Sh*t I Personally Guarantee You Will Never, EVER Hear Said Aloud, Even If You Live to Be One Thousand Years Old

The French composer Claude Debussy is quoted as saying that, “Music is the space between the notes”.  I think that’s a very apt recognition of the shared responsibility between artist and audience in unearthing the latent content of any piece of art, and I very much like it.  Make your work too overtly programmatic, and you end up with stale self-parody, a la Norman Rockwell.  Overburden it with too many layers of obscure, self-referential ciphers, like Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake”, and risk alienating your most enthusiastic audience.

But if you have a lot to say, it can really be difficult to avoid the “Finnegan” trap.  The very fact that you are capable of generating enough observations worthy of communication, of making very fine distinctions in kind and degree, springs from a hypersensitivity that can seem emotionally overwhelming, and very much at odds with one of the inviolable principles of effective communication itself:  clarity.

This is where a solid understanding of the rhetorical ecology will come in handy.  In order to be truly effective, you need to be able to “play the music between the notes”, which is to say, have an appreciation for the various types of person who will read your work the context in which it will be read, today, tomorrow and 200 years from now, and what they will be looking to draw from it.  And you need to accept the fact that some of your strongest, most affecting points will not be articulated by you, but by your critics.

A lot of creative types say that they never read critical reviews of their work because it over-intellectualizes the process and drives from them the passionate commitment they need to perform with conviction.  That may be their reasoning, but I say it’s a pretty sad commentary on their perspicacity and emotional stability.  Rather, I would ask them, “How can you claim to be committed to your craft if you don’t care how it’s interpreted?”  On the contrary, I say that artistic conviction itself is not possible without engaging a work’s limitations and repercussions.  The relationship between the critic and the artist is ultimately symbiotic, not adversarial.

The same applies to polemical speech, although it seems not to be generally understood or acknowledged.  Many poor fools have allowed themselves to be deluded by the outwardly combative character of electoral politics into believing that all one can hope to achieve from the analysis of political speech is a depressing laundry list of nominal yet irrelevant “facts” that come no nearer to establishing any objectively true proposition other than the speaker is determined to capture your vote.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

You, as critic, play the most vital role in forming the prism through which the prevailing discourse is viewed.  And you have some powerful yet deceptively simple techniques close at hand and totally free of charge.  For example, the technique of focused absurdity.

By imagining a statement that anyone can agree WILL NEVER BE SAID in the context portrayed, you, as critic, contribute to the civilizing of mankind, identifying, revealing and rolling back the limes[1] of dark misunderstandings cast by society’s “leaders”.  An artistically cast bit of unadulterated critical blasphemy is probably your best opening gambit to establish what yer man did NOT mean to say–and thereby better define the limits of what he DID mean to say.

Just how long it takes you and your interlocutor to decide precisely how much of this “non-statement” is due to objective falsity or strategic opacity will depend on your creativity, generosity and intelligence–but at least you will have established one incontrovertible point of agreement.  And acquired an appreciation for the wealth of complementary and sometimes counterintuitive rhetorical tools available to you.

So in this spirit, I offer to you, a small sample of sh*t which I personally guarantee you will never EVER hear said aloud:

“I am personally responsible, as an individual, for foisting a dishonest criminal governor upon the state of Wisconsin.  I should have realized that my critics were right–I am a bland, insincere drone next to whom a flabby, balding felon like Scott Walker seems positively glamorous.  There is a reason I received no major union endorsements during the primary–because I actually used Scott Walker’s law to undermine the public union workers whose cause I unconvincingly co-opted in an attempt to advance my personal career.  I should have known from the beginning that my candidacy would be seen by Wisconsin voters as the betrayal of what had been a populist uprising on behalf of workers’ rights into a cynical rehash of my perennial failed partisan ambitions.”
– Tom Barrett, mayor of Milwaukee and three-time losing gubernatorial candidate

See much, much more at Dystopia Diaries

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  • rus Archer

    yeah, um, the music between the notes refers to nuance and how you move from note to note
    not the relationship to the audience

    • LanceHardpound

      I think the phrase here is meant, in this context, to denote that what is not being said, or cannot be said, tell one as much or more than what actually was spoken.

      • http://twitter.com/DanielReasor Daniel Reasor

         Why, it’s almost as Liam applied creative, thoughtful critical analysis to the phrase itself to serve the purpose of his argument, finding within the quote a truth that the original stater was unable to express.  How about that?

        • Liam_McGonagle

          Agree with both of you, I think.  To a point at least.

