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    Volume 13, Number 1
    September, 2002

    The following responses were submitted by PMC readers using regular e-mail or the PMC Reader's Report form. Not all letters received are published, and published letters may have been edited.

    Copyright (c) 2002 by the authors, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the authors and the notification of the publisher, the Johns Hopkins University Press.

    Reader's Report on Joseph Tate's "Radiohead's Antivideos: Works of Art in the Age of Electronic Reproduction" (PMC 12.3):

    These comments are from: 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. 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. 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 the first to use electronics instead of instruments (Brian Eno, Can, etc.) or odd time signatures (although they have often said they hate progressive rock, odd time has been a feature of the genre since its inception) or to deal with PoMo culture (the Talking Heads, whose song "Radiohead" gave Radiohead its name, brilliantly assessed the PoMo world on Remain in Light, which I feel is one of the greatest albums in rock history).

      What Radiohead has done, in my opinion, is to insert a strong melodic sensibility that rock often lacks. What always brings the music back to a real human situation is the power of the melody, even in the fragmented songs on Kid A. The melody forces us back to the Real and ultimately forces us to listen again and again because there is something "there." It is the relationship between a powerful melody (and the harmonic background, which is often quite traditional) and the complex and disjunctive rhythm that makes Radiohead an incredible band. They do have chops (unlike most rock musicians, all of Radiohead's members except Yorke read music), evident in the complexity of the arrangements, the odd time, and the execution of the songs (nothing ever seems like a mistake in Radiohead; it all seems intended, even if it's not). This IS a distortion of rock, in that it is GOOD, which is why musicians from other genres (classical and jazz) are beginning to work on Radiohead's music.

    3. My final point concerns one of the keywords used in the article, "ideology." I would argue that the article itself is a classic example of a certain ideology, grounded in the aforementioned unquestioned use of theory to explain art. Tate reveals his prediliction for theory in the autobiographical account of his first interpretation of the Amnesiac antivideos. His first impulse was to find a postmodernist revelation of pure advertising, buttressed by a reading of the allusion (finally some history) to Cage's 4'33''. Radiohead is doing theory! But then, he learned that the reason there was no music in the videos was that they were works in progress; they were not works at all, at that point. I think in that situation I might just laugh off the whole thing as an exuberant but premature attempt to think myself into the band Radiohead (something I've thought about before, to be honest). But, Tate's reading is merely "disturbed," so he looks for an alternate reading, one that moves toward an instantiation of the "history of shit." But is this the correct reading? It is one thing to argue that capitalism has a "shitty" aspect to it, and that the question of waste is important both ecologically and as an approach to the cultural aesthetic of postmodernity. But is that what the artist, Cris Bran, said? He said, ultimately, that Radiohead was attempting to make a gallery of ideas, in other words, a gallery of possibilities, future plans for action. The videos don't expose the waste products of manic production; they expose the artistic process as a dialectic between potentiality and actuality, the flux between becoming and being. And what could possibly be extraneous about that?

      All this talk of becoming, incontinence, etc. reminds me of Nietzsche. Tate's critique sounds more and more like a classic example of ressentiment. The critic, while open to the labrynthine maze of an art work, can't stop at mere understanding; the critic has to capture it in one or another theoretical construct. Ultimately, the work, as evidenced in the failure to read the antivideo as "Baudrillardian," resists the attempts to capture it, as Wallace Stevens said, "almost successfully."

      In other words, the work is allegorically read back into the critic, into an established framework of interpretation. The best art, theory, and philosophy, the work of Baudrillard, Heidegger, Zizek, Radiohead, Joyce, Stevens (the list goes on), is intended to make strange and unfamiliar what was presupposed. If Radiohead is merely a cultural manifestation of PoMo theory, then why listen to Radiohead? I don't need Thom Yorke to tell me that we live in a technological world, nor do I need him to understand capitalism's dirty little remainder. What I do need Radiohead for is the aesthetic brilliance, the originality, the possibility that they provide; I in fact need them because they opened up a whole new world (that is, possibility) of art and life to me that I never would have known had I never heard their music. To that end they do deserve intense listening, criticism, and thought, and they do deserve to be placed in the same sentence with Zizek, Lacan, and Baudrillard, not as an affirmation of the latter's brilliance, but as an affirmation of their own.

