Get You Back Home

Back to Polemix

Technology as Style, Product as Negation: the Aesthetics of the Esemplasm

A talk given at the Sonorities Festival of Contemporary Music in Belfast, a day conference convened by Franziska Schroeder 29-iv-2006

My title for this paper was really a memorandum to myself about what I wanted to say, and I have to confess that seeing it in print in the programme, it looked like a glib rehash of some rather tired buzzwords, with an ostentatious neologism plastered on the end just to assure everyone it won't be too boring. An alternative title for this paper could be "Why I left Wire magazine", or, "Why is everyone I really like in the contemporary music scene practically invisible, even to those listeners and critics who believe they are pundits of the outré and tribunes of the suppressed?". So to explain my title, I'll start with my made-up word, "the Esemplasm".

One of the characteristics of current musicology - I'm refering to the new, socially-conscious musicology associated with the names of Jacques Attali, Susan McClary and Georgina Born - is that it's open to a current of writing characterised as "postmodern", writing which regularly cites Parisian theorists such as Derrida, Baudrillard, and Deleuze and Guattari. One of the trademarks of this approach is that it seeks to burst disciplinary boundaries. Indeed, in Anglophone culture, these ideas - called structuralism and then post-structuralism - first surfaced in the mid-70s in university departments devoted to French and English literature. So perhaps you will forgive me, if in explaining the term "Esemplasm", I talk about a figure more generally associated with English literature than with musicology: Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The reason I'm doing so is that I want to read off cultural production today as symptomatic of historic social tensions, and Coleridge was one of the first writers to live through the crisis in culture produced by the development of a market economy.

Samual Taylor Coleridge was born in Devon in 1772. His father was a vicar. If he'd have been born a generation before, Coleridge would doubtless have become a member of the clergy, and been content with expressing himself every Sunday from the pulpit. Towards the end of his life, some of his more celebrated sermons might have been collected and printed in a slim volume, but such a publication would have had nothing to do with his means of subsistence, which would have been rent from some real estate belonging to the Church of England. Lyrical Ballads, which Coleridge edited and wrote jointly with William Wordsworth in 1798, made a splash, being either lampooned and praised throughout the nation: a literary career beckoned for both of them. In 1809, Coleridge launched a journal called The Friend - in a sense, printed sermons available by subscription. However, The Friend never provided for Coleridge the economic stability and social status it was meant to achieve. This led him to cast a cold eye on the merits of the book trade as a means of defining ideas.

In 1817, in his Biographia Literaria, reflecting on the romantic movement he'd inaugurated (the importation from Germany of the ideas of Kant, Schiller, Schelling and Schlegel, from whom he derived such supposedly English traits as Shakespeare-worship), Coleridge argued that the word "imagination" had become too vague. Derived from the Greek - "esem", One, and "plastic", Shaping, - hence, "esemplastic" or "shaping into one", "esemplastic" was Coleridge's new word for poetic and artistic endeavour. Without religion to pin down meanings, and with only the booksellers' market dictating which ideas people entertained, a term like "imagination" could be banalised out of existence . Misunderstood and travestied, the artist's battle with bourgeois society had begun.

In the event, Coleridge's new word was a complete failure. No-one picked it up. However, the fact that his descendants were heavily involved in the making of the Oxford English Dictionary did mean that his works were pored over for examples of usage, and his failed neologism was saved from oblivion ("esemplastic" even made it into the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary). Since then it's remained forgotten, a footnote to literary history. However, on 6 August 1999, responding to some of the finest spiritual sublimate of the unknown artists of my time, I decided to resuscitate the term. With an eye to the central organising term of Wilhelm Reich's revolutionary psychoanalytic theory (largely forgotten in the academic humanities due to the hegemony of Jacques Lacan in interpretations of Freud), the adjective "esemplastic" was turned into the collective noun "the Esemplasm". Our idea was that Wilhelm Reich's emphasis on sexual orgasm, his critique of the ossified ego-armature of the straight bourgeois male, could be allied with artistic revolt versus the commodity system.

