Friday, 28 January 2011

Competitive Liminality

Daniel Bell died recently, so by way of a tribute, I thought it might be appropriate to touch base with some strands of cultural sociology that reflect the concerns expressed in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Bernice Martin, for example, considered the effects of the "expressive revolution" of the 1960s in terms of its challenge to the English tradition of "the gentleman amateur". According to her, aesthetic cultivation had long been the exclusive preserve of  upper class, young leisured gentlemen:

"Thus we see two forms of individualism in education, the meritocratic/instrumental and the romantic/expressive. The latter is strong in the arts and humanities, in the universities and the professional upper middle class (especially all the communicators). The former is the tradition by which the vast economic costs of the education industry were usually legitimated and was strong among the commercial middle class, politicians and the non humanistic middle ranks of the teaching profession. It also found a natural home among most of the working classes who valued book learning, if they valued it at all, as the source of marketable skills and qualifications. The important, small minority of the working class which held a view of education close to that of classical humanism was Robert Roberts's self-educated and politically articulate proletarian intellectuals who valued learning for the truth, the social prophecy and the self-development which it held out to them."

A Sociology of Contemporary Cultural Change progressively argues that rock music shook up these cross class tensions: the contradictions did work as a symbiosis and united working and middle class wings of youth culture, the Underground and rock into a powerful cultural force. She sees the Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band LP as marking a turning point, after which pop and youth culture disintegrated-- returning to class homogeneous markets or groupings-- having successfully shifted the accepted attitudes on many issues, especially concerning sex and authority. Middle class prog rock then went about deconstructing rock to the point where it became more indistinguishable from "serious" avant garde music.

Martins's narrative has the ring of truth to it. I would add though that record executives responded by panicking- urging their signed acts to tour incessantly in an attempt to stop them sinking with barely a ripple into a small, specialized, albeit appreciative, loyal fanbase. Indeed, most of the British prog acts did not play at home for years because they were always touring America. A potential irony of the situation was that the increasing sophistication of home hifi equipment threatened to make live music less appealing, if not entirely redundant. This is a bit like the recent turn to 3D by the movie studios, who are obviously concerned about the popularity of home theater systems and downloading movies. But I digress. The prog acts, along with the likes of David Bowie (the latter masquerading as an alien being in his Ziggy persona), deliberately compensated by putting on spectacular stadium shows that utilized all manner of gigantic, theatrical props. Afterall, who otherwise would be content with trying to make out the ant-sized performers as a virtuoso solo is been played on a distant stage, when they could instead choose to relax with the live album at home?

Unsurprisingly, the dreaded "roadshow" syndrome gradually set in as rock star personas assumed a greater sense of imperial remoteness that was as far from the ideal of "Woodstock Nation" as could be imagined. The art of Guy Peellaert is clearly a product of this era. 

Portrait of Bob Dylan
I should mention though that there is another wrinkle in this story which goes unremarked in Martin's book. However, I don't see that it does any damage to her basic thesis. Simon Frith in Art Into Pop, and Simon Reynolds in Rip It Up and Start Again both do an admirable job in documenting the explosion of creativity from Britain's art schools, which in part was a reaction against the strictures of punk, if not quite marking a return to the lengthy extemporizations characteristic of their prog predecessors.  No doubt, it would be appealing to read these developments as a reconstitution of the kind of "powerful force" Martin described. Part of the problem with this institutional base though was there from the beginning. The art schools taught commercial, socially "useful" graphic design skills, which offered advance warning of how any politics of modernism would have to reckon with its rapid recuperation by the advertising industry. As Reynolds shows particularly well, this was starting to become apparent as early as the mid 80s, when post-punk bands were already starting to more self-consciously portray themselves as corporate entities as part of their marketing strategy. Therefore, it can hardly be coincidental that Frankie Goes To Hollywood took their name from a Guy Peelaert painting of Frank Sinatra.

But I don't want to lay too much blame at the feet of the musicians. Sure, there was something very appealing about the democratization of access to the means of musical production that helped a thousand flowers to bloom. By the same token though, the shame of it all is that even more great electronic music may have been possible, were it not for the way the schisms of the British class system had earlier played out in the 1970s. Peter Zinovieff's famous Electronic Music Studios never managed to transcend their aristocratic origins. As Trevor Pinch has argued in Analog Days,  the upshot of this was that there was no room for "trade" there (i.e. engineering and manufacturing). That was all done elsewhere, whereas in the States there was a much closer interaction between engineers and musicians. The former were cognizant of the fact that the latter wanted a keyboard performance synth, which duly arrived in the form of the Moog. I just can't help thinking that a greater ready availability of the Moog and the VCS3 synthesizer in Britain in the 70s and 80s could have facilitated innovation by been more affordable, were they obliged to directly compete with each other. 

This post has cast a backwards glance, so I suppose there's a danger that Bernice Martin and everything else I've discussed comes off sounding nostalgic and irrelevant to what's happening on the contemporary scene. I plead innocent, so hear me out please! One facet of Martin's argument will have to suffice to prove my point. When she describes "competitive liminality" Martin is drawing attention to how performers commonly feel obliged to pursue increasingly rarefied thresholds of difference. This cycle keeps repeating itself, to the point where the individual risks living in a permanent liminal state of anomie unmediated by "limits". Although highly distressing on a subjective level, she argues, some attempts have been made to accommodate this condition, which explains the appeal, for example, of the Maharishi's philosophy for the Beatles. Adorno speaks in like terms of "moments" of atavistic subjectivity intended to escape society in an individual experience of transcendent intensity, as does Bell, in his descriptions of the pursuit of ecstasy.

