March 27, 2010

music and medium

"You can't have art without resistance in the material."
William Morris

As a sort of sequel to my last post on "Textile and Text," I'd like to pick up some themes I discussed in relation to Mary Carruthers in order to explain my first impression of Caribou's new album, Swim, which arrives officially in mid-April. Dan Snaith (aka Caribou, formerly Manitoba) has said that he wanted to make a dance record full of “music that's liquid in the way it flows back and forth, the sounds slosh around in pitch, timbre, pan . . . Dance music that sounds like it's made out of water, rather than made out of metallic stuff like most dance music does." Swim does just that. In fact, what first struck me about the sound of this album is how much attention it draws to its medium. Swim is an appropriate title for an album that is unapologetically thick in the way it sounds. It's dance music that is explicitely processed, affected, distorted, mixed and arranged. In short, it is richly synthetic, mediated. Of course, all recorded albums do this; but few albums are this self-conscious about it.

The album cover features something very much like an LP that is vibrantly expressive and textured, in contrast to a voided background. In this sense, Swim essentially does with music (and I'm quite aware that electronic artists have been at this sort of thing for quite some time), what poetry does with language. As Jerome McGann writes, "The object of the poetical text is to thicken the medium as much as possible -- literally, to put the resources of the medium on full display, to exhibit the processes of self-reflection and self-generation which texts set in motion, which they are."

As Mary Carruthers rightly sees it, there is no such thing as knowledge (or meaning) outside of discourse. This idea is nothing new. Marshall McLuhan said it similarly when he famously pronounced that "the medium is the message" in the late 60s, and Derrida wasn't very far off when he wrote, "there is no outside the text." McGann, from whom I quoted in above paragraph, would likely agree, but he sets out to do something slightly different. In his book, The Textual Condition, Jerome McGann calls not only for an engagement with bibliographical data over and against “romantic hermeneutics,” but contends that “Literary works do not know themselves, and cannot be known, apart from their specific material modes of existence/resistance." Because texts are always manifestations of concrete historical moments (or, in McGann’s words, “localizations of human temporalities”), no reading of a text is ever the same: “. . . every text is unique and original to itself when we consider it not as an object but as an action. . . . [it] is always a new (and changed) originality each time it is textually engaged.” Although he works against literary theories that imagine an ideal message behind the literary text and render the physicality of reading as a fall from grace, it would be wrong to call McGann’s approach reductive. Rather, it is an attempt to recognize the social possibilities and the irreducible heterogeneity of literary interpretation.

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