Two parables: The Comedian (II)

This story is about the curious and well documented incident of comedian Dave Chappelle leaving his successful comedy series in the making of its third season in the mid 2000s. I shall refer to Chappelle hence as ‘The Comedian’.

The Comedian grafted his way in an industry that sought to fit African American comedians through simplified stereotypes and personas. It took a while for Chappelle to make a presence in the entertainment industry and the right forum for his brand of comedy to have support from a television network or film studio, but eventually in the early-mid 2000s, it happened.

The Chappelle show was a very accessible insight into The Comedian’s vision of the world on issues of sexuality, race and politics. Chappelle’s sketches were not patronising and were recognised as breaching beyond ‘black comedy’ into comedy simpliciter. There is a monologue in Vin Diesel’s independent film ‘Multi-Facial’, that his ideal was to be a working actor that was an artist, not working to live. Diesel’s character makes a point that being committed to acting as an art form meant that some of the ‘greats’ of acting wouldn’t do advertisments. ‘You’re never gonna see (sic) Pacino do like potato chips or Denzel doing doughnuts’!, Diesel’s character says. Ironically Al Pacino appeared in a UK ad campaign for Sky Broadband this year.

Chappelle’s comedy sketches were both edgy and commercially viable. Chappelle support from other comedians such as Charlie Murphy and Paul Mooney (whose racial observations cut very deep). They say that DVD sales of the show had an unprecedented record high for a television show which led to much anticipation about his third season.

There came a point where the commercial success of the show was its undoing. The subtlety of The Comedian’s racial humour and the edginess of his socio-political observations were undermined by the commercially catchy one liners such as ‘I’m rich, Bitch!’ or ‘I’m Rick James, Bitch’, in my life, the line ‘cocaine’s a’helluva drug’ formed a backbone of in-jokes and references among my friends in 2006. The Comedian began to feel that the success of his show undermined his comedy, and was being interpreted in simplistic ways. Instead of challenging racism, the popularity of his humour (and its constant repetition) undermined this message and subversion became subverted. As a result to this, The Comedian left the show and was ‘missing’ for a short while leading people to speculate about his whereabouts. Some comedians speak of an informal ‘blacklisting’ of The Comedian since bailing on a $50mill contract. The Comedian still performs today, but not to audiences and the media outlets that he used to.

I think of this story as a way to understand the ways in which Adorno approaches culture. The Comedian’s story is one of a relationship with commercial success, having a social critique and the potential of social critique having a cultural impact. Does The Comedian’s account show, via negativa, that Adorno was right? That counterculture will eventually be subverted to the culture machine, unless it is all embracing of the negative. Through these everyday parables I would like to try and show the scope of what is at stake with the selected philosophical issues I’ve addressed over the past few years.

Remembering Roger Ebert, (or the importance of a critic)

On the 4th April 2013, Roger Ebert died. Ebert was known to me through the pairings of ‘Siskel & Ebert’, and later ‘Ebert & Roeper’. Ebert through these pairings and as I understand, in his later blog work engaged in the noble art of criticism for the medium of film.


Critics are great. We sometimes love them, sometimes we hate their judgments. It’s a bit lazy to say as many people do, that Critics are ‘those that can’t do, so criticise’. There’s an interview in the late 80s with Dave Mustaine from Megadeth panning the critics of his time, saying how they must feel very small to judge music that they are unable to perform. Often I can understand this audacity. I am sympathetic to the audacity of criticising people’s work in a way that takes such little effort when the work we critique involved so much.


Critics have an important role. When they are wrong, they can be really wrong, and their judgments are immortalised in print. But then again, they can also be the basis of informed dispute. An example of a controversial critical appraisal in music is the infamous description of Rachmaninov in an earlier description of the Grove’s musical dictionary that the Russian composer’s work is monotonous and that the success he has enjoyed is unlikely to last. When I first heard about this anecdote, I laughed and thought this kind of criticism is the most unfair thing I’ve ever heard (at the time I was a massive Rachmaninov fan). In my later maturity my interest in Rachmaninov has simmered, just this week I was listening to a recording of the Second Piano concerto (performed by Helene Grimaud) and I thought to myself: I feel sick of this overly emotional tripe!


There is a time for Rachmaninov’s luxurious Chromaticism and the slow waking hours of the day are not it. I was also convinced that Rachmaninov’s Romantic leanings well into the 20thC are actually quite conservative, musically speaking. At a time when there were bold composers like Berg and Stravinski’s Rite of Spring, many of Rachmaninov’s works seem like an echo of a stylistic and historic yesteryear that is no longer relevant.


Sometimes critics do a very important thing and take a step back. In the medium of film, there are many aspects of the physical watching of film that make it fully immersive: in the cinema it is dark and everyone sits on church like pews, their booklets replaced by popcorn and overpriced soft drinks. The screen is the centre of attention and there is something deeply submissive and obedient about staring at a darkened screen and given a world that you are forced to accept, with characters in an ontology and a tacit acceptance of the moral order that it depicts. Films can give us our values, sometimes in ways we would not realise they do. Critics take a step back and call out if these values are unconvincing or if they are things we should reject. On the other hand, the ability to delve into morally and ontologically different worlds is something that is a dimension of making a film engaging, by enacting the faculty of imagination. Again, this is an object of criticism.


One thing that I found interesting is how some commentators have pointed out the gender dimensions within Ebert’s film reviews. Whether we like a film or not can be immaterial to the critical distance in which we engage with the material. I often quite like film reviewers. Currently I follow a lot of Mark Kermode and Richard Roeper’s reviews. One thing that Kermode does is address bigger cultural and industry themes to express his cynicism about films. Film critics often have a rationale for their judgment of a film, and it is this which is sometimes more interesting than the film itself to me. Sometimes it is a rationale that is informed and insightful, and even if I disagree with the conclusion, it is something that I feel rationally obliged to take seriously. I think this is the case for anyone who I might find prima facie disagreeable but may be otherwise insightful.


