Archives for posts with tag: Music

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).

Alternative medicine advocates point to natural remedies opposed to mass produced medications. An interesting parallel can be found in the music industry. Many bash pop music for its simplistic, cookie-cutter style, but to spin this point on its head, pop music is denigrated for being a purer form of enjoyment, perfected through time.

Pop music stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers regardless of what a person’s intellectual opinion on the music is (papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1742971). Further, simple, catchy songs result in a release of dopamine as the brain successfully anticipates melodies (sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811909013068). This leads to a number of interesting connections. The human mind experiences a high when it correctly anticipates the ending of a melody, which provides a disincentive to the inventive. The mind wants to hear familiar, predictable chord changes (For example, youtube.com/watch?v=5pidokakU4I, youtube.com/watch?v=JdxkVQy7QLM or youtube.com/watch?v=F4ALd-Top2A). These familiar patterns then get used repetitively because, as “the fittest” musical ideas, they survive through many generations of memes. The question one has to ask then is what is the purpose of art. We have succeeded at discovering the formula for a musical high just as surely as we have discovered the formula for any number of mass produced medicines with few side effects which in a vast majority of cases have predictable results on the human body.

If one listens to music for enjoyment then one is, in light of this, forced to admit that pop music is the epitome of music. Any more cerebral forms are the musical equivalent of homeopathy; a rejection of systematically tested results. Alternative Medicine is medicine which lacks proven results, in the same way, perhaps, alternative music lacks the ability to efficiently stimulate the brain.

Now, certainly one can easily make the argument that music is not meant purely for enjoyment, but even a more cerebral form of music is ultimately intended to bring enjoyment to the listener, just in a different (diluted) form. By subverting predictable melodies one represses desire and furthers the chain of desire which must ultimately lead nowhere, to the hole that is the objet a. One falls prey to the hipster’s dilemma. One must not enjoy this (pop music), but instead enjoy its absence elsewhere. The superego dictates that what one should enjoy is not what immediately satisfies, but rather what sublimates, represses and turns aside enjoyment. Why else the well known saying “you probably haven’t heard of it/them.” Because the hipster denies their immediate pleasure derived from pop music so that they may later redeem it in linguistified form when they receive status for their denial of pleasure.

Here the biological connection again resurfaces with Foucault’s discussion of the history of sexuality. Briefly, only in controlling one’s impulse (to seek immediate gratification) can one be seen as having mastery. The result of avoiding pop music is not to eliminate desire, but to maintain it through the denial of consummation. Through self-control one endures the lack of the desired, and only through its lack do they heighten the excitement of the experiences that they allow themselves.

Willow bark may alleviate the pain of those who avoid the concentration of aspirin, but to do so is to abandon the enlightenment’s legacy of humanity’s ever expanding mastery over its surroundings; as is foregoing pop music in favor of more esoteric genres.

Here’s some of the lyrics:

I’m on the pursuit of happiness and I know everything that shine ain’t always gonna be gold, hey
I’ll be fine once I get it, I’ll be good

Tell me what you know about dreamin’, dreamin’
You don’t really know about nothin’, nothin’
Tell me what you know about them night terrors every night
5 am cold sweats wakin’ up to the skies
Tell me what you know about dreams, dreams
Tell me what you know about night terrors, nothin’
You don’t really care about the trials of tomorrow
Rather lay awake in a path full of sorrow

Night terrors?… What a strange thing to include in this otherwise rather predictable set of lyrics!

Now, we could read in this the standard, repugnant, narcissist script: ‘woe is me, there is no happiness after all in this life of wealth and fame…’ Or we could think of it in another basic way: ‘you don’t really know about the trials of tomorrow…’ — most people don’t actually concern themselves with serious problems, with real stressors; rather than assume a more mature, responsible, etc., stance towards their activities, combining enthusiasm with sobriety, desire with commitment, most people are more interested in simply taking no stance at all, and partying instead. These are essentially two kinds of narcissism.

But isn’t there something more here? If we look deeper into the lyrics, maybe we can uncover something more interesting. Why the emphasis on dreams? Surely it’s unnecessary to talk about ‘night terrors,’ waking in a cold sweat, etc., if the message is so straightforward. Or is it?

