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Tag Archives: critical theory

Reject the rejection

“I could be a smack freak
And hate society
I could hate God
And blame Dad
I might be in a Holocaust
Hate Hitler
Might not have a child
And hate school
I could be a sad lover
And hate death
I could be a neuro
And hate sweat
No
I hate my way”

[“Hate My Way”, Kristin Hersh, Throwing Muses (1986)]

The singer delivers the lines backed by a very square (‘sewing machine’like) minor pentatonic figures played on electric guitar and bass, and open fifths punctuated by a single snare drum. In other words, militaristic elements, or maybe a more disciplined version of those Rite Of Spring-style figures originally meant to evoke barbarism (iirc). (Not that the significance of these sounds hasn’t changed since then, but, it’s there, too). The performance is not bluesy, despite the instruments and material. Rather, it is overtly lacking in such features (swing, note bending). It’s not rocking either. There is no groove. In fact, it features silence between repetitions of the backing figure, leaving just the voice. The content of the song‘s lyrics up to this point creates tension with the form: lines about hating various figures of authority, humans’ mortality, and the human rationalization of murder and enslavement (Nazism). Delivered against this militaristic, sort of anti-sensual accompaniment. Playing this kind of thing on rock and roll instruments, etc.

The lyric, accompanied by a punctuating three staccato quarter-notes and silence, declares “No / I hate my way”. The sentence is grammatically ambiguous. Either the way is the object of the speaker’s hate, or else the speaker hates something, in their own idiosyncratic way. The context of the other lines aren’t enough to resolve the ambiguity.

I think the second reading is most relevant within the song. The speaker begins by enumerating kinds of subjects and the objects of their particular hatred. By juxtaposing these lines with the militaristic and simplistic musical accompaniment, the song implies that the speaker rejects or escapes from the fate of adopting one of these subjective options from society’s pre-determined menu. The speaker considers and rejects (negates) different forms of negation of social authorities (god, fathers,fascism, human mortality). More on this later.

The form of the song undergoes a major change at this point, cutting without much transition to a dreamy, but austere figure in 3/4. It revolves around a descending bassline, essentially, though the bass guitar part is melodic within these restrictions. The electric guitar essentially cycles through plagal (churchy) cadences (4-1) throughout this section, mostly arpeggiated over the square, ‘sewing-machine’ eighths we heard in the song’s first part. The most fundamentally changed element of this section, however, is the vocal delivery. Hersh sings this section in a restrained, serious-sounding voice, lacking vibrato and flourish but not defying vocal technique, either. The voice sounds less glib and more sunk in suffering, frankly.The lyrics’ content agrees with that reading: “I can’t rise above the church / Vines tangle my hands [..] A boy was tangled in his bike forever / A girl was missing two fingers”.

The line “I have a gun in my head / I’m invisible” initiates a marked change in Hersh’s vocal delivery. She reserves a furious, growling hollar for certain lines whose content is obscure, maybe purely expressionistic (“I can’t find the ice!”). Meanwhile, the lyrics’ content moves back toward that of the song’s first part, with the phrase “ask myself again / how do they kill children”, which points to the reality of Nazism mentioned earlier. Particularly, it highlights technical concerns over the pathos which this part easily evokes“how do they” rather than “why do they,” or even “how can they.” Hersh: “And why do I want to die?” Again, the lyrics make suicidal desire a chance for rational reflection, saying “why..” instead of just “I want to die”. The expressive care Hersh uses in her delivery this one line, when she makes her voice tremble, calls attention to the comparative lack of “passionate” or “vulnerable” affect in other parts of the song.

By and large, the song operates by means of a contradiction between its form (musical accompaniment and vocal delivery) and content (the lyrics). In the section with the most austere, mechanized-sounding accompaniment, the lyrics assert the idiosyncracy of the subject, not only against apparent realities, but against various objections to that apparent or actual reality. By omitting mention of the object of their hatred, but emphazing its quality (“hate my way”), the speaker places themself in opposition to thoughts or reactions that threaten to reveal themselves as false, i.e., that depend on illlusions. As emphasized in the obscure or expressive imagery of the song’s second part, the speaker has retreated into the more particular aspects of their own internal experience. Hersh’s intense, furious vocal on some of these lines only raises the persistence of the speaker’s hatred to an exclamation there. Without any determinate content, though, this hatred may eventually be conducive to false consciousness. Move right from the hatred of sweat to the hatred of Hitler, and you raise that possibility at least.

