IASPM-US/POP Conference Preview: Benjamin Court

by justindburton on March 16, 2012

In the coming weeks, we will be previewing several papers that will be read at the 2012 IASPM-US/POP Conference in New York. This preview is courtesy of Benjamin Court, whose paper “Feeling the Political in ‘Can You Feel It?'” is scheduled for the Clubways session, 4:00-6:00pm on Friday, March 23 in KC 803.

How do we understand electronic dance music, politically?  The usual answer to this question begins by approaching dance music through a sociological lens.  It’s hard not to notice the demographic makeup of certain genres – homosexuals, African Americans, Latinos, lower-middle class urbanites, etc.  Well-known scholars like Tim Lawrence and Alice Echols point to alterity as a major crux of political involvement in electronic dance music.  If these cultural enclaves organize around identity (even if only implicitly), there is certainly a sense of intentional separation from the mainstream.  In other words, dance cultures can embrace the status of the subaltern as a form of resistance.

While recognizing the value of such a sociological lens, I hope to add an additional layer of complexity to this answer.  First, I must begin by explaining the word “political.”  It’s easy to take such a definition for granted.  The academy has embraced a view of the political as an expansive umbrella; rather than restricting political thought to the usual realms of states, parties, and organizations, scholars have shifted the political focus to individual interactions and less structured social formations.  In this regard, scholars operate under Carl Schmitt’s distinction between “politics” (states, parties, etc), and “the political” (a more amorphous set of activities that involve cultural aspects that strict Marxists might relegate to the superstructure).  But what cultural scholars have largely failed to address is Schmitt’s particular ontology of the political.  Here, the political does not refer to any specific content, but rather a form of interaction or “intensity of association.”[1. Carl Schmidt, The Concept of the Political, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 38.] Unlike politics, the political is not limited to any specific sector of human interaction and, thus, can reside in cultural, or aesthetic, realms.

One might argue that music (especially electronic dance music) provides a particularly salient model of “intensity of association,” and thus indexes the political.  And while identy-based scholarship on dance music astutely points to the subtle resistances of dance communities, I’m interested in exploring the political possibilities of dance and music as aesthetic negations of difference.  Throughout my research, I discovered that this indifferent perspective towards identity was not an uncommon one.  Indeed, while the demographic makeup of the composers, performers, and listeners of Chicago house consisted mainly of “otherized” groups, the messages conveyed through lyrics, interviews, and historical accounts overwhelmingly eschew notions of difference or Otherness.  And while certain tracks took up an explicit politics of sameness, house records more often tended to avoid identity politics altogether in order to address the typical themes of popular music: love, sex, dancing, and quite importantly, “feeling.”  It’s in these supposed trivialities that we may perhaps find traces of the political.

To support this claim, I’ll focus this paper on the concept of feeling and how it operates in one iconic house track, “Can You Feel It?” by Mr. Fingers, the alter-ego of Chicago house musician Larry Heard.  Those within house culture view “feeling” as an irresolvable dialectic unique to their genre.  In perfectly (and self-consciously) tautological fashion, the pioneering British techno musician Carl Cox claimed, “I think that house is a feeling, and I think that if you don’t feel it, it can’t be house.”[2. Quoted in Pump Up the Volume, television documentary, directed by Carl Hindmarch (London: Flame Television Productions, 2001).] On the one hand, house is a physical phenomenon. The imperative to dance is practically a command in the countless house songs that compel listeners to “move,” “rock,” “work,” or “jack” their bodies.  But, on the other hand, there is a purely interior emotive aspect to feeling that is independent of physical sensation.  For house dancers, feeling is a way to disconnect from their surroundings and go inside themselves, to the “danceworld” that scholars like Tony Langlois have described.[3. Tony Langlois, “Can You Feel It? DJs and House Music Culture in the UK,” Popular Music 11(2) (1992).] Anne Danielsen notes a similar self-absorbed interiority of feeling in funk music:

Even though the right feeling is present in the event, it may remain more or less concealed on the level of meaning…If the state of being in the groove is that of total absorption, and there is never any distance, one feels, pure and simple…The presence in the event, in the groove, takes place as if nothing else ever existed.[4. Anne Danielsen, Presence and Pleasure: The Funk Grooves of James Brown and Parliament (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2006), 199.]

Thus, the concept of feeling in house is dialectical.  You are physically present and connected – to your own body, to other bodies, and to the vibrations of the four on the floor bass pumping from the speakers.  Yet, you are also disconnected, almost monadistic, or cut off from social relations.

Before I explore how we might hear this dialectic in “Can You Feel It?” I’d like to make one final philosophical connection between the dialectic and the political.  For this task, I turn to the Frankfurt School theorist Ernst Bloch.  For Bloch, music embodies dialecticism.  In particular, musical sound expresses a fundamental dialectical tension between the individual and the communal.  Music is a pure expression of human particularity, dating back to pre-subjective sounds that, as Bloch enthuses, once emanated from us like “human harps.”[5. Ernst Bloch, “Magic Rattle, Human Harp,” in Essays on the Philosophy of Music, trans. Peter Palmer (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 140-5.] Yet music has also become a way to model social interaction: “Composers turn music not only into an expression of themselves but also into an expression of the age and society in which it originates…Social trends themselves have been reflected and expressed in the sound-material, far beyond the unchanging physical facts and also far beyond the romantic espressivo.”[6. Ernst Bloch, “The Exceeding of Limits and the World of Man at Its Most Richly Intense in Music,” in Ibid., 200.] By combining this Adornian idea with his more unique theory of musical individuality, Bloch identified musical dialecticism as the locus of tension between the individual and society.  In other words, to extend Schmitt’s conception of “intensity of association,” music is political.

Benjamin Court is a current graduate student in musicology at UCLA. His primary musical interests lie in the 20th century, especially popular music since the 1960s. Benjamin is also working toward his certification in Experimental Critical Theory at UCLA focusing on utopian theories and the philosophy of Alain Badiou.

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