In a theoretical context, any mention of the commodity system requires an explicit declaration of one's relationship to Marxism. As a practical intervention in modern music, the Esemplasm demands no theoretical allegiance to any "ism". In common with Karl Marx's letter to Arnold Ruge of September 1843, we don't say to musicians "abandon your struggles, they are mere folly; let us provide you with the correct way to make music". Instead, we try and show why creative musicians invariably end up in conflict with the capitalist mode of musical production and distribution. Aware of the commitment to non-verbal experience required to make the music which touches us - or anyone - we set up no ideological hurdles. Professions of political correctness on the part of musicians or composers don't impress us. On the other hand, we believe that Marx's critique of philosophy and analysis of capital provide incomparably sharp weapons for anyone fighting their way through the thickets of compromise and corruption which constitute the presentday music scene. The Esemplasm believes its theory can improve musical practice and prevent aesthetic blunders: not a politics, or a moralism, but recognition of undeniable facts. If, as Susan Broadhurst said this morning, the digital realm is simply a formal system which needs values supplied from elsewhere, then we're in crying need of a dialectical approach which transcends the fact/value dichotomy (for a wonderful polemic against "objective" sociology, see Gillian Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology, London: Athlone, 1981).

There is a reason the Esemplasm's revolt focusses on music rather than visual art, the zone where most "marxist" aesthetic theory is to be found. We agree with Asger Jorn, gestural painter and founding Situationist, when he distinmguished between Modern Art movements before and after the Second World War. After 1945, he and his colleagues had been driven underground to become what he calls "hermetic".

It is this necessary hermeticism that has protected the development of art in these years from the attention of the public, which has rather been gathered around a number of superficial pseudo-isms.

[Asger Jorn, 'Value & Economy: Critique of Political Economy and the Exploitation of the Unique, Report no. 2 of the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism', 1962; translated Peter Shields, The Natural Order and Other Texts, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002, p. 202-3]

In the 1920s and 30s, artists defined their own movements, writing their own manifesti and organising their own exhibitions. These "isms" (Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, Surrealism etc) had real political and social resonance; after the war, the succession of "pseudo-isms" - Abstract Expressionism, Hard Edge, Field Painting, Pop Art, Op Art etc - were merely commercial styles. Their superficial differences concealed an identical social role, which is that of elite consumption (albeit often a bewildered one). The Esemplasm contends that Jorn's hermeticism was not the only possible answer. In music, especially during the 1960s, a fresh relationship was created between cultural form and lived, political, mass experience; one comparable to pre-war modernism in the visual arts. Hence, the Esemplasm unapologetically cites Hendrix and Coltrane as artistic producers who burst the boundaries of art under capitalism, using the mass market to posit social revolution as the politics, pleasure and necessity of global working-class experience.

Of course, in periods of reaction, the discoveries of high times will be betrayed, travestied, transformed into their opposite. The victim of a college course on pop music, Evil Dick - an important composer for the Esemplasm - exclaimed, "but the 60s were just a blip!". Evil Dick is no Marxist, but his ejaculation conveys an important historical-materialist insight: "classical" and "rock" and "pop" are not timeless categories, but activities dependent on the social situation. Just because the Who meant a lot to Simon Frith in 1964 doesn't mean that the White Stripes mean the same to a thirteen-year-old today. The fact that the massive movement against the war in Iraq - the largest demonstrations ever seen in mainland Britain - was not reflected in any obvious way in the charts shows that the capitalization of pop music has increased its grip.

