A MORE EXCITING DELERIUM
A Response to Paul D. Miller's "Rhythm Science"
Paul D. Miller (of DJ Spooky fame) recently wrote a book called
"Rhythm Science" for MIT Press. The book comes with an original DJ
Spooky mix CD. In the following review, I'm going to criticize
Paul's prose, analyze the inherent media differences between
turntablism and the essay, praise Miller's brilliant use of media
filtering as a tactic for self-identity preservation, and exonerate
the intuitive aural playsmithing of all things Spooky. As I proceed,
I'll try my darndest not to get sucked into the meta-meta-meta-mire
of de/re-construction that even now pulls like a gaping maw at the
mere thought of responding to this text with something resembling
PROSE != TURNTABLISM
Freestyle turntablism is when DJs get together and improvise mixes in
real-time, as Jazz musicians have done for decades. Freestyle
rapping is like a form of contemporary jazz scatting –
improvisational rhyming, real-time rhythmic spoken verse. The two
forms aren't unrelated, but mastering one by no means assures the
mastery of the other. Louis Armstrong could do both; Miles Davis
could only do the horn thing.
In the first and last sections of "Rhythm Science," Miller attempts a
sort of prose freestyling. It reads like most of his CD liner notes,
and is my least favorite part of the book. It's not that a freestyle
prose genre isn't possible. Indeed, there are very interesting
similarities between mix culture with its digging and sampling, and
academic prose with its research and footnoting. Both cultures are
attribution/remix cultures, and props to Miller for foregrounding
their semiotic similarities. It's just that the end result of
Miller's particular experiments generally come up short. For example:
"From now to the beginning let it be like a record spinning. Nets
and bets, tasks and masks, codes and modes, it all just flows. Do
you get my drift?"
"The circuitry of the machines is the constant in this picture; the
software is the embodiment of infinite adaptability, an architecture
of frozen music, unthwarted. Watch the flow: That's the content
versus context scenario of DJ culture. Hardware, wetware, shareware,
software: The invisible machinery of codes that filter the sounds is
omnivorous. Opposites extract."
Stacked up against Ginsberg's "angel-headed hipsters burning for the
ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of
night," Miller's freestyle prose pales considerably. It reads less
like Burroughs or Ferlenghetti (or even Gibson) and more like a train
wreck between a cyber-utopianist Gil Scott Heron on Ecstacy and
Derrida at his most impenetrably obtuse.
The middle, more autobiographical sections of "Rhythm Science" fare
much better. Miller is at his best when he is simply describing his
personal experiences and inspirations.
Even so, Miller's overall approach to prose is generally,
detrimentally oblique. In many ways, "Rhythm Science" attempts to
port the mojo of mix culture to the medium of the prose essay, but
crossing between media is a lot more sticky than crossing between
operating systems, particularly when you're starting from the
visceral/ethereal extreme of media (music) and hoping to arrive at
the encoded/didactic extreme of media (the prose essay).
Poetry seems the most logical bridge between these two extreme media,
but poetry is art, and not all great jazz musicians make great poets.
If "Rhythm Science" is art, it's pretty fragged. If "Rhythm Science"
is academic scholarship, it's pretty loose. For example, Miller
writes, ""Flip the script, open the equation, check the situation.
Guy Debord used to call this style detournement, Sigmund Freud called
it the uncanny – we call it wildstyle." Definitely illuminating in
terms of Spooky's personal influences, but more of an assertion than
an academic argument. I'm inclined to forgive Lev Manovich's
plodding prose for the frequency of his useful insights, and I
gleefully forgive Lester Bangs' illogical ramblings for the sheer
delight of his frolicking prose. But "Rhythm Science" comes off as a
kind of awkward in-between.
Semiotically, written prose doesn't "flow" like mixed audio, or even
freestyle rapping. It's a more strictly encoded medium. If I miss
the exact flow of Spooky's freestyle audio mix, I still land more or
less in the same intended analogical zone, and I have a pleasant trip
getting there. If I miss the exact flow of Miller's freestyle prose
(and I almost always do because of its unapologetic subjectivity), I
get a binary disconnect.
The synthetic "flow" of Spooky's Dj-ing seems intuitive to him. He
has the conceptual ear of an arranger/composer. It's not just the
intriguing source samples that he digs, and it's not just the
physical dexterity of his hands to scratch, cut, and play other
instruments. Spooky's genius as a turntablist has to do with his
overarching understanding of hierarchical rhythmic, tonal, and
The synthetic "flow" of writing is a combination of reason and
prosecraft. You can allude to dope source texts all you want, you
can even synthesize these texts in your own mind to your personal
intellectual satisfaction, but if you lack the prosecraft necessary
to convey the vibe of your intellectual remix to your reader, then
your text will never generatively ascend to the next level; it will
remain a mere sum of its parts. Simply layering memes in prose isn't
enough. The memes have to be interleaved and woven, and on more than
just an instantaneous, syntactic level. Miller himself admits, "The
danger within writing, of taking sampling too far – too much
citation, not enough synthesis – leads to the break with the old
form." When "Rhythm Science" fails, it's not for lack of attempted
synthesis, but for lack of accomplished synthesis.
