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

« Mentioning the Band Throbbing Gristle Might Not Work as Well | Main | Think Twice »

September 8, 2007

Desiring Machine

The English translation of Anti-Oedipus appeared in 1977. By a total coincidence -- one that is really not much of a coincidence at all -- so did the following short film:

As it happens, the band had formed at just about the same time Deleuze and Guattari were publishing the book. It's worth remembering that they expected it would have an audience among teenagers and artists and strange folks probably not heading off to write about desiring-machines in pursuit of academic credit. Funny how that worked out.

Watching the clip now, what stands out is, of course, that stamp on the lower lefthand corner at the start, which the eye instantly decodes as an indication that it appeared on MTV. (Which did not exist in 1977, as I should perhaps explain for anyone who thinks of music video as an organic part of the cultural surround. It was absorbed into MTV, but not produced by it.)

It was the following year that Devo appeared on national television, reaching unsuspecting viewers who for the most part had no idea what to make of it. At the time I was going to high school -- in whatever sticks there are even further out behind "out in the sticks" -- and watched it with horror and fascination, which come to think of it was also pretty much my reaction to D&G a few years later. The word "transgression" now seems so cheap. But this did feel like something was being violated, and I'm not completely over that impression.

Here's the same song again, as beamed out to the hinterlands:

Even more than the depersonalization of the band members or their spastic robot moves, what got to me was the cluster of switches and exposed electronic hardware attached to the lead guitar -- a rather sinister outgrowth that somehow felt obscene. I was too young to have been through any of the counterculture, of course. But the attitude that went with sixties-style romanticism (rock as individualist expression, music as natural alternative to alienation, etc.) was something you just picked up from the media and took for granted, without even having words for it, let alone any sense of having absorbed some kind of watered-down but overripe ideology.

Seeing this outlook stripped bare -- to the tune of the definitive song about frustrated libido, no less -- was defamiliarizing in a pretty visceral way.

Downstream from that period, I still have a strong response to these performances. But now my attention is drawn just as much to the element of corporate branding (MTV, SNL) involved -- something that Devo itself parodied/ embodied/ reflected upon as a band, of course.

Like Warhol, they may have seemed at first to have wanted to establish critical distance from the culture they were processing -- but that's not how things work. Michael Hardt on D&G:

Desiring- machines cannot be conceived as a desire to do or have an object or even achieve a state. (Hence "the object of desire" really doesn't make sense here.) Desiring-machines have no object, or goal, or telos, but rather are completely invested in the process, the production. Desiring-machines can thus never be "satisfied" or come to a completion.

Baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby....

Posted by smclemee at September 8, 2007 2:41 PM


I don't know how many readers have kids: am I the only one who knows that Mark Mothersbaugh does the music for Clifford the Big Red Dog and Rugrats? And additional defamiliarizing element is that the vocals are almost always displaced by a beat from where they were in the original, basically frustrating the backbeat's momentum. Cool!

Posted by: Tony Nassar at September 14, 2007 12:42 PM