Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Walking Inside Out – Introduction Extract 3

Where to Now, Psychogeography!


Please click here for part 1 and part 2

In 2002 Iain Sinclair said of psychogeography that "the next step is to bury it completely! Let it go and let it re-emerge. I think it needs 15 years to gain some new energy, as I think this energy is rapidly running out" (cited in Pilkington and Baker 2002, ‘City Brain’, Fortean Times). Since we are now fast-approaching the end of Sinclair's 15 year embargo, perhaps this is a salient moment to begin to discuss psychogeography again in a critical way, and take a serious look at the work being carried out in the field. I hope this text contributes to this discussion. Sinclair further comments on this problem when discussing the work Stewart Home did with the London Psychogeographical Association (LPA): “Stewart Home says that the LPA deliberately mystified and irrationalised their psychogeographical ideas in order to prevent them from being academicised in the future. But they inevitably will be because Stewart himself is a sort of rogue academic, so it's self-contradictory in some ways. By doing it, it becomes part of this machinery in talks and interviews” (ibid.).

Nevertheless, Sinclair is in praise of walking despite his concerns with the term psychogeography. One thing that many walkers are preoccupied with, from activists to The Ramblers, is not just the marginalisation of our public spaces, but the marginalisation of the very act of walking itself. As Sinclair says in an interview in the Ramblers own publication: "We're at the bottom of the food chain and the day will come when we'll have the equivalent of bike lanes: a narrow suicide strip chucked in among the traffic. We'll have to have ghost walkers, like the white ghost bikes you see to commemorate dead cyclists" (2012, ‘My Perfect Day’, Walk). So, it seems, psychogeographers perhaps do have more in common than can be expressed in their differences.

Related Links:
Walking Inside OutAvailable for Pre-order

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Walking Inside Out – Introduction Extract 2

What Doth a Psychogeographer Make?


To provide an aphorism of what psychogeographers do and why they walk assumes they are a generic group, which is not the case. It is as difficult as trying to provide a pithy sentence to describe what a writer or artist does and why they do it. Nevertheless, there are some universal qualities that are representative of many psychogeographers and that may help explain their intention. For instance, they attempt to connect with the terrain in a way that is other to that of a casual stroll, bringing a focus to the walk that takes it beyond both a ‘Sunday walk’ in the country (where the landscape almost appears to be placed their in order to be admired) and that of the Saturday shopping expedition in the local high street. It is neither of these. Nor is it about getting from A to B - it is absolutely about the process itself, however clichéd that may sound. The walker connects with the terrain in a way that sets her/himself up as a critic of the space under observation, but at the same time they unite with it through the sensorial acknowledgement of its omnipresence. The space becomes momentarily transformed through this relationship. The psychogeographer recognises that they are part of this process and it is their presence that enables this recognition to occur.

The form and purpose behind the critique of the topology/topography will be very dependent on the individual walker. It might involve making mental connections with the space through a song or piece of literature or it may involve a philosophical/theoretical analysis of particular objects under scrutiny. It could also be an overtly political process which applies an assessment of the power structures in play in a given situation or even a physical act of challenging those very structures directly in the moment. This could be thought of as a kind of traversing, whereby the walker sees this as a negotiation of the space which questions established routes and draws attention to the possibility of approaching the territory in a different way.

Please click here for other extracts: Introduction 1

Related Links:
Walking Inside Out – Available for Pre-order

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Walking Inside Out – Introduction Extract 1

What is British Psychogeography?


This is the first of a series of short extracts from the upcoming publication Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography.

While this volume concentrates on British psychogeography, dividing international and home-grown psychogeography into clearly delineated groups is not representative of the lineage of contemporary urban walking. Psychogeography is about crossing established boundaries, whether metaphorically or physically, locally or globally. The Situationists did not limit their psychogeography to their own location, Paris. They walked other cities, such as Venice and Amsterdam and incorporated existing maps of cities, for instance of the New York and London transport networks, into their own maps. Recent projects in the UK have involved international cities working together. One example was the Leeds-Dortmund Project (part of Superimposed City Tours 2003-03) and incorporated a simultaneous psychogeographical mapping of both cities and their accompanying narratives. The newly created superimpositions were then seen as a virtual city, this third city resulting from the overlap of the other two. So, too, British psychogeographers often do not limit themselves to just British towns and cities. Will Self’s Psychogeography (2007) includes walks in Liverpool and London, alongside those in Istanbul and New York.

This volume sets out to demonstrate the diversity of urban walking in Britain today through the numerous factors that make up the walk itself: the individual walker(s), the space of the walk (town/city, rural/urban/suburban, and so on), the ‘method’ (if there is a defined method being utilised and, in fact, if there is no method is this also a type of method for carrying out psychogeography), and the phenomena under observation/critique (urban décor, surface textures, prohibitive signs, other people, buildings, cars and so on). These are just a few of the factors that influence the walk itself. One could look further at factors such as night versus day-time walking, as this also greatly changes the experience, and also the weather, especially in somewhere like Britain where it can change from moment to moment. The city looks hugely different on a bright sunny day than when it is overcast. These features of the walk change the subjective nature of the walk in the same way the intentions of the individual walker does.

Please click here for extract 2.

Related Links:
Walking Inside OutAvailable for Pre-order

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Kitsch and the Danger of Guilty Pleasures – Pt 3


Please click here for part 1 and part 2 of the blog.

The song Independent Women vs. Dreadlock Holiday, when played at The University of Leeds Guilty Pleasures clubnight, was an alternative version to that on the album by 2 many djs as heard on radio soulwax pt.2. On the album the song begins with the classic Dreadlock Holiday intro but contains no vocals to the actual song Dreadlock Holiday. After a few bars of the Dreadlock Holiday intro Independent Women cuts in. The reggae accompaniment of Dreadlock Holiday continues through the song but the song is predominantly Independent Women; there are no vocals from the 10cc song on it. There are intervals when the Dreadlock Holiday melody appears, but there are no parts that are exclusively Dreadlock Holiday after the initial few bars. This song would be recognised by the contemporary popular music listener as a particular mix of the Destiny's Child song, although if anyone who knew the 10cc song heard the opening bars of this song, they would be expecting Dreadlock Holiday.

At the Guilty Pleasures clubnight Sean Rowley played either another mix or his own mix of Independent Women vs. Dreadlock Holiday. This was a much more equal balance of the two songs and included large exclusive parts of Dreadlock Holiday where whole verses were played interspersed with verses from Independent Women. This made it much more appropriable in terms of the signification of Guilty Pleasures. When becoming a relatively equal hybrid of the two songs the power of the myth is increased through its generic attraction. It is not quite one song or the other; its appeal is spread over a greater possible reception to it. Many individuals will connect to it due to its interpellative calling: like I did myself to Dreadlock Holiday, like the other students did to Independent Women. But, not only was I in a different 'headspace' to my fellow clubbers (it is possible I was the only person interpellated by the Dreadlock Holiday aspect of the song on that particular night), but they were all in different spaces to each other because of their mapping of their own personal histories onto the song. Yet they (we) all felt connected (actually I was alerted to the more obvious differences because of my age and because I had a sudden realisation at the time that they were dancing to a different song to the one I was dancing to). But, what I want to make specific reference to here, is the specifically individualised face of the myth in that it appears to speak to 'me' in a special way. This is what Roland Barthes means when he says that the myth acts like “a magical object springing up in my present life without a trace of the history which has caused it.” (2000: 125).

Like Theodor Adorno, Barthes spells out the danger of this 'calling' and how it has a specific relationship to history. However, Barthes explains particularly well how we are effected as individuals when caught, in the moment, by the ideology of the myth. Guilty Pleasures both affects us. We have a sensation of something - of a past life, of someone we once were, of a 'happier' time, perhaps. We are caught up in the myth of Guilty Pleasures, we do not recognise that “this interpellant speech is at the same time a frozen speech: at the moment of reaching me, it suspends itself, turns away and assumes the look of a generality: it stiffens, it makes itself look neutral and innocent.” (Barthes 2000: 125). The language of the myth becomes selective and partial because of what we choose to connect to in the history presented to us; at the same time it presents itself in such a way that what it is saying is taken 'as read', it is how things are, it is 'natural'.

The myth disguises itself through this innocence. Because “the truth of kitsch is its falseness” (Adorno 2002: 362), something is presented to the myth reader that appears to be non-threatening and inviting. For Guilty Pleasures this could be thought of as a past version of the individual being interpellated: how could a former 'me' be a threat? However, whereas in the past warnings were given to individuals not to buy kitsch because it was 'bad taste' and mass produced, nowadays individuals generally understand the concept of kitsch, it is much more recognisable. Nevertheless, I believe this knowledge does not make the individual impervious to its calling. Because the individual is aware that something is kitsch (in the sense of falsity) they enter into a relationship with it on the assumption they have total agency in this exchange, but kitsch operates on another level. I would describe this relationship with kitsch to be rather like that of the simulacra: a reflective mirroring which continually circulates and has no resting place. The present looks back at the past which is what creates the calling; the calling emanates from the individual but they have projected it onto the song and believe it to be outside them; the song, in its very personal way, hooks the psyche (the unconscious) of the individual; and yet the individual feels they are controlling this process because they 'know' this thing to be kitsch. The knowledge that something is kitsch does not prevent one being interpellated by it: the chosen object has already interpellated you before you consciously realised it was kitsch!

