Bogus Pomp and Bourdieu’s Paradox: Zappa & Resentment


Paul Sutton

paper delivered to the International Conference of Esemplasic Zappology (ICE-Z) at Theatro Technis, 26 Crowndale Road, London NW1 on Friday 16 January 2004.


In light of what I’ll be saying later about Zappa’s aggressive defensiveness concerning "high art" status I should, perhaps, begin by warning that this cheesy little home-made paper was prepared for the amusement of people who already enjoy Zappa Music. It is not for intellectuals or other dead people (1). Surprisingly, I seem to be the only speaker today to mention the p word. For the purposes of this paper, I shall define postmodernism as that strand in contemporary thought which, in the name of subjectivities allegedly trampled upon by the grand narratives of art and politics, repudiates ambition and judgement in favour of an easygoing cultural relativism and a celebration and defence of hitherto beleaguered identities. Identity politics, which began as a salutary corrective to the blinkered workerism of the Old Left, had, by the 1980s, become a substitute for, rather than a supplement to, a genuinely radical politics. Indeed, it had become a political variant of, and adjunct to, market research. In the context of British Cultural Studies, it means an emphasis on consumption at the expense of production so that, while attention to artistic substance is often perfunctory, purchasing a pair of "Mod A Go-Go stretch-elastic pants"(2) is celebrated as a creative act of resistance and self-formation, rather than deplored as a capitulation to market-induced self-loathing. Consumer choice is not to be impugned, except perhaps by egregious reactionaries such as Roger Scruton who pop up periodically as if to remind us of our good fortune in having Jonathan Ross. It is at this point that Zappa presents himself as a figure uniquely qualified not to negotiate between these two extremes, but to short-circuit the entire sterile debate. However, before discussing Zappa, I shall deal with the work of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.

It might be wondered why I’m interested in Bourdieu when British intellectuals, particularly those affiliated with the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, deal more directly with popular culture and are more explicitly populist in their approach. However, while the latter evince the postmodernist disdain for the overarching and monumental, Bourdieu’s thought is remarkable for its coherence, rigour and ambition. While this lays him open to the charge of scientism, we are at least spared the spectacle of the affluent, intellectual and middle-aged sentimentalising the lives and consumer choices of the poor, uneducated and young (Dick Hebdige, for example, is often no more than Pete Townshend with footnotes, as we shall see below). Moreover, while the story of the Birmingham School is one of a managed withdrawal from socialist positions, Bourdieu’s commitment to social transformation was lifelong. I come, then, not to bury Bourdieu but to show how postmodernism and Zappa can be mutually illuminating. This is not an attempt to recuperate Zappa for postmodernism; I want, rather, to show how such pertinence as postmodernism possesses is both exemplified and transcended in his work.

For Bourdieu, culture is a field of struggle in which agents (producers, consumers and distributors) occupying varying socially determined positions seek to advantageously realise the cultural capital entailed by those positions in the form of symbolic capital. Bourdieu’s depiction of this field is both subtle and dynamic and he is extremely attentive to the complex strategic problems faced by agents. His account of the evolution and character of the institutions of art is such as to commend it to any properly materialist criticism(3). However, this cogent rendering of social praxis is bought at the expense of serious discussion of the artworks as artworks. As Adorno observed, ‘For the truth content of art Cultural Studies substitutes its social function and its conditioning by interests, while refraining from a critique of that content itself’(4). This elision of the aesthetic is also to be found in his account of cultural capital. This consists of educational or acquired capital and inherited capital. Without educational capital, which includes such aptitudes as literacy, score reading, instrumental technique etc., cultural activity is scarcely possible. Nevertheless, Bourdieu regards acquired capital as prior, for it invariably entails the other. So what is acquired capital? It is sprezzatura, insouciance, taste, the ability to wear wealth and learning lightly, a concept of gentility which has remained remarkably constant since Castiglione formulated it in the sixteenth century. It is, in a word, class, or, rather, the veil worn by that vulgar social-scientific entity in polite society. It is Sergeant Wilson in Dad’s Army, while an example of a bearer of acquired capital might be the kind of odious autodidact found in the novels of the Bloomsbury Group.

Such a character is a victim of Bourdieu’s paradox.

