If (Only) Alan Sokal Wrote Jazz Criticism

Aesthetic, Not Anesthetic is honored to welcome Dr. Philippe Glas as a guest blogger today. He currently serves as Professor of Odontological Philology at the University of Oxbridge on Loxhamshire, and his book, “This Is Not a Gaspipe: The Hermeneutics of Wilbur Sweatman,” will be published next spring. Today he’ll be offering his insights into a well-known jazz classic. Enjoy!

Perhaps Duke Ellington’s best performance is not any musical performance but his performative “It don’t mean a thing if ain’t got that swing,” which defamiliarizes that which does not swing as no-thing-at all, literally non-thing, nothing or no-thing, a semiotic trap that also inverts the relationship of that which does swing, so often seen and heard as the other, now the “thing” reading otherness into the non-swinging nothing which declared that which swings to be the other in the first place! Ellington not only succeeds in escaping non-swing constructs (and therefore slipping the knot of “naught,” of nothingness) he uses the same constructs to lock the no-swing no-thing into the antithesis of everything the rationalizing universalist superstructure stands for, namely meaninglessness. By consigning the no-swing to no-thing and the absence of meaning, truth and other totalizing concepts, Ellington damns the unswinging to Hell on its own bourgeois terms.

It may seem as though Ellington consigns himself to his own purgatory of binary oppositions: his no-swing no-thing in turn generates the “swing…thing,” in turn generating a totalizing, totemic categorical categorization that holds all it beholds to the dictum, “swing, or face oblivion.” Yet Ellington slips another knot, that of narrow universalism, by reifying a signifier that has no signified other than the signified expressed in its signification. The “thing” called “swing” has been debated and deified while defying definition and systemization. Even if arguendo swing is a recognizable sonic phenomenon, and even discounting localized, autochthonous discourse, “swing” may be a “thing” but it is a thing that is at times dialogic, at times agonistic, at times even communicative but always discursive. The swing thing’s embedded, pregnant textuality, its capacity to be forever created and recreated yet never codified (though sometimes codafied), never snapped shut between the even eighth notes and hyper rational simulacra of the West, in turn affords the swing thing an infinite life, beyond the mere sound of its supposed revealing. “Swing” is “the thing” more thing than anything, an unending thing, and therefore everything and no (mere) thing.

Looks like we only ‘thought’ we knew Ellington’s tune well! Thank you, Dr. Glas!

Three Guesses…

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