The Eighties in Theory and Practice: Gabriel Solis’s Opening Remarks

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

[On May 2-3, 2013 the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted “The Eighties in Theory and Practice,” a conference. Gabriel Solis (Musicology) opened the second day of the conference. His remarks are below.]

Welcome, and it’s my pleasure to introduce the second day of the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory spring conference, “The 1980s in Theory and Practice.” Let me welcome back those of you who were here yesterday, and welcome in those who weren’t.

I think of my brief remarks here as a kind of mid way check in, a bit of, as Johanna Burton put it yesterday, “taking the temperature of the room,” and hopefully providing a bit of further context for today’s further discussion. I’ll try not to go on at too much length, as we have a nicely paced series of talks to look forward to for the rest of the day today.

So, a little context. When we thought about this event in the first place, it was an attempt to conceptualize a broadly intermedia, interdisciplinary cultural history of the 1980s, with three main themes. Those were:

Spacialities: Geopolitics
Temporalities: Diachronic contexts, synchronic text

We have touched on all three threads, but it seems to me that of the three threads, technology has gone the directions I, at least, least expected. When we workshopped the conference proposal we imagined having a discussion of early digital technology and the emergent web--think War Games. But instead we have had a very interesting discussion, thanks to Chris Castiglia and Roger Hallas, of video, a technology that predates the 1980s, but which seems definitive of its cultural productions. Though we didn’t talk about it, the proliferation (and miniaturaization) of amateur video technology—hand-held VHS cameras and dubbing playback machines—in the 1980s ties all of our threads together. It is a fact of technoculture, and one that was surely part of the neoliberal pleasure of conspicuous consumption (whoever dies with the most toys wins, after all); and it is central to the creation of texts in the moment, the massive amateur documentation of events that seemed perhaps at the time to contribute to the postmodern sense of the flattening out of temporal experience, the twin senses that time was moving faster than ever and that its linearity was fundamentally disrupted (and that in retrospect gives us the remarkable archive from which we have crafted a sense of the 80s in historical, teleological time; but it was also connected to our geopolitical thread. As the American media anxiously noted at the time, miniaturized, personal video technology, like most consumer electronics of the time, was a product of late modern globalized capital, and part and parcel of “turning Japanese,” as the song said.

Video was also a critical part of the turn to the visual that we saw so powerfully in yesterday’s talks, and that was briefly mentioned, but about which I am inclined to go meta for a moment here. The turn to the visual was not just felt in the world of high culture—the art world, as it were—but in the world of popular culture perhaps even more. While graphic design and photography had been a consistent part of post-war (and in a smaller way early 20th century) popular music, and while bands had exploited film to build audiences and enhance the narrative shapes of their music going back to the 1920s, video was THE growth medium of popular music in the 1980s. I’m not sure that video killed the radio star, as Wooley and the Camera Club (and later the Buggles) had it, but it certainly altered the landscape.

In terms of diachronic temporalities, yesterday gave us a good deal to think about, as we try to periodize and figure out when we actually mean when we talk about the “long 80s” (or even a 10-year 80s, if we follow Howard Singerman and date them from 1977 to 1987). I’m quite taken with the early start date, because in addition to the reasons in politics and art that Howard gave us, it also allows me to think of post-punk, including Elvis Costello’s first three albums (My Aim Is True, 1977, This Year’s Model, 1978, and Armed Forces, 1979), early synth pop recordings (including “Video Killed the Radio Star,” which was recorded in 1979, though its video was the first broadcast on MTV in 1981), and so on all as part of our period. And because, looking to the South Bronx, as Howard encouraged us to do, it also takes in more or less the entire history of recorded hip hop, beginning with DJ Disco Wiz’s mix tapes in 1977 and the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979. And because it encompasses more or less the entire history of hardcore in the U.S.—we don’t need the early start date to capture the San Francisco scene’s Dead Kennedys, whose debut, In God We trust, Inc. wasn’t released until 1981, but it does allow us to claim Black Flag in Los Angeles, whose first shows were in 1977 (under the name Panic), and the Bad Brains in Washington, D.C., who, admittedly started as a jazz fusion group under the name Mind Power in 1977, but who were playing hardcore shortly thereafter. The danger, I’m afraid, with pop music as a scholarly object, is that argument is all too easily substituted by lists, so I’ll stop there. Or almost—I also note that it allows us to claim Lauren’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” which was initially released as a single in 1979.