If, in order to resist, I have no other resources than to lay claim to that in the name of which I am dominated, is this resistance? Second question: when, on the other hand, the dominated work at destroying what marks them out as "vulgar" and at appropriating that in relation to which they appear as vulgar […] is this submission? I think this is an insoluble contradiction: this contradiction, which is inscribed in the logic of symbolic domination, is something those who talk about "popular culture" won’t admit.(5)

Whether to feast upon and celebrate the paltry pabulum of pop, in the manner of British Cultural Studies, or to fall too gratefully upon the rich banquet of bourgeois art, that alibi and congealment of domination, is surely to endorse, rather than to question, the current distribution of resources. All cultural products, including even Elvis Costello string quartets, bear the scars of domination (Bourdieu’s preferred, non-Marxist, term for class struggle): the paradox admits only of a political solution. However, this is not to say that there is no advantage to be derived from a provocative, insightful and obsessive staging of this paradox.

Bourdieu began his career with an ethnographic study of Algerian peasants. Zappa was to turn a similarly scientific eye on rock musicians, roadies and groupies. While contemporaries such as the Beatles vouchsafed their fans a glimpse of the Wisdom of the East, Zappa preferred to document, in audio verité style, what his musicians were really interested in – paid gigs, beer and "groupie action". The existential drama of the Doors was eschewed in favour of songs which addressed, in overtly contrived manner, issues of genuine concern to adolescents – borrowing Pop’s car, losing status at high school and the indignity of having a fat girlfriend. He was no more respectful of the world of classical music, which he regarded as "accommodating the entertainment needs of deceased kings and popes".

Flute players look to me like they have a bad attitude because of all that cloud and angel music they have to play. French horn players are arrogant too – they have to play all the shit that sounds like graduation.(6)

Saloon bar bigotry or a characteristically pungent account of the way in which sedimented traces of royal and ecclesiastical power leave their mark on performer psychology and adolescent rites of passage alike?

So far, I have discussed the way in which anthropology directly, and with full consciousness on the artist’s part, impinges on Zappa’s work. Set aside Zappa’s habitual grotesqueries, and it is surprising how little translation is involved in this process. The mad scientist is a persistent trope in Zappa’s work and, as The Real Frank Zappa Book shows, the composer had been an enthusiastic materialist and experimentalist since childhood. ‘Just give some stuff, and I’ll organize it for you. That’s what I do."(7) However, Zappa is no reductionist (although he may very well be a vulgar caricaturist), for his social scientific concepts are given sensuous embodiment. "Information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, wisdom is not beauty", says the girl on the bus, thereby affirming Kant’s cognitive trinity, if not its hierarchy. Bourdieu, on the other hand, signals in the very title of his Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste his intention to strip the subject of Kant’s third critique of its cognitive status. It is tempting to surmise that, in order to secure maximum realisation of symbolic capital, Bourdieu has to depress the market value of aesthetics. Zappa sublates what is valuable in Bourdieu by means which I shall discuss under the headings Bogus Pomp and the Phenomenology of Zappaphilia.

What is Bogus Pomp? ‘Arrogantly twisting the sterile canvas snoot of a fully-charged icing anointment utensil, he poots forth a little green rosette,’ evinces, with its mincing but menacing meticulousness, the subaltern grandiloquence which has been particularly noted of Black and Irish verbal culture. Zappa seems to have believed that any claim to literary attention his work possessed resided in the "snide political stuff", but it is in lines such as these that the essence of Zappa’s poetry is to be found. Piquant connotations of power, tweezers, sexual dysfunction and religious unction are more than sufficient to goad the alert listener, but such language is remarkable, above all, for its congruence with Zappa’s musical language, particularly in his "serious" pieces. When drawing upon the classical tradition, Zappa is inordinately fond of such toadying forms as the march and fanfare, to which he characteristically gives preposterous and thrasonical twists. Melodies are, typically, extraordinarily long and elaborate, while his orchestrations favour parping brass, buffoonish bassoons and, even in the "purer" orchestral and electronic pieces, that most lumpen of instruments, the drumkit. On the other hand, that most consecrated of the sections of the orchestra, and the principle bearer of musical logic for most of "classical" music’s history, the strings, does not particularly interest Zappa. Together, his choice of instrumentation and of forms bespeaks an attention to "art" music’s servile and martial origins rather than to its autonomous and "profound" maturity.

