Saturday, June 13, 2009

I Want You To Know: He's Not Coming Back (or: On Time and Tradition))

I think it's time one just admit it:
Rufus Wainwright or Thom Yorke is our Morrissey. More to the point, Morrissey is still our Morrissey.

What is it that has happened to our sense of time such that the living are as if dead?

I don't mean only the strange fetishization of Morrissey circa 1985. Include with this example the equally bizarre autobiography phenomenon. Take, for instance, William Jefferson Clinton's, My Life, which is written as though on a deathbed. And let us also attend to the haltingly simplistic syntax--"When Daddy got out of jail he had sobered up in more ways than one and was so ashamed that nothing bad happened for some time"; this written by a paragon of Democratic intellectualism: I can scarcely tell if this is gay erotica or the transcript of an abused boy's psych evaluation. Perhaps neither, but certainly a intended for the lowest common denominator. Which is strange as the only imaginable demographic for Bill Clinton's autobiography should be composed of the phantasmic "New England elites." No doubt they did read it--it was a #1 National Bestseller--and no doubt this speaks volumes of this supposed "elite." Which is to say: Bill Clinton died. To the only people who would care about him after his Presidency, he wrote his own death and retreated into the shadowy folds of the William J. Clinton Foundation, through which he purportedly brokered uranium mining deals in Kazakhstan for only $30mil.

But Bill Clinton's diplomacy is not my concern. My interest, rather, lies in the hyper-acceleration of time itself.

Giorgio Agamben claims in The Man Without Content that in a traditional system "it is not possible to speak of culture independently of its transmission, because there is no accumulated treasure of ideas and precepts that constitute the separate object of transmission and whose reality is a value." (MC, 107) We can cite as an example of this accumulation the resurgent elevation of The Smiths to "nearly-lost treasure" status--"nearly lost" because isn't this the posture of the hipster? to be the guarantor of a cultural artifact that is in need of aggressive protection?

We can also note an antinomy central to the notion of understanding tradition qua cultural transmission. On the one hand, the decadent and languid allure of Morrissey's lyrics and lyrical performative are on display, and just as seductive, in Thom Yorke and Rufus Wainwright, establishing an unbroken link--transmitted quite literally--between generations. On the other, the fetishization of Morrissey corresponds well to an analysis that claim's "contrary to what one might think at first sight, the breaking of tradition does not at all mean the loss or devaluation of the past: it is, rather, likely that now the past can reveal itself with a weight and an influence it never had before." (MC, 107-108) The same weight Machiavelli's, Nietzsche's, and Freud's mythical Founders came to acquire in death: the weight of authority, and eventually deification. (Note that for Arendt tradition forms/is composed of authority and religion; cf. "Between Past and Future")

But isn't it the case that in both instances tradition is being "activated," "transmitted"? That, on the one hand, the direct influence that connects Morrissey to Thom Yorke or Rufus Wainwright constitutes precisely "an absolute identity... between the act of transmission and the thing transmitted, in the sense that there is no other ethical, religious, or aesthetic value outside the act itself of transmission." (MC, 107) And isn't this transmission equally activ(e)at(ed) when the receptive ear is listening to the newer singer, Yorke or Wainwright? On the other, the influence of Morrissey on Yorke or Wainwright is decidedly not like Kafka's castle "which burdens the village with the obscurity of its decrees and the multiplicity of its offices," despite Agamben's claim that our epoche suffers a loss of tradition (MC, 108) The consequence of this rupture in traditional time means losing "the possibility of drawing from this heritage the criterion of [ones] actions and [ones] welfare and thus the only concrete place in which he is able, by asking about his origins and his destiny, to found the present as the relationship between past and future." (MC, 108) Quite the contrary: The Smiths either remain relevant or their successors articulate experiences of like kind which means life is similarly experienced now as then, and both; in no sense is the continuity of cultural transmission here interrupted.

Is it plausible to suppose we are, still, firmly, if confusedly, enmeshed in a traditional society?

Agamben, under the influence of Heidegger and Arendt, theorizes from a gap opened between past and future by a rupture in tradition. While it is necessary to be aware of the crucial insights of Heidegger and Arendt, Agamben should have been more attentive to the rapid response-ability to what Heidegger and Arendt documented. The devastatingly violent explosion of liberal democracy, humanistic metaphysics, and religious orthodoxy that threatened to throw the world into an abyss of oblivion gave birth to a near-instantaneous, clear-sighted account and analysis (Heidegger and Arendt), but also new configurations of comportment to the world amidst this radical loss of tradition. Once the threat of immanent oblivion subsided and assessed, the fragments of this tradition began to call out: Wilde's love which dare not speak its name, unmoored from the context of 19th century Victorian England this love came out. It could only come out; it had no home to return to. That is, the loss of tradition was also the event of its reconstitution, as if tradition had transmitted itself through and out of its negation.

What Agamben reads as the loss of tradition is really the reconstitution of tradition. The cultural lineage that connects The Smiths to Radiohead or Rufus Wainwright stands as an example of a fragment consolidating itself, pro-ducing (poiesis) a tradition of its own from the remains of a relative/relevant fragment. Our task, we fragments who are sub-alterns, is to call to one another now. The hyper-acceleration of time this essay addresses, is precisely the cultivation of a tradition, a queer tradition. The "good ol' boys" have the jump on us; they are fetishizing themselves, consolidating themselves--as through we needed further evidence than the Kennedy, Bush/Gore, or Clinton dynasties; a hegemonic fragment, as though magnetized, draws us away from one another in resistance, and towards itself.

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