Memorials without mimesis: Abstraction and intertextuality in William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops

 

On September 11th 2001, the composer William Basinski completed The Disintegration Loops, a work documenting the slow decay of recorded tape loops he had unsuccessfully attempted to salvage. That same day he witnessed the attacks on the World Trade Centre from the roof of his Brooklyn apartment, his new composition providing the soundtrack to this experience.

This link between the work and the events of September 11 has led to The Disintegration Loops being ‘canonised’ as a major artistic response to the disaster. However, the convoluted compositional process of the work, along with its inherent abstraction, raises questions regarding to what extent The Disintegration Loops can be said to be ‘about’ the events of September 11.

With this in mind, this work will use Basinski’s music to explore fundamental questions regarding the possibility of abstract art’s potential to comment upon real socio-political events. The work will explore the possibility that The Disintegration Loops’ aesthetic constitution posits itself as a far more pertinent artistic response to September 11 than perhaps more conventional representations of reality.

Numerous formal characteristics of the composition will be examined, including the work’s intertextuality, the nature of authorial intent, and the inherent abstraction of instrumental music, to affirm just how separate from the events of September 11 the work actually is. The consequences of these characteristics, compounded by the work’s abstraction, will expose the true functions of a work that dispenses with any mimetic subject matter in favour of giving prominence to its aesthetic content. As such, the possibility will be broached that it is the shared aesthetic cultural space that links the artwork to the real, rather than any semantic content tangible within the work itself.

‘The most significant musical artifacts of the so-called Time of Terror’[1]

In 1982 the composer William Basinski began the process of recording fragments of musical pieces from radio broadcasts on to magnetic tape for a project that would never be realised. These seemingly insignificant loops of tape were subsequently abandoned, and languished in storage for almost two decades. Basinski rediscovered these tapes in 2001, by which time they ‘had decayed to the point of extinction’[2]. In an attempt to salvage them Basinski tried to prevent further decay by converting them to digital recordings, ‘[transferring] the loops from analog reel-to-reel tape to digital hard disks.’[3]

Further problems arose however when it became apparent that each time the loop of tape fed through the reel-to-reel tape machine the protective material that coated them was in the process of peeling off: ‘the glue had lost its integrity… [and] dust was accumulating on the tape path’[4], meaning that the tape (and the musical data contained therein) was being irreparably and irretrievably damaged. Thus the very process of preservation was causing the tapes to decay even further; as James Elaine notes, ‘as [Basinski] recorded and listened’[5] to the loops, ‘he lost them. As they travelled round and round in the tape decks they began disintegrating, literally dying, leaving their iron oxide ashes lying on the deck.’[6] Therefore any efforts Basinski made in salvaging his work would prove to be futile: the music contained in these pieces of tape would never again be heard in their entirety or with their original clarity.

Rather than merely destroying the tape in its entirety, this process of destruction resulted in what can essentially be conceived of as a wholly new musical work born out of this fragile fragment of tape, which had ‘collapsed in its own beautiful way.’[7] The process of this collapse transformed the original music until it bore almost no resemblance to the work prior to its disintegration. What resulted was distinctive enough that it was considered artistically valuable in its own right, despite it simply being the destruction of another work. As Basinski says, ‘I was pleased with the otherworldly sound I’d got, but it was also disintegrating. So I realised all I needed was to record these things to disc – it needed no further input from me.’[8] As a result Basinski would endeavour not to restore these loops but instead document their disintegration, the results of which were collected together and commercially released as The Disintegration Loops.

Aside from gaining much acclaim as a noteworthy musical work in its own right, The Disintegration Loops has had a lasting cultural significance due to the circumstances surrounding its production. Basinski completed the process of recording the Loops in the weeks preceding September 11 2001, and as a resident of New York City he witnessed the destruction of the World Trade Centre that occurred that day. The visual accompaniment to The Disintegration Loops was filmed by Basinski himself from the roof of his apartment while listening to his new work as the dust settled over Manhattan during the last hour of daylight that day. This connection between The Disintegration Loops and the events of September 11 therefore has personal resonance for Basinski himself, who has stated that:

With The Disintegration Loops there came a whole new level of meaning that until that day wasn’t part of it. Filming the last hour of daylight that night and … pairing it with [the music], it became an elegy, and over the next weeks and months, seeing everyone in New York falling into their own disintegration loops – fear, terror, very odd ways – it felt like it had to be an elegy of some kind.[9]

Beyond Basinski himself, The Disintegration Loops has been adopted as something of an official response to the events of September 11, in that a recent box set reissue of the work has given a portion of its proceeds to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, an institution into which The Disintegration Loops itself has been formally inducted as a document of the cultural response to September 11. Michael Shulan, Creative Director of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, has explained that ‘I had asserted that a museum about 9/11 needed to be unconventional and highly compelling, and also that it needed to display a broad range of material, including – especially – art of the highest caliber’[10].

To a certain extent, The Disintegration Loops has no doubt been deemed an appropriate musical response to September 11 for its apparent elegiac qualities, as Paul Hegarty[11] and Ronen Givony[12] note, and for the ‘unexpectedly beautiful and affecting progressions’[13] of the disintegrating tape, as John Doran writes. However, in addition to this, it is the very real link between the composer and the event that has on first glance led to this widespread adoption of the work. There is no doubt that a compelling narrative has arisen surrounding the circumstances of The Disintegration Loops’ production, and it is this initial connection that is responsible for instigating the preliminary relationship between the work and the event. As Joseph P Fisher and Brian Flota have noted in their work The Politics of Post-9/11 Music: Sound, Trauma, and the Music Industry in the Time of Terror, ‘the added significance of this narrative is a matter of context’[14], causing The Disintegration Loops to ‘[provide] an eerily relevant soundtrack for what remains, perhaps, the most significant day in post-millennial American history.’[15]

However, despite The Disintegration Loops being recognised as an apparently emotionally powerful response to the events of September 11, it cannot go unnoticed that there is nothing inherent within the work itself to imply such a relationship: any connection to September 11 beyond the contextual is, at best, ‘oblique and indirect’[16], as Givony points out. There is no semantic, linguistic element to the music, it being an instrumental work; and of course, most obviously, the compositional process cannot have been influenced by the events of September 11, for the simple fact that the work precedes it. The recording of the tape loops’ disintegration taking place weeks and months before, the original recording of the loops themselves another 20 years prior, and the radio broadcasts Basinski committed to tape originally composed and recorded at an unknown time even further into the past.

As such, while it can be regarded as a work that memorialises the events of September 11 in rather obvious, immediate ways (such as those aforementioned contextual connections), it is necessary to explore the possibility that The Disintegration Loops is in fact related to this event in more complex and profound ways in order to gain a true conception of The Disintegration Loops’ capability to relate to and memorialise a very real socio-political event. It is necessary therefore to construct an analysis that goes beyond this contextual relationship to gain a conception of how The Disintegration Loops as an artwork engages with the events of September 11 in an aesthetic sense. To achieve this conception it is necessary to address just how a work such as this, which has no discernible semantic content or meaning – at least in any immediately tangible sense – can be ‘about’ a real event. This itself begs the wider question of how a work with no semantic content can correspond to reality in any meaningful way, as The Disintegration Loops apparently has. In essence, this analysis must address how – and to what end – an abstract work of art can ‘speak’, and it is this fundamental point that this discussion will focus upon.

These points of analysis also necessitate further examination of the nature of abstract art more generally: namely, the complex compositional history of The Disintegration Loops can reveal important implications regarding the production of meaning in abstract works of art and its resultant socio-political consequences. Such an analysis must therefore explore the link – perhaps even the correlation – between the lack of figurative, linguistic, semantic content in Basinski’s work, its Baudrillardian distancing from the real, as it were, and its ability to respond to the event it has been indelibly linked to. As such, the following work will explore the possibility that it is precisely because of The Disintegration Loops’ abstraction, rather than despite it, that it is able to become a successful and appropriate artistic response to the events of September 11.


‘The music was dying’[17]

In order to move towards answering these questions and testing this thesis it is first necessary to gain a working comprehension of how we can define The Disintegration Loops as a musical work: how it functions, what its content is and how we can categorise it aesthetically. A discussion of these points will be essential in order to adequately address the extent to which The Disintegration Loops can be identified as an abstract work, and just how separate its content (or, as the case may well be, lack thereof) is from what we can identify as reality. When we talk of reality here we refer to the historical context from which the art object is derived. Thus while the work is inherently distanced from this reality (as shall be discussed), and by extension its socio-political context, the very existence of this context belies an inextricable connection between the work and reality, despite their separation, and it is how The Disintegration Loops is able to bridge this gap aesthetically that will form the focus of this work.

