Monday, 29 February 2016

Politics, Noise and Citizens of the World

One of the benefits of being on Twitter is that, occasionally and usually out of the blue, a reasonable and interesting conversation might break out. I had two such conversations last night about what might, at first glance, appear to be unrelated subjects. However, on further reflection it seems to me that perhaps they aren't so different at all. The first subject is politics in general although the context in which I discussed this was the American political system and, of course, the presidential campaigns which are currently in full swing over there. The second subject was that brand of electronic music known as "noise". This can be anything from abstract sound washes or creepy atmospheres and textures to maniacal ranting into a microphone over a background of insane amounts of electronic feedback. The question is "How do these disparate subjects come to be seen as similar?" Let me try and explain.

The now sadly deceased philosopher, Richard Rorty, was an American liberal. Besides being a philosopher in the pragmatist tradition he was also that most interesting of things, the "public intellectual". He had a lifelong interest in politics which seemingly stemmed from childhood and his parents had been politically active too. He wrote both papers and books about America as a political entity explaining what he regarded that the American political hope was. When I have read him I am always struck by his notion that America is the greatest political experiment that the world has ever undertaken, a bold and audacious attempt to build the best kind of society we humans can conceive of. Rorty has much to say about this. Of course, not being American myself I see in this a deal of what us non-Americans would sniggeringly regard as American big-headedness too. And yet for Rorty there is in the historical vicissitudes of the creation of America, with its Constitution and various Amendments, something worth having and preserving, something good, hopeful and beneficial to human kind. America, seen in this positive light, becomes a beacon of hope for all of us.

Of course, such positive and hopeful talk is always likely to be blasted away by the realities. I'm not a fan of television news or mainstream media but if I look at any of it I see in America a country that seems anything but "a beacon of hope for all of us". America seems set (if I may be so bold) to soon host an election between a racist clown called Donald Trump and a dishonest corporate stooge called Hillary Clinton. But its more than that. America seems a country riven from top to toe by deep-seated and thorough-going division and partisanship. It proclaims itself as the "Land of the Free" but I don't see very much freedom there unless you happen to be a billionaire. America is a land of many powerful myths - and that you are free seems to be one of them. There are those there who venerate the written articles of its inception as if they were commandments handed down by God himself. Yet these are just the historical formulations of certain men at a certain time and place which some have taken as holy writ. Look to many kinds of political strife today and America leads the way on it (besides killing many of its own citizens as a matter of course). Is it the case that black lives matter, blue lives matter or all lives matter, for example? For many, they have a cartoonish political stance ready for any possible happening in the world and this politically-motivated identity informs their whole existence and their view of the world and everybody in it. This is a vision of hell not of hope.

In my discussion last night I talked about this in the context of forms of government. It was suggested that I was taking umbrage at all forms of government when I said during that conversation that the American Constitution is a fable based only on the willingness of people to enforce it, that is, by force. My point there was what I regard as the obvious one: all political power is ultimately achieved and enforced by force of arms. During the conversation I said that the only interesting political question is "What happens to me if I disagree with what you say?" This question was posed to highlight the fact that somewhere down the line force comes into play and it was meant to open a chink of light for those who wanted to think it through and see where such a question leads. The world we have today is over 200 political fiefdoms many of which are nominally "democratic" in formulation but I wonder at the sense and force of the word "democratic" there. It is probably true that any kind of democracy is worse than none at all so please don't take me to be anti-democratic. What I am, in a King Canute kind of a way (he's the guy who couldn't hold back the waves by his command for those not up on their old English history), is probably anti-political. I avoid party politics since the very stench of it repulses me. The very idea of party politics is to represent, stand up for and defend a political position. I cannot think of anything worse.

How this has worked out, at least in our Western societies that are being notionally democratic, is to enshrine all kinds of conventional notions and truths. These conventionalities serve purposes and the people who have those purposes. Political parties have and serve ideologies and these ideologies serve certain, but not all, people. I would agree with both French and American revolutionaries that the citizen should be the most important person in any democracy but it seems naive to believe this or that it could ever be so.  My political question still remains for me front and center: "What happens to me if I disagree with you?" This question highlights, I think, that no one is politically free and that the sanction of "might is right" will always be against you. The truth is we hope to be left alone in the world to go about our peaceful business. But we cannot guarantee this. We live in a world where political powers take things into their own hands as judge, jury and often executioner. Many are those who have found themselves plucked out of life never to be seen again. Its important to note here that, basically, we are relying on other people being honest or playing fair. We don't have much more than this to rely on. Rules are made to be broken, remember?

Electronic noise can be harsh and unforgiving, even unlistenable. There is a documentary film called PEOPLE WHO DO NOISE that you can find on You Tube about people who make Noise in Portland, Oregon. Underneath it are a bunch of interesting comments, many of which point to a social function in the making of noise music. Its noted by one commenter that Punk was a form of music that was, overtly, a "kick against the rules". I think, too, of the industrial music of the mid to late 1970s in Great Britain which was explicitly non-conventional (and overtly political), an attempt to completely disregard any mainstream thought on what music even was and to mark new territory as musical and, more importantly, as theirs. A similar phenomenon occurred in early 1970s Germany with various electronic noisemakers, many lumped together by a disrespectful English-speaking press as "Krautrock" but often known as "kosmische" in Germany itself. These people, too, wanted to throw off the received musical conventions and mark out their own territory. This territorial aspect is important for it is one way we can link political ambitions to musical ones. 

Most interesting to me are the reactions of those commenting on the People Who Do Noise video who completely take against it. These are those who would answer my question "What happens if I disagree with what you say?" likely in a very negative and possibly confrontational way. One commenter describes a lot of the noisemakers featured as "delusional", regarding them as nihilistic attention-seekers. To the suggestion of some of those interviewed that their noisemaking has a political purpose - to free them from capitalism and society - he replies by pillorying them. Another commenter suggests that the noise enthusiasts are "trying to out suck each other" and he refers to their "limited imagination". He refers to the many "interesting noises" that could be made and yet that word "interesting", it seems to me, is what trips this particular commenter up. "Interesting" is not an objective category. People, individuals, citizens, get to decide for themselves what's "interesting". Nothing is or isn't inherently interesting. We decide for ourselves. This is another clue to where noise and politics meet. For the politically motivated will tell you that some political polities just are the case. But there, too, it seems to me that we get to decide for ourselves.

A further commenter on this video appreciates that people can make electronic noise and that this is a valid activity - but somehow it isn't enough. Instead, you have to be like (his example) Trent Reznor who uses noise but has formed it into something more musically conventional. He has made a tune out of it and not just left it in its raw, basic state as chaotic and visceral. This is, to me, an example of those people who are trying to be reasonable but, actually, they are just more of the conventional people. The challenge in listening to noise is to hear it as music at all and most people fail in this task. That is a change that needs to take place in you. You need, in modern parlance, to "get it". This commenter again believes in some kind of real music as if noise isn't really that but if only we will use some conventional artifice then it could be. We can't allow use of sounds to fall back into the chaotic and unordered dark ages. We need to step out into the light that human action has revealed.

I see this attitude prevalent in both musical and political spheres. Where, for some, the chaos and harshness of noise is not within the boundaries of music, for others it is any number of political ideas which are not genuine and true. But, in the end, it all comes down to power and who has the might to bring their visions to be. This is what creates the mainstream and all the accepted conventions of life. This is why so many of the noisier forms of music (at least the ones not co-opted by capitalists such as the bizarre spectacle of heavy metal as done by Metallica) regard themselves as overtly political. This is why they see themselves as leaving the common ground that is claimed and ruled by the predominant ideology and heading out to make new ground. Metallica are a noisy band but they are conventional and capitalist through and through. Its a money-making exercise. Contrast this with the people in People Who Do Noise or bands such as Cluster (particularly their first two albums which are abstract noise), Throbbing Gristle or Cabaret Voltaire. The latter have their art guided by their political ideas. They are free spirits not societal clones. The former are to all intents and purposes apolitical but, of course, end up being political exactly because of that. "Get rich and live the rich man's lifestyle" is their creed. 

