MUSIC AND TIME, OR: THE INESCAPABLE PRESENT (?)

In case you missed it, my essay on the popular music of the great recession was published on Sounding Out! a couple of weeks ago. I’m really happy with how it turned out, and really grateful for everyone who’s taken some time to read it.

As you may be able to tell from that piece, I’ve been thinking a lot about questions of temporality lately. In the above essay, I was trying to talk about a temporality that is created by “post-crash party pop”. This temporality, in short, mandates a presentist timespace that is both celabaratory and nihilistic, because the threats to our future are experienced intensely through the everyday process of living–living through climate crises, living through economic recession, living through austerity politics, and so on…Whether through foregrounding limited time (as in “it’s all about tonight”) or in extending the “now” forever (as in “the party never stops”), the compulsory presentistm of PCPP is a survival strategy, an impossible project that opts for a pleasurable oblivion over one beyond our control.

But at the end of that essay, I also gestured towards a different type of temporality, a different kind of presentism, actually, which is the one I’d like to pick up thinking about here. It is not an original argument, but one famously theorized by Frederic Jameson and elaborated by Mark Fisher. It is the kind of presentism that occurs when our culture is no longer capable of situating itself in an historical lineage, the kind of presentism that emerges as the result of an incapacity of the attention-span. In a postmodern culture, defined by the surface image that today scrolls ceaselessly by in our various “feeds”, we become addicted to the next micro-stimulus, and the next, in a forever-succession that prevents us from grasping a deeper level of reality undergirding such images. Jameson even argues that the function of the news media–insofar as it is invested in the next story, the next scoop, the current speculation–is to help us forget the events that up until just a moment ago occupied our attention.

In a presentism such as this, and for various interconnected reasons having to do with, above all, the stage of “late capitalism” inaugurated by the 1980s, pastiche becomes the ultimate mode of cultural production. In this mode, tropes, genres, forms, ideas, images, and sounds all appear as interchangeable or “fungible” because they are no longer wedded to a material reality. In this sense, Jameson’s formulation has something to do with Baudrillard’s simulacra: when images, copied from copies we can no longer trace, become autonomous, they become more real (hyperreal) than any notion of an original could ever be.

As Fisher puts it:

On the one hand, this is a culture that privileges only the present and the immediate – the extirpation of the long term extends backwards as well as forwards in time (for example, media stories monopolize attention for a week or so then are instantly forgotten); on the other hand, it is a culture that is excessively nostalgic, given over to retrospection, incapable of generating any authentic novelty. It may be that Jameson’s identification and analysis of this temporal antimony is his most important contribution to our understanding of postmodern/post-Fordist culture (Fisher 2009, 59).

Such an “antimony” seems to be more relevant today than it has ever been, given our news culture’s inability to move beyond surface appearance (the appearance of “both sides” objectivity, the “optics” of a given press conference) and our utter failure to keep all but the most insane stories in our consciousness for more than a day or two at a time. At the same time, if I read Jameson correctly, this temporality is not a universal condition, but a kind of hegemonic formation, a cultural outgrowth of late capitalism. As such, other experiences of temporality are not prohibited from existing, but rather struggle against the hegemonic postmodern mode, waxing and waning, or thriving in certain capacities while being eclipsed in others. Where music is concerned, for example, it seems to me that the tradition of Great Black Music is predicated on a deep and radical understanding of history, even as it samples, references, signifies, and assembles materials that could be understood as postmodern pastiche were we to forget about the cultural specificity of their deployment. Or else: even assuming a cultural landscape where sonic signifiers of previous eras are merely fodder for practices of postmodern pastiche, it is still not the case that musicians reference the past for the same reasons, in the same ways, or with the same affective consequences. Apparently, Cornel West has written about this; if you know where, I’d be very grateful for the reference.


Sources

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism. 0 Books, 2009.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

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