The Jazz Avant-Garde, Mysticism, and Society:
Meaning, Method, and the Young Hegelians

by Ralph Dumain

Abstract
3 February 2004

Herein you will find my working methodology for analyzing the meaning of popular and subcultural cultural and ideological forms. My approach is novel and opposes everything else everyone is doing. You will see how I oppose mysticism, cultural studies, and postmodernism, while conserving in a demystified form the quest for transcendence endemic to the 1960s-1970s but since obliterated with the total incorporation of contemporary subjectivity into the commodity fetishism of media culture.

I also broach the question of the historical amnesia of the baby boomers, who have failed to reexamine critically their youthful experience and transmit what they should have learned from it to the clueless younger generation. I contend that subcultures have outlived their historical mission and have nothing new to say, but that neither the boomers nor others understand why this is so, having failed to transcend the obsolete dialectic between mainstream and subculture, thus remaining ideologically imprisoned within a social location that mistakes itself for, or denies, the social totality. The denizens of the managerial-professional class, whatever their political or cultural pretensions, are bankrupt, but can't see past the ends of their noses to see why.

The most radical feature of my methodology is to reappropriate the dialectic of concept (begriff) and representation (vorstellung), which equivocally mediates the relationship between philosophy and religion (as well as philosophy and art) in Hegel's philosophy, but which breaks out into open warfare between philosophy and religion with the Young Hegelians. I believe this move is unprecedented with respect to the analysis of contemporary cultural forms. I could only have done this outside of academia and the contemporary literary market, which relentlessly reinforce the prevailing ideological brainwashing and reward those who play along.


Wed, 20 Nov 2002 14:49:52 -0500
Avant-garde rebirths & culs de sac

"Secrecy and Publicity: Reactivating the Avant-Garde" by Sven Lutticken
New Left Review (new series #17, Sept.-Oct. 2002)

Beyond the interest of this subject matter for small coteries, the basic issues of cultural production in the current social climate (at least in advanced capitalist societies) are anatomized in a revealing way. Various permutations of the strategies for using art to change life, confront the culture industry (or succumb to it), and create counter-publics are outlined, with respect to such figures and movements as Bataille (sacred sociology and secret societies), Dada, Surrealism, Situationism, Conceptual Art, performance art, Warhol, and various current trends. The focus is on the visual arts, though literary magazines and movements are also cited as examples. The visual art world, though, is structured in such a way that it has the most difficult situation when it comes to reaching beyond specialized audiences. Comparison to independent film would be in order, perhaps even to theater. But there are no comparative studies here. Especially lacking is comparison to the one art form that has flourished more than any other in the past century: music. I'll explain in short order why I bring this up.

I've never encountered the concept of "counter-public" before. I suppose it is the artistic correlate to the notion of counterculture. If the goal is to influence society by means of art, then the creation of counter-publics and countercultures would be parallel or mutually interpenetrating enterprises, if not identical. The author shows how the social ambitions of older avant-gardes have failed, while illustrating the attempts of contemporary avant-gardes to accomplish comparable goals. Again, only the visual arts are counted here, and so a larger explanation of how other arts (music especially) and broader countercultures have fared is not forthcoming. Noteworthy among the experiments of the contemporary avant-gardes are the increasing abstract and self-referential nature of their efforts, which does not oppose but rather coheres with their political goals. While the author cites Benjamin, Adorno, Habermas, Burger, and Jameson, he doesn't say a word about Hegel. But here, I would think, Hegel's end-of-art thesis is most apropos. The viability of art lies in the ability to express the truth of its time in sensuous form; when art strains against this necessary embodiment (the stage of Romantic art), it reaches a crucial moment. If art cannot sensuously grab people, but must rely upon the acceptance of the abstract idea of what it's trying to do, how can it succeed in its goals?

Now I turn to music. Last night I attended a book talk with Ashley Kahn, author of "A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album", just out. His previous book documented the making of the most popular jazz album of all time, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. There's something righteous about having this album commemorated in book form at last. When I saw Coltrane on a U.S. postage stamp a few years ago, I cried like a baby. It's been a long struggle to get such great artists the recognition they deserve, not to mention the heroic energy it took for them and the people they came from to accomplish what they did, against all odds. The pace of cultural change in the USA following World War II has been so rapid, who was exposed to what depends not just on 20-year generational periods (and other demographic and geographical differences within the populace), but on age differences of just a few years. Jazz was not all that popular in the 1960s among the youngsters brought up on Motown, the Beatles, rock 'n roll, r&b, or the folk revival. There were a few jazz musicians who gained wider audiences because their energy coincided with the mood of the '60s. Actually, the whole jazz avant-garde movement coincided with that spirit, but not everyone knew it, as their ethos and audience emerged from the 1950s, and just a few years age difference determined what people would be exposed to and often what they could relate to. Coltrane was one of the very few who gained a wider audience and had an influence on other genres of popular music, esp. on rock musicians. If no young folks listened to no other jazz musician, they listened to Coltrane. If they heard none of Coltrane's other stunning work of the early 1960s, they heard his 1964 album A Love Supreme. (My first exposure to Coltrane was his 1961 Africa/Brass album, discovered under a thick pile of dust in my uncle's closet. Also, a teenage musician friend played for me Ascension [1965], which was too outré for many, but was OK by me. And I'm sure I must have heard A Love Supreme around the same time.) This album coincided with the end of Coltrane's early-'60s period. From 1965 to his death in 1967 his music became too far-out for much of his previous audience. But A Love Supreme indeed became Coltrane's signature album, and among the other aspects of its unique position, outstanding is the fact that this was his spiritual testament. Coltrane was an eclectic religious mystic, not limited by the AME Zion church in which he grew up in the deep South. The impact his music made, though, had little relation to the belief systems of those moved by it. Kahn, the author of this book, identified himself as a rationalist Jew while answering questions about Coltrane's spirituality. While the jazz audience was variegated, I suspect that strict church-going black Christians did not constitute the overwhelming majority of jazz aficionados. This is just an unsupported guess, though. The point is that in a larger secular, not to mention consumerist, culture, the most influential jazz album of the time was religiously inspired. Within two years the youth counterculture (the Caucasian component of which would be the most widely advertised) would explode, and its high energy would be manifested in both musical and mystical forms, as well as in other forms of variously motivated self-expression. This curious dynamic of popular and sacred status accorded to A Love Supreme has continued to this day. While this composition has been sampled and performed by others on various occasions, it alone among the jazz repertoire intimidates all who would dare lay their hands on it. This is not because of its technical difficulty or unique virtuoso accomplishment, but because of the sacred aura that surrounds it. There is not another composition in the entire jazz repertoire—not any of Duke Ellington's sacred music, just to stay on point—that partakes of such a status. Think about the implications of this!

Every musician who thinks of touching A Love Supreme is aware of the danger of defiling or trivializing it and of the reaction of any audience that would perceive such. The issue is, I repeat, not one of technical competence; it is about the extremely personal and serious engagement of Coltrane with his higher power. Some serious musicians have performed this piece, both Wynton and Branford Marsalis, for example. Wynton stated he had no intention of trying to duplicate Coltrane's style. He also expressed the desire for this piece along with Coltrane's other work to become part of the standard jazz repertoire. This is a multiply interesting statement, given that Wynton has done his best to bury the rest of the '60s avant-garde. But Coltrane he can't live without.

On the popular culture side, the most egregious example is the misuse of this music in Spike Lee's film Mo' Better Blues, a vile piece of shit that induced me to boycott this opportunist huckster forever more. John's widow, Alice, is guarded about Coltrane's legacy, but is especially militant about this piece. She rejected Spike's film when she saw what he was up to, and son Ravi Coltrane has also spoken up that the film diverged from the family's beliefs. Coltrane was vitally interested, all the more intensely in his final years, in the impact of music on human consciousness. He thought that music could have a subliminal impact on "changing the thought patterns of the people." Working within one small corner of the commercial music industry, Coltrane addressed himself to creating a counter-public in one specific way. Like many other musicians, he was dissatisfied by having to work in bars, and he sought to establish alternative spaces such as cultural centers. His last major public performance was at Olatunji's cultural center in New York, just a few months before he died. Otherwise, he made no other social claims for himself, unlike those who directly sought to politicize the music, such as fellow saxophonist Archie Shepp, or Trotskyist music critic and jazz and Malcolm X groupie Frank Kofsky. Coltrane in his interviews with Kofksy acknowledged an indirect connection between music and the sociopolitical sphere, but was circumspect in his claims. Coltrane relied on the power of the aesthetic experience itself. Drummer Elvin Jones, a member of the legendary quartet, stated, in one video documentary, that he felt while playing with Coltrane as if Coltrane's music were coming from some other world and manifesting itself in this one.

Audience members last night raised a variety of questions, two of which are pertinent here: what would Coltrane be playing if he were alive today, and if you were not part of the time period in which "A Love Supreme" was created, is there something you would be missing in listening to it? Such questions cannot be processed in the terms in which they are posed. Kahn said something about the supertemporal or timeless quality of the music, that it rises above its specific time, instrumentation, etc., that it can be heard outside of a timebound frame of reference. No one could offer any more, and I also don't think anyone has developed the frame of reference in which such questions could be substantively addressed.

I want to add a few words about the music. The music itself is a highly sensual as well as emotional experience, very earthy in its dynamics and intensity, as black music tends to be; but this music was simultaneously intended to be spiritual, and it has "abstract" qualities embedded in its highly sophisticated structure. To understand this is to understand why on the one hand a '60s rock group could refer to this piece in the simple-minded self-indulgent youth culture manner as "Coltrane's acid trip" and on the other a cult could actually found a John Coltrane church with Coltrane as patron saint. Both responses encode the cultural complexes and contradictions of modern life. One could also extrapolate on the relationship between "sacred" music (but in a secular context and outside of all recognized, organized, and named religious social formations!) and the culture industry. What would it be like today to feel as if something magical emerged from some hidden dimension breaking into and tearing the veil off this mundane plane of existence? If you weren't there, you might not know what I'm talking about, because it is just this question that has been mercilessly suppressed by the culture industry, having successfully produced a generation that can neither conceive of nor comprehend nor acknowledge such a question. These young folks today wouldn't understand the question if it came up and bit them on the ass, though as culture consumers they are the beneficiaries in other respects of the rebellion of an earlier era against a mechanized existence.

Put all this information together in your mental computer and then follow the logic through to unknown conclusions.

____________________________________

"There are no foxes in atheistholes."
  — Ralph Dumain, 1971


Tue, 26 Nov 2002 01:12:24 -0500
It's the '70s, stupid!

“Before that [19th century American slaves and Pentecostalists], in Europe, if you were in church and started shaking your butt to Wagner, they would kick your ass.” — Anthony Braxton

American culture—past, present, future!

Sorry I can't devote my attention to what I'm 'posed to do, but in the past week I've been totally obsessed with music. First I was listening to music, then I was thinking about music, now I'm reading several books at once about music and musicians. Not only have I discovered the beginnings of a basis for a different pproach to the social understanding of what's out there, but I've found that if one gets deeply enough into the history of popular music since the 1970s, one can pretty much figure out how everything else evolved as well. And the framework for analyzing social and cultural contradictions might prove to be surprisingly similar.

One of my big themes before this current obsession took over me was the 1970s, not as a cliche, but as a roughly definable period of American history (perhaps further subdividable in half) having just preceded what we are in now but yet strangely muted in memory. Of course we have media images and stereotypes of the 1970s just as we have of every other decade of the 20th century, but the realities and social changes beneath have somehow been occluded. I ask myself frequently: how is such social amnesia possible? The baby boomers who were young or at least pre-middle-aged during this time period are after all not dead, not senile, not even retired. They probably average out to people in their 50s. How is it then possible for history to be erased so quickly, leaving only tacky imagery and sampling, as if somehow the whole society since the election of Reagan popped out of nowhere? It's a puzzle wrapped inside a riddle wrapped inside an enigma.

I've only hinted at my views of the '70s before, mentioning in passing the conspiracy to destroy liberalism which when it succeeded surprised a whole lot of people in the traditionally liberal urban sectors. However, on every level, contradictions were a-brewing and trends emerging whose full fruition might have been suspected though not foreseen. Of course by the late '70s there were already plenty of people focusing only on partying till doomsday. (That I believe we all remember if we still possess the relevant brain cells.) They fought for and won their right to party, and meanwhile the rug was being pulled out from under them.

Hold that thought. Now back to music.

First, something unusual for me has been happening the past month and a half. It began when I visited my favorite avant-garde music shoppe in the East Village. Of course I bought discs of some of the old jazz staples: Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra . . . . I didn't listen to these for long, for I unexpectedly became addicted to . . . . Funkadelic. Back in the day, you couldn't pay me to listen to this stuff. Also, back in the day I never said "back in the day." OK, I was intrigued by the album cover of Parliament's "The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein", but that's as far as I got. Avant-garde jazz and African music yes, and fusion in the early '70s till I could stand it no more, and there were various ethnomusicological adventures, but a funkateer I was not. Listening to Sun Ra's "News From Neptune" (Have you heard the latest news from Neptune, Neptune, Neptune?), why should I care? And besides James Brown, I don't think I could take too much of the other stuff then popular. But by the middle of last month I became totally addicted to Funkadelic's "One Nation Under a Groove", which I had to play several dozen times in succession on a daily basis. And I still do, though I slack off occasionally. A few more pieces caught my fancy, my second favorite being "Uncle Jam", which is the most hilarious performance I've ever heard. So when people found out what I was doing, they were convinced I lost my mind, this not being in accord with my image, apparently. But I swear, I can be dead tired, sleep deprived, a total zombie, and if I play "One Nation Under a Groove" I jump up in a minute.

This stuff of course was popular (this particular jam was a megahit) when I wasn't paying attention to it, and so I'm dealing with it out of context, which improves the experience for me and give me something to think about.

The big catalyst came last week when I attended that book talk on John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. (This is something quite different from dance music.) While the secularization of the sacred is not a new theme for me, though much more attention needs to be paid to this topic, the specific interaction between freelance sacred music (defined as so by its author, outside of any institutional framework) and a secular segment of the music business captured my imagination. Now whatever one thinks of the "sacred", or the "aesthetic" for that matter, we are in the realm of categories which are not necessarily describable in sociological terms though they are the products and expressions of social conditions. But as objective forces, explainable as least partially in terms of their own intrinsic properties, they bring to mind that which is not totally manipulable by a commodity society, and which may even be expression of attempts to outmaneuver same. This is one way of thinking about what outsider culture can produce depending on its characteristics and relationship to the total cultural system. There's a lot that passes for outsider culture these days, and perhaps there are still forms of dress or appearance that are outside the pale—though I can't image what they would be any more short of violation of the anti-nudity laws. (Apparently the thong still has to cover your genitals.) But something in the cultural system has shifted, (including the total media environment) and when you come down to it, nobody under the age of 40 has ever been on the outside of anything.

The goal here is to identify what has changed from the older forms of bohemianism, but specifically, what does it mean for people's relationship to music and perception of its functions? And focusing on this one peculiar incarnation of a special relationship between an individualistic conception of the sacred, and secular culture, gave me a handle on how to formulate the historic cultural shift between what it was once like to be a conscious person and the clueless total absorption into the childish commodity values that rule now, an outside of which cannot be imagined.

So . . . in the past week I've been reading or skimming various books on odd whims. I've been going through books on Sun Ra, Frank Zappa, Shostakovitch, Theremin, and I stayed up all last night reading up on the history of funk. Well, the Europeans mentioned don't really fit into the theme here, but as I say, I'm obsessed with musicians. Well, in reading about the history of jazz, funk, and whatever Zappa is, I've been finding myself learning a lot but also extremely skeptical of the perspectives being put forth, not so much for what they say as for what they don't say. Something is missing, something that might help to understand (1) the historical shift, (2) the silences and inadequacies of the cultural philosophies embedded in these forms all along, which only come to the fore with epochal shifts which destroy what once was, and enable and necessitate the Owl of Minerva to take flight, now that something has come to an end.

___________________

"If you find earth
    boring
Just the same old
    same thing
Come on and sign up
    for Outer Spaceways
    Incorporated."
                    — Sun Ra


Wed, 27 Nov 2002 01:46:33 -0500
Music musings: part 3

"Music that makes us cry
Love that money can't buy
Let's all search for the reason why."
     — Rahsaan Roland Kirk

I've been informed that my treatments of the relationship between music and society in the USA aren't going to be effective without going into some detail about the actual music. While I was hoping to not have to get into too much detail when I should be doing other things, I guess I will have to explain myself and not just tease my audience about the things that are occupying my thoughts. But in the process I'll upgrade my teasing: I'm the escort service of the intellect.

Without knowing how far I'll go, in my spirit of doing things, which means, as a composer friend of mine once told me as a teenager, that one day I'll write a 20-volume preface to an introduction, let me begin by giving an outline of what needs to be said.

First, I'll give some bibliographic sources. The books I've been looking through recently (of direct relevance, thus excluding my readings about European innovators) are:

Kahn, Ashley. A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album. New York: Viking, 2002.

Szwed, John F. Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998.

Vincent, Rickey. Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One; foreword by George Clinton. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1996.

Watson, Ben. Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1996.

And then there is the book of probable greatest relevance to my interests, that I have not yet begun:

Lock, Graham. Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.

My Anthony Braxton bibliography is also relevant (and it contains a link to Mike Heffley's important Third Millennium interview with Braxton).

One can learn an awful lot from these books, and in some cases, also discern what might be missing from the author's perspective. (There is much to be learned even from Watson's preposterous enterprise.) I'll get back to this later, as the issue is the nature of subcultures, which has a theoretical dimension not extraneous to the subject matter of this list.

Here is an initial list of subtopics on my agenda:

(1) Traditional cultures vs. the nature of entertainment and popular music in consumer societies: from the gamut of life experiences to party/dance/fuck music.

(2) Why I never could stand "entertainment". Why I preferred spirit music to dick-and-pussy music. Why dick-and-pussy music never interested me for dick-and-pussy purposes. Sex and the sacred.

(3) What jazz and its avant-garde had to offer. Why Sun Ra? Why then?

(4) Funk and soul: how did the funk become a concept? (And why The Whispers were so damned good.)

(5) Funk: positives and negatives.

(6) What went wrong with fusion?

(7) What happened to the avant-garde?

(8) Why did black popular music degenerate in the late 1970s and turn to shit in the '80s?

(9) Going upscale: why did Wynton Marsalis suppress the avant-garde and "the funk"?

(10) Why did Sun Ra disapprove of funk?

(11) Musical analysis of two funk masterpieces: "One Nation Under a Groove" and "Uncle Jam".

(12) Bernie Worrell: classically trained funkmaster and technological innovator. Analysis of "Funk of Ages": from the pedestrian to the sweet and beautiful.

(13) The diversity of creators vs. the narrowness of consumers.

(14) Why I turned against the countercultures. Why bohemianism went bankrupt. The death of a cultural strategy. The 1980s: the creation of a fascist culture. Commodifying your dissent. Living out of joint with the times, then and now.

(15) The missing ingredient in cultural analysis: the non-identity of subcultures. If something was so perfect, why couldn't it last?

(16) Why the Owl of Minerva grooves no more.


27 November 2002
music musings: 3b

I read Graham's Forces in Motion and Radano's books a decade ago and more. I think Radano's assumptions were all wrong, but that's another story. His article in Jazz Among the Discourses or its companion volume—both deeply misguided efforts—was much worse.

A couple of comments viz. social history. The handle of the sacred within secular culture is one way of describing how to think of music and society beyond mere sociology, which goes: this music represents x social forces, the state of a culture or individual at one time, etc., as if its social function defined its value. I'm trying to deal with, for a lack of the better term, with the objectivity of music, that is what is in it that shows what the people who make and use it have made of themselves. This is more profound than simply ascribing political and social content.

Just to give one example of what I oppose: I remember in the early '90s when Angela Davis got to appear on Arsenio Hall's talk show for 10 minutes. She told Arsenio and us that she thinks rap is valuable because it addresses social issues. This is the Stalinist approach to art par excellence, and of course all the postmodernists and Cultural Studies people think the same way, though they represent a different era and project than this, which is one reason I find the Braxton interview so useful. It also shows a different generational experience and outsider perspective. The question is, why have so many intellectual baby boomers just slid effortlessly into the childishness of '80s-'90s consumer culture and effectively silenced certain vital properties of the period coming to fruition in the 1970s?

Now Braxton, though I can't share his ultimate framework, has a far more sophisticated perspective, reflective of a generational experience and not absorbed within the Borg-like perspective of mere sociologism.

Giving a scrute to my file of extracts from Heffley's Braxton interview, I note how many of Braxton's pronouncements ring true, though I frame my analysis of them differently. For example, the pejorative comment that jazz belongs to the Democratic Party—an odd remark, but one that encodes the structure of social forces governing American culture. Or the position of Wynton Marsalis and why "jazz" is artificially abstracted as a self-contained entity, and why the avant-garde was silenced. Why the AACM and other individuals were so important. The notion of "composite reality", which is animated by a framework different from postmodernism's "hybridity". The uniqueness of America.

I'm still wondering how to place Braxton's own project in the scheme of things. The mathematical structure he has evolved to organize his music projects is certainly unique and worth thinking about, though I'm not sure how I would relate it to everything else, and as I've only heard a small quantity of the music, I can't say what I think of the results. While I saw Braxton on a few occasions in the 1970s and listened to a few of his records, I've had no exposure since, except for seeing him at the Library of Congress a few years ago. My memory is not strong enough to evaluate what I heard then. I have my doubts I could survive on a diet of this sort of thing for long. I'm still not certain from the interview how Braxton relates his own project—which obviously has him completely absorbed—to everything else.

I'm extremely out of the loop, though lately I have gotten a few samples of what I've been missing out on while hiding in the '60s. However, I attended the opening night of the Visions Festival in New York in May, and except for one piece (and only one) by Jarman, the stuff I heard was such unbearably tedious noodling shit I had to get out of there.


Thu, 28 Nov 2002 18:15:46 -0500
Music musings 4

Adorno After Sun Ra
Part 1

In re: Gourgouris, Stathis. "Adorno After Sun Ra", Strategies [UCLA], No. 6, 1991, 198-216.

It took me a few years to get hold of this article. The last article I found with a comparably intriguing title was one on Adorno and The Cadillacs. But I was especially eager to find this one, as Sun Ra presents a special case, with potentials to move beyond the usual critique of Adorno on jazz. To be sure, in this article there are similarities with a good deal of this literature: Adorno only knew about swing music, as filtered through Europe; he might have changed his mind had he known bebop or the jazz avant-garde; etc. The author does indeed provide an original approach, but one which I ultimately find unsatisfying.

After explaining his title, Gourgouris makes the outrageous "hypothesis that if Adorno had 'a jazz mind,' he would have 'been' Sun Ra." After glossing this statement, the author begins with a characterization of Sun Ra's theatrical performance—the African/Egyptian/space age regalia, the dancers, the noise. Is it ancient ritual, circus performance, serious, or kitsch? The author calls the musical performance a theater of sound. He further claims that the logic of the commodity is nowhere present, and agrees with Chris Cutler's assertion that Sun Ra's work helps "to alienate our alienation."

The link to Adorno surprisingly comes not through the music itself but through music's relation to theater and film, Adorno's relation to Brecht and Eisler. Sun Ra turns music into dramatic gesture, which the author claims is not just a modernization of ancient ritual, but consists in a purposely unresolved contradictory combination of avant-garde and kitsch.

Gourgouris then pursues two topics: Sun Ra's exclusion from jazz history, and jazz as folk culture. Though Sun Ra undoubtedly belongs to jazz tradition—occupying a key place in it—and though his influence not only extends to other jazz musicians (such as Coltrane) but also to rock and funk, he has inexplicably been written out of jazz history. While other avant-gardists have also been marginalized, at least they are detectable on the radar screen, even if only to be chastised. But Sun Ra occupies special status as non-person, though he likely has had a larger following and greater influence than many others. Sun Ra is not the only one to be excised from Ken Burns' monstrous falsification of the last 40 years of jazz history, but he is one of the most important missing figures. Gourgouris accounts for this unique exclusion on the basis of Sun Ra's imputed relationship to the music (this quote may come directly from Sun Ra): "Jazz is not what it 'is'; rather, it is what it's used for."

Without completing this argument, the author then cites Chris Cutler's characterization of black musical culture as folk culture, the product of American slave culture, and entity distinct from African tribal culture and other cultures. There is something about the social imaginary and different organizations of sound. According to Cutler according to Gourgouris, "American slave culture is an example of how a genuine collective culture in the modern world can develop only by means of its enforced exclusion from it." This exclusion feeds the mutability of collective forms of expression and keeps the culture alien at its core. Another quote, possibly from Sun Ra: "Music represents the potential future; it's about the future that's not supposed to be but that is better than is supposed to be."

All this is supposed to be somehow Adornian, but in any event the author goes on to review Adorno's notorious views on jazz. I won't review the entire argument, but as we know the author thinks that the jazz avant-garde would have, at least for a while, successfully addressed Adorno's concerns.

Gourgouris argues that Sun Ra's mode of musical production exhibits a disregard for commodification and its mystique. The fact that Sun Ra erased the distinction between composition and improvisation, and rehearsal and performance, and just documented what the Arkestra produced rather than handling its output as finished product (and for that matter discounting the romanticized uniqueness of the recorded live club date), supposedly proves the thesis. There is also an aesthetics of noise in the struggle of collective improvisation with sound.

