Tag Archives: Romanticism

Rock & Romanticism & Nick Cave & Palgrave

James Rovira’s just-published book, Rock and Romanticism: Postpunk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), includes my chapter “‘Little crimeworn histories’: Nick Cave and the roots-raves-rehab story of rock stardom.” (That chapter’s a full treatment of an inkling I first shared here nearly a decade ago.)

Rovira’s book is also accompanied by its own iTunes playlist that I was happy to help build and curate (and, in the process, encounter some great music I’d not previously known about); and the editor’s also got a whole blog post with listening samples and other links related to topics covered in the book.

For my part, I’ll just leave here a link to the video for the song that my chapter takes its title from: the exhilaratingly evil, deliriously demonic “Deanna”:


Romanticism versus repetitive beats: On Levitin’s This is your brain on music, part 2

If I was an old-school fifty-pound boombox
Would you hold me on your shoulder wherever you walk?
Would you turn my volume up in front of the cops
And crank it higher every time they told you to stop?
(Gym Class Heroes)

In my first post about Levitin’s book This is your brain on music, I described it as engaging and problematic; this post takes up the problematic part. Levitin’s study is problematic for a couple of reasons that both might be described as symptoms of Romanticism. In Levitin’s emphasis on emotion and his bias against automation, the discourse and ideology of Romanticism informs the premises and some of the specific arguments of this book.

A recurring claim in the book is the idea that music is primarily an emotional experience. “The essence of music performance is being able to convey emotion,” Levitin writes of musicianship (204); in the same chapter, he broadens the claim from the context of production to encompass reception as well: “What most of us turn to music for is an emotional experience” (208). Levitin links this emphasis on emotion to a related emphasis on expression; reflecting on the research and teaching of music, he asks “at what point in the curriculum is [sic] emotion and expressivity taught?” (208): the question is ultimately rhetorical, in his finding that the teaching of music and the research of musicianship are not focused on “the emotional” but rather on “the technical” (209). The opposition here between the emotional and the technical relates to the contrasts and conjunctions that Levitin finds between music and language, in the context of evolution:

As a tool for activation of specific thoughts, music is not as good as language. As a tool for arousing feelings and emotions, music is better than language. (267)

I’m not disputing Levitin’s scientific point here about music, language, emotion, and cognition; I’m observing how the opposition between emotion and technique in the context of music production resonates with that between emotion and thought in the context of human evolution, reinforcing western culture’s long-standing division of the faculties – the affective and the cognitive, the expressive and the intellectual, the heart and the mind – in a way that music itself has taken a role in problematizing and critiquing, as documented in work on electronic dance music (EDM) by British scholars Jeremy Gilbert and Ewan Pearson, and in work on black Atlantic music by Kodwo Eshun and Paul Gilroy, among others. For Eshun, Afro-Futurist music is as much a practice of multimedia theorizing, narrating, and knowledge production as it is a practice of moving and being moved; for Gilroy, black diasporic music represents a complex articulation of class and racialization according to discourses of gender and sexuality – and, furthermore, bears witness to the continuing fallout of Atlantic slavery. Surveying such work, Angela McRobbie summarizes:

It has been up to black writers in Britain, such as Paul Gilroy, to demonstrate just how much thinking there is in black music. Such music can hardly contain the investment of artistry, politics, history, and literary voice, so that as an aesthetic it is, by definition, spilling out and overflowing, excessive, a first destination for social commentary, dialogue, and rap that leaves those of us still caught in the prison of language far behind. (43-4)