Finally, I would like to return to the history aspect of this blog (although we have never left it) and see what might be recuperated in Guilty Pleasures. Much more can be said about how history operates through ideology, especially by Adorno and Barthes, however I have been selective in my references to history in order to include the other aspects of the kitsch object that relate directly to Guilty Pleasures. But it is the history that is available in the object that the individual chooses not to see that is what might actually save it. Adorno cynically describes the positive aspect of kitsch as being the possibility that in the moment you may “realiz[e] that you have wasted your life” (1998: 50). And, Barthes explains that the concept in the second semiological level is “open to the whole of History” (2000: 121). Just because the interpellated dancer at the Guilty Pleasures clubnight chooses to see her own past in the nostalgic song does not mean other histories are not available. The histories available are endless, but they need to be sought out, as Adorno says we need to participate in history by engaging in an active way.

It has been my intention here to help Guilty Pleasures reveal its own secret. I did not have a particular end result in mind when I set out, and, as a fan of Guilty Pleasures, I was cognisant of not putting too positive a slant on it (although I hope because of that that I have not done the opposite). Critiquing a cultural object you actually enjoy, and in which you participate, makes for an interesting and self-reflective experience. Not that the enjoyment and the attempts to understand that process are separate.

As I stated in the opening to my blog: Guilty Pleasures is overdetermined in terms of areas available for critique. But it has been my intention here to look for something within Guilty Pleasures that is consistent: irrelevant of gender, time or class. I have attempted to find a common thread which would be relevant to all individuals who have participated in Guilty Pleasures, or will do so in the future. And if that moment represents a history to the individual - and if, as Adorno says, history takes place in language (2000 p.248) – then the Guilty Pleasures dancer/listener, in their communion (communication), is also participating in a present and (and future) history that is unfolding around them. As Adorno says: “The comprehension of an artwork as a complexion of truth brings the work into relation with its untruth, for there is no artwork that does not participate in the untruth external to it, that of the historical moment.” (1997: 347). Whilst the listener/dancer engages with a past self that is projected onto the song, they are simultaneously engaging with Guilty Pleasures and in everything it represents, which can only ever exist in the moment of its own production, in the now of the listening or the dance.

Click here for more Roland Barthes related work: The Semiotics of Space and the Culture of Design

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Books and Articles
Adorno, Theodor W. 1997. Aesthetic Theory, trans. by Gretel Adorno and Tiedmann (London: The Athlone Press).
----- 1998. 'Motifs', Quasi una Fantasia: Essays on Modern Music, trans. by Rodney Livingstone (London and New York: Verso) pp. 9-36.
----- 2000. ‘Extracts from Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life’, The Continental Aesthetics Reader, ed. by Clive Cazeaux (London and New York: Routledge) pp. 234-256.
----- 2001. 'The Schema of Mass Culture', The Culture Industry, ed. by J. M. Bernstein (London and New York: Routledge) pp. 61-97.
----- 2002a. 'On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening', Essays on Music, trans. by Susan H. Gillespie (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press) pp. 288-317.
----- 2002b. 'Kitsch', Essays on Music, trans. by Susan H. Gillespie (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press) pp. 501-505.
Barthes, Roland. 2000. 'Myth Today', Mythologies, trans. by Annette Lavers (London: Vintage) pp. 109-159.
Broch, Hermann. 1973. ‘Notes on the Problem of Kitsch’, Kitsch: An Anthology of Bad Taste, ed. by Gillo Dorfles (London: Studio Vista) pp. 49-76.
Jenkins, Jennifer, ‘The Kitsch Collections and “The Spirit in the Furniture”: Cultural Reform and National Culture in Germany’, Social History, 21, 2 (1996), 123-141.
Leppert, Richard. 2002. ‘Commentary’, Essays on Music, trans. by Susan H. Gillespie (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press) pp. 327-372.
Witkin, Robert W. 2003. Adorno on Popular Culture (London and New York: Routledge).

Music
10cc, The Very Best of 10cc (Mercury Records Ltd, 534 612-2, 1997).
2 many djs, as heard on radio soulwax pt.2 (PIAS Recordings, plasb 065 cd, 2002).
Brian Protheroe, Pinball and Other Stories (EMI Records Ltd, 0946 3 60718 2 4, 2006).

Online Resources
Sean Rowley, ‘The Gospel According to Guilty Pleasures’, Guilty Pleasures, (2007),  (para. 2 of 6).

Monday, 2 March 2015

Kitsch and the Danger of Guilty Pleasures – Pt 2


Please see part 1 of the blog.

Adorno's main concern in regard to kitsch is with the social aspect of history, and more importantly with the lives people are living in the present. He explains how, when kitsch is employed, the “social moment” becomes formed through it: "by serving up past formal entities as contemporary, [kitsch] has a social function – to deceive people about their true situation, to transfigure their existence, to allow intentions that suit some powers or other to appear to them in a fairy-tale glow" (2002b: 502). When we are listening to the nostalgic kitsch of Guilty Pleasures we are not addressing the real everyday politico-social issues that matter and that could improve our lives, we are instead, according to Adorno, “tormented individuals” because we are proffered something in the music that we can never have (ibid.). In Guilty Pleasures this might be a harking back to a time when things were, supposedly, more 'innocent' and 'free': our childhood, for instance. And because Guilty Pleasures cleverly serves up music from every decade, all our childhoods are represented.

