Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Note on the Title

        I took the title for this blog from the first lp by the English group, News From Babel.  News From Babel was one of many projects that came out of the break up of the avant-rock group Henry Cow.  Both groups were committed to combining popular music with radical politics and the aesthetics of the avant-garde.  The most obvious precedent to this approach is the theatrical work of Bertolt Brecht.  Brecht's theatrical work even before his conversion to Marxism brought popular and even folk forms with the aesthetic avant-garde to critically engage with his society.  As Brecht began to more explicitly engage with historical materialism, he also began to work towards a participatory and democratic theater that would break down the space between audience and actor.  This project coalesced into a set of plays named Die Lehrstücke, or the teaching plays.  The plays emphasized popular audience participation through questionnaires, conversations, and by moving the theatrical experience to non-traditional locations through the use of amateur worker theater groups.  The plays combined current events with didactic folk theatrical traditions.  However, the didacticism of these plays was directed towards transforming the experience into a sort of collective experiment.  The plays were designed to produce a terrain of conflict, rather than produce the consensus that earlier didactic theater was intended to produce.  The audience/ actors were meant to use the experience as a sort of social laboratory to work through social problems. None of the experiments were really fully successful.  In fact, the most notable of the plays, Measures Taken, was only performed one or two times because of the criticism directed at it by the communist press.  However, the theoretical writings that Brecht produced during this time and afterwords allowed for the concepts behind these failed experiments to live on.  (See the collection edited by Fredric Jameson, Aesthetics And Politics, which includes a number of Brecht's engagements)

     In addition, Brecht's aesthetic approach has been taken up by a number of other radical artists.  Michael Denning notes Brecht's influence on the radical cultural politics of the United States in his text, The Cultural Front.  The theatrical influence is obvious in the works of Müller, Weiss, Boal, and others.  Brecht also has had a great deal of influence on cinema.  Most notably, Hollywood director Douglas Sirk was a former Brecht collaborator, but the most radical films of Jean Luc-Godard also draw from Brechtian theory and practice.  (I would argue that Tout Va Bien is the most successful translation of Brecht's theatrical techniques to the screen.)  Within this context, the work of Henry Cow and News From Babel gesture to a Brechtian influence on popular music.  This linkage is made most explicitly by the solo albums made by singer Dagmar Krause, performing the songs of Brecht and Eisler.  However, the political and economic practice of Henry Cow also points to the Brechtian legacy, primarily through the formation of Rock In Opposition (R.I.O).  R.I.O. was put together by a group of primarily leftist avant-rock groups who were looking for ways to present their music to audiences outside the traditional circuits of the music industry.  The organization collapsed because of internal conflicts, but it has a distinct linkage to the attempt on the part of Brecht to escape traditional theatrical venues.

     We can see this simultaneous attempt on the part of artists to produce new forms, escape an establish set of circuits of capital, and use those new aesthetic forms towards a radical and democratic critique as a sort of revolutionary thread running through modern art.  It's a thread that doesn't easily fit into the traditional binary of the popular and the avant-garde, as that most of the artists operating within the tradition (for lack of a better term) oscillate uneasily between the two poles.  The later compositions of Cornelius Cardew and Archie Shepp's attempts at R&B point to the ambiguity and slipperiness of this position through their separate failures.  The most interesting long running project in this mold is the Chicago based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which has been in existence for close to a half century at this point.  (For more on this, take a look at George Lewis' excellent history of the organization.  A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, which is one of the best pieces of writing that I have read dealing with the history of jazz.)  It's continuity is linked to its commitment to a participatory culture, as well as a social and cultural epistemological function.

     In addition to the reference to this long radical tradition, the title's reference to the Tower of Babel contains a crucial trace of heresy within it.  The relationship between radical politics and heretical traditions has been a side interest for me for the past few years, coming out of my engagement with the work of Antonio Negri, Ernst Bloch, as well as the historical work of Sylvia Federici.  Each of these authors point to the role that heretical social formations acted as a network of counter-systemic movements, opposing both feudalism and the nascent capitalist world system.  Bloch notes in his Atheism in Christianity, that "long before the real Enlightenment, pamphlets against the clergy and their lies were going the rounds among the peasants, complaining about the miserable swindling and deception of the poor.  The real complaint was about the way the Scriptures were twisted to serve the exploiters and drudge-merchants, but these pamphlets also show the common man's will to speak for himself; he has finished with being struck across the mouth." (Bloch 19) Bloch points to a tradition of heretical christianity that opposes the European world system through a full embrace of one of its strongest ideological bulwarks. It points to the long history of communism, an opposition to both state and exploitation that both incorporates marxism and is much older than it.  Perhaps communism needs to be understood as a potential within this heretical trace, a trace "that can happen only within the time horizon of capital, and yet it has to be thought of something that disrupts the unity of that time." (Chakrabarty 95)

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