Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Of Desperation and Desire in The Killers’ Battle Born

This paper was presented at the International Association for the Study of Popular Music - Canadian Branch Annual Conference in Hamilton, Ontario, in 2013. Some of the material here went on to a book review on Virilio that was published by Philosophy in Review. Some Virilio material also found its way into my book on Bowie, released by McFarland in 2015.

This paper will explore transience, desire, desperation and labour in the songs of The Killer’s Battle Born. It will take into account theoretical notions of desire and transience, in order to demonstrate how the album encapsulates these notions, creating a vivid picture, a desperate moment in time.

The celebrated Las Vegas band, The Killers, released their fourth studio album in 2012, called Battle Born. The band has also released 3 music videos in association with the album. Not all of the reviews seem to exactly legitimize the band’s output; while the reviewers of the song and video are mostly positive in their assessment, they are not always entirely serious. Jason Lipshutz, writing for Billboard, encourages the fans to “Let your fists punch the cold night air, rock fans—this one’s for you.” Writing for Rolling Stone, Jon Dolan describes Brandon Flowers’ singing with the following: “singer Brandon Flowers’ unmistakable commitment to unmistakable commitment. . . . Kind of cool, kind of ridiculous, and Vegas all the way.”

“Runaways,” though, recounts the experience of requited teenage love which blossoms to engagement because of pregnancy. Unfortunately, the male narrator of the song seems to have some trouble with the arrangement: “but I got the tendency to slip when the nights get wild.” Now married, the protagonist seems unsettled, pining for their happy past together. Nevertheless, the protagonist ends the song with the resolution that he will not let her go, since, after all, we are just “runaways.” What is particularly interesting for this present study is the nature of the lyrics: Flowers creates descriptive verses that seem to carry the song along a loose narrative. He writes of “blonde hair blowin’ in the summer wind / a blue-eyed girl playing in the sand,” and of their time later, “at night I come home after they [that is, the protagonist’s wife and child] go to sleep / like a stumbling ghost, I haunt these halls / There’s a picture of us on our wedding day.” These are vivid images that both involve and evoke photographs. Can the various vivid images that are captured in the lyrics of “Runaways” be likened to photographs, mediated “slices” of a sort of reality, arresting an image and enticing the viewer to discover the greater narrative?

If so, do they contain what Roland Barthes calls an “air,” the notion of the soul, the shadow, that makes an image “true”? Then this is the locus of the listener’s desire, what keeps the listener listening, and what makes, for that listener, the songs “true.” In his novelistic study of photography as a cultural process published in 1980, Camera Lucida, Barthes writes about the desire that he confronts when dealing with certain photographs. He wishes to “enter the paper’s depth,” a desire to see something more than simply the image that is presented. (100) He refers to notions of desire here: “I can have the fond hope of discovering truth,” though he admits he will not find it. (99)

He suggests that, sometimes, he perceives something of the truth in a photograph, what he calls “a likeness,” but the likeness is imprecise or imaginary. He concludes, “I cannot penetrate, cannot reach into the Photograph.” The photograph is unlike the text; that is, “our vision of it is certain,” a curious thing for a semiologist to suggest. The photograph arrests interpretation: “this-has-been.” (106-107)

Barthes’ frustration is evident here: he still seeks (more properly, desires) something more in the photograph. He wishes to discover the person in the photograph completely. It seems here that Barthes is grasping at straws, so to speak. He wants to find the truth in a photograph, and so he finds, as the locus of his desires, the air (or the expression). But then he immediately writes, “The air of a face is unanalyzable.” (107) But it evokes for the observer, “little individual soul, good in one person, bad in another.” (109) The air is what allows Barthes to identify his mother in the Winter Garden photograph.

For Barthes, this is the culmination of his desperate search through photographs, something that began as a phenomenological study of why photographs, these “slices of reality,” papers imbued with such memory and power, were so effective, and what draws people to view and keep them. Partly, the study emerges from the mourning that Barthes was experiencing due to the death of his mother in 1978.

Brian Dillon puts it this way:
Having lost his mother, with whom he had lived most of his life, he goes looking for her among old photographs; time and again the face he finds is not quite hers, even if objectively she looks like herself. At last, he discovers her true likeness, the “air” that he remembers, in a picture of Henriette aged five, taken in a winter garden in 1898. (In the journal entry that recounts this discovery, Barthes simply notes: “Je pleure.”)
Barthes explains it as follows:
All the photographs of my mother which I was looking through were a little like so many masks; at the last, suddenly the mask vanished: there remained a soul, ageless but not timeless, since this air was the person I used to see, consubstantial with her face, each day of her long life. (110)
This is what makes a true photograph: the capturing of the air (one’s soul, one’s shadow). But then consider Flowers’ words to the song “Here with Me,” in which he sings, “Don’t want your picture / on my cell phone / I want you here with me.” In this instance, the cell phone as carrier of images, does not allow the transmission of the “air” of the subject of the photograph. The narrator desires to have the person with them, physically present, rather than present in the photograph.

