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Keith Jarrett, Yard Sales and the Commodification of Genius, Part Two (Yard Sales)
Two days ago, pianist Matthew Shipppublished a blog entry at The Talkhouseessentially excoriating Keith Jarrett: “I have always felt a tremendous amount of pretense surrounding his whole universe. Of course he has some real skill, and sometimes sounds inspired. But I just can’t get past the layers and layers and layers of pretension.” One of the points I’m aiming to make in this extended take on Jarrett and “the commodification of genius” is to evaluate the materiality of what Matthew Shipp understands as pretense: how is the reception of Jarrett’s music and of his image tangibly shaped by the production and dissemination of his music? What privileges his work? Pianist Ethan Iverson (who has interviewed Jarrett, and is an admirer) yesterday offered something of a rebuttal to Shipp’s critique – defending Jarrett’s virtuosity, for example, but also admitting something of Jarrett’s enmeshment in American capitalism and marketing hype: “Jarrett owns too much real estate and is too abrasive a personality not to be taken down a peg once in a while,” he writes. My aim in this series of posts – culled, as I mentioned last time, from an extended book chapter on Jarrett – is to assess how the spectre of value, its genius, attaches itself to his recordings, especially his much-lauded and best-selling Köln Concert. In the first part, I tried to set up an approach to the commodification of culture and of cultural artifacts. In this section, I’m focused almost exclusively on the concoction of value at yard sales, a site of vestigial counter-capitalism. I don’t really mention Jarrett directly in these particular pages, but my acquisition of an LP of his lies behind the whole essay. In the third part, I’ll deal directly with buying the album and with Jarrett’s relationship to American capitalism. In the fourth and final part, I’ll offer my own analysis of The Köln Concert, and its transcription. Here is part two, then, on yard-sales.
Saturday ought to be a day of rest. Instead, we used to get up as early as if it were a workday, but to shop. And not ordinary shopping: Saturday morning early is prime time for hitting yard sales.
It had become an early-stage addiction with us. We rarely missed a weekend, and had started to turn into what yard sale vernacular calls “early birds.” Usually a label applied to unscrupulous junk-dealers and avaricious collectors, the moniker comes from the obvious cliché about worms. Get to someone’s stash soon enough, you’re liable to unearth the dusty treasure you’d imagine you’ve been searching for your whole life, though you hadn’t realized, some personal grail of cast-offs; apocryphal stories of lost necklaces mistaken for costume jewelry and sold for a dollar, or of an unknown Van Gogh unloaded for five bucks, keep buyers motivated, anxious, hawk-eyed. You never know.
Most people, however, aren’t in it for big scores, but for everyday bargains. And what we find isn’t necessarily worth anything to anyone else; we have tastes and preferences, although those tend to be fluid, depending on what we think we need, or what we happen to like that day. I like old and weird records. Most people sell boxes of warped lps that have been in their attics for a decade: not usually a source for anything good. But every now and then I get lucky. Mostly it involves pawing through stacks of mildewed Billy Joel, Boney M. and Barbra Streisand, hoping for odd gems. It’s important to keep yourself open, since you have no real way of knowing ahead of time what might be available at a given sale. Some people — maybe half on a particular Saturday — run ads in the classified section of the Friday paper, but those are vague at best (“furniture, clothes, other good stuff”), and often misleading. One time we headed for a sale advertising a “HUGE [all caps] selection,” only to find four men smoking on a concrete patio around cardboard box that contained (no lie) a broken toy fire-engine, one badly dog-eared John Grisham paperback, and a crumpled flowery blouse still on a wire hanger. We asked no questions, left quietly. So, while its possible to go with specific objects in mind — and at our own garage sales I’ve been queried for everything from toy trains to Limoges (“no harm in asking”) — chances are you won’t find it. Personally, I like to let the sales shape my interests; often I never even knew I wanted something until I saw it.
Early birds sometimes get into trouble. Some people don’t like bending the rules. If they say a sale starts at nine, then no one gets to buy anything at 8:55. Ads say things like “No early birds” to ward us off, although in practice it usually doesn’t work. Some try to make “early birds pay double,” which seems like a more effective strategy. At a recent sale, the homeowner was adamant, and refused even to let potential buyers touch what he called his “merchandise” until the hour had come; he pulled clothing, pottery, frames, even cross-country skis from out of people’s hands, bellowing “No fair! No fair!” as he grabbed each article back. Naturally, the buyers were affronted (even if they were technicallyin the wrong). One woman muttered she wasn’t going to bother to wait, this idiot had lost a sale; but she didn’t actually leave, and ten minutes later owned a framed imitation Group-of-Seven print.