If Evil Dick's remark doesn't arrive from Marxism, where does it come from? From his musical materialism, a clear-eyed view of musical structure, one that refuses to succumb to the formal relativism associated with postmodernism. Dick's satire on the limited nature of current dance and pop music in his CDs Coprophagism and Rock'n'Random stems from knowledge of what both Hendrix and Stockhausen did to musical form. In the sociology of rock inaugurated by Simon Frith, such judgments about musical structure are condemned as protective and elitist. This is understandable if you confront the pleasures to be gained from Martha and the Vandellas or the Who with the conventional 60s sleevenote for a Beethoven LP, which posits the appreciation of harmonic development through time as the only valid reponse. In fact, according to Theodor Adorno's Freudian musicology, it is the emphasis on bodily - rather than merely musical - affect which explains Beethoven's greatness. The sociology of rock was reacting against an ossified and outdated musicology, out of touch with post-tonal developments. As usual, ignorance of the immanent discontents within a certain field - in this case the crisis in classical music which led to the sonic eruptions of the 60s - leads to a superficial and misguided dismissal.

Frith's sociology of rock led directly to theorists like Sarah Thornton, who see no difference between academic study of popular culture - obsessed with the categories of age, sex and race - and market research, which uses an identical way of dividing up the population. However, there is a strong sense of social class in Frith. This is derived from a species of Marxism current in the early 70s and associated with the Communist Party. This extinguished the revolutionary spark of Marxism (a spark forever associated with the name of Trotsky, dismissed as a traitor or as a failure depending upon the degree of your commitment to Josef Stalin), and turned what should be a dynamic and practical analysis into a tragic sociology. Instead of carrying out critical analysis of singular social conjunctures, Marxism became a hidebound sociology of generalised class levels. The "working class" nature of The Who became an identity like race, a non-negotiable fact. Whereas Marxism is about workers achieving consciousness through struggle, for these quasi-Stalinist sociologists of rock, theoretical fluency is a characteristic of petit-bourgeois intellectuals. This fits with English class prejudice which says that anyone who's studied at university is automatically middle-class. The working class becomes a dumb "thing-in-itself" which, as soon as it becomes articulate, betrays its origins and becomes something else. Theory and practice are split apart, since authentic working-class rock musicians would never use the terms used by Frith & co to analyse them.

Personally, I shall always remember the embarrassment at the Communist Univerity of Yorkshire in 1979 when I talked from the floor about my work with Rock Against Racism. The "kids" and "fans" were objects of study, it broke the rules to actually go and talk to them, even more so to put up posters and stage gigs and argue with them about music and politics. Society was to be studied, not meddled with. This objectivist sociology with its impermeable class divisions couldn't grasp the class nature of both rock bands and political activism, which create a free space of bohemian experiment in the urban milieu. Social backgrounds become objects of debate and derision, not some non-negotiable "identity".

In its theoretical polemic, the Esemplasm proposes merciless assault on the Stalinist, Heideggerian, structuralist and idealist tenets which are part of the weave of today's discourse in the humanities. It contends that the materialist dialectics of Marx, Lenin and Adorno provide all the theoretical tools necessary for a complete understanding of aesthetic phenomena. One minor obstacles to achieving this radical critique is the way in which, in their maturity, theorists often adopt a more dialectical and materialist approach, even when this contradicts the starting propositions of the theories which made their names. Ten years ago, Simon Frith published Performing Rites, subtitled On Value in Popular Music, in which he outlined a (rather hazy) "aesthetics of resistance". In many ways, the Gang of Four-worshipping scene promoted by Art Rocker magazine is an answer to Frith's prayers: a pop music which isn't stupid. Unfortunately, if pop music has any virtues, it is precisely in its resistance to middle-class intelligence. But it's not just Frith who's revised his position: so did the granddaddy of Marxist structuralism.

