Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Zeitgeist and the Absolute Ideal, w/Punk Rock as an example

Because these things need to be brought into life sized doses. The Zeitgeist, or spirit of the times, is a term that most people are familiar with, that refers to trends seem to be seize society and culture as being the next big thing, and that are on the cutting edge of history, whatever that means. Hegel's Absolute Ideal is a much less accessible idea. There are several ways you can look at it. First there's the idea in its complete and total sense, then there's the concept of an Absolute Ideal as it applies to human beings and human potentials. The first refers to the totality of everything, of every piece of matter, every idea about every piece of matter, of all the potentials contained within that matter, everything within the minds of human beings, everything that's possible to be thought of, and every thought about the thought. It contains everything in the universe completely realized. The idea of the Absolute Ideal in relation to human beings is something else. Here, I should say, I'm being deceptive, because this isn't the Absolute Ideal in its fullness but the application of the idea of complete actualization to human beings, but I think it's illustrative. As I'm using it, the Absolute Ideal refers to all the potentials within humanity for thought, action, self realization, production, and culture, as well as for all the human thought produced by or stimulated by the products of human culture and society, and the history that's made by human society building on the historical processes that have come before it.

So, the Zeitgeist, how does it refer to the human-sized Absolute Ideal, and how does Punk Rock fit in? Like this: Punk rock emerged in the '70s as the Zeitgeist of youth culture, as a movement that consciously rejected the sound of the very elaborate star centered Prog Rock of the day and instead promoted the idea that people could do music themselves, without being insane virtuosos, by just making basic rock beats. The star system itself came under fire: people wanted to be their own heros and not live through worshipping rock stars who were marketed to them by record companies. Consumerism, and niceness in the form of glam-rock elaboration and hippy pretensions came under attack. Under attack as well came the absence of class commentary by the hippy counterculture, with many of the original punk rockers coming from backgrounds that didn't give them a nice, happy, perspective on life in line with that of their hippy comrades.

You can look at all of this as being a negation of the '70s counterculture that came before it, as something reactionary rather than inherently innovative, and in fact we've been trained to think that way by pop-Hegelianism in music criticism. That criticism looks at the good old trinity of Thesis, Anti-Thesis, and Synthesis, but a more fruitful way of looking at trends is to look at how they relate to society as a whole, as opposed to what immediately and linearly came before. To do so would involve asking the question of what a musical and social movement with the features of punk rock, existing from '76 on up, says about society in general at that point in time, irrespective of any interplay between with the hippy movement, and then asking what does that say about society in a bigger, broader, longer perspective.

For instance, you could say that the movement, instead of being only a response to the hippy movement, was also created by the general downturn of the English economy in the late '70s, part of the downturn of the global economy as a whole, that ended the post-war golden age. That downturn particularly hit the working class, who had benefited greatly from that prosperity. Also, you could say that the movement was made possible by the development of a mass media and of a youth culture that was able to connect with that mass media, that in turn enabled working class youths turned out by their parents and forced to live on the margins to participate in popular culture and have their voices heard, something that would have been unthinkable several decades before.

Then, you could ask the second order questions: what did the economic downturn of the late '70s mean in relation to the development of the economy of the 20th century in general, and culturally, what does the intersection of technology, the liberalization of culture, the creation of a youth culture, the rise of an independent pop culture, and a sense of empowerment by the working class that was complemented by a decline in the economy mean for 20th century society as a whole? The empowerment of the working class? The empowerment of marginalized youth by the youth culture, that was a product of post-war prosperity and technological mass media that allowed them to get more of a voice, and actual power than ever before? Getting to those more fundamental questions brings us to general questions relating to the warp and weft of human society as a whole. It brings the Zeitgeist, whatever it may be, into a relationship with a human sized Absolute Ideal as used as a term representing all of the different possibilities for human society and culture. You can ask those questions as many times as you want, expanding the scope more and more, and getting closer to an Absolute limit of meaning that can never be reached, if you keep getting answers that stand up as being significant.

By doing this you can take social and cultural movements out of the trap of being simplistic linear responses to other movements and look at them instead on their own terms. This is what the idea of simple cause and effect in pop-culture misses. Hegel actually insisted that the idea of a base concept, then its negation, then a negation of the negation, what's termed synthesis, was actually an artificial way of talking about a constant process, and that that this constant process could be related to the whole. Saying that the Hippies lead to the Punks who lead to the New Wave sets up an artificial series of causes ultimately functions as a lazy person's guide to history.

No comments: