In The Fragile Absolute, starting with the chapter “Coke as objet petite a,” Žižek discusses the advent of modernist art. When modernism comes to self-awareness, it is said to enter the realm of the postmodern; thus postmodernism is a stage of modernism. When modernism falls from its lofty heights into the postmodern, anything that reaches the level of a “transgressive excess” cannot any longer have its shattering effect on the values of the age, since these values are no longer so clear. Because the transgressive excess does not have the same shock value as it once did, the excess can be integrated into the traditional spheres of artistic exchange. Take as an example the fact that if you visit NYC, you won’t have any trouble finding a museum that features a piece of trash as a work of art.

That a piece of trash can be elevated to the level of a sublime object, an object of art, bares witness to the cultural reality of the “ever-present threat” that our noblest values will reveal themselves to be nothing more than pieces of shit. This is not simply to say that what we believe is actually a fiction. Rather, the threat includes the risk that our society as a whole cannot maintain its would-be values, that, for example, the government won’t follow through on its promise of justice to the people. Thus the artist’s desperate attempt to answer the question, Is anything sacred anymore? Will we (and I, with this work) accomplish anything of value?, takes the form of the discourse of the hysteric, of the scientist, the investigator and gad-fly philosopher: each of these elusive values is none other than the elusive Lacanian objet petit a, a nothing that captures the gaze of those who long for there to be, in the end, some actual substance in the object.

Thus whereas premodern (traditional) artists attempted to fill the place of the sacred Thing – approaching it, as it were, asymptotically – postmodern artists have first to probe for the mere existence of the Thing, the Void or Place which would theoretically embody the unimaginable Whole, absolutely pure Value itself – beauty, courage, whatever one wants to represent. And because one can no longer take for granted that the value is there as something the community believes and expects to be shown by the masterful artist, the artist’s task is to probe for the existence of the Thing, and, in the process, to provoke and inspire the audience to reveal and acknowledge both their belief in and reliance upon a value of some sort.

That is to say, by placing a piece of trash in the gallery, the artist provokes the viewer, and the viewer responds with a question – Why is this here? Is this gallery not a sacred place? Is there not something that this artwork should embody? And what is it, exactly, that we are supposed to imagine upon viewing this artwork? The artist’s task is thus “to make sure that this Place itself will ‘take place,’” that the gallery will have a meaning (25).

Put simply, the premodern artist had an ideal to shoot for, whereas the postmodern artist doesn’t. Imagine it this way: before, there was a universal standard of beauty and other artistic ideals, whereas today we have fragile, elusive, fleeting instances of these ideals that don’t ever reach consensus.

On to the titular topic: dubstep is the music of our age. It is the shit of musical art. Other radical subgenres merely take to the extreme their parent-genre’s original musical characteristics. Think of punk, metal, and the like: these are desperate attempts to purge everything “pure” and “wholesome” about original rock music, and for that very reason, they remain passionately attached to their parents; it is as if the sole purpose for their performances were to scream “we are NOT that.” Yes, punk rock has a legendary history. It is political, revolutionary music. But dubstep goes further: it is a species of post-apocalyptica. (The gas mask epitomizes the dubstep aesthetic). As such, dubstep heralds the emergence of something other-worldly. It is radically new, independent of any previous generation of music – since it uses new instruments, its sounds literally haven’t been heard before. Thus it is beyond expectation.

And yet for however expansive and awe-inspiring it can be, it isn’t quite pleasant. That is to say, it is far from high culture. Dubstep’s entrance on the musical scene is like the debut of an ugly, scandalous exhibit at the Guggenheim. Pop music, on the other hand, distills to a cheap plastic imitation the aesthetic values expressed in a more sophisticated way by the traditional genres of high-culture art; the simple purity of an autotuned voice is also a form of beauty – thus, pop is kitsch. And of course, dubstream is likewise kitsch.

Considering the violent undertones in some dubstep music, it’s worth asking whether the emergence of the genre reflects the same currents underlying the recent concrete manifestations of Hegel’s “abstract negativity.” Žižek has written about this kind of violence in response to the London riots, here. And after all, West London is the birthplace of dubstep (see artists like Mala, Skream, Caspa, Rusko, and Chase & Status).

(As an aside, dubstep music often features randomly interspersed clips from TV shows and movies, or even just words that originate in the song itself. It is as if dubstep musicians were channeling the media onslaught we come up against every day into their works. In fact, many of these same works have as their principle musical feature a very basic melody/harmony set with a simple “wobble” bass and a variable, occasional treble line. This is a quality reminiscent of ambient music, and yet, simultaneously, we hear multiple intrusions of clips taken from various media, breaking up the omnipresent, streamlined, bulging waves of bass).

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