Below is the abstract I submitted to NEMLA (the Northeast branch of the Modern Language Association) for this talk I’ll be participating in at the end of February. The theme of the panel is transnationalism/internationalism/globalism. Now that I read the abstract it appears unsatisfactory, as always happens after the heated work of cobbling together a description of a talk or paper you haven’t actually written yet. Well, as always happens to me. I see it will not be too easy to carry out this project of discussing “creative destruction” and “the integration of political and cultural entities.” I wish to stick to the idea that especially over the last 20 years in this chapter of his career, characterized by the Neverending Tour, “Bob Dylan” has exploited with astonishing success the machinery of globalized culture. In Chronicles, Dylan relates that his manager tried to discourage him from his grand scheme to play small venues year after year, in order to build a new audience. And in 2008 we have Lee Marshall arguing that Dylan has in fact accomplished something remarkable: in this latter part of a career believed to have peaked decades ago, through this relentless circling of the globe, Bob Dylan has created for himself a new kind of audience, a new culture of live performance, and a new type of relation between an audience and a performer. Consider this: what about the management of labor, currency exchange, legal differences,and language issues that make it possible to set up a stage outdoors in Spain that is just about identical to a stage indoors in Canada, and thus to provide two concert experiences that appear indistinguishable? And do this year after year, with very few glitches? This is only possible through finessing the machinery of global culture with great skill.
But while “Bob Dylan” is becoming a global project, his compositions over the last 20 years keep offering us peculiar relations between the individual and time, the individual and history, and the individual and place that are not simply reactionary or atopical, but a strange new vision of timelessness and displacement appropriate to the world he is distributing his presence to so tirelessly.
Oh dear, now I have to fashion one of those segues that links what I end up discussing with what I originally planned to discuss. That’s all right, I can still stick to the conclusion here about “the visions of a morally accountable I/eye facing transcendent and redemptive historical time, and the inescapable reality of corrupt and opaque present life.” Next up, the songs themselves.
Recent valuable studies such as Lee Marshall’s 2007 Bob Dylan: The Never Ending Star, argue that Bob Dylan—the artist, the media image—has become an increasingly fascinating globalized project. I invite us to turn our attention to his work itself, and discover there a relation between the individual and the world that challenges two of the emerging identities of globalized culture, so-called “creative destruction,” and the integration of political and cultural entities.
Schumpeter’s definition of “creative destruction” has helped us envision a market-driven global culture: agents must compete constantly and violently to occupy this inch of space and this moment in time. Economic interdependence and instantaneous communication have commodified a we-are-the-world humanism that flatters the privileged consumer. It is tempting to theorize Dylan’s mutations as exemplars of this boundaryless and evanescent new world; I argue this would neglect the supremacy of the man’s work over his theorized life. From his early songs like Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, through the tragic panorama of Blind Willie McTell, and up to the suggestive allegory of Ain’t Talkin’, he has combined the traditional imagery of postlapsarian, prophetic history, with minute attention to politically real life. Through the living art of his performances, he has shared with us the “monstrous dream”: the visions of a morally accountable I/eye facing transcendent and redemptive historical time, and the inescapable reality of corrupt and opaque present life. We find profound differences between the qualities of dynamism, evanescence, and universality as they characterize the globalized culture Dylan has found a home in, and these qualities as they are, dare I say, immortalized in his art.