The Function of the Ukelele Today

Although I like the sound of ukeleles in songs, it’s worth mentioning that I think their function today is that of a unique mediator between musician and expression. The ukelele allows the musician to make sounds, but with the protective assurance that the audience knows he doesn’t really mean it. The ukelele’s diminutive shape and range comforts any anxiety of being confronted by any onlookers.

Of course the exposition of the subject’s Inner life is not new, and goes back to Romanticism. Today, however, even that expressive gesture—the fallback of the subject in the face of the world—is under scrutiny by its very participants. Anyone who is sincere is met with smirks. “It’s all been tried by now,” they say. Self-expression as the primary function of art is itself symptomatic of regression in the moment of its birth. That even self-expression is mocked is further proof for the argument that there are no vital forces remaining that strive for human freedom. We are resigned to our lives, and feel anger for what sincerity reminds us of: the unrealized potential of our time.

In “Experience and Poverty,” Walter Benjamin writes on the exhaustion people feel after expending so much effort that still has not realized such potential:

Poverty of experience. This should not be understood to mean that people are yearning for new experience. No, they long to free themselves from experience; they long for a world in which they can make such pure and decided use of their poverty—their outer poverty, and ultimately also their inner poverty—that it will lead to something respectable. Nor are they ignorant or inexperienced. Often we could say the very opposite. They have ‘devoured’ everything, both ‘culture and people,’ and they have had such a surfeit that it has exhausted them. No one feels more caught out than they by Scheerbart’s words: ‘You are all so tired, just because you have failed to concentrate your thoughts on a simple but ambitious plan.’ Tiredness is followed by sleep, and then it is not uncommon for a dream to make up for the sadness and discouragement of the day—a dream that shows us in its realized form the simple but magnificent existence for which the energy is lacking in reality (734).

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