Gulliver Speaks (11/83)

Negation is not nihilism. Nihilism is the belief in nothing and the wish to become nothing. Its perfect depiction is in Larry Clark’s Tulsa, his photographic memoir of ’60s youths spiking themselves to death with speed instead of becoming what they already look like: local Charley Starkweathers and Caril Fugates. Negation is the act that would make it self-evident to everyone that the world is not as it seems—but only when the act is so implicitly complete that it leaves open the possibility that the world may be nothing, that nihilism as well as creation may occupy the suddenly cleared terrain.

The nihilist, no matter how many people he or she might kill, is always a solipsist; negation is always political. Along the way to the realization of the wish for negation, though, the tools one seems forced to use—real or symbolic violence, blasphemy, dissipation, ridiculousness—change hands with those of the nihilist. The Sex Pistols’ first single, “Anarchy in the U.K.,” was a negation—but who would want to argue that with “Holidays in the Sun,” their last, the very emptiness of the terrain they had cleared (a terrain of “rock ’n’ roll” and “pop culture,” but also of received ideas, institutions, values, and habits of everyday life) had not pushed them toward nihilism? Often the same rooms are rented, and sometimes the same bills are paid. Usually the coroner—be he or she critic, historian, epigone, or even loved one—cannot tell the difference by looking at the corpse.

In this century the principal source of nihilism has been official mass murder and the principal source of negation has been Modern art. The burden of Modern art at least since Impressionism has been the production of proofs that the world is not as it seems: as Dada was to demonstrate by 1916, the invisible politics of Monet—conjured to the surface by Cézanne and Cubism—were the fixings for an anarchists (symbolic) bomb.

In the face of how the century has turned out, it has been that “symbolic” that has pulled the slipknot on the notion of art as bomb, of art as negation. Despite the avowed “revolutionary project” of Surrealism, which depended on art galleries for its “troops,” art as negation turned away from the world and toward art as such, which ultimately meant that negationist impulses were turned toward artists themselves. Dada was an international negationist explosion, comparable in terms of scandal, publicity, fannish enthusiasm, ephemerality, and long-term fecundity to the post–World War II pop explosions that are by now a structural imperative of Western society. But by 1950 certain manifestations of Abstract Expressionism had led to nihilism in a new form: complete acceptance of the real world through ignoring it.

If negationist symbolization as a politique was a slipknot, then nihilism as an art philosophy was a Möbius strip, and Andy Warhol completed the circuit: the message of his productions has always been that the world is precisely as it seems, an affirmation that has permitted the replacement of negationist doubt with mere careerism. Because Modern art and Modern political propaganda have already socialized Warhol’s audience to distrust appearance, this elevation could itself be passed off as a negation. That it is not and never has been is proved by Warhol’s celebration of power—or, rather, of his personal access to it.

But negation is not only a slipknot. Even if restricted to culture, negation can still produce reversals of perspective that can release enormous energies: the will to change life, expressed through cultural acts. Such a negation—performed undisguised as affirmation in a pop context for the first time by the Sex Pistols—has been the source of the continuing recreation of rock ’n’ roll over the last seven years. The attraction of the official, that is, visual, art world to punk can be explained in diverse ways: as an attraction to a broad and active audience, to money, to trendiness. But it seems to me that the primary attraction has been to punk’s acceptance—or appropriation—of Modern art’s burden of negation. How many present-day painters or filmmakers have produced a manifestation of “things are not as they seem” half so powerful as the Sex Pistols singles, or even the Gang of Four’s Entertainment! or X’s Los Angeles?

But seven years is a long time, even for after-shocks. Within a commodity economy, negation can be packaged and sold as a commodity glamorizing commodities that aggressively affirm. There can be no negation on MTV, not even that of terrorism (if terrorism can be a negation, which is dubious). Were terrorists to take over the MTV transmitter, line the video jockeys up against the studio wall, and shoot them, viewers would rightly wonder what new group was being promoted. The question remains whether pop music still has a burden of negation to communicate. This year I have heard only one record that does: Sonic Youth’s Confusion Is Sex (Neutral Records).

