Thursday, February 17, 2011


What's the aesthetic consequence of iPhone culture? A culture of text messages, tweets, one night stands, one year marriages, CEO turnovers, volatile stocks... You might want to say these phenomena lead necessarily to anarchy, total disorder, total breakdown. And speed does kill. But there are, also, ways of adapting to brevity. The culture of the mixtape, of rapping over someone else's beat, often leads to songs which are unusually short, and we will begin to see an increase of songs produced to be the same length, which somehow fit within a smaller frame.

If the hip hop song can support itself without needing a hook, the dance performance can shorten itself as well. From London one might think that things in the arts are better in the states, considering the enormous government cuts and the privileging of 'hard' (erect?) subjects like engineering. But non-Americans may not realize that the American arts have never, really, had the public-funding advantage that they've had in Europe for several decades. There are very, very few public grants available, so artists like the Turf Feinz are compelled to shorten their performances and distribute them over a broader cultural terrain.

The brevity of "Respiration" may have to do with the shooting location. The atmosphere, the car lights and the metal bars, the street lights and the dilapidated buildings add a sense of heaviness. It is moving you toward the pressure of East Oakland, an area which, although it is right next to the bay, feels landlocked, because it has been so reduced by economic drought. Driving or taking the bus through it, one realizes how enormously sprawling it is, how it was designed as a place of retreat for white families, a suburb. Now it has entered the suburban winter, the white people have fled decades ago, to suburbs further removed, and then, recently, returned, to other neighborhoods.

"Respiration" stresses that even in less than two minutes, a meditative moment is not only possible but crucial. To breathe again, to prevent an asthma attack, you need to take a minute or two, and even that small increment is enough to release some of the pressure. After a puff of smoke, Dreal touches his heart. At 22 seconds, the production itself breathes as he drags his foot forward after a backflip. This foot drag is synchronized exactly with a syncope in the song, to borrow a phrase from Catherine Clement: the music itself is cut, its consciousness goes under, its heart stops, and in the background you hear the faintest synth whose ominous minor key evokes Mel-Man's production on The Chronic 2001. Dreal displays the incredible ability of the human body to engage with technology, to deliver itself into a machinic operation. At 40 seconds, the film looks modified: he has appropriated a filmic device. His feet levitate as he shifts weight from one to the other.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Sublime Africanism

I went to a very small, very white, very alternative private high school. At the beginning of each year we would go on a camping trip, with the entire school. It was a great tradition, and unbelievably rare and expensive, but the hippies in charge insisted on it.

Although students would play lots of different artists from their stereos and Discmans (which were still, in those days, standard), there was one place of overlap. Everybody listened to the band Sublime. There was no argument there. And to this day I credit my friend Danny for getting me to listen to something other than Sublime.

I wouldn't dispute, today, that they were brilliant musicians. Yet it always seemed to me that there was a little too much hero-worship of the lead singer, Brad Nowell, who had died of a heroin overdose in 1996. Some of us had older siblings who had seen a Sublime show, who could pass on the stories of their greatness. He was a martyr, but in a strange way he seemed to be a martyr even before death, as though he died as a result of his fame. You can see this phenomenon really clearly by watching the last video taken of G.G. Allin, the notorious punk icon:
The person who uploaded it describes it this way: "Allin and his band wandering the streets of New York, being followed by a small, but vocal groups of fans. Allin's constant demands to "get high" turn this into the video equivalent of a traffic accident, and it is hard to stop watching, especially knowing Allin is shown on his way to the drug overdose that would kill him."

It is a grotesquely gripping video, and it's actually sad to see how dismayed Allin is by the way his fans act toward him. He's spent all of his time and effort over the last several years trying to convince the world that he's the messiah, and now that he's succeeded, it's getting in his way. His fans won't leave him alone: they follow him all over the place taking pictures, yelling things, stopping traffic. You can't resist the idea that this experience may have led to his overdose that night.

