Simon Reynolds has responded to the recent seminar on the hardcore continuum with a series of semi-theoretical essays, ‘The Nuum and its Discontents’ (1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 is on its way), aiming to parry or elaborate on the issues brought up that day. Given the many-headed resistance to his ideas and the often emotive descriptive vigour with which he constructs and continues to maintain his specific conception of the nuum, it’s not surprising to detect an almost anxiously defensive tone in these latest reflections. The rather playful, light-hearted and subversively satirical pragmatic tone of Dan Hancox’s or Melissa Bradshaw's contributions (which I hoped to continue in my last post by being inane and geeky), and the careful, skillfully cogent meditations of Alex Williams have, with their different approaches, presented alternative models for discourse on UK dance music. Taken as a whole then, the nuum debate raises broader, timely questions about the role and limits of criticism – or whatever it is these writers are doing.
A notable feature of the debate, my last post included, has been the use of analogy in illustrating arguments. I should emphasise again that analogies (and possibly theories by extension) do not constitute reality but merely describe it to a relative degree of (im)perfection. They are not truth, they cannot truly reveal: they can only hope to persuade. To this end, an argument is only as good as the persuasiveness of its analogies, the extent of their recognisability, in the variegated minds of its audience. Analogy is imperfect, but very much has its uses: it makes sense and in many cases it’s all we have.
Though it may not be an entirely conventional usage of the word, we might say that the notion of the ‘hardcore continuum’ is an analogy, one that describes certain activity in British music of the last twenty years. Analogy is (rightly) an important element in Reynolds’s writing, and he has used it to illustrate the nuum – most famously, in aiming to portray the nuum as a coherent and independent object that exists prior to discourse he likened it to Australia. In the second of his ‘Discontents’ posts, Reynolds modified the analogy to Jamaica, due to its largely self-regulating and prodigiously lively popular music culture. Interestingly and rather bizarrely (redundantly?), these analogies can be challenged on their own very same terms: at the seminar Joe Muggs pointed out that the geographical ontologies of Australia could be contested by the many aboriginal nations who live there (long before the predominantly white governors of today were established). One could also wonder, if the analogy is going to be geographical, whether regions like Siberia or Transylvania wouldn’t be more appropriate – with inland boundaries that shift depending on geography, politics, history, geology, culture and ethnicity, the ontological statuses of these places are far from simple cases, and I’d argue that this problematic ontology is more appropriate for describing a ‘macroscene’ or ‘macrogenre’ such as the UK hardcore continuum. Is the nuum really an island? To adapt a famous saying, and venture even further into this orgy of analogy, I’d suggest that ‘no genre is an island’.
The Sagittarius-as-the-nuum analogy is fairly simple, but hopefully it shows how ideas constructed from objectively verifiable but distinct points of data are separate from data itself. Now I will complicate the analogy in an attempt to bring it more recognisably closer to the prevailing notion of the hardcore continuum. Imagine that Sagittarius is not just made of stars, but a tangled mass of very different kinds of objects – these correspond to the different media that constitute the nuum: club nights, tracks, people, events etc. Imagine that Sagittarius is not just mapped onto a two-dimensional plane where the only variables involved are those that describe the stars according to vertical and horizontal position and brightness, but a vastly multidimensional plane – corresponding to the nuum’s occupying a tangle of different historical, geographical and social areas and the complexity of variables in the music itself. Even though it may still be possible to draw a Sagittarius (i.e. to posit a continuum), the grounds for that drawing become more complex and problematic, shakier. It becomes even less valid to think of Sagittarius/nuum as a distinct, objective ‘thing’.
Knowledge acquired empirically is knowledge that is gained by direct observation using the senses, it’s (to simplify horribly) normally thought of as good quality knowledge and is important to scholarship, particularly in the sciences. Like the stars of Sagittarius, the club nights and tracks that make up the hardcore continuum actually exist to be observed by the eyes and ears, but the nuum itself doesn’t. Reynolds sarcastically comments in the second of his ‘Discontents’ essays: ‘I think that things I’ve witnessed and participated in actually… existed’, missing the important distinction between a club night (empirical data) and a nuum itself (the observer’s conclusion – not empirical). You cannot gain objective, empirical knowledge of the nuum because you can only sense the constituent parts of the nuum, which is ultimately a construct, a particular conclusion created by a subjective mind.
So here, analogy has been confused with what can be known empirically (and arguably, the word ‘empirically’ has been used incorrectly*). In a way, ‘Sagittarius’ is an analogy describing a certain group of stars, just as the nuum could be thought of as an analogy of a certain assemblage of British music. The distinction between the analogy-construct of Sagittarius and the empirically verifiable reality of its stars becomes confused in astrology, for example, where patterns of stars become personified objects that affect earthly people and their activities, and so can be used to predict the future. I’ll invite you to consider the parallels between the theorising of scenes in popular music and astrology, but will leave it there as I’m sure we’ve all had enough of analogies by now.