          The visceral immediacy of the musical form is often contrasted with the high level of abstraction in the literary form.  Music literally vibrates in your body, but literature requires years of guided experience to appreciate the subtle distinctions latent in the printed word.  Lots of folks don’t grok abstraction and largely give up on literature’s possibilities tout suite.

          I think that would be a mistake, because, as Dan seems to be saying, the very act of contemplating a work enriches its meaning.  If enough thoughtful people get together and critically discuss a work, that actually stretches the range of expressive possibilities of the language itself.

          After all, the word “literary”, and all its attendant connotations and denotations, didn’t spring out of the skull of Zeuss fully formed on the 1st day of creation.

      • Liam_McGonagle

        Unless a person follows the link to the complete article, they may not get the full effect of the segue from art theory to political analysis.

        I expounded on art a bit in my response to Daniel, but within the duller parameters of political speech, it’s obvious why certain things are not said or cannot be said:  The truth is not a reliable partisan.

    • Calypso_1

      And if you have a relationship with the audience it will affect your nuance.

      • Liam_McGonagle

        I often think along those lines with regard to Joyce.

        To some extent it seems like he was trying to create a type of literary authenticity outside of the alienating structures of formal literary language. 

        Sometimes I regard his intense identification with Dublin this way–as if he were trying to make a radically universal statement about the human condition by abandoning any attempt at stripping away the layers of specificity.  Maybe he figured that any audience truly worth reaching would make the effort.

        Still, as hard as Ulysses is to get through, Finnegan’s wake is like a nightmare (no pun intended).  It’s not hard to see why Jung thought Joyce was going schizo–Joyce lost all pity on that one.

        • Calypso_1

          Have you tackled much Samuel Beckett, or his analysis of Joyce? - (I don’t think even Jung would have touched that).

          • Liam_McGonagle

            I’ve only scratched the surface of Beckett.

            I’ve seen stray quotes regarding Beckett’s critique of Joyce that approached him with a kind of awe for his multi-dimensional depth and vast breadth of allusion.  I think he was a bit intimidated by Joyce.  Supposedly it gave him a bit of an inferiority complex.

            Sometimes, though, in my more grandiose flights of fancy, I imagine inserting myself into a continuum of literary tradition including Joyce, O’Nolan, and Beckett.  Joyce was the poet of knowing, O’Nolan was the poet of pretending to know, and Beckett the poet of ignorance.  I myself might be the poet of not caring.

          • anechoic

            ‘Joyce was the poet of knowing, O’Nolan was the poet of pretending to know, and Beckett the poet of ignorance. ‘

            very nicely put! :)

          • Calypso_1

            Beckett had complexes of complexes.  But he translated Joyce and was uniquely suited to do so.  Was he intimidated?  Can you imagine that task?  Surely no soul has been left wholly staid by Joyce. 
            I tend to think of Beckett as a poet of vagrancies, which could be ignorance in the sense that the self is continually forgetting the occupancy of its previous being.   
            Take care in the deeper study of Beckett – madness is to be found.  I do highly recommend Murphy which is uproarious and The Lost Ones , which has lingered with me for years in a subtle and disturbing manner.

          • Andrew

            Yeah, it’s obvious how little you care.  ;)

        • rus Archer

          the multidimensional/directional shifts in finnegan’s wake rules
          using phonetics to create multi-layered multi-lingual puns?
          love it

    • Liam_McGonagle

      Great!  I was looking for that section of Debussy’s journals where he specifically wrote that out!  Thanks for the quote and cite!

      Nothing has only one meaning.  Meanings are continually shifting, not least of which due to the almost totally independent context of the audience.  Even the cramped, narrow interpretation you provide totally ignores unpredictable reactions to a piece of music by those acculturated outside the composer’s frame of reference. 

      Do you really think there is no significant difference between the way a western university-educated contemporary of Debussy’s reacts to his works and the way a farm laborer from the Indian subcontinent might have during the same timeframe? And him raised with a totally different aesthetic, set of accepted rhythmic paradigms and broader pallet of standard microtonal scales?

      Not that one reaction is inherently more valid than another.  Certainly they could probably both offer different but useful observations.  Probably the only truly worthless thing either could say about Debussy would be to call him a fraud for composing a mazurka outside of a Polish barn.

      • Calypso_1

        Have you read any of Erik Satie’s writings?

