Letter to George Lipsitz, undated (1976-77?)

Dear George,

I'd like to see just what I can come up with regarding your questions/comments on the avant-garde. I'm inclined at the start to think that major differences are less of evaluation than of taste and habit; I listen to more new and varied stuff than you do, and am more biased against "old limits and traditional forms." The best examaple of our divergence is not avant-garde at all: Alice Cooper. Alice is (a) loud, (b) impolite, and (c) a total shuck. The best Alice Cooper music hits the heavymetal-pop-mutant groove better than Grand Funk, Kiss, almost everything else. Historically this updates and radicalizes sixties punk-pop to the point of tongue-in-cheek extermination/immortalization; both in its shared assumptions and in the fidelity of its radicalization Alice Cooper confirms, congratulates, and, ultimately, romanticizes its community. The ironies are simply beautiful, so complex and total they tend only to be appreciated immediately. I can see where it might seem chilling to pull out a song like "Under My Wheels" as a piece of truly inspiring music, but it works perfectly; I can't really explain why but I find partaking in such a pleasure regenerative. Alice Cooper is positive music for a negative community; it is, in a word, reactionary, but that's not exactly so bad. It affirms several basic virtues: power, wit, and cunning. You can see the shuck seventy ways, which makes it all the more clever and all the more subtle. The tilt of its collective determination precludes blandness or moderation, or even a nominal approach to the world. In the cycle of lies noise that could have been oppressive becomes sustaining; rather than "occupying men's senses from the time they leave the factory in the evening to the time they clock in again the next morning with matter bearing the imprint of the labor process they themselves must sustain throughout the day" such music turns into a mock ritual, twisting cultural matter to fit the exigencies of the situation and then cackling at its consumate falseness. Of course, there is no denying that such a cycle of lies tends to become debilitating in the long run; that is why we value revolutionary culture as well as reactionary. But to deny -- critically I'm talking about here; whether you love it or not is a matter of fact, not criticism, and facts have their place, to be sure, but you can probably make out a decent life without ever enjoying Alice Cooper -- is to deny the basic power, wit and cunning of its community, an unwise stance considering that that those are among the few demonstrable tools we do have to work with. I'm dwelling on Alice Cooper here because the identification is important; I would likely place Alice Cooper's Greatest Hits on an All-Time Top Ten list, so that says a lot about what I like and don't like and how I relate to music and all sorts of things. The ironic stance in Alice Cooper finds parallels in the most convoluted of dialectic schematics (z.B. Kosok), while while the radical permutations are as straight and rigorous as an analytic master (like Cohen). This fancies my conceptual bent; in Alice Cooper Benjamin's 47 levels are transposed on the level of mass science. The product is thoroughly unspeakable, which is correct diction for the negative dialectics. I don't trust positivity; before the promulgation of that concept (positive/negative dialects) I didn't trust it either. This reflects on all other art. "Sensitivity" is taboo, because it names itself; aggressiveness, assertion, rudeness, violence, all fit the negative concept better. It is not that they are honest expressions for the times; they are dishonest expressions bespeaking the times. I find myself naturally impelled toward crooked art. Not to mention crooked understandings of straight art.

This boils down to an element of native credibility. The arbitrariness of taste has long been the bane of rational aestheticians, but the diversity of determinations remains an inescapable fact. As far as generalizability is concerned, the question is what can we learn of our own arbitrariness, which is to say what can we learn from our own arbitrariness. To this end I've been attempting to set up some sort of schematic by which sensuous determinations may be analyzed; this is the whole question of "suckers." but the question of credibility is still more basic, the very essence of criticism, both as prejudice and as insight. I'm inclined here to take Alice Cooper as a quintessential example of native credibility (I could just as well, personally, take the Beach Boys, the Velvet Underground, the Rolling Stones, etc., but Alice is conveniently divisive, which makes things a little easier); I call this reactionary because it represents a homebase and is logically inward. In that I recognize certain limits, but I also make a certain affirmation: this is my music, stuff that I am comfortable with, enjoy, groove on, and believe. The ironic stance is native; I can correlate my love for Alice Cooper's music with my love for various other notions and artifacts (NB the penchant for inversion and reversal, the asceticism/hedonism dialectic, the general anti-nominalism, the occasional theological metaphor). The thing I like about dealing with music, as opposed especially to literature, is that it gives me sensation independent from my ideas; this provides a degree of immediacy that keeps my ideas in check, and allows me to discover things that might never have occurred to me otherwise. I'm not sure where we might situate your "native credibility," and certainly don't wish to caricature you. I take it, however, that "old limits and traditional forms" are closer to what you have in mind. In terms of tendencies I think you are more inclined to focus on positive elements where I favor the negative, but that's hardly so simple; as I've already explained I take negativity itself as a positive virtue. I'm not really sure why it is the case, but I am disinclined to like blues, jazz before Coleman, bluegrass and most other American folk musics, English folk musics, and virtually all Classical music (with a particular onus on the 19th century); country music is a mixed bag, and lots of traditional stuff can sneak in as being exotic or kinda kinky, in limited doses anyway, and there are strange exceptions to all of the above and most everything else. But I think more of our divergences will fall on the reactionary side, with Alice Cooper, than on the revolutionary side.