If one can think of the narrative and descriptive moments in the songs as photographs, can one think of the songs as fleeting and transient as well? Paul Virilio speaks of a kind of desperation in the transience of modern global society.

Is such transience also depicted in the spacial aspects of the music, such as on the track “Battle Born”? Writers at Billboard describe the song this way: “Rather than descend back towards earth on the album’s final song, the Killers come out guns blazing on ‘Battle Born’s’ finale.” The song begins with a single guitar playing over some soft strings until the full band joins it, until succumbing to a more sparse accompaniment once Flowers begins singing the first verse. With the chorus, the guitars rise in volume and the listener hears the first instance of strong background vocals (evoking Queen’s choir-like backing vocals). These vocals contribute to an increasing intensity as the song develops to a sort of climax, during which Flowers and the backing vocals alternate their delivery, in a sort of two-pronged attack that not only builds intensity, but also contributes to a sense of greater aural space. This might be why the writers at billboard use the following phrases to describe the album’s sounds: Battle Born contains songs that come close to “stadium size”; “stadium ready”; “aspiring anthem,” that is, songs that are aspiring to be anthemic; and songs “rooted in 80s arena riffage.” What is particularly compelling here is not only the description of aural space that the writers describe, but also the memory or nostalgia that is evoked in these sorts of phrases. The Killers and its lead singer Flowers cannot stand on their—or his—own, but must instead be situated among other artists, be it Queen, Bruce Springsteen or U2. Just as photographs point directly to their referents, so The Killers point to those bands that precede them. In a way, like photography, The Killers keep their referents alive. Of photography, Walter Benjamin writes,
No matter how artful the photographer, no matter how carefully posed his subject, the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the Here and Now, with which reality has so to speak seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long-forgotten moment the future subsists so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it. (510)
As Steve Edwards explains, in his brief history of photography, “Memory is, after all, a trace or impression of the past that takes place in the present.” (120)

One must also consider Brandon Flowers’ singing voice in this discussion: Flowers employs a very quick vibrato, which evokes the feeling that he is pushing his voice. His intonation is often slightly sharp, a consequence often blamed on tension in the singing voice. Both tension and the notion of pushing the voice both connote desparation, or the manic working out of some issue.

Desperation is often manifest in a kind of labour, in getting “worked up.” Both Barthes and Paul Virilio hint at this, in that desire demands a certain amount of work, in expressing, of searching and consuming, of effort in moving from one place to another to escape congestion, to long for another place or the next place.

Consider the depiction of airfields and road vehicles in “The Way it Was,” and the transience and soft relationships of new communications technologies in “Here with Me” (with images on cell phones rather than personal intimacy)?

Paul Virilio, in his book The Futurism of the Instant: Stop-Eject, approaches the subject of future environmental migrants, those displaced by conflict as well as by development projects. If earlier eras were about ‘sustainable staying-put,’ this new era will be one of ‘habitable circulation,’ which calls into question notions of citizenship and nationhood. He calls the resulting upheavals the ‘portable revolution,’ which, along with revolutions in transportation and transmission technologies, will lead to what he calls an ‘interactive planisphere.’ Throughout the work, Virilio moves from the smaller scale (for instance, discussing the loading dock or the train station) to the larger scale (the city as a whole, or the whole world in movement), suggesting that these spaces of movement are ultimately ungovernable, at least in terms of conventional legal governance.

Throughout the book, Virilio explores the idea of speed in the early twenty-first century and its results. His text is formatted for speed: he mentions issues and leaves them, moving on to a new issue with a new paragraph; this is not unlike the fragmentary nature of song lyrics. His book is an uncompromising look at the power of what he calls révolution de l’emport, or what translator Julie Rose has deemed the ‘portable revolution,’ a movement enacted because of the increases in the ‘payload capacity,’ or capacité d’emport, of the twenty-first century, in terms of transportation and communications technologies. If space is problematized in the twenty-first century, due to progress in terms of communication and transportation technologies, so is time, as Virilio argues in the third section of the book, ‘The Futurism of the Instant.’ What he calls ‘the balance of computerized terror’ leads to a loss of memory—a loss of the past, but also a loss of the future. Virilio argues, rather, that the result is the experience of a kind of perpetual instant.

What Virilio sees as a blight he also sees as a solution: in order to solve problems such as the erasure of space and time, and the chronic consumption of the Earth by its occupants, he suggests that we become nomads, to counteract the sedentary characteristics of the Ultracity. In its constant communication and transportation flows, one can find, in a way, rootedness. This is a rootedness in the notion of global citizenship, a community of all peoples, for the sake of the planet. If Virilio’s work seems too negative, he at least offers some glimmer of hope in a method of reversal of what, in other parts of his book, seem to be inevitable results of technological and spacial globalization.

The Killers are fundamentally, then, a band without roots: drawing musically from the 1980s, informed by the 2000s, inspired by English and Irish bands, and situated in the western United States. Their “unrootedness,” their supeficiality as recognized by reviewers, is manifest in their desperation, as they exist as a sort of photograph of the “perpetual instant.”