Sun Ra's outer space shtik as well as his music arouses consternation. He is considered to be eccentric, mad, or a fake. Gourgouris attributes these reactions to the conventional ground from which these criticisms come. Sun Ra demands that we be more aware of the play of culture and the conventional boundaries he violates and reshuffles: "Sun Ra demands of us that we suspend our inculcated desire for a taxonomic conception of the world which ultimately provides us with a reliable understanding of boundaries—the boundaries of form, of myth, of society, of the psyche."

With this conclusion Gourgouris shows his true colors: a postmodernist, Cultural Studies interpretation of Sun Ra. What a pile of horseshit this is I will analyze in my next post. I daresay Gourgouris also violates the spirit of Adorno, which after all has something to do with truth content and redemption, not just the self-referentiality of genre.

—END OF PART 1—


Fri, 29 Nov 2002 11:46:40 -0500
Music musings 4: Adorno After Sun Ra — part 1

I'm amazed that Gourgouris, who also saw Sun Ra in concert, could be so naive about both Sun Ra and Adorno. I wonder what country he lives in and what his exposure to other relevant phenomena consists of. I too encountered Sun Ra a number of times, in the '70s and '80s and not long before his demise. In part 2 of my critique I'll focus on why Gourgouris has Sun Ra all wrong. There is not much to say about Adorno at this point except that he's not much of a fun guy. Did he ever have fun? Smile? Cut up? He was half-Jewish, after all, so at least he should have a sense of the ridiculous. But he grew up and lived his life in a no-funkativity zone, so he was unprepared for this subject matter.


Sat, 30 Nov 2002 16:14:42 -0500
Re: Music musings 4: Adorno After Sun Ra — part 1

Much of the past looks pretty insufferable to those who didn't have to grow up under its restrictions. A week or two ago I was skimming a book about Scrutiny and I had to go out and buy a bottle of prune juice afterward. In my experiences in dealing with young people—even teaching a few of them recently—I see the inability to imagine what it might have been like living in a different mental universe, in a society where people were not exposed to what we've been exposed to of late, and how thinking through that mental universe requires much more imagination than engaging in ex post facto politically correct judgments, which after all takes no effort and costs nobody anything now in advanced industrial societies.

In the case of Adorno, surely a big problem is trying to imagine what Europe and its culture was like 100-50 years ago. We've got a lot more to go on now, after all, and we've learned more—I hope—about the conditions under which creativity functions. From our standpoint, we've undergone a couple of historical shifts ourselves, which I am trying to get at in other stuff I've been writing on music. It may be now that Adorno is relevant to us (or not) in very different ways than before.

Does anybody else think that Adorno is being misused by the Cultural Studies people? In other respects Adorno, Althusser, etc., have been colonized by postmodernism, so it wouldn't surprise me.


30 Nov 2002 23:06:32 -0500
Music musings 4b

Adorno After Sun Ra
Part 2

"What do you do when you know that you know
       that you know that you're wrong?
You've gotta face the music,
       Gotta listen to the gospel song."
    — Sun Ra, "Face the Music"

Unfortunately, this article is similar to the worst criticism practiced of late: half-baked arguments that don't cohere, individual ideas that peter out (insufficiently argued and not logically tied to other strains of argument similarly malconstructed), artificial superimpositions of analytical conceits combined with textual obtuseness to the objects under investigation. But as bad as the sloppiness of form is the tawdriness of content, narcissistically self-referential: cultural expression is about nothing other than the social status of cultural products themselves; the creative process is only about subverting, affirming, combining, undermining, or parodying high and low culture, but, while subverting cultural categories, is inconceivable as involving anything beyond them. This sort of criticism has been in vogue for a quarter-century, and was criticized even in the late '70s. However, as the project of intellectual colonialism moves outward from literary studies, the theoretical falsification of cultural history accelerates. Now, as a more sophisticated approach to the social analysis of music is necessary, to supplant the naïve notions that prevailed in the 1960s, postmodernism is brought in to falsify history: jazz is treated as discourse (see Jazz Among the Discourses and its companion volume), artificial periodizations unrecognizable to anyone who participated or lived through certain stretches of time appear (one book's title dubs jazz from the '60s on "postmodern"), and the obsession with status becomes the overriding concern (e.g. Ronald Radano's ridiculous analysis of Anthony Braxton as subverting high-low distinctions, but also Ken Burns' pack of lies inspired by Wynton Marsalis, silencing the jazz of the '60s and '70s paradoxically because it didn’t make money and wasn't part of Marsalis' contrived adversity-and-success story).

Gourgouris could have at least pursued his original idea of linking Sun Ra to Brecht and Eisler, though that was unlikely to get him very far either. Or, he could have pursued the quote, probably from Sun Ra himself, that jazz is not what it is but what it's used for, except that he would have gotten that wrong also. Gourgouris, puzzled by the combination of seriousness and kitsch, takes the Cultural Studies way out by insisting that the status of cultural objects is all that Sun Ra means by this paradoxical juxtaposition. This all adds up to the pseudo-sophisticated yet persistently one-dimensional and gullible type of criticism that the academy has been churning out for too long: the mechanical production and reproduction of cultural criticism.

My argument against Gourgouris' position will include the following points:

(1) African-American signifying practices and Sun Ra's seriousness and kitschiness misunderstood,
(2) Reasons for Sun Ra's outsider status even within jazz,
(3) Sun Ra's modernism and archaism: not at all an expression of folk culture,
(4) Sun Ra's negation of earthly existence and his paradoxical relation to the black "community",
(5) Sun Ra's esoteric philosophy not reducible to a subversion of the cultural industry,
(6) Sun Ra's audience and the variety of responses to both the music and the ideology.

I'm not going to have much to say about Adorno himself. If Adorno had a 'jazz mind', there's no telling what he would think, but the linkage proposed here is just unsupportable. Perhaps had Adorno applied what he knew about Heinrich Heine to African-American cultural expressions, he might have understood better what he was dealing with. Had Gourgouris followed suit, he might have understood Sun Ra's signifying better as well.

Gourgouris is apparently mystified how someone could be serious yet clowning around and pulling your leg at the same time. However, the holy fool as a cross-cultural phenomenon over thousands of years is not exactly a freshly minted social type. There's a whole lot of signifying in Sun Ra, in which the comical aspects need to be sorted out from the core beliefs he probably held, or if not disassociated from them, then at least distinguished as elements within an amalgam. Sun Ra's performance consisted of some very outside music and esoteric beliefs combined with some garish and highly amusing entertainment/presentation. This is a rather interesting form of presentation for an outsider, as he was obviously not interested in boring his audiences to death, and apparently was willing to appeal to his audience on any of a number of levels simultaneously.

Sun Ra also had his musical origins in the big band era, and was only too willing to school his audience—on great but underrecognized innovators such as Fletcher Henderson—and dip back into that era in his performances. As a person who understood the position of the entertainer in the old days, he must have drawn on old traditions of 'signifying' as well. For example, in one concert in which his band played such intense music they put me into a trance for two days (without my ingesting any intoxicants of any kind), they also did a number which must have come from sometime in the 1920s-1940s, singing "Let's Go Slumming." Slumming goes back to the days of the Harlem Renaissance when rich whites would venture uptown to Harlem to get down with black cultural forms that they dug, patronized, and ultimately financially controlled. This was not the situation at the Kilimanjaro in DC at the end of the 1980s, but for some reason the band resurrected some hoary old song gathering dust, and they sang it as they paraded through the crowded club (an African-oriented establishment with a mixed audience). It was a bit of fun to be sure, but the irony was not lost on me and hopefully not on others. Just imagine what it must have meant in an earlier era, to have a black band singing this to a white audience and the latter, joining in the fun, would be completely unaware of the meaning implied about the social relations underlying this sort of entertainment. My point is, that Sun Ra must have been aware of the paradoxes of the entertainment industry and had precedents to draw upon prior to the development of his Afro-mystical outer space shtik.

I don't recall exactly when Sonny Blount, originally of Birmingham, Alabama, became Sun Ra from the planet Saturn, but he was emerging as this character by the late 1950s. Some of his compositions from this time are recognizably of big band orchestration, yet with exotic, mystical overtones, such as "Ancient Ethiopia." That this form of music would emerge in the late 1950s is not completely mysterious, as other oppositional culture of the same general thrust was developing then as well. Jazz musicians, for example, were aware of the decolonization struggles in Africa, and some put that into their music. (This also coincided with the birth of the modern civil rights movement). Their awareness was more political than anything. However, esoteric elements could also be found in the subcultures and artistic endeavors of the time—both white and black (and intermixed). Sun Ra was an early experimentalist, but the 1960s would explode with such persons and movements, such as the Chicago-based AACM. Again, my chronology is completely hazy, but Sun Ra got into electronic instruments and avant-garde dissonance and noise and was producing "outside" albums by the mid-60s such as The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, which is one of the first I got my hands on, though a few years later.

It is a curious amalgamation, whose relation to the culture industry could be analyzed along several dimensions. First of all, Sun Ra had his own big band in an era of small groups. The big band had ceased to be financially viable for some time. Secondly, he kept a discrete grouping that was at least partially isolated from the rest of the jazz world. Rather than migrating in and out of other groups, certain loyal musicians would remain part of Sun Ra's group for decades, devoting themselves specifically to this music. Others would come to Sun Ra to learn, and would come away influenced in one way or another, yet Sun Ra's organization would remain distinct from all others. Coltrane for example was influenced by Ra, and his saxophone playing specifically influenced by John Gilmore. Who has heard of Gilmore, though? He did appear independently, dressed in a conservative suit, on Ralph J. Gleason's jazz TV show in the early '60s, but how many albums can you think of where he had his own group, or was known to play with other famous musicians?

Another isolating factor, perhaps more so than the "outside" music being played, was Sun Ra's presentation. Coltrane was into mysticism and drank carrot juice, and ultimately played too long to fit comfortably into a nightclub format. Sonny Rollins sported a Mohawk haircut at a time when such things were unheard of and was into zen. Yet these folks succeeded in the standard jazz nightclub and concert circuits. I don't know how Cecil Taylor fared. He was a product of the conservatory and the European avant-garde, wore dark glasses and behaved like an alienated artiste (mocked by host Ralph Ellison in a television documentary of contemporary jazz musicians), yet even the performance of a piece like "Octagonal Skirt and Fancy Pants", however outré musically, was nothing like Sun Ra's outer space presentation. Many jazz musicians—probably most—but many of the prominent ones, were unhappy with the nightclub format, but some somehow managed to survive in it. I don't know how Sun Ra fared, but I am willing to venture a guess about the nature of his marginalization, which I think has a lot to do with how the 1960s differed from the 1950s across the board.

Generational sensibilities—the products of differing social circumstances—in addition to market forces, govern the reception of music. For music is not just its formal properties but embodies sensibilities that govern reception. Additionally, musical styles may evoke broader cultural memories or associations that affect sensibility as well, so that one not only reacts to the style but to the mentality rightly or wrongly associated with it. It is curious that Ken Burns' documentary, while so invested in social contextualization (Jim Crow, racial discrimination, civil rights, social unrest, riots, black power, etc.) is completely obtuse to the historical, generational formation of sensibility. Ultimately, in the typical American fashion it really is all about fame and celebrity and fashion and popularity and the cash register, so the closer we get to the present, what matters most is broad-based (un)popularity: though these folks are supposed to be interested in the art form and its evolution: they really only want to keep track of the score and not bother watching the game. Hence the official story—inspired by the self-serving Wynton Marsalis and others—is that jazz was not popular in the '60s and '70s hence we are entitled to stifle the same music now. So history is not history but a success story with much travail but a happy ending: Alex Haley in Roots and Wynton Marsalis in jazz. The only thing to be said about fusion is that it made money, and the only thing to be said about the avant-garde is that it didn't. Or to smirk: for example the African tribal persona of the Art Ensemble of Chicago was a failure because the audience consisted of white college students and not the black masses, and that's all there is to say about it. In other words, just keep score, but don't bother to watch the game.

And yet much that did happen was very much in the spirit of the 1960s, and some of the jazz being produced then achieved an audience—forget about the size—outside of the ordinary jazz constituency precisely because it appealed to a different sensibility—the expansive, explosive high energy of the time, very different from the repressed, muted mode of the '50s. This has a lot to do with the nightclub sensibility of the 1950s. Indeed, serious art was miraculously made in those nightclubs, though the social purpose of those clubs was to entertain the men while they freely spent their cash, got drunk, got their dates and girlfriends drunk so that the fellas could more easily worm their fingers into their dates' vaginas under the table while listening to some really cool jazz. The type of old standards played and sung under such circumstances did not fit the sensibility of a younger audience brought up on rock-and-roll or R&B and finding other venues for organizing sexual intercourse. But people who went to outdoor rock concerts might listen to the explosive music of Coltrane or Sun Ra, or Pharoah Sanders, or Rahsaan Roland Kirk for that matter. (Ken Burns included Coltrane—who could not, after all?—but he omitted so many other key players. It's a travesty of a mockery of a sham.)

