Poétique du mixtape and Kierkegaard

Last year I happened upon Stéphane Girard's impressive book Poétique du mixtape in a Montréal bookstore. Since then I've read a good chunk, though haven't yet finished. Girard insistently makes the case for a poetics of the mix that is not dependent on the so-called "disco experience," as it is articulated by, among others, American ethnomusicologist Kai Fikentscher in his classic book You better work: Underground dance music in New York City. That is, Girard wants to ground the phenomenon of what DJs do in a framework that doesn't rely on a real-time dynamic exchange between a DJ and an audience of dancers. He carries this project forward also in an online thematic dossier (kind of an open-ended special issue of a journal) called L'art des DJ, which is an extension of the Pop-en-stock book series, of which Girard's is a part. (Girard writes in French, by the way).

It's not hard to understand why this is important for Girard's project, because, since the supposedly first commercially released disco "DJ mix" Disco Par-r-r-ty, (which, by the way, I played on the show in the past month), the mix tape, the mix CD, the mixcloud mix, and so on, have proliferated. And now the quarantine streaming bonanza is adding a new twist. That original experience of dancing in a club to a DJ who is improvising in real time -- sometimes playing a record *for/to a specific person* there, as Larry Levan was known to do -- and which sprang miraculously from the sum of a set of cultural ingredients, just makes sense to anyone who has experienced it. That's kind of the whole point. So it took me a while to come around to the notion that that theory or practice or dynamic or whatever you want to call it isn't invalidated or displaced by devising other theoretical frameworks to explain recorded mixes, because you can't deny that those exist either!

Girard proposes (and here I am really not going to do justice to the theoretical sophistication of his writing) a (virtually) exhaustive set of frames of reference with which a listener can interpret the mix as Saussurian utterances -- everything from the linguistic content of the pseudonyms of the artists included in the mix to the geographic distribution of the labels, the genres spanned, all the little choices DJs make and that in some way contribute to the construction of an identity. As I say, I am still midway through the book, but I am particularly looking forward to his case study of famed Montréaler Tiga, who has made a career out of his constructed intriguing identity as a DJ.

As someone who thinks about his record collection a lot, and the way labels, scenes, cities, and looser influences create a network of potential connections to traverse in a mix, I can't disagree with the thrust of Girard's project. All kinds of latent meanings are left behind in the recorded wake of a DJ at work, and some of them may even be intentional. But I can say that the most satisfying creations are the accidental ones, the 'next-track' that comes to you in the last 30 seconds before the song runs out. Or the ones that feel odd in the moment but make sense when you listen back to the whole thing. I don't think those are the result of categorical analysis in the moment, per se. Planning always helps, of course, and you can achieve different results with different levels of pre-selection and preparation. But there is an element of instinct that is always leaving the scene of the crime before you have a chance to congratulate it. "Who was that masked stranger?" And more importantly, "Will they ever come back????"

Recently I dusted off a book from my undergrad. Memories of struggling, late at night, to comprehend just what Søren Kierkegaard was trying to say about Abraham and Isaac, faith, ethical paradox, and just what all this might have to do with existentialism and could I think of something clever to write that would take up 10 pages before 8 am. Well, those memories did not prepare me at all for the real surprise that is the pleasure of reading the other work published with my edition of Fear and Trembling, namely Repetition.

Kierkegaard's perplexing use of pseudonyms (or rather personas), which tripped up John the undergrad; his refusal to nail down anything definite, to John's great frustration : all now very sensible! "Keep it loose, man. Don't worry. Unless you're a square, you'll get it." Mischievous, funny, personable, slightly fictional, inscrutable and artificial. Lovely!

In Repetition, Kierkegaard (or rather, the book's author, Constantin Constantius) writes about the theatre (and farce, in particular), and about the scope of possibility residing in different sets of personalities (did someone say personas?) and moods that the audience can try out for themselves by watching a play. To my mind, this seems to say rather a lot about what DJs do. I will indulge in some cherry picking of passages to get my point across.

"There is probably no young person with any imagination who has not at some time been enthralled by the magic of the theater and wished to be swept along into that artificial actuality in order like a double to see and hear himself and to split himself up into every possible variation of himself, and nevertheless in such a way that every variation is still himself. [...] In such a self-vision of the imagination, the individual is not an actual shape but a shadow, or, more correctly, the actual shape is invisibly present and therefore is not satisfied to cast one shadow, but the individual has a variety of shadows, all of which resemble him and which momentarily have equal status as being himself." (p.154)

Constantin claims that people who never "grow up" and move past this stage are the same kind of people who "are not even capable of appearing in person on Judgement Day" (p.155), but we'll ignore that for the moment. After all, Constantin, has not yet settled in his mind whether or not repetition really exists.

"In a mountain region where day in and day out one hears the wind relentlessly play the same invariable theme, one may be tempted for a moment to abstract from this imperfection and delight in this metaphor of the consistency and sureness of human freedom. One perhaps does not reflect that there was a time when the wind, which for many years has had its dwelling among these mountains, came as a stranger to this area, plunged wildly, absurdly through the canyons, down into the mountain caves, produced now a shriek almost startling to itself, then a hollow roar from which it itself fled, then a moan, the source of which it itself did not know, then from the abyss of anxiety a sigh so deep that the wind itself grew frightened and momentarily doubted that it dared reside in this region, then a gay lyrical waltz--until, having learned to know its instrument, it worked all of this into the melody it renders unaltered day after day. Similarly, the individual's possibility wanders about in its own possibility, discovering now one possibility, now another. But the individual's possibility does not want only to be heard; it is not like the mere passing of the wind. It is also gestaltende [configuring] and therefore wants to be visible at the same time. That is why each of its possibilities is an audible shadow." (p.155)

Whether in physical media or files or playlists, every DJ builds a personal collection of pieces of music (little friends!) that each represent a possible variation or mood of themselves. The DJ (or one of their personae) is always the first listener, the first dancer. The records speak for them (or possibly don't), perhaps even with "equal status as being" themself (or possibly not), but perpetually at a remove and always ever momentarily.

"But the individual does not want actually to hear himself. That will not do. At the very same moment the cock crows and the twilight shapes vanish, the nocturnal voices fall silent. If they keep on, then we are in an altogether different realm where all this takes place under the disquieting supervision of responsibility, then we approach the demonic. Then, in order not to gain an impression of his actual self, the hidden individual needs an environment as superficial and transient as the shapes, as the frothing foam of words that sound without resonance." (p.156)

I would just add that this whole superficial exploration of possibility does indeed produce resonance, but not always how you expect it to, and not the same for everyone, so I find it's better not to try for it, and just let what-have-you happen.


Jul 2, 2020 — Addendum from the supplement to Repetition in the Hong & Hong edition (p.327):

From sketch of The Concept of Anxiety:

Earnestness is acquired originality.
        Different from habit—which is the disappearance of self awareness. (See Rosenkranz, Psych.)
Therefore genuine repetition is—earnestness.—JP III 3795 (Pap. V B 69) n.d., 1844

From notes for Concluding Unscientific Postscript:

... (2) (a) Objectivity stresses: what is said; the summary of thought-determinants.
          (b) Subjectivity stresses: *how it is said; infinite passion is crucial, not its content, for its content is in fact itself.

*This is also dialectical with respect to time, continual repetition that is just as difficult as the first appropriation. This is because man is a synthesis of the temporal and of the eternal, every moment out upon "70,000 fathoms."

In the moment of decision it appears as if the decision were in the present moment, and with that it changes into a striving. For example, prayer—it was quite right once to sink into God and then remain there, but since man is a finite being, to pray means continual striving to achieve the true inwardness of prayer.—JP V 5791, 5792 (Pap. VI B 17, 18) n.d., 1844-45


Fikentscher, Kai. 2000. "You better work!": Underground dance music in New York city. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press.

Girard, Stéphane. 2018. Poétique du mixtape. Montréal: Les Éditions de Ta Mère, coll. «Pop-en-stock».

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1834. Gjentaglesen [Repetition]. Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. 1983. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.