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

Thoughts on Part 5 of Robert Ashley’s spoken word opera, God, the end of meaning, and hip hop records.

(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

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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.

Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives Pt. 4: The Bar

Dear mother, dear mother, the Church is cold;
But the Alehouse is healthy, and pleasant, and warm.
Besides, I can tell where I am used well;
Such usage in heaven will never do well.

But, if at the Church they would give us some ale,
And a pleasant fire our souls to regale,
We’d sing and we’d pray all the livelong day,
Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray.

Then the Parson might preach, and drink, and sing,
And we’d be as happy as birds in the spring;
And modest Dame Lurch, who is always at church,
Would not have bandy children, nor fasting, nor birch.

And God, like a father, rejoicing to see
His children as pleasant and happy as He,
Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the barrel,
But kiss him, and give him both drink and apparel.

-William Blake, “The Little Vagabond”

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Episode 4 is both the center of the opera , sandwiched between the three chapters preceding it and the three that come after it. It works as Ashley testament, his personal aria and the point where all the chapters come together into an idiosyncratic theory of language as theory of everything. In parts 2 and 3 the camera shot of the road kept getting closer and closer; it could be said that the old man in the hotel room in the opening chapter is a further aged and widowed iteration of the man from the older couple in chapter 2, and that the old couple are in fact the star crossed lovers of chapter 3, Ed and Gwyn. Narrative timelines have been coexisting and moving backwards. Ed and Gwyn are presumed to be different characters co-existing with the old couple but are played by the same actors in only slightly modified outfits.

This accordion notion of time has been leading toward the unification/collapse of time and language that occurs in “The Bar”, a sermon on the mount delivered from the ground and what could reasonably be presumed to be Ashley’s own spoke-sung manifesto. It is the skeleton key through which to unlock the rest of the work. It has the most lively backing music, a sort of R&B that leans heavily on the gospel roots of the genre. The words of the chorus in this episode are unified with Ashley the narrator’s speech in a call and response that suggests a lively Pentecostal service. Ashley the narrator collapses into the characters of the piece and we hear him speaking as a character but in the video version see him still firmly placed in the physical space of the narrator as he delivers his stirring oration.

Note that the background colors used in the narrator set in the previous three episodes are put left-to-right, the progression forward of words in written English.
Ashley speaking as Buddy, the preacher in the bar, and the narrator simultaneously. Note that the background colors used in the narrator set in the previous three episodes are put left-to-right, the progression forward of words in written English.
The Ashley doubles put in a spatial progression mirroring that of the background behind him in the above shot of him narrating.
The Ashley doubles put in a spatial progression mirroring that of the background behind him in the above shot of him narrating.

As I pointed out in the earlier chapters, Ashley tends to play the dual role of narrator and arbiter of strictly codified language and relationships between characters. In this chapter, Ashley is the bartender, who is silent and fairly irrelevant to the goings on, and the narrator, suggesting a dialectical relationship between the possibility of exuberance; of unrestrained language and the juridical constraints/containers that keep language contained in hopes of resolution, both in the larger society and in Ashley himself. He is split along similar lines, lines that keep shifting.

Unlike the previous chapters we see only one still image of a landscape here, a shot of the outside of a JC Penney department store with a very artificially inserted lightning bolt. The quantification and restrictive relationship of capitalism to language and the people living in it.

The branches of the tree of life, the painful markings (
The branches of the tree of life, the painful markings (“bruises”) on the landscape, an ominously lit department store.

The imagery of the prior episodes swirls inside and around shots of Ashley speaking and an overlay of the tree of life. In an especially clever shot, Ed and Gwyn, in their only appearance within the immediate “now” of the episode’s progression of the plot are zoomed out from their seats at the bar into what at first appears to be the bar’s window but reveals itself to be the context of the opera itself, the opera itself being a simultaneous metaphor and actualization of Ashley’s accordion metaphysics.

