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FOLK MUSIC (AND EPISTEMOLOGY)





FOLK MUSIC (and epistemology) in the CULTURE OF ABSENCE (monotheism, capitalism, sovereignity/biopolitics)

"The economics and political dynamics of industrialized societies living under parliamentary democracies also lead power to invest art, and to invest in art, with necessarily theorizing its control, as is done under dictatorship. Everywhere we look, the monopolization of the broadest of messages, the control of noise, and the institutionalization of the silence of others, answer the duration of power. Here this channellization takes on a new, less violent, and more subtle form: laws of political economy take the place of censorship laws. Music and the musician essentially become either objects of consumption like everything else, recuperators of subversion, or meaningless noise."
-Jaques Attali


In the time before the advent of the global village, music was a localized participatory activity rather than a generalized consumerist experience. Regions developed practices according to the means of making sound that were available to them and the interests and talents of those who participated. The soundworlds they explored grew from their environments: i.e., if they lived amongst reeds they made whistles and flutes; amongst hollow trees and herds they made drums and gut-stringed instruments, amongst shells they made trumpets and rattles, etc. The curiosity basic to all humans led them to experiment and discover varied ways of producing and manipulating sound.

Making music was an expression of the development and expansion of consciousness among people as individuals and as groups. For thousands of years it moved outwards, bounded only by imagination. Sound was a mysterious universe to be explored.

Eventually the “rise” of civilization began to “organize” the world and, to legitimize its newly developed institutions (such as religion and sovereignty), undertook the suppression of natural curiosity in favor of intellectual constructs that supported the status quo (deeming what was and was not “appropriate”). The essential characteristic of this epistemology (approach to knowledge) is to define and to limit –to codify— and we become a “society of laws” rather than one of curiosity, consensus, and common sense. Norms are established and deviations are viewed as errors or even threats. Passionate curiosity (unless it co-incidentally serves to advance the conformist agenda) is more frequently punished (Galileo) than rewarded. The same phobic reaction to the unknown and unusual that continues to some degree to dominate cultural thinking about sexuality has been at work for centuries in many of the ways we think about music.

Folk music (in the traditional sense) largely evaded these kinds of constructs until the 20th century. With the advent of movements like the “Celtic Revival” living folk cultures fell prey to the same king of academized stasis that had befallen the “high” cultures of western europe (whose last great wave of creativity came from the generation --Joyce and Yeats, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Bartok, Gaugin and Picasso-- that rebelled against the suffocating academic standards of the time and sought oxygen from peasant, working class, and/or exotic cultures) and rendered it largely moribund.

Through its economic power the status quo was able to edit and to a large extent control the formerly autonomous cultures of the underclasses, defining them in ways that suit the processes of their subjugation by trivializing expressions of independence and/or critique and reducing them to entertainments.

The advent of recording served to freeze dynamic and evolving traditions (such as the blues) into static forms and eventually shallow imitations and recapitulations of themselves. As Amiri Baraka wrote: “A museum is a curious graveyard of thinking”. The very qualities that made folk art interesting and vital in the first place, locality and personality, were stifled when the forms began to be defined as styles. The descending arc to triviality described by the outputs of “folksingers” from Woody Guthrie through Pete Seeger to the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary is a demonstration of this, as is the descending arc of the meaningfulness of the blues from its originators through rock musicians to bar bands: Content and form, originally generated outward from the present (Woody, Robert Johnson), is replaced by content and form derived instead from the absent (history or historical template). This process insures that the messages imparted by the music and words are rooted in life experiences their purveyors have never had, turning the performers into mimics rather than commentators on reality.

The equation of “folk” with traditional forms deprives “folk” of its single most important cultural function –the examination and description of contemporary (shared) experiences. A traditional form is a by-product of the cultural dynamic of “folk”, not a generator of it. It provides a medium, a vocabulary subject (as are all living vocabularies) to evolution and expansion. Our roots are in the acts of creation –the desire to express realities, not to catalog the forms created by our ancestors and produce simulacra of them. We must create and express, as our predecessors created and expressed, according to our predicaments, responding to our specific situations. This is not to suggest that we dismiss the traditional --that is as arrogant and non-productive as it is to revere and fossilize it, constructing a similar paradigm of meaninglessness--, but to remind us of the primary function of “folk” art, its capacity to address the circumstances of our lives more directly than any non-autonomous art could..

