Showing posts with label Sacrifice. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sacrifice. Show all posts

Thursday, April 16, 2009

To Those Who Live and Die For Rock ‘n’ Roll

Rock music is, and shall always be, a hopelessly overcrowded field, analogous to the Darwinian state of nature, in which only the strongest survive. A recent documentary directed Sacha Gervasi, ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL (2008) – reviewed here by Los Angeles Times’ critic Kenneth Turan – reveals the harsh truth of this reality. Although I only vaguely remember hearing about them, once, apparently – about twenty-six years ago or so – Anvil was the hottest thing in heavy metal. The band never caught on, though, despite making a rather big splash early on in its career, with an album titled Metal on Metal (1982). Turan writes, “Once upon a time, interviews with superstars such as Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, Motorhead’s Lemmy and Guns n’ Roses’ Slash make clear, this Canadian band was the hottest thing in metal, touring with the likes of Whitesnake, Bon Jovi and other groups that ended up selling millions of records.” Yet despite the high praise from peers, and despite the historical significance of Metal on Metal, fame proved elusive for the band. Nonetheless, the band has soldiered on for a quarter century. Kenneth Turan argues that ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL is not so much about the failed career of a metal band as about “eternally hopeful rockers who cling to optimism about a glorious future despite harsh reality’s repeated blows.”

There’s another way to think about the story of Anvil, though, one that seems to me to be about more than bad luck, poor sales, or poor management: it is about the sacrifice made to honor a set of cultural values, in this case, rock ‘n’ roll. Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison – they and many others have sacrificed for it. But what, precisely, does it mean to sacrifice for something? Georges Bataille would say sacrifice is the wasteful expenditure of something to honor a particular set of cultural values. In “The Notion of Expenditure” (1933), Bataille explores what he calls the principle of loss, that is, of extravagant wasteful expenditure. Examples of unproductive, wasteful expenditure include: “luxury, mourning, war, cults, the construction of sumptuary monuments, games, spectacles, arts, perverse sexual activity (i.e., deflected from genital finality) – all these represent activities which . . . have no end beyond themselves.” These activities constitute a group “characterized by the fact that in each case the accent is placed on a loss that must be as great as possible in order for that activity to take on its true meaning,” that is, a loss that must be both considerable and extravagant. Stated another way: For any cultural activity to have real value, the loss must be maximized – excessive. For example, the value of diamonds to their owner is determined by how great is the loss in terms of financial expenditure: the more unreasonable and extravagant the expenditure, the greater the value of the diamond jewels. Bataille writes: “Jewels must not only be beautiful and dazzling (which would make the substitution of imitations possible): one sacrifices a fortune, preferring a diamond necklace; such a sacrifice is necessary for the constitution of this necklace’s fascinating character.” In other words, if you aren’t willing to sacrifice for something, it isn’t a value at all.

This principle justifies the inevitable continuation of warfare: as losses, i.e., deaths and maimings, increase, a nation’s stake in a war escalates. As the deaths remorselessly accumulate, the easier it becomes to justify the war’s continuation because the stakes have grown higher. By the continuation of the war, the nation consequently becomes increasingly indebted to those who have died and have been severely maimed in battle; the acknowledgment of this mounting debt ensures that the soldiers’ sacrifices are not in vain – that they will not become non-productive expenditure (that they “died for nothing”). The principle of mounting debt as a justification for continued sacrifice applies to the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle all too well – rather like a gambler who cannot quit gambling because that would mean his tremendous financial sacrifice was all for nothing – just non-productive sacrifice (loss).

Comparisons to the mock documentary THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984) are inevitable – in his review, Turan likens ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL to Rob Reiner’s popular pastiche of metal music and musicians – except that the story of Anvil is “real life.” Such a comparison is fine, as long as we recognize that THIS IS SPINAL TAP reveals the way certain cultural values, despite their centrality to the culture, are consistently denied or degraded. In contrast to Reiner’s film, ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL doesn’t deny or degrade the impulse to sacrifice for rock ‘n’ roll, but rather celebrates it, attempting to transform non-productive expenditure into productive sacrifice.