Of course, it will come as a shock to some that music is regarded as political at all. But it absolutely is. By some this is deliberate and they make it plain and spell out what the political message of their music is. Others don't but it can be divined from how they position themselves musically. Do they fit in or do they stand at odds with prevailing trends? Music has long been known to lend itself to propaganda or to certain ideas of lifestyle or philosophy. As the early German electronic pioneers knew, the blues-based rock of the 1960s spoke of American values that they did not share or want and the native pop music of Germany, called Schlager, was tame and conventional, speaking of a different political orthodoxy. It enshrined within it ideas of being a good, conventional German. Goebbels loved it in a way that he did not love what he regarded as the debased music called jazz, particularly free jazz. People like Edgar Froese, who founded Tangerine Dream in the late 1960s, wanted to create a new music that had none of these political associations. They wanted a different canvas that they could give their own meanings to. For bands like this and others like Popol Vuh and Cluster this would start off with abstract, electronic noise. The message was clear: we are not like that.

"Politics" comes from the Greek language. The polis was the Greek city and politics is, accordingly, the business of the city. Cities are where groups of people congregate to live together because, this is the thinking, doing so will benefit everyone. It gives advantages of security and defense and being able to live in relative peace. But from this simple idea things become more complicated. It would be alright if everyone was happy with this. But the truth is some people aren't. People seem to have a need to seek their own advantage and this is often at the expense of other people. This creates difference, division and partisanship. Some try to broach this issue with rules or statements of principle. This, I believe, is what the American Constitution (as just one example) tries to do. But it cannot work because even those pledged to uphold such things will betray them for personal gain. Words don't mean much by themselves and they require people to make them speak. People, it may be noted, will often speak from their own interest and words, even words written in a Constitution, are powerless to resist. And there is always the question of "the spirit of the law" and what such things were always meant to achieve. We all know how easy it is to make weasel words regarding what is written yet trample all over the ideas those words were meant to represent. Politics, it seems to me, is, at bottom, just a dog fight for survival. Those engaged in it will use any means necessary, not least rhetorical, to achieve their goals. And that includes duping any and every body else as to what is really at stake. People will talk of "concepts" and "ideas" but this is just a political powerplay. It is saying "I want the world to be like this".

Most people who make noise, particularly those making abstract noise, are often political too. Their vision is non-standard just as their means of expressing it is. I see such artists as these as those who are explicitly putting my question to society. They are saying, in the feedback and random, tuneless chaos, "What happens if I disagree with what you say?". They are doing this by overtly making music that many others won't even recognize as music. They are causing all kinds of otherwise regular people to regard them as "delusional" or strange or offbeat. Of course, to be offbeat is simply not to be in time with the main flow of something. But who says anyone has to be in time with it? If you believe that life itself, not just in its political dimension, is not a game then we have a duty to ask all the pertinent questions and to take them to their logical conclusions, to go all the way, as it were. Am I free? Will you and the rest of society allow me to be truly free? Or is it the case that "freedom" is a sham word? Am I really bound in by freedom which becomes the freedom to live as the rest of society has decided I should be allowed to live? And, if so, is that really freedom at all? What is the truth of the thought that one person's freedom becomes another person's lack of it? Just as politicians try to take power to themselves and exercise its dominion over us so noise musicians take musical territory to themselves in an attempt to establish their own kingdoms. At bottom, both see the world a certain way and try to bring it about. Both have a vision. And a vision can be a powerful thing.

What is my dog in this particular hunt? I am a non-conventional person. It seems to me more and more that my only purpose in life is to battle all the dumb, mainstream, conventional thoughts that hold people in a trance. I have philosophical precursors in this task, not least Diogenes, the man who lived in a barrel (so we are told) and who, when asked, called himself a "citizen of the world". But the question is will the world let people like him, and now like me, break the rules and be non-conventional? Are we allowed to be free spirits or will the might of conventionality crush us and call us "delusional"? Certainly the non-conventional risk being misunderstood in a world in which the very language is given its meaning with all the might of political force (gender studies is a powerful example of that!). And the problem for the misunderstood, the non-conventional, the outsiders, is that people in general find it easier to be nasty to those they consider "not like them". So, in the end, its this I see as the real human challenge. That challenge is to see us all as just citizens of the world, equal citizens of the world. Richard Rorty, in his ever hopeful way, saw America at its best as a step on the road to this, a step on the road to identifying with ever larger groups of people, extending the circle of our commitment and togetherness, the group of people we would regard as "like us".

"But don't hold your breath just yet," I say, pessimistically. My question still stands: 


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