Monday, April 22, 2013

Modernism and Pop Music: The Wrap-Up

This is my fourth and final post on modernism and pop music. Check out the other posts in the series herehere, and here.

Pop music is a probabilistic phenomenon.  For many media corporations, selling music comes down to a careful management of resources: gather up the most promising "talent", maximize their marketing, and then hammer the target audience.  But there's a final element that needs to be considered before these corporations restart the process: see what sticks.

Marketing dollars fail, scandals arise, and tastes change.  Corporations are forced to take a diversified approach because even with advanced metrics you can't always control taste.  So while what makes it to us from our friends at Universal and Sony has been selected and filtered, it still retains a modicum of differentiation.

The three acts that I've discussed in this series have each had different experiences with major labels.  The Weeknd is currently on the way up with a Universal contract.  Death Grips were thrown out of their deal with Sony for conduct not befitting of employees.  DEP has remained ardently independent.  All three remain nebulous figures to the people making decisions because while they are producing something that doesn't appeal to large swathes of a popular audience, each also has a direct relationship to an ardent fanbase. This fanbase has been established largely because of the internet.  This fanbase doesn't care what label they're on or how the music is being made.  This fanbase only cares how they can get their hands on it.

This situation of pop music is emblematic of the crisis of the newest breed of modernism that pervades our lives.  As anyone on the street can tell you, the first world is replete with choices, especially when it comes to media.  And this is especially true of music.  As recording technology becomes continuously cheaper and more mobile, the barrier for entry into the aural marketplace becomes nearly negligible.  Your "distributor" is Bandcamp and your "marketing" is Twitter.  The music industry has been forced into a conservative position; in order to hold on to the market, Viacom and friends have to resist or channel this decentralization.  Holding "competitions" and insisting that their artists have made it to the big leagues are familiar tactics from this playbook.  This strategy works, for the most part.  Ms. Minaj and Mr. Bieber have safe careers.  The industry may be dwindling, but it isn't going away.  Nobody is holding their breath for musical anarchy.

But the issue that I am highlighting here isn't really about the success of the music industry in this conflict.  It's about what this conflict represents.  Distributive technologies, the latest being 3D printers, lead to decentralization, for better or for worse. And industries that depend on the control of ideas are forced to adapt.

One way of thinking about epochs is as ways of defining limits.  Each era has a set of limitations that present it with a set of questions that it can answer. One aspect of Modernism is that it is an experimental epoch; instead of setting a limitation that allows us to ask a question, Modernism makes its limitation into a question. Just how much decentralization can we stand before we hit the hard limit of nonsense?

It's easy to dismiss this as blandly theoretical, but consider the full context.  Each of the artists that I've written about here are themselves decentralized.  The Weeknd tries to express the Jungian shadow of modern R&B.  Death Grips gets their energy from the nihilist void at the center of mainstream hip-hop.  DEP pushes the virtuosity of metal and then find themselves in jazz.  They all reproduce the larger movement of the industry within their own expressions.  And the industry has to confront the question of decentralization every day.

And so the industry at times acts uncomfortable because it recognizes that as an aggregate entity it's having to stretch into something it doesn't recognize.  It's having to embrace things that it can't deal with in order to keep up. When Death Grips gets corporate money in order to waste it in self-sabotage, they have found a real limit, for better or worse. After all, one of the problems of modern markets (and modern institutions) in today's context is that they have problems protecting themselves from things (and people) that are willing to destroy themselves.

We're fated to live in interesting times, and the music industry is an expression of that.  If you keep your eye on them, you'll probably have a pretty good idea of where the rest of us are going, and how we're going to get there.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Not Even Safe in Our Dreams: Thoughts on Slavoj Zizek

I just finished Slavoj Zizek’s slim 2012 book “The Year of Dreaming Dangerously”. Zizek, a Slovenian philosopher, is reviled by many other “professional philosophers” because of the obscurity of his writing and beloved by many undergraduates because of his funny accent. I guess I’m becoming the sort of person who thinks that Mr. Zizek is actually a very profound and (circuitously) lucid thinker, and I look forward to reading his larger works. I was first introduced to him by way of his appearance in Astra Taylor’s documentary “Examined Life”. When I first watched it I thought he was a babbling fool compared to the other thinkers interviewed; I thought this because he was the basically the only person in the documentary who didn’t just repeat liberal platitudes. He was saying something really new, so I reflexively dismissed him. Luckily, I’ve since managed to begin removing my mainstream-liberal-goggles, so now I can read Zizek and blog about it! Here we go, kids.
Zizek suavely evading flaming wreckage

In “The Year of Dreaming Dangerously”, Zizek attempts to analyze some of the most politically aware events of the 21st century, including HBO’s “The Wire” and the Occupy Wall St. movement. Both of these are reactions to (as my fellow blogger Boros put it) the brutality of the modern situation: the Occupy movement being a group of activists who recognize the inadequacy of democratic institutions, and The Wire being a harrowing portrayal of the perverse relationship between law enforcement and poor black people.  Since both The Wire and Occupy Wall St. are vital cultural phenomena, Zizek’s discussion of them manages to frame his critique of ideology in such a way that it becomes accessible to a layperson like me.
Zizek quotes David Simon, the creator of “The Wire”, as saying that “we pretend to engage in a war on narcotics, but in truth, we are simply brutalizing and dehumanizing an urban underclass that we no longer need as labor supply”. Given this harsh formulation, what are we to make of Simon’s humane and even positive portrayal of police officers (McNulty, Bunk, Lester Freamon etc.)? Somewhat paradoxically, since Simon has few illusions about the function of law enforcement in post-industrial urban areas, he is better able to render the goodness of the cops who are attempting to effect change within a pernicious institution. Zizek calls the acts of the “good cops” on The Wire utopian, but in an unconventional sense. Typically, a utopian action would seek to reform an institution or perfect a system; i.e. a utopic action is performed with the assumption that the “system” one is working within is perfectible. Plato’s Republic would be a classic example of this: it was an idealized version of the framework Plato was working under as an Athenian, and Plato advocated that people act with this ideal in mind. The world Simon presents in The Wire is one drowning in the arbitrary effects of corporate capitalism and neoliberal economic policies; he makes it clear that capitalism as a system, rather than people’s moral decrepitude, is at fault. The Wire has been frequently compared to Greek tragedy, but Zizek thinks that they differ in one important respect: Greek tragedy presents fatally flawed characters, The Wire presents characters living and working within a fatally flawed system. Of course, a term like “the system” is so vague that it barely means anything on its own; how does The Wire portray this flawed “system”? Zizek writes,
Here we encounter the formal limitation of The Wire: it has not solved the formal task of howto render, in a TV narrative, a universe in which abstraction reigns. The Wire’s limit is the limit of psychological realism…          
The Wire’s panoramic final scene shows a series of long shots of various locations around Baltimore. This reposeful cinematic gesture allows the viewer to process the fact that new generations of drug dealers, cops and corrupt politicians will come to replace the ones we loved or loved to hate. I will elaborate more on this in the next section, but in Zizek’s mind, one of the functions of ideology is to set up chains of equivalences- such as “people are poor because they use drugs”- when in reality, the urban  poor of Baltimore are poor because the economy has rendered them useless and they are offered little to no opportunities to transcend their situation. Their neighborhoods are flooded with drugs and terrorized both by the gangs who sell the drugs and by the police. The “System” can be apprehended through an understanding of the absurdity of the situations it creates, not as an immutable or transcendental entity in and of itself. With that in mind, I’ll now discuss the Occupy movement and Zizek’s view of the status of activism in general in the 2010’s.