Eshun’s work, for its part, explores how Afro-Futurist music challenges and reconfigures the western division of the faculties, arguing that knowledge can be produced somatically and kinaesthetically, that theory can happen deep in the grooves of an acetate dubplate. That work like his does so with reference to music that is now largely if not exclusively electronic brings me to the second symptom of Romanticism in Levitin’s work: the bias against automation and the corresponding fetishization of “liveness” (as Philip Auslander calls it). This bias only crystallizes in one passage of Levitin’s book, but its implications resonate throughout his discussions of music production and reception, composition and expectation. In chapter six, Levitin turns to the subject of “groove”: “the way in which beat divisions create a strong momentum … that quality that moves the song forward, the musical equivalent to a book you can’t put down” (170). Levitin’s example of great groove – and it’s indisputably a great example – is Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” (a track no DJ should be without). For Levitin, Wonder’s drumming in the opening bars of “Superstition” exemplify groove in terms of the musician’s exploitation of the listener’s expectations: how “he keeps us on our mental toes by changing aspects of the pattern every time he plays it, holding just enough of it the same to keep us grounded and oriented” (171). So far, so good. We know what groove is now, and we hear it, mentally, in his sampling of Wonder. But where Levitin takes the discussion of groove next is less to science than to Romanticism, in a passage reminiscent of Theodor Adorno’s hostility to “mechanical” music:

Musicians generally agree that groove works best when it is not strictly metronomic – that is, when it is not perfectly machinelike. Although some danceable songs have been made with drum machines (Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up,” for example), the gold standard of groove is usually a drummer who changes the tempo slightly according to aesthetic and emotional nuances of the music; we say then that the rhythm track, that the drums, “breathe.” (171-72)

In the space of two sentences, Levitin invokes Romantic assumptions – expressivity, spontaneity, organicism, and liveness (embodied presence, “being there”) – to amplify the mystique of traditional, non-technologically mediated musicianship, and all at the expense of the most globally popular and aesthetically significant music forms since the 1970s: dub and dancehall reggae, rap, disco, and its EDM successors, from Chicago house to dubstep. From the perspective of popular music studies, the concession that “some danceable songs have been made with drum machines” has got to be the understatement of the century.

This is as live as it gets

This is not at all to suggest anything as simplistic as the notion that drumming musicianship is obsolete; it is, rather, to show that the idea of drumming evoked here makes a specific and very narrow assumption about musicianship, an assumption that is reminiscent of the interwar Musicians’ Union lobbying against recorded music on behalf of “live” bands (Thornton 38-39). And the assumption becomes all the stranger in its contrast to Levitin’s arguments, elsewhere in the book, against rarefied professional specialization and for democratized participation as the more natural milieu for human music-making. Some drum machines and digital music software require specialized expertise, but the prevailing trend in their use has been to open up and democratize music-making and song recording.

What Levitin overlooks in this brief but revealing statement is, broadly speaking, nothing less than the globally transformative contribution of black Atlantic culture to popular music since roughly the postwar period; and what he overlooks more specifically is this culture’s creative adaptation of recording technologies and music automations – turntablism, tape splicing, synthesizers, digital sampling, timestretching, and so on – in the service of breathing new life into rhythm tracks and finding new ways for rhythm tracks to breathe: both expanding the total lung capacity of music – and giving it gills too. Black Atlantic music-makers, more than any others, have amply succeeded in redefining groove not against mechanical regularity but through it, from Afrika Bambaaata’s bass-quaking electro remix of Kraftwerk in “Planet Rock” and the dystopian drumscapes of Detroit techno, to the digital dicing of old funk breaks and splicing of drum machine patterns in the funky-frenetic rinse-outs of drum & bass, and the baleful bass drops of its dubstep progeny.

Derrick May has famously compared the sound of Detroit techno to the city itself as “a complete mistake. It’s like George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator” (qtd. in Sicko, 26). What black Atlantic music-makers before and after May have repeatedly demonstrated, though, is that you can clear everybody out of that elevator and sample and sequence its machine sounds, metronome sounds, unmusical sounds to make music that will fill a dancefloor, will leave the crowd breathless. In the kyriarchically related context of black diasporic music, Ben Williams argues that “becoming robots was, for African American musicians, a subliminally political act […] a form of self-empowerment” (“Black Secret Technology” 161). In the kyriarchically and subculturally related context of queer dance, Walter Hughes calls it a kind of liberatory, “technological identification”:

