As Deaf As A Bat

published in Streetwise Flash Art: Is There A Future For Cultural Studies, Power Institute publications, Sydney, 1987

In this paper I mean to not criticize ; I mean to propose. It is formulated from three distinct spaces : a direct response to the question posed in this forum - "What's the use of cultural studies" ; an indirect response to the theorization of such a manual ; and an account of how I score, conduct and perform cultural studies myself.

First, a song - EXOTIC by The Rhythm Kings, from Delano somewhere between 1962 and 1963. As the novelty of Instrumental Rock wore off by 1962 to then return reinvigourated by the Surf sound of '63, these post-Rockabilly mutant strains of Instrumental Combo Rock on the west coast had to compete with the rise of Soul (so named) from the east coast throughout 1963. This of course is all before the real big battle of the first British Invasion of '64. The Rhythm Kings were also known as the Soul Kings, and on other occasions, The Rhythm & Soul Kings, and were locally renowned as prime exponents of 'the soul beat' to which was danced 'the Soul' as an alternative to the major surf dance 'the Stomp'.

EXOTIC I propose as a cultural object. My discussion of it is not intent on moulding this object into a model or shaping a theory from its being, but rather I intend to address the relationship between two abstract terms : 'culture' and 'object', for it is there within the defined space, the cast shadow, the outlined form that the viability of the 'cultural object' exists. More importantly, I wish to be confined to that space, remain in that shadow, and touch that outline alone ; not to be determined by the object, but to be controlled by it.

EXOTIC is both material (noun) and material (adjective). Its effect as a cultural object is made apparent through studying its status, its presence, its substance, its value. These four natures constitute an atmosphere of 'auras' which can exist in the object's past and present, and my past and present, and as such are trans-historical and multi-dimensional. They are auras in the most obvious and basic sense of artifacts, meaning that they exist in various displaced manners : hovering light, floating vapour, shimmering reflection, peeling tissue. And of course, these auras are illusory - they can only be perceived whilst experiencing their object. In summary, that is what a material effect would be : a perceptual sensation that is immediate and simultaneous, each in terms of time and space.

Despite the implications of the term "material effect", it is not something hyper-physical that overwhelms the conscious senses (like Sly Stone's glistening sweat beads through macro-lenses, Yves Klein's vibrating blue monochromes seen in the flesh, or the snare drum on Janet Jackson remixes pumping a night club). Nor does it reside in the realm of subtlety and sensuality (like new age compact discs and fine art photographic prints) where the erotics of detail massage egos that thrill to the feel of intrinsic perception. Sophistication and bluntness mirror each other as sensibilities dislocated from cultural totality and isolated through cultural privilege. The point is that material effects range from the bombastic to the slight, from the present to the absent, and it is this incredible range that warrants skill and expertise in perception ; an ability to take in extremes of modalities which rarely touch on any norm or fix to any side. Perception, then, is neither a matter of aesthetic education nor a god-given talent. It is developed - through exercise and practice. If the brain is "the seat of sensation" (as in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary), I furthermore regard it as a muscle.

In plain terms, I seriously doubt most people's perception - not their intellectual capability, but quite simply their hearing and their sight. The rhetoric of perception (in reviews, essays, debates, research, etc.) is so quickly and so easily transformed into an authorative voice, where gaps between words and spaces between lines tell the lie that though all sentences may be opinions, they are nonetheless founded on some total comprehension of the object's physical dimension. But all those spaces and gaps never have to be justified. When was the last time a critic, teacher or theoretician submitted to either a hearing or seeing test? Beethoven may have still composed when deaf, but how much analyzing of other works did he do? If material effects are the primary means of facilitating our perceptual encoding, our focus should be as scrutinized as much as our discourse. This possibility of inaccurate focus is the most pervasive and haunting fear of cultural studies. Like a nightmare effect erupting into the following day's domain, it exists in the morning papers, the weekly reviews, the term lectures, the quarterly journals, the yearly forums - as deaf as a bat.

Let us consider the materials and materialisms of EXOTIC. As a cultural object it demonstrates clearly the state of confusion into which we are thrown as we try to link signifier to signified, to make sense of its sounds and images, to reconcile experience with interpretation, reading with listening. Its multiplicity is itself multiplied : historically (in its origination), musicologically (in its composition), technologically (in its production) and aesthetically (in its application). Reflect on your first experience of hearing this song, of hearing all its musical and linguistic ridges and troughs : California & Egypt, Spain & Yugoslavia, surf & twang, fezzes & crewcuts, new wave & revivalism, ethnicity and parody, and so on. How did you distinguish between the cues and the signs and the tricks and the suggestions and the nuances and the resonances and the marks and the traces? If you weren't confused, you weren't listening.

To be confused by culture is to know culture. To study culture is not to understand it, but to maintain that confusion. The cultural object is not only the object (thing) under analysis but also the object (aim) of analysis : it is both the reason for inquiry and the reason for not concluding the inquiry. To conclude the inquiry is to then present the findings, to close the text and shut the case. When this is done, all simultaneity and immediacy evaporate in a discourse that presents evidence to state that there were things not evident in the 'original' object ; that there was little to be discovered in the immediate and simultaneous experience of the object's material effects. That evidence is intended to prove a point of view - when it should be proving the object.

