25 July 2010

MGMT's Congratulations: A Review After the Reaction (or A Reaction to the Reaction)

I know it's been a while since this album came out, but I'm still hearing the attempts to dismiss it every day.  In fact last weekend I was at a bar with a group of friends and at this bar they play "Time to Pretend," "Electric Feel," and "Kids" every single night as far as I can tell.  I haven't been to that bar in the last year and not heard all of those songs played in the couple of hours I was there.  All right, that may be an exaggeration; they don't play "Time to Pretend" all that much (probably because it's not as energetic), but the other two: yes, every single time I've been there.  Even last weekend I heard both of those songs and when "Kids" came on, one of my friends said, "I think they should retire this song."  I agreed with him.  When I first saw MGMT at Lollapalooza in the summer of 2008 (which was also the first I'd ever heard of them) those 3 songs definitely stuck out to me.  As a result I listened to that album a ton of times that summer and noticed that not all of the songs were like those 3 songs.  I still liked them, but the appeal of those extremely poppy songs hadn't worn out on me yet.  That however would happen by the end of the year, thanks to, among other things, the bar that plays the songs every night.  Basically, you can only dance to a song so many times, and songs with that sort of appeal in a way detach from the artists themselves.  They dominate, through their mass appeal, the perception of the artists and soon enough everyone expects the same thing from them; the popular songs generalize the artists.  I'm not going to go into a Marxist critique of how the system, including the music industry operates, but am just going to note it in passing.
            Another friend, after that statement was made said, "I think they should retire their new album."  This bothered me, and I made him aware of it.  Before Congratulations came out I made a pre-dismissal of it because I was expecting it to represent only those 3 songs that made them popular.  That's how major label music usually operates nowadays.  Their other slower songs on Oracular Spectacular would probably be overshadowed and eradicated by the music industry because they weren't marketable to hipster dance clubs and they were antithetical to how they became popular in the first place.  But instead of this we got slow songs tinted with remnants of psychedelic rock, experimental art rock, all in the guise of pop music.  When I first heard "Flash Delirium," separate from the entire album, I was confused and pleased at the same time.  I knew that it was something different and that they were intentionally throwing people off guard and making something that made you stop and question just what the fuck was going on.  A few weeks later I was in a car and on the radio the song came on.  The beginning mumbles reminded me of the sinister, back-alley brooding of Jordan Blilie from The Blood Brothers, but it definitely wasn't the Blood Brothers, as I later discovered from the rainbowy pop synths that burst in afterwards.  About the time that I noticed the unusual song structure, I realized what it was, and was happy that it through me off again.  The entire album took me 4 or 5 listens before I could see the beauty and importance in the songs and what they meant to people who actually like MGMT and not just popular music in general.  The fact that this album exists, from a band that had so many expectations and presuppositions is a testament for a groups freedom to do exactly what they want in a world where music is increasingly commodified and meant to fulfill the desires of those who wish to make a quick buck on the spiritual connection people make to music.  The album is slower, more intellectual, more experimental, obscure, etc.  It shows signs of artistic growth and has more genuine characteristics that one can feel in the songs.  In general It's a better album than the last one, mainly, at least from my standpoint, because I'm still listening to it 6 months later and am still not tired of it, unlike the previous album.
Trying to pinpoint what is magical about this album is counterproductive.  It eludes a quick and easy pigeonhole, and those who do dismiss it would probably rather distract themselves with dancing than expand their musical tastes.  This is the kind of pop music we've needed in our generation for a long time: pop music that experiments the way The Beatles did, throwing caution to the wind, pop music that is unafraid of 12 minute long songs like "Siberian Breaks" (my favorite song on the album) which takes you to another world, on a hillside, staring off into the sky with a joint in hand.  The album isn't perfect, but it isn't supposed to be.  I don't like every single song on the album but the ones that I do like, I love.  And the fact that they defied expectations, shed some bandwagon 'fans' in the process, makes the experience of listening to the album that much better and the intentions behind the album that much truer.  It almost reminds me of the abstract obscurity that Talk Talk branched toward on their later albums.  I find myself looking for a metaphor pitting the revolutionary sounds of the 60s against the forces of capitalism:  Art vs The Machine in the realm of popular culture.  That may be taking it a bit too far, as far as its cultural significance is concerned, so I'll just leave it at this: It's a great album if you're willing to open your mind to it.

24 July 2010

Lyotard's 'Postmodern Condition' Part 2

"The social bond is linguistic, but is not woven with a single thread. It is a fabric formed by the intersection of at least two (and in reality an indeterminate number) of language games, obeying different rules" (Lyotard 40).

