Tuesday, January 28, 2014


Sitting in a reading room at the O'Neill Library, Boston College, with Boyd Nielson about six or so months ago tearing through the entire run of the US culture and politics quarterly Socialist Review, I recall now how absolutely dumbstruck I was by an article from the March-April 1987 number titled "Pete Seeger and the Avant-Garde." Written by Ron Silliman, who was then executive editor of the journal, the essay is most immediately a riposte challenging an attack on Seeger and Si Kahn that appeared in The Nation under the sneering title "I Dreamed I saw MTV Last Night." In The Nation article Jesse Limisch, then a professor of history at SUNY Buffalo, lambasts folk music and radical film, specifically the documentaries Seeing Red (1983) and Union Maids (1976), as "aesthetically retrograde and deeply out of touch with the realities in America today." According to Silliman, however, what lurks beneath the desire Lemisch expresses for instances of cultural representation and production commensurate to this (or, more accurately, that) technologically advanced moment is, in the end, a desire for modes of cultural authenticity capable of accounting for developments on the terrain of mass media (i.e. MTV), deindustrialization, the rise of neoliberalism, the advance of globalization and so forth. But rather than merely savaging and discarding Lemisch's position, Silliman locates within it an opportunity to think the more troubling assumption upon which Lemisch's argument is built:
[T]o dismiss his position because it's empirically flawed fails to recognize it as the symptom of a deeper more serious issue: the uneasy relation between contemporary mass culture, thoroughly commodified, market governed, chock full of bourgeois and technical mystification, sexist, racist, you name it, and any art forms that aspire to offer an alternative experience of life. For Lemisch's argument is, in reality, a traditional complaint, although one aimed more often at what seems to be the furthest end of the spectrum from Si Kahn and Pete Seeger: those incomprehensible formalists of the avant-garde.
Silliman's critique is a canny, awe-inspiring thing to marvel at and a touching defense of Seeger against banal charges of cultural irrelevance. The essay undoubtedly wears its moment on its sleeve; the terms and phrasing deployed in the essay bear a timestamp that ruthlessly binds it to the coordinates of a dated debate between mainstream and fringe, center and periphery, inside and outside, corporate and grassroots. But Silliman's identification of an oppositional folk culture ridiculed for gazing nostalgically back toward greener pastures with a forward-looking, intellectually sophisticated and technologically savvy cultural avant-garde concerned primarily with formal innovation is a fascinating gesture that most certainly merits further consideration. Take for example the following passages:
So where do Si Kahn and Peter Seeger fit? As drawn by Lemisch, the boundary around market culture excludes folk music and if, as he implies, only the market is pertinent to the life of the masses, picking up a banjo would indeed be a self-isolating gesture. But if these borders are permeable, or if folk music and other oppositional genres actually fall within the circle, then what is needed is a radically different conception of their place, their role and their politics.  
Here the history of the avant-garde has a lot to offer. If folk is an ensemble of practices centered on musical genres that, because they were mostly rural, preceded market culture, then a major, if not primary, political function of folk music is, by its very opposition to commerciality and commercial technique, to foreground those same institutional structures of which it refuses to partake. Like the avant-garde with which it shares so many of these features, folk has a politics implicit within its form.  
What Silliman here frames as "commerciality" obviously refers to the culture industry at large and in its totality. The assumption of course — the correct assumption — is that nothing escapes capital, nothing escapes the limits of the market, and Silliman appears to imply that this inescapability is something Seeger and other folk artists are very well aware of. The three-quarters of a century Seeger devoted to activism, to actively organizing and challenging power, would certainly seem to suggest as much and, while Seeger insisted on the enduring efficacy of seemingly outmoded cultural forms and practices, he seems to have suffered no illusions.

Unfortunately Silliman never republished this essay from Socialist Review, presumably due, if only in part, to the narrow specificity of the debate with Lemisch to which it is tied. But there are indeed some startling moments within the essay and against whatever troubling claims and assumptions occasionally emerge throughout the essay I find myself deeply admiring the scope of the material Silliman handles and the contradictory links he forges in defense of Seeger.

NB: 1.29.2014: Silliman transcribed and posted "Pete Seeger and the Avant-Garde."