Perhaps it is disagreement that I find the most interesting thing about a critic. When Siskel and Ebert looked at films, they were quite open about the points of disagreement they had between each other. They may have overall agreement about each other’s conclusions about whether a film was good or bad, enjoyable or dull; but the way in which they reasoned about it, highlighting different aspects of the film, is interesting.


To close, I thought we’d go through some of the reviews of films we love on Noumenal Realm, and see how Ebert considered them.




(anti)Heroes of our time: Cyclops and Wolverine (a year-end post)

So, the year 2012 is ending. This is normally the kind of time when we review what was eventful about the year. To be honest, this year has seemed the same as last, and almost the same as 2010. The headlines seem often the same, either there’s a scandal about someone’s personal affairs which becomes political, or a political scandal that is personalised to specific individuals.

I’m a believer in the notion that our culture reflects our times. Often nostalgia for the year passing focusses on entertainment news or things that have happened in culture. At least in the UK, culturally we seem to live in two worlds. There is the discourse of aspiration and the reality of its improbability. Television shows offer fame and stardom, give us things we wish to aspire to: lovely food, great homes, interior decoration or the spiritual gin of a cheap thrill through comedy and music. I am just as guilty as anyone else in buying in to this irreverence. I am reminded of Robert K. Merton’s notion of strain theory in criminology: the idea that criminality and deviance directly relates to the dissonance between the ideals of what people are told to aspire to against its inherent difficulty due to current social times.

Perhaps one way to sum up the year for me, is through a Comicbook storyline and the way in which it has concluded. Marvel’s ‘Avengers Vs. X-Men’ (AvX) was a story about two teams of heroes who were forced to fight because of a difference of opinion. This difference of opinion was based on the significance of a very powerful supernatural force known as the Phoenix, which enters a physical body and imbues them with special powers. The Phoenix was destined for one particular character, Hope Summers, but as it happened, by an accident the Phoenix entered five different people who it was not supposed to.

(spoiler warnings)

Cyclops and Wolverine

The conclusion of this story was that one of the most archetypal characters representing the moral good has turned into a villain, namely, the X-Man, Cyclops/Scott Summers. Cyclops in his depiction in Marvel Comics has always been a morally upright citizen, the one who always holds the line of decency and has a commitment to the values of Xavier’s ideology of mutant equality.

Perhaps the most notable turn of events for me was the ‘transition’ from hero to villain of Cyclop’s character in the 5 issue short: AvX: Consequences. Cyclops, imbued with vast amounts of power had the ability to change the world, at first it looked like he was acting out of good. Many of Cyclops and the other Phoenix hosts moved to create a better world, some of their acts included things such as improving ecological conditions and solving the fundamental problem of the scarcity gap to end hunger and global energy needs. Quite a poignant use of superhero powers if such people ever lived in the real world. However the vast power of the Phoenix emphasised the nobility of their hosts, but eventually their darker sides were also emphasised, which eventually led to the moral corruption of the Phoenix five.

After the Phoenix ordeal, Cyclops is put in a prison. In a conversation with his former team-mate Wolverine, the latter says: you were always the man I wanted to be. Wolverine references Cyclops’ idealism and his commitment to moral good, incorruptible nature and his courage. Cyclops is, or was, as traditionally heroic as heroes get. Cyclops’ fall was notable in this regard. Eventually Cyclops’ is sprung out of prison and it looks like he has become part of a villainous ‘X-Men’ group including Magneto. One of the most notable acts of Cyclops when  he was empowered by the Phoenix force was that he killed his mentor, Charles Xavier, who is the most important character in the X-men series, since he founded the team.

After killing his mentor and murdering a prisoner out of vengeance, Cyclops realised he has changed and accepts this new moral character emerging from his actions. Summers leaves a note at the prison for Wolverine after he escapes, which says to the effect: I realise that I have to be the hero you once saw me to be, because that hero has now become you. Wolverine, as it has been acknowledged throughout comic law, and by himself, is hardly the most traditionally heroic. Wolverine has killed in cold blood, believes in a vigilante form of justice and embodies rage in many occaisions. Wolverine as an X-man, and a role model realises that his behaviour has implications for those who have looked up to him and this has made him more mindful of his behaviour.

I think that the transition of the hero mantle from Cyclops to Wolverine reflects a change in the cultural sensibilities of our time. Idealism seems no longer relevant, idealism seems sour in an age of austerity and hardship. Our heroes are often the reluctant ones. The heroes of our time are more like Aeneas: brooding, strained, unwilling, encumbered by duty. Charlie Brooker has written a piece a few days ago to this effect pointing out how James Bond and Batman, characters of two blockbuster films this year; are essentially the same character. That Cyclops has become a villain hit home to me the cultural sensibilities of today, and how different this decade was in relation to the last. The bubble has broken and we are in a wet spot. Anti-heroes are our heroes, and idealism is replaced by cynicism and regret.


P.S. Happy New Year from the Noumenal Realm team 🙂

“Mewling Quim”: Watching Marvel’s Avengers Assemble

(Some possible spoilers ahead)

I saw a film that surprisingly impressed me this weekend. That film, you might reasonably guess correctly is ‘Marvel: Avengers Assemble’ (long UK release name henceforth referred to as Avengers). I grew up with animated series like X-Men, as well as the Marvel Action Hour in the early-mid 1990s and although X-Men has not been as impressive in its film incarnations, I have always been drawn to characters like Iron Man and Captain America. I think Marvel Studios and the Marvel Empire at large recognise that a good amount of money can be made from fanboys.

So why was this film so awesome? There were many elements, going to see the film with friends who mutually appreciated the Marvel Universe did help. Seeing the overweight nerd men with bald heads and their Captain America and Thor paraphernalia did make me feel at home, of course I’m nothing like them (I was wearing an Iron Man t-shirt). The question of ‘who’s your favourite?’ came up. There is something about ensemble films that are immensely attractive to the public consciousness, I suppose that is why so many people enjoy films such as The Godfather.