        Also on the note of the continuously shifting – what of Debussy hypnotic appropriation of his experience as an audience member at the Paris exposition of the Javanese Gamelan.  Gamelan is meant to invoke trance like states among the audience to be receptive to the spiritual content of the dramas. Debussy took this into the cultural milieu of French impressionism to create tone poems.

        • Liam_McGonagle

          No, I have to admit I am completely unaware of Satie–or I was until you mentioned him!  A concrete example of communication outside the artistic from enriching the experience?

          • Calypso_1

            In many ways Satie was the first true 20th century artist.  He influenced many contemporaries including Debussy.  He was a true eccentric, radical in politics (anarchism/communism) and musical sensibilities.  His music went on to have a big influence on Jazz, the minimalists and electronic ambient styles. 

          • Liam_McGonagle

            My command of French is pretty poor.  I’m always glad to find a chance to stretch it, but do you know if there are any editions of his stuff in English?

          • Calypso_1

            Yes, most are expensive or out of print…try the library.

          • Warrenite1000

            Satie and Debussy both bow to Ravel’s ingenious use of color and palette. 

            Translating music into literary meaning makes me want to BARF.  Composers should stay int he realm of the abstract; they sully themselves upon the descent into literature.

          • Calypso_1

            Ravel himself considered Satie to be one of the prime influences on his music.  He hung out with him in one of the most quintessential bohemian groups of all time, Les Apaches, where the descended into whatever forms of artistic expression their fancy took flight.  They even associated with art, music and literary critics.  They probably barfed a lot considering the amount of alcohol that was consumed.

          • Calypso_1

            Looking over the web at some Satie bios, I thought this http://music.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/0003_satie/satie.shtml
            most captured the man as I would try to convey him.

      • rus Archer

        yes
        looking forward to someone using the “good artists borrow, great artists steal” bit in an article about piratebay
        and insert begging the question in there

  • tooCents

    I wish assholes would stop using baldness as a put down. 

    • Calypso_1

      Especially hairy assholes.

      • tooCents

        Hairy or hairless, it doesn’t matter- that’s the point.

  • TennesseeCyberian

    This piece would probably get you a strong B- in an undergraduate political science course, assuming the teacher was willing to overlook the bland satire.

    Just some symbiotic criticism for you to chew on.

    • Warrenite1000

       yeah, it makes obnoxious, false superlatives left and right (though definitely mostly right). 

      • Liam_McGonagle

        You’re right.  Nothing to see here.  The system is working just peachey.  Move along, move along.  And on your way out, please feel free to stop by any one of our wonderful sponsors, who will be happy to answer any questions you may have about their fine products.

        • TennesseeCyberian

          Has “the system” left you hungry, homeless, and violently oppressed, Liam?

          • Liam_McGonagle

            ha ha!  My first stalker! 

            But please–don’t let me stop you.  I know you must be super busy with your magnum opus on the heroic George Zimmermann–whose bail was recently revoked for lying to the court.

            Or have you already finished it, and it was so f*cking terrible that not even Disinfo would publish it?

            Then again, we should recognize that it’d be hard for anyone so obsessed with me to find time to write anything of his own.  Not only do you spend at least 5 out of every 24 hours reading my blogs, you spend another 3 (minimum) repsonding to my every article and post–even when it’s directed at someone else.

            We undersand–it takes a long time for you to type anything when you’ve only got one hand free.

          • TennesseeCyberian

            Whoa, easy there, Sparky. Speaking of what I’ve written…

            “have you already finished it, and it was so f*cking terrible that not even Disinfo would publish it?”

            Aside from avoiding my question, you insult the standards of your publisher? Is that how leftists show loyalty?

            Don’t be so sensitive. Didn’t you just write these sentences?

            “I say that artistic conviction itself is not possible without engaging a work’s limitations and repercussions. The relationship between the critic and the artist is ultimately symbiotic, not adversarial.”

            Remember how you couldn’t get over yourself long enough to see that you were incapable of getting the facts straight on the Trayvon/Zimmerman case? That was your ego’s immune system blocking symbiosis. You should be happy that anyone would take the time to read your writing.

            Now quit squirming and answer my question before I call you out on being a pseudo-revolutionary.

            Are you or anyone you spend more than five minutes a week with left hungry, homeless, or violently oppressed by “the system” you are supposed to be railing against, or are you one of its many well-fed discontents?

          • Liam_McGonagle

            Sorry, not good enough.  F-.  You can try again if you like, though.

          • TennesseeCyberian

            Still squirming like a worm.

          • TennesseeCyberian

            A quick word of advice: Don’t bad-mouth your own publisher before you even have a chance to get off the ground.