Adorno explains that “All kitsch is essentially ideology” (2002b: 502). In Guilty Pleasures this could be perceived as undisguised nostalgia (I will return to this 'undisguised' factor). This ideology appears as a momentary revisiting of the past in the form of what Adorno calls “musical small change” (2002b: 503) - fetishised elements that get circulated, in the case of Guilty Pleasures these elements are the old songs themselves. The tracks become uprooted, re-contextualised and re-circulated. They are dished up to the music fan of the day, without their historical roots being made apparent. This is the “forgotten secret” (2002b: 501) to which Adorno refers. Richard Leppert puts this particular point well in his commentary in Essays on Music:
Kitsch invokes a past which is nostalgically remembered; as such kitsch is a means by which to forget – but less to forget the past than the present. Kitsch offers consolation, not so as to change everything but to make the anything of the here and now slightly more tolerable. (2002: 361).
This past/present that is forgotten Leppert describes as “selectively (mis)remembered”, and explains that kitsch, for Adorno, is problematic because its relationship to history is not direct and therefore the truth of history is not spoken (2002: 363). The nostalgic element contained in Guilty Pleasures produces a sentimental moment, but not in a positive sense, because “Sentimentality is robbed of its implausible character, of that touching but impotent Utopian moment which for an instant might soften the hearts of those who have been hardened and take them beyond the reach of their even harder masters.” (ibid.). Thus, the momentarty and naive fleeting thought that life could be better, is just that, naive and fleeting, it has no power to do anything about concretely making life better. It does not last beyond the moment.

Whilst it may appear relatively easy to argue that Guilty Pleasures recuperates itself because it is not pretending to be something it is not (it is not pretending to be anything other than kitsch), there is a subtle but effective illusion existing in this very modelling of itself as 'innocent'. On one level it is undisguised nostalgia – everybody knows what they are getting with Guilty Pleasures – but this straight-forwardeness is itself part of the disguise. I do not believe that Adorno would see Guilty Pleasures as the worst kind of kitsch - he does grade kitsch in relation to severity, with “kitsch with 'class'” being the very worst (2002b: 504) - but I believe in its supposed openness Guilty Pleasures lulls the listener/participator into a false sense of security. As Leppert says: “Adorno is eliciting the reality of the truth in the lie, that is, that the truth of kitsch is its falseness [...]” (2002: 362). But, while Guilty Pleasures could be described as authentic kitsch, like painted chalk seaside ornaments, this just hides another type of lie. It is important to analyse what this falseness means in relation to Guilty Pleasures and what it is hiding from the individual, because in an ideological sense the songs are speaking to the individual and represent, at least on a subjective level, their own past.

Hermann Broch, in his essay 'Notes on the Problem of Kitsch' (which appears in the oft-cited edition by Gillo Dorfles Kitsch: An Anthology of Bad Taste), addresses this falseness thus:
[...] if kitsch represents falsehood (it is often so defined, and rightly so), this falsehood falls back on the person in need of it, on the person who uses this highly considerate mirror so as to be able to recognize himself in the counterfeit image it throws back of him [...] (1973: 49).
These kitsch objects, whilst they are really only generic objects, are imbued with a power that appears to speak to you. We see a reflection of ourselves in that old song. But that reflection is not a true one. The nostalgic song presented to us as a guilty pleasure “appears itself as reality, which is supposed to stand in for the reality out there” (Adorno 2001: 65). And, as Adorno explains of kitsch, it helps maintain a memory of the past which is deformed, illusory and of another time (2002: 501). The past of the guilty pleasure cannot really be reconstituted, but the image that has been set up for me is particularly compelling in its personalised nature. I believe that song is for me. It is directed at me and I engage with it instantly. As Broch emphasised, the individual actually connects with this distorted element within the object because it shows something of themselves. This personalised hook then becomes the whole of the object in its transportation of the individual to a past time. The 'real' history tied up in the song is obfuscated by the nostalgic, but ideologically engineered, past that I impose on it with the help of the Guilty Pleasures machine; whether that 'real' history is mine or socio-historic, neither are readily made available to me. I do not recognise the praxis occurring here and instead think the song is calling to me. This is the myth of Guilty Pleasures.

