Libidinal investment between modernism and postmodernism

16Aug07

/1/ – Conor Oberst on the Couch

Bright Eyes is one of those groups where it is hard to remember when it was not fashionable to like them or, put another way, when their newness was exciting and somehow ahead of the actual music itself. Bright Eyes, unlike some of the music I listened to near the beginning of my high school life, has aged fairly well and Conor Oberst, the band’s front man and lyricist, continues to produce flat out good music. The strongest point of Bright Eyes has always been the lyrics. While often disparagingly cast as ‘emo’ or simply depressing, Oberst’s lyrics are, more often then note, fairly complex constructions that deal with substantial issues.

A theme that seems to constantly rear its head in the lyrical content is that of the tension between time and movement, between a desire to be stationary and a need to be constantly in motion. This tension is often spoken of in terms of time. In the song “Motion Sickness” he ends with:

“So I want to get myself attached to something bolted down
So that these winds of circumstance won’t keep blowing me around
To when I land to when I leave there is enough time to sleep and sing
I keep running when all I want is to lay motionless”

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But beyond these reasons – Oberst’s songs provide an interesting account of libidinal investment in music/art and how that relates to differing views of subjectivity in terms of modernism and postmodernism. This is due to the fact that much of Oberst’s work seems intensely personal yet at the same time distanced in that it is a fabricated personal closeness and this closeness is often expressed in a self referential way. In one song, a person pretending to be Oberst gives a false interview with a radio show host, claiming that his song “Padriac my prince” was written about his brother whom his mother drowned in a bathtub. After a bit the impersonator goes on to say that his mother repeatedly drowned babies she had named Padriac and then eventually denies he said any of his previous statements.

The entire fake interview pokes fun not only at the darkness of the album (as Oberst himself stated) but also the sheer ridiculousness of the autobiographical song which, in turn, relates to his larger concern about measurement and, in particular, time. The song foreshadows Obert’s future album, Fevers and Mirrors, which devotes itself to questions of measurement and systematic scrutiny.

/2/ – Rifts and riffs

The nebulous rift between modernity and postmodernity has been discussed to death (or maybe just hinted at to death and not adequately engaged for all I know) and there is a few standard themes that are generally agreed upon. Generally the passage from the first epoch to the other involves a movement away from grand (or meta) narratives, the Enlightenment project (and the general sense a progress) along with it.

The ‘postmodernly’ induced fracturous curse upon identity seems to, in a few ways, cause, or at least make easy, a kind of general mental paralysis in which leads to a declaration of ‘too complex!’ and then it becomes easier for nothing to be done. This is not of course the whole story but I think it is a larger part then many would like to acknowledge. Many of the tenets of postmodernism make it easy to just sit back in the ‘lounge chair of becoming’ and comment on the vast multiplicity.

A great example of this is the Bright Eyes song “We are nowhere and its now” in which the opening words are:

“If you hate the taste of wine, why do you drink it till you’re blind
And if you swear that there’s no truth and who cares how come you say it like you’re right?”

One can hear Žižek’s attack upon Derrideans who don’t see themselves as even possibly dogmatic here – saying there is no truth has a kind of central position like stating there is such a thing as truth. In the aforementioned song, Oberst goes on to describe feeling helpless/bewildered by everything moving around him ‘while the world was flying by’ and that there is ultimately something self delusional but perhaps necessary in finding a form of belief.

The song ends with a comment that seems to validate one of Žižek’s comments about the contemporary belief:

“She took a small silver wreathe and pinned it onto me
She said this one will bring you love
I don’t know if it’s true but I keep it for good luck”

Here is a perfect example of how we act as though something and/or someone else does our believing ‘for us’ – Žižek’s favorite example of this is Niels Bohr who when asked about the horseshoe on his door (a good luck charm) by a guest who couldn’t believe that a man of science would have such a thing replied: ‘I don’t believe in it but I’m told it works even if you don’t believe in it.’ There is an odd kind of repetition here, that doing the action repeatedly, that one will develop habits which validate the belief behind the action. This is the key to understanding the ideological shift from Marx ‘They do it but they do not know they are doing it’ to Žižek ‘I know what I am doing but I do it anyway.’