The Australia analogy and many other analogies used in the nuum debates have the effect of reifying the nuum. A certain amount of reification is inevitable, but analogies such as that the nuum is Australia/Jamaica or a political party (a wonderfully thought-provoking but unconvincing analogy from the 4th ‘Discontents’ essay) over-cohere, over-reify the nuum to an impossible extent. Hopefully the analogies above have shown that it’s difficult to describe the nuum as an object, much less anything as coherent as an island nation or a political party. The urge to reify the nuum and the energetic disagreement over the parameters of this reification that is the nuum debate is wholly understandable. Reifying the nuum makes tangible an atmosphere that was enthusiastically felt for over a decade, it personifies, it caters for the desire to possess those moments, to bind them together and place them fondly on our mantelpieces. The image of a highly reified nuum, however, is a limiting one that, intentionally or not, has a prescriptive effect on music, and this is what I described in my last post. I strongly believe that writing on music should be aware of this effect, and avoid analogies that reify excessively, or else simultaneously draw attention to their imperfect descriptive status.
Another of Reynolds’s recent nuum analogies, from the first ‘Discontents’ post, introduces a dichotomy in examining the nuum of centripetal (i.e. that which would make a scene convergent) vs centrifugal (i.e. that which would make a scene divergent) forces. In this way Reynolds elegantly defers one of the key complaints of nuum detractors, that non-nuum styles invade the nuum to the extent that any coherency in the concept is impossible – persuasively challenging a lot of what Joe Muggs had to say at the conference, for example. In describing forces and movements rather than objects, this analogy avoids a reifying image while still illustrating a detailed theory. I would say that this was a perfect example of theory being ‘the spice of critical life’, though a simple gravitational or magnetic pull would have sufficed (is there an acting centrifugal force? I was trying to remember GCSE physics, and couldn’t shake the irrelevant, unhelpful image of a whirling ball on a rope).
I’ve previously talked about canons and how reifying musical traditions gives them their horribly prescriptive power, and Melissa Bradshaw has called Reynolds the ‘Harold Bloom of Rave’. Reynolds reacts to such criticism of the nuum in his second ‘Discontents’ essay with more sarcasm: ‘boo, hiss! Critics should never say what’s good and bad, should they?’ But a canon is more than simple value-judgment. It doesn’t look at work on its own merits, and that’s why I called it a value-judgment machine – you put a work in, you crank the handle, the machine compares the work with previously anointed classics and tests for certain ideologically-motivated criteria and ding, you get your value-judgment. A canon is also more than, as Reynolds defines it, ‘the selected masterworks within an art form’. Three of the definitions at Dictionary.com are:
3. the body of rules, principles, or standards accepted as axiomatic and universally binding in a field of study or art: the neoclassical canon.The word comes from the Greek kanon or measuring rod, an image that reminds us of the Procrustean bed. Canons are based on a necessarily limited set of aesthetic criteria chosen by the canonisers, i.e those with power of aesthetic persuasion, thus it is akin to an authoritarian regime – ‘bourgeois taste’ works in this way. I am repeating myself (and thanks for still reading by the way).
4. a fundamental principle or general rule: the canons of good behavior.
5. a standard; criterion: the canons of taste.
Reynolds takes up the theme of literary canons and suggests another analogy: ‘the nuum is not equivalent to the canon of Western Literature, it’s equivalent… to Western Literature itself’. I’m guessing most of us were aware (I know I was) that the nuum isn’t literally the collection of greatest hits, and I mentioned a ‘canonical resonance’. What’s problematic about Reynolds’s analogy here is that the category of ‘Western Literature’ is itself a canon, not just because it’s ‘Western’, but because an aesthetic decision has to be made as to what is or is anywhere near ‘literature’ in the first place. Even more radically than Mills and Boon never even getting to be called ‘Western Literature’, works like the Radio Times are unlikely to ever be in that category because of the aesthetic filtration process that constitutes a canon. There is also the matter of musical canons being conceptually different to literary canons due to differing modes of production, dissemination and reception between the two: in some cases musical production is a riskier, more difficult process, making musical canons fiercer than their literary counterparts. Now of course canons can’t be avoided (a certain degree of discrimination is usually necessary), but some of their more totalising, prescriptive effects can be.
A canon is like shining a red light or looking through red glasses – everything looks like it’s coloured a variously intense shade of that red, but not only are green things not particularly visible, but you are missing out on the pleasure of their greenness. Canons have necessarily limited angles on aesthetic appreciation and miss or reject things that could be appreciated in other ways. To return to Stockhausen: his music would be roundly rejected from a dance canon because it rarely has a strong sense of pulse, but there are other aesthetic criteria that his work can be fruitfully judged on – form, timbre, innovation – which people do appreciate. It is this limited aesthetic agenda which drowns out some genuinely interesting music simply for being different, and I hope to show that this has happened in part because of nuum discourse in my next post on ‘wonky’. This aesthetic filtration, this canonising process has led to the distaste for wonky and funky due in part to their distance from the conventional nuum tradition, and the less than entirely encouraging depictions of them from authorities: those who are established enough to have their work appear in widely-read publications, and tend to be trusted when they discuss music. I’m not saying that everything has value in its own particular way and that critical authorities should bloody well locate and attend to it, but that there are many types of aesthetic value that deserve to be recognised and acknowledged rather than closed off. (This is getting into Foucault territory, and being one of his foot soldiers and something of a black-flag-waving aesthetic anarchist, I was wishing on a star that when Reynolds promised the topic of ‘power’ in his fourth essay, he was going to discuss the role of power and knowledge in the discourse of and on UK dance music. He didn’t, but wouldn’t that have been an interesting discussion?)
Now of course, much of this post has been an exasperating attempt to split the finest of hairs. And as at the start of my last post, some aspects of the theorising in the recent ‘Discontents’ essays don’t fare well from the point of view of contemporary musicology, but I won’t spend more time and space detailing this (among the issues, in the fourth essay, how exactly can power be ‘really in the music, intrinsic to it’? A text may, in certain circumstances, give rise to certain affordances or resonances for a listener or an audience, but musical effect isn’t a genie in a bottle). But the question of the nature of the relationship between scholarship and criticism, even between science and criticism, comes into the foreground with the debates and these essays, especially when the word ‘empirical’ gets used (or abused).
In the second ‘Discontents’ essay, Reynolds dismisses the quibble with his use of the word ‘empirical’ as the ‘squeamishness’ of the ‘philosophy student’, seeming almost to paint himself as the straight-talking realist in contrast to the absurd ‘philosophy students’, rolling their eyes because somebody at the foot of their ivory tower hasn’t been washing behind the ontological ears, or philosophy graduates, having been reduced to nervous anti-realist wrecks, quaking every time somebody claims to ‘know’ something. What that rather unfair picture conceals is that Reynolds has used an academic-sounding word (perhaps not for the first time, and he’s described himself as a ‘scholar’, described his work as ‘ethnomusicology’) perhaps to give his ideas extra intellectual weight, but has misused that word, and misunderstood or been unaware of the nature of the principles involved in his methods (you don’t actually need to be a philosophy student to see this, and I’m not). When this is subsequently pointed out, Reynolds makes something of a U-turn and claims he was never that serious in the first place.
Though it’s absolutely unfair to judge his work by strict academic standards (but oddly, he’s described the potential relationship of ‘wonky’ to ketamine as awakening his ‘academic interest’), for those fortunate enough to have been educated in academic fields (‘philosophy students’), particular words or methodological concepts are usually avoided because they have become associated with flawed or ideologically suspect thinking, and quite possibly with good reason. As a humanities student, some of the skeletons in my closet are ‘essentialism’, ‘organicism’ and ‘positivism’. Academic opposition to such concepts cannot be reduced to ‘squeamishness’ any more than a contemporary doctor’s shunning of medicinal leeches or lobotomies can. In a slightly separate vein, many words, such as ‘empirical’ and ‘objective’, are really nothing to be squeamish about, but should simply be used, we hope, properly. Where possible, empiricism is considerably valuable to musicological method, for example, and shouldn’t really be invoked lightly. (For more on empiricism and empirical method as it pertains to the study of music including ethnomusicology, have a read of this).
As a non-academic critic, it’s expected that Reynolds doesn’t mind about the bleeding edge of academic thought. His work still makes sense without it, it’s still appreciated by a great many readers, myself included. Nevertheless the occasional problem remains, and the more assertively he makes certain quasi-scholarly claims, the more regrettably imprudent he seems to those who may know (and may have been shown) better.
In the wake of the nuum debates, it’s my hope that a form of criticism is possible that does not naïvely seek to avoid value-judgment but can practice it on flexible terms, without heavy, limiting ideology, and that is aware of the terms of its own subjectivity; that is not scholarly but will not fall foul of scholarship. A form of criticism that takes place on a case by case basis, rather than as part of a grand, underlying theoretical project; that expands rather than reduces, that avoids fetishising theory. Aiming primarily to show, rather than try to explain, this is criticism as an art form rather than a misguided and inadequate attempt at science.
*Reynolds may have also used the word ‘nominalist’ erroneously. In his third essay, it appears to simply describe a state or process of things being named, rather than ‘the doctrine that general or abstract words do not stand for objectively existing entities and that universals are no more than names assigned to them’ (Dictionary.com)
Addendum: Since I wrote this post, Jeff at There Was Always Doubt elaborated brilliantly on the constellation analogy and how data could be plotted in order to posit continua here. He concludes: ‘While I'm not saying the HCC isn’t/wasn't a ‘real’ phenomenon, it is highly contingent on what musical values and point of view one has. The HCC has gained considerable currency since the sonic signifiers valued by those concerned with the HCC are taken as self-evident. But shift the track-space, add/subtract/subsitute its axes or shift your point of view and I'm sure any number of continua can be spotted.’