A Doctors Without Borders hospital is cynically pummeled with ordnance in distant Afghanistan. There is another school shooting in nearby Oregon. Theorists call the state of modern life precarity, people like Bezos or Gates give it a sheen by jargonizing it as “disruption”. In the total world terrorist state, violence, whether defined by constant threat of air-raid or mass shooting or the randomly-placed economic sword hanging above every corporate cube-dweller’s head, erupts without warning, from every direction, without predictable source or intended target. The apparent rule is lawlessness, the constant state of mind is suspicion, trauma, fear. This lawlessness, this norm wherein there is no basic stability, extends everywhere. It atomizes collective community action and nullifies the operation of politics in the rich world while simultaneously fundamentally erasing stability, memory, and history in every place geographically located outside the castle walls of the neoliberal project. The razing of a temple complex in Palmyra and the enforcement of reductionist binary rhetoric promoting ever-increasing militarization of civilian life in the heartland demonstrate the creep of the same mission: The end of history, memory, agency; in short, the end of life lived for any human purpose, and the start of one whose only permitted goods are its timeless, rote performance of servility to ideology that maintains the power of a very few.
In “Life in Wartime” (1979), the desperate voice of Dada is set to music. Byrne sings, “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around.” Where Magritte famously set up the surreal opposition of image and description in his “The Treachery of Images”, stating that what was illustrated was, in fact, not that which was illustrated (“This is not a pipe”),
the Talking Heads similar statement, paraphrased “This is not a disco”, moved from a surrealist transgression of the order of signs and language to engagement with the dadaist dilemma: what does one do if there are no laws anymore? How does one exist in the state of emergency and exception “during wartime” when all law has been suspended? The video linked to above is from a live concert recording, itself repudiating proof that there was a party, that there was, so to speak, a disco. The effect produced by these statements is the same as that produced by Magritte’s painting, but with an edge. It made reference to the fact that everything seemed to be coming apart at the seams. New York in ’79 was in shambles and the banking system seemed as though it was on the edge of collapse as it starved major cities of cash. The country was still staggering after the real and moral defeat in Vietnam. The empty energy of hippie consumer hedonism had been overtaken in the culture, where any energy was still boiling, with its only possible progeny: anger and addiction. The song sets this problem for the viewer and listener: How does one acknowledge one’s fundamentally precarious position in a society that has gone off the rails while the trappings of celebration-as-usual march, undead, wildly on? The time was ripe for the contradictions this song manifested in 1979, but lamentably the song is even more relevant to our present moment than it was to its own.
The dadaist meets terror with an exacerbation of the same, an amplification that hopes to widen and make apparent the fissures of contradiction immanent in the organization of society. In this bizarre year 2015, 36 years after “Life During Wartime” was released on Fear of Music (Sire), a video of the band (still, obscenely, young) playing with abandon can be called up instantaneously from any device with a screen and access to the internet to provide an escapist shot of nostalgia or enjoyment. Meanwhile, one alternately reads news of the latest Joseph Heller-esque escapade of our military, our propagandists on the pre-campaign trail, or our spiteful fellow citizens while absentmindedly scrolling through pictures of celebrity cats. The song’s references to the Mudd Club and C.B.G.B. (“This ain’t no Mudd Club, no C.B.G.B., I ain’t got time for that now”) are now true in every respect; the venerable punk venue C.B.G.B., present at the level of reference and memory in the lyrics, in a reversal of its aura now houses high-end shopping on a former skid row. In the intervening years the song has become more true. The fissures have widened. It is more than not C.B.G.B. It is its own antithesis, a negation or forgetting of itself.
The difference between then and now collapses with the ease of accessing video of the performance. So does the perceptual distance between the siege of emergencies (real and constructed) that threaten us and our accelerating means of diversion and consumption. We are told “This ain’t no disco”, and this we by now should already know. Still, they tell us to keep dancing. For whatever reason, for now, we still do so without changing a step.
At least it’s natural to jitterbug when the bullets keep falling so close to your feet.
Some of this blog entry makes reference to Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency by Hal Foster
-Updated to provide a working link to another live performance of Life During Wartime, as the intervening years saw the other video go dark.