Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives Pt. 5: The Living Room

(Check out Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, and Pt. 4.)

Hip hop is bullshit, talentless crap and if its the face of modern black music that our musicians are aspiring to then we need to just give up. Rap requires no skill and only a slight grasp of language. Studies show most rappers have IQs average or below and people who listen to hip hop do too. What is this telling you?

-Candace Laytrene, Topix messageboard thread “Hip hop is shit-you’re dumb if you listen to it”

She (Tipper Gore) also wrote a book in 1987, “Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society,” plugged as “a practical guide for parents and consumers concerned with increasingly explicit material in today’s entertainment for children.” She wrote: “Something has happened since the days of ‘Twist and Shout’ and ‘I Love Lucy.’ “

-Melody Simmons, Baltimore Sun, 1992

vlcsnap-2015-08-19-22h55m26s86

And I did it my way
See, hip hop is what you make of it
And I’m makin’ a lot of it
See that’s a quadruple entendre, Jay Z eat your heart out

-Yelawolf, The Shady Cxvpher

The stylistics of the later James Joyce, Perfect Lives, and the vast majority of hip hop records share one major technique-the use of entendres and puns in a manner resembling a fugue. As the fugue is structured by the layering of a musical phrase over itself in different permutations to create a total effect and display slight variation as a unified totality, so that the cliche, and/or the disposable language, and/or the cultural context and colorings surrounding a word or phrase are compressed towards their opening up. The omnipresent language, the “sound we take so much for granted”, the “sound of God” Ashley discusses in Pt.4, is pivoted against its own history into becoming a fugue unto itself through the overlaying of its various connotations. This overlay is achieved through the inconsistency of punctuation, the breaking apart and recombining of cliches, and the very inconsistencies of language which your English teachers taught you repeatedly to avoid.

In other words, Robert Ashley has received numerous tributes of late in the form of his work being performed by indie rock bands, but the people who most successfully followed in the footsteps of Perfect Lives and its loose anarchistic relation to language are numerous rappers who never heard it. There’s something very beautiful in that.

The ways that race is codified in grammar and how grammars codify what constitutes racial identity in turn, how these relations to language influence a persons’ grasp on their surroundings and their shape are touched upon briefly in both “The Bar” and “The Living Room”. In “The Bar”, Ashley, while giving his sermon as the itinerant preacher in the titular bar, makes a couple mentions that the character within the loose narrative of the opera is black, though Ashley doesn’t do a verbal blackface (blackvoice?) or an Al Jolson routine; he sees the racial identity as one of a relation to language much as John Cassavetes sees race as a performative identity in Shadows.

“The Living Room” is framed as a conversation between Will, the sheriff of the town where Gwyn, Duane etc. stole the money from the bank, and his wife Ida. Ida asks Will questions, and Will gives answers that don’t satisfy the desired effect of what “answers” or, as the episode’s subtitle would put it, “solutions” are. The visual elements work at counterpoint to the images and the words keep trying to rein themselves in but run around wanton, destroying solidified meaning wherever they go. Quite a problem for a sheriff.

No puns, Will. That way leads to anarchy.

No puns, Will. That way leads to anarchy.

Another iteration of the problem of nothing/everything as a binary comes up very early on in the dialogue. Ida asks Will, “at the risk of everything, what’s the answer?”, and Will gives as good an answer as we may ever have for that particular question. It still, of course, doubles as an evasion. Will says “I’ve been practicing how to say it right the first time.” She volleys a restatement of the initial question, “could you give me a f’r instance?”,  and Will is back in the land of metaphors and stories that Ashley the narrator begins each episode with over the credits, giving the vaguely Aristotelian circular logic of two men talking about birds.

“one says, when I see those birds in cages,

I know they’re sad. two says, that’s a mistake. birds don’t get sad. that’s just how they look when they can’t…fly. one says…

wisely…well, that’s what sadness is.”

Emotion is performance or its inability in this example, something similar to Freud’s theories of energies of the self that transfer into different quadrants depending on their being repressed in other quadrants of the self. This may seem like sloppy writing on my part, a mixed metaphor, but as Ashley is an ecumenical ponderer of possibilities of everythings, this seems like the way by which I can engage with the spirit of Perfect Lives. The specific use of birds as an example could also be an allusion to Maya Angelou, though even if it isn’t my intuition says Ashley would find the connection interesting. It also fits in well with the playful discussions of race in the dialogue, like this one:

“she says: would you call this an alienation?

he says: this is…truly a nation of aliens, not the

only one, but probably the biggest. so I guess I would call it

an alienation. a friend of mine says it’s not a nation at all,

that they’re all aliens”

Similarly, when Will is trying to imagine who took the money from the bank, he can only describe the imagined culprits as being of foreign extraction in escalating absurd phrasings like “there’s no doubt the mexican is in it. the doubt is if he’s mexican.” The more frequent focus on race in this episode makes sense as it’s also a meditation on names. That all of language could be considered the naming of things

Will's not making the puns. The puns're making Will!

Will’s not making the puns. The puns’re making Will! And unmaking him at the same time.

The credits play on this concept and, being an episode concerning names, run a full 5 minutes and play on two separate occasions while also negating themselves.

Numbers, faces, the people who helped make the opera, all there and not simultaneously, running in parallel but not like a roulette wheel.

Numbers, faces, the people and institutions who helped make the opera, all there and not simultaneously, running in parallel but not, like a roulette wheel.

Even Will and Ida’s names, their claim or at least shield around which they construct their self, are in fact multi-layered puns (Ida-ea) which the opera evoke with similar inconclusiveness at other points. To go back to the first episode, the overture: “The will is almost nothing, he thinks to himself.” and “There is something like the feeling of the idea of silk scarves in the air.” Their names as puns don’t bring the reader/viewer/listener to any definitive reading any more than the line in the Saussure diagram makes the word tree correspond to the actual tree and vice versa.

Saussure diagram showing a proposed split relationship between the thing-in-itself and its linguistic representation in the word or picture. Derrida famously erases the line between the two seemingly distinct components in

Saussure diagram showing a proposed split relationship between the thing-in-itself and its linguistic representation in the word or picture. Derrida famously erases the line between the two seemingly distinct components in “Of Grammatology.”

“Names”, already an abstract concept, split and also repeated in a screenshot from “The Living Room”.

Will and Ida’s conversation is a Platonic and Hegelian dialectic. Will discusses Tourette’s syndrome as Ashley himself does in the interview I transcribed an excerpt from in the first installment of these reviews. For Ashley, Tourette’s syndrome, the spontaneous coming to language and sound, is the postmodern anamnesis, the possibility of God after meaning. Derrida’s narrative of being lost in a sea of images that can never reach the comfort of monolithic actuality, to the student of theology that thinks God is reality manifest (a belief that exists in various forms from philosophies of science to deism to the Zohar), is a fall narrative with its possibility of redemption removed.

Put otherwise: if God is everything around, beside, inside and outside of us, all images are graven images. All language is left with after meaning is being.

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