Thursday, 12 March 2009

Habermas's deafness to the call of pop

We tore a few chapters out of the Philosophical Discourses of Modernity and we promise to re-read them (our bags were already close to the 20kg limit and Habermas's hardback book was heavy) but in the meantime the same old thoughts keep floating into view. And they floated again just now as we were watching the Polish channel 4 Fun TV while eating our museli (because hearing about the latest wave of suicide bombings doesn't seem to aid the digestion of one's breakfast). And there was a new (to us) video of a song by Morandi (nationality unknown - never heard of them) entitled Save Me. Well photographed shots of young adults in work situations looking as if life is meaningless. People wanting to be saved. And the song is clear about how they are to be saved. Romance. If you are a boy, the apparent lack of meaning will evaporate - it seems - when the girl next door or the girl in the office or the girl in the field (a lot of the video is shot in a sunny wheat field) finally says "Yes".

It surprises us that less is said about the way the youth have this message drummed into them with an even greater idiotic frequency than the youth in North Korea are made to march in unison.

It also seems to us that Habermas should have watched more of this stuff while he was eating his museli. Maybe it would have made him think a little more about communicative action and about communication generally.

Long before young people get to the point where they have the education and the intellectual maturity to meaningfully participate in the kind of rigorously rational debate that Habermas thinks should govern social life they will have watched thousands of hours of pop videos - pop videos that communicate a message - a message which is immensely effective despite being crass, banal and just plain misleading.

There is very little variety in the message. At the risk of stating the glaringly obvious, we will sum them up. Firstly, The Save Me video is an example of the love song in which an idealised girl/boy announces, "Love (boy-girl stuff) is the Truth, the Way, the Life" - romantic love (consummated, although this is generally left as an implication) is the Saviour. Secondly, there are the ego-tripping songs typified by rappers that objectify everything and praise only themselves and their possessions. Thirdly, there is the angry nihilism of rock where the ego is subsumed in a wave of hate and aggression. Finally, and this is probably the most important message, and one that probably underlies all the others, there is the deification of music itself. By chance, before we had a chance to finish our museli this morning 4 Fun TV played the Guru Josh Project video again - a piece with a DJ turned composer with a synthesizer and a saxophone solo and the words, "Trust in me and you will find infinity" - "me" being the music itself. Music says that only it can fill the gaps in reality. Music itself redeems, which implies that music itself is enough.

After a few thousand very carefully crafted pop videos it is difficult to ignore these messages - these semi-discursive forms of communication. Does this not constitute an immensely powerful force preventing the emergence of the kind of communicative action that Habermas was arguing for?

For Habermas's communicative action to finally take center stage (because up to now it has been in the depths of the wings) a culture would have to emerge for which Rational Truth is the highest social value. That great will to Truth would finally have to become hegemonic. Assuming that this is indeed desirable, the question is: How is it to be accomplished? It certainly won't be accomplished if the sentimental education of the youth is left to the culture industry. But How? In other words, how can the youth be persuaded to kill the DJ?

Habermas needed a theory of music. How does the call of reason chime with the call of music, including the call of pop? Habermas just seemed to dismiss pop, presumably because it is so banal. But there can be no doubt that pop is a massive force to be reckoned with. The Taliban outlawed it. That doesn't seem to be an option for us. But something needs to be done. What?

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