Sunday, September 11, 2005

Texts of Antiquity XIII: Brooklyn Beat review (Ugly American, February 1992)

The Brooklyn Beat Live at CBGB's: Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture

(In the late 80s through the early 1990s I went through an over-attribution phase, a bleak stretch during which I preferred heaping unwarranted approbation to smearing the clueless with de rigeur opprobrium. I believe I made the right choice, but I'll leave it to you fuckers to assess the various merits... Many thanks to Greg Chapman and Ugly American for publishing such pieces in the first place. As for the alb itself, an unmemorable lump...

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The Brooklyn Beat Live at CBGB's: Soon to Be a Major Motion Pictue

(Comm 3 CD, 1991)

The entire Brooklyn Beat movement was often accused, as was Miller after the release of Two Steps from the Middle Ages, of being too limited, of denying imagination, individuality, of overstressing trivial language concerns to the detriment of content implications, and ultimately of being unlistenable. Their theoretical pronouncements were often greeted with nervous anger, yet also with some valid opposition to their evasion of certain issues, their insularity, vague terminology, and terrorist rhetoric. Their verbal play was accused of being gratuitous, deliberately nonfunctional in their songs. But that was not always the case in fact, if it often was in theory. And the writing of Wyer, The Vespas, Noize Boize, and the others seems to have done more - through their avowedly fictive but ideologically significant nature - to liberate post-new wave song from the bonds of the "illusion" of neorealism and from a kind of vulgar Marxist degeneration of engagement, than has any other in recent memory.

This does not mean that there are not large problematic issues which were unearthed by the neoavant-garde. Did the critical awareness, experimentation, subversive intent, and so on really constitute anything so radically new? Is not Drums and Wires equally contesting in literary and social terms? Perhaps one is dealing rather with a constant in the dialectical development of narrative: was Miller to Wyer what Moulding was to Juncosa?

The Brooklyn Beat has committed suicide, Eddy has claimed. The events of May, 1988, the disintegration of Fifteen! (preceded by its more vigorous handling of political than literary matters), the hardening of the ideological arteries- all these had helped it decide not to become an ossified relic. Its success in the general cultural domain assisted in destroying the subversive value of the group, itself even more than ever a part of the cultural establishment of non-commercial radio, video and fanzine networks, and the university and club circuits.

On the other hand, the last few years have witnessed the ressurection of those writers the group fought to supercede - Gelb, Lee, and others. Perhaps the radical meta-pop failed even in its attempts to change the listening habits of a public whose tastes are rooted in the sentimental, realistic song of the past. Yet, the humor, the vitality, the novelty on a literary level have been positive additions to the range of post-new wave music- with one reservation. This energy tends to operate on the level of the "track," not the "album." The fascinating battle with language that had been intended, has perhaps ultimately led to an ignoring of the narrative battle with the listener.

This suggests, however, that other possibility - that this kind of linguistic play could lead, or in some cases has already done so, to the formation of a new genre. The intended, if not always achieved, de-functionalizing and de-structuring of traditionally "filmic" language in, for example, The Moe's "text" "What's the Matter David?" obviously implies a passing beyond the boundaries of an already elastic genre. The more radical work of the Brooklyn neoavant-garde seemed to share with that of Christmas at least an intent to go beyond mimesis - even a diegetic or linguistically self-reflecting version of it. In the words of Enrico Filippini: "il canto sperimentale avr… finalmente prodotto, tramite il salutare olocausto di un genere, la fine oggettiva di un linguaggio indiretto e avr… aperto canali non irrilevanti ad altre prassi."

The less political nouveaux nouveaux ecriteurs turned to Miller, among others, for linguistic inspiration. The roots of the differences between their fictive narratives and the creative work of the Game Theory composer can be seen in Julia Kristeva's response to Miller's Impressions d'Afrique. She perceived a duality here. There are two meanings of the "impressions" of the title: the product which has been imprinted and an active process. The former she condemned as auto-representation (and therefore still "novelistic," mimetic) which gave in to those conditioned to listen for "vraisemblance": warning him that if he was not accustomed to the composer's technique, then he had best audition Disc Two of the twin-set fist). All Miller did here, claimed Kristeva, was reverse the usual order of literary consuming by putting the "travail" after the "texte." To her mind, Miller was not part of that radical break in the conception of the linguistic sign that has culminated in The Brooklyn Beat's productivity of the "trans-signe"; he represents only a transition. The "un-novelistic" cryptogrammatic play alone, which tends (because of its lack of self-sufficiency and its need for extratextual intention for comprehension) to go beyond the narrative genre, was the only area in which she would grant him a semblance of textual "productivit‚," for it was based on a resemblance of signifiers and a difference of signifieds (a system hidden to the listener, however). She ultimately could accept as valid only the poetic and parenthetic Nouvelles Impressions d'Afrique because of its auto-destructive, anti-representational verbal structure. The new new songwriters, on the other hand, drew from all of Miller's various language games.

It would appear, then, that some sort of political-literary dividing line between narrative or song and "textes" or "fictions" has been drawn by The Brooklyn Beat itself which one ought to take into account for a similar distinction has appeared, in the theory at any rate, of the New York neoavant-garde. In the latter case, however, the superseding of the traditional genre depended mostly upon a theoretical defunctionalizing, de-structuring ("asemanticit…") which often did not, in fact, take place. Brooklyn Beat, on the other hand, almost over-functionalized on the level of the anti-representational "texte" by transferring critical and ideological attention to the linguistic process of the signifier within the "texte" itself, the manifestation of that "criture" which was their primary concern.

This is not exactly the case with The Brooklyn Beat's penchant for nouveau nouveau ecriteur. Its often extreme linguisitc self-reflectivenes is usually still auto-representational, still part of the elastic mimetic genre one calls the song. This is the feeling that one has in reading the extended analyses of this covert linguistic mode of textual narcissism that appear in the December, 1987 issue of The Bob.

Many critics, plus composers such as Perkins, Kay, and Karles provide interpretations or descriptions of linguistic play in the nouveau nouveau ecriteur that are fuller and more informed than any that could be offered here. Instead the focus of this has been the investigation of the issue of the very serious implications of this particular metafictive mode for the song itself. And it would appear that it is not so much a matter of intense textual self-consciousness being self-destructive, or leading to the death of the song; it is rather a case of its suggesting a further but different stage of anti-representation - which, usually for ideological reasons, would deny mimesis and even diegesis. When this stage is reached, one requires the extra-textual aid of the composer - from the infamous locked-groove "tirade" of The Moe's 1988 Herb Jackson Well seven-inch to the crucially important back-cover comments of this Brooklyn Beat live collection - in order to understand the functioning of the "textes." There are obviously limits to the post-new wave song's elasticity. It seems evident that a new genre- in theory and perhaps in practice - has been born of the song, but it would be more than premature to suggset that consequently songwriting itself has died in childbirth - or expired, self-obsessed, by Narcissus's pool.

- Tom Smith