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.

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