In papers translated and published posthumously, Louis Althusser launched the term "aleatory Marxism" - from alea, dice - the idea being that recognition of chance might allow his structuralism to escape determinism. Having started from post-structuralism - based upon the fierce idealism of Ferdinand Saussure, who assures us that meaning is only possible in a system of signs discreet from the material world - other theorists have coined terms like "hybridity" and "performativity" in order to engage with the material reality of social contradiction. But these arguments are febrile, convoluted and finally unconvincing, because they merely tweak a theory which remains fundamentally Platonic - i.e. idealist and authoritarian. This tweaking of a fundamentally reactionary philosophy reminds me of attempts to create collectivity via the Internet: flashmobs are evidently so trivial and ineffectual in comparison to, say, the riots, strikes and demonstrations which rocked France and forced Chirac to abandon his legislation versus the interests of French youth; or attempts to turn a computer into a something as abrasive and exciting as a guitar

In their assault on Marxism as a "grand narrative", the postmodernists started out with good intentions: an attempt to destroy the Stalinist doctrine of history made by "the masses", but never made by us. However, in their reluctance to use the powerful polarizing categories of Marxism - idealist and materialist, proletarian and bourgeois, labour and capital - the postmoderns succumbed to relativism and pragmatism, ending up as pro-capitalist liberals. In this realm, you can no longer distinguish between fashion and substance: what works is what sells.

Because Anglophone academia imports its theory from France, it's watermarked with the assumption that Marxism can only be that of the French Communist Party, which also happened to be the most reactionary left organisation in the world. For seventeen years, the PCF insisted that Khrushchev's speech denouncing Stalin was a forgery! Those of us who've learned their Marxism in Trotskyist parties or by reading Marx, Lenin and Adorno find it hard indeed to recognise the "Marxism" routinely denounced in postmodernist readers. As Marco Maurizi put it in a paper called "Frank Zappa's 'Cheepnis' & the Poverty of Philosophy", a contribution to ICE-Z, the First International Conference of Esemplastic Zappology (note how the Esemplasm is forced to create its own para-academic universe):

Adorno made clear the difference between genuinely sexy Marxist theory and Stalin's repressive pragmatism. Adorno corrected Hegel's methodological mistake, suggesting that dialectic should begin with the turgid, complex, actual, dirty 'thing' rather than with pure Being. Otherwise it would idealistically misinterpret the world as a product of subjectivity before even starting to interpret it.

[Ben Watson and Esther Leslie (editors), Academy Zappa: Proceedings of the First International Conference of Esemplastic Zappology, London: SAF Publishing, 2005, p. 180.]

The Esemplasm always begins with the turgid, complex, actual, dirty 'thing'. This explains its fondness for rubbish, satire and collage. It is fiercely irreligious and anti-fascist, which sets it apart from the muddled, attention-seeking avantgarderie which is given far too much space in Wire magazine. We are sworn enemies of Martin Heidegger, noting that the Nazi professor was responsible for the revival of theological thinking in the post-war Europe: thinking which starts from pure Being rather than the the turgid, complex, actual, dirty 'thing'. It's not generally known the young Jacques Lacan translated Heidegger, but we know this fact and diagnose Lacanian mystification as a new kind of anti-social theology. Our celebration of Wilhelm Reich is deliberate, because we object to the way Lacanian psychoanalysis removes the sexual fruit and nuts from the Freudian chocolate bar, winding up with pale reruns of neo-Platonic speculation: theology which might have had some charge in the Middle Ages, but is now an excuse for paid intellectuals to deal in absurdities whose sole role is to separate them from the masses.

Reading Marx and listening to Frank Zappa immunises the Esemplasm from theological thinking, so it's taken time for us to realise that the whole Derridean anxiety about "authenticity" is merely the old existential/neo-religious mourning for loss of Faith, a Godless situation which doesn't bother the revolutionary materialist one bit. Slavoj Zizek's recent rediscovery of St Paul is all too indicative of the theological bias of all post-structuralism. Taking Frank Zappa seriously is not as shocking to academic musicologists as it is to those involved with marketing musical fashions (different assessments of Zappa is one reason I can't write for The Wire any longer). I was interested that in a panel discussion about post-rock at the most recent Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Chris Cutler and representatives from Sony/BMG, the NMC and Rough Trade all agreed that the only musician to be successful in both contemporary composition and alternative experimental music is Frank Zappa. This being the case, it's amazing how unwilling anyone is to fund anyone with a comparable polemic against the social divisions of contemporary music (deprived of funds, Billy Jenkins gave up and decided to play the blues).

