Friday, 15 May 2009

Dietrich Scheunemann

It seems I've virtually chewed up all of my allocated bandwith for this month, so my broadband speed has been virtually strangled as a result by the ISP. This makes it harder to find interesting stuff to blog about, letalone do the research I need for my other [paid] work. As a result my planned posts have had to be temporarily put on hiatus until things pick up again.

Be this as it may, I couldn't resist putting up something about one of my favourite topics: the politics of the avant garde. My reflections are spurred by noticing a lot of stuff in the blogosphere of late (i.e. in the Continental philosophy meets avant garde music blogosphere) debating the claim that capitalism has now accelerated to the point where cultural innovation has become exhausted. This occurrence is then used to explain why creative energies have [allegedly] lain fallow in popular music.

By way of a response, two central questions have arisen for me. Firstly, how can these claims be qualitatively and quantitatively differentiated from the posthistoire trope that has characterised modernity even long before Gehlen's proclamation in 1963 of a state of "cultural crystallisation"? If they can't be, then it is difficult to see that there is really anything unique about the current state of affairs. I suppose one available option is to ascribe causal primacy to an intensification of the forces of production, leading to programmatic interpretations of the relationship between base and superstructure, and even the "virtualization of the human". This approach, which is dubious because of its reliance to varying degrees on forms of technological determinism, constitutes the essence of "cybermaterialism". In these terms, the bloggers in question are in effect describing a formal correspondence with the musicians they write about, who can now more freely sample and manipulate sounds through digital means, much in the same manner as the blogger who is able to cut and paste hypertext. So culture eventually becomes recycling rather than innovation. This state of affairs is then quickly generalised to encapsulate our collective, inherited historical fate.

In the latter form reference is made to "the postmodern condition" and/or "the information age". And so to my second question: I wonder if the story would be so neat if the quantitative/qualitative issues I've raised were mapped to a cultural sociology of the avant garde? One of the major reasons I say this is that so many of these discussions in the blogosphere are framed with reference to Fred Jameson's thesis, without having acknowledged its inherent problem as pinpointed by Dietrich Scheunemann: Jameson conflates postmodernism and avant garde. So I'm forced to agree with Scheunemann that there is plenty of scope to test the heterogeneity of the avant garde's creativity, which can then be compared and contrasted with resurgent notions of "posthistoire". But it's also not sufficient to adduce evidence from one facet of the arts, as this simplifies the myriad of network relationships the avant garde (s) have attempted to involve themselves in over time, with varying degrees of success. This fact explains why Scheunemann was involved in a working group that produced around 21 books and anthologies on the subject. The extent of this activity hardly attests to an exhaustion of creative energy.

My own thought is that the avant garde will continue to perform its usual role for popular culture: a kind of weather vane offering advanced warning of impending conditions. We'll thus continue to see pioneers receiving belated recognition by their successors, who have managed to synthesise the original's creative approach into a more palatable popular form, thereby reaping the financial rewards in the process. But before leaping to the conclusion that this is only a pessimistic lesson about the taming of radical impulses, I would recommend weighing up the breaks, as well as the continuities. Reading Scheunemann as well as David Hopkins' (ed) The Neo Avant Garde is a positive first step in this direction.

The next step is to qualify the extent of "cultural exhaustion" by acknowledging how our common beliefs and interests may "constitute a res publica: a virtual public sphere that unites the critic and the criticized in a common fate in the empirical world" (S.Fuller, The Knowledge Book, p. 16). The inference that may be drawn from Fuller, with reference to the blogosphere critics I've discussed here, is that they have failed to play the social epistemologist's role of the interested non-participant. Were they to have followed Fuller's dictum, a greater sense could have been imparted of how "the relevant res publica may shift according to whom the critic is criticizing". Instead, a high degree of narcissistic identification between bloggers and musicians hypostatises the dilemma of all avant gardes with no troops left behind them. Or rather, as an exasperated Raymond Williams wondered aloud (when responding to Stuart Hall's diagnosis of "the toad in the garden"; i.e. Thatcherism), "will there be no end to petite bourgeois critics making long term adjustments to short term situations?"

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