a kind of Pragmatist along the lines of the American philosopher John Dewey.
So, I think we can now begin to see where Brian Eno might start quoting him a bit: Since we create both language and truth about the world, we ought to be interested in the reconstruction of language to make it more useful and rewarding and to make the world more "satisfying" to our desires.
Since Rorty views creation and construction as more important goals or more comparatively useful ends than discovery and objective description, you can imagine how his thinking takes a kind of radically relativistic and aesthetic turn. It should also come as no surprise that Rorty would claim that Philosophy (as practiced) may not be as useful for answering the questions of ordinary people as writers or poets or artists, who make it their business to wrestle with questions of contingency and the construction of meaning from objects at hand.
This brings us to the book that Eno says all those nice things about, "Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity". Whenever you hear the Eno talking about things like "final vocabularies" and what he calls "ISMism", he's pretty much repeating Rorty. "Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity" works on coming up with a kind of "private" ethic of personal self-enrichment and self-creation combined with the "public" political morality of traditional Philosophical Liberalism. The advantage of Liberalism is that it brings with it a kind of procedural sense of justic which is of practical use; one desires to avoid giving pain to others so that each person may be free to pursue a private vision of perfection.
In "Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity," language is still a primary material, but it's no longer the incarnation or instantiation of reason; it's a primarily aesthetic tool for self-fashioning instead. By retelling our stories using different sorts of contexts and vocabulaties (without the resort of a "final" or objective one) we reconstitute ourselves and our society.
(Since I worked so hard to get this far, I'll take the writer's prerogative to editorialize just a little bit. It seems to me that there's a little problem with Rorty's view here (or something I don't fully understand) in the way he seems to depend on a pretty serious split between the public and the private that separates the language of concensus from the language of creation. It would seem to me that such a split would affect our use of a stable and shared language which is "public" for our common practical purposes and our political concerns for notions like "justice." That may not bother the rest of you, of course.In the end, if may turn out that I'm more interested in Pluralism than Relativism as a position. I hope that this doesn't mean that I have to turn in my Oblique Strategies.).
I'm still
Back to silence, back to nothing

Brian Eno, 2002
Legendary musician, producer, and artist Brian Eno would much rather talk about urbanism, new computer applications, or emergence theory than something as pedestrian as EQ levels or his own brilliant musical history. And while he might mention the classic albums he’s made, like My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, or the seminal records he’s produced, like U2’s Achtung Baby, it would only be to underline a point that he’d like to make. Eno has a passion for dialogue and knowledge, and the wide-ranging intellect to support it.
index publisher Peter Halley met up with Brian on a recent trip to London. Leeta Harding photographed his orderly studio, filled with CDs, computer equipment, musical instruments, books, and current visual art projects.
PETER: I’m such a workaholic that the only way I can even make friends with people is by interviewing them. [laughs]
BRIAN: I make most of my friends through working situations as well.
PETER: I had a hunch.
BRIAN: It’s how you get to know somebody on the level that you might really be interested in knowing them. Even my visits to foreign countries usually happen just because I have to do something there, an exhibition or a show.
PETER: I’m the same.
BRIAN: It’s a nice way to meet people. You’re there with your work so they know what you’re up to. They have some reason to talk to you other than just to make idle conversation, and there’s a task to be done. You can understand a lot about the texture of a country by working in it and seeing how people arrive at decisions. You see which things are available to them and which things aren’t.
PETER: This might be a very male point of view, but I have the idea that, even though friendship is often defined as a leisure activity, it’s really about alliance — people who believe in the same things and therefore want to talk to each other.
BRIAN: I think that’s a very good definition. But it actually seems like quite a female idea of friendship.
PETER: How so?
BRIAN: When I watch my two little girls play, the thing that interests me about their games is the very laborious sets of relationships they’ll construct between the characters. You know, “You’re the auntie, but the mother doesn’t like you because you did this.” It’s terribly complicated, and there’s never any game at the end of it. The building of the network of relationships is just about all that ever happens.
PETER: That’s said to be a skill that’s prominent in women.
BRIAN: Yes. It led me to my theory that cities are places built for women.
BRIAN: In cities, you have the opportunity to do all the things that women are really specialized at: intense social relationships and interactions, attention to lots of simultaneous details. And of course in cities you can do very few of the things that men are good at.
PETER: Like what?
BRIAN: You can’t break anything in a city. Everything is valuable, so you’re limited in how much you can test the physical nature of things — which I think is a big part of a man’s make up.
PETER: Many urbanists say that public life in the eighteenth century — which is when the modern city began to take shape — was available only to men. Do you think a female city was always there under the surface?
BRIAN: I do. One of the peaks of civilization in the west was the salon. They were nearly always the invention and ongoing project of women.
PETER: I’m a real devotee of the German sociologist, Norbert Elias. He would say that the first female-oriented societies were the aristocratic courts, and that the salon would be an outgrowth of that.
BRIAN: Don’t you think the court is in a way the original city? It’s a congregation of people who aren’t related, so it’s not a clan, and they’re in very close proximity, which always gives rise to manners.