The edges closing in to contain Ed and Gwyn. The window frame is the cinematic frame and a continuation of the shifting prison bar imagery of the third episode.
The edges closing in to contain Ed and Gwyn. The window frame is the cinematic frame and a continuation of the shifting prison bar imagery of the third episode. The prison is the narrative.

The libretto goes into the four stages of “the self” which seems not coincidental in its being placed in the 4th chapter; it’s possible that the previous three episodes were mediations on the stages of the self proposed in “The Bar”. The opera’s fidgety visual, narrative, and syntactical circling, shifting and morphing is explained far more concisely than I can do here in the sermon itself:

And we said the Self is ageless being

What I don’t know

The word eternal is a mystery to me.

I don’t understand that word.

I can’t say the Self is ageless

Being eternal,

So, I have to find another way of seeing, another way of

Understanding that the Self is ageless

The line breaks and punctuation of the paperback edition of the libretto I’m working from, presumably at least overseen by Ashley, break open even further contexts and connotations while pointing toward a holistic reading of the text more conveniently (perhaps more deceptively) than the TV form. There are distinct differences in suggested cadence. For example, in the recorded version, Ashley delivers the first two lines quoted above in a manner suggesting the punctuation “And we said the self is ageless, being what? I don’t know.”  The different break up of the lines into “And we said the Self is ageless being/ What I don’t know”, suggests that “What I don’t know” is supposed to correspond as a reiteration of “ageless being” and correspond more directly to the distorted neo-Platonic theological system pointed toward in the sermon and the associated imagery used in the TV production.

The tree of life overlaid on Blue Gene Tyrrany's hands playing the piano. Note that his hands are not given a visual blur of any sort in this episode.
The tree of life overlaid on Blue Gene Tyrrany’s hands playing the piano. Note that his hands are not given a visual blur of any sort in this episode. The reflection of his playing and the keys in the body of the piano is not pointing anywhere for the first time.

Perfect Lives, having its genesis, like much of Ashley’s work, in the initial epiphany of feeling connected to the (seemingly?) inchoate ramblings of the mentally ill, might be described as a dramatized attempt to overcome the initial trauma of losing faith in the possibility of mental illness. It might also be described as an extension of the postmodern project, a project that first expanded the bounds of what constituted language theoretically and has been managing and exploring the aftermath of that discovery; a batch of book-crumbs trailing through Derrida’s destruction of the line in Saussure’s diagram through to Deleuze/Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus and that has touched pretty much every culture product to come after it, or at least was bit by the same invisible bug more noticeably before this anxiety/breakthrough crept into Western culture at large.

But Perfect Lives distinguishes itself in its framing of this dilemma as not a problem of literary criticism or secular philosophy primarily (though those were the initial delivery vessels) but as being a distinctly theological question. If language can’t “mean”, if the occasionally God-less gods of progress and teleological historicism can’t hold up, if the individual can’t come to any grander schema of “knowing”, this paradoxically, by killing anything resembling a god, positions every forward motion or action as being a leap of faith. But by doing this, it clears the playing field for a sort of gerrymandering of dogmas far more dynamic than the ones embraced prior; the flowing fluctuating liveliness of Perfect Lives can only exist in its relation to this iteration of the larger problem, falls apart so that it can come together and vice versa, and returns to one of the initial questions of western philosophy-“How ought one live?”, perhaps more productively restated as “How ought one live in the face of a circular closed thisness/haecceity that seems to open everything up?”

Perfect Lives offers not an answer but an ecumenical system of answers, a theory of theories of everything that comes to its own pluralism standing over, mucking around in and lying beneath the everythingness of everything(s). And “The Bar” stands as Ashley’s most direct, diffuse, troubling and edifying statement on the matter in a larger piece made of answers that doubt themselves and squabble as though they were people.

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If there’s an answer to tower over the rest, the one that Ashley himself secretly endorses, it might be found in the following lines:

Around us in the bar

We hear the sounds of life

Aaannnd

She goes down to The River when she can…

The Holy River where the notes came up from New Orleans.

Because It’s There, The Doctor says.

She is enchanted.

