Narcosis

Phil Ford

Another post on the EMP pop conference. The stated theme for this year was “waking up from history,” but during the New Orleans panel, someone (Ned Sublette, maybe?) commented that it might just as well be waking up to history. Which got me thinking . . .

Marshall McLuhan argued that when media reach inside our skulls and scramble our wires, we (unconsciously) insulate ourselves from the resulting disorientation with a self-protective stupor he called the “narcissus narcosis”: we see only the things the media show us, not the media themselves. Maybe there’s an analogous phenomenon in history, a historical narcosis. Maybe it takes massive cataclysms like Katrina to wake us from a narcosis that protects us from a certain kind of historical self-awareness, an awareness of ourselves as creatures in moving through, and subject to, history.

Historical narration — telling the story of a life in a way that subordinates that life to a larger chronological pattern — is something we’re more comfortable doing to other people. Sartre once wrote that this mode of narration is almost insultingly inapposite to any recounting of our own experiences. He tries to describe a meeting with a friend in the style of American newspaper reportage: “And they ordered two beers and said that war was hateful. Paul declared he would rather do anything than fight and Jean said he agreed with him and both got excited and said they were glad they agreed. On his way home, Paul decided to see Jean more often.” Sartre points out that such a mode of narration contains a degree of irony that we would almost invariably feel uncomfortable applying to our own circumstances. “It will not take you long, however, to decide that you cannot use this tone in talking about yourself. However insincere you may have been, you were at least living out your insincerity, playing it out on your own, continuously creating and extending its existence from one moment to the next. And even if you got caught up in collective representations, you had first to experience them as personal resignation. We are neither mechanical objects nor possessed souls, but something worse: we are free.”* It’s worth noting that the awe-inspiring testicularity of Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night consists in applying this narrative tone to himself for an entire book. Giuseppe Verdi was fond of writing historical operas whose drama comes from characters who are nailed to the cross of history, but none of those characters was ever named “Giuseppe Verdi.”

“Waking up from history” means waking up from a different kind of narcosis. Music, more maybe than any art form, can evoke moments of our own lives. I posted a video of Robert Fripp doing an attenuated version of Frippertronics, and I can’t pretend there’s any academic detachment in my attitude toward this clip. I just straight-up love this music, and one whiff of it sends me back in time, and I’m 16 and listening to Let The Power Fall and The League of Gentlemen on my clunky second-generation Walkman as I walk through the Northern Ontario woods that shouldered up to the edges of the neighborhood I grew up in, thirty degrees below zero and the night sky an impossible blind black and stars impossibly bright. And what is true for me (and for each one of you, for you all too have your own musical madeleines) is true for songs and their relationship to shared history as well. Music sticks to history just as history sticks to music. A song like, say, Gil Scott-Heron’s No Knock seems to demand that we hear its time in the fine grain of its sound. But “waking up from history” means waking up from the narcosis, realizing that music casts a spell: the illusion that music can bring you back to the very naked instant of the history that made it. So there was a thread of melancholy and loss running throughout the EMP pop conference. My own paper was about this melancholy, this sense of loss; but the contributions of Joshua Corning, Sasha Frere-Jones, Jonathan Lethem, Ned Sublette, and Charles Tonderai Mudede all spoke of it. They spoke of how music gives form to impossible objects of desire: resistance, revolution, authenticity, utopia, history itself. But when the record ends and it all vanishes, all we’re left with is ourselves.

Then “waking up to history” means, maybe, shaking off this melancholy and finding ourselves in a harder, more dire state, finally seeing ourselves as figures within history. I’ve mentioned J&B on the Rox before, but didn’t say that in recent years the tone of the show — which J and B still make, on occasion — has darkened. Bart moved to New Orleans with his wife, and Katrina washed them out like everyone else. The most recent episode of Rox is actually a homemade documentary of post-Katrina recovery. Watch it. Quite by chance I ended up drinking in the hotel bar with Alex Rawls, a music journalist on the New Orleans panel. I told him about Bart’s documentary and about how I’m trying to understand what it must be like to be done to rather than doing, a subject of history and not, as we might like to imagine, observers of it, or even (maybe in our egotistical hearts) its masters. Historical self-awareness is a kind of awareness that we, comfortable people that we are, have the luxury to avoid. I didn’t put it like that, though. Mostly I said I thought that everything I had seen about New Orleans after Katrina suggested that life there was screwed up in a way that defied easy representation. No, I didn’t quite say that, either. What I said was platitudinous, because talking to someone who lived through Katrina is like talking to someone who’s been to war or lost a child. What the fuck can you say? You didn’t experience it, so you don’t know. He was nice about it, but he did agree, gently, yeah, you can’t know. He spoke like someone who’s been to that other side where things get dire, when you find youself a subject in history.

I’ll be honest: before Katrina, I never thought that much about New Orleans. But of all the afflictions that have been visited upon this country in the past few years, Katrina seems in some ways the worst. As the New Orleans panelists noted, if you tell someone from New Orleans that Katrina was a “natural disaster,” you’ve got a fight on your hands. Living in New Orleans means experiencing an infinite variety of official incompetence and neglect — neglect as an instrument of social policy. You get the sense that certain political types are almost relieved: now that New Orleans has been destroyed, here’s our chance to make it more like Provo. The New Orleans panel tried to show how much Katrina is a cultural disaster as well as an environmental, civic, and economic one. Read Larry Blumenfeld’s Village Voice article on Nola’s cultural recovery. (Blumenfeld was one of the EMP panelists.) The New Orleans police have jacked up their security fee for second-line parades in New Orleans, which threatens to tax this cultural institution into extinction. At least this is how the ACLU is arguing it in their lawsuit on behalf of the the Nine Times Social Aid and Pleasure Club. ACLU lawyer Katie Schwartzmann points out that “At some point . . . the power to tax is the power to eliminate, right? At some point, if the government can put enough fees and enough obstacles in the way of somebody exercising their First Amendment right, then they’re ultimately going to eliminate it.”

*Jean-Paul Sartre, “John Dos Passos and ‘1919,’” in Literary and Philosophical Essays, trans. Annette Michelson (London: Hutchinson, 1955), 93.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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One Response to Narcosis

  1. Kip W says:

    Well, that explains why I keep ‘hearing’ snippets of Ethelbert Nevin. (Near the end, where it’s canonic. Not quite a fugue state.)

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