In his own discussion on myth in 'Myth Today' Barthes sets out his model of the myth in its semiological format whereby the sign (the meaning) at the first level of semiology becomes the signifier of the second and as such becomes its “form” (2000: 115). This “form” becomes attached to a “concept” (the second level signified) and produces another sign (ibid.). Barthes calls this “a second-order semiological system” (2000: 114). He explains that this is how myth uses “raw materials” (signs in the form of existing language and images), takes them into its own system and creates what he calls “metalanguage” (2000, pp.114-115). Barthes pays particular attention to some examples that he provides the reader with in order to demonstrate how this process works. But, rather than getting caught up with using one of his own examples to further explain how myth works for Barthes, I should like to go straight to what he says about memory in relation to the “concept” in order to remain focused on the theme of my thesis on Guilty Pleasures: how the myth speaks to the individual through a misrepresentation of the past. Where necessary, I shall work backwards through Barthes text.

Barthes states that the concept's “mode of presence is memorial” (2000: 122). His use of the word “memorial” is important on two levels in relation to Guilty Pleasures: one, the meaning of the first sign is drained of its history by the concept on the second semiological level (ibid.); and, two, the word 'memorial' signifies death. It is death that Adorno is referring to when he alludes to the danger of kitsch. It is what he demonstrates when he gives the example of the Titanic in his discussion on musical kitsch in 'Motifs'. He explains how the music played out in the background is being merrily danced to by the voyagers and underneath them, in the boiler-room, their future destiny is already being played out in a whole other and horrific way - and they have no knowledge of this impending tragic event (1998: 16).

Whilst Adorno's metaphor is for a particular type of death (the death of a history), and not the death of the individuals he is referring to in his example, this death is nevertheless real because of the partiality of ideology. Barthes demonstrates that in its historical selectivity the concept works on the meaning of the first sign such that it becomes “half-amputated” and “deprived of memory” (2000: 122). In Guilty Pleasures I would like to suggest that how the myth operates is by amputating social - and to a large extent personal - history. In its supplanting of a (partial) subjective history that pertains to the individual listener, the guilty pleasure - in its representation of a cultural past that has little relevance to the interpellated listener - distances (abstracts) history. Barthes describes how this works, thus: “Through the concept, it is a whole new history which is implanted in the myth.” (2000: 119). And for Guilty Pleasures this is 'my' history, because, as Barthes states, it is “made of yielding, shapeless associations” (ibid.), and can be subjectively appropriated because of this.

Barthes, when providing the example of the Basque architecture which is taken out of its context and placed in a street in Paris, says that “it is I whom it has come to seek.” (2000: 124). This is the power of the Guilty Pleasures myth. It is communicating to me, it forms a union with me. And its secret is that it can disguise itself such that I do not see that actually I am seeking it, I am “the person in need of it”, as Broch said. Adorno also acknowledges this function of kitsch when he says kitsch “lurks in art, awaiting ever recurring opportunities to spring forth.” (1997: 239). Guilty Pleasures appears to call the individual dancer/listener, but this is its falsity: it is pretending to call them – although in a sense it is calling them, but in a very generalised and interpellant way - by disguising their own need to be transported back to the past. It lifts that need from their psyche, repackages it and places it 'out there'.

In order to see what effect the myth has on the Guilty Pleasures participant, and how it might attach itself to them via the mythological sign, I will re-visit Independent Women vs. Dreadlock Holiday, which I introduced in part 1 of the blog, in the next part of the blog. This particular song demonstrates how generality works in relation to the myth and how this makes it appropriable. It is this that Barthes describes as its “intentional force”, how it is directed at 'me': “[...] it summons me to receive its expansive ambiguity.” (2000: 124). It is also what Witkin refers to when discussing Adorno and reification: the song becomes “the 'property' of the listener.” (2003: 59).

Please click here for part 3.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Books and Articles
Adorno, Theodor W. 1997. Aesthetic Theory, trans. by Gretel Adorno and Tiedmann (London: The Athlone Press).
----- 1998. 'Motifs', Quasi una Fantasia: Essays on Modern Music, trans. by Rodney Livingstone (London and New York: Verso) pp. 9-36.
----- 2000. ‘Extracts from Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life’, The Continental Aesthetics Reader, ed. by Clive Cazeaux (London and New York: Routledge) pp. 234-256.
----- 2001. 'The Schema of Mass Culture', The Culture Industry, ed. by J. M. Bernstein (London and New York: Routledge) pp. 61-97.
----- 2002a. 'On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening', Essays on Music, trans. by Susan H. Gillespie (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press) pp. 288-317.
----- 2002b. 'Kitsch', Essays on Music, trans. by Susan H. Gillespie (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press) pp. 501-505.
Barthes, Roland. 2000. 'Myth Today', Mythologies, trans. by Annette Lavers (London: Vintage) pp. 109-159.
Broch, Hermann. 1973. ‘Notes on the Problem of Kitsch’, Kitsch: An Anthology of Bad Taste, ed. by Gillo Dorfles (London: Studio Vista) pp. 49-76.
Jenkins, Jennifer, ‘The Kitsch Collections and “The Spirit in the Furniture”: Cultural Reform and National Culture in Germany’, Social History, 21, 2 (1996), 123-141.
Leppert, Richard. 2002. ‘Commentary’, Essays on Music, trans. by Susan H. Gillespie (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press) pp. 327-372.
Witkin, Robert W. 2003. Adorno on Popular Culture (London and New York: Routledge).