Author Unknown. “The Killers, ‘Battle Born’: Track-By-Track Review.” (17 September 2012). Available from Internet. Accessed 30 April 2013.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.

Benjamin, Walter. “Little History of Photography.” Selected Writings, Volume 2 (1927-1934). Edited by Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1999.

Dillon, Brian. “Rereading: Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes.” The Guardian (26 March 2011). Available from Internet. Accessed 29 April 2013.

Dolan, Jon. “Reviews: The Killers—‘Runaways.’” Rolling Stone (13 July 2012). Available from Internet. Accessed 29 April 2013.

Edwards, Steve. Photography: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Lipshutz, Jason. “Watch The Killers Be Epic in Their ‘Runaways’ Music Video.” (26 July 2012). Available from Internet. Accessed 29 April 2013.

Virilio, Paul. The Futurism of the Instant: Stop-Eject. Translated by Julie Rose. Cambridge: Polity, 2010.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Father Elijah

Father Elijah was the first Michael O'Brien book that I ever read, on the recommendation of a friend. As a young Evangelical Protestant, the story of a priest, along with (what I thought was) Vatican intrigue and Stato (the Vatican Secretary of State) and Dottrina (the Vatican Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) was a sort of exotic Other for me. I thought the story was a great read and a glimpse into a world that I found both mysterious and a bit forbidden (being a Protestant, after all). Rereading the book many years later, I didn't find it as effective as I did when I was younger: there are moments in the narrative during which the pages turn quickly (if you will), but there are others where O'Brien seems to step on his own soap-box, decrying societal lack or spiritual insensitivity. This is not to say that there isn't a very sincere and proper heart to the book. I think it does something quite daring, if not a bit theatrical. It tries to be a Roman Catholic take on apocalyptic--Dispensational-flavoured-- literature. In 2016, O'Brien published a follow-up to Father Elijah called Elijah in Jerusalem, a new book which spurred me on to read the older works. Part of the experience was nostalgic: I'm in a very different place personally than I was upon first reading. I must thank O'Brien, though, for this earlier book, a sort of guide for where I would be today, and a sincere and proper heart at the centre of his work.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale

In preparation of watching Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, I decided to read Margaret Atwood's original novel of the same name. This was the first time I had ever read the novel; I was not fortunate enough to read it in high school or during my university days. One of the saving graces for this novel--that actually allowed me to finish reading the novel--were its short chapters. I am notorious for not finishing a book, but I finished this one. I attribute my success not only to Atwood's short chapters, but also my fondness for dystopian fiction. The world that Atwood creates is rich, though terrifying. I think, though, that, at the end, the book is slightly less satisfying than I was expecting. Atwood creates a rich world, but leaves a lot to the imagination, in terms of the continued details of the world. I understand that world creation is not necessarily the final point of the book (rather, the control of the body and the tyranny of both unbridled feminism and misogyny), but the ending left me thinking that the narrative might need a bit more. Perhaps the details of the world will come through the visuals of the series. The trailers suggest as such, so I'm looking forward to it.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

The Bad Beginning

I am embarking on a reading binge (more accurately, I have already begun a reading binge) and thought that I would write a very short review of the books as I complete them. The first book that I have finished is The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler), the first book in A Series of Unfortunate Events. I have been watching the Netflix series of the same title and thought I'd begin to read the series again. The first time through, I only read up to the middle of Book 5; there are 13 books in the series, so I still have a long way to go. I believe this was the third time I have read The Bad Beginning.

I have a love-hate relationship with these books, I think. This relationship extends to the Jim Carrey movie and these Netflix episodes as well. I like the idea of the books: the world that Snicket (AKA Handler) creates is whimsical, but not in a Diagon Alley way. To explain, I was immediately perturbed by the first Harry Potter book because of the reference to Diagon Alley, which seemed a silly name for a place, a place that is supposed to exist in the real world (not in some alternate dimension). There is little reference in The Bad Beginning to the real world (though the Netflix series talks about Winnipeg).

What I found pleasurable in reading this book this time, though, was the feel of the physical book in my hands: the print was big, the chapters short. The story was simple and humourous. It was a bit of a break from Proust, which I am trying to slog through in this reading binge. My plans are not to read the second book right away (I'll try to get through one of my other books first). My reading binge began with too many books at once (12, I think).

So, look forward to these write-ups after each book is completed. I'll refrain from doing a sort of Barthesian reading of this book at this point. Don't think it will never happen, though.

Friday, August 26, 2016

“I Started to Fade Away”: Feist and Barthes’ Notion of “Recuperation.”

Here is a paper I originally presented at the IASPM Canada conference in 2007. Some of the theoretical material on the voice made its way into my book on Morrissey, published by McFarland and Company in 2011. The application of Barthes' "recuperation" is of recent interest due to my rereading of Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text.