The fearful paradox of the technological age, that machines created as artificial slaves will somehow enslave and even mechanize human beings, is ritually enacted at the discotheque. (151-2)

“Music is organized sound,” Levitin continues (citing Edgard Varèse’s definition), “but the organization has to involve some element of the unexpected or it is emotionally flat and robotic. Too much organization may technically still be music, but it would be music that on one wants to listen to” (173). As an elaboration of the previously quoted statement and its explicit Romantic organicism, this latter passage forecloses on the ways in which Afro-Futurist music and EDM amplify rather than mute a “robotic” and “emotionally flat” aesthetic to exploit listener expectation and anticipation, and to reconfigure music’s effects beyond just affect. In its very early days, Chicago house music was widely dismissed by music critics for being too robotic and too repetitious – for some (according to telling associations of taste and bigotry), it was also too gay and too black. For house music’s initially queer, minoritized audience, its robotic and repetitious characteristics of the music were a big part of the music’s attraction: they made it a potent dancefloor analogue and accompaniment to sexual practices, and – just as importantly – they produced a sound alien and abrasive enough to function as a gatekeeper, keeping out wider audiences and thus keeping spaces like the Warehouse and the Paradise Garage safe for queer night life.

Come on let’s work it to the bone
Let’s work it to the bone bone bone
Let’s work
To the bone bone bone

Following the massive popularization of techno and raves in the 1990s, the criticism that the music was too robotic and repetitious came from a much more insidious source: the British government itself, whose 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act criminalized raves by expressly prohibiting gatherings of ten or more people in scenes featuring dance music, which the Act notoriously defines as “sounds wholly or predominantly characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” (qtd. in McKay 164). Since then, despite further regulatory pressures and moral panics, the culture of EDM has gone from strength to strength in entrenching its global popularity and influencing the direction and aesthetics of popular music. For Levitin’s popular science book to reinscribe the bias against robotic and repetitive music on behalf of Romantic investments in authenticity and aura is to lend a dangerous veneer of scientific authority to the wider-reaching socio-political beatdowns that have historically met music scenes characterized by a succession of repetitive beats.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. “On the fetish character in music and the regression of listening.” The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. Ed. J. M. Bernstein. London: Routledge, 1991. 26-52.

Auslander, Philip. Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Eshun, Kodwo. More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction. London: Quartet, 1998.

Gilroy, Paul. “There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack”: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

Gym Class Heroes feat. Adam Levine. “Stereo Hearts.” Warner Bros., 2011.

Hughes, Walter. “In the Empire of the Beat.” Microphone Fiends: Youth Music & Youth Culture. Ed. Andrew Ross and Tricia Rose. New York: Routledge, 1994. 147-57.

Levitin, Daniel. This is your brain on music: The science of a human obsession. New York: Penguin Plume, 2007.

LNR. “Work it to the bone.” House Jam, 1987.

McKay, George. Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties. London: Verso, 1996.

McRobbie, Angela. “Thinking with Music.” Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth. Ed. Karen Kelly and Evelyn McDonell. New York: New York UP, 1999. 37-49.

Reynolds, Simon. “How Rave Music Conquered America.” The Guardian 2 Aug. 2012.

Thornton, Sarah. Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1996.

Williams, Ben. “Black Secret Technology: Detroit Techno and the Information Age.” Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life. Ed. Alondra Nelson and Thuy Linh N. Tu. New York: New York UP, 2001. 154-76.

Format-shifting and fidelity: on reading and adaptation

Recent work on adaptation studies (the study of novels turned into movies, and so on) suggests that the ideas the field was founded on – like how “faithful” a movie is to its source – have been superseded, left behind as passé or outmoded. That’s the state of the field according to Linda Hutcheon’s 2006 book A Theory of Adaptation, for instance.

