Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Why I Never Returned Your Call

I’m compelled by Jermaine’s disarming candidness (couldn’t we just be all dark and ironic and stuff) to drop the pretend pompous/juvenile philosopher-critic shtick (waddya mean you didn’t notice?) and try some honest musing.

I was in a store (YDE Rosebank. No Luck. See two posts ago) that was playing a track from Janet Jackson’s new album. While I’m trying on shirts, Janet’s moaning through the Wharfdales. Real raunchy, holding nothing back. Telling us in intimate detail what she’s doing to some fortunate guy.

But what struck me about the song was how intensely unsexy it was. Why though? Super hot Janet singing ultra graphic sex ditty - what’s not to like? I think it had to do less with what was made explicit and more to do with what wasn’t kept unexposed (I’m not sure how sound this sentence is, but I hope you know what I’m getting at. This might make more sense at the end of the post). It gave too much away.

It wasn’t that the song was too graphic, but that it was too detailed, and detailed in the wrong way. Almost biological. I think there was even mention of ‘delivering man juice’ (I hope I’m making this up). It was the Kinsey Report with a beat.

Why expose the mechanics of the thing? Doesn’t the allure lie in the concealment?
(Maybe it was just the contrivance of it all that got to me. Primal Moan of Pleasure, Take 15.)

[Christina’s Dirty video is outrageously hot though. But, while the very opposite of restrained, is this anything but surface?]

This got me thinking about (sorry) language. Words like ‘like’, ‘cool’, ‘nice’ are sometimes criticised for being lazy. Kids are lazy these days - all they do is watch tv and listen to dirty pop songs. (As for the internet…) Their language has no subtlety of meaning, it’s vague, vacuous. In the neat division between Chilled and Hectic, we lose the subtle gradation in between.

I can think of two possible problems. Firstly, these words are too imprecise; they fail to pin down an exact description. One ought to be more accurate.

Fair enough (‘What time should I meet you?’ ‘Later.’). But I suspect the guardians of speech have a deeper concern in mind.

These words are too definite. Rather than pursue nuance we divide the world into big easy categories. A taxonomy of surfaces, where things are cool or uncool, chilled or hectic. We paint our world in broad strokes of black and white. And if something doesn’t fit, you keep your expressive distance (the word ‘like’ is handy).

But the world is too complex, too immense for these facile categories. Even the shallowest human emotions resist our attempts to pin them down. We struggle to capture even a sliver of self in our most sensitively balanced descriptions. So calibrate our descriptive apparatus ever finer, telling and retelling, hoping to close in on what we really mean.

Sometimes a grey area isn’t murky enough.

In his In Praise Of Shadows, Junichiro Tanizaki enthuses over the traditional Japanese aesthetic [how things have changed] of shadow and concealment. Ceramics, gaudy under harsh modern lighting, take on a subdued beauty in the reticent illumination of a candle in a dark tearoom. The theatre assumes a special charm layered in shadow.

But this is not an aesthetic of obfuscation. The shadow conceals while it tantalises (Tanizaki delights (um) in the dark contents of his soup bowl), it encourages thoughtful pause – what am I seeing, what am I missing, what could I be seeing. Concealment opens the space of possibility: imagination operates best amid the shadows. Strong illumination too sharply defines the contours of what is and might be.

The language of shadow is a language of vagueness, restrained exposition (there must be some light or there is no shadow). A hint. A suggestion. A push in the right direction. A shadow is empty but for what is submerged.

This is a deeply, touchingly, human language. How much can be reasonably said stands in awful contradistinction to how much there is to say. To how much must be said. And even what we can say we are unsure of. How can I tell you what I mean? What I really mean. And what the hell do I mean? I will have to show you, I will have to take you there. That feeling, that moment, that instance of silent realisation. I can confer it only via a recognition of our mutual humanness, some common realisation; With reference to the shared tokens that signify nothing precisely because they mean so much. I must hope that we are in empathetic alignment and trust that you will value the suggestion. Trust that you will know what I am saying simply in virtue of my saying it.

Which is what makes business jargon and political spin so egregious. It is a perversion of these realisations. This is vagueness to perplex and distort; covering up for the sake of keeping things covered. Behind the lustrous surface of statistics and double speak are the dark and embarrassing (and dangerous) truths. This is a failure of respect, to use Jermaine’s term, for language and culture, and, worse, empathy and trust. Perhaps the ugliness of those phrases reflects this in some way.

Jermaine also mentioned attention to craft. I think that this is a way in which we harness vagueness – we frame it, we order it, we let it meander. We time that moment – yeah, now you feel it – set it up just right. Detail. Structure. Absence. Direction. Misdirection. Respect for the boundaries of understanding and sometimes an attempt to redefine them.

Which is why I don’t think the language of shadow entails a kind of minimalism. It not that we leave our canvas open, but that we create spaces (or give the viewer some space). Coltrane’s ‘sheet of sound’ (who’s phrase is that?) comes to mind. It’s not that the notes don’t count. And it’s not just what’s between them or anything. But there’s something that is beyond what is being stated that is very much nothing but that statement, because he is saying exactly what he means. Or something. Argh! You know what I mean…


Blogger jermaine noble said...

Sorry to abandon the schtick so quick, I was having trouble reconciling the immediacy of the blog-format with the fake-academic voice 'critical distance' tone. Might've been funnier and more distinctive to stick with it for a while but eh.

I don't know if this is too much like tooting our own horn, but I thought that was a fantastic post. And it's got me thinking of something...

7:26 PM  
Blogger jermaine noble said...

thinking: aren't those lazy, all-encompassing, specificity-effacing words necessary to create any sense of common/communal currency? if we can both agree that someone or something is "kinda cool", isn't that bond valuable, however superficial? sometimes i think it's all we've got. (or is settling for one-dimensional interactions just a sign of hopeless exhaustion?)

2:29 PM  
Blogger Kaiser Gestalt said...

Definitely. My purpose in writing the post was actually as a defence of youth-speak. 'Cool' is the perfect example of an empty token that is a holding space for the unsayable.

Too often that's not the case at all - but when I say the party was cool, and mean it, and the idea just clicks with you - when there's this empathetic resonance - that's something all right.

I really should have resolved the point properly.

8:01 PM  
Blogger Kaiser Gestalt said...

Further reading: Woody Allen's 'A Little Louder Please'.

8:03 PM  

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