Rock and roll is the battleground where the nihilism untreated by postmodernism is confronted, subdued, or surrendered to
XIII. Nothing and Postmodernism
Nietzsche’s prophecy came true in the bloom of a mushroom cloud, and since then we’ve had to come to grips with nihilism. By that logic, what we call postmodernism is the struggle to understand nihilism and choose a direction now that our infection is complete.
I’ve heard postmodernism called many things. When the poet Li-Young Lee called it “the embodiment of ignorance and failure,” he didn’t mean, I think, its global scope, its multiculturalism, or its resistance to the blind faith in meta-narratives that the mushroom cloud destroyed. He meant something closer to a skepticism about the very act of knowing.
The good that has come from the age we call postmodernism—the attributes I’ve listed above, the empowerment of the oppressed and marginalized, the reconsideration of histories—is challenged in every way by the persistence of doubt. Skepticism, intensified, becomes nihilism. Meaning, we’re told, is enormously complicated, motivated by power—whose power? for what purpose?—and always arguable, always contradictory. Relativism which ought to liberate us only traps us. We can’t reach consensus. We cannot know, and we cannot trust that people say what they mean, because we don’t believe that words can mean anything. Maybe the whole project is wrong. Maybe the whole thing is a bad joke. Exhausted by life’s ambiguity, or, to equate it with Tillich’s words, by taking life’s ambiguity for an absolute, we despair. We risk surrender.
Again somebody asks, “What now?” Where postmodernism has failed is not in its diagnosis, but in its inability to offer the answer to that question, to offer a new treatment. This isn’t surprising considering postmodernism’s emphasis on the impossibility of an accurate diagnosis; when treatments are offered, they’re undercut by the philosophy’s doubt in the legitimacy of its medicine.
The impossibility of knowing makes for a fun debate during that stoned, three A.M. run to the Taco Bell, but as momma warned, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.
When the body is at stake, when we are talking about flesh and blood and not abstractions of language, when the consequences of meaninglessness come to bear on the human being—and they inevitably do—then postmodernism’s talk of play and provisionality can seem nihilistic. To put it in more concrete terms: when you call a war a façade or simulacrum, you deny the reality of the bodies of the innocent and the guilty which are piling up, and when you point out the incessant relativism of words, you’re not really helping to get equal rights legislation passed, which means you are not helping Sally gain access to the hospital in order to visit her lover Mary. The modern Hippocratic oath, suitably enough, warns against the “twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.”
XIV. Rock and Roll
“And oh, mesh gear fox
Pull out another bag of tricks from your scientific box
Time’s wasting and you’re not gonna live forever”
- “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox (A Rock Anthem)”
It’s no accident, I think, that rock and roll is the battleground where the nihilism untreated by postmodernism is confronted, subdued, or surrendered to. Even if rock and roll has chronologically been the music of the postmodern era—when Jacques Derrida delivered his seminal lecture “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” at Johns Hopkins in 1966, it was to an audience of American academics listening to Blonde on Blonde—and even if it speaks to themes of relativism, aporia, and historical reconsideration, rock and roll has always been a medium of electricity, sweat, and the body.
For that reason, rock and roll is pragmatic—occasionally a political and philosophical pragmatism, but always, sometimes obsessively, the it’s-Saturday-night-let’s-get-it-on brand of pragmatism. Even when the music and lyrics dwell on doubts and uncertainties and aporia—on stillness, stasis, incarceration—they are still being performed, acted out, and there is a sense that someone has to pay, someone has something to gain, and in the performance, someone can be hurt, or saved. Dealing in consequence, rock and roll in its viscerality seduces, shames, sexes, and moves its listeners. Good rock and roll, anyway. Which is another way of describing the difference between rock and mere entertainment. It’s the difference between music that kills some time—nihilism—and music that engorges time with meaning; that innervates the courage to believe, even if it’s a belief that the building needs to be burned down.
If this is how I define good rock and roll, then I have to admit that, despite its tendency to side against nihilism by virtue of its form, rock and roll is still, as I said, a place where nihilism can be surrendered to. Certainly by the late 20th century, nihilism was a seething answer to any kind of “courage to be”, labeling the latter as either impossible, naïve, falsely innocent, politically-manipulated, or merely profit-driven. Not that the prophets had been silent: KRS-One warned against it; Bruce Springsteen warred against it in the American blue-collar vernacular; Nirvana and Bikini Kill tried to choke it. And now, a decade into a new century, I’m not convinced that the landscape has changed drastically. Is the cinematic sound of Animal Collective an affirmation of life or an escape from it?
What I will say is that the question of nihilism grows more urgent, that people are looking for something to move themselves beyond postmodernism’s malaise, and that rock and roll’s function as battleground is not going to change. And that, for roughly a decade and ever since, Guided by Voices prophesied the sound of the courage to believe.
Listening to Guided by Voices today, I hear the yearning, to paraphrase Dr. Cornel West on the venerable Charlie Rose show, to believe in some possibility “by means of our stepping out on nothing and landing on something.” The “nothing” West spoke of was his brand of a very Christian doubt, and while the GBV oeuvre never suggests any kind of coherent theology, to my ears, Voices songs do evoke a madness and sorrow that can be overcome. Call it a secular faith, call it the belief in belief.
You can hear it in the music itself, especially the early years, when every song or song-fragment seemed like a chance. You can hear it in the literal voice of Bob Pollard, the Everyman whose singing sounds like something made from nothing much. You can see it in his heroic-in-spite-of stage persona. And most of all, you can find it in the words. Everything about Guided by Voices is, as I’ve mentioned, active and imperative and forward-looking. Infused with an awareness of suffering, the songs gain greater courage for that knowledge.
Nihilism is fought by what Tillich calls the worth of man’s “own being in spite of those elements of his existence which conflict with his essential self-affirmation.” In spite of death, in spite of doubt. Bob Pollard stands on the roof of a beat-up Pontiac waving his younger self, or us, into the circle in the “Motor Away” video. Onstage, Pollard plays the fool, reporting on the bondage of our fears and desires while kicking karate and guzzling beer by the gallon, not to ignore, not to escape, but to confront, to lead. If Cobain was a prophet because he diagnosed like Nietzsche, Pollard is a prophet because he recognized that nihilism’s price—when it finally comes due, when it is finally leveraged against the human body, against the desire for more life, against the courage to be—is too high.