Nevertheless, there is more to such Bogus Pomp than just cocking a snook at the bewigged and liveried provenance of posh pastimes. Zappa was fond of comparing his work with that of the sculptor, Alexander Calder. He describes a Calder mobile thus, ‘A large mass of any material will "balance" a smaller, denser mass of any material, according to the length of the gizmo it’s dangling on, and the "balance point" chosen to facilitate the danglement’(8). A geometer’s conception of music worthy of Brian Ferneyhough, were it not for such characteristic Zappa-isms as gizmo and danglement (at a conference of Zappology it’s scarcely necessary to commend danglement to the listener’s attention). However, construction is not Zappa’s only metaphor for artistic creation. Much of his music, after all, was produced in the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, where things are not so much constructed as pooted forth (rather like the canvasses which the situationist Asger Jorn produced by the yard). The poodle implied by poot and the poetic diction of forth both exemplify Bogus Pomp, but pooting forth is yet more significant as a truly dialectical concept. In its suggestions of defecation, adornment and industrial extrusion it exemplifies the history of alienation. Humanity exchanges with nature, transforms itself and transforms nature.

Having given an account of the Project/Object, I shall now consider its effect on the subject, or the Phenomenology of Zappaphilia. Who listens to Zappa and what does it do to them? The Mothers of Invention began as a bar band, and Zappa’s music was to retain that spirit of working man’s(9) entertainment. Songs such as ‘Trouble Everyday’ and ‘Cocaine Decisions’ are typical in their expression of underclass resentment, while Zappa’s conspicuous instrumental and compositional skills (there are lots of fiddly bits) resonate with the artisanal fantasies of the wage labourer. Such fantasies are underwritten with the pocket money of Beavis and Butthead, so taken are the pair with Zappa’s toilet humour.The implied listener, then, might be expected to feel the force of Bourdieu’s paradox particularly acutely. However, what Bourdieu, in his zeal to honour the subject and consequent evacuation of the aesthetic object, fails to allow is that the subject might realise itself through the object.

Zappologist Jonathan Jones has written of Zappa’s music creating a paranoid listener. I want to talk about it creating an annoyed listener. Rock critics such as Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs dislike his cynical take on rock and suspect his treacherous classical aspirations; bourgeois moralists condemn his documentation of contemporary mores as sexist and racist; admirers of jazz and classical music are irked by the knob gags and art purists recoil from the ostentatious opulence of his production. These are not just issues for occasional listeners. Indeed, they structure the long term responses of the hardcore fan. Even after such individuals have learned to thrill at the merest glimpse of a poodle, the initial resistance is, in Hegelian fashion, both cancelled and preserved as a moment of apprehension with each listening. Zappa’s music is so irritating, yet so evidently accomplished and original, that the listener’s aesthetic categories are called into question. This might best be clarified by way of a comparison of Zappa’s work with that of Pete Townshend. Both document pop culture and both combine Afro-American music with European music (in Zappa’s case, Varèse and Stravinsky, and in Townshend’s, Gilbert and Sullivan). Townshend was famously a celebrant of the Mod lifestyle, a subject which cultural studies academics have also found particularly congenial. The elaborate consumer choices of inarticulate youth provide rich pickings for semiotically minded sociologist and would be rock statesman alike. That pop is, as Matt Worley writes, ‘the last gasp before the day job grabs you […], an inevitable failure, a second of brilliance and a lifetime of grey […] disappointment in multiple’(10), is, for Townshend and Hebdige, an occasion, not for a rethink of their uncritical valorisation of popular pleasure, but for pathos. It is their very emphasis on culture as a social rather than a cognitive activity which blinds them to the only social effectivity their beloved pop might have.