She has learned that short ideas repeated

Massage the brain.

But even this presents problems in its closeness to the regimentation of the dread “industry”. “Boogie woogie is the vessel of the eternal present”, but then the clarity of constant “present” is in itself another artificial stricture as Henry James explored in The Ambassadors. But for a brief moment, it all seems to line up. Maybe a brief moment is all we can stand. As is stated in “The Bank”: “It changes, right? ‘n so cosmic is the scale that just a glimpse is all it takes to break my heart”.

Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives Pt. 3: The Bank

She is in the blue distance
She’s a visiting wonder
He’s in the blue distance
He’s a dream come true
Am I sleeping and weeping
Or just turning over?

-Blue Gene Tyranny, “Leading a Double Life”

Love: unfinished portraiture, the joyous transgressive unknown, Bonnie and Clyde, a car full of holes.
Love: unfinished portraiture, the transgressive unknown, Bonnie and Clyde, a car full of holes.

(Check out Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 here and here.)

The small repeating cast of Perfect Lives, partly a limit imposed by the necessary training required to learn how to read Ashley’s unusual notation, partly a limit of the budget, partly a limit of the cramped confines of the performance space in which it was originally done before its finished incarnation as a TV program, is, like any artistic limitation, not a thing to be written off as entirely a function of its economic circumstances without extensive considerations. Ashley sees limitations in everything up to the medium of the word so that he can assess them to suit his purposes.

That Ashley himself plays numerous characters and the narrator in the TV production is a carefully employed device. As the narrator, ostensibly a third person omniscient one for lack of a more comprehensive term to describe it, he is, like any other narrator, within the world of the narrative, God. He holds his creations loosely, but at the same time, in order to come to the creation of “art”, must structure their existence through the employment of language-verbal, written, visual, musical, or otherwise. When he steps out the position of omniscience, he’s always the character within the storyline of a given episode constricting the thrust of the story into codification. In episode two, he’s the supermarket owner who sets up and recreates the space of the supermarket; in this episode he’s the clergyman who marries Ed and Gwyn after their voyage into the night in a “car filled with holes.”

Ashley as narrator/God. Note that as with most of Episode 3's visuals, he's positioned in a two-shot with himself. Also note that the neon lines behind him this time are cleanly intersecting.
Ashley as narrator/God. Note that as with most of Episode 3’s visuals, he’s positioned in a two-shot with himself. Also note that the neon lines behind him this time are cleanly intersecting.
Ashley as the person marrying Ed and Gwyn.
Ashley as the person marrying Ed and Gwyn. Note that his hand is moving up and down to “conduct” the ceremony.

Similarly, Jill Krosen and David Van Tieghem, Ed and Gwyn, play both the old couple in episode 2 and Ed and Gwyn in this episode, drawing possible parallels; which situation is which ones past and/or future or could it all be a coincidence?

Ed and Gwyn engage both in the crime/art of the bank heist in this episode, and in perhaps an altogether more dangerous activity that could likely get them locked up far longer than taking the money, if not literally-they plan to get married. The shots of the road have gotten so tight by this point in the opera they’re almost unrecognizable as being much other than an abstraction of texture, and when we see lines on them, they’re sealant. Patchworks. Where they aren’t, they’re the playful but fleeting amendment of chalk.

The faint line of the law, the more present line of the patchwork.
The faint line of the law, the more present line of the patchwork.
Chalk line on concrete
Chalk line on concrete.

The libretto echoes the visuals and vice versa as usual.

…So, today, they leave in the dark, car

full of holes. No destination or flowers or ring. Ed and Gwyn in the front seat, and

Dwayne and me in the back. If they are engaged,

it’s someplace in the middle of the night that only they can know, and they

bury their tracks.

That’s love. I’m sure it’s night, the engagement.

