NOMINALIST SENSIBILITY AND HIPSTER RUNOFF

In the book Anthropos Today Paul Rabinow theorizes about something called the “nominalist sensibility.” In his opinion, this “sensibility” is a great way to approach the task of writing ethnography. It’s a complicated discipline, anthropology is, recording the activities of people from other cultures. How is the anthropologist supposed to talk about someone else producing knowledge, while writing a creative text of their own? I’m gonna block quote Rabinow on this because he’s pretty great:

Today, it is helpful to distinguish nominalism from deconstruction, if by that one means an ethic of revealing the inherent instability of all knowledge. Nominalism certainly works against the grain of established classifications, given entities, and habitual procedures of knowing. However, it does this not as an end in itself but rather as a means of knowing more. Further, while a nominalist sensibility lays a certain emphasis on the subject, this mode of subjectivation should not be confused with individualism or interiority. Today, a nominalist subjectivity primes action, encourages making, and obliges experimentation, but again not just of things, but of the conceptual interconnections of problems (68).


Alright, sweet, so Rabinow is making two assertions in this paragraph: (1) nominalist sensibility challenges the stability of knowledge, “as a means of knowing more” and (2) nominalist sensibility “lays a certain emphasis on the subject” – a subject that makes “conceptual interconnections of problems.” To explain what these two things mean, Rabinow takes for example the work of famous artist Marcel Duchamp. Rabinow was born way back when, like as dadaism was taking off, so this makes sense for him. We’re alot more hip at she-bomb.com, so let’s talk about nominalist sensibility with reference to everyone’s favorite: Hipster Runoff. (Y’all should be collectively, sharply intaking breath in awe right there).

In the post “Was M83 great on Fallon? ☨ ✞ ✝ THE CITY IS MY CHURCH † ☨ ✞ ✝” Carles reviews M83’s performance of their hit song “Midnight City” (the #1 song of the year according to Pitchfork). It is a super blog post. That I can describe it as ‘a bunch of Wingdings crosses and occasionally the words “☨HE CI☨Y IS MY CHURCH”’ is telltale. The blog post is such a break from the common form of blog music commentary that the simplicity of a single-sentence description does enough to establish its idiosyncratic mode. Kind of like how Duchamp’s Fountain can be summed up by ‘a urinal with “R. Mutt” scrawled on it.’

“Was M83 great on Fallon” makes the reader rethink what counts as music criticism. It recognizes and adopts some basic genre conventions of music criticism in the Internet age: it is a single post on a blog, for example. There are comments, a title, and tags. But other requisites are missing. There are only a handful of sentences; the majority of non-cross content is more like a poem than a description of the performance (“Let’s go 2 the City../ Which happens 2 be my church…”). No sign of ‘music terms’ such as ‘vocals’ or ‘energy’ anything like that; the performance’s contextualized by reference to viral events and Anthony Gonzalez’s hunkiness rather than M83’s music or Jimmy Fallon’s show. There is no doubt that Carles is writing about music in a way that makes more traditional music writing seem, if not foolish, at least contingent on an self-seriousness about ‘music in isolation.’

I’d argue that this disruption of mode at Hipster Runoff is more nominalist than deconstructive, as per Rabinow’s dichotomy. Because Carles seems genuinely interested in creating new ways of thinking about music. He’s not just ignoring conventions like argumentation and syntax to prove that normal music writing ‘misses something’ about music. He’s trying out to point to what that something is. In this case, it’s the recognition that, when talking about song like “Midnight City,” it’s really hard to capture in words the severe emotion and dancability of that beat. (see? difficult.) Pitchfork even more or less agrees on this point: Brandon Stosuy says that “Midnight City’s code is tough to crack.” Carles seems to realize that our aesthetic appreciation of music can be expressed in writing sentences, but also in dancing, singing along, etc. Therefore the style of ‘writing’ within a blog format can change too; in this case the innovation is pounding out a bunch of crosses in the Wingdings font and copying and pasting a bunch of times. There’s joy in Carles’ post, and that’s no simple achievement.

An innovation is also located in the rigorous attention the blog pays to transaction and ‘buzz’ in the making of modern pop music. Carles works ideas about commerce and identity into his ‘mode of knowing’ music. In “Was M83 great on Fallon,” I think this philosophy crops up in small ways in a lot of places. Take the title, to start. After viewing the M83 performance, the first question is: ‘Was it great? Can I continue to justify my enjoyment of this band, or will popular alternative opinion determine it’s all “emotionally banging on shit” and cause me to reassess my enjoyment of M83?’ So much of unconscious thinking about music involves thinking about self-branding, and Carles helps translate that feeling into writing.

Rabinow’s second claim is that nominalist sensibility “lays a certain emphasis on the subject.” In applying Rabinow to Carles, it becomes clear that Hipster Runoff skews less towards Duchamp’s artistic production and more like something out of contemporary anthropology/sociology. Carles’s subject is not found objects, as Duchamp’s was, but found people, culture and music.

Therefore, Carles has a more complex obligation to the subject of his writing. These are real people, putting themselves out their to make art. Many of them are essentially doing the same thing as he is: trying to grapple with the media and tools of our time to say something about human experience. As a consequence, Carles can’t just be a dick. And he’s not! He’s vibing to the chill waves, along with everyone else. Did you see all of those crosses?

He’s vibing because on “Midnight City,” really on the entirety of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, M83’s doing a pretty swell job of singing about what it means to be a kid growing up in a contemporary Western city. On “Midnight City” the lyrics are sparse and difficult to make out, so we don’t have much to go by. But the context of the rest of the album – the most direct articulation of a mission probably comes on track six, “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire” – “Midnight City” gains currency as an catalog of shifting aesthetics. During the verses there’s a lot of “waiting in the car”: it’s scary to take the first step towards self-assertion and artistic production. There’s musical combinations and refigurations of genre tropes, like distancing reverb on the vocals or what Stosuy called the “zeitgeist-y saxophone outro.” But throughout there’s the nascent melody; its explosion onto the scene in the hook is pure bliss.

Carles celebrates that hook, via all of the ✝† ☨ ✞. On “Midnight City,” there’s one line that matters: “THE CITY IS MY CHURCH!” That’s not a universal sentiment; both Carles and M83 would pick it out as representing a way of forming yourself particular to a time and place. But it’s a resonant sentiment for my modern experience. Going to the city is something I know I’ve lived by at times; I know I could say the same of many friends. Carles doesn’t simply record M83’s words as an example of the times in “Was M83 great on Fallon?” He doesn’t isolate them and say, ‘look at these fucking hipster kids, going into the city to find themselves in 2011.’ He reinscribes them, as a ode/affirmation of M83’s on point characterization of the relationship between the city and worship for alot of people. And in doing so, Carles emphasizes the subject in the nominalist sense. He picks out a moment in music of experimentation gone amazing, and vibes along to it.