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Unmade Remarks on Innovation (Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, Samuel Beckett, C. D. Wright, Tanya Tagaq)
I was invited to take part in the closing panel of the UBC Arts Undergraduate Society’s student conference on “Innovation.” The members of the panel were asked to discuss ways in which academic faculty could foster innovation in student research, but I seem to have missed the memo, and so I prepared a set of remarks offering a critique of the concept of innovation. I realized my mistake about five minutes before I was scheduled to speak, so I ended up improvising some comments—using bits and pieces from what I had written—on the poetics of “study” (gesturing a little at Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s work on the undercommons) and on research as question and risk rather than innovative production: that it might be better to think of ourselves as students rather than experts. I also felt that I had pitched my remarks all wrong, and that it would be better to talk with this audience than read out my prose. Still, I like what I wrote; I used this moment to start thinking about Tanya Tagaq’s music, a critical project I have been meaning to set in motion for some time. Here is the composed undelivered text I’d prepared.
Innovation Without Innovation
Kevin McNeilly, University of British Columbia
Unmade Remarks at the AUS Humanities Conference
Saturday, 16 January 2016
I want to make a few remarks to frame and to critique the ideological loading of the concept of innovation. I’m resisting the un-interrogated praise of making things new—the allure of novelty—and at the same time trying to suggest a relationship to time, a going forward (or perhaps better, outward) that can be sounded as a crucial potential in particular forms of lyric, in poetic language that W. H. Auden famously imagines as “a way of happening, a mouth.”
Approaching the end of writing The Order of Things(1966/1970), Michel Foucault admits that he discovers himself “on the threshold of a modernity that we have”—that he has—”not yet left behind” (xxiv). This unqualified “we” is epochal, its episteme described asymptotically by the reflexive acknowledgement not only of the limits of his own language, but also of a cultural latecomer’s language as such: “the question of the being of language,” as he puts it, is “intimately linked with the fundamental problems of our culture” (382). (I’m poaching and re-appropriating material, if not the argument, from John Rajchman’s 1983 essay “Foucault, or the Ends of Modernism” .) The shared cult of Bildung—linked to myths of progress, of newness, of innovation, of transcendence, of what the philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers refers to as the “epic” of our time—presently and lately, as it touches the expressive limits of its own futurity, its forward motion, can only cannibalize and repurpose itself in the guise of renewal, a mortal remix that tends to pass off an eviscerated avant garde for material discovery.
Foucault must be thinking of Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, pictured in the ninth of his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”:
A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
So-called progress names a cultural if not an ontological imperative as a species of dire pharmakon: remedy as ruin, betterment as destruction. In the opening paragraphs of one of his last texts, Worstward Ho, Samuel Beckett articulates this imperative as driving whatever remains of self-expression in our time, the need to “go on,” and to go on saying, despite exhaustion, despite the obvious futility and emptiness of the new, despite the asymptotic approach of his language to its absolute expressive limits, its nohow: “On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on.” The work’s title parodies Charles Kingsley’s 1855 novel Westward Ho!, an extended romance of colonial expansion, masculine industry and liberal self-reliance. More recently, Beckett’s lines have often been misappropriated and repurposed as a kind of global capitalist mantra, a call to technological and corporate innovation. As readers, and fellow latecomers, we need to be more rigorous and careful about what Beckett articulates here.
Beckett’s language sloughs off the trappings of Western progress for an acknowledgement of cultural and epistemic decrepitude: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Speech deteriorates into fragmented clichés and bathetic puns; pushed to its verbal limits, the romance of expressive imperatives can only cannibalize itself. What passes for innovation or renewal reduces to tautology: “Imagination dead imagine.” For me, this fraught word-circuit allegorizes the broken teleology of the human project, its attenuated failure, a diagnosis that seems increasingly self-evident in our era of climate change, endocapitalism, exhaustive consumption, viral technocracy, global insecurity, displaced populations and supersaturated media. The imperative to innovate, however, persists as a resilient remainder, or “stirrings still” as Beckett’s last text puts it. Acknowledging the vestiges of this imaginative prod that might stir us on is one of the cultural functions of lyric, still, today. Confronted with its own extinction, Beckett’s language nonetheless enacts a thetic rhythm, a halting but persistent step beyond itself.
The American poet C. D. Wright, who died earlier this week, suggests in One with Others (2010) a comparable cultural function for poetry in our fraught, self-destructive era of “progress”: “It is a function of poetry to locate those zones inside us that would be free, and declare them so.” Wright’s declaration may sound as if she wants to recuperate naïve confession, potentially masking wreckage in aspirational nostalgia. That’s certainly a danger in advocating for poetry in an age when lyric language becomes increasingly corny, recycled and fatigued. Better understood, Wright advocates for a fracturing of interiority, a form of innovation, a freeing that doesn’t so much foster the cult of expressive genius as open intimacy onto an alterity, an outside, that refuses merely to cannibalize its own ruins.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Tanya Tagaq’s 2014 album Animism culls a lyric intensity, an embodied affective immediacy, by splicing and looping an extemporaneous, situated circular breathing derived from Inuit throat-singing back onto itself, supported by her core improvising trio with Jesse Zubot and Jean Martin, and others. Confronting the porous boundaries between the human and the animal, the corporeal and the machinic, the given and the made, the recording troubles the edges of signification, and generates its eros by turning those zones of encounter inside out. Each nascent “song” offers a kind of post-natural ecology. It innovates not by being new but by freeing up, by crossing lines, and by making vocal music from the come-and-go of those transgressive stirrings. Her/their music surges up, finds its pulse, in sustained and audible risk. There is much to say, and to say on, about this recording, but I’ll finish my own set of re-purposed texts by briefly noting how Tagaq and group re-purpose and renew—innovate through—The Pixies’s “Caribou.” A parody, perhaps, of ethnomusicological collecting, the CD opens by concocting a form of techno-shamanism with a cover not of Inuit folksong but of American post-punk, inverting salvage anthropology into a call for, if not a performance of, primordial agency—deft ululation, yes, but also voicing an acute cultural politics through expansive virtuosity, decolonizing the ear: “Give dirt to me / I bite lament / This human form / Where I was born / I now repent.” In an interview in NME Black Francis apparently disclosed that “maybe even the singer of the song is reincarnated as a caribou.” In Tanya Tagaq’s version, animistic metempsychosis emerges from speech act—thematized as repentance in the lyrics—toward verbal becoming, the self—its human form—transubstantiated through unfolding textures of voice: anthropomorphic debris reanimated, said on, sung on.