Towards an Academic Imperative

I’ve been finding it hard to write lately. Writing has never come easy to me – the things I have to say which are worth saying come slowly, and with difficulty, if at all. I’ve spent the last few weeks researching a piece on anthropocentric narratives in nature documentaries, but given the chaos unfolding in the wider world at the moment, I’ve had a hard time pushing myself to finish it. As I watch the systematic destruction of the values I hold dear from afar, a deep hush descends, blanketing all. How can I justify holding forth on literature when fascism, white-supremacism, and mob rule are in ascendancy? And yet I know as well as anyone, silence is complicity. So I must act, act now and not later. I’ve always thought I believed deeply in the power of literature, and yet, submerged in the maelstrom of the now, I can feel those foundations start to quiver. Make no mistake, we are already at war, and if we in academia (and especially those of us in the humanities) do not now learn to use the critical tools at our disposal to defend ourselves and those around us, our side is already forfeit.

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Academic writing at the end of 2016. Credit: KC Green

Just before Christmas I ran into someone from the English department in Waterstones buying John Williams’ Stoner as a gift for a relative, and I wondered if this was not some secret expression, a subtle cry for help from the humanities as a whole. Like William’s ordinary academic, we must struggle to live with dignity, compelled to sacrifice ourselves to the commercial machinery of the academy, which cares for us not a jot. I think of Stoner’s Archer Sloane, broken by the war and his failure to save the young men in his care from throwing their lives away. Looking at that harrowed face, preserved in the tomb of a department office, I see the reflection of our own.

At the same time, I was researching a piece on Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. Reading Benjamin and Adorno, looking at the ways they tried (with some failure, some success) to take a stand against the rise of fascism in Germany using critical theory and cultural analysis, unveiled the shortcomings of my own. I spent weeks abject, unable to work because I could not justify the existence of that work, even to myself. I fell into despair, and worse, self-pity. Today it is not enough just to work, or even to work well. We must now justify ourselves, and the worth of our work, not only to ourselves, and our academic communities, but to the world at large. Though I mean this in an ethical and political sense, in the end I fear the justification must also be a financial one.

The thing that helped me to reconcile my desire to work with the imperative to resist (aside from reading what others have said before me) was an invitation to present at a thesis-in-three conference held by the Undergraduate Awards. I was to present a paper which I had written last year on McCarthy’s The Road, but to an interdisciplinary audience, with just three minutes to speak, and a single slide. While I had been happy with my work as a piece of literary criticism, these new parameters forced me to think seriously about what in it was of real material value in this moment of history. What could I take from it to show to the world and, without hesitation, say “Here. Here is something worth even a short amount of your time”? I do not know if I succeeded, but what I decided on was this:

In a historical moment such as ours, when our systems of language, of knowing, of belief, and of truth have been shattered into countless fragments, it may seem natural to desire a return to the grand old narratives that once cohered our society, and our culture. And yet this return is a purely destructive one, a move towards unbecoming.

Given this, I’d like to look at Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, not simply as a parable of our time, but as illustrative of a potential praxis, which might move us towards reconciliation.

The novel presents a post-apocalyptic landscape, where all systems of community, of law, ecology, and epistemology have failed. Language is fading from existence, as the names of things and their meanings are forgotten. All that is left is a man and his son, who must struggle against this world, and find order.

The road itself presents a type of language, a system for understanding one’s relationship to their landscape, via the medium of travel. For the characters, the road becomes a schema for progress, for perpetual motion towards an increasingly nebulous goal. It also provides linear rendering of spatial dimensions, the only semblance of order that they can aspire to impose on their oppressive landscape. Yet this too seems to be slipping away, as the roads crumble, and so too does their map, broken into tattered fragments.

The structure of the novel itself mirrors this process, the sequence of events becoming only loosely connected at points, while at other times McCarthy inserts elliptical paragraph breaks right into the middle of tense moments of action fragmenting the unity, not only of time and space, but the page itself.

To escape this death of language and landscape, the child must reject the narratives put forward by his father, his “old stories of courage and justice”, in favour of something as yet undreamt of, true only to him, and his world without teleology.