To achieve this, and to conceive of how a work such as The Disintegration Loops can have meaning, it is essential to deconstruct the various layers comprising its compositional process. Specifically, it is crucial to recognise that The Disintegration Loops, at several stages of its creation, is constructed from already-existing musical works. We can see this in the fact that the music on the original, 1982-recorded tape loops are taken from pre-existing recordings broadcast on the radio, or in these recordings as rediscovered and whose destruction is documented to create a ‘new’ work (i.e. The Disintegration Loops itself, the ‘final’ composition as we know it). It is even possible to take this one stage further and categorise each individual loop – each time it passes once through the reel-to-reel tape machine displaying its unique and accumulative damage – as a wholly new work based on the previous passage through the machine, exhibiting, as David Guimond notes, ‘a heterogeneity of the sonic properties of each loop.’[18] Each loop is to some degree heterogeneous, unrelated to the previous loops and yet fundamentally altered and influenced by that which precedes it:

Like any vibrating object, once the original loop begins disintegrating, it sets into motion a series of interconnected, vibrating loops which, much like sound waves, diffuse slowly outwards from it, each loop disturbing and interacting, reflecting and overlapping, with its nearing neighbor, both being absorbed into or absorbing other loops and transferring this energy throughout the whole track.[19]

Thus each ‘new’ loop – each time the tape traverses through the machine – is essentially an adaption, an infinitesimal recontextualisation, of the preceding loop’s same ‘journey’. At every level of the composition – from the radio-broadcast compositions captured on tape by Basinski to these tapes’ disintegration as documented in the ‘final’ work, The Disintegration Loops recordings themselves – The Disintegration Loops is comprised of pre-existing musical material. Basinski’s work can therefore be identified as what Serge Lacasse calls a ‘hypertext’[20] (a text born from the transformation of another work) comprised of numerous and overlapping ‘hypotexts’[21] (already-existing texts from which the hypertext is derived). What is particularly curious about the way in which the hypertextuality of The Disintegration Loops manifests is that, rather than a conscious ‘transformation or imitation of a hypotext’,[22] the work’s final form is wholly dependant on the uncontrollable permutations of the tape. This ‘accidental intertextuality’ is perhaps the defining characteristic of The Disintegration Loops’ form, and so cannot be neglected in an exploration of how the work functions aesthetically. The implication here is that in order to adequately conceptualise the form that The Disintegration Loops takes it is important to recognise it as an intertextual work, and consequently as a work in which Basinski had very little control over its creation.

In his essay ‘Intertextuality and Hypertextuality in Recorded Popular Music’, Lacasse – indebted to the work of Gerard Genette – defines intertextuality as simply ‘the actual presence of a text within another’.[23] We can certainly identify The Disintegration Loops as possessing this trait, in that its own content is derived from the content of other, already-existing musical works; namely, in the first instance, the radio-broadcast compositions recorded by Basinski in 1982. It is in this way that The Disintegration Loops is able to quite simply ‘relate…to some previous recordings’[24], yet the way this relationship develops also reveals a deeper intertextuality, as the very material process of recording the tape loops causes the work to essentially adapt itself, to become its own hypotext. As Guimond writes, ‘the integrity of the individual loops become increasingly problematized as they start to seep into each other, opening up an “inter-texture-ality” of ever more mutated echoes, staggered silences, and misshapen spaces’[25]. Thus the dissolution of each loop’s apparent heterogeneity initiates a constant state of intertextuality, whereby each loop’s status as either a hypertext or a hypotext is in a permanent state of flux in that it essentially becomes both simultaneously:

The loops come to represent a series of sonic singularities constantly re-opening to further articulation, related to but not statically defined by the other temporal spans of the other loops.[26]

This idea that each loop – each ‘sub-work’ of the whole recording – ‘[contains] its own past and its own future’[27] is the essence of how The Disintegration Loops as intertext is formed: every sonic difference as the work progress is enacted through a physical transformation, an adaptation, of the work as it was previously constituted. Thus, as Brandon Kreitler notes, ‘as the piece progresses it can no longer be said to be a sequence of loops, but rather a continuous rearrangement and destruction of shards of sound.’[28]

With this intertextual categorisation firmly established, it is possible to explore in more depth the specific form of intertextuality that The Disintegration Loops take. Of the various subcategories of intertextuality that Lacasse identifies, it is ‘the travesty’[29] that most accurately describes Basinski’s composition. Travesty here is defined as ‘the rewriting of some ‘noble’ text as a new text that retains the fundamental content but presents it in another style in order to ‘debase’ it.’[30] Lacasse further suggests that a ‘travesty…transforms its hypotext paradigmatically’[31], and we can certainly identify this process in The Disintegration Loops: in this case the source material is fundamentally altered to such a degree that it would be almost impossible to identify its origin, and what source material is being transformed. As Kreitler attests, the act of travesty here is perhaps so total that the hypotext upon which this travesty has been inflicted is barely perceptible in the resultant work, as the loops ‘eventually collapse the model from which they derive.’[32]

Thus The Disintegration Loops can be identified as a travesty, but a travesty of what exactly is not known. It is deducible that the work must be appropriating something, because its very materiality, the actual physical loop of tape, is evident in the work: we can hear the hiss, the crackle, the static – the origin of the physical presence of the tape’s constitution. It is the perception of this very materiality that allows the listener to grasp that the possible ‘content’ of The Disintegration Loops has an origin that lies beyond the work itself. The materiality – and the source material – is present and yet it is not. The presence of a hypotext belies a temporality that is incongruous with the work itself; as Mark Fisher writes:

[The] crackle [of tape] makes us aware that we are listening to a time that is out of joint; it won’t allow us to fall into the illusion of presence…We aren’t only made aware that the sounds we are hearing are recorded, we are also made conscious of the playback systems we use to access the recordings.[33]

In the case of The Disintegration Loops we are made aware not only of the materiality of tape but also of its apparent destruction, and that the vehicle for semantic content itself is falling apart. Any information contained in the hypotext is diminished as we listen, and with it any semantic content fails to make its presence known in the resulting work. Thus the work makes this materiality explicit enough that the listener is aware of the work’s intertextuality, yet the conventional connotations of such an intertextuality is ultimately denied.

The primary reason that this denial occurs is due to the ethereal nature of The Disintegration Loops’ content: the work is multiple times removed from its origin, and even then it is decaying before the listener’s ears. The effect here is one of removing the hypotextual content from the work while retaining the perception of this hypotext’s existence, thus distilling the idea that it is the act of disintegration itself that is important, as opposed to what exactly is being disintegrated. This dual role of destroying the original semantic content while giving primacy to the aesthetic properties of this destruction further emphasises The Disintegration Loops’ valuing of aesthetic experience over the potentiality of the work conveying any sort of meaning. The way that the tapes (and the musical data contained therein) decay means that The Disintegration Loops are essentially a travesty of themselves, of a recording that is itself a travesty of yet another source material, in that the manipulations performed on the radio broadcasts are themselves transformed through the documentation of their disintegration. What is more, it is even possible to venture the notion that the structure of the work – the way that each loop’s sonic properties are influenced by the process of decay in the preceding loop – means that each Disintegration Loop is essentially a series of smaller, ‘mini-travesties’: each loop is a travesty of the loop that comes before it, and indeed the aggregate of all loops that have come before it in the work to influence its sound, the ‘notes’ that are played.

While discussing the concept of travesty, it is important to note that an intertextual travesty conventionally gains its value as a work through a subversion of the source material in a way that is recognisable to the listener. As Lacasse writes, a travesty’s power ‘depends largely on the listener’s own point of view and socio-cultural background.’[34] Thus an intimacy with both the hypotext and the cultural conditions of its creation is required for any sort of informative content to be gleaned from the work. In the case of The Disintegration Loops, however, the origin of the source material is obscured, so there is no effect of recognition in the listener as is required for the work to gain a readily perceptible meaning. As Givony attests to, as each incarnation of The Disintegration Loops progresses, ‘what results is a spectral fragment or x-ray of the original: a transfigured, reconstructed pile of remains; permanence and obsolescence, conjoined.’[35] What occurs here is therefore not a travesty of any source material in particular, but is an expression of the act of travesty itself. Indeed the result of a travesty is perceived aesthetically, rather than being a purely semantic reformulation of a hypotext: as Lacasse notes, ‘travesty is more of an effect following some transformation than an actual transformational process.’[36] What remains in a work following an act of travesty then is the aesthetic conception of how this act of travesty affects a work, rather than the semantic inferences that are usually gained from the act of travesty transforming paradigmatically a hypotext, such as can be found in a work of parody or pastiche, for instance. This focus on travesty itself, the act of disintegration, compounds the lack of semantic content in the work, which goes a long way to confirming its abstract position: even the abstraction is abstracted, the ‘non-content’ decaying away into nothingness.

What’s particularly interesting then about The Disintegration Loops’ form of intertextuality is that its identification as such is complicated by the fact that its hypotext doesn’t actually exist in a complete, tangible form. The Disintegration Loops therefore functions as a document of the destruction of both the physical recordings that Basinski made, and of the source material of those recordings.