I was thinking of the Marvel Universe earlier last year when I was reading through the works of Howard Philips Lovecraft? Why, because there is a sense that I feel that Lovecraft had an earlier notion of a grand narrative unifying many stories through the same universe in the same way that the Marvel comic universes do. There is something almost operatic about creating imaginary worlds and entertaining creative space within them. For too long people have undermined or scoffed at these media forms as either lowbrow or base or childish, the same is said for computer games as an artform; comics and the graphic novel as a literary form.

Getting into superheroes got me into Homer. If you want to call superhero mythology base, then consider the pages of gruesome violence in Homer’s Iliad. Consider the use of supernatural imagery in the likes of Milton’s Paradise Lost when you consider super powers and demigods as childish.

Thinking with more critical lenses lately, I was thinking about the nature of the characters in the Avengers film. It was notable for instance that it was an almost all male affair, however the presence of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is not an obviously feminine or trope-like character. I thought that it was of note that her character showed the most vulnerability which seemed linked to her gender, but I am willing to be convinced that the depiction of vulnerability may have been set up as a ruse in one scene with Loki, or when she was present with Bruce Banner’s character, she had a genuine sense of fear that anyone would at the power of Banner’s alter ego. It’s also fair to say that many of the male characters showed a sense of vulnerability, especially towards the endgame of the film. There was a sense of futility and hopelessness among all of them which also served as a bonding moment between the characters, as well as between us (the audience) and the characters.

After I saw the film, I noticed an online discussion about one specific issue. The character of Loki uses an antiquated expletive in the scene with Black Widow where he refers to her as a “Mewling Quim”. I really don’t know what to think of this. It has been argued by the critic Mark Kermode (who surprisingly rates the film quite well). I didn’t notice this or know about this word when I saw the film, however it seems of note that a small number of (adult) viewers discovered this slight. This term requires a bit of context and apparently has regional significance. I was listening to a podcast last week on Radio 4 by Will Self who talked about the philistine trend of critiquing books for using words that are considered verbose or that many readers are not familiar with. The use of unusual or difficult language should be applauded, although there is some real power to the insult that Loki says which distinctly symbolically feminises Black Widow as a way of undermining her.

I might say a bit about the portrayal of vulnerability in the other male characters. Robert Downey Jr’s ‘Tony Stark’ shares his experience of mortality with Bruce Banner (well played by Mark Ruffalo, who was once better remembered by me in the lame film ’13 going on 30′) and both characters address how their special powers are also a source of difficulty and pain for them. The power source of Iron Man is also the very thing that keeps him alive and dependent, and Stark speculates that Banner’s Hulk is similarly a source of self preservation as well as destruction. A caring side is shown in the characters which gives wider dimensions to them. Stark has his lover Pepper Potts, Thor shows some concern for his friend Jane Foster and Agent Coulson is a beloved character to all of them. It may be that I am overplaying the femininity of Black Widow’s vulnerability in that many of the other characters show moments of emotional turmoil or depth. I wonder if this film passes the Bechdel test. Considering that there were only two main female characters in the film I suspect not, but there is hardly an emphasis on romance or sexuality. I noticed in one billboard appeared the actress for Maria Hill, the agent working under Nick Fury, even though she was not as prominent a character in the film, it was nice that an important supporting character was featured.

This was a film that had it all as far as a fanboy as myself is concerned. The drama, pathos, comedy and action elements of the comic and cartoon world put in a film experience. I’m really glad that the film impressed me as it did, as I have quite low standards for films after many disappointments, many of the films leading up to the Avengers, for instance were hit and miss. There is a sense in which this film seems to capture a mindset of the status quo. The plotline of the tesseract as a form of ‘clean’ energy is an interesting one of contemporary relevance. The clandestine behaviour of S.H.I.E.L.D. and their borderline unethical plans reflect a distrust of institutional authority. The coda of the film where various talking heads talk about the Avengers and the range of opinions about them reflect a media age where criticism and a variety of views and fears are addressed, some of these threads of discussion in the coda are addressed in the comic and animated incarnations of the Avengers and wider Marvel comics (such as the Civil War story arc).

What more can be said of this film? Awesome actors, great action and a genuine sense of surprise about much of the plot: I didn’t expect one Avenger to be so noble and powerful compared to everyone else (the one who ‘defeated’ loki). The comedy mixed in well, plus I did the embarrassing thing of jumping at cinematic moments of surprise. I don’t think anybody noticed though. A great soundtrack by Alan Silvestri, who is also known for such great films soundtracks as Predator. A film soundtrack is as important as the plotline or dialogue. I saw the film in 3D IMAX, and I must say that I don’t think I noticed a specific 3D or IMAX scene, as it seemed indistinguishable to the rest of the film. Is that good or bad? I don’t know.

One thing is certain, if and when a sequel of this film is made (sequels are the name of the money making cinematic game), it has a lot to live up to, and sometimes past success is the most difficult marker of critiquing a sequel. I normally expect about one good film a year, but seeing The Hunger Games makes 2012 a year of prospective positive expectations. I’m quite looking forward to the coming Ridley Scott ‘Prometheus’ film, as well as (excuse my primal tendencies) Expendables 2. However having met the quota of good films already I have no expectations.


Reading Adorno: On television

This piece concerns my reading of Adorno’s essay ‘How to look at Television’

High art and low art

With the dawn of the televisual medium. Adorno makes the point that the former distinction between ‘long haired’ and ‘short haired’ culture, or high and low art, is simultaneously obliterated and absorbed. I wish I knew some french or german word which captures this contradiction and ambiguity in a single instance. The distinction is obliterated because the means of promulgating television is so broad that access goes to essentially everyone, and in that way there are no class distinctions for television, compared to say how Opera was (and still is to this day) a largely bourgeois affair: access eliminates this distinction.