The most dangerous variant of this strategy, notes Martin, is what Kenneth Burke calls the principle of entelechy. Basically, this means each symbolic item of a classification system must engage in the task of destroying its own alter ego as part of a kind of aesthetic permanent revolution. Hence, for example, disorder must become an absolute value which denies order per se; individualism must extirpate the collective. Martin continues:

"If the strategy is successful, the possibility of communication is destroyed. The preferred symbol becomes literally incomprehensible; language reverts to babel; music becomes meaningless noise."

I note with interest that recent Adornian style aesthetic critiques in effect describe Kurt Cobain from Nirvana in remarkably similar terms to what Martin has to say here. It follows that I was particularly taken by the claim that for Cobain, "Endless, Nameless" suggests "we must confront the possibility that the utopian dimension of Grunge music might have been inseparable from its “suicidal” character". 

Kurt Cobain leaving no doubts about his intentions

Evidently then, Cobain still exerts a real hold on the popular imagination, so if Martin's work can be applied to him as well, I take it as read that she is not somehow outdated. We shouldn't be misled by carelessly slapping the "postmodern" label on Cobain either, or we'll lose sight of this fact. I'd even venture a further claim. How's this for an explanation of the "purity" by which the genre of "black metal" music originally was originally defined by some?:

"What usually happens, of course, is less drastic- there is simply an extension and amplification of the symbols of disorder and anti-structure, which then becomes the symbolic focus of belonging, the sacred language of identity for a new, purified community which stands over against unregenerate society, a new spiritual elite set apart from the children of darkness. Students of millenarianism will be familiar with the syndrome."

I can't see that a musician such as Burzum would have too many problems assenting to this statement (as even a cursory glance at his blog will confirm), even if we need to modify it a bit to show that it is the "children of darkness" who in the case of black metal regard themselves as the elite set apart from the unregenerate society.

Corpse paint and anti-Christian sentiments are standard fare for black metal musicians
Another reason these examples are interesting is that they cannot be simply described in the usual sociological terms as byproducts of the anomie that follows secularization. In Cobain's case this is obvious in the name of his band, Nirvana, along with his recorded personal beliefs (Jainism, Buddhism). Furthermore, few would deny that Norse paganism exerted a formative influence on Norway's black metal scene. Klaus Eder has argued that it was never proper to speak of secularization in reference to the United States, so any attempt to theoretically contextualize Cobain should probably be mindful of this fact. Eder instead limits secularization to Europe, but makes greater allowance for the post secularization thesis in more recent years. 

This begs the question though, where have Martin's interests taken her of late? Well, it seems she is part of the post secularization research group. I see no evidence that she has thrown in her lot with the radical orthodoxies of John Milbank, who are set on punishing sociology for adhering to the secularization thesis for so long. Inevitably, there will be those who will want to question the motivations of some of the company Martin is keeping here. Is this fellow an example of the kind of gentleman amateur we hoped to consign to the past, a traditional humanist scholar, or is he exploring comparable possibilities?:

  That’s because democracy and capitalism have each become compulsory and fundamental. They ground everything we do, including religious practice—so we can only get outside them through the kind of postsecular leap of faith that I am talking about. That realization is one of the things that is important about Alain Badiou’s thought. Such leaps may also be relevant to situations in which we encounter secularism’s limits—when secularism can’t contain the ethical and epistemological demands we make of it...The example I have chosen is literary, and only a tiny (and declining) sector of the population is open to literature’s postsecular intensities. Of course, somewhat equivalent intensities can happen in other cultural domains, like art and film and dance and theater and video. None of these offers what Christianity and Islam can: the possibility of a collective life organized around the promise of salvation. But, of course, to be educated into modernity is, by and large, to lose the ability to believe in salvation.

Another thing that interests me right now is the possibility of reading other people who have been influenced by Martin, such as Eduardo de la Fuente, in combination with those more concerned with Marx, such as Michel Cloucard and  Jean-Claude Michea (partially as a way of getting around the annoyance I feel with Eduardo for publishing in a conservative magazine such as Quadrant; bringing to mind Bell's contemporaries who later gravitated to neoconservatism, as featured in the documentary Arguing the World). Notwithstanding their respective differences, I feel that if there is a basis for common ground, it has to do with the subjective conditions that might eventuate from a neoliberal resolution of the cultural contradictions of capitalism. Consider Cloucard's chilling diagnosis: "Neofascism will be the ultimate expression of libertarian social liberalism". 

With a critical eye on the future then, one can see this principle of entelechy launching putropias, such as Peter Thiel and Patri Friedman's libertarian "seasteading" project. Seasteading offers a frightening glimpse of how "competitive liminality" strives to liquidate the collective. I am just praying that this does not expand into outerspace. As astrofuturist Kilgore once noted of the paintings of Don Davis, a model of a multitude of colonies that one could elect to join is about intolerance as much as it is freedom. It is a model of true imperial remoteness that brings this post full circle, insofar as Guy Peellaer's more critical work could also be used to reflect on Don Davis's featured model Americans basking in 24 hour Californian sun.

The banality of evil?
Or, as Sardar and Cubbitt have remarked:

 "Science fiction shows us not the plasticity but the paucity of the human imagination that has become quagmired in the scientist industrial technological, cultural-socio-psycho babble of a single civilizational paradigm. Science fiction is the fiction of mortgaged futures".

In this post I have attempted to demonstrate the relevance of cultural sociology. While certainly not agreeing with everything either Daniel Bell or Bernice Martin have to say, I firmly believe they offer some useful tools to help us learn from our past mistakes, and thereby preventing the inheritance of a mortgaged future.

Saturday, 15 January 2011


Snowed under again right now, trying to dig my way out, hope to be back with you again soon. Throwing this morsel out there for those of you who might be interested in the latest installment of one of the greatest sci fi franchises of all time. It's set to materialise March 9th, 2012....