Wednesday, June 21, 2006

"Theory Now" and the Limits of Language

Today, I was alerted to the existence of a blog apparently patterned directly after my own, the so-called "Cameron Boyd's Theory Now." Compare my initial post back in October 2005 to his initial December 2005 post. It now pains me to think that I took such a long hiatus while Professor Boyd produced so much work. Nevertheless, as I have already mentioned, this period involved a life-changing meditation on Aesthetics which I can hardly be said to regret. In the end, I'm sure that Professor Boyd and I would agree that, when we are concerned with theory, format is of no importance. It is the substance which we are both after. Thus, in a gesture of good will, I would like to use today's post as an opportunity to discuss some of his recent ideas (though it will lead us on a temporary detour from the visual arts).

Back in May, Boyd provided us with a compelling discussion of the linguistic radicalism of Death Cab for Cutie's "Different Names for the Same Things." He reminds us that singer Benjamin Gibbard is nothing other than a "a post-structuralist trapped in an 'alt-rock' limbo," bringing us face-to-face with the disorienting conflict between genre and individual, convention and identity. While it may at first strike us as a simple pop tune, "Different Names for the Same Things," upon repeated listenings, forces us to confront the very limitations of language and thought. As Boyd explains, "The post-structural understanding of language contends that 'meaning' is never fully present in any one concept, or word, and in fact is 'infinitely deferred.' This 'deferral' exposes a limitless 'excess' of meanings, 'different names,' or signifiers, for the same 'things,' or signifieds."

It is no coincidence that Benjamin Gibbard chooses pop as the vehicle for the shattering of a naive linguistic realism. Can we think of anything more ordinary and obvious than the popular song? Caught up in the familiarity of our everyday speech act situations, we are prone to interpret pop lyrics as harmless puzzles, the frivolous products of drug-induced delirium and lower-than-average intelligence. Gibbard exploits precisely this kind of underdetermined hermeneutic posture so typical of the popular audience to effect a reversal of any such interpretive presuppositions.

Professor Boyd turns our attention to Gibbard's "Crooked Teeth," the following lines in particular:

I’m a war of head versus heart and it’s always this way
my head is weak and my heart always speaks before I know what it will say


I leave you with his stunning observations:

"The 'head' stands in for the 'presence,' the conscious self-awareness of one’s authenticity; the 'heart,' as its polar opposite, 'speaks' through actions motivated by the impulse of instinct, often prior to knowing or control. The 'recording artist' inhabits a darkness of 'invisibility,' at once 'here' through the audible recorded sound, yet 'absent' from our space. This dual nature is part of the 'magic' of recorded music, as its 'existence' is based on our memory of the discontinuous notes, one after another, in a narrative of melody. So it is that, as uneasy inhabitant of a 'vehicle' called Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Gibbard accepts the limits of his 'pop' language with charming angst, to craft his 'deferrals' of identity as a testament to the 'pop songwriter' as the binary opposites of the 'presence' of performance and the 'absence' of the recorded art."

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