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3:AM in Lockdown 16: Joe Milutis

Music for Doing Nothing
By Joe Milutis.



A few days ago, Italian film composer Ennio Morricone announced that he would not be composing or playing music during quarantine; the absolute value of music was to him meaningless during such a serious crisis and that he felt that Italians who sang on their balconies, while deserving of a little lightness, were perhaps only thinking of themselves.

Americans have reacted similarly to the equivalent in celebrities singing, noblesse oblige, John Lennon’s “Imagine” from their compounds after only a week of lockdown (we can only “imagine” what 18 months might bring). But perhaps we are all guilty of doing too much, of being unserious, balconistas of the virus simply because we are unable to do nothing. Morricone’s statement is reminiscent of the old-school European mode of respect and modesty towards death, atrocity, and historical trauma, in the spirit of Adorno’s “can one write lyric poetry after Auschwitz?” But in this case, the unthinkable has not yet occurred. It is not “after” but “before,” and what comes “after” depends on our ability to do a lot but also to do nothing at the same time. Those of us who have the privilege of staying home are consequently caught between at least two modes of “thinking only about oneself”: faced with the monstrosity of our irrepressible will-to-activity and the grotesque pleasures of impotent inactivity, we can with good conscience do neither. Perhaps a third form of thinking (or unthinking) is necessary, in the face of a virus that does not think and does not self; or rather, in its replication, it seeks its self in a way that makes a mockery of human self and selflessness at once.

Morricone is not necessarily a composer of high modernist austerity and selflessness, however. Rather he is probably best known for his scores for the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, which somewhat garishly stylize the atrocities of the American Civil War. There is nothing in his career that suggests the priest-like or otherworldly, other than music’s innate tendency towards abstraction. And in one of the most famous scenes in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, his music is activated precisely at the moment when action is impossible. It becomes loquacious when speech stops, continuing when continuation is placed in doubt. In this scene, Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach — the titular “good”, “bad” and “ugly” — face off in a three-way duel.

Isn’t this the kind of stasis to which the virus holds us in thrall? It would of course be too simplistic to say that we are caught in a duel between the virus and mankind. The virus complicates already gridlocked positions of threes that must be resolved: virus-landlord-tenant; virus-republican-democrat; virus-science-ideology; virus-politics-economics. The trilectal materialism of the Mexican Standoff is even still too simplistic. Trump, Biden, and Sanders were already in a three-way standoff without the temporal axis of the virus competing with the temporal axis of the election.

(If Eastwood’s edge in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is that he knows he has unloaded Wallach’s gun the night before, we have here three political actors who each think they have a similar edge. Biden — seemingly free to cruise into the nomination and focus on Trump — can act as if Sanders’ weapon is unloaded. But Sanders has been acting as if his social media apparatus puts Biden in an unarmed position. Meanwhile Trump holds the ultimate spoiler of executive droit, in addition to the fact that the remaining Democrats are aiming at each other. In the end, however, all movements and positions are hemmed in by the new reality of the virus, including most importantly whether the vote can even legitimately go on.)

If there is comedy, rather than tragedy to the nothingness of the tense non-action in Leone’s film, it is a dark comedy that places this cinematic duel as a meaningless absurdity playing out on a panorama of the dead. Leone’s three duelists are engaged in the non-dance of the already-dead surrounded on all sides by the cosmic backdrop of a graveyard and magnetized by Morricone’s score. We first hear a mixture of disaggregated chimes and castanets, that rises to triumphal and melancholy brass flourishes, while the duelists mark out the space of a void. Crucifixes extend to the horizon, a reminder that “the good, the bad and the ugly” is perversely trinitarian. But these crucifixes, as a religious nicety amidst the horrors of war, also stand in for a type of unthinking, viral replication of a symbol that has been emptied of meaning. Ultimately cynical rather than spiritual — “there are two kinds of people: those with loaded guns and those who dig” — the potential for awareness of the absolute, signaled by the proximity of death, leads to a celebration of selfish actors and survival of the fittest, rather than the communism of the dead.

In this sense, I agree with Žižek’s claim that “we should remain human beings who respect spirituality” in the face of the hard realities of the virus. It is, however, the spirituality not of the earth supercoded by otherworldly concerns that merely provide a backdrop for the interests of a singular attractor (this film is notably the last film of the “dollars” trilogy). Rather, it is the spirituality implicit in the earth itself. There is a reality principle that is not captured by the quadrilectical terms of the socially-inscribed duel. Hasn’t this standstill already engendered ecological miracles such as blue skies in Los Angeles and dolphins in Venetian canals? This is perhaps the first way in which inaction can be deliverance.

Our four-way duel then starts to look a little like this:

This is Latour’s a little bit crazy but ultimately correct model of the ways in which the deadlock between the politics of globalization and the local must be shifted to the terrestrial. This is where my essay kind of gives out, because it seems to warrant much more work than I am willing to give it, and I ambivalent about not wholly embracing my own inaction. But in general, Latour is interested in realignments and new connections and conceptual mapping — a pragmatic approach as compared to the more abyssal politics of OOO or speculative realism. One of his more challenging claims is that, in realigning the trajectory of modernity, we should make alliances with those “who, according to the old gradation, were clearly ‘reactionaries.’” I don’t think this means cozying up with the KKK, but it should take but a minute to reflect upon how potential allies have been branded reactionaries by the relentless functioning of the social media machine. Even Latour has been recently columned over (incorrectly) into the invidious category of “neoliberal philosopher,” as have prominent leftist philosophers following upon and including Deleuze, to whom any discussion of the inaction-image would be indebted.

This brings me to Barbra Streisand . . .

It’s always worthwhile to return to this beautiful moment in the history of television, a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis and a month before the assassination of Kennedy, Streisand at the beginning of her career singing with Judy Garland near the end of hers:

But in watching this recently, I was struck by their avowal of “hate” for each other, even though we are seeing something that looks like true affection. More intriguing was the fact that what makes this a perfect mashup is not merely the ways in which the two legends are able to weave these songs together by slowing them down, qualluding what were peppy, somewhat “witless” songs (again the powers of inaction are in play here). Additionally, and inconceivably, the ideological contents of the songs are diametrically opposed.

“Happy Days Are Here Again” is a song of depression-era optimism — it was notably FDR’s campaign song — which hides the truth of present reality. “Get Happy” is a song of Christian pessimism: evangelical in tone, it reveals the truth, but only as it might be found in death and salvation. Both songs are “playing” with a form of self-delusion, but it is a delusion that is not illusory. After all, however much their performative hatred is a “put-on,” they are starting with a gesture of homeopathy or natural magic, welcoming in an emotional realism that will be managed in the duet. Their mutual delusion can then be carried out without condescension or bad faith, precisely because it includes, rather than banishes, ill-will. And despite this ill-will, both parties have found a way to a fragile and rare connection by bending their delusions to each other.


First posted: Thursday, April 2nd, 2020.

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