"New languages are added to the old ones, forming suburbs of the old town" (Lyotard 40-41).

"We may form a pessimistic impression of this splintering: nobody speaks all of those languages, they have no universal metalanguage, the project of the system-subject is a failure, the goal of emancipation has nothing to do with science, we are all stuck in the positivism of this or that discipline of learning, the learned scholars have turned into scientists, the diminished tasks of research have become compartmentalized and no one can master them all.  Speculative or humanistic philosophy is forced to relinquish its legitimation duties, which explains why philosophy is facing a crisis wherever it persists in arrogating such functions and is reduced to the study of systems of logic or the history of ideas where it has been realistic enough to surrender them" (Lyotard 41).

Just as, in the previous section under summary and analysis, we saw that language is split into different forms, Scientific and Narrative more specifically.  Philosophy also suffers from the same problem.  And the reason for this can be seen from the rise of capitalism, with its focus on the individual instead of the collective.  With the rise and legitimation of capitalism, which "has eliminated the communist alternative and valorized the individual enjoyment of goods and services," we loose any hope of retaining a grand narrative of our culture, instead having only fractured, individual, self-serving narratives (Lyotard 38).  In postmodernism we are already past the point of caring that our social bond, comprised of language and philosophy, has been so fragmented and alienated.  People are more willing to accept the condition of having to be individuals, having to rely on their small community of likeminded people than to accept any of the long lost or presently unapparent connections that bind or have bound us as humans in the past.  With the dissolution of the Soviet Union (and some would say even before this, when the Soviet Union chose to use authoritarianism and alienate Marxism from itself), capitalism became the overarching singular means of interpreting reality, and that notion has become all encompassing.  And since capitalism's intentions need efficiency, productiveness, and individuality to become more legitimate, it needs to further fragment and categorize the scientific knowledge and language so that its resistance is less unifying and easier to handle and dismiss.  "Most people have lost the nostalgia for the lost narrative. It in no way follows that they are reduced to barbarity. What saves them from it is their knowledge that legitimation can only spring from their own linguistic practice and communicational interaction.  Science 'smiling into its beard' at every other belief has taught them the harsh austerity of realism" (Lyotard 41).  Basically, science, which is capable of much more, is only seen under the jurisdiction of capitalism and must compromise its resources to the overarching system's behest.

The form of thought that capitalism chooses to work under is logic.  The reason Lyotard points this out is because he wants to prove the problems with axioms, how short cuts in thought and things we take as common sense could easily contain paradoxes.  "Since it is possible to generalize this situation, it must be accepted that all formal systems have internal limitations. This applies to logic: the metalanguage it uses to describe an artificial (axiomatic) language is 'natural' or 'everyday' language; that language is universal, since all other languages can be translated into it, but it is not consistent with respect to negation—it allows the formation of paradoxes" (Lyotard 43).  Under logic, which scientific thought also works, paradoxes within that community get passed off as legitimate as well.  The point, when scientific knowledge works under capitalism, is not to find truth, but to function efficiently and toward benefitting the system.  Without funding towards scientific research, no research would be able to get done within the system.  So it is easy to see how the selective nature of capital can come into play with what it feels is scientifically relevant towards maintaining the system.  "No money, no proof—and that means no verification of statements and no truth. The games of scientific language become the games of the rich, in which whoever is wealthiest has the best chance of being right. An equation between wealth, efficiency, and truth is thus established" (Lyotard 45).  Information, knowledge is then just another commodity.

So the rise of technology, the technological age as a further extension of the industrial revolution, really has more to say about the success of capitalism than the benefits of science.  Science was just a tool used to legitimate capitalism and spread its doctrines.  "It was more the desire for wealth than the desire for knowledge that initially forced upon technology the imperative of performance improvement and product realization. The 'organic' connection between technology and profit preceded its union with science. Technology became important to contemporary knowledge only through the mediation of a generalized spirit of performativity" (Lyotard 45).  Even though Scientific and Cultural knowledge/language are seen as distinct, both are still subordinated by capital, compartmentalized to ensure subservience.  And the cultural forces, which aim to legitimate themselves, while creating opportunities through computers to fight against the system and reconnect with people through the medium, also maintain themselves to a higher degree through, not only by forcing people to connect through its own tools, but also through the use of data storage to create an even more definite presence of itself.  Ultimately what all of this looks towards is the eradication of anything seen as irrelevant to, or slowing down the efficiency of the system, which includes certain areas of scientific or critical research.  "To the extent that learning is translatable into computer language and the traditional teacher is replaceable by memory banks, didactics can be entrusted to machines linking traditional memory banks (libraries, etc.) and computer data banks to intelligent terminals placed at the students' disposal" (Lyotard 50).

