Conspicuous cognition

by Rob Horning

27 July 2006


Maybe Terry Eagleton is right, and we are now in a period “After Theory”. But the generation of liberal arts students who were obliged to read Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Deleuze, Barthes, et. al., still remain, and some of them are now working critics. This, I think, explains the surprising amount of coverage that Green Gartside and his “band” Scritti Politti have recently generated with a new album. Gartside is almost too good to be true: You couldn’t ask for a better subject upon which you could trot out all that poststructuralism you were forced to learn.  At a time when theory was still fresh, Gartside started a band named after a book by the Marxist cultural theorist Antonio Gramsci, wrote a song that announced his love for Jacques Derrida (appropriately called “Jacques Derrida”), and slowly charted a course toward mainstream pop at its most synthetic without ever abandoning his frequent lyrical allusions to linguistics and psychoanalytic theory. Hence, there is a lot of postmodern praxis to explicate: the fusion of high and low culture, the intertextuality of social production, the reification of ideas in language, unstable irony, love as a metaphor for ontological and epistemological dilemmas epitomized by deconstruction, etc. Infuriatingly, none of this stuff makes Scritti Politti especially pleasant to listen to (as anyone whose given “Anomie and Bonhomie” a listen); suitably they are much better in theory than in practice.

The working critics of 1985, when Scritti Politti released its most successful album, Cupid & Psyche 85, were not interested in such stuff (and neither, likely, was the audience): David Fricke’s Rolling Stone review,  which was content to dismiss Gartside’s lyrics as “abstract word games,” pretty much set the tone. This album yielded the band’s only American hit, “Perfect Way,” which managed to reach the charts despite being packed with puns on Lacanian buzzwords, lacks and voids and difference, that went over just about the entire audience’s head. (I remember liking the song when it came out, but wondering if it was going to get me beat up. But that fear abated as it became almost an act of courageous subversion in my high school to stop listening to Boston and Foreigner and adopt a fancy for wimpy English pop.) Now, as the articles linked above demonstrate, that is one of the first things noted about the song, suggesting something of theory’s lasting practical impact on the mundane level of magazine culture. Part of what makes Gartside fascinating is that it remains unclear why he decided to saturate his songs with graduate-seminar material—was there a subversive agenda at work, and if so what did he want to subvert, the complacency of the pop audience or the pretensions of the theory itself (which, of course, would instruct us to see him as doing both simultaneouly)? But even though critics are now willing to frame their discussions of Scritti Politti with references to Lacan and Derrida, they remain unwilling to take the theoretical ideas seriously, instead reducing them to superficial appliqués, tokens in a round of philosophical hide and seek. In other words they do a reductionist postmodern move on Gartside’s songs and refuse to attribute any depth to them even while acknowledging their complexity. The generation of critics who mastered poststructuralist theory had no interest in carrying the revolution forward; they are content to know the ideas and deploy them dismissively in order to send a discreet message about their own educational capital: “I may be writing popular journalism, but I’ve cracked the spine on Anti-Oedipus too.” So if theory can be said to have failed, perhaps it’s because those who learned it and put themselves in position to dissemenate its ideas only managed to see it as an intellectual status game. It may even have a Vebelesque aspect;  we flaunt knowledge of theory we regard as worthless because it proves how much time and intellect we had to waste on something so apparently useless—it’s conspicuous cogntion.

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