Rock, Infinite Regress and the Distended Present

Inside the museums
Infinity goes up on trial.
Voices echo, "This is what
Salvation must be like after a while."
Bob Dylan

Hail, hail rock and roll.
Deliver me from the days of old.
--Chuck Berry

Rock and Roll will never die. Rock and roll is here to stay. The reason? It bends time and space, distorting the present moment so that it stretches into infinity. Ironically, it also usually comes in two-and-a-half minute packages.

But the addictiveness of the pop single is part of the way that rock and roll distends the present. The repetition of the song and its lingering afterimage as a tune stuck in your head is an ever-swelling moment that cannot sustain itself. It is detumescent at the same time that is ascendant. The effete rock star playing the phallic guitar creates a plateau--an elevated plain without a peak or a climax--a perpetual present that is always already succumbing to the vacuum of the past. The present contains the past within it: it is becoming-past, a gyre whose center cannot hold.

In his treatise on modernity, known as The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin writes:
Every epoch... not only dreams the one to follow but, in dreaming, precipitates its awakening. It bears its end within itself and unfolds it--as Hegel already noticed--by cunning. With the destabilization of the market economy, we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled.
As it is for epochs, so it is for smaller units of time. Each moment is already the one to follow and the one that came before. This aporia is compounded by the fact that these moments are not discrete. Time is not divided; it is a continuous substance. The song contains its future demise. The record is worn out before you've even played it. The pop song's sugar is already dissolved. It pushes the present into infinity, but it is hyperactive, working itself to death. Pop songs are like batteries: they hold a charge, but they are disposable.

Songs not only exist in time (that is, over time), they affect time. That is, music affects our perception of time and it is at least possible to argue that time is both a necessary condition for and a product of perception. (Is it that time would not exist without us to perceive it, or that time is just the language in which we understand the world?)

But not all time is created equally. As a box contains an object, so does a folk song contain time within it. These songs are passed from player to player, down through the generations, acquiring wisdom that no individual effort ever could. Like a stone that has been worn smooth by the running of a river, the folk song is formed slowly, affected by every pair of hands, every voice and every instrument that it passes through. Its shape is the shape of centuries of use. Compared to the disposable pop song, born in an orgasmic bang that is already a little death--the pop song is gone before it even arrives--the folk song exists in geologic time.

The Coo Coo Bird, as Greil Marcus has written, is a song about a bird that has never existed in America. It is an English folk song that came across the waters and went to seed in the Appalachians. By the time it reemerges in Clarence Ashley's brilliant 1927 recording (included in Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music), the coo coo bird "warbles as she flies,/but she never hollers coo coo 'til the fourth 'a July." Bird song marks the passage of time, and yet the bird does not exist. Even Ashley's rolling, looping banjo is an ever-evolving present. Inside this moment, all moments reside.

Is it any mistake that many of the best psychedelic bands of the 60's had a direct connection to folk and its electric cousin, country music? Rock and roll is the electrification of folk music and in this way it is folk plus capitalism, a modern art for the ancient guitar. By mutation, the folk song evolves into a commodity and thus becomes subject to fashion and currents. (There is nothing more quintessentially American than looking at a wooden instrument that is literally thousands of years old and saying, "not bad, but it'd be better with 120 volts running through it.") Hit songs are a kind of fashion and fashion is a kind of Futurism. The slow forming oral history of the folk song becomes an attenuated, electric instant, a revolving present that propels you into the future at the same time that it denies time. This is the distended present: an infinity that exists in an inherent repetition that, like an amped-up version of Benjamin's monuments of the Bourgeoisie, is gone before it arrives.

In his brilliant and labyrinthine, psychedelic masterpiece, Opposing Mirrors and Video Monitors on Time Delay, Dan Graham creates a distended present through the use of infinite regress and video feedback.

Two mirrors face one another on opposite walls of a gallery. A camera on top of a video monitor faces the mirror, but sends its signal to the opposite video monitor. One combination of camera and monitor is in "real time," while the other is on a five-second delay. (The monitors also face the mirrors, so that the cameras photograph the image of the other camera and then send them to the other monitor, ad infinitum). The opposing mirrors create an infinite regress and the feedbacking video monitors also create an infinite regress inside of, but separate from, the infinite regress of the mirrors. There are mathematical proofs that demonstrate the existence of multiple, coexistent orders of infinity, but Graham is able to demonstrate this fact phenomenologically; there is an immediate understanding that in the gallery, space and time are extending infinitely (without actually extending at all--it is, at once, both real and phantasmagoric). Time spreads along on an axis perpendicular to the direction that it usually flows in. Each moment extends indefinitely: eternal return. Like the best rock songs, this participatory work is a drug-trip-without-drugs, an electronic trance-machine. It is no mistake that this actual, perceivable distension of the spatio-temporal plane also feels a bit like science fiction, for Graham has literally created a time machine, one that extends the present into infinity.

Here is Graham discussing the future contained in the past, the science fiction of 19th century painting, and the religiosity of rock music:

For Graham, "Teenage Heaven"--only briefly alluded to here, but elaborated on in his incredible video-essay Rock My Religion--is the infinite present represented/occupied by post-war Youth. This is a new kind of youth characterized by teens as super-consumers: a consumer class divorced from productivity. They exist only to buy and to be. As Tom Wolfe pointed out in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby, teens are essentially dandies; their lives are devoted wholly to aesthetics. For Wolfe, these super-consumers may be denim-and-t-shirt clad Beau Brummels, but for Graham they are angels (two very different visions of heaven on earth). The teen angel exists only to consume, and as such is directly connected to the forever-new of Fashion. As Benjamin notes in The Arcades Project: "Newness is a quality independent of the use value of the commodity. It is the source of the illusion of which fashion is the tireless purveyor. ... art's last line of resistance... coincide[s] with the commodity's most advanced line of attack... ." Capitalism and modernity are one.

In one of the most amazing moments of the documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, Brian Wilson describes the people for whom he wrote his music as "children of god." For a time, the documentary appears to break down; Wilson's definition is infinite. "Not rapidly approaching thirty" is as close to a number as he gets in trying to define the age of his intended audience. What he is actually describing is something more spiritual, not a "target audience," with all of the violence that implies, but a congregation. He is talking about Graham's teen angels: the timeless, androgynous, polymorphous perversity of youth itself, beyond good and evil:

But "Angel of the Morning," beautiful as it is, is still mired in the pre-feminist sex-politics of the so-called "sexual revolution." She's an angel because he gets to leave (birth control as miracle). This song also clearly demonstrates the sex-without-climax plateau of "pop" music: he's already left before they've even consummated their relationship. Again, as in Benjamin's monuments of the Bourgeoisie, the ruins of the relationship are contained in its beginning. The song is only about the attraction and the denouement; the love itself, like the man, is curiously absent. This particular order of infinity is eternal return (this is the condition of modernity). They are always about to, and have always already, consummated their love... and he's already gone. For in this song, left and will-leave are one.

The song is an ouroboros. Play it again and again. The record is a gyre whose center cannot hold. It will get stuck in your head, playing on a mental loop. Long live rock and roll.

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