Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Wonky as transversal rave.

One point of contention arising from the recent “Hardcore Continuum: Still Relevant?” brouhaha relates to the notion of the applicability of theory to the domain of dance music. As Word The Cat wrote a while ago: “music is music, everything is everything (reductive yes, but liberating in its absolute reduction). we don’t need to map our own binaries onto music (screwface/smiley face — masculine/feminine — skunk/MDMA). music takes you past that.” Whilst I absolutely agree that some of the reductive dualisms in HCC theorising are oversimplifications (and easy anthropomorphisations of the alien actualities of the music in question- especially as regards masculine/feminine codings: why ought bass-pressure to be thought of as masculine at all, its pummelling aggression is matched by a concomitant womb-like embrace, a violent amniosis…) I would maintain that theory is not to be jettisoned full stop, and indeed cannot be. Even in the absence of overt grand-narrative theorizing, low level “folk-theoretical” devices will take their place. In the writings of the critics of the HCC for example there remain certain theoretical tropes (genre, analysis of specific emergent sonic identifying points etc). The question then is not “whether theory?” but “which theory?” and further “what are the limitations of this theory, and how might it enrich our understanding of the object?”

This is certainly of key interest, above and beyond merely the HCC debate, since this is one of the central concerns of a possible speculative realist aesthetics: Whether we can ever evade the subsumption of the object beneath the organon of theory we use to interpret it. This point has been made very clearly by Schoolboyerrors here, exquisitely accurate on the over determination of art objects by their Deleuzean readings. I believe we have all read similar pieces on the internet, especially Lacanian film readings which tell you little more than how Lacanian theory itself operates (useful, true, but often with little regard to the actual object at hand). In a certain sense what the HCC critics get absolutely right is the dangerously slippery slope of theorizing, that in the end the very tool used to grasp a hold of the objective reality might alienate us from it, overdetermine it, and achieve a tyrannical grip. This in itself is a deeply Laruellian point, that in the construction of a philosophy the world is split into a world-theory dyad, the former containing the philosophical re-presentation of the world, the latter the transcendent theory sitting above the world it has created judging it like some kind of God, defeating any claims to radical immanence (as John Mullarkey accurately diagnoses in his book, Post-Continental Philosophy). It is certainly the case that it has become increasingly apparent that the single Grand Unified Theory approach to philosophy (and associated areas such as theoretical criticism) is deeply flawed. As has already been well drawn out in various discussions in the theory blogosphere, the past tendency within recent continental thought to politicise ontology is overly convenient and strictly unbelievable. In a later post I want to discuss how GUT thinking is damaging not just to pre-speculative realist thought, but equally appears to be infecting speculative realism itself, especially in its object-oriented sub-genre. This is especially clear having read the most recent issue of Collapse and Ladyman’s critique of the “small objects and micro-bangings” of analytic metaphysics.

I have admittedly yet to get a full grip on how a non-aesthetics in the Laruellian mould might operate, so I must for now limit my discussion of Wonky to more general terms, rejecting the tendency towards immobile GUTs in favour of a half-way measure, a theory sensitive to the object at hand. What is most interesting about Wonky thus far is its trans-generic nature, its relative looseness and inclusiveness to a proper diversity of disparate aesthetics: stretching between Rave, Dubstep, G-Funk, Instrumental Hip Hop, Crunk, Pop, UK Garage, IDM/Electronica, Techno… etc. Moreover it operates in a number of different tempos, (chiefly dubstep’s 138 bpm and hip hop’s slower 90-110bpm) with producers scattered between different continents, and different regimes of consumption (club and home listening). Even further, the very notion of “wonky” itself is a deeply slippery idea. Sometimes it indicates de-quantised drums (as in Flying Lotus, Lukid, and other post Dilla beat-artisans) sometimes pitch-bent synth and bass work (Joker, Starkey, Rustie), sometimes a maddening rush of 8 Bit arpeggios (Zomby, Ikonika, Rustie again). Wonky is not so much a genre unto itself. Instead it operates as a kind of trans-generic mutational agent, spreading seamlessly between bpm species, liquidating textures, distending rhythmical consistency like so much manipulable sonic sticky toffee: All that is solid melts into a new electronic psychedelia, as fluid and mellifluous as the globalised capitalism which spreads it. Wonky in the sense of off-key, out of place, misshapen, breaking through an electronic music environment increasingly characterised by myopic microgenre developments and parodic stylistic affectations, as a set of strategies to be applied to a pre-existing template. In a sense then Wonky detournes pre-existing genres (instrumental hip hop, grime, rave, dubstep etc) corroding the arid grid-like bass kick / snare matrix into something closer to the handmade asymmetrical anti-rhythms of Burial, pushing the shuffled culminating and accelerating sensual textural play towards a surrealist fair ground of Dali-esque percussive affect. However, unlike Burial it would be difficult to conceive of less hauntological artists operating today than Starkey or Rustie, their lurid neon-surreal synthetic post-dubstep negotiating everything that’s still (barely) alive within electronic dance music. Hence I would resist K-Punk’s embryonic attempts to slot certain aspects of Wonky into a hauntological conceptual schema, as the utilisation of 8-bit electronics is distinct from Ghostbox’s deployment of library music and Radiophonic-tronica in at least two respects: firstly in seeking direct dancefloor engagement, and secondly in not dealing explicitly with manipulations or foregroundings of the past (or the processes of memory). Wonky is far from nostalgic, I believe, in spite of Zomby’s Hardcore tribute record (which isn’t in fact Wonky at all).

What is clear from all this is that the Hardcore Continuum is indeed totally inadequate to describe the realities of this music (though perhaps still appropriate to some extent for Bassline, Dubstep and possibly even Funky—although the latter’s incorporation and communication with a broader range of afro-house musics and soca complicates the issue). The shifts in technology, lines of communication and influence, and geographical centres indicate a major development from prior formations: No longer a “London Thing” (or even particularly a UK thing for that matter) nor indeed quite a “scene”. To hazard a theoretical attempt to describe what might be going on here (ultimately, to my ears, consolidatory in terms of actual music, but absolutely fascinating in its anti-localism, its trans-generic scope, and the avoidance of being merely an incoherent grab bag of postmodern influences) we might turn to Félix Guattari’s concept of transversality. Taken in part from mathematics and Sartre’s Transcendence of the Ego, like Wonky transversality operates in a mercurial and allusive fashion within Guattari’s work: beginning as a way of conceptualising lines of unconscious force/desire within institutional structures, it later becomes the cornerstone of a complex ontology binding material, psychological, linguistic and imaginary components together. We might think of Wonky as operating as a vector transversal to genre, a transversal analysis in-itself operating beyond merely a postmodern genre-game. Rather than a pick and mix approach to generic materials, wonky is strategically applied to pre-existent genres, not as an adhesive but as a liquefying agent... [cf perhaps Negarestani's rotting objects?]... a making strange... not in the sense of hauntology's unheimlich-home, but in the deliquescent informational fluidity and interoperability of late capital, the strangeness of a blooming irridescant corpse, (not a spectre) a sonic embodiement of its distributive ground.

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