I remember when the Occupy Wall Street movement first began. The summer after my freshman year of college I began getting the email blasts from Adbusters Magazine spreading the word about a planned occupation of Zuccotti Park, and once it was underway I avidly read every article I could find about it and watched videos of various people speaking at it (including Slavoj Zizek). I tried to soak up as much as the internet would allow. What made the Occupy Wall St. movement special? And why were most of the appraisals of it by the mainstream press so vacuous? Zizek uses his psychoanalytic training, and his readings of Lacan and Hegel, to attempt to answer those questions.
Zizek uses a quote from the journalist Anne Applebaum, who writes for the Washington Post, to exemplify the mainstream (ideologically-sanctioned) reaction to Occupy. She first claims that Occupy protestors (who, by the time she wrote this article, were all over the globe) are correct in their view that democratic institutions are not capable of dealing with the problems created by globalization; several paragraphs after that she chastises protestors for not using those institutions to reach their ends, and even goes on to state that Occupy and related protests will have the negative side effect of hastening the decline of existing democratic institutions. This argument is obviously fallacious, and as such nothing intelligible can be derived from it. Its unintelligibility sheds light on how ideology functions; Applebaum manages to appear reasonable by both expressing tentative praise and haughty ambivalence towards protest movements. She politely acknowledges the unsustainability of the “system” while simultaneously declaring recognition of the “system’s” unsustainability unrealistic.
If you’ve taken a course in logic, you know that once a contradiction has been established, anything can be asserted. Well, the liberal apologist view that I (via Zizek) debunked above results in a smug contradiction which opens a space for new ways of thinking about and understanding our situation. I offer the following formulation as a Zizekian philosophical maxim: “The more obvious a teleological explanation of an event is, the more crucial the speculative surrender of the self to the absolute becomes”.  What the fuck does this mean? Zizek here deploys French philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s term “zero-point”; i.e. the economic and environmental collapse that capitalism is tending towards. In the face of coming ecological and economic crises, a politically pessimistic outlook seems justified. Pessimism of this kind is ultimately teleological because it equates the collapse of the” system” with nothingness, with the apocalypse. Zizek has many times criticized liberals for being better able to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism; but isn’t this indeed how ideology functions? Pessimism about the future of capitalism is certainly called for, and the brutal truth that our lifetime is going to be spent during the slow, violent death of capitalism is a truly shitty fact to contend with. The brutality of this fact and the pessimistic outlook it inspires aren’t grounds for a fatalistic anti-capitalistic viewpoint, though. Each crisis ostensibly brought about by “capitalism” simultaneously erodes capitalism as a functioning system. This is where the “speculative surrender of the self to the absolute” comes in. Zizek writes, “The only way to sustain the Real when it gets too close-that is, the only way to avoid psychosis- is to fictionalize it”. Attempts to reform a failing, inherently dehumanizing system are literally absurd; the only way to engage with the Real of systemic collapse is by speculating about how limited and small you are; about how unintelligible the forces working on you are. This is what Occupy attempted to do: engage with reality in a world that demands disengagement and abject ignorance at any cost.

My first post dealt with novelist Don DeLillo. His book Cosmopolis centers around billionaire hedge-fund manager Eric Packer’s aimless limousine ride around New York City. At one point, Packer gets caught in the middle of a riot thrown by anarchists and communists. He dismisses the whole event as a “market factor”, and indeed, once the riot subsides, business-as-usual resumes. During the riot, however, a man sets himself on fire Tibetan monk style. Packer can’t account for the jarringness of this event. It functions as sign, or perhaps a symbol, of both the untenability of the present and the necessity of the future. It makes sense that the final chapter of Zizek’s book is called “Signs from the Future”. In this chapter, Zizek quotes Blaise Pascal: “There is enough light for those who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition”.  Strangely, if one hopes to cultivate a rational disposition with regards to political thinking, a theological perspective is useful. John Locke says that if the government won’t heed your pleas, your best bet is to appeal to heaven. As democratic institutions become more and more useless, it would benefit us, Zizek thinks, not to adopt a dark fatalism, but rather to look to the heavens and recognize our own contingency.