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 act of assemblage, of composition through unifying disparate elements of pre-existing texts, takes many forms in contemporary British poetry, and is utilised to various ends. However, despite the multifarious ways in which this aesthetic manifests itself, there are two overriding functions that assemblage performs: firstly it challenges pre-conceived notions of poetic form and extends the ways in which a text can generate meaning, and secondly it uses this formal and linguistic experimentation to exhibit a certain postmodern malaise in contemporary culture, which displays as self-evident the difficulty of meaningful self-expression in late-capitalist culture. Most importantly, the use of assemblage ventures a viable means for artistic expression in an era in which, as Kalle Lasn writes, ‘culture is no longer created by the people’ and ‘the spectacles that surround the production of culture…are our culture now. Our role is mostly to listen and watch – and then, based on what we have heard and seen, to buy.’
Within music criticism and journalism in recent years there has been a growing fixation with what has come to be known as ‘retromania’, or ‘pop culture’s addiction to its own past.’ The overriding thesis of this critique is that recent technological and cultural circumstances have led to something of a regression in the creative impulses of musicians, leading to a lack of innovative styles and an overreliance on pre-existing forms as the inspiration for ‘new works’. This criticism has been particularly championed by SimonReynolds, who articulates his misgivings about contemporary pop music as follows:
Instead of being about itself, the 2000s has been about every other previous decade happening again all at once: a simultaneity of pop time that abolishes history while nibbling away at the present’s own sense of itself as an era with a distinct identity and feel.
In order to fully understand the extent to which popular culture today is commodified in comparison to previous eras it is essential to recognise the various developments of capital not as distinct phenomena, but as part of a continual process of accumulation, expansion and consequent abstraction. It is crucial to note, as David Harvey writes, that:
Capital is a process and not a thing. It is a process of reproduction of social life through commodity production, in which all of us in the advanced capitalist world are heavily implicated. Its internalised rules of operation are such as to ensure that it is a dynamic and revolutionary mode of social organization, restlessly and ceaselessly transforming the society within which it is embedded. The process masks and fetishizes, achieves growth through creative destruction, creates new wants and needs, exploits the capacity for human labour and desire, transforms spaces, and speeds up the pace of life.
To gain an understanding of the way in which art can itself be an agent of cultural critique it is vital to explore the true nature of spectatorship, how this relates to the production and reception of meaning in art and, ultimately, how a lucid understanding of these two issues contribute to a recognition of art’s actual critical capacity. Here we will identify art’s critical potential through a focus on the implications of Jacques Ranciere’s analysis of spectatorship, while also drawing upon Adorno’s exploration of meaning in art, and identifying how their work relates to a burgeoning accelerationist aesthetic evident in some contemporary artistic practice. The manifestation of this critical potential in contemporary art will be explored through the works of musicians James Ferraro and Daniel Lopatin, as well as a selection of the multitude of artists following in their wake.
Possibly more than any other form of art, it is music that lends itself most often and most effectively to feelings of the sublime. This is perhaps because music, unlike visual art, and certainly unlike literature, is abstract in its very essence. If we accept the definition of ‘abstract’ as that which is ‘characterised by a lack of or freedom from representational qualities’ we can deduce that, despite one’s best efforts, it is potentially futile to ascribe a pure and absolute meaning to a piece of music, as no degree of description or representation can be attributed to the music without remaining external to the very music itself: no description can transcend the effect and essence of the music itself. As Nietzsche suggests in The Birth of Tragedy, ‘By no means is it possible for language adequately to render the cosmic symbolism of music,’ as it ‘symbolises a sphere which is above all appearance and before all phenomena…Language, as the organ and symbol of phenomena, cannot at all disclose the innermost essence of music.’ Therefore, language is an impotent tool in providing a full understanding of music, and so the meaning of a musical work must lie within the musical work itself, separate and free from a fully linguistic and logical comprehension.
Though Ferdinand de Saussure’s semiotic theories primarily constitute an analysis of language, its overriding principles can also be applied to the analysis of literature. Saussure’s desire to quantify linguistic study into something empirical, systematic and scientific highlights the ultimately methodical nature of speech and the construction of language. Of all the ideas that originate from Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, perhaps the most important to the study of literature is the notion that language is beyond the control of the individual: it is an external structure that the individual speaker is unable to influence, only merely to absorb and utilise in an act of passivity. As Saussure states, ‘Language is a system of interdependent terms in which the value of each term results solely from the simultaneous presence of the others’. From this we can surmise that speech is largely of a predetermined nature, in that words can only be defined by their relation to other words, meaning there is a degree of inevitability about how a sentence will be constructed, and by extension how conversations are carried out.