In some times, as today, the possibilities of negation can only be revealed through apparent nihilism: this is where Sonic Youth takes up its position. Sonic Youth is a Manhattan guitars-bass-and-drums band that has grown out of the ambitions of post-punk guitarist Glenn Branca—ambitions detailed, as it happens, in the January 1983 issue of this magazine by Sonic Youth bassist and singer Kim Gordon. But while Branca. who presents himself as a “composer,” insists on grandeur, Sonic Youth—the band’s name is as corny as its album title—presents itself as ordinary.

A good third of the songs on Confusion Is Sex are orchestrations of isolation. Within the dreamlike texture of the album as a whole, this makes sense. “(She’s in a) Bad Mood” (sung by guitarist Thurston Moore), “Protect Me You” (Gordon), and “Confusion Is Next” (Moore) sound like the songs kids make up when they’re banished to their rooms. “I am ten years oh-oh-old, chants Gordon, “I main/tain/that/chaos/is/the/future/and beyond/it/is freedom.” barks Moore. The songs are virtually as primitive as they can be without abandoning music altogether.

This says little more than me me me, albeit with unsettling power. But as a sort of establishing dream-shot, “Bad Mood” and “Protect Me You” set the listener up for the violent move—coming off a high, sustained white-noise tone—to Gordon’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” This song, originally by the Stooges, is a punk reference point—countless bands have played it—and no previous performance comes close to what Gordon does with it. We’re heaved into the middle—the recording is live—and we helplessly back away. The desperation Gordon dredges out of this paean to submission (the band, usually wonderfully evocative, is hopelessly trying to keep up with her) is terrifying: in an instant, she reverses every socially mediated idea one might have about sex, love, or social intercourse per se. This is a bomb—and its explosion turns the performance toward panic, which may be the rarest emotion one hears on a phonograph record. It is the sort of nightmare the psyche protects the dreamer from remembering the morning after, save for the flashes that distort the whole of the day. It is a found rock ’n’ roll object that seizes the finder. The shift into “Shaking Hell” at first seems like a relief: the melody is harsh, but by comparison to “I Wanna Be Your Dog” it’s Muzak. Then, once more, Gordon pulls the string. She steps slowly, deliberately, into the sort of nightmare one remembers in every detail. “I’ll take off your dress,” someone tells her, twice. “I’ll shake off your flesh.” “I’ll shake off your flesh.” “I’ll shake off your flesh—”

Within this unexpected negation (which side two of Confusion Is Sex does not match) everything seems new: the most ordinary everyday act seems like a risk. “I Wanna Be Your Dog” does not come off as a reference point, much less an homage: this music sounds like the very beginning of what it indeed refers to, the Sex Pistols’ founding negation, without which it would not exist. It’s as if Sonic Youth has gone back to the very beginnings of the process by which the world reveals itself as something other than its advertisement, as if the band has discovered the most marginal no. The negationist, Raoul Vaneigem wrote, is “like Gulliver lying stranded on the Lilliputian shore with every part of his body tied down; determined to free himself, he looks keenly around: the smallest detail of the landscape, the smallest contour of the ground, the slightest movement, everything becomes a sign on which his escape may depend.”

The power of Sonic Youth’s no will be negligible; few will hear this music. That the spirit of the act is still at work may not be.

Artforum, November 1983
cf. GM Confusion is Sex 1995 liner notes

One thought on “Gulliver Speaks (11/83)

  1. The “will to change life expressed through cultural acts” is, I think, the most thought-provoking phrase in what must surely be one of G.M.’s most virtuosic and profound meditations… but the avant-garde jazz of the early sixties Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp et al – with LeRoi Jones providing the critical ballast – as G.M & others did for Punk – were certainly pushing for radical change of all sorts – without disguising what they were doing as affirmation. Or does being from the world of jazz exclude what they were doing from consideration?… The decision to privilege changing life as the highest, or most important, function of music (is it fair of me to assume that this piece suggests that?) seems to let music qua music off the hook – if the listener senses the passion and urgency of the musician – even if the musician conveys it through para-musical means – smashing instruments, dress, political pronouncements – doesn’t that relegate music to a means not an end in itself? And isn’t it fair to push back at that? Giving music a pass for its style and perceived intent – is not really a musical thing to do, in my opinion.

    It’s like reading an academically certified great book – and getting off on the idea of the book’s reputation rather than on the book itself.

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