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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Writing About Music is Like Writing About Politics
I Don't Care What You Say Anymore, This is My Life

One of the nice things about getting to the point as a writer where you can reasonably assume people are familiar with your outlook that I can say things like what I am about to say and people will know I'm not being glib or ironic: the infamous "42 page document" that is the Justice Department's January 2006 white paper laying out their justification for the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program, a/k/a "Legal Authorities Supporting the Activities of the National Security Agency Described by the President," is, despite the clunky title, one of the best pieces of criticism written in the past several years. (At least in the way awards shows seem to mean "best," but that's still kinda best.) Oh sure, the writing's not the best, but that's the sad dictates of the medium of white papers; as a piece of criticism, though, it's amazing.

Doubt that it's criticism? It's doing close readings of a series of texts in order to justify a particular theoretical point of view--of course it's criticism! There's a narrative, an unstated but clearly present ideological point of view, a dense mass of jargon and uncontextualized referents, and like 23 footnotes. There's no bibliography, sure, but that just intimidates a popular audience anyway.

Partially it's like criticism in that it's entertaining if you know the context (the first section heading after "Summary" is "The Attacks of September 11, 2001," which is like the administration's version of Marxist rhetoric at this point, invoked without explanation in the assumption that everyone knows what it means so many times that it's ceased to mean anything, so now it's just an in-joke), but mainly it's like criticism in that it processes a mountain of selective evidence through an ideological filter in order to prove a counterintuitive proposition, like "revolution is good" or "pop culture is bad" or "punk was basically Situationism," suggesting that if Greil Marcus really wanted to be making bank, he'd apply for a job as a government lawyer. ("I am particularly proud to have worked on the critical project that made rock music discursively valid" or maybe "You are the punkest governor ever!")

What's all over this document, as indeed it is all over the administration as a whole, is a serious anxiety of influence. Everything is presented in terms of a conscious break with the past ("pre 9/11 mind set,"), even though they're well aware of history and indeed in many ways are just referring to supposedly outmoded ideas[1], in order to create a kind of messianic atmosphere that meshes perfectly with modern political imagery. They're misinterpreting what's come before and rejecting it, and in the process making something new that sure seems a lot like what's come before. That's administration policy, but one of the reasons why this white paper is such an amazing document is the way it distills this philosophy. It's practically a manifesto, except that instead of saying "this needs to change," they're saying "this has already changed, without you knowing it, and it's time to embrace the consequences of that; if we seemed too extreme, it was only because we were the avant-garde, recognizing and acting before everyone else did." It's not just that this 1978 law, FISA, should be overturned; it already has been, through the inevitable march of history and the actions of a few brave forward-looking individuals. (The only way to make Dick Cheney not evil is to regard him as sort of a Cassandra without the curse, tragedy turned grim necessity through the liberal application of power--or, maybe, a one-man Leninist vanguard.[2])

In this way it's just another data point illustrating the way the right has embraced the left's cherished ethos of rebellion. Sometimes it looks like paternalism but in this white paper it's clear it's more "we're gonna do what we want, we don't care about your rules." And this sells because Rock Won. Rock Won because it gave individualism an updated images, of course, but that updated image included something new: an idea of rebellion being a good in an of itself. Times were, America's concern was preserving the republic against destruction, and that simply doing this would preserve freedom. Now the idea is that individualism is best preserved by preventing anyone from bothering you in any way, even if that restricts their or even your freedom. Because you're the rebel: you're the one that's got to stay within a zone of opportunity so you can accomplish the big things you have to do.

The right has benefited immeasurably from the pervasive and appealing idea that simply doing the opposite of what's established is positive. This was an effective idea for the left back when what was established was fairly conservative, but they've stuck with it so much that it's starting to eat itself as leftist ideas become established. But the right is eating itself too: the administration's policy now bears little resemblence to actual conservativism. They've rebelled so much they've actually moved beyond core American values to something older than America itself. They're referring to the Constitution in this document but not in their ideology. That's why it's such an amazing distillation: it's taking everything you could marshall aginst their position and using it as ammunition.

It's especially impressive in that they actually invoke the War Powers Resolution, the sort of shot heard 'round the world of the issue they're pushing right now, i.e. Presidential power. Even more, what's been progressively done to that resolution by succeeding Presidents is almost exactly analogous to what they're trying to do to FISA. It's like bringing up the elephant in the room and then using it to trample over everyone else. There is an absolute lack of shame, the hallmark of the rebel, but also the nuclear option in political discourse, especially when dealing with things like FISA and the War Powers Resolution that were specifically ennacted in response to behavior that we as a nation decided we were ashamed about. Rock Won.

I know it's dangerous to compare things to criticism because it makes it sound like you're trying to minimize them by implying that they could be most properly grasped as examples of a pattern most suited for analysis by college professors. But that's not what I'm doing. I'm trying to elevate criticism here by showing how it's nearly identical to politics. When you look at a political text like this one, you are looking at something that is performative, something that merely by putting together words makes something happen. In this case, it's not as clear-cut an example as it is with a piece of legislation, the ultimate performative text, but it is trying to get a number of things to happen, like not get the President impeached (which is another reason why it's such an amazing document). But this is the case with all criticism; you're trying to massage an idea into existence that will then get out there into the world and influence people's behavior. When people say that art is political, I think that they mean it exists in some sort of political context (although I think they really just mean "historical context") or makes some sort of political statement, but that's not really the main way that statement is true. It's maybe better to say that art is politics, in that it works the way politics way--through discourse rather than actions, and if you're doing the crit-nerd thing of seeing art objects as texts with an idea to push, there's no denying that those ideas end up influencing other artists in the same way that criticism does, or in the same way that legislation influences everyone. Sometimes they even get a little anxious about it.

[1] Or, of course, referring to an idealized past--"America wants somebody to restore honor and dignity to the White House"--but honestly, I think that's either background, lazy default, or, um, pre-9/11 rhetoric, not the main stuff, which is very going-forward.