May 20, 2015 / Perspective
What united many of the films at Sundance this year? The same story that unites us all.
June 4, 2007
Part the First – Armchair Theorizing and Rocking Out
Is the fact that we are living in postmodernity enough for us to understand it? Or do we have to examine this thing, whatever it is, playfully called “pomo” by hip theologians and professors, and define it? Are the conservatives right about the wishy-washy moral spinelessness of it –everything is permissible, full stop—and do we have to battle it, or is it like battling oxygen? Dena Fullego points out that there are (at least) two postmodern “things”—one use of the term simply defines the era in which we live (“postmodernity”), the other (“postmodernism”) is a loose collection of theories propagated by academics and which attempts to name and explain the characteristics that define the world as it is today.
But here is what I am hoping to get at, actually: all of that is so very boring when the alternative is gut-wrenching, soul-warming rock and roll, especially when it’s played by a particular band from Winnipeg, Manitoba (see below). Yet pop music, which perhaps more than any other cultural artifact has revealed itself to have a postmodern character, having existed roughly as long as postmodernity has, is one of the most vibrant cultural sites in which we can explore this mess we’re in.
Some of the best pop music is fiercely postmodern in the sense that it is extremely self-reflexive and self-referential, both musically (samples, stolen riffs, recycled 1-4-5 chord progressions) and lyrically (quotes, pop catchphrases, cover songs). But what so many of use children of postmodernity find appealing about pop music – what keeps me coming back to it, anyway, much more often than I’d ever care to crack open Michel Foucault, Stanley Fish, or Jacques Derrida, or even a Don DeLillo novel – is that in the sound and the fury of rock and roll, the questions and problems of identity, agency, knowledge, etc. become secondary to the immediate, visceral reality of a tight-knit group of people making the loveliest noise.
In an article I read last year about the “Pomo Blues,” Professor Lee Ann Carol writes about the way college students come into contact with postmodernism, how it challenges their cozy little worlds, kind of messes them up a little. When the pomo blues plays, she argues, we learn that there are limitations to what we can do, that things are determined by race, class, and gender, that fixed meanings fall away, that everything must be problematized.
It’s not that she isn’t right, in a way, but pop obliterates much of that—in a song, nothing is determined: everything must be embraced, loved, explored instead of problematized. Pop celebrates where pomo categorizes and delimits. And it does this, very simply, by rocking out.
There’s just something about making sense of the world through the form of a three-minute song (with at least three repeated choruses), combining the best of poetry, propaganda, technology, bare feeling. Because after the words – and there are some great words in books, even in theory – but after the wonderful words in pop, there is rocking out. By “rocking out” I mean making meaning with body and soul, throwing oneself into the creation of sound, song, story. Usually this involves sweating profusely, breaking guitar strings, and drinking a lot of beer in a smoke-filled room. There are few better things in this life.
Part the Second: I Must Be Getting Back to Dear Antarctica
“Plea From a Cat Named Virtue,” from their 2003 album Reconstruction Site is what first hooked me, a pop song verging on punk—oh the clarion call of those beautiful, trebly bass guitar lines!—with the most sympathetic of lyrics: a pep talk, delivered by a cat, to his depressed owner. “I know you’re strong,” he purrs.
But what really slays me is the next track on the album, “Our Retired Explorer (Dines With Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961).” With one deft song clocking in at 2:25, the Weakerthans present a convincing dismissal of the ugly, unuseful side of postmodernist theory—it’s a song of art over theory, story over analysis, passion over examination.
The song is true to the implications of its title: an explorer, one who traveled to Antarctica with Ernest Shackleton, meets post-everything philosopher Foucault. From the second line of the song, the difference between the two becomes pretty clear: “I’m not entirely sure/what you’re talking about,” sings the explorer. And me. And most people who have tried to read Foucault.
What’s inspiring about the character in this song is the way he immediately launches into a litany of things he must do (feed his dogs, commandeer a ship) to get back to his true love, the iciest continent (the song ends with a repeated chorus of “Oh Antarctica!”), which is of course representative of quite a bit more than a continent. It’s the Big Story, abandoning the minutiae of “reason” for the pursuit of love. He trips all over himself to explain to the philosopher the sheer beauty of the place “oh I could show you the way / shadows colonize snow / Ice breaking up on the bay / off the Lassiter coast.” John K. Samson gives the explorer some of the tenderest lines of adoration ever spoken in praise of a chunk of ice.
The best part, though, is that this eloquent defense of modernism, the grand narratives, is played out over the pop equivalent of modernism: the three-chord pop song. That’s praxis, dear reader: theory in practice. Or rather, practice over/against theory.
The Weakerthans have made three albums and just finished a fourth, and I guess there’s an irony here, because their albums really are about small things, personal and local—postmodern, yes? But somehow, taken together, these little vignettes Samson sings about and the band so touchingly plays (and the way their records are recorded—with such care!), about hospital prayers, a pamphleteer ignored by passersby, P.G. Wodehouse novels left behind—they present a picture of life so much more appealing than one lived in the nervous light of Theory.
What we’re talking about is nothing more, really, than four Canadian dudes devoting a lot of time and energy to communicating one mundane fact: being human is pretty remarkable. But you know this: Being human is pretty remarkable.
Joel Heng Hartse
Joel Heng Hartse has written about music, language, religion, and culture for a number of academic and popular publications. He is the author of Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll (published by Cascade Books in partnership with The Other Journal) and coauthor of Teaching English at Colleges and Universities in China (published by TESOL Press).