What Walter Benjamin once diagnosed as the “helpless fixation on notions of security and property deriving from past decades” (Reflections 70) — a vestigial psychosis haunting the proprietors and capitalists of his Weimar Germany who clung to the slippery and indeterminate commodities as if values, both economic and moral, could somehow be stabilized, fixed — ghosts itself into the present day yard sale in the guise of rules and standardized “value.” This necklace or that vase, we’re be told, must be valuable, rare, worth something. Play fair or pay double — or maybe you won’t be allowed to buy at all. Such resolute assertions of order and such fixations on worth suggest much more than grubbing for extra cash, since the sellers at garage sales have no hope of recouping anything remotely close to the price they paid for an article, or, in the case of “antiques” and “genuine” curios, whatever they might sell for at a dealership. Money isn’t exactly the issue here, and has little to do with value. What comes into play through ascriptions of worth, in the process of reselling, is personal history, largely unreadable but nonetheless tangibly present. I am selling an object no longer of use to me, but at the same time continue to attribute value to it based on the history of its possession, what I got out of it and what I invested into it over the course of my time. What I did with it makes it valuable, not in Marx’s sense of “use-value,” since the person buying it has no direct relationship to whatever I might have done with it, and may never use the thing in the same way. (We once bought an old pail, for example, which we polished and painted and now use as an outdoor planter.) Nonetheless, clinging to that object as a sort of aura, imperceptible to the buyer but colouring the object visibly for the seller, is the private history of its presence: a tack-hammer I used to hanging wedding photos in our old apartment, a t-shirt I bought five years ago at a jazz festival, a collar my first cat wore. The buyer isn’t necessarily purchasing these associations, and in many ways they vanish once the object is sold. (We have no idea who had our pail before us, where it might have been.) But a vestige of someone else’s nostalgia, a hopeless gesture toward fixity, assigns its price, even as it dissolves into the a-historical moment of the sale itself. Prices (and rules, and formalities) at yard-sales are temporary stays against confusion, an essential but futile attempt to cling to an un-archived past in the process of being released, unknit, let go.
Garage-sale manuals and guide-books I have come across almost unanimously recognize the tug of what they call “sentimentality” in establishing prices, but they argue for the virtues of “objectivity” in pricing:
Emotion Has No Place in Pricing. It is vitally important that vendors not allow their emotions to affect pricing decisions. Completely objective judgment is necessary in order to arrive at prices within market range. Sentimental ties and family history of a sale item have no relevance to the price that buyers may be willing to pay. Stand back and ask yourself, “If I were a purchaser, how much would I pay for this?” Analyze the practical use of the item, then draw on your sense of what price might be reasonable and fair, not on your recollection of how dearly the item cost you. (Stratas 44)
Pleas for rationality and abstracted detachment such as this one necessarily appeal to what they call the “market” for a sense of both fairness and order, but the problem is that the market value of what this particular guide calls “clutter” (defined as “usable, practical surplus goods” as opposed to “junk . . . broken ugly decrepit stuff” [Stratas 23]) is far from simple to determine, and becomes — as this paragraph suggests — an impressionistic judgment call, hopelessly inflected by the discriminations of history and past uses that the author wants us ostensibly to avoid. How much would I pay for this? The full price, of course: I already paid just that. There is no yard-sale collectivity in a “market” like that of commodity trading or even retail sales. Setting a so-called reasonable price is an impossible task, since the structure and form of the rationality to which one appeals is far from determinate or stable. Even the idea of practical “use” offers no real standard, since, as Marx sagely points out, use-value is differential at best, at once flexible, indeterminate and local (cf.Keenan 125). How I use an object, how I value it, cannot be transferred to another buyer; uses do not coordinate, except in abstract exchange, at which point, as Marx writes in Capital, the only “objectivity” has become “phantom-like,” unrelated to the specific use or dinglichaspect of whatever it is I own (Capital1.128). (My wife and I had been looking for colanders. We already owned a good one, stainless steel, but heard they make good planters for geraniums.) We trade in spectres. Despite attempts at regulation and order that these guide and manuals tend to impose on the yard-sale, it tends to remain unruly, irrational; the only traces of fixity, the only determinants of value, are those trivial and personal emotions which paradoxically, as books remind us, have no “real” part to play in value itself. In practice, in our experience, all of these factors — what someone paid for a thing, how much it means to them — come forcefully into play during any driveway sales-pitch.
So, how are these rules for yard sales, as sets of conventions or accepted forms of conduct, laid out? A number of books in circulation have codified them, but in my experience they tend to be a fluid etiquette, situationally determined. “Listen” to buyers, says one book; adopt “a cheery enthusiastic voice that communicates enthusiasm and fun”; “watch the eyes of browsers and buyers for reliable hints about their desires for sale merchandise”; don’t be offended by haggling, but also don’t give in too easily; “[d]emonstrate the excellent value that your prices represent by drawing comparisons with current retail prices. . . . Remind [buyers] that if they don’t buy the merchandise in question, the next person will” (Stratas 98-101). A garage-sale is a discursive formation, structured by conventional interchanges. Imagined values are traded, reinforced. A sale involves more or less a mutual bolstering of subject-positions, ensuring that the respective desires for a fair price and for some cool, semi-useful junk are both satisfied. “Negotiation,” exclaims one guide book, “must appear to be a win-win situation for you and the buyer!” (Williams 58). We need to “feel,” the authors remind us, that we’re getting a bargain, or that we’re receiving enough cash for our precious clutter. In most cases, haggling is socially acceptable at these events, even expected. Usually, things are priced with magic marker on bits of masking tape; we usually price our things a little high, anticipating some bargaining so that we’ll get more or less what we want for the stuff. (I never trust sales that have no pre-set prices on things. Often these types will turn to their friends, asking what they think something’s worth, or will give different prices each time you ask. Or else they’ll say, “make me an offer,” which is only infuriating. A lack of a price suggests a little too much self-serving fluidity. Sellers ought to know at least roughly what they something’s supposedly “really” worth to them.) With that general rule in force, price slightly high, the outcome can only be good. Either someone will be shy, and give you what you’ve asked, or else they’ll bargain with you, and you’ll get what you wanted anyhow. Plus, they’ll think they got a deal by talking you down, so everyone’s happy. We usually add at least a dollar or two, expecting to deal. Decorum wants maintaining.
Certain sellers can’t stand haggling, and are insulted if you try, as if their precious discards could possibly be worth anything less than they imagine. Typically, such types will insist that for (let’s say) a vase they paid three times what they’re asking in some exclusive Kerrisdale shop, or that since they’re grandmother knit the sweater they couldn’t take less than ten dollars. These always seem bathetic – rhetorical excesses – always implicitly posing the same question: if it’s worth so much, why are you trying to sell it at a garage sale? The discourse has its limits. Personally, I prefer people willing to undersell themselves, and not simply because I don’t want to spend much. The whole point of these sales, it seems to me, is to clear out your mess, to put the bruised and broken goods back into circulation, to re-cycle. Yard sales are interchanges, not profit-making enterprise. Like I said, you will never get anything close to the amount you paid for a thing, so why bother trying? Let things go. Experience bears out a peculiar truth: the sellers with the lowest prices often make the most at the end of the day, because they sell in volume. You keep your prices high, and you won’t sell much, and then you either have to cart all your dear crap back inside, or else call the Sally-Ann truck and give it all away to charity.
Yard-saling — and it is a verb, at least in this vernacular — also involves a form of interpersonal circulation. It isn’t only money or stuff that moves, but also people. The night before we’d go through the paper, copying out sale times and locations: we’d usually budget about 15 minutes per garage. After breakfast the next morning, usually by 8:30, we’d load our baby daughter into her car seat, and head out. (Her schedule sets our time-constraints, since she has to nap by 10:30. The baby actually enjoys these outings more than we do; she gets an inordinate amount of attention from all types of smiling strangers.) Using a map-book of the city we bought at the grocery store, we’d plot a rough course, coordinating start-times and locations. Usually, you have to choose a particular neighbourhood on the east or west side. Trying to do too many dispersed sales is only frustrating. And there are plenty of people who don’t advertise in the papers, which means you have to keep on the look-out as you progress around your circuit. Half the time, we don’t make it to the majority of the sales we’ve plotted, since our course has been interrupted and diverted by other possibilities: bristol-board posters on corners, clusters of balloons. There is a semiotics of garage sales, a code: certain kinds of signage catch your eye and draw you along. Come and buy, they plead like Christina Rossetti’s goblins, we’ve got good stuff cheap.
What happens, however, over the course of several weekends is that a certain spatial formation develops, a sense of the various negotiable routes through urban geography. You get to know the city, but not its landmarks, not at least in the touristy sense. What you start to acquire is the feel of particular areas, the network of lanes and alleys, driveways and paths that weave the place together as lived and living. Yard sales grant permission to cross property lines, to walk temporarily over someone’s lawn, through their gate, to traverse backyards and porches — some even let you into their houses, especially if they’re moving and want to clear out furniture. You meet people, certainly, and briefly discuss where a thing came from, or who made it, or what makes it nifty. But more significantly, you circulate yourself: you don’t have to buy anything, but you do have to cross boundaries, park in people’s back driveways, trample (oops) their flowerbeds, paw trough their junk. The semiosis here, as a sum of meanings generated, isn’t necessarily commercial, although it does hinge on the promise of goods exchanged; rather, what is produced, what’s signified, is a kind of subcultural spatiality, a sense of movement and arrangement that exists in the interstices of official channels (roads, storefronts, malls), rather than properly contained and demarcated by them. There are junk stores aplenty, and I have even seen a “garage-sale store,” which set itself up as a big garage sale, though nobody was fooled: this is where the stuff goes that the “early-bird” dealers buy; these are cast-offs converted back into goods, commodities, proper fare. Yard sales inhabit the space behind, around, between these sorts of operations, a harmless black market (since nobody would be silly enough to charge GST in their back yard) which tends to turn city blocks temporarily inside out, making the rear alley into an ephemeral store-front, and to re-map the ways in which the urban space is zoned, gridded, understood.
Urban planning is being temporarily upset, though not finally disturbed; it is subverted ephemerally from within by a species of consumption which it cannot quite recognize as proper, or reconcile wholly to the mechanisms of value and exchange that bouy up the urban economy. In One Way Street (1928), Benjamin commented on what he called “the decay of aura” in the contemporary world, a loss of immediate contact with originality or what he called the “cult value” of objects like works of art: “Just as all things, in a perpetual process of mingling and contamination, are losing their intrinsic character while ambiguity displaces authenticity, so is the city” (cited and translated in Caygill 130-31). However, for Benjamin the urban experience, described here as loss, involves not so much a lamentable nihilism as a call to embrace a new fluidity, “the possibility of a new experience of space and time” (Caygill 131). When one attempts to apply a century-old analysis like Benjamin’s to the yard sale, however, one finds the terms curiously reversed: what these fly-by-night (or day) sales create is an unstable counter-urban space, one which sets itself against the fixities of urban commodification and the relatively stable networks of commerce represented by the grid of the city in our map-book or by the five or six day work-week to which we all adhere. Paradoxically, as we have seen, the yard sale also holds out the promise of a contingent and ephemeral aura in its pricing and sales practices, as the spectres of domestic and personal history dissolve into the exchange of used goods for a little cash. Homey sales offer a vernacular alternative to the false rigidities of urban consumerism and capitalism by simultaneously subverting that rigidity and offering the figments of a longed-for authenticity long since purged from the city’s form.