So reading Jamie Lee Wallace’s blog post about how “audio books are not cheating” – to gether with its comments – is a useful reminder that ideas about fidelity to source texts and authenticity in original versions are alive and well in everyday language and popular culture. Wallace is responding to criticisms that reading audio rather than print editions of books is a kind of “cheating.” She makes solid, practical arguments: that the text is the same; that audiobooks make reading possible for otherwise busy schedules; and, most interestingly, that the speaking voice adds presence (what Walter Benjamin calls “aura”) and, sometimes, additional interpretive layers.

My main criticism of the post was going to be that she doesn’t name those who think audiobooks are cheating: who are the “bibliophile purists” she’s responding to?

Then I started reading the comments. The overwhelming majority agree with the blogger (not surprising, since the blog medium itself would filter out a lot of print purists). But the dissenting comments are revealing. (I admit I’m taking some of these out of context.)

“I don’t listen to books — I read them.”
“I’m still just purist enough to be annoyed by eBooks. I still think nothing beats the feeling of actually holding the book and turning the pages.”
“I am totally one of those people who wouldn’t be caught dead with a kindle or any fandangled technology device that’s trying to replace books.”
“I felt dirty for listening to it. I was cheating myself of the experience of cradling a book in my hands and being curled up on the couch with it, but it freed my hands up to do other things..granted there was a few sound effects added into the story, which helped enhance the experience but I don’t think I can really say I’ve “read” that book because I didn’t physically hold it in my hands.”
“I still insist that books are meant to be read. However, I do not consider audio-books or kindle versions to be cheating, with one condition: That the book is intact. That is all summaries, short versions and most obviously movie adaptations are cheating. Mostly because they give everything in bite size, easily digested pieces. The point about a book is to let your imagination go wild and enjoy the imagery the author so carefully created.”

As you can see, the discussion ends up encompassing not just audiobooks but e-books as formats seen to compete with print as more people shift to them. But the shift isn’t one-way, just as adaptation isn’t one-way. (Hutcheon discusses how novels changed over the 20th century to adopt more “cinematic” techniques.) In this light, the last quoted comment’s point about abridgments is well taken – I read unabridged audio editions – but to call a film adaptation “cheating” is to misconstrue what films do (unless you’re talking about films that cheat estates out of their royalties), and yet it’s a widely held opinion. I myself confess to having felt vaguely like I was taking a shortcut by reading Ulysses (unabridged) as an audiobook; but that feeling was easily trumped by a rewarding feeling of accomplishment: I’ve read Ulysses!

Ulysses, by James Joyce

What this blog post suggests for adaptation studies is that it needs to engage critically with the popular romance of fidelity: the fetishes of authenticity and aura that we have inherited from Romantic tradition and that clearly continue to inform popular receptions and understandings of popular culture. (There’s also, among this post’s comments, a recurring sense that new media simply replace old – as I discussed last week.)

But by the same token, “purists” need to ask themselves what purity they are defending, and what that defence serves. Discourses of purity, for instance, are historically bound up in pernicious practices and institutions of race and nation. And defences of purity are one of the main ideological weapons still deployed by multinational media conglomerates to sell the public on increasingly restrictive, censorious, and invasive copyright regulation. In addition, media today are so diverse and multi-directional in their mutual appropriations and cross-pollinations that more pertinent and productive questions beg to be asked than whether audio editions are more real or more readable than paper, or whether Clueless is “faithful” to Austen.

Take Canadian poet Christian Bok’s Xenotext Experiment, for instance: a poem transcribed into a bacterium’s genome, for it to replicate and mutate – literally re-writing Bok’s poem – ad infinitum. What might readers attached to print make of this writing? How does one read the “original” text of a bacterial genome?

The stakes of literary criticism

The stakes of literary criticism sometimes turn out to be higher than prevailing preconceptions about it would suggest (you know, the preconceptions involving elbow patches, overpaid obscurantism, and social irrelevance). For instance, earlier this year a New York law professor faced criminal libel charges in France for publishing a critical book review. Around the same time, a Kuwaiti blogger got sued for posting a bad restaurant review.

The counter-discourse about literary criticism as a matter of life or death has roots in the pamphlet and periodical hostilities that marked (and marred) print culture in the Romantic period. The most famous example is the poet Keats, famously sensitive to critical reviews. “Who killed John Keats?” asked Byron in 1821, promptly answering on behalf of one particularly persecuting periodical: “‘I,’ says the Quarterly…”

But Keats’ case is still figurative, not literal, after all: it wasn’t bad reviews that actually killed Keats — it was tuberculosis, whose close reading skills apply only to deconstructing the ambiguities and aporias of the body’s immune system. Rather, the real life-or-death stakes of literary criticism surface in the fact that most negative reviews themselves were published anonymously — as were numerous now-famous novels, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to Walter Scott’s Waverley series, to Austen’s oeuvre. As William St Clair argues in his endlessly absorbing study The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, “anonymity protected publishers and printers from the law of libel” (174).

Perhaps that’s a protection that some of the aforementioned present-day critics wish they had, just as, perhaps, it’s a protection that explains the death of netiquette and the ubiquity of commentating trolls. But anonymity warded against more than just libel in the romantic period:

Anonymity also reduced the risk of being called out to fight in a duel, a form of literary criticism which killed more than one writer of the romantic period. (175)

Such wryly observed literary history puts in perspective “the death of the author,” reminding us of a time when an act of reading represented a kind of re-writing that was radically and literally tantamount to murder (not even murder most foul, but murder socially sanctioned, at that). Let’s hope that, amidst increasingly extremist, neoliberal forms of deregulation, IP law enforcement, and extreme sports (like ultimate fighting or chessboxing), the current spate of libel actions against critics doesn’t augur a return to the good old bad old days when running an unfavourable critique could risk catching a bullet.

Cross-blogged from the AU Landing

NASSR 2010: Romantic Mediations (remediated)

This year’s conference for the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR) was co-hosted by UBC, SFU, and the U of Victoria, and held in downtown Vancouver, just blocks from Stanley Park.

View from the top-floor conference rooms of the hotel. Not distracting at all.

This year’s theme, Romantic Mediations, was particularly productive. I say this mostly because of my own research interest in Romanticism’s popular cultural legacies, but also because of the program’s focused and lively discussions, and, in part, because of the increasingly mediated culture of academic conferences.

The theme directed a lot of attention to the diversity of media forms and the materiality of cultural production in the Romantic period. In the first keynote on Thurs., Aug. 18, William Warner and Clifford Siskin advocated a “history of mediation” as a material and concrete alternative to the more traditional but abstract “history of ideas.” Their presentation seemed both coy and provocative: coy, in that their argument seemed to build (albeit productively, imho) on both Marx and McLuhan without acknowledging either; provocative, in that they styled their talk as an exhortation to adopt their approach. The discussion that followed was feisty: some took issue with what seemed a faddish adoption of computing terminology; some grilled them on their sources and precedents; and some felt they were preaching to the converted, advocating a kind of historical materialism already old very old hat to a field transformed thirty years ago by New Historicism. (For my part, I was left curious enough to at least check out their work, like the Re-Enlightenment Project.)

The theme also prompted a lot of contributions on Romantic theatre and performance, leading me to compile a much better bibliography than that which I’d drawn on to draft the talk I was to give on Saturday (in the second of Danny O’Quinn’s two sessions on “media archaeology”). Fred Burwick’s session on Romantic drama included a paper by Melynda Nuss that I initially worried would moot my own, in her claim that “the technology itself was one of the main items on display” in Romantic theatre. But for Nuss this was premise not thesis for an engaging look at the period’s spectacular “aqua-dramas”: plays on nautical themes, with water scenes that drove the invention of some pretty heavy stage machinery. Subsequently, Friday’s keynote gave me the historical puzzle pieces I didn’t know I’d been looking for, as the Welsh science historian Iwan Rhys Morus gave a tour of the theatrical culture of science in Romantic Britain, and how it gave way to the more professional, less sensational practices of Victorian science. (Now I had more than a better bibliography for my work on the first Frankenstein plays–I had to tweak the paper itself, to give a nod to Morus’ work.)

