The Scriptive Air Guitar

What types of behavior does the air guitar script us to perform?

Historian Robin Bernstein theorizes the idea of “scriptive things,” which are parts of material culture that prompt certain ideas about how people should make use of them (Racial Innocence 2011). “Scriptive things” are kind of like movie scripts, in the sense that they call certain subjects to enact certain behaviors, but these individuals can also alter and challenge these scripts. An actor reads the lines in a script, but she also improvises.

This an obvious example of a "scriptive thing," which forces people to occupy positions in a particular gender configuration.
This an obvious example of a “scriptive thing,” which forces people to occupy positions in a particular gender configuration.

Bernstein describes “scriptive things” in order to make historical arguments about how material culture remains tied up in cultural and ideological currents. Things are not simply neutral objects that we use. Rather, they prompt certain usages and forward certain ideas associated with the thing’s proper function. For example, in Racial Innocence, Bernstein describes how 19th Century white children played roughly with black dolls, sometimes lynching them or performing violent acts on them. Rather than paint these children as sociopaths, she argues that the dolls themselves prompted this kind of treatment, due to their durable physical character and the way the dolls were posited as servants to the white dolls. Due to both their material and ideological constructions, the dolls encouraged a type of play that reinforced certain ideas about real bodies.

19th Century dolls might be a bit of a departure from air guitar, but the notion of “scriptive things” can yield important insights on how the “there guitar” scripts certain ways of playing the air guitar. The “there guitar” itself scripts certain kinds of behaviors:

  • one should place the neck at waist level and point it outward
  • one should stand or sit upright while playing
  • one should jerk the neck upward during emotional portions
  • one should place one’s hands at the two opposite ends of the guitar
  • the neck should be on the left side of the guitarist’s body (Note: There’s not really such thing as “left-handed guitar” or “right-handed guitar”—this is just the way we map our notion of proper body orientations onto the physical guitar.)

Ultimately, we might see air guitar as a kind of active process of making this script explicit. Since there is no need to actually move the hands in a certain way to produce sounds, air guitar represents ideas about the kinds of scripts “there guitar” occasions. When we hear a fast cascade of notes, we expect the air guitarist to flutter the picking hand back and forth, because this is the kind of labor required to make quick series of sounds. When we hear a power chord sound for a few seconds, we expect the air guitarist to raise her picking hand in the air, since she’s temporarily allowing the guitar the freedom to resound without intervention. On an extreme level, when we see someone destroy the air guitar, this makes explicit the kind of destructive script that guitarists followed in the 1960s and 1970s (Hendrix and Townshend, for example). Air guitar demonstrates how scriptive implications persist even without the material object through which those scripts emerged.

But, although the “there guitar” is obviously scriptive, might I ask: Can the air guitar be scriptive? Bernstein might feel that things must have a material reality to be scriptive, and it is indeed hard to historicize an immaterial guitar (believe me, I’m trying). But if a handshake or specific dance can be scriptive, then can’t an air guitar be scriptive? Can’t air guitar, as a type of performance mode, prompt certain subjects to behave in certain ways? I think air guitar interpellates certain kinds of subjectivity; it calls the body to orient itself in certain ways that have important implications. If we accept that air guitar hails certain subjects into being, then the important question becomes: What types of subjects does air guitar call into being? And how?


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