On another level Oberst seems to decry the ridiculousness of purely formal gestures. In his song “Land locked blues” he attacks everyone’s inability to lose face even at the stoop of pure disaster. Take a look at one of the more interesting passages of lyrics:

And the world’s got me dizzy again
You think after 22 years I’d be used to the spin
And it only feels worse when I stay in one place
So I’m always pacing around or walking away
I keep drinking the ink from my pen
And I’m balancing history books up on my head
But it all boils down to one quotable phrase
If you love something, give it away

Obert’s lyrics constantly deplore as well as celebrate the idea that one cannot stop moving but, at the same time, is always chained by certain ‘passionate attachments’ (to borrow a phrase from Judith Butler). So what does our movement actually do, if anything?

/3/ – Repetition and Origins

The aforementioned tension, between knowing and doing, could be put into terms of the modern/postmodern split. In his essay “Philosophy as Creative Repetition” Alain Badiou suggests that philosophy is like a ‘voice in the dark’ and that it, using the image of Hegel’s ‘Owl of Minerva’ is always behind the times. Against the postmodern nihilism of ‘No Future!’ one must assert the possibility of newness. Badiou makes it clear that philosophy is not responsible for this newness, but can only measure it (here we return to the oddness of measuring). Following Althusser, he states that philosophy has no history, that it must always be an act, an attempt to corrupt young people (in the great tradition of Socrates). The philosophical act proper is to constantly scream that ‘a new dawn is here.’

One might borrow from one of Badiou’s great rivals, Gilles Deleuze, his concept of repetition as difference, the fact that difference inhabits repetition. As Deleuze argues, saying two things are alike erases the presupposed difference between any two things. The very ‘embeddedness’ of Deleuze’s difference (resulting from his concept of the plane of immanence and subsequent reversal of Kant) displays how experience purportedly explodes the categories that attempt to contain them. Though Deleuze’s argument is set against the Kantian grain, the late Lacan’s heavy topograhical discussions, and in particular his discussions regarding time’s relation to topography (here again I am borrowing from Adrian Johnston’s exciting Time Driven) which draw on Kant, seem to have a Deleuzian flavor. The following is Johnston quoting from Lacan’s 9th seminar:

“discontinuity is bound to what is the essence of the signifier, namely difference. If that on which we have made pivot, have ceaselessly brought back this function of the signifier, is to draw your attention to the fact that, even by repeating the same, the same by being repeated is inscribed as distinct” (SIX, 5/16/62) The question then arises – if Lacan is using topography here to insist (as Žižek argues in The Metastases of Enjoyment) that difference appears through some passage of time (the second look one takes at the Klein bottle or Borromean knot, the ‘pulsation of temporality’) then how far a cry is this from the plane of immanence? Here again is the tension between time and movement that Oberst’s lyrics seem so keen at grasping.

The Deleuzian difference seems to have it’s key in the very errancy of experience whereas for Lacan and Žižek, time serves only to bring us back to our original position – that is, in the case of the knot, it requires time to get back to beginning because everything is given to us at once, but it takes a while to acknowledge this. Deleuze’s immanence is a future-present whereas the synchronicity of Lacan’s past-future and present is a past-present, where we notice the big Other as the point du caption, we notice how the situation we are in has been structured all along to bring us to this moment.

/4/ – The vinyl epitaph or something more drastic

To bring this to a fairly ridiculous point then – how does one decide their top five albums?

The swan song of the album (as both physical construct and as a more vague form of collection) is, perhaps, news too old as the rise of mp3 encoding and digital music players have seemingly sealed its fate. A whole plethora of articles have long since surfaced regarding the shifting dynamics of the music industry – how the single has risen to prominence (along with the supporting music video), how downloading music is a response to the inflated prices of CDs, how a change in the delivery of music has long been over due and that downloading music allows for ease as well as lower cost. All across the internet one can find the warning bells – from Wired to The Wall Street Journal. There are, of course, those who are arguing against this decline, for business reasons and for more artistic reasons.

What interests me here, in regards to the album, is less these more pragmatic issues and more how the album (or the novel for that matter) is a form of organizing enjoyment/fantasy. Several theorists, and Jodi Dean in particular, have pointed out how Žižek argues how communities require a shared enjoyment, that without a sort of communal jouissance there can be no shared identity and that his sharing often comes from asserting that some other is or will attempt to take from this enjoyment (surely the enjoyment of albums most be the shared enjoyment of those particularly obnoxious forms of community – scenes). So what is the libidinal investment in the album, can the form ever die?

The album, it turns out, is perhaps a bit older than one might expect. A collection of songs was, according to the record, first referred to as a record in 1909. The physical construct of a record did not appear until the late 40s and weren’t really at all popular until the 50s and 60s. The question that remains – how can one, or is it even possible to, separate the particular way enjoyment, in this case musical enjoyment, is organized from the actual substance itself.

5 – The Final scene

Ultimately time and the innate sociality of human existence is what all of this comes down to – it’s the concept of shared enjoyment against/alongside our own complex sense of temporality. I think I can illustrate this with a clumsy scene.

You’re at a concert, the lights go down, the smoke rises up, the music begins. After some time you adjust to either the general disappointment or elation and take a look around you, you attempt to understand the crowd. A question is raised in regards to how everyone belongs, how does your fandom compare to everyone else’s? The biggest component of this question is a temporal one – are these other people true fans, have they listened to the band as long as I have?

So at one level we have a shared or communal enjoyment (seemingly) – all the fans in the room seem to be sharing something yet this enjoyment is (following the earlier discussion of Deleuze) internally divided. Alongside this there is the common knot of listening to a band because of their popularity in place of their artistic merits. At the same time of course there are those who get a shared joy from listening to music that is avant garde, or otherwise determinedly outside the mainstream. On the other hand music is so tied to particular events and times in our lives that any kind of even superficial shared enjoyment seems impossible. What is the answer here? This conflict is essentially parrallel to the problem of individuality in the face of formalism – the problem of science.

As Adrian Johnston discusses in Time Driven, when operation within a particular paradigm and faced with an individual case (here he is speaking specifically in regards to analysis). Regardless of the particular strengths of one’s knowledge and position, the ‘abyss of judgment’ cannot be dealt with before hand. The key then to the enjoyment of music is akin to the center of the problematic nature of systematicity in psychoanalysis – the crux of the paradigm or system is a series of lacunae, a series of gaps representing the impossible cause, the non-material and non-existent cause of desire.

While the shared enjoyment of music then is effectively hollow in at least two ways – one is that when we attempt to find a common denominator for our enjoyment we simply overlook the fact that enjoyment is inherently stupid and blind, that it is a pointless symbolic gesture (the way a dress falls over the back, the way one’s hair is tied up, one particular shape of the body) tied up with the Real (the sheer unbearable weight of it upon our being) and what it means for future (here the borromean knot is completed with the imaginary register, the way the whole fantasy supports our actions).

Here again is the Lacanian sense of time – the feeling enjoyment brings us back to the nothingness of our being, the ridiculous and vulgar feeling of pleasure which just is. To try and dissect the ‘x factor’, the ‘thing that gets our motor running, is to assume a definite purpose to the collision of nature and nurture where there is none.

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3 Responses to “Libidinal investment between modernism and postmodernism”

  1. The notion of tension between stillness / motion in Oberst’s lyrical themes is interesting also when you consider the etymological origin of the album ‘Cassadaga’, which in Seneca means ‘water beneath the rocks’. Constant motion & motionlessness.

    There are so many layers of referential material in his lyrics that one could pretty much make up any story they liked and rationally justify its ‘true meaning’, due to the material allowing itself to be open to so much subjectivity – and I think that might be, in part, the game. The intensely personal paired with fabricated closeness never lets the listener really know truth – and it feels to me at times that he both hates and loves that quandary, because the fundamental subjectiveness of any poetic communication means the attempt to express your true self is almost always lost in translation. Yet the poet keeps on trying!

    The great game.

  2. 2 Ryan

    Very enjoyable post. However, while I agree that Oberst’s lyrics often enough present a description of his libidinal investment and postmodern worry over the loss of presence, I’m curious what you think about his New-Age obscurantist turn in Cassadaga? He certainly hasn’t lost any profundity vis-a-vis lyrical prowess, but the general argument of the album I found unconvincing.

  3. 3 naughtthought

    I haven’t gotten into Cassadaga to be honest – the only song that I’ve given frequent listens to is “Lime Tree” and I think that’s because it is most lost his older stuff – reflective and unspritual. The name of the album itself suggests he is trying to move back and forth between a hardness and a softness (I suppose the hardness being pomo-negativity) but I don’t think he has gotten there yet.


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