- Metacritique in the Eighth Circle of Hell1
Eldritch Priest has perhaps, with Boring, Formless, Nonsense: Experimental Music and the Aesthetics of Failure, written a book that is impossible to review. And yet here I find myself faced with the unenviable task of having to do precisely this, of having to write a review of this unreviewable book and hence of setting out on a road to nowhere, engaging in an enterprise that I know in advance can only ever fail. Yet in saying this, of course, given the content of Priest’s book, its premise and its self-reflexive stance towards its own mode of production, I am perhaps, in fact, succeeding through this failure, recognising the double binds, incompossibilities and apparent contradictions of Priest’s work not as failings but, rather, a challenge via which new relations are formed to the texts with which we choose to confront ourselves. And in doing this, if this is indeed what I am doing, I am undoubtedly casting myself as reviewer in the image of the book itself, or perhaps casting myself down into the eighth circle of hell fashioned by Priest, writing in such a way as to mimic his own stance and, perhaps, style. Take, for instance, the following passage:
the failure ascribed to the music that I discuss here is a failure that describes my own discussion of the music. Its failure is my failure, a strange loop that lets me be both knight and knave, right and wrong, sincere and full of shit. It is a way to show how failure lives out the way one lives in contradictions: the way one finds interest in boredom, form in formlessness, and sense in nonsense.(29)
It is passages such as this that prompt me to suggest that Priest’s book is one that is impossible to review? Why? The answer, quite simply, is because through passages such as this Priest leaves me somewhat incapacitated, unable to disagree with anything that he says because one is always made aware of the fact that the very formulation of any argument necessarily [End Page 341] brings with it its antithesis and annulment (rather than synthesis). As critic, then, it becomes near impossible to disagree because in doing so one is (probably) agreeing or, conversely, impossible to agree because in doing so one is necessarily talking nonsense.
Perhaps, of course, this matters little, perhaps the very idea of the reviewer or critic as arbiter of the truth of a work is just a socially constituted construct indicative of a hierarchy of power relations, the reviewer as judge, jury and executioner of the text under review which has no right of reply (and yes I am again, to a certain extent, ventriloquising Priest). Perhaps, in fact, the only way to review a book such as this is in fact to entertain a different relation to it, to expect from it something akin to what one might experience when faced with one of the boring, formless, nonsense musical examples Priest responds to in his book. Such, again, is in fact in large part clearly suggested in this book when Priest writes (bravely):
if my study of failure promises anything, it too must risk emptiness and annihilation. And to the extent that boring formless nonsense fulfils this promise, it will become exactly that which it names.(31)
If one wishes to follow Priest down this path towards boredom, formlessness and nonsense, it would be wise, I would suggest, to skip the introduction which is somewhat like a critical exegesis appended to something that is often more daring. Yet if you do not want to do this, and indeed, personally I don’t, then one needs to critique, to say why one might disagree even in the full knowledge that the text will counter every objection at some point with a “yes, exactly.”
Let me then suggest why we might disagree with Priest on a very fundamental level, or at least suggest why I do. Priest, very early on in his study, states that he will “refrain from defining failure and instead illuminate its ‘twinklings’” (16). He continues,
By far the brightest...