by Steven Shaviro

©1995-1997 Steven Shaviro

It's loud, very loud. Swirling, churning guitars, aggressive distortion and feedback. Endlessly repeated, not-quite-tonal riffs. Blinding strobe lights. Noise approaching the threshold of pain, even of ruptured eardrums. This music doesn't just assault your ears; it invests your entire body. It grasps you in a physical embrace, sliding over your skin, penetrating your orifices, slipping inside you and squeezing your internal organs. You're brutalized by the assault--or maybe not quite. For beyond the aggression of its sheer noise, this music is somehow welcoming, inviting, even caressing. "After about 30 seconds the adrenaline sets in; people are screaming and shaking their fists" (Mark Kemp). But then something clicks and quietly shifts, in your body and in your brain. "After about four minutes, a calm takes over. The noise continues. After five minutes, a feeling of utter peace takes over. Or violence." It could be either, it could be both: you can no longer make sense of such a gross opposition. It's like a Zen illumination, perhaps; or an endorphin high, at the moment just before death. By taking noise "way past the point of acceptedness," My Bloody Valentine guitarist Kevin Shields says, "it takes on a meaning in itself," even if "I don't know exactly what it means..." This isn't just a case of being overwhelmed by the sublime. You can't stand it, and you can't see beyond it; but for that very reason you get used to it after a while, and you never want it to end. As with psychedelic drugs--at least sometimes--sensory overload is only the beginning. There's a whole new world out there, beyond the experience of shock. You enter a realm of "microperceptions," as Deleuze and Guattari put it: "microintervals between matters, colors and sounds engulfing lines of flight, world lines, lines of transparency and intersection." Things rush up on you, suddenly, in waves, and then slip ever-so-slightly out of focus. Densely articulated textures fade in and out. You pick up on subtleties you didn't notice before: wavering rhythms, minor chords, muddily shifting tonalities, synthesized special effects, Bilinda Butcher's floating vocal lines buried deep within the mix. You even hear fragments of pop melodies, tentatively emerging and then quickly dissolving; it's as if they were suspended in a chemical solution. These are the qualities sometimes described as 'dreamy' and 'ethereal' by listeners who haven't played the Loveless CD at sufficiently high volume. But such words fail to convey how deeply embodied--how physically attentive, you might say--this music actually is. The sound may be vague, murky, "miasmatic" (Rachel Felder); but the murk is precisely rendered, a concrete, material presence. It surrounds you, envelops you, enfolds itself around you. This music is indeed 'spacey,' in the literal sense that it seems to have a lot of room inside: room to wander about and to get lost in. Everything blurs, as in a musical equivalent of soft focus; everything shades into everything else. But no, that's not quite right; rather, you're stunned by the realization that there are so many types of ambiguity, so many distinct shades of gray. Your nerves and your viscera are tingling, as they register the tiniest differences, the most minute alterations. These are changes beyond, or beneath, the threshold of ordinary perception. Your sensory organs are being stretched or contracted far outside their usual range. In such altered states, as Deleuze and Guattari say, "the imperceptible is perceived."

Of course, you don't figure all this out until afterwards. You begin to make sense of it only as it slips away. The concert is over, and now it's the relative silence of the street that hits you with the force of a shock. You feel at once exhilarated and drained. The ringing in your ears takes quite a while to subside. Everything in the world has returned more or less to its proper place, but in an eerie state of abeyance. My Bloody Valentine's music leaves you with a strange post-coital feeling: as if you knew you'd had an orgasm recently, but you couldn't remember when, or even exactly how it felt. Maybe this is what sex with space aliens would be like. In any case, the music never builds up to a phallic climax, in the timeworn manner of mainstream rock and roll and other such classical narrative forms. But it also evades--or defuses--the relentless erotic pulse of mutant dance forms like disco, techno, and rave. And it eschews as well the frustrated-boy rage and angst of the 'industrial' sound. As guitarist/songwriter Kevin Shields puts it, this music expresses, not "pure, unadulterated anger," but "kind of all emotions rolled into one." An intensity freed from specific content or focus; an erotic, bodily feel no longer tied to particular organs or zones. A sound as floating, enigmatic, and decentered--as 'ambient' and all-embracing--as anything by Brian Eno, but charged with a violent sense of physicality that Eno's music simply does not possess.

It may have something to do with changing notions of urban space. The modern urban experience, as Walter Benjamin suggested, has been one of continual shock--and of repeated adjustment to shock. This repetitive cycle is oppressive; yet it's also where Benjamin placed his hopes for revolutionary revitalization. But now, as we approach the millenium, the entire process seems to have run down, or reached a point of diminishing returns. Today, we take urban ruins for granted. Their givenness and everydayness--rather than any cycle of shock and habituation--is the trademark of the new, postmodern urbanism. You can trace it in the postapocalyptic sensibility of bands like My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth, or of novels like Samuel Delany's Dhalgren; but also in the glitzy architecture of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, as described by Fredric Jameson. What these all have in common is that they have moved beyond shock, and into a new mode--a mannerism even--of dislocation. You'd feel at a loss if things weren't this confused and broken down. Disorientation is now part and parcel of your life. You are like Delany's protagonist, who can remember everything perfectly, with the sole exception of his own name. Postmodern space, as Jameson nicely puts it, "stands as something like an imperative to grow new organs, to expand our sensorium and our body to some new, yet unimaginable, perhaps ultimately impossible, dimensions." My Bloody Valentine's music rises to this challenge, expands to inhabit this new space. Call it anti-Muzak for postmodern shopping malls.

Such postmodern spaces are "anexact," as Deleuze & Guattari put it: "zones of indeterminacy" whose topology is inconsistent, whose contours are vague. But this indeterminacy is not a subjective illusion, not the result of insufficient precision. Rather, it is a perfectly objective indeterminacy: an effect that is well-defined in its own right, and that must be carefully produced. So too for the blurriness of My Bloody Valentine's sound. What they're after is not a rigorous musical structure, nor even a particular sonic texture, but something stranger and more evanescent: say a change in the atmosphere, an inflection of the ambiance. It takes place neither in the noise itself, nor in the performance, nor even in the bodies and minds of the audience; but somehow in between all these. This music isn't about virtuosity, or rock 'n' roll songcraft, or pop formalism. It seems very much an aberrant outgrowth of the punk 'do-it-yourself' aesthetic: even though nothing about it is the least bit spontaneous or improvised, and indeed the band is notorious for taking years in the studio to cut a single album. It's all in the way that everything's diffused, displaced, obliquely addressed. This music is all medium, and no message. On the Loveless CD, for instance, you don't get a sense of distinct, individual songs, since each track tends to bleed into the next. In live shows, the disorientation is still more radical. Glaring lights are trained upon the audience, making the band extremely hard to see. Indeed, the musicians seem scarcely to acknowledge the listeners' presence at all. Kevin's hair hangs down over his face, and Debbie Googe plays bass with her back to the auditorium. The four of them stand far apart from one another on stage, so that the band doesn't come across as a collective unity. But neither does any one of them come forward as a frontperson, to provide a point of visual and musical focus. Bilinda and Kevin eschew the cliched roles of virtuoso guitarist and lead singer; they trade instrumental and vocal lines unostentatiously and continually. In any case, there are no guitar solos to speak of, and the vocals are too indistinct for you to make out the words. Even Colm O'Ciosoig's drumming is nearly inaudible, buried deep in the mix. This band isn't driven by its rhythm section in a conventional rock 'n' roll sense. The usual hierarchy of rhythm (at the bottom, the steady foundation), harmony (in the middle, providing the armature) and melody (on the top, with leading lines and hooks) gets broken down, and reshuffled into new combinations. Often it's impossible to determine which of the musicians is producing any given sound, or even which sounds are being played live, and which have been pre-synthesized. In short, all the usual cues are missing; you are brought into forced contact with the gritty texture, the raw materiality of the music, because you can't organize your experience of it in any pre-programmed way. Your attention is continually being diverted and distracted, even as your senses are stimulated into hyperdrive. This sound is "cool," precisely in McLuhan's sense of the word: ubiquitous and all-enveloping, but at the same time so non-directive, so fuzzy or 'low definition,' that it compels you to become actively involved.

So this diffusion and decentering, this in-betweenness, isn't merely a formal strategy; it's also an experience, the way the music is received and felt. There's no longer a clear distinction between inside and outside, or between subject and object. The music has become an extension of your flesh; or better, your flesh is now an extension of the music. Your ears, your eyes, your mouth, your crotch, and your skin are absorbed into this irregularly pulsing, anexact, indefinitely extendible space, this postmodern mega-mall. The great ephemeral skin, Lyotard calls it: a labyrinth, or a hall of mirrors, continually breaking and reforming. It's really strange: the more 'alienating' the situation gets (to use that old-fashioned term), the more intimate it feels. Jameson calls it the "hallucinatory intensity" of "schizophrenic disjunction." Or better, think of it as an overwhelming feeling of proximity, crushing and caressing you at once. You can't quite map out this space, you can't locate yourself precisely, and you can't even distinguish one object from another. Everything is just too close to your eyes to be brought into sharp focus. The noise-laden air is suffocating; it presses down on your lungs, and scarcely gives you enough space to breathe. Yet you're trembling with excitement, or maybe with anticipation. Your flesh is all aflutter. The sound cradles and embraces you, inviting--even demanding--a sensuous, tactile response. Is it too much to say that this music feels sexy and sexual, even though it can't be identified with one particular gender? Not just because men and women share equal duties in the band. But because the sound of My Bloody Valentine has a lovely, playful evasiveness; it slips and slides easily around all sorts of distinctions conventionally associated with the binaries of gender. This music is both hard and soft, both noisy and lyrical; it penetrates and envelops you at once. You might think of it as androgynous, as simultaneously male and female. But maybe it's best described as neither. My Bloody Valentine seems to address you from some sort of intergendered or othergendered space: the space, perhaps, of what have become known on the Internet as Spivak pronouns: "e, em eir." Codified by Michael Spivak, these pronouns may be understood as the exact singular of "they, them, their." They compose a third person singular that retains the plural form's indifference, or indeterminacy, as to (biological, social, or grammatical) gender.

Androgyny and drag, of course, have long histories in rock 'n' roll; as does feminist gender-bending. Think of David Bowie, Sylvester, or the New York Dolls. And think of the line of transgressive female rockers extending from Patti Smith or the Slits to the current explosion of womanist rappers, riot grrls, and sexually assertive singer/songwriters. These artists have all experimented, in various ways, with subverting the conventional signs and attributes of gender. You can fuck around with masculinity and femininity by heightening them, by flattening them, by caricaturing them, by placing them ostentatiously in quotation marks, or by crossing or conflating them in ways that violently flout our usual expectations. In short, by turning them self-consciously into a spectacle or a performance. But something else is happening with My Bloody Valentine. Their sound works not so much to ironize performatively upon those old gender binaries, as to fritter them away into inconsequence. You can no longer tell which traits are male, and which are female. Aggressive noise and ethereal lyricism, for example, are not hard and fast opposites, but delicately different degrees along a single continuum. You slip so quickly and easily from one into the other, without even noticing the transition. And so with all the attributes that we ascribe on the basis of gender. It's not that all bodies feel just the same in the dark. But rather that, when you caress another body in the dark, the differences are so precise and immediate, so subtle and numerous, as to defy classification. What is the exact angle of this thrust, what are the specific contours of this caress? Where, on my skin, in my nerves, in my brain, do I feel this particular tingling? Who is to determine whether these curves on my chest are large enough to be called breasts? Or whether this swollen appendage is a clit or a cock? I can't even say that this body is 'mine' any longer. For here, now, is an eroticism that unsettles all markers. You could imagine this touch, if you insisted, extending onto the body either of a man or of a woman, or even of some other, alien being. But why insist? This pressure, this texture, this smell, this gesture, is altogether fortuitous and unique. There's nothing that you can recognize and identify any longer. What comes before the name?, asks the eponymous character in Godard's First Name: Carmen; who am I before I have a name? A question to which there isn't any answer. These feelings, these caresses, these convulsions, are so singular as to be altogether anonymous.

There are times--when you're tripping, or when you're in the back room of some bathhouse--that names and nouns just don't seem to matter any longer. That's the indistinction of Spivak pronouns, and of My Bloody Valentine's sound: an active, singular indeterminacy. Spivak pronouns are neither male nor female, but they are marked, in contradistinction to the genderless general term that is the neuter. The neuter is something fixed; but the Spivak is always in between or in transition. Kate Bornstein thus defines eir transsexual experience as the condition of being "a former-man and not-quite-woman." Deleuze and Guattari call it the time of Aeon: "the indefinite time of the event, the floating line that knows only speeds and affects... A simultaneous too-late and too-early, a something that is both going to happen and has just happened." Such is the shifting, fractured pulse of My Bloody Valentine's music, always displacing or pulling away from itself. It's not a question, then, of uniting masculine and feminine traits in some supposed higher unity; nor is it one merely of moving from one pre-existing gender position to the other. It's rather a matter of teasing all the various traits apart, in order to mark out and inhabit an entirely different terrain. As Allucquere Rosanne Stone puts it, the goal and "essence" of transsexuality used to be defined as successfully "passing" as a member of one's second, adopted gender. But the new "post-transsexuality" will have none of that. It's a joyous and singular passage, rather than an anxious ritual of passing: an active, never-ending metamorphosis. Spivak sexuality has no fixed, prior definition; it's something that needs continually to be (re-)invented. The point, Stone says, is "to map the refigured body onto conventional gender discourse and thereby disrupt it, to take advantage of the dissonances created by such a juxtaposition to fragment and reconstitute the elements of gender in new and unexpected geometries." Corresponding to the time of Aeon is a fractal space of gender fluidity, one that the old binaries (or Cartesian coordinates) are no longer able to define.

Of course this is a physical process, and not just a conceptual one. It isn't the least bit contradictory for Bornstein to insist both that gender is an arbitrary social construction, and yet that eir own transformation needed to be accomplished materially, with the help of medical procedures. It's the flesh, after all, that suffers under the weight of these constructions; and it is in the intimate folds of the flesh that we may best discover the wherewithal to resist. Hormone treatments, mammoplasty, and penile inversion are all parts of the grand experiment. We must learn to refit our organs for new uses; as Deleuze and Guattari say, it's all a matter of bodies and their flows. Often quite literally so. Bornstein recalls one moment during the surgery, when "the urethral opening is pushed over to the side, so you don't know in which direction you're going to pee... So when I sat down to pee, it shot straight up in the air, and I was like, 'Oh nooooooooo!'" Isn't it in much this same way that the musicians of My Bloody Valentine recast the potential of their musical instruments? Unexpected noises shoot off in all directions. It's like a penile inversion performed upon the guitar. That great boy-fetish-object of rock is detourned from its usual macho gestures and rhythms. Synthesizers, too, are demasculinized, made to float loose from their typical Gothic or industrial trappings. It's what you actually hear that counts, not how it was made, or who owns it, or what it all means. Kevin and Bilinda revel in the sheer density and variety of sounds that their instruments are able to produce. Why restrict ourselves, after all, to so few, and to such narrowly gendered, erogenous zones? Sound effects are to be fooled around with, just like sex toys. Don't be intimidated, don't follow rules, just mix and match your own. Smash yourself headfirst into the wall of sound. Enhanced materiality means expanded pleasure. Technophilia, yes, but in a new sort of way. For playing like this is far removed from the boys-will-have-their-toys attitude that one so frequently encounters. For once, hi-tech isn't a weapon or an arcane secret or a sign of coolness or a nerdy obsession. It isn't even much of a novelty any longer; it's simply part of the landscape, a set of available tools. Machines have lost their hard, phallic edge. For Kate Bornstein and My Bloody Valentine alike, it's as if this technologized, ambiguous, singular Spivak body were finally as vital, as immediate, and as natural as any other--which of course it is.

What desire is at work here, then? What passion drives this music? Whence this appetite to anonymize and reconfigure oneself? Here's where I think of Rebis, the odd one out, the most enigmatic member of the DOOM PATROL. Rebis's body is provocatively ambiguous, with feminine breasts and torso, but masculine hips. E is swathed from head to foot in tightly-wrapped protective bandages, from beneath which escapes a greenish radioactive glow. Above that, e's dressed in fashionable high-heeled boots and a long trench coat, with pointy designer sunglasses floating a few inches before eir eyes. The effect is alluringly svelte, but also distant and cold. There's no way to get through to em. Rebis seems untouched by merely human concerns; e affects an air of icy, almost reptilian detachment. E emanates an auratic force field that renders em invulnerable, and apparently also insusceptible to sympathy or pain. Even when the DOOM PATROL is in the midst of a crisis, e can scarcely be prevailed upon to act. There's no arguing with em, or entering into dialogue; eir speech seems to come from an unreachable distance (as is marked on the page by drawing eir speech balloons with jagged edges). Everything about em, then, is just too cool for words. And this charisma is a direct result of eir intergendered history. Rebis is formed from the unwilling union of two initially separate human characters: one a white male, the test pilot Larry Trainor, the other a black female, the doctor Eleanor Poole. They are joined into one flesh by the work of a third entity: the mysterious "negative energy being" called Mercurius. This abstract, impersonal presence, like a vampire or a virus, appropriates their bodies in order to replicate itself. In medieval alchemy, the hermaphroditic body was a crucial link in the quest for the philosophers' stone. Larry and Eleanor thus find themselves in an "alchemical marriage": a stifling, fatiguing, and tortuous erotic union. It's bad, unsatisfying sex that nonetheless goes on forever, well beyond the point of exhaustion. Unceasing turmoil, without hope of repose. Constellations are shattered, but "the war in heaven never ends." Personal identity is violently reconfigured: "bodies and spirits pounded in a mortar, thoughts and memories crushed together, blended and refashioned." And this traumatic agitation is the key to Rebis's seductive coolness. Eir distance from others only echoes the distances e includes within emself. Turmoil and detachment are two sides of the same coin: they both express a passion that is no longer grounded in the merely personal. It inhabits the vast spaces between persons instead, making a life for itself in those indeterminate zones. In one sense, the postmodern "waning of affect" has never been carried further. But Rebis, like My Bloody Valentine, intimates a new way of life, where this waning is no longer felt as a deprivation. Rebis works through eir all-too-human anguish on the sterile surface of the moon; but e returns triumphant, renewing emself so that the whole process can begin again. We last see Rebis as e disappears into eir own alternative realm, "a world of infinite novelty," where "it's impossible to visit the same place twice." A world that continually reforms itself in kaleidoscopic patterns.

"During the 60s," Andy Warhol writes, "people forgot what emotions were supposed to be. And I don't think they've ever remembered. I think that once you see emotions from a certain angle you can never think of them as real again." Has there ever been a better definition of the advent of the postmodern? Once you've reached that certain angle, there is no going back. That's what happens to Rebis; it's also, I think, what's at stake in My Bloody Valentine's music. Don't think it's all just a matter of jaded cynicism, disillusionment, and loss. There's a freedom that comes from escaping, or unlearning, what we've always been told our emotions are "supposed to be." And there's real intensity at work in the process of actively forgetting. The pain and turmoil of My Bloody Valentine's sound unfolds at a vast distance: it's oddly self-contained, beyond shock and beyond angst. But this very distance--this coolness, this suspension, this sense of floating in a void--is in its own right a visceral experience. If our emotions are no longer "real," it's because they are no longer strictly personal; we've passed a certain threshold, and entered this new, singular, anonymous space. It's a space, yes, of uncertainty and longing, of detachment and dissociation. But in such a postmodern landscape, passion and irony are indissociable; to quote Bataille quoting Nietzsche, "the night is also a sun." The concert is over now; I'm tired, I'm drunk, and I'm stoned. I have, I must admit, only the vaguest idea of what happened. I'll probably recall even less when I wake up with a hangover tomorrow. But somehow this seems appropriate for a music that doesn't prefer one mood, one gender, one position to another. A music poised equally, as Kevin Shields says, between "self-assertion" and "self-obliteration."

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