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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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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

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Friday, March 17, 2006

Who Speaks for the Monolith?  (Cue, Zarathustra)

Posted by Sean McCann on 03/17/06 at 02:13 PM

Let me follow Ray’s sublime post with a ridiculous one and offer the second in a series of trivial terminological gripes.  (I assume you’ll be grateful that the complaints show up Brigadoon-like but once a year).

I was browsing today through David Butler’s valuable study Jazz Noir: Listening to Music From Phantom Lady through The Last Seduction when I came across this phrase:

This book does not attempt to discuss jazz or film noir as monolithic idioms.

Well, that comes as a relief.  But, really, does it need saying?  Who, after all, would announce otherwise? 

Like I said, trivial griping.  And let’s grant the contexts in which the caveat might make sense.  Yes, there’s a history of fruitless arguments over the proper definition of film and literary genres.  And, yes, that history speaks more broadly to a once prominent academic formalism that it’s good to do without.  But . . . those days are long gone.  Who speaks now for the monolith?  No one. 

But, while the antagonist is gone, the antagonism isn’t--or so it seems to me, anyway.  Butler’s tic is only worth mentioning because it remains a pretty common gesture in academic literary criticism.  Am I wrong, or have you heard countless expressions of brave opposition to various putatively monolithic concepts?  Analogous buzz words also spring to mind: static, unproblematic, smooth, binary, etc.

Trivial though this is, I think there are two related reasons it’s worth mentioning, and I hope to come back to them in a more serious frame of mind sometime hence.  One, the frequently reiterated distrust of the monolithic points to a widely shared set of intellectual and ethical premises that exert a serious gravitational force and that deserve some explicit consideration.  Listen to the underlying hum of discourse in the academic humanities and you might get the impression that the globe was swarming, War of the Worlds style, with aggressive stalking monoliths, hunting down us vulnerable homo sapien types.  Only the infection of complication can stop them.  As in, I’m going to complicate that binary.  (Um . . .  I guess I’ve just problematized my sci-fi allusions.)

The assumption that that’s true is, I think, quite open to question.  So, too, with the second reason--which is that the reference to monolithic and non-monolithic or the static and non-static version of phenomena encourages people to draw sloppy and often false distinctions.  If my wife says: “you’re a slob,” and then adds, “well, I’m not saying you’re monolithically a slob, the qualification is not much comfort to me and pretty meaningless.  I think there’s a fair bit of that false complication going round.  Which is why I’m monolithically opposed to the monolithic opposition to monoliths. 


Was there a 2001 reference in here?

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/17/06 at 04:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Interestingly, your argument is nearly identical in structure to that of Slavoj Zizek’s introduction to The Ticklish Subject, in which he argues that since so many people are constantly attacking it, the notion of Cartesian subjectivity must be a hugely powerful intellectual force.  The main difference is that you are not a knee-jerk contrarian and thus did not go on to say that you will be advocating monolithic concepts.

In popular discourse, there are probably some concepts that are sometimes taken to be monolithic in ways that are arguably troubling ("America," etc.)—but you’re right that “jazz,” for example, does not seem to be one of them.  Could it be, however, that this constant gesture toward the Age of Monolithic Concepts is a way of displaying some kind of continuity with the scholarship of the past?  (Not that I’d want to posit a monolithic Age of Monolithic Concepts, of course.)

By Adam Kotsko on 03/17/06 at 07:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have to admit the first thing I did after reading this was search for “monolithic” on my website. Phew. But the blush of shame was braced to spring—if I haven’t used that exact word, I’m at least awfully familiar with the mood.

It’s as if to get started on our quest, we have to fantasize villainous windmills into existence. But wouldn’t it be a little less embarrassing if we at least imagined giants?

By Ray Davis on 03/17/06 at 09:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Possibly related idea: rules that are “written in stone.”

By Adam Kotsko on 03/17/06 at 09:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

We live in a culture which favours David over Goliath. That’s the (very simple) explanation as to why academics go to great pains to present themselves as opposing the monolith.

By on 03/18/06 at 03:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Good post, and it nicely identifies one of the weaknesses of much cultural criticism. Yes, who in the last 40 years has treated jazz is a single idiom?

When critics cite a Big Monolith or Master Narrative or Hegemonic Concept, they try to sound masterful and learned themselves, but the gesture is usually a sign that they haven’t done their homework. A little more cultural and intellectual history can cure them of the tic.

By on 03/18/06 at 08:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, Mark and Adam, many jazz writers continue to define jazz in a very limited or exclusionary fashion—which is perhaps what David Butler means by “monolith.” I’m not sure that’s the best word for what’s going on, but the question of what constitutes jazz is rarely answered in a pluralistic way.