Sometimes the weather matters, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sales will have “rain dates,” just in case: usually the Sunday. But for those of us with garages, a little precipitation means nothing. It may keep a few customers away, but then again the dedicated yard-salers will brave almost anything up to a gale. Your sign is your promise: if you advertise, people will expect you to sell, and will turn up whether it’s raining or not. Once, we held a sale in our friends’ kitchen, since the yard was too wet. I think more people trapsed over their linoleum than might have shown up if the sun were shining (in which case many would likely have gone to Jericho Beach instead of to our sale). Benjamin offers a little allegory of rain and money in One Way Street, the text I’ve been citing:
Money and rain belong together. The weather itself is an index of the state of this world. Bliss is cloudless, knows no weather. There also comes a cloudless realm of perfect goods, on which no money falls. (Reflections87)
Benjamin’s perfect world is a realm where goods may be exchanged, acquired or traded without the intermediary of money, without the bothersome abstractions of exchange values, trying to decide what is worth what, and how you might even form such equivalencies in the first place: a central and vexing problem for Marx. Bliss is plenitude here, but in his and our fallen world, the world of ambiguities, inauthenticities and tarnished auras, exchange takes on the chaotic uncertainty of weather. The “rain or shine” promise of the yard sale, however, proffers perfected exchange that disregards weather, and ignores the complex objective variables of commodity trading; values are assigned not on the basis of what Marx might call “abstract human labour,” the universal “spectral” standard by which, for instance, we can determine how many hammers are worth a shovel, and so on: – the leveling quantification of money. In the Grundrisse, Marx gestures toward this universalizing property, which at the beginning of the first volume of Capital he was later to hone into his theory of “abstraction” in commodification and exchange:
the proportion in which a particular commodity is exchanged for money, i.e. the quantity of money into which a given quantity of commodity is transposable, is determined by the amount of labour time objectified in the commodity. The commodity is an exchange value because it is the realization of a specific amount of labour time; money not only measures the amount of labour time which the commodity represents, but also contains its general, conceptually adequate, exchangeable form. Money is the physical medium into which exchange values are dipped, and in which they obtain the form corresponding to their general character. (Grundrisse 167)
What you pay, for Marx, is determined by how much work, quantified by money or pay, goes into that object, roughly at least. But yard sales detach themselves from such quantifications; money is still used, and still obtains its value on some level from human labour, but what is being exchanged has nothing to do with the production or exchange of manufactured goods. The second-hand objects are wholly detached from their making, and value emerges somewhat arbitrarily from the sense of what an object might be worth, not in terms of its use or its cost or the labour that produced it, but (as I have been trying to claim) through the personal, domestic, dissolving history which that object momentarily signifies. Michel de Certeau refers to this individual imaginative reading of places or objects as a “poetics” which cuts against the “technical rationalities and financial profitabilities” which corporate structures and institutions tend to reserve for themselves (Certeau 106). This is a private form of association, a creation of value that cannot be subsumed by the absolute equivalences and the leveling abstractions of Marxian exchange value, since if it were shared it could possess no tangible value as a commodity. (The commodity, Marx writes, is a “born leveler and cynic, it is always ready to exchange not only soul, but body, with each and every other commodity, be it more repulsive than Maritornes herself” [Capital 1.179].) My “stuff,” as George Carlin notoriously joked, might be your “junk,” and vice versa. Personal value is relative, fabricated, poetic. Only at the moment of exchange itself do such values, as they dissolve or evaporate, become luminous. You can have no access to what an object means or has meant to me, but at the moment it changes hands, the object bodies forth that unreadable history, which makes it worth something. For a series of instants, in other words, as each purchase takes flight, the yard sale offers what Benjamin calls bliss, the ephemeral moment of pure exchange, unmediated even by abstract constants of value like money: uncommodified. It is interchange prior to the economies of value, outside those terms. And it is fiercely imaginary.
In Marx’s terms, the yard sale appears to operate as a return to early, pre-capitalist forms of barter and exchange, where money is only phantasmagorical or imaginary:
The first form of money corresponds to a low stage of exchange and of barter, in which money still appears more in its quality of measure rather than as a real instrument of exchange. At this stage, the measure can still be imaginary . . . . From the fact that the commodity develops into general exchange value, it follows that exchange value becomes a specific commodity; it can do so only because a specific commodity obtains the privilege of representing, symbolizing, the exchange value of all other commodities, i.e. of becoming money. It arises from the essence of exchange value itself that a specific commodity appears as the money-subject, despite the monetary properties possessed by every commodity. In the course of development, the exchange value of money can exist separately from its matter, its substance, as in the case of paper money, without therefore giving up the privilege of this specific commodity, because the separated form of existence of exchange value must necessarily continue to take its denomination from the specific commodity. (Grundrisse166-7)
The yard sale, however, need not be understood as a historically displaced feudal economy, or as a throwback. Rather, the symbolic form entailed by monetary exchange in these contexts has simply shifted away from the notion of labour central to Marxian conceptions of value. Instead, the symbol becomes detached, slippery, personal. Value is ascribed and exchanged not as a function of the universal constant of money, but in fact traces out the symbolic formations that give rise to money in the first place. In other words, what yard sales represent is the process of commodification itself rather than the interchange of preformed commodities leveled by a particular monetary scale. The yard sale returns us to the imaginary fabrications that underlie the valuing of money, the emergence of its symbolic power; money, Marx argues, cannot be if it is to have value merely a “symbol” or “the arbitrary product of human reflection” (Capital 1.186), not an “imaginary” value (185), but must encrypt “the direct incarnation of all human labour” (187). Yet despite his work to objectify that labour, to shift from mere arbitrary symbolization to a kind of direct embodiment, Marx remains, as Thomas Keenan points out, at a loss to identify that universal object materially, and must fall back on abstraction: “Nothing — at least, no thing — is left, it seems, certainly not the fact that things are the product of labor” (Keenan 112). Marx himself confirms this reading in the first pages of Capital: “[The concrete forms of labour] can no longer be distinguished, but are all together reduced to the same kind of labour, human labour in the abstract” (Capital1.128). But what this means is that (again, as Keenan points out, echoing Derrida, Laclau and others) a “phantom-like objectivity,” as Marx himself writes, is all that remains to ground the objectivity of exchange (1.128): “In the rigor of abstraction, only ghosts survive. The point is to exchange them” (Keenan 115). But such an interpretation, fostered by Marx’s own rhetoric, undoes the possibility of objective value, and converts value itself into purely imaginary work. What happens at yard sales, against the grain of the objective values traded as commodities on the actual marketplaces of the city — malls, institutions, stores — is an intensification of that ghosting, whereby value itself becomes purely spectral (as if such a thing were possible, since spectres are by definition liminal, impure, creatures neither here nor there, bodies which both are and aren’t). The process of re-symbolizing value, of remaking commodities in the different imaginations of trader, buyer, seller, participant.
It seems appropriate then to defer to the jumbled notes of the Grundrisse in this case rather than to look to the more chisled political economy of Capital. Marx’s earlier work, as Thomas Kemple points out, has a kind of garage sale style: “It is by now a commonplace for readers of Marx’s writings to remark upon their fragmentary, scattered, and condensed aspects, their overall roughness and incompleteness, and thus the difficulty of making sense of them” (Kemple 11). Marx himself wrote to Engels as he was in the midst of composing his notes that “The devil is in that manuscript (it would be a fat volume in print) everything is jumbled up together like beets and cabbages. . . ” (53). The point is not that the Grundrisse is a failure as a treatise, though it most certainly does not cohere, but that it traces out a process of philosophical formation. It is a negation of the economy of the book itself, writing across and against conventions of economic logic even as it acknowledges and accepts them. Garage sales offer parodies of commerce; one garage-sale manual even concludes by suggesting that monthly sales could be held in unrented spaces at local malls, as if to convert the domesticated detritus they feature into renewed and renewable consumer goods (Williams 88). At garage sales, real money is exchanged for real goods, just as in malls or on commodity markets; but the nature of the value attached to those goods and the symbolic worth of that money are far from clear-cut. Value itself is thrown into question by the arbitrary, imaginative jumble of the sale table. What yard sales offer, like Marx’s manuscript, are themselves what Kemple calls “mediatized fictions of the market,” an exchange which foregrounds the mediating contrivances of its own making. Yard sales turn commodification against itself, even as they revel, sometimes playfully, sometimes frustrated, in its contingencies and pretenses.
A negative commerce, a form of commodification that resists the reifying pressures of the commodity, flourishes in the front lawns and back lanes of our Saturday neighbourhoods, as we go to rifle through cartons of musty, useless textbooks and card-tables stacked with mismatched cutlery, dust-bunnied macramé and broken ceramics, elbowing among the shifting gaggles of neighbours and strangers, scrums of hawkeyed second-hand dealers and ravenous bargain hunters, who mass in yard after yard, trampling shrubs as they rummage through cardboard boxes. After a few weeks, we even begin to recognize certain faces. Garage-sale people appear to be creatures of repetition and habit, making their rounds in vague community, drifting with apparent abandon through the same restrictive orbits, a cloud of chaotic particles loosely bound by their strange attractors. (I know one guy named [withheld], but I “know” him only because he seems to like the same sort of records I do, and so I’m always trying to beat him to sales. When we meet, we eye each other a little suspiciously, though I try to be friendly. “Hey [withheld],” I say, and then I show him the cool electro-acoustic John Cage LP I just found, or he shows it to me, if he got there first. Then we nod and try not to scowl.) Some oddly competitive instinct seems to nudge me gently into the fray of single-minded, full-blooded consumers jammed around a picnic table of used books, a feeling that I’m missing something over there, amid that pile of coloured glassware, that everyone desires, the thing at which I really ought to get a better look. Whether I actually need it is immaterial; the need is always generated in the hungry, gently seething morass, as we mill through piles of hand-me-downs; you have to listen carefully, pretending to be considering a moth-eaten shirt while actually cocking an ear to catch the sotto voce asides of some couple whispering about a cookbook, or someone admiring a broken Victrola, or two children pawing a carton of figurines for the really good ones, whatever those might be. Keeping your ears open is crucial; you have to hear what’s hot, and you have to be fast. Garage sales are pure desiring; possessing isn’t really the point, since most of what you buy is junk anyhow, and will probably end up in your own sale a few months later. What seems to matter is the chase, the process, the act of exchange. The experienced garage-saler, suddenly seized with want, spotting across the grass a kitchen gadget he or she just has to have, keeps silent — saying anything would alert everyone else to the desire, and the object could easily be lost — and, firmly but quickly, strides over and stakes a claim. I have watched many times how subtly such need arises: objects of no consequence become ardently wanted as soon as someone else simply hints that he or she might buy it. For me, I’ve come to a conclusion that it’s inevitable: I begin by feeling detached, but soon lose myself in the general drive to acquire whatever it is, a dozen different and tacitly-coveted objects for a dozen potential buyers, to fill that uncertain lack that can never really be filled since it inevitably can’t say precisely what it wants. It only knows that it does.
