Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Lyric and Performance

Nate over at what in the hell… manages to capture pretty much every critique I’ve ever written of another theorist, in a post on immanent contradictions within musical forms:

…most of my favorite songs have a pretty despairing content lyrically. It’s part of that sensibility I like of being trapped as opposed to lost. At the same time, the music isn’t actually conveying “give up.” The content of the lyrics tends to convey that, but that same content has no explanation for why the song was written. That is, if the lyrical content told the whole story, the song would never have been written or performed. What I like about this, is that performance of a song like that conveys something that the lyrics don’t. The performance says something more than “give up,” it says “we keep on keeping on.” The “we” is important. The despairing sensibility in the words as written is usually an individual sentiment, whereas the performance involves one or more singers alongside multiple instruments and (in live performance, where music is best) a bunch of interactions with the audience which can make or break the quality of the performance. That conveys less of an idea and more of a feeling that there’s more than dead ends, that circumstances which can provoke despair can be pushed on through.

Nate goes on to suggest that perhaps the performance of such an experience is more important – more powerful – than its explicit lyrical expression could ever be:

For some reason the performance of that feeling is more powerful than the straightforward statement of that idea, I think because in moments of despair the problem is often less one of right ideas than it is of conviction in those ideas. Ideas can be (probably always are) a part of despair and its alternatives, but ideas aren’t always a sound answer, and it’s the non-idea or extra-idea parts of music that I think help to get the bits that need more than or other than just ideas.

Here we might part company a bit – although I’m open to the possibility that Nate might be right about this: I understand my work as an experiment predicated on the hope that we might become much more powerful, if we can also somehow learn to express and understand the potentials we collectively enact.

Incidentally, for those who haven’t yet seen, Nate has committed to writing a post a day this month, with an average target length of 500 words per post, as a blogging variant of National Novel Writing Month. So check in regularly to see what he does with this…

8 responses to “Lyric and Performance

  1. Pingback: What in the hell … :: … happened to the post I was going to write? :: November :: 2007

  2. Nate November 4, 2007 at 4:23 pm

    Thanks NP. I’d love to hear more about this possible parting of company. I started to reply here but it got long enough that I just made it into a blog post. (Also, I had forgotten that I said 500 words _on average_ per post. In my head I’d been thinking 500 words _minimum_ per post, which is harder. Thanks for the reminder.)
    take care,

  3. IndieFaith November 5, 2007 at 12:16 am

    I wrote this line as part of a really old post.
    “There is a world of difference between a sad event and a sad song. The song may be of the same event but there is something in the rhythm and movement of the song that keeps its images from collapsing into total despair.”
    A sad song is one of the most beautiful realities that we have. I wrote a recent post reflecting on seeing my favourite sad singer/songwriter.
    I don’t think that the event of the song completely overcomes the “ideas” of it. It is rather the greatest of marriages and necessary for a society that likes insulation and immunity.

  4. N Pepperell November 5, 2007 at 11:03 am

    Hey Nate – I’m not, of course, making a completely serious point above 🙂 – I’ve translated your comment about music, into a comment about theory, and then responded as though it were intentionally a comment about theory, omitting the musical point entirely. I would agree with the points, also as you’ve developed them in your follow-up post, around the limitations of, say, argument as form of intervention trying directly to effect change – many other things need to be mobilised, other than theoretical commitments, in order to sustain personal and collective efforts.

    What prompted the association for me, I think, is that there have been a number of complex discussions across several blogs over the past year, of how important it is (to steal Brandom’s terms, since I’m still trying to work through him at the moment) to make explicit the goals and (more problematically) the tacit practical foundations of politically-oriented critique. The issue is a complex one for me, because there is no doubt that any number of movements have had profound impacts while still, from, say, the standpoint of the kind of theory I’m trying to develop, not fully capturing what they are overtly trying to capture about the environment they are hoping to transform. So the question becomes, in a way, what, specifically, does a kind of explicit theoretical articulation add to the mix (and it will be a mix, and I don’t hold the position that theoretical articulation adds more, or adds something more important, than other elements in political contestation – the question for me is more of one beginning to grasp a bit more clearly why one would engage in theory at all).

