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Message 277: Radiohead, Criticism and Capital, Some Notes

When Rilke writes, “With nothing can one approach a work of art so little as with critical words: they always come down to more or less happy misunderstandings,” he’s not so much railing against criticism as he’s railing against bad criticism, or specifically aesthetic criticism as it was generally functioning in the late 1800s and early 1900s (pre-Scrutiny). Without delving into literary history (the study of how literature has been studied) for proof, Rilke’s letters themselves show how good criticism can work.

Another function of criticism can be to show how art functions in society (sociological criticism) and influences/affects (socio-economically, politically, and affectively) its audience. Criticism can also suggest how an audience approach a work of art. I might argue that’s what this site has done, at least by example: suggest one way to approach Radiohead (with an open mind, ready to draw any possible connections).

Reading Jean-François Lyotard, I came upon a compelling few paragraphs to explain how music, specifically the music of Luciano Berio, can resist being subsumed into circulation of capital; that is, resist just becoming another object to be bought and sold, bought and sold.

Lyotard begins this passage by stating that you can’t understand the “transgressive movement” of music outside “its relation to capitalism.” Before capitalism was widespread, art was understood as a “language of the passions,” (and in some cases, by some people, it still is). Thus, if art acts as a language, it functions like a language which means it functions using signifying system–a system of signs where one sign can stand for another thing or another sign. In other words, this is a system based on exchange (instead of having to show you a real glacier in conversation, I can exchange it for just the word “glacier” and you know what I mean without having to see the actual thing). Once art is understood to act as a signifying system, then its a system of exchange–and exchange is what capitalism is built on: “all signs can be transformed into goods; that is, any object … can acquire exchange value and can enter into the circuit of capital, and its production can engender surplus value” (47). Lyotard here is borrowing Marx’s terms for exchange value and surplus value, but you don’t need Marx to get at the gist of Lyotard’s argument. Once art is part of capitalism system of exchance (once art has exchange value as a sign), it can then gain in value, sometimes excessive value (surplus value: think tickets for sale at $150 a piece for the backrow of a stadium).

However, music has the capacity to act as “anti-art” (48) by subverting its status as a “language for the passions” (47). It does this in Berio’s music, and I think in Radiohead’s music (including Greenwood and Yorke’s solo work), by becoming, “works seeking to certify the existence of an irreparable alterity in the circuit, seeking to show by traces the presence of meaning irreducible to a linguistic or accountable signification” (48).

Some explanation (Lyotard’s known for density): the sort of genre-blending, noise-based music Radiohead creates isn’t easily reduced to one sign that’s easily exchangeable in the traditional circuit or cycle of capitalism. Of course, CDs, mp3s, etc. are exchangeable in terms of trade in the traditional sense: I can post an mp3 on this site, mail a CD. But in terms of capitalism, not so much: consider Radiohead’s absence from radio, but record-breaking album sales. Record-breaking album sales, but refusal to be used in advertising. No traditional advertising, but record-breaking sales. Radiohead, unlike Berio (Lyotard’s example) doesn’t sit completely outside the circulation of capital, but the circulation go on as usual. With that said, we end up where Radiohead is now: without a record contract and with the ever-growing expectation they stand poised to revolutionize the record industry with a new record label and/or distribution method.

One objection to this reading of Radiohead’s anti-art I’ve heard voiced before, by Terence Hawkes among others, runs something like this: they’re either participating in capitalism or not; you can’t do both–you can’t fight capitalism with record-breaking sales which means loads of money for someone, not everyone. But, this is the same dangerous dangerous distinction George W. Bush made on November 6, 2001: “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.” This distinction between those with us and against was preceded by a an earlier distinction that vowed to not distinguish: “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”

Bush’s logic has been critiqued elsewhere better than I can do here, and the example of Bush is an exaggeration in this case: but the exaggeration, I hope, brings home how Radiohead can participate in a capitalist system while not succumbing to it. In one way, the capitalist system, or more specifically, the global distribution of music the capitalist system has enabled, is enabling Radiohead to more widely circulate a critique of capitalism than they ever could otherwise. As others have argued, in this way, capitalism will be its own downfall. Capitalism wants rapid and wide distribution of goods: but what if those goods being rapidly and widely disseminated make you think twice about the very act of dissemination itself?

Here, I would turn to their last studio album and the opening song, “2+2=5.” A song that references Orwell’s 1984 and its resistance to ideology; a song appeared on an album that sold 300,000 in its first week. Yorke sings:

It’s the devil’s way now
There is no way out
You can scream and you can shout
It is too late now

Warning us there’s no way out may in fact be the best way out.

Lyotard, Jean-François. “‘A Few Words to Sing.'” Trans. Leonard R. Lawlor. Toward the Postmodern. Ed. Robert Harvey and Mark S. Roberts. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1993.

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