I have plenty of first-hand true-to-life takes about the value of holding your tongue. I like, as I said, to buy old records. 78s, in my experience, usually run a dollar or two, no more, and people generally have no idea who the artists are. Most have, justly, faded into obscurity, and many scratched lacquer discs of Scottish marches and third-rate big bands are hard to see as worth much at all (unless you don’t care, and simply like the look of “old” discs). So, if you’re sharp, you can sometimes find things people don’t know they have. I bought a Hot Lips Page record for a dollar, which remains one of my prize finds to this day. And I almost had a few others, but for my big mouth. A man was selling an old Victrola: it still worked, and he’d had it refinished, so he was asking a hundred dollars for it: not exactly yard-sale pricing, but you never know. In the cabinet, however, were about ten old 78s, which he said he wanted to keep with the player but was willing to sell separately. “How much?” I asked, not really looking at what they were. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said, “what do you think they’re worth?” Replies like that, as I said, are always annoying: he ought to have known what he wanted for them. (If ever asked such a question, always reply “fifty cents,” or less. The seller will react by letting you know what he or she really expected.) And then came my big mistake: I looked at the labels. They were original pressings of Albert Ammons and James P. Johnson, and a late Louis Armstrong with Sid Catlett on drums. “Wow,” I said, foolishly, aloud, “these are amazing. Originals.” A cult value of which the seller hadn’t even been aware suddenly kicked in, and the price became ten dollars each. I couldn’t afford them, and we left. Never show your hand.
Keith Jarrett, Yard Sales and the Commodification of Genius, Part One
In the next handful of posts, I’m going to parcel out some revisions of a sixty-odd-page draft of what remains of a chapter for a book (once called Earmarked) that was never to be, maybe never meant to be. The chapter, which I called “Keith Jarrett, Yard Sales, and the Commodification of Genius” was occasioned by me finding (about ten years ago now, maybe longer) a fairly pristine LP copy of Keith Jarrett’s famous and well-circulated Köln Concert album at a yard sale in Vancouver, and also by a brief and really unremarkable exchange I had with the seller over the right price. The chapter was intended as a recuperation of a Marx-influenced formalist materialism, close to the sort practiced by Theodor Adorno about forty years earlier; as an implicit plea for the necessity, in our own time, of a kind of critical archaism, a deliberately out-of-step temporality; and as an interrogation of the figure of the postmodern genius, or of the virtuosity of the extemporaneous thinker. How does improvisation either resist or accede to becoming cultural capital? Is its cultural capital, in fact, inscribed or encoded into the work of resistance?
I’ll start with two quotations, to set the project up, the first from music critic John Corbett:
One of the things I like most about LPs is the way they absorb history. By that I don’t mean the history of the music, but also the history of each record as an object; records are repositories of music’s material culture. CDs seem less historically palpable than LPs. Collectible CDs? Maybe, but not for me.
And the other from Karl Marx, the eleventh of his theses on Feuerbach:
Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt darauf an, sie zu verändern. (Or, something like, “Philosophers have merely and variously interpreted the world; the point is to change it.”)
Despite my hopes at academic relevance, it seemed quaint to me then and its seems quaint now to begin with such a citation from the “Theses on Feuerbach,” particularly this one, the eleventh, which has been flogged like a dead horse at the crossroads of interpretation and action, of what thinkers do and what they think they ought to. To me, now, it sounds more like an excuse than an imperative, a means of translating the feint of engagement in critical and academic writing into something that really matters, that changes the world. Marxism now, however various and unruly it might be, however impossible to frame as a coherent movement, has also come to appear dated at best: notions of socialism and social reform, class consciousness, commodification and exchange, property and value, have shifted so drastically in the last century, many to the point of conceptual dissolution, especially in the rather privileged Western European sphere. With multifarious levels of access to and exclusion from investment (everything from bank accounts to mutual funds), the blurring of ethnic and national identities, the suffusion of global capital into uncertain and contingent oligarchies like multinational corporations and free-trade alliances, the diffusion of a complex body of worldly information through the mass media, the idea of an economically determinate class, for example, seems historically remote, out-of-date. All this seeming is no doubt at least in part a function of my own economic and cultural privilege; I have the luxury and the leisure to release myself from the imperatives of social transformation, a comfort zone established by my rarefied – if still tenuous – position within many networks of value. Certainly there are haves and have-nots, the well-to-do and the poverty-stricken, but the boundaries and divisions are no longer so easy to determine, if indeed they ever were. Participation in the mechanisms of consumption and exchange is neither uniform nor closed, and the forms of consciousness and solidarity on which Marx might have depended for the renovation of labour and worth have become permeable, plural and radically indeterminate. It is truly difficult, for instance, to ascertain who exactly might constitute a proletarian body. Most late and post Marxisms, from Adorno on, have winnowed away the categories of Marxist analysis (from class to ideology) to the point that they can no longer find much of a purchase in the contemporary economic and political morass. It would be fatuous to dismiss Marxism as irrelevant; indeed, given the transformation of an orthodoxy of political economy into what Michel Foucault once characterized as “divergences” in a foundational “discursivity” (Rabinow 114-5), I should note instead how Marxism has come to designate a limited but prolific body of intersections, a master canon continuously inflected and re-written by an array of theoretical and critical modes:
Annales school historians, Frankfurt School theorists, Poststructuralists, Reader Reception Theorists, New Historicists and Cultural Materialists have reformulated Marxist principles and extended them by drawing more and more widely on other ideas from other texts — texts of philosophy, ethnology, anthropology, linguistics, psychoanalysis and religion. They have produced a variety of transformations, inversions, displacements and reformulations, resolving some of the impasses they inherited and reinscribing others. And they have made Marxism perhaps the most imperialistic discursive formation today. (Bannet 2)
I think I tend, however, to lose sight, in the wake of this permanently self-revolutionizing theory, of what might still be said to constitute the core of a Marxist critical praxis. (Bannet appears unwilling to grant the positional solidarity of a proper name to her “Marxism,” given its decentred plurality.) Returning to canon, to the classic statements of value and revolution we might associate with Marx himself, doesn’t prove particularly satisfying, either. The demand that workers of the world unite, for example, would serve as well for a slogan for Benneton advertising as it might for union bureaucracies, and clearly re-inscribe a deeply problematic collective determinism that is deeply endemic to the hegemonic forms of western politics. (What workers do we mean? What constitutes work? How is a proletariat demarcated? What world do we mean — first, second, third or fourth? Unite on whose terms? How?) It is difficult still to hear a deeply felt call for socialist revolution. Manifestoes date themselves, locked into their own inevitable anachrony.
