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Shklovsky and me v. Heidegger and J-Lo - click opera — LiveJournal
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Tue, Jun. 22nd, 2004 12:54 pm
Shklovsky and me v. Heidegger and J-Lo

What are you up to, Nick?

Well, I'm trying to reconcile ostranenie with the uncanny and anti-rockism with becoming.

Ostranenie is the term Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky gave to the way art deliberately makes things strange in order to make us see them afresh. (Read more about ostranenie here.) 'Perceptual experiences,' explains Rene Lezard, 'can be distinguished as congruent (and therefore unattended) or dissonant (and therefore challenging and requiring attention). Experience and expectation determine which is familiar and which not. The implicit role for the artist is to estrange the familiar, to challenge our expectations in such a way as to get us to pay attention, to see anew. One of the interesting corollaries of Shklovskii's idea is that of the invisibility of the commonplace: "they do not appear in cognition." Familiarity breeds a particular form of contempt in his mind. It is the contempt of not seeing. It is not even a process of ignoring, since that suggests some action on the part of the viewer. Common perception, it might be inferred, is a kind of blindness. It is the poet's or the artist's role to open eyes.'

Anyone who's read the Momus website over the last couple of years knows that ostranenie keeps popping up. Now, I haven't read much Heidegger, but it seems to me that there are clear parallels between what Shklovsky calls ostranenie and what Heidegger calls the uncanny, described by David Corker thus:

'From the work of Freud, Heidegger and Lacan we can put together a definition of the Uncanny as that state of mind which we experience when the unbroken and coherent appearance of the so-called 'common-sense' world is broken or disrupted by evidence of its 'made' quality, as a constructed world. This gives rise to feelings of being disturbed, disgusted or horrified, or to great levels of anxiety or vertigo as certainties are threatened and the very structure of everyday and normal life seems to give way. A classic instance of this would be the mingled fascination and disgust many people feel when confronted with a transsexual; that is someone whose sense of themselves is at odds in a very deep way with their apparent [to others] gender identity... Of course, the threat of anyone who transgresses the boundaries which we regard as fundamental to the nature of the world and of the 'Real' is that by transgressing them they bring to our attention the possibility that these bounds may be arbitrary, or that we too may exist in some deep way on both sides of any given divide.'

So far so good: both Shklovsky and Heidegger are saying what Samuel Beckett put into a single pithy phrase: 'Habit is a great deadener'. But this is where we have to choose between them. Because the question of authenticity comes up (bringing its young nephew, Rockism). Shklovsky, writing in the exciting early days of an experimental new state, the Soviet Union, saw no need to advocate 'keeping it real' or 'staying true to one's roots'. Ostranenie is very much about stepping into the unknown, seeing things in new ways, breaking with old habits. Heidegger, on the other hand, sees estrangement as a positive value only insofar as it reveals to us our bad estrangement from our authentic being.

Heidegger connects the uncanny with authentic becoming (the Unheimlich with Dasein, in his terms) by proposing our authentic selves as a 'secret home', one which we conceal from ourselves with habits and routines and alienated normality, and which we only reach, paradoxically, by the path of estrangement. In other words, it takes one form of alienation (the uncanny) to overcome another form of alienation (inauthenticity). I would call this 'diverging towards the one right answer' and I don't accept that it happens, except insofar as we tend to retrospectively construe random events as inevitable -- 'She was the woman I had been searching for all my life'. We call the thing we find at random 'the one right answer' to impose closure when we no longer want to be dizzied by the labyrinth of choices, the hall of mirrors, the maze of possibilities.

My idea of the uncanny is that estrangement is an end in itself, or a way to jumpstart perception. Closer to Shklovsky than to Heidegger. The uncanny is not a hidden passage to some 'secret home'.

(Read Deborah Lutz on Heidegger, the Erotics of Ontology, and the Mass-Market Romance .)

My problem with the idea of authenticity as it manifests itself in contemporary pop culture -- I call this Rockism for short -- is that it's a conservative and convergent value. The basic tenets of Rockism are that it's good 'to stay in touch with your roots', 'to keep things real', 'to look in your heart and write', 'to thine own self be true', and so on. The emphasis is on the past, on convergence, on origins, and on necessity rather than on the future, divergence, destinations, and freedom. Rockism doesn't go in much for estrangement, but when it does it follows the Heidegger route: estrangement is only legitimate if it helps people diverge towards the 'one right answer'. To my stereotypical Rockist, estrangement, if you do it at all, should be a bit like a scary hellfire sermon, designed to frighten the congregation towards God's 'one right answer'. It cannot be pure divergence -- bluesky brainstorming, experimentation for its own sake, joy in fakeness, fictiveness or possibilism, cross-dressing, ambivalent parody, nomadic goal-less travel, or anything like that.

It's interesting that one of the key elements of the American identity touches precisely on this problem: Americans tend to believe that there is no conflict between 'staying in touch with your roots' and 'becoming whoever you want to be'. Think of Jenny From The Block by Jennifer Lopez as a statement of this odd amalgam of Rockism and Possibilism:

Stayed grounded as the amounts roll in
I'm real, I thought I told you
I really been on Oprah
That's just me
Nothin phony, don't hate on me
What you get is what you see

Don't be fooled by the rocks that I got
I'm still, I'm still Jenny from the block
Used to have a little, now I have a lot
No matter where I go, I know where I came from (from the Bronx!)

I'm down to earth like this
Rockin this business
I've grown up so much
I'm in control and loving it
Rumors got me laughing, kid
Love my life and my public
Put God first
Then can't forget to stay real
To me it's like breathing

Like America itself, Jenny can be both poor and rich, credible and incredible, natural and constructed, local and international, normal and starry, in it for herself and in it for her homies, authentic and plastic, root and branch, home and away. Or so she tells us. Trouble is, if I don't buy it from Heidegger, why should I buy it from J-Lo?

You want to have your cake and eat it too
What, eating without having isn't good enough for you?


Uberculture Ratz
Tue, Jun. 22nd, 2004 04:58 am (UTC)

A co-worker of mine once said "My new year's resolution is to 'keep it realer.' I say 'keep it realer' because if I were to say 'keep it more real' I would, in effect, be keeping it less real." I just tie in the innane garbage of "keep it real" with the anti-esthetic of Date Rape Kings Modest Mouse. You see, living in Seattle, everyone thinks that style and substance are mutually exclusive, so if you're ugly and your music sounds like shit, your scene has got substance out the ass. So lack of style becomes a style in itself, and you're left both vapid and ugly. I still am not quite sure what "keeping it real" really is supposed to mean, but I suspect that it is not a static state, nor does it have anything with nature, or reality. Maybe we should start saying "Don't keep it real... change it to what's pleasing."

Tue, Jun. 22nd, 2004 05:18 am (UTC)

You want to have your cake and eat it too?
There's a solution to your problem: get two.

ReplyThread Parent

Tue, Jun. 22nd, 2004 05:24 am (UTC)

But what happens when you start habitually looking for the uncanny? Doesn't that then become your common-sense world? Doesn't it ultimately become the thing you are trying to "keep real"?


Tue, Jun. 22nd, 2004 05:35 am (UTC)

The Uncanny -- I'd prefer to use the word Ostranenie, because the Uncanny comes with the whole Heideggerian baggage of using the 'unhomely' only to get home -- ostranenie, then, requires 'permanent cultural revolution'. Yesterday's avant garde techniques are today's MTV cliches. Tricks that led people towards cognition in one decade lead people merely towards recognition the next. Artists have to find new ways of making people see (and hear) afresh.

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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand

Tue, Jun. 22nd, 2004 07:26 am (UTC)

hey that's the reason I'm quiting music - after all, I'm just another element of the so-called french elite. I don't belong here, bye bye :)

I'm still I'm still... whatever from the wherever :)



Tue, Jun. 22nd, 2004 08:31 am (UTC)

a. you might quit music, but music'll never quit you, kiddo!

Mr. Sean
Tue, Jun. 22nd, 2004 08:39 am (UTC)

while reading the bit about grasping onto "the answer" to avoid the dizzying cascades of possibilities and uncertainties, i had a distinct vision of an endless abstract slot machine with all of the spinning bits rotating through cherries, bells, bars, stars and what have you, but being held together by this old acid house tune that used a polka bass line and then just had a pastiche of every acid house hit that came out that year (1988)over the top of it. I prefer this to even remembering that J Lo had recorded an album...


Tue, Jun. 22nd, 2004 09:00 am (UTC)
I'm Real

I'd rather think of the singer in Jenny From the Block as an unreliable narrator, and the repeated assertions of her authenticity a denial of the tension between those binaries, poor and rich, natural and constructed, etc.

Stanley Lieber
Tue, Jun. 22nd, 2004 02:52 pm (UTC)
Re: I'm Real

Hey, good one.

ReplyThread Parent
Good bye
Tue, Jun. 22nd, 2004 09:02 am (UTC)

Wanting to have it both ways is the principle of heroism, for good or ill. The poets paint the hero as achieving authentic becoming in the moment of his completion, dissolution, and death. It's a way to valorize our own anxious awareness of the passage of time and death's steady approach. The hero is of ambiguous value to his community, because while their well-being depends upon him, he is also a monster, an outcast, a prodigy, even if he insists he's still Beowulf from Denmark or Jesus from Nazareth. The moment of the hero's death resolves his polyvalence into an ungraspable moment of authentic becoming, thereafter fictionalized.
Rockism-- a pop aesthetic with a messiah-complex?

While the sacrificial hero story is quite capable of ostranenie, it's so central to Western culture, and thus played, that it's quite difficult.

Tue, Jun. 22nd, 2004 09:49 am (UTC)

I can see how on one axis rock (or do I have to say Rock?) favors the "real" over the "artificial" meaning "insincere." I think the "true to oneself" is usually about rebellion (however toothless, at this point) over conformism when it comes to Rock, though. The key is where your direction comes from. Some interpret that as being also the source of inspiration, some don't. There we're talking very much about white Rock, though, I think. J-Lo is not Rock, so her "true to one's roots" is very much about allegiance, meaning an individual loyal to her community -- I can't remember the last time I heard that sentiment expressed in Rock (you sure don't get it from PJ Harvey, for instance).

And I think art starts being interesting when it tries to have its cake and eat it too. You've made J-Lo sound a lot more exciting than I've ever found her before. I remember when I was just discovering your music and I read something you'd said about writing songs by exploring themes about which you felt ambivalence. Ambivalence may be antithetical to Rock (the stereotype you are building), but I hear it all the time in rock. Or does the presence of ambivalence make it Pop (or something else) instead? I'd probably classify Pet Sounds as pop even without that consideration, but what were the Smiths? What were Radiohead (prior to their last three albums)?

Tue, Jun. 22nd, 2004 10:37 am (UTC)

Timothy Warner breaks down the pop / rock divide like this:

singles <--> albums
emphasis on recording <--> emphasis on performance
emphasis on technology <--> emphasis on musicianship
artificial <--> real ("authentic")
trivial <--> serious
ephemeral <--> lasting
successive <--> progressive

ReplyThread Parent Expand

(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Tue, Jun. 22nd, 2004 11:44 am (UTC)
Re: a few questions

My two main objections to the argument I put forward here are:

1. Cake-and-eat-it. I don't retract my sweeping generalisation about Americans: I think it is indeed a vice of the species to believe one can 'keep it real' and be completely fictitious without the slightest whiff on contradiction. But I'm willing to see this as a virtue, not a vice. As Dr Corker puts it:

'Of course, the threat of anyone who transgresses the boundaries which we regard as fundamental to the nature of the world and of the 'Real' is that by transgressing them they bring to our attention the possibility that these bounds may be arbitrary, or that we too may exist in some deep way on both sides of any given divide.'

That last point applies to the very binaries I am setting up here.

2. The Ulysses paradox: what I'm describing as ostranenie, brainstorming, endless divergence, experimentalism etc is not necessarily the reverse of qualities like 'the universal' or 'the authentic'. It is not always a bad faith gesture to say you have found, in some random spouse, the person you've been looking for all your life. Think of Ulysses: at each point in his voyages he encounters what seem like random and bizarre creatures, and yet in his encounters with them he always discovers some universal element of his own nature and that of the world.

are we not allowed to fashion our own parameters--that is to say, "chains of our own making"?

Oh, absolutely. I think the future -- whatever it's going to look, feel, smell and sound like -- is in the hands of people who are not made anxious by the idea that everything is constructed. I think this is perhaps the main difference between Heidegger's idea of the Uncanny and Shlovsky's idea of Ostranenie: Heidegger sees a sort of nausea and anxiety proceeding from the realisation that everything is arbitrary and manmade, whereas Shlovsky regards this as a delight. Our response to Heidegger is to grasp for legitimation and certainty, however dark (and we can never forget that Heidegger himself embraced Nazism in later life), whereas our response to Shlovsky is to want to play and experiment.

ReplyThread Parent
if only you were pocket-sized
Tue, Jun. 22nd, 2004 11:26 am (UTC)

Perhaps you'd buy it from the five other people it took to write that song. I find nothing redeemable about being a real fraud, like America itself.

The American dream never had anything to do with "keeping it real" It has everything to do with separating yourself from your roots as much as you possibly can. Apparently, there's no need for even trying to reconcile the past with the present. I actually think it a bit mean for people like Ms.Lopez to try and convince the public otherwise. Plus I don't see her buying Creme de la mer for everybody on the block, as she goes through it in vats.

Tue, Jun. 22nd, 2004 11:50 am (UTC)

Interesting stuff, Nick. I agree with some and disagree with some, but won't clog up your Friends page with a full rebuttal.

There is, however, one bit of crystallisation I might ask for: Americans tend to believe that there is no conflict between 'staying in touch with your roots' and 'becoming whoever you want to be'. I don't tend to listen to very much modern pop, either of the emo or hip-hop schools, but the glass through which I immediately examined this sentence was another hugely-selling American genre: country music. (I lived in Oklahoma for too long, I suppose.)

Pop country sells an awful lot of albums, and converges and diverges from pop rock at intervals -- "disco country" being a particularly painful example. Unlike rock, which is a force that tends to spring from the coasts, country is generally a midwestern phenomenon that is characterised by a much stronger grounding in the concept of "roots." This is manifested most painfully in the patriotic pablum of Lee Greenwood or songs like "Okie From Muskogee," or successfully in Johnny Cash's "Family Circle," Emmylou Harris' "Wildwood Flower," or Hank Williams, Jr.'s playful "Family Tradition."

But country music can often explore the conflict you describe -- the pull of "roots" on one side versus the quest for a different, better life on the other -- with even greater power because of the importance given to roots as a given, primal, inescapable force in the genre.

So what, then, to do with your statement, My idea of the uncanny is that estrangement is an end in itself, or a way to jumpstart perception? Most country music is more at home with kitchen-sink realism that with Strindberg, but I would say that the Dixie Chicks' "Goodbye Earl," for example, is Uncanny for the genre because of its complete absence of an absolute moral force -- it is a happy song about two women killing an abusive husband, a sort of Thelma and Louise without consequences or remorse. A couple other examples come to mind as well (c.f. Garth Brooks' abortive "Chris Gaines" project with Don Was and Babyface, and Steve Earle in general -- wow, but "John Walker's Blues" is an amazing piece).

I may have just lost the requisite cosmopolitan cred to be counted as a Momus fan. More than anything, I just wanted to point out that there is a widely-selling, popular American music form wherein the central message does not allow for J-Lo's duality.

Tue, Jun. 22nd, 2004 12:18 pm (UTC)

No, you've not lost cred, my sweet. I'm just thinking about how you got into Momus through me. I think you've come to enjoy Momus because you're an actor (and because your stances on masculinity are similar, but that's another story).

How does Oklahoma actor lad reconcile his mutability, his characters (pl.), with his Okie country-boy rootsy authenticity? I'm curious now what you'll say.

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throbbing temples of love
Tue, Jun. 22nd, 2004 06:27 pm (UTC)

Authenticity: even more overrated than Douglas Coupland.


Tue, Jun. 22nd, 2004 07:09 pm (UTC)

Ostrananie for itself. Sounds a bit like too much "pop out"
self-serving, attention-seeking, and perhaps ultimately
narcissistic behaviour.

But if the 'secret home' is nothing (or all) that leaves
a lot of room for all kinds of divergences, doesn't it?


Tue, Jun. 22nd, 2004 07:51 pm (UTC)

Surely life is stranger than ostranenie:

Taiwan Funeral Strippers (http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/55/054.html)


Wed, Jun. 23rd, 2004 11:14 am (UTC)
J-Lo or Jello--What's the difference?

What is in ostranenie is an essential element of poetry, by which I mean the truly poetic in all the arts. Art makes and remakes all things new. Does it or does it not?

Oh, dear. Profound and not profound at all. I've really enjoyed the seminar today. Just wanted to say thanks to y'all.

The Opposite of ABC