Music
10cc, The Very Best of 10cc (Mercury Records Ltd, 534 612-2, 1997).
2 many djs, as heard on radio soulwax pt.2 (PIAS Recordings, plasb 065 cd, 2002).
Brian Protheroe, Pinball and Other Stories (EMI Records Ltd, 0946 3 60718 2 4, 2006).

Online Resources
Sean Rowley, ‘The Gospel According to Guilty Pleasures’, Guilty Pleasures, (2007),  (para. 2 of 6).

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Kitsch and the Danger of Guilty Pleasures – Pt 1


Guilty Pleasures was instigated by the BBC radio DJ Sean Rowley. Whilst beginning as a radio show, and then producing compilation CDs, it became a popular clubnight throughout the UK in the noughties. As a music style it was concerned with music that the listener likes but is not approved of, music that might be considered ‘uncool’ ('bad taste' would be a kitsch description). Whilst in its initial carnation Guilty Pleasures reflected the singer-songwriter music of the 1970s and early 1980s, it has now evolved into practically any type of music from that period up to today, very often music that would be described as ‘cheese’. According to the Guilty Pleasures website:
Sean Rowley began the night in the 150 capacity Hammersmith Working Men’s Club in 2004 and, discovering he was not alone in his love for ELO and Hall & Oates, moved the night to the Islington Academy where it resided for 2005 culminating in a Christmas party which saw Charlotte Church and Terry Hall take to the stage to sing. (Rowley 2007).
I would also like to consider it under the light of 'kitsch’ the discussion of which Theodor Adorno sets out in his essay of the same name written in 1932; it concerns itself with bringing the past into the present in an effort to ameliorate the here and now. In particular I would like to explore what Adorno means when he talks of a “forgotten secret” (2002b: 501), how this relates to history and what this might mean for Guilty Pleasures and its listener. I shall also provide an analysis of kitsch music as an ideological formulae, in that it can be considered to be the construction of a myth. I will be doing this with the help of Roland Barthes and his essay 'Myth Today' (1957). Whilst Adorno has much of value to say about history, and how music works in an ideological sense, Barthes describes the interpellant moment when the listener is hooked by the myth in a specifically individualised way. It will become clear as this blog progresses why this personal aspect is particularly important for an analysis of Guilty Pleasures.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) describes ‘kitsch’ as: “Art or objets d'art characterized by worthless pretentiousness; the qualities associated with such art or artefacts.” This definition implies that the artwork is pretending to be something that it is not, whereas the common usage of ‘kitsch’ today is often aligned with the art not pretending to be something it is not and, in a sense, setting itself up clearly as an object to be seen for what it is, in all its mocking superficiality. There are entries in the OED which are likely to be more in line with Adorno’s thinking on kitsch, for example “Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. [...] is vicarious experiences and faked sensations. [...] The more romantic a work of art, or a landscape, the quicker its repetitions are perceived as kitsch or ‘slush’.” Also, there is an alternative meaning offered by the OED: “to render worthless, to affect with sentimentality and vulgarity”. In Adorno’s introduction to his essay 'Kitsch' he states that the etymology of the word ‘kitsch’ is in the english word ‘sketch’ and he explains this as “the quality of becoming unrealized, merely hinted at.” (2002b: 501), although this connection to 'sketch' is not noted in the OED. It seems that 'kistch' is a slippery term, the use of which has changed over time.

So as to be as clear as possible on the meaning and usage of ‘kitsch’ here I will begin with the following definition from 'Kitsch' so as to explicate Adorno’s own use of the word in its application to Guilty Pleasures:
In music, at any rate, all real kitsch has the character of a model. It offers the outline and draft of objectively compelling, pre-established forms that have lost their content in history, and for which the unfettered artist, cast adrift, is not able to fashion the content on his own. (ibid).
This notion of the refashioning of history is particularly important here because it is what provides the ideological aspect of what culture, or a cultural object, can represent. And, what is most pertinent to Guilty Pleasures is what and whose history is being represented. I believe that in its entirety Guilty Pleasures represents history (the past): different social histories contained in the individual songs from yesteryear, and alternative subjective histories for the individual listeners of those songs. The songs do contain something of the concrete realities of their moment of production; they will represent the socio-political period from which they emanate, and will say something about the artist and the industry of that time (even if this may not be apparent in a superficial listening). They will also have the personal history of the listener wrapped up in the song: what that song meant to them at that time, what it represents to them as an individual, today and yesterday.