He must also reject systems of commodification, both the old system of capitalistic commercialisation, and its apocalyptic counterpart – cannibalism. For McCarthy, something fundamental is shared by these systems of unchecked consumptive greed, and the child instead chooses to live by an ethical code that encourages equality, breaking the egocentric and anthropocentric boundaries of the old world.

The world that has died in the novel is that of American mythology – of exceptionalism, of the frontier, of survivalism, and of capitalism. These myths are auto-cannibalistic in nature – to propagate, they must feed upon themselves. Paradoxically, for this mythological cycle to continue, it must be destroyed and rebuilt in the shape of the now, and this is the key realisation for our moment in time.

The image conjured by the phrase “make America great again” is not one of birth into a new era, but rather one of regression, of the child being dragged screaming back into the womb, towards its undoing. As McCarthy suggests, the beginning and ending of things are closely linked; “Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made”. So instead, I’d like to suggest that the imperative should be to first make a greatness that is American, to break those grand old narratives down, and find ways in which they might help, rather than hinder, create, rather than destroy.

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Academic writing at the start of 2017. Credit: KC Green

So what now? Does this really solve anything? Perhaps I overestimate the value of what we do, but if that’s to be my undoing, I’ll go out with a smile. That said, a critical approach is of no value whatsoever without a counterpart of material praxis. The call to academic action is returned by the call to political and social action on local, national, and international levels. Debate, volunteer, protest, donate, boost the voices of those silenced – these types of action are as vital in the sociopolitical sphere as they are in the academic one. Together, just maybe, we’ll endure.

Works Cited

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. Picador, 2007.
Williams, John. Stoner. Vintage, 2012.
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Anarchy and the Culture Industry

As part of our theory coursework, we’ve been looking at the work of Frankfurt School critical theorists such as Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, particularly their ideas on the culture industry and the avant-garde, as well as music’s role within these. Because I am who I am, I immediately started to think about how these concepts of political dissidence and consumption in art related to the punk movement of the late 70s and early 80s. How are the political aims expressed by the lyrics, musical stylings, and fashion of these groups reflected in their means of production and dissemination into the public sphere? And in what ways can punk address the Umfunktionierung of its own format?

Adorno, speaking about the protest music of the 60s, was doubtful as to the real political potential of music within the confines of a commercial system and the formal and stylistic norms imposed by this. He claims that

“attempts to bring political protest together with ‘popular music’ – that is, with entertainment music – are for the following reason doomed from the start. The entire sphere of popular music, even there where it dresses itself up in modernist guise is to such a degree inseparable from past temperament, from consumption, from the cross-eyed transfixion with amusement, that attempts to outfit it with a new function remain entirely superficial. And I have to say that when somebody sets himself up, and for whatever reason sings maudlin music about Vietnam being unbearable I find that really it is the song that is in fact unbearable, in that by taking the horrendous and making it somehow consumable, it ends up wringing something like consumption-qualities out of it” (Brown).

However, by time punk music rolls around, at least initially this “crossed-eyed transfixion with amusement” appears to have gone. Rather than masquerading as an easily consumable product, punk deliberately exploits discordant sounds and chaotic public performance to reflect its challenging political content. This achieves what Benjamin refers to as “shock effect” – an awaking of the consumer from their passive existence through confrontation with the means of production.

However, whether you interpret the style of late 70s UK punk exemplified by the Sex Pistols as an avant-garde series of elaborate situationist pranks, or the nihilistic roar of a young working class being starved by a crumbling economy, any contention that this was a serious challenge to the capitalist establishment is undercut by the groups’ reliance on and operation within the mainstream record industry. Likewise, the record industry’s happiness to co-opt rebellion against itself and exploit punk’s theatrics for profit demonstrates capital’s readiness to wear the mask of revolution, while in truth shoring up its own authority. Just what does the “anarchy” of the Sex Pistols “Anarchy in the UK” signify? Surely it is more bauble than gunpowder plot. Punk, at least in this early form, is a carnivalesque reflection of mainstream culture that, because it can only exist with the consent of that order (using its capital to produce and promote records and tours), cannot affect structural or sustainable change against that it. Each would-be revolutionary is in fact a double agent against their own will, as détournement inevitably cedes to recuperation.