On the other hand, the division between high and low is absorbed into television by way of the ideological messages of the medium of television. This is an interesting avenue for Adorno to explore psychoanalytical themes. Adorno makes the point of how 17thC to recent folk cultural works expres stories with symbolic gestures to enforce social norms and rules, these norms become internalised by the audience. Instead of looking at the folk cultural and high cultural distinction, I will examine the mechanisms by which Adorno considers the ways in which television has a normative impact on the audience.

Virtual reality

Like the older cultural forms before it, television as a medium exhibits an alternative picture of reality, one which serves to iron out some features while emphasising others. As a mass medium, television seeks to be rational (following the thesis of “Culture and Administration”) and would presumably seek its own preservation. The goal of such medium would then be to preserve its audience. Adorno claims that integration is an important goal for television, so an audience needs to be as diffuse and inarticulate as possible. Adorno claims that: “The ideals of conformity and conventionalism were inherent in popular novels from the very beginning.” [Adorno 2005, p. 163]

The overt and covert messages of media

Adorno stresses that the ideological messages embedded in the televisual medium have multiple layers. What the message of a television programme contains is not always obvious, and not may involve a deeper strata of meaning. Within every funny dick joke in a Judd Apatow film, there is a socially conservative message embedded within it, perhaps something like: a heterosexual woman is incomplete without her man partner.

Adorno tries to show this overt/covert distinction through a few examples, many of which seem like either they came from a television show that he hasn’t chosen to cite, or he’s made up very convoluted instance. I’m not quite sure where he got these ideas from.

One example is this: A young schooolteacher is underpaid and bothered by her boss. We find this acceptable because even though she is brought to starvation by her poverty, we find her amusing demeanour and clumsiness to justify her as a character of worth. The covert message here is that her intelligence is compensation for her poor situation, and in some way justifies it because she will end up okay for being intelligent, regardless of her circumstances.

The other example seems to me a little bit convoluted and I do not understand how Adorno interprets this at all. The example is from the ‘funnies’ of the day where a woman leaves it in her will for her cat to inherit her belongings, but they are dismissed as eccentric items by her family, and they later find out when its too late and the items are about to be destroyed, that each toy carried a hundred dollar bill. Adorno interprets this plausibly funny situation as the implausible ideological message: “Don’t expect the impossible, don’t daydream, but be realistic” [ibidem, 167]. This in a way sounds like an inversion of the aspirational psychology of the American Dream, and plays more to the old fashioned Marxist than I would have expected.


Adorno makes the point that the format of television shows create repetitive features, many of which establish a sense of expectation on the part of the audience, for instance, plotlines must resolve by the end of the episode, the good guy always wins and so forth. This reminds me instantly of music, and the expectations of many pieces of music. Music for dancing is almost invariably 4/4 or perhaps for folk circumstances, ¾. Also, harmonic dissonances are desired by an audience to be resolved, and a certain sense of comfort is established by the familiarity of these similarities. I think Adorno was making a sense of terminology and description which looks like what later will come to be described as the ‘trope’.

Televisual media also seems to replicate the stereotypes of people by way of what I would consider a physiognomy of character. If physiognomy is the notion that a person’s physical appearance defines their outward demeanour, we may say that their character, or aspects of their character, may define their social situation. Shylock is hated by others because he exhibits those characteristics negatively associated with Jews. Similarly, the ‘virgin’ doesn’t die in a horror film, which in turn is a covert message that expresses the desirability of the demure. Consider how last year, when an off-colour comment from a police officer prompted ‘slut walks’ internationally, the messages about the normative constraints on respectable female behaviour were brought to the open from the covert. By defining tropes such as these, we can see what is cliche and what is genuinely challenging.

Throughout this series I have posed the question of whether genuinely challenging and socially thought provoking cultural entities are still allowed to exist in the Adornian world. I think that Adorno shows, via negativa, how to be challenging. This also disappointingly puts a dampener on things that I really like. I see how horribly cliche the recent tv series ‘New Girl’ is for instance, where the quirky character of Jess seems to justify that she’s a metaphorical boxing bag for her flatmates at times, and the implication that she is incomplete without a man, or the obvious physiognomy with characters such as the ‘formerly-fat’ Schmidt. The analysis of tropes has taken into its own, and is a highly fruitful source of analysis. It also shows how terribly cliche so many of my favourite action and superhero films are, but that’s a topic way beyond the intention of this post.


Reading Adorno: The Individual and the Collective

There are many ways to cut across the understanding of culture. One such theme which takes a sociogenic perspective is the way towards how a cultural object expresses a sentiment which is either individual, or a mark of a collective. To pose these terms as a dichotomy is unhelpful, nor what one would suggest, but rather as part of a spectrum.

In this post I shall continue analysis of Adorno’s essay on “Culture and Administration”, as well as on “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” through a unifying theme: the individual and the collective as a social cultural theme. Adorno points out in the latterly parts of Culture and Administration, that cultural forms eventually become appropriated by mass culture, perhaps the contemporary parlance of this would be if something were to ‘go mainstream’.

I remember a book review I did “Sells like Teen Spirit” where the author compared Adorno to an archetypal hipster. I found this likeness highly troubling. The archetypal hipster (do they really exist by the way?) supposedly claims that their intentions and interests in bands or films or other cultural objects are more authentic than others, exactly because they were fans “before it was cool”. Indeed Adorno makes a point that cultural originality, or the ideological force of a cultural object is diminish once it becomes appropriated into a mass machine, and this industrial process of propagation undermines its message. The joke of the hipster, is that their percieved originality is taking place through a culturally mediated narrative (namely that of the hipster cultural phenotype), or more bluntly put, Adorno did it first.