            What would Gary or Ralph think if they knew you were talking shit about their editorial sensibilities?

          • TennesseeCyberian

            Second piece of advice: Never comment on your own article unless it is to defend your facts or theses.

            When you do comment proofread for spelling and do your best to use good grammar so it doesn’t look like you’re dictating your comments to a 5th grader.

          • TennesseeCyberian

            Third piece of advice: Answer your opponents’ challenges with solid arguments. You have to earn your smartass remarks, you don’t just get them for free.

  • LilPupDogWithIceCream<3

    This is nice. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-Phillip-Schmitt/1590026226 James Phillip Schmitt

    “tough titty, little sister. We’re GODS!”

  • anechoic

    “How can you claim to be committed to your craft if you don’t care how it’s interpreted?”
    artists are merely conduits, not engineers…you seem to be using a limited lens with which to view the artistic process

    • rus Archer

      yeah, i don’t “create” to communicate to the audience
      i “create” to communicate with those guys from the other dimension who then incarnate in “my” art

      • Liam_McGonagle

        I like that metaphor, actually.  I just think it has its limits.

      • Calypso_1

        you know about those guys too?

    • Liam_McGonagle

      I only agree to the point that the artist is never the ultimate arbiter of how his work is interpreted.

      Take Kerouac for instance.  “On the Road” has been held up to the public for decades as articulating an excitingly hedonistic philosophy, whereas a close reading, supplemented by a little biographical knowledge of the author, reveals that what he really intended was expression of a nauseaus self-loathing with his generation’s amoral rootlessness.  Despite his forays into Bohemia, Keruouac was very much a socially conservative provincial,

      But taken too far, that denies the role of free will and agency in the artist’s productive output.  The debate over the existence of free will may never be definitively settled, but the persistence of the debate itself is pretty much conclusive proof of the PERCEPTION of free will–and its centrality to our notions of emotional equilibrium and sanity.

      For those artists who make a significant commitment to preserving their feelings of sanity, it will always be important to consider the impact of their “choices” of subject, theme and technique.

      • anechoic

        yes but I’m saying that the artist usually doesn’t care how her work is interpreted by the public. Most artists do what they do because they are driven by something larger than public expectation and let the public spill ink trying to interpret their work — which is kinda like dancing about architecture IMO.

        • Liam_McGonagle

          Honestly, without some minimal interest in how a piece is received, all I see left is a type of narcissistic insanity.

          I myself don’t really care that I will never be published outside of the confines of my blog and a handful of eclectic aggregation sites, because I understand that the prevailing standards underlying most popular media are biased towards mediocrity.  To that extent I conform to and endorse your description.

          But I MUST pay some sort of attention to feedback in order to refine my own vision.  The audience doesn’t have veto power over the direction I go in, but I’m not so egomaniacal that I can’t pick up useful hints from their reactions.  How could I ever learn anything new if I didn’t?

          Which again, isn’t to say that all feedback is equally valid.  I recognize this and am pretty confident that I can recognize a jealous, deranged stalker when I see one (i.e., TennesseeCyberian).

          It’s a matter of balance.  And there couldn’t be balance without access.

          • anechoic

            I think it has to do with a couple of factors: what phase of your artistic career you are in, what medium you work in and if you are working for a commercial or an art market. 

            Having been an artist for 30 years I can look back and remember being ego aware of reviews and critical feedback and all that did was distract me and give me false reflections of my work. 

            Not sure where you are in your writing career but you sound like you are in an earlier stage. I know many other artists (older than me) who stopped caring what others thought long ago and don’t feel it’s necessary for their work to progress. Others, who take feedback seriously, tend to veer towards craftsmanship, commercial/market driven work.Example: Rothko or Duchamp versus Thomas Kinkade or LeRoy Neiman.Once I learned to turn all that chatter/noise off my work took on a deeper connection with my unconscious and became more ‘real’. How does one learn as an artist? By doing massive amounts of research, following subjects that feed into your work, listening to your instincts, reading, reading and more reading and learning about what came before you. You don’t learn anything from audience feedback except what they’re willing to pay for and what fashion they like to consume.If you are seeking the safety of ‘balance’ then you are in the wrong business and possibly need to consider painting water colors of sea-scapes and exhibiting at suburban art fairs. It’s the unbalanced places where truly interesting art springs from.What many artists discover is that they don’t need the ego reflecting pool of ‘what others think’ – which in my experience is really narcissistic.just my $0.02:)

          • Liam_McGonagle

            Mostly agree.  I am on a different track.

            But it only partially has to do with the fact that I’m at a very early stage.  It also has to do with my suspicion that our culture’s tendency to fetishize legacy forms distracts us from their evolution into more potent forms.

            You seem to be a visual artist, which plays on a somewhat different range of the neural spectrum.  I’m probably some kind of word guy.  There’s overlap, but lots of divergence, too.  The following observations may have occurred to you, but not seemed particularly interesting or relevant, but I’ll lay them out anyhow.

            One reason I go on and on about Joyce so much is because he realized that the nature of the literary media environment was changing.  Daily newsprint had been common for at least 2 generations or so before he was even born, and radio was accelerating the speed and ease of verbal communications far beyond the context of the long form novel with which he’d been educated.

            I suspect Joyce realized that the economic/biological constraints that had moulded the long-form novel were eroding before his very eyes.  This could be a threat, or an opportunity.  If writers stayed within the lines of traditional narrative form they were in danger of exhausting their audience’s patience, seeming to become increasingly reliant on a shrinking section of their band width.

            So he invented stream of consciousness, eroding the line between poetry and prose and attempting to open up the most intimate reaches of individual mental experience.  He used his formidable knowledge of his chosen tradition to stretch the eclectic possibilities of that increasingly narrow section of the audience’s bandwidth.

            That may be possible with literary forms in a way that may not be for visual arts.  Traditionally, at least, the demanding abstraction of the literary form doesn’t leave the audience as much room for lazy fakery as it might in the visual arts.  It typically takes less than 5 minutes of conversation to discover that your interlocutor didn’t even bother to scan the Cliff Notes of Ulysses, whereas, due to it’s non-verbal bias, a poseur, armed with nothing more than a good ear and a store of cliches, can get away with discussing Caravaggio for maybe a good half hour before we catch onto him.

            Sorry. I don’t mean to slag visual arts or artists–just point out that the relative familiarity of the visual experience more easily deceives us into believing that we, on average, have a much stronger appreciation for a piece than we, on average, actually do.  Audience comprehension of literary work is probably worse, but the barriers to entry for appreciation being so high, many fewer probably even bother to try.

            Anyhow, partially out of lack of experience, but also out of a conviction that the internet and social media are fundamentally chaning the context for literary work, I’m reaching out for newer formats.  Ballsy?  For sure.  But hey, if you’re gonna fail, fail BIG.

            One exciting possibility brought to light by the incredible pace and informality of electronic media is the possibility of achieving levels of intimacy and identification with the reader that Joyce and his ancestors could only have dreamed of. 

            If the long-form novel was an attempt at refining, to a fever pitch, the depth and sophistication of the author’s powers of verbal expression, it has to be admitted that historically, the written word has been a pretty poor substitute for direct, face-to-face conversations, vis-a-vis the ability to create intimate identification between author and audience and their works.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable to see electronic media as significantly improving some dimensions of that intimacy–provided the artist is capable of thoughtfully negotiating it’s break-neck pace.

            That’s why I think it’s pretty indispensible for the contemporary literary artist to pay some level of attention to audience feedback.  Visual arts would have to be a different bag because you’re entering the thing was a very different range of biases. 

          • anechoic

            actually, I’m a composer and a writer but have a background in visual art and film too

            http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2012/07/02/120702crat_atlarge_menand?currentPage=all

            “Go on failing. Go on. Only next time, try to fail better.”Samuel Beckett
            nice chatting and good luck with your writing! :)

          • http://www.facebook.com/rthoneunomia.celine Threedinium

            This was a great conversation to read. I just wondered though, you said Liam that the Joyce stream of conciousness thing, breaking down the boundaries… could you maybe expand on how that could be achieved in literature that couldn’t be in other mediums? It’s not strictly ‘visual’ arts but I thought about DJing… the direct feedback loop between the audience/room vibe and the selector which I thought could be compared to the way Joyce wrote his books.

            It’s also a little synchronistic with something I was pondering recently, that music could also be considered a ‘language’ with a massive divergence of translations. How much can these different symbol systems translate into each other and where do they fail to? 

          • Liam_McGonagle

            Yup–this conversation sparked some ideas in me similar to the ones you present.  They’re germinating as we speak.

            It may take a while, but a companion piece is in the works. 

            Thanks for the great ideas.

  • Newpotty

    I was looking up “bombastic” on the web, and this article was the top hit on the search engine. 

  • Liam_McGonagle

    Thanks for the responses!