There are challenges in discussing the singing voice, due to the lack of a good critical vocabulary with which to engage with the subject in a meaningful way. I would like to explore the singing voice in popular music, and to embark on the consideration of a new framework with which to discuss it, using the writings of Roland Barthes on the pleasure of a text as a starting point. This new framework can be considered in the discussion of Canadian singer Leslie Feist, whose star image is often based around her voice. Also, Feist is a figure placed within a rich context informed by French cultural history and the Canadian independent music scene, as well as the larger context of successful Canadian female singers.

To begin a study of the singing voice and, in turn, its characteristics in eliciting desire, it is useful to consider Roland Barthes’ concept of the “grain of the voice.” For Barthes, this “grain” does not only refer to the timbre, tone or character of the voice, but a process of communication within the voice: “the signifiance it opens cannot be better defined, indeed, than by the very friction between the music and something else,” that is, language. (Barthes 1977, 185) Between these two communicators of meaning—music and language—there emerges, for Barthes, signifiance within the “grain” of the voice. On the one hand, the “grain” refers to the physicality of the voice, pointing not to any sort of meaning but rather to the present physical body. On the other hand, signifiance suggests a continuing process of some kind. Barthes talks about the “grain” of the voice as the “very precise space . . . of the encounter between a language and a voice.” (181) For Barthes, meaning can come from the voice itself, and not only from what it communicates through language. (Barthes 1985, 183-184)

Barthes refers to an “imaginary” in music which serves to “reassure, to constitute the subject hearing it.” Barthes recognizes that there is a difficulty in discussing music in a satisfactory way, suggesting that “this imaginary immediately comes to language with the adjective.” (Barthes 1977, 179-180) Instead of changing the language by which one talks about music, Barthes wishes to “change the musical object itself, as it presents itself to discourse.” (180)

Challenges in discussing the singing voice are evident in musicological literature, as demonstrated in the following examples. In an article discussing opera singer Maria Callas’ voice in cinema, Michal Grover-Friedlander recognizes the problems inherent in discussing the singing voice apart from the “anchoring body,” and apart from suggesting that “the voice itself . . . has ‘body.’” (48) Citing Žižek and Dolar as scholars who also claim the “materiality of the voice,” she suggests that Barthes’ “grain” is “insufficient.” (48-49)

Laura DeMarco, in discussing the differences between the castrato and countertenor varieties of the male voice, describes those voices in terms of their characteristics rather than in terms of their potential for non-verbal communication. She discusses how the voices sound—for instance, calling the castrato voice “dramatic”—without attempting a discussion of what those sounds mean. (179)

Benjamin Givan recognizes the problems with discussing the voice in his attempt to explore the vocal technique of jazz musician Louis Armstrong. Givan writes that characteristics of Armstrong’s voice “are neither readily transcribed into Western musical notation, nor easily described verbally.” (190) Instead, Givan focuses on “Africanisms” in Armstrong’s vocal style.

Even in these few articles, it is clear that there is a definite lack of appropriate vocabulary within musicology with which to approach the study of the voice. Musicological discourse generally focuses on the text of the music—that is, the score—rather than the instrument. For example, in a discussion of an instrumental piece and its interpretation by a player of a particular instrument, the focus is often on the piece itself—the text and its interpretation—rather than the tone or quality of the instrument that performs it. A marked exception to this is if a performance is being discussed in terms of proper historical accuracy, or performance practice. But what is the “text” of the performing voice? This is an important question when one considers popular music, and vocal pop or rock music in particular, where the composition is generally written for—and by—a particular singing voice.

There are instances in which a celebrity persona is actually built around a singing voice. An example of this, which I would like to use as a case, is the Canadian singer Leslie Feist, often referred to by her last name only. Her voice is part of her present image or persona; she has been linked to French chanson or popular song, as well as the independent music scene in Toronto. She also carries with her a certain authenticity because she injured her voice in the late 1990s from her involvement as a punk singer. This resulted in her changing her style from “harder” music to become more of a singer-songwriter. These elements of her persona—an authenticity derived from injury, a change of style—force a study of interconnections. In other words, these elements compel one to explore the voice apart from the music itself and to consider what drives that voice.

Feist as a commercially successful singer seems to conform to a type of Canadian, female, white, solo performer, such as Avril Lavigne, Alanis Morrisette, Shania Twain and Céline Dion. This is something that will be explored in future work. The goal of this present project is to formulate a new framework with which to approach the singing voice, and thus contribute to a more meaningful vocabulary for the study of the voice.

Through an application of Barthes’ writings about the voice and his notions of how pleasure can be afforded from a text, a more valuable theoretical framework can emerge. Applying Barthes’ broader idea of an erotics of reading, fleshed out in what Richard Howard calls proses, and more specifically, his thoughts on what he calls “recuperation” presented in his book The Pleasure of the Text, to a practical case like Feist can prove a novel and valuable way of speaking of the “text” of the voice. It is through his proses that Barthes “speaks pleasure.” (Barthes 1975, vii)

Barthes’ book explores the ways in which a reader produces meaning, and continues Barthes’ earlier assertion that the “author” is “dead.” That is, simply, intention of the author means nothing, and that the interpretation (or meaning) of the text takes place in absence of the author. The book is set up in short segments, with the subjects or themes of each segment arranged alphabetically, and thus randomly in terms of subject matter. Throughout this “random” structuration, Barthes does discuss the binary of plaisir (pleasure) and jouissance (bliss or ecstacy). This is not a binary of opposites, and the relationship between the two terms is open and fluid. The “pleasure” from the title of the book should be thought of as both the pleasure that a reader takes from reading a text, as well as the pleasure that is apparently inherent in the text itself.

