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  • Reader’s Report on Joseph Tate’s “Radiohead’s Antivideos: Works of Art in the Age of Electronic Reproduction” (PMC 12.3):
  • Jeremy Arnold

There is perhaps no greater sign of the decadence of Postmodern Culture (the journal and the phenomenon) than Joseph Tate’s interpretation of Radiohead’s anti-videos. My goal is not to combat his interpretation of the videos with my own, but to argue against the assumptions of the text itself. And in the spirit of postmodern disclosure, I will admit that this response is being subversively written from my cubicle in San Francisco, which will explain the absence of page references and direct quotes.

Rather than detail every point of disagreement I have, I will simply mark out a few points of difference.

  1. 1. The use of unquestioned theoretical constructs to explain, rather than understand (in the sense of the Germanic distinction most often associated with Heidegger) a given cultural product seems as unhelpful as deconstructive readings of comic books. I love Baudrillard as much as the next guy, but the fact is even he doubts his own credibility, as evidenced by his infamous comment that he is an anti-prophet, in that everything he says isn’t (or doesn’t become) true. In that sense, I would argue that Baudrillard, perhaps in line with Zizek, wants a return to the Real, that for all the talk of hyperreality and the procession of simulacra, metaphorics of emptiness and deserts, there is a politically motivated “desire” for the Real. A desert may be devoid of water, but it is not pure form; it is its own kind of Real, where survival is, perhaps, more at stake than in the comfy confines of PoMo suburbanity.

    Under my reading then, Radiohead’s music, despite its pastiche and the utter futility in locating a single event of performance, is also not designed to play out the VR [virtual reality] fantasy; there is, both lyrically and musically, a reality in the songs. Yorke’s constant references to scenes of material, technologically produced destruction (“Lucky,” “Airbag” on OK Computer), politics (“You and Whose Army,” on Amnesiac) and existential moments of doubt (just about every damn song they ever wrote) refer us not to a dematerialized sphere of virtuality, but through the hyper-consciousness of the technological mediation of our experience of reality these days, sends us back to the real human emotions (or the difficulty in feeling those emotions) involved in any situation.

  2. 2. Musically speaking, Tate seems way off the mark, perhaps as a result of his simple appropriation of PoMo theory, which prevents him from listening to the music instead of finding out its status as an object. (Frankly, I wouldn’t mind that analysis if there wasn’t an equation made between the economic and the aesthetic, a leap that is given no argumentative support.) This is most evidenced by his misguided assertion that Bitches Brew is not as much a product of instrumental virtuosity as it is a product of Ted Macero and Miles Davis’s production chops (we will return to the word “chops” in a moment). The simple fact of the matter is that Bitches Brew, while a collage of improvised pieces of music pasted together by a brilliant team of musicians and engineers, is an achievement because of the musical ground it broke. It breaks down the harmonic elements of jazz to their most basic structures, removing standard progressions and improvisation over changes (a project begun in Davis’s earlier modal music, most notably on Kind of Blue) while introducing a significant amount of rhythmic diversity that was predicated less on swing and more on pulse (a pulse inspired by rock, perhaps, but in no way reducible to it).

    Radiohead has performed its own kind of revision of the canon of rock, not by revealing its “phantasmic” structure (hasn’t rock always been, more than any art, aware of its own phantasmic existence? what else could explain the existence and appeal of hair metal bands in the 80s?) but by radically investigating the implicit possibilities that rock music, as an historical process (has Tate forgotten history in all of this?), offers. Radiohead is not...

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