In its original incarnation Guilty Pleasures was oriented around the 'seventies'. This is apparent in the content of the first album, released in 2004 (appendix 1: 22). The track listing contains, for example, Carole Bayer Sayer’s You’re Moving Out, David Essex's Gonna Make You a Star and Pilot’s January. In terms of subjective memory these songs will have meaning to those who lived in Britain in the 1970s. Whilst the 50-something person of today (the popular music enthusiast of the seventies) is likely to be the purchaser of this compilation, they are unlikely to be the club-goer of the Guilty Pleasures clubnight. The Guilty Pleasures machinery is wise to this, having evolved the brand so that it includes contemporary guilty pleasures in order to appease today’s young audience of clubbers. In the autumn of 2008 the University of Leeds had their first Guilty Pleasures clubnight, which did not play one song contained on the first album, but included such contemporary guilty pleasures as Take That’s 2007 hit Shine along with a number of eighties ‘classics’, including Prince and Michael Jackson, which may appear in the collective memory of the university student of today. Guilty Pleasures means different things to different people, what is common to the listener/dancer is that Guilty Pleasures is always about ‘the past’ and the bringing of that past into the present. A ripping of the past from its original roots and re-presenting it to the music listener of today: “Things that were part of the art of a former time [...]” (Adorno 2002b: 501). So as to further demonstrate how context and history are important to the concept of 'kistch' for Adorno, I shall provide a contemporary example from the Guilty Pleasures clubnight at the University of Leeds on November 1st 2008.

During the evening Sean Rowley played a dance mix known as destiny's child . independent women part 1 (a capella) 10cc . dreadlock holiday by 2 many djs (2002) (for brevity I shall be referring to it hereon in as Independent Women vs. Dreadlock Holiday, which it is often known as). As the title implies this is, in the main, a hybrid of Destiny Child's Independent Woman (2001) and 10cc's Dreadlock Holiday (1978). Whilst Destiny Child are a recent group (in the history of popular music, anyway), 10cc are a seventies band and could be considered to be securely rooted in the past. It would be surprising to find any of the club-goers on that night not being familiar with the original hit Independant Woman, it not being in the too distant past for them. But, it is quite likely that for most clubbers that this could be the only context in which they have heard the 10cc mock-reggae tune. Having been present at this clubnight, I was well aware that the primarily student clubber recognised the song we were dancing to. I had not heard this particular version of Dreadlock Holiday before and only knew the original. This made me very aware that my experience of it would be different from most others attending the club.

Whilst all of us as individuals have our own memories attached to particular songs – songs are very powerful in the way that you get transported back to your past upon listening to a recognisable tune – the songs themselves also have a concrete cultural and social history attached to them. Dreadlock Holiday reminds me of high school and the period when I was taking my A'Levels, but in Britain 1978 was also the year when the British Carribean colony Dominica was given independence and when the first man in cricketing history, Ian Botham, scored a 'century'. I am not suggesting that 10cc were making these political connections in their lyrics when they refer to 'cricket' and 'reggae', rather more I am stating that songs have a cultural-social-political significance and even, perhaps, unintentionally represent something of the historical period of which they emanate. In a sense, all old song hold a kind of historical memory within them, a trace of the past; although it is likely that it can become distorted. It is this memory that I will turn to in the next part of the blog, in relation to what Adorno means when he says that kitsch hangs onto a disformed and illusory memory of the past (ibid.).

Please click here for part 2.

Related links:
The Cult of Guilty Pleasures – A Freudian Analysis of the Music Genre


BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Books and Articles
Adorno, Theodor W. 1997. Aesthetic Theory, trans. by Gretel Adorno and Tiedmann (London: The Athlone Press).
----- 1998. 'Motifs', Quasi una Fantasia: Essays on Modern Music, trans. by Rodney Livingstone (London and New York: Verso) pp. 9-36.
----- 2000. ‘Extracts from Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life’, The Continental Aesthetics Reader, ed. by Clive Cazeaux (London and New York: Routledge) pp. 234-256.
----- 2001. 'The Schema of Mass Culture', The Culture Industry, ed. by J. M. Bernstein (London and New York: Routledge) pp. 61-97.
----- 2002a. 'On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening', Essays on Music, trans. by Susan H. Gillespie (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press) pp. 288-317.
----- 2002b. 'Kitsch', Essays on Music, trans. by Susan H. Gillespie (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press) pp. 501-505.
Barthes, Roland. 2000. 'Myth Today', Mythologies, trans. by Annette Lavers (London: Vintage) pp. 109-159.
Broch, Hermann. 1973. ‘Notes on the Problem of Kitsch’, Kitsch: An Anthology of Bad Taste, ed. by Gillo Dorfles (London: Studio Vista) pp. 49-76.
Jenkins, Jennifer, ‘The Kitsch Collections and “The Spirit in the Furniture”: Cultural Reform and National Culture in Germany’, Social History, 21, 2 (1996), 123-141.
Leppert, Richard. 2002. ‘Commentary’, Essays on Music, trans. by Susan H. Gillespie (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press) pp. 327-372.
Witkin, Robert W. 2003. Adorno on Popular Culture (London and New York: Routledge).

