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The Political Art of Bob Dylan
David Boucher & Gary Browning, eds.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
£45.00, 178 pages, ISBN 1-4039-1682-9 (hardback).

Claude Chastagner
Universite Paul Valery - Montpellier III

Wiggle to the front, wiggle to the rear
Wiggle 'til it opens, wiggle 'til it shuts
Bob Dylan

This slim, sleek book, published by Palgrave Macmillan under an elegant silver cover graced by a 1965 black and white photograph of Bob Dylan (the text's only illustration) is a collection of papers (augmented by a few articles) given at a panel on Dylan at the London School of Economics in 2000. It should have been entitled "The Chimes of Freedom: The Political Art of Bob Dylan" but the title had already been used by Mike Marqusee whose 2003 book, Chimes of Freedom. The Politics of Bob Dylan's Art, was reviewed here a few months ago. However, despite the similarity of their titles, the two books bear little resemblance. Where Marqusee focused on the seminal albums released by Dylan in the 60s, Boucher and Browning have chosen to cover the whole spectrum of Dylan's production, including his most recent titles. Besides, their title is somewhat misleading, unless the word "political" is taken in its broader sense, for less than Dylan's involvement with the left, the counter-culture or protest music, what is at stake here is to what extent Dylan felt entrapped within the alternative reality he had contributed to create, the hedonism of the drug-culture or the self-righteousness of the folk revival crowd, and the various paths he pursued to escape from these prisons.

What is particularly striking here is that out of the six essays, four have opted for a comparative, parallel study of Dylan's work, sometimes with the most unexpected figures: Kant, Adorno, Lyotard, and Pete Seeger and Ewan MacColl. To say the least, except on one instance, the results, in my humble opinion, are far from being convincing. What the whole endeavour amounts to, despite heavy rhetorics and intensive name dropping, is a fruitless, and pedestrian juxtaposition of careers, theories, or strategies, which may indeed have a few elements in common (or may not, for that matter), but whose conflation never produces the illuminations we are promised. Besides, all but one of the authors readily fall into the obvious traps of labelling Dylan a "poet," without re-defining what the term means in the context of popular music, and utterly neglecting the musical dimension of his production, the quality of the rendition, of the performance, in short, all that makes a song different from a poem. Not that the literary dimension of Dylan's work should be denied, but this dimension cannot be fully assessed if the specificity of Dylan's medium is not taken into account. As Christophe Lebold has recently demonstrated in a masterly manner in his (I hope) soon-to-be published dissertation, the literary and political importance of Dylan results precisely from a mix of various elements, the text, the music, the persona, the voice, the instrumentation, etc. To neglect one of these, to focus on "the written text" only is to condemn the relevance of any commentary in advance.

In the first essay, Gambler picks up the image of the drifter, which nicely complements Lebold's reading of Dylan as a stowaway: in a world gone awry, where politics has become distorted, the only attitude left is to embrace "the romantic counter-image of the outlaw or drifter"[5]. Dylan's sense of alienation, of estrangement from the self is best reflected for Gambler in two categories of songs, songs of redemption and songs of survival where Dylan develops the persona of the drifter, choosing alternative routes to recover the authenticity and the simplicity of the American Dream. If the author does comment on Dylan's numerous apocalyptic visions and imagery, he unfortunately does not question the surface of these images and is content with the usual, taken-for-granted meaning of the word, never mentioning the revelatory dimension of the apocalyptic image, which appears implicitly in the songs beneath the traditional sense of impending catastrophe.

In the second text, Richard Brown endeavours to prove the connection between Dylan and Kant, via the concept of critique of the faculty of judgement that Dylan seems to have developed precisely in reaction to the hollowness and unreality of the political world. The idea in itself is far from being uninteresting, for indeed most of Dylan's commentaries use the oblique and rely more on the valorisation of feelings and emotions than on rigorous philosophical discourse. But one wonders if it really was necessary to summon Kant to make such a discovery. Even more surprising are the allusions to Badiou (sometimes spelt Badou!) and his notion of "disorienting event." What the French philosopher adds to this reading of Dylan, I still wonder. Besides, a rigorous definition of what the author implies by "feeling," as similar to or distinct from what Kant means, would have been welcome.

The most convincing piece is also the humblest. Michael Jones merely focuses on the accusation of "Judas" cast by a fan in 1966 during a concert in Manchester and uses the term as a launching pad for a very convincing, personal, but at the same time illuminating development on what was at stake in the charge, namely the opposition between two conceptions of folk music (acoustic/electric) and beyond, the opposition between British and American conceptions of popular music (Pete Seeger vs. Ewan MacColl). The enduring conflict between the authentic and the fake, between the genuine and the commercial, the acoustic and the electric is here imaginatively explored by Jones who concludes that behind the masks of aggressiveness or detached coolness worn by Dylan was a wounded, disarmed individual whose numerous metamorphoses were just the means he had chosen to continue his exploration of the human condition.

The limits of the strategy of juxtaposition used by the authors appear most clearly in the next two essays. One is by Lawrence Wilde and uses the theoretical work of Adorno, a staunch opponent of popular culture (if any), to paradoxically demonstrate that Dylan's art has reached a high level of expression. His contention is that Dylan's songs conform to the criteria Adorno had defined for authentic art and that these songs thus represent a form of art of resistance against the forces of the market, a theme often tackled by the scholars of the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies (Hall, Hebdige, Frith, etc.). The second, by Gary Browning, identifies connections between Dylan and Lyotard, in terms of changing styles and standpoints, of expressing their revolt against convention and hierarchy. The snag is that Adorno and Lyotard represent two widely and wildly different perspectives, namely the modern and the postmodern. Admittedly, it could have made reading stimulating to submit Dylan's work to both perspectives and analyse the outcome of such a conflation. But this is unfortunately not the case. The authors merely develop their own points of view, and no attempt is made, even in the introduction, to make sense of the apparently unreconcilable contradictions of their readings.

Lastly, David Boucher engages in what he purports to be the most provocative and challenging essay of the collection, in a deconstruction of the various interpretative methods applied so far to Dylan's work. Aiming at proving that they are all seriously flawed, he identifies the problem as coming from both a lack of adequate vocabulary and inappropriate questioning. Using the theories of Collingwood, Oakeshoot and Lorca, he stresses that some songs make propositions about the world (and thus may benefit from recontextualisation), while others are non-propositional, their poetic imagery being thus adulterated by trying to search for meaningful contexts. However, the reader may wonder if such heavy theoretical background was necessary to reach the lame conclusion that Dylan's songs encompass various styles and types of poetry and that consequently, different questions should be asked of and about them.

Altogether, a disappointing collection from which the reader learns little and which unfortunately confirms the common belief that popular music is best left untouched by scholars...


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