Unpublished manuscript, framed as "open letter" to Dave Marsh

[Note: This was originally drafted as an open letter to Dave Marsh, concerning a two-part Rolling Stone column, "The Critics' Critic." It has turned out to be a rather useful vehicle for developing some ideas of more general interest. This version is somewhere between being retyped and rewritten; mostly a lot of unnecessary junk as been excised.]

Dear Dave,

Some comments viz. your "Critics' Critic" column. As I understand it, the first column has three major points (alongside numerous subpoints and sub-references and allusions); which may be succinctly rephrased as follows:

  1. [Most] Rock critics are no longer interested in [have abandoned the concept of] Rock.

  2. Rock critics are preoccupied with matters of sociology [gossip, event, phenomenon, psychology, lyric writing] at the expense of music [art].

  3. Even as phenomenalists ["phenomenology" means something completely different from your use here] [most] critics fail to grasp the most essential [economic] truths of Rock's social aspect.

These statements, of course, are not essentially intended as factual; they maintain strong valuations, that Rock critics should hew more closely to the spirit of rock, that they should concern themselves with Rock's merit as Art, etc. In such simplified form it is difficult to clearly disagree, but I think if we would further analyze these points, some fundamental points and significant disagreements would emerge. Let me take the three points in inverse order.

With regard to #3, I find your interest in economics laudable. There can be no doubt that economic considerations have a wide determining effect on everything from distribution patterns to production values; analysis of these effects should be a prime concern of critics, and I agree with you that there are precious few who are even interested. But I think, however, much we may agree on the significance of economic matters, we are inclined to approach them in completely antithetical ways.

Economics is a science; like any other science it seeks to address certain questions that matter to certain [groups of] people for certain reasons. There are questions of interest in every science, though these are peculiarly nasty in economics. The approach you have displayed thus far is piecemeal; you concentrate on corporation planning, relationship to artists, and some merchandising, but have yet to pursue the ramifications of such policy on product-contents or listener-utilities [a quaint term!], to settle on two of the more notable lacks. It would be reductionist here to impute that your economics favor the industry's ruling echelon, but I do think your thought reflects that climate and, in terms of the sort of question I would prefer to press, is of distinctly limited [and tendentially elitist] value.

Moreover, these economic questions have aesthetic correlates; the failure to consider consumption as anything other than the object of distribution schemes is precisely the same attitude that fetishizes product as Art and then seeks to dictate its meaning to the listener. An economics that restricts itself to production relations and distribution mechanisms, no matter what the sympathies of its bearer, offers no viable standpoint for equality; an aesthetic bound up with the intentions of producers is similarly bankrupt. The only viable definition of equality is equality of consumption,[1] which in aesthetics insists on the primacy of subjective constitution.

This difference, obviously, is crucial. The fundamental political (or ethical) imperative is to prefigure conditions of equality; to do this, i.e., to establish an equality-determined common sense, entails attacking all hypostatized concepts of art: clearly the problem with point #2. While an economics based on production/distribution considerations is valuable -- in fact it provides essential information [knowledge] that need become common -- it skirts what any equality-oriented science must consider the chief issue: the consumer's own utility.

I've already touched on the main problem with point #2. To speak of any organization of sounds as Art is to engage in a conceit. On the one hand it establishes a special class of material, insisting on a special kind of evaluation [appreciation], enforcing an alien inequality upon the world of objects; on the other hand it associates its object with the whole tradition ofpomp and brutality embodied in the concept Art.

But the point goes deeper than Art. You deprecate sociological interests -- which I take to include the interests of listeners, the keystone of any equality-oriented aesthetics -- in favor of the object-in-itself. While I would overturn the priorities here, I don't doubt one bit that much could ve done to better elucidate the object itself, and I agree that most current criticism is merely descriptive, and often evasively so. But there are serious problems here, too. It is far easier to implore critics to write about "the music" than it is to accomplish something in that direction, because music and writing are virtually antithetical to each other. Especially when one realizes that the elaborate set of musicological terminology available to critics refers to aural perception in the same purely theoretical, asymptotic manner as the jargon of physics.

Our trifactor model of economics is useful for clarifying these issues, for again we have three factors; the production of the object, the apperception of the object, and the object itself. Production, consumption, distribution, respectively. From the production standpoint one can examine the intentions, desire, opinions, etc. of the producer, as well as the actual work performed. This is the domain of individuals, and not surprisingly is favored in the bourgeois era; while it does have its intriguing aspects, especially in the matter of work, production of unique objects (mass production is something else) is garbed in such inequality to be of secondary interest, at best a matter of better informing the consumer.[3]

Similarly, the object itself, while conditioning perception, attains its crucial meaning only in being consumed. Its peculiar form and composition may provide information to the consumer, but have no tangible value in themselves. The key here, once again, is the consumer, in this case the listener. For music to maintain value it must be consumed; but that very act of consumption is predicated on the properties of its object. And those properties -- not questions of hypostatized Art -- are the object of Point #2. It is necessary to specify what music is, or more precisely, what music does, in terms of the object/listener relationship; without such a basis criticism is bound to wander aimlessly among the phenomena.