There is no safe or correct resolution of the conflicts the song expresses within the song’s own characteristic domain of experience. You can’t turn off this hatred and march to the beat of the army drummer any more than you can mistake it for critique. Or single-handedly overcome capitalism, the father’s authority, militarism, etc. The song is a scream of pain from inside the barracks of deformed rationality that legitimately still commands us, as rationality.

Hit hard

49pp. of Georg Lukács just hit me harder than 8 months of therapy.*  Full disclosure.

 

 

*(If you want to know which 49 pages, it was p.149 to p.198 in History and Class Consciousness, a.k.a. part III of “Reification and The Consciousness of The Proletariat”)

Interpreter of Narrow-Mindedness

In relation to the sciences, philosophy today can no longer claim an institutionally secured position of privilege, but philosophizing retains its universal power in the form of the self-reflection of the sciences themselves.  In this dimension, occupied by philosophy, the unity of theoretical and practical reason that does not hold for scientific theories themselves is preserved. Philosophy, having become circumscribed as a specific discipline, can legitimately go beyond the area reserved to it by assuming the role of interpreter between one specialized narrow-mindedness and another.  Thus, I consider it philosophical enlightenment when doctors learn from sociological and psychoanalytic studies to appreciate the influence of the family environment in the genesis of psychoses and thereby also learn to reflect on certain biologistic assumptions of the tradition of their discipline.  I consider it philosophical enlightenment when sociologists, directed by professional historians, apply some of their general hypotheses to historical material and thereby become aware of the inevitably forced character of their generalizations.  They thus learn to reflect on the methodologically suppressed relation of the universal and the individual.  I consider it philosophical enlightenment when philosophers learn from recent psycholinguistic investigations of the learning of grammatical rules to comprehend the causal connection of speech and language with external conditions and in this way learn to reflect on the methodological limits to the mere understanding of meaning.  These are not examples of interdisciplinary research.  Rather, they illustrate a self-reflection of the sciences in which the latter become critically aware of their own presuppositions.  [..] The developers of new pedagogical methods for curricula in college-oriented schools should go back to the philosophical presuppositions of the different fields of study themselves.  Thus, for example, the transmission of basic grammatical structures in a language class at the primary school level, where the bases of several languages are taught simultaneously and comparatively, cannot be meaningfully discussed without confronting the problems of the philosophy of language as they have developed from Humboldt through Saussure to Chomsky.  Similarly pedagogical problems of history instruction on the junior high school level lead to the problems connected with the emergence of the historical consciousness that has developed since the end of the seventeenth century with the tradition of the philosophy of history.

 

–Jürgen Habermas, “The University in A Democracy: Democratization of The University.” In: Toward a Rational Society (1968), pp.7-9.

Broken In The Dust Again

Turn around, go back down, back the way you came
Terror is on every side, though the leaders are dismayed
Those who put their faith in fire, in fire their faith shall be repaid
Oh God, the pride of man, broken in the dust again

Turn around, go back down, back the way you came
Shout a warning to the nations that the sword of god is raised
On Babylon that mighty city, rich in treasure, wide in fame
It shall cause thy tower to fall and make it be a pyre of flame
Oh God, the pride of man, broken in the dust again

Oh thou that dwell on many waters, rich in treasure, wide in fame
Bow unto a god of gold, thy pride of might shall be thy shame
Oh God, the pride of man, broken in the dust again

And only God can lead the people back into the earth again
Thy holy mountain be restored, thy mercy on thy people Lord