PETER: Elias also gives the court credit for the invention of psychology.
BRIAN: Oh that’s interesting.
PETER: What have you been reading lately?
BRIAN: I recently read Richard Sennett’s book The Uses of Disorder. It’s a very intelligent anti-planning book, and I thought, “This is fantastic, but nobody’s ever going to read it.” So I decided to condense it. I wanted to present the argument of the book in three thousand words. I went through it with a yellow highlighter, marking the bits that really got the germ of the idea. Then I photocopied all the parts I’d marked and collaged them together. After that, I had this idea that every serious book should be publishedin two forms. There should be the full version, but preceding it by a month or so should be the filtered version.
PETER: It would be even better to ask ten different people to do that and put all the versions into one volume.
BRIAN: It took me about a week to do the Sennett book. I had it all pasted up on a huge sheet of cardboard, which I gave to several people who would never have read the book otherwise. And they all got the idea. One of them went on to read a lot of other Sennett books.
PETER: Have you read his “The Fall of Public Man”? He was only about thirty when he wrote it.
BRIAN: That’s a very good book. >PETER: I think that a lot of radical American writers who were operating in the ‘60s were edited out of American cultural history. If Sennett were on the other side of the Atlantic, I think he’d be hailed as a genius.
BRIAN: Sennett’s gathered steam over here during the last ten years. There’s been a slowly building feeling that he is one of the important American writers. Somebody else who might be better known here than in America is the philosopher Richard Rorty.
PETER: He’s actually quite widely followed in the art world here. I haven’t read his work.
BRIAN: Rorty tries to imagine how we can deal with a world in which we’ve abandoned the concept of absolute values — the idea that there’s some greater wisdom to which we can appeal. He’s asking, “Suppose that it’s the case that we designed our own mental universe, suppose that all the things we call good and evil are our own projections, that they aren’t givens …”
PETER: That sounds so much like Heidegger or Sartre. I don’t understand what makes Rorty different.
BRIAN: He’s an optimist. It’s not, “We made it all up? Oh shit, so there’s nothing at the bottom of it all?” To me, Rorty’s work is a celebration of what humans do best of all, which is to imagine.
PETER: Is there one thing you would recommend I read by Rorty?
BRIAN: I would say the introduction to his book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. It’s only a few pages long and it’s so good. The book is about Nabakov and Orwell, and about writing and the idea that works of imagination are the way that we arrive at new social concepts, rather than works of so-called rational deduction. In the end, what Rorty turns out to be saying is that philosophy is just another kind of writing. It doesn’t have any special grasp on the truth.
PETER: I think that philosophy is a codification of what’s already going on more widely in the culture. If you think of Barthes’ Mythologies, for example, it’s such a summary of what people were thinking about in the late ‘50s.
BRIAN: My problem with twentieth century philosophy is that so much of it was entirely reactive to other philosophy. It became hard for me to follow what anyone was saying — or why they would bother saying it. I responded to Rorty because I could see how his ideas made some difference to the way I think about my life.
PETER: That’s such a great feeling. The same happened for me with Barthes and Foucalt. BRIAN: To tell you the truth, I never found Foucalt very easy to read. Barthes was a very entertaining writer. With his work I thought, “Yeah. That’s right. I knew that.” [laughs] It rang very true to me.
PETER: I’d like to bring up Norbert Elias again. In one of his books, he kind of refutes the idea of individual consciousness. He says consciousness only resides in the group. That seemed enormously important to me.
BRIAN: I recently read a book about the CIA’s experiments in the ‘60s and ‘70s using psychedelic drugs as interrogation tools. In the end, they found that what worked best was old-fashioned solitary confinement. It drove the subjects completely mad.
PETER: It seems that almost the biggest pain humans can feel is total aloneness.
BRIAN: Occasionally I go off for a few days just to sit somewhere on my own. I refer to it as “going into the abyss.” I don’t even take books because they’re another way of engaging in the group consciousness. The idea is that I’ll spend some time in a quite boring place where I don’t know anybody and I don’t speak the language.
PETER: What’s that like?
BRIAN: It’s actually very traumatic. The first two days are especially disturbing. I lose sense of the value of anything I’ve been doing — it all starts to look completely meaningless. If I were actually depressed, I would never do this because I could very quickly end up topping myself. [laughs]
PETER: Does it eventually become a positive experience?
BRIAN: Yes. It’s a fantastic moment. Suddenly I’m no longer desperate. All these things that I had thought were wonderful suddenly look like shit, but there’s still something great about being alive. It kind of reaffirms everything.
PETER: Do you still feel connected to the world of mainstream music?
BRIAN: One often used to hear high art people saying that pop music was so boring and formulaic. I never thought that was true. All that formula and repetition is like a great big vehicle for carrying the moment of difference — the tiny point where something happens that didn’t happen before. As a listener, the first question I ask myself is, “Why am I moved by that? Why does that difference matter to me?”
