Thursday, June 12, 2008

Uninflectedness and Irony

Two ubiquitous modes in contemporary art (both often present): uninflectedness and irony.

All surfaces are smooth and even. There's no real disruption; any dissonance is absorbed into the total effect. No abrupt shifts.

The message is "I'm not really (doing) this," though the cue that lets us in on this message might be so slight as to be absent (the artist merely seems to have assumed, "no-one could possibly think I mean this").

In neither case is there an invitation to risk or care, a self-exceeding involvement with the materials of the work and the world as seen from the work. Each mode negates the traditional relations of the artwork to subjectivity, rejecting the investments of the artist and the viewer. Uninflectedness does this by simply refusing any stance toward anything--a "hands-off" approach--while irony violently destroys such investments by inhabiting positions it characterizes as false in the very act of inhabiting them.

These are rejections of an approach to art that depends on a unified subject as the locus of meaning, and in many cases they particularly work as avoidances of the most common forms of sincerity, with the sentimentality or self-aggrandizement sincerity can involve. In this sense uninflectedness and irony could be progressive, if only they didn't so often seem to be mere negations of what they oppose. If sincerity in its most commodified forms is offensive because it actually turns out to be poisonous to care, a real, comprehensive critique of it would involve the discovery of ways to invite care that stem from entirely different foundations, that show (rather than--as with bad sincerity--tell or insist on) what's lost in the decay of the communication of commitment into an aesthetic ideology of emotional habit.


I've been thinking about the problems of irony for a long time. The notion of "uninflectedness" came to mind while I was trying to answer the question: "Why does so much contemporary pop music, though obviously skilled and intelligent, leave me so cold?" I was particularly trying to figure out what bothered me about the music of Sufjan Stevens, which I've just started listening to and like quite a lot. Stevens has an incredibly even vocal delivery, all within a very restricted dynamic range, and his lyrics are poetically interesting, and generally describable as "almost actually being about something." The arrangements are texturally and melodically thoughtful. I want more dynamic shifts, more harmonic dissonance. The recording (of Come on, feel the Illinoise!), like most pristine contemporary digital recordings, is very compressed, so the dynamic range not only of the performance style but of the music in its entirety is squashed down to a highly listenable smoothness. The technology that makes it possible to produce these scintillating arrangements encourages--and all but demands--an uninflected music (it's a lot harder to go from soft to loud singing in a close-miked digital recording than in a rougher analog situation). These are songs that could be breathtaking, but instead they're just very good.

Admittedly, Stevens takes this vocal uninflectedness and uses it in productive ways. The melodies he and his backing vocalists sing end up being treated like more string and horn parts, breaking syllables where the melody, rather than the language, dictates, and this makes the singing a fully integrated "instrumental section" in his polyphonic arrangements. In this respect he's an exception among recent songwriters I've heard, for whom uninflectedness merely sounds like a form of expression (perhaps one characteristic of a generation raised on ADD drugs).

Irony is all over contemporary songwriting, especially in the adoption of musical genres that were initially performed sincerely, but are now viewed as kitsch.

In recent poetry, "Conceptual Writing" might be characterized by uninflectedness, in its utterly impersonal approach to the texts it appropriates and processes (at least in the descriptions of CW given by Kenneth Goldsmith). Flarf, on the other hand (at least in its "classic," "cloyingly awful" period), tends toward the ironic. Both tendencies can make something out of what's primarily a merely negative tendency (the way Language writing has generated new constructive principles out of its initial negations of subjective expressivity, narrative, etc.), and both always run the risk of becoming willing constructions of the technologies that make them possible.

Aesthetic innovation via the negation of other modes involves the discovery of new problems. The work is one of engaging with those as problems, rather than just sitting in the glow of the new until what's new in art turns out to look just like what was already around outside it.


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