Monday, December 27, 2010

Work

"First of all, we think the world must be changed. We want the most liberating change of the society and life in which we find ourselves confined. We know that such a change is possible through appropriate actions."

Industrial Music for Post-Industrial People

Industrial Records Ltd. opens its doors in 1976, the same year that Milton Friedman won a Nobel Prize and as the Industrial Common Ownership Act, and four years after DJ Kool Herc pioneers the "Merry-Go-Round" technique. Three years later, 1979, sees the release of Throbbing Gristle's 20 Jazz Funk Greats, the election of Margaret Thatcher to Prime Minister and the appointment of Paul Volcker as Chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank, and Rapper's Delight.

"Industrial Music for Industrial People," then, of course, comes exactly at the moment that industrial society ceases being a relevant term. Certainly this doesn't mean that there are no more industrial people for whom to make industrial music (or to have industrial music made by); but that that music was being made at the same time as Thatcher took her first tentative steps towards a program of asset-stripping that would be one of the major symbols of an economic turn to a post-industrial society can't be unimportant.

What interests me about this, in light of what I'm about to try to talk about, is the way in which "Industrial" can be collapsed into "work." Obviously this isn't all there is to it, and I hope to go more into it somewhere else, but in my opinion Industrial provides the model for representing work in art that continues to prevail today.

What I'm interested in is something I've been thinking about as something like the work of representing non-work. In some sense the opposite of Castiglione's sprezzatura, this is about the way an explicit rejection of work (or the productions within a piece that themselves signify work) becomes the dominant mode of doing work.

The connection between rap and industrial music stretches as far back as Afrika Bambaataa's sampling of Kraftwerk before the genre had even established itself as such. As rap became a, and then the, dominant commercial force within the music industry, it continued flirting with the industrial aesthetic. And while the aesthetic influence goes in and out of style, or can better be tracked along the lines of individual artists, the ideological connection between the two of them lies in the way that rap appropriates and alters industrial's work ethic. To speak ridiculously broadly, industrial models its work after the factory, from its acoustic environment to its refusal of the craftsman. Rap, I would argue, actually starts from the same place - the factory, where value is produced en masse with an unfailing, clanking regularity, out of the partial objects produced both there and elsewhere - but only with its rejection, in favor of the model of entrepreneurship.

Lil Boss

Skip forward to 2010, and our first object of inquiry; Lil B. His two most immediate and obvious predecessors, Lil Wayne and Soulja Boy, have been working hard at redefining rap for the new millenium. Lil Wayne's syrup-driven unwritten rhymes and mixtape glut combined with Soulja Boy's Internet presence and rejection of technical mastery. As soon as Lil B comes into existence in the minds of the public, he has already oversaturated, with new songs being released on a near-daily basis. Lil B extends the swag as work (or more specifically, affective labour) metaphor ("Hop up out the bed / turn my swag on / took a look in the mirror said what's up / awwww, get money, yeah") to its limits, as in his self-reference as a pretty boy/pretty bitch.

In the dichotomy which has always existed within hip hop, between the streets and the party, Lil B is clearly on the side of the streets, against T-Pain's party (now club) aesthetic; Lil B presents himself as grinding constantly, his wealth is in what he can use to alter his body (cars, jewelery, head), and he (at the broadest level) is engaging with the struggles of living as such. This is all in contrast to T-Pain, whose struggles are strictly delimited (whether they are the difficulties of picking up a bartender or dealing with biters), whose bodily alterations are the background to the wealth he is trying to procure,* and who presents himself as partying constantly. As with all other rappers whose primary imaginary space is the streets, this means that Lil B's primary signifier of his allegiance to the entrepreneur ethic is his grind/hustle. Which he, it must be said, works hard at maintaining. At the same time, however, he twists it, and this is where his non-work comes into play.

The concept of reproductive labour must come into play here. As Marx notes,
"The maintenance and reproduction of the working class is, and must ever be, a necessary condition to the reproduction of capital. But the capitalist may safely leave its fulfilment to the labourer’s instincts of self-preservation and of propagation. All the capitalist cares for, is to reduce the labourer’s individual consumption as far as possible to what is strictly necessary, and he is far away from imitating those brutal South Americans, who force their labourers to take the more substantial, rather than the less substantial, kind of food."
Through a series of complicated collapses, we can identify reproductive labour as the paradigm of non-work** in that it is a positive space within capitalism where the fundamental structure - labour is a commodity with an exchange-value which gets purchased with a wage in order that surplus-value may be produced - of work is negated.***

Feminist theorist Nina Power has argued, amongst others, that the Feminization of labour goes both ways; that is, not only do women become more and more interpolated into the field of labour, but also labour itself begins to take on qualities associated with feminine work.
Nina Power, One Dimensional Woman, 20

As the ultimate example of women's work, then, the broad shift towards reproductive labour, and the related field of affective labour, in a post-industrial society are what defines it.

The two terms that Power provides ('precarity' and 'communications-based') should already ring bells with anyone familiar with Lil B's work. The latter is precisely what is so uncanny about Lil B's hustle; everyone knows that advertising is in many ways what the hustle boils down to, and certainly it would be a stretch to argue that rap isn't communication-based from the outset. What makes Lil B's grind seem so estranged yet familiar is, I think, not a reflection of the content of the work, but of the model on which the work is based; instead of the entrepreneur's need for communication, what we have with Lil B is basically the affective labourer/service worker's need for communication. One imagines that Lil B probably doesn't have a meticulously compiled e-mail list, or a release schedule designed to optimize his quarterly earnings. What he does have, however, is a web presence wherever he is allowed to, with a few more-or-less central spots, such as his website and his twitter and his youtube, any (or all) of which you can go to to keep up to date with his never ending blitz of media output.