Starry skies is where Ed takes ’em. (He’s no fool.) Now, one hand on the wheel,

and the

other in Gwyn’s lap, he drives (us) toward an understanding

An “understanding” in Perfect Lives is an enclosure, another point where language seems to solidify that mysterious “ball of hot stuff” only to get away. The universe of Perfect Lives is an accordion that keeps expanding and contracting in seemingly but not actual identical geometric divisions that collapse into a compressed unity only so they can expand again to make strange music. Love here is the barreling forward blind in the night against the anxieties of entrapment. The video shows repeated imagery of prison bar formations over both Ed and Gwyn; their visit to the church is visually echoed in the architecture of the bank.

Gwyn is
Gwyn is “wrapped in danger.”
Ed is locked in the future.
Ed is locked in the future, alone, a “perfect” (closed) “one”.

This imagery of bars is echoed in the bank vault where the heist takes place. The camera circles the heist from 5 directions (that I counted anyhow), and visually separates Duane and Buddy from Ed and Gwyn in the chronology of events the same way the partition of the seats separates them in the car. The heist in itself would seem to constitute its own prison break from the banality of the bank. (“Gwyn works at the bank. That’s her job. She mostly helps people count their money. She likes it.”)

Free.
Free this time.
Behind bars the next.
Behind bars the next.

The escape from something into the open freedom of not-quite something to return again to something. The money is there, then it isn’t, then it is. Cages of language are escaped briefly into the thrill and anxiety of uncertainty until they can be reformed into hopefully more amenable cages. “Underneath what it means is what it means,” as the opera eloquently puts it. The old couple at the supermarket can’t escape into anxious thrills and the unknowing (or is it not-knowing?), but Ed and Gwyn can. He “throw(s) (him)self at the feet of (her) recklessness.”

The interjections of the chorus in this episode are mostly in the form of a hilariously loopy love song, a pastiche of early 20th century American pop music; Ashley is celebrating its silly pointlessness as being exactly the point. It sounds a bit off, but then-so does love.

Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives Pt. 2: The Supermarket

Perspectives on the same shot converge and run parallel but never merge. The strict geometry of the video shot is used to convey the flow of understandings.
Perspectives on the same shot converge and run parallel but never merge cleanly. The strict geometry of the video effects is used to convey the flow of understandings.
A
A “problem” can be many things, frequently at once. The escapism of “pop” narratives is often the escape into more desirable problems.

When I’m driving, I sometimes turn on the radio and I find very often that what I’m listening to is a discussion of sports. These are telephone conversations. People call in and have long and intricate discussions, and it’s plain that quite a high degree of thought and analysis is going into that. People know a tremendous amount. They know all sorts of complicated details and enter into far-reaching discussion about whether the coach made the right decision yesterday and so on. These are ordinary people, not professionals, who are applying their intelligence and analytic skills in these areas and accumulating quite a lot of knowledge and, for all I know, understanding. On the other hand, when I hear people talk about, say, international affairs or domestic problems, it’s at a level of superficiality that’s beyond belief.

In part, this reaction may be due to my own areas of interest, but I think it’s quite accurate, basically. And I think that this concentration on such topics as sports makes a certain degree of sense. The way the system is set up, there is virtually nothing people can do anyway, without a degree of organization that’s far beyond anything that exists now, to influence the real world. They might as well live in a fantasy world, and that’s in fact what they do. I’m sure they are using their common sense and intellectual skills, but in an area which has no meaning and probably thrives because it has no meaning, as a displacement from the serious problems which one cannot influence and affect because the power happens to lie elsewhere.

Noam Chomsky

EPISODE 2: THE SUPERMARKET: THE GERRYMANDERING OF ILLITERACIES WHEN EVERYTHING IS LANGUAGE

(Check out our review of Pt.1 here.)

