Resistance and the Art of Doing “Nothing”

– by Sam Clevenger

Sam Clevenger is a Ph.D. student in the Physical Cultural Studies program at the University of Maryland, College Park.

As I think about it now, there doesn’t have to be a reason why I listen to the Rugby, England band Spiritualized so much.  But, lately I’ve been thinking there is.  For some reason, since I was in high school, I’ve felt a personal connection to their music more than any other band or musician, a connection that persists.  I don’t listen for distraction, or to get away from, as Neil Young called it, “the day-to-day running around.”  It’s more than that for me: it is as if I learn about myself through their words and music.  And some nights ago while driving home and listening to them, I realized part of such a learning process undoubtedly entails me “misreading” the meaning of their lyrics, and placing their reconfigured meaning to help inform other thoughts in my head.  I misread Spiritualized’s songs to inform my own life.

I don’t know exactly why, but I do feel a connection to the lyrics espoused by the singer Jason Pierce: his songs are often about hope, hope for, perhaps undeserved, redemption, and about perceiving the world as this chaotic, uncontrollable place of unintended conditions.  His words come across as powerfully simple and direct, laying bare things he is simultaneously nervous about, and yet calmly and slowly realizing.  The music is purposefully repetitive, designed to be dependent upon chordal phases and their prolonged endurance, and oblivious to any antsy pangs for change in the melody brought on by listeners.  Throughout the structure, design, and expression of the songs, I find blueprints for embodied resistance.  Particularly now, being a doctoral student within a department devoted to the expansion of the “exercise is medicine” mantra, I find myself experiencing Pierce’s words and songs as moments of personally learning how to resist.

Through my years of listening to Spiritualized, Pierce’s songs seem like case studies on realizing and reacting to some of the dominating values of Late Capitalism and “Liquid Modernity,” the dizzying, chaotic continuation of modern industrial life, the seeming permanence of socioeconomic uncertainty, the increasing privatization of what is already alienated.  These systems dominate my life experience, and I find myself deciphering Pierce’s words and music to uncover ways to think and resist those systems’ values.  Pierce’s songs entail stories of drug use, of failure, calls for desperate redemption, and in their authentic aura they are connected to the conditions and lived experience of Pierce’s life.  But, when I see pictures of Pierce wearing his notorious shirt exclaiming, “Drugs, Not Jobs,” or hear lyrics like “don’t just do something, sit around instead” or “I like to sit around, and just contemplating sitting ’round,” my thoughts unconsciously rush to utilize them as planks in an personal framework resembling George Orwell’s character Winston Smith: desiring to exist within the conditions I simultaneously want to disrupt.

One form of resistance I find through Pierce’s lyrics regards the rethinking of physical inactivity, with Pierce seeming to implicitly link doing “nothing” with reaching a level of enlightened understanding outside the confines of the dominating system of knowledge.    My vulnerability to such a view is heightened by my own exposure as a doctoral student to the machinations of scientific discourse regarding the active body: seeing people take physiological experiments and discoveries and weave them uncritically into an argument on how people ought to live.  For me, many of the songs of Spiritualized speak of the necessary wasting of time, of the needlessness of tasks and brutuality of efficiency, of the reasons why doing “nothing is good enough for me.”  It may have nothing to do with the intent Pierce had in mind, but it comes full force within the context of my own experience studying in a field in which the centrality of living a healthy life lies in the particularlity of active living.  Quite a leap in appropriation, but it still happens in my head.

Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” argued, among other things, that industrial modernity wrought changes in the life-world of art, bringing dramatic consequences in terms of its political uses.  According to Andrew Robinson in “Walter Benjamin: Art, Aura, and Authenticity,” Benjamin saw the delinking of art from tradition as opening the opportunity for art to become works of political practice.  The “loss of tradition” brought “the work of art into the distinct life-situation of the reader, viewer or listener. The work of art can be disconnected from its past uses and brought into new combinations by the reader.”  As Benjamin wrote, “The mass is a matrix from which all traditional behavior toward works of art issues today in a new form.”

Perhaps I am indirectly appropriating this mode of thinking by enjoying Spiritualized’s art (and I am shamelessly and sloppily defining music as “art”) as my way of performing a presentist “misreading,” interpreting the experience in a way purposefully divergent from whatever its authentic aim.  Placed within an Marxist-informed perspective, I see resistance as the subversion of the dominant ethos of a society through the use of technologically-enhance artistic mediums, severed from tradition, to showcase the absurdities of modern industrial life.  Thus, as other scholars following and including Benjamin have written, slapstick comedies like Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times become exemplars of cultural subversion, with Chaplin’s character as embodying how to counter the logic of modern industrial life.  I hear Jason Pierce singing of the needlessness of having to “do something,” and use it within my own experiential milieu.

The embodied resistance I find in Spiritualized steps out of the historical lineage of music, politics, and popular protest.  There is an undoubtedly an indebtedness to previous musical forms and styles that is simultaneously severed from the previous political conditions or expressions of protest and resistance.  For instance, Spiritualized’s music is indebted to the influence and structures of other earlier popular American styles like gospel and blues, but is surely separated from certain political aspects like the blues’ connection to community and identity construction.  Within the postmodern splintering of traditional popular musical practices into nuanced, contextually contingent forms and styles, music like Spiritualized reflects the potential for embodied musical politics, a vehicle for resistant embodiments encased as responses to one’s own experiences and tribulations.  Declarations of inactivity or declaring to “don’t just do something” become unintended ways for listeners (like myself) to use them as tools to rethink and be critical.

It would be ridiculous to argue that a band, decontextualized from the forces that have surrounded their artistry, lyrics, the circumstances of their artistic experiences, intended the cultural meanings that I have expounded upon here.  But, in some (strange?) way, the lyrics and music of Spiritualized have informed my perspective on inactivity as a argumentative form of embodied resistance to the logic of capitalism.  Pierce’s words have been one of the primary lens through which I have tried to figure what kind of a person I want to be within the world I lived in.  Though I am decontextualizing the artistic aura of Spiritualized and retrofitting it within the context of my experience, its reproduction within modern capitalism has given me the opportunity to infuse my misreadings with my own political formations and conditions.  The lyrics, despite their intent, become meaningful within my moments of bodily experience.  I become informed by the art of someone not intending to inform me.  I’m not quite sure yet what that fully means, nor currently prepared to figure it out.  But, it surely means something.

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