Culture has to take place within administration once it has been established. In this way, the original sense of its social challenge or ideological message becomes watered down. I remember once going to a Rammstein gig at a large venue a couple of years back, and finding there was a mosh pit right in front of the stage, and further back of the stage were a large collection of stadium seats, filled by grey haired 50 year olds wearing wooly jumpers who periodically went to get hot dogs in between ‘Du Hast’ and ‘Sonne’, they also complained about the fire. As I think of it now when writing an essay on Adorno, it tells me a few things: Heavy Metal is sonic experience turned into socially acceptable sound, and if the genre of working class opposition had any biting teeth of social criticism, it now has dentures.

Appropriation seems inevitable however. Adorno seems to acknowledge this, and I am of mixed opinion on how to interpret this as optimistic or pessimistic. Adorno’s view of culture is that many things eventually have a tendency to become appropriated into the culture machine, in our context this may include gig circuit tours, having an agent, press releases or a social media presence. Adorno’s view is that incorporating culture into a rationalising process that is administration may also make it anodyne. This reminds me of an article in the NME where the band Nickelback is simultaneously called ‘The Biggest Rock Band in the world right now”, as well as heralders of the “death of rock n’roll’. The point being made that stadium rock and larger audiences eventually creates a conformist environment, both aesthetically (Nickelback is highly formulaic, and also very catchy for the same reason) and ideologically stagnant. A Nickelback song couldn’t talk about really divisive issues, exactly because they are unified by such a wide audience.

Over Christmas, I was listening to the Comedian Stewart Lee talk about the role of physical space in comedy performances. Lee pointed out that the number of an audience distinctly affects the kind of performance and material addressed. Edgier performances and smaller interest groups tend to favour the fewer numbers of audience, or physically confined audience spaces. I remember when I went to see comedian Marc Maron last year in a small London venue, a joke was made by looking in the eyes of a young man in the front to the effect of implying that he is looking for a mentor figure in an older man, Maron then says to this man staring at him intensely in the eyes, as if to impersonate him: “Will you be my dad?”. This was highly uncomfortable, very personal comic performance, and there may be more factors to the limited audience than Adorno may have considered as to the success of edgy and uncomfortable art.

Adorno may allow for a sense of social critique and ingenuity within the cultural machine. Adorno’s point is not that such ingenuity and critique is impossible, but that such an oppurtunity has everything against it. I was thinking about the individual and the collective as a way of framing Adorno’s essay on Freud and Fascism. Adorno asserts that it is the power of using an eloquent speaker and a charismatic individual who appeals direclty to an audience that allows for the growth of influence of the Fascist speaker.

Adorno makes the claim that Freud’s thought on the effectiveness of hypnosis on the subject is essentially the same as why Hitler was an influential leader to encouraging Fascism. I feel disturbed as to the use of psychoanalysis in Adorno’s analysis as it seems while nuanced, uncritical of Freud in the way that a contemporary such as Popper had become. However, Adorno sets a lot of observations and conditions about the role of influence that are empirically feasible questions of research and observation. In other words, my ‘Adorno-lite’ interpretation can allow for a Freudian consideration if re-tooled to include empirical questions of mass psychology.

Adorno makes the point that a successful way to create a Fascist influence in the masses is to create collective sentiments. By establishing an identity as a group, where differences are immaterial, except the differences that the group defines itself against (through some ‘other’), a sense of unity is established. I was directly reminded of a time a few years back when I was a few selected passages from Mussolini’s ‘The Doctrine of Fascism’, where he direclty makes the point that individualism and the concern of the individual and self is demolished when compared to the priorities of the state. In facism, there is no individual, there is only definition through the state.

To speak of cultural identity or works of art in this context is to speak of none at all. It is a sign of such totalitarian regimes that culture is controlled in the way that food or housing is distributed. The absolutism of the collectivist ideology allows for no alternative thought. In this extreme way, we find some solace, as culture and difference is anathema and corrosive to absolute rule. We find the real importance of culture by looking at the despicable moral and intellectual conditions in the lack of it.

Hitchens writes in many parts that the true insight of George Orwell is that he identified the communist social states as simply another form of totalitarianism, rather than its alternative, exactly because of their lack of difference when it came to culture and opinion. Hitchens himself talks of his experience of going into Cuba and embarrassingly admitting that he is a liberal, even though a socialist, as if the former is subversive and the latter is acceptable. Through the distinction of the individual and collective, we find a distinction of ideology.

But what of culture? I have been thinking lately about Black Metal. Often it is said that Black Metal is the extreme of individualism, black metal concerns the critique of comfortable European Christendom. The early Norwegian bands speak often of the stuffiness of Norway’s conservatism and their difference is expressed powerfully by the transformative imagery of corpse paint and other such paraphernalia. Often it is said that the notion of genre in music is a way of putting things into acceptable categories against ‘otherness’, while maintaining a sense of individuality. I also recall when new styles are created, they attempt to defy or resist genre, but simultaneously create or revise genre categories. I think for instance of the recent band Alcest, which I quite like, which has been described as ‘Black Metal Shoegaze’ or the even more nebulous ‘Post-Black metal’.

Within Black Metal, there is of course an extreme of anti-individualism. There is the critique of others by the way of establishing a sense of national pride and unity. Many of the so-called NSBM (nationalist socialist black metal) bands seem to exhibit the fascistic tendencies and imageries Adorno describes. The phenomenon of the Straightedge Punk movement in the 1980s has been described as a form of ultraconformism where the avoidance of drugs and alcohol is the stable in which self-identifying members internally are judged or excluded. There is an odd mix, it seems, of concentric circles of conformist collectivism within individualism.

As an open question, I ask this: how can we judge reality television within the individual and collective spectrum of culture? Reality television is successful in attracting large audiences exactly because it is multi-media, social media, internet and television are ways of promoting television shows and in being so broad as a medium, it also must be conservative in terms of the ideology or the types of messages it tries to put across. Is it possible for instance, to be an activist and have a twitter account?

With the enhancement of social media on the culture industry, everyone has become the media. This looks like both a curse and a hope for the Adornian vision, and that of course, is not a new insight.