Precarity in rap is, on the other hand, something which is often alluded to but rarely seems real; no matter how much Dr. Dre may've insisted we forgot about him in 1999, no one really believed that he was going to lose his job - just that he was doing it worse (to all of you who said I turned pop / or the Firm flopped / y'all are the reason that Dre ain't been getting no sleep). On the other hand, Lil B resides within the permanent impermanence of the Internet, and the question of whether or not he's going to end up a meme remains wide open.

Art of Uff

2010 also saw the release of Uffie's debut album Sex Dreams and Denim Jeans, in which she presents herself as the consummate non-worker. Whether she's saying "Me and my myspace with only three tracks a year, and they still talk about me?" or "I'm an entertainer / not a lyricist," it is hard to miss the fact that she has no interest in presenting herself as possessing any sort of work ethic.

If it can be said that what Uffie does is exactly the opposite of staying on her grind, then it must also be noted that she neither fully coheres with the contemporary party aesthetic in rap. There is, actually, a real way she harks back to the original role of the MC; she is not there to add to the music a sense of space and narrative, but to be the master of ceremonies, to move the crowd. This is in contrast to T-Pain's role, which is very much to imagine the club. The biggest departure from this is a song like ADD SUV, where not only is the imaginary space a car, but the ontological reality is that it's impossible to imagine anything, much less a club.

As discussed earlier, the paradigm of non-work, reproductive labour, would seem to be what Uffie embodies (even to the point of suggesting that "What I cook for my husband" is one of the topics her fans are getting sick of hearing about) as the ultimate non-worker. Her affluence, of course, belies this, and it is here that we can identify how the reversal from a non-worker - someone whose work cannot be structurally recognized as such, and therefore who cannot be paid except through proxies - to someone who is paid not to work**** takes place.

The narrative of a disenfranchised individual being specially raised to a status where they have to do no work and still get rich is not new. What we might argue is actually new about this, in Uffie's case, is the sense she constantly gives off that, although she might not be working, nevertheless there is still work being done.

The Work of the Novel

If it is the job of the writer to produce books, and the novelists, novels, then the work that the novelist does, in the popular conscious at least, can be broken down to two points. The first is a style, which is generally perceived as the less important of the two as it is supposed to be intrinsic to, or constitutive of, the novelist. The second is the creation of characters.

Tao Lin's 2010 novel, Richard Yates, takes both of these things as its point of departure. The pared-down, minimalist, "lazy" style of the novel is perhaps its most contentious point. Its refusal to do anything more than describe exactly and precisely what is happening in the moment that it happens undermines Modernist assumptions that the ethical novel is the novel that represents interiority in all its complexity, especially in that it itself seems to make the case that its approach is, in fact, the ethical one. And as the equation of the creation of relatable, round characters can, in at least its current configuration, be traced back to this assumption, it is doubly important.

The style also presents itself as transparent, at least insofar as it seems like it requires no work. No one but a parodist could wax poetic over the agony and beauty of Tao Lin's perfect craftsmanship in rendering Haley Joel Osment in all his glory with a neutral facial expression.

Naming the characters Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning seems to me to best be explained along these lines as well. That is, as a refusal to work according to another of the dominant models of fiction writing. In this case, however, what seems to me to be being flouted is not the Modernist tradition, but the dual traditions of memoir and realism. If realism is, as Lukacs would have it, concerned with representing the objective conditions which create modern subjectivity rather than just representing that subjectivity, and memoir is concerned with affording the reader apparently unmediated access into the memories of the author, then taking the names of child celebrities for no reason is basically a way of blocking both of these things. With this move, the mediation rears its ugly head into view, and also the sense that what we're seeing described is in some way a totality is also banished.

What we're left with, then, is a sort of Brechtian realism, completely with the Verfremdungseffekt of interpolated celebrity names, but crucially lacking the didacticism which spawns from Brecht's worldview.*****

With even the ideological work of the novelist jettisoned, Tao Lin emerges as the perfect non-worker, recuperable only through reference to his advertising stunts.

Situations

Perhaps, in lieu of a proper conclusion, where I propose a positive political programme or synthesize this analysis into a tactical endorsement or whatever, you will allow me instead to end with a turn backwards. To before Industrial music, with the greatest theorists against work, the Situationists.

Perhaps what I've been describing can be reduced to Raoul Vaneigam's distinction between work and creativity, and the way in which the former necessarily suppresses the latter.

And perhaps the beauty of Tao Lin's marketing stunts is that it is more in line with the practice of creating situations; and Lil B may turn out to be the greatest psychogeographer of the Internet.

I suppose that, ultimately, what I want to suggest is that, for those of us who really want to think of alternatives to the way the world is today, these are things worth thinking about in our attempts to construct a real counter-system.

It makes me sick
How they do these girls
I'm not perfect
but I still try to save the world.




