On periodization

I’ve always been fascinated by questions of periodization and generic change and, as a consequence, I tend to be drawn to studies and analyses that take a single year or short expanse of time as their organizing principle. I’m thinking here of books like, to take two that seem completely different but, given their chosen and politically tumultuous years, probably have some commonalities, James Chandler’s England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism and Joshua Clover’s 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have this to Sing About. I’d add to these full-length studies an excellent short article by Will Straw published this spring in Kinephanos, an online journal out of MontrĂ©al titled “The consecration of musical incoherence.” In it Straw looks at Meridian 70, a CD compiled by Jon Savage that brings together 20 songs from 1970. What binds these tracks together is not any kind of generic homogeneity, but their simultaneity. They are all from the same calendar year. Straw makes a series of interesting points as he thinks through the consequences of adopting this kind of organizational principle:

1. The CD functions as a “cultural storage device” but also a mode of “historiographical argument[ation].” The compilation invites us to see the “1970-ness” in each of the assembled tracks as well as in all of them combined. But it does not present 1970 as coherent and immediately graspable and definable. There is a messiness to 1970 that is expressed in the stylistic and generic disunity of the selected tracks. 1970 resists unity, in part because it is identified specifically as a moment of cultural and musical transition and flux. Straw does not use the horrible phrase I am about to, but 1970 is presented on the compilation in all its inchoate cuspiness.

2. Choosing a single year as an organizing principle for a study has the effect of spatializing the process of change. The diachronic is compressed into the synchronic, yet the before and after somehow remains visible. Straw does not reach for Raymond Williams here, but the concepts of residual, dominant, and emergent seem helpful in understanding how such an annualized and synchronic approach nevertheless bears within it the sense of the movement of cultural time. The compilation shows the diversity of the musical field in 1970, but generic and stylistic difference comes with a sense of historical change built in: some songs represent what’s on the way in and others what’s on the way out. Such a sense of residuality and emergence can even co-exist in the same track, pointing both backwards and forwards even as it occupies a place in the musical world of 1970. I’m borrowing a bit here from Clover who uses Williams to characterize the early 90s as a moment that saw “the emergence of emergence.” The problem is that Meridian 70 doesn’t quite exemplify “the dominance of emergence” or “the dominance of residuality” but rather just a kind of fluid messiness. at both the track and field level

3. The technology of the CD itself, in the “late, waning phase in its life as a material form,” as Straw puts it, is perfect for this kind of identification of flux, transition and indeterminacy: “The single-disc compilation contains a sufficient number of tracks to be grasped, but not so many that it allows this period sensibility to become fully intelligible.” The technological limits of the CD means that they inevitably fail to contain the spirit of the age in all its fullness and complexity, but this failure is its success in that any reduction of a punctual moment to a handful of songs would be a radical oversimplification and misrepresentation. There are always other ways to frame and express the moment. As such, Straw argues, there is an importance to the work of compilation and curation, especially in an era of expanded bandwidth when there is a false temptation to think that more is better, that all can be gathered up and that when such a collection is accumulated, the truth of its contents will be revealed.

I think it is Fredric Jameson who says somewhere that periods are at once completely artificial yet completely necessary. Straw’s article contributes to this line of thinking, focusing not on the content of Meridian 70 or lamenting its exclusions but by thinking about the meaning of compilation itself and its connection to media format. There’s something alluringly Benjaminian in the idea that the past is not simply there to be discovered or revealed through the objects it leaves behind, but rather that the past becomes visible only as we gather up and assemble its remnants in a form that inevitably fails to capture it in its plenitude but succeeds precisely of this failure.

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