The specific question concerns "the role of avant garde to alter consciousness and present the possibility of a new society." I don't think I identify with avant-gardists, nor do I think they alter consciousness, nor present the possibility of a new society. I don't think art does this, no matter what its ideology. There is something fundamentally useless about art which obviates any attempt to use it. The premier "political" composers today are Ihlan Mimaroglu and Frederic Rzewski -- perhaps one could also add Christian Woolf, and maybe Cardew, though I mostly know the latter through his writings, which aren't too hot. Both are interesting characters -- I've grown to be quite fond of Mimaroglu's Face the Windmills, Turn Left, a collection of earlier experiments -- and accomplished musicians and composers. I don't quarrel with their politics, and I'm willing to be tolerant of their attempts at propagandizing (which are, at least, highly novel). But my own appreciation of their accomplishments focuses on a few fascinating sonic experiments -- Mimaroglu's rubber band music is quite remarkable -- and on a common interest in and identity with left political interests. In their own way they fit the reactionary demands of conformance [reactionary demands of conformance being nothing new to the left] and, as I try to keep abreast of as wide a spectrum of musical activities as possible, I find them a natural interest. Where their stuff goes politically is another matter; when I first heard Mimaroglu's Tract I was stunned with the possibility of assembling aural montages of political and social reference within the context of an electronic composition. In other words, the piece impressed me not as a useful piece of agitprop -- Mimaroglu's evident intention -- but as a style of work or a construct that would be a real possibility even to someone with no special musical talents such as myself. This highlights my main fondness for new, modern, avant garde, or whatever, electronic music: this stuff is really simple. It is easy to understand, easy to structure, and especially easy to produce. And it is really basic: anybody can do it with no more than two ears [you could probably even get by with one]. It squarely puts the burden of creation onto the listener, offering no more than a few suggestions. Definitive recordings of much new music are impossible; the interest centers on indeterminacy, which means you-determining. Moreover, there is a great deal of functionality to such music. It exposes new sounds, odd pitches and timbres, strange juxtapositions; it challenges every facet of hearing, like an exercise course for the ears. True, some get sore and a few drop, but I think the course is worth it.

Your Avant-Gardists are unspecified, so let me fill in a few more blanks. Also on the political front are the Eno-Wyatt-Frith circle. I'm personally quite fond of Frith's Guitar Solos, precisely because when I pick up a guitar, not being knowledgeable in its normal playing, I'm inclined mostly just to torture strange and distorted sounds out of the thing; Frith is more systematic but hardly flashier. Eno dallies with avantgardemanship but he also produces sublime artifacts; everyone [no exceptions to date] I've played Another Green World for likes it. Reaction to Discreet Music is generally favorable. Eno can be approached on any of my six levels; his material touches on overtly political matters without hinting at agitprop. The political flourishes I find to be nice touches but are hardly definitive, adding a small but useful matter of identity and some additional clue to his project and direction. His New World architecture, on the other hand, is the best we have; this presents the possibility of a new society inasmuch as it takes it for granted. I suspect that this may be the source of your identification of me with the avant garde, but Eno is not typical in this respect; on the other hand there are other pop pieces that beautifully transcend the here-and-now, including some stuff that is very popular [Parliament's Clones of Dr. Funkenstein elpee has some strikingly Lissitzkian motifs as well as an amazing wit and good sense].

Robert Wyatt is another special case. As far as I am concerned, there is no finer vocalist anywhere [a view hardly anybody would agree with, I realize]. His music has all the makings of magic; again, that he throws some politics in with the brew has all the makings of magic; again, that he throws some politics in with the brew is an added bonus. The first Matching Mole is almost my standard nocturnal fare; Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard has nary a bad note. Aside from his evident musical values Wyatt is about the best case I can make for a "moral leader," a good sense that runs through his works. He remains peculiar in that he confirms few of our basic inclinations; that means it takes some work to get into him, but I think my Overdose question has both been answered and rewarded. I think wit and resiliency are important. Robert Wyatt fell out a third-storey window, broke his back, paralyzed from the waist down, went into a recording studio and cut an album titled Rock Bottom, followed that up with a single re-make of the Monkees' "I'm a Believer." He's been quoted as saying, "You commit yourself to what you're left with." He makes great music out of that commitment, and I can't think of anyone I'd rather have along for the New World.

Avant garde is spread about a lot, not to much avail. I don't think it's a very useful term. Certainly it has no dynamic validity apart from the willingness of some to court it as a special prerogative. And, of course, it does have a rather fuzzy but genuine historical tradition, which helps nurture an archaic but precious style of radicalism; how much usefulness that tradition has soaked through may be quibbled over, but its major drawback has to have been its rather elitist smirk. I wouldn't want to deny self-styled avant-gardists for terminological reasons, but I see little value in such a moniker. I don't think we have any disagreements here regarding vanguardists in politics nor snobs in culture. So I don't see this as a major problem; to my thinking politics mostly enters into avant garde composition as a reactionary element, one of confirmance of community, language, interests, etc. Avant-gardists are interesting to the extent anybody else is interesting: to the extent they do good work and have good ideas. The bigger question is how do good work and good ideas affect or influence or whatever other people, and there's no real answer to that question.

Another point: I see no need for shame for "supporting an art which fails to challenge basic capitalist assumptions." For one thing, art is essentially useless, which flies int he face of a pretty basic capitalist assumption right there. [I.e., art has a commercial, market value only to the extent there is a psychological or class-status-political demand for it, or acts as a monetary unit win the case of art-investments. People can satisfy their own cultural needs without resorting to a market; food, shelter, etc. cannot be similarly self-satisfied. A great many artworks are procured precisely because they are useless -- this relates to Benjamin's concept of a fancier's value.] Moreover the notion that art should challenge things is pretty limiting; art affirms as well, often negatively in the act of challenging, it decorates, etc. And then we can note that capitalist assumptions sometimes have some value, even though their fruits all so often indicate otherwise. And finally, there is the problem of media-incompatibilities. Aural, visual and tactile arts have an immediacy that is virtually impossible to resolve into political concepts; the attempt to size them up often winds up masking prejudice, or enforcing it.

I don't think I've ever really asked you why you picked up the politics, but I can be reasonably certain our reasons were different. Basically politics allow me to focus my anger, my hatred, my vengeance. Without them I would easily have lapsed into nihilism and self-destruction. I find politics useful as a self-regulatory mechanism, and have put together a reasonably well-ordered scheme of thought. From that I see all sorts of possibilities, all manner of richness to be reaped. When things do seem finally to pull together politics as an interest tends to fade. Which is fine. It strikes me that what we are talking about is creating new lives in the New World. I waver a lot on whether my own life is too tarnished to gain entrance, but the real question is not whether I can come in but whether I can make it. I'm finding some things to offer; what comes of them, and me, is very much an open question.

Let me segue into something rather different: quote a couple paragraphs from Bruce Malamut on the Eagles:

The more America buys this band, the more the critics put em down: 1) their politix are too trendy; 2) people who like em are either phonies or lobotomized prepubescent girls from Stockton named Louise or both; 3) they have bastardized the Old West as Mythic Concept (who hasn't!); 4) they ain't real cowboys (who is -- Gene Autrey?!); 5) the production is too clean (everyone should sport such dynamix!); 6) they are macho but wholesome sell-outs who are also vapid and supercilious. In the 10/76 issue of GIG Lester Bangs wrote: "they appeal to people who don't like to make real decisions or think of consequences in their own lives, people whose emotions are deeply embedded in as much wax as this music." If you go for this blathering moral propaganda, you're a lemming.

Oh yeah, they're James Dean poseurs-for-profit cause it's not real nihilism, it's (even worse) calculated nihilism, therefore sarcastic nihilism. Assuming that these devious swine do indeed negate the life-force so bad, what's wrong w/that anyway? Animus rock is bad boy rock in the first place, dirty-ass and mischievous, and is this not the definition of heartland r'n'r tradition in fact? No, if what Bangs says is true, Eagles have performed the Grand Coup cause they're the ones laughing all the way to the bank. Populism is the true leveler & to ship platinum as Hotel California has is enuf said on the applausometer. Lotsa folks dig 'em lots and a band can't achieve that by mirror tricks alone. I can only conclude that Bangs and the band's other detractors are involved w/all kinda reasons for hating Eagles that anyone could care less about. All these criticisms amount to is a lifeless blob of rockcrit socio/infra-dig. 'Cause when it comes down to it, it's all in the grooves. [Italics original]

Well, there's a lot going on here. The logical falacy is that it's not all in the grooves; fact of the matter is people gotta listen to this crap for it to do anything at all, and then they take it and twist and contort it anyway they want to or else it twists and contorts them. The former is pretty obvious; the latter, though, gets pretty tricky. First, some technical quibbles. Some points should be granted, however unfortunately [makes things messy, ya'know?]: 1) Eagles sing pretty good, especially ballad harmonies; 2) well -- fergit this one; and 3) the notion that 50 million people can't be wrong is technically correct, but what that means is a lot more complicated than "you gotta like the Eagles." Also, a couple evident problems: 1) they don't tarnish the Old West as Mythic Concept -- rather, they invoke it at a time when it is plainly untenable; 2) nihilism to dirty-ass r'n'r is non sequitur.

Malamut's rhetoric is attractive; I've defended BTO on grounds of popularity, but it should be stressed that what I wanted to focus on was the interrelationships of that popularity. This breaks down to all six analytic levels of music and adds a dialectic one: the question of who affects whom, how? Let's return to reactionary versus revolutionary music. Reactionary music confirms a situation, a class, an idea, a creed, a program of action, etc. Revolutionary music goes against the grain, attacking the forms and features of one's custom. The former can be a source of energy, of resolve, of determination, or it could rigidify complacency, prejudice, etc. [What I suppoze you could call reactionary-reactionary music; terminology is a little fuzzy at this stage of its invention, but at least it looks kinda funny.] BTO is superb music to party-down to; they're a little square but that's nothing to hold against them. People I trust like the Eagles too, which to my mind makes them less than totally sinister; some things they've done I even like, which, in terms of their mass appeal, means maybe I'm not so strange after all. But I suspect that the cases Bangs uses in his article [nope, he didn't spin that line out of mid-air] are far more typical than my biker-buddy Greg Seidel, who knows they're no Ted Nugent but thinks they're good for yucks anyway.

Anyhow, it seems safe to say that almost all popular music is so-defined reactionary. The question is who reacts with it, and how? First, note that popularity magnifies the question. Ace sound a lot like the Eagles and are almost as solid musically and almost as bogus conceptually but nobody gives a shit because aside from a one-shot hit nobody has ever heard of them; certainly as a minor pub rock band they don't have a leg to stand on next to Bees Make Honey. Popularity both means that the number of people who listen to this stuff and make or don't make up their minds about it are greater, and it also means people are further exposed to the indirect effect of its popularity, which also means overriding considerations of free choice [if I decided I never wanted to hear Kilburn & the High Roads again I could probably make sure of my decision, but the Eagles won't let you alone, so tis no wonder why critical dissent is growing: the most fundamental principle of free enterprise is going under]. There's another aspect to this angle, dealing with the concept of Eagles' material. The stuff is loaded with received images, mythic concepts, atavisms [even if obvious hence nihilistic, etc.], general bullshit, etc. Received images means images reflexively assumed. Reflexive action is a normal behavior based on powerlessness; this would either mean that the Eagles are powerless [which could also mean ignorant] or that they like being pandered to. [The other possibility is that such images do have positive significances in terms of actual life-possibilities -- some such images probably do, or at least have subjectively interpreted metaphorical value that might vary from person to person and situation to situation in one time and another et cetera and so forth -- moreover being pandered to can assume all sorts of different forms conveniently lumped together by my puritan imagination. And then there are those who take everything ironically anyway anyhow -- and who just follow the form, which I alluded to earlier and will get to in a bit.] There are genuine power relationships involved in all this. True, fi they share their ignorance/powerlessness with their followers they could even be construed as realistic, an art-value if there ever was one. The only problem is that, especially in upwardly-mobile America, realistic artists aren't popular, and the Eagles are. The ability to faithfully represent powerlessness and ignorance was not exactly the strong suit in Elvis Presley -- or James Brown is an even better example -- nor did they make much headway by pandering. Of course, the Eagles have a different class milieu from Presley or Brown, where power is preoccupied with bipartisan politics and class fades into myopia. One of the many things Eagles can do is cement myopia. On pandering, again, it depends on who you are, how you get pandered to.