Interfaith week (or, ‘my change of mind’)

In this post I’m going to be a little bit personal (no not another post mentioning black metal) and talk about something close to what I actually do in some of my real life. For the past few months I’ve been involved (initially just for work experience reasons) with an interfaith organiation. One thing I’ve found as a generality in London is that there are a great amount of similar organisations which often focus around a geographical locus. For instance, for some reason, there are loads of thinktanks in Victoria; lots of the public sector is organised around the general area around Westminster (I suppose that’s for obvious reasons – no need to claim much on taxi fare); and for a reason unbenkownst to me, there are a lot of interfaith organisations and initiatives around Kentish Town.

This week closing was Interfaith week. Interfaith means a lot of things to me, even if I don’t really understand much about it (I mainly help by sorting out their information systems). I used to be involved with a lot of secularist and atheist-friendly campaigning, and to some extent we in Noumenal Realm still keep connections, and are quite passionate about the overlapping interests of the secularists and atheists with issues of science and pseudoscience, scientific method and the public role of the intellectual. Getting involved with an interfaith organisation back in May/June was an odd decision to say the least, especially because someone like me might be considered ‘the enemy’ or if they knew more about my past credentials I’d perhaps feel some hostility from them and possibly vice versa. A lot of this is about misunderstanding, and I suppose, the point of many of these interfaith organisations is to overcome such misunderstandings.

In an environment of Britain today where the ongoing narrative of what was once the ‘War on Terror’ and the so-called axist of evil led to difficulties with marginalising practicioners of Islam, and more distinctively, the ethnic groups that make up the main body of Muslim believers in the UK such as Pakistani and Arab-descent Britons; so-called ‘Islamophobia’ promted in no small part by negative media representation as well as the other issues general to immigrants of integration  and prejudice. In such a difficult climate interfaith relations really makes its mark in the name of social cohesion.

During my incubation years with the Jesuits; I was thoroughly introduced to Catholic approaches to Christian issues and general ways of thinking about the world (there is for instance a distinctly ‘Catholic’ cultural sensibility, or a ‘Catholic’ philosophical way of thinking – perhaps a topic for another post). One of the ‘Catholic’ approaches that I learned about interfaith relations came from a certain University lecturer on I had on Kant and modern theology who was also an international expert on Catholicism and other religions. The Catholic difficulty of inter-religious dialogue was to accept the unique claim to their Christian truth while acknowledging other faiths. This kind of approach was well-meaning in some ways, but also far too intellectualised; involving only theologians and men of the collar. Dialogue between religions is not only a matter of ‘who claims spiritual truths’ and some John Hick-esque parable about an elephant being felt up by blind people; but a matter of real social and political significance.

The issue of religion affects people on the high street level and the proverbial man on the Clapham Omnibus (I hate that phrase, but since I actually live near Clapham I think I’m justified in using it). In recent years, the Islamic community has been a target by various groups who in turn have almost as radical and violent opponents. I find the phrase ‘anti-facist’ just as threatening as a ‘facist’ organisation, as either seem to inevitably lead to violence. So here we see two distinct kinds of approaches. One, intellectualised approach which is not relevant to anyone except people with PhD’s and ‘SJ’ after their name, which strives for understanding in a somewhat genuine level of philosophical and spiritual dialogue. On another, is a non-dialogue of violence which rather than highlights the issues clearly; aggrivates the fact that there is an urgent issue of social integration and a need for peaceful dialogue with those in faith communities and the secular world in general.

Enter the contemporary interfaith organisation. Inter-religious dialogue has moved on a bit since the days of John Hick and my aging lecturer who knew as much about Kant as he did about how to account for other cultural communities.  See this article by Stephen Shashoua for a particular snapshot of contemporary activities. Interfaith organisations target a wider group than university educated priests and theologians who sometimes visit a Gurdwara or Mosque once in a while. Interfaith organisations target groups and geographical areas for which are very sensitive to the issue of cultural integration and social cohesion. Young people from primary schools to Universities are invited to discuss issues and are encouraged to discuss issues from misunderstandings about other religions to real social issues such as social mobility and drugs in a way that is relevant to them and also gives them a wider perspective on the world and how they fit into it, almost religious as it were (if I were a Hegelian I’d almost call such an apprehension to pertain to the geist).

I am writing this post because I find a certain amount of conflict with another public event that had occured this week. In Canada was a public debate between Christopher Hitchens who has been favourably tackled in previous posts by us, and Tony Blair, famous spokesman for Tesco and overpriced public speaker. The question of debate was ‘is religion a force for good in the world?’ After my experience with interfaith organisations, and a wider appreciation of the work they do, I feel unable to think as clearly on such a question as I once did. In a sense, it is a public-intellectual style discussion about ideology and appeal to spiritual beliefs which in a sense is not as helpful. On the other hand, what else is a religion but its beliefs and spiritual components? I suppose there’s a difference between the people and the beliefs.

I must admit that I’ve not seen or heard the debate except for snippets. If anyone reading this has any link to it I’d love to give it a look/hear it fully. There are a great many nuances to issues of how religions and their believers relate to geo-political disputes and difficulties, but this much seems certain to me: faiths can ‘from within’ make an effort to establish greater cohesion and relationships with other communities, and a debate on such issues should appeal more to a localised setting of the people for whom it is directly relevant rather than relying on second hand putative conceptions of religions and the ‘ivory tower’ approach to inter religious dialogue which involves only the intellectual believer. Also, you can be a secularist and support inter religious dialogue. Call me a contradiction if you may.


History through youth cultures and the commodification of ‘genres’

At the moment I’m doing a book review for the book: “Sells like Teen Spirit: Music, Youth Culture and Social Crisis” by Ryan Moore. Since I’m allocated only a few words for the review I’d have to be brief, and clinical in an assessment. For this blog, however, I would like to wax lyrical and passionately on whatever I want to. This is a monograph which is part cultural history and part social analysis. Th narrative of this book begins in the mid-late 1970s. At this time, Punk, Heavy Metal and Hip Hop emerged almost contiguously. I interpret the book as making the claim that it was from the same social conditions that such youth cultural constructions emerged as symbolic responses to the contemporamous situation, and the malaise of the time.