Albert Murray’s *Stomping the Blues* is a perfect, because famous and influential, example.  While Murray and Amiri Baraka might not agree on much, they both restrict “true jazz” to that which has its roots in another musical form: country blues (see *Blues People* by Baraka/Jones).  For both, jazz runs the risk of dying after bop.  And although Baraka has more love for folks like Archie Shepp or Ornette Coleman, the terms of the debate remain the same: are these musicians returning to the origins of jazz to make what Baraka calls “the changing same.”

Then there’s someone like Jon Pannish, whose *The Color of Jazz* makes a fairly monolithic argument about race and writing about jazz: when black writers represent jazz they depict it as a communal form, while white writers focus on the jazz performer as romantic and individualistic genius.  Nevermind jazz writers like Murray or Ellison who do often examine jazz as a series of Harold-Bloomian father and son begattings.

Then there’s Wynton Marsalis, probably among the most important public figures when it comes to jazz.  His and Murray’s “Jazz at the Lincoln Center” programs have probably brought jazz to more of a mainstream audience than any other jazz programming.  Marsalis has a very monolithic idea of what constitutes jazz: Ellington to Parker, and that’s that.

I’m not saying that the “Death to All Monoliths” topos in academia isn’t a problem.  But I do think that if we mean by “monolith” a one-sided or problematically limited construction of an issue, than clearly the monoliths are out there.

By on 03/18/06 at 12:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

One last point: from the Butler quotations Sean provided, I don’t get the sense that Butler sees himself as waging a brave war against monoliths.

I don’t have any context to go on, but to simply say, “This book doesn’t treat jazz or noir as monolithic concepts,” is to say no more than, “This book will include as jazz or noir as wide a range of examples as possible without delimiting the set of what’s jazz or noir by some narrow definition.” In brief: “I’m not gonna define jazz or noir before I begin my argument.”

By on 03/18/06 at 12:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Part of that process entails the identification of the jazz harmonies/improvisation not only with a shady, noirish world of the nightclubs, but as a sonic representation of the base nature of the performers and of thus of their musical product; few Americans, especially white suburbanites, hear Coltrane’s solos as music (or the Taxi Driver soundtrack for that matter); they think of what it relates to, poor black musicians, beatniks, counterculture, drugs, etc. So regardless if Trane is “an Einstein of music” or not (De Koonig thought so), the association with the extra-musical context prevent any sort of objective listening for most humans. And I think this occurs with most literature as well, and demonstrates the shortcomings of any purely formal approach to music or literature.

By vlad on 03/18/06 at 12:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You know, I don’t think I even read the parenthetical in the title until just now. So I guess that would be a 2001 reference. But I don’t get the teleological transfer of the monolith there to the way you’re describing it here.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/18/06 at 01:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The question of just what is jazz has plagued jazz writing ever since there was such. The notion that jazz has its origins in the blues is more ideology than history; they seem to have come up in parallel.

There’s an interesting book to be written on jazz and cartoons, or perhaps pop, classical and cartoons—for jazz often functioned as the pop alternative to high-brow classical.

By Bill Benzon on 03/18/06 at 02:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Don’t monolithic/smooth/binary/unproblematic all fall under the general category of “generative strawmen”?  I create an unproblematic binary, claim to have found it in the world and/or text, deconstruct it and thus demonstrate the non-existence of the smooth monolith I’d just created? 

That said, there’s an element, as Mark points out, of historical ignorance to many such formulations.  Sometimes it’s willful--a refusal to accept historical complexity, or a desire to reduce it, rhetorically, in order to produce it, critically--sometimes it isn’t.  I’m bewildered whenever I encounter scholarship on turn-of-the-century works which lump the Irish and Italian into the category of “white.”

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 03/18/06 at 03:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Also, like Ray, I searched my site for monolithic; alas, unlike Ray, I found a few appearances.  But one was mocking, another divorced from the jargony referent, and the final, well, damn it, there is a “monolithic“ account of naturalism out there, and I do aim to topple it.

EDIT: Now that I looked at that last link more closely, I note that it’s Clymer, not me, who claims naturalism’s inconsistencies undermine “certain strands of Foucauldian New Historicism” by “demonstrating how brittle, monolithic, and ultimately unrevealing [they] can be.” Not that I disagree, mind you, but it’s his word, not mine.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 03/18/06 at 03:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Doesn’t academic literature have a monolithic aspect as imposing as that of jazz?  LIT. is a bizarre if not babylonian world consisting of fables, fancies, prose, poesy: indeed a symptom of madness and folly for the most part. 20 aisles in BArnes and Nobles of fiction: weird. (and merely 2 aisles of history, science, and philosophy). WHat is Moby Dick if not madness? or Shakespearean tragedy.  LIT. like jazz is usually a type of intoxication--and for the most part, literature functions more as sedition and as irrational escape--from history, from economic reality, from logic--than as anything else. But it’s a business, a career now as much as expression or art..

By vlad on 03/18/06 at 03:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Interesting post.  I’m likewise unsure as to what kind of work the ‘monolith’ and ‘destabilizing’ language is supposed to do.  Why not say, instead of ‘here I destabilize the monolithic metanarrative X that hegemonically dominates our thinking about S by examining voices calling out against repression for Y and Z’, something more like ‘Many people believes X about S- they are mistaken, because S also involves Y and Z, as I will show’.