Sun Ra anticipated both the New Age and Afrocentric sensibilities that mushroomed in the 1960s. Not only the organization of his band but the whole form and mythos of his presentation was framed inescapably in a different context from that of jazz as mere music, either as art or entertainment. To encounter Sun Ra was to encounter a phenomenon—however entertaining—demonstrably alien to the prevailing mores of the organized jazz establishment.

To be sure, there was a mixture of the mystical and the absurd. It is essential to note, however, that the playful, humorous, and parodical elements of both the lyrics and costumes of the performers do not negate what should be obvious to anyone who has been exposed to Sun Ra: that he meant much of what he said. Some of the costuming was outrageous show biz, but some of the mystical aspects of the Afro-Egyptian dress were undoubtedly seriously construed. Sometimes the lyrics are a scream; the outer space ethos is a lot of outlandish fun; however, the intended contrast with the ways of earth was surely undergirded by serious intent. "Face the Music", for example, is a pun (American slang meaning, roughly, reap what you sow): the delivery is buoyant, it swings, it's funny, and of course ironic in that the karmic consequence of wrongdoing is literally that you have to listen to music. It's a joke, but Sun Ra really wanted his audience to listen to the gospel song.

Part 3 will pick up with point 3 (above).

—END OF PART 2—


2 December 2002
Music musings 4b

As I am writing very hurriedly from memory, my little essays on music are likely to be chock-full of errors, including the two you pointed out. When I heard "Face the Music" in concert, I could swear the words were "gospel song", not "cosmos song".

After I finished the third installment of my Sun Ra piece, I picked up my still unread copy of Blutopia off the shelf, skimmed parts of the introduction, and gave the rest of the book a scrute. I got a feel for what Lock is trying to do and the battle being waged, and I noted how similar some of his remarks are to mine. There are misunderstandings of both collectives and individuals at stake; in the case of collectives, mistaken notions of black people; in the case of individuals, mischaracterizations (Braxton, Ellington), and easy dismissals of alleged charlatanism (Sun Ra). I understand quite well why Lock fights these battles. I myself am trying to move on to another stage of criticism, which will become evident in due course. Part of my project is to rescue individuality from the anonymity of ethnicity; another is a more critical look at collectivities themselves and the failures and obsolescence of certain cultural strategies. But I noticed that Lock admitted that he might interpret things differently than they but had no intention of being judgmental in this book about the ideas of the musicians concerned. He also evinced skepticism about the postmodernist interpretation of jazz, and about the critical practice of explaining everything as 'signifying', à la Skip Gates. (I'm glad someone else sees through Gates.) And he says something about freelance mysticism and the reaction against organized Christianity, and importantly, about the reconfiguration of sacred music for secular contexts. Very perceptive observations.

I have a lot more to say in part 4, including the question of Sun Ra's sincerity, on the various reactions of his audience to his music and philosophy, based on personal memoirs of same, also my own personal history and reactions to Sun Ra's performances, and my changing attitudes to things following the watershed year 1980.

Do you know this character Ben Watson, who wrote a huge bizarro book on Frank Zappa? I've read 300 pages of it. I got a lot of useful information out of it, and there is some astute thinking in it, but my sense is that, in the final analysis, Watson is a childish, self-indulgent jackass.


Mon, 02 Dec 2002 02:06:51 -0500
Music musings 4c

Adorno After Sun Ra
Part 3

"Have you heard the news from Neptune, Neptune, Neptune?"
   —Sun Ra, "News from Neptune"

Grigouris tipped his hand towards the end of his article, in statements such as: "Sun Ra demands of us that we suspend our inculcated desire for a taxonomic conception of the world which ultimately provides us with a reliable understanding of boundaries—the boundaries of form, of myth, of society, of the psyche." As I've argued, this is a pure Cultural Studies fabrication that reduces cultural content and purpose to social status and the play of genre. There is no evidence whatever that this is so; furthermore, Grigouris negates any possible transcendental claims that Sun Ra obviously had in mind, his signifying behavior notwithstanding. Any holy fool has to find some way however unorthodox in relating to his audience, even in a small village. In a media society there are additional considerations of the market and the means of establishing and attracting an audience. This may also entail violating conventions of cultural status (high and low) and genre. But under what circumstances should we conclude that commenting on the social status of one's art is a central concern of the art itself? In what situations and in what ways, if not all, do prior considerations of status decisively determine the creative process?

In Sun Ra's case, a comparison with contemporaries might be in order. Frank Zappa throughout his whole career was up to his neck in struggle with the culture industry and with his audience. Inspired by black R&B and European modernism (esp. Varese), and as an outsider coming out of the regimentation and hypocrisy of 1950s America, Zappa was at constant war with everything that was going on, more on the basis of the overall cultural-political-existential situation from his location as an individual entrepreneur with an outsiderish perspective rather than on any evolved political position of his own. That meant that Zappa was obsessed with the zeitgeist and with the dedritus of everything within the culture. His performance, visual presentation, lyrics, song titles, and the organization of the music was deeply affected by his efforts at detournement of popular culture, including the countercultures in their various mutations. (He never believed in drugs, the hippies or the Beatles.) One could say that the results of his work that circulated within popular culture (Zappa also doubled as an avant-garde composer) are documents of their time, which creates complications for those reviewing them or being exposed to them for the first time after the passage of decades. It is likely that one will react very differently to the music and to the lyrics. In the multitude of cases where the music can stand alone as pure music, regardless of the context, title, or lyrics attached to it, one is likely to perceive the music as really good music still very much listenable, and just as likely to ignore the lyrics and everything else as a juvenile product of times gone by. To some extent, the structure of the music reflects its time not only as all music must reflect its historical evolution, but the state of the culture industry as well, and yet there is a substantial portion of it that shows what Zappa wanted to do as a real composer and musician if he could do so without feeling the need to psych out the suits and the audience. It is certainly the case that Zappa consciously conflates the high/low distinction and engages in guerilla warfare with the culture industry—but there remains music to be analyzed in musical terms.

George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic is a directly relevant case, as P-Funk was directly influenced by Sun Ra. Clinton copied the home-made mythologizing, the outer space theme, the Afrocentric spin, the idea of outlandish visual presentation and performance. The stage presentation was over the top, eventually including the descent of a constructed Mothership. A funk cosmology was constructed to accompany the whole show. In Clinton's funketelechy, the original forces of funkativity triumph over negative opposing forces. I forget all the characters involved in the drama except for Dr. Funkenstein, obviously the hero. While I imagine that Clinton had one or two serious ideas underneath all his "metafoolishness" (he did preach: "Think! It ain't illegal yet" and he did believe in the social importance of the funk); it was fun cosmology in the pursuit of dance and party-time. Parallel developments at various times would include Elijah Mohammed's Nation of Islam cosmology, Ishmael Reed's novel Mumbo Jumbo (1970s), and of later vintage, the myth of sun people vs. ice people circulated by Afrocentric crackpots in the 1980s. Clinton's version, however, was playful entertainment, and thus rather harmless in comparison to the more serious and hence malignant versions of Afrocentric mythology. The major problem here would be the existential, ethical, political and aesthetic limitations of the party ethic and the self-indulgent excess of the time. But whatever it was, it became popular culture as the '70s wore on. There seems to be no ironic relationship per se to the culture industry as there is with Zappa, though plenty plenty of signifying. As Clinton had a much longer history that went back as far as doo-wop, I believe, the society had to change and to reach a certain point where Clinton could actualize his most outrageous ideas. Clinton had kept an eye on all sorts of things, including Jimi Hendrix's accomplishments in rock. Funkadelic began as outrageous and outré, but with time and with some tailoring, it was possible to combine all of Clinton's musical interests in one outrageous package for popular consumption. And this happened in the 1970s, when the cultural (and social) revolutions unleashed in the '60s finally made the decisive impact so that the whole culture would change fundamentally in the '70s in ways that only an advance guard could agitate for in the '60s. And the full unleashing of funk in the 1970s—as an abstract concept as well as a form—also reflected the newly solidified self-assertion of the black working class filling up the ghettos, effected as a result of the upheavals of the '60s. American society bogged down politically and economically in the '70s, but the masses fought for and won their right to party. There were of course obstacles for P-Funk, such as being banned from radio and TV, but Clinton nonetheless established his own mismanaged little empire which gained a huge following. In addition to Clinton's shady business practices, ultimately it was the triumph of a watered-down and mechanized form of black music controlled by millions and millions of dollars of white money—disco—that took down funk and destroyed the lion's share of halfway decent music in America. (While funk has its limitations, some of it is quite outstanding musically and complex in construction, though engineered for getting down rather than cerebral contemplation.) In the 1980s new monstrosities would appear.

A comparison with Sun Ra would be instructive. While Sun Ra was a pioneer of outlandish, mythology-tinged performance, at no time did he ever pursue a party ethic or attract a party audience. Though he used dancers, his was not dance music. (Not that you couldn't if you wanted to.) Though purveying humor himself, Sun Ra was not about to promote the rock star mentality. Clinton put out myriad songs with themes as raunchy as "No Head, No Backstage Pass", but Sun Ra wouldn't be caught dead doing any such thing. Sun Ra is reported to have disdained funk as being of the body alone. Far from embracing popular culture, Sun Ra consistently displayed an otherworldly perspective. He wasn't into freedom, but "discipline and precision". To Sun Ra "earth is a planet of death" and "space is the place". While the latter assertion has a humorous tinge, the former is no joke. Sun Ra hearkened back to African rhythms and Egyptian mythology, combining them with futuristic elements including electronic instruments and space travel themes. Though his presentation was carnivalesque, Sun Ra had no part of any party mentality.

Other considerations that will solidify this perspective on Sun Ra include: (1) his relationship to folk culture, (2) his relationship to his audiences and to black people at large, (3) his conservative world view.

First, in response to Gourgouris' assertion (citing Chris Cutler) that black musical culture is folk culture: what "folk culture" means in a complex urban setting in a technological, commercial, and mediated society is itself an object subject to close scrutiny, but even to let this notion pass does not address the status of individual artists with respect to it. Even an individual doing traditional folk material as a professional cannot be assumed to be part of collective folk expression. But for an avant-garde artist leading a marginal existence even with respect to his own "community", it is simply preposterous to make such an assumption, even if that person's art embodies some formal characteristics of folk expression. The notion of Sun Ra as folk artist is hilarious: would such a notion even be entertained if Sun Ra were not black and thus assumed to be representative of all black people as whites suppose? This sort of gullibility has not changed a great deal over the decades, and it applies to jazz musicians as it does to others. For example, the 1960s was an explosive time with demonstrable cultural as well as political dimensions, for jazz musicians as well as the rest of black America. And of course musicians with a given musical and social background would channel the current mood of the society into their art. Yet the assumption of being part of an unmediated collectivity is a naive one, albeit easily perpetuated in a segregated society. So, for example, Frank Kofsky, a Trotskyist historian and music critic, who claimed to have written in Malcolm X and John Coltrane as his votes in the 1964 presidential election, could innocently perpetuate romantic illusions. Other jazz musicians and other black artists and intellectuals will tell a different story, about how little support there is for their work in the black community, and how limited the interest in the cultural past as well.

Sun Ra shares certain characteristics with other avant-garde artists of the 20th century in all cultures. There has always been a connection between modernism and the resurrection of the archaic and the primitive: both are constituent elements of new visionary art forms and the escape from the limitations and the alienation of the present. In the case of the black American musical avant-garde, older forms of folk expression, African-American and/or African, were incorporated along with challenging innovations not always likely to be immediately popular or easily digestible. In Sun Ra's case, that meant the use of African drums and rhythms mixed with big band orchestration and styles mixed with electronic instruments, screaming saxophones, and stretches of what most people would consider pure cacophony. Now some of this music is very catchy and listenable, much more accessible than other avant-gardists (Cecil Taylor is much harder take, for instance), and the more cacophonous moments are less tolerable except for those of us who love that stuff. The black avant-garde who followed the route of combining the archaic with modernism constructed a very clever amalgam: one could claim a continuity from the archaic to the futuristic, from the ethnic to the cosmic.

This cultural strategy was a great source of strength, but was also the source of an ideological illusion. While New World cultures because of the way they came into being and had to survive are indeed flexible and mutable, there are limits. Folk musics and the folks themselves can be brilliant at what they do, but they tend to be conservative and intolerant of anything radically different. The propensity for constant innovation and stylistic revolution is an exclusively urban phenomenon, first of all. And while numerous innovators have come from small towns and rural areas (e.g. Coltrane from Hamlet, NC; Dizzy Gillespie from Cheraw, SC) they all developed their artistic innovations in big cities. It could not have been otherwise. Now, reaching back into the archaic allowed certain people to claim that their most avant-garde experiments were "in the tradition" (the title of an Anthony Braxton album), but no traditional society would have ever tolerated them. Somebody like Anthony Braxton would have been put to death.

