From Glocks to Canons

"Rhythm Science"

by Paul D. Miller

aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid

MIT Press, 2004

125 pages



From Glocks to Canons


review by McKenzie Wark


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 information.


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 obje cts 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 whe re 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 t he 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 tex t 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.