*This distinction, of course, mirrors the distinction between C-M-C and M-C-M', which is pretty neat. Don't read too much into it though. To turn Lil B into the capitalist and T-Pain into a prole would be as easy as analogizing Lil B's music to outsourcing, as he endlessly pushes out the actual work until it is forced to be done by his listeners, while T-Pain enforces a delimited, concrete working space (which happens to be the real world's most visible and profitable playing space) and doing his work within it.
**This is non-work, of course, not in the sense of "that which is other than work," but as that which specifically negates the value of work.
***Negated meaning, here, far from undermining, something actually much closer to idealized.
****This is, of course, perhaps the best possible definition of "fame," maybe.
*****The obvious counterexample here is something like an Existentialist worldview, characterized by a stoic-yet-frantic acceptance of all things that are. I think Norman Mailer's 1957 essay The White Negro can serve as an explanation of why this philosophical system is important to the hipster, and also why it nevertheless doesn't represent a coherent worldview in the same way that something like Brecht's socialism does.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Balloons-Bubbles-Diamonds



This is fashioned as a response, of sorts, to a post by Bat, Bean, Beam on Pixar's Up and its relation to the housing crisis. As I personally didn't find Up especially compelling, I'll be returning to it explicitly only through Bat, Bean, Beam's analysis and, most importantly, through the way the picture above can be used to structure my remarks.


"In the very last image before the credits of Up start rolling we discover that the house has landed gently just where Ellie had fantasised as a child. It is a comforting resolution, inevitably so, full of symmetry and sentimental denouement, and yet at the same time unsettling, for it leaves us with the picture of a dream without its dreamer, of an economy without people. It is also therefore, in one final ambiguity, a picture of the crisis."

 Brian McCarty, Self-Evident

"[T]he picture of a dream without its dreamer" calls to mind, for me, Brian McCarty's photograph for the Three Apples exhibit, Self-Evident. If you think of it in light of my analysis of Jason Han's I Haz Mouth (painted for the same exhibition), you might be able to see where I'm going with this. The Kitty on the right, in the foreground, in this case however, is not being caught up in an infinite loop of (partial) self-representation; instead, it is the subjectiveless subject. What this picture suggests is the dream whose dreamer is, at the end of the day, a little lump of plastic.

And, importantly, what this piece of affective junk (to use a phrase I keep returning to) dreams is a little girl floating away with a handful of balloons. This is, like any dream, a deeply ambivalent image; it takes only a small step to realize that the "childlike wonder" that this image is supposed to instantiate as an eternal present needs only to be subject to time to become exhilarating terror, worry, and tedium.

In this sense, Kitty's dreams position her in that ambivalent space, either subjective object or objective subject. As we see, it is not simply the fact that objects dream of the things-in-themselves; they also, like Kitty's spoken mouth, are permanently caught up in games of meaning. We might also, to put a Lacanian twist on it, say that Kitty's dreams are the dreams of the other, in this image the little girl, who Kitty knows must long for the freedom of flight and absence, of that transcendent sort of objectification that repeatedly occurs in cries of "look at me, mommy!"

With this, JR's essay Bubble / dreams / forever now comes into play. Gaga who, through her art, her mirroring, and her explicit claims about her project, positions herself as an object to be consumed, and uses this position to advance her bubble dreams. As JR points out, instead of the strict "post-bubble world" utopianism of Capitalist Realism, though, her bubbles diamondize, re-introducing themselves as not just the solution, but also the problem.

With this we have the first of the groups of things that I am trying to apprehend here. One way to put this is to say that the bubble is the medium which allows for the slippage between the balloon and the diamond. This metaphorical relation between the balloon (that ambivalent utopian figure, the dream object that only fulfills dreams after the dreamer has left the picture) and the diamond is conducted through the bubble, that object that is both financial and material.

What, though, exactly, is a diamond, in this sense? The ultimate embodiment of this sort of diamond is, for the moment, Katy Perry. To get there, though, requires a reading against the popular understanding of Perry's project, of which I take Anwyn Crawford's brilliant article Warring Brassieres as the best example. This argument, which posits Gaga's post-feminist, cyborg, utopian weirdness as the leftist version of the counter-revolutionary, reactionary, anti-feminist utopianism of Perry goes toward the truth without ever quite, I think, reaching it. For what is really remarkable about Perry's music is that it, while in the middle of presenting all of these fantasies about becoming consumable, buries deep within itself the vicious pain that this process involves. Think, for instance, of her endless choruses, especially the one in California Gurls, that always end up with Perry basically wailing inarticulately. If it weren't for the massive amounts of work done in post-production, from structural shaping to lathered-on AutoTune, what we would have as the core of this song would be simply Katy Perry screaming.*



This is something that I've tried to approach with my song Internalized Diamonds from my second Valentine's Day EP, but I think a better example is my friend Daniel's youtube video katy perry, embedded above. In the video, a distorted version of Prozzak's Strange Disease plays as a cropped image of Perry in a diamond Hello Kitty outfit spins into and out of a diamond shape.

What this video seems to be identifying, to me, is that Katy Perry's music is an attempt to navigate a world which is truly post-bubble; not just in Friedman's sense of the steady expansion of capital markets with no collapses, but also in the sense of a world which no longer has the capacity to mediate between its dream-balloons and its impossibly hard, sharp diamond-value.

Diamonds, then, could be said to be figures of the pain of unconverted surplus-value, the real promise of profits that will never be realized. The diamond is also, though, a figure of a sort of reductive performativity, the moment when the free shuffling of arbitrary signifiers becomes suddenly refigured as a monstrous destiny instead of a liberating game. This is, I take it, why Perry is so productively represented as the antagonist to Gaga/Rihanna/et al.'s performative protagonist.