All the more reason to dispense with naive ideas of folk culture. In Sun Ra's case, his relation to the black community is even more problematic. Sun Ra's entire persona and mythology were tied up in a negation of earthly existence. Can you imagine what it must have been like for a visionary to have been born and grown up in Birmingham, Alabama in the days of Jim Crow? I don't think you can, and neither can I, but chances are you heard of Birmingham the same way I did: from the infamous bombing of a black church and resultant murder of four little girls in 1964 in the heat of the civil rights movement. And that was only the most conspicuous example of what Birmingham was capable of. Sun Ra concluded long ago that life on earth was primitive and barbaric, its seeming complexities simple and childish from the standpoint of a higher perspective, a creative perspective. This meant also that the social and cultural adaptations of people to their environment incorporated the very same barbarism; hence Sun Ra distanced himself from the people as well. The vantage point of outer space made earthlings, their ways and preoccupations look small. The ability of music to paint pictures of exquisite beauty ("pictures of infinity") is the direct negation of the ugliness and pettiness and cruelty and ignorance of daily life and the souls it creates.

There is a paradox in Sun Ra's Afrocentric cosmology and his relation to actual and potential audiences. Sun Ra noticed that the young white kids who were coming to see him were of a different breed than what he experienced in places like Birmingham, and was cognizant, as many were, of the importance of the emergence of conscious whites in the society. At the same time, Sun Ra had no truck with the ways of the ghetto, and had a rather harsh view of black people and their cultural interests. He stated his hostility to the black audience most bluntly: "They hate me because I play beauty and they're ugly."

It's not a nice thing to say, but it states the problem in the starkest terms, which incidentally, has nothing whatever to do with the maintenance or subversion of the distinction between high and low culture or any of the other trivial pursuits of the postmodernists and Cultural Studies mavens, who after all are more plugged into the culture industry than anyone else on the planet. These people will do their best to suppress the issue that Sun Ra raised, because they are ugly, ugly people who worship ugliness—ugly films, ugly popular music, ugly ideas. They have to suppress the individual's consciousness of himself as an individual and the need for transcendence, all the better to conceal their own capitulation to barbarism.

Sun Ra's problem, on the other hand, is that he never developed a more sophisticated concept of social evolution. There is no Afrocentric mythology that is not ultimately fascist, and his is no exception. This might not be immediately evident, for considerable exposure to Sun Ra's ramblings are needed for his more reactionary views to emerge. There is the suggestion, for example, that black people are paying off some sort of karmic debt, that they deserve what they have gotten, as an educational process by which they will have to learn to do better. There is Sun Ra's leader complex. I shall have more to say about all this later. However, all of this requires deeper analysis, not to be found among fandom or cultural critics and especially well-meaning whites, who are all gullible to the bitter end.

Sun Ra's personal cosmology was directed as a radical negation of an inhuman environment, a visionary attempt to overcome backwardness using the tools at hand, which also reflect the very situation one needs to transcend. Both the heroism and the failures of this strategy should be justly noted. Can we afford any less?

Part 4 to come: Sun Ra and his audience, personal memoirs, and the end of an era.

—END OF PART 3—


Mon, 02 Dec 2002 12:28:14 -0500
Music musings 4d

Adorno After Sun Ra
Part 4

SUN RA AND HIS AUDIENCE, A PERSONAL MEMOIR

Consideration of the varied relationships of Sun Ra to his audiences begin with allegations of Sun Ra's charlatanism. While there is room for ambiguity, I need to state at the outset that there are some things that Sun Ra says that can only be expressions of deep conviction. There is the paradoxical situation of the dissident mystic, who, whatever other nonsense he spouts, may also hit on some profound truths in the struggle against repression and convention. Sun Ra once spoke of his view of creation. To paraphrase: What can I do for the Creator? I can't sacrifice anything of mine. I can't sacrifice an animal as an offering. All these things are already His. The only thing I can do for Him is to create something of my own.

Now a person who would say this is not just a New Age con man. While conventional religious belief just perpetuates the cruelties of nature and the natural man, and garden variety occultism follows suit, these words of Sun Ra represent the highest standards of civilization, the moral superiority of human aspiration to mindless nature and savage custom. "Earth is a planet of death." This is not frivolity, showmanship, or random spew. People who say things like this know what they are saying and why. To get so hung up on the bizarre and implausible aspects of a person's behavior and belief system so as to overlook the rationally understandable truth content within their work is obtuse. An analogy with William Blake might be in order. Was he mad, hallucinating, psychotic because he claimed to see angels in a tree as a child? Should we fixate on this one thing? Should we really give a shit whether he did or didn't? Does this mean nothing he ever wrote made rational sense or that he never knew what he was saying? Does your suspicion of the paranormal mean this person was never rational and should be passively embraced as esoteric or safely ignored as a crank?

There is another factor: an artist is an artisan, someone who exerts physical energy and skilled labor to produce something. The proof of what he does is in the doing, no matter what he spouts, uplifting or offputting. Art is praxis. Any upper middle class professional with half a brain can stand up and talk New Age shit on PBS (such as Wayne Dyer's shnorring I accidentally tuned in to last night). Any flatline dweeb can voice uplifting sentiments. Anyone remember the "Up with People" roadshow of the '70s that wowed middle-aged Caucasian suburbanites? Doesn't such feelgood pabalum differ from John Coltrane?

This having been said, there is a sliding scale of how much we can take seriously. When it comes to playacting, we tend to assume a division between what a person thinks himself and his performance for us. But acting a part is also an act of will, and the first person one wants to convince is oneself. Hence there is plenty of room for ambiguity as to how much of Sun Ra's "mythocracy" is a put-on and how much meant literally.

Now how have audiences reacted to Sun Ra? Here I can only draw on my personal experiences of the past three decades. First, there is a division to be made between his music and his ideology. Hence, disallowing complexities of judgment, there are four combinatorial possibilities, two of which can be dispatched quickly. I've never known anyone who took Sun Ra's philosophy seriously who wasn't interested in his music, though I suppose this is possible. I know people who think Sun Ra is a charlatan musically as well as philosophically. There's not much to be said about these two positions, except that it is inexcusable for critics to write Sun Ra out of history because they are put off by his shtik. More interesting are the other two possibilities. There are many who dismiss Sun Ra philosophically as a charlatan, but take him very seriously as a musician. And there are those who swallow the philosophy as well as the music, hook, line and sinker. Beyond these four cut-and-dried combinations, there are also nuanced reactions that can be very revealing.

As with Woodstock, if you remember the '70s, you weren't there. I'll do the best I can, though. One example will reveal the complexities of the situation: a Sun Ra concert I attended, in Buffalo, circa 1978. This was part of a larger festival of some sort, which included talks by the musicians in addition to concert performance. Anthony Braxton was part of this event as well. First of all, there is quite a diversity, philosophically as well as ethnically, in Sun Ra's audience. While the jazz audience in the '60s and '70s is known to be limited, the precise contours are not easily definable. The avant-garde also had an audience, but its boundaries were evanescent as well (from the standpoint of the usual characterization of such phenomena, based on the European experience). However Sun Ra was both more and less popular than other jazz musicians, and his audience similarly overlapped the constituency of avant-garde jazz. Sun Ra also had a cult following that bulged the demographic curve. For example, while audience members in general are known to carry on, the way that certain black men would yell out "Sun Ra!" at inspired moments revealed the cultic dimension of the experience.

So I attended the aforementioned concert. Several other people I knew did also. Though I remember talking with them about it afterwards, I don't remember actually being there with anybody. I also can't remember the particulars of the music, except that I can still visualize someone beating on a very tall African drum with a stick. I'm sure I enjoyed the music. I'll have more to say about the talk afterward.

Later on, possibly on another day, I had a chance to discuss this concert with a woman I knew, an extremely introverted, withdrawn, esoterically inclined white woman who was nonetheless prone as an actress (inspired by the ancient Greeks), to go into deep trances that blew everyone away including adepts of Afro-Caribbean religious cults. She said she liked Anthony Braxton better, because she often found the demeanor of Sun Ra's Arkestra (in performance) closed and dogmatic, but she also enjoyed moments that seemed brighter and more open. Very interesting.

Now the talk afterward was a curious experience. This was the first time I got to see Sun Ra talk with people, in a more intimate setting, though still in a large room stuffed with people. The black men with the skullcaps—Muslims (orthodox Muslims, not members of Elijah Muhammed's separatist gutter religion)—hung on every word. This was the real deal for them; they asked esoteric question after question and soaked up each response with complete earnestness.

My own reaction? Well, Sun Ra's personal magnetism on this occasion was incredible. The sound of his voice literally had a hypnotic effect on the audience, on me, anyway. I could feel waves of energy radiating out from his head and filling up the room, casting a hypnotic spell of calm over the audience. It was remarkable. But apparently not remarkable enough. While some of his statements were OK with me, and even his talk of higher beings did not particularly bother me, eventually so much gibberish came out of his mouth it exceeded my level of tolerance. I proved unable to stay through the whole thing, which, as I heard from others later on (probably not the same day), went on and on much longer.

So some time later I had this confab with a group of black women I knew (that I had met while taking a class in African drumming). They were not Muslims, no, and they liked me because I was so sweet and lovable back in those days (Washington cured me of that in a hurry) and not an embittered, macho ghetto male like our drum teacher. A couple of them were many years older than I, and thus their engagement with bohemian and artistic circles was not a product of '70s culture, but of earlier derivation. (Can you dig it?) So the ladies repeated to me some of the Sun Ra palaver that I had missed, with a straight face, with not an atom of critical thinking a-stirring, and I couldn't believe that anyone would have the nerve to talk so much bullshit and that anyone could swallow so much of it. I mean it was such patent drivel it was shocking.

I hope this account gives you a flavor of the complexity of what was involved. I was able to tolerate a lot in the '70s, partly because, given where I was at in 1978, anyone from outer space was a friend of mine. However, for a variety of reasons, I underwent a sharp reevaluation of all the countercultures and subcultures I endured in the 1970s. When the watershed year of 1980 rolled around, I had to reassess their ideas with great severity.

Stayed tuned for part 5: the end of an era.

—END OF PART FOUR—


Tue, 03 Dec 2002 01:03:22 -0500
Adorno's cultural critique and music

Without specifics I don't know how the alleged romantic anti-capitalism dovetails with the study of Adorno. Your examples, interestingly, are all visual: actors in films and a singer's visage rather than his music. I wonder though how these students analyze music, if they do. And I wonder if they realize or you teach the differences between then and now. The nature of conformity now is better disguised (so much so that it's not named as an issue anymore), because its form is basically a sublation of all the protests against it of the '50s and '60s. It may be that in an altered form Adorno is more relevant than ever, but that means we have to think through our history as Adorno thought through his rather than ape him. And all grad students learn these days, from what I have seen, is how to ape thought, not how to think.


Tue, 03 Dec 2002 12:39:36 -0500
Adorno's cultural critique and music

I have no problem with the notion of a true self. The only problem—which I guess is the Rousseauan version—is that it is something outside of history and concrete determination.

The regression to primitivism, also a prominent feature of the '60s, was nonetheless an attempt to escape from alienated existence, as was Rousseau's. People are never dialectical thinkers; they progress from one naive position to another, because they can only go on what they know, even when they protest against it. Now the postmodernists think they are sophisticated because they can criticize this naiveté as "essentialism", but it takes neither insight nor dedication to do that, it's just another ready-made intellectual justification for neo-consumerism (postcolonialism with credit cards).

The consumerism of the '80s, retooled for the baby-boomer yuppies, is precisely a sublation of the cultural revolution of the '60s-'70s, which was a rebellion against as well as a natural evolution beyond the gray, mechanistic regimentation of the '50s. Consumerism is more diversified, it's much sexier, it incorporates frustration, cynicism, and dissent, and it is far more skillful at engineering the illusion of self-expression, at a historical moment when people have less of a self than ever. Postmodernism and Cultural Studies are brought in as consultancies to justify this state of affairs.

Speaking of abuses of Adorno, wait till I review this gem:

Watson, Ben. Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1996.


3 December 2002
Music musings 4b: Adorno After Sun Ra — part 2

Yesterday I was sitting at a table by the post office preparing a package to mail, singing the lyrics to "Outer Spaceways Incorporated" (see Bernie Worrell's Funk of Ages, track 10), when an old man walked by and remarked to me: "You're happy, aren't you?". Caught off guard, I responded: "Well, yes I am, for the moment."

I took Blutopia with me on a shopping trip, in the freezing cold, on the subway, to look up the references to John Corbett. I've also been skimming through the book at random, gleaning very useful pieces of information every time. I am quite pleased. I'd like to drop everything I'm doing and read the whole book. But I'm supposed to be packing up for New York where I'm supposed to be thinking about Herman Melville for the next month. Well, perhaps at least I'll be able to look up Corbett's book in a library while I'm there. I've never heard of Lee Perry.

Reading Sun Ra's political opinions in the book, e.g. his remarks on Martin Luther King, only intensified my political view of Ra as an objectionable reactionary, a mentality only too consistent with that of other black people from the deep South. The South breeds fascism like garbage in the alley breeds rats and lice.

It's just this sort of thinking that made me part way with the various subcultures I lived with in the '70s. I contend that such cultural strategies are at the end of their rope, and hence my approach is different than that in the book. However, there is the issue of preserving historical memory, and the younger generation has no conception of why people thought and acted as they did in a more restricted society.

I've also been thinking up what I'm going to say on Watson's book on Zappa.


Wed, 04 Dec 2002 01:47:44 -0500
Adorno's cultural critique and music

In my estimation the Cultural Studies people greatly exaggerate the consumer's autonomy. On the other hand, I think Adorno's specific judgments on American popular music are useless. I suggest that his applicability to our conditions is on a more abstract level, and needs to be thought through in light of the much richer cultural experience we have behind us, especially in the last half century. Adorno reacted to the cultural exhaustion of Europe in the face of barbarism, and of course saw analogous phenomena here, exaggerated by the typical European horror at American crudity and gigantism. I claim we have much richer cultural experience to draw upon, but also that now we are facing our own exhaustion, hence the power of capital pulsates not only through what we produce but who we are, not that it didn't before, but that now is the historical moment where publicly recognized forms are all contaminated to the point where no fresh message can get through.

I believe we have a much richer experience than Adorno of the intermixture of commercial and ideological restraint on the one hand, and the ability to inject fresh creativity into the culture industry on the other and even to hold one's own at times. This is especially evident in the history of our popular and fringe music, a far more interesting phenomenon than a lot of tired old European shit. However, I believe that we too have reached an impasse, which has its roots in the late '70s and came to fruition in the '80s and solidified with a new generation raised upon the cultural order we now know, a generation that is now breeding little monsters of its own. The logic of incorporation is has just about completed its telos.

Now as to TV comedy. I contend that the one vital public art form we have of recent vintage is comedy. I think The Simpsons is the greatest product of American popular culture in the '90s, and this is no coincidence, since it is based on a satire of formulaic existence. I think that this show, though it has its built-in flaws, stands out above all others. However, in addition to inconsistencies, there are limitations that kept it within certain bounds as well. Furthermore, as the '90s wore on, the all-consuming cynicism of the culture also consumed the critical edge of comedy, especially on television of course, and that whatever critique was there has been effectively neutralized. "The Simpsons" was not as corrupted as all the other shows, but due to the macro-condition in which we live as well as the micro-condition of the show's format and content, the show, and perhaps more importantly its reception, had to be affected as well. I have a much more in-depth analysis of how and why this happened, but I'll save it for another time.

I think in fact that we have now reached the limit point that Hegel predicted in its aesthetics: art can no longer represent the speculative truth of the age, but only philosophy can do this.


Wed, 04 Dec 2002 10:16:16 -0500
Religion - the open question [2] / music musings 5

The actual debate over the contemporary value of religion was an engagement with Hegel scholars which bled into the discussion of Marx's sublation of religion. We have also fragmentarily discussed the sublation of religion into art, and art into culture more generally.

Perhaps you can now see that my work-in-progress on the development of American music and culture—especially my series on Sun Ra—is directly related to this theme. It is also intimately related to the problem of overcoming what you call frozen "metaphysical" positions, which in this case is not "Marxism" but religious, mystical ideas circulating in contemporary culture and codified by intellectuals. Over the past four decades we have rich cultural material to work on analyzing. For example, one could analyze the relationships between the concrete cultural experience of various subcultures and metaphysical congealments such as New Age or Afrocentric mysticism.

My route is in direct opposition to the metaphysical route taken by liberation theology or the corrupt, regressive New Age turn taken by Roy Bhaskar.

Implicit in my analyses are two basic propositions:

(1) Oppositional mystical/metaphysical positions are anticipations of developments to come, formulated at a time and staking out a territory before they can be concretely realized in society and developed in theoretical form. In Hegelian fashion, that which is needed but cannot become concrete must live as abstraction.

(2) When the historical moment is due for the sublation of mystical/metaphysical abstractions into scientific/cultural form, and this fails to happen, then a regression takes place, and the dark side of mysticism—intimately connected with fascism—comes out into the light, the concealed weaknesses of a cultural strategy become manifest, and the cultural strategy goes bankrupt.

I don't believe the world of scholarship is addressing my concerns, nor do I think that they are understood. What is happening in scholarship at its best is to get a whole preliminary scholarly development up to speed as a prerequisite to moving on to the next stage. In the area I've been discussing, the book to read is:

Lock, Graham. Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.

This book crystallizes with great clarity the nature of the cultural strategy I'm talking about. Duke Ellington, interestingly, presents a different case from the others. I've admired Duke that much more when I learned to see him as an intellectual in the early '90s. In this book Duke's own analytical framework, totally independent of whatever religious beliefs he held, is so obviously rational and progressive, it's an inspiration. Sun Ra's strategic relation to his environment is clearly analyzed. However, much more damning political views than even the ones I knew about are documented, inadvertently showing up the fascistic potential of Sun Ra's world view. I put this up to his origins in the Deep South: the South breeds fascism like garbage in the alley breeds rats and lice. Braxton is an intermediate case, and much more interesting than Sun Ra philosophically though not musically. I attribute the difference to his different origin, both generationally and regionally. Braxton is a product of the urban North in the postwar era, from Chicago's South Side I think though I don't trust my memory. Braxton embodies the paradox of ghettoization combined with extremely advanced goals.

This book is the best jumping off point I can think of for further explorations. It represents the need to do justice to African-American cultural forms which have been badly misrepresented and misunderstood. The process of setting the record straight analytically as well as historically is not yet finished; it is of too recent vintage. This is the Owl of Minerva waking up as dusk falls. However, I'm already in the stage of thinking beyond this threshold even before this task has been completed. Why? Because I see the end of an era, an old world dying without a new one being born, and a new strategy and a new perspective are needed. It's not a theoretical luxury. Daily life and the demands of survival under conditions of barbarism mandate an altered perspective.


Wed, 04 Dec 2002 10:54:49 -0500
Adorno's cultural critique and music

If you've read any of the critiques of Adorno on jazz, you have the answer. He had nothing of value to say on the subject, beyond the ideological imagery with which jazz was being presented to Europeans. That is, at best he could see how jazz was being ideologically framed in its marketing to whites, but he was incapable of dealing with the form itself, knowing nothing other than that tired European shit. By using Adorno on an abstract level, I mean rethinking concrete examples from scratch, using whatever in Adorno's methods are usable. In the old days, the problem was Tin Pan Alley, show tunes, swing music watered down by and for Caucasian consumption. Today the question of commodity fetishism is much more pervasive of all genres, even with the relaxing of former taboos.

*   *   *

Take any blockbuster sci fi or action film, one with advanced special effects or spectacular highly orchestrated mayhem. The human content of American film has almost completely disappeared, except in some good comedies. I usually avoid this shit, but I had an incredible experience some years back when I went to see Batman and Robin on my birthday. What I felt when I saw this was the power of capital: that was the message: the ability of capital to marshal all these resources to create this so we could worship it. People always gravitate to power when they haven't discovered themselves. This is what I see happening in film.

As for popular music, I look at it in terms of genres, and also types of songs within genres. The big money-making genres are the ones most affected by commodity logic: rap, rock, country & western, whatever other shit is out there I'm trying to avoid. Traditional niche genres can get by doing the same old thing with variations—blues, for example.

*   *   *

The mass production of music in the late '70s is documented in:

Vincent, Rickey. Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One; foreword by George Clinton. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1996.

*   *   *

The age market for bubblegum Britney stuff means that this is children's music, simple and catchy. It's how a new generation is socialized, but with the spectacle quotient jacked up.

Rap turns my stomach, however political. Almost as much as black nationalism turns my stomach. Basing a world view on a ghetto mentality is an ideological dead end.

As much beef as I have with Marsalis' position in the culture industry, I like one thing he said in an interview I attended in DC in the early '90s. After discussing the cosmopolitanism of Duke Ellington as compared to European composers, Wynton said: "Who cares about what's happening in the 'hood? How does that relate to the rest of the world?" Precisely. I've been in many 'hoods and couldn't wait to get out. The 'hood has to be obliterated root and branch. The racialization of class division breeds provincialism.

*   *   *

I'm out of the loop as usual, but I've heard some fantastic stuff, which I guess could be classified as "techno". I've had mixed feelings even about the stuff I like, i.e. a tendency toward monotony, but a good groove is irresistible. If you must know, though, for the past two months I've been addicted to Funkadelic's "One Nation Under a Groove", which I think came out in 1978. Adorno's problem is that he was the product of a no-funkativity zone.


Thu, 05 Dec 2002 03:11:23 -0500
Religion - the open question [2] / music musings 5

"Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps." — William Blake

Now in terms of providing a framework for the analysis of Sun Ra, I actually do not treat him as an undivided whole, but divide him up, into: (1) the music itself, (2) the ideology, embodied in the mythology, costume, lyrics, and song titles. The framework I am developing here applies, so far, solely to (2), in that my ideology critique addresses these aspects and not the music. The critique of actual musical form is much more demanding. It can be done, but it takes a subtler approach, and I'm not a musicologist.

However, let me say a few words about the music, which I have touched on in only one respect, i.e. that Sun Ra preaches beauty. Some would consider the cacophonous segments of the music unbeautiful, but I consider them to be exuberant. I love Ra's music and it has lifted me to sublime heights. At the very concert in which the Arkestra sang the slumming song (which I am now informed is 'Slumming on Park Avenue', written by Irving Berlin and recorded by Fletcher Henderson in the late1930s), which was a bit of fun, these folks did a job that blew me away. Another time I'll tell you the funny story of the conversation I had with saxophonist Pat Patrick while peeing next to him in the men's room. This concert was so powerful that, though I drank no alcohol and took no drugs, I went into a trance that lasted two days. I floated out of there higher than a kite, stopped at an Ethiopian restaurant for a late dinner on the way home, savored the delicious beauty of my waitress (Ethiopian gals have a physiognomy all their own), and remained floating on air through the following day. I don't know what the hell I did, but it was Christmas vacation, the fam was away visiting the fam, sparing me the irritation of Xmas, and I was all by myself for a few days just to contemplate existence. It was fantastic.

Now when it comes to music, beauty is what I believe in, though we all have different standards of what constitutes it. As Steve Lacy said when I last saw him in town: when you hear music, you experience what Paradise must be like. Jazz has been saddled with the burden of a lowlife image—because of the social conditions under which it grew and because so many white people love to wallow in shit themselves—but the more conscious of the musicians, set their sights higher, such as pioneer composer Mary Lou Williams who was still alive in the '70s and whom I got to see, she talked about the healing power of music. In spite of the whorehouses and the drugs and the seedy institutions of nightlife, consciousness plays a big part in the history of this music. Music plays a role in expanding one's sense of possibility and thus finding one's self-worth and dignity. Music will keep you alive; music will keep you from slitting your wrists. Music is supreme exaltation, a manifestation of the unbearable ecstasy of being alive. Hence music should always be motivated by love and beauty, never by hatred and degradation. Too many musicians gave everything they had, with superhuman dedication, elevating the standard of civilization, for us to accept anything less. I didn't grow up with dignity, but once I learned what it was, I decided never to turn back. Just because society is a piece of shit doesn't mean you have to be one too. Hence, when I was first involuntarily exposed to punk as social decay set in the late '70s, I reacted violently: I'm not going to lower myself to this dumbass violent artless Caucasian excrement. The socialists I happened to be there with could not comprehend my attitude, but there's the left for you.

Now moving on to the ideology critique, that's where my framework really kicks in, not that's its in a separate universe from the music itself, but it's the perspective from which to analyze the social role of musicians and their notions of their place in the world. There is a big pile of books on this topic. Graham Lock's Blutopia is one of the more recent and highlights the issues at stake extremely well. Now on the death of a cultural strategy, of course that involves musical form and its relation to society, and also the ideology of musicians about musical and extra-musical matters. So far I've concentrated on the latter.