Those texts which do not overcome the “boundaries” of “traditional” literary norms are those texts which can be placed under the rubric of plaisir or “pleasure,” while those texts which disrupt the expectations of what a text should do are texts, then, of joissance or “ecstacy.” Of these latter texts, Barthes writes, “Pleasure in pieces; language in pieces; culture in pieces. . . . nothing is reconstituted, nothing recuperated.” (51-52) Thus this kind of text upsets all expectations, therefore scattering one’s subjectivity.

In one compelling segment of the book, Roland Barthes discusses how art is “compromised,” because of the effort of artists to destroy it. For Barthes, “this destruction is always inadequate.” If the effort on the part of the artist to destroy the art takes the form of continuing to work within art—for instance, in changing the type of art that an artist produces—then it “quickly exposes itself to recuperation.” (54) He concludes that “there is a structural agreement between the contesting and the contested forms,” but that this agreement does not take the form of a dialectic relationship between the art and its destruction for the production of a synthesis. Instead, there results the production of “a third term, which is not, however, a synthesizing term but an eccentric, extraordinary term.” (55) (see Note #1 below) This third term, then, is what Barthes suggests is the result, a “recuperation” of the art. For Barthes, the art has been changed or “compromised” through the production of this new term. This “eccentric, extraordinary term” might point to Barthes’ notion of jouissance.

Locating a moment of destruction in the art and music of Feist is not difficult. The destruction took the form of personal injury. (see Note #2 below) During her time with the punk band Placebo in the 1990s, Feist began to bleed from her throat, due to the high volume and frequency of forced singing during a tour. This resulted in her visit to a musical injury specialist, who employed a holistic approach to healing the voice, over a full year of therapy. Asked whether it is easier to sing softly, Feist replies that it is easier to sing now that she has stopped trying to sing well, or with precision.

Not only has Feist received accolades for her voice in her new style (and now that she is more popular), but she was also lauded during her time with Placebo. In an article from June 1995, Brooker Buckingham writes that, while comparisons with other modern singers like P.J.Harvey and Björk are not completely accurate, Feist does share with them “the determination to find personal truth in the breath of the voice. It’s all about the abandonment of traditional pop vocal syntax, stretching words and stressing sound until the voice becomes an instrument that exceeds its physical source.” (15) Like the proclamation attributed to Vanity Fair on the plastic wrap of Feist’s compact disc released in 2004, Let It Die, that her voice is “one in a million,” it his her voice which is in focus even early on in her career. As an aside, it should be noted that Feist is not only a singer. She also plays the guitar on most of her solo recordings, as well as in concert. Furthermore, she was the guitarist for the Toronto band By Divine Right the same year she released her first solo recording after her injury. In fact, she learned the guitar while recovering from her vocal injury.

If one accepts that the injury to Feist’s voice was an inadvertant destruction of her art, then it could be argued that what comes after is a recuperation of that art, in the form of an “eccentric, extraordinary term.” It seems that one way in which this term is extraordinary is its placement into a milieu of French chanson. Feist moved to France in 2003, and though she has been featured singing in the French language, she claims that she does not speak it: “I didn’t speak a word of French when I arrived and now I speak three words of French.” (Burgel) In November of 2004, Feist was asked to sing with the famous French singer Juliette Gréco, performing a new rendition of Gréco’s famous song, “La Javanaise,” written by Serge Gainsbourg. In the live performance, Gréco sang the first part of the song. Feist, with frequent collaborator Gonzales on piano, sang the second part in a slightly different arrangement. Feist exclaims that it was “kind of like the old guard passing the torch to the new guard.” Thus, Feist suggests that she is in fact part of the cultural milieu of French chanson, a peculiar position to be in considering her uncertainty in the French language, as well as her Canadian nationality.

Another way in which the “extraordinary term” manifests itself is in the description of Feist’s music as “jhai” [pronounced like the letter ‘j’]. From publicity during the promotion of Let It Die, “jhai” is described as “a detached manner of singing especially suited to very emotional material. The emotion is underplayed, never quite lets go and leaves room for the listener to crawl inside.” ("Feist Biography") Also, “Like line drawings as opposed to detailed paintings, these songs leave you space to fill in the emotional blanks.” This style of singing manifests itself with the singer no longer worrying about singing well or with precision. “Jhai” also carries with it a suggestion of relaxed singing, without much worry or stress. For Feist, “jhai” is also an opposite presentation of her teenaged self. She states, “When you’re 17, drama fires up everything you do. . . . Everything is so intense—I sang like that when I was 17. Now I’m 28 and I’m beginning to realize that being calm is OK.” (Ferranti)

Thus, there are some possibilities as to what might be happening here. On the one hand, there is the possibility that the stereotypical result of the passage of time and the maturity that comes with age manifests itself in the new style of Feist, with the singer now comfortable to sing in a calm way, allowing the “drama” expressed through the art to be repressed, and to be more subtly expressed in the music. On the other hand, the recuperation of her art, after its destruction, might result in the production of the “extraordinary term,” a style of singing that Feist calls “jhai.”