There is another kind of arc (such as one that moves temporally from Woody Guthrie through Bob Dylan to Gil Scott-Heron, Bob Marley, Joe Strummer, Jello Biafra, Public Enemy, et al) that rejects the triviality of traditional forms, one that neither ascends nor descends but maintains its roots in shifting realities by ignoring when necessary the constraints of traditional “styles” and forms and adapting the available media to convey the critiques of the situations it encounters.

There are also enormous bodies of folk music that have no basis or interest in direct social critique, that evolved simply to celebrate community, to better enable a group of people to enjoy themselves collectively (dance musics, etc.). Even so, they represent an ethos, if only because they spring from a localized (by geography, by ethnicity, by class, etc.) source and “works” generated by consensus rather than top-down imposition. These too have been appropriated through the process of replacing a participatory feast (such as a street fair) with a non-participatory spectacle (a concert, a video). Both are “events”, but the content of the feast is generated by its active participants while the content of the spectacle is controlled absolutely by its directors/producers and presented to a passive audience. The spectacle is a simulacrum of an experience, containing the surface elements of one, but nothing intrinsic to it. In the interests of “attracting a wider audience” or “giving the public what it wants” a crippling amount of “sanitizing” (i.e., trivialization) tends to occur, but what really attracts the audience, what the public really wants, is the sense of participation (the localized ethos that has been appropriated from them). To engage the passive audience, the producers of spectacles (the agents of absentee power) substitute drama for immediacy in the same way a three-card-monte dealer distracts marks with verbal patter and slight-of-hand. Over time, our sense of what constitutes substantive expression has come to devalue the (essentially plain) intimate and local (i.e., depth) in favor of the generic and pyrotechnical (i.e., shallowness).

This trivializing mechanism has become self-perpetuating. It works regardless of the absence or presence of malicious intent. It is a conspiracy without an agent, a cancer in the body of culture. It has become an inevitable side effect of the propertarian ethos, of the concept of propriety (both words derive from the same latin root that means “one’s own” though both have come to define “one’s own” by exclusion, i.e., “not yours”). This effect is embedded in the domination of absence over presence, of ownership over possession.

Everyone, even the most destitute of humans, possesses. Far fewer own even a small part of what they possess. Workers possesses their tools, tillers possess the soil, families possess their homes, whether they own them or not. They live with and interact with these objects and include them in the subject of their lives. To possess is subjective, to own is objective, and the objective, though rational, cannot be truly meaningful to anyone. This reality (the subjective) has been belittled and dismissed (trivialized) by the mechanism of ownership and over time has extended to impact the cultural (through the concept of what is “appropriate”) as well as the material (through the concept of property).

Our best hope of avoiding the descent into absolute meaninglessness (complete objectification) is to repossess our culture. To repossess the material world in these times would require armed struggle on a scale far beyond our material (ownership has the weapons) and spiritual reach (very few of us have either the desire or the capacity to transform ourselves into killers and doing so would tend to dispossess us of our ethos --meaning that we’d lose anyway). We can repossess our culture (incrementally) by refusing to dispose of our work as articles of trade, by insisting on its subjectivity (the local and the personal), by possessing it instead of trying to own it.

We should view “folk” as the process of the music’s creation and not as the types of forms or styles it produces. What makes music “folk” is that it expresses the collective ideas of a community, not that it adheres to any particular (generic) methodologies or sets of tools.

The identification and definition (valuation) of artifacts of expression with and by their means of production (style, genre, tools used) rather than the labor (methodology) that produces them is as pertinent to art as it is to political economy (“alienation” as described by Marx is similarly at work in culture). The idea of “authorship”, which identifies any artifact as the “created” (owned) product of an individual rather than a specific instance of something proposed and/or disposed (possessed) within the generality of a culture, serves the same agenda.

Folk art, as a generality, doesn’t look or sound like anything in particular, elitist art can (and usually does) mimic anything it chooses to appropriate.

