Thursday, 16 January 2014


Further to this debate about retromania (see below, here and here), there's a very interesting article by James Parker and Nicholas Croggon over at Tiny Mix Tapes, which widens the discussion into an attack on contemporary music crit as a whole.

There's a lot of very tasty stuff there, and the article is strongest I think in pointing to a sort of endemic, half-unconscious historicism right across the board in music writing from Rolling Stone to The Wire.

However, I don't quite get the conclusion:

So, the lesson of Cage, Eno, and now vaporwave, Belbury Poly, and even (if read critically) Daft Punk is that history need not be conceived of as an endless hurtling into the future. Indeed, the important thing about these musics is that they not only concern history, but assume a critical position in relation to it — they both critique certain conceptions of history and offer new ones.

Firstly, there's the obvious fact that a group like Belbury Poly is surely the epitome of retromania in its hauntological mode (and I don't buy the argument in the piece that it "makes us question our sense of nostalgia" - maybe it can, but to do so you have to run it pretty hard against itself, because I reckon most people get off on the nostalgia way more than they enjoy the implicit critique).

Also, and relatedly, I'm not sure from these examples (and from the examples of Malevich and Duchamp) what is being held up as a more positive kind of art. In fact, it seems to me - and the authors' use of the word "timeless" is a tell-tale sign here - that what is being avowed is essentially a very specific mid-twentieth century lineage of postmodernist art, the high-art canon of the last few decades of post-modern, post-ideological neoliberal orthodoxy if you like. "Black Square" and 4'33" were indeed modernistic steps forward of a kind, but they were also endpoints for modernism itself, transition works that helped to usher in the postmodern period (of which "retromania" is merely a latter-day extenuation).

As such, and taken together with the argument against time viewed as an "endless hurtling into the future", I don't really see that anything is ultimately said in the article beyond a restatement of the end of history ethos that the retromania argument takes as a starting point of its diagnosis.

What seems to be being rejected is the idea that art/music can make active, purposive (rather than passive) social interventions that impinge upon democratic forward-movements, and I'm afraid we've had more than enough of that sort of thing for way too long now.

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