Toward a Phenomenology of Shit-Fi
Bone Awl’s body of work—perhaps a gesamtkunstwerk—offers a surface lacking differentiation. Paradoxically, the rhythmic, percussive strumming of the guitar, which lacks sustain but has great presence, such that each strum rings out as individuated, congeals into a mass of sinewy sound. The trebly, thin guitar sound merges with tape hiss and feedback. The drums are rarely, if ever, syncopated, and the shrieks of the vocals themselves feel more like an instrument, a component of the sound’s architecture, than a means of communicating ideation. The aesthetic is the idea. This undifferentiated surface is, however, a veneer that hides rewards available to the listener who brackets the disceptation surrounding the band’s dual musical patrimonies (ie, punk and black metal), and who treats the combinative aesthetic as itself dissembling, as instrumentalizing impenetrability to make a point. What lies beneath this veneer is a training method for how to listen to shit-fi music. But it also shows us, I think, why one should listen to music that does not offer the pleasures typically associated with music, even most underground music.
The mixtape is an aid. Whereas the subtle differences among Bone Awl’s various releases grow more obvious when they are compared side by side, the individuality of songs within those releases is elusive. The mixtape, by highlighting the differences among releases through juxtaposition, offers an approach to listening to the band. It is not the right, nor the only approach. In fact, this approach militates against what the aesthetic itself suggests superficially. It does what the aesthetic begs the listener not to do, which is to look for differentiation where it appears absent. The mixtape is a small act of artifice. It is bricolage. It engenders its own aesthetic, quite different from the band’s. But, as the band titles one of its cassettes “So I must take from the earth. . .” in order to create something new, so I must take from the band—strictly for phenomenology’s sake, of course.
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1. Lindow Man, from “Lindow Man” 7"
2. Veins, from “So I Must Take From The Earth…” 2x7"
3. Curse, Forget Me, from “All Has Red” cass.
4. Finally Gone, from v/a “Vinland Vs. Finland” LP
5. Visions of Altitude, from “Undying Glare” 7"
6. Green as He Walks, from split 7" with Furdidurke
7. Frightening Clouds, from “Not For Our Feet” LP
8. Circles of Hair, from “Up To Something” cass.
9. At the Ellipse’s Arc, from “At The Ellipse’s Arc” cass.
10. The Quiet Torture of Words in a Head, from “Almost Dead Man” cass.
11. Without Hesitation, from “Meaning Less Leaning Mess” LP
12. Magnetism of War (I), from “Magnetism of War”/”Bog Bodies” 12"
13. Virvatulet (Outro), from “Magnetism of War”/”Bog Bodies” 12"
There are, of course, exceptions that disrupt the surface of similarity, and, among them, for this mixtape, I have chosen the exceptional exceptions. See, for example, “Magnetism of War,” recorded before Bone Awl seemed to have solidified their aesthetic vision, but with its elements beginning to emerge. Also, check the longueur of “Finally Gone” and, longer, the outro to “Bog Bodies,” “Virvatulet” (the Finnish word for bogs’ flaming flatulence), as well as the susurrus in the former, which may be meant to evoke sounds of an imperceptible register made by non-human kinetics, like glaciers, or, indeed, bogs, which occasionally disgorge clues to humans’ prehistory, the time before the alienation of time—Bone Awl’s fetish. (I acknowledge that the original notion of a fetish itself, like the notion of the “primitive,” is constitutively modern, representing the impossible desire of modern humans to turn back history’s clock, or to “discover” parts of the world where premodern ways of life were maintained. That “primitive” people were thought to idolize fetishes—objects invested with supernatural powers—proved their inferiority to modern observers. Marx turned this idea on its head, by showing that modern humans attribute to all commodities produced under capitalist relations of production analogous metaphysical properties.)
My invocation of gesamtkunstwerk, meaning “total artwork,” in this context is deliberate, not a flip allusion to some conjured Teutonic heritage, as such allusions so often plague bands in Bone Awl’s milieu. Rather, like Wagner’s operas, with which the term is typically associated, I find Bone Awl’s work to “evoke a surface ‘unity of style,’ one that overwhelms by not pausing for breath.”* In combining discrete art forms into one performance, Wagner used technological means to overwhelm and bombard the human sensorium (this is the aspect of the gesamtkunstwerk that interests me), as does this band. Here it is not a maximalist assault of extremes but rather one of minimalism and of near evenness, with sonic and visual parallelism. Wagner’s operas, composed around the same time as Marx was writing Capital, represent an attempt to confront exactly what Marx was confronting: the alienation of modernity, of capitalist production. In what is now called the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (not published until 1932), Marx diagnoses a separation of the human senses from each other and from human essence, from what he calls “species-being.” The abolition of private property, he insists, would enable emancipation and humanization of the senses, which under the current mode of production (ie, capitalism) are “crude” and which fulfill only “practical need” rather than fully human, social capacities. Social theorists ever since have been grappling with what exactly all of this means. A well-worn theoretical path notes that the alienation that occurs in Marx’s “hidden abode of production” has resulted in the privileging of the senses of sight (especially) and hearing and the dulling of the other senses—and it is no coincidence that sight and hearing, unlike taste or touch, allow for mediation. (You can’t taste from afar, but the development of aids to seeing and hearing from afar has been a quintessential work of capitalism.) The fundamental problem with capitalism, if I may explain it crudely, that Marx identifies and Lukács, Lefebvre, Debord, and others after him have further detailed, is that this alienation that occurs in the hidden abode of production—the exploitation of the laborer by the capitalist—spreads throughout society via the commodity form, which, in turn, conceals it. Marx called this “the fetishism of commodities.” One buys a washing machine, for example, which does not advertise the fact that its production entails the alienation of the laborer from nature, from the product and its means and process of production, from the laborer’s species-being, and from other laborers (to follow the enumeration of alienations Marx notes in the Manuscripts). Under the conditions of alienated labor, “life-activity, productive life itself”—which Marx notes is what enables humans to be social—“appears to man merely as a means of satisfying a need—the need to maintain the physical existence.” Instead of relating to each other in a fully human way, our relations “take on the character of a thing,” as Lukács writes, defining reification. That the eyes and ears become tools complicit in this partial and miserable existence is not a natural phenomenon, but one conditioned by the mode of production. Marx writes, “The sense caught up in crude practical need has only a restricted sense,” rather than a fully human sense. In response, claims Adorno, “the task of [Wagner’s] music is to warm up the alienated and reified relations of man and make them sound as if they were still human” (quoted in Buck-Morss).