The tendency of the global village has been to homogenize, to blur the distinctions between different localities, to devalue the subjective, to define culture as a collection of objects (a “graveyard of thinking”, genres) rather than dynamic vortices (a clamor of living voices, subjects) attaining their own (temporary) places in our collective noise. When any form of expression is received or generated solely as an object we are necessarily (grammatically) detached from it.

The “marketplace” appropriation of symbols, the reduction of the subjective-dynamic-present to the objective-static-absent, has deprived autonomous cultures of their ability to make durable (meaningful outside of their immediate circumstances) statements. Gandhi, Che, and Malcolm X became teeshirts; dreadlocks, gangster clothes, tattoos, piercings, etc., became fashion statements and lost substance as statements of resistance to the culture of absence. This tactic has proven far more adaptive and effective at maintaining the status quo than censorship and repression ever were. Oligarchic "communism", as practiced by Stalin and Mao, had essentially the same agenda (manipulating and controlling its population) as oligarchic democracy. “Democracy” (perversely defined as capitalist empowerment) triumphed in the 1990s because its methodology, its ability to appropriate the culture of the multitude, was more flexible, not because it has a better attitude towards its “subjects”.

Because of this (the swift co-optation of our cultural memes) our traditional symbols have become mechanisms of self-repression more often than mechanisms of self-empowerment, As symbols are appropriated and made meaningless, it has become practice to define what is “appropriate” as only that which can be appropriated. In other words, the subjective-dynamic-present is by definition inappropriate and subsequently marginalized, criminalized, and/or treated as deviance (demonized, punished, exterminated). Through this practice all relationships are eventually objectified and mediated, compelled to express absence.

Capitalism (the world view based on propertarian absence) is a very efficient tool: like almost any tool, it can function as a weapon. It has evolved to become the weapon of choice of most oligarchies as other weapons of choice (fascism in its militarist, police state, and theocratic versions) have proven to be slow to adapt and unable to co-opt the symbol languages of their resistances.

Historically, capitalism evolved as the entitlement ideas of monarchy (derived from monotheism as the 'divine right of kings') were called into question and --far from developing organically-- took shape pseudomorphically to preserve the entitlements of oligarchy while appearing to discard them. Both monarchy and capital are strawmen (strategic distractions) providing a layer of protection for the idea of entitlement. Entitlement is the essence of the propertarian ethos, the extension of control beyond the present that transforms the natural phenomenon of possession into an unnatural “power” that controls even that which is in possession of another. This, the entitlement of the absent to rule over the present, is the epistemological basis of the culture of capitalism.

The roots of biopolitical dominance (the concept of absentee entitlement) found its strongest tool and most basic expression in the authoritarian monotheism ("moralizing sadism") of the judeo/xtian/muslim tradition, whose book of genesis assigns control of the local and subjective to a non-participatory (essentially absent) "god" --Adam and Eve are punished and dispossessed for the “sin” of curiosity, for violating the arbitrary rule of repressing their autonomy and subjecting it to the authority of an absent owner. This mechanism has expanded over time to assume ever greater control of the individual’s spirit (through the institutions of theology), body (through the institutions of medicine), and mind (though the institutions of education) to supplement the control of society and environment (through the institutions of government). Where government assumed the power to mediate between groups of people and individuals within such groups, these other institutions extended those powers by analogy to mediate within the lone individual, to define and pass judgment on their intimacies of feeling, thought, and sensation. All three evolved to become additional tools of exclusion, of dysautonomy. The penetration of the authoritarian concept into our lives through the memes that define deviance is now almost absolute.

This is not to say there aren't beneficial aspects of religion, medicine, education, and even government. The quest of the spirit, the care of the body, the development of the mind, and methodologies of sharing what is common to us all (our sources of food, shelter, etc.) are all essential to our lives on earth. Shamans are helpful to our spiritual growth, healers are helpful to our caring for our bodies, teachers are helpful to the expansion of our minds, means of sharing resources and solving disputes are helpful to our communities, but none of them need to dictate to us, none of them need to be obeyed: they are partners and collaborators in the collective adventure of life, equals sharing knowledge as a hunter shares meat or a gatherer shares fruit. To be grateful for what they share doesn't require that we view them as anything other than people exactly like us: we can (and often should) admire their skills and appreciate their generosity, and choose, when we like, to follow their suggestions, but none of this requires obedience or subservience. That concept (subservience) has been so deeply embedded in our cultural paradigms (beginning with Genesis) that few recognize that it isn't an essential ingredient of human discourse, but a mechanism that sabotages our instinctive desire to cooperate with one another.

It is difficult in a propertarian society to resist the urge to own, avoid the emotional trap of inflating ones role in generating artifacts (or ideas) to the point of viewing oneself as a "creator" or a “genius”. In a society based like ours on competition for even the most basic necessities of living it seems almost instinctive to see creation as competitive as well. But the individual contribution to any artifact, as important and apparently distinctive as it may be, is only a small part of what that artifact represents in its wholeness. Any idea we have is an outgrowth of thousands of years of human consciousness and the ideas put forth by millions or billions of minds. There is nothing wrong with being proud of what we do, but our pride ought to be in our capacity for participating in and contributing to the evolving generality of our culture rather than the illusion of imagining ourselves to be superior to others. We discover, we illuminate, we consolidate, we generate, but none of us truly creates (any more than some absent 'god' created the universe). At our best we notice and reveal something immanent but thus far unperceived in the vastness and complexity of life in general and of human culture.

It is also difficult (and counterintuitive, i.e., stupid) to resist the urge to survive: we live in a society of property --money-- and we cannot survive without owning to some degree whether we want to or not. In our current circumstance the best we can hope for is to maintain the attitude of possession towards what we are compelled to own. None of us chose the circumstances into which we were born and to live (survive) we have to recognize them. But it isn't necessary to endorse or celebrate the contexts thrust upon us in order to have a life within them. It is the life that's important, not the context --because we need money to exist in the society we inhabit doesn't mean money is an absolute necessity of life, any more than because we need gasoline to get from one place to another by the predominant means of transportation requires us to endorse or celebrate global warming. If the only tool we have to cut firewood with is a hatchet we are better off making use of it than freezing to death dreaming of chainsaws.

We can hope that as our cultural (monotheistic/western in origin but now species wide) attempt to dominate nature has taught and impelled the planet as a whole (Gaia) to resist and even reject us (through mechanisms like climate change and the evolution of ever more virulent forms of viruses) that a similar paradigm is at work within our culture --that our ways of thinking and expressing are developing intrinsic mechanisms that resist and reject the culture in which they are generated, that these mechanisms are generating larger (non-appropriable) contexts in which we can communicate the kinds of ideas and forms that will liberate us from the destructive and trivializing mechanisms of the society we have thus far created. It is not enough to reclaim our autonomy --the mechanisms we developed in the past were insufficiently resistant to the trivialization and appropriation of propertarianism to serve us in successfully resisting the permeation of absentee power into every aspect of our bare lives. Our modes of resistance have not been deep enough nor subtle enough to evade co-optation and absorbtion by the organism they seek to resist. This is not to say they have no value, that they are failures --only that they have not developed adaptive methodologies as swift and pervasive as those of capitalist propertarianism.

Our most salient characteristic (as folk artists) --our presence, our locality-- is what makes our works and our messages so easy to co-opt. Implicit in the nature of presence is that it can be defined and this puts it at a disadvantage to the absence based ethos of power. We need to develop strategies that insulate us from the omnipresence (kind of an oxymoron, innit?) of market without completely trivializing the information we seek to transfer/communicate. These strategies, if they are to serve us, need to derive from an affirmation (celebration) of marginality, an affirmation that embraces the dynamic, unfixed, and chaotic nature of culture, rather than the static idea of completed work. There are no statements, only propositions that expect (and welcome) refutations and arguments. Whatever work we do is "successful" only to the degree that its acceptance of its own incompleteness enables it to escape the graveyards of thinking and feeling that comprise marketable culture.