As for the music itself, there are a number of factors that have also created a difficult situation, including the strains in the class structure that have put black professionals in a different world from the black poor, as one group advances and the other deteriorates. This, combined with the political economy and outright machinations of the music industry, has decided effects, for the multibillion-dollar industry is predicated on the manipulation of genre, maintaining genre boundaries, and the maximization of product in each genre. As a young man Wynton Marsalis was manipulated into a market niche whose ideology is jazz authenticity. It marks the triumph of integration for a certain class of people. Do not misunderstand me: I'm not being cynical here. I admire Marsalis in many respects, as a musical craftsman, a musicologist, an educator, and a person who upholds high standards of intelligence and dignity all around. However, he has been placed in a position of institutional power by the controllers of institutions and he has been molded to fit this role. Both his art and his ideology cannot circumvent the strained class structure and the stagnation and political impasse of American society. Both his construction of the musical category "jazz" as a metaphysical musical category and the corporate ideology he explicitly propounds in moralizing and framing the music (jazz as democracy, competition, optimism, etc.) reflect the dismal state of American society, its class structure and politics.

Now Ken Burns' documentary is also admirable in many respects. Nine of its ten installments are pretty damn good. There are quibbles, both with its necessary factual historical incompleteness (the whole story can't be told in ten hours), with its ideological content, including the selection and editing of talking heads. I don't have time to elaborate now but I plan to write this up eventually. This ambitious series is good as many documentaries are good, partly because it is mostly about people who are dead. In all American documentaries, the closer you get to the living present (which means from the 1960s to now), the more trouble you get into. The final episode of Ken Burns' Jazz falls apart. There is a virtual conspiracy of silence about so many important players, the commentaries are distorted, and the morality play is nailed down: jazz almost died until Wynton rescued it and since he's a success, so is jazz. This is Roots all over again.

Now there is one aspect of the rags-to-riches spiel that is heartening. The long struggle for recognition has finally borne fruit. A few years ago when I saw a slew of jazz musicians on US postage stamps: Mingus, Coltrane, yadda yadda yadda—esp. Coltrane—I cried. Paradoxically, however, this is like the Owl of Minerva: this recognition has come about just as the music's historical moment has passed. To dwell with these supreme achievements is to attach oneself to something that is not of the present. This may be fine for the institutions of European classical music, but for American music, built on the struggle for democracy and on living reality rather than a monumental, Platonic order, this is not good.

One of your statements is profound:

To this end I am at war with anything which promotes its own radicalism, frameworks are work-a-day things not political in any direct sense—what they supply is a means of clearer understanding and deeper knowledge, not the understanding and knowledge itself which does have direct political import (ie "truth is revolutionary", etc).

Just so. And I am sick of propaganda. Candor is far more radical. I am not certain though of the meaning of the sentence that follows:

So what I distill from your postings is an inkling of a new and robust framework, designed to make sense of the "theoretical" statements made within art (I hope this is not corrupting your intention).

You go on to make another noteworthy statement:

Cultural criticism (here meant in the wide sense also) which begins by dissecting the "message" from the impact and then trying to judge the impact by the abstracted worthiness of the "message" does not work—first because whatever the "message" is too easily over-written by external concerns which themselves never get criticised, second because what is intimately a part of a cultural experience cannot be artificially extracted.

I think I understand this passage, but I'm not certain of the meaning of the next sentence:

It would seem that assessing the pronounced "message" (that part most articulating the artist's theoretical understanding) must take place within the impact of the artwork as a whole.

I have to think more about your examples of old movies. I hate old movies as a rule, especially the 1940s classics with all the larger-than-life actors everyone loves but me. However, that is not important here; the question is the structural pattern involved. I don't have a problem with tear-jerking per se. Don't tell anyone, but I once went to a dog movie and went through a box of tissues. But I think maybe there is something irresistible about a form when one is a spectator. I'll give you a different example. Consider a TV show that is ending and you tune into the last episode, and the show comes to a conclusion. It could be a drama, a sitcom, or even a nonfiction show such as a talk show. Endings are always sad. It is easy to be affected by them even if you never cared much for the show. Just to give one example: Johnny Carson's farewell appearance on "The Tonight Show". I never could stand Johnny Carson; for decades I couldn't wait to be rid of the possibility of ever having to look up in his face on TV again. But I watched his last show. It was not hyped or maudlin, no emotional exploitation, fairly low key until he made his closing statement, saying goodbye to the viewing audience. He was very professional; he thanked everyone for watching for 30-something years, he was cool and collected, and did his best not to betray any emotion. He was very classy about it. But there was a look in his eyes he could not completely suppress. It wasn't overly obvious, but I felt as if he was really trying to control himself just in case he might start tearing up. I saw it in his eyes, and it moved me. And I don't even like him.

Your tentative conclusions are most interesting:

Could the naked emotions of empathy themselves suffer such an abstract distortion? That is in a world when feeling and acting on simple human empthy is so restricted and distorted, do uneblieveable situations and characters provide a means of "theoretical" expression of what cannot be expressed concretely? After all why should modern kids be reduced to tears (the girls sometimes openly, the boys more discreetly) at a storyline which is frankly ridiculous ("Random Havest" being the classic example). Do we live in a culture so bereft of humaness, that not only has the tear-jerker become practically extinct but we are alienated from the expression of this raw emotion to the extent that anything touching on it is ridiculed?

I believe there is some power in these negelected areas, that demoralising generations requires distancing them from raw emotional experience (i mean this in that there is no direct political purpose, rather that by ensuring a passionless world, one unmoved by anything other than personal experience, makes amoral behaviour just part of the landscape). In these sentimental and melodramatic pieces the students always want to interfere in the storyline, always desire the story to turn out differently to the one portrayed, they want to engage directly in the affairs of others to "make things better"— the experience while being alienated, distanced from everyday life also thereby enriches it by some incremental amount.

I think you have something here, but I can't add anything more at the moment.

The rest of your post, on the art itself, on the ideology of the artist, on the need for a new type of cultural critic, is very important, but I won't quote in full right now; I'll leave the relevant passage at the bottom of this post. What you say here is significant, but I'm not certain it echoes my argument. That is, we may be pursuing two slightly different topics rather than discussing the same thing. I don't know. Let me just make an effort to explain myself.

My guess is that all of Cultural Studies tries to make sense out of apparent absurdities and in the process evokes sympathy. Actually, all materialist interpretation of cultural, religious, and whatever ideological phenomena I have forgotten, addresses this point, though perhaps not from an aesthetic standpoint per se. The sublation of theology by atheism of the Left Hegelians we were discussing is an analogous project. My intent, perhaps parallel to this development, is that interpretation also involves an ideological shift, so that concept is not merely a translation of vorstellung, but a transformation of it. (See the Bauer quote on my web site.) However, I am still treating art in a somewhat fragmented manner, in that I am discussing its truth content and the truth content of the ideologies expressed in or associated with it rather than the actual aesthetic experience. While individual taste can't be made a fully objective matter, there is obvious room for analyzing the "truth" of the immediate aesthetic content and its reception as well. How then would one judge it other than from the standpoint of political propaganda, i.e. 'this is progressive because it says this'?

Here is how I would approach the question. The judgement of the aesthetic form is predicated on how it actually functions to express, unleash, and expand human capacities. Like every other sort of technique, the technical makeup of art shows you what people can do and what they can express. That is as much a message as any overt political message. Hence my vitriolic hatred of punk, rap, heavy metal, etc. is based upon the "message" I discern in the form, regardless of what it thinks it's affirming or protesting. So when Angela Davis, a product of a very different generation, got up on the Arsenio Hall show and said she likes rap because it addresses social issues: my response was: this is just how a Stalinist thinks. Inversely, proceeding from the covert instead of the overt, she also thinks apparently that Bessie Smith and Billy Holiday were crypto-feminists. Well, I once memorized every word these characters ever sang, and if this is feminism, the word has no meaning.

So I am not interested in empathy per se, but I am interesting in analyzing the aesthetic experience, however "pure" or separable that is or not from other ideological aspects of the work, the ideological content of the work itself, and the ideology of the meaning and purpose of the work's existence. Demystification may involve not only decoding something to explain its why and how, but also transformation, in that we may in some cases no longer be able to accept something as it is, once we have made the analysis and the acceptable allowances.

The new critic needed is one who understands the expression of human powers and capacities in aesthetic form—this is an objectivity of sorts—and can thus say something "transcendental" in a limited sense, i.e. about a phenomenon that is not to be judged merely sociologically. The intrinsic content needs to be related in a unity-in-distinction to the sociological dimension without being reduced to it. This is what cultural criticism now lacks.

My guess is that what is now needed culturally is a perspective that transcends both the old subcultural bohemianism and the current postmodern neo-consumerist culture of pseudo-dissent (the body-piercing culture). I don't want to bring back Allen Ginsberg—we've moved beyond that—but I want to preserve the memory of something forgotten, for new, dialectical purposes.

I hope you will re-read the preceding two paragraphs very carefully.

My framework is also important regarding the sublation of religion and mysticism. The existence of freelance self-made mystical systems in the midst of a secular culture is a rich source for analysis. The only such "mystic" who really matters is William Blake; all the rest are second-rate by comparison. But this is a matter to be pursued—urgently in the case of African-American cultural history—and it is tied up in cultural form and strategy rather than metaphysical beliefs considered as independent entities. In this respect my project differs from the Left Hegelian sublation of religion; perhaps it is a stage beyond; I'm not certain. It also differs from metaphysical concoctions such as liberation theology, New Age twaddle, etc.

At 11:56 AM 12/05/2002 +0800, Greg Schofield wrote:
I find myself again in agreement, but with a priviso. I care little about the forms that artists (of any medium) employ, that is we should not impose on them the need to de-mysticize. Let them grow like weeds and use anything at hand which is useful to create their art (I have found artists the very worse people to talk about their art, it is rare to find one cabale of clear theoretical expression, rather they have sunk so far into the means of artistic expression a more distant view is denied them — sometimes the better the artists the less coherent their understanding of what they are in fact doing).

On the other hand there is a role for a new form of cultural critic and here de-mystifying art becomes a sacred duty (not the same thing as reducing the art to pat phrases and neat theories). It is at this point that the "darker-side of mysticism" takes place, where metaphysical concepts are unleashed against the public in a way guranteed to foster a form of fascism and disconnection (worming its way between the experience of the artform and conscious appreciation of that experience). It is not just that the "cultural strategy" (of which I have had a belly-full over the years and what propelled me to concentrate on the artistic merits of popular art forms) but criticism as a whole.

The public needs cultural critics (critics in the real sense, critics able to unleash human potential by addressing its rational aspects) in order to heighten cultural experience and allow us all to expand on this experience (in a modest way this is what I tried to do in classrooms). Against this form of criticism (the one that concentrates on the experience in a additive rather than detractive way), is the much more common form of promoted alientation passed off as cultural criticism, when this is not totally locked into its own world, addresses the public as censor-general (whether of the left or right it amounts to the same thing the left just being the more sophisticated version).

Ralph none of this does justice to your tour de force, I am too ignorant of the references to make any real assement of them in their context, what I do apprieicate is the application of a general framework, if you like a system for dealing with certain apparent absurdities thrown up by art but which are not absurd within the experience of it. If I am right in abstracting this out of your postings it accords with a direction I have myself been exploring. I find it natural that art throws up apparent absurdities, mystical or otherwise, however this has never seemed to me an appropriate point of judgement of the artwork (whatever it may be) that art by its nature is non-intellectual and in a sense is much better off with patent absurdities then forced to follow some predetermined notion of what is important and not.

However, the intellectual appreciation of art turns this liberalism on its head, hence becoming focused on the devices of art, misses the point — for the question is not whether one device or another is legitmate, but how well the devices employed add to the effect — the more effective the device is, the less it can be separated from the artwork itself. It is the art which needs to be in full focus for it is on that experience we can then explore intellectually as a basis for invigorating our minds and our lives. To make the point that art is an act of Praxis seems to me to be a profound one.


Sat, 07 Dec 2002 01:58:16 -0500
Walter Benjamin, surrealism, avant-gardes & society

As coincidence would have it, I was trying to clear a pile of books from my desk yesterday and gave a brief scrute to Walter Benjamin and the Antinomies of Tradition by John McCole. I've never had time for Benjamin and I've found him difficult to understand, but thumbing through the book I found the section on surrealism very interesting and even possibly germane to my own work. Apparently Benjamin had a critique of surrealism (which I think he viewed as the final stage of the European art tradition), particularly its political project of uniting dream and reality, art and life. Following or perhaps outpacing Pierre Naville, Benjamin thought that surrealism's tactics could only end up in provocative spectacles and publicity stunts, and he had a specific analysis from an alternative view. Benjamin had his own concept of "profane illumination", which looks interesting, though I didn't quite grasp it.

What got me to thinking was the abstract nature of the attempt to inject the "marvellous" into daily life, not only because of the disjunction from the concrete reality such a project aimed to influence, but of the overall character and particulars contained within the abstract view itself, much like other metaphysical concepts I've been discussing. The mystification of the metaphysical alternative goes hand in hand with the mystification of the social reality it is trying to influence. Hence the former is still a utopian anticipation of a possible future development and cannot possibly effect a direct pragmatic result.

