Popular Culture  •  June 18, 2003

Ontology of “Indie Rock”

It all started from talking about a film called “Half Cocked”. I described the film as a representation of the Grunge era. My co-worker, Steve, flatly rejected my claim and asserted that it was about “Indie Rock”, or “Indie” in general. I argued that “Indie” is not an aesthetic genre, but an ideological one. Since the film had no political stance of being “Indie”, I insisted that it is more a vignette of life style with a very specific aesthetics that was prevalent in the early 90?s, than it is a statement with a specific ideology. Steve disagreed. He maintained that “Indie” is an aesthetic genre. He even went on to claim that I am entirely wrong because all music publications are in complete agreement with his use of the word. Then another co-worker of mine, Nader, chimed in and claimed also that I am wrong. So, here is a result of a quick research that I conducted (mainly using Google with search words “definition of indie rock”):

Here is All Music Guide’s definition of “Indie Rock” as a musical genre.

Here is a definition of “Indie Rock” from Microsoft Encarta Dictionary: “Rock released by independent record companies: rock music of the 1990s composed or performed by artists and groups who achieved some success but did not sign with a major record company.”

Here is a discussion of what “Indie Rock” is by a variety of random participants.

The last item is particularly interesting. Everyone is certain about what the ideology of “Indie Rock” is, which is to be independent of major labels, but no one can clearly define what it is as an aesthetic genre. The same goes for the first two items. The first one even declares that the style of music can be anything as long as it is too extreme to be popular.

So, Steve’s perception of the usage of the word is clearly wrong. Even if “Indie Rock” can be used as an aesthetic genre, it is relatively a minor usage compared to its ideological one.

By comparison, here is a definition of Grunge from The American Heritage Dictionary:

n. Slang
1. Filth; dirt.
2. A style of rock music that incorporates elements of punk rock and heavy metal, popularized in the early 1990s and often marked by lyrics exhibiting nihilism, dissatisfaction, or apathy.
[Back-formation from grungy]

The word “grunge” is clearly a term that defines a specific aesthetics. If I asked graphic designers to design something in the style of “Grunge”, most designers would know what to do without getting any guidance. They will probably design something hand-written, defaced, or broken. On the other hand, if I asked them to design something in the style of “Indie”, most of them would have difficulties, if not entirely unable.

The term “avant-garde” is confused in a similar way. This too is an ideology, not an aesthetic genre, but some people use it to refer to anything strange or out of the ordinary. An ideology is, for the most part, independent of any aesthetic styles. A piece of avant-garde art can possibly look like anything: paint drips, a urinal, a chair, or a porcelain figurine. The same goes for “Indie”. The ideology of “Indie”, which came out of the technological revolution that democratized the tools of art (as Steve noted: 4-track recorders, DV cams, personal computer based non-linear editing system, etc.), can live on forever, and had also lived on even before the 90?s. The reason why the term with the capital “I” was coined was simply because it became a popular ideology in the 90?s. It could possibly come back 50 years from now with a completely different aesthetic style. It is not an ideology inextricably married to a specific aesthetic style.

Now the really interesting aspect of this argument is that just because Steve and Nader failed to properly define what “Indie” is, does not mean that they are using the term incorrectly. As Nader argued correctly, inability to define a term correctly does not exclude you from using the term correctly. Here, by “correctly”, I mean understanding the common usage correctly. Nader argued that just because he was unable to define the aesthetic qualities of “Indie”, does not mean that his usage of the term was wrong. In his case, ironically, what he thought was correct was in fact wrong. (The common usage if “Indie” is ideological, not aesthetic.)

The same phenomenon is often seen in describing grammatical rules. Most native English speakers are unable to determine the correctness of a sentence in a grammatical sense, because grammar is an unconscious process to them. This further reminds me of the fact that most of us cannot explain how we digest the food we eat, even though we do it every day.

To use language is to categorize. In other words, speaking, writing, and thinking are acts of categorization. The atomic unit of categorization is polarization. As we can see in computers, everything can be reduced to a binary pair. We interpret our sensory data by polarizing them, that is, by converting them to binary pairs. The process of this conversion is unconscious. Even if we cannot explain how this conversion is done, we can still correctly perform it. This leads me to conclude that thinking is an unconscious process. This sounds like an oxymoron since we normally equate thinking with being conscious, but it actually makes sense. Just as we are unable to explain how we digest our food, we are incapable of explaining our own process of using a word correctly. This process of polarization is largely unconscious.

Here, you might ask, “How do we define ‘conscious’?” As with any word, it could mean a million different things without any of us ever agreeing on any one definition, but I am using it in this context as a state or a function of mind that we can explain, e.g. knowledge and understanding. There are certainly things we feel we know but unable to explain. This is what I call awareness. Awareness does not have to be explained.

The paradox here is that if consciousness is a product of our explaining, but if its process is unconscious, to whom does this consciousness belong? That is, who is being conscious? Consciousness is a mere effect of our unconscious being. It is a byproduct of our unconscious process. This is to say, “we” don’t exist. There is no cohesive unit of being that I can call “I”. Despite the facade of our individual identities, everything we do is only a part of the unconscious process of the universe. Just as flowers are not conscious of what they are doing, we too are utterly unconscious of what we are doing. Consciousness is nothing more than excrement of our existence.