Sunday, July 24, 2005

Disposable Taste

Hot here, too hot to really think or move. Picked up on a coversation on Sasha Frere-Jones’s blog (by way of Kasey Mohammad). Sasha posts:

Thinking, while watching ESPN (sort of) of the uselessness of “disposability” as a critical concept: your Sudafed is my crystal meth. How do you know when my song’s run dry? How does any type of music signal disposability? Don’t long, baggy, story songs [he’s thinking Dylan’s “Hurricane”], even ones you like , present more like one-use items to you, like long, baggy novels that you enjoyed but will never read again [ie Franzen’s The Corrections]? Maybe I want to feel like “Chewing Gum” EVERY FUCKING DAY. So why would I dispose of it? I’M NOT DONE WITH IT. This axiom obviously applies equally in reverse, in every direction. If you never, ever get tired of “Hurricane,” then it isn’t disposable. So: “disposability” is a useless metric, a dumbass way of discussing music. It would be more useful—if this is what you meant—to say, “I got quickly bored of the song,” because who can argue with your experience?

Then he posts a response by Joshua Clover:

As you will surely know long before I say it, the concept "disposability" is disastrous indeed, if it comes prepackaged with valuative payload, aesthetically or worse, morally. …. when durability is taken as a positive value in pop music, that's one of the veiled enforcements of a certain set of class values. I drive a Rolls, you drive a Hyundai, punk…

But the promise that "disposability" can't somehow be recognized and thought about seems not quite right to me. To believe such a thing requires the very move you make: the suggestion that disposability is purely related to consumer experience. Whah? If I decide to save my plastic coke bottle and use it to water my plants for three years, I totally can—but this doesn't suddenly make plastic coke bottles something else. The bottle is still "disposable," in the sense that it's produced and distributed within a system that presumes its disposability, and continues to make and distribute with that presumption, and this making and distributing continues to have manifold effects on price structures, labor structures, on how the bottle looks and how it acts, etc.

This is true of pop music too. The way it's made presumes a certain duration of "use" by the consumer, and that remains a force shaping the music. Again, it's not a value issue—to assume this set of forces makes lesser music is the Adornian error exactly. But there's a way to get past that error without acceding to a set of critical terms which measure only the anecdotal subjective accounts of individual consumers...a strategy which leads to the absolute end of criticism.

"Who are you too say it's sexist? That's a useless metric, because I didn't feel it was sexist..."

Kasey runs with this to thinking intelligently about the concept of “disposable poetry” and the dissimilarities between the poetry and pop music fields (I can’t quote, because the lucky bastard seems to have exceeded his bandwidth). Me, I’m struck by the original exchange, in its original context, and how both Sasha and Joshua (poets themselves) have to scramble to avoid this “Adornian error” of supposing that the systematic presumption of disposability in pop music somehow “makes lesser music.” (Makes music “lesser,” presumably, than the Mahler or Beethoven or Webern Adorno wd/ beat the drum for.) Okay – we all know that Adorno was a deep-dyed snob, and hated jazz, and probably would have puked if he’d seen Elvis (paraphrasing Greil Marcus), and generally had no hope of any ideologically or aesthetically positive productions arising out of either the culture industry or folk traditions.

But I’m uncomfortable, even when talking about the broad range of “pop” musics, with entirely discarding the category of disposability as an evaluative “metric.” Yes, sometimes evoking disposability does enforce “a certain set of class values.” But is it wholly a “class value” to say that a Rolls is a better car than a Hyundai? Sure, it costs about 50 times as much, and probably 75% of that overage is accounted for by pure status symbol markup: but the Rolls will outperform the Hyundai in any most any category you name – engineering, durability, handling, fit & finish, etc. (everything except, significantly, price and fuel efficiency).

Pop music is cultural production caught up in the deepest and most pernicious coils of the culture industry, where rapid production, consumption, and disposability are the absolute orders of the day. (And of course for SF/J to take disposability as an automatic perjorative would be professional suicide in some sense, since he’s after all a pop music critic.) But the impulse to make something that persists, that’s precisely durable – from Horace thru Shakespeare’s sonnets, from the Lascaux cave paintings thru Basquiat – is an awfully deeply-rooted one, and durability is a measure of evaluation that predates the culture industry – not to mention capitalism itself, and feudalism before it. I want to think about this more, but for the nonce I don’t think I can sign on to SF/J’s or Joshua’s refusal to let the marks of industry imposed sell-by dates influence their assessments of musics. For my money, it’s precisely the extent to which a given pop song or album consciously or unconsciously subverts that “disposability” that makes me value it. And that’s not just a subjective reaction, but something conditioned by social history and objective conditions of reception.

Gosh, it’s muggy here; maybe muggy enough to lead to circular thinking…

on the earbuds:
Elliott Sharp, Nots

John Wilkinson, Effigies Against the Light and Contrivances
Vernon Frazer, Improvisations (BIG book!)

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