Throbbing Gristle & Deleuze
“We need to search for methods to break the preconceptions, modes of unthinking acceptance and expectations that make us, within our constructed behavior patterns, so vulnerable to Control” – Genesis Breyer P-Orridge
Toward the beginning of the semester when we first started discussing Deleuze’s philosophy of immanence and process ontology, I sensed some resonance between Deleuze and a collective of artists whose work has been important to my own understanding of music and the possibilities it can hold: Throbbing Gristle. I decided to write my final paper on Throbbing Gristle after finding an essay relating them to Deleuze (explained further on), and figured I’d try to work out some of my ideas on the blog before I present my topic (I’ll play some of the videos I include here in class, but feel free to take a listen if you are unfamiliar with TG).
Formed in the mid-1970s and consisting of members of the performance art group COUM Transmissions (infamously described by a British politician as “wreckers of civilization”), Throbbing Gristle approached music as a way to evolve and disseminate their own ideas of how sound can work on pure affect and lead toward a de-subjectification of their listeners’ understanding of control systems. Credited with developing the genre of Industrial Music, TG worked with home-built electronics, synthesizers, various home-built effects units, found sounds, processed noise, and lyrics using the cut-up technique developed by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin to create some of the most intense and influential records of the 1970′s.
Interestingly, Throbbing Gristle created most of their tracks in a live setting, improvising and working off one another. Similarly, lyrics were either developed live on stage by vocalist Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, or free-associated as a group and then cut-up and reassambled. As P-Orridge says,
“Our sound is describing our collective and individual emotions and visions. And the sound that came from what we thought and saw … was second. Because that sound is completely inseparable from the way we felt at any given moment, which is why we did so much live, and why so much happened live. Whatever happened live was exactly what was going through us all at that time… And you can’t imitate that or mimic it or copy it” (Re/Search Magazine).
TG were always focused on the process of creation and the ways their own percepts and affects influenced their work. Though influenced by the urban-industrial landscape of London, TG’s work was not a representation of that world, but rather an active, creative process that sought to transform and rethink the world around them, an idea which resonates with Deleuze’s own interest in how an artists’ engagement with an artwork can enact an immanent philosophy.
Similarly, as they considered themselves to be non-musicians, TG’s artistic mission was more about pushing the limits of sound and to advance a philosophy that rejected control by assembling and re-contextualizing the detritus and unsavory elements of modernity; external forces such as industrial noise, serial killers, Nazi propaganda, Christian extremism and cult phenomena, and all sorts of violent and “taboo” sex found its way into their work. As they bluntly put it on one of their LPs, TG sought “Entertainment Through Pain,” a kind of deterritorialization of the harmonics found in popular music in order to elicit an affectual response.
“Slug Bait (Live at Southampton)” from The Second Annual Report of Throbbing Gristle (1977)
“Slug Bait (Live at Brighton)” from The Second Annual Report of Throbbing Gristle (1977)
While one could make the argument that TG worked solely in shock aesthetics (and trust me, many have, and even more have unsuccessfully imitated it), this would ignore the core of their intent: that by working with affective elements in their art (noise, intense frequencies, graphic imagery), they could instigate a break in their listeners’ habituated realities that have been ingrained by powers that seek to dominate and control us. Michael Goddard writes, “by simulating these cult phenomena, TG were able to examine the demonic mechanisms by which individuals are subjugated and turned into a pliable mass by organizations of sound and language, with a view to reversing these processes into a process of deconditioning… [making] reference to entirely immanent processes of desubjectification and subjectification” (Goddard 166). TG’s interest in dark subject matter was partly a reflection of the world they sensed; however, this material also serves to remind listeners how these forces are not outside our world, but rather a part of the world in which we are complicit. Indeed, “shock was used in a tactical way, not to immediately actualize anomalous phenomena by representing them but to tap their unactualized virtual forces by maintaining them in virtuality” (Goddard 169).
Virtuality helps to understand TG’s aesthetic, for they remained interested in leaving their work open-ended and in the realm of possibility and potential: the potential for unexpected relations, the potential for change, the potential for new ideas to emerge, transform, and proliferate. This virtuality is best seen in their formless and improvised live performances, their use of home-built electronics to create and manipulate unknown and unpredictable sounds, and their lyrical structures based on cut-up and improvisation. To me, this kind of virtuality lends itself to a comparison to Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the smooth and striated, in that they aimed to deterritorialize ideas about how popular music could be conceived, executed, and understood.
This interest is taken one step further in Throbbing Gristle’s experimentation in undermining expectations, leaving room for the band to explore, evolve, and remind their audience that the function of art is to create new modes of expression to stimulate thought. For example, they released their D.o.A. album of harsh, industrial noise followed immediately after by the “United” single, a song that can best be described as a sappy Abba-inspired love song. Similarly, the cover of their 20 Jazz Funk Greats LP belies the content on the album; the image of the band standing on a cliffside wearing leisure suits and cheery smiles on a sunny day was deliberately used to disorient and disrupt expectations, as well as to raise questions about how the media/advertisers package products to implore us to buy without thinking.
Cosey Fanni Tutti on the artwork for 20 Jazz Funk Greats
By seemingly working within the realm of pop consumer culture through pop tracks like “United” or “Hot on the Heels of Love” or by reinventing their image on 20 Jazz Funk Greats, Throbbing Gristle resisted being pigeon-holed (anything is possible in the world of TG) and raised important questions about how different images and sounds work upon our habituated ideas. Similarly, by creating assemblages of noise, ambient texture, rhythm, synthesizers, found sound, and lyrics referencing the occult, violence, and other ‘dirty’ things, TG created affectual and haptic sonic environments that strove for unexpected connections and an engagement with a plane of immanence with no recourse to power structures that seek to delimit and control our becomings with the world (and all its gory details).
“Walls of Sound” from D.o.A. The Third & Final Report of Throbbing Gristle (1978)
“Still Walking” from 20 Jazz Funk Greats (1979)
“Persuasion” from 20 Jazz Funk Greats (1979)
Throbbing Gristle goes disco.
“Hot on the Heels of Love” from 20 Jazz Funk Greats (1979)
There is a lot here to figure out, but my main interest in investigating Throbbing Gristle vis-a-vis Deleuze came from Michael Goddard’s essay “Sonic and Cultural Noise as Production of the New: The Industrial Music Media Ecology of Throbbing Gristle,” in which he relates the art/music practices of TG to Deleuze and Guattari’s idea that the production of the new is always possible in art, philosophy, and science. While Goddard raises many interesting points in his essay, I would like to go one step further by showing how Throbbing Gristle’s music-making and aesthetic practices relate to a wholly Deleuzean philosophy of immanence and process ontology based on their ideas of deterritorialization, the rhizome, affects and precepts, the refrain, and the smooth and striated. Particularly in connection to Deleuze’s ideas concerning control societies and the “new forms of resistance” that must be created to fight them, Throbbing Gristle’s sense of the world (however dark or unpleasant TG’s sense may be) rejects universals and insists on change and becoming through a rethinking of the systems of control that delimit dynamic engagement and continual becoming. Ultimately, TG created some really powerful (and endlessly influential) music that works so well because it utilizes a sonic palette that is entirely original, varied, and disorienting (or should I say deterritorializing?), while also forging connections with the world and its potential for change.
Any suggestions or comments would be much appreciated!