AJ Logo an ARTSJOURNAL weblog | ArtsJournal Home | AJ Blog Central

« Argument! Character Assassination! Breasts! | Main | Reconfiguring Borders »

March 27, 2007

The Rise of Fordism

The redoubtable Phil Ford has a new post that takes off from a parsing of "postpunk" *(as that periodization is narrated in Rip It Up and Start Again by Simon Reynolds) and then goes on to propose what Ford calls the genre of the "listening biography." The latter he defines, in his own case as "the individual, peculiar, contingent path by which which I, like anyone else, come into my mature (?) musical tastes."

While much of "rockist" discourse is rooted in stories about "scenes," the postpunk experience was much more dispersed and mass mediated:

Reynolds is interested in how a kind of music (like postpunk) can exist outside of a local communities. Because of his own personal experience, he is acutely aware that a new musical movement doesn't have to be wedded to a particular place, time, and subcultural milieu. Which is to say, it can be mediated: the lines of influence between bands, and between bands and listeners, can flow out from city centers to the suburbs and small towns by way of radio, records, TV, etc. If the rockist narrative posits an ideal listener who is also a participant ("I was at Woodstock, man," or "I saw Richard Hell at CBGB in 1976, man"*); if the rockist narrative privileges being at the right place at the right time; then postpunk is marked by the decline of subcultural prestige. Growing up, I was into Devo, and I lived in Sudbury, Ontario. The fact that my experience of Devo was entirely mediated -- I experienced them through media channels, never as a participant in their "scene" -- doesn't change anything. Postpunk is only a virtual scene.

But this notion -- a scene without a scene, if that's how to put it -- poses all kinds of problems:

The problem is, what allows you to group all these musicians and say that they form a broad front of something called "post-punk"? If you were to say, it's the music that originated in a six-square-mile area of downtown Pittsburgh for a few months in 1981 or something, you might have narrowed your definition too much to be very helpful, but as an intellectual gesture it has a certain feeling of rightness, because in making such an argument you are doing the hipster thing of grouping some small unit of cultural production into a little bulls-eye of authenticity from which radiates successive rings of increasingly impure, commodified, co-opted, mediated stuff. (The gesture is aimed at establishing the power of the critic, who affirms his own taste in defining the center and his authority to bestow subcultural capital on the contenders, pretenders, and also-rans.) But when you see through the gesture and reject it -- perhaps for the very good reason that a band, like, say, the Beatles, can make great music without ever being anywhere close to its models -- you are left with a much less secure ground on which to base a claim for generic identity.

One shortcut solution, of course -- beloved by almost everyone, and almost inescapable -- is to conjure up the Zeitgeist as some kind of explanatory principle. (Which is pretty much a matter of begging the question.)

Phil has been doing some serious, thoughtful work on the cultural logic of hip from bebop onwards. I suspect he'll have more to say on "listening biography" and scene-dom. Keep your eyes and ears open.

Posted by smclemee at March 27, 2007 7:06 PM