Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Denial of Depth

Depth. Unfortunately I forgot to bring a copy of Raymond Williams’s Keywords to Riga, but it must be in there. If one of the three people who will read this has a copy, look it up for me.

It’s a one-word platitude, the most efficient textual gateway to the many spatial metaphors that have allowed so much of nineteenth-century Germanic idealism to maintain its grip on the categories through which we think about art in 2008. And it played a predictably prominent role in David Hajdu’s recent review for the New Republic of a recent collaboration by Philip Glass and Leonard Cohen.

I should lay may cards on the table: I am responding to Hajdu’s analysis, not his opinions, but the work he reviews, entitled Book of Longing, impressed the hell out of me when I saw it performed at the Barbican in London this Fall. To invoke another one-word platitude, I would even say I was moved by the performance, at least in the sense that by the end of the first hour I felt possessed by an understanding I couldn’t articulate. Perhaps it was a dose of that aural sublime that musical minimalism is always so successful at invoking in performance, in which case I imagine I’m guilty of the usual critical lapse that comes over me when I listen. Perhaps it had something to do with frustrated expectations - I was sure going into the concert that the piece would be garbage. But there was something else, too; an excess; and Hajdu’s review got my hermeneutic gears turning.

I’ll quote Hajdu extensively, to give a sense of the crux of his criticism:

“The Cohen-Robinson song “A Thousand Kisses Deep” [referring to a previous song with the same lyrics] is a wafting R&B lament – hypnotic, though diminished a bit by the recording’s Euro-pop synths and cheesy programmed drums. The Glass setting of the same lyrics, “You Came to Me This Morning,” is rigid and strident when it should be lyrical; the chords jerk about awkwardly, and the melody follows, too closely, in kind. At more than ten minutes in length, the song, like much of Glass’s music, seems endless - a thousand kisses long, but skin deep.”

“…there are larger problems with this music, and they are the enduring vexations of Philip Glass’s work: its glibness, its mechanical character, its seeming arbitrariness. The music is, on the whole, frigid. It does not evoke or stir much feeling, and this is a failure close to sin in work connected to Leonard Cohen.”

“…The singers Glass employs on Book of Longing scarcely help. Glass composed the melodies to fall in the lower parts of each singer’s register, an approach sometimes used to discourage concert artists from over-singing. Yet the four here all over-sing, articulating the lyrics with a formality and a theatricality wholly inappropriate to Cohen’s casual, intimate language. The effect is comical, sadly…”

The reason I found this review so stimulating is that I agree with all of Hajdu’s characterizations, and yet find them all salutary. In his disavowal of the piece he sums up many of the reasons that, both in the immanence of listening and upon critical reflection, I find it fabulous.

For Hajdu, Glass’s composition is a betrayal. It renders intensely emotional lyrics “skin deep,” robbing them of their “feeling.” The trope here, used most frequently in criticisms of cover songs or re-adaptations of lyrics, is familiar enough, especially in responses to Glass – a square, cold-hearted intellectual robs an “artist” of the ineffable humanity of his work. Performative authenticity is reduced to flat, emotionless monotone in a misanthropic intervention that blithely ignores everything “natural” about the original.

It’s a critical trope that has kept a lot of popular music critics employed over the years. These self-appointed defenders of “soul” will reject almost any critical intervention into the “authentic” emotionality of an original, of a “true artist,” with little concern for the disingenuous spirit in which these categories might be deployed. (Culture Industry, anyone?)

I’ll try a different reading.

This piece was about the depthlessness of “depth.” It was moving because it so thoroughly negated the disingenuous emotionality – the “soul,” perhaps – that conventionally makes canned music seem “deep.” In this negation, however, it affirmed something we might not have noticed before about Leonard Cohen – namely, that his utter inability to carry a tune, and his producers’ apparent fascination with dated synthesizers and drum machines (a fascination Glass shares), lend an almost sultry apathy, or at least ambivalence, to his delivery. We hear it in the recordings of Cohen’s voice that pop up throughout the piece. The chintzy rhyming couplets, to use Cohen’s own words, “sink like rocks” in his gravelly cadence, which straddles the mythic personae of tortured poet and seasoned nihilist – Coleridge and Kafka, Otis Redding and Frank Zappa. But which way do they sink? To the depths of meaninglessness? Of Depression? Of “profundity”? Most likely the latter – the chintzy rhyming couplets sink like rocks to the depths of profundity.

In other words, Book of Longing negates itself at every turn, leaving the listener with a flatness, an excess of nothingness, a barrage of platitudes. It’s Glass at his very best, and no, I’m not reading with or against the grain here. There is no grain. Nor is there an author.

For Cohen, meanwhile, it highlights something we might not have seen before: like Bob Dylan at his most “soulful” and overwrought, his music gives us room to question the efficacy and authenticity of melodrama even as it spins it out ad nauseum. Both Cohen and Dylan are unquestionably full of shit in the must salutary way, and we are all the richer for it. Glass, meanwhile, continues to inhabit a shit-filled persona of his own, disallowing all but the most depraved and absurd of idealist readings.


pH said...

