February 11, 2011 / Mediation, Uncategorized
In 1991, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to the disturbing psycho thriller, The …
March 21, 2012
The idea of “deconstruction” has achieved a somewhat surprising ubiquity in our current culture. In addition to relatively long-standing applications in literary and cultural criticism, deconstruction has also found a home in political punditry and haute cuisine (what does it mean to “deconstruct” a meatloaf anyway?). But perhaps most enamored with the idea of deconstruction are music critics, particularly those alternative critics who cover the broadly-defined “hipster” or “indie” music scene. Music critics often use the word “deconstruct” to describe pastiche or minimalism which seems to adopt a critical or “ironic” stance towards older styles of music. In this sense of the word, one would say that the new artist is “deconstructing” a genre or style by stripping it to its bare bones and pushing it in a new direction through a series of ironic appropriations of the past. One record from 2011 for which a mention of “deconstruction” seemed practically mandatory was the brilliant self-titled debut from English dubstep producer James Blake. Nearly every critic who discussed the album felt compelled to praise Blake’s “deconstructed R&B,” the way he “deconstructs pop songs down to their most minimal exoskeletons,” or his ability to “deconstruct common elements of musicality.”
While I clearly believe that music criticism tends to over use the term, I feel that the use of “deconstruction” with reference to Blake is both helpful and appropriate because of the ways in which his music is “deconstructive” in the proper sense––that is, the way it has been used in the tradition of twentieth-century French thinker Jacques Derrida. For Derrida, deconstruction is a process of criticism––notably, he never refers to his practice as “deconstructionism,” resisting the systematization of his thought––which is concerned with examining a text by exposing it to its Other, to the elements of the text which are absent. In his late work, Derrida emphasizes the ways in which deconstruction “haunts” the institutions of the present by constantly reminding them of their finitude. The most powerful example that Derrida gives is that of a comparison between “justice” and “law.” For Derrida, “law” represents the contingent, material failures of a concept of “justice” which is always lurking just out of reach. In Specters of Marx, Derrida suggests that justice haunts the law like a ghost or specter, and just like Hamlet, who was haunted by the ghost of his father, these ghosts come to us with new perspectives on current events. They invite us to see things otherwise.
In an interesting parallel to Hamlet, James Blake is also “haunted” by his father, guitarist and songwriter James Litherland. Although his father is not speaking from beyond the grave (he’s still very much alive), Blake’s lead single, “The Wilhelm Scream,” is actually an extended engagement with his father’s 2006 release “Where to Turn.” Blake takes the opening hook of his father’s song and extends it into a four-and-a-half minute, slow burning, dubstep anthem. But what makes this music truly deconstructive is what is missing…the musical elements that haunt the song’s edges.
American composer Charles Ives (1874–1954) has become famous among musicologists for utilizing what J. Peter Burkholder calls “cumulative form.” In “cumulative form,” a composer reverses the standard process of theme and variations, beginning with fragments and variants of a theme and climaxing with an unambiguous presentation of the melody rather than the other way around. One can see similar processes at work in the music of John Coltrane, who would occasionally record a tune which began with frenzied improvisation and concluded with a clear statement of the head. Here Blake seems to be drawing on similar impulses, beginning with a bare skeleton which he fleshes out over time, but unlike Ives or Coltrane, Blake never reaches his destination. His audience is constantly waiting for the payoff, for the true version of the hook to surface, but Blake only ever seems to present us with glimmers or intimations. And to my ears, it is the absence which haunts “The Wilhelm Scream” that serves as its driving force and unifying gesture. One understands Blake’s brilliant “anti-song” only by reference to the marks of specters which constantly lurk at its margins.
Blake’s musical deconstruction manifests strong resonances with theological engagements with Derrida, led by theologians like John D. Caputo and Jean-Luc Nancy, or more recently by Peter Rollins and James K.A. Smith. With a strong emphasis on apophaticism or “negative theology,” these Christian “deconstructionists” pay attention to the ways in which God is present precisely in absences such as the one articulated by Blake’s song. A detailed local analysis of “The Wilhelm Scream” would yield an understanding of many of the most foundational elements of dubstep creation and production, but it misses something of the essence of what Blake is attempting. In his landmark work The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, John D. Caputo says of the “ghost” or “specter”:
“Specter” then ought be understood as a long line of Derridean marks or graphemes––like supplement, pharmakon, hymen, margin, cinder––meant to signal the intervention upon or contravention of simple presence/absence schemas which opens up the invention of something tout autre [“totally other”]. About “this”––this coming spectral figure, this messianic figure––we can hardly say a thing. We are reduced to apophatic utterances, for the tout autre slams against our thought and language, shatters our horizons of expectations, as a being that leaves us groping for words and puts what we mean to say to rout. (p. 145)
Blake’s “The Wilhelm Scream” seems a musical attempt to capture exactly ‘this”––full of evasive circling and apophatic rambling–– and an honest analysis of the song would need to consider the ways in which it generates movement and unity out of an inability to name its origins directly. Wittgenstein famously ended the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus with his Seventh Proposition: “About which we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence.” But this turns out to be almost exactly opposite the truth provided by deconstruction. Only by continuing to speak of the inexhaustible source of life that we call our “Father” can we begin to understand the ways in which he is always there, haunting us all along.