Sunday, July 27, 2008

I Pity the Poor Immigrant

So, we have been watching Mad Men. It is just as amazing as everybody says it is. There is a lot more to write about it than I can think through right now, but I wanted to jot down some notes about Mad Men and history, in particular the American relationship with history. (I will proceed as if readers know the basic details of the show, so you might not want to read on if you haven't seen it and want to stay surprised).

Mad Men is centered around Don Draper, a man who has renounced his own past--as a poor son of a prostitute and a cruel father-- in order to become the "man in the grey flannel suit," the "organization man," the "other-directed" bourgeois business man of the Eisenhower era. He brings to mind Thomas McGrath's observation about the contradiction between American individualism and history as the world of collective memory. In the United States, McGrath wrote, "history no longer functions, has been 'paved over.' In the East man begins every day for himself."

This is the stuff of the great American novel, Martin Guerre, the confidence man, David Levinsky, Gatsby, etc. As such, the potential is great for overreach and pretension. But this is avoided, because the world Draper lives in is depicted as terrible: meaningless and stupid, filled with racism and class hatred, misogyny and sexual harassment. The significance of Draper's remaking of himself thus transcends the particular drama of one ad executive's personal journey... it becomes an engagement with the thing in the name of which America's sacrifices (racism, genocide, war-- the horrors of which, always denied in the rhetoric of patriots, provides the spur for Draper's renunciation of his past) have been justified: suburbia, shopping, the white republic. We are left with the distinct impression that this was a bad trade. With the exception of The Sopranos, this is an opinion that is almost never uttered in contemporary American culture, an opinion that the white middle class does not speak. "The rest of the world wants to be like us," they say. Maybe it is this notion that makes it hard to say: "this sucks."

Draper's circumstance calls to mind Bob Dylan's "I Pity the Poor Immigrant," one of the most moving and beguiling songs ever written:

I pity the poor immigrant

Who wishes he would've stayed home,

Who uses all his power to do evil

But in the end is always left so alone.

That man whom with his fingers cheats

And who lies with ev'ry breath,

Who passionately hates his life

And likewise, fears his death.

I pity the poor immigrant

Whose strength is spent in vain,

Whose heaven is like Ironsides,

Whose tears are like rain,

Who eats but is not satisfied,

Who hears but does not see,

Who falls in love with wealth itself

And turns his back on me.

I pity the poor immigrant

Who tramples through the mud,

Who fills his mouth with laughing

And who builds his town with blood,

Whose visions in the final end

Must shatter like the glass.

I pity the poor immigrant

When his gladness comes to pass

In Mad Men, the representative of the singer in "I Pity the Poor Immigrant" is Draper's brother, Adam, who seeks him out in the hopes of an explanation, and whose very existence is a threat to Draper's charade. To Adam, Draper indeed "falls in love with wealth itself" and turns his back on him. Draper tries to pay Adam off to make him go away; he cannot satisfy Adam's desire for historical honesty, for truth and reconciliation. Adam's suicide is thus in a real way a murder, caused by Draper's refusal or inability to provide him with the history he needs.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Socialism is Love

So I updated my muxtape, because, among other things, I wanted to share my newest obsession, Jamaican (I believe the appelation "roots" is the correct one vis-a-vis reggae terminology, by I have a hard time navigating the nomenclature... mea culpa) singer Max Romeo, and his amazing song, "Socialism is Love." As a socialist, I like this song, and its message, that socialism is love. I really don't need much more than that in a song. Which is a confession of a ridiculously high tolerance for sentimental left wing propaganda, I suppose. At the end of the day, though, I prefer having a high tolerance of sentimental left wing propaganda than a high tolerance for sentiental fascist propaganda, which must be true of my many contemporaries who love Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and Frank Miller. Also, this song is musically remarkable-- it achieves the sublime, wonky, gremlins-at-the-pitch-wheel-and-reverb-knob effect that otherwise can only be found in the work of Joe Meek and the musicians of the Rat-Drifting persuasion.

According to Jamaican music expert Steve Barrow, Max Romeo was born Max Smith in 1944,
the eldest of nine children. He acquired the nickname "Romeo" from the father of a would-be girlfriend, which stuck when his producer Bunny Lee began to call him "Max Romeo." In the early 1970s he began carving out an identity as a "militant singer"-- singing about "what's happening for the people to hear... the prices too high, things are too hard and what have you." Romeo told Barrow that in those days, people listened to singers "to tell them what's happening." At around the same time, he began working with Lee "Scratch" Perry and Winston "Niney" Holness.

Barrow writes that in late 1971, Romeo recorded a song called "Let the Power Fall on I," which was picked up by Michael Manley's People's National Party (PNP) and played during campaign events in 1972. Many of the songs that Romeo recorded in the years after 1972-- a period of intense working class self-activity following the PNP landslide electoral victory- were penned as agitprop for Manley and the PNP, celebrating "Joshua" (Manley's political moniker) and condemning "Pharaoh" (Manley's rival Hugh Shearer of the Jamaican Labor Party).

Barrow quotes Romeo on this period: "The first year or so, people was questioning what’s happening, is this ‘socialism’ ? Those songs were actually encouraging him. (Manley) was an idol of mine; I had to come up with other songs to build up his confidence. It goes on for a while too, with (songs like ) 'Socialism Is Love.'"

Romeo's connection with the PNP became less direct over the course of the 1970s, but his music remained politically militant, if increasingly voiced in a Rastafarian idiom: in songs like anti-clerical "The Reverend" and on "concept albums like "Revelation Time," recorded at Perry's legendary Black Ark Studio. Romeo noted that "Revelation Time" was "really a revolutionary album. It came from 1972, when we had a revolutionary movement, with Mr Michael Manley trying to change society from capitalism to socialism. At the time I was socialist-minded - because it’s the only form of poor people government, socialism."

I should make some notes on the other tracks, though unfortunately I am too tired to really annotate:
The Raincoats song is awesome; the Neil Young track is from a soundboard recording of a show from the early 1970s I found online... it seems to me like the sort of thing that some of my friends would like; The Byrds track is also from a bootleg... the sound quality isn't amazing, and the band is incredibly out of tune, but this one of my favorite alltime songs, even if it might seem initially just another mesh trucker hat americana ballad, it is not at all that (and has the same "minor literature" quality as songs like You Got the Silver, which proves that Keith is the genius singer of the Stones, or Stage Fright, which proves that Danko was the Band's best singer, of Box of Rain, similarly demostrating that Phil Lesh was the best singer of the Grateful Dead), sung by Clarence White, perhaps my favorite musician ever, with barely a syllable legible as English, my favorite kind of singing, and concluding with some beautiful telecasterage; Harvey Mandel's Wade In the Water is a slice of amazing instrumental fuzz rock from the masterpiece instrumental record Christo Redentor; Swamp Dogg's take on John Prine's Sam Stone is baffling and heart breaking and miraculous; Madvillian speaks for itself; Pentangle's Willy of Winsbury makes me nostalgic for days with Eric and Martin and is included mostly for Nick's benefit-- might be too flooffy for him, but it strikes me as maybe the sort of thing he would like... this is also a radical socialist song, part of the Child ballad song-family that celebrates love over power and property; Wynn Stewart's song can only be heard as heartbreakingly ironic, I think, and I am on a one man campaign to get people to recognize the greatness of Stewart, the least-celebrated of the Bakersfield country masters (the steel on this track is awesome, as well)... this makes me nostalgic for Austin honky tonks... and I left the Nic Jones up because it is so hard to find and so wonderfully wonderful. Maybe I will make another muxtape with highlights from this record.
Oh, and everybody should pick up Peter Linebaugh's book The Magna Carta Manifesto: a 1000 year history of the commons, which could be subtitled "socialism is love."

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Mux Obliged

Thanks to the inspiration of Nick Hennies, I have made a muxtape.

Muxtape seems to be some sort of online mixtape website.

I decided to set myself some parameters: only songs that you could listen to in the car or while washing dishes, nothing too arty or dynamically extreme, and songs about which I might have something interesting to say. I figure that the point of this sort of thing is to invite friends to actually listen to the songs posted. I think most everybody I know would like these songs.

I am going to write about this muxtape with the following parameters: each piece gets written about in no more time than it takes to listen to the song. This will include checking wikipedia, and naps, and other things, so this might not be the most
helpful guide:

1)Takeshi Terauchi: this is really dream music for me... it combines the kind of gorgeous farfisa/rocksichord melodies I always hope will be in martial arts films from the 60s, but only ever find in Seijun Suzuki's movies, incredibly awesome Nokie Edwards meets Sonny Sharrock clean tone-treble pickup guitar playing (with no reverb-- a godsend for the reverb-allergic surf fan, which is sort of like being a matzoh-ball allergic Jew). The form is also wonderful---almost meta-hockets between 2 or 3 aural areas, and the glue of monkees-style country fills.

2) Judee Sill--"The Pearl": I have raved about Sill before, but I had to include this, because this may the single most beautiful song in my collection. I have 29 gigs of music that I love on my ipod, but I listen to this song every time I turn it on.

3) Stonewall Jackson-- "The Alcohol of Fame": I usually hate jokey country songs, and I really hate puns, so this is a weird one for me. To be honest, one reason I love this song so much is that I didn't realize it was a pun for weeks after I got the record. I just loved the metaphor of "alcohol of fame" and how apt it seemed for our current moment... this one though, also, proves that great country sidemen are the greatest thing in the world-- I am pretty sure this is Lloyd Green on pedal steel and Charlie McCoy on harmonica....

4) Bootsy's Rubber Band: In high school, I loved p-funk more than almost anything else in the world. After I got into sullen slow music, I felt I had to renounce funky music... and I hated the frat boys who loved funk music... but this was an epic mistake. This music really is utopian in the best sense-- and suggests the pertinence of things that go "wah,wah, wah" to collective happiness. Bootsy is also one of the best singers in the history of music... his gloss on Houng Dog is better psychedelic intertextuality than DJ Spooky's whole career, and the synth strings are so mind-blowingly rad. I also love how wide the pocket is. Bringing me to a question: what is the widest pocket on record? Or, more nerdily, how many bars does the longest funk groove go before returning to the one?

5)Hackberry Ramblers, "Jolie Blond": I think this one is on the Harry Smith anthology, but I could be wrong. This is of course a blindingly obvious choice for a cajun tune, but what the fuck, it is perfect. First, it is a waltz. Why do I forget that I love waltzes? Like, I would be in an all waltz band. I would even understand if people thought we sucked. I just think it is the way to make music, unless a really convincing argument otherwise can be made. Charles Stivale used to write essays on Louisiana music and Deleuze and Guattari, which I thought were dumb, but which I now see the point of, listening to this...

6) Bushwick Bill-- "Little Big Man" So darned great... Bushwick Bill's music always reminds me of the famous story about James Baldwin, who responded to an interviewer's question: how did it feel to grow up poor, black, and gay with the answer: "I thought I hit the jackpot." Bill's control of the line is truly remarkable, and the lyrical tricknology is always 3 times more sophisticated than it needs to be to still rock. Also, the bit of dancehall toasting makes me deliriously happy. Finally, the semi-cheesy rock groove is really effectively deployed. Sue me.

7)Nic Jones--"Us Poor Fellows": Nic Jones occupies so deep a place in my heart I can't really write about him. I was introduced to his music by Martin Arnold, who may introduce everybody to Nic Jones, but when he played me his record Penguin Eggs I felt that something intended for me was being beamed into my brain. With the exception of Derek Bailey little else has struck me thus. This comes from an incredible record, a ballad opera called, I think, the Transports. It has all of the amazing British Isles folks doing ballads, woven into a theatrical narrative of some sort. This song recurs 4 or 5 times. Anyways, it is one of the most touching and moving labor songs I have ever heard. A recipe-- this song, welsh rarebit, some glensomething whiskey, and Linebaugh and Rediker's Many-Headed Hydra. Also, the orchestration, by the Collins sisters (or one of them, at least) is so fucking righteous-- odd goreous polyphony, the beloved musical ethic and social philosophy of my dear friends in Toronto.

8)K-Rob/Rammellzee-- "Beat Bop": embarassingly enough, I didn't hear this tune until very recently. It is brilliant, beguiling electro... I have become really interested in Rammellzee recently... his rap, the second voice on this track, is wildly mind-melting. The cello (?) that intercuts his part is a beautiful choice.Of course, the choice of so reverby a track for a mixtape by a reverb-hater is perverse and probably lame... This song also features in Style Wars, one of my favorite movies ever... very worth seeing, if any of you are looking for a good documentary with lots of footage of Ed Koch looking like a total dick.

9) Blind Alfred Reed-- "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live": I fear that this is also on the Harry Smith anthology, but maybe I am confusing it with the Bristol Sessions. Anyhoo, Blind Alfred Reed is to my mind the great labor poet of the American old-time tradition. This song is so fucking hardcore and militant it is hard to believe that it was published. Reed also did religious songs in the masochistic/self-flagellating Methodist tradition, I think.... inteteresting. We usually think of the latter as
depoliticizing. We're wrong, I guess.

10) Henson Cargill-- "Skip a Rope": Great late 1960s Nashville production, Cargill's voice is fantastic, the guitar fills are pure brilliance (I have to asume James Burton, but who knows), love the finger snaps. I am into this song for many reasons, but one of them is that it is part of an important body of late 1960s country social protest songs-- usually ignored by historians who think country was all "Okie" in this time... between Cargill, Lynn, Paycheck,Campbell and others, there were tons of protest songs way better than "For What It's Worth" coming out of Nashville.

11) Judas Priest--"Rapid Fire": I was never a big JP fan in my teen years, but now I cannot get enough. Rob Halford is a total genius. The riff to this song is really heavy. I love riffs, but I don't like playing them. I like playing widdly widdly solos. This song has some of that too!

9)Archie Shepp-- "Blues for Brother George Jackson": Beautiful tune from the 1972 record "Attica Blues."

Thursday, March 20, 2008


There has been a lot of talk lately about Barack Obama and his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. For the most part, this talk has followed the logic of neoliberalism, which sees all political problems, in the final analysis, as technical (rather than complicated mixtures of ethical, ideological and historical dilemmas, which they typically are). Thus, I think the declaration that finally Obama has opted to talk to America about the issue of race as if Americans are grown-ups (to paraphrase Jon Stewart), is premature.

Thinking about race like a grown-up means acknowledging the hurts of history without moving prematurely to a phony feel-good resolution. From the evidence I have seen, Rev. Wright is a much more sophisticated, brave, and lucid student of race in America than Obama, even at Obama's most impressive moments of oratory. American historians find Wright's claims uncontroversial. Why won't American media seriously consider the merits of Wright's claims?

Once the media decided that Wright was going to be a problem for Obama, the only question for pundits, critics, and the Obama campaign itself was how best to control the damage. Lost in this rush to evaluate how well Obama has performed public contrition and denunciation of Wright are larger questions. For instance, why are African American politicians asked to publicly negotiate their relationships to radical intellectuals when whites are not? The whole affair has brought back unwelcome memories of the early 1990s, when as a teen I became accustomed to seeing African American leaders regularly called on by smug white neocons to publicly denounce every fringe NOI cleric, hip-hop artist, and Afrocentrist scholar that could be discovered in the United States, an obligation demanded of no other group. Of course, the notion that Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant whites should likewise have been forced to answer for every extremist on their mailing lists, boards of directors, and bookshelves would have struck the members of the American establishment as absurd. The recent coverage of Obama and Wright suggests that no lessons were learned from this ugly chapter.

Why am I writing about the Obama/Wright controversy on a blog devoted primarily to music? Because Wright's oratory resonates with the last fifty years of African American popular music, both sacred and secular. Assuming that we can read snippets of "incendiary" speech, deprived of their context and musicality, and pass judgments on Wright's message, makes no sense. Just as bourgeois rap critics have not yet learned to listen to hip-hop as a contradictory gestalt that scrambles the logic of Western aesthetics intentionally, so critics of Wright's sermons appear not to believe that the form (the sermon), context (religious worship at a particular historical conjuncture), and larger literary and aesthetic tradition (African American oratory writ large) matter in evaluating his "message" (as if it was necessarily unitary, as if it was not collectively and collaboratively produced, as if irony and hyperbole are categories applicable only to James Joyce, not African American religious speech)...