As well as Billy Jenkins, the Esemplasm loves Dada, but it is not interested in re-evoking the wonky charms of a pre-computer age. The question of technology is moot. Because it resisted the cyber-hype which peaked with the laptop and the worldwide web, the Esemplasm stands accused of "technophobia". This is inaccurate. The Esemplasm has no particular stance on "technology" as an undivided category, since discussions "for and against technology" are invariably so stupid. Musical releases by the Esemplasm are invariably finished on computer, not because we think computers are cool, but because this has become the cheapest way to edit recorded sound. We do like quoting Trotsky's remark - seeking to explain why Futurism should be born in Italy, a relative latecomer to industrialisation - that "a hymn to the dirigible could be written with a broken pencil on the back of an envelope"; and we did explode with derision at the time of Sonic Boom at the Hayward, when David Toop wrote breathlessly in The Guardian about witnessing a gig in Tokyo where the only instruments used were laptops and didn't think it necessary to comment on whether or not the music was any good. Techno-fetishism's worst aspect is that it saves critics from risking a personal opinion. We see Toop as an example of a fine musicologist brought low by commodity fetishism.

We look beyond the promises of Godlike power in the advertisements to physical actualities of sound, and note that most laptop improvisors access their samples too slowly to make for rhythmically-charged music - hence the preference for drones and overlays, which means - just as Adorno and Horkheimer warned in Dialectic of Enlightenment - technological advance can be responsible for a historical regression. So much laptoppery sounds like it's been played in a church! Of course, many people - including many at this Conference - have tried to address this problem, but we think they're barking up the wrong tree. A bureaucratic tool like the computer was meant to deal with dead data, it's useless as a font of action.

The Esemplasm also notes that exclusive reliance on the digital domain - people who construct their music solely out of samples obtained from the Internet - results in dry and expensive-sounding symphonettas, even when the programmer thinks he or she has accessed the most brutal and reckless noises in existence. What we hear is a boast about the fidelity of a sample rather than the suggestive impact of the noise itself. T.H.F. Drenching and Evil Dick are both adept at computer manipulation of sound, but they're also allergic to the minimalist chic which pervades the laptop aesthetic. This is resistance to ideology at an instinctual level, and the Esempalsm has yet to reach a common formulation about what we don't like about all those pale, blurry photographs and white-space designs.

However, we do share a common ground in liking Frank Zappa's campaign for real music versus trendy nonsense. One of Frank Zappa's most memorable satirical swipes was One Size Fits All (1975). In the mid-70s, high technology - virtuosity from the musician and the analogue synthesiser as an instrument - was considered a gateway to the cosmos. This was partly the result of a decade of well-publicised space-travel: fusion covers abounded with pictures of outer space and flying saucers; Scientology and Astrology vyed with each other as explanatory (or is that ex-planetory?) systems. The cover of One Size Fits All showed a big, saggy, old-fashioned maroon sofa floating in outer space, a reminder of domestic banality that couldn't have been more graphic. As you're contemplating the heavens, this is actually what you're sitting on. How would Frank Zappa have responded to the cool whiteness of a new release from Sound 323?

Laptop aesthetics are a simple exaggeration Manfred Eicher's production at ECM: sounds and visuals which efface the contribution of human labour. As John Corbett has pointed out, the echoic ambience of an ECM production obscures the fact that the music is played by people. It seems to well up from the speakers like a natural force. ECM covers - inscrutable photographs of natural phenomena - likewise avoid depiction of the musicians. In accordance with this anti-labour aesthetic, the typical laptopper releases recordings of ice floes, radio interference or earthquakes. Laptop cool is about avoiding "the turgid, complex, actual, dirty 'thing'" - i.e. earning a living under capitalism - and instead losing oneself in the contemplation of unsullied nature. This is actually no more advanced in ideological terms than hanging a framed reproduction of a painting of a glade of silver birches on the wall of an urban living room.