Music
10cc, The Very Best of 10cc (Mercury Records Ltd, 534 612-2, 1997).
2 many djs, as heard on radio soulwax pt.2 (PIAS Recordings, plasb 065 cd, 2002).
Brian Protheroe, Pinball and Other Stories (EMI Records Ltd, 0946 3 60718 2 4, 2006).

Online Resources
Sean Rowley, ‘The Gospel According to Guilty Pleasures’, Guilty Pleasures, (2007),  (para. 2 of 6).

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Why Does She Stand on One Leg?

A Semiological Analysis of the Chambord Flamingo Advert


You can watch the advert here - Best Ads On TV - or read the description below. Please scroll down for the semiological critique itself.

Brief Description of Advert
The Chambord advert opens with the single leg of a women next to that of a flamingo. The next two frames show the face of the flamingo followed by the eyes of the woman. We then see the legs of a flamingo standing on a mirror with the flamingo lifting one leg and the voice-over saying: “Why does she stand on one leg?”. We cut to a scene of someone pouring some champagne and topping it up with Chambord. Then, back to the flamingo standing on one leg, followed by the bending knees of a young woman in a short yellow skirt: “There is no reason. She likes it. She does it. Does she care what the other eyeballs think?” We see the flamingo and young woman standing side by side - “BOF!” - and a close-up of the mouth of the young woman saying the word (and appearing in written form on the screen). We then see the woman walking away from the flamingo in a predominantly blue-coloured room (with occasional pink highlights): “Of course she does not”. The final scene is the single leg of the flamingo next to an up-ended bottle of Chambord with the voice-over also saying the words on the screen: “Because. No reason.”

Semiological Critique
While much could be said about the stylish young woman, the Louis XIV-style packaging (and the French emphasis in general) and also the colour signifiers in the advert, I am going to focus on three elements: the standing-on-one-leg trope, the term ‘bof’ and the aesthetics implied by two filmic references. The first two motifs I will discuss in a broad cultural sense, since they represent the brand directly, the other I would like to include for its connotative reference, because I think it is stylistic but at the same time means the advert could reach an audience other than its main one (female ‘twenty-thirty something’ cocktail drinker).

While it might be obvious to state that the single-leg motif could refer to ‘legless’, this does not reflect the subtle nature of what is implied by standing on one leg. In modern culture we can think of ballerinas, gymnasts and horses in dressage. So standing-on-one-leg refers to skill, beauty, dexterity and achievement. These sports, if you will, are also what could be described as middle- or even upper-class, so this drink could be seen as being ‘aspirational’, despite, and indeed because of, its reasonable price. The drink is presented as ‘classy’, not least because of the history of the drink, although there is some irony contained in this since, if you follow the lineage of Louis XIV, it ended in 1775 with the French Revolution, one of its main aims being to rid France of the aristocracy (the upper classes).

Bof! The term ‘bof’ generally has two meanings, both relevant to the advert. It is urban slang directed at people who want to be different, but it is also French for ‘I do not know’ in the sense of disinterest. The ‘I do not know’ refers to both the question of why the girl/flamingo stands on one leg, but also to a disinterest in why they do, because it is irrelevant – they just do. What is important is Chambord, not the standing-on-one-leg. Of course, this standing-on-one-leg is about being different (quirky). Being different is desirable. Who wants to be like everyone else? Being different = Chambord = being interesting/quirky, but also being desirable because of that, nevertheless.

The last point I would like to bring up are the Kubrick references. The opening music sounds like it is sampled from A Clockwork Orange (if it is not it is characteristic of the style of the track ‘The Funeral of Queen Mary’ from the film). Also, the monochrome room, which we see more of at the end of the advert, is redolent of the ‘bedroom encounter’ scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey (a Louis XIV-style bedroom). While these may just be stylistic affects included in the advert to make it fit a certain aesthetic, they do more than that (while also telling you something about the designers of the advert, too – such as, perhaps, their age, but also their interest in cinema). These Kubrick references add an edginess to the film – especially the music, which, in a way, is at odds with the visuals – they are mostly soft and pastel in colour. But, also, they open up the advert to another group of potential customers: women (and perhaps men) of an age who would be familiar with these films (1968 and 1971), and also film buffs. I appreciate that these additional references may be connotative, but since the aim of advertising is to make it personal to the potential consumer, this advert does that for me. As Roland Barthes explains, the power of the connotative is that it speaks directly to you and appears as if it has been placed there just for you!