Benjamin, in criticising the “new matter-of-fact” literature of his time, claims “their function is to produce, from the political standpoint, not producers but agents. Agents or hacks who make a great display of their poverty, and a banquet of yawning emptiness. One could not be more totally accommodated in an uncozy situation” (264). This is a line of thought further developed by Adorno’s assertion that “in capitalist times, the traditional anti-mythological ferments of music conspire against freedom, as whose allies they were once proscribed. The representatives of the opposition to the authoritarian schema become witnesses to the authority of commercial success”, with the end result being that “the listener is converted, along his line of least resistance, into the acquiescent purchaser” (273). Stewart Home points out that a similar attitude that took hold in punk:

“What punk did do was tap into a reservoir of social discontent and create an explosion of anger and energy. Punk wasn’t offering a solution, it was simply a genre of novelty music being hyped on the back of the manic and frequently pointless exploitation of social tensions. Punk was pure sensation, it had nothing to offer beyond a sense of escape from the taboo of speaking about the slimy reality of life as the social fabric came apart. After all, if Punk Rockers had preferred ‘analysis’ to ‘rhetoric’, they’d have been attempting to organise a revolution instead of pogoing to three minute pop songs” (23)

This is less the fault of the bands themselves (whose aims were genuine, if somewhat short sighted), but rather of the record industry’s exploitation of their protest for profit. Thankfully, before long groups would form that were very much more concerned with revolution than pogoing, and unafraid to dispose with the capitalist wrapper surrounding punk. One such group were Crass.

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While it’s safe to say that there would be no love lost between the anarcho-punks of Crass and the authoritarian Frankfurt Marxists, there is a significant intersection between both groups’ ideas regarding the production of art within a capitalist society. Crass were part of an anarchist collective centred around Dial House in Essex, and deeply involved with the anti-globalisation movement and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Their lyrics directly and specifically addressed issues of ethical consumption (particularly vegetarianism), feminist issues (their album Penis Envy an express response to and critique of the “macho” image of punk), and the austerity of the Thatcher government. This last target lead the group to establish an approach of direct action, quickly recording and releasing records which commented on the Conservative government’s war in the Falklands such as “Sheep Farming in the Falklands”, “How Does It Feel to Be the Mother of 1000 Dead?”, and “Yes Sir I Will”. These later recordings abandoned the three-cord strictures of punk for atonal arrangements indebted to free jazz and avant-garde classical music. In a sense these choices demonstrate an awareness of and resistance to Benjamin’s model of shock effect being eventually absorbed back into acceptable art forms, favouring a constantly shifting perspective delivered in a form which ceaselessly denies any passive consumption.

If the Sex Pistols appropriated the motley appearance of anarchy to sell records for Virgin and advertise Malcolm McLaren’s Sex shop, then Crass adopted the branding and packaging of the record industry and subverted it for their own means. Crass’s records and live shows were accompanied by an iconic logo, releases on their record label had a uniform design, and on stage band members appeared in only black. This explicit branding allowed Crass to eliminate any sense of “aura” or idea of modernist individualism in the commercial aspect of their records, while the music itself reasserted the responsibility of the individual to resist the capitalist establishment. By clearly separating the form and content of the art, Crass avoided conflation of protester and target, and this approach undoes the conversion of listener into “acquiescent purchaser” that Adorno observed.

Works cited:

Adorno, Theodor W. “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening”. The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, edited by Andrew Arato, Eike Gebhardt, The Continuum Publishing Company, 1993. 270-299.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Author as Producer”. The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, edited by Andrew Arato, Eike Gebhardt, The Continuum Publishing Company, 1993. 254-269.

Brown, Ric. “Theodor Adorno on Popular Music and Protest”. https://archive.org/details/RicBrownTheordorAdornoonPopularMusicandProtest.

Home, Stewart. Cranked Up Really High, Codex, 1993.