Reacting against such evasions of contemporary life, T.H.F. Drenching released an album of improvisations made in his out-tray while at work in a call centre. Called Accident Consultancy Live, this wasn't simply a conceptual stunt, by which I mean an academic artwork which illustrates someone's theory but has no life outside of that. One reason I left The Wire is that it changed from being a jazz magazine to one devoted to "experimental" music. This has meant covering and taking seriously musics whose only raison-d'être is the part they play in the elaboration of postmodern theory about technology and sound. Such artworks make criticism redundant. They serves no other purpose than to advertise the theory of the maker. And the one thing you're not allowed to do to such presentations is make fun of them, or degrade their status by comparing them to lowly musics outside the hallowed white-cube of art. This is why the writing in The Wire today is merely expositary, reporting on the intentions and desires of the artist. Real music-writing, on the other hand, exists in tension with its object, and is the occasion for reflection on the tug which music has on the unconscious reflexes of the listener. As Adorno put it, "As soon as one starts to talk about music, one enters the realm of thought, and no power on earth has the right to silence this" [Theodor Adorno, 'Criteria of New Music', unpublished lecture 1957; translated Rodney Livingstone, Sound Figures, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999, p. 146]. However, thought and criticism - the realisation that music makes something happen inside me, and I want to know what it is - are inimical to the gradual accretion of reputation which makes for careers in the art world, so it's now absent from Wire magazine.

The point I'm making about Accident Consultancy Live is that T.H.F Drenching is not simply protesting the oppression of wage labour in an office where he's dealing all day to people who've had car accidents, he's resisting it by summoning up the most technically advanced percussive attack he's capable of. The Esemplasm's assault on the faux avantgarde promoted by Wire magazine would be no better than its target if it were simply a conceptual or political stunt. In fact, in order to satirize the limitations of office life - the lived drudgery behind the fantastic explosion of new technology - Drenching's bodily reflexes need to be saturated in Hip Hop and Free Improvisation. My biography of Derek Bailey, Derek Bailey & the Story of Free Improvisation received a hostile press in America, mainly because it did not accept that the avantgarde is simply an area of free experimentation (John Cage's doctrine) where anything and everything should happen, but a particular rhythmic science - an extension of Elvin Jones made by Tony Oxley - which allows players to dialogue.

T.H.F. Drenching "Active Listening Nigga" Accident Consultancy Live (Fenland Hi-Brow, 2002) 2:38

To return to explicating my title, what I diss as "technology as style" suppresses bodily labour and musical productivity; it's an example of what Marx called "commodity fetishism". This being so, the Esemplasm must make extremely rigorous demands of any product issued by its adherents. This isn't something applied from the outside by "theory". This rigour came up quite naturally among the musicians - I've never met people who've been quite so vicious (and funny) about the usual releases honoured by the current pundits. Of course, an impatience with the usual lack of formal density and interest in most musical products is inevitable in people who've followed Frank Zappa and Derek Bailey with any degree of attention. If ideology is burned off (ideology can be characterised in non-Marxist terms by Zappa's observation that most conventional music confirms people's idea of themselves and their trajectory towards the future), then the musical form itself must sustain interest. That's why I used the phrase product as negation in my title.

Derek Bailey's playing method was a musical application of Samuel Beckett's prose - a decision to dump, deny and erase the usual "stuff" which constitutes artistic communication, and work with the concrete situation generated by such a negation. Bailey's musical practice was formed in the pre-Beatles era, before records became the principle generator of profits: sheet music, concert tickets and increased sale of alcohol were the economic imperatives. Because of this, Bailey has no real concept of the album as an artistic concentrate: for him, music was all about playing. Even though he founded the first musician-run label in the UK, his releases were essentially documents of gigs rather than the electro-acoustic composites of, say, Jimi Hendrix and Marvin Gaye. Despite this, his disdain for repetition and his taste for risky company meant that everything he played was dense and action-packed. Now that so many of his live appearances are appearing as downloads, it's becoming clear how gigantic his legacy is. Rhodri Davies's quip that Bailey is "another Bach" seems no exaggeration. Certainly, each Incus release has more music in it than most labels achieve in entire runs. Bailey's oeuvre is an incredibly powerful argument for conceiving the album as nothing more than a commodity fetish encouraged by the record industry.