In an earlier post on this blog, titled Cobbling, I posited a sort of deconstruction of the (typographical) diamond as both the initial cause and potential solution to the X. The post ends with a link to the video that inspired it in the first place, another by Daniel called Easy Target. This X is the mythological X, the X that both "marks the spot" but also the X that "Xes out," both calling attention to an object and effacing it. The connection, then, between the diamond and the X, can be seen as a sort of Trojan Horse, as the eternal diamond gets internalized as a defense mechanism which only serves to smuggle in the "seek & destroy" protocol of the X. This is, I take it, a sort of summary of the movement that underpins Katy Perry's celebrity-node, and why Internalized Diamonds is about her.**

What we have, now, is the balloon-bubble-diamond structure that identifies the cultural task of commensurating the cultural qualities of the ambivalent utopianism with the hard reality of floating surplus-value by way of both speculative and idealized real bubbles.

It is not quite so simple as all this, though. Because the initial balloons, we must remember, carry a house, and it is the houses that, in a way, are the real subjects of the bubbles.*** Balloons-bubbles-diamonds that well up in the hearts of pop stars are one thing; the ones that buoy houses function in an entirely different way.

In the direction of representing the house as subject, we basically have recourse only to the haunted house. One must only recall the frenzied refrain of the remake of House on Haunted Hill - "the house is alive!" - to see what I mean. Although that movie itself, in the particularities of its representation, tends more towards the Thi13een Ghosts end of the haunted house spectrum, where the house isn't so much "alive" as it is a giant machine, a space constructed to harness spiritual energy and constructive of it.

Closer to a real living house, although it initially seems much further, is something like the Hammer film The House That Bled To Death. In this film, a house that is purported to be haunted is occupied by a family, until a bunch of spooky things force them to vacate. At the end, however, it is revealed that the father of the family is actually (among other things) an actor who has falsified the haunting in order to provide material for a book "based on a true story."

This is an exquisite example of the use of a metafictional technique (what this revelation really reveals is that the director of the film is doubled, as this author's real work has been to direct the film from within) to debunk both the spiritual and psychological narrative (the couple even discusses the possible traumatic effect of the fabrication on their child, only to sort of blithely discount that it could have done any real harm) of the living house. The house is not alive in its ability to magnify spiritual (read: historical) resonances, nor due to the unique makeup of its occupants (as in those films where paranormal phenomenon are being investigated by groups of people who have had a near-death experience), but precisely because the house is revealed, in the final analysis, to be the only concrete subject in play.


Poltergeist, with its explanation of the horror it represents as being a product of the bad bureaucratic decision to move the cemetery and leave the corpses behind (presumably a move by the bureaucrat to inflate the bottom line), is a sort of inversion of this logic. The house as spirit-condenser (although the film attempts to distance itself from this by claiming the invasion is a poltergeist, which is differentiated from a "haunting" in that it is precisely both temporary and not spatial) is thus sort of a way for the house to rebel against its own reduction to being just property. The house is pissed off because of the lack of a level basic human decency in the conditions of its construction.


The real auteur of the living house genre, in this specific sense, is Wes Craven. Although his films never treat themselves in this manner. And this is precisely because he almost categorically rejects the spiritual or psychological reduction that functions as the broadest generic signposts. The only prominent counterexample to this, I think, would be Nightmare on Elm Street which, if you take into account that Craven directed both the first and the final (New Nightmare) iterations of this franchise, then you realize that what results is ultimately almost identical to The House That Bled To Death.****

What Craven does, instead of using these reductive genre motifs, is figure the house as the ultimate space in nearly all of his films. How this almost inevitably pans out is with the climactic chase through the house. The house which - again, almost invariably - has been booby-trapped. What this does is to render the house not just a passive interiority or a disinterested spatial determiner, the navigation of which allows for the creation of tension, but as an, or more precisely the, active intercessor.

The trope of the chase scene is precisely a tool which structurally effects the reduction of all participants to objects, in order to clear space for the tension of mapping interiority onto the landscape. By this I mean that the chase wrenches the subjectivity of, in Craven's films for instance, the chaser by reducing him to an inhuman monster, and the chased by reducing her to abject terror; and in so doing, replaces the processes normally associated with interiority (self-determination, reflexive thought, ability to interpret sensory input) onto the landscape. That the most common form of chase is the "car chase" underlines this, as the car itself already reduces the subject to an object, and the roads become these very externalized thought processes. Thus the house's interior becomes an interiority, and the booby traps a conscious mode of interacting/shaping the trajectories of the (human) objects, as well as determined reactions to sensory stimuli.

This is not all, however. Perhaps the single greatest image of the house as subject comes, paradoxically, in Craven's The Hills Have Eyes, a movie set around a broken down car in an irradiated desert. The films climax sees the kids booby-trapping the trailer to self-destruct, to kill the mutant cannibals they have lured back inside. What this moment offers, more than just another image of a burning house, is a reference to an earlier image in the film; the father, attached to a cross, being burned alive. The house as martyr.

Much more can be said about this (just think, for instance, about the two houses in Scream 3 - the simulacral, film set reconstitution of the house from Scream for "Stab 3," and the director's mansion in which it ends - or the fairy tale of the hidden gold in The People Under The Stairs), but perhaps this is enough to return to the initial argument. It is, I hope, uncontroversial to point out that the 2008 financial collapse was a collapse of the housing markets; it would certainly be insane to suggest that the collapse was triggered by the houses themselves, as though houses across the country and then the world had themselves started to crumble and deteriorate. What was "toxic" were the financial assets; what were "subprime" were the loans; the houses themselves were, quite frankly, incidental, mere incentives, their value only in their unparalleled ability to anchor confidence in the free-flowing capital that soared above them.

What is the point, then, in insisting on this close attention to these fictional houses, these representations capable of consuming the balloon-bubble-diamond, when what they refer to is in reality nothing more than another empty concrete signifier, ready to be shuffled out of the equation as soon as another one can be molded to fit into its place?

The answer to this can, of course, never be entirely fixed. On one level, we might insist on the analysis of the concrete, overdetermined components of this problem, in order to approach a more honest appraisal than that offered by one which only takes into account the abstractions that served as the causal determinations. On another is perhaps the impulse to refuse the free-play of signs, to resist the infinite malleability that conditions the possibility of both creating and salvaging these crises.


These impulses are shared with, and perhaps engendered by (in me at least), the recent movement toward the direct action tactic of occupations. That word which invokes the spectres of both home-ownership and military occupation, and which refers to the tactical taking over of a factory (or university) by the workers (or students) who perform work within it.

To offer a sort of concluding gesture, then, it might be pointed out that the term "housing bubble" refers not just to the market truth, but also, according to this new schematic, the way in which the "house" itself (under the right subjective conditions) becomes the ferrying mechanism which traverses the gap between balloons and diamonds. This is (or at least I certainly hope it is) more than just another way of making the observation that the house is the ultimate figure of the American Dream, with its dual ideal of speculative advancement and interpersonal mastery. It instead opens up (again, I hope) the possibility that the house, as the highest possible form of affective junk, can be made to operate not simply as a facilitator of capital, but also as a powerful impasse. Like Hello Kitty, standing rigid and plastic on the grass, dreaming without a dreamer of the little girl floating away on her balloons.

*If you've ever listened to an acapella of a Katy Perry song, especially I Kissed A Girl, you'll know what I'm talking about
**To put it in these new terms, one could say that the problem with the dominant analyses of Katy Perry are that they recognize her existence within this world where the diamonds and the balloons have become incommensurable, but focus only on the balloon-aspect of her performance.
***Not the least reason for this is that pop stars/celebrities are always figured as the objects of these bubbles, never the subjects.
****Craven's most recent, My Soul To Take, might also easily be seen to fall into this trap. I get the feeling that it does avoid this, but to explain precisely how it does evades me at this moment.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Eating Death



If there is one moralistic message which underlines every cultural object I can think of, it is that to consume wrongly is to condemn oneself to death.

Could the obscene outpouring of pleasure at slaughtering zombies signify anything else? When ideological rigor is pursued - whether through veganism, socialism, free market capitalism - is this not the ultimate thesis we see being played out?

And, underlying it, the ideological equation of consumption with death.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Hello Kitty's Mouth

Jason Han, I Haz Mouth

There is something incredibly off-putting, to many people, about Hello Kitty's mouthlessness, that arguments from design pragmatism or relative degree of cuteness (rightly) don't quite squelch. The claim that it embeds her in an antifeminist position is well-taken, with the argument usually being that it reproduces a sense of the value of women as being contingent on their voicelessness. Jason Han's painting, I think, points a way through that impasse.

What we get, in this painting, is a suggestion that Hello Kitty with a mouth speaks not just imagistically, but that her speech is actually itself just a representation of her mouth. And, because of the very minimalism that supposedly accounts for her lack of a mouth, something even stranger – the speech bubble itself begins to look less like a representation of speech, and more like a third, incomplete Kitty, with the triangle at the bottom even serving as a potential ear. At a very basic level, then, we have the suggestion that when Kitty is given the tools of language, what she becomes capable of producing is a perfect partial self-representation.

The weirdness of this is compounded by the fact that the mouthless Hello Kitty is actually more expressive - there is an intuitive sense in which the !!! above her head signals something more concrete than the speech bubble with a mouth in it. Which is counterintuitive if you take the mouth to be something like the condition for the possibility of expression - in this case the mouth allows for the creation of an image which refers to an external language which itself is part of a specific discourse which is technologically and historically marked and gendered and so on, while the lack of a mouth allows for the expression of direct astonishment, which only after this is registered becomes ambiguous (is she astonished because her doppelganger* has evolved a mouth, is her astonishment a projection of envy, etc).

This ambiguity, though, is itself wrong, in a way. It is sort of weirdly genealogical, a reading forward through language the conditions of arriving at the beginning. That is, it is a sort of speculative historicizing, a guessing at the past on the evidence of its potential future. So to say something like that the !!! is one of envy, with the implication being that the mouthless Kitty has always desired a mouth, cannot help but be backwards, as we see in the painting itself that the expression of a desire for a mouth can only be predicated on actually having a mouth. Kitty can't want a mouth until she's got one – and when she does, it's what she's reduced to.

The equation, then, of a lack of a mouth with a lack of a voice, is made to seem outright perverse by this painting.** Which is, in itself, pretty great, but there is another aspect of Jason Han's painting that I think really cements its wonderfulness.


