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Elder Ones, "From Untruth," and a Threat Called New York: An Essay

Arian Bagheri Pour Fallah By

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A becoming-city, [New York] has lived past what a Hegelian would espy as requisite contradictions that in this case do not begin or end in ethnic diversities. Kidambi's return to oriental thought, to the looping interplay of truth and untruth, mirrors this overture however to solicit the subject for protest. —Arian Bagheri Pour Fallah
If what we witness today; rabid expansion of capital and with it, growing class difference, and a renewed interest in Marx; if these were testimony to one thing, it would be Derrida's spook of a wager from his seminal Specters de Marx. Indeed, neo-liberal/conservative sham thinkers such as Fukuyama today find shelter no longer in Hegel, or Nietzsche, whose thorny crown has been casually re-abducted by the Right and moralist "blockheads," e.g. Peterson, but of all in Marx, this time exclusively to salvage rather than affirm and celebrate as Geist their hegemony from the material pitfall they find it in. Amidst all this, and while there is capital scholarship to be found in David Harvey and the admittedly few surviving Marxists, one cannot help but recollect the overly misconstrued role of Marcuse within American intellectual circles, and Coen brothers' more or less accurate portrayal of it, in Hail, Caesar!, when confronted by a jazz record with songs bearing titles such as "Decolonize the Mind" and "Dance of the Subaltern," as in Elder Ones' recent endeavor, From Untruth, "pieces grappling with issues of power, oppression, capitalism, colonialism, white supremacy, violence and the shifting nature of truth," as the official description puts it.

This is all too pronounced when senior members of media, those advocates of enthusiasm and escapism, of effortless, empty writings/readings, whose stance toward the people is not unlike those held by Crassus or Le Bon, even if plainly lacking the intellect, come to express horror at the very suggestion of research and inquiry into problems such as those outlined above. This is nothing but a thematic shift in their myopic eyes—the interest in Jainism, Buddhism, and in general what Paul Tillich famously categorized as transtheism and what a phenomenologist could deem as a theological instance of the Other, Alice Coltrane to Pharoah Sanders, has now shifted to a more material, sociopolitical plane, albeit still maintained through ethnic divisions and from there pointing to oriental, transmaterial thought found in ethnicities as considered authentic and original. Self-evidently insufficient, the view outlives any other, and for visible reasons too. Let us pose and consider the elemental question that secretly grounds this banal rhetoric: What does the average reader make of words as composite and theoretically bounded as subaltern?

Hardly a surprise, the majority of the Americans who responded to my query over the course of a full week, both in person and across cyberspace could not offer an individual definition of the term let alone extended dialogue within techno-theoretical context, and the interviewees were of varied academic disciplines and backgrounds, dramaturgy to anthropology to cybernetics. Indeed among jazz collectives themselves select few have gone to the labor of undertaking research in their homages made to notions of similar nature; The Quash Wagon Reclusion and Black Spirituals' respective adoption of deconstruction from roughly five years ago, among those few; and the case with philosophers neither all too promising soon as one bears in mind say Searle or Dennett, which raises, or rather reintroduces the question of whether inquiry and furthermore pressing for inquiry and research, under such circumstances, is at all necessary.

To answer this, and doing that, dispelling any rhetoric use said question might have, we may turn to none other than the voice of the blue-collars, Bruce Springsteen. When asked about "Thunder Road," Springsteen openly admitted to not ever having seen the movie by which the song was supposedly inspired. How come then Springsteen's counterparts today, who too have not seen, read, or interacted with a myriad of cultural artifacts, appear all too shallow when compared to him? Most of all, the 1970s, unlike today and the '50s to which we slowly and in concept regress, were a time of transgressions, a time when exchange of bodies and ideas was encouraged, regardless of consummate, absolute communication and confirmations, which ironically is the premise, in neurotechnology and elsewhere (ethics, social codes) today.

A return to the problem at hand can here be most rewarding. Subaltern. The word is not yet part of consensus lexicon, unlike for instance a word such as ideology which has been in universal use for decades. Spivak's use of the term, and not Gramsci's, is clearly the preoccupation and frame of reference for Amirtha Kidambi, who leads the quartet. This clarity is however not shared by the journalist and the average consumer, leading to the former's rhetorical questioning on both ends, of its use in the first place and its study afterwards. To the same journalist and average consumer the word ideology, saying nothing of its history and meaning, from Tracy to Marx to Althusser, nonetheless conveys an other clarity, a clarity not of meaning but of familiarity, or as Althusser would have concluded, of recognition. Such is that today, subaltern is the obscure word in the objective pipe dream of the senior journalist, and mud in the fast food of the average consumer; tomorrow it will be their treasured playing card, once properly emptied of all content through repetition and reproduction that is. To recapitulate, even the extremest of escapist journalism clings to and builds on the residues of a study, on concepts reduced to words. So indeed once virtue of carrying out ample research earns an ethnographer today his notoriety as an obscurantist, for the original sin of knowing too much has plenty at variance with capitalist virtues of ease and speed.

Insofar as this concerns Elder Ones' use of the term, it renders the decision imperative, regardless of the average consumer and any positive or negative view held by members of the media, as they both contribute to the one and the same vicious circle. Expanded to the example of Marcuse, one may too maintain that his role, while inadvertently overshadowing those of greater substance, from Wilhelm Reich to Alfred N. Whitehead, remains of paramount importance, and that America without Marcuse would have not been better off by any stretch of the imagination. But there is something beside Elder Ones' homage to Spivak, which I will leave for the moment, something more horrifying for the senior journalist; there is an other curiosity in Kidambi's case, one far more immediate and material than concepts and spooks, and that is New York itself.

Ever since Melville, and from then, La Monte Young and mere passers-by, New York has proved an unyielding urban space, necessitating certain intimate response—apostasy or apology. A becoming-city, it has lived past what a Hegelian would espy as requisite contradictions that in this case do not begin or end in ethnic diversities. Kidambi's return to oriental thought, to the looping interplay of truth and untruth, mirrors this overture however to solicit the subject for protest. Elder Ones, in From Untruth, do not recognize particular hegemonies. They say nothing of the city outside the biographical—links to the current Downtown scene, etcetera, and are equally distanced from the open strife of Ceramic Dog. Despite this, they stay locked on the pulse of the American tune, when check-marking "capitalism," further treating it as exposed.

There is an optimism in this stance which is called in question by a music that remains largely expressive even if retaining at times a wavering character. From Untruth is filled with gaps and suspended animation but never gives up on an unbroken whole. In its splendor of metaphors, the music oscillates between modes of grief and cynical playfulness, barely tiring of them in their basic modal premise. Improvisation remains strictly a tool, and electronics a sign—"a metaphor for modernity." It is thereby not New York the people which is present in From Untruth, New York the people which appears only at a symbolic level and in the lyrics and written material accompanying the record. Rather, the New York present in From Untruth is New York the apparatus, not and never the subaltern, which accounts subtly for why grand compositional continuity is insisted on. Like Hudson Yards, From Untruth is environed by an undead space, incomplete and closed to the powers that be. Its modal borders too, in their docile resolve, affirm and assert this, that the dance is defined a dance given the subject's absence, his removal as it were from the space in which he is morally expected. What remains inside the borders is his grief, the unambiguous, consummate grief exposing monstrosity to the monster. Kidambi's pictographic New York is evidently not self-approbatory but that comes at the cost of it not being integrally ambiguous or spiteful. The question arising from this compromise, this exchange, concerns specifically that which precedes it, and can be articulated as follows: Where did, ahead of the exchange of blue collar and blue blood, the reds disappear to?

A brief look at prominent, socio-politically charged American jazz and improvised music from the 1960s, among them Sonny's Time Now, may help impart the turn. With Sunny Murray, cynical playfulness prevails but never in the context of a grand narrative. If anything, "the freedom boys" would upset both modal and quasi-classical inclinations of the time, running counter to grandeur roundly and in full, in a manner all too excessive even for the punks-to-be. There existed for them no Other outside of the sheer incongruity and dementia of creation itself. So if we find ourselves today, hesitant to move into the margins, to appear exposed and all too abject, deliberating free improvisation without reservation, if assuming the Other and maintaining an other grandeur appears as the only way to overcome, when truly subversive paths appear all exhausted and in mass circulation, if words such as subaltern need be invoked, and if media's celebration of a post-truth politics renders inevitable critical inquiries into that which comes after truth itself, we may be slowly forgetting one primordial rule: that elder ones, be they senior journalists, institutions or ethnic ancestors, must be violated, suspected, and continually resisted, for any creative endeavor to flourish, just as modernity is, so readily suspected in regard to ethical questions, and one should not make light of the utter and empirical record of modernity, that despite its amoral, industrial connotations for those who enjoy, or can in theory enjoy, its benefits in the modern world, too came to be as a direct result of a rigorous, creative opposition to the very aphorisms reawakened today, its economic, mercantile conditions nothing but a byproduct.

This is the exclusive reason explaining developing countries outside of global and political arrangements, developing countries whose lackluster and/or sheer lack of a prevalent creative enterprise (which is considered secondary to economic impulses on the basis of which development is at large defined today) is both undeniable and explicably identifiable, as in the case of those at their forefront, e.g. China, where out of modernity's many ethos only its mercantile incentives have been adopted, thanks to Friedman and other gurus of free trade, where figures like Zhao Liang are few and far between—which is why an ethnography of the modern world, of America, is of man as we know him, and in no way limited to the territory as such. China, the future home of capital or not, is for this reason, no more than a dead ringer of America, of the modern, moral world, where immorality tends to shock the outside observer but rarely incite any fundamental questions about its frame of reference.

More concerningly, ravages of truths and facts in current political air have slowly defaced the need for hermeneutics, in fields that most require it, and this is uniquely the germ of notions, ethnic origin, as well as biologic parallelisms on which the new appeal of the Right rests. It would be easy and just about as dangerous, for a truly radical Left, and not the neoliberal Left, to play the same cards. For power has grown immune to spooks, and Fordism discreetly a means to regiment spooks. The propensity to hold symbols accountable, as with Geertz, is no less improbable today than looking for and/or insisting on perils of ideology. On the other end, it is imperative for queries on man to move away from ends and estates altogether, which is why and in which sense this study bears the label essay with no addition and/or mention of economic anthropology or urban studies, both of which may very well have been present/absent as sous rature and in a subtitle, that is, in the strict sense of essais, from Montaigne to Leiris, resisting authentications, convictions, and validations of institutional study, of preservation.

Preservation, as in the developing world where it is deemed unlimited and absolute, is synonymous with erasure of creative endeavors en masse, whose uselessness has been known ever since Schopenhauer. In the same degree, for any protest it remains existential not to relent, and a jazz divorced from both punk and academic normalities, a jazz invested instead in free improvisation's natural capacity to upset, can do just that. Kidambi's heterodox disposition is, in this regard, measurably successful, for the output seldom falls into the trap of reinstituting mores, that which the bulk of new folk music, A Hawk And A Hacksaw et al, occasions. Moreover, the societal contour of protest, often undermining Self and solitude of the Self, here is not altogether imposing. In the ending to the title-track, a deflection of a theme introduced earlier partakes enough of this contrast to retrospect an other New Yorker not alien to the question, namely Angelo Badalamenti , whose suspension of melancholy in the face of the jubilant is one of the rarest achievements in contemporary incidental music. And if one were to get passed the metaphoric reasoning ("modernity") for use of electronics, here and now, the overlap of pre/modern could refine protest and its intimate link with preservation, put forth in the opener—"Eat the rich or die starving." What is the plight but to make certain in rallying for the ethnic, the just, and the true, clenched fists do not hide prayer for the hand that feeds.
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