All That Is Solid 01: Introduction Ambivalence as a Political Category

All That Is Solid is an attempt to examine the relationships between popular music and global capitalism. Click here to access the archive.

Most writing about music centers around aesthetic arguments that seek to determine whether an artist or recording is any good. This is important and valuable work through which a community of music appreciators can set standards for what is and is not worthy of appreciation. However, through all the chatter over whether something is any good or not, we often miss the opportunity to think about issues regarding how music functions as a whole in our society. To me, the tension between music as a product and music as a shared social experience is one of the most interesting topics to consider when thinking about popular and independent music. How does recorded music support, mimic, rebut, and relate to the forces of global capitalism? In this column, I intend to tease out those relationships and the economy of the "culture industry." To lay my cards on the table, I refer to Karl Marx:

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.

The passage, from The Communist Manifesto, is a memorable one for me because it exposes a nuance that people often miss when they think about capitalism. In the "Big Brother" sense, or in any other classic imagining of corporate oligarchy, Capitalism is thought to be inherently conservative -- it aims to censor thought and behavior; it demands certain kinds of social institutions be maintained for their ability to further dominate and control people, etc. This passage, however, says something opposite: Capitalism in fact requires that all traditional modes of thought/behavior/social relationship be overturned, and the optimal status for the advancement of Capitalism is constant revolution. The driving forces of capitalism -- the snowballing effects of Growth and Expansion -- demand the creation of new needs and wants in order to fill them with new goods and services. In order to create those new desires, it is often necessary to disrupt whatever social order was in place that precluded those desires from appearing in the first place.

What I feel is the foundational need being sold to us in the 21st century -- and this dates back a few decades; it's not entirely new -- is self-actualization. Cultural critic and esteemed philosopher Slavoj Zizek describes the broad history of advertising as having three distinct phases: in the earliest form, advertising sought to convince you of the material benefits and advantages of the item at hand (i.e. buy this car because it is sturdy, safe, has good gas-mileage, is a good value, etc.); the second phase appealed to status and competition, or "keeping up with the Joneses"; and the contemporary phase appeals to some pseudo-spiritual call to self-actualize and be happy (i.e. buy this car because it expresses who you are, you can be more fully yourself in this car, be in touch with nature, etc.). The ultimate Capitalist subject, the best kind of consumer in the new millennium, is one who wants more than anything to be happy and is willing to buy into anything that enhances their sense of being a "conscious" and self-actualized person -- like organic food, hybrid cars, and independent media.

On this last point, I'm not quipping. Part of the reason I, and I suspect you, like independent media is that we buy into (at least somewhat) the notion that it is somehow removed from capitalism, at least more so than "mainstream" media is. We think there's more artistic freedom, more integrity, less pandering to low tastes, more original content -- whatever it is, we believe that independent media is usually, if not categorically, better than mainstream media. By extension, we think that appreciators and connoisseurs of indie media are at least likely to be smarter, more sophisticated, more worldly, more insightful than their Top 40 & Blockbuster counterparts. I argue that a large part of what drives us to consume the music, movies, and books that we do is that we think it communicates something desirable about our personality. We say to ourselves, at least subconsciously, "I want to be the kind of person who buys Miles Davis records and loves John Cassavetes films," (insert your own version of hip there). Which is to say, they've got us right where they want us.

If the goal of contemporary capitalism is to sell us happiness, contentment, and non-stop enjoyment, the subversive act is to fully experience discomfort, uneasiness, and (above all else) a critical attitude toward our own behavior. Furthermore, the alternative to the kind of self-actualization being foisted upon us (the injunction to be good to yourself, love yourself first, value yourself, enhance your sense of self-worth, etc.) is a more traditional call to subsume your own desires and work toward the betterment of the Community through discipline, sacrifice, and responsibility. If we accept the existence of what Zizek referred to as "enjoyment as a political category," then the best way to resist global capitalism is precisely to not enjoy -- to fully experience malaise, boredom, discomfort and dread -- and to revive the anachronistic traditions of self-sacrifice and restraint in our social lives. Barack Obama didn't stir my soul by talking about hope ‘n' change, but by ushering in an "era of responsibility." Whether or not that makes me a fuddy-duddy, I leave for you to decide.

I don't think that anyone should stop consuming outright and go subsist in the wilderness, but I do think we should feel, at the very least, a deep ambivalence towards our own role as consumers. I am inherently suspicious of goods and services that are intended in part to reflect positively on us for consuming them because they actually encourage uncritical consumption, and by making us feel good about consuming, they reinforce the dominant ideology of global capitalism. In this column, I intend to explore those suspicions and identify the ideological underpinnings of the cultural artifacts we consume (because the ways we identify with, listen to, and participate in music are inherently ideological). In many cases, I think so-called "subversive" musical phenomenon are actually functioning to maintain and support status quo; on the other hand, some of the world's best-selling artists are doing more to dislodge and overturn corporate capitalism than a thousand anarchists.

Next time, I'll be discussing hybridization, the essential characteristic of "new" music over the past decade. Working title: Beck: A Spectre Haunting Music?

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