By on 03/19/06 at 12:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

LB, Stomping the Blues (1976); Blues People (1963).  Influential though those books definitely are, they’re not recent or (to my knowledge) representative of any prevailing view.  That’s part of my point.  There’s no current need to knock over monuments that aren’t standing. 

The very phrase “changing same,” also indicates the problem, as I see it.  If you asked Baraka or Marsalis, they’d be the last people to say their own accounts as monolithic.  And they really aren’t.  That’s the rub.  The term is almost entirely anti-honorific and just designates what we all agree to dislike.  And as a consequence, it makes it easy to draw false distinctions and make weak arguments.  There’s a significant difference in tone, if not in substance between saying “I don’t treat my material monolithically” and “I won’t define my terms at the outset.” It’s analogous to the difference between the two options Sean mentions.  With the first you solicit an expected ethical as well as intellectual agreement, and therefore give yourself a lot easier of a road to hoe. 

For these reasons, I feel the same way about Adam’s “America” as I do about “jazz.” (Thank you, Adam, for very kindly sparing me the knee-jerk contrarian label.) Let’s grant that nationalism is--to varying degrees, in varying circumstances--a potent, dangerous, and inherently exclusive force.  That being said, it seems clear to me (and is the subject of countless historical and polemical works) that there’s no monolithic ideology of America, and therefore pointing out that one doesn’t or shouldn’t exist will exert almost zero critical force.  Here’s a nice line from Alan Brinkley’s review this a.m. of Kevin Phillips new book:  “The Southern Baptist Convention does not speak with one voice, but almost all of its voices, Phillips argues, are to one degree or another highly conservative.” Exactly.  The question of whether or not America or Southern Baptism is a monolith (and from some remove any interpretive or social grouping will seem variously monolithic or not) is immaterial.

But you’re right, LB.  I should’ve been in my rooneyism clearer, that Butler’s book isn’t actually tilting at any monoliths, and all in all is a good book, with lots of excellent information and interesting ideas, and is not at all ignorant of its fields.  That’s what’s especially illuminating about the comment, I think.  Butler’s not actually setting up strawmen.  He’s just offering obligatory obeisance to the current critical deities.  The monolith is anti-monolithism.  I think Timothy’s right.  Tocqueville probably has the last word on all this.

By on 03/19/06 at 10:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s an interesting book to be written on jazz and cartoons, or perhaps pop, classical and cartoons—for jazz often functioned as the pop alternative to high-brow classical.

A sad book, in my opinion, because certain styles of jazz (Hot Five stuff) have been wired into my brain as lightweight kid stuff.

Stravinsky complained bitterly about Disney’s use of the “Rite of Spring”, and Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” has been slightly tainted by Disney for me too. Disney’s present aggressiveness about copyright is pretty disgusting considering their own history of disrespect for the rights of others.

By John Emerson on 03/19/06 at 10:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Quick response to Luther and Sean: Blues People is an excellent book in its way but no longer particularly accurate, as Sean says, in that the jazz vocabulary has irretrievably intermingled with the musical lexicons of cultures without a blues tradition - i.e. you’ll find internat’l musicians playing jazz of every stripe in the U.S., but you’ll also find rich jazz traditions entirely elsewhere. Jones/Baraka’s ‘jazz is black’ outlook (pardon the reduction) is very much an artifact of its time, like that scalding play of his about the subway passenger, the name of which escapes me…

Luther - give Marsalis a break! Yes he’s got a conservative view of what jazz history is, but less so than you say: his compositions are as much in Mingus’s language as Ellington’s, as the mostly-magnificent In This House, On This Morning makes clear. And in at least one regard he’s among jazz’s least conservative figures: he’s staked out the most compelling claim yet that a jazz vocabulary can expand to encompass everything from dirty blues to modern orchestral music. Compositions like All Rise spring from a musical consciousness more expansive than many critics give him credit for. He’s wrong about, say, electric Miles - but as a trumpeter, Miles is clearly his polestar, and his playing and arrangements for smaller groups harness the same kind of energy as Miles’s second great quintet (which: holy mother of God what a band). And you can’t fault him for wanting to drive some of the smooth-jazz and fusion pabulum from people’s minds.

You could make a case for the social roots of his vision of jazz history, I think - that electric instrumentation and rock forms changed the nature of the music’s relationship to an audience that could otherwise have performed the tunes given equipment around, or something - but I wouldn’t try. :)

Thanks for the thread BTW - Jazz Noir just vaulted onto my reading list.

By Wally on 03/19/06 at 03:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sun Ra and the Art Ensemble of Chicago both had as much breadth as Marsalis did, and both were more experimental. Catching up with Mingus isn’t a big deal, really.

By John Emerson on 03/19/06 at 07:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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