The work is only a fragment from unknown radio broadcasts, obscure to the point that even Basinski himself is unable to recall the exact source: upon their rediscovery he ‘didn’t remember at all’[37] many of the original recordings he made. Thus what is crucial to note about The Disintegration Loops is that it is multiple times removed from its source: an appropriation of an appropriation without a source, a hypertext with no hypotext. Again this is important for categorising just how abstract The Disintegration Loops is, and how removed and estranged it is from the real events it has become associated with.


The ‘death sentence of every reference’[38]

As we have seen, the process of appropriation in an intertextual work such as The Disintegration Loops means that it is multiple times removed from the real historical art object that instigated the work’s existence. It would seem then that there is an inherent distancing from the real, an inherent abstraction, in a work that is grounded in intertextuality and appropriation. In his essay ‘“Stayin’ Alive in Da Club”: The Illegality and Hyperreality of Mashups’, Liam Maloy highlights the importance of framing intertextuality in its inherent hyperreality, and this recognition is important for an analysis of how The Disintegration Loops’ abstraction functions with regards to its cultural worth as an artwork of memorialisation.

In his study Maloy focuses on mashups of pop music, in which signifiers from different songs can be combined to signify something new, suggesting that works which sample sounds from a pre-existing recording can become a ‘free-floating lexial signifier’[39] which is removed from its original sign with the potential to be semantically repurposed. In this way he suggests that music can be ‘polysemic’[40], in that it enables a work to have multiple signifiers interacting with one another in a single piece. In the case of Basinski, however, his work is not polysemic but what we might call asemic, or devoid of semantic content. There is no semantic content to decode in The Disintegration Loops: it does not signify anything beyond itself, and all extant signifiers and reference points that might connect the music to its source – to reality – are destroyed the instant the music starts playing.

Furthermore, Maloy suggests that intertextual musical works signal a significant break between art and the real in that they are ‘conglomerations of representations of a long-forgotten, and now entirely irrelevant, reality. The signs have been permanently detached from their signifiers, “never again exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference”’[41]. The Disintegration Loops then, being an appropriation of an appropriation, is therefore a simulation of a musical work, a copy of a copy, with the original obscured. Any connection to reality inherent in the unknown original source material is no longer present in the new work: as Maloy says, ‘The recontextualisation of the audio snippets spells the “death sentence of every reference” and becomes a simulacrum.’[42] What is interesting about Basinski’s work though is that this recontextualisation is itself dying as a text, with the very act of recontextualisation also initiating the new work’s own destruction; so even if there is a sense of an original work – a source – present in the loops, it is destroyed as the recontextualisation process is documented. As soon as the music begins, it never again resembles its hypotext fully, resulting in an uncanny, ostensibly meaningless work in its wake. The Disintegration Loops then, through its process of simulation of another work, ensures that ‘any ‘truth’ or sense of the ‘real’ in the ‘original’ is now lost’[43], leaving behind a work that is not real in itself, yet is still derived from the real. It retains, to a certain extent, the aesthetic properties of the real, yet sheds itself of any of the semantic content that previously tied the original work to the socio-cultural context whence it came. Once again – like the act of travesty – the resultant consequence of what is sensible in the work is not what this hyperreality (doesn’t) signify, but the sense of hyperreality itself. It is the aesthetic process that becomes the content of the work, displacing any discernible signification. The hyperreal simulation of a ‘real’ work of art becomes prominent: this aesthetic becomes its own end in that, as Maloy implies, in works such as this that exhibit such a totalising degree of self-referentiality ‘hyperreality becomes the dominant aesthetic.’[44] Once again here, the degree to which The Disintegration Loops sheds any potential for semantic content only to replace it with a pure aestheticism is crucial for an understanding of the way the work functions.

This process of intertextuality – and its hyperreal connotations – has the effect of blurring the distinction between the creator and the spectator: it essentially enables Basinski to be both simultaneously. The work is his and yet it is not: he did not create it as such, but simply facilitated its existence. As Basinski has stated, ‘each one of [the tapes] did their own thing in their own time…I remember thinking ‘This is not about you…Keep the recorders going and let’s see what happens here. You don’t need to add a thing.’[45] This idea – that Basinski and his artistic output is merely a witness to phenomena, rather than having the power to influence it in any meaningful way – is important for a conception of how a work with no semantic content can respond to social phenomena, in that it functions by articulating its own powerlessness. There is no human control over the flaws in the music, and its destruction is unpreventable and irreparable. As Dan Hill comments, intertextuality, through manipulating existing audio while creating something new from it, allows composers to engage in both ‘creation and adaption, emphasising their own role in this social process, without losing the directive role and expertise of the composer’.[46] The implication here is that through decidedly not creating something new, Basinski is able to draw out the aesthetic content from an already-existing work while dispensing of its pretence of semantic meaning, thus once again emphasising the ascendancy of the former over the latter.

As such, an acknowledgement of this non-creation is important for the exploration of the way in which a work such as The Disintegration Loops posits itself as a self-evident consequence of social processes, and as an aesthetic manifestation of real phenomena rather than being a conscious comment or reaction to it – and this is only possible due to the Loops’ categorisation as an intertextual work. As Richard Middleton suggests, the process of an intertextual work subsuming its hypotexts’ signifiers can mean that ‘as the ‘author’ disappears, textuality as such appears to take centre-stage, writing ‘humanity’ out of the script’,[47] leaving the work ‘swimming, distinction free, in a sea of intertextual relativism’.[48] This inhumanity is also echoed by Adorno in his Negative Dialectics, through his proclamation that ‘thinking men and artists have not infrequently described themselves of not quite being there, of not playing along, a feeling as if they were not themselves at all, but a kind of spectator.’[49] This suggests a degree of irresponsibility on the part of the creator in that they cannot claim control of their resultant work, which is an inherent consequence of any work largely created through appropriation. The removal of the artist from that to which he is a spectator is what gives a work such as this its ‘inhuman’[50] aspect, based on the artist’s ‘ability to keep one’s distance as a spectator’[51]. Removing the human element is inextricably linked to the removal of the semantic, in that no reformulation or resuscitation of the disintegration of the original work’s content is attempted by Basinski, enraptured as he is by the pure aesthetic content of the work that his creative influence on the project is minimal. As he says himself, each tape loop was ‘so beautiful, so perfect that…it didn’t need anything added to it.’[52]

It is in this sense that the work’s powerlessness is articulated, in that the negation of the artist’s influence over their own work ensures that this powerlessness is transferred from the former to the latter. Thus the work articulates its own powerlessness, its own meaninglessness: in the case of The Disintegration Loops, as Hegarty writes, they ‘mark their own passing, make their own passing happen, and, for Basinski listening in 2001, they mark the passing of his past, and of the lives of people killed in the World Trade Center attacks.’[53] Thus the works are acting upon him, rather than the other way around, their power to confer what is aesthetically sensible is paramount and not subjugated by the conveyance of figurative, representational semantic content. Thus the ultimate consequence of this non-creation, arising from intertextual hyperreality and the destruction of signifiers, is that it again removes any perception of (specifically socio-political) semantic content that could possibly by found in the work in favour of highlighting its aesthetic content – a concept that will be of utmost importance when re-drawing the link between the work and its context.


‘The presence of the original’[54] and ‘the concept of authenticity’[55]

The apparent consequence of this threefold disconnect between the work, its composer, and its source material, is that what Walter Benjamin identifies as the ‘aura’[56] of the artwork can hardly be seen to be present in the work itself. There is a distinct link between the significant separation that the art object has from its sociopolitical context and the fate of the work’s aura. This is the ultimate result of the hyperreal simulation as enacted through the works intertextuality, with its ‘signs [that] have been permanently detached from their signifiers’[57] serving to give the impression of a separation from the work of art and its inception as an object from a distinct socio-cultural temporality. As Richard Middleton states, ‘the end of ‘aura’, foreseen by Walter Benjamin, was welcomed in the name of Baudrillard’s ‘simulacra’ – copies without an original.’[58] Thus the musical simulacra that is The Disintegration Loops – and indeed any artwork in which its intertextuality is prominent – gains its value (or at least its identification as a monadic work of art in its own right) through this separation from the aura of the original hypotext(s); its creation is predicated on the reproducibility of the original audio material. It is this reproducibility, however, that enables the work’s hyperreal intertextuality in the first place, in that ‘the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition’,[59] and by extension detaches it from the cultural context of the original work, which is the thread that connects The Disintegration Loops to the real. As such, the historical art objects (and their signification) from which The Disintegration Loops are derived are obfuscated by the very act of The Disintegration Loops’ coming into being. As Benjamin writes:

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence.[60]

This is the core of The Disintegration Loops’ distancing from the real: its convoluted intertextuality allows the work to be conceived with its aura – and its ‘presence in time in space’ [61]– to be nonexistent and untraceable: the work in itself has no ‘history’[62], no socio-political context and thus there is no overtly tangible connection to reality within the internal semantic content of the artwork itself.

The multi-stage intertextual process at work here means that The Disintegration Loops effectively reproduces itself, then destroys itself: the physical act of ‘reproducing’ the tape loop through the machine is what causes the disintegration, exhibiting the process of an artwork’s reproduction causing its own destruction. It is thus not a reproduction of an artwork, in the conventional sense, but what we might call a ‘deproduction’, a destruction of an artwork – or, more accurately, the production of one artwork documenting the destruction of another. The Disintegration Loops is not simply a work in which an art object has been reproduced to a degree that the original’s aura has been rendered imperceptible; instead it has destroyed the original, and with it the original aura itself. So if, as Benjamin suggests, ‘the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity’[63], then this possibility of authenticity (in terms of a tangible connection between the artwork and its ‘presence in time and space’[64]) is denied The Disintegration Loops from its very conception. The act of appropriating an appropriation in such a way, where the very process of what Lacasse calls ‘transtylisation’[65] destroys the hypotext, means that The Disintegration Loops was always-already cast adrift from any tangible connection to any discernable socio-historical context.

This combination of the diminished aura and the work being multiple times removed from its hypotext ultimately means that The Disintegration Loops work has no aura from which to be alienated. Benjamin talks of the effect of reproduction on the depreciation of the aura in the reproduced artwork, yet Basinski’s work preserves this feeling without the presence of the concept which this feeling is predicated on in the first place – once again retaining its aesthetic content while dispensing with its semantic content. This alienation – elimination, even – of the aura is the essence of The Disintegration Loops’ distance from the real. Given that when a work loses its aura ‘what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony [of an art object] is affected is the authority of the object’[66], Basinki’s work is abstracted from its social context indelibly. The actual connection to the context of its creation is negligible, and thus The Disintegration Loops has no implicit ‘authority’[67] with which to comment on the events of September 11. The lack of an aura therefore implies a degree of alienation of the artwork from any potential historical context or connection to the real, but doubly so here in that even the material art object that contains the aura lacking in The Disintegration Loops is not reproduced in the new work. So while ‘even the most perfect reproduction of the work of art is lacking…presence in time and space’[68] The Disintegration Loops, with no pretence to preservation or perfect reproduction, dispels its original work while still retaining a sensation of this diminishment of the aura inherent to the reproductive process.

Of course, while the ‘goal’ of The Disintegration Loops project is not to perfectly reproduce their hypotexts in their totality – quite the opposite, in fact – this does not mean to say that it cannot still convey some of the effects associated with the loss of aura in a conventional sense. Through re-appropriating the content of the original hypotexts, and with it their authenticity and socio-cultural context, The Disintegration Loops is able to acknowledge the loss of artistic aura in itself, rather than focusing on what the consequence of this reproduction ‘means’ for the new work. In discussing The Disintegration Loops, Swagato Chakravorty suggests that:

despite the original medium (and its constituent message) being ‘lost’, what we are left with is a new message which carries mere vestiges of the old one. In a certain sense this does ‘destroy’ the older message, but only insofar as it reconstitutes itself in a completely new and radically different manner.[69]

The implication here is that while the message of the original work does not transfer itself to the new work, the (depreciated) aura of the original work does make its presence felt; the ‘message’ of the new work is therefore not what ‘vestiges’[70] of the aura-work has been lost but rather the loss of this aura in itself. Thus echoing the notion of The Disintegration Loops being an exhibition of travesty in itself, the effect that the work’s intertextuality has on its aura (or perceived lack thereof) means that the work is an exhibition of alienation and loss of aura within the work of art in itself. This implies that The Disintegration Loops is able to extract the concept of alienation from any semantically perceptible context and instead focus on it in purely aesthetic terms – a notion that will be important for the subsequent investigation of the meaningful link between abstract art and reality.


‘The music becomes a ghost of itself’[71]

Regarding the form of the work itself, each composition that comprises The Disintegration Loops collection – there are six separate works in total – has the same formal characteristics. Basinki’s tape fragments, each one only a second or so in length, are instigated into the process of repeating, being continually fed through the tape machine in an infinite loop. Each loop through the machine causes the tape to disintegrate slightly, so the audio fidelity of the music – and what you hear – gradually decays with each successive sequence. Due to the process of disintegration then, the piece of tape essentially contains a different piece of music each time it is played. As Brandon Kreitler notes, ‘while the movements may feel repetitive, there is in fact no genuine repetition of an identical loop.’[72]

As such, The Disintegration Loops exposes certain limitations of art’s suitability as a vehicle for content and meaning, or indeed exposes the possibility that art being a ‘nexus of meaning’[73] is simply a fallacy. There is a fragility of signification and semantic possibility inherent to the form of The Disintegration Loops: if the work is unable to retain its content materially, then it can hardly be expected to do so symbolically or aesthetically. Essentially, the ease with which the hypotextual work is transformed points to the transience of the artwork itself as a site of meaning, the death of its material constitution suggesting how easy it is for a work’s ‘message’ to be reformulated. So while The Disintegration Loops ‘over time…[reveal] the infinite complexity and depth in even a short clip of audio information’[74] the ‘value’ of this information in expressing a coherence of meaning remains unsubstantiated. The content of the work is revealed to be superficial, with the information within the work changing irreparably with each passing loop of the tape. The only constant in the work is therefore the effect of this superficiality: the aesthetic properties of the music when viewed in totality – each loop combined for the whole duration of the composition – is the only element of the work that can be grasped fully. Rather than this transience of information merely creating something of a semantic ambiguity as to the meaning of the work, it itself becomes the dominant aesthetic. Its decay of information, its semantic content, directly causes the audio-aesthetic sensation of the work. The death of information is the content of the work, its meaninglessness is its meaning. So rather than creating anything ‘new’, the act of The Disintegration Loops’ creation instead consists of the negation of its own original content. It is in this sense that, as Kreitler continues, ‘The Disintegration Loops offers a rare experience in art, not that of another viewpoint or commentary, not in fact of more content to add to the heap, but of the sensation of decay, the death of information.’[75] Once again, the way in which The Disintegration Loops exhibit certain sensations in themselves, rather than what these sensations may signify, is crucial to a recognition of how the work functions and gains its ‘meaning’.

The Disintegration Loops is able to perform this function through making its very materiality explicit within itself: it is important for the physical decay of tape to be present and perceivable if this aforementioned exhibition of a lack of retained material content is to be made possible. As Hegarty notes, ‘tape has its own narrative, its own way of structuring narrative, that is intimately caught up with not so much the economic materiality of its production, but the materiality of its form.’[76] In his work Basinski exploits this ‘narrative’[77] of tape in order to draw a link between the aesthetic content of The Disintegration Loops and the socio-political ‘content’ of September 11. This concept is crucial, as it is in this sense that not only can a work relate to the real despite its lack of ‘content’, but its abstraction (ie its ‘asemism’) is the very mechanism that allows this meaning to gestate. Its own semantic content is negated, subjugated to the content of 9/11. The work becomes something of a surrogate for the real through its aesthetic properties. As Hegarty notes:

This creates a seemingly elegiac piece, as the tape plays itself decaying through the medium of the sound decaying … Despite Basinski making this impression more solid by noting his listening to the piece on September 11th, 2001, he is aware it is not just about death, or even the terrible beauty of death, or about hope, either, but about how these intertwine, as it is the ‘life and death’ of the music that is being saved … It is not just being saved though, because the saving is performing the destruction. This recording is not just about endings, then, but process, decay and the necessity of decay potential in allowing tape to act as recorder.[78]

The Disintegration Loops is not about ‘things’ but processes: the focus is not on allusions to the reality that is September 11, but on finding common aesthetic experiences that can be derived from both the art object and the event it ‘depicts’. The Disintegration Loops’ formal constitution enables a shift of focus from the work’s content (or lack thereof) to its aesthetic properties. The lack of perceivable content means that what is experienced is not what content has disappeared, but – as Kreitler alludes to – the very ‘sensation’[79] of disappeared content itself.


‘Music itself, in its absolute sovereignty, has no need at all of images and concepts but merely tolerates them as an accompaniment.’[80]

Each of the concepts discussed thus far – the inherent hyperreality of intertextuality, the obfuscation of aura, the self-negation of content – show that The Disintegration Loops firmly posits itself as a work so deeply embedded in abstraction that its distancing from the real event it is ostensibly memorialising becomes self-evident. However, a detailed analysis of these points also hints towards the idea that the underlying aesthetic of this abstraction is what enables the work to become a powerful artistic response to the events of September 11. To work towards solidifying this claim it is first worth discussing the nature of abstraction in music in a general sense, as well as analysing the way in which abstraction can itself relate to reality despite any suggestion of this being paradoxical.

Music, at least to a certain extent, is inherently an art form of pure aestheticism: any semantic, pseudo-linguistic content is fused on to it, and is negligible with regard to its identification – even its value – as an aesthetic object. As Malcolm Budd writes, ‘the value of music as an art, or the value of any piece of music as music, is independent of its relation to anything extra-musical.’[81] Thus The Disintegration Loops’ value as a work is predicated precisely on its musical qualities: any extra-musical content it may have is circumstantial to its primary aesthetic constitution. The Disintegration Loops thereby accentuates the already-existing immediacy on its aesthetic, strictly musical properties in its removal of any possibility of extra-musical content being perceptible (through its aforementioned destruction of signifiers), thereby ensuring that it ‘has no subject-matter extraneous to its combinations of musical sounds, and its artistic value is determined only by the intrinsic beauty of the audible forms that compose it’[82]. This is especially true of instrumental music, which of course dispenses altogether with even the pretense of overt linguistic (and with it semantic) content. As Budd continues, music’s ‘aesthetic appeal’[83] lies in its conveyance of sensation that ‘pleases in itself, rather than subserving a further function. The illustrative power of music is minimal’[84]. In this way, even if a musical work broadly exhibits an inner semantic coherence, a structural logic mimetic of a linguistic structure, this is still in subservience to its ability to convey strictly musical aesthetic qualities, as Eduard Hanslick attests to in his On the Beautiful in Music:

The beautiful [in music] is not contingent upon nor in need of any subject introduced from without, but that it consists wholly of sounds artistically combined…In music there is both meaning and logical sequence, but in a musical sense; it is a language we speak and understand, but which we are unable to translate.[85]

So while music can be said in one sense to be a semantic art form, it does not necessarily signify anything beyond itself. Its internal signification – its self-referentiality – serves an aesthetic effect, rather than a communicative purpose. As Hanslick also states, ‘a musical idea brought into complete manifestation in appearance is already self-subsistent beauty’[86], and so what is sensible in the work ‘is an end in itself, and it is no way primarily a medium or material for the representation of feelings or conceptions.’[87]

Through the concepts we have already discussed, we can see how Basinski’s work is able to accentuate these inherent qualities of music even beyond the standard conception of music’s aesthetic properties. The extra-musical qualities of The Disintegration Loops – the disintegrating signifiers of its hypotexts – are being actively destroyed by the work, and so the extra-musical content is eroded by the musical, aesthetic content in a very explicit sense here. The Disintegration Loops, therefore, through the very manner of its construction, makes explicit its lack of mimetic power, in that even the signs embedded in its hypotext does not signify anything beyond itself, and yet even this lack of signification is progressively eliminated. The overwhelming perception of listening to The Disintegration Loops is that, as Bleiker writes, ‘music, at least in its “pure” instrumental form, does not seem to represent anything outside itself – certainly no concrete and straightforward political message.’[88] Thus not only does The Disintegration Loops as a work exemplify the extent to which abstract, intertextual, instrumental music is distanced from the real, its prime ‘message’ would appear to be to convey this fact. As Adorno writes, art’s ‘enigmaticalness goads it to articulate itself immanently in such a fashion that it achieves meaning by forming its emphatic absence of meaning.’[89] Therefore artworks affirm their purpose or function through eliminating the possibility of conveying meaning and instead highlighting the aesthetic properties that are sensible within the work. This is what Adorno refers to when he talks of ‘the emancipation of artworks from their meaning becoming aesthetically meaningful once this emancipation is realized in the aesthetic material’[90]. Thus the work’s own aesthetic appears to articulate its own absence of tangible meaning, and is reliant on nothing external to itself to convey this. Paradoxically then, its meaninglessness becomes its meaning, and it is through this that the link between art and the real – between The Disintegration Loops and September 11 – can be drawn.


‘By avoiding contamination from what simply is, art expresses it all the more inexorably’[91]

To compound these claims it is first necessary to analyse the true relationship between abstract art and any socio-cultural context it may lay claim to be a ‘representation’ of. It is absolutely crucial here to note that while The Disintegration Loops’ function is dependent on its abstraction, its distance from reality, it still retains to a certain extent a connection to the real context that enabled its creation. Indeed, the work gains its value through making explicit this connection to reality, and with it the very process of the work’s separation from its origins. The act of disintegration is also the act of this separation: the loops do not exist in a vacuum, and the resultant aesthetic effect of the work is wholly dependent on having the real (in the form of the original hypotextual art objects) to disintegrate from. As Adorno writes:

There is nothing in art, not even in the most sublime, that does not derive from the world; nothing that remains untransformed. All aesthetic categories must be defined both in terms of their relation to the world and in terms of art’s repudiation of that world.[92]

Thus even abstract art is still ultimately embedded in the real: art is not actually distinct and separable from reality, and so its apparent autonomy is in actuality what Jacques Rancière calls a ‘double heteronomy’[93]. Art and the real are detached from one another to an extent, but more accurately they are mutually dependent in the sense that art, whether abstract or not, will always need to be defined in relation to any socio-political context from which it can be said to derive. Art therefore gains its ability to comment upon or critique the real precisely through this seemingly paradoxical double heteronomy, its separate-yet-not relationship to life:

It thus appears that art does not become critical or political by ‘moving beyond itself’, or ‘departing from itself’, and intervening in the ‘real world’. There is no ‘real world’ that functions as the outside of art.[94]

Adorno too is aware of this, with his suggestion that ‘art is autonomous and it is not; without what is heterogeneous to it, its autonomy eludes it.’[95] Thus even in its own abstraction and meaninglessness art still needs to be defined against something external to it for it to gain a semblance of meaning. As Adorno continues, ‘whereas art opposes society, it is nevertheless unable to take up a position beyond it; it achieves opposition only through identification with that against which it remonstrates.’[96] For The Disintegration Loops this external force is, of course, September 11 itself.

With the fact in mind that it assertively does ‘derive from the world’[97], abstract art’s lack of mimetic content – and therefore its semantic separation from the real – begs the question of just how their relationship to each other can be defined. In other words, ‘the politicity of art is tied to its very autonomy’[98], and so with the idea that ‘art and politics do not constitute two permanent, separate realities’[99] comes the realisation that the relationship between art and life must be identified and defined in aesthetic terms. Therefore The Disintegration Loops, with its active destruction of semantic content and a mimetic relationship to the real, leaves no choice but to be defined in relation to the real through its aesthetic content. It is in this sense that The Disintegration Loops engages aesthetically with the events of September 11, in that it invites the aesthetic connection between former and the latter to be drawn out in its work.

Adorno suggests that ‘every act of making in art is a singular effort to say what the artifact is itself not and what it does not know: precisely this is art’s spirit’[100], and that ‘rather than imitating reality, artworks demonstrate this displacement to reality.’[101] As such, the power of The Disintegration Loops lies precisely in separating itself from the socio-political content of September 11 while still retaining certain aesthetic similarities. As Adorno continues:

Precisely by distance from it art adopts its stance towards the empirical world in which conflicts appear immediate and as absolute cleavages; their mediation, implicitly contained in the empirical, become the for-itself of consciousness only by the act of stepping back from it, which is what art does.[102]

It is in this sense that The Disintegration Loops mediates aesthetic sensation rather than semantic content. By making them ‘appear immediate’[103] the work highlights the aesthetic over the strictly mimetic connection to reality.

The Disintegration Loops is thus defined by what is not: it is connected to the events of September 11 in the sense that its absence of any semantic content invites a different, strictly aesthetic bond to form between the real and that which is distanced from it, between the art work and that which lies heteronomous to it. The absence of this content enables a different form of engagement with the event, and calls for an art that penetrates the semantic reality and meets it on its own terms, on the aesthetic ‘conception’ of the real that cannot be articulated in any other way, in a manner in which only an artwork such as this can do. This ‘aesthetic bond’ is achieved through a recognition of what can be sensibly found in both art and life, as Ranciere writes:

There is a multiplicity of folds in the sensory fabric of the common, folds in which the topography of what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’ are continually criss-crossed and displaced by the aesthetics of politics and the politics of aesthetics.[104]

In other words, through its abstraction art is better equipped to draw out the aesthetic commonalities between art and life, and The Disintegration Loops is perfectly able to commit this act due to the formal characteristics discussed thus far.


‘True art treads on forbidden ground where it mingles with reality without being reality’s mirror image, that is, a sheer representation of reality any longer’[105]

Not only does its abstraction not hinder The Disintegration Loops’ ability to relate to the reality that is September 11, but it is precisely this shedding of figurative signification that gives the work this possibility. There is no semantic content within the work to ‘instruct’ the listener, with the work instead having the freedom to interact with the listener in other ways. Quite simply, as Adorno writes, ‘the artwork wants to make the facts eloquent by letting them speak for themselves. Art thereby begins the process of destroying the artwork as a nexus of meaning.’[106] Thus there is nothing that a non-abstract, figurative, artistic depiction of September 11 could tell us that we did not already know, or that we could not glean from the already-existing real. The innumerable news broadcasts, documentary footage, eyewitness accounts and so forth provide us with all the ‘factual’ content we need. Thus the artwork is redundant in this respect, and must find other ways to relevantly relate to September 11.

Ultimately then, the most important consequence of the form of abstraction that The Disintegration Loops takes, and its apparent distancing from any form of reality, is that it highlights the possibility that the work does not in fact have any pedagogical function. Inherent in artworks that predicate their own function on their semantic content is a tendency to attempt to provide an informative role for the spectator that is at best misguided and at worst actively stultifying to the work’s true ability to produce a truly valuable aesthetic function. The Disintegration Loops, with its active suppression of any external signification, does not suffer from this problem. As such, The Disintegration Loops does not belong to what Jacques Ranciere identifies as the ‘representative regime of art’[107] in which ‘works of art belong to the sphere of imitation’,[108] but the ‘aesthetic regime’,[109] a mode of art in which works ‘neither give lessons nor have any destination.’[110] As such, while the argument could be made that The Disintegration Loops has something of an allegorical function (its aesthetic properties being tenuously allegorical about the events of September 11), it is not from this that the work gains its power. If we were to respond to The Disintegration Loops as if it could ‘tell us’ something about September 11 we would render its value as art utterly redundant. To engage with it we must meet it on its own terms, on the function of the aesthetic content of the music.

The implication here is that the symbolism of what actually occurred on September 11 is already to clear to us, and we do not need an ‘allegorical’ work of art to articulate that for us. The ‘meaning’ of September 11 is already present within itself, in that this event is in itself symbolic of something else: the destruction of the United States’ financial centre is representative of a deeper reality, that of the United States’ global cultural hegemony and economic power initiating its own destruction. Any analysis of the ‘meaning’ of September 11 must take into account that the twin towers of the World Trade Center were attacked in order to exploit their symbolic properties, and not just for what they are in themselves. The symbolism and signification of the attacks on the World Trade Center are thus auto-articulate: it does not need any extraneous agent (such as a work of art) to express its implications. As Rancière writes:

That four-hundred-metre-high towers sporting the name of the world’s financial centre were a symbol of human hubris in general and of one nation’s desire for world domination in particular, and that their destruction aptly allegorizes the vanity of that greed and the fragility of that hegemony – this is clearly not a major discovery.[111]

With the events of September 11 there is thus a symbolic rupture involved, in that the very real destruction of the World Trade Center is also a destruction of that symbol of American power. The consequence of such an act is that the incongruity of the ‘symbolic real’ and reality in actuality is revealed. The destruction of the symbol reveals it to be exactly that: only a representation of power, with the aforementioned deeper reality taking its place, and so what is sensibly perceptible in reality itself is reconfigured. This is what Baudrillard is referring to when he talks of how ‘it is the tactic of the terrorist model to bring about an excess of reality, and have the system collapse beneath that excess of reality.’[112]

Thus the events of 9/11 are themselves striking a blow to the existing symbolic order, of which the event itself is constituted: the events are articulating a meaning beyond that contained in the immanency of the event itself. The idea that the ‘symbolic event’ of an artwork is necessary to illuminate the destroyed symbolism inherent in the destruction of the World Trade Center is therefore redundant. In relation to this, Rancière writes that:

A symbolic event is the name for any event that strikes a blow to the existing regime of relations between the symbolic and the real. It is an event that the existing modes of symbolization are incapable of apprehending, and which therefore reveals a fissure in the relation of the real to the symbolic.[113]

If this is indeed the case, then it is illogical to assume that art – falsely posited as separate from reality – can play a role in articulating (or even limiting) this ‘fissure’.[114] When the coordinates of the real itself are being reformulated in the wake of this symbolic rupture, it is not reasonable to carve out a space for art in which it may provide an adequate representation of this (unstable) comprehension of the real. Any pretence to the real contained in any mimetic work of art is wholly inconsequential: when the real itself is being reconfigured (or at least the perception thereof), any artistic representation of it fails to be valuable. It is in this sense that any possible pedagogical model of The Disintegration Loops can be dismissed as superfluous to its true and actual (aesthetic) function.

Regarding art’s social and political function, Ranciere suggests that:

Art is not, in the first instance, political because of the messages and sentiments it conveys concerning the state of the world. Neither is it political because of the manner in which it might choose to represent society’s structures, or social groups, their conflicts or identities. It is political because of the very distance it takes with respect to these functions, because of the type of space and time that it institutes, and the manner in which it frames this time and peoples this space.[115]

The Disintegration Loops thus sheds any potential mimetic qualities or pedagogical function in favour of extracting purely the aesthetic sensibilities of the work. Due to the distance it takes from the real in terms of its mimetic dissimilarity, art is able to gain the capability to engage with reality in other ways. As Adorno suggests, ‘the communication of artworks with what is external to them, with the world from which they blissfully or unhappily seal themselves off, occurs through noncommunication’[116], allowing artworks to engage with that which is external to them aesthetically rather than mimetically – its relationship to its context is that it ‘resembles it without imitating it.’[117] We can recognise in The Disintegration Loops the possibility that it resembles September 11 without imitating it, which enables the work to comment on those events without being strictly mimetic or crudely allegorical. Just as the representative propensity of the artwork is often overstated in neglect of its aesthetic sensibilities when analysing the link between art and life, the aesthetic content of the real is overlooked when comprehending events such as September 11, especially with regards to the human reception of such a spectacular occurrence. The Disintegration Loops, in giving primacy to its aesthetic content within itself, is also able to draw out this aesthetic content of the real, as Emmanouil Aretoulakis suggests:

To witness representations of 9/11 on the TV is to have the opportunity to safely appreciate aesthetically an unprecedented event and reflect on the danger that something similar or the same thing might have happened to oneself but fortunately did not.[118]

With this in mind, by focusing on these aesthetic sensations in themselves, The Disintegration Loops is able to accentuate these feelings, and highlight the shared aesthetic properties of both the art object and the events of September 11. The Disintegration Loops does not segregate art from the real for the purpose of drawing crude allegorical equivalences between art and life, between ‘fiction’ and fact. Rather, it highlights the aesthetic sensations inherent to both, something that primarily pedagogical artworks have failed to do. In the aftermath of September 11 more representational artworks have proven to be unfulfilling, both as art and as mediators of information. As Givoney explains, ‘a decade later, we hardly lack for artistic representations of September 11, its lead-up, and aftermath,’[119] and yet ‘for every novel, film, sculpture, and piece of music’[120] it remains that a work such as The Disintegration Loops seems to have resonated most poignantly. With particular regards to pictorial representations, for instance, Baudrillard suggests that: 

The role of images is highly ambiguous. For, at the same time as they exalt the event, they also take it hostage. They serve to multiply it to infinity and, at the same time, they are a diversion and a neutralization (this was already the case with the events of 1968). The image consumes the event, in the sense that it absorbs it and offers it for consumption. Admittedly, it gives it unprecedented impact, but impact as image-event.[121]

This would point to the reasons why music is potentially a more successful vehicle for artistic engagement with September 11 than the visual arts. The Disintegration Loops is able to discard the immediate trauma as mediated through the image – which shares absolutely semantic content with September 11. Instead Basinski’s work is given the autonomous (or, more accurately, double-heteronomous) freedom to focus unequivocally on the shared aesthetic, as is necessary for a ‘useful’ artistic work to transcend the real event while at the same time engaging with it aesthetically. It is in this sense that we can conceive of The Disintegration Loops as an aesthetic approximation of the real, as opposed to a work that draws mimetic-allegorical equivalences between itself and that which is external to it – ‘[mingling] with reality without being reality’s mirror image’[122], as Aretoulakis writes.

Fisher and Flota suggest that ‘on The Disintegration Loops, we hear the jarring noise of death and decay. We hear the sound of loss, the sound of destruction, the sound of an America that has been unalterably changed by the spectacle of the real – a spectacle of aural catastrophe.’[123] Here we see the way in which The Disintegration Loops engages with the aesthetic constitution of September 11, as opposed to relying on the mimetic-allegorical model – the representative regime – of art. Basinski’s work would appear to function as a relatable aesthetic experience to this aural catastrophe, an outlet for this experience to be reconciled with in a way that more mimetic modes of art cannot. The Disintegration Loops can still be seen to provide a response and commemoration of the events of September 11, but in a way that goes beyond the details of the event itself, to experience the event without being confronted with the traumatic ‘realness’ of reality. To extend this, Fisher and Flota also note that

It is telling that the 9/11 attacks were notoriously described…as being “like a movie.” While the extreme, potentially pornographic video coverage of 9/11 attacks was meant to reveal and transmit the reality of the attacks, it also worked to configure 9/11 as a spectacle, an event that was, in its utter realness, also unreal – too real to be conceived beyond the trappings of theatrical performance.[124]

Paradoxically then, a primarily mimetic artistic engagement with September 11 would essentially be too ‘unreal’. Basinski’s work allows the listener to go beyond this possibility, engaging emotionally without the ‘distraction’, as it were, of that which is ‘too real to be conceived’[125]. As Roland Bleiker writes, ‘the role of emotional insights into 9/11 illustrates how even purely instrumental music may contain political content’[126], and so it is this primacy of the emotional in the work that gives The Disintegration Loops its importance. As Bleiker continues:

Music is not based on the idea of representing a specific object in the political world. But music does, at the same time, relate to aspects outside itself, to a state of mind, an attitude, a feeling, or an emotion.[127]

The importance of this emotional content becomes clear when the need for a comprehension of the spectacular nature of the events of September 11 is taken into account. Much like how the attacks were carried out primarily to exploit their spectacular symbolic content, instigating a difficulty in even comprehending what had happened was a clear goal for the perpetrators. As Bleiker writes, the inability to ‘grasp the event in its totality’[128] results in ‘incomprehension, pain and fear, which express the gap between what was experienced and what can actually be apprehended by existing conceptual and descriptive means.’[129] With this in mind, the need for an art that attempts to comprehend aesthetically and emotionally that which cannot even be comprehended in reality, let alone represented in art, becomes paramount. As Aretoulakis suggests:

The aesthetic is the key to thinking of the 9/11 disaster as visually captivating or stunning. A passenger plane literally crashing into a WTC skyscraper is something we have never witnessed before. Therefore we cannot associate it with an already established law of reasoning so as to be able to conceptualize it. Its aesthetic power derives from its autonomy, its non-dependence on any known category of perception … We are fascinated by the spectacular as an original personal experience, thereby leading ourselves, as spectators, automatically into the terrain of aesthetic appreciation, namely of what is new, previously unknown.[130]

Therefore, when faced with something that we cannot adequately conceptualise (in the sense of it having no existing precedent) the importance of aesthetic sensation becomes immediate. In this sense we can only truly engage with September 11 in aesthetic terms; in art (and with The Disintegration Loops especially) this is made explicit, as Aretoulakis continues:

Aesthetic appreciation and art become imperative when it comes to addressing terrorism. Looking at terror through the lens of aesthesis by no means undermines the seriousness of a critical political situation. Far from it; it yields alternative or additional insights into a terrorist incident that reason, alone, cannot account for and helps retain an ethical and political stance towards terrorism.[131]


‘Modern art…is predicated on the recognition of the inadequacy of what appears to be adequate.’[132]

With all this in mind, not only does the existence of a work like The Disintegration Loops become validated, it becomes an actively sought after mode of engaging artistically with a real event like September 11. With an event like September 11, visually spectacular to the extreme and mediated to ‘secondary witnesses’ through mass communication, ‘even people who are affected only indirectly by the events can feel distressed by their inability to comprehend them through existing conceptual means.’[133] Thus there is no precedent – artistic or otherwise – for coping emotionally with September 11, and so the only way we can reconcile with it is through attempting to engage with it aesthetically. This aesthetic engagement becomes crucial in light of this lack of precedent, as Aretoulakis articulates: 

Art’s self-authenticating mechanism of entering reality erases art’s fictional character by giving it the opportunity to assume the role and significance of some natural presence acting in the world rather than an artificial representation that simply articulates what is already there.[134]

It is in this sense that the prominence of the shared aesthetic over the mimetic-allegorical gives The Disintegration Loops its power. This is not to suggest that the aesthetic reception of the work is ethereal and indistinct: there are tangible links between the aesthetic of the art work and the aesthetic of the real. While there is a degree of ambiguity and subjectivity in the conveyance of emotion in music, there are musical phenomena in The Disintegration Loops that objectively occur. It is undeniable that the music is decaying and destroying itself, for example; it is undeniable that this disintegration sequentially accumulates over the course of the piece, with any emotional response deriving from the perception of this occurrence.

The work is more than invoking an emotional response as conveyed through its musical properties: aesthetic reception and that which is sensible in the work itself is what decays in the process of listening to the work. It is this which gives The Disintegration Loops its power. As previously mentioned, it is not what is present in the work but what destroyed signifiers haunt the work but were always-already prevented from occurring within it due to the material constitution of its production. So while what is sensible in the first instance is perceptible – ‘a few clinging chords…[of] covertly elegiac music’[135] – it is the active destruction of these characteristics that remains the key asset of the work. This is certainly something that Michael Shulan, Creative Director of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, appears to recognise in the work:

9/11 was a shattering day, and a shattering experience, but the way people reacted to it was uplifting and life-affirming. All of this is present in The Disintegration Loops. It is there in the terrible beauty of the smoke- and dust-filled sky over Ground Zero as the sun slowly sets and the frame slowly darkens, and the music which simultaneously consoles and unsettles as it slowly degrades. The Disintegration Loops speaks to an event whose impact and meaning has only grown over the past decade, even as it in certain respects has also grown more elusive. [136]

It is these words, spoken upon the work’s acceptance as a culturally significant response to the events of September 11, that encapsulate what The Disintegration Loops has achieved: the establishment of aesthetic commonalities between itself and the subject of its memorialisation, in a way that not only provides an adequate emotional response to the event, but also articulates the sublime sensory overload that mimetic works of art – and to some extent even reality itself – cannot comprehend.

In the case of The Disintegration Loops we see the importance of art’s need to become a mediator not of information, but of aesthetic sensation itself. The Disintegration Loops’ negation of its own content allows it to subordinate its actual content to its aesthetic properties, thus highlighting that the link between the musical work and the ‘reality’ it alludes to is primarily aesthetic in nature. Ultimately, Basinski’s work shows the possibility that ‘aesthetic judgement/appreciation proves an ally in representing adequately the atrocity of the attacks and their immediate effects.’[137]

In an age of mass media and instantly accessible information, we do not need art to perform our documenting and our mediating for us, so it must serve other, more fulfilling purposes. In this case of this work, if September 11 is mediated through spectacular images – and indeed the event itself is spectacular, gaining its very content through being a spectacle – then it could be the case that The Disintegration Loops is a more necessary, more authentic, more ‘real’ means of reconciling with and ‘representing’ the trauma of what actually happened, as opposed to merely performing a regurgitation of information and a recycling of trauma.

This is the legacy of The Disintegration Loops: its self-evident display of its own abstraction, achieved largely through its intertextual properties, is the mechanism by which it champions the aesthetic regime, a mode of art which is especially overlooked in terms of its value and emotional resonance when coming to terms, both individually and collectively/culturally, with such a significant and traumatic event.


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[1] Joseph P. Fisher and Brian Flota, ‘Introduction – Greet Death: Post-9/11 Music and the Sound of Decay’ in The Politics of Post-9/11 Music: Sound, Trauma, and the Music Industry in the Time of Terror, ed. by Joseph P. Fisher and Brian Flota (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2013), pp. 1-10, p. 2.

[2] David Stubbs, ‘Invisible Jukebox: William Basinski’, The Wire, September 2009, pp. 21-23, p. 21.

[3] Michael Heumann, ‘William Basinski: The Disintegration Loops I-IV’, Stylus <http://www.stylusmagazine.com/review.php?ID=1691&gt; [accessed 23 June 2014].

[4] Stubbs, p. 22.

[5] James Elaine, ‘Body, Bone, Blood and Spirit’ in William Basinski, The Disintegration Loops (Temporary Residence, TRR194, 2013).

[6] Elaine, ‘Body, Bone, Blood and Spirit’.

[7] Andrew Parks, ‘The Self-Titled Interview: William Basinski’, Self-Titled <http://www.self-titledmag.com/2012/10/30/the-self-titled-interview-william-basinski/&gt; [accessed 23 June 2014].

[8] Stubbs, p. 22.

[9] Jakob Dorof, ‘William Basinski: Interview’, Tiny Mix Tapes <http://www.tinymixtapes.com/features/william-basinski&gt; [accessed 23 June 2014].

[10] Michael Shulan in William Basinski, The Disintegration Loops (Temporary Residence, TRR194, 2013).

[11] Paul Hegarty, ‘The Hallucinatory Life of Tape’, Culture Machine, 9 (2007), <http://culturemachine.net/index.php/cm/article/view/82/67&gt; [accessed 19 August 2014].

[12] Ronen Givony, ‘Some Versions of Pastoral: The Disintegration Loops’ in William Basinski, The Disintegration Loops, (Temporary Residence, TRR194, 2013).

[13] John Doran, ‘Time Becomes a Loop: William Basinski Interviewed’, The Quietus <http://thequietus.com/articles/10680-william-basinski-disintegration-loops-interview&gt; [accessed 29 June 2014].

[14] Fisher and Flota, p. 1.

[15] Fisher and Flota, p. 1.

[16] Givony, ‘Some Versions of Pastoral: The Disintegration Loops’.