Folk music expresses presence and possession, locality and community, autonomy from the controlling mechanisms of markets and abstract (absentee) mediations. In this sense, free jazz, punk, and noise are (or at least originated as) folk musics, in that their initial participants thought of themselves tribally (as representing an autonomous community and expressing a localized ethos). They remain folk musics only as long as they resist appropriation either by the market or the hierarchic (heroic) model that identifies creation / invention / discovery solely with the individual and advances isolating concepts like “genius”, “Artist” and “intellectual property”.

That we are inhabitants of an information age affords us an epistemology our predecessors could only aspire to. Our empiricism can be far more rigorous and inclusive, our need for faith and/or theory (prejudice) to construct our models of the world is greatly diminished. This is not to say that faith and theory are obsolete, only that we are no longer compelled to base them on ignorance to the same degrees as did those with less information at their disposal. There will always be aspects of the ways we know that depend on our imaginations, but now we can more often use them (our imaginations) effectively as filtering mechanisms rather than generators. We have entered an era of post-scarcity in terms of both information and material even though we retain the habits (hoarding, secrecy, competition, god) we developed during the era of basing our lives on what they lacked. When we were less able to communicate, to shelter and feed ourselves, we necessarily had to reason and trade on the basis of what we didn’t have. In the era of scarcity, we navigated reality as a blind person navigates a room --deducing presences from fragments of sensation, creating a working idea of space from the tappings of our theoretical canes. Now we have surpluses of material and information and our task is less to acquire them than to dispose of and/or organize them. This task requires a different paradigm, a different epistemology, a different basis for our logic and our motivations.

This, to me, is the essence of deconstruction –that we can use our creativity to examine the root structures of existence, direct it inward with a confidence in the applicability of its memes. We are freer now to use our methodologies of assumption to question our methodologies of assumption. We no longer have to reason by simple exclusion (the platonic method that, hand in hand with monotheism/capitalism, has helped to generate millennia of human suffering and oppression), we no longer need to base our epistemologies on fear and absence --we no longer need to invent mechanisms to control and define us. The need to manufacture certainties where none exist, to generate universal constructs (the elephants that support the corners of the flat earth, the charioteer who drags the sun across the sky) is nostalgic (and largely useless) now. Such modes of thinking may be enjoyable (in that they express beauty or poetry), comforting (in that they diminish the mysteries of uncertainty), and even useful (insofar as they provide a starting point for argument), but they are no longer essential –we have grown more by tearing them apart and injured ourselves more by giving credence to them with each successive generation. The simplistic ideas, those that refuse to question their own ontologies, have been the tools of those who would enslave, exploit, and exterminate us. In our constructivist/determinist past our systems of social organization were built outward from these “answers” (god, property, race, gender, etc.) and even the best of these systems thrived by denying structural creativity (or even the birthright of legitimacy, of humanness) to the majority of their “subjects’.

The world of property does not (and by definition never will) belong to "us", it compels us to live as aliens (tenants rather than natives) in the places we inhabit. At best, it can allow "us" to belong to it, to make us properties (citizens of states, adherents of religions, etc. --objects called subjects because we are not the subjects of ourselves). We delude ourselves if we believe it (propertarianism) isn't intrinsically hostile to us as autonomous individuals, if we believe it has any interest in allowing us to exist other than as enablers of our own exclusion, our own objectification. At best, we are nomads (whether we wander or not). Failing that, we are captives.

Some other aspects of absence are examined in ANARCHIST METAPHYSICS.

"There was a wall there put up to stop me
There was a sign there said private property
But on the other side it didn't say nothing
That side was made for you and me."
-Woody Guthrie

There ain't no need for ya
There ain't no need for ya
Go straight to hell, boy
Go straight to hell, boy
-Joe Strummer

Just like the meanings they live between the the lines
Between the borders their real contries hide
-gogol bordello

"Resistance was conceptualised only in terms of negation. Nevertheless, as you see it, resistance is not solely a negative process. To create and to recreate, to transform the situation, to participate actively in the process, that is to resist."

"What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is only related to objects, and not to individuals, or to life."
-Foucault

"Everywhere we see the victory of No over Yes, of reaction over action. Life becomes adaptive and regulative, reduced to secondary forms: we no longer know what it means to act."
-Deleuze

 

 

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