"Modernity and the Vernacular"

Surfaces Vol 1 (1991), pp. 16-18
Available in its entirety on-line here

By Bennet Schaber

[...] I'd like to examine a short sequence from a film, Jim Jarmusch's 1989 Mystery Train, because it introduces one of those adventures, those chance occurrences, which both surprise and convince. I hope that this will help me explain something of what I mean by experiment, chance and adventure.

The sequence is comprised of three scenes: the first in a Memphis train station, the second a street, the third Sun Studios. A young Japanese couple sits in the station, the man gazing around distractedly, the woman reading a travel guide. "Sun Studios, 706 Union Avenue," she says, reading from the guide. "Carl Perkins, Howlin' Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison," the young man responds as if being drawn out of a daydream. "They all recorded there; not just Elvis." And after a long breath, "Carl Perkins," he intones in a Japanese accent. Cut to the same couple walking down a street of fairly drab and uniform bungalows. "Chaucer Street," says the woman, reading the street sign. Cut to Sun Studios and a rather tawdry guided tour. "It was right here in this room that Mr. Sam Phillips recorded the likes of Howlin' Wolf, Rufus Thomas, James Cotton, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and of course, Elvis Presley," says the guide, repeating with something of a lilting twang the litany of names we have just before heard chanted in Japanese accents.

Perhaps this sequence of shots will not astonish you in the way it astonishes me. And this is because I find in this little sequence a kind of confirmation of something I've been working on and writing about for some time now. Not because I think that there is some strict relation between Chaucer (the street along which the young Japanese couple strolls bears his name, and the incidental music to this section of the film is called by its composer, John Lurie of The Lounge Lizards fame, 'Chaucer Street') and what has come to be known as the 'Memphis sound', but because those figures of early rock and roll, whose names are listed first by the young couple and then again by the tour guide at Sun Studios, and Chaucer, would seem to share a certain fundamental situation. I would place this situation under the heading of what I call the vernacular. I would postulate that there is some fundamental relation between the 'fathers' (or 'pops') of rock and roll and the 'father' of English poetry; and that relation is the vernacular, the 'mother tongue'. Like Chaucer, the early rockers make the mother tongue sing as never before. And it is this 'never before' that sets their /pp 17-18/ work apart and makes it so difficult to produce a contemporary judgment of it, at least a judgment that can produce its own reasons or the criteria by which it judges (a situation Dick Clark attempted to rectify by having songs judged on a ratings scale of one to ten).

"That's it, that's what I like, that's what I'm looking for, that's more like it, you all keep playing," his first record producer, Sam Phillips, is said to have responded to Elvis. And the phone lines light up--is the singer black? is he white?--so that Elvis's first tune is played a dozen times on its first night of release. People like it, even if they can't quite say what it is or why. And they come together, around radios and phones; they feel compelled to respond to what they hear in some way. No one could have forseen this, not the performer, the producer or the disc jockey. It all just happens, seemingly by chance.

No one who hears this music on its first night knows where it comes from or what it means. They know they like it, they feel the pleasure it produces, but this pleasure is not yet hemmed in by the series of discourses which usually elaborate cultural pleasures and make them safe by designating their origins, destinations and meaning. And it is this pleasure lacking its own meaning that elicits the direct response--as opposed to the direct consumption--of its listeners. What I will designate as the vernacular will be just this kind of cultural production that ranges far ahead of its own possible meaning, and precisely because it lacks its own meaning. That is what I want to examine as the cultural experiment specific to modernity; the experiment as a work poised around its own lack-of-meaning. And beyond this, that this lack--which gives to the work its excessive quality--is the very condition of the work's production and reception. It cannot be derived from any pre-existing discourse (even if it makes use of certain elements of it) nor submitted to a theoretical or historical discourse dependent upon the possibility of such a derivation, without falsifying it in some important way. This is why I will be forced to say that occasions like this come about by chance or ex nihilo. And I think Jarmusch has an intuitive sense of this, that it is as true for Elvis as for Chaucer (and--I have not forgotten him--Carl Perkins).