There are many questions which this short exploration into Barthes and Feist raises. First, is it even possible to apply Barthes’ thoughts about written texts and literature to other arts and their participants? Furthermore, why would an artist purposefully destroy their art? What if the artist inadvertently destroy their art, as might be the case with a figure like Feist? Does the inadequate destruction of the art always result in the production of an extraordinary term? If so, what are the effects of this “extraordinary term”? Finally, how does the production of this “extraordinary term” affect the art and its consumption or expression?

This exploration serves to ask more questions that provide answers, and ultimately seeks to explore new ways in which to discuss the singing voice, and to attempt to provide new vocabularies with which to discuss the singing voice in a more meaningful way. It is my hope that this present work constitutes a start in that direction.


Note #1: Barthes illustrates this by using Bataille: “Bataille does not counter modesty with sexual freedom but . . . with laughter.” [emphasis in original]

Note #2: This was revealed by Feist in an interview with David Dye on the National Public Radio programme World Café. The complete interview can be heard at the NPR website, available from (accessed 2 November 2006).


Author Unknown, “Feist Biography.” High Road Touring. Available from Internet. Accessed 26 March 2007.

Barthes, Roland. The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980. Translated by Linda Coverdale. New York: Hill and Wang, 1985.

_____. Image—Music—Text. Translated by Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

_____. The Pleasure of the Text. Translated by Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.

Buckingham, Brooker. “Come On In, the Water’s Fine.” Core Magazine (June 1995). 15-16.

Burgel, Sheila. “An Interview with Feist: Canada’s Smooth Operator.” Cha Cha Charming Magazine. Available from Internet. Accessed 26 July 2006.

DeMarco, Laura E. “The Fact of the Castrato and the Myth of the Countertenor.” The Musical Quarterly 86:1 (Spring 2002). 174-185.

Ferranti, Lauren. “Feist: Once More, with Less Feeling.” (4 June 2004). Available from Internet. Accessed 26 March 2007.

Givan, Benjamin. “Duets for One: Louis Armstrong’s Vocal Recordings.” The Musical Quarterly 87:2 (Summer 2004). 188-218.

Grover-Friedlander, Michal. “The Afterlife of Maria Callas’s Voice.” The Musical Quarterly 88:1 (Spring 2005). 35-62.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

“A Swaying and Fluttering Form”: Foucault’s Heterotopias in Eco’s The Name of the Rose

In honour of Umberto Eco upon his death, here is a paper I originally presented at the CISPCR Symposium in 2013. Some of the material was modified and applied to Bowie, and appears in my book on Bowie, published by McFarland and Company in 2015.

Michel Foucault writes of certain spaces that “suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect.” (Foucault 24) He calls such spaces heterotopias. For Adso, the narrator-protagonist in Umberto Eco’s best-selling novel, The Name of the Rose, the biblical text of the Song of Songs acts as a sort of heterotopia, a mirror which reflects (and distorts) his position; “it exerts a sort of counteraction on the position.” To clarify, there are moments in the novel where Adso’s heterosexuality, a subject position assumed by his piety, by his position in monastic life in the early part of the second millennium, is suspect: “even today my old age is stirred ... when my eyes ... happen to linger on the beardless face of a novice, pure and fresh as a maiden’s.” (Eco 159) At another moment, Adso reflects on an incident of heterosexual impropriety, and uses the text of the Song of Songs in order to deflect, perhaps, suggestions of sexual impropriety in the text. None of this is sure, though; in fact, the novel as a whole seems to enact a sort of heterotopic space. It is what could, what might, but what is not (necessarily).

An article, “Of Other Spaces,” was published in 1986, a translation of Michel Foucault’s lecture, “Des Espaces Autres,” given in March 1967. In the english translation by Jay Miskowiec, Foucault describes a sort of history of space. Of note, he suggests that the “actual” space of the Middle Ages constitutes what he calls a “space of emplacement”: “a hierarchic ensemble of places: sacred places and profane places; protected places and open, exposed places; urban places and rural places (all these concern the real life of men).” (22) This is an important observation considering the setting for Eco’s novel, that of a monastery in the fourteenth-century. For Foucault, the Middle Ages demonstrated “this complete hierarchy, this opposition, this intersection of places” in a particularly marked and compelling way. The Middle Ages was an age in which one was strongly placed in a certain space, without possibility for mobility. Each space, also, was marked as what it was, without the possibility of change; categorization of space, and of its occupants, was fixed. As in other areas of Foucault’s study, the study of space reveals power relations.