Bailey's non-album aesthetic worked beautifully for him, if not for some of the lesser musicians attracted to Free Improvisation. His militant purism (no interference with the intuitive alchemy of Free Improvisation, which meant refusing to re-release Barry Guy's Ode; not taking part in Butch Morris's conductions; and ignoring the London Improvisers' Orchestra) meant that he avoided a lot of funding-oriented musical atrocities. However, staffed by younger musicians, it would be artificial if the Esemplasm adopted Bailey's seigneurial superiority to recorded product. They need to start from the turgid, complex, actual, dirty 'thing' of their own encounters with music, and that means being fascinated by records. Most of the published discussions about the problems of "composing for improvisors" proceeds as if recording didn't exist (or that it's simply about setting up a pair of crossed mics in a concert hall). This is to carry on as if pop music had never happened, a perfect daydream for the patrician moneymen who've financed most Free Improvisation releases. In fact, the dialectic between improvising and recording established by blues, jazz and rock artists is ideal for improvisors - once, that is, Frank Zappa has shown a producer how free you can be in the selection of materials for a significant listen.

When commenting once on what he thought socialism would be like, Chris Harman - a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party - pointed out that if the pressure to realise surplus value were taken away, then new technologies would be welcome, but wouldn't immediately make the old ones redundant. Under capitalism, if you invent a widgit-maker which works twice as fast as the old one, suddenly a million machines and livelihoods are headed for the trash can. With socialism, where production isn't locked into a competetive battle, there is no reason why new and old technologies shouldn't work side by side. The accusations of "technophobia" thrown at the Esemplasm (T.H.F. Drenching uses an antiquated tape-recorder to improvise with! Sonic Pleasure writes scores for orchestras! Evil Dick plays drums and writes multi-coloured scores for electric guitar players!) should really be accusations of technophilia, since it is love for all kinds of different technologies which drives them. It's just that, following Harman, we don't believe each innovation should create a desert.

Frank Zappa once told an interviewer that if he wanted to do a quick segue from an ensemble tutti sequenced on his Synclavier, rather than do all the programming required, he'd print the music onto tape and cut it with a razor blade. When asked if this wasn't rather "impure", he retorted that if the interviewer wanted "purity", he'd come to the wrong place. Likewise, against the cybernetic purity of capitalism, the Esemplasm proposes a utopian collage of technologies, where a journey could take in a bullet train, a steam locomotive, a ride in a horse-and-cart, a trip in a solar-powered catamaran, a deep-sea plunge in a submarine, a ride on light unmanned monorail, a drive an antiquated petrol-driven motor-car and a ride atop a richly-apparalled elephant. The Esemplasm is sick of tailoring everyone's desires to the dictates of profit!

In this context, the laptop samplist - for whom the provenance of a sound doesn't matter, since they never engage in soundmaking themselves, rather as the commoditybroker, not knowing work, doesn't care if his container of shoes was made in a sweatshop - is a cipher for capitalist alienation. This is the political unconscious behind Toop's vociferous campaign that how sounds were produced doesn't matter: a denial of the part labour plays in the creation of value. Each of Toop's lightweight releases of ambient piffle strengthens the opposite argument: knowing how sounds were made is crucial to their correct use. The Esemplasm, in contrast to this repressive purism, has a utopian view of the possibilities of labour. Instead of having it done by someone else and kicking over the traces, the Esemplasm embraces work with machinery as a libidinal gratification. You surely can't get more technophile than that!

Frank Zappa "Sy Borg" Joe's Garage (1979)


Back to Polemix

Get You Back Home