PETER: The best thing about music today is that it’s available to a large audience at a low price.
BRIAN: What I value more than anything else about the music business is its distribution system. Records, record shops, and concerts are ways of distributing things to a lot of people. I like the idea of saying, “Here’s this incredibly well organized, powerful and pervasive machine — I want to be part of it.” If something I do gets criticized, I would never say, “They didn’t understand me,” or “What I did was too good for them.” I would assume there was something wrong with what I was doing.
PETER: Well not necessarily wrong. There’s nothing wrong with appealing to a very small audience.
BRIAN: I do a lot of things that I know won’t interest thousands of people, but I release them for the hundreds that will be interested. Sometimes I’m wrong, and it turns out that quite a lot of people actually do like them. Or, on the other hand, nobody does. [laughs]
PETER: I really don’t think the artist can tell.
BRIAN: I’ve often thought that there are two varieties of artists. There’s the fussy type, which I tend to be, who always censor themselves, and then there are people like Miles Davis and Prince who just say, “Look, if it came from me, it’s probably good.” There’s a certain generosity in that. Which category of artist do you fall into?
PETER: I’d say I’m half-and-half. [laughs]
BRIAN: I’m trying to get myself more into the latter camp, but it’s not natural. I tend to be nervous about everything.
PETER: But you have such a huge body of work.
BRIAN: I’d probably have about four times more if I hadn’t censored so much.
PETER: Jasper Johns is famous for holding on to his work.
BRIAN: A few years ago I was interested in what was happening to the act of curating. I’d seen a few shows in Europe, particularly in France and Germany, where the name of the curator was bigger on the poster than the names of the artists. It’s like saying, “Here’s somebody who can draw an interesting line through our culture. He can connect a few things which you’ll probably find worth taking seriously.”
PETER: As an artist, I'm not sure how much I like that trend. In Europe, most of the exhibitions tend to be poetic in their conception. I get a big kick out of all the titles, like "The Cooked and The Raw." It seems like, especially in Belgium, the exhibitions all have very poetic titles. And the way exhibitions are curated is not systemic at all.
BRIAN: It’s very much a creative act rather than an academic act. We’ve dropped the pretense that what these people are doing is assembling the most important things on some previously agreed-upon scale. We accept the idea that they’re telling a story using the available materials of culture. I think this is the way that ordinary people make their own culture. You own these records, you like those films, you’ve got these reproductions on your wall. You believe in a bit of this religion and a bit of that one, but at the same time you have candelabra that belong to yet another.
PETER: I also think that to a lot of people, culture has become like tourism. Instead of visiting London, you put on an Oasis record, or you go see Sensation at the Brooklyn Museum.
BRIAN: Cuban music is a good example of that. How many people, Americans especially, have been to Cuba? Very few. But somehow that culture has come to represent sexy, sophisticated life. And it’s all based on four records!
PETER: This gets us into the idea of importing the exotic while ignoring the reality.
BRIAN: When David Byrne and I released My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, I felt that there were so many things wrong with it. I had just started to get what rhythm was about. I had just become aware that there were people who did it a whole lot better than I did. The Village Voice reviewed it, and the only other review on the page was of a record by a black punk group from Harlem. They had appropriated all of the clichés of punk music and were praised roundly, while we were condemned as being neocolonialists.
PETER: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts struck me as being the opposite of neocolonial. There were things like Islamic Maqam singing on it, but it was right after the Iran Hostage crisis and it was like, “There are all these people out there, and their worldview is not the same as ours in the west. And we should listen.” At the same time, the album referenced this new American landscape that not only included technology, but also right wing preachers.
BRIAN: As an English person living in America in the early-’80s, I was much more receptive than a native would have been. I didn’t have many friends there, so I would just listen to the radio. There were complete lunatics on the airwaves — people whose views seemed so objectionable. I started recording them just because I wanted to show my friends in England what people in America were listening to.
PETER: I also used to tape things off the radio at that time. Maybe that’s why I responded to that record so immediately. We probably weren’t the only ones recording off the radio, but you were able to make a work of art out of it.
BRIAN: I already saw it as art, so I only needed to put a little context around it and it was dynamite. It was like discovering a totally exotic culture where I never expected one. I’d just been to Thailand before moving to America, and it was far less foreign to me than New York turned out to be.
PETER: Your trajectory from the early ‘70s to the mid-’80s seemed to encompass all the things that would become postmodernism in the ’80s. You went from an exploration of sexual personae, to skepticism about the emotional authenticity of pop music, to experiments that later became known as ambient music, and then an involvement with world music. You covered it all.
BRIAN: Things always look much more calculated in retrospect. I agree that you can draw a line through the things that I did, but at the time they all seemed chaotic to me. I just kept thinking, “When am I going to find out what I actually do?” I still think that actually.
PETER: Isn’t that a rather old-fashioned thing to worry about? [laughs]
BRIAN: I know. But it’s interesting that within one head there can be this childlike fascination with doing everything and the adult saying, “Why don’t you ever tidy up in here?”

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