Why theory?

by Rob Horning

8 September 2006


Via a tip from Crooked Timber comes this essay, a pretty heavy Althusserian reading of the Gang of Four’s praxis by Timothy Sexton, arguing that the band merged critical theory with rock music to intensify the contradictions we all experience as subjects within consumer-capitalist institutions and possibly subvert the culture industry. It’s not light reading. Sample sentence:

Gang of Four locate their Marxist theory in the Althusserian notion of expressing resistance through the contradictions inherent in the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA) of the corporate-controlled rock music industry, and the way in which Gang of Four express their theory of Marxist thought is by inducing in the listener an alternative consciousness achieved through contradictions and disorientations that serve to mirror the very sense of disorientation and contradiction that capitalistic consciousness creates.

While insightful, the article’s stern humorlessness seems almost parodic—a clever reminder perhaps of why the Gang of Four chose to express its ideas through music and not theoretical essays. But it may be that there is no light-hearted way to get across the idea that social being and material conditions determine one’s consciousness, not vice versa, and that our illusions of autonomy make up the better part of our chains.
But a paragraph like this is frustrating:

In a system that engages in the use of ideology rather than force to control its underclass and that engages in the practice of diversion through the type of distraction that Walter Benjamin discusses, the danger for that system lies in the realization of discontent by its inhabitants. When the discontent rises to a pitch and the diversions of entertainment no longer occupy the mind, that is when the alternative consciousness can be raised. Once again Gang of Four reveal their ability to exploit contradiction by engaging in the diversion of leisurely entertainment in order to raise awareness about the discontent that a happiness that is dependent on consumption of leisurely entertainment ultimately brings. Reaching the point at which this awareness of why one finds himself discontent despite owning so many things he was assured would make him happy is what ultimately concerns Gang of Four and is the cornerstone of their theory.

Would it corrupt the argument to edit this into the following: When a system uses entertainment to oppress workers, the danger is that workers will at some point cease to be entertained. The essence of Gang of Four’s approach was to turn the trap of entertainment against itself and use it to reveal to its consumers the empty futility of consuming, freeing them to be receptive to new and potentially revolutionary ideas.

The opacity of the language precludes the writer from reaching the audience the Gang of Four was able to reach; perhaps this demonstrates an alert fear that the commentary may be superfluous if it is indeed accurate. I used to think that complex arguments required a certain amount of jargon and repetitious phrasing to achieve the precision they aimed for; now I tend to think it’s equal parts carelessness and suceptibility to the tortuous diction of other theorists such a writer is probably reading. Writing that way is an attempt to sound theoretical, to connote “theoreticity” regardless of the nature of the ideas. It is the linguistic equivalent of wearing a Ché shirt. Not that I think Sexton is some kind of poseur, though, in writing this essay—it’s more that it seems he needs to adopt a stilted prose style to have faith that his argument will be taken seriously, and ironically enough, in a culture debased by infotainment and copy laboriously edited to be effortless, this has the effect of making it seem utterly marginal. His point about the Gang of Four’s theoretical approach—that it stages in its songs a dialogue between the voice that wants to go along, get along and the voice that is becoming aware of the systematic ways his identity is circumscribed by material conditions—may have broader application to all theoretical writing that attempts to be accessible. It’s user-friendly (i.e., condescending?) aspects gives voice to the deep-seated urge to reaffirm the status quo even as the gist of the writing may intend to subvert existing social relations. If this practice is effectively dialectical in the Gang of Four’s music, Sexton might give it a chance in his prose.

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