It's no wonder that Humanities and the Arts in the University are looked at with such disdain and irrelevance.  These fields can't provide for a family, they don't add anything beneficial towards our society, or so we are led to believe.  I myself have seen the axiom of this when at a college party the summer after I graduated where a bunch of engineering majors or graduates were and one kid that I had never met divulged to the room, "Hey, there are a bunch of B.A.s out on the porch," he continued after we weren't sure what he was talking about, "and by B.A. I mean Bachelor of Arts."  I wound up talking to the kid about politics for a portion of the night after telling him that I was one as well.  And for the most part, despite our political differences and complete lack of similar viewpoints we were able to hold a good and productive conversation that ended with the two of us able to respect and understand one another, which I think shows how informal settings, genuine communication without pretension, basically appealing toward the humanity inside us all in general can supersede these institutional impressions that warrant dismissal.  We were also drunk, which could be interpreted as an even more spectacular feat of compromise or not so much, depending on one's experience with alcohol.  But anyway, Lyotard says, "If the performativity of the supposed social system is taken as the criterion of relevance (that is, when the perspective of systems theory is adopted), higher education becomes a subsystem of the social system, and the same performativity criterion is applied to each of these problems ... The transmission of knowledge is no longer designed to train an elite capable of guiding the nation towards its emancipation, but to supply the system with players capable of acceptably fulfilling their roles at the pragmatic posts required by its institutions" (Lyotard 48).  The aim of our knowledge is to fulfill the requirements of the system, not question it.  And Humanities and the Arts as modes of study inherently (should) question, make one think about things in a different light.  Again, the concern is within these fields is why something works the way it does, what its function means for humanity as a whole, not solely with how it works to achieve its ends.  Hence the slow but sure de-legitimation of the Arts and Sciences, Humanities, Fine Arts, whatever one wants to call them, and the heightened importance on areas that comply with a productive and efficient society directed towards people using their skills to further the goals of capitalism.  In postmodernism, this idea has become an axiom.

The extension of this axiom is even more transparent under a critical point of view as Lyotard points out: "The question (overt or implied) now asked by the professionalist student, the State, or institutions of higher education is no longer 'Is it true?' but 'What use is it?' In the context of the mercantilization of knowledge, more often than not this question is equivalent to: 'Is it saleable?' And in the context of power-growth: 'Is it efficient?'" (Lyotard 51).  And this sort of logic, which gets flooded into computers, backed up and accessed easily, becomes "'nature' for the postmodern man" (Lyotard 51).

The optimism with all of this in mind, as Lyotard eventually points out, lies in our human nature.  What the aims of capitalism seek to do is create a world of definite space, evidenced by skyscrapers, corporate art, etc.  It aims to train people toward particular goals, toward a singular ideal of individuality, self-reliance, all that nonsense.  Basically it wants to narrow everything down so that a person must travel within its channels.  But since our culture is not controlled by one monolithic figure, but rather a group of likeminded capitalists and businessmen who, given their position have no choice but to comply with the logic of their position ("As a capitalist, he is only capital personified" (Marx 342)), there are ways to slip through the cracks in the system, exploiting the small holes within the axioms that built us up to this point.  And he suggests that science today is aimed at doing just that; instead of being aimed at just creating something certain or definite, it now looks at exploring the paradoxes, the unknown, finding out what something isn't rather than finding out what it is.  "Postmodern science—by concerning itself with such things as undecidables, the limits of precise control, conflicts characterized by incomplete information, "fracta" catastrophes, and pragmatic paradoxes—is theorizing its own evolution as discontinuous, catastrophic, nonrectifiable, and paradoxical. It is changing the meaning of the word knowledge, while expressing how such a change can take place. It is producing not the known, but the unknown. And it suggests a model of legitimation that has nothing to do with maximized performance, but has as its basis difference understood as paralogy" (Lyotard 60).  Paralogy is defined as a form of reasoning that does not conform to the rules of logic.  And this, ironically, happens because scientists, as individuals pitted against one another are trained to one-up one another through their discoveries, and the only thing left to do is to extend the field into the unknown areas.  "Paralogy must be distinguished from innovation: the latter is under the command of the system, or at least used by it to improve its efficiency; the former is a move (the importance of which is often not recognized until later) played in the pragmatics of knowledge (Lyotard 61).  The point of this illustration is to show that science does have capabilities outside its service to capital, but they are not exercised, because they are of no merit towards the ends of capital.  And if this form of scientific research, parology, continues to rise, what then?  "Is it a refusal to cooperate with the authorities, a move in the direction of counterculture, with the attendant risk that all possibility for research will be foreclosed due to lack of funding?" (Lyotard 64).  It seems pretty likely as an option.

