Worth 1,000 pages… [part 2]

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, by Zach Weiner

If you would like to read Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern, I cannot discourage you. As far as theory texts go, it’s relatively “readable” and has delightfully inane charts. If you are not interested in reading it, though, this comic works out one of the points he addresses in WHNBM and throughout his career. The notion that mature thinking is “critical” pervades what Latour identifies as modernity. This critical approach is supposed to allow the modern thinker to peel back the false perceptions of degraded culture, ideology, the devil, or whatever boogieman is haunting your particular moment’s Enlightenment dreamland. In “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam,” he argues that critique’s reliance upon skepticism and debunking perhaps facilitates scientists trying to solve the world’s problems but is perhaps even more likely to produce conspiracy theorists who will invent ways to blame those problems on degraded culture, ideology, the devil, etc… Later, Latour would develop a more complete theory of “composition” as an orientation to imaginative putting-together rather than cynical critique. Of course, he was far from the first to propose this. Arguably, Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) was on the same trip when he proposed a set of “Study Methods” that backed away from the critical project of rationalism and invited students to embrace classical rhetoric. For Vico, a student who knew how to debunk before he knew how to invent could never truly make any significant intellectual strides. Note that the adult in the comic is not fulfilled by his critical stance. It does not reveal the truth. (nor can it) It does not make him modern. (nor will it)

In any event, you could read a bunch of Latour and Vico (I also recommend Ramsey Dukes’ analysis of the scientists’ impulse to falsify rather than verify their experiences, S.S.O.T.B.M.E.) or you could just read this comic. Either way…


[the “Worth 1,000 pages…” will be an ongoing feature (I hope) in which I discuss brilliant graphic/comic art that manages to say in 9 panels or fewer what it would take someone like me hundreds and hundreds of pages to express.]


Impromptu Music Review: Live Versions of PJ Harvey’s “Shame”

[Album Version]
First, the Album Version, for reference. This song is really spectacular.

[Jools Holland Version]
After extensive and diligent research, I have determined this to be the best live version of PJ Harvey’s “Shame.” Note the relatively straight-forward strumming and chord changes. Also, guitarist Josh Klinghoffer has moved over to supplement Rob Ellis on percussion. (skip ahead to 3:30)

[St. Luke’s Church Version]
In other versions like this one, the guitarist (here Josh Klinghoffer rather than Harvey) slides between chords. This perhaps reproduces the performance of the [Album Version] in a technical sense but fails to capture the spirit of it. On the album, the slides mute transitions between chords. Live, Klinghoffer’s sliding calls attention to the changes.

[Jonathan Ross Version]
This one might be the nearest approximation of the guitar performance on the album in terms of the slides’ function in the song and for that it is noteworthy (a second runner-up in my judgment). But the guitarist (Klinghoffer, again) is much more bombastic in places. This makes sense with the drums which are much more rock-ish than the [Album Version] but I think this is a mistake. Note again that the [Jools Holland Version] had two drummers playing in such a way that it felt, ironically, less constrained from a rhythmic standpoint.

[KCRW Acoustic Version]
The one is clearly quite different. I think the vocal performance is remarkable for certain. Yet, in general, this version seems doomed to inferiority by two factors: It doesn’t 1) dodge the “rock” vibe like the [Album Version] does, nor does it 2) keep the spirit of the original within the more rock-like setting as the [Jools Holland Version] does.

[Moscow Solo Version]
This is the runner-up. It is a total deviation. There is no instrumentation but the guitar thus it is reasonable for it to be foregrounded in this version more than perhaps any other– certainly more than in the [Album Version]! Yet, it is less intrusive than Klinghoffer’s performance in the [Jonathan Ross Version]. Harvey makes herself a sonic bed and settles into it. That said, Harvey absolutely plows through the song. This must be the fastest version of the bunch. Still, I think it might capture the [Album Version]’s spirit as well as any of them.

Eruptive Eloquence in Live Music

This week, Johnny Greenwood wrote an article for The Guardian in which he came out as a late-in-life devotee of live art music concerts. Despite being raised on (and producing several albums worth of) recorded rock music, Greenwood notes that he recently became enamored of the live music– particularly live “classical” music. Why is this interesting? Partly, it is a push to increase attendance among the first generation born after the rock record was invented. More notable, however, is the case Greenwood makes for what makes live classical music special. His first move is to note that seeing a live performance of chamber music (like the London Contemporary Orchestra) has an auratic quality that cannot be produced by a recording nor by the mechanical copies thereof. As Walter Benjamin discussed the distance that a painting keeps from its viewer, Greenwood notes that a similar dynamic abides in the live musical performance. While the record can be replayed at will and approached with ease, the live performance is almost too intimate. That is, while a mechanical reproduction admits a surgical approach that is both proximal and abstract, the mystification of the “unmediated” work of art demands reverence.