To only slightly oversimplify, Foucault suggests that the spaces that one lives in that define one’s life are also defined by society, and other power holders and discourse creators and reinforcers. The spaces or sites in which one lives are related to each other: these spaces are through which order is established in society. Foucault states, though, that such mundane sites are not of ultimate interest to him:
I am interested in certain ones that have the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect. These spaces, as it were, which are linked with all the others, which however contradict all the other sites, are of two main types. (24)
The types to which Foucault refers are “utopia” and “heterotopia.” For Foucault, then, utopia is unreal, a presentation of society “in a perfected form, or else society turned upside down, but in any case . . . fundamentally unreal spaces.” Heterotopias, on the other hand, are real spaces: “these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about.” Between the utopia, which is unreal, and the heterotopia, which is real, is what Foucault calls the mirror. He seems to conflate the two ideas as well: while the heterotopia is reflected or mediated by the mirror, the mirror becomes a sort of heterotopia in itself:
it makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the spaces that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there. (24)
The mirror exists in the real world, and thus reflects the unreal idea of utopia in a solid object. Such ideas are compelling if one considers the role of Eco’s own novel—the actual, perhaps physical, idea, or concept, or narrative—as heterotopia: “The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible.” (25) For a moment, consider the actual novel, the very narrative that constitutes the reading text. This is a single space of heterotopia, but one can continue the chain. The Song of Songs in the novel acts as heterotopia, the mirror in which Adso sees himself acts as heterotopia, and, ultimately, the story of the kitchen girl acts as heterotopia.

Foucault discusses various principles of heterotopia; one of his principles suggests that “Heterotopias always presuppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable.” (26) Haft, White and White, in their massive work, The Key to the Name of the Rose, suggest that the Middle Ages, that space that Foucault calls a “space of emplacement,” is “an historical ‘open work.’” (Haft, White and White 23) That period has no definitive opening or closing, which works to make the novel itself both “isolated,” in that its temporal definition is difficult to immediately ascertain (especially for the contemporary reader), but this very fact also makes it penetrable. It is not hard to presume that many readers would need to be reminded of the actual historical time period of the novel; while the abstract “Middle Ages” is obviously the temporal setting of the novel, its importance is not necessarily the key to understanding the narrative. Certainly understanding the key elements of the historical background of the novel helps to further flesh out the story, a fact which is made clear by the popularity of such books as The Key to the Name of the Rose, Theresa Coletti’s Naming the Rose from 1988, as well as Eco’s own, rather substantial, Postscript to the Name of the Rose, from 1983. But such knowledge is not required in order to begin to read the book. The difficulty for the reader begins, though, with the first introduction of language other than the text of the story; whether we consider the source Italian or the translated English, some of the first words the reader encounters are in French. As the reader continues her journey in the story, she encounters Latin, French, Italian, and the patois of all three as manifest in the speech of the character Salvatore. Rocco Capozzi, in his study of the “unlimited intertextuality” of the novel, writes,
Eco’s novel is a perfect example of conscious (and unconscious) “hybridization”; it is a text in which many other texts merge, fuse, collide, intersect, speak to, and illuminate, one another—each with its own language and “ideologue.” The Rose, succinctly put, is a skillfull (con)structure of an intentionally ambiguous, polyvalent, and self-reflexive novel intended to generate multiple meanings. Moreover, it is a novel which wishes to be: an intersection of textual “traces” and “textures”; a dialogue with many texts; and a literary text generated through the endless process of writing and reading, re-writing and re-reading, etc. (Capozzi 413)
Such discussions of the novel certainly evoke at least the reflection of utopia in the form of heterotopia.

The Song of Songs exists as heterotopia within the novel as well. Foucault states, “There are others [that is, other heterotopias] . . . that seem to be pure and simple openings, but that generally hide curious exclusions.” (Foucault 26) It might be that the Song of Songs acts as an “opening” that hides the “exclusion” that is homosexuality. Adso uses the words of the Song of Songs to describe his liaison with the kitchen girl because, first of all, the experience did not occur, and secondly, because he is unable to describe the experience, having never experienced such a liaison. The Song of Songs, then, is a kind of “entry door” as Foucault seems to describe it. In his article, Foucault describes what he calls “famous bedrooms” that existed in South America, as containing an entry door that did not lead to the central chambers in which the family lived, but rather to an open bedroom in which a stranger was allowed to stay, but only for a time, that is, for the evening. Foucault makes a compelling observation: he suggests that these South American bedrooms are akin to the “famous” American hotel rooms in which “illicit sex is both absolutely sheltered and absolutely hidden, kept isolated without however being allowed into the open.” (26-27) For Adso, the biblical text works as a kind of “entry door” or “open room”: it allows Adso entry but only for a time. It works for him to keep the act isolated or sheltered—the language of the biblical text is not his own text, and thus, shelters him from needing to experience the actual act in reality—and it works for him to keep the act absolutely hidden—he uses the biblical text to mask what has actually happened, by displacing the more immoral experience of homosexuality with the liaison with the kitchen girl, through the lens of the biblical text. As heterotopia, though, the text functions in another way, as an actual, real, example of utopic love, something that is reflected in the text of the novel, while being ignored in the narrative of the novel.

The mirror itself, which Adso encounters in the library, is also a heterotopia. Adso’s first experience of the mirror is described as follows: “Holding the lamp in front of me, I ventured into the next rooms. A giant of threatening dimensions, a swaying and fluttering form came toward me, like a ghost.” For Adso, the mirror is something that, as William explains, “reflects your image, enlarged and distorted.” Adso continues to describe the experience: “I saw our two images, grotesquely misshapen, changing form and height as we moved closer or stepped back.” (Eco 196) Recall Foucault’s description of those spaces that are not the spaces which define the lives of those in society, but rather those spaces that convey something else: they “suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect.” (Foucault 24) In this case, the actual mirror, and its reflection, seems to signify this space, a kind of space of possibility, a possibility with “threatening dimensions, a swaying and fluttering form,” that is, the form of Adso’s fabrication, a sort of reflection of himself that is misshapen. It is a true reflection, yet it is distorted; it is a representation of Adso’s experience of pleasure, but an encounter with Ubertino, which occurs directly before his supposed encounter with the kitchen girl, as described in the narrative.

Another heterotopia is the story of the liaison with the kitchen girl itself. It functions as many of the heterotopia discusses thus far function. It is a heterotopia which neutralizes, which hides “curious exclusions,” to use Foucault’s terms. Foucault also suggests, though, that heterotopias are able to juxtapose “several sites that are in themselves incompatible.” Furthermore, these are heterotopias of deviation, what Foucault describes as “those in which individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed.” (25) Certainly Adso’s behaviour is deviant if one considers the liasion with the kitchen girl, and so it seems to function well, then, as a heterotopia. As such, it is a space of experience, where a figure without (prior) experience can express the experience of sexuality, in a space which, in such a way, is utopic, a space of expression of experience. It is a distorted reflection of the actual event between Adso and Ubertino, at the very least an example of sexually charged homosocial behaviour.

The image most closely associated with the heterotopia is a boat, an item at its most comfortable (for lack of a better word) on the sea, in an unfixed position, always swaying to and fro. Foucault states, “the boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea.” This is a fascinating idea that might be applied to the novel of The Name of the Rose itself. The polysemic nature of the text, the labyrinthian levels and layers of meaning, those spaces of emplacement that are also juxtaposed into sorts of networks of manifest utopia, point to a kind of unfixed text, a space which becomes, as Foucault suggests, “the greatest reserve of the imagination.” If the novel presents chains of heterotopia, then it also presents a real example of the ideal utopia. Without that “greatest reserve of the imagination” which characterizes the novel, Foucault continues, “dreams dry up . . . and the police take the place of the pirates.”


Capozzi, Rocco. “Palimpsests and Laughter: The Dialogical Pleasure of Unlimited Intertextuality in The Name of the Rose.” Italica 66:4 (Winter 1989). 412-428.

Eco, Umberto. The Name of the Rose. Translated by William Weaver. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2006.

Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces.” Translated by Jay Miskowiec. Diacritics 16:1 (Spring 1986). 22-27.

Haft, Adele J., Jane G. White and Robert J. White, The Key to the Name of the Rose. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 1998.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

David Bowie 1947-2016

Yesterday morning, I found out that a very large part of my academic formation and work, died. David Bowie was 69 years old. No one lives forever, but we don't always think of our celebrities as real people. We see them mediated, outside of the normal stream of time. As I write this, I'm listening to Bowie's voice, back from the grave: "Ain't it just like me," he sings.

Back around 1993, I remember hearing the first strains of _Black Tie White Noise_ in an Ottawa CD store, and I walked out with that album. "You've Been Around" was the catalyst that began my academic pursuits, I think. Once _Outside_ came out in 1995, I was hooked. I remember talking to one of my music profs about the music on that album, about what was going on there, the "problem" that needed to be "solved."

Bowie became the subject matter of my Master's thesis. Antonella Bilich Greco and I listened to Bowie constantly during that time, in the TA office at McMaster.

When we saw Bowie in concert in Montreal in 2004, we were told to sit down by those sitting behind us, who seemingly were only there for the hits. And we did.

When I had the opportunity to revisit some of my earlier scholarship for the book, I happily did so, (re)discovering that Bowie was still the "problem" that needed to be "solved," and a delightful one at that.

Yesterday was a whirlwind, with something like eight media interviews throughout the day, not to mention a blurb for a Greek daily newspaper. And then a first class.

We don't know these celebrities, but we feel like we do. Yesterday, my friends and colleagues sent messages of condolence and stopped by my office. And I thank them for that.

And I thank David Bowie for his music. If it wasn't for him, I'm pretty confident to say that I wouldn't be the scholar--or the person--I am today.