But Lyotard ends his short book with an outright dismissal of a cultural consensus (which goes in the complete opposite direction than where I thought he was going in the first sections), not so much because he doesn't see value in it, but because it has been made impossible.  "Humanity as a collective (universal) subject seeks its common emancipation through the regularization of the 'moves' permitted in all language games and that the legitimacy of any statement resides in its contributing to that emancipation" (Lyotard 66).  Basically, humanity will always try to fit through the holes of our social, intellectual constructions and axioms.  This is, he suggests, a way towards creating a more just world, through our state of fragmentation and individuality.

Whether unconscious or not, people are tending to realize that "the system seems to be a vanguard machine dragging humanity after it, dehumanizing it in order to rehumanize it at a different level of normative capacity" (Lyotard 63).  It seeks to erase any sense of nature we had in our distant past and recreate a secondhand human nature aimed at fulfilling itself.  But despite this there is still a reaction.  Even though it may not be as articulate and definite as the creations of capitalism, there is still a strong refusal to accept these terms.  Not only in scientific paralogy as explained in this book, but even in my experiences in graduate school.  I'm not sure if it is a general movement within the Humanities as a death grip reaction to its slow eradication and axiomatic dismissal, but a good number of my professors have extremely revolutionary intentions in their teaching, and make no reservations about it.  It's actually quite comforting to know that despite an all encompassing system aimed at maintaining only itself, there is still a stern sense of ideology that dismisses it all and maintains that there can be something better and that there are holes within the system that can be pointed out and explored if we could just slow down and reexamine them.

Works Cited:

Lyotard, Jean Francois.  The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984
Marx, Karl.  Capital Volume 1. London: Penguin, 1990.

17 July 2010

Lyotard's 'Postmodern Condition' Part 1

"A self does not amount to much, but no self is an island; each exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before. Young or old, man or woman, rich or poor, a person is always located at "nodal points" of specific communication circuits, however tiny these may be. Or better: one is always located at a post through which various kinds of messages pass. No one, not even the least privileged among us, is ever entirely powerless over the messages that traverse and position him at the post of sender, addressee, or referent" (Lyotard 15).

This quote actually exhibits some legitimate optimism.  The first sentence alone sums up a great deal of our present state; as individuals we realize that this conservative notion of strong individualism, penetrating beyond our cultural influences, is not possible, and that strictly enforcing our own individual interpretations and ideals does not construct a just a society. The second part of that sentence reinforces the latter claim, which I would suggest hints to how our culture is constructed.  We don't live in your classical authoritarian-style system.  There is not one individual or one ruling political party overseeing the creation and execution of legislation, or even one outside of influence, but there may as well be.  Because individually we are not each "an island," we are inherently connected to other people.  How we use those connections to break the cultural mold is the matter at hand. 
When I say that the writing of our rules may as well be under the supervision of one political party I mean that the sphere of knowledge and discourse seems to be extremely limited.  "One can decide that the principal role of knowledge is as an indispensable element in the functioning of society, and act in accordance with that decision, only if one has already decided that society is a giant machine." (Lyotard 13).  I think it is safe to assume that we are already past this axiomatic point, that it has been reified into our social structure that we must use our knowledge toward something.  How one interprets that leads to two options: the notion of "relevant" knowledge for the machine, knowledge that will make it perform better, faster.  Then, the displaced, "critical," as opposed to "functional" knowledge, which exists really only in academia and maybe gets channeled into a coffee shop discussion or something to that effect.  The functional knowledge exists in its own cultural realm and dismisses the critical realm.  Before reading this I had not really made the distinction between the two, but it makes sense.  Lyotard further develops the distinction into Scientific Knowledge and Narrative.  Our culture is Narrative-oriented, in that it relies more so on the power of storytelling, presentation, personality, etc. to win people over, as opposed to Scientific Knowledge which dismisses those aspects and is in favor of empirical data and acceptance of hypotheses and studies from the experts in their field.  The conversation that they have within their own community is a self-sustaining one, and in turn the cultural, Narrative community has followed suit.  "Narratives, as we have seen, determine criteria of competence and/or illustrate how they are to be applied. They thus define what has the right to be said and done in the culture in question, and since they are themselves a part of that culture, they are legitimated by the simple fact that they do what they do" (23).  And this makes sense.  What southern politician thinks, "Hey, let's listen to the experts, even though their ideas will stifle the economy and make everyone in my jurisdiction vote against me, instead favoring the candidate who can turn shit into gold with his words," legitimately and not sarcastically?  Both the critical and cultural realms exist to sustain themselves, but the critical realm questions the use of the machine, making it perform shoddier than the cultural one.  So those within the cultural, Narrative conversation, having their sense of knowledge shaped with the idea of "progress," not seeing the point in questioning why the machine works the way it does, but how the machine works and how to make it work better, do not see the "usefulness" in the critical, Scientific Knowledge realm; the formed mentality in the two distinctions see the other as harming the achievement of their respective goals.  And this is where dismissive prejudices like "pretentious," "arrogant," "useless", or "ignorant, "greedy," "selfish" etc. come into play (although there definitely are people in both communities who are all of those things).

But how I understand the giant quote at the top, with all of this in mind, is that there is still a way for (re)integration between the two distinctions.  No matter what there will be an overlap of experts in a field that also exists within culture.  In fact there is no way to escape this.  What Lyotard suggests is a more active approach to critical knowledge, integrating into the cultural dialogue from various perspectives.  Everyone is at a different point in culture, always, and there are always connections that people have, be they at work, school, on the internet, etc., and people who are - experts is a bad word for this - but people who have a critical mindset and can portray their ideals in a way that everyone can understand and process, despite the complexities of the subject, and people who do not sound like they are talking down to their audience, since that just breeds an automatic reaction of dismissal, are extremely valuable for a creation of a better society.  The only problem I have with this is that it seems like the system, or narrative methods, are making the critical perspective stoop to their level by marketing everything in their terms.  But really, they have the advantage, so it's more like an infiltration.  I think I just marketed that.

Lyotard elaborates in this very humbling quote:
Drawing a parallel between science and nonscientific (narrative) knowledge helps us understand, or at least sense, that the former's existence is no more—and no less—necessary than the latter's. Both are composed of sets of statements; the statements are "moves" made by the players within the framework of generally applicable rules; these rules are specific to each particular kind of knowledge, and the "moves" judged to be "good" in one cannot be of the same type as those judged "good" in another, unless it happens that way by chance. (Lyotard 26)

The reason I see optimism in all of this Book (or what I've read so far) is that if we were to use this method more frequently, this "chance" that he talks about, or rather "chances" of an intersection between the two realms would be more frequent.  He says later on that "Lamenting the 'loss of meaning' in postmodernity boils down to mourning the fact that knowledge is no longer principally narrative" (Lyotard 26). There is a loss of meaning, because meaning is just another human construct, and when humans are in different groups of conversation, their respective meanings will differ, and so will their intentions.  The problem is that I've at least assumed, before reading this, that everything was part of the same discussion, which would create a loss of meaning.  But making the distinction helps clarify what may be the crux of the problem.

I guess the main thing that I got out of the first 9 sections of this book was that this really is a government by the people and for the people.  How the people came to be how they are is a different argument, but "the people," the culture at large is conditioned by the cultural conversation and thinks in its logic in order to sustain itself.  This is why all the critical voices are seen as dangerous and pushed off to the fringe - because they are overtly against the central narrative.  And in a way, as Lyotard is suggesting, "The question of the State becomes intimately entwined with that of scientific knowledge" (31). In order for the economy to work better, produce more efficiently, it needs government out of the way, in order to exploit resources all over the globe to make it work more efficiently.  Things like minimum wage, emission caps, laws, just get in the way of gaining capital.  The machine has taken over the humans and if it hasn't already gotten to the point of pulling us along its path, it is well on the way to.

What he suggests we need is a binding force between all the areas of research, to integrate all of humanity back on a similar page, aimed toward preserving our humanity instead of submitting to the forces of some sort of automatic machinery, or as I like to think of it, reification run amok, working on its own abstractions as references to break up the inherent dissention within its workings.  "Knowledge first finds legitimacy within itself, and it is knowledge that is entitled to say what the State and what Society are" (34). In order to save critical knowledge (and the State, which also works on complex issues that don't fit nicely and presentably into the Narrative structure), we need integration into the cultural dialogue.  It is the only means of saving it, and saving the idea that government fights to preserve our sense of humanity, distinguishing it from machinery.  The sole purpose of knowledge is not to act with that knowledge toward some cultural idea of "progress."  It functions on many levels and may hold aspects that we have never experienced but in order to rescue that notion, oddly enough, action, discussion, integration is required.  Something still makes me uncomfortable with the idea of fighting fire with fire, though.  Maybe the rest of the book will shed some light on that.

Works Cited:
Lyotard, Jean Francois.  The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984

16 July 2010


I'm using this blog as a means to keep me thinking and writing about things that I find relevant.  By doing this I hope that I'll be able to process information better and retain some of the things I've learned.