Social History and Youth Cultures

When we look at the late 1970s in the US, there is much of a comparison to today. The time of prosperity is over, the economic ideologies of Keynsianism/Liberalism and Fordism are replaced by Post-Fordism and Neoliberalism. Where Liberalism  represented investment into urban spaces and publically funded projects for social innovation and growth; neoliberalism represented the cutting of the public funds over the presiding priority over the free market. Where Fordism represented an economy comprising of predominantly production and manufacturing based employment which precipitated an economic renaissance and age of upward social mobility; Post-Fordism represented downward social mobility, the decline of production and manufacturing industries and the rise of the service industry.

These aforementioned social changes had far reaching implications: employment became scarce, the public sector was in decline and there was an increase in service-based vocations. Punk and Heavy Metal emerge as thematic responses to these phenomena either through the confused mix of political identification and awareness paired with nonchalant irony of Punk; or through the mysticised and proletarian-friendly imagery of Heavy Metal, which externalises a symbolic ‘other’ that is derided and representative of the lack of oppurtunities of upward social mobility and economic stability, or the authority figures that constructed this situation.

It is far to say that the ideologies of say, Punk or Heavy Metal are consistent, or unitary. Location, or ‘scene’ has a distinct impact upon a genre, and its underlying values. There were distinct conflicts or nuances in the portrayal of how such genres may be historically understood. Much of Punk can veritably be described as a hedonistic endeavour with little social criticism but poseur ironic distance where by contrast there are more politicised circles and offshoots which make distinct ideological statements, such as the Staightedge which eventually became an autonomous subculture.

Heavy Metal in the 1980s

A lot can be said about the chapter on Heavy Metal. Of particular note was Moore’s own personal testimonies (and interviews) that he addresses in this chapter. Moore was admittedly into the Thrash scene, which was a symbolic and musical combination of Hardcore and NWOBHM. The case of Thrash metal represent, in a similar way of the Straightedge movement to apathetical punk, a critique of a genre. Thrash Metal tried to respond to the contemporamous social situation and create a social criticism. Thrash Metal was a critique of the contiguous emergence of Glam Metal’s hedonism and emphasis on ‘rags to riches’ celebrity stardom and the crash and burn of having the rock star life.

Interesting about these metal movements are the inconsistencies of seeing a ‘scene’ as a unified or consistent entity; famous Thrash metal band, Anthrax which emphasised social issues, such as in the song ‘Indians’ [as in Native Americans] had members in a side project ‘Stormtroopers of Death’ which had racialised characterisations. Glam Metal likewise perverted masculinity by the band members dressing in makeup and female clothing. This was percieved as an oppurtunity to attract female fans to a genre which is typically completley male, and to depict aspects of male sensitivity with the iconic archetype of the girlfriend who works while the rock star ‘tries to make it’. This archetype led to the joke (so Moore tells us): “What did the stripper do with her asshole before she went to work? Drop him off to band practice”.

In Penelope Spheeris’ ‘The Decline of Western Civilisation’, fans admit to the homosexual urge of wanting to ‘fuck’ the members of glam metal bands such as poison because of how girlish and attractive they looked, irrespective of identifying with being a homosexual. This kind of masculine brutish sexuality was not too far from the Glam Metal scene, for while bands such as Poison and Twisted Sister dressed like women, they were still patriarchs. The women they dressed as were reminiscent of the Hollywood Strip sex workers. By dressing as women, they promote the symbolic sexual objectification of women as they make themselves the object. By having sex with groupies and feeding financially off of various girlfriends and fans, the Glam Metallers were less of revolutionaries than wasters. In similar irony, the Straightedge movement which emphasised nonconformism had distinctly militaristic and conformist tendencies. Of course, who expects consistency from teenagers.

Heavy Metal after Thrash has an interesting history. Moore’s history is by his own admission a narrative which is predominantly from US fans (his narrative of Punk addresses the emergence of UK Punk following Malcolm McClaren’s importation of the New York style). Heavy Metal is known nowadays to have an emergence in mainland Europe, which has led to very interesting and unique flavourings. The predominance of US culture as culture sui generis or as a global narrative is quite powerful but not a comprehensive story. I am intending in a future post to write about Black Metal as it emerged from Norway in the 1980s and exploded in the 1990s. That story is one which take places in particularly different and perhaps unique socio-historical circumstances.

The folks from Olympia, Washington

The chapter that I’m currently reading is one which personally strikes me the most, even more than Heavy Metal (which I quite like), I have had personal experience of the 1990s, and in my earlier years, lived through many of the records of my older siblings. I’m just a bit too young to be a Generation X-er, but I been close to a few (such as on this blog’s authorship).

Kurt Cobain, like Hendrix before him, or even Joplin (Janis, not Scott [perhaps my love for Ragtime will be in another post]), has been reified and made into a cultural demigod, or saint. So much so that ‘Kurt would be turning in his grave’ is an oft- said response by Sinistre in critical interpretation of ‘Alternative’ music. I’ll try not to dwell too much on the well-trodden story of Nirvana and its famous blonde rogue, but perhaps one detail is very interesting. Cobain was based in Olympia, Washington initially. Rather than the more trendy and commercialised Seattle: home to American cultural exports such as Pearl Jam, Starbucks and Fraser Crane.

In Olympia was a distinctly Do-it-yourself scene. This DIY approach to promoting music was also a forum for raising social issues, particularly for young women. I was genuinely surprised to discover that in the same place where Cobain started out, was where the Riot Grrrl (sic) movement also proliferated. Cobain was sympathetic to the aims and feminist sensibilities of the movement and was friends with key figures in the Riot Grrrl scene (I had to look these people up as I am completely ignorant) such as Tobi Vail and Kathleen Hanna.

