Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Literal and Sonic Terrains

Those who have a general understanding of maps and international borders may be confused when reading the opening chapters of Vladimir Nabokov's bloated masterpiece Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969). One may notice that locations in the book ("Canady", "Mayne") bear a phonological similarity to places we notice when looking at a map ("Canada", "Maine"). In fact, the book has a distinct Amerussian flavor to it. It is as if Nabokov took a mercator projection of the world and folded it longitudinally -- the desired effect would be that some cities and features in Russia would be grafted on to North America. The superimposition of these two maps creates a new type of cognitive map -- a personal geography that invokes Nabokov's family roots in Czarist Russia as well as his fascination with American culture. Thumb through Lolita (1954), and as you listen to Humbert Humbert's transcontinental jaunt, you are in fact listening to a topographical description of then-contemporary American culture.

Texts of all kinds enjoy a certain status as a type of map. They not only act as a historical document, but they give an all-too subjective read on a particular landscape. The idea that a text is a kind of map (and vice versa, that a map is a kind of text) was definitely on Michel de Certau's mind when writing The Practice of Everyday Life (1984). To say that the book is about the quotidian strays off the mark. The book is about raising the quotidian, elevating the particularities of everyday existence -- a process that ostensibly reveals several common currents. It is as if de Certau is cracking the code of an impossibly complicated Enigma machine.

This process invokes a seemingly disconnected set of analytical tools. At some points, the text reads like a literary-theoretical exegesis. At other instances, it dwells on semiology and anthropology, as well as geography. However, de Certau's irreverence is such that one can take the varied analytical touchstones and apply them to other types of cultural products. In effect, The Practice of Everyday Life enables us to deploy a theoretical toolkit that allows for reading any type of cultural production as a spatial phenomenon -- in other words, a map. As Nabokov's books are a form of cognitive mapping, so are relics of popular culture.

Using de Certeau as a guide, I turn my attention to two specific types of pop culture products, and will engage on a slight and all-too brief investigation of these products as spatial phenomena. Popular music and comic books may provide hours of discourse for dorks and geeks -- yet often these two realms operate as a type of critical text. As they deploy beats, decibels and speech bubbles, popular music and comics directly engage issues about urbanism. But the actual process involved in the creation of music and comic books also speaks to their distinct urbanism.

Two types of popular music that reveal a critical urbanist bent in terms of content as well as authoring are punk and hip hop music. Critical hindsight affords us the ability to view punk music as a cultural relic. The origins of this movement are subject to debate, yet a reader can glean that punk music shared similar beginnings in both England and the United States. Whatever view one chooses to subscribe to, British and American-flavored punk variants shared antiauthoritarian and anticommericalist impulses. Punk music also has a distinct geographical tint to it. American punk bands in the early 80s, usually associated with the Washington DC-based Dischord Records, and the Los Angeles-based SST records have differing sonic and lyrical content. Dischord bands, such as Minor Threat and Rites of Spring, had a distinct political flavor. To these bands, a song was something like a sonic burst of pure energy and raw emotion -- the quintessential aural Molotov cocktail lobbed at unsuspecting listeners. Likewise, bands like Black Flag and the minutemen were a bit more sophisticated in their musical approach. Their musical references came from a wider spectrum, such as 70s-era heavy metal as well as jazz and R&B music. Those punk bands from middle areas - such as Minneapolis, Chicago, or Austin, were also diverse in their musical cues.

What unifies these bands is the notion of tactics. De Certeau refers to the tactic as a type of spatial re-appropriation, "a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus." A tactic is a device used by a person or persons at a disadvantage for quick, uncertain, and short-term gains. It can be a devious gesture as well -- de Certau likes to invoke the notion of le perruque (the wig) as a type of tactic. A Perruque is a trick, akin to using office stationery for personal purposes or any other device for unintended uses.

Cultural historian Dick Hebdige must have been thinking of tactics and perruques when writing about punk music in Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979). He thinks of the punk as a type of bricoleur, taking the emblems of everyday existence (i.e. a safety pin) and subverting it into a symbol of rebellion (an earring or nose-piercing). However, the notion of bricolage also extends to musical influences as well. Thus, in "Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs" (1982), the minutemen were able to use funk-inspired bass lines and drum rhythms to craft a new type of sonic samizdat. The lyrics also betray a tactic:
I'm waiting in third person
I'm collecting
Dispersing information labeled rations
Manifestoes are my windows and my proof
Locations and more rations outline my route
Likewise, in Austin, Texas, the Big Boys used their punk and funk cues to inspire youth to become bricoleurs and sonic collectors when they issued their clarion call: "GO START YOUR OWN BAND." Whereas the minutemen and Big Boys looked to their musical and visual aesthetic to promote their political agenda, Minneapolis-based Hüsker Dü took the subject of media-saturated urbanism head on. In "Divide and Conquer" (1985), lead singer Bob Mould screams amidst a wall of distorted guitar noise:
Well they divided up all the land
And we've got states and cities
Cities have their neighborhoods
And more subdivisions

There's lots of area codes
And nine digit zip codes
Secret decoder ring codes
Arteries, shopping nodes

It's not about my politics
Something happened way too quick
A bunch of men who played it sick
They divide, conquer
Early hip hop music not only has elements of the bricolage and tactic as well, but further demonstrates how such an approach has spatial ramifications. Like punks, hip hop artists subverted material items and musical cues for their own aesthetic and social aims. Reacting against stale and overcommercialzed disco and R&B music, the early avatars of hip hop music not only sought inspiration from European electronic music, but also reinterpreted contemporary popular music.

Perhaps a good way to characterize this aspect of early hip hop music involves an application of some of de Certau's ideas of theory and practice. In the end, hip hop can be thought of as a type of practical theory (or theory in practice). But perhaps the best way to describe it is as critical praxis. Hip hop music, through its modes of musical appropriation and sampling, applies de Certau's concept of "cut-up and turn-out." "Cutting-up" can be thought of as a tactic of appropriation: a cultural or material product is removed from its context. In the case of hip hop music, this can involve taking a drum track from Kraftwerk's Trans-Europe Express, ESG's U.F.O., or a James Brown horn cue. These are "turned-out" and re-contextualized in another product. Hence a mechanical, rote drum part played through an electronic drum machine is accented with samples from other pieces of music. In addition to this new product, lyrics can be added, and as is the case with Grandmaster Flash and Mellie Mel's "White Lines" or "The Message", can comment on diverse topics such as drug abuse and urban blight.

This critical praxis takes on a spatial and geographic aspect as well. Hip hop, although sharing a multitude of international influences, is quintessential New York music. There is much to be said about how these hip hop became an element of, and was a product of New York underground culture. However, hip hop can be thought of a music style that defines a specific spatial locus. The same can be said of punk music from Washington DC, London, New York, or Los Angeles. Through the deployment of tactics and theories, we can think of punk and hip hop as a type of sonic document. An aural, cognitive map that not only describes a specific location, but betrays the points of views of those artists who craft and compose the music.

Like popular music, the comic book is also another type of pop culture item that deploys elements of tactic and theory outlined by de Certeau. Scott McCloud defines a comic as "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer". Yet I argue that the comic book is also a cognitive map whose creation also recalls some of de Certeau's ideas in different ways. One comic of particular interest is Alan Moore's and Dave Gibbons' The Watchmen (1987). This innovative comic has been the subject of many articles about the comic book genre -- and deservedly so, for it is something to be experienced. The storyline revolves around a group of aging superheroes who were once part of a unified crime-fighting unit, yet fell out of political favor. Only two of the former heroes -- a nihilistic, ultraviolent gumshoe named Rorschach, and a psychotic right-winged operative named The Comedian are left. It is the latter's unexpected murder that sets off a chain of events ultimately leading to an unusually prescient 9/11-like tragedy. In layout, presentation, and content, The Watchmen operates as a type of political commentary where everything, urban utopias, the Vietnam war, as well as the comic book genre itself, is dissected and deconstructed.

Moore and Gibbons' innovations in Watchmen show how a much-maligned visual form often associated with children's literature is elevated to the status of serious artistic discourse. In this in this sense that The Watchmen becomes a sort of tactic, a perruque that subverts the form and content of the comic book and recasts it in a wholly original fashion. Its creation also betrays a type of practical theory -- again, de Certeau's notions of cut-up and turn-out become the subject of critical inquiry. A look at the individual panels shows Moore and Gibbons playing with notions of flashback and foreshadowing. A series of intercalary "commentary" chapters -- which take the form of fake historical narratives -- also offers a new way of subverting psychoanalytic and hermeneutical modes not only for the sake of analyzing the comic book genre, but for creating a narrative as well. With Watchmen, Moore and Gibbons stake out a new literal and figurative territory, not only reclaiming a creative medium reserved for dorks and geeks, but doing so with unbridled and uncompromising panache.

This seemingly tenuous connection between punk, hip-hop, and comic books is not only enshrined in Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, where a punk band named Stately Wayne Manor plays at CBGB's, but in contemporary music as well, with Viktor Vaughn (aka MF Doom, aka Metal Face Doom, aka King Geedorah) takes on the persona of Dr. Doom (from the Fantastic Four comics).

As with Nabokov's Ada, contemporary comic books also take the guise of personal geographies. As Daniel Clowes' Ghost World takes on the subject of suburban ennui, Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid in The World confronts the notion of a city. In Ware's graphic magnum-opus, Chicago becomes a literal and visual palimpsest. As we read the highly-stylized, ravishing and meticulously-arranged panels, Jimmy Corrigan's search for his family roots takes him on a historical re-visitation of Chicago's built environment. The buildings, the empty public spaces all become cenotaphs -- dead structures revealing the secret history of a metropolis. As Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quarter shows pre-World War Two Egypt as (to use Giuliana Bruno's terminology) an Atlas of Emotions, so does Ware's Chicago reveal the city as a personal diary entry. De Certau could very well be invoking comic books when he tells us
A series of articulated operations (gestural or mental)-- that is what writing literally is -- traces on the page the trajectories that sketch out words, sentences, and finally a system. In other terms, on the blank page, an itinerant, progressive, and regulated practice -- a 'walk' -- composes the artifact of another 'world' that is not received but rather made. The model of a productive reason is written on the nowhere of the paper. In many different forms, this text constructed on a proper space is the fundamental and generalized utopia of the modern West" (135).
It is in this and perhaps other ways that popular music and comic books may present a reclamation of space.

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