Renée Magritte, Les Deux Mystères

The most obvious way to read this painting is as a commentary on the more famous (and earlier) La Trahison des Images, where that painting is itself situated in this one, on an easel. Re-painting that painting certainly compounds the thematizing of semiotics, but instead of taking further the exploration of the insufficiency of the signifier, what we get is another realist representation of a pipe, and this one with no tagline disavowal. On the contrary, it almost seems to point up the interpretation that Foucault suggests of the earlier painting, that the painted words “ceci n'est pas une pipe” refer not to the pipe above but to themselves – this “this” is not “a pipe.” Because if we believe that the realist image must contain a linguistic disavowal to maintain the distance between a signifier and its signified, then mustn't we come to the conclusion, of this new pipe, that it is a pipe?

And certainly no one believes that pipe outside of the easel is any more a real pipe than the pipe within it. As Foucault also points out, the large pipe is not itself "in space" the same way the small pipe is - the large pipe could be on the wall in the back, but it could just as easily be floating in the foreground, actually the smaller of the two pipes; or it could be a sort of hazy apparition, no pipe at all but a dream of a pipe by the not-a-pipe on the easel.

Thus, the congruence; in one, the not-a-pipe that dreams a pipe; in the other, the mouth that speaks itself. Structurally, then, we have a sort of complicated coherence between the represented Treachery of Images and the two Kitties. Complicated because it is the Kitty who has been inducted into the linguistic order who is doing the dreaming, and the Kitty who is still outside of it that must, then, be the equivalent of the painted words.

This complication, I think, points to the basic disjunction in the mode of representation that exists between the pipe and Kitty. The whole argument of La Trahison des Images revolves around the pipe as representation, as it is its status as such that creates the space necessary to be able to coherently refer to it as not itself. Whereas with Kitty we are not dealing with a representation (in manifold, often very subtle ways) – such that a direct take-off of La Trahison des Images would necessarily mean something entirely different. A painting of Hello Kitty with “This is not a Hello Kitty” below it would necessarily mean something entirely orthogonal to the meaning of a painting of a pipe with “This is not a pipe” written beneath it.

The short of it, then, is that the gap between these apparently identical instances (of Kitty's potential mouth speaking only itself, and of the not-a-pipe that only dreams of a more-real pipe) is exactly the gap between an image and a representation. And, to put blithely what I've been trying to put subtly, that what this perhaps draws out is the insufficiency of a politics of representation to account for Kitty. Without, of course, simply shoving the question to the side altogether.




*One of the most basic ways you can tell a “real” Hello Kitty product from a counterfeit is that Hello Kitty always wears her bow on the left ear. Which means that the Kitty with the mouth would have to be either a counterfeit Kitty or, I guess, Kitty's twin sister Mimmy. I don't really find this particularly meaningful so much as funny.


**Two things: first, there are actually two ways in which Kitty has always been voiced, in that the first product of hers was a coin purse with HELLO printed in block caps over her head (thus her 'name' – although, canonically, her name is Kitty White) and also in that whenever she is put into a narrative context, or anywhere else where she needs to speak, she is perfectly capable of doing so. Second is that I think this is where the lolcats meme-speak of the title comes into play, for me at least, as that is exactly an example of voice being given to the voiceless as being infantilizing and generally the opposite of empowering.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Post-Kanye: Nicki Minaj



Following up on Sole's question about whether or not "post-Kanye" is a genre (and bracketing, for the moment, my initial reaction).

Instead of Drake, I'm going to propose as the seminal text of this speculative genre the first verse of Nicki Minaj's "Still I Rise."

This verse, in which Minaj appropriates the voice of the "hater" and turns it into a sort of negative mythologizer, completes the turn that Kanye's music's central implicit critique had begun.

To sketch out what I mean roughly: my central claim is that Kanye's important contribution to hip hop has been as an internal node which reconfigures the popular conception of the hater. Before Kanye, the hater was hip hop's way of figuring a sort of antagonistic ignorance. This comes in a number of flavors, from an ignorance of the emcee's work ethic or biographical hardship, to a willful disavowal of the emcee's inarguable talent. Likewise, the reactions vary from bemused indifference to conversion attempts.

With the rise of Kanye came the rise of the "I <3 Haters" meme. Kanye lets us see what we've been blind to all along - the haters vocal ignorance is not to be disdained, but to be capitalized upon! Ignorance is no longer even a relevant category, as the critic* is transformed into a commodity. So you can love them, because they are no longer castrated figures of potential negativity, but instead are simply assets.

This, of course, leaves hip hop's structural narrative at an impasse. The hater as commodity proposition is something that only works so long it is positively avowed - if people stop making the argument, it stops being true. Like a real commodity, this new concept is a sort of organized negativity, an absence that structures presence. Thus Kanye's revolution within hip hop is to basically remove the possibility of a structural antagonist.

In this analysis, the problem with calling Drake post-Kanye is, basically, that he is more like an acolyte of Kanye's. He is one of the ones most vocally preaching that one must love thy hater, as it does wonders for the authenticity of the Degrassi kid rapping about his rags to riches story.

What "Still I Rise" does differently, though, is to take Kanye's critique and reintegrate it into the larger narrative. This song in particular, with all its transcendent kitsch, gives to the hater the necessary negative force to constitute a real threat that must be struggled with while also keeping the lovable commodity intact. What this results in is basically a hater who has an uncanny ability to see the important themes that underlie an emcee, but only negatively.

The mythology that Nicki Minaj attempts to sell is never more perfectly stated than in the first verse of this song. She is post-geographical (a Queens native signed to Young Money; "and what's her nationality she Chinese right?") and post-heterosexual ("you know her last name Minaj she a lesbian! / and she ain't never comin' out") and situated within a (really very weird) female pantheon ("she tryna be like Lil' Kim her picture looks the same" "she ain't the next bitch"). The only theme that's missing, and this is crucial, is exactly her ongoing thematic self-commodification - for one verse, Nicki Minaj is not a Harajuku Barbie. And it is, I would argue, exactly because this structural movement takes precedence.

Which starts to point in the direction of why Nicki Minaj is so fucking great, but then I'll have to write that some other day



*Critic, in this sense, is something that the rap lexicon would recognize but is not the same as the category born through hip hop. The gap between the "hater" and the "critic" is, basically, that critics actually exist - haters are just extrapolations of rhetoric. This is why Jay-Z can say "I'm like fuck critics, you can kiss my whole asshole / if you don't like my lyrics you can press fast forward." Here though, I just mean by critic something like "negative assessor."

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Some review of Poncho Peligroso's 'the romantic'

Poncho was kind enough to let me have a PDF copy of his forthcoming book, 'the romantic,' which I read and said some little things about on twitter & gchat. But I would also like to say some things here, so I will.

I chatted with him, before he sent me the book, about Tao Lin and some other stuff, and one of ways he presented the Muumuu House aesthetic was in opposition to what he called David Foster Wallace's maximalism. I don't think this is necessarily something he came up with but it stuck with me, and it has helped me to think around it while I'm going back and thinking about certain things. I feel sort of compelled here to say that I would tend, if this bifurcation is to be taken generically, to put myself in the DFW camp; that is, I would say that I feel like something of an outsider on the whole minimalism front. And being someone whose only sustained & radically personal engagements with poetry are probably Shakespeare's The Tempest, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Petrarch's Canzoniere doesn't make me feel more at home either.

While, on the face of it, Poncho's poems seem very similar to Tao Lin's, I think it shouldn't be too hard to grasp that they are not really at all. Perhaps that's swinging a bit wide; I just mean to say that the style bears the mark of influence, but not pastiche. Perhaps its enough to simply note that I felt it was interesting enough a point to bring up, without dwelling on the particularities.

What struck me most strongly in 'the romantic' was the motif of dust. One can easily imagine, in a collection like this (young male autobiographical poems tracing the aftermath of a break up), the incredibly shitty way this sort of image might be handled (or if one can't, then simply picture two college-aged white kids, one teary-eyed and brokenhearted, saying, "I just don't know what to do anymore..... its like all I can do is watch the dust settle...." and then writing a book of poetry around it). What 'the romantic' does, on the other hand (it seems to me), is refuse any such structural sentimentality; and in so doing, it allows this figuration to rise up out of the poetry itself, and hover over it delicately. The dust, coming not from the paratext, but from the benign acne-stopping nanobots ("men fall to powder casually as they / go through their morning rituals / for a moment their skin is smooth / then it is too smooth / then it is gone / then their skulls are smooth / then they are also gone") or the unburnt library of Alexandria ("if they had only studied / the thankfully unburnt / library at Alexandria / and someone takes down a scroll / and the scroll turns to dust") or even the transfiguration of the computer screen to pixels, thus creates for itself a sort of purposefulness, without resorting to cheap metaphorical trickery.

The most interesting moment, for me (as opposed to sustained figure or something), was the poem "snail shell escape artist." I know (am pretty sure) that this poem is about Liam, but I naturally approached every one of the poems in the collection as though they were about Poncho. Because the subject is never identified in the poem, except in the title, I had nothing internal to the poem to privilege one of these readings over the other - so when I started reading, the both of them were operating. I simultaneously "knew" that this was another in the series of poems about Poncho and some absent girl, and that it was a poem about Liam. So with both of these understandings bidding for dominance in my head, I read the poem, and realized how heavily I had been relying on certain extra-textual constructs in making sense of the whole thing. It was really weird.


Through Poncho I also became sort of familiar with a guy named Steve Roggenbuck, who I don't know at all. He just released a chapbook which I also got to read. I thought it was interesting (and worth mentioning here) because of the way in which it differs from Poncho's 'the romantic.' The chapbook starts off "i dont care about reading a poem / who do you think i am, robert frost? / i have never been in the woods and i hate walking," and only gets (to my mind) more subtly allusive from there. A poem like "if you call me, i wont answer / i am sitting under the moon inside of a wheelbarrow" can't help, to me, to bring up Williams' Red Wheelbarrow (although this puts me at the risk of sounding like one of those assholes who "protest too much"s at everything he reads). Which is not really to say much of anything of substance about the work, much less the literary pedigree of the author, so much as it is a way of bringing back to the fore what was always really there in the first place; the way that these things are all about words.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Theses on T.I. - Whatever You Like



1. "The body" is always the feminine body 1a. as such, the body is always the site of sexual domination.

2. Bodilessness is, therefore, a property to be strived for; or to put it another way, the goal is to make the body property, to be owned.

3. The only real inroads we have made to imagining minds without bodies, is the creation of certain inhumans - primarily, capital.

4. Therefore, one way of achieving this desexualization, aka liberation, is to simply become capital.

5. The road to becoming capital is not simply a road of accrual, but also dispersion; either through mediatic images or, more recently, through a refusal to participate in mediatic images - celebrity vs anti-celebrity; TI vs The Residents, or Gates vs Koch.

6. This newly created inhuman node, of course, never quite leaves a body, but the body can become fully aware of its simultaneous status that is, the body is simply a hole, a necessary ontological component but empty of epistemological or other importance.

7. With achievement of this status, the new inhuman node begins abiding by the rules of capital. and the #1 rule of capital - it always, always needs more bodies.

8. The body circumscribed becomes the proselytizer of the still-bodied, encouraging them - not to transcend, per se - but to engage.

9. Thus we come to T.I. - Whatever You Like. The song stems from a thread within rap in which the successful entrepreneur (rapper) has managed to raise himself out of his childhood poverty with only his entrepreneurial ingenuity. This song works against this thread, though, in that it abjures that narrative and focuses on what happens afterwards.

10. Namely, that the poetic speaker no longer functions as a historical/biographical individual within the song; he becomes unsituated, and fluctuating. In a word, he speaks as capital.

11. "I want your body / Need your body / long as you got me you won't need nobody" thus becomes a pun; the self-contained and the bodiless are one and the same.

12. And yet, "Late night sex so wet and so tight" is one of the speaker's promises. Certainly this isn't meant to titillate the female body he's engaging ("wet" and "tight" not being particularly flattering as descriptors of the capacity of a male's sexual organ to pleasure).

13. What is being promised by the song is not the ability to ascend to the status of the speaker. It is a promise of the bodilessness of capital but with certain limits. What is being promised to the addressee is the apotheosis into the commodity form.

14. The video underlines this apotheosis at every moment. From the narrative (that the golden ticket phone number turns out to be $100) to the images of the woman (which amount to a rapid succession of affective reactions to new expensive junk), the point is clear; you can have whatever you like means that you can be of this.

15. This dramatizes the fundamental difference between capital, which must always remain disembodied, and the commodity form, which is always embodied (that is, injected into a body; not that it is fundamentally bodied itself).

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Objects

"Haley Joel Osment said 'Party girl' which was a term they had for people who did not speak in a quiet monotone and were not severely detached. Inanimate objects and situations and animals and boys could also be party girls. Dakota Fanning said if they wrote a book about a party girl called Party Girl they would be rich."
(Tao Lin; Richard Yates p. 94)


I have been reading a lot about stuff like Object Oriented Ontology recently, and it seems cool but also awful.


A few days ago, I saw Piranha 3D in theaters by myself, and I can't remember ever having seen such a mean-spirited film. And last night I watched Megapiranha, and that one seemed to me about as affectless as you could make something.

The thing about Piranha 3D was that it didn't stop at asking you to glory in the cynicism of "doing violence to those who deserve it," or even at the more refined level that films like Craven's Last House on the Left operate on. It pushes past those so far that it has to drag out of itself the most miserable, disgusting, hateful sort of action movie, and immerses itself in being that (along with its other cynicisms) so well that it really expects you to cheer when the lady cop tases a single piranha to death.

Megapiranha on the other hand is the sort of movie you can watch without feeling anything, and yet as soon as I finished it I had a dream a about it. In the dream I was traveling along the megapiranha-infested Orinoco river with a bunch of people, carrying along my Chococat w/ Snow Cape plush. I kept dropping/losing the plush, and finding it in the muddy banks of the river, and knowing that I had to get it back no matter whether or not I was likely to die in the process. And no one would help me, except until the end my friend Tanya leaped over the river to help me retrieve him.


I read Richard Yates by Tao Lin tonight and it was fantastic. It made me think of my idea that "meta" is, far from being clinical, a constitutively emotional construction/form of representation. But also that that seems tangential to the book itself. More crucial seems to be an argument, embedded within the book, about realism. I'm not sure I know what can be taken out of it, really, but when the climax of the novel is an email detailing every lie told over the course of a relationship, it seems like something that is fair to say.

I was also struck, while reading it, that it seemed to have the opposite message re: the Internet than people will inevitably want to read into it. The novel seemed to foreground beautifully how it is not the Internet, but rather the structures of life that we occupy and bring with us to the Internet, that are the "causes" of our alienation.

This is maybe the great strength of the novel, that it allows the arguments that it never quite makes to possess their own weight. That it respects itself as fiction enough not to try to weave what people like to call "themes" into the "dialogue" or whatever.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

G-Force: A Photoessay (+ some Salvagepunk stuff)




















This is a series of stills from that awful, awful movie G-Force. Whats going on here is that the mole member of G-Force has sabotaged a line of intelligent appliances (coffee makers & shit that can communicate with each other) to turn them into "electromagnetic nodes" that will rain down space junk on the surface of the Earth, forcing humanity into extinction/underground existence. This is in retribution for the humans own genocidal stance toward moles, and particularly the instance where humans gassed his family to death (for living in a golf course, or something).


"You ever google the world 'mole,' Darwin? Three million entries. Not on how to care for them, or love them, or pet them. NO! Three million entries on how to exterminate them!"






"Son, if you ever get the chance to bring mankind to its knees.. do it."


I think this all stands on its own merit pretty brilliantly, but I want to add this postscript:

The way that Darwin convinces Speckles (the mole) to give up his bid for world-alteration is by convincing him that he does, in fact, have a family - G-Force. I see this, in a way, as an answer to China Mieville's first problem/challenge to salvagepunk. To "put the punk back in salvage" is not to take an oppositional stance to the world according to the aesthetics of salvage, but to "to occupy it too well, not to overextend the logic of the game, but to track it to its horizons." That is to say, if Speckles had held onto the bitter rage he was showing earlier ("just like humans, bringing guns to a space junk fight") when Darwin played the family card, and said that yes, he had a family - and the family was the space junk - then perhaps he could lay claim to the title of a salvagepunk hero.