The menu and the meal

Historian/curator/designer/friend-of-the-blog Graham Larkin has written a typically thoughtful piece on hearing Damo Suzuki at an Ottawa bar. Suzuki was frontman to the venerable Krautrock band Can, which I confess I have slept on for lo these many years. On Graham’s advice, I’ve been listening to Tago Mago, which is one of those albums, like Trout Mask Replica or the PIL metal box, that repays name-dropping in upscale music-nerd parties, though I can’t say I’ve cracked the Can code yet. Further listening is required. Indeed, Can  is one of those bands that seems to demand not only further listening but a stapled research proposal with selected bibliography and letters of recommendation. It’s a complicated thing, Can. Perhaps Brian Eno’s tribute to Can will give me some necessary clues.

Graham’s post dwells on the strange way Suzuki can mine the cadences and gestures of blueso-American speech without using a single recognizable word from English (which is also mined for comedic effect on this Italian variety-show number), but for me the payoff comes at the end:

The whole situation is purely musical, and peculiarly involving in ways that are not easy to account for. Suffice it to say it was amazing how few people felt the need to capture the experience on their damn smartphones. Most of us were happy just to be there.

Noticing how few bobbing screens there were, and how out-of-place they seemed, I recalled Douglas Rushkoff’s recent observation that for a while in the 90s cyberspace was the new counter-cultural frontier, but now that that’s all gotten so canned and corporatized the future hangouts of choice will be resolutely real-time and non-virtual. At their most real such experiences may be strangely resistant to any form of representation.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this sort of thing — presence, liveness, the felt immediacy of experience as opposed to whatever we can document and abstract from any given situation — for years, and indeed it’s all over the place in my book*. There’s a whole history of artists and intellectuals saying, basically, that we are missing out on our whole lives because we are accepting mediated representations — books, photos, recordings, video, etc. — as substitutes. Or (even worse) actually confusing our actual life for the mediated trace. Alfred Korzybski famously wrote “the map is not the territory,” which means that the symbolic abstraction by which we represent our experience (the words I am typing here, for instance, when I try to express some aspect of my experience of listening to Can) is never the same as the experience. Or, as Alan Watts is supposed to have said, “the menu is not the meal.” The menu can tell you a lot about the food, but it won’t fill your stomach.

This kind of thing particularly exercised the Beats and Hippies, and even though we’re all having so much fun going on about hippies and hipsters and how much we fucking hate them** we’re actually hearing a lot of their ideas being articulated by, for instance, Louis CK:

YES! If you videorecord your kid’s performance, you’re not really (or not just) watching your kid, you’re making a video — that’s a different activity. And watching the video later is not the same as watching the performance, in the same way that looking at a map of a road is not the same as walking it. And we are in a cultural situation where that confusion pervades just about everything we do. As Graham notes, Douglas Rushkoff has written a really outstanding book on the topic and suggests ways we can, you know, just live out our actual lives, connected to the cycles of the biological existence (like for ex. the lunar cycle) rather than the digital clock. But the fact that this book has to exist, and that its suggestions will (let’s face it) go largely ignored, suggests how deep the problem goes. But I like the suggestion that in a world where human interaction is constantly surveilled, recorded, reproduced, published, etc., those intimate spaces where people go to do things that go unrecorded, unreproduced, unpublished, and indeed unnoticed by anyone but their participants (not an “audience” or a “public” anymore) — spaces that are  “resolutely real-time and non-virtual” — become a new version of what used to be called, in the cult-theory salad days, “sites of resistance.” Places of repose within the hypercapitalist frenzy. The destination of a new counterculture, maybe. Who knows. As the Tao Te Chang says, “reversal is the movement of the Tao.” It’s at the precise moment that we reach the absolute saturation of the mediated that the whole thing seems to reverse into its opposite, some trick of figure and ground, and we wind up in the opposite spot, in the midst of actuality.

*Dropping August 13! Available now in a Kindle edition! Soon to be available in a store near you, assuming the store near you sells university press books and is managed by someone with excellent taste! And one of my former students tells me that Amazon is already shipping the hardback. So buy one and look at the photo of me and my dog on the back flap.

**Which by the way is the subject for another blog post, but in the meantime you can pretty much get an idea of what I think on the matter by reading this excellent Jacobin piece. Long story short: “We should retire “hipster” as a term without referent or political salience. Its zombie-like persistence in anti-hipster discourse must be recognized for what it is: an urbane, and socially acceptable, form of ideologically inflected shaming on the part of American elites who must delegitimize those segments of a largely white, college educated population who didn’t do the “acceptable thing.”

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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3 Responses to The menu and the meal

  1. Chris Smith says:

    Tom Binkley used to say “the score is the recipe–not the casserole.” Zappa said “unless you’re very weird, you don’t eat the recipe.” When I was teaching various traditional musics in workshop situations, I would sometimes insist that students turn OFF their recorders (all the way back to the C-90 cassette days) because that pressure sometimes elicited stronger concentration on the fleeting moment. MIchael Fritsch, a sociologist and amateur fiddler then at Tufts, wrote a really interesting article a long while ago about the psychology of adult learners in avocational music situations–really insightful and effective, and very much resonated with my own experience and some of what you’re describing above.

  2. Bodie Pfost says:

    English through a trombone:

  3. Pingback: Coverage and exploration | Dial M for Musicology

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