Deconstruction & expression

When discussing musical expression early in the life of this column, I started from the notion of "finding something to say." In retrospect, that notion is quite a distorted one. If one has nothing to say, why should one attempt to find something? One could do well to adopt the Taoist idea on expression, and say nothing, letting the world become a little more silent. With today's noise, the world might well thank one for silence, at least implicitly, but one would not receive much attention. The notion of "finding something to say" is a very flawed one, even if some of my other remarks were appropriate, and is not something by which to orient oneself. No, one should not expend any energy finding something to say. Rather, one must ponder the implications of and avenues for what one does have to say, and one must react first to an actual urge to say something. One must be cautious, especially, of an urge simply to chatter, to say something, anything at all. The world is well past a need for "prolific chatter." It does not benefit from an impetus to seek out an audience as a cry for attention. No, one must ponder the urge to express, consider what it is, and emerge with distilled thoughts capable of doing more than simply adding to the noise of the world. If there is no urge, there should be no expression.

Prolific chatter has taken on a life of its own, and especially with the Internet and the web, very many people can be very prolific indeed. There is little sense in which silence feeds vanity, whereas obnoxiousness feeds both vanity and itself. The urge to express is legitimate, of its nature, but there is a difference between cultivation and indulgence. Creation cannot be forced, and so it cannot be stifled, but it must also find its own nature beyond chatter, if it is to be more than an expression of personal conceit. It must escape from its own cycle. So, we have an urge to say something, but we are not sure what that is, not sure how it might be relevant. Indeed, why would we have any sort of goal beyond satisfying our own urges? What can convince anyone to listen, anyway? The shrillest expressions today are usually political ones, playing on guilt, and demanding that they be heard based on their own sense of entitlement. Nothing good can come of this, not out of expression arising from an urge for power or attention alone. Yet, for instance, in world music (especially in its ridiculous pseudo-fused form), rhetoric of oppression is one of the surest ways to be granted an audience today. The audience is too ashamed not to listen, and rhetoric surrounding the performance provides a convenient means of avoiding difficult aesthetic issues.

If indeed one needs to find attention, there are various crutches of which one can avail oneself, whether they be based in political rhetoric or simply drowning in incessant chatter. The crutches themselves may not be wholly avoidable, especially as expression is contradicted by its nature, even as one seeks to remove misdirection. The idea that such a removal may be impossible, or at least that it cannot be framed in the rhetoric of progress, is a driving force behind postmodern thought. The idea that contradictions form the stuff of expression is likewise a driving force behind deconstruction, and indeed the world of image increasingly suggests that real communication can only follow deconstruction, not be destroyed by it. The opposite notion that deconstruction destroys expression is indeed the crux of this discussion. Deconstruction is reacting to the converse force of historicism, to the trends of restricted interpretation and collection-based ideologies. It is, in fact, reacting to the increasing humanist religious ideal of composer as idol, and forming one pole of a new iconoclasm. Smashing idols comes in waves, and involves different segments of society reacting in different ways. Now it is primarily the atheist & pan-cultural movements which seek to elevate idols, and it is the very deconstruction they initiated which serves to inhibit their new hegemony.

The idea that postmodern ideas should simply bow out, vanish, after providing a mechanism for shifting intellectual thought toward a new orientation in atheism and scientific falsifiability is an appealing one for those on top of the wheel today. Such a conclusion certainly does not arise from the roots of radicalism per se, and iconoclasm is inherently radical, at least if left to continue its own course. Once unleashed on the world, deconstruction is a part of expression, a part which can as well smash itself as any other, and indeed a direct expression of the impossibility of creative stability. In that sense, it has a straightforward purpose, illuminating thought processes, maybe even thought processes to which we aspire as we feel restless with comfort. Such is the nature of radicalism, and out of it also comes an urge to express. Radicalism is then about gradients and charged mixtures, and inherently anti-mainstream. It has been especially at odds with the latter's inevitable accompanying haze of forgetfulness. Yet, as computers and perpetual archives come to dominate our lives, there is something very human, perhaps even radical, about forgetting. There is something simple and genuine about an urge to express.

Deconstruction puts the urge to express in context, helping us to perceive the world of expression as more richly contoured than uniform chatter. Once we had great men, and expressions which were predesignated as significant, expressions which were chosen specifically to be preserved for posterity. For the most part, Beethoven's context was self-evident. Out of some of the less glorious moments of deconstructed expression, we can read how he might have been deranged or disingenuous in one or more ways, but we still know what he was first, namely an epochal composer widely regarded as great. We have nothing like that today, nor can we, both because of the straight-jacket of our historical idols, and because of our out-of-control advertising and competing non-stop chatter promulgated from even the stupidest members of society. Taking an urge to express and giving it a context, a real context amidst all this static, requires at least an instinctual awareness of deconstruction and the nature of contradiction. What such an awareness cannot do alone is provide insight into ordinary listener expectations and emotional response. This is one reason that quotation has become a feature of deconstructed expression, but the response cannot be manipulated in a facile manner. Expression arises first from human emotion and so must meet its consummation there.

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Todd M. McComb