While neither exhaustive nor particularly detailed, I'd like to suggest six general functions of music:

  1. Music defines time and space.
  2. It controls [modulates] energy.
  3. It marks comonality, differentiation, affirmance and denial.
  4. It refers to history, shares experiences, informs.
  5. It expresses (attitudes, opinions, feeling, emotion, humor).
  6. It exercises theory.

Different pieces of music handle these functions in different ways, and different listeners act [react] variously. What I'm offering here is simply a framework; it is the task of critics to delineate specific instances and attempt whatever sweeping generalizations seem proper. I think it is fair to say, though, that we have only scratched the surface of this sort of aesthetic analysis, working from the standpoint of the consumer, and dedicated to grounding equality.

The first point, that critics no longer seem interested in Rock, is the most topical, but belies anothe rhypostatization. You describe Rock as a "living art," you speak of a "classic value system," and you use the terms "great" and "greatest" to refer to various examples. While "great!" -- like "wow!" -- has a certain slang-value, fuzzy to say the least, "Greatness" is simply a bourgeois atavism. There are no living arts; that's total nonsense! In fact, the term "Rock" has been so abused one can well wonder whether it has any viability other than colloquial or emotive. Perhaps, perhaps not. It's not a major point. But the difference is quite clear. I am interested in listening, and though I personally love rock 'n' roll, garbage trucks and bicycle horns are just as good for theory. You are interested in Rock, and in safeguarding an ideal, hypostatized style. Antiquarians have some use, as do academicians; it is only when their arcane prejudices are paraded before the public as Truth that they become a hindrance.

The second of your columns delves deeper into the subject of these statements: the Rock Critics. Here you list a number of "parallel vices" and issue an ambivalent plea for greater "flexibility." It is not at all clear what you have in mind by this "flexibility." On the one hand, as you concede certain values for each of the various castigated approaches, you seem to be urging a greater eclecticism. But it is hardly possible to evaluate such an approach on the evidence presented. I think it should be noted, though, that there are a number of different reasons for engaging in Rock Criticism. There are also various avenues, mostly journalistic, and these have a substantive determination on particular pieces of criticism. Also, there might be a distinction between critics dealing exclusively with Rock music (or some other narrow form) and more generally-oriented Mass Culture Critics (or what we used to call "Cultural Critics"). In the purest of terms, Rock Critics are a class of individuals who discuss merits and values of certain objects in certain terms in certain media. That provides roughly three criteria for analysis; inasmuch as the class has a rather finite set of members it should be possible to detail relevant informationa bout them. It should be further possible to provide information on a selective control group of non-Rock critics for general comparative purposes. As data accumulates and various interpretive theories are examined it should be possible to develop at least limited patterns of correlation, so that information from one data group can be translated into hypotheses concerning the other group. Thus it would be possible to gather meaningful information from even the most narrowmindedly artsy critic.

But rather than go on with a series of generalizations about Rock Critics, let me give myself as an example [e.g. of a Rock Critic working along different lines and for different reasons than yourself]. In late 1973 I purchased my first stereo, a decent but hardly lavish compact, and I started accumulating a few records. I was attending Washington University at the time, studying sociological theory mostly [Methodstreiten] and working up to a still-unwritten book on Marxist theory and aesthetics. In the summer of 1974 I wrote 80 pages on a key chapter, dealing with Walter Benjamin's "Technische Reproduzierbarkeit" essay and Theodor Adorno's various critiques. The draft chapter was less than half finished, notably lacking the detailed treatments of Adorno's key music essays [the "Fetischcharakter" piece and the Philosophy of New Music]; further progress would have required a much greater grounding in music.

However, a number of strange events intervened. I got a job, quite school, and abandoned the project. In the fall of 1974 a friend of mine became editor of a university-associated newspaper, so I proposed editing/writing a series of short, journalistic items on cultural matters: books, films, records, whatever. One of the few projects completed before the series [friendship, etc.] collapsed was a review of Robert Christgau's Any Old Way You Choose It, which basically said that, hell, anyboyd could do that shit. I picked up a few ideas from that book, wrote a couple of Consumer Guides of my own, just stuff I happened to have around, and published them in Don Malcolm's first Overdose, with the good graces of the Red Herring Press. I started reading a lot more rock-writing -- during the next couple stridently anti-intellectual years Creem and the Voice were my only real contacts with literacy -- and accumulated a lot more musical material. It has turned out to be a fruitful subject-matter for my more sociable impulses, something I can deal with from any angle that pleases me, integrating both old and new concerns with a detail-matter I feel comfortable with.