I think the interesting thing about Kid Cudi’s decision to include these specifics – regardless of the other merits of the song, or of his actual intentions – is that it gets inside the experience of the person who wants to make this critique against society but is not able to, whose desire to say something against the normal run of things is so brutally suppressed – by the superego (societal) injunction to enjoy – that it can only show up in dreams, in night terrors, outside the party. That is to say, in the music video we see Kid Cudi in a kind of withdrawn malaise, unable to ‘fit right in’ in the current circumstance, unable to enjoy. And while that would be clearly discernible without the extra part about night terrors, this is precisely the way it illustrates the violence done by the superego. It is not enough simply to look at Kid Cudi’s face in this video, at his withdrawn state. Rather, we should look ‘behind the scenes,’ to the situation of the subject outside the party, the experience which must be renounced upon entering the party scene as an unwritten rule. This is where we get at what is ‘disavowed’ by the normal run of things, by the party scene, the bit of experience immediately excluded from discussion.

Indeed, if he had excluded the talk about dreams, about his personal experience away from the party, then it might simply have been about what we see in the video, namely his own ambiguity set against the social scene; it would be reduced to a unique psychological problem, a matter of fitting in, perhaps of immaturity, rather than a problem constitutive of society.

Thus the night terrors provide the crucial explanatory supplement we need. With these notes in hand, we see the ‘remains’ of the symbolic order. What remains after the assimilation of psyche into society, the distillation of the full potential of social relations into a relatively scripted, standard set of norms, is the reminder of the excess experience which the superego’s injunction to enjoy has automatically foreclosed. In short, we see manifest as night terrors that which is always already excluded from the normal run of things, that which suffers as the ‘part of no part,’ which never actually reaches visibility. Thus we now know the coordinates of the visible display (the party) as they show up against the backdrop of the invisible Real, of which we catch a vanishing glimpse through the lens of the anti-party, no-fun, inexplicable/non-symbolizable/indescribable night terrors.

The night terrors, then, get at the unconscious, at the trauma which is always constitutive of the socio-symbolic order, but which never sees its expression ‘in broad daylight,’ so to speak. They get at the workings of the symbolic which are inscribed in the subject without its even knowing it.

But, these terrifying experiences also simultaneously represent the fault of the symbolic to maintain itself in perfection. They demonstrate, precisely, the power of the subject in the symbolic space: because the symbolic only functions at the level of the particular, at the level of articulation — because the ‘ideal’ or ‘sublime’ object of a particular socio-ideological constellation depends upon its concrete instances, on the ‘messy’ reality of subjects who couldn’t ever fit this ideal prescription exactly, the symbolic itself is vulnerable to its subjects; the norm fails at precisely that moment of actual experience, when something terrible erupts inexplicably.

To go back to the party: Kid Cudi’s strange, melancholic fascination/preoccupation with something in the distance, his sense that something is ‘out of reach’ — this is the haunting presence of the excess desire that the party can’t quell, and which we see dramatically revealed in the night terrors. Indeed, this fascination with something potentially more satisfying than the party… this is a sign that desire is functioning as it should: the ideal of enjoyment, of the party which purportedly should be the ‘real deal,’ should be it, the consummate experience of happiness… this ideological injunction to enjoy always fails at the point of articulation of some subject whose experience it presumes to describe a priori.

And this is freedom today. We have the freedom, as Zizek says, not to enjoy. We are free to want more, to continue indefinitely this “pursuit of happiness,” but not to finish it. The point of psychoanalysis is to deconstruct the way the subject relates to its desire, the way it relates to this pursuit. Kid Cudi frames his pursuit of happiness as something ultimately for nought, but his mistake is to think that nevertheless he might really get it someday. He continues to wonder if he’ll ever actually reach it, if it’s really out there, that ultimate experience. By contrast, the psychoanalytic point is that desire as such has no actual object; it cannot be consummated.

Thus psychoanalysis tells a story about how to live ironically. Its goal is to get the subject to see that, whatever the “ultimate” experience is, it is a figment of the subject’s imagination, a fantasy. Kid Cudi’s mistake, then, is to worry that something strange is holding back his enjoyment. He thinks that the night terrors are spoiling his fun, that anxiety has prevented him from reaching the object of his desire… What he doesn’t realize is that there never was an actual object, that desire has no destination. The solution is to keep on desiring, keep on fantasizing, but to come to grips with the fact that there is no one but yourself who can determine the limits of your fantasy. No one but you can set out that phantasmic object as an inspiration for your desire; there is no end, only a new beginning.