Visual v Musical Obscenity
X-Post from my tumblr:
so, i grew up in Mapplethorpe-trial/Larry-Flynt-era Cincinnati. visual obscenity was like my hometown’s “thing.” maybe that’s the reason i’ve never really found it that interesting, philosophically. porn is always an interesting issue to teach in feminist philosophy or gender & aesthetics, but, i dunno, i personally as a scholar just can’t get “into” it.
but today i was thinking about the differences between visual obscenity—usually naked bodies and/or blasphemy (e.g., piss christ)—and musical obscenity. it seems like there are two levels of musical obscenity: (a) the verbal content of the lyrics, and (b) the affective content/form of the musical work/performance itself. this latter type of obscenity is interesting b/c it’s not tied to the representation of a taboo idea, concept, or symbol. it’s about transgressive affective or phenomenological states. even the ancient greeks tied musical experience (performance & listening) to ethical practices, i.e., to technologies of the self.
and i think, especially in the US, these affective states are deeply racialized. so, if what is considered visual/verbal obscenity generally references sex (and violence, and blasphemy, and drugs, but mainly sex), maybe non-lyrical musical obscenity generally references racial transgressions? just think about the history of black pop music in the US. first, it was literally segregated in record stores, cordoned off in “race music” sections. music was the first broadcast mass medium. white kids could listen to “black” music; music—as electrical currents—could transgress social and political segregation. this, after all, is the subtext of John Waters’s Hairspray. music was a gateway to racially transgressive corporeal practices and affective states.
So: Is there a kind of musical obscenity that works/functions differently than visual obscenity? Is musical obscenity, at least in postwar US (and maybe UK) pop culture, tied to race in a way that visual obscenity is not? Is racial transgression what makes some sonic experiences feel “obscene”?
I dunno. These are all open questions. I hope somebody has written about this—and if you know of any good work on this & related issues, I’d be eternally grateful for your suggestions.
racial exploitation of black music started long before the advent of the 20th century. the african, utilizing a pulsating beat accompanied by percussion driven and exuberant inducing music, with its raw, naked, and natural sound; have always come under the watchful glaze of the white supremacy power dynamic. it has either been denounced as immoral,or expropriated for profit at their leisure.
just randomly stumbled into here after seeing a useful youtube where you’re talking about foucault so i’m sure i’ll miss all sorts of context that would be obvious if i were a long-time reader. anyway i can’t help with any proper scholarship pointers but two things did immediately occur to me, one less relevant than the other. the less relevant one was as soon as i read the phrase transgressive affective state, it brought to mind an old interview i read a few months ago with born against. brutally excerpting:
” SAM: A lot of people don’t seem to realize that the medium for a large part is the message, and this is a very ugly form of music or at least it should be. A lot of so called hardcore bands are nothing more than dressed-up metal bands or a subgenre of metal. I mean this is a very ugly form of music, and I think, I mean are you talking about specific bands?
SAM: The point is, go to a friend’s house where their parents are very normal and say, “Listen, I have this tape of some really ugly music that I would like to play for you,” put it on the stereo and they’re going to get upset, and they’re going to tell you to turn it off, and that is a good thing because you’re challenging something that…
ADAM: But by ugly we mean flying in the face of…
SAM: Ugly as unacceptable, ugly as in you can’t dance to it, which is why as much as I like… say for example… I hate to use examples because then we get accused of talking shit, but as much as I really admire Fugazi’s stances on a lot of stuff, I don’t dig their music. You know why? Because you can go to a college dorm room, pop it into the tape deck and people will dance to it, and I don’t consider that extremely challenging or threatening because you can fucking be-bop around the room to it.
JAVIER: But go into the same room and play Napalm Death and you’ll get thrown out.
SAM: And that’s good because it disturbs these people. It doesn’t fit into their fucking framework. The parents of some of the people in Rorschach took one look at the fucking front and back cover of that record and they were like, “What in the hell is going on here?” They couldn’t even understand it, it was beyond their point of reference.”
that’s nothing especially new, but the thing is that when i read it just a few months ago, 20 years or whatever removed from the time, i couldn’t help but think to myself that i know plenty of people who would dance to born against, you know? and that “real” ugly music would be more like muslimgauze or something.
which brings me to the other thing that occured to me on reading the post, muslimgauze. some of his stuff is nice and dubby dancable music but a lot is really really harsh and noise-filled, static and overdriven drums and whatever else he had lying around i suppose. (and of course theres plenty of middle ground there too, danceable fuzzed out overdriven thumping beats)
so that’s slightly more relevant because even though his entire body of work was done for the sake of supporting the arab world/middle east against the west/israel, its still pretty ruthless appropriation of islamic motifs by a white british guy. now obviously thats all a slightly different sort of transgressive obscene affectivity than you seem to have had in mind but w/e