The Wright speech that has garnered the most attention pivots on the phrase, "God damn America." Looking at the way this phrase appears in context, the primary motivation appears to be the mass incarceration of African Americans over the last 30 years, a tragedy and crime that mocks America's self-image as steadily progressing towards racial equality, and indeed as a just society. I would be surprised if any reader of Ruth Gilmore's Golden Gulag, Sasha Abramsky's American Furies, Marie Gottschalk's The Prison and the Gallows, or the work of Angela Davis, Loic Wacquant, Dylan Rodriguez, or Alan Gomez on the carceral state could come to a contrary position.

I am sure that the suggestion that 9/11 represented America's "chickens coming home to roost" was a more powerful spur to kneejerk reaction against Wright's words. We can argue about specifics, but consider the following thought experiment. If you were teaching the history of 9/11, (a task that sometimes falls to me as a TA for US History surveys), what would you include in a reader, syllabus, or lecture? Wouldn't you focus on US foreign policy in the final decades of the Cold War? Could you really leave out US middle-east policy and respect yourself in the morning? Would you really present this history in a manner strikingly different than Wright?

Finally, Wright's speech calls to mind another provocative use of the phrase "goddamn" in African American literature: Nina Simone's 1963 song "Mississippi Goddamn." Simone's brilliant song teaches us many things. One of those things is that words sometimes have more than one meaning, and that sometimes these meanings fall in the space between two syntactical locations. Here is a clip of Simone, and the lyrics to "Mississippi Goddamn":

The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddamn
And I mean every word of it

Alabama's got me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddamn

Alabama's got me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddamn

Can't you see it can't you feel it
It's all in the air
I can't stand the pressure much longer
Somebody say a prayer

Alabama's got me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddamn

This is a show tune
But the show hasn't been written for it yet

Hound dogs on my trail
Schoolchildren sitting in jail
Black cat crossed my path
I think every day's gonna be my last
Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We're all gonna get it in due time

I don't belong here I don't belong there
I've even stopped believing in prayer
Don't tell me I tell you
Me and my people just about do
I've been there so I know
Keep on saying go slow

But that's just the trouble too slow
Washing the windows too slow
Picking the cotton too slow
You're just plain rotten too slow
Too damn lazy too slow
Thinking's crazy too slow

Where am I going
What am I doing
I don't know I don't know
Just try to do your very best
Stand up be counted with all the rest
Cos everybody knows about Mississippi Goddamn

I bet you thought
I was kidding didn't you

Picket lines school boycots
They try to say it's a communist plot
All I want is equality
For my sister my brother my people and me

Yes you lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears
And talk real fine just like a lady
And you'd stop calling me Sister Sady

Oh but this whole country is full of lies
You're all gonna die and die like flies
I don't trust you anymore
You keep on saying go slow go slow

But that's just the trouble too slow
Desegregation too slow
Mass participation too slow
Unification too slow
Do things gradually too slow
Will bring more tragedy too slow

Why don't you see it why don't you feel it
I don't know I don't know
You don't have to live next to me
Just give me my equality

And everybody knows about Mississippi
Everybody knows about Alabama
Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddamn
That's it

In "Mississippi Goddamn," Simone shifts between using "goddamn" as an expletive that comments on "Mississippi"-- e.g. "everybody knows about Mississippi, god damn it"-- and a noun that captures Mississippi as an existential state: "the Mississippi Goddamn." Simone does not want us to choose-- she wants us to linger in the space between the two meanings. The two meanings intensify one another. The more we understand the Mississippi Goddamn as an existential hell, the psychic space of the blues-- Simone beautifully weaves lyrical fragments from Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf around journalistic detail, shards of personal anguish, and political calls to action-- the more we understand "goddamn" as a malediction as well as a fatalistic curse. Malediction, Avery Gordon notes, speaking of other existential hells (several generations descended from the torture camps of the Jim Crow south, as Mumia Abu-Jamal and others have demonstrated; Gordon points out that one reason it took so long for officials to react to the horros of Abu Ghraib was the ordinariness of the torture and humiliation in the context of American carceral culture), is one of the tools prisoners use when power apparently deprives them of every means of resistance.

As I listen to Rev. Wright, I hear distinct echoes of Simone's "goddamn." It is "goddamn" as existential condition and malediction retooled to confront the culture of idiotic self-celebration, patriotism, and historical amnesia that seized the American media in the weeks and months after 9/11, the retreat of middle-class, white America into an infantile desire for innocence and ignorance. The beginning of an adult, intelligent, and productive conversation about race in America, begins, I think with white people listening closely to Simone and Wright's "goddamns," relinquishing defensiveness and ideological certainties and smug self-confidence.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Neoliberal Grotesque

Here's a bit of writing I did a couple of months back that might be of interest to readers of this blog:

Towards the end of season 2 of The Wire, viewers are given a rare glimpse into the internal mechanisms of globalization. Baltimore stevedores’ union boss Frank Sobotka is sitting in a darkened conference room, surrounded by executives in suits, watching a presentation on the future of the docks. With a slide show on the futuristic Rotterdam port on screen (a mosaic of multicolored but otherwise identical shipping containers surrounded by computerized cranes), a pitch man hypes the port of the future:

“To bring goods to an exploding global economy, and to deliver those goods faster, cheaper and safer, modern robotics do much of the work in the world's largest seaport, Rotterdam. Moving cargo is a traditional strength of the Dutch who shuttle more freight and fewer man hours than any port in the world. And now, the Dutch have modeled the future of cargo management, completely containerized cargo arrives and departs on ships a third of a mile long, 24 hours a day with short turnaround. Smart card technology provides greater security and improved accountability with no need for unreliable human surveillance.”

By the end of the session, Sobotka recognizes that the container technology spells the end of the port work that his family has done for generations. In a meeting later that afternoon with a high-priced political consultant that Sobotka has hired to lobby the state legislature to dredge the pier to encourage more ship traffic Sobotka explodes in a fit of frustrated anger. “After the horror movie I seen today… Robots! Piers full of robots!... My kid’ll be lucky if he’s punchin’ numbers five years from now… it breaks my fucking heart that there’s no future for the Sobotkas on the waterfront.” The irony, as the show’s viewers are all too aware, is that the port union will soon be brought down by another “horror movie” staged in the shipping containers that go through the Baltimore ports: the death by suffocation of twelve Eastern European women, who were being illegally smuggled in a shipping container into the United States to labor as sex workers.

In this double-sided “horror movie” of the shipping containers, The Wire provides an excellent example of what might be called the “neoliberal grotesque.” The “neoliberal grotesque” is the contemporary corollary of the “proletarian grotesque” that Michael Denning, following Kenneth Burke, identifies as the hallmark of the 1930s “cultural front.” Whereas the “proletarian grotesque” was primarily constituted by works in the peasant and Fordist-Taylorist grotesque modes— Tobacco Road and the Grapes of Wrath and Dorothea Lange and “Strange Fruit” on the one hand; Pins and Needles and If He Hollers Let Him Go and Diego Rivera’s murals on the other—the “neoliberal grotesque” feeds on the contradictions, anomalies, and oxymorons of the culture of globalization.

The Wire, for instance, draws on many of the features that Tim Zaniello identifies as hallmarks of the “cinema of globalization”: the “planet of slums” connecting the inner city of Baltimore with the blighted landscape of post-Perestroika Eastern Europe, migrant and undocumented work, human trafficking, digitalization, and outsourcing and offshoring, and deregulation. Tellingly, Zaniello’s list of themes includes “containerized shipping’ as a separate category. The producers of The Wire play on the essentially terrifying quality of the shipping container as a physical object and as a symbolic bearer of meaning. While grotesque objects are often examples of what Mikhail Bakhtin called the “carnivalesque body” (in Mary Russo’s words, “the open, protruding, extended, secreting body, the body of becoming, process, and change”), mass-produced objects like containers can also fascinate and horrify precisely because they come to represent their mass-produced-ness, interchangeability, ubiquity, anonymity, and viral tendency to multiply, like the clones of science fiction films. As David Harvey notes, the absence of central planning in free market capitalism makes “redundancy” or over-duplication itself a species of the grotesque.

The container represents the triumph of reification, the perfection of the technology of making-invisible the human processes of exploitation and violence at the heart of global capitalism. In The Wire, it is only by virtue of a series of accidents that the twelve women are ever discovered; no one in the police administration wants to recognize the deaths as a “crime,” because it might mean adding a dozen unsolved murders to the statistical tally of annual murders. The shipping container, it seems, is the perfect example of what Giorgio Agamben calls “homo sacer” or “bare life”—the juridical condition in which one can be killed, but not murdered. At every turn the forces of capital and the state work to discourage the investigation of their deaths. In the season’s conclusion, we see the culprits escape into the sunset. The process that brought the women to Baltimore in a shipping container, we are led to believe, will only intensify in coming years.

This unhappy ending is not gratuitous cynicism. It is in fact central to the formal advantages that the “grotesque” offers to artists working in times of profound social crisis. As opposed to the narcoticizing effects of other mass culture forms (with their characteristic tidy resolutions of conflicts), the grotesque artworks do not allow audiences to feel easily finished with the experience of observing them. Mark Fearnow notes that the “grotesque” works by transforming “vague anxieties and discordant fears… into forms in which they are represented and mingled with comic elements.” “Thus reified,” Fearnow notes, “these cultural ‘nightmares’ are rendered less frightening but remain troubling and disruptive of an easy acceptance of ‘reality’; the grotesque object instead holds those who perceive it in a horrified fascination holding the terror at bay.”

The historical origins of the “grotesque” as a generic term lie in late-fifteenth century Rome, wherein workers found a Roman grotto “filled with paintings of absurdly conflated plants and animals.” Since then, critics have applied the term to any instance of contradiction in a work of art. Fearnow writes:
The word ‘grotesque,’ taken up enthusiastically by Renaissance commentators, rapidly grew from a narrow referencing of one set of Roman paintings to a whole ‘type’ of art and then to an overarching critical idea because it provided the linguistic tool to describe not just an ingredient that they had noticed in art, but also moments of their own experience. In Renaissance Europe, the word described the countless instances of incongruous juxtaposition that occurred as an old ‘mentality,’ based in the philosophical assumptions of Christian dogma and the practical acceptance of ecclesiastical power, gave way in erratic stages to a new mentality rooted in notions of science and temporal power.

From early modernity to the early twentieth century, the grotesque occupied an important place within artistic movements, such as Romanticism, that attempted to come to terms with the challenges and dislocations of an emerging capitalism and industrial order.

The 1930s saw the rise of the most important revival of the grotesque in the twentieth century. Michael Denning regards Kenneth Burke’s 1935 address to the American Writers’ Congress as a pivotal moment in the Left becoming self-conscious of the value and centrality of the grotesque as an aesthetic category. Burke argued that the “grotesque is the poetic form most appropriate to moments of crisis and transition, a form in which ‘the perception of discordances is perceived without smile or laughter.’” Denning makes a powerful argument that the arts of the 1930s are populated by radical experiments in the grotesque. Billie Holiday’s recording of “Strange Fruit” is Denning’s most powerful example of the oxymoronic-as-radical-aesthetic-trope: the contradiction between the pastoral imagery and lilting, “Southern” music, and the stark depiction of a lynching victim swinging from a tree. This impossible juxtaposition does not produce laughter, as do most literary uses of discordance. Burke distrusted humor, which he saw as conservative in nature; the grotesque, on the other hand, with its denial of laughter, “tends to revolutionary.” The grotesque way of seeing, in Denning’s view, forced the listener to “confront the reality of racist violence in a more powerful way than could be achieved via techniques of documentary sincerity.” “Strange Fruit” demonstrates the power of the “grotesque” as means of wrenching audiences out of the “repose and distance of the ‘aesthetic.’”

For Fearnow, the Depression-era grotesque was a dead letter by the early 1940s. He points to 1941’s toothless film adaptation of the stage version of Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road as a critical moment of the decline of the grotesque. Denning sees a much longer trajectory, and scholars of the African American Popular Front argue for the persistence of the proletarian grotesque well into the 1950s and 1960s. For our purposes, the most interesting question is not so much when the “proletarian grotesque” began to fade as when a “neoliberal grotesque” began to emerge. Like Raymond Williams’ “key words,” the emergence of clusters of which “reflects the emergence of new social forces or the acceleration of older ones,” the becoming-grotesque of certain objects or practices is a telling indicator of changes within a given social formation.

Here, space permits only a brief list of artistic tendencies and areas of interest that might constitute the beginning of a theory of the “neoliberal grotesque.” While it is difficult to properly periodize a phenomenon as amorphous as the “neoliberal grotesque,” it seems likely that it began in the mid-1970s, grew in significance in the 1980s and 1990s, and emerged as a fully-formed aesthetic project since the turn of the millennium. While the “neoliberal grotesque” surely encompasses the many of the works discussed by scholars such as Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek in their attempts to sketch out a theory of postmodern cinema—especially sci-fi blockbusters and disaster movies—it is something more than just another gloss on postmodernity. For one thing, the “neoliberal grotesque” thrives on ironies and contradictions produced by the interconnectedness of north and south, whereas the Hollywood films seen as paradigmatically “postmodern” tend to draw on traditional imperialist logics: the freewheeling pastiche of past forms and exotica, or narratives based on anxieties surrounding alien threats.

For another, the “neoliberal grotesque” is often the product of “real” legal, technological, and political changes, requiring no exaggeration or sleight-of-hand on the part of cultural workers. Changes in intellectual property law resulting from GATT, TRIPS, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, for instance, have made blurred logos, faces, and license plates a commonplace on “documentary”-style television, a vision of a grotesque world in which the commons is so infiltrated by capitalist proprietary claims that swaths of the visual field need to be preemptively disfigured in order to be represented at all. The photos of Abu Ghraib, no less than the work of filmmakers and musicians, are examples of the “neoliberal grotesque.” Beyond the culture of violence and incarceration that produced the perpetrators, the global imperial project that sent them to Iraq, and the normalization of torture that allowed the crimes visited on the prisoners to remain unpunished for so long, these images were produced by and for technological means unavailable even a decade prior: shot on digital camera, emailed between perpetrators and other viewers, and choreographed, it seems, for the characteristically narcissistic digital technological forms of the internet age—the myspace page, photo album, and ipod.

In the United States, “slasher films” of the modern horror genre (following the model of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and the birth of punk, heavy metal, and hip hop music contributed to the growth of working-class artistic interest in gore and violence to the body as core aesthetic concerns. By the mid-1980s, subcultures in the American South had emerged around “death metal” and ultra-realist “hardcore” hip hop, both of which pioneered new “grotesque” sonic resources (the guttural singing of death metal vocalists, the low frequency bass rumbling of Miami hip-hop, the “screwed and chopped” warping and splicing of records by Houston “screw” DJs) and prized lyrics celebrating the carnivalesque body. By themselves, however, these works are not quite self-consciously “grotesque” in the sense used by Denning and Fearnow, or in the way that The Wire often succeeds in being. Since the turn of the millennium, however, a number of musical artists, often drawing on these sources, have begun to produce musical articulations of the “neoliberal grotesque” that match and often transcend the “proletarian grotesques” of the 1930s in impact: for example, Maya “MIA” Arulpragasam.

The daughter of Tamil leftist activists who relocated to London in the 1970s, MIA specializes in weaving together odd juxtapositions. In a recent interview she declared: “My shit is third world… It’s about Africans running around with AK-47s, wearing a bootlegged Prada shirt and listening to my Baltimore club mixtape.” It would be difficult to imagine a better example of “neoliberal grotesque” than this ensemble of images. MIA writes about the life of poor and undocumented immigrant workers in England, mixing slogans from old school hip-hop records, revolutionary slogans, brand names, and dancehall reggae exhortations, all delivered in a defiantly “ethnic” and female vocal style. Like Polly Styrene of the 1970s punk group X-Ray Spex, MIA relishes quick glissandos to the dog-whistle range, a defiant shriek that destabilizes the traditional expectation that the structural role of the female singer (especially a female signer of color) is the seduction of the male listener.
The beats that lay under MIA’s songs, often constructed in collaboration with specialists in “neoliberal grotesque” regional music styles (“Balto” Baltimore hip-hop and Bollywood film music) frequently make use of markers of indigenous resistance—horns and parade drums—and “digital distortion,” the crackling and erratic fuzz that results from scrambling the ones and zeros in computer software. MIA notes that her style also serves as a critique of segregation within the London club scene, which replicates in miniature the artificial taste distinctions that capitalism loves to insinuate to grow niche markets and aspirational lifestyle brands: “If you like dancehall you have to hang out with Jamaicans and go to a dancehall club… then you have to go to a gay club to hear your electro trance shit, then you have to go to a Bengali club to hear that stuff.”

As much as the capitalist music media attempts to blunt the radical edge of MIA’s music (Si Hawkins’ suggestion that “Maya has certainly come a long way since the days of representing her music solely through a revolutionary aesthetic... she is still eager to identify herself with the unprivileged but with success, she has broadened her world view” is typical of the discomfort that committed political art tends to invite among music writers), the centrality of the “neoliberal grotesque” in her artistic vision protects her music from easy cooptation. It is also sufficiently threatening to the American state to generate concern about her as a security risk: for over a year, she was denied entry to the United States, apparently for security-related reasons. As one of the few popular musicians who dare call attention to the manifold contradictions of neoliberalism from a defiantly subaltern perspective, MIA’s experiments in the grotesque speak to possibilities for a global leftist popular culture at once celebratory and powerfully resistant.

Friday, January 11, 2008

If (a) Twee Fails....

My brother's blog alerted me to some controversy regarding Juno's status as a legitimately "indie" film. While considering matters cinematic is outside my ken, I will echo others who claim that the search for "authenticity" in indie cinema is a fool's errand and that allegations that Juno is derivative are overstated (and poorly formulated, even if true: don't we turn to indie cinema for "more of what we know we like" in the first place?). Anyways, Juno occupies a completely different affective universe than Napoleon Dynamite, with its refusal to attend to anything but the surfaces of suburban anomie, and Ghost World, which purports to celebrate the eccentricity and intelligence of teen girls but ultimately reverts to the misanthropy (and misogyny) of the source text (Dan Clowes's Eightball comic book). Juno, owing I think entirely to Diablo Cody's script, is genuinely celebratory of the genius of teen girls and their creative responses to the hell of adolescence. In this light, it has more in common with Weetzie Bat and Heathers and Buffy and Veronica Mars than latter-day arthouse movies.

The main problem I had with Juno was the music. The film is anchored by songs by Kimya Dawson, of the group the Moldy Peaches. Dawson's songs are cloying, faux-naive, smug, and cutesy. The generic term for this style of song is "twee," which is wielded as a badge or pride or term of opprobrium by lovers and haters, respectively. Although I never pursued "twee" music as a music purchaser with much focus or intensity, I have always liked it as an aesthetic orientation: radical in its own way, a forceful challenge to the masculinist ickiness of so much indie rock. I would certainly include one "twee" single, Thee Headcoatees' "My Boyfriend's Learning Karate" among my favorite rock songs ever. The wikipedia entry on "twee" is fascinating: it suggests that while "twee" represented a challenge to rock sexism in 1980s Britain, it was also one side of an aesthetic war in the rock press between partisans of "black " (Public Enemy and other militant hip-hop artists) and "white" ("twee" bands featured on NME's C86 compilation) music. And it would seem that "twee" is aggressively white... until we recall that its "rebellious sentimentality" is open to all sorts of unforeseen appropriations and scrambling of racial logics, as in the case Chicano toughs in present-day California who worship "twee" godfather Morrisey.

The problem with Juno is that it is overrun with "bad" "twee." Its badness resides in two aesthetic features that have always lurked as the potential ruin of "twee": sonic banality and lyrical self-absorption. "Bad" "twee" has recently taken over commercial music. That horrible Feist song, that horrible i-phone song, that horrible Regina Spektor person... on TV commercials, every hack composer has brought out the glockenspiesl and ukuleles. Nearly every ad now has a banjo playing a grating two note melody and a couple of seconds later, a predictable repeating countermelody joins in. It is not surprising that these tunes favor music's most anodyne form, the round (to quote MA, "I don't care if summer is a-fucking coming in!") .

On top of the melodic banality, the lyrics of Dawson's songs are terrible. They lack in ambiguity, surprise, or local detail. They seem at once self-indulgent and aloof. They require an investment in the singer's psychology that vitiates the wonder that pop songs ought to deliver. It is no surprise that Dawson has worked with Third Eye Blind and a guy from The Spin Doctors, or was part of something called the "anti-folk " movement. What the fuck? How can you be anti-"folk"? Ironically, the worst part of "folk," as I imagine the anti-folkers imagine it, is distilled and refined in the music of Dawson: the narcissism, the faux-populism in the disdain for technique and sophistication (as against the particularity and pleasure in musical performance characteristic of almost all vernacular musical traditions), the crappy harmonizing, the love of the wince-worthy lyric followed by the knowing stare and nod at the audience...

Between the success of Juno and the evidence of recent TV-viewing, "bad" "twee" is only growing in power. Let's kill it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Blogging: An Infantile Disorder

Hey everybody!

Sorry I have not written much since Christmas. I am especially appreciative to those of you-- Carl, Paula, Nick, John, and Sandy-- who have written nice and helpful comments. I hope to produce more pages on the Wu-Tang Clan for I Hear A New World over the next few months, and I will definitely write about Merle Haggard one of these days. Thanks so much for commenting... I really appreciate it, even if I have a somewhat Butoh-esque way of showing it.

No surprise, I have been deeply immersed in matters scholastic. Enjoyable but harried. So much so that now I can only communicate in Mickey Spillance sentence frgments. No time for verbs.

This quarter I took a great class on the Communist Party and anti-communism (left and right) in America, and a more or less standard, though nevertheless still deeply helpful, US-history-boot-camp class on Reconstruction and the Progressive era. The communism/anticommunism class had two highlights: 1) it finally rid me of my anxiety that someone, in the supermarket perhaps, would ask me what a "Shachtmanite" was and I wouldn't be able to provide an adequate answer. Now I totally can. 2) It also spurred further thinking about the Popular Front and American music, some of which I hope to develop here when I have the time. Maybe I will do a little of that right now...

The Popular Front was the period between the mid-1930s and the end of WWII, when the Comintern changed directions from its ultraleftist stance of the late 20s and early 30s(which eschewed all cooperation with socialists, social democrats, and liberals)and urged Communists to join the political mainstream in their respective countries. Folk musicians, popular culture workers like cartoonists and Hollywood film studio employees, muralists, proletarian novelists and politically-charged theatre artist were crucial members of the Popular Front coalition. For a long time afterwards, (and for the most part, during the 1930s and 40s) the anti-Stalinist Left regarded the Popular Front as politically opportunistic and culturally stunted. Trotskyists especially hated the limits placed on the creative imagination by "socialist realism" and folk cultism.

For younger US history and American Studies types, this negative impression of the Popular Front seems dated; since the publication of Michael Denning's The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Age of the CIO they have mostly regarded the late 30s as the highpoint of intellectual and artistic convergence with left-wing working-class politics. There are some problems with this revisionism (especially for folks sympathetic to the left-wing anti-stalinists who felt that it was important to fight against the Popular Front's fealty to Russia, especially after a lot of Stalin's crimes started to become known and even more especially after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact), but for the most part I think that Denning's work is undeniably amazing. By downplaying the salience of partisan infighting (which is always the story of national lefts)Denning is able to reveal broad affinities between left-wing artists, intellectuals, and political leaders. This interpretive gesture not only sheds light on the power of cultural production within social movements but also indicates a way for contemporary artists and intellectuals to forge links to a broader struggle for a better world.

One project I have been playing around with is a kind of sequel to Denning's work: what happens to the Cultural Front in the age of the AFL-CIO? As many younger scholars of the Cold War-era Left are discovering, state repression didn't stop oppositional thinkers, activists, and artists from working, it just made their lives much more difficult. For whatever reason, their influence on the 1960s political left and cultural avant-garde seems to me really fascinating. A couple of examples, both of which came out of a long and free-wheeling discussion with an emeritus faculty member here, who was part of the group that helped found the Students for a Democratic Society in the early 1960s:

1)The first stirrings of the New Left in Ann Arbor, Michigan, developed in a creative bohemian subculture that included both young socialist activists, experimenting with their freedom from the ossified political culture of New York but still connected to the labor movement because of their proximity to Detroit, and experimental musicians like Gordon Mumma, who were developing, along with visionaries like Alvin Lucier and Robert Ashley, an alternative to the cul-de-sac of academic composition;

2)In February I had the great pleasure of interviewing Henry Grimes. Grimes is a bass player who played with Sonny Rollins and Lee Konitz while in his early twenties, worked with Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, and Pharoah Sanders in the 1960s, appearing on many of the most cherished albums of the free jazz era, and then seemed to disappear for many years. Since 2003, he has been playing in public again, which is one of the really happy stories of the last few years. Grimes recorded an incredible LP for the ESP Disk label in 1965 called The Call, which was the product of an intense period of mutual collaboration with a trio that shared an apartment in New York near hotspot Slug's Saloon. The clarinetist with the Grimes trio was Perry Robinson, and as I re-listened to The Call in preparation for the interview, I became very fascinated with his wonderful, serpentine lines, and especially the way that Robinson and Grimes played off and against one another. Nevertheless, I had never thought about looking into Robinson's biography or his other recordings. As it happened, when I was talking to my informant about the SDS and the New Left, he told me that he had been friendly with a famous Popular Front composer, who traveled in the same circles as his parents, CP members who taught high school until they were blacklisted. As it turned out, this composer was Earl Robinson, who wrote the Paul Robeson's showpiece, "Ballad for Americans," perhaps the sine qua non Popular Front musical composition. Quickly it became apparent that Perry Robinson was Earl Robinson's son. For whatever reason, these direct links between the Popular Front and 1960s free jazz, the SDS and the Sonic Arts Union, seem fascinating, and would no doubt seem even moreso when contextualized within what I imagine are dozens of other similar examples.

What led me to thinking about blogging about this, oddly enough, was the recent coverage of Austin Texas' least likeable megaevent, SXSW. I agree wholeheartedly with Nick Hennies-- musicians want to make money, and anybody that tries to make them feel bad about that is a dick. If a corporate sleazefest means that somebody is going to send old friends or new friends to your town for fun and music-making, then we probably ought to see it as the equivalent of photocopying band fliers at an evil office job. But it would be very different if instead of embracing corporate love, SXSW-- which is as much a project of municipal generosity and, especially, largesse on the part of Austin musicians, service employees, and residents as it is of corporate support-- could be about different values. Austinites provide a "good time" and "authentic vibe" for corporate fuckmongers, and they get little or nothing back. Imagine if Austin bands began to organize a broad union of bar staff, hotel workers, and ordinary music fans, and threatened a general strike of SXSW 2008 if certain demands are not met: for instance, wage increases for workers and a drastically increased minimum wage for bars and "cool" stores like Book People and Waterloo; municipal provision of health care benefits; provision of corporate-free zones for performances and dissemination of information about the activities of the sponsors of SXSW; and abolition of admission fees to SXSW events. Most radical would simply be the demand to "open the books," so that the people who actually finance SXSW could see where money is being made and how. Even if none of it worked, it would be an amazing difference to use SXSW to raise critical consciousness rather than... what? Having everybody be happy to put their lives on hold and sacrifice their souls so that Lily Allen and a bunch of Sy Sperling-clone record company stooges will grace Austin with their presence? Who needs it?

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