      Joseph Tate replies:

      In replying to Jeremy Arnold's reader mail, I want to begin where Arnold ends. He concludes by writing: "I don't need Thom Yorke to tell me that we live in a technological world, nor do I need him to understand capitalism[']s dirty little remainder. What I do need Radiohead for is the aesthetic brilliance, the originality, the possibility that they provide." The aesthetic brilliance to which Arnold alludes--presumably an objective quality of the work and/or band members--is undoubtedly linked to what he mentions earlier, that Radiohead's music does not refer us "to a dematerialized sphere of virtuality," but rather "sends us back to the real human emotions (or the difficulty in feeling those emotions) involved in any situation." The songs send the listener, or put differently, they transport the listener back to real emotions. Though what each variant of "real" is meant to connote ("real," "the Real," and "reality" are used interchangeably) is unclear, Arnold's "real human emotions" in this instance are likely shorthand for what might be called phenomenological presence, a presence reachable via Radiohead's music. Thus, objective aesthetic brilliance induces a "real" emotional state, and it is this my essay fails to address--an arguably fair reframing of Arnold's thesis.

      My essay does not touch on this phenomenon largely because Radiohead's entire project can be read, almost successfully, as an argument against this very sort of listener experience. I appropriate Arnold's use of Wallace Stevens's phrase "almost successfully" because Stevens's poem, "Man Carrying Thing," is indeed instructive: "The poem must resist the intelligence, / Almost successfully" (lines 1-2, 350). The poem, or in this case the music of Radiohead, must and does resist intelligence almost successfully, that is, not quite successfully: art does resist critical understanding, but never does it remain completely inarticulate or inscrutable. We can and should, I think, as Stevens says in closing his poem, "endure our thoughts all night, until / The bright obvious stands motionless in cold" (lines 13-14, 351). The bright obvious here is that Radiohead's music doesn't return us to "a reality," to use Arnold's phrase, or "real human emotions" at all. Instead, with systematic clarity, their work asks for anything but the aesthetic transport of the listener.

      Parenthetically, had I but world enough and time, I would undertake a more extended argument against Arnold's "real human emotions." Presumably, "real" here means something akin to "actual" or "immediate" in the literal sense of unmediated. That emotions felt in response to fictions like Radiohead's music can ever be real has been debated for centuries, but the most extensive debate among current scholars of emotion began in 1978 with Kendall Walton's essay "Fearing Fictions" and continues into 1997 with Eva Dadlez's What's Hecuba to Him? Fictional Events and Actual Emotions. Also, for a cogent theorization of emotions as mediated, social constructs, Katherine Lutz's Unnatural Emotions: Everyday Sentiments on a Micronesian Atoll and Their Challenge to Western Theory is enlightening. The argument of Lutz's book in a nutshell is that "emotional meaning is fundamentally structured by particular cultural systems and particular social and material environments" (5). Another more recent book on the cofunctioning of affect and langauge that deserves wider attention is Brian Massumi's Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation.

      Reading the band's work as self-reflexive, the lyrics of the title track to Kid A represent aesthetic response, or musical ecstasy to be exact, as an experience with potentially horrifying results. As the song ends, Yorke's barely decipherable, computer-manipulated voice sings: "The rats and children follow me out of town / The rats and children follow me out of their homes / Come on kids."[1] Via overt reference to the Pied Piper story, a narrative of child-abduction that is perhaps especially horrifying to the contemporary American imagination given the recent prominence of abductions in the popular media, Radiohead's exaggeration of their music's power to sway listeners would seem, like the Pied Piper story itself, to be a cautionary tale.[2]

      If children in this song and others are read as signs of emotional sincerity, then the band's lyrics have an anxiety-ridden perspective on affective honesty. The 2001 b-side song "Fog" figures the perpetual presence of a child as a fast-growing, subterranean baby alligator familiar from urban mythology:

      There's a little child
      Running round this house
      And he never leaves
      He will never leave
      And the fog comes up from the sewers
      And glows in the dark

      Baby alligators in the sewers grow up fast
      Grow up fast

      Similarly, amid the OK Computer song "Fitter Happier" and its catalogue-like litany of mundane self-help advice, there intervenes a chilling line meant to have a conventional cinematic visual layering effect: "(shot of baby strapped in back seat)." The speaker of Kid A track "Morning Bell," thrice intones the imperative, "Cut the kids in half," and the title of a new unreleased song first performed this summer by the band is "We Suck Young Blood."

      Likewise, instead of sincerely asking listeners to follow them childlike out of town, the band warns in "Dollars and Cents" from Amnesiac that:

      we are the DOLLARS & CENTS
      and the PoUNDS and Pence
      the MARK and the YEN
      we are going to crack your little souls
      we are going to crack your little souls

      The we of these lines is not literally autobiographical, but is metaphorically Radiohead, a product we buy with pounds and pence that will crack (open up or break down?) the listeners' supposedly diminutive souls.