There you have the popular notion of cultural studies : a crack team of academics dressed as crusaders and mediums, discovering and disclosing hidden meanings. One is reminded of the theological mandate expressed in the phrase "To know Him is to love Him" where the act of knowing covers everything from seduction to orgasm. The analysis of cultural objects often operates under a similar compression, though ideologically more akin to cargo cults than Christianity.

An important distinction missing in cultural studies in general is that between knowing the object and knowing its confusion. One can still retain an experience of the object if one embarks on a search for the cause of its confusion. The findings from such a search would describe the multiple workings of the object, but they would not define the object. The object can only be defined by its auras, not by the actual thing itself. To define it in terms of the latter is to forfeit the object's presence, status, substance and value in favour of some mysterious essential quality. This search for the cause of confusion is grounded in research, where meaning is not so much 'hidden' as it is lost, where all primary searching is based on trying to find out where to start researching. The archeology of culture is thus posed as comprising of civilizations lost in both our and their present and past, where unwritten histories speak with most force and invisible connections vibrate with most intensity.

Cultural objects caught up in these schemes of our making resemble hollowed forms with weird openings rather than solid shapes with smooth finishes. Perception involves not only experiencing the tactility (ie. the apparent) of their surfaces, but also discerning what lies within and without their shapes as viewed through their various openings. With EXOTIC, we peer through it to see what its gaps reveal as well as the form and texture of its inner casing. This presence of EXOTIC as a cultural object is thereby divided into four distinct realms : its outer surface, the space in front of it, its inner surface, and the space behind it. Specific research through trans-historical discourses becomes the instrument for peering through the object - which pragmatically means (in the specific case of EXOTIC) hunting down obscure specialist fanzines, plugging into psychotics, obsessives and anal retentives (ie. collectors) who could help with some information, plus buying up anonymous records which might by chance reveal some oblique hyper-lateral connection to what you're searching for.

Thus EXOTIC gets located as an instance arbitrarily pinpointed within a density of flows : west coast surf subculture, regional radio formatting, the economics of leisure activities, stylistic appropriation of ethnicity, the function of instrumental music, sub-generic mutation and competition, etc. The findings here would suggest specific workings of ironic gesture, rhythmic integration, harmonic fusion, etc. This of course is contrasted to and compared with one's perceptual experience of the piece in order to gauge its substance (for example, what is the precise resonance resultant from overlaying the trumpet line of Herb Albert's THE LONELY BULL on a post-Rockabilly riff over neo-blues chord slides?). To scantily summarize the remaining two auras - its status could then be proposed by its performance in communication, whether it calls attention to its codes, whether it indicates a conflict in authorial voices, whether it constitutes an identity, etc. ; while its value could be proposed through a variety of hierarchical discourses such as its popularity, its affect, its potential as being seminal, innovative, perverse, etc. And once again, to talk of these auras - that is, to directly address EXOTIC - requires as full an understanding as possible of the work's trans-historical and multi-dimensional environment, wherein it existed and exists. If cultural space is the final frontier, the cultural object is the ultimate dimension.

But now the contradiction. If I was to comprehensively address EXOTIC I would have reservations in presenting a discourse based on the afore mentioned propositions, talking so much about my discursive actions. Furthermore, I probably wouldn't bring it up in a forum such as this, but would consider it for a more conventional "rock" context, where the core elements of EXOTIC would be recognized. This is because the most effective writing on culture (in the service of cultural studies) writes like its objects. Reminded of the 'naturalist' who tramps through the bush but is careful to replace all unturned stones, cultural studies should similarly return a voice, to converse with the object ; not for moral or ethical reasons but in consideration of the terms of one's address. I heed what I regard the 'logic' of objects, that is that they can usually communicate quite successfully without analysis, and that it would be profitable to acknowledge that success in the form of a critical appendage rather than a philosophical tangent ; to write without claiming meanings, staking values and declaring notions. The returned voice is the 'voice of experience' - constituting a writing that describes the experience that created the writing.

In conclusion, I restate the confusion evoked by EXOTIC. It ably demonstrates how much can be lost - not how much can be hidden. To figure culture as a mystery is to instantly posit hidden meanings. But cultural objects themselves are rarely hidden or lost : they exist in a universe of peripheries, in the environments of cults, subcultures, minorities, segregations, undergrounds, factions, and the like. Their signification both within their environments and within our schemes is the major thing lost. That signification is retrievable but only at the cost of translation - but what else is the language of culture but the movement of its translation? As such, cultural objects (as signifying artifacts) are best described as versions. Not originals, not copies, not quotes, not rewrites, but versions joined to one another through pixilation (in the cinematic sense) : a series of still snapshots immediately replaced by another version to generate the illusion of movement, an effect dependent on the the degree of difference in each snapshot. Cultural studies can survey the snapshots in any order or sequence, but it can never make them move. They only move when we experience them.

Text © Philip Brophy. Image © Crescendo Records.