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Life Goes On - De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
Life Goes On
I want to talk about today's date. But I'm going to take backroads instead of the bypass.

This past April, I presented a paper at the Experience Music Project 's annual conference. For 2004, the title was "This Magic Moment: Capturing the Spirit and Impact of Music." Rather than write about a moment "when music erupted," as most participants did, I chose to critique the idea of "momentous history." Building on work by my mentor Wendy Brown, my great friend Jillian Sandell, and the conversation in my graduate seminar that spring, I focused on the way in which the story of punk is most commonly told, with an emphasis on rupture and discontinuity. My basic point was that, while this "exceptionalism," as I call it, "has its virtues – ease of recall, for one thing – it reduces the complexity of history to the 'hundred year event,' severely impacting our ability to come to terms with the varying speed and depth of its currents, its stagnant pools and tidal inflows. In particular, the fixation on moments of maximal change imprisons us in a progressivist conception of history, making us believe that what matters most is what moves us forward."

Although music history is my specialty, I meant for my argument to apply to other forms of history. Towards the end of the paper itself, I discussed the role that the Sex Pistols' last concert -- before their unfortunate reunion tour, anyway -- at the Winterland in San Francisco plays in histories of punk. I noted that, for San Francisco punks, the event didn't seem nearly as momentous as it did to people far away. Then I moved from the specific to the general:
This is one of the most important lessons of writing history. If you get close enough to an event, you start to see it blend into the everyday lives of the people who experienced it. It starts to lose its distinctness. There are exceptions, of course. Almost all Americans would tell you that 9/11 brought their ordinary activities to a screeching halt. And so would I. But just the other day, while going through old papers, I found a receipt from Trader Joe's dated the afternoon of September 11th, 2001. I don't remember going to the store that day. It's hard to believe the store was open. Yet the evidence shows that I was there, purchasing the usual cherry tomatoes, whole-wheat bread, and a case of Gerolsteiner sparkling mineral water. Life goes on, even as the momentous event lingers in the mind.
By the same token, though, it's important not to let the goings on of life fade the pain to white. Sometimes it's as important to feel the texture of history as it is to know the texture-less facts that comprise it:

Those shadows and half-purpled imperfections mean a lot to me now.

When we got in the car this morning to drive to the "bagel place," Kim had 92.9 "The Mountain" playing on the radio. I made it to the intersection of Paseo Del Norte and Ina before my restraint gave out. I pushed the pre-set for our NPR station.
"What are you doing? I like that song," said Kim.
"Just checking."
"Well, you can tell that's not the sound of a special report, so put the music back on."
I could have begun the morning with Google News, as I do almost every day of the year. But something had held me back. Maybe I needed to feel that sense of looming panic on the anniversary.

Later in the day, after washing the kitchen floor, I curled up on the sofa and read most of Art Spiegelman's new In the Shadow of Two Towers -- which I highly recommend, despite its small page count -- and let myself drift back. It looks like I'll finally have to see New York in person, now that my sister is getting married there in November. I'm not looking forward to the day. Maybe it's because my strongest memories of the skyline are my earliest, driving there as a four-year-old and seeing that only-slightly-darker-than-the-haze silhouette emerging from the painfully bright background. Maybe it's because my sister and 9/11 are twined in my mind for reasons that are entirely personal. Maybe it's just because I'm too much of a Taurus to deal with dramatic change.

At any rate, as I reflected on today's date I realized that the paper I presented back in April was also a message to myself, a reminder not to fixate too much on dates. Picking up where the last quote ended, here's my conclusion:

Writing against the assumption that structuralism is antithetical to history, Michel Foucault writes that
History, then, is not a single time span. It is a multiplicity of time spans that entangle and envelop one another. . . In reality there are multiple time spans, and each one of these spans is a bearer of a certain type of events.
I can buy food at the grocery store while also feeling a moment of dreadful terror because of the tangle Foucault describes here. And the Sex Pistols' Winterland show can simultaneously be the most important moment in the history of San Francisco's punk scene and an insignificant deviation from the routine at the Mabuhay. The important thing, I'm arguing, is to remind ourselves of those time spans less defined by momentous events, so that we don't lose touch with the texture of everyday life, with the confusions it perpetrates, the lack of perspective that confronts us when we are in the middle of things.

Wendy Brown concludes that, "as the past becomes less easily reduced to a single set of meanings and effects, as the present is forced to orient itself amid so much history and so many histories, history emerges as both weightier and less deterministic than ever before." Punk may have ended at Winterland. But it also began. More than that, though, it continued, just as it continues today, forced through the portal of a moment that can only hold it for a moment. We need to remember that, even as we marvel at the passage.
The same goes for 9/11. We must remember, not only the date we can't forget, but the price we pay for forgetting the days before and after. We must remember, in short, the politics of remembrance. Life goes on, long after the thrill of reliving it is gone.

Mode: remembering into
Muse: Jack and Diane - John Cougar Mellencamp - American Fool

9 comments or Leave a comment
shadydeals From: shadydeals Date: September 12th, 2004 01:13 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Could you send me a copy of that paper? I would love to read it.


cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: September 13th, 2004 06:50 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I'd love to. But I have to type the rest of it in first. I lost the electronic version with mayh other files in a computer mishap. Write me again to remind me -- LJ user ID before the "at" sign and "comcast.net" after it -- if you don't get it within a week or two.

Thanks for asking!
leela_cat From: leela_cat Date: September 12th, 2004 06:46 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I also find that 9/11/2001 is kind of hazy. I remember waking up to Peter Finch crying on KFOG as he announced the news of the first tower. Then came waking up and the race downstairs to CNN to see what was happening.

Then the office, which was closed down around noon for "security reasons". None of us did much work except standing around someone's cube watching his portable TV.

On one of the drives (home or to the office, I don't remember which), I learned how difficult it is to drive and cry at hte same time. People talk about the music that haunts them from that day. For me the music link occurred when KFOG played "When You're Falling" by Afro Celt Sound System and Peter Gabriel.

I still love that song, and it rarely brings me to tears any longer, but it still seems like a perfect reminder of the people who died in the two towers to me.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: September 13th, 2004 06:52 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
There was no music for us that day, for better or worse. Once we got Skylar from the JCC, we spent all day trying to hide what had happened from her. She never saw it on TV. But she still had nightmares for a month.
elizabeg From: elizabeg Date: September 12th, 2004 09:59 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Remembering into. Yes. I remember.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: September 13th, 2004 06:53 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Eingedenken macht frei, schrieb er ein bißchen zu ironisch. Aber es stimmt, Benjamin nach.
From: (Anonymous) Date: September 13th, 2004 02:07 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Thanks for this -- I always thought the Greil Marcus version of Winterland in Lipstick Traces was a little overblown.

But I wonder if the return to the texture of everyday life you are writing about doesn't quite explain the abyss of terror that *some* people experienced when punk was first born (and also died). And it continues to happen: for me, it was my first mosh pit -- at a ska show at St. Stephens' Church in Northwest DC, sometime in the spring of 1990.

It turns out it wasn't a universal, epochal event, but it was an Event -- of a more limited, subjective kind.

If I agree with you that the continuities overwhelm the discontinuities in events of this kind, maybe my question is, how can we explain local discontinuities, private Events?
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: September 13th, 2004 07:36 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Great to hear from you, Amardeep!

The idea of "private events" is, of course, dear to my heart, as my blog no doubt indicates to excess. My point is not so much that we should privilege continutity over discontinuity, but that we need to be aware of the continutities that span periods of rupture, to have a conception of personal and historical time that is heterogeneous as possible.

Deictic, Greenwich Mean Time occidental culture has evolved to foreground dates where trajectories change, the point -- thinking of Pynchon here -- when the projectile is between going up and going down. That's a perfectly sensible way of looking at things, but one which obscures other patterns, especially those of long duration.

I realize that the Annales School went to the opposite extreme in looking for VERY long duration at the expense of individual historic events of a punctual nature. The trick, I think, is to be thinking in several places at once, to have more than one chronometer.
From: (Anonymous) Date: September 13th, 2004 02:08 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Sorry, I forgot to sign the last comment about events and continuities -- it was Amardeep Singh from Lehigh.
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