‘This piece was about the depthlessness of “depth.” It was moving because it so thoroughly negated the disingenuous emotionality – the “soul,” perhaps – that conventionally makes canned music seem “deep.”’

In connection with this I am reminded of the two different recordings of Einstein on the Beach (the original 1979 recording and the 1993 re-recording). I think especially of the ending of the opera: Knee Play 5, with its clichéd and saccharine monologue “two lovers sat on a park bench…” The difference between the two recordings is remarkable. The original recording uses shitty synths, the whole thing clips forward in an utterly mechanical way, and the clichéd and saccharine monologue is read by a man whose wheezy voice seems like a caricature of what old Einstein might have sounded like, who speaks with an impersonal declamatory coldness: the effect is marvelous, both humorous and really quite sincerely moving. The re-recording is utter shit: it moves way to slow, the violin solo is played with expressive vibrato, it uses an actual full organ, and the monologue is read by a gentleman with a booming, velvety bass voice. In a word, the re-recording really seems to take seriously both the sentimentality of the text and the austerity of the Einsteinian/nuclear war theme, and as a result, it totally sucks.

What’s most interesting is not the negation of “disingenuous emotionality” but the negation of the negation where by this very strange destruction of depth itself becomes moving.

Maybe this happens because, by presenting us the juxtaposition of the faux-emotional text and the dispassionate, superficial music, the piece leaves the work (and pleasure) of processing the negation up to us to do. If this is so, then it means that being “moved”, the negation of the negation, is not a matter of a purely emotional experience of the ineffable, but also of intellectual work, of ‘getting it.’ I think this is ultimately your thesis: you were moved because you ‘got it’, and Hadju wasn’t moved because he didn’t ‘get it’.

However, I want to propose another explanation. What if the proper dialectic is this: the reason you are moved is that the negation preserves the idea of ‘true’ emotion, albeit negatively, as a kind of impossible object of desire. The music negates the emotionality of the text, not to destroy emotionality altogether, but to preserve the ideal of a real, authentic emotional experience, if just one that remains forever at arms length. Isn’t that the real definition of authenticity in the first place-- the appeal of authenticity is precisely its impossibility? The negation of the negation is thus still a kind of fleeting contact with this ineffable emotional sublime or authenticity, rather than just the satisfaction of solving an intellectual puzzle.

I opt for this more properly dialectical, more “nineteenth-century Germanic idealist” reading, rather than for taking postmodern delight in the “excess of nothing”, but hey maybe it’s a matter of taste ;-)

yours in faith,
g.w.f. lawrence of arabia

Whit Bernard said...

Sir Lawrence: Thanks for the comment. Actually I like your reading better, although in agreeing with it I wonder whether a) I too am full of shit (and it makes me self conscious, since in our conversations I feel like I usually play the role of Adornian defender of the Enlightenment) or b) yours is simply a more nuanced version of mine, which would lead to the presumption c) that the 'excess of nothing' is [nothing] but Adorno in a new track suit.

Rolling with the latter for the moment, I want to dwell on your notion of the double-negation as a means or preserving the category being denied. In this case, "depth" or "emotionality," i.e. catch-words for a Kantian aesthetic sublime - as you put it "a kind of impossible object of desire."

All the opportunistic misreadings of Kant on behalf of a whole cadre of German painters and composers, along with the naive attempts at appropriation of Kant's category by our friends in the culture industry, would have the sublime as something that can somehow be achieved - or better yet encapsulated - and exchanged for cultural capital.

In that sense my reading, translated into these terms, was simply that Glass's piece was satisfying because of it's avant-gardiste engagement with and rejection of the above claims. In this sense I might even argue that reactions like that of Hajdu are scripted into the performance. Not by the author, of course, but by virtue of the work's active participation in that which it negates. "Not getting it" while feeling as though you "get it" and dismissing it, is one way in which critical engagement can achieve a kind of completion. But pace Adorno (or at least I think so), in this case the critical engagement is a farce - and a metonymic substitution for a larger culture. I wouldn't have had cause to write the blog entry, and I probably wouldn't have thought any of this through, had it not been for Hajdu's article. In a sense his reading was a necessary prerequisite for my own.

So, yes, there is a dialectic emerging. My negation of his negation in turn negates the faux-idealist monoculture that would read Glass as a failed attempt to achieve that which his work rejects. In turn the negation of that faux-idealist monoculture, that illegitimate claim to the sublime, is asserted and packed with c4.

