McKenzie Wark on Fri, 30 Apr 2004 13:45:21 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> review of Paul Miller's Rhythm Science

Paul is a long time nettimer, so here's
my take on his new book -- Ken

>From Glocks to Canons
McKenzie Wark <>

A review of:
Paul D Miller
aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid
Rhythm Science
MIT Press, 2004

St Columba wanted the text of the Gospels. Since this anecdote takes place
in 6th century Ireland, he borrowed the only such book around, which
belonged to Finnian of Druim, and made a copy. But when Finnian found out,
he demanded not only the return of his text, but the copy as well. The
king, when called upon the arbitrate, decided for Finnian: "As the calf
belongs to the cow, so the copy belongs to its book." And so St Columba
went to war with Finnian, and won, thus retrieving what he considered to
be his copy of the sacred book.

The question Paul Miller asks throughout his elegant new little book is
"who speaks through you?" In recounting the St Columba story, he shows its
connection to another question: "Who owns memory?" How does property
intervene in the flow of information, in its dance between the material
and the ethereal? Or as Miller phrases it: "In an information economy its
all about how information creates identity as a scarce resource."

This second line of questioning is very much in the background in Miller's
text, but it colors the question on which he dwells, the question of how
subjectivity functions in an age in which so many surfaces resonate with
information. Miller might be less interested in whether Finnian or St
Columba thinks they own the text, and how the text, even when it doubles
itself, seems to claim them both, and speak through both of them.

This is no longer an era in which the bourgeois subject repeatedly
struggles to shore up its embattled sense of identity and integrity.
"Identity is about creating an environment where you can make the world
act as your own reflection." Identity is just the mirror stage. The
reflection in the mirror, which seems more perfect and whole, is
misrecognized as if it were the self, and subsumed back into the subject
as its (false) self representation. Identity politics is bourgeois
politics, trying to shore up the boundaries of the subject with
information, as if that information existed for the self, when it exists
as that which makes the self impossible.

Identity as politics is the echo, the reverb lingering from the decline of
the bourgeois self. So too is alienation, that melancholia where the
bourgeois subject, always longing for an enclosure it can never possess,
losses itself in a mirror maze of 'mass' culture. Perhaps it makes more
sense to think of this as the time of what Brian Holmes calls the
'flexible personality', bending and warping under the constant drip of

Says Miller: "I felt like my nerves extended to all these images, sounds,
other people." Alienation is a friction at the border between object and
subject, an objectifying of the subject via the equivalence of money. Or
as the Wu Tang Clan say: " CREAM: Cash Rules Over Everything." But for
Miller there's a second process that happens where subject meets object,
besides the friction of money. There's the fiction of information as
culture, as code., and its flipside - myth.

The dialectical drama of object and subject has its spooky double, a third
nature, where codes spill over and flow around the boundaries --
"opposites extract". This is the zone in which Miller works, as a DJ of
text, sound, image. "That's what mixing is about: creating seamless
interpolations between objects of thought to fabricate a zone of
representation in which the interplay of the one and the many, the
original and its double all come under question." Mixing is a practical
ontology, making worlds where object and subject slide into space, rather
than fall into place.

Rip, mix, play: Information leaks and escapes from the boundaries of the
object. The digital evaporates the labors of St Columba. But as far as the
new ruling class who possess the vector are concerned, the law is still as
the King says: the copy belongs to the original just as the calf belongs
to the cow. But as DJ Spooky discovered, making his mix tapes way back
when - there's conflict now between ontology and law. Information leaks
out of the object, opening a space outside of the bourgeois obsession with
property and propriety.

Rip, mix, play: information leaks and escapes from the boundaries of the
subject as well. Those who never really had access to the bourgeois
subject perhaps know this best. The slave knows: I am not my own property.
The slave's descendants remember: Du Bois calls it double consciousness.
For Mingus it's the third self, always caught between the other two. For
Miller its not one, two or three but the "multiplex" of selves, all
popping and fizzing on the surface of the body, vibrating in waves and
pulses, leaking from subject to object and back again.

As the surfaces of both objects and subjects lube up with slippery
information, "America's deep ethnic schizophrenia is going surface." Or as
the Derridean Marxist activists used to say: "the margins are at the
centre!" Only that's not quite it. Miller's project is bolder, and
different. It's all margins, one after the other, a rhythmic series.

Start with Robert Johnson at the crossroads, then Charlie the yardbird
Parker, then Grand Master Flash dropping the needle in the groove. Take
that as the first series, the bass part. Then add, as the response, Skip
Gates and Paul Gilroy. Then add, as decoration, the historic avant gardes,
from the Surrealists to Situationists, with a taste of Fluxus and
Conceptual Art. The add, as a grace note, Deleuze and Guattari. Miller
rethinks aesthetics starting from samples of the African American
experience, and tries to beat- match everything else to that groove.

"Sampling, DJ culture, and the hip hop zone are founded on ancestor
worship and the best rhythm scientists are constantly expanding the
pantheon." That Pantheon, in Miller's hands, can stretch beyond the Black
Atlantic, subsuming European modernism. It's like Fab Five Freddy's whole
car graffiti work, which borrowed dada and Warhol's soup cans and annexed
them to hip hop - even if the trend ever since has been to read it the
other way around.

Rhythm Science - working with the bass groove first, from a concept of
African American experience as a precursor. Drop the needle at the start
of the track. Listen carefully, and you hear the pre- echo through the
thin wall of the groove, of the sound to come, before it comes.

This is Miller's audacious move. Start with sound and work toward
literature, philosophy and the visual arts. Then work back again, if you
like, but don't make the sound answer to the text. Who speaks through you?
Or as Charlie Parker said: "Hear the sound, not the music, hear the
speech, not the words. Death is the imminent thing. My fire is
unquenchable." Jazz is a great precursor, plumbing the strange paradox of
recording, it's shape-shifting across time and space.