Reading more of Sun Ra's views in Blutopia gave me an even more negative perspective on his world view, which is even more right-wing than I knew. Ra was very much the mystic (he called himself an angel not a man) who withdraws from practical life and pooh-poohs all attempts at social reform as they all lack his spiritual vision hence can't possibly work. It turns out Sun Ra had a lifelong negative view of the civil rights movement. He didn't think much of Martin Luther King because King never said anything about music. I know this sounds stupid, and it is, but the idea is that Ra's mythocratic revolution is a revolution based on beauty, hence without putting art first, one's priorities are askew. You will notice the abstract metaphysical character not only of his mysticism but of his view of the material social world, as well as the relationship between them. And that is the character of all people who think like this. When you look at their ideas, in most cases their ideas are incapable of penetrating concrete, objective reality and so they are doubly mystified. This means also that the content of the ideologies in question imported from slave and feudal societies of thousands of years past are that much more amenable to ahistorical retooling so that it looks like wise men always say the same thing irrespective of time and place while in fact they are always trapped within the historical limitations of the scientific and technical knowledge, as well as the social organization and the conceptions of social relations built on it, of the time. And modern mystics who think outside of the notion of historical progress are always caught within the grip of reactionary positions and they always preempt the development of critical thought. Hence their utopian anticipations of the future in metaphysical form can go either way. Once they reach a critical point whatever potential they had turns sour and this becomes an obstacle to further development.


Sun, 08 Dec 2002 19:45:21 -0500
Music Musings & the Young Hegelians: Recap

My exposure to Ernst Bloch in years past was mostly regarding his philosophy, e.g. Wayne Hudson's study. I have Bloch's book on the utopian function of art. I once bought the trilogy The Principle of Hope on sale, and then the post office lost two of the three volumes in transit. Curiously, if Tim Brennan can be believed, Bloch's principle of hope did not encompass the United States. I read that Bloch was working on his magnum opus sequestered in New York, trying to keep his distance from American culture that he hated, like so many Europeans. But yes, Bloch's philosophy of not-yet would be most relevant.

Of course liberation theologians would use Bloch; if they can use Marx, why not Bloch, who comes closer to them anyway? But, unless I've missed something, liberation theology is more of a metaphysical construct than a form of symbolically coded popular culture, though I suppose the dividing line is not hard and fast in countries with a Catholic religious hierarchy. I think though that the hierarchical structure of the Church has affected even its dissidents. How dissident can you really be at the end of the day without abolishing the Catholic Church and converting Catholicism to Protestantism, which at least would be progress? Methinks a lot of mystification has to be pumped into liberation theology to make it a viable ideology, and ideology it is, from the descriptions of it I have read. Its appeal to people outside of Latin America seems to be based mainly on guilt and third world romanticism.


Sun, 08 Dec 2002 10:12:11 -0500
Mythology, poetry, ideology, music

I was into anthropology in the 1970s, including mythology, but like many other things, this interest fell by the wayside in the 1980s, when I was no longer able to take anything about people seriously. But seriously, your characterization of the Australian aborigines makes sense. While I don't have much to say these days about traditional mythologies, I wonder if a comparative analysis might be interesting, to look for qualitative differences between the mythologies of pre-literate societies, more evolved civilizations with sacred books, the role of myth in modern societies, and the creation of individual, homemade systems.

I think the case of Sun Ra is different from the examples of poetic picture thinking you are describing, though of course this is conjecture. I don't know much about the composition process of music in general, let alone Sun Ra's. Obviously, if Sun Ra had in mind musical theater from the very beginning, he would have to take into account the total performance scenario in order to integrate the music with the dancers, etc. Or, if he had some mystical system of numerological/structural relationships in mind, as Anthony Braxton does in some sense, this ideological framework would affect composition. But I don't see a tight relationship between the structure of the music and the specifics of Ra's world view, especially not the components of his world view not found in the titles and lyrics of his compositions. Interestingly, the lifestyle of Ra's group was in a class by itself. I believe the group lived in a commune in Philadelphia, which meant that Ra could wake everyone up at 2 am and make them play for 6 hours, if he was in the mood. Obviously, this process shaped whatever music was being worked on at this point. I have my doubts whether they would all be compelled to dress up and set up a stage as if they were performing for the public, so I'm inclined to think that the music was pure music and not programmatic music per se.

Now the aspect of a spiritual or even otherworldly dimension to music does not make me lose sleep. It is hardly surprising that one would feel that way. I feel that way myself. I have read about the mystical conceptions of music held by many people from many cultures. However, I would suggest that the phenomenon is or can be so generalized that one could have it without associating it with specific mythologies, though in fact that happens in traditional cultures. For example, if you take certain African rhythms including those found in the Caribbean and Latin America, they will be associated with specific deities. But modern people not a part of those cultures will not have such associations and will just experience them as pure aesthetic phenomena with whatever psychological effects they have. Back in the '70s I when I was engaged in learning African drumming for a time, people went into trances, spoke in tongues, etc., not having any background in the cultures or religious beliefs involved. I remember learning who Yemanya was, but it didn't matter a great deal, because our teacher was so macho, our hymn to this goddess, once it got going beyond the specific song form that generated it, was as militaristic and overweening as he treated all his women, but this was a question of personality so even this association is purely accidental.

So, the non-verbal nature of music, I think, makes it different from the composition of poetry interfused with mythological, symbolic, ideological content.

I've seen Ra live in performance and heard him on record, and I don't think so much is missing from not seeing the performance (by this I don't mean being in the physical presence of the musicians per se, but the Afro-Egyptian-interplanetary scenario), as it might be for a musical or opera. Those few compositions that have lyrics make a difference, and of course the titles set the stage: "There Are Other Worlds", "Space is the Place", "Outer Spaceways Incorporated", "Astro-Black", "Discipline", "Ancient Ethiopia", etc.

I think you are on the right track about modern mysticisms as ahistorical , poaching and free-associating on already given material.

Here I think it would be important to take a look at mysticisms as outsider ideologies, esp. in the case of African-Americans, among which religion plays such an unfortunately dominant role. These individualistic mysticisms differentiate the individual from both the ethnic community and the larger society. There is also an historical trajectory involved, which began with the ideological introduction of African slaves into western civilization. The paradox in this case as in others is that the European monsters who enslaved the world could only do so on the basis of slightly superior technology while attempting to brainwash their victims with Christianity rather than with Enlightenment philosophy or scientific rationalism. And here is one of the central contradictions of modernity in itself: the inability to locate oneself coherently in one's world, whose contradictions engender irresolvable, vacillating ideological dualisms.

Christmas is a royal pain in the ass.


Sun, 08 Dec 2002 13:19:03 -0500
Music Musings & the Young Hegelians: Recap

Bauer attempts to explain this ambivalence of Christianity thus: the nearer that religious consciousness approaches to truth, the more it alienates itself therefrom. Why? Because, qua religious, it takes the truth that is only to be attained to in self-consciousness away from self-consciousness and places it against self-consciousness, as though it were something alien to it. What is opposed to self-consciousness as alien is not only formally separate from self-consciousness (in that it stands outside it, is in heaven or comprises the content of some long past or far in the future events), but also this formal separation is backed up by an essential and real separation from all that goes to make up human nature. When religion has reached the point that man makes up its content, then the climax of this opposition has been reached.
     — David McLellan, The Young Hegelians and Karl Marx

While it was not my original intent to link these two themes (not that I was unaware of the connection), the fortuitous conjunction of two separate discussions needs to be pursued further. Originally, in another dicussion group Greg defended José Crisóstomo de Souza's defense of liberation theology against my assault. I wanted to show that I was thinking ahead to the next step, and that my understanding of such matters is more sophisticated than other people might realize; and then that discussion naturally linked to my other project on music, mysticism, and society, which in my view takes into consideration a much more advanced state of affairs than that represented by the would-be organic intellectuals of backward Catholic peasants and urban workers. I suspect that my framework is still not well understood, and so with time more and more of its implicit features will have to be made more explicit.

I still have at least one more segment of the Sun Ra saga to write up, in which I hope to tie everything up. I've also just finished Ben Watson's book on negative dialectics and Frank Zappa, and I've got a few words to say about that as well.

But now I want to recap some of my most important points, which I believe are harbingers of the next stage we need to confront. First, though, I want to point out the significance of the viewpoint David McClellan attributes to Bruno Bauer. Hegel perpetuates the sneaky German idealist/Romantic equivocation as to the ontological status of religious ideas (a Schelling scholar on the Catholic philosophy circuit once agreed with me that this is a German thing); to wit, that the rational philosophical content of Christianity presented by speculative philosophy is a translation of its representational form, and that the two are basically equivalent. This relationship of Concept to vorstellung accords with Hegel's politics and the role he envisions for the German intelligentsia in a liberalizing but still quasi-organic society. I maintain that this strategy broke under the political strains following Hegel's death and was definitively shattered in 1840 with the succession of Wilhelm IV—whathisname. Now I'm lacking sufficient information in English-language sources to verify McClellan's assertions about Bauer, but the formulation quoted here is of the utmost importance. That is, there comes a critical moment when the religious consciousness, at which the quest for self-consciousness (leading a subterranean existence) reaches the limit of its development, and can now only function as the greatest obstacle opposing the leap to true self-consciousness. This is an extremely radical statement and undermines all previous equivocations.

I also think it applies to our historical moment and the bankruptcy of the mystical views of the African-American musicians I've been writing about. I'll bet the farm that no one has developed the analytical framework that I have. As it happens, when my Australian friend Greg Harrison was working on his dissertation on Hegel's master-slave dialectic and the evolution of African-American music, I was the only person he could find in the (anglophone) world who substantively intellectually supported his work. This happened thanks to the Internet—the most revolutionary communication development of our time—and academia was completely useless in this endeavor. (Greg eventually made a research tour of the USA.) See "The Dialectics and Aesthetics of Freedom: Hegel, Slavery and 19th Century African American Music", PhD dissertation by Greg Harrison, selections, with an introduction by R. Dumain.

My own personal interest in the application of Hegel did not lie in the master-slave dialectic; eventually I glommed onto aesthetics, but I only injected this last element into our discussion as Greg completed his work. His work basically covers the 19th and early 20th century. However, from the beginning, he did bring up the question to me: what happened to self-consciousness after the 1960s? The implication, at least for me, is, what went wrong in the 1980s?

Now to recapitulate the central themes of my recent music musings:

(1) avant-gardes, counter-publics, and Hegel's end-of-art thesis

(2) individual mysticisms in secular milieu (jazz as myth and religion)

(3) the transformations of outsider culture in the USA since the 1970s

(4) the limitations of the perspectives of mysticism as well as the implicit sociologism of postmodernism and Cultural Studies

(5) the exhaustion of cultural strategies and the Owl of Minerva

(6) Black music in the USA in relation to popular and fringe cultures

(7) Individual ideologies in relation to subcultures, ethnic minorities, and mainstream society, and to tradition and modernity

(8) the sublation of religion to art to culture, and the contradictions of modernity

(9) the importance of aesthetic form vs. the politicization of culture: The judgment of the aesthetic form is predicated on how it actually functions to express, unleash, and expand human capacities.

(10) art as praxis and not merely ideology

(11) The mystification committed by the metaphysical alternative goes hand in hand with the mystification of the social reality it is trying to influence. Hence the former is still a utopian anticipation of a possible future development and cannot possibly effect a direct pragmatic result. . . . the abstract metaphysical character not only of a mysticism but of a view of the material social world, as well as the relationship between them . . . . ideas are that incapable of penetrating concrete, objective reality and so they are doubly mystified. This means also that the content of the ideologies in question imported from slave and feudal societies of thousands of years past are that much more amenable to ahistorical retooling so that it looks like wise men always say the same thing irrespective of time and place while in fact they are always trapped within the historical limitations of the scientific and technical knowledge, as well as the social organization and the conceptions of social relations built on it, of the time. And modern mystics who think outside of the notion of historical progress are always caught within the grip of reactionary positions and they always preempt the development of critical thought. Hence their utopian anticipations of the future in metaphysical form can go either way. Once they reach a critical point whatever potential they had turns sour and this becomes an obstacle to further development.

(12) two underlying generalizations of my studies:

(a) Oppositional mystical/metaphysical positions are anticipations of developments to come, formulated at a time and staking out a territory before they can be concretely realized in society and developed in theoretical form. In Hegelian fashion, that which is needed but cannot become concrete must live as abstraction.

(b) When the historical moment is due for the sublation of mystical/metaphysical abstractions into scientific/cultural form, and this fails to happen, then a regression takes place, and the dark side of mysticism—intimately connected with fascism—comes out into the light, the concealed weaknesses of a cultural strategy become manifest, and the cultural strategy goes bankrupt.

Compiled & edited by Ralph Dumain 3 February 2004
©2004 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.


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