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Title: Metaphysics in the dark : music, mimesis and the making of utopia
Author: Cruz, Victor Manuel
ISNI:       0000 0004 6498 1303
Awarding Body: King's College London
Current Institution: King's College London (University of London)
Date of Award: 2017
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This thesis looks at 20th century African-American music and literature through the prism of historical materialism and the aesthetics of mimesis. This approach pays equal attention to class and ‘race’ when reading literary works and interpreting and contextualizing black1 music cultures. The material conditions in which works of literature and music are produced are as important as the themes with which they deal. Periodization is also important, and throughout I note how structural changes in the general mode of production of US capitalism, and the particular dynamics of the culture industry, shape black literary and musical production. Both historical materialists and scholars of African-American culture have theorized mimesis, but without much rigour and rarely at the same time. This two-pronged approach results in three interrelated arguments about African- American music in the 20th century. Chapters 2 and 3 trace the incorporation and commodification of the jazz avant-garde, a process I argue was responsible for kicking off African-American modernism in the early forties, a social formation that served as the model for the varieties of ‘popular modernism’ in the post war period. In the process, I contrast the utopian promise of popular modernism with that of its Euro-American counterparts. In Chapters 4 and 5 I read Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and Leroi Jones and others’ work in terms of the growing tension between a bourgeois literary tradition and the rising commercial and cultural popularity of black music. In Chapter 6, I argue that popular modernism reaches its apex in the period ’67-’79, with the permutation of rhythm and blues into rock, funk, and disco. Finally, in Chapter 7 I argue that by ’79, popular modernism had, for a variety of structural reasons, run its course. Authors and genres discussed include Fredrick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, James Reese Europe, Alain Locke, Duke Ellington, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Henry Dumas, early blues and jazz, soul, funk, and disco. Chapter 1 surveys the scholarship and argues that African-American studies generally suffer from a lack of historical materialist analysis. From ‘signifyin’’ to more recent theorizations of ‘blackness’ and the ‘black radical tradition’, the results bear little relation to the history of economic conflict and aesthetic difference within black culture, in addition to those stemming from the dominant culture. I then outline the basics of an historical materialist approach to black culture and music in particular. However, I also note its limitations when it comes to the specific phenomena of black culture, and to aesthetics more generally. I therefore suggest mimesis as a useful complementary category. Here I draw from recent forays into the political economy of slave music emergent in the 19th century and the dominance of ‘groove’ in the 20th century. Chapter 2 explores pre-culture industry currents. I begin with Fredrick Douglass’s comments on slave songs, which provide an overarching set of themes to which we return throughout the thesis, namely, music’s relation to work and to protest. This sets us up to understand how black music has been forged in social relations of domination and exploitation. I read the early work of W.E.B. Du Bois as well as James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-coloured Man, and pay close attention to the ways ‘race’, culture and music are experienced in these works as class problems. Chapter 3 explores the relationship between ‘black’ and ‘white’ avant-gardes, just prior to the advent of the culture industry. Neither term refers to a monolithic social formation. The ‘white’ avant-garde was divided between those for whom recent European history had to be discarded like dead weight, in order to return to a golden age and secure a glorious future, and those for whom history was the key to understanding the present and building a better future. Likewise, black culture was divided between the ‘affirmative character’ of bourgeois cultural historiography, and an emergent, critical and unruly populism, concentrated in Harlem but present in most major cities, whose energies were harnessed by radio and the nascent recording industry. Chapter 4 sets the early work of Richard Wright in a constellation with Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. Wright’s ‘aestheticization of violence’ in his first unpublished novel emerges in the context of an increasingly commodified black culture, which Adorno was tracking in his work with the Princeton Radio Research Project. Meanwhile, Benjamin begins to toy with the concept mimesis, aura and their relation to social revolution, which compels Adorno toward his first thorough critiques of the nascent culture industry and the dominant form of mass-produced music at the time, jazz. Finally, I show how these critiques dovetail with those of contemporary black critics and artists. Chapter 5 begins with the debate between Ralph Ellison and Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka, over the connection between music, memory and political consciousness. I then trace the emergence of ‘Amiri Baraka’ from Jones’s early experimental novel and poetry to his classic essay, ‘The Changing Same: R&B and the New Black Music’. This essay refers to a short story by Henry Dumas, which itself plays with themes of jazz musician Sun-Ra, both of which I explore, before returning finally to Baraka. In the end, I argue that Baraka reproduces many of the problems that had beset the ‘white’ avant-gardes of previous decades, and that these are compounded by a racial essentialism that is incompatible with the music and musicians he adores. Baraka and the Black Arts Movement’s theory of ‘blackness’ brings us back to the theoretical concerns of Chapter 1. Chapter 6 theorizes the music of ’67-’79 as popular modernism. First I turn to Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, particularly his elaboration of Benjamin’s notes on mimesis and its relation to music. I then look at The Chambers Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, Parliament-Funkadelic and Chic to argue that soul, funk and disco were the result of the massive structural changes in African-American life that began with the civil rights movement. What made this period ‘the most liberated and open time in music’, as Chic’s Nile Rogers remembers it? I argue that popular modernism— populist, postnationalist, technically and technologically advanced, richly historical, playfully ironic, and emphatically utopian— subverted the reification of blackness that had forced jazz to retreat into either noise or nostalgia. One paradoxical effect was the ‘queering’ of black music, at the same time that black nationalism and the search for a ‘black aesthetic’ dominated the discourse. At the same time, the death of disco signaled that popular modernism had run its course. Finally, I think through Mark Abel’s notion of mimesis in relation to James Snead’s theorization of ‘repetition as a figure of black culture’. Chapter 7 briefly suggests why the moment of popular modernism came to an end, or was finally driven underground, where it flourished as house and techno, but never again enjoyed the kind of mainstream success that it had in the seventies. I conclude with some more personal reflections on popular music since the 1980s.
Supervisor: Turner, Mark Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available