      In this way, any pleasure listeners experience with Radiohead's music is mired in the foregrounded trappings of its marketplace consumption: the "aesthetic brilliance" cannot be arrived at without first paying for it with dollars and cents, pounds and pence. The music cannot be readily liberated from the production-line logic and mass marketing by which it comes to listeners, and Radiohead, as I argue here and in my essay, does not want listeners to forget the product they are listening to is just that: a product.

      At this point it is worth clarifying that citing the band's lyrics as I have above by no means establishes an authoritative reading. Nevertheless, I do think there is a strong case for the assertion that the band's project time and again calls emotional legitimacy, immediacy, aesthetic response, and the tangled web they weave into question.[3]

      To close, one song and its music video provide a useful corrective to both my perspective and that suggested by Arnold's letter. In the music video for "Pyramid Song," a featureless, computer-rendered avatar with whom viewers explore a submerged, underwater city is always connected to the surface via a lifeline, an instrument not as important in-itself as what it facilitates: a return, one indirectly confirmed by the lyrics' consistent past-tense.[4] Though the visual story does not neatly narrate the lyrics or vice versa, the two elements of sound and vision share this common thematic of going-to and coming-back. Lyrically, the speaker has been, seen, and is come back to tell:

      I jumped in the river what did I see?
      a moonful of stars and astral cars.
      and all the figures i used to see.
      all my lovers were there with me.
      all my past and futures.
      and we all went to heaven in a little row boat. [sic]

      Visually, however, as the video ends and the camera's perspective rises to the surface, the avatar stays below. Physiological limits dictate that humans cannot stay underwater for long, even with breathing apparatuses, but given that the avatar is not human, is a digital creation, it accomplishes what we can only imagine: it settles into a chair in an empty house. Ultimately, the audience is here given a choice: to remain submerged in the music's ocean of nostalgic beauty with "nothing to fear and nothing to doubt," as the lyrics claim, or to trace the lifeline out of emotional depths and return to the fluxing contours of Radiohead's refractive surface. Problems and possibilities attend either decision, I argue (and I think Arnold would agree), in equal portions.


      1. Except for songs on Amnesiac, all lyrics are taken from Jonathan Percy's online archive: <>. Lyrics for Amnesiac are available on Radiohead's own web site here: <>. Macromedia's free Flash Player is required to view this page.

      2. In another instance, Radiohead critiques aesthetic rapture: the beloved in "Creep" from Pablo Honey, is said to "float like a feather in a beautiful world," but the speaker ultimately admits his inadequacy in the face of such beauty: "I'm a creep." Confronting something beautiful, or something perceived as beautiful, repeatedly causes problems for the protagonists in Radiohead's music.

      3. This suspicion is linked to, but not synonymous with, what Fredric Jameson calls "the waning of affect in postmodern culture" (10). The linkage is a topic for another essay.

      4. The video is available online here in Windows Media Player format: <>. Be warned that this web site is not user- or bandwidth-friendly. Choosing "Video" in the page's topmost menu will take you to another page where you can then select the video you would like to see.

      Works Cited

      Dadlez, E. M. What's Hecuba to Him? Fictional Events and Actual Emotions. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania UP, 1997.

      Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991.

      Lutz, Catherine. Unnatural Emotions: Everyday Sentiments on a Micronesian Atoll and Their Challenge to Western Theory. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

      Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, and Sensation. Durham, NC and London: Duke UP, 2002.

      Meeting People is Easy. Dir. Grant Gee. Capitol Records, 1998.

      Pyramid Song. Dir. Shynola. Capitol Records, 2001.

      Stevens, Wallace. "Man Carrying Thing." The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. 1954. New York: Knopf, 1997. 350-51.

      Radiohead. "Creep." Pablo Honey. Capitol Records, 1993.

      ---. "Fitter, Happier." OK Computer. Capitol Records, 1997.

      ---. "Fog." Knives Out, Part Two. Capitol Records, 2001.

      ---. "High and Dry." The Bends. Capitol Records, 1995.

      ---. "Knives Out." Amnesiac. Capitol Records, 2001.

      ---. "Packt like Sardines in a Crusht Tin Box." Amnesiac. Capitol Records, 2001.

      ---. "Pyramid Song." Amnesiac. Capitol Records, 2001.

      ---. "The Bends." The Bends. Capitol Records, 1995.

      ---. "We Suck Young Blood." Unreleased, 2002.

      Walton, Kendall. "Fearing Fictions." Journal of Philosophy 75 (1978): 5-27.