Further, Greenwood notes: “Unlike recordings, [a live performance] isn’t identical to the previous performance or the next one. It can go slightly (or badly) wrong at any time. And all that is shared equally by everyone in the room.” Anecdotally, the possibility of failure seems to be a significant part of the appeal of live music. That is to say, the ability to “pull off” a difficult or complex musical feat on-demand trumps that of having been able to cobble it together “in the studio.” As multi-track recording became available in the mid-century and as awareness of in-studio editing became common knowledge, the notion of “authenticity” in recorded music shifted. Phillip Auslander documents audiences’ loss of investment in imagining “live recordings” that documented a specific moment. By the 1970s, listeners were aware that the music on the record wasn’t played live but simply needed to be able to believe that it could have been. That is, audiences were willing to suspend their disbelief such that, if the recording could have been made by the band, listeners were generally willing to believe that is had been.

By 2014, Greenwood suggests that the persistent element of “liveness” might be the possibility of imagining that the performance could have failed. In the realm of speech, Josh Gunn has suggested a definition of eloquence that centers on the fact that a live-address speech is in constant danger of ineloquence, failure. In particular, there is a risk that the speaker’s bodily frailty will impinge on and upset the myth of the purely rational, masterful, and/or in-control orator. Similarly, part of the thrill of a live performance is witnessing the “eloquence” (perhaps the proper musical analog is “virtuosity”) of a performer who could, at any point, fail but performs masterfully nonetheless. What is vital about Gunn’s construction of eloquence is that it cannot exist without the risk of the body losing control.

The emergence of electronic sequencers in live performance has muddied the waters of this discourse. Existing somewhere between “recording” and “performance,” the sequencer sends electrical signals to a synthesizer, telling it which notes to play and when. While the notes themselves are synthesized “live,” many features including melody and rhythm[1] are predetermined and theoretically perfectable. As such, there is almost no risk of failure on the level of playing the notes as-composed. Yet, the possibility of the sequencer or synthesizer’s circuit-body imposing its presence upon the idealized string of pure information is alive and well. That is, the sequencer is not always an eloquent performer.

This distinction between sequencer and a recorded tape/record/CD/sample is not purely technological but has to do with the cultural practices that attend each object[2]. In my “home scene” (EBM/Darkwave/Industrial), the use of a Digital Audio Tape (DAT) recording of backing track, for example, was derided throughout the 2000s[3], while the use of a sequencer remained legitimate in the eyes/ears of fans. On one level, this is an extension of the calculation of authenticity/liveness in a rock context. That is, many EBM songs were originally composed, rehearsed, and developed on sequencers thus, to bring that tool to the stage is to perform a sort of “EBM authenticity.” Just as the listener to the Sex Pistols wants to hear what can be imagined as a single bass, a single guitar, a drum beat that all comply with the physical membership of the band, the listener to Skinny Puppy might be wary if the Prophet 5 synthesizer appears to be producing two different voices simultaneously. The difference is no more than a different technical expertise. As such, one can imagine the sequencer in the same way as any other instrument when considering authenticity.

A second mode of considering the sequencer is as an analog to the performer herself. Thinking about a live rock concert by a rock band with a Top40 hit, the sequencer is not too great a departure. The Rollings Stones, for example, do no play an all-new show every night of a tour and rarely inflect any given performance with nuances particular to the moment. In high school, I was a big fan of Metallica and would collect bootlegs of their shows. What became apparent was that they were playing the same songs the same way night-after-night. At that point, the authenticity of the live music performance is not contained within the uniqueness of the show. At best, it is in the potential for uniqueness, that is, the potential for failure. Functionally, then, Kirk Hammett is little different than a sequencer. Even though he could play the solo at the end of “Fade to Black” differently every night, he doesn’t. Similarly, a sequencer could fail to function on any given night but rarely does. Here, we begin to see an overlap between liveness and potential to fail…

[1] A sequencer can, of course, send many other sorts of information as well as (or instead of) pitch and duration.
[2] See Jonathan Sterne’s definition of “medium.”
[3] This despite the fact that rock bands were increasingly using DAT recordings, especially to reproduce strings or other non-standard instruments that appeared on the album.

Review/Response: Poetics Out of Time

Sterne, Jonathan, and Tara Rodgers. “The Poetics of Signal Processing.” Differences 22, no. 2–3 (2011): 31–53.

I. On Myth
In “Poetics of Signal Processing” Jonathan Sterne and Tara Rodgers promote a mythic approach to the analysis of auditory culture. Here, I mean “myth” in the sense that Jim Buhler discussed it in our conversation with him [as part of a seminar on cultural studies in musicology]: a world-making impulse that eludes fixity. It affords a background system of beliefs that interpellate the believer into it. Myth then, according to Buhler, requires a level of investment and proximity; practices that run counter to the disinterest and critical distance valorized by demystification-minded scholars.

Extrapolating from Buhler’s “Enchantments of Lord of the Rings: Soundtrack, Myth, Language, and Modernity,” myth serves two functions: 1) it theorizes that which gave birth to the world, and 2) it narrates the fall from an Age of Heroes to an Age of Humans. In this essay, I will focus explicitly on the former but the latter informs much of my thinking as well. Buhler notes that music (of particular types) helps to chart the birth-through-disenchantment of a world that exists in historical/diegetic/narrative time. Sound (of particular types) can confound issues of authorship, underwriting, and ownership and thus place us on the cusp of myth, which exceeds the framing authority of capital control. When it appears in advance of the filmic image, cinematic sound, Buhler argues, draws the world of images into being and raises questions of origin: Where does the film begin and what came before? This enigma in turn presses an ontological question: Where does the world itself begin?

Myth is concerned with the stuff of (our) origins.

II. On Cosmology
My last trip to Minnesota coincided with the announcement that cosmologists had found evidence of gravity waves that support the Big Bang hypothesis about the beginning of our universe. Minnesota Public Radio was jubilant, both because this story was so easily mobilized as counter-evidence to Creationist hypotheses that are anathema to MPR’s northern liberal secular mythos and because one of the authors of the paper, Clem Pryke, is on the faculty of the University of Minnesota Physics Department. Pryke attempted to explain the phenomenon his team had measured when he appeared on “The Daily Circuit” on March 19, 2014:

The Big Bang is the creation of space-time. It’s an explosion of space-time, if you want to think about it that way. It’s unfortunate that our puny human brains are three-dimensional, and we can’t think in this warped four-dimensional space-time. But people always want to think … if it’s an explosion, it must have been exploding into something, right? And that’s because we’re locked into this three-dimensional thinking that we evolved on the plains of Africa because it was perfectly appropriate.

Pryke struggles to locate the beginning of time in a past which could not yet have existed and to wrap his head around an expansion of space that creates the possibility for such an expansion. In essence, Pryke appeals to a mythic origin outside our “fallen” age of humanism. He laments the circumstances that led to our disenchantment, that led to to our loss of the fourth dimension of “warped” space-time.

III. On Technology
Jonathan Sterne and Tara Rodgers’ article is suffused with indirect references to Martin Heidegger’s 1954 essay, “The Question Concerning Technology” which theorizes a poetic response to dominant twentieth century understandings of technology. In it, Heidegger argues that obsession with causality has rendered us unable to experience the world that technology reveals or “discloses.” Instead, we tend to use technology instrumentally, to become ever-more efficient at mining our current conception of the world for raw resources. Worse still, our instrumental application of technology compels us to refashion this world as one in which things are increasingly likely to appear to us as instruments that might be used to conceive of more of the world in terms of exploitable resources.

This distanced—Heidegger might say “de-worlded”— approach to the world is one that seeks to stand outside, to explain, to demystify and disenchant, to debunk. Debunking does not challenge or dispel the mythic formulations it apprehends, however. Rather, debunking simply fails to understand the truth that is only possible through experience and practice. That is, demystification does not disenchant but simply describes the epiphenomenal myth of Science while missing the more fundamental “myth”— the structured holism of which detached reflection is a component. Or, in the words of Giambatttista Vico (referenced but not cited in Sterne and Rodgers): “myth is defined as vera narratio, true narration.” This is starting point for Sterne and Rodger’s exploration of signal processing technologies in the production for contemporary sound cultures. They advance their argument for a technological poiesis of signal processing by critiquing two prominent metaphors in the industry: rawness and voyage.

A. Cookery
The “rawness metaphor aims at how everyday engineering talk represents the work of signal processing and elevates it as a kind of culturing process, a readying for the consumption of sound by others.”(36) That is to say, some engineers use signal processing technology to afford themselves a view of the world as full of raw resources. This enacts something very like Heidegger’s instrumentalist view of/through technology. When they take up signal processing as a tool for readying the raw world for consumption, engineers step back from—alienate themselves from—involvement in the world. Sterne and Rodgers explain this relationship in Heideggerian terms as follows:

Raw sound is sound that is ready-to-hand, that is available to be processed. It comes not to the sonic world as it is contemplated, but rather, rawness emerges from a relationship to the sonic world where sounds are used and manipulated (the latter word containing within its etymology a reference to the hands and to bundling up).(38)

As a metaphor, “rawness” not only helps engineers deal with the world as it lies but creates a world full of raw things that appear as “to-be-processed.” Note here that Vico (a self-proclaimed mythic poet) understands metaphor as a myth-in-miniature. He states, “the most luminous figure, and hence the most basic and common, is metaphor… it confers sense and emotion on insensate objects.” By doing this, the great poets of history “created myths about [the origins of humanity]; and every such metaphor is a miniature myth.” In other words, the move to capture the world in a web of instrumentality creates a myth from within which all relations are instrumental. To the extent that this instrumental(izing) myth works against itself by denying its own mythic character, instead declaring itself disinterested reality), it does not achieve disenchantment so much as mis-enchantment.

Those who mistake mis-enchantment for disenchantment too-easily adopt discourses that urge a return to raw, auratic aurality. That is, when we think the world has been reduced to resources due the pervasiveness of “processing,” critiques of consumer capital find themselves painted into a corner: concede that there is no way out of capital or seek a way back to the time before time. Neither is particularly appealing.

B. Cartography
The design and fabrication of electroacoustic instruments often describes a realm in which the conception of signal processing is particularly instrumental. Many synthesizer designs (”topographies”) are based on Hermann von Helmholtz mythology of sound. The twin of visual color perception, sound has three ears called loudness, pitch, and timbre, analogous to the former’s three eyes: brightness, hue, and saturation.(44) From these fundamental materials, Helmholtz theorized, one could build any sound imaginable:

For Helmholtz, [sound] is a thing in the world, a material with definite qualities. The analog synthesizer circuit animates this legacy and takes it literally. If we can analyze sound and break it down into its fundamental components, we can also create it.(44)

In resistance to Helmholtz’ instrumentality, engineer Jessica Rylan takes a poetic approach to synthesis that prefers creating rainshowers to drawing maps of the sea.(44-45) By “poetic, Sterne and Rodgers mean the condition of being a “maker;” not necessarily a maker of poems but, more importantly, a maker of meanings.

IV. After Myth
Sterne and Rodgers articulate a way of being with technology that diverges from Buhler who suggests that time begins “after myth.” The poetics of signal processing that Sterne and Rodgers describe does not ask us to choose “myth” over “disenchantment” nor does it necessarily promote the adoption of better myth over worse. Instead, Sterne and Rodgers (by way of Vico and Heidegger) position myths that allow for future re-invention against those which pretend to have moved beyond mythology. That is, the myth of “after-myth” evacuates the possibility of creation in its poetic sense, while a “poetics of signal processing” turns attention to signal processing as a process. In a world of disenchant, technology must be realistic; it cannot reshape reality. It has no recourse but to serve as tools for efficient production—it becomes picks and shovels and the world looks ever more like a vein of coal ready to be mined, processed, and burned.

Works Cited
Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In The Question Concerning Technology, 3–35, 1977.

Pryke, Clem. “’Puny human brains’ and the beginning of time.” Daily Circuit, MPR, March 19 2014. Web. http://www.mprnews.org/story/2014/03/19/daily-circuit-big-bang

Vico, Giambattista. New Science: Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations. 3rd ed. Penguin Classics. London ; New York: Penguin Books, 1999.

Review/Response: Monstrous affinities.

Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou. Dispossession: The Performative in the Political. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013.

Near the end of Dispossession, Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou hit on the idea of resistive political alliances that go “beyond claims of similitude and community.”(187) That is to say, they wish to exceed the crudity of “identification” as the basis of collective action. This is hardly a new problematic, nor do they pretend that it is. Rather Butler and Athanasiou offer a theory of non-identificatory alliance by way of dissolving the unitary-subject-who-possesses-things.(ix) They argue that one might dispossesses herself only by avowing the “differentiated social bonds” by which she is both constituted and obligated. These bonds deny the possibility of mastery or possessive ownership over anything including the subject’s own being. Not surprising for two theorists heavily invested in performativity, the fact that “we are interdependent beings whose pleasure and suffering depend from the start on a sustained social world”(4) is not nearly so important as one’s avowal of that fact. The act of (false) mastery is the denial of our necessary dependence upon and dispossession by a sustaining World.

And so, while identification posits a similitude between two or more already-extant individuals, it is often the case that a “body politic” can only appear when it is collective. This exceeds a crude “mass politics” argument that suggests a movement must reach a certain cumulative volume before anyone will take notice. Such an aggregative-democracy model of alliance is insufficient to produce real transgression because, again, it depends upon unproblematized “subjects” either working in unison or as harmonious-yet-autonomous entities. In neither case does the multiplicity of individuals constitute a body politic–a collectivized political organism. Proper bodies politic, Butler and Athanasiou theorize, are the path to a mode of appearance apart from interpellation into possessive, stabilized social normativity (in the form of land-ownership, wealth, an able body, a phallus, women). Bodies politic must avoid speaking in a single voice (identification) and yet ought to assert “presence as a plural and obdurate bodily life.”(196) To appear as a life that speaks in multiple voices (or no voice) of its own irreducible right to live(197) is, in a word, “monstrous.” That is to say, it is a creature that appears to be constructed of incongruous parts; it is both a warning and a marvel.(Oxford English Dictionary, “monster”)

While Butler and Athanasiou prefer to focus on the “politic” aspect of these bodies, through Donna Haraway, the metaphor of a (political) body constructed of many biological entities comes to life. From her “Cyborg Manifesto”:

From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point. Single vision produces worse illusions than double vision or many-headed monsters. Cyborg unities are monstrous and illegitimate; in our present political circumstances, we could hardly hope for more potent myths for resistance and recoupling.

Here, Haraway too stresses the obdurate vitality of the social as a way to destabilize the relative blindness of illusory, subjective unity. While doubled vision may be a monstrosity, the disavowal of the monstrous that is implicit in the claim to a singular perspective is far more destructive to the body politic. This is a delicate balance between affirming the necessity of legibility and embracing normativity: “This question of who can appear gets complicated, and occasionally gets into trouble when a realm of appearance comes face to face with an uncanny stranger whose appearance and claim to public space are taken to yield a dissonance.”(195) That is, Butler and Athanasiou worry that monstrosity is an appearance that disqualifies itself from the public– thus, the monster appears (in a phenomenological sense) as that which is, by definition, non-public (extra-public?). Haraway, in contrast, privileges monstrous appearance as the site upon which appearance can uniquely take place. That is, only that which is monstrous will exceed both the liberal myth of individual-life and exceed the background wrangle and make itself available as that-on-the-basis-of-which one can take a political stand.

Haraway makes this point elegantly in her emphasis on anti-bodies as the model for non-identificatory co-habitation. While proponents of identification posit bodies that come together (e.g., LGBT activists and Palestinian activists (***)) as agents of coalition, Haraway locates agency in this in-between space of becoming-with– in the anti-body. Haraway uses the (immunological) anti-body’s attributes of affinity (“related not by blood but by choice, the appeal of one chemical nuclear group for another”) and avidity to describe transgressive alliances. (“Cyborg Manifesto,” 155) Avidity, in its bio-chemical sense, describes the degree to which an antibody can bind with (certain) antigens. High avidity describes an anti-body’s ability to bind to many antigens; low avidity means few antigen-binding sites. Thus, we speak of the anti-body in terms of its ability to become-with antigens: it’s ability to become monstrous in coalition with unlikely others.

Coalition-building and the formation of queer/monstrous bodies politic then, ought to be focus on that body’s immune system. In his Immunitas, Robert Esposito agrees, arguing that “immunity” is not an attribute of being impervious to the outside world but that immunity is better considered as the teche that makes relationality possible. Immunity is a sort of Heideggerian “readiness-to-hand” that is the anti-body’s way of being which makes other bodies appear as openings onto the world. For Heidegger, the ready-to-hand works best when it works transparently. That is, the carpenter’s hammer works best when it “disappears” from her thoughts and and she is able to “fall to” hammer without considering either her activity or the tool in abstract terms. That is to say, the ready-to-hand experienced subjectively and thus, for Heidegger, it is experience in its most basic form. Conversely, to apprehend the hammer objectively (“It weight 900g, has a rubberized handle, etc…”) occurs only in situations in which one is not actually hammering with it. Such objective awareness is called “present-at-hand.” The present-at-hand appears as an object with a set of distinct attributes while the ready-to-hand, again, appears as an opening onto the world as an affordance.

But it is important to note that, in Heidegger’s phenomenology (painstakingly laid out in Being and Time) which celebrates the “ready-to-hand,” he also theorizes an “unready-to-hand.” This is equipment which makes itself known but does not abstract itself into present-at-hand objects. It is a hammer which affords “hammering” but does not do so transparently or newpaper that we understand as a newspaper but which is written in a language we do not understand. In either case, the object resists becoming a transparent opening onto the world while pointedly cuing us to understand that the opening exists. In this sense, we might, then understand this failure to recede–when the hammerer finds herself shockingly aware of her relationship to the hammer–as same sort of “monstrous” appearance that Butler and Athanasiou and Haraway articulated. These monstrous appearances are neither abstractions nor transparent affordances. (see also Sarah Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology for an extended discussion of such objects.)

As Butler and Athanasiou caution, “the challenge is to mobilize ‘appearance’ without taking for granted its naturalized epistemological premises.”(195) This is precisely the business of the monstrous appearance of a queer phenomenal object. The monstrousness calls attention to the connection, denying the possibility of complete identification. It denies disavowal of our interdependence and, indeed, celebrates this collective embodiment by publicly goading others to marvel at its invention.

They blew the nose off the sphynx

Okay, take a minute to dig this.

What I like about this track is that it not only works as a critique of Lorde’s “monogenre” (more on this later) megahit but it also helps me re-organize the way I think about hiphop.

To take a step back: last fall, my colleague, David Maxson, brought “Royals” into our seminar on race and rhetoric. It served as a coincidentally apt reiteration of the white supremacist attitude David Stern exercised when he instituted a dress code for the NBA in response to Ron Artest “standing his ground” against a violent fan in Auburn Hills. That is, in times of tension, it becomes all the more important to assert control over the consumptive practices of black bodies. In 2004, Stern had to remove bling from the public image of the NBA to reassure the white patrons that his boys were domesticated. In 2013, world-wide austerity measures have pushed the working-classes’ noses into the mess the one-percent left on the carpet. Lorde’s response was an anthem to conspicuously inconspicuous consumption that turned its ire on (black) hiphop culture rather than (white) Wall Street.

Verónica Bayetti Flores said it quite well:

While I love a good critique of wealth accumulation and inequity, this song is not one; in fact, it is deeply racist. Because we all know who she’s thinking when we’re talking gold teeth, Cristal and Maybachs. So why shit on black folks? Why shit on rappers? Why aren’t we critiquing wealth by taking hits at golf or polo or Central Park East? Why not take to task the bankers and old-money folks who actually have a hand in perpetuating and increasing wealth inequality? I’m gonna take a guess: racism. I don’t have to explain why wealth operates differently among folks who’ve grown up struggling because this shit has been explained already: If you grew up with holes in your zapatos you’d celebrate the minute you was having dough.

Flores is right on and Mumu Fresh’s cover translates these sentiments back into rhythm and rhyme in her reworking of the chorus to excise Lorde’s inadvertent perpetuation of racist attitudes toward black consumption. If these were the only updates that would have been enough but where Mumu Fresh absolutely kills it is in her reclamation of the track as hiphop. While Mumu Fresh’s re-write of the chorus brings Lorde’s tone-deafness to racialized consumption practices into sharp relief, her history lesson in the rap section to close out the song and her voice call the capitalist experiment itself to task.

Over at Stereogum a few months back, Chris DeVille took a run at deconstructing what he sees as an emergent “monogenre” in pop music. Using Lorde (along with Miley Cyrus and HAIM) as an exemplary case, DeVille suggested that we are reaching a musical-historical moment when it makes little sense to distinguish indie rock from hiphop from pop. His point was well-made and convincing and it led me to consider the stakes of erasing these genre barriers. What is lost when hiphop and its history of political discontent is swept up in the self-conscious classlessness that marks both indie and pop? Isn’t this just another iteration of the old story of appropriation and neutralization of black artistic forms?

But then, the loss of political edge is hardly a new concern for hiphop. In the late 1980s, my favorite artists like Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy, and X-Clan were actively distinguishing between “conscious” hiphop and the rest (Top40, sucka-boy style, party rhymes, radio, gangsta). These distinctions always made me itchy. In part, even though I always preferred the conscious rappers, it drew too clear a line between these black nationalist types and everyone else. For one thing, there was a big difference between N.W.A. and MC Hammer in terms of political content. Though neither passed muster in terms of “consciousness,” gangsta artists’ attention to the violence that America had exported to its black communities in the 20th century was hardly apolitical. While they did not maintain an explicit connection to the Black Nationalist imagery and Pan-Africanist history of X-Clan, BDP, or even Arrested Development, many gangsta rappers located themselves within a political history of American violence against blacks.

This need not be a condemnation of monogenre, however. In 1989, Joshua Clover argued that the fall of the Berlin Wall and attendent “End of History” essentially produced a moment of monogenrification within pop music. He identified Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance” and Jesus Jones’ “Right Here, Right Now.” as such products. While Jesus Jones spoke to the time in its own tongue, Neneh Cherry, Clover argues, managed to keep it real despite speaking the tongue of the time. I am inclined to agree with him.

Extending Clover’s insights the, Mumu Fresh (like Neneh Chery) articulates monogeneric hiphop within a black, politically conscious context. Though it is a note-for-note cover of Lorde’s track, Mumu Fresh’s version differs dramatically in the “grain” of her voice, that is: the ability to make present the body that produces it. While Lorde’s Australian-accented English denies an absolute disappearance into anonymity, this inflection seems more like the “trivial innovations” that grumpy, Frankfurt School philosophers decried as the hallmark of the culture industry’s product. The danger of the monogenre (as well as other appropriative styles) is that it renders the black voice extraneous to hiphop. Perhaps it need only be a person who sounds black or a woman like Lorde whose accent codes as exotic. This is not to say white folks can’t rap; it simply asks about the stakes of rendering black folks extraneous to the form they created. In this case, the musical exchange between Lorde and Mumu Fresh makes the stakes clear. By re-locating the stylistic markers of synthetic finger-popping and a rhyme-dependent Sprachstimme to a place of black politics, Mumu Fresh put Lorde’s lyrics in a mouth with teeth.

Other reviewers have addressed her adaptation of the chorus and but Mumu Fresh’s rap verse to close out “We Already Royal” exhumes the black bodies that Lorde buried and makes them intelligible on a textual level as well as a vocalic one. Tapping into the “people’s history” of American wealth distribution, Mumu Fresh first addresses the history of poverty within black communities:

The ones you see stuntin’
are the ones who never had nothing
so first piece of the pie we tryna’ grab something
snatching and running
packing in gunning
landing a hundred
Flashing n’ frontin’
scared of everything but call it nothing

In many ways, this chunk would fit into Lorde’s original without much trouble. It is a story of poverty and underclass culture inherent in late capital. It bears no particular racial markers but it does take on special significance within the black context elaborated in the next bit:

We don’t know that old true blue blood slave money
slave money
war heroes take it to their grave money
cotton money
cane money
Diamond blood stain money
They tell us to save money
we know getting paid money

Here, the particularity of black experience on the production end of cotton, diamond, and sugar cane comes into relief as well as the historical accolades given to the perpetrators of slavery as heroic architects of the nation. The disconnect between being hailed as a “father” (of a nation or an industry) and being regarded as a “player” with some gold and a nice car is thrown into high relief.

Only talking small money
2 for 5 pack of pampers, black n’ mile money
mattress piled high money
we know sneaker fly money
we know racks on racks on racks on racks on racks money
what about that tax money
oil money
Africa’s rich soil money
so thick you cant fold money
British East Indian company old money
Gold money
Lime stone
Coal money

Here Mumu Fresh makes a turn from a critical history of American wealth to set her eye on transnational wealth accumulation built on the natural resources of Africa. Not only does she take the problem beyond the borders of the United States, she also shifts the scale. While Lorde is chastising African Americans for irresponsible spending in lean times, even Jay-Z’s the putative half-billion dollar net worth is a pittance compared to the wealth of institutions that exploited the labor of Africans for centuries both here and around the world. If the opulence of black hiphop artists merits a song, how many double-albums does Lorde plan to release taking the 1% to task?

Its like the whole world’s up side down
And the real royalty has been reduced to clowns
Lost in the sauce and we don’t know which way to go
They blew the nose off the sphinx so we’d never know… We royal

This is where Mumu Fresh takes us home and the last line give chills every time. Moving from transnational exploitation of capital, resources, and labor this final stanza moves back into the realm of 1990s conscious hiphop framing a pan-African history. The Royal-ty Mumu Fresh evokes in not a trite metaphor: it is connected to a deep, black mythology of an African royal past. Mumu Fresh connects the musical universality of monogeneric hit to the race-conscious, politically radical, counter-liberal discourse of hiphop’s black nationalist origins by uncovering the black bodies (noses and all) at the heart of the genre.

Cultivated. Temporary. Failure

I found this in my pocket today.
It tends to resurface in poignant moments…

Graham Larkin gave the keynote address at the IU “Technologies of Experience Symposium” last spring. I was blown away by his presentation and found that, when it was over, I had written three words on blank sheet of paper:

cultivated temporary failure

The next day, after the symposium was concluded, I was chatting with Graham and, at some point showed him my notes. He reached into his pocket and produced a scrap of paper with three words written in red ink:
cultivated. temporary. failure

This was, he said, the entirety of his notes for the talk. He handed me the scrap of paper and I kept it.

I find it from time to time.
It tends to resurface in poignant moments.
I found it in my pocket today…

Kanye West on Aestethics and Revolution

On November 26, Kanye gave an interview to the Power 105.1 Breakfast Club. Throughout, West reiterates the fact that he is driven by artistic vision while (interviewer) Charlamagne tries to coral him into a role as a revolutionary/activist.

Charlamagne channels a stereotyped “Marxist cultural studies scholar” perspective to the point of arguing at a couple of points that West’s fans like his music because of his politics and message. While West has not shied away from an image as political agitator by any stretch, reducing him to his politics seems to miss the point that he is an artist. Bloggers like Jessica Ann Mitchell similarly treat West more as theorist than musician. In her post from December 2, Mitchell summarizes the (specifically) black cultural tradition of Marxist critique re: a totalizing “struggle” paradigm. Mitchell raises some fine points in which she (for example) challenges West’s uncritical use of the confederate flag. She is, unfortunately, a bit too eager to insist that West hasn’t read his Fanon and DuBois closely enough.

Mitchell takes Kanye West to task for desiring success within the racist structure of power as it currently stands… for wanting “a seat at the table.” While the socialist dreamer in me cannot help but agree, something about that critique seems too “easy” after watching (and listening to) Kanye in action. In the Breakfast Club interview, West’s response to similar attacks is partly about following his muse wherever it leads. This approaches a razor thin ethical “rationalization” but it is quite compelling if understood as a frame for interpreting his responses. West is not pursuing an abstract or rational program of political/economic critique. Both his fashion line and his discourse are best read as artistic statements. How else to understand his poetic virtuosity in this interview? Rhythm, rhyme, and flow aren’t just “techniques”: they are his mode of being in the world.

Neither West nor I are ignorant enough to pretend that art is apolitical but, at the same time, West appears to be issuing a challenge to the automatic rejection of the consumer capital machine. That is, West seems to suggest that money and artistic authenticity are not necessarily in opposition in every instance and that they might actually overlap in some places. If nothing else, he is pushing back against the popular wisdom that hip-hop is always a music about political struggle. To reduce his music and his discourse to messages about overcoming oppression strips West of his ability to create art. White scholars have long stripped African sounds of aesthetic sophistication by imagining black musics as “functional” or “socially accountable” in some way. While the concept of “absolute music” is troubled even when applied to Western art music and laughably inappropriate for a work like “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” (regardless of its compositional sublimity), it is equally absurd to deny the possibility of appreciating hiphop as an aesthetic object. To do so only re-affirms the history of black music’s alleged degeneracy.

Note here that I am committing the same sin for which Mitchell and Charlamagne condemn Kanye West. Rather than smashing the hierarchy of Western art music’s structural complexity/virtuosity, I am arguing that there is something serious at stake in denying African Americans access to such rarified air. Many scholars reject Western aesthetics altogether, and with good reason. However, I think it might be more interesting in some cases to imagine that an artist like Kanye West is adapting and expanding the traditions of black art, of political resistance, and of western aesthetics. While I genuinely understand and usually support the assertion that one ought to challenge the hierarchy that oppresses you rather than climb it, it also seems to be the case that it isn’t necessarily counter-revolutionary to be well-fed.