These are some lyrics from “Pride Of Man,” a favorite song of mine. Written by Hamilton Camp, about whom I know very little. Performed by Quicksilver Messenger Service in the late 1960s. I do know something about QMS. They were Northern CA guys who really liked cowboys, reverb, marijuana and quasi-modal-jazz jams with trembling guitar vibrato. Though their live shows were clearly in the service of jamming, QMS had a talent for selecting cover songs that seem to reflect their tastes, in lyrics and music alike. “Pride Of Man” suits their musical tastes, with its minor key and changes that suggest bad things on the horizon, a likely soundtrack for a silent movie conflict. Nearly as I can tell, it’s a straight-forward plea to give the biblical God of Wrath his due. “Don’t be cheeky, or he’s gonna get you,” more or less. Now, I can see how that warning might have appealed to vaguely counter-cultural types in the late ’60s. The Old Testament gets read as anti-humanist (which, I guess, it really is). The technocratic invocations of objective progress for human civilization that are often on the lips of corporate spokesmen, with the obvious subtext that this progress will break quite a few eggs along the way to its glorious omelette, etc. 1 + 1 = 2: ecocidal corporations and their lackeys had better watch out for that “flash of fire / ten times brighter than the day.”
Of course, developments since biblical times in the desert (a favorite setting for QMS anyway), make this inference problematic. Can we still believe that might makes right in this way? God destroys this or that– that makes nothing right or wrong, per se (nor does it make it right because he wanted us to do it). I wonder if there’s anything to the idea that late ’60s counter-culture in the U.S. shows an anti-humanist tinge that later counter-cultures had to deal with, even if they mostly rejected it. I say “that later counter-cultures had to deal with”, not “that political movements had to deal with,” because the vague anti-humanism I mean is pre-political, and the only social change that developed it into a political position was the conservationist or ecological protection movement– which couldn’t openly espouse anti-humanism and remain in the political mainstream. By anti-humanism I mean a claim at least as strong as, “what ultimately makes events good or bad is not just whether they make things better or worse for some humans,” whatever “better or worse for some humans” might be taken to mean. QMS, or Dino Valenti, their later lyricist, continued to write songs with this theme (ex: “What About Me?”, written from the P.O.V. of the earth!) An appreciation for the value of things other than us or our affairs, to the extent that it makes a person imagine our violent death with satisfaction, shows up in lots of counter-cultural popular music as at least a theme in the lyrics. Ex: heavy metal (lots of doom, death, and black metal; Sleepytime Gorilla Museum).
I guess I’m not the first to say that metal and certain offshoots of ’60s counter-culture entertains themes as anti-humanist as much of the U.S. Christian Right wing (but I don’t know what to cite on the matter). On one face of this observation, it looks like a case where U.S. cultural remains of left-wing consciousness, perhaps only partly acknowledged as such, attach themselves to the obvious analogy between that righteous “flash of fire” and the sensual intensity of the sounds that attract a lot of people to rock music in the first place. Searing guitar lines as purging fire from God, come from the sky to smite the people presumably responsible for industrial, global capitalism. On this side, it looks like an expression of pathology on the U.S. left. Better that God come back (from the dead?) and kill off the baddies (us?), than to let them continue to ruin the environment and wear suits. More or less? Looked at from another side, this theme in American music lately recognizes, dimly, the unbridgeable distance between art’s sensual and formal aspects, and its political significance. Sure, these SF hippies seem to enjoy playing the fuck out of a conservative, wrathful God song. But the point of doing that is the feel of the song, and playing the fuck out of it, not agreeing that God should burn us right now. But the feel of the song is attractive because that musical form means something to us, to Americans in a sense of the term not limited to citizens. And the logical link between the way that song makes us feel and what that musical form means to us, culturally, could be real complicated.
I’m thinking of some big, contradictory, satellite in imaginary American la-la-land made out of stage cowboy outfits, Fender spring reverb tanks, California beach sand mixed with Mojave desert sand, and the head of some kind of righteous, psychedelic American Indian out of white-guilt hippie dreams with the body of an angry Old Testament God, wrenching soul-fuzz out of a charred Stratocaster. I’m not enthusing about this.. uh, cultural artifact itself, but pointing out that when I listen to QMS, it seems to have a hand in making that experience quite awesome– in the ’80s slang senses. I don’t exactly feel personal guilt about this, but I do feel very confused about where I stand when I feel that way. Because the part of that awesomeness that involves some actual awe seems to indicate that part of me communicates with that cracked American satellite described. How much awesomeness-potential can you lay at the door of mere musical form and timbre?