In a much less public fashion, we might also wonder if something similar happened to Bradley Nowell. But the fanatical devotion of his fans, I'd argue, comes from the character of his music. There was a certain sensibility in his songs which compelled legions of white youth to feel eternally grateful to him. They felt, and still feel, as if he had given them an enormous aesthetic gift. I am going to call this the "Africanism" of his music: a series of "repeated rhetorical moves," to quote Christopher L. Miller, instantiated musically.

To speak of Nowell's Africanism is not simply to say that his music has African influences, because this could be said of any music made in the U.S. Africanism, rather, could be compared to Edward Said's famous Orientalism. Miller makes this connection in his seminal book Blank Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French. He rejects the idea that Africanism is nothing more than a retention of African "speech patterns, style, or performance." Africanism emerges, in fact, in a "certain disharmony" with its more famous sibling, Orientalism.

Like Said, Miller selects certain exemplary historical figures, people who were once taken seriously and are now forgotten in the academy, because the things they said were so blatantly racist by today's standards. One such figure is a Frenchman named Gobineau, who wrote an essay called The Inequality of the Human Races. What distinguishes Gobineau's theory of the African from his theory of the Asian is that the African stands for a nullity, an empty set. Like Hegel and Kant, Gobineau argued that while the Asian may be cruel, mysterious, and despotic, the African is simply without cognition. "Gobineau and other writers seek to depict [the black African] as a 'pure human machine,' stripped of reasoning faculties and moved only by a blind sensorial desire." This phrase makes me think of Werner Herzog's brilliantly stupid description of the ontology of the grizzly bear: simply a half-bored interest in food and an endless capability for violence.

Gobineau developed his theory to argue that any notion of Black African civilization is "a contradiction in terms; any directly attributable to white blood in the veins of the population...Black Africa, like the moon, exists for Gobineau only insofar as it reflects something white."

Let me go back to Sublime. For many white youth, Sublime existed as reggae and ska, as the Afro-Caribbean musical and political sensibility. That it to say that it stood in for all reggae and ska artists, with the occasional exceptions of Bob Marley and white ska bands, in the musical repertoires. Like Elvis, they channeled a sensibility and made it extraordinarily marketable. But, in a less hopeful way, they acted as a conduit for the demand for Rastafarian or Caribbean musical tropes in white youth: in other words, listening to their music could foreclose the interests of white youth in reggae and ska. In a sense, a teenager could become less likely to listen to Yellowman or Linton Kwesi Johnson because he had already heard Sublime. In this sense, Miller's formulation ought to be repeated, or rephrased: reggae and ska existed only insofar as they were reflected by a white, martyred hero.

In "Waiting for My Ruca," Nowell taught millions of white youth how to say "buh, buh!" and to mean it.

And see the legions of fans worship him shortly before his overdose:

For more examples, check out this article.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Turf Feinz: 'R.I.P June'

James Baldwin wrote that the idea of happiness, in the American experience, is a post-war, tragic illusion. The pursuit of happiness, a small phrase which has been turned into a hegemonic ideal, is, for him, the pursuit of a life without pain, without discord, distinguished only by the steady accumulation of wealth.

Joy, however, is a very real thing, an effervescent eruption that can occur in the most apocalyptic of circumstances. The young men in the video come from one of the most violent parts of the United States. Dancing on the corner where their friend was shot to death, one is wearing the suit he wore to the funeral. They've just witnessed, once more, one of the most glaring contradictions of the American dream, one of the greatest failures of capitalism. But the most sinister question on their minds, the question which they try to ignore, is does capitalism rely, for its smooth operation, on the murder of their friends?

Privatization, globalization, neoliberalism, late capitalism: all of these processes operate by means of what Bataille called the restricted economy. The restricted economy restricts flows of capital even as it persistently expands flows of people and resources. It agglomerates by mobilizing mechanisms of deprivation: there is no privation without deprivation. These images were taken in one of the most deprived places in the First World, because East Oakland has suffered not only from a paranoid white flight but also from a recent black flight, so that those left behind are only those who are forced to stay.