Pandering is my word; it means something like confirming escapist inclinations. This is reasonably distinct from confirming buon senso [good sense] elements essential to maintaining and ameliorating life-conditions. This distinction, like so many such theoretical melanges, resolves itself best in practice, where one must also consider the overall weight music has within life-circumstances [which will likely show that the Eagles are at worst a minor irritant, certainly a lot less dangerous than our local District Attorney; and again, criticism of the Eagles will be seen to be essentially of heuristic value, e.g. no matter how nasty I choose to get I'm not likely to be able to shut 'em up, but they might be a useful example, especially since they're so omnipresent these days].

To backtrack to a couple points I left dangling: first, 50 million [or however many] people can't be wrong. True, but it's not always so evident about what. A lot of critics are under the mistaken impression that what they should be doing is sorting out the good shit from the bad shit. Certainly a lot of sifting is necessary to keep out from under the deluge of cultural phenomena while still keeping track of what is going on, but that is hardly the beginning. It is necessary to know conditions, circumstances, reasons, subreasons, etc. The fact that I dislike the Eagles does indeed say a lot, but it does only in terms of my own life-experiences and my own motives, inclinations, tastes, etc., which includes everything outlined here and no doubt a helluva lot more; to the extent that I faithfully represent a class consciousness my opinions may even be extended [though it should be noted that the more arbitrary the less accurate the extension, the more necessary the more accurate, etc.]. 50 million people represent a reasonably stable statistical group; there is a lot of history, a lot of consciousness developed in such a group, and as such there are a lot of true things that may be learnt from them. That they favor something, as that they disfavor something, would be useful evidence, but only on the terms by which it is favored or disfavored. [For instance, notions of Culture Industry determination even if they were found to be true would likely tell us useful things about work habits, power and autonomy, access to diverse sources, etc.; moreover about how such determinations are diffused within the mass community. Concepts may be biased toward objectionable ends, but they may then just as handily be recast quite another direction, or refined, rephrased, etc.]

The second, "trickier," possibility from back where I started this excursion, should be recalled, even if I'm in no position to put it to rest. I've been trying to develop a theory of how some music can manhandle its listeners at least since the 10cc review, and haven't had a whole lot of success, though the Sucker thesis is a start. Accepting the theory of Consenting Adults, etc., so that what you do consciously is your problem [and I'm not concerned about children here, so lay that one to rest], that still leaves the matter of unconsciously. Obviously, music acts and reacts unconsciously, subconsciously, immediately. Consciousness seems to be rather language-laden, which by no means eliminates sound-words, grunts, howls, etc., but it seems clear that there exists a large range of sound which is not organized into linguistic structures but is nonetheless perceived, perhaps even conceived, etc. At a basic level certain volume loads can cause changes in moods, even metabolism, etc. [though this can be mentally modulated, you can get used to it, you can go deaf, etc.]. But the more complicated level involves associative sounds, sounds which recall other things in the subconscious. This could move into a whole question of psychoanalysis of sound, whatever the sonic equivalent of dream analysis is, et cetera and so forth and so on, which may not even be worth getting into but it might help explain a few things. I don't think this is an ultimate problem, inasmuch as we are dealing with perceptible sounds we are dealing with conceptible [conceivable?] sounds and any disturbance could theoretically be raised to a level of consciousness [while other items are subsumed in common sense]; in fact disturbing qualities, so long as they are questioned, could be tools of appropriation [like in new-thing jazz]. But on a mass level there is also the question of typical mass action/reaction [I'm not urging protection here but it seems valuable to have some sort of criticism/articulation; in the case of 10cc we are confronted with a bunch of thoroughly retrograde individuals peddling oppressive relationships as cute and innocent and kinda humorous, which produces not simply an irony but an affront -- perhaps a delicate line but a line nonetheless; there is, after all, a point where you might as well blow your top (cf. the Grand Funk Review)]. At any rate it is an aspect worth further pondering.

This will have to suffice for this missive. I have a more elaborate schemata sketched out somewhere here, and will try to address your other questions when I get a bit of time. I think your sentence about "how the connections between diverse interests may tell us more about creation of social life than study of artistic commodities by themselves" is prescient, a notion I shall waste little time in appropriating. I think we need in Terminal Zone to start adding the necessary detail. Things seem to be coming along nicely so far; I'd appreciate any comments you might have, further suggestions, etc. For now,


Archaeological notes: June 2, 2002

This is from an undated photocopy. From context, this seems to have been written in late 1976 or early 1977.