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.
"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 thatThe 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.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.