Reading about the Riot Grrrl movement upset me in the nature of the issues that they addressed. Through zines, self-defence courses and other such fora of organisation, the Riot Grrrl represented a truly grassroots movement where young girls could find expression and raise the consciousness of issues that affected them, which included abuse, sexuality and mental health. Distinct themes were established which created solidarity in terms of shared experience, such as sexual abuse and experiencing self esteem issues/eating disorders. I’ve yet to discover the music of the Riot, I must admit. This is a case of where the scene is so much more than the music that comprises it. Of course, a musicological analysis never hurts. One has to use his music theory education at some point doesn’t he?

Back to Grunge. The story of Grunge can be encapsulated in the commercial success of Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ at the end of 1991. In a sense, the ‘real’ Grunge music was the music that culminated in Nirvana’s success, and very much came before in the lesser known bands such as Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone. The so-called commercial ‘big four’ of Grunge are in many ways an artificial grouping: Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were more of a Hard Rock band and Alice in Chains are now recognised as a Heavy Metal band. The cultural influences behind Cobain’s Nirvana were quite diverse, and much overlooked, such as Pavement or the Pixies. This in itself was the story of Nirvana’s success. The story of Grunge’s immediate implosion came from the commercial apprehension of the brand grunge, and the branding of generation x.

Advertisers learned to take advantage of the nonchalant generation x audience, and some caught on and saw its fakeness. Moore cites Sprite’s slogan ‘Image is Nothing’ as an example. The female deoderant ‘Teen Spirit’ (from which the song ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ was named) was marketed with the implication that everyone knew the song with slogans that tried to capture ‘a scent of a generation’ and such. Nirvana and so-called grunge ceased to become an underground genre of authenticity, but became a category in the local Tower Records or HMV. ‘Alternative’ as a genre took a commercial degree of success in trying to make formulaic what was once organic in an underground scene; to replicate the ‘grunge’ sound effectively became the thing that destroyed its meaning. Perhaps this is the best and clearest example of how a marketing of a genre’s ‘authenticity’ is the formula for it’s demise. It is for this reason that I don’t see how ‘folk’ can be a musical scene but a genre.

A thought on authenticity

Authenticity is a category or concept that seems elusive to me in popular music (I use this term in a broad sense). For some genres, maintaining a connection with the grassroots and the core fanbase is crucial to authenticity. Indie fans are often derided for boasting some special knowledge or claim to a band, it is often derided of indie fans that they boast ‘I knew x before they were cool’, and the Joke by Guardian columnist (so-called indie professor) Wendy Fonarow: ‘(Q): How many indie bands does it take to change a lightbulb? (A): Oh, you don’t know?’.

Authenticity seems to be like one of those concepts Wittgenstein described as a family resemblance. Perhaps there is no unified notion of authenticity, but it should be said that the varying notions of authenticity whether between musical genre or geographical scene WILL have an impact on other genres. Classical music, for instance, has many considerations of an ‘authenticity’ of a recording which I think very much draw from the categories of popular music. Perhaps it is in this way that ‘classical music’ becomes as a commercialised medium in continuum with popular music (and therefore, perhaps there is no such thing as classical music as we knew it; in the tradition going back from Gregorian Chant to Mozart to Schoenberg).

How classical music becomes youth-culturalised

Classical music autheniticity have emerged as a result of various factors: new technologies in recording, as well as restorations. In the late 20thC, organ restorations have allowed for instruments from the 18thC and even before, to be played. One can now enjoy Bach recordings played by organs from Bavaria; or Gabrielli played by period instruments. Recording technologies also play a complicated role in authenticity. On the one hand, there is the old story of how recordings have commodified music away from live performances. This discourse is quite well worn in popular music so I will not go further into this. There is also another sense of technological authenticity, where the ‘flaws’ of a piano piece are seen as perfections: Glenn Gould’s piano works often are quite low quality by today’s digital standards (his humming during piano playing is notorious as well); Performances where ‘bum notes’ or mistakes are seen as ‘interpretative uniqenesss’ characteristic of the likes of Vladimir Horowitz or Sviatostav Richter. Classical music afficionados have become spoiled by numerous recordings and it has become an art to ‘interpret’ the same piece by different recordings and record label publications. This is no different than how one might compare listening to ‘Heart Shaped Box’ between ‘In Utero’ and its recording on ‘MTV Unplugged’ (note to readership: persons of a certain age know see how tired and repetitive it is to make Nirvana comparisons – that’s exactly how tired it is to talk about Sviatostav Richter compared with Evgeny Kissin for many piano music afficionados).

Glenn Gould himself acknowledged the difficult place of technology in the social role of classical performance. Gould saw recording technologies as the ‘death’ of live music, but also an oppurtunity to portray the perfection of a musical performance. Countless takes so that a recording is right on every note, and rigorous studio processes can make an allegro more pronounced (play the tape faster) or gives a fortissimo more oomph! (up the volume). As social changes affect popular music scenes, so too do discourses of authenticity and technology affect all music as a whole.


On Britishness

What is British about a drink from India? What is British about having a permanent or semi-permanent residence in an African commune, Spain, or the Antipodes?

While the labels of English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh are labels which have entirely native customs, idioms, stereotypes and practices associated to them. The notion of the British is homogeneous, countries and many customs that have come to be associated with the label British, we may be surprised to find that things that are iconic of the British are often of English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish origin, but we may find their origin as far as the Caribbean. This was the irony that characterised Britishness over the past two centuries.

Some people have come to recognise that the next century may see English as a universal language, but we may find that this would be the remaining heritage of the west. We may find a cultural shift, in these difficult economic times. Our values may change, our standards and expectations may accord to what is realistic, and Brtitain’s shocking debt that shall emerge after the recession may cause permanent damage. A further irony still, would be the universal legacy of the English language without the international dominance of the formerly native English speaking nation.