VITAL SIGNS by Ian Penman


Writings on Music, Film and Culture
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A collection of essays—his first—by one of England’s hot cultural critics. Since Penman is a veteran of the UK’s cutting-edge music publication New Musical Express, much of his work consists of music criticism. However, he’s also able to take a shrewd look at such movements as punk and hip-hop from a more broad-minded cultural aerie. His perspective is often poststructuralist. Penman makes myriad references to Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and their fellow philosophers, yet, unlike many postmodern critics, he sacrifices little by way of clarity. His treatment, moreover, ventures beyond music into television and film, as when he chats up comedian Steve Martin about Wittgenstein (!). —It’s a matter of record: Wittgenstein changed his life. Most comics start with a pratfall and end up feeling pulled towards Pinter. With a logic proper to our times, Steve Martin is a man who rejected empiricism and found respect and reward behind a fine selection of false noses and novelty accessories.— Penman is particularly persuasive when administering bad reviews—for instance, of Norman Mailer (“he just couldn’t face facts that he was a damned fine journalist, and not William Blake on Seventh Avenue”). As any postmodernist should, he plays with his own words. On Jackson Pollock: “Derision and hagiography are often two sides of the same coin (rearrange those letters to form ‘icon’).” The author’s forays outside the artistic realm (to Indian food as cultural phenomenon; to condom use in the age of AIDS) are compelling, and he’s no British chauvinist. In fact, he discusses his countrymen’s insatiable appetite for telly sensationalism with a delightful campiness. Except for a distasteful postmortem attack here on Frank Zappa, Penman lives up to his surname—and to the achievements of like-minded critics such as Greil Marcus and Robert Palmer.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 1-85242-523-7
Page count: 374pp
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1998