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 twinkle is that failure is not a point as much as it is a potential or an intensive measure of relative satisfaction. And music too, insofar as it is as [sic] a place holder for the potential to compose, perform, or listen, yet also a potential to practice, to study, dance, shop to, protest or pray with, and most especially, to feel (to), resembles failure in its elusive satisfaction. As such, music, like failure, is point-less. Music’s productive inconstancy models the kind of polymorphous perversity that makes failure so supple and multivalent, so evasive and so frustrating.(16-17)
The suggestion Priest makes here, that all music fails in a sense because of the nature of music, that all music is in a sense arbitrary in its organization is, I feel, an exciting suggestion that has the potential to bypass some of the supposedly objective ontological claims made about music from a variety of very culturally-specific standpoints. (At this point I should declare that this [End Page 342] is a point that I have made in a recently published book on a similar topic to that covered by the volume under review.) However, Priest pulls back from this claim and applies this idea of failure (in its tripartite manifestation as “boring,” “formless” and “nonsense”) only to “experimental” music, by which he means “music that takes the self-conscious and deliberate confusion which is characteristic of post-Cagean aesthetics as an expressive norm” (17). His point, as he sums it up, is then as follows: “Experimental composition has no point, or at least its post-Cagean variety has no particular point” (19). This, to my mind, is potentially a problematic suggestion in and of itself, but it becomes even more problematic when the pointlessness of music is restricted to a certain kind of music.
In suggesting that this is the case, Priest follows, to a certain extent, in the footsteps of Antoine Roquentin, the protagonist-narrator of Jean-Paul Sartre’s first novel Nausea—a figure that he invokes soon after the passage quoted above as an exemplar of the unpleasantness that the apprehension of the world’s excess or superfluity can occasion. For Roquentin, the contingency and radical arbitrariness of the world bring about a feeling of nausea that he combats through a willed decision to justify his existence through an aesthetic expression intended to imbue his life with a sense of purpose and necessity. His revelation is this regard comes as he is listening to the refrain of a particular jazz song, “Some of these days,” whose melodic line seems to display an internal consistency, a sense that each note exists in its place for a reason, could only ever be just so. This, however, is nothing but a culturally-conditioned impression or, perhaps, a retroactive delusion in the face of a pleasing aesthetic experience; either way, this belief leads Roquentin towards an act of extreme bad faith, as even the most cursory reading of the novel makes clear. For, as Priest’s initial position seemed to imply, if all music is in a sense pointless and if the world is ultimately utterly contingent, then there can be no internal necessity to any music, regardless of whether that music is composed in such a way as to heighten or lessen the perception of intentionality that the listener experiences. And herein, perhaps, lies the major problem with Priest’s argument, for it hangs on this distinction between “normal,” intentional music and “experimental” music as Priest defines the term, “‘de-intended’” musical events, or “formally remote works” as he terms them. To turn Priest’s own double blinds against him, however, one needs to ask whether any composition can really be de-intended, whether lack of intention itself springs from intention.
In the final analysis, though, perhaps none of this matters, for if my charge is ultimately that Priest’s book is overly subjective, then this is no doubt in part his intention. Boring, Formess, Nonsense is obviously a highly personal work in which we gain an insight into Priest’s own theoretical preferences and musical tastes. Boring, Formless, Nonsense, indeed, is a profoundly individual work that presents fascinating accounts of musical practices and expressions that will be in many cases, I would imagine, entirely unfamiliar to most readers. In order to attempt to come to terms with the challenge that these [End Page 343] works represent, Priest, fittingly, borrows concepts from a similarly marginal theoretical vocabulary, introducing fascinating concepts with fantastical sounding names: “phenomenophilia,” “hyperstition,” “hypnopompia,” “spatilomancy.” It is through this conjunction of theory with sonic objects that Priest makes a case for the need to reconsider the ways in which the notions of boredom, formlessness and nonsense have been theoretically articulated up until now because of the ways in which these very concepts have been reconfigured in the context of our contemporary media-saturated world. This leads him to disagree not only with Adorno, Baudelaire, Bataille and Krauss, but also more contemporary thinkers and writers such as David Foster Wallace and Paul Hegarty, thinkers from whom he takes his lead only to wander off on his own distracted path. To my mind, it is when he follows such a line of flight and discusses, for instance, the aesthetics of distraction that he is at his strongest; less successful are the times when he struggles to carve out a space within an already saturated field, such as when, for instance, he ties himself up in knots over a discussion on noise music only to propose, ultimately, that we talk rather about music noise.
The book’s style also is idiosyncratic in the extreme, again a marker of the personality of the author, one assumes. This makes the work a very enjoyable one in many ways, as long as one is prepared to “go with the flow,” to join Priest on what is really, as Paul Hegarty suggests on the back cover blurb, a “journey” that begins “over and over again.” When doing this though, I personally am somewhat discomfited by an impression that I may be submitting to a joke at my own expense. For Priest’s text goes so far down the road of a certain kind of academese that it comes incredibly close to parodies of this kind of academic discourse, such as that found in Ian McGuire’s 2006 novel Incredible Bodies. Take, for instance, the following passage:
In this chapter I not only consider pseudonymic and “meta” practices as ways in which a duplicitous nonsense circulates in art music, I also employ them. As such, this essay should be read with the understanding that the surtext (the main body) is metaphorical while the subtext (footnotes/endnotes) is literal. This of course does not make the “sur” is [sic] any less real than the “sub.” It just makes the former less direct than the latter. The form of the chapter thereby reflects the kind of duplicity (duplexity) that is at work in the music I examine (invent) by transposing it to a meta-and even hyper-level where the bond between symbol and material that the construct of Music (note the capital “M”) problematizes starts to unravel in the face of its own artifice, its own bullshit. In this chapter, then, I play my hand at making nonsense, not by being absurd but in making a theoretical straight from a fictional suit that will justify the gambit I have now made in telling you that I am going to bluff.(25-26) [End Page 344]
We are here so close to an actual parody such as the McGuire book mentioned that it is hard to tell the difference (hence why I suggest we might be in the eighth circle of hell). Maybe, indeed, if we unpick the final sentence of this quotation, this is what Priest is actually telling us, and Hegarty implies something similar when he says that there are here “murmurs of an avant-garde comic turn.” Even in saying this, however, I find myself second-guessing myself, remembering those times when I found the text so utterly impenetrable, nonsensical and dense that my mind wandered off, only to be pulled back by a surprising turn of phrase, an evocative yet brilliant insight that made me wonder whether the text was not so much a joke as an extremely complex performative gesture that echoed the aesthetics of distraction and failure proposed by the works under analysis. To pose the question in such mutually exclusive binary terms, though, is of course a lure, because if the text has moments such as this, it has others such as the diagram on page 266 of the “Plane of Ideosonic Transmutation and Hyperstitious Intensification of Non-belief” which, let’s face it, is entirely farcical, and which make of the work as a whole, as Priest tells us from the start and again in his conclusion (or “Inconclusion,” as he prefers to call it), both profound and complete and utter bullshit, a parasitic hoax “wrought and presented in such as [sic] way as to persuade us to take its semblance, its illusion (Schien) seriously” (279-80).
And so again we must ask whether, ultimately, this actually matters, whether a work that is published in a “serious” academic series and that has all the trappings of a “serious” work should, in fact, take itself a little more seriously, or whether, on the contrary, the only possible or appropriate response to a musical scene that might, sometimes, appear to take itself a little too seriously is precisely this kind of irreverence and near-parody. For my part, I’d prefer more seriousness if for no other reason than that the important works Priest deals with are parodied easily enough by their detractors and thus deserve, perhaps, something different from their defenders. But that’s just me, and your own answer to these questions and reaction when faced with the passages quoted will probably give you a fair indication of whether you wish to go on this journey with Priest or not. If you do, he will claim that his text will, in the spirit of its subject matter, succeed by failing and thus entertain by boring you. Such a suggestion can only, however, be disingenuousness, because one thing you will not be is bored. [End Page 345]
Greg Hainge is Reader in French at the University of Queensland. He has recently published a monograph entitled Noise Matters: Towards an Ontology of Noise (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013) and serves on the editorial boards of Culture, Theory and Critique, Contemporary French Civilization, Etudes Céliniennes, Corps, and Studies in French Cinema.
1. Review of Eldritch Priest, Boring, Formless, Nonsense: Experimental Music and the Aesthetics of Failure. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.