Episode 2 further explores the place of words but this time as means by which the Russian doll structure of manipulation works in capitalism. If they’re just a swirling around a nothing/everything, how do we use them to control others or to internalize the control others hold over us? Through the lens of an old couple at the supermarket explores the Droste effect of this reasoning. Lines like “our work with/our bodies is to move rocks our work with/our minds is to dignify eating (museums’re a good example)” and “he gets attached to ideas a certain arrangement/of words like a certain arrangement of the furniture/can be good enough to suggest happiness in a way” work simultaneously as open ended portraits of a system of control. Triangle imagery, to suggest a pyramid and the coming to the invisible implied expanse at the end of a horizon line is repeated in the episode to the point where it’s easier to count the shots that don’t contain it. Words, when they’re written on the screen, are put into this pyramidal shape to draws shifting parallels, refracted unities, within the landscape, the experience of the consumer, and the dreadful limiting spirit of their shared architecture and geometry.

Language in part one was a bulwark against the uncertainties of the self, in part two it exists as a self-reinforcing mechanism of control. The pyramid is one of power and is only inverted in an image of a mirror in the grocery store intended for surveillance.

The wide field of the farm, open and expansive, is made an implied triangle by the positioning of the old couple.
The wide field of the farm, open and expansive, is made an implied triangle by the positioning of the old couple.
The shot of the field, where some of the food in the supermarket comes from, has its rigid geometry mirrored in cattle pens. The older couple similarly comes closer toward the camera/the base of the triangle.
The shot of the field, where some of the food in the supermarket comes from, has its rigid geometry mirrored in cattle pens. The older couple similarly comes closer toward the camera/the base of the triangle.
Finally they walk through an even tighter shot of the grocery store itself, still framed as a pyramid. They're still in the mid-ground though.
Finally they walk through an even tighter shot of the grocery store itself, still framed as a pyramid. They’re still in the mid-ground though.
Finally the pyramid completes itself visually with the grocery store owner at the top. The shoppers can only see themselves in the reflection of the surveillance device.
Finally the pyramid completes itself visually with the grocery store owner at the top. Note the icon portrait behind his head, and the fact Ashley himself plays him, a joke on the fact that for these fictional character Robert Ashley is their watcher and God, the same way the visual of the fictional “world” keeps shifting back to the image of the work producing itself in the hands playing the piano and the “actual” Ashley performing. The shoppers can only see themselves in the reflection of the surveillance device.
“He counts on cruelty among the oldsters to keep things in order,
there’s something about the honor system and the mirrors and the spies and the,
finality of the checkout that keeps the oldsters subjugated definitely” (note double sense of “definitely” as an an assertion but also to evoke the linguistic “definition”)

Words mark off a boundary of protective illiteracy against the unknown thing we feel comfortable not knowing, the unwanted experience a marked off illiteracy of which we’re proud. So proud, we call it a literacy. We think literacy is an accumulation and not a Newtonian correspondence with equal and opposite illiteracies. The English program at any university and moreso the more prestigious the university, is a training as much in illiteracy in the language used outside the college as it is in literacy in the preferred rigid stylistics of the academic. This applies x10 for grad programs.The ways the army “dehumanizes” the enemy in basic training come down to forceful assignment of rigid meaning to terms and behaviors; to bowdlerize Chris Hedges, reading is a force that gives us meaning.

Ashley is not coming at any of this from a place of judgment though the ugliness of the thing in itself(s) will slip through often enough to suffice as such. This is the most angry segment of the opera but at the same time its most pitying. And regarding that last sentence, to use a “but”, replace with “and”.

The supermarket owner doesn't show up here. The person left only with the paranoia of their own reflection.
The supermarket owner doesn’t show up here. The person left only with the paranoia of their own reflection.

Measurement doubles as self-defense and confinement. “The difference a decimal point of rat hairs and other things/we protect ourselves against all possibilities”. As the interjections of the chorus in the first part work on the truth value of things that turns out to be much more dynamic than fixed, so the choral interjections in this installment work as defenses against the infinite but through different tactics. They are the language of political identity that has been handed down and of distraction by the multitude of the products that, if they were read by their strict intents would say little more than “buy me.” It starts as nearly nonsensical listings of supermarket products or their self-promotions (“proper fold/extra teeth/in a bowl”), the vernacular arguments for their greatness and the greatness of the American epoch of mass production (“the choice of baked beans or in the choice of/cleansers or in the choice of pet accessories”), then shifts to make the political implications explicit (“all that freedom all that freedom/all that freedom all that/freedom all that nice thought Jack”.) It continues to the social relations imbued by this relation to the product which is shown as constantly reifying itself in mirrored levels (“how are you/say hello/take the role”). The final pronouncement of the chorus that closes the episode is finally the rat’s maze of identity statements again, corked with an ironic pleasantry (“home is home/love is love/how I’ve grown”.)

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The older couple are boring and relatively unpleasant; they seem unhappy and infantilized. It’s implied both in the text and more explicitly in the visual that they clash with each other as consumers and continue to reproduce their misery due to a blindness in part enforced from above but with a maintenance they must nurture as though it were a child in rationalizations that amount to meaningless identity statements. “Well, it is what it is,” they might say if we were to meet them in our reality.

Literally dueling each other with empty shopping carts. Note that the triangular composition with the apex pointing to the top of the screen is interrupted in this shot.
Literally dueling each other with empty shopping carts. Note that the triangular composition with the apex pointing to the top of the screen is interrupted in this shot.

Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives, Pt. 1: The Park

03PL_stillperfect08

Years ago, I became interested in the notion of involuntary speech. My way of approaching Perfect Lives came out of that interest. I had been observing people-particularly in New York-and I noticed that many many people were talking to themselves, publicly. Since I talk to myself privately, there seemed to be only a thin line between their madness and my madness. (Except I thought of mine as music.) At the same time, an idea that I was trying to confirm for myself was that there may be no problem, no discontinuity, between the thinking mode in music, and the way you correct that mode to make it something that everybody else recognizes. It’s the question of the origin of consciousness.

-Robert Ashley, printed interview

So like, um, for Bazin, what the ontology of film has to do is it has to deal with, you know, with what photography also has an ontology of, except that it adds this dimension of time to it, and this greater realism. And so, like, it’s about that guy, at that moment, in that space. And, you know, Bazin is like a Christian, so he, like, believes that, you know, God obviously ended up like, everything—he believes, for him, reality and God are the same. You know, like—and so what film is actually capturing is, like, God incarnate, creating. And this very moment, God is manifesting as this. And what the film would capture if it was filming us right now would be like God as this table; and God as you; and God as me; and God looking the way we look right now; and saying and thinking what we’re thinking, right now, because we are all God manifest in that sense. So film is actually like a record of God, or of the face of God, or of the ever-changing face of God.

-Caveh Zahedi, Waking Life

Silence is the soul’s invisibility. We can, of course, conceal ourselves behind lies and sophistries, but when we speak, we are present, however careful our disguise. The monster we choose to be on Halloween says something about the monster we are. I have often gone to masquerades as myself, and in that guise no one knew I was there.

-William H. Gass, “On Learning to Talk”


EPISODE 1: THE PARK

I have tried on and off for several years to write an essay on Perfect Lives and in all of these attempts I’ve failed.  It’s the center of my personal canon; the libretto atop the pile of books that form my bible-like any good post-structural Gideon I keep them next to my bed-and I find I revisit and ponder passages from it with a frequency that far outstrips any other book. It defies categorization, understanding, it refuses to be anything but itself and evades the bounty hunters of language that might desire to tame it so it might serve them on their own terms.

As such, there are few things I can accuse Robert Ashley of “understanding” with a clean conscience. But if even the most diffuse work has some sort of pivot point, if anything has a container even if the container can’t be specified to anything smaller than “the universe”, I would phrase the pivot point to Perfect Lives as follows:

Words don’t want understanding. They want children.