With Zappa, pathos is precluded by his never having had any illusions in the first place, but also by his systematically denying the mystical closure sought by Townshend. The latter writes pithy, exciting and climactic songs celebrating, and speaking for, those who, inspired by pithy, exciting and climactic songs, seek, with often tragic consequences, to lead pithy, exciting and climactic lives. Zappa is not a purveyor of quanta of adolescent adrenaline. Modular construction, doo-wop derived polyphony, segues and estranging contexts militate against both identity affirmation and unreflective immediacy. To be sure, the music is frequently visceral, but rarely immediate. ‘My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama’, for example, is destabilised as a rock song by its context, horn arrangement and the knowing dumbness of the lyrics. The listener with more in mind than cheap thrills fares no better. For many, Zappa is, apart from his intrinsic merits, a gateway to "higher things". However, the seeker of exquisite Webernian interludes is sure to find amplified snorks or chipmunk choruses as well. Zappa’s music may be a sculpture, but it is a sculpture festooned with hairtrigger stinkbombs.

I have attempted to show how the legitimate concern with art as social praxis professed by the practitioners of sociology and cultural studies is bought at the expense of art as a distinctive cognitive activity, while Zappa is able to give such concern sensuous embodiment. Nevertheless, Bourdieu’s Paradox remains a salutary reminder of art’s limits, so it is worth prospecting for the inevitable cracks in the monstrous edifice that is Zappa’s corpus. Joe’s Garage represents a convergence of artist and fanbase of which Pete Townshend can only dream, particularly in the extraordinary closing sections.

I’ll be sullen and withdrawn
I’ll drift off into the twilight realm
Of my own secret thoughts
I’ll lie on my back till dawn
In a semi-catatonic state
And dream of guitar notes
That would irritate an executive kind of guy.

The composer in the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen and the fan in his (sic) bedroom are united in a vision of impotence and futility, an effect heightened by the spacey and xenochronous music. The banality of ‘Watermelon in Easter Hay’(11) is not far off, to be redeemed only by the much greater banality of ‘A Little Green Rosetta’. Zappa’s relationship with his fans (‘people like you/ Who smile & think you know/ What this is about’) is usually more ambivalent, as can be seen in the Baby Snakes film. In the onstage sequences one can discern beneath the lineaments of the authoritarian ringmaster a touching, if on this occasion unjustified, faith in the capacity of his audience to be wild and creative. It is during this period that Zappa’s claim to have got into rock solely because he couldn’t afford a symphony orchestra began to seem less disingenuous. During the teen metal years of robbing Beavis to pay Boulez, the Dadaist anti-art gestures seem increasingly perfunctory and extraneous, confined as they are to sleevenotes (The Perfect Stranger) or initial tracks (The Yellow Shark). Classical respectability beckons, notwithstanding Zappa’s oddly defensive asseverations about his insignificance as a composer. U ltimately, the torn halves of Zappa’s music, the circus and the concert hall, do not add up. Such resolution is strictly for idealists, so I’ll conclude by adapting some remarks Adorno and Horkheimer(12) made about Beethoven and his business acumen in disposing of his late quartets, those dreams of dissonances which would irritate an absolute monarch kind of guy: Zappa is the most outstanding example of the unity of those opposites, market and independence, in modern culture. Those who succumb to ideology are precisely those who cover up the contradiction instead of taking it into the consciousness of their own production, as Zappa did.


(1) Frank Zappa, Them or Us (The Book), 1984.

(2) ‘Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance’ We’re Only In It For The Money.

(3) His account of French Impressionism has much in common with that of T.J. Clark. Unlike Bourdieu, however, Clark insists upon the specific cognitive value of art. For the sociologist, the stuff of art has all the specificity of chips at a gaming table and is entirely dependent for its value on the timing and positionality of its deployment.

(4) Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, (London: Routledge, 1973), p. 197.

(5) Pierre Bourdieu, ‘The uses of the "people"’, in Other Words, (Cambridge: Polity, 1990), p. 155.

(6) Frank Zappa, The Real Frank Zappa Book, (London: Picador, 1989), p. 143.

(7) Zappa, (1989), p. 139.

(8) Zappa, (1989), pp. 162-3).

(9) Zappa and gender is too vast and complex a subject to be discussed here.

(10) Suicide, American Supreme.

(11) See Stu Calton, ‘Watermelon in Easter Hay’: The Poverty of the Individual Spirit’, another paper delivered at ICE-Z.

(12) Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, tr. John Cumming, (London: Verso, 1999), p. 157.


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