Think Different? – Part I

Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same. 1

The lyricism of marginality may find inspiration in the image of the ‘outlaw’, the great social nomad,
who prowls on the confines of a docile, frightened order. 2

Alwynne Pritchard. Photographer: Thor Brødreskift

Alwynne Pritchard. Photographer: Thor Brødreskift

Everything we do is steeped in magic. Even our most mundane, trivial activities sustain a history of ritual practices that affirm our place in the social constructs to which we have aligned ourselves, within which we are immersed. All social orders are bound by ritual. They consolidate and give authority to the social contracts we draw up. These determine how we interact with one another, the nature and extent of our power in relation to those around us, and ultimately how we define ourselves – who we are. The intricate social niceties and anxieties that are expressed through toilet design across the globe are as telling as the food we consider fit for breakfast or the many complex rituals that have evolved around how, where and when we shop.

 

All his emotional needs, his sense of self, were satisfied by this huge retail space. He was naïve and enthusiastic, serving a novitiate that would never end…The enclosed geometry of the Metro-Centre focused an intense self-awareness on every shopper,
as if we were extras in a music drama that had become the world. 3

 The basic anxiety, the anxiety of a finite being about the threat of non-being, cannot be eliminated. It belongs to existence itself. 4

How then are the conspiracies of society sustained? How are its fantasies constructed, its myths and stories circulated? How does it work its magic? Where music in its role as court entertainer, shaman or intellectual icon is concerned, within the realm drawn up by our current social contract, the most powerful and compelling story tellers are those in service to the bloated giant over whom the Kingdom of the West and All its Dreams is now ruled: the volatile and capricious monster we have come to call Late Capitalism. And what propitiation do we place at the feet of this voracious beast? What sacrifice do we offer? What is it that most feeds its greed? Capitalism thrives on our own anxiety, the boundless quest for acknowledgement and power on which we are driven by our innate sense of inadequacy. And in this realm, it is by sustaining the market that the general good of society is deemed to be maintained. Now, once upon a time, the market was fuelled by people’s desire for the tasks they performed to be executed with increased elegance, efficiency or ease. And in a world where conforming to society and participating in its constructs gave us a sense of purpose and belonging, the tasks we performed were for the most part an expression of our sense of duty, be it domestic, social, or political. But in the 1960s and 70s, when a significant number of people began to ‘turn on, tune in and drop out’, this relationship between the individual, the state and the market got messy. To begin with, the liberation of the individual self that began in the 1960s was a political act: by encouraging the inner self to be expressive and free, a new type of human being would emerge, liberated from the constraints of Capitalist society, which was inextricably entangled in the machinations of the market place. With the emergence of this wiser, stronger, more independent individual, a better society would be born. What in fact emerged from this revolution was an isolated, greedy self, more vulnerable to manipulation by both business and politics than it had ever been before. We could now be controlled, not with the blunt weapon of repression, but by a necessity for our insatiable desires to be fulfilled. Cast adrift from the solid ground of social conformity, we began to seek refuge in the very marketplace our break for freedom was originally intended to liberate us from. Instead, it was the market itself that would define and shape, provide the colours, contours, smells and sounds of our non-conformity, happy to oblige our anxious and insatiable quest to set ourselves apart in order to belong.

 

Music has always been instrumental, not only in defining who we are and how we interact with one another, but also in casting the spells, creating the illusions within which we live. Music channels the fantasies fed to us by the market, reinforcing the fiction of one brand of individuality or another, whilst at the same time affirming our membership of its various tribes of individuals, outcasts and mavericks. We conform though our non-conformity. And the more we aspire to use music as a way of extricating ourselves from the web of social constructs we inhabit, the more entangled we become. The more we speak in hallowed tones, elaborate myths, get hooked and fetishize, the more we fall pray to the gimmickry that has extended far beyond the music (or any other) industry to permeate all corners of our private and public lives. The marketplace is everywhere; its strategies delineate the shape of our existence. And of course, it delineates and confines the space within which music must exist. The impact on musicians can be catastrophic. They become stifled, repetitive, reified and bored. They become slaves to the audience’s expectations of fulfilment, which in this age of the individuated self are high. We are all musical junkies, always on the lookout for the next high, the next hit. They become slaves to love, admiration and power. We are all victims of our own identity. Strutting the appearance of individuation or rebellion in the form of one musical fashion statement or another is the fearful alternative we take to braving the existential threats that would await, were we to tear ourselves from the incubating womb of the Capitalist beast whose umbilical fluids sustain us. We are all plugged in. The music that lies beyond our own definition and understanding of ourselves – our liberated, broad-minded, open-hearted selves – is thrown high over the wall that encircles our camp. The ideas that cannot be unified, categorized, packaged and exchanged are cast into the wilderness. In the endangered seclusion of our own thoughts and minds, this may of course not be the case. But the social structures we have created within which music can be exchanged – the shops, websites, compact discs, books, magazines, concert series, festivals, etc – all these vessels and vehicles are shaped and driven by the market. And the publicly funded arts are no exception. Where does this leave a festival like Borealis? What were my goals during my six years as Artistic Director? And how do I see the future of such festivals in light of everything I have written here? I’ll be addressing this in Part II to be published in the next issue of the Journal.

Read Part II

1 Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972).
2 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (1975).
3 JG Ballard, Kingdom Come (2006).
4 Paul Johannes Tillich, The Courage to Be (1952).

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