Sunday, 6 March 2011

World Machine

"….in the business of life a man’s disposition and the secret workings of his mind and affections are better discovered when he is in trouble than at other times; so likewise the secrets of nature reveal themselves more readily under the vexations of art than when they go their own way."

- Francis Bacon "Novum Organum"

"See how cruel the whites look. Their lips are thin, their noses sharp, their faces furrowed and distorted with folds. Their eyes have a staring expression; they are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something; they are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want. We do not understand them. We think they are mad."

- Ochwiay Biano to Carl Jung, "Memories, Dreams, Reflections"

"Here it comes again
Chugging like a train
Round and round
An impeccable groove"

- Level 42 "Hot Water"

It is a little-known fact that all our popular culture today owes its existence to Francis Bacon’s philosophical work of 1620, the Novum Organum. This document was instrumental in the development of what we now call the "scientific method" in its empiricist declaration that nature is best understood not from general observation, but by the manipulation of it in artificial settings, by its "vexing" in a laboratory. It was this insight, combined with the insight of Rene Descartes’ Discourse On Method, that mathematics was the purest form of reason, that gave birth to the modern scientific consciousness that both shapes our society today, and provokes the antinomian forces that set themselves up to oppose it.

We may find the world view of the medieval peasant, in which for example an object fell to the ground because it loved the earth which was its home, impossibly quaint, but what we fail to understand is that such a view filled life with an intensity of meaning that we can barely begin to appreciate from our modern atomised viewpoint. Until the Scientific Revolution, man belonged in the world. The adoption of Cartesian dualism, in which we are subjects in a world of objects, and the adoption of Baconian empiricism, in which all of nature exists to be manipulated for numerically quantifiable advantage, are the roots of our deep alienation. Capitalism, far from being a Ding an Sich, a thing in itself, was merely the new scientific rationalism translated into the social sphere, and that in turn is why it has always proven such an elusive foe to those who would oppose it.

The rise of this "new science" in the early 17th Century, was not, as is popularly believed, due to it "disproving" the magical-alchemical world view through rational falsification, but because the established church needed a political tool to counter the proliferating heretical movements that were rising against it. The attack against alchemy was conducted by a Minorite friar, Marin Marsenne, via the Collège Royale in Paris and the Royal Society in London, utilising Cartesian dualism and a philosophy of atomism to posit God not as immanent in all things but as an external director, inaccessible to independent religious or political thought. Hermeticism was so effectively suppressed and discredited that it wasn’t until the investigations of Carl Jung in the middle of the 20th Century that it was tentatively recognised as a systematic psychological worldview rather than merely an abortive, bungled form of early chemistry.

As the historians Christopher Hill and Keith Thomas pointed out, much of the tumult of the English Civil War revolved around sects such as the Levellers, the Diggers, and the Ranters who wanted to maintain their animist and alchemical beliefs against the rationalising forces of the new science, which was seen as the acquisitory ideology of the rising Protestant bourgeoisie, whose credo of elevation through wealth or good works denied salvation to every class below them. It was this linking of alchemical beliefs with communistic sentiments, known at the time as "enthusiasm", that led to its proscription by the governing establishment. The reason why Sir Isaac Newton, who had far less faith in his mechanical conception of the universe than his modern-day apologists, kept his extensive alchemical work secret was more through its explosive political ramifications than through potential professional embarrassment.

Today of course, the rational-scientific world view sits squarely in the middle of our culture, apparently politically neutral, its tenets unquestioned even by those who are most opposed to its social manifestation as Capitalism. And yet for all this, modern Western man, like his 17th Century forebears, still carries with him a nagging sense of emptiness, of the deep alienation that results from a world that has had its meaning deliberately extracted by a rationalising ideology that has sunk itself so deeply into the culture as to be almost invisible. It is no surprise that Britain, perhaps the country that was most deeply rationalised by the Enlightenment, has also been the home to the most magical revolts. These revolts have been almost endlessly diverse in their form, from drug cults and druid revivals to incursions of Eastern mysticism, but perhaps the most visible recent revolts have been those that have been provoked by the arrival of black musical styles from the USA. It is no accident that many of the post-war youth cults have more than a passing similarity to the outbreaks of "enthusiasm" of the Civil War period.

The official myth of the huge impact that jazz, rock’n’roll, soul music and the blues had on post-war Britain is that they somehow offered a sense of release from post-war austerity and a stiff-upper-lip emotional constipation. It’s a convenient myth because it contradicts any idea that there are any deeper issues with how Western society projects its version of reality. It’s an easily contradicted myth as well - the "sexual revolution" of the 1960’s did nothing to meliorate any deeper sense of alienation, and indeed it’s reasonable to argue that the Britain of the 1950’s was in many ways a more socially coherent and balanced society than that of today.

It is also fairly clear that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of young Britons experienced their first encounter with Black American or Jamaican music as an almost religious moment, and ultimately this is because it to all extents and purposes it actually was a religious moment. What they experienced was, perhaps for the first time in their lives, a colossal infusion of mana, of the sense of wholeness that the feeling of the world being inherently full of meaning provides. In essence, they had temporarily become medieval peasants. Filled with "enthusiasm", what could they then do but gather together, open clubs, dress and talk like their heroes, and even try to replicate the music themselves?

However, all British youth cultures, once they became established, would eventually face a moment of schism - between the "trad" purists and those that want "to take the music further". Often characterised as a fission between luddites and progressives, it was really a debate on how best to preserve the mana, the magic, because when British musicians got hold of a black American musical form, they inevitably subjected it to a process of rationalisation. What happens if we make it faster? Slower? Increase the level of amplification? Combine it with another form? Eventually the result would be something like Led Zeppelin. If a blues singer such as Willie Dixon was like a pharoah, a great king who radiated magical mana, then Zeppelin were the great pyramid built around his tomb. The musical relationship between America and Britain in the post-war period was not just between "black" and "white", but between irrationalism and rationalism, and the eventual fully-rationalised final form meant that the mana was exhausted.

The jazz-funk scene that emerged in the UK in the late 1970’s was in many ways an archetypal example of this cultural process. Inspired by the usual canon of revered records imported from the USA, it went through the familiar pattern whereby a small band of "legendary" proselytising enthusiasts started hosting "legendary" one-off events that turned into "legendary" established clubs, and in turn into a thriving subculture. If there was one major difference, it was that many of the initial movers and shakers in the scene were black Britons, and their musical response offered the possibility that Britain could create its own self-sufficient and fruitful dialogue between black and white musicians; between irrational and rationalising aesthetics.

It was within this early scene that Level 42 emerged as an instrumental-only band, and as the original scene faded around them, were to become its great rationalising force throughout the 1980’s. The band, driven by Mark King’s relentless, machine-like slap bass, replaced the original fluidity and trepidation of jazz-funk with an almost grid-like rigidity. Level 42’s records were enormous constructions, and it was no doubt their sheer propulsion, their sense of going somewhere, that made them so appealing to the yuppies and travelling salesmen of Thatcherite Britain.

Nevertheless, despite the vertiginous awe that robo-funk like "Hot Water" and "The Chinese Way" could induce, Level 42’s lyrical concerns were generally humane - boy meets girl, growing pains, childhood memories. Their rather modest subject matter and personal conduct contradicted the kind of wine-bar upward-mobility with which they were often associated. "Something About You", perhaps their best song, was a love song worthy of Barry Gibb in the way that it used plain, simple language to express eternal verities.

Level 42 were one of the most significant British band of the 80’s because they were the last great rationalisers of African-American music, the last great ziggurat-builders. By the mid-80’s the channel of irrationalism that was supplied by black America was closed off by hip-hop, whose hyper-rationalised cut-up structure and atomised worldview were resistant to white appropriation, mainly because it began where white music usually finished up. White British music, its major source of mana closed off, could only decline into the sterile pattern-work of indie. Ultimately though, popular music has only carried us along, and distracted us from our real duty - to find a way to reinvigorate our world with meaning, which for 99% of human history has been the normal condition of existence, but which for us still appears a paradise far beyond our reach.


W. Kasper said...

From Francis Bacon and the discontents of scientific rationalism to holiday-camp friendly bass solos, and somehow it's making perfect sense. This may be the most insane/inspired/brilliant post on all three blogs so far.

I reckon there's producers and TV commisioners reading - I demand that you offer Phil his own show now! I'd even pay my TV license for that...

Phil Knight said...

Well, as the occultists like to say, "everything is connected...."

I'm sure the medieval grimoires must have predicted jazz-funk in one of their more obscure quatraines.

W. Kasper said...

Not sure I agree about hiphop though, which has/had all kinds of mysticism going on (overt or otherwise - conspiracy theories also figure a lot). White America and the UK may have had difficulties appropriating it (maybe more due to not quite 'getting' it), but it seems to have had that 'mana' element for South America, Africa, and parts of Asia. I'm far from familiar with hiphop from those regions, but it seems to have incorporated local religious/mystical notions along with the standard reactions to neoliberalism. Interestingly, that aspect seems to have vanished from the Jamaican musics that inspired it. It's more crude and materialistic than Dr. Dre et al nowadays.

Phil Knight said...

Well, I think hip-hop has kind of expanded and diversified over time. It felt incredibly fierce when it first arrived.

The only early hip-hoppers I could listen to were Kid'N'Play, who were quite ghostly and spectral sounding - but even then, I can't see how their sound could have been appropriated, as it sounded like an end-point in itself.

Hey, I'm off to listen to "Last Night" on the 'tube....

W. Kasper said...

Like many a hiphop star, Kid'n'Play lost it at the movies...

My favourite hiphop act was WuTang Clan, who really did seem to use 'magical thinking' to grab remarkable success - RZA even wrote a 'grimoire' on how his collective of (previously rejected) misfits made the big time. But of course, most magic is doomed to failure in the long-term.

Greyhoos said...

I'm seconding Wayne's initial comments; except for what he said about hip-hop, cos in many ways that part makes perfect sense from where I'm at (and was at the time). Loved it.