Joshua Clover


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

Cover Interview of February 23, 2010

The wide angle

1989, in the most basic terms, is a synthesis of cultural criticism and political science, toward an understanding of a complex and important social convulsion.

There is a lot of Public Enemy and Nirvana in the book, Roxette and the KLF.  There is also a fair amount of Fredric Jameson, Carl Schmitt, Francis Fukuyama. James Joyce and Hegel make cameos, along with Luce Irigaray and Slavoj Zizek.  No less are there meditations on the excellence of Neneh Cherry, George Michael, Rakim, and Scorpions. These figures from the realms of theory and pop culture are set loose, together, on the stage of history: Berlin as the Wall falls; the sequence of revolutions across Europe that shattered the Soviet bloc; the resistance and bloody repression in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The radios and televisions and imaginations of America.

Such a mixture is in some way inevitable, I suppose. I was a professional music journalist for a few years, a senior writer at both Spin and the Village Voice. I quit very specifically because I felt, finally, like I couldn’t talk about music in the true language of my political and intellectual commitments.  (There was, as I’m sure you could guess, plenty of encouragement to engage in pseudo-political posturing, especially in the glossy nationals.  But serious politics, serious ideas, had to be at all costs ironized and denatured).

So in some sense this book is the completion of a trajectory that began quite some time ago, but couldn’t come to rest within the profession. Of course now I’m a academic, and most of my colleagues may think it’s a bit odd—looking from the other side—to be writing about (and enjoying), say, teenpop as something worth approaching with the finest critical technology.  I always feel too serious or not serious enough.

However, it’s important to say that I am not smashing together the high (theory) and the low (pop culture) just because I can, just to see if anything interesting happens. I think if you look at the Jesus Jones song that gives the book its subtitle—the chorus, “watching the world wake up from history”—well it’s obvious that the song itself knows about Francis Fukuyama. But not just that. I think it’s cognizant of the famous passage from Ulysses where Stephen Dedalus says that history is “a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”  Which is in turn Joyce working through Hegel and Marx.  It’s all there—there’s no need to impose the high and low on each other.

Indeed, they are collapsing toward each other at accelerating speeds. This is a secondary argument of the book. Pop, which openly lives and dies by the logic of the commodity, is compelled to reduce everything down to bite-sized, easily sellable morsels. History itself increasingly drives toward this condition: toward the single image, the single instant. The end of the Cold War seems like a kind of acme of this, where this incredibly elaborate and unfinished historical process can be reduced to one image, five words: “the fall of the Wall.” And so history becomes pop, just as pop becomes the main purveyor of historical thought.

But what do we lose by that condensation, compression, that amputation of complexity? A lot, of course. And I think the songs know this: not just the thrill of the instant, but the redaction of everything else. They know they have blind spots, missing limbs. They feel the loss, the sense that something has become unspeakable, invisible, but is still there.  I think we knew this, and cached this knowledge everywhere.  We sensed it would be useful knowledge later, when we return to the great antagonisms that I’m sure are still before us.