What Bone Awl does—this is my central claim—is analogous but diametrically opposed. Adorno criticizes the “pseudo-totalization” of Wagner because he implicitly favors the real totalization, or unification and humanization of the sensorium, that according to Marx would be part and parcel of the abolition of private property. In contrast, Bone Awl, who cannot but remain under the sway of the present mode of production and its privileging of the eyes and ears, nonetheless offer a means through which listeners/viewers can be snapped out of our reified and numbed existence, by demanding recalibration of these senses. Through black-on-black printing, a mire of overlapping characters (see the cover of the “Not For Our Feet” LP), and music that itself sounds like the layering of sonic detritus, musical sculpting of the residuum, recrement, and slag that commercial musical production surgically discards, Bone Awl throws into relief the alienated and reified relations of man and makes them sound anything but human. Their insistent atavistic stance, focused on bog bodies and other unwelcome reminders of previous epochs’ social organization, does not offer the progressive alternative Adorno wishes Wagner offered. It offers a window onto the pain that modernity (or, more accurately, capital) wishes to conceal, but this window is not only ocular, as the term suggests, or even aural, as the medium suggests. Rather, I believe that unlike nearly any other band I’ve heard, Bone Awl manages to create a corpus that does not enable easy disentanglement of its constituent sensory elements, nor does it rely on synaesthesia, the most common artistic means of highlighting the impoverishment of the sensorium. Hence, the band offers, in a wholly and self-consciously negative (as opposed to progressive) fashion, an alternative sensory experience to the prevailing one.
Unlike modernism’s nostalgic evocation of something lost in its condescending treatment of “primitives,” which was so often merely a projection of modernists’ own fetishes, Bone Awl’s evocation of simplicity does not refer to bog bodies, for example, as an ideal. Instead, their aesthetic experience, which is at turns unsettling, disorienting, and difficult, is all that is offered. What one chooses to make of it is not predetermined. For me, although I must again insist that I recognize its emergence under the present mode of production, which conditions it, Bone Awl’s work helps incrementally to imagine what Marx was getting at when he wrote in the Manuscripts, “Only through the objectively unfolded richness of man’s essential being is the richness of subjective human sensibility (a musical ear, an eye for beauty of form—in short, senses capable of human gratification, senses affirming themselves as essential powers of man) either cultivated or brought into being. For not only the five senses but also the so-called mental senses—the practical senses (will, love, etc.)—in a word, human sense—the human nature of the senses—comes to be by virtue of its object, by virtue of humanized nature . . . The forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present.” Bone Awl’s work is an implicit acknowledgment that in the course of the history of the world, the bringing into being of the richness of subjective human sensibility, comprising the five senses, went awry. The band does not tell us why (that’s why theorists exist, right?). But its work offers to the eyes and ears similar and parallel sensory experiences, pointing ever so faintly toward an understanding, in the mental sense, that our senses are not wholly ours, but have been constructed socially by us and by all of human history before us. With the knowledge of how devastating, dastardly, and despicable human history has been, why should we not treat our sensorium, and its privileges, as also having been the object of devastating, dastardly, and despicable manipulations? Maybe a music magazine is a strange place to say so, but the majority of you reading this essay approach everyday life with music as a constant concern. Can we imagine how enriching life would be, following Marx (a “musical ear” is one alert to the unique pleasures afforded by music alone), if our entire human sense could be alert to life the way one single privileged and trained sense now is? Bone Awl’s iciness, it seems to me, quite ironically points toward a way of feeling that is not susceptible to the saccharine ease of the commodified pleasures capitalism conditions us to crave.
* The quote is Susan Buck-Morss, quoting Adorno, on Wagner. See Susan Buck-Morss. “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin's Artwork Essay Reconsidered” October 62 (Autumn 1992). This essay draws from Buck-Morss as well as from: Malcolm Bull. “Vectors of the Biopolitical” New Left Review 45 (May-June 2007).