Perfect Lives is a work obsessively concerned with flatness; the flatness of Ashley’s voice, the flatness of the Great Plains, the flatness of common language, cliches, the flatness of the television. And so a flatness of language-and everything’s language, everything can be read-gives a suggestive depth and a sense of the things we can’t see (or perhaps that we don’t realize we’re seeing) that nevertheless never stop moving. The video shows static shots, the characters rarely ever move, but the shot keeps changing ever so slightly or with allusive turbulence. As presence implies lack; as the a widely spread line on the battlefield implies few reinforcements; as the things that seem to coat the world grow thin the way the uniformity of the paint on a house only maintains itself by our constant touch-ups, so Perfect Lives glimpses at something larger through the cracks. It’s an architecture that seems to touch the sky by its falling apart.

That meaning is a process, a calculus of the senses made in the face of a nothing that threatens to divide anything into the infinite is dramatized most cogently in the first episode; note how the intellectual determination is characterized as a preference. Interjections by the chorus in parentheses:

He studies the ashtray and tries to rule out preference, pre-

ferring (of course) over not preferring,

but he prefers, gravity (over what other state?) pre-

ferring in this case, (of course) earth

(the earth as they say), preferring

some state over non-state. (of course)

Now he grips himself with determination,

even knowing it causes sadness. (of course)

He is determined to be what?

(of course) He is determined to be serious,

not for the first time, not for the first time, there is the feeling

(of course) of a mistake.

But too late, he has arrived…

Ashley leaves in the corrections one makes mentally when speaking and in these suggests the tenuous, flowing nature of the conclusion of the language is betrayed; the clean confidence with which the writer or speaker is implored to present themselves to the world is but a construction; behind and around it sits, as Ashley puts it, “a ball of hot stuff we haven’t put our minds to yet.” Ashley is the first ‘pataphysician in earnest, a gentle explorer into a world of subjective pluralities after meaning that was always there, but may never have been. The chorus repeats, in each installment, the corks with which the shifting narrators attempt to bottle language unsuccessfully as it fizzes out all around them. (Of course.) It’s a coming to terms (and more terms) with the traumatic experience of facing language to see it has more powers greater than we ever imagined and that we can’t actually own it-the chickens of the word and the image come home to roost and the aftermath in which we all diffusely exist.

The overarching plot of the opera, which is barely touched on in favor of seeming digressions that may or may not be such, dramatizes this shifting exultation or transgression around a thing that seems, sometimes, to be there, and other times, more frighteningly might not. Perhaps it both is and isn’t, and this might be the most disturbing thing of all.

I quote the summary from the back of the Dalkey paperback edition of the libretto:

Raoul de Noget, an over-the-hill singer, and his younger pal Buddy (“The World’s Greatest Piano Player”), find themselves in a small town in the Midwest. They become friends with the son and daughter of the local sheriff, and the four hatch a plan to do something that, if they are caught, will be seen as crime, but if they are not, will be art: they will rob the town bank, take the money over the border into Indiana, and then return it the next day.

Episode 1 is the overture and lays out the primary question: There’s quite possibly nothing and quite possibly everything behind language. The gut seems to suggest whatever this sensed (no)thing is contains both the elements of overwhelming joy and of the worst sort of existential misery. What to do? What to say?

Knowledge as conquest of the surrounding world doesn’t seem to be the answer. Throughout the piece, in the manner of Gertrude Stein or James Joyce, Ashley is using words that have multiple definitions to stand in for several of the multiple senses in which they can be used. The word bursts forth as a wellspring of plurality in opposition to the tight academic “grasp”. In this passage, this method is spoken of and demonstrated simultaneously:

I am not sitting on a bench next to myself, (true enough) whatever that means.

I am a city of habits.

I am completely knowable in every way. (true enough)

I recognize superstition in every form.

The anger of the words wakes me in the dream of myself. (true enough)

Note the shift from the earlier interjection by the chorus of “of course”, a confident punctuation, toward the less certain and oddly quantitative “true enough”.

This and the other episodes are portraits of the words use to dance around the means in which we “master” the word. In the overarching structure of the piece is suggested a more anarchistic relationship to the word, but in this anarchistic relationship comes a very different landscape that looks superficially but precisely like the one that preceded it.

This is why Ashley names each installment after a common space. Tomorrow we’ll look at Pt. 2: The Supermarket.