Have a Good Time

November 14, 2011

Open secrets and bad feelings: Armistice Day, three days late, from the pansy left

Note from 2014: This post is out of date in crucial ways, and I’m keeping it here largely as a record of the moment when it was written. I recommend reading Aura Bogado’s open letter to Chelsea Manning and keeping up with the Chelsea Manning Support Network. Free Chelsea.

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April 16, 2010

Thoughts on Pogo

Imagine a contemporary musician and video artist who’s been thinking about Adorno’s music writing, and who decides to attempt a kind of perfect allegorical fulfillment of some of its best-known decontextualized claims: for example, the claim that modernist “music about music,” as represented by Stravinsky, is infantile in its reliance on repetition and in its parasitic relation to other media, “treat[ing] its model in a manner much like that of the child who takes apart his toys and puts them together again incorrectly.”  Or, more notoriously, that the appeal of pop music, or Adorno’s “jazz” broadly understood, is tied to its “mechanical reproduction of a regressive moment: a castration symbolism.”  What if someone set out to realize, consciously and affirmatively and even lovingly, the digital reproduction of regressive moments?  What would the result sound or look or feel like?  Perhaps … this:

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the words “butter mellow” and “sunshine” belong to a failed performative.  (Hermione Granger, meeting Ron Weasley for the first time, asks to see a magical demonstration; Ron waves his wand at a pet rat and intones, “Sunshine, daisies, butter mellow / Turn this stupid fat rat yellow“; nothing happens.)  Here the spell is repurposed so that it becomes, you could say, felicitous.  The buttery mellowness of “butter mellow,” the brightness of “sunshine”—melodic affect works as magic.  And “Alohomora” is an unlocking spell: it opens doors.  What’s being unlocked here?

Pogo has more than 45,000 YouTube subscribers—his remix of Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland was apparently viewed more than 4 million times, before the original clip was taken down for copyright violation—and “Alohomora” is another of about ten music videos put together using sounds and footage taken from, for the most part, very popular children’s movies made in the last 50 years.  (His most recent work, “Skynet Symphonic,” is a striking deviation in that respect, and there’s a certain tension between the music’s characteristically gentle ambient environment and James Cameron’s shuddering cyborg violence; still, for a short video made up of pieces from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, it’s notable just how much time we spend looking at the face of a boy speaking and listening.  Terminator 2 becomes, if not a movie for children, at least one primarily about a child’s perceptions.  Which it may have been in the beginning; I haven’t seen it; I’m on a roll like that with Cameron movies.  In any case, considering David Foster Wallace’s compelling argument that Terminator 2 is also, at least on some structural level, a porn movie, one thing “Skynet Symphonic” definitely isn’t is the arrangement of F/X money shots that might be expected.)

So a kind of vulgar-Adornist reading of these texts is certainly easy and tempting.  I can imagine the claim being made that a fantastic new literalization of Adorno’s “regressive listening” was taking place here, with childhood toys, in the form of mainstream movies that a whole generation of privileged kids like me will have watched to the point of memorization on worn-out VHS tapes, undergoing a digitized disarticulation followed by an only superficially “incorrect” reassemblage or re-membering, and then set before us as potent nostalgia objects, ads for something we’ve always already got.  “Alohomora” might fit this account best of all, even if its source text is a film series made more recently than most of the other movies, given that that series must have been made to signifyregression” as much as anything else in contemporary mass culture.  And of course nostalgia and familiarity are a part of the effect, but I also want to resist this reading, because the spatial metaphor seems wrong: I think it would be more interesting to talk about Pogo’s videos and their work not in terms of regression, backward or downward motion, but rather in terms of what Kathryn Bond Stockton, in her work on the figure of the queer child, refers to as lateral growth.  There are “[o]ther ways of […] growing that are not just tied to heteronormative notion[s] of a growing up in a vertical, linear fashion.”

Because there’s something in these videos that has always struck me as richly, almost ineffably queer.  (This isn’t necessarily to say anything about Pogo himself, although he seems quite unbothered by all the jokes made about his YouTube username, which is Fagottron.)  Part of this feeling, I’m sure, is a response to the selection of source material (Carroll’s Alice; Dumbledore; Mary Poppins; Spielberg’s Hook—Pogo’s “Bangarang” made me wonder what’s been said about the pretty amazing queer temporalities of Hook (all those smashed clocks!), or about the film’s readability as a symptom of the American panic over repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse in the early 90s).  But the feeling must come as well from the way this material is dealt with: the way the videos warp, delay, and interrupt linear motion, both at the level of the cinematic (childhood) narrative and more immediately at the level of the spoken or sung sentence.   Like most of Pogo’s work, “Alohomora” is built from both a collection of understandable words and lines of dialogue, isolated, tuned, and repeated—they’re often times or numbers—and a network of tiny, undecipherable fragments of speech, song, gesture.  These sounds and the accompanying images are resequenced with no attention to the original narrative development: the result is not a story or a progression, let alone one with any kind of romantic apotheosis, but a space to linger in.  Both in its focus on a suspended and incompletely intelligible childhood world and in its musical and visual structure, “Alohomora” seems to exemplify a method of arrested development (an “official-sounding phrase,” Stockton writes, “that has often cropped up to describe the supposed sexual immaturity of homosexuals: their presumed status as dangerous children, who remain children in part by failing to have their own” [Curiouser 289]).  Growth is paused, stuttered, extended in new directions.

These effects have an experimental (and much less danceable) antecedent, maybe, in a film like Martin Arnold’s 1992 Passage à l’Acte, with its appropriation and distortion of a single scene from To Kill a Mockingbird.  But whereas it’s possible to read Passage à L’Acte as arresting Mockingbird‘s narrative at a specific moment emblematic of the trauma that is “the indoctrination of the young female into a strict gender hierarchy”—and remember that the moment agonizingly extended here is the moment when Scout, the tomboy, is on the verge of leaving her house to go to school, and her father has made her put on a dress, and she really doesn’t want to be wearing this dress—what’s being lingered on in Pogo’s work is something more like a generalized temporality, unbound to any single solid subjectivity; something more like lingering itself.*

In her 2003 condemnation of the Harry Potter books in the New York Times, A.S. Byatt cites Auden and Tolkien on the creation of “secondary worlds” and claims that Rowling’s wizards inhabit “a secondary secondary world, made up of intelligently patchworked derivative motifs from all sorts of children’s literature.”  (This is the same piece in which Byatt blames the Problem of Harry Potter on “cultural studies,” which must be a question for another post.)  If we accept this sense of “secondary worlds,” then the world of Pogo’s “Alohomora” is secondary-secondary-secondary-secondary; but it’s also unmistakably a world of its own, at once new and foreign and maybe all too familiar.  I would tentatively submit that part of what thousands of people have responded to in “Alohomora” and Pogo’s other videos, in and through these multiplied layers of mediation, is a keen sense of the strange absorptions, the foreign temporality, the radical unintelligibility—in a word, the queerness of childhood.  This is an audiovisual space in which figures of the child, and maybe the viewer as well, are allowed to “hang suspended in an intensity that is a motion, an emotion, and a growth, even though, from certain conventional angles, it may look like a way of going nowhere” (Curiouser 311).

Which might be why I think the creator of this eerie alternative video for “Alice,” featuring public-domain home-movie footage of an anonymous boy dancing on the beach like Anna Paquin in The Piano, gets something exactly right:

*One word for the unit that is Pogo’s musical building-block would be “mora,” defined by the OED as “the smallest or basic unit of duration of a speech sound,” from the Latin mora meaning “linger, delay.”   “For as long as I can remember,” Pogo says in an interview, “I have always detected small sounds in musical arrangements that appeal to me. I find myself with a natural desire to hear those sounds over and over.”  Aloha, mora:  simultaneously a lingering goodbye and a delayed hello, which is one way of conceptualizing a certain relation to childhood.  But we actually know that “Aloha” doesn’t figure in J. K. Rowling’s etymology for “Alohomora”—how? because she clarified it in court, as she was suing Steve Vander Ark, the compiler of an unofficial Harry Potter lexicon.  The ironies get a bit dizzying: Rowling says that the word’s actual derivation is “from a West African word that meant ‘friendly to thieves.'”

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