Rhythm Science - the book -- reads like a trippy prose poem, one that
modulates between two personas - the idiot and the prostitute. The idiot
is the one who knows what remains when you bracket off the subject that
confronts the object. The idiot knows the traffic in between, the
abstraction of information. The prostitute knows that this 'free' flow of
code has its price. In the information economy, commodification is "an
invisible hand that caresses your electromagnetic memories." These persona
ask different questions. The idiot asks: who speaks through you? The
prostitute asks: what's the transaction cost?

Rhythm Science, as a practice, a protocol of knowing, has more to do with
the idiot, even if it inevitably runs into the prostitute's question.
Rhythm Science is a pre-echo, an intuition of time, and perhaps also an
ethics of time. It's a wager that "if the association lines holding the
past and present together are ruptured, the future might leak through."

Past and present rupture on the same slippery slope as object and subject,
where information breeds and mutates. And maybe there's a technique, a
method, for opening up this space to thought and to action, "to have the
remix become a vector of cultural infection" that might pass through the
pores of the bourgeois subject - what's left of it - and open it toward a
new practice of being.

"Ah, there's the rub" -- as the prostitute said to the idiot. What if this
opening up of the subject did not happen with a parallel opening up of the
object? What if the King's law still prevails, and information is not
permitted to slip the bounds of the commodity? What if the opening of the
subject to information merely means its capture by commodified
information, trapped in the object? That's where this other question, what
Marx called "the property question" becomes the key one. The flexible
personality morphs itself around the object, because the object contains
information, trapped within by law.

And so if Rhythm Science is "a forensic investigation of sound as a vector
of a coded language that goes from the physical to the informational and
back again" it has to ask the property question along the way. Yes, "you
can braid your own personal narrative", but only if you braid it around
the object, chaining the self to it.

That's the rub. And something has to give. The prostitute persona, who
ends this book, introduces a moment of "corporate transactional realism".
The idiot offers an aesthetics of relations, and a demand: "break the
loops"! But the prostitute reminds us that there can be no more aesthetic
radicalisms any more that do not at the same time ask the property
question. But maybe there's a way of broaching the property question in
the idiot persona's practice.

"By necessity, by proclivity and by delight, we all quote"  says Emerson
the idiot. The thing about idiots is that they're not stupid. They just
speak in their own code. The idiot is without qualities, divested of the
'I', at least when it counts. For the idiot, "the present moment has been
deleted"... "the current... has been deleted." The idiot's practice is a
subjective interlacing of temporalities. Whether its called detournement,
wildstyle, the uncanny, it's a dispersal (and gathering) of a self always
slipping between object and subject.

Because the idiot forgets itself, the idiot can escape the property
question, at least for a time. There's nobody home to be the landlord of
the imagination. And in the slippage between object and subject, there's
slippage also between past and future, arcing across the absent present.
If we could ease open the object and subject at the same time, that might
be the moment when the future can at last appear. The technical conditions
for the breach have arrived, but not the economic and legal practices,
which have become a fetter on the very possibility of a renewal of
history. We're locked in the present and don't even know it.

"The recorded utterance is the stolen sound that returns to the self as
the schizophrenic, hallucinatory, presence of another." Recording is
spooky. Plato knew it. He has Socrates speak of it. The trouble with
writing is that it escapes the body and nobody can know to whom it
belongs. You can choose who hears you; you can't choose who reads you. Or
so it stood for some millennia.

Miller: "writing may be a little retro, but that's cool". It's an
anachronism. But the whole art of the mix is anachronism, a metaphysics
around the spooky absence of presence, with beats -- "Sampling is like
sending a fax to yourself from the sonic debris of a possible future."

So why not throw writing into the mix? Why not play with "the way you pick
up language from other writers and remake it as your own". Miller even
picks up a sentence or two of mine early on in this text. And there they
are, disembodied, floating without attribution, returned from whence they
came, into language, repeated, but in not quite the same way. It's what
Wollman and Debord called "literary communism."

Writing has always had this problem, this slippage. "Plagiarism is
necessary, progress implies it", as Lautreamont said. But now speech and
sound too can be embedded in the object and can move across space and
time, creating anachronisms of the ear. The presence of speech loses its
privilege, and the last prop for the bourgeois subject falls.

Or at least potentially. In stripping sound from the subject, from the
body, it gets trapped in the object, in the commodity. What the idiot sets
loose the prostitute will be obliged to sell to any and all comers. The
good news is that the moment has arrived when information can escape both
object and subject. The idiot's job is done, short circuiting the bind of
identity and property on the subject's side. A new persona is called for,
who can do the same work on the object side, who can take on not the
prostitute but the corporate pimp.

"Art is our guide to the new terrains we have opened within ourselves, in
pursuit of techne and logos." But it might take more than art alone to be
at one with that terrain. To paraphrase Lautréamont, the mix tape must be
made by all. Weaving information into and out of itself - Amiri Baraka's
"changing same" - setting aside the alienation of subject from object,
embracing a new ontology, and making for it a new law.

Miller: "The mix tape is a work of history on a grand scale, at once
sweeping and detailed, closely reasoned and passionately argued." And it
needs no liner notes. Or rather, the relation could be reversed: perhaps
the disc inside explains the text around it. That might certainly be the
case with this book, which comes complete with its own cd, where Miller's
spooky sounds provide settings for rappers such as Gertrude Stein,
Mayakovsky and Kurt Schwitters. It's music that expands the ambition of
hip hop from Glocks to Canons. It's music from some of the most expansive
ears in town.

                   ... we no longer have roots, we have aerials ...

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: contact: