Blog Post

Every Now and Then I Fall Apart

With the help of Bonnie Tyler's 1983 #1 hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” I'm still trying to figure out what differentiates Adorno from what he calls cultural critics in "Cultural Criticism and Society."  

My friend Erik, who because he understands Faulkner is hipper than I am, sent me this video, “Total Eclipse of the Heart: the Literal Video Version”.

The video is the one from 1983 you might remember watching rerun on VH1 in 1992, but with “Persephone Maewyn” singing new lyrics by “dascottjr.”  The lyrics are a literal rendition of the video shots: instead of having the background singer singing “turn around” as the song begins, the video opens with the background singer singing “pan the room” (the melody is the same) as the camera pans the room.  And “pan the room” is written out, made literal, made into letters, as subtitles.  It’s worth watching.  Go watch.  I’ll wait.

I can’t know for sure, but I suspect that the initial impulse behind the literal video was to make fun of Bonnie, her hair, and her gang of mutant public school boys.  “Pan the room” is immediately followed by “Random use of candles, empty bottles, and cloth,” and that “random” as a word is not random at all: it's a comment, a criticism, the first of many not-quite literal jokes about how stupid so much of the video is.  And it works: the literal accounts of what are happening on the screen make you notice that the video is even more silly than you remembered when you were half-paying attention to it on Night Flight.  But in its criticism-by-literalization, it seems to me that the new video "fancies [itself] superior" to the original video, as Adorno put it.  Like Adorno’s cultural critic, the literal video imagines that it stands apart and above from the thing that it is mocking—-the cultural of 80s videos, the pretension of pseudo-art, the strangeness of a bright-eyed zombie teen-age boys, or Bonnie Tyler in a men’s suit.  The literalized video is sort of a version of a David Denby movie review in The New Yorker--cultural criticism that deludes itself that it stands above the thing it criticizes (aside: do other people also find their entire Tuesday wrecked when Anthony Lane has not written the movie reviews for that week?). 

But then the clutch of the dialectical transmission is put in, and everything seems different than at first.  The mock video becomes even more annoying than the original video.  The woman who is singing Bonnie’s part sings ok—-much better than I do, for sure—-but she doesn’t sing nearly as well as Bonnie, whose talent lies in making punchy even a line like “Living on a powder keg and giving off sparks” —-it’s sort of like opera, or like Meatloaf (which is not surprising, since the song was written by Jim Steinman, who also wrote "Paradise By the Dashboard Light," which uncannily blurred the line between life and art for me at age 16).  And while there is some pleasure in anticipating the cleverness of the new literal lyrics, I got pretty bored by it after a few minutes.  As the number of literal comments add up, you get a new respect for the bizarreness of the video (inspired, according to Wikipedia, by the 1976 film “Futureworld,” a remake of the 1973 sci-fi film “Westworld” written by Michael Crichton), if for no other reason than the crazy number of shots and cuts and scenarios that it presents.  When I went and watched the original video again, I found myself thinking not “this is so ridiculous” but “wow there are a lot of shots in just a few seconds of this scene."  Really, even taking into account my ambivalent attitude toward 80s reverb, there's a reason it was #1.  It's pretty good.  Now into a higher gear,  the video, its nutty artiness and pop-operatic singing, mocks the mocker.  The repetition of “turn around” acts like the volta in a sonnet, only it keeps happening, from start to finish.  The literal version gets swamped, blown up by all that powder that Bonnie was sitting on.

And here is where you get to the really interesting part of Adorno’s argument: what has happened when the turn turns around?  What happens in this “literal” interpretation?  What happens, maybe, in any literal version? What do you call it when the video/song falls apart every now and then?  Adorno insists that the cultural critic making the mock video "is necessarily of the same essence" as that which gets criticized. *Necessarily*: there is no option.  And the necessity becomes initially clear in the literal fact that the new video is part of the same object: it is redoing, redubbing, the first video, a criticism that does not stand at a distance from the video but which is actually, literally, part of the video.  The essence is the video; the video expresses the essence.  And the essence is only available, only becomes something to think about, as the video turns around, as it falls apart.

Since this essence appears as a result of the little bit of falling apart, it is very different from what, say, idealists like Rush call “The Spirit of the Radio.”  Paul (the saint, not the Beatle) famously said the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life, and I think Neil Peart would probably agree as he practices triplets on his copy of The Fountainhead.  But the literal remake of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” suggests that both Saint Paul and Neil Peart are wrong (even if Paul is a great writer and Neil is an even better drummer).  Literal means (among other things) of the letter, and the literal Total Eclipse meant, in some sense, to kill the spirit of the video (criticism killed the video star), to kill-off its affectation as ideology, as vanity, as bad art.  It is certainly true that the video falls apart not every now and then but at the moment of criticism.  But it doesn't die.  Instead, the literal letter also gives life.  Criticism renews the video (literally), makes it more interesting than it was at first, and does so in ways that are hard to predict.  The effort of the cultural critic to debunk the essence ends up bringing it out more: after literal criticism, aesthetic objects get more interesting, not less interesting, and they get more interesting as *criticism* falls apart too.

It would take an article, slowly written, to really sort out the essence that pops out of the falling apart video. And though I live in the world of Bonnie, I study the Renaissance (there were a lot of songs falling apart then too, now and then). But since I'm also still thinking about blogs, and whether they are Satan's spawn, it seems to me that we have, in part, Bonnie's video to thank for the existence of blogs at all, as least every now and then.  For one part of that essence that comes out as a result of the literal version is a short history of consciousness since 1973.  Again according to Wikipedia, “Futureworld” (the film the video was inspired by) was the first feature film to use 3D CGI, while “Westworld” (which “Futureworld” was a sequel to) was the first film to use  “2D computer generated images (CGI) during scenes showing the point of view of the robotic gunslinger.” I don't know if that is true, and I am not going to do the research to find out.  Nevertheless, maybe what emerges between the version with Bonnie singing and the version with the literalized lyrics is something that falls apart every now and then: "the point of view of the robotic gunslinger." 

But how can a robot be a gunslinger?  Robots can’t be loose canons—isn’t that what “robotic” means?  Gunslingers are predictable only in their unpredictable violence. What sort of "point of view" combines the unpredictable with precise repetition?  One of the things that is changing as a result of video, of CGI, of youtube, and of blogs, is the very conception of what exactly a “point of view” might consist of, what sort of legitimacy it has (for instance: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/07/weekend-opinionator-a-sick-debate/ ) The first cool and vitally important thing Adorno’s essay does is explode any claims to higher “points of view” as themselves robotic expressions, endless repetitions of a commodified culture industry.  And Bonnie and Jim Steinman are certainly expressions of that.  But Adorno also helps to bring out the essence of those robotic expressions as themselves new points of view, once they fall apart with a little critical help.  David Denby, and “Total Eclipse of the Heart: the Literal Video Version” end up revealing exactly what they wanted to conceal: the historicity of points of view, including their own.  Cultural critics, the villains of Adorno's essay, are also its heros; they are the ones putting the clutch in.  They reveal the historical essence of a point of view by turning around, by falling apart every now and then.

Christopher Warley's picture
Christopher Warley teaches Renaissance literature and Critical Theory at the University of Toronto.