But the reassertion of a properly Kantian sublime, the notion that the "appeal of authenticity is precisely its impossibility" (actually, I would modify this slightly, and perhaps obnoxiously - the appeal of authenticity is precisely the impossibility of its utopian possibility) draws into question this idea of "getting it," or "being moved." I would actually separate the two, as you do, with the qualifier that Hajdu's "getting it" was no less legitimate an experience than my "getting it," although as you suggest (and I hadn't thought of this) his "getting it" was a rejection of the piece on behalf of a false category, while mine was an AFFIRMATION of the piece's rejection of that category, and thus in turn an affirmation of the sanctified impossibility of the category.

Which, as you also assert (and I know I am reading indulgently here on my own behalf, but humor me), makes my "getting it" more than just an experience of success at solving an intellectual puzzle. The double negation allows a certain contact with, or at least heightened awareness of, this re-asserted category of the sublime. In that sense it is moving in the terms of the Kantian aesthetic experience - it allows a brush against the barbed wire fence between that which can be experienced and that which cannot.

So, in keeping with proper dialectics, now that I have read your response I think I have a much more nuanced sense of my own response. Which makes me realize that it was mostly a gloss, and that the pomo-speak conclusion was, as usual, a way of avoiding thinking.

Which makes me wonder yet again about pomo-speak, at least as I understand it. Glass always makes me want to use it for some reason. Maybe it has to do with that '80s 'free play of the signifier' crap, and the silly and critically irresponsible cult of pop art that I always associate him with.

It's also symptomatic of Lyotard's reinvocation of the sublime as a sandbox for "postmodern" artists to play in, as though this denial of depth were somehow a sublime in and of itself, rather than a mere reassertion of Kant. This Lyotardian crap, which is interesting, is all about fetishizing the BREAK, and thus radicalizing the present, without having to do any real work. It sucks. And I always fall for it.

As usual, thanks for setting me straight. Someday I want to try to really disagree with you about something and see how that pans out.

Yours in the narrative,

Iben Falconer said...

I have your copy of Keywords and am holding it hostage until you return from that godforsaken country.

Iben Falconer said...

I have your copy of Keywords and am holding it hostage until you return from that godforsaken country.

Whit Bernard said...

Sir Lawrence writes:

"Isn’t that the real definition of authenticity in the first place-- the appeal of authenticity is precisely its impossibility? The negation of the negation is thus still a kind of fleeting contact with this ineffable emotional sublime or authenticity, rather than just the satisfaction of solving an intellectual puzzle.

I opt for this more properly dialectical, more “nineteenth-century Germanic idealist” reading, rather than for taking postmodern delight in the “excess of nothing”, but hey maybe it’s a matter of taste ;-) "

One thing I neglected to mention in my scattered response to g.w.f. lawrence's comment is the one last point he makes that I fully take issue with: his reading (and my subsequent, shameless appropriation of it) is not the least bit consistent with "nineteenth century germanic idealism."

Perhaps the term is too vague. After all, Plato is supposed to be the patriarch of this narrative, with Leibniz and Kant towing the line. But I do think the addition "Germanic" changes it, because it links it to a particular post-kantian strand of "idealism" which ignore's Kant's critical turn and dallies in the accesibility of the sublime to the right kind of guy - i.e. the "genius" or "hero." Fichte and Schopenhauer stand out here.

Of course most people throw Hegel into this narrative too, and so perhaps it is this patriarch of the dialectic that conflates one kind of idealism with another.

But Hegel wouldn't be Hegel for most of us wannabe leftists were it not for Marx. Marxist Hegelianism, and the subsequent post WWI reinvocation of Kantian critique, well, that's something different (although it is all in the dialectic, one supposes), and I think it is much more in line with Patrick's decidedly post-Nietschean response than the cult of the faux-sublime that I would associate with the German idealists of the 19th century. It is precisely this faux-sublime that, in my naive opinion, Lyotard attempts to reinvoke, and in a very different way, that Hajdu subscribes to in his worship of the authentic "deeper than skin deep" musical performance. There is a difference between preserving authenticity as an ideal, and claiming it as one's own, and it is in this difference that the distinction must be made between the two different historical concepts of "idealism" that are causing confusion here.

So, in short, I read the above-quoted "definition of authenticity in the first place" as an Adornian, rather than a Fichtean, reading of Kant.

Of course all of the above narrativizations of the history of philosophy are up for debate. Maybe I am missing the boat here. But, as far as I'm concerned, there are Germans and then there are Germans...

Blogs are fucking ridiculous.

Mr. Bacon said...

Fuck, it's 1:50AM and I can't make it through all of this brilliant interchange. So please excuse my lack of reference. But this is all highly interesting. Patrick's reading could be right on, but I'd say he's only read it this way because of merit society has granted authenticity for so long. I haven't heard the Glass work, but I'm guessing I would have been into it in the way I think Whit was, not because it maintained the concept of authenticity in its own lack of authenticity, but because it trashed authenticity as antiquated and stifling.

Well, I think we can all agree that Hadju is a moron, and a cumtwat.

PH and Ibster: please check out my blog if you want to amuse yourselves.