Dr Morus tells us about the predecessors of Dr Moreau.

This keynote took place at SFU’s Woodward campus, nestled between regular downtown and Vancouver’s downtown east side. Strangely, this would not be the only time the conference found itself adjacent to a zombie parade. Moments before the final keynote on Saturday, I was out on the second-storey hotel terrace overlooking Denman Street, alone except for the keynote speaker, Dr Heather Jackson, composing herself before her talk with a crossword. Shouts from the street drew us to the railing, where a hundreds-strong march soon resolved into a mass zombie walk of the kind so popular now.

What do they want? Brainsss. (Photo credit: Louise)

They staggered down the street. They swarmed a parked bus.

Zombie walk participants swarm a bus. (Photo credit: Goh.)

What a perfect performance of re-mediated Gothic. And there I was, caught for once without my camera to re-remediate it. Of course, what with the ubiquity of cameras and the end of privacy and all, most of the zombies brought along their own cameras, documenting the day in sometimes too much detail.

Surely (as Byron told Banks of vivisection) this is too much. (Photo credit: Christine)

But perhaps I digress. Among the proceedings and festivities, some recurring points of reference that were not zombies also emerged, notably Friedrich Kittler’s history of discourse networks circa 1800 and 1900, and Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s theory of remediation: the “contradictory imperative” to resort to hyper-mediation as a means to simulate immediacy, as a perennial response to new and emergent media. For example: describing a printed text as an improvised performance (the topic of Angela Esterhammer’s fascinating seminar); or, for a more contemporary example, tweeting from a conference discussion in progress (i.e. “hyper-mediating” an immediate, “live” experience) to communicate some of the interest and urgency of the moment.

Ironically, however, the growing intensity of digital remediation and back-channel dialogue that have become a much-discussed trend in the digital Humanities–“conference hacking,” if you will–were not much in evidence at NASSR (held at a hotel with free wireless, no less). I could find only one other delegate, Katherine D. Harris, who was tweeting the proceedings. The listserv seemed dormant during the event, although it has circulated some well-deserved kudos to the organizers since (which I enthusiastically echo); similarly quiet during the event was the NASSR grad students’ blog, which now has some post-game commentary. I was alerted to a Facebook page for Romantics scholars, where some delegates have shared remarks and reviews. There may well have been more digital mediating of a conference whose theme so clearly invited it, and maybe I just wasn’t picking up the right channels.

And I could have been doing more, for my own part: I could have posted my suggested hash-tag on the listserv; I could have made time for more than tweeting, which admittedly has its limits for encapsulating conceptual complexity. (After all, it’s only now that I’ve found the time to share my own reflections on the event in detail.) I suppose I was just expecting more of the “remediating,” real-time back channel with which Twitter has become so good at supplying (supplementing?) other conferences like the MLA convention.

I’m not advocating more digital dialogue and mediation because it’s increasingly ubiquitous elsewhere, or just to appear tuned in and wired up (although there is a case to be made that publicly remediating debates over literary history and politics can help to change public perceptions about the stakes–or perceived lack thereof–in such fields). As shown by so many of the talks I attended in Vancouver; as shown by NASSR’s attention to media (from prior conference themes like techne and newness to systems like the listserv itself); and as shown by the wider field’s deep and diverse investments in new media (the Blake Archive, Romantic Circles, RaVoN): the discourse networks and media ecologies around 1800 have continued to shape and resonate with our experiences of discourse networks and media ecologies around 2000. So playing more extensively with the interface of hyper-mediated and immediate modes of communication and representation–playing, that is, with remediation in the performance scene of the conference–can shed new light on the ideologies and implications of media (both new and dead), and can transform the shape and tone of the conference as such, which is by no means a new medium, but one that can be not only compromised, but also (and at the same time) enriched and extended by the myriad forms and deployments of remediation.