    I want to pick up in some way on the comments in your more recent post about “belief” as “agreement”, and “belief” as “confidence that what you agree with will come about/have the impact you want it to have” – or, on a more personal level, the translation of belief into a form of experiential optimism… I think that one of the reasons I’ve written so much on the issue of “theoretical pessimism” here is that I’m an extremely strong “theoretical optimist” – even, perhaps, an “empirical” optimist, when it comes to looking out on social events – I have a tendency to be drawn to potentials, to see them in a sense vibrating in very palpable way in the time, even when the time can in specific respects be quite bad. But I draw a very strong line between how I do this, and what I… ?feel? – how I experience my own ?purposiveness? in the midst of these possibilities. It’s not a lack of faith in the presence of the potentials that I might grasp theoretically, or that I might read out of the practical activity of social and intellectual movements operating on the ground – I’m weirdly confident in these sorts of collective potentials. It’s just that this particular type of faith doesn’t, for me on a personal level, translate into a specific sense of the value of the work that I personally am doing, or into energy to place into that work. That sort of energy comes from elsewhere – from more local connections and friendships – from borrowing, in a sense, other people’s confidence in or support for whatever it is I might be able to add into the mix. And it is – I think your comments here about the distinction between what you’ve called “knowing out loud”, versus “acting as if”, are resonant for me here – something that isn’t touched or transformed solely by argument – even by my own arguments, even when I agree strongly with those arguments… ;-P There is a need also for connections that operate in other ways. Admittedly, I would probably be pessimistic in a very different way if I felt the arguments weren’t also available – but I agree with you that, certainly on a personal level for me, argument wouldn’t by itself be enough.

    Apologies for being so rough and sort of over-abstract about this – very late night last night, so working on only a few hours’ sleep, and tiredness makes me even more abstract than I normally am. I may be able to make more sense after I head into campus and score some coffee… ;-P

    IndieFaith – I saw your post on meeting your favourite songwriter – very nice reflections. And, continuing the song/theory metaphor, I think you’re right to hit on the issue of how we marry forms and what those forms express. Some of my theoretical work involves suggesting that certain forms of theory divorce too much – treating their own arguments as more “conceptual”, less emergent from everyday practice, than they could potentially be taken as being – losing an opportunity, I think, to wrestle with the tension of how concepts and other kinds of potentials emerge from very mundane sorts of practices – and also perhaps walling off more than they need, their own potential effectiveness, as a form of intervention into an everyday world… I’m not hitting the centre of your comment at all here – apologies – just associating, as I was with Nate’s original comment, on this discussion metaphorically, in its relation to some discussions that have occasionally taken place here on the nature of theoretical work…

    Both you and Nate suggest the possibility for something expressible in art that might not be expressible, or at least might not have the same impact or reach, in other forms. I’m not trying at all to deflect from that discussion – just meandering off on my own themes…

  5. Nate November 5, 2007 at 3:25 pm

    hey NP,
    I think we actually agree on all counts re: this stuff as far as I can tell. I think there’s a value to the theoretical explict-making you describe, and to theory in general (though academic work sometimes makes me doubt that and even more makes me feel polemical so that I say things about it that I don’t quite mean). As you put it, it’s not the case that “theoretical articulation adds more, or adds something more important, than other elements in political contestation”, but there’s a certain theoretical _something_ still, a theory-ness (at a minimum, an intuition or disposition toward at least some things that have that theory-feel). I get that. I’d say something parallel with the specialness of art (and with other things too like experiences of collective struggle and organization building etc). It’s really hard to balance this sort of stuff, thinking about it I mean, vocabulary-wise, I want to make distinctions but not hard and fast ones… I don’t want to posit all these autonomous things (art, politics, philosophy etc) but I’m also not comfortable with overly neat leveling of those distinctions. Anyways –
    take care,

  6. Mikhail Emelianov November 6, 2007 at 4:01 pm

    what about something like opera? talk about often a sad story but powerful performance, in fact, only through performance does opera exist or make any sense, even listening to a recording is not really “opera” is it?

  7. N Pepperell November 8, 2007 at 10:48 am

    Mikhail and Nate – Sorry I’ve neglected your comments for so long – I’m trying to pull together all the Marx posts into a more formal state, which I’ll post here when it’s done, and have also been buried in end-of-term marking, so I’ve been neglecting the blog. (A little elf, though, seems to have been cleaning up some things on the admin side while I’ve been away – it’s a bit like having one’s home remodelled while on vacation…) I’ll be more active around here in a bit…

  8. Nate November 8, 2007 at 2:45 pm

    No worries and I look forward to reading the pulled together thing. I hope you pay the elf a living wage. FYI, on your influence I looked for Making It Explicit at the library but it was checked out.
    take care,

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