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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Monday, August 14, 2006

AC/DC/Derrida

Posted by Adam Roberts on 08/14/06 at 06:50 AM

AC/DC’s Back in Black (1980) is the second best-selling rock album of all time.  Jacques Derrida was a French thinker.  What is enacted in the stepping down (or stepping-along) from ‘is’ to ‘was’?  Is not death itself a matter of slipping from one verbal-tense ‘gear’ to another?

One of Derrida’s chief modes of discursive enquiry was the question.  (‘Is my death possible? Can we understand this question? Can I, myself, pose it?  Am I allowed to talk about my death?  What does the syntagm “my death” mean? And why this expression “the syntagm ‘my death’”?’, Aporias, pp.21-22.) (Should you ‘follow the link’?  Should you ‘look inside’?  How might this syntagmatic ‘looking inside’ help, exactly?) I may be wrong, but I cannot think of a single rhetorical question in the entire body of work of AC/DC: not so much as a ‘hot enough for ya?’ or a ‘aint I the meanest lovin machine you ever saw?’.  Their exclusive mode of discursive enquiry is the assertion.  It’s the logic of contrast that gives the pairing of these two so eloquent a purchase upon those questions raised by the work of mourning: a subject with which Derrida became increasingly involved, and the subject to which Back in Black gives musical form.

The original AC/DC vocalist, Bon Scott, died from excessive consumption of alcohol in February 1980.  The group replaced his shrieky over-excited vocals with the shrieky over-excited vocals of Brian Johnson.  Back in Black, Johnson’s first AC/DC album, includes in the title track and elsewhere direct reference to the process of grieving for hellraiser Scott, a raucus yawping celebrating of the continuing life of the group in the face of its front-man’s death.  We can tell this by reading the lyrics.

Of course, it may perhaps place too much interpretive pressure upon AC/DC to ‘read’ their lyrics.  You might think that this is because their lyrics are ‘rubbish’.  Me, I prefer the position, supported I think by the extraordinary quasi-Beckettian single-mindedness of Back in Black’s excavation of bereavement, and the ‘lyric’ or ‘musical’ aspect of mourning, that it is actually because their lyrics give such precise expression to the aporia of ‘death’.  These are lyrics that in their very incoherence, repetition and mad insistence formulate the parameters of grief, and uncover the proximity of grief’s tragic ecstasy to the ecstasies of love, feasting/festival and sheer will-to-power carrying on living.

This had not always been my view of AC/DC’s lyrics.  I had always thought that actually listening to the lyrics of AC/DC constituted, if anything, a distraction from the wonderfully crashing beauty of the music.  I used to wince when faced with texts of the calibre of:

She’s got the face of an angel
Smiling in sin
The body of Venus – with arms. [‘Touch Too Much’, Highway to Hell]

It’s a mode of lyric-writing that seems almost to project the writer’s thought-process upon a giant screen for all to see.  ‘She’s got the body like Venus, yeah.  Yeah!  But wait … the Venus de Milo.  The Venus de Milo?  But, but, what if people think I’m talking about some woman with no arms ?… That’s not what I mean at all … what to do?  Ah!  I know.  I’ll simply add on the arms to the image of the ‘body of Venus’ so that there can be no confusion …’

But then I was listening to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’, on the Back in Black album; and I was struck, as if for the first time, by the way it starts.

She was a fast machine,
She kept her motor clean
She was the best damn woman that I ever seen
She had the sightless eyes
Telling me no lies
Knocking me out with those American thighs.

She had the sightless eyes?  So he’s talking about having sex with a blind woman?  That’s a striking detail; but not an irrelevant one.  The autobiographical ‘I’ of these songs is both an fictional positioning of the masculine identity (hard drinking, hard shagging), and the spectral invocation of the dead (the sightless) Bon Scott.  By purporting to provide us a glimpse of intimate life (in this case, sex), which is to say; by adopting a confessional idiom, the song makes plain the blindness of all self-representation.  Its prosopopeia gives voice to the consciousness ‘knocked out’ (of consciousness, of life) by ‘those American thighs’; a process of transference that marks the singer as the blind person (vision, perhaps, but not voice obscured by the very thighs to which he adverts).  In Memoires of the Blind Derrida says:

There is no self-portrait without confession. The author of the self-portrait does not show himself … At the moment when the self-portraitist fends off the temptations of sight and calls for this conversion from the light to the light, from the outward realm to the realm within, it is a theory of the blind that unfolds. [Derrida’s Memoires of the Blind, 117]

‘The theory of the blind’ encompasses the sorts of self-delusion, or self-blindness (let us say: throwing a wake for a man who died of alcohol abuse; or recording a memorial album including the track ‘Have A Drink on Me’.  But Derrida is also saying that this sort of blindness is no simple obstacle to sense; in a manner of speaking it constitutes sense.

Death is a gap, an absence, the model aporia.  It is the abyss, the silence out of which Derrida spoke for so many years and into which his speaking has now been consigned.  The blind silence of death is neither sightless nor dumb; rather it is a complex prosopopeia that generates its contradictions out of itself.

Silence.  This is the insight which occurred to me about what makes AC/DC so brilliant. If pressed, formerly, I might have mumbled something about the shameful pleasures of rawk, about that special combination of loud guitars, thumping drums and shrieky vocals.  But, on reflection, that’s really not it.  Or rather, there are ten thousand bands that serve up that generic combination of sonic testosterone.  What distinguishes AC/DC from washover wall-of-sound Rawk like Metallica or Slipknot or insert-Metal-or-Emo-bandname-here is they expert way Akadaka use silence.  ‘Back in Black’ starts like this:

Drumstick on edge of drum: tic, tic, tic, tic, tic, tic, t’, t’
Guitar: BAM [pause] badaBAM [pause] badaBAM
[pause] [descending guitar fill] da-da-da-der-derriada
BAM [pause] badaBAM [pause] badaBAM
[pause] [ascending chord progression] Ba-da; ba-da; ba-da; ba-da
BAM [pause] badaBAM [pause] badaBAM
[pause] [descending guitar fill] da-da-da-der-derriada
BAM [pause] badaBAM [pause] badaBAM
[pause] [ascending chord progression] Ba-da; ba-da; ba-da; ba-da ….

What’s important here is precisely the pauses, the gaps between the banging guitar chords.  It enacts the dialectic between the fullness of the emphatic drum-pinned guitar and the blind silence of death.  The singing, when it starts, counterpoints this balance: Johnson’s grieving-banshee wail similarly balances speech and silence, or noise and pause.  But its pattern is syncopated so as to mesh with the music; when the guitar ‘speaks’ voice is silent and vice versa.

Back in black—
[pause]
I hit the sack
[pause]
I’ve been too long I’m glad to be back.  Yes I’m
[pause]
Let loose
[pause]
From the noose
[pause]
That’s kept me hanging around
I’ve been living like a star
’Cause it’s getting me high—
[pause]
Forget the hearse, ’cause I never die.  I’ve got
[pause]
Nine lives
[pause]
Cat’s eyes
Abusing every one of them and running wild

With the chorus the voice and instruments come closer, and finally come together; but even here the effect is less one of consummation, but rather a grindingly emphatic stress on what the rhyming auditory similarities of the two terms ‘back’ and ‘black’ connote when corresponded in this manner: that the ‘blackness’ of mourning, the blind-colour of death itself, is not something from which it is possible to come ‘back’.  Rather the trope of return and the trope of death bleed into one another, become in an ecstatic (in ‘ec-stasis’) versions of the same thing.

But I’m back
[Guitar: der-der-der-der-der,]
Yes I’m back
[Guitar: der-der-der-der-der]
I-I’m
Back
[Guitar: der-der-der-der-der]
Yes I’m back
[Guitar: der-der-der-der-der]
We’ll I’m
(singing along with the guitar arpeggio): Ba-a-a-a-ck
Ba-a-a-a-ck
Well I’m back in black
[pause]
Yes I’m back in bla-ack.

AC/DC are ‘rock and roll’ rather than ‘philosophy’.  The contrivance of treating the one as the other might make us shudder, perhaps.  But that shaking is itself already encompassed in the ‘rocking’, the ‘rolling’, the ‘groovy groovy shake’ of the musical idiom.  There is, of course, precisely a trembling involved in the Derridean secret, ‘the gift of death, the fathomless gift of a type of death’

Mysterium tremendum. A frightful mystery, a secret to make you tremble.
Tremble.  What does one do when one trembles?  What is it that makes you tremble?  [Derrida, The Gift of Death, 53]

AC/DC have the answer to that question.

… the walls were shaking
The earth was quaking
My mind was aching
And we were making it and
You
Shook me all night long
You had me shaking and
You
Shook me all night long.

This, we might think, is an orgasmic shaking.  (How old is that notion of orgasm as ‘the little death’, I wonder?) But of course this is what Derrida means too:

A quiver can of course manifest fear, anguish, apprehension of death … but it can be slight, on the surface of the skin, like a quiver that announces the arrival of pleasure or an orgasm.  It is a moment in passing, the suspended time of seduction.  [Derrida, The Gift of Death, 53]

Shaking in Back in Black locates a complex of associations to do with sex (perhaps obviously) but also illness and death, as well as waking or coming-alive.  The song ‘Shake a Leg’ (‘Shake a leg, shake your head Shake a leg, wake the dead Shake a leg, get stuck in’) jumbles all this in together.  The ‘shaking’ or ‘rocking’ of bells (humanity’s oldest musical instrument, if voice and simple percussion are not counted) that produce the mournful chiming with which the album itself starts:  ‘Hell’s Bells’ sending the sound of their slow shaking up from the abyssal underworld itself.  The album as a whole trembles on the edge of death, shaking from the ecstatic life of drinking, screwing, ‘shooting to thrill’, to the ecstatic grief at death, where women become ‘too many women’, drugs, ‘too many pills’, giving one ‘the shakes’.  Death by alcohol can involve the shakes too.  Shaking, as the song says, all over.  All over.  All over now.


Comments

I may be wrong, but I cannot think of a single rhetorical question in the entire body of work of AC/DC: not so much as a ‘hot enough for ya?’ or a ‘aint I the meanest lovin machine you ever saw?’.  Their exclusive mode of discursive enquiry is the assertion.

Adam what about “Beating around the Bush” or “Can I sit next to you girl?” - off High Voltage

By on 08/14/06 at 08:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

“Can I sit next to you girl?” ... I stand corrected.

Is “Beating around the Bush” a question, though?

By Adam Roberts on 08/14/06 at 12:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think there might some philosophical musings behind “Ride On,” off Dirty Deeds.  Consider “Who Made Who” as well:
Who made who, who made you?
Who made who, ain’t nobody told you?
Who made who, who made you?
If you made them and they made you
Who picked up the bill, who? And who made who?

Who made who, who turned the screw?

Of course, they wrote this song for Stephen King’s godawful Maximum Overdrive movie.  The only thing I remember from that is the soundtrack and Lisa Simpson inquiring in a country twang “Curtis?  Are you dead?”

The pauses in the intro of “Highway to Hell” are cause for some reflection in this argument.  I’m facinated by all this…

By on 08/14/06 at 05:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I may be revealing my sorry lack of advanced education here, and indeed I may have the totally wrong end of someone else’s stick, but I laughed like a b*stard all through this post. Absolute genius.

For those about to mock...I salute you! \m/

By Paul R/Armchair Anarchist on 08/14/06 at 06:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Don’t worry, Paul, it was both really funny and supposed to be—though to do this kind of thing right, you have to do it with a certain amount of seriousness.

By on 08/14/06 at 09:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

is the irony and bogus academic rhetoric meant purely for phunn, or maybe to mock?  if mockery, then what exactly might be the political intent--a type of anti-caucasian racism perhaps.

anyways, any real headbanger isn’t like so overly concerned with some throwaway lyrics, whether imperatives or interogative: he hears Sir Angus playing the opening to Thunderstruck and knows what the vibe is about, in a far more dionysian fashion than some french aesthete might.......

By on 08/14/06 at 09:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Brilliant Adam, absolutely brilliant.

By rosie on 08/15/06 at 08:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Beating around the bush is a song and its verses contail questions.  I think your basic point pretty much stands, though, as Bon Scott in particular never uses the interrogative rising inflection at the end of a phrase.  Sentences that are technically questions are sung with flat certainty & lack of interest in any possible answer.  This is especially noticeable in an Australian voice as we all end our sentences with question marks?  Even when we’re not asking a question?

By on 08/16/06 at 08:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I was shocked when I ran into this. I was just trying to find out if they will ever record again.  After reading I thought, “Should I have known there was more there besides the obvious album title ?”, I am a serious fan, even if not real, thanks for the thought.

By on 11/25/06 at 11:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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