That said, I do want to suggest that at least one artist at the time gave us a reason to think of 1980 itself as a fundamental turning point in American life. Gil Scott-Heron, responding to the first Reagan presidential election in the song “B-Movie”—the year from Shogun to Raygun—called on us to recognize the grotesqueries of postmodernity ascendant. Scott-Heron's meditation on the election of Ronald Reagan to the U.S. Presidency speaks specifically to the substitution of story in place of history.

I’m really not sure where our 1980s end. Nancy Condee’s paper suggested to me, at least, that we might see it ending with the dissolution of the Soviet Union throughout 1991; or perhaps that we might think it is still with us, as we see the extended continuation of a Russian contiguous empire in the post-soviet era. 1991 is, of course, also the year of Desert Storm, which Baudrillard saw as the ultimate expression of the postmodern simulacrum, but which probably didn’t feel like that to people on the ground. This, I think picks up on Johanna Burton’s point about feeling uncomfortable with the turn to “fictionality,” even as she is—and we are—taken with its aesthetic and theoretical possibilities. The narratives that characterize the kinds of laterality she describes (and that Roger and Chris saw in another medium) can reveal different truths than history does; but they can also obscure and obfuscate in ways that are suspect. In whatever affective register, however, the Gulf War certainly seems like a fulcrum point, an end and a beginning, to me.

This makes a fine point to turn to the last of our three topics, spaciality and geopolitics. Yesterday’s talks focused on the myth of neoliberalism that has come to feel like the truth of neoliberalism: that the 1980s are characterized by the consolidation of the global phase of late capitalism, and in particular its celebration of the atomized, desocialized, disculturated individual. I want to suggest that while as cultural studies scholars we have had some references to the “end of history” at this conference, in the theoretical tradition I was trained in—anthropology’s social theory—the 1980s are better seen as characterized by the death of “culture.” The edited volumes Writing Culture (James Clifford and George Marcus, 1986) and Recapturing Anthropology (Richard Fox, 1991) showed a profound crisis in the discipline, as we came to grips with the fact that our communities of study could no longer be understood through the fiction of abject difference and should no longer be forced to occupy the “savage slot,” as Michel-Rolf Trouillot called it. While I am in full agreement with the work of those two groups of scholars, I note that those communities of study have been less excited about our discovery of their connections to the larger world (they already knew about them and quite probably wondered why we never asked), and have been far less willing to give up the idea of coherent communal identities.

In this, I see a useful and interesting pushback against the logic of neoliberalism. If I may, I will take just a minute to describe how Indigenous artists and musicians in Australia have insisted on cultural integrity in ways that have been very, very hard for the nation state to come to terms with, as a part of the story of the 1980s. Unlike the U.S., U.K., and Germany, the 1980s were a period of labor ascendant. Under the leadership of Robert Hawke, the labor party, among other things, worked directly with Indigenous communities, funding a series of initiatives, and making gestures in the direction of recognition and inclusion for Indigenous people in the national polity. Encouraged by this thaw, and working in dialogue with liberation movements from Africa, the U.S., and Asia, the period saw enormous growth in the Indigenous sovereignty movement in the country. 1989 marks a point of culmination that can be seen in art and politics. In the small Aboriginal community of Barunga, in the interior of the Northern Territory, a good day’s drive from Darwin, but not a third of the way to Alice Springs, leaders from the northern, coastal Yolngu peoples and the Central Desert Walpiri and Pintupi peoples came together to draft what has come to be known as the Barunga statement. The statement has a central text calling for the recognition of Indigenous sovereignty, enclosed by representations of the Tjukurrpa and Rom (often called “dreamings,” but better translated as “law”). The presentation to Hawke marks a high point in some ways—a moment where the collective sovereign rights of a colonized people looked possible. Indigenous art was selling for huge prices in the international art world (as Howard Morphy and Fred Myers have documented), and Native Title was becoming law through the Wik and Mabo cases.

The ugly end to the story is perhaps the end to our 80s. Hawke was voted out; there is STILL no treaty; and while Indigenous artists, dancers, and musicians have become a staple of Australian “culture”—for locals as well as tourists—sovereignty is too disruptive for the neoliberal state to come to terms with. The government sends tanks into the streets in Aboriginal villages on the pretext of protecting women and children from the specter of half-animal Aboriginal men, in spite of the fact that the government fails to make a significant investment in programs that will actually address real, systemic, and devastating problems with domestic violence. The band Yothu Yindi’s expression of disillusionment, “Treaty,” from 1991 can be added then, as another part of our diachronic bookends.

I hope this provides some context for our further conversations today, and a way of thinking about the 1980s as a period.


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