April 8th, 2007

Between Genres

Back at the end of January, when I went to the Bay Area for my friend Joel's birthday party, I reaped a huge windfall of music. Because I've been so busy, however, I've only just now started to make meaningful headway in the process of sorting the wormy apples from the tasty ones. Today I decided I'd make more progress in this task if I created subcategories on the hard drive I brought back. So far, it's working pretty well.

And the process has been intellectually fruitful for me. I'm writing a lot about the concept of genre right now, particularly as it applies to popular music. I think we can learn as much by interrogating the way people classify their collections as we can by considering those collections as a whole. It's the limit cases that interest me most in this regard, those artifacts that do not fit comfortably into any of the taken-for-granted categories -- I also try not to take the "taken-for-granted" for granted -- that record stores and online emporia typically deploy.

Not surprisingly, I'm finding that the music I'm most eager to hear with greater care is the same music that I've been placing in a category I've coined specifically for these limit cases: "Between Genres." The artists it contains have little in common other than having little in common with artists who fit readily in traditional genres. That makes for a strange common denominator, but also one that opens up a pathway for thinking about music in relation to philosophical considerations of classification, such as Ludwig Wittgenstein's work on language games or Alain Badiou's exploration of set theory.

This is the terrain sociologist Pierre Bourdieu covers in his landmark book Distinction, which reflects on surveys of taste conducted in France in the 1960s. Taking as his implicit starting point the overlap between the concept of "class" in a political sense and the definition of "class" in a strictly formal sense -- an obvious point, but one which, like the purloined letter of Poe's story, tends to be overlooked precisely because it is in plain view -- he draws attention to the ways in which power relations are manifested in the process of classifying culture:
Those who classify themselves or others, by appropriating or classifying practices or properties that are classified and classifying, cannot be unaware that, through distinctive objects or practices in which their 'powers' are expressed and which, being appropriated by and appropriate to classes, classify those who appropriate them, they classify themselves in the eyes of other classifying (but also classifiable) subjects, endowed with classificatory schemes analogous to those who enable them more or less adequately to anticipate their own classification (482).
While the repetitions in this passage give it a quality of the absurd, they serve to reinforce Bourdieu's thesis, which is that it is never fully possible to get outside of the process of classifying: we are always already within it, making it, in a sense, a set with universal membership.

As I was typing that passage from Bourdieu in, I realized more viscerally the filum that threads his work together with that of his sometime antagonist Michel Foucault as well as Badiou, who seems, on the surface, to have markedly different preoccupations. Like Wittgenstein, all three of these important French thinkers were interested in what I'm calling "limit cases," as well as with the power to set limits that renders them appreciable as such. I would be remiss here if I failed to note, as I periodically do when I'm teaching, that our word "genre" derives, obviously, from the French, in which it doubles also as the equivalent of our English concept of "gender."

To be "between genres," then, might also be to be "between genders," suggesting, among other things, that Foucault's interest in a famous case of hermaphroditism also represents a concretization of his interest in taxonomy more generally. But what does this have to do with music? Well, I'm coming to that, though the Hauptbahnhof is not yet visible in the distance. Stay tuned for the portion of the book I'm writing that will explore the topic in depth. For now, though, I can state, provisionally, that I'm reading the process of classification that increasingly dominates popular culture -- think of all the sorting that goes on in the interaction with digital music or YouTube -- as a response to a world in which taken-for-granted categories are proving less and less commodious. There's a hunger, in other words, to order what falls in between the cracks, even if it is accompanied by the desire to fall freely.

Rules and Regulations

Sometimes I disturb myself. A little while ago, I sat down at the computer to post a photo of my daughter in her Easter dress. But, realizing that my last entry had been a photo, I had to write something to precede the photo. Why? Because I have this silly rule for myself that I try very hard not to break: never post two consecutive photos. There's no reason to have such a rule, that I can conceive. I don't remember when it settled into habit for me. Nevertheless, I am loathe -- thank you, _luaineach, for reminding me of the pleasures of that word -- to transgress.

That's only part of the reason why I'm disturbed, however. There's also the fact that the entry I wrote purely to put some text in my photo sandwich ended up taking a lot longer than I'd initially intended. Once I make it over the impediments to forward progress, like an overloaded diesel rig, I can roll cheerfully down the highway for hours. Wait, now I'm berating myself for using an LKW metaphor in this entry after resorting to my favorite Zug metaphor in the last one. I can't remember whether I have a rule for not mixing such proximate metaphors on the same day or in consecutive entries, but I'm starting to think that I should. Help me, world of the flesh to flee, however temporarily, the intensity of intension. Clearly, I can't do it on my own.


The bowl of tomatoes sits
still, their bodies losing
breadth each day. I need
to scissor them in half
like unruly cardboard
and slip them into the
pan. A little olive oil
and they'll make do
as accompaniment to
something I have yet
to imagine, concentrated
flavor of a bliss I was
too busy to properly
indulge, perfect death
of the liquid inside.