[17] William Basinski, The Disintegration Loops, (Temporary Residence, TRR194, 2013).

[18] David Guimond, ‘The Sounds of Disappearance’, Intermedialities, 10 (2007), pp. 115-130, p. 126.

[19] Guimond, p. 126-127.

[20] Serge Lacasse, ‘Intertextuality and Hypertextuality in Recorded Popular Music’ in The Musical Work: Reality or Invention?, ed. By Michael Talbot (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000), pp. 35-58, p. 37.

[21] Lacasse, p. 37.

[22] Lacasse, p. 37.

[23] Lacasse, p. 37.

[24] Lacasse, p. 39.

[25] Guimond, p. 115-116.

[26] Guimond, p. 128-129.

[27] Guimond, p. 127-128.

[28] Brandon Kreitler, ‘The Music Was Dying’, The Brooklyn Rail <http://www.brooklynrail.org/2009/06/music/the-music-was-dying&gt; [Accessed19 August 2014].

[29] Lacasse, p. 42.

[30] Lacasse, p. 42.

[31] Lacasse, p. 55.

[32] Kreitler, ‘The Music Was Dying’.

[33] Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (Winchester: Zero, 2014), Amazon Kindle e-book, location 386.

[34] Lacasse, p. 43.

[35] Givony, ‘Some Versions of Pastoral: The Disintegration Loops’.

[36] Lacasse, p. 54.

[37] Doran, ‘Time Becomes a Loop: William Basinski Interviewed’.

[38] Jean Baudrillard, ‘The Precession of Simulacra’ in Simulacra and Simulation, ed. by Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011), pp. 1-42, p. 6.

[39] Liam Maloy, ‘“Stayin’ Alive in Da Club”: The Illegality and Hyperreality of Mashups, IASPM Journal, 1 (2010), pp. 1-20, p. 13.

[40] Maloy, p. 13.

[41] Maloy, p. 9.

[42] Maloy, p. 10.

[43] Maloy, p. 9.

[44] Maloy, p. 9.

[45] Doran, ‘Time Becomes a Loop: William Basinski Interviewed’.

[46] Dan Hill, ‘Sketchbook: Movements in Modern Media’, City of Sound <http://www.cityofsound.com/blog/2006/08/movements_in_mo.html&gt; [Accessed 2 September 2014].

[47] Richard Middleton, ‘Work-in-(g) Practice: Configuration of the Popular Music Intertext’ in The Musical Work: Reality or Invention?, ed. By Michael Talbot (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000), pp. 59-87, p. 87.

[48] Middleton, p. 87.

[49] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. by E.B. Ashton (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 363.

[50] Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 363.

[51] Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 363.

[52] Doran, ‘Time Becomes a Loop: William Basinski Interviewed’.

[53] Hegarty, ‘The Hallucinatory Life of Tape’.

[54] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zorn (London: Pimlico, 1999), pp. 211-244, p. 214.

[55] Benjamin, p. 214.

[56] Benjamin, p. 215.

[57] Maloy, p. 9.

[58] Middleton, p. 61.

[59] Benjamin, p. 215.

[60] Benjamin, p. 214.

[61] Benjamin, p. 214.

[62] Benjamin, p. 214.

[63] Benjamin, p. 214.

[64] Benjamin, p. 214.

[65] Lacasse, p.54

[66] Benjamin, p. 215.

[67] Benjamin, p. 215.

[68] Benjamin, p. 214.

[69] Swagato Chakravorty, ‘Mediation’, The Chicago School of Media Theory <http://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/mediatheory/keywords/mediation/&gt; [Accessed 3 September 2014].

[70] Chakravorty, ‘Mediation’.

[71] Kreitler, ‘The Music Was Dying’.

[72] Kreitler, ‘The Music Was Dying’.

[73] Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, ed. and trans. by Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), p. 174.

[74] Kreitler, ‘The Music Was Dying’.

[75] Kreitler, ‘The Music Was Dying’.

[76] Hegarty, ‘The Hallucinatory Life of Tape’.

[77] Hegarty, ‘The Hallucinatory Life of Tape’.

[78] Hegarty, ‘The Hallucinatory Life of Tape’.

[79] Kreitler, ‘The Music Was Dying’.

[80] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, ed. by Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs, trans. by Raymond Geuss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 36.

[81] Malcolm Budd, ‘Hanslick, Eduard’ in A Companion to Aesthetics, ed. by David Cooper (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), pp. 178-179, p. 178.

[82] Budd, p. 178.

[83] Budd, p. 178.

[84] Budd, p. 178.

[85] Eduard Hanslick, ‘from On the Beautiful in Music’ in Art in Theory 1815-1900: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), pp. 479-483, p. 481-482.

[86] Eduard Hanslick, On The Musically Beautiful, trans. by Geoffrey Payzant (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1986), p. 28.

[87] Hanslick, On The Musically Beautiful, p. 28.

[88] Roland Bleiker, ‘Art After 9/11’, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, Vol. 31, No. 1, Art and Politics (Jan.-Mar. 2006), pp. 77-99, p. 87.

[89] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 174.

[90] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 209.

[91] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 27.

[92] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 190-191.

[93] Jacques Rancière, ‘The Aesthetic Revolution and its Outcomes’ in Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, ed. and trans. by Steven Corcoran (London: Continuum, 2010), pp. 115-133, p. 128.

[94] Jacques Rancière, ‘September 11 and Afterwards: A Rupture in the Symbolic Order?’ in Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, ed. and trans. by Steven Corcoran (London: Continuum, 2010), pp. 97-111, p. 148.

[95] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 8.

[96] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 27.

[97] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 190.

[98] Jacques Ranciere, ‘Aesthetics as Politics’ in Aesthetics and its Discontents, trans. by Steven Corcoran (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009), pp. 19-44, p. 26.

[99] Rancière, ‘The Aesthetic Revolution and its Outcomes’, p. 25.

[100] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 180.

[101] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 181.

[102] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 198

[103] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 198

[104] Ranciere, ‘September 11 and Afterwards: A Rupture in the Symbolic Order?’, p. 148.

[105] Emmanouil Aretoulakis, ‘Aesthetic Apprecation, Ethics, and 9/11’, Contemporary Aesthetics, 6 (2008), <http://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/ca/7523862.0006.013?view=text;rgn=main&gt; [Accessed 23 August 2014].

[106] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 211.

[107] Jacques Ranciere, ‘The Monument and its Confidences’ in Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, ed. and trans. by Steven Corcoran (London: Continuum, 2010), pp. 169-183, p. 173.

[108] Steven Corcoran, ‘Editor’s Introduction’ in Jacques Ranciere, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, ed. and trans. by Steven Corcoran (London: Continuum, 2010), pp. 1-24, p. 15.

[109] Jacques Ranciere, ‘The Paradoxes of Political Art’ in Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, ed. and trans. by Steven Corcoran (London: Continuum, 2010), pp. 134-151, p. 140.

[110] Ranciere, ‘The Paradoxes of Political Art’, p. 140.

[111] Jacques Rancière, ‘September 11 and Afterwards: A Rupture in the Symbolic Order?’, p. 97.

[112] Jean Baudrillard, ‘The Spirit of Terrorism’ in The Spirit of Terrorism, and Other Essays, trans. by Chris Turner (London: Verso, 2012), pp. 3-16, p. 14.

[113] Jacques Rancière, September 11 and Afterwards: A Rupture in the Symbolic Order?’, p. 97.

[114] Jacques Rancière, September 11 and Afterwards: A Rupture in the Symbolic Order?’, p. 97.

[115] Jacques Ranciere, ‘Aesthetics as Politics’, p. 23.

[116] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 6.

[117] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 6.

[118] Aretoulakis, ‘Aesthetic Apprecation, Ethics, and 9/11’.

[119] Givoney, ‘Some Versions of Pastoral’.

[120] Givoney, ‘Some Versions of Pastoral’.

[121] Baudrillard, ‘The Spirit of Terrorism’, p. 20.

[122] Aretoulakis, ‘Aesthetic Apprecation, Ethics, and 9/11’.

[123] Fisher and Flota, p. 4.

[124] Fisher and Flota, p. 2.

[125] Fisher and Flota, p. 2.

[126] Bleiker, p. 89.

[127] Bleiker, p. 90.

[128] Bleiker, p. 80.

[129] Bleiker, p. 80.

[130] Aretoulakis, ‘Aesthetic Apprecation, Ethics, and 9/11’

[131] Aretoulakis, ‘Aesthetic Apprecation, Ethics, and 9/11’

[132] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 218.

[133] Bleiker, p. 80.

[134] Aretoulakis, ‘Aesthetic Apprecation, Ethics, and 9/11’

[135] Givoney, ‘Some Versions of Pastoral: The Disintegration Loops

[136] Michael Shulan in William Basinski, The Disintegration Loops.

[137] Aretoulakis, ‘Aesthetic Apprecation, Ethics, and 9/11’

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