Thanks to the interests of a number of friends and acquaintances I have continued writing about Rock, including a series of pieces published in the Village Voice thanks to Bob Christgau. I also have some vague intentions of returning to the Secret Agents book, possibly adding tomes on aesthetics and economics. On the one hand I've been accumulating an enormous pile of data; on the other hand, I've developed several interesting ideas for mediating that data. While I am not necessarily a Marxist much of my interaction has been with Marxists, or Marx-interested people, and this forms an essential vocabulary; similarly I use bits an dpieces of philosophical jargon, even though I haven't read anything heavier than R. Meltzer in more than two years. But when I try to conceptualize an object, I am basically attracted to the Adorno/Benjamin dichotomy, for I know of none more useful. When aesthetics or epistemology is concerned, I tend toward the neoKantians, with a rigid demarcation between phenomena (praxis, history) and noumena (logic). As regards the "arts," I disdain [or at least don't dig] all formal-symbolic arts, e.g. literature, in favor of the immediate-objective, such as music [aural], painting and photography [visual], sculpture and architecture [tactile], even the culinary [to round things out: taste and smell]. Moreover, I stand no distinction between fine and [whatever-the-opposite-is] arts, only a technical distinction between unique and mass-reproduced objects. Among my very favorite "arts" are furniture-making, tool-making, typography, bookbinding, baseball cards, digital electronics, thingamajigs [useless objects, machines], stock cars, etc. Certainly the latest Woods Bros. creation is at least as fine an object as the best Brancusi, easily superior to any Beckett novel.

In a more general way, I'd say I'm interested in people, all kinds of people, and objects, all kinds of objects. In its mediatedness, literature seems more like a mode of distribution, like a stock-market or something like that, related to both its producer and its consumer in only the quaintest of ways. But I don't really give a damn about big shots and masterpieces; abandoning that rhetoric is not easy, and not even totally necessary, but it is essential to break its spell. Meltzer was absolutely on the mark when he said that whoever came up with the idea that records had to be good sure set a bad precedent. Rod Stewart may be a master of craft but I can't think of anyone more ephemeral to anything I could be interested in. Good/Bad doesn't cover it; there remains room for value-judgments, but not at the expense of critical judgment, within a narrowly construed form [or department], and either castigating those who seek to do other things or subsuming them to your own bias as occasionally useful techniques [e.g. Punk Rock criticism may be useful for examining certain phenomena in certain contexts but does not tend to be responsible for its overall judgments, or makes judgments you would consider improper; pseudoacademic literary analysis gets carried away on its occasionally useful tangents to the point where it cannot be trusted, etc.].

Just for the record, your characterization of me as "pseudoacademic" was not appreciated. I play around with a lot of ideas, including some rather esoteric ones, but neither my tone nor my interest approaches the academy; personally I'm rather sick of imputations of intellectualism, academicism, etc. I dropped out of high school at 15, and in terms of vocabulary, writing style, conceptualism, politix, etc., am pretty thoroughly self-taught [that means autodidactic; the three years I did spend in college were mostly for library-access, foreign languages, and just marking some time as if I were in a "legitimate" pursuit for once -- my last English course, by the way, was sophomore in high school and resulted in a D]. The stuff about taking rock as a subject for literary analysis is ridiculous: that simply blows the fact that I don't like literature, I don't read literature, and I never talk about it because I don't know anything about it and don't give a shit. That may well be a lack in my general cultural upbringing but I don't see why you should rub it in. If you should insist in such generalizations I'd be much happier among the Punk Rock critics; certainly my level of "taste" is appropriate [een dig pro-wrassling], and I can hack out the style as good as anyone.

Still, the press was not totally bad.


1. The whole notion of "equality of consumption" will require a further paper to properly elaborate. It can work either tendentially or absolutely, though the latter requirse an equilibrium theory and probably a theory of saturation that may seem unrealistic. There are, though, a number of areas where technological solutions are feasible; but even there this feasibility simply underlines the tendential thrust of the theory. Consumption becomes a ground of value, which in turn re-evalutes the entire economic process [whereas capitalist economics relies on exchange value, which is (a) market-determined, including monopolistic questions, and (b) tends to be short-sighted, creating long-range disequilibrium, and finally (c) may be accumulated into life-and-death power]; people are more or less equal in their consumptive capabilities [as opposed to their capability to hoard]. The equilibrium theory will have to extend to productive and distributive relations, which becomes tackier [in fact it seems impossible to produce a state of consumptive equality on the basis of a redirection of production and distribution relations; rather the long-term trends toward equality of consumption -- which draw both on economic growth and on mass-democratic impulses -- will have to force changes in modes of production-and-distribution that will in turn augment those trends]. In the narrowest sense this notion amounts to an ethical imperative; what distinguishes it, however, is its relationship to a material base, to a mass of people, and to an ever-changing common sense that is coming to demand it on a level of force no ethical imperative has ever previously enjoyed.

2. As I rethink this, it is apparent that much of the romance of the object itself is actually a romance of reification. Now, unlike so many Secret Agents [bourgeois Marxists], I'm not knocking reification, alienation, or any such thing. The problem is obfuscation; Art maintains an ideology idolizing the bourgeois ego by fetishizing the product of its labor. This is doubly regressive: first the aforementioned egoization of production labor, and secondly for falsely attributing this inequality to the object itself.