The flipside of such anachrony, its camera obscura inversion, has to be nostalgia. I remember when I was fourteen, or fifteen at the most, I bought from our local bookstore a blue-spined Pelican paperback version of The Communist Manifesto. It’s short, a quick enough read, but it is also so historically and materially specific in its frames of reference, with its welter of dated prefaces and that its smallish scholarly apparatus (by none other than A. J. P. Taylor), that I had a hard time feeling anything of the insistent presentism of its famous opening: “A spectre is haunting Europe . . . .” but a spectre that felt, at least as an adolescent reading experience, more archaic than disturbing. I wasn’t a particularly careful reader, sure, but I seemed to know that the book, that this particular book, could have very real transformative power as a material object. I could use that manifest spectre, I mean, to scare my parents. Which is exactly what I think I did. I remember announcing to them from the back seat of the family car, book in hand, that I had become “a communist.” I hadn’t joined any political organizations, of course, and I don’t think I even knew anyone who was especially political. I think my parents took my declaration fairly calmly, assuming I had next to no idea what I meant, which wasn’t exactly true. I knew some things. I think, looking back, that this announcement offered me a point of Oedipal differentiation, a small shock I could leverage into separating myself from the everyday security of a safe middle-class paternalism. I’m not sure why I wanted to do this; privilege will feed and clothe you. Maybe I liked the idea of risk, without any experience of it. This moment, when saying “communism” offered me the literary pretense of action, a very small-scale moment of teenaged shock-and-awe, was also the moment when politics – at its very outset, even – deteriorated almost instantly into mere style.
In Why Marx Was Right (2011), Terry Eagleton reacts to this political anesthesia, symptomatic of late-stage capitalism, by arguing for – or at least asserting, declaring – the necessity of Marxist thought in a seemingly post-Marxist world, a world that appears to have left Marx behind. Marx’s “archaic” quality, Eagleton asserts (making a point about a return to “Victorian levels of inequality”), “is what makes him still relevant today,” that Marx still offers a means to regard capitalism, critically, from a contingent but critically-viable outside (Eagleton 3). “In these dire conditions,” Eagleton writes, citing Fredric Jameson, “‘Marxism must necessarily become true again’” (8). Marx is right for our own time, for Eagleton, because of his vatic prescience, because – against the odds, perhaps – in Adorno’s formulation, he threatens to be right, because we don’t want him to be. Eagleton suggests that Marx foresees the contemporary consequences of globalization, for example, and also offers a still-viable conceptual path for the critique of the massive commodification of experience. I think Eagleton is following Friedrich Engels, in a famously deferential note in the last chapter of Engels’s late book on Ludwig Feuerbach:
Here I may be permitted to make a personal explanation. Lately repeated reference has been made to my share in this theory, and so I can hardly avoid saying a few words here to settle this point. I cannot deny that both before and during my 40 years’ collaboration with Marx I had a certain independent share in laying the foundation of the theory, and more particularly in its elaboration. But the greater part of its leading basic principles, especially in the realm of economics and history, and, above all, their final trenchant formulation, belong to Marx. What I contributed — at any rate with the exception of my work in a few special fields — Marx could very well have done without me. What Marx accomplished I would not have achieved. Marx stood higher, saw further, and took a wider and quicker view than all the rest of us. Marx was a genius; we others were at best talented. Without him the theory would not be by far what it is today. I[t] therefore rightly bears his name. [Italics mine.]
Praising the genius of Marx, for Engels, is obviously a way of acknowledging both his intellectual brilliance and his visionary acuity. The Latin etymology of the term genius – a transliteration of the Roman name for something like a guardian angel or “tutelar spirit” – is linked (my old companion W. W. Skeat suggests) to the idea of the genus, genetic kinship, creative or generative origin, maybe even to push things a bit, something like a muse, an instructive spirit. Marx’s genius, along these lines, makes him into a corrective spectre who haunts our world, and who persistently speaks against the oppressive tendencies of our times, a counter-episteme. Eagleton explicitly states that this Marx isn’t the one he wants to recover, the Marx of “moral and cultural critique” who seems to him next to impossible to dismiss as foundational to most critical projects in the humanities. And maybe this means leaving Eagleton behind now in my current trajectory; but it’s important to acknowledge how even Eagleton’s doggedly practical and political recuperation of Marx depends upon and is haunted by that genius.
The political and the cultural, that is, are difficult to disentangle, which seems like a banal enough claim to make, hardly a claim at all, except that the question of how that interdependency articulates itself, particularly across the domain of the aesthetic, becomes both crucial and vexed – bewitched, Adorno might say. Aesthetic abstraction, the rarefication of artistic material and experience, takes on the quaintly archaic appearance of privilege and withdrawal, but that rarefication can also be understood as an at least contingently foundational moment for political engagement, the fraught origin of what Fredric Jameson calls, potentially, “a radical intervention in the here-and-now and the promise of resistance to its blind fatalities” (The Cultural Turn35). I hear Adorno’s negative dialectics all over Jameson’s argument:
In the old days, abstraction was surely one of the strategic ways in which phenomena, particularly historical phenomena, could be estranged and defamiliarized; when one is immersed in the immediate – the year-by-year experience of cultural and informational messages, of successive events, of urgent priorities – the abrupt distance afforded by an abstract concept, a more global characterization of the secret affinities between those apparently autonomous and unrelated domains, and of the rhythms and hidden sequences of things we normally remember in isolation and one by one, is a unique resource, particularly since the history of the preceding few years is always what is least accessible to us. (35)
Jameson is talking about theorizing the postmodern, but – and I don’t think I’m out of synch here – he is also outlining a poetics here, at least implicitly, and even – in his gesture at rhythm – a musical aesthetic. And he’s talking, for that matter, about how Marx’s genius might materialize in contemporary language, how it might sound itself.
What’s emerging, I think, is an aesthetic of relevance, of creative urgency that matters. How is it, the question goes, that Marxism might remain, as Marxism, relevant if not contemporary, given its archaism, its ineluctable entanglements with “the old days”? Douglas Kellner argues, following both Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, that Marxism is defined by its persistent field of crisis:
Marxism still has the theoretical and political resources to provide an account of contemporary history and strategies for radical social transformation. In a sense, Marxism is always in crisis as new events emerge that require revision and development of the theory. Marx himself and subsequent Marxists were always revising and reconstructing the theory to take account of historical developments and to fill in the deficiencies in the original theory. In this sense, “crises of Marxism” are not so much signs of the obsolescence of the Marxian theory as a typical situation for a social theory facing anomalies or events that challenge its theories. (16)
For Kellner, scientific or orthodox Marxism can only be misapplied and inappropriate, but critical Marxism remains relevant (especially Frankfurt school, especially Marcuse): “Because no competing economic theory or critique of capitalism has emerged to replace Marxism, it is still an indispensable part of radical social theory” (18). But what constitutes the core of a theory, the theory, which is wholly self-renovating? For me, it’s the collision of the archaic and the nostalgic – that is, in a sense of the ideological and the utopian – in textual-materialist engagements with the historical. Historicizing Marxism itself, which asserts its relevance as a theory of historical crisis and transformation, refigures its quaintness. Responding to critiques of Adorno’s Marxist anachrony, Jameson argues that “if you reproach Marxism with its temporal dimension, which allows it to consign solutions to philosophical problems to a future order of things, . . . a vision of postponement and lag, deferral and future reconciliation,” you are in effect assuming an a-temporal critical posture he associates with the postmodern:
it may be admitted that this future-oriented philosophy — which prophecies catastrophe and proclaims salvation — is scarcely consistent with that perpetual present which is daily life under postmodern or late capitalism. (Late Marxism 231)
The radical critique proffered by Marxism has remained, for Jameson, its “genuine historicity,” the insistence upon historical renovation — even to the point of facing its own immersion in the historical, its own perpetual theoretical anachronism — to which Kellner also holds.
So, I want to use Marx as a point of departure for at least two reasons. First, my initial object of study, the yard sale, operates like a peculiar pocket of capital production and exchange both within and outside the complexes of regulation, distribution and control that constitute the wider market. Like Marxism itself, yard sales are inherently quaint. They are highly localized, interstitial formations at which nascent commodities, in the Marxian sense, are able to gestate, baldly exposed to view: yard sales offer an immediate display (an aesthetic) of capitalism in its infancy. Marxist critique, for a moment, applies. Second, the actual ideologeme that I want to isolate and interrogate – the production of “genius” – feeds back into the dialectic articulated by Marx’s eleventh thesis, tired as it may seem. How is it, I want to ask, that an acquired object – in this case, a particular record by Keith Jarrett – shifts from a thing interpreted (as valuable, as meaningful) to a political manifesto, an immediacy which no longer simply represents but enables participation in a kind of community of action, a shift, as Keith Jarrett might say, from the passivity of audience member to the activity of listener. An apparently trivial, everyday act – buying a used album in somebody’s garage – presents a potential moment to call radically into question the structures of consumption and determination that almost invisibly and nearly inaudibly govern and shape us.
More to come. (Next, theorizing yard sales, then acquiring, and listening to, Keith Jarrett.)
Works Cited to This Point
Bannet, Eve. Postcultural Theory: Critical Theory After the Marxist
Paradigm. New York: Paragon House, 1993. Print.
Corbett, John. Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage
to Dr. Funkenstein. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. Print.
Eagleton, Terry. Why Marx Was Right. New Haven: Yale UP,
Engels, Friedrich. Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German
Philosophy. 1886. Translator unknown. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1886/ludwig-feuerbach/ch04.htm. Web.
Jameson, Fredric. Late Marxism: Adorno, or, The Persistence of the
Dialectic. London: Verso, 1990. Print.
– – -. The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern,
1983-1998. London: Verso, 1998. Print.
Rabinow, Paul, ed. The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon,