Joshua Clover


On his book 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About

Cover Interview of February 23, 2010

In a nutshell

The book is about the experience of the historical moment called “1989,” lasting somewhere between an instant and a few years. More specifically, it’s about a set of feelings, intuitions, sensations, that I think arose in that moment. These are nuanced, elusive and contradictory enough to defy easy description. The book’s suspicion is that the material of culture exists in part to register, capture, and preserve these sensations, these encounters with the stuff of history itself.

The books’ cultural lens is that of popular music, but it’s not really a music book. Those who come looking for the pleasures of pop, not wanting to be vexed by philosophers and political theorists, may be disappointed. The first four chapters detail ways in which pop music in the Anglophone West underwent remarkable changes, in a moment of immense historical change: genre births (acid house and grunge), sea changes (from Black nationalist to gangsta rap), high-water marks (the Hot 100). As fascinating as I find these developments, they serve as empirical studies for the book’s two parallel arguments that follow.

The first is that all those changes in popular music share a single logic. It concerns the vanishing of any sense of intergroup conflict, any sense of challenge or confrontation. This plays out differently within each genre, but finally organizes them into a unity: Antagonisms are internalized wished away, limits avoided or ignored. The second and more significant argument concerns exactly how this dynamic correlates to the sudden disappearance of the century’s great antagonism, a vanishing act we have learned to call “the fall of the Wall.”

When we see that this is what culture was puzzling over, we see also that it is not a purely celebratory occasion—even in the victorious West. The antagonism which had oriented our political thought for decades can no longer do so. We encounter a sense of loss, bewilderment, even emptiness. I am hardly alone in insisting that history didn’t end, despite Francis Fukuyama’s famous claim. But it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the capacity to think historically took a beating. And this has dismaying consequences. Foremost among these consequence is the way in which we lost the ability to imagine that the arrangements of daily life—commodity capitalism, let’s just speak its name, so immiserating and inegalitarian for so may—that this could ever again be open to debate, criticism, or real change.