Tag Archives: Walt Whitman

Music and Abstraction

Detail of album of Windy & Carl's The Dream House

Detail of album art of Windy & Carl’s The Dream House

I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that perhaps one of the reasons I like Windy and Carl’s album The Dream House (2005) is that one of the two great tracks on the album is named “The Eternal Struggle”. The title and the track itself open up a space of contemplation, and I often end up thinking about humanity—the constant struggle of chasing utopia, and how we’ve failed over the past 200 years with the rise of capitalism. Yes, utopia is always unreachable, but it must also always be our goal. As Leszek Kolakowski writes in “The Concept of the Left”, “Utopia is the striving for changes which ‘realistically’ cannot be brought about by immediate action, which lie beyond the forseeable future and defy planning. Still, utopia is a tool of action upon reality and of planning social activity” (147). That sense of remembering the project of utopian longing that has lasted for as long as humanity is sometimes difficult to remember. But when you read something like Walt Whitman’s poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” it comes back to you, and you are able to experience history beyond the reaches of your own lifespan:

The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated,
every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme, /
The similitudes of the past and those of the future,
It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not, /
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so
many generations hence, /
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt (7-8, 20-22).

I might as well talk about the other track on the album, which is “I Have Been Waiting to Hear Your Voice”. Although the title points to a more personal emotion, I argue that it too provides a statement of love that is a form of abstraction of life: given the bombardment of daily personal experience, the simple act of awaiting was always remembered and maintained by the speaker. This one practice persevered. It was able to transcend all other distractions and remain an important part of the speaker’s life.

It seems that this practice of maintaining an abstract focus on life is important. Isn’t this an example of resisting ideology? To put it differently, isn’t it important to maintain the ability to see through the everyday forces of ideology? Off the top of my head, one way of saying it might be, Missing the point to see the point. Or, rather, missing the point in order to see the preconditions for the point. To put it in a broader sense of history, isn’t this what Slavoj Žižek is always talking about when he criticizes the idea that we’ve now reached the end of history, that all that’s left is to act and to live our lives? In a recent interview, concerning another aspect of this anti-intellectualism, Žižek states,

I think the danger today is precisely a kind of a bland pragmatic activism. You know, when people tell you, “Oh my God, children in Africa are starving, and you have time for your stupid philosophical debates. Let’s do something!” I always hear in this call (“There are people starving there. Let’s do something”), I always discern in this a more ominous injunction: “Do it, and don’t think much!” Today we need thinking.

There’s a reason I like science fiction. Its ability to defamiliarize everyday human existence can push the reader into the realm of this historical abstraction. I really am sounding sentimental right now, but I truly feel a sense of wonder sometimes when approaching the study of history in this more abstract sense.

A few years ago I read Archibald Macleish’s poem “Ars Poetica”, and one line in particular has stuck with me: “For all the history of grief / An empty doorway and a maple leaf.” Now, before I’m accused of wishing to naïvely reject the preconditions of our contemporary moment in order to start a pagan commune, I just want to point out that one could read the line as a call to reject the act of resignation in the face of the overwhelming pressure of history weighing upon our time. To accept the contemporary conditions openly is the position of the Right, but to strive to change towards utopia based on theoretical practices conscious of their place in history is the position of the Left.

Detail of album art of Fennesz's Endless Summer (2001, reissued by Touch Music in 2006)

Detail of album art of Fennesz’s Endless Summer (2001, reissued by Touch Music in 2006)

Another quick example of abstraction in contemporary music might be Christian Fennesz’s album Endless Summer (2001)—a love letter to the film of the same name documenting surf culture in the 1960s, along with the Beach Boys’s compilation album which came out a couple years later. Fennesz’s work here is highly abstracted, glitched guitar playing among other things, leading to a shining layered work that sounds very little like a pop song of that era, while at the same time sounding like the feeling of listening to songs from that era. Or better yet: his album sounds like experiencing summer.