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Message 296: Throwing Rocks at Streetlamps

The post here claimed that I’d be writing on Radiohead and Marx for Radiohead and Philosophy. For personal reasons, unrelated to the book altogether (which will be excellent), I decided not to contribute.

Despite that, writing on the topic did start, but didn’t finish. It picked up where this blog post left off, turning to Marx as the best philosopher to help understand how money can, as Yorke puts it, get you by the balls. Quoted from the broken essay:

The best philosopher for understanding how money corrupts is Karl Marx. But music and Marx? Though Marx wrote nothing systematic on music, but we know he liked it, even loved it. And this music-loving Marx is the one more people should know. After park outings in London, Marx and his daughters sang their way home. Much earlier a worried mother wrote in 1835 to an ill son at Bonn University with the usual maternal cautions, but added, “Be careful also not to catch cold and, dear Carl, do not dance until you are quite well again.” We don’t know if this penchant for dance lasted after university, but I like to think it did; if not dance, then a love for music. Consider: for the greatest part of his life, Marx lived in London and one evening, feeling nationalistic after a pub crawl —one beer each at the eighteen pubs between Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road—Marx is said to have harassed a group of patrons at the last stop. (And yes, a Marx in his early 40s made it through all eighteen pubs, presumably walking and not crawling.) Rumor has it Marx proclaimed: “No country but Germany … could have produced such masters as Beethoven, Mozart, Handel and Haydn; snobbish, cant-ridden England was fit only for philistines.” “Damned foreigners,” was heard and Marx, with drinking companions in tow, fled into the night to throw paving stones at streetlights.

This anecdote, remembered by Wilhelm Liebknecht, one of the evening’s co-conspirators, is one of the few glimpses of Marx’s musical taste. There’s likely little rhyme or reason to what prompted a Marx deep in his cups to trot out musical composers as the height of German achievement, but we might argue in vino (and in cervesae) veritas. Marx not only knew the names of his countries’ great composers but mentioned them instead of other Germans—like Hegel, Marx’s largest philosophical influence, and Goethe, perhaps the country’s greatest writer—who’d left the most obvious marks on his work.

This vision of Marx, dancing at university and defending Germany’s music and throwing rocks at streetlights, is the best place to start. It’s best not, in Radiohead’s words, to “get any big ideas” about Marx. In other words, set aside what you might know about Marx: throw out the quotes that might be circling your head from The Communist Manifesto or your ideas about Communism or Marxism. This is even what Marx would ask; on hearing a group call themselves Marxist he said, “I at least am not a Marxist.” I admit, approaching Marx without preconceptions or context is difficult or maybe impossible—approaching a “Nude” Marx is maybe, “not going to happen.” Yet, his most sympathetic readers—people like Louis Althusser, Etienne Balibar, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Edmund Wilson—all suggest this may be the best way into his difficult, dense philosophy for beginning, intermediate and advanced readers alike. If we can imagine a metaphorically “Nude” Marx—yet with wild hair and beard still in place for dramatic effect (he consciously cultivated the beard, letters reveal)—then we can rearrange the puzzle of his philosophy so at least some of the jigsaw pieces fall into place.

Marx’s philosophy might be best summed up by a sentence from a work that pre-dates the multi-volume, phonebookishly-oversized monument known in German as Das Capital. The sentence runs: “Men make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted.” This sentence, in some ways, captures all of what later writers have dubbed “dialectical materialism,” the name later philosophers gave to Marx’s philosophical outlook. But we don’t need to name Marx’s philosophy anything to understand the core of it: people exist in tension between what they would make of the world and what the world would make of them.

It is exactly this tension Thom Yorke is trying to speak about in 1997, the tension between making music and making money from that music. Even though making music has brought them money, they fear money is now dictating what music they make. Radiohead’s entire career can be read as playing out this tension—sometimes the world wins, sometimes Radiohead wins. Right now, arguably, with the digital self-distribution of one of their best albums to date, Radiohead has won the latest battle.

Here the palimpsest fragments.

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