There is no happiness in East Oakland. It would be stupid to call its inhabits 'happy,' on the whole. But there is a joy which bubbles and boils over in moments of art such as these and in its vibrant musical sensibility.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Judith Butler - London, Feb 3, 2011

The event was jointly hosted by Iniva, a government-funded arts organization, and Amnesty International. The talk was on the theme of paternalism, and it was structured as a dialogue with Sundeep Dasgupta.

Dasgupta began by asking, how might cultural institutions avoid the trap of paternalism? Are there forms of power which accrue to the person being paternalized?

What is the who and the what of cultural difference? What does it mean to end a discourse by making the claim that identity is simply fluid, hybrid, or fragmented? What are the problems with making such a conclusion? Dasgupta implied that this kind of conclusion may lead to a notion of universal transferability and a loss of specificity with regard to cultural difference.

In my opinion, these questions were a bit too tentative. People had come to hear Butler, and she turned these questions into something much more complex:

First we must inquire as to basic questions of address--what is the nature of power in a speech situation?
Our operative presumptions in speech situations involve perceived cultural difference.
Terms employed in policy discourses are those already used in scenes of interlocution.
Butler encouraged people to interrupt her: Bertolt Brecht said that 'interruption is everything.'
How is a subject produced through a speech act?
If I extend recognition or allocate funds to a culturally different group, I am establishing a paternalistic relationship of benevolence.
If this Other accepts my allocation they are accepting, potentially enhancing, and augmenting my power to paternalize.
This paternalistic 'I' differentiates him/herself from the recipients of the benefits (the paternalized).
Sometimes, tragically, the more I give, the greater the gulf becomes between myself and the recipient.

States offering recognition to new immigrants is an instance of such paternalism, as is the allocation of human rights benefits based on recognition of the humanness of a subject.
Especially in the U.S., health benefits are distributed paternalistically.
The paternalistic relation is about the distribution of benefits. Some ask, is redistribution taking place equitably?
However, if we think only in terms of redistributive equality we fail to question the presumptive paternalistic sovereignty because we credit the sovereign for equal redistribution.
Butler says this against Nancy Fraser, who fails to focus on the fact that the allocator becomes culturally articulated.
Democracy entails modes of self-governance and self-allocation: the people, not the sovereign.
It requires means of distribution which would not solidify the power of the sovereign and its cultural neutrality.
The power of the paternalized depends on whether or not to ratify the sovereign authority and cultural difference by accepting the allocated good.
Butler is arguing for the dispersion of sovereignty through the rethinking of the culture of benificence and dependency (especially in terms of internal others in a state, i.e. welfare recipients).
Europe is already its others.

Q&A: Mubarak said on television that he will protect Egypt [from itself] against radical democracy. Paternalism is here preventing a democratic outcome.
The question of protection: paternalistic protection vs. necessary/democratic. Under what conditions could protection be non-paternalistic?
It is not enough to say that identity is hybrid. One could be a non-essentialist and be very stuck.
There is a problem of borders which limit and force mobility. Mobility is not necessarily either liberating or bad.
We must look to see how difference is produced and reified.
If one receives the entitlement of the benefit and visibility without changing the paternalistic mechanism of power one gets a split between the institution and the 'multicultural group.'
The act has to unexpectedly call into question the structure of power and democratize the means by which goods are distributed.
The lack of such questioning is what allows works by artists of color to be exhibited in expensive galleries in New York City while public art institutions are failing.
Butler is not saying that the state is bad: there are many different types of state formation. We could think about more radically democratic state formations which inaugurate modes of self-governance which are less paternalistic and undermine paternalism.
Part of this has to do with the 'NGO-ization of social movements.'
Equal distribution is not the same as the problem of justice. A benevolent paternalistic authority can take away what it gives. Against Schmitt, this may not be inevitable.
Those Westerners who say we should have intervened in Uganda to save the life of gay activist David Kato are making a paternalistic gesture.
The apparent self-deconstruction of the paternalistic sovereign can become a moment of the addition to the power of the sovereign.