To his credit, Miller is obviously enjoying the novel process of
porting mix culture approaches to the prose essay. He even seems
aware that his experiment might not be working out as well as
expected. He writes:
"It is as difficult to appropriate the thoughts of others as it is to invent."
"It's a dyslexic shuffle of autopoesis between two undercover agents
who carry their orders clutched in dead hands – the transfer of
information between them is an Inter-relationship between music and
art and writing."
"Have I spoken around the topic too much. That's kind of the point."
Still, Miller's own awareness of the difficulty of his task doesn't
make my reading experience any less obtuse.
IT WORKS IF YOU PLAY IT
"Rhythm Science" works best when I approach it as massive liner notes
to the accompanying CD. The CD is presented as a sort of artistic
"proof" of the book's text, but the audio mix proves so strong an
"argument," it actually backgrounds the book and makes it seem almost
incidental. Miller writes, "At the end of the day, when you press
PLAY on the CD, you don't necessarily care what the DJ was thinking
about. You're just going to see if you like it or not." Amen.
My favorite parts of the CD include text readings by Joyce and Tzara,
both so overboard hypnotically rhythmic that Spooky barely has to
recontextualize them as rap. Various spoken texts are read by their
own authors, and there's even a Debussy piano piece played by Debussy
himself. Here in this other/ether medium of audio, Spooky's
influences are no longer worn, time-shifted memes on a page
("palimpsest," "flanneur"); here they are real-time, pneumatic
personalities. In this other/ether medium of audio, Spooky's
influences are no longer disembodiedly floating in the back of his
mind, they are crisp and crackling at the tips of his fingers. In
other words, his influences are in the mix – a mix that's finally
reaching me; a mix that's deftly narrated; a mix that suddenly
I wonder whether Miller will take offense at my toggling the primacy
of book and CD? I'm hoping Spooky will understand. The book
actually allows itself to be read as supplement. Miller writes, "I
do know that average kids from the street are probably not aware of
the connections between Derrida's deconstructions and turntablism's
mixes, but it's there if they ever come looking, and my own writings
are a place to start." However you read/play it, Miller can hardly
be accused of advantageously pimping hip hop culture to the academic
set. If anything, it's almost the opposite.
The CD appeals to me more than the text because it "reads" as more
genuine, more vital, more crucial to the everyday life of the artist.
Why this should be so brings me to the main value of the book, the
CD, Paul D. Miller, DJ Spooky, and all things pertaining thereof…
I AM THE DJ, I AM WHAT I SPLAY
The single coolest thing about Miller/Spooky is the way he implements
the role of "filter" as a self-preservation mechanism. Spooky's
music is vital not because it's based on some formulated conceptual
theory that panders well to the contemporary academic art set. His
music is vital because its creation is the way in which he maintains
his own identity in a world constantly seeking to erode it.
Miller writes, "There's so much information about who you should be
or what you should be that you're not left with the option of trying
to create a mix of your very self. The mix absorbs almost anything
it can engage – and much it can't."
A seemingly intuitive solution to this dilemma is to become a content
producer rather than a content consumer. The problem is, once
"content producer" becomes your role in contemporary society,
whichever marketer redistributes you, whichever critic evaluates you,
whichever entity ultimately filters and contextualizes you – that
entity gets the last spin on who you are. How to avoid this
conundrum? Simultaneously become both producer and filter. On the
"Rhythm Science" CD, Spooky is remixing remixes of remixes. He even
remixes his own remixes. Once you start filtering yourself, the only
person who can filter you now is a meta-filter. And if you become
you're own infinitely telescoping, self-filtering meta-meta-filter,
who can filter you now? The catch is, in order to maintain your
most-meta position, you have to wake up early and go to sleep late
and swim all day long in fresh streams of steely media, imbibing and
remixing, imbibing and remixing, all in order to stay one step ahead
of the system's constant attempt to meta-name you. Fortunately for
DJ Spooky, he doesn't seem to mind the hours.
What arises is a constant flux of creative variability serving as a
sort of talisman/immunization strategy against commodification. You
ward off stereotypes of yourself by absorbing them and spinning them.
I won't tell you who I am. You'll just misinterpret me anyway.
Instead, I'll take who you say I am (which is skewed) and own it just
long enough to hybridize it and spit it back out at you. Now do you
know who I am? Guess again; here comes the 2.0 remix. And on and on
and on. In the 50s, Ralph Ellison declared, "I am an invisible man.
When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or
figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything
except me." Spooky transcends invisibility via the remix. In
situations that defy reason, the most effective strategies are often
Miller writes, "By Dj-ing, making art, and writing simultaneously, I
tried to create a new role that's resonant with web culture: to
function as content provider, producer, and critic all at the same
time. It's role consolidation as digital performance." Ultimately,
it's this tactical approach that makes the "Rhythm Science" project
worth wading through. Spooky is one of the few artists
simultaneously prolific and optimistic enough to perpetually speak
the ever-churning language of new media. Consequently, most of his
static detractors will wind up eating his dust, because his dust
doesn't appear to be settling any time soon.