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Conspicuous cognition

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.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

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