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Keeping balls in the air

A painted wooden sculpture from the 60s by artist Andy Warhol.

A painted wooden sculpture from the 60s by artist Andy Warhol.  

Hacktivism, post-feminism, hip-hop are rooted in ’80s pop

So. Youthful wanderings on the sunny beaches of the world, anxious recordings of reality by machines, expansion and deepening of experience in electronic music and finally, the young discovering the cosmos first-hand as consciousness. These were the new coordinates for a new generation’s historical adventure at the turn of the ’60s. And here it might be good to consider the first major shift in perspective we need to come to terms with in order to face our futures. Something has happened in our midst, something far more powerful than any political or philosophical discourse we have been bandying around in the name of progressive historical action. And that big thing in our lives is the power of pop.

Pop, not as popular culture as often understood, but pop as something as piquant and ephemeral as the popping of a soap bubble. Pop as this ephemeral thing that opposes the solidity of talk about social values. The soap bubble is a function of a viscous liquid that flows as opposed to solids that freeze flow. It pops but fleetingly takes form, hinting at a strongish trace of experience that might just about be memorable. This trace is all we have by way of that old chestnut of meaningful conversations—value.

Democracy cannot be a serious affair. Numbers and diversities in fast interactivity are bound to make things loose, noisy and ephemeral. Even the great masses of past political revolutions were puny compared to the electronic massification of humanity. Thus the illusion of seriousness in numbers. The monumentality of ‘serious’ things that dominate talk about values today can only be achieved in insular clubs of immobile minds dreaming an immortal stay in history against restless desire.

Clubs like our educational orders descended from medieval clerical institutions, home to a bunch of social misfits, men who couldn’t bear the din of history in desiring flesh. Their dreams for the immortal godly have over time translated into democracies playing the fear of death among masses towards the cult of international wars—economic and military.

Global pop power was born in opposition to this clerical bunker in the age of post-War pacifism of the ’60s. And then it quickly took over everything—culture, science and technology. It got political over time through events such as George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 or the 1985 Live Aid concerts that informed a new era in international aid politics. It got serious, articulating the existential angst of youthful misery—the sublime Joy Division, for example. From Godard onwards to Tarantino, filmmakers invented pop post-modernisms spanning the high philosophical to pastiche-as-significant-cultural critique.

With Web 2.0, technology studies started taking seriously pop histories of science research.

The ’80s were a crucial moment in the conquest of reality by pop. The worklessness of the young in global de-industrialisation and the AIDS/ global poverty crisis would come together to produce dystopic urban cultures of dance in decaying metropolises. These cultures were central to urban communitarian action that would regenerate cities through the ’90s. Music would be central to inventing a new mixed race culture across the world. The progressive politics of our times was forged in the pop labours of the hard night of the transition from industrial modernity to supermodernity. Our hacktivism, digital countercultures, post-feminisms and the eco-warrior ethic are all rooted in the pop of the ’80s. Rap would lead to hip-hop, the revolutionary language of today’s global rurban poor.

All along, science and technology too would increasingly turn to pop as would the social sciences and humanities. With Web 2.0, technology studies started taking seriously pop histories of science research. These are recalled in the moves from Mondrian through Lego bricks to figuration in CMYK. For our times, CMYK is the AGCT nucleotide sequence of DNA. Literally so, when bio-genetics is all about 3D printing now. Our homes too have now become pop architecture. A moment that effortlessly arrives through the avant-garde eccentricity of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International and the psychedelic flows of Warhol’s colours… and industrial plastics thrown in between.

Much of this was put into place in the late ’60s. Robert Smithson’s opening up of life to the cosmos would lead to the codification of pop things such as surfing and skateboarding as marginal punk lifestyles but also as a pioneering milieu for eco-digital counter-politics. Poet Gary Snyder did Beat lit, New Age eco-wanderings and proto-rave spiritual experiments all around the Pacific Rim. Godard and Antonioni would pretty much invent all the laws of New Media. There is a little of Patti Smith in Madonna down to Lady Gaga while Wendy Carlos, one of the developers of the Moog synthesizer, moved from being a man to being a woman in the ’70s. The period that followed saw these all-encompassing insurgent impulses break apart older solidities, make flesh and matter flow into newer, democratic life collectives. They would birth a million experience things expressing the creative energies of this rowdy mass.

Pop would prove that numbers, diversity and the speed of experience could not, in democratic free expression, accommodate monumentality. It would prove that knowing the world was a rhythm thing, order being an illusion of the ponderous time we had to arrange things in linear sequences. In democratic free expression, such time would be impossible to have. Knowing would entail organising myriad experiences into pop rhythms to do things with them in compressed time. Like keeping balls in the air is a pop rhythm thing. String Theory explaining the structure of the universe would follow and say it was all musical. Listening to something like Jakatta’s American Booty/ Beauty mixes might allow us a glimpse of what experiencing the String universe in an electro-pop lens might feel like.

The writer is Associate Professor in Cinema Studies at JNU. When not ordering food on various apps, he is writing about cinema and art.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 12:58:48 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/keeping-balls-in-the-air/article19284890.ece

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