Saturday, December 24, 2011

An Open Letter to Mark Yudof

I missed a telephone call two days ago. Which isn't so weird really; I'm not a huge fan of telephones anyway, and have a pretty hard time imagining that anyone could really need to talk to me. Plus, the number was one I didn't already have in my phone, so even if I had seen it at the time, I probably would have decided to let it go through to voicemail, on the assumption that it wasn't likely to be anything of interest to me.

The caller didn't leave a voicemail, but he did try again, this time with my mom's home phone. He got in touch with my mom, and talked to her about me.

I tried to call him back yesterday morning, but no one picked up. I still haven't talked to this caller - I'll leave his name out of this for now, so we can just call him Detective - but my mom told me the night before last what it was that he had to say, and my little brother (who overheard my mom's side of the conversation) corroborated most of it.

The Detective called from the University of California, San Francisco. His call was to inform me, I suppose, that some things I had been saying online recently - referring, I presume, to the hashtag #RIPMarkYudof - was bordering on infringing a (new?) law against cyberbullying. I was also informed that he told my mom that they (the UCPD, I'm presuming) have a file on me "over an inch thick," that isn't even complete yet, dating back a few years.

See, in September of 2009 I started to troll @mark_yudof, making up a story about how we had been college frat drinking buddies. I continued to be mildly dickish towards the account until January of 2010, when I sent a series of (very obviously) fake retweets. Yudof's account successfully had me banned from twitter over those retweets, but only temporarily; I lobbied Twitter support to reinstate my account, and they did, after about two weeks. I posted a transcript of the emails I sent & received from Twitter Support here.

The only communication I got from @mark_yudof before the ban was in the form of a single Direct Message, which I happened to screenshot before the ban took. It was in response to one of the fake retweets I had made; you can see, in the pictures below, the relevant fake retweet (outlined in red) & the Direct Message. Both are lyrics from the Flobots song Handlebars.






A friend elicited an email out of the General Counsel at the time, which is also reproduced below; it contains the gem "Impersonation should not be confused with satire" and confirms that the complaint that was lodged against my account had to do with the falsified retweets.




After I got my account back, the @mark_yudof account fairly quickly blocked my twitter account. I continued to say some rude things, occasionally, but not really all that many, and towards a different end, mostly annoyed responses to things that were tweeted.

On December 15, following two successful (at making into Trending Topics, at least) fake-#RIP hashtags, one for Ron Paul and the other for Scott Baio, I decided to throw Mark Yudof's name into the running and, well, run with it.

Using Yudof's name - as opposed to his twitter handle - was strange to me, as I had tried to make it a point (without ever quite saying it) in the past to focus my energies on the UCOP's unequivocally public organs. What a #RIP hashtag would be doing, however, would be announcing (publicly, of course) the passing of a public individual's private self. Theoretically, at least.

See, the #RIPMarkYudof hashtag was split between wildly fantastical reports of how he passed, and criticisms of his policies. It was also very small, created as it was by me, through a mixture of my own lack of influence on these things, mixed with the already limited appeal of faking the death of a UC administrator who I've already babbled about extensively in the past. Which is to say, that the hashtag sort of skipped the announcing part of that equation. We convinced maybe ten people, if I'm being generous, for an average of maybe thirty seconds per. Even Seth Yudof, Mark's son, and the only person who saw our hashtag that could have been truly concerned about it (to my knowledge), laughed it off immediately. The incestuousness of the hashtag took a particularly neat visual form in the graphic below.




All of which seems, to me, to indicate that the jokes we were making were still firmly aimed at his public self.

I mention this because of how I understand the call between Detective and my mom went. I'm not entirely sure how much of it was her inference, or her worried exaggeration, and I imagine that the words weren't used by the Detective himself, but my mom was very worried that this file that the UCPD has on me was being organized to keep track of death threats, on the possibility that I turned out to be some attempted assassin, or, you know, a fucking terrorist.

The thing was, though, that when my mom was through telling me about the contents of this telephone call, I asked her if the Detective had at any point asked her if I would call him back. She said that he had left a phone number, but it is my impression that he didn't seem to think it particularly pressing that I personally talk to him.

So, on my end, what seems to have happened is this: a UCPD Detective, after expending the absolute minimal energy to contact me, opted to have instead a conversation with my mom where he (willfully or not) lead her to believe that I was being placed on some sort of terrorist watch list over potential death threats I may or may not have made, and that the police department had been collecting documents and were considering pursuing litigation against me.

Now, I'm not very well versed in the legal definition of cyberbullying. I'm not sure which law the Detective was referring to - though, as I imagine he knew it would, the Stop Online Piracy Act immediately springs to mind, though I am not familiar with its contents. What this does feel like, from my perspective, though, is getting bullied.

Which brings me to the letter part of this open letter.

I imagine that you, Yudof, are, at most, only very peripherally aware of all of this stuff. I think it's fairly obvious that you have little, if anything, to do with your twitter account, and are certainly not undergoing any personal stress because some kid who helped fund your construction projects has since said some rude things on the Internet about you. Or, more accurately, about your PR wing. I would be hugely surprised to learn that you, personally, had ever even heard my name.

But, on the off chance that you have, and given that I have the attention of at least someone in your administration, let me try to make one thing clear.

Mr. Yudof, I do not give a fuck about you.

This is the first, and, I presume likely, last time I will address you personally. I feel it is fairly safe to assume that neither of us is particularly interested in a dialogue with the other, or anything beyond that. You've made it abundantly clear that you are utterly indifferent to the concerns of students, except for insofar as they coincide with your efforts to privatize the University that you preside over. And as for me, I'm not at all of the opinion that your person is all that important, in the scheme of things. You are, for my purposes, a convenient metonym, a useful figure to represent the constellation of social forces that I would very much like to see replaced. Who you are as an individual, the things you say, I take only as symptomatic of those social forces.

I hope you understand, then, how utterly fucking baseless the claim, perhaps only inferred by my mom, in the Detective's telephone call, that I could ever have made a threat on your life is. I am not interested in your life, and I am certainly not desirous of your death. I desire only the death of the neoliberalism that your office has facilitated; I am interested only in the life of public education.

That your name may continue to figure as a character in my impotent polemics is pretty likely, of course. But rest assured that I am not talking about you; I am talking about the node that you represent in an institution, and about the pressures that that node exerts on the whole to mobilize it in a certain direction. I am talking about the way in which an individual dissolves their individuality in their work, and the ways that certain institutional roles will utilize that dissolved individuality regardless of how it looked beforehand.

And the fact that you bear an uncanny resemblance to an infant, that is immaterial. Except that it does make the whole endeavor quite a bit more fun.

Love,
Ben

P.S. But hey, you know, if you want to pay some dude almost a hundred grand a year to keep reading my tweets, be my guest. It's almost like I'm one of those fabled job creators!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Review: Angela S. Choi's Hello Kitty Must Die

I hate Hello Kitty.

I hate her for not having a mouth or fangs like a proper kitty.

She can’t eat, bite off a nipple or finger, give head, tell anyone to go and fuck his mother or lick herself. She has no eyebrows, so she can’t look angry. She can’t even scratch your eyes out. Just clawless, fangless, voiceless, with that placid, blank expression topped by a pink ribbon.

Poor Hello Kitty. Having to go around itchy, unlicked, unscratched. Tortured by her own filth.


Having finally read Angela S. Choi's Hello Kitty Must Die, I figured it might be a good idea to throw together some thoughts on it here.

I was pretty disappointed when I realized that the blurbs on the book likening it to Chuck Palahniuk weren't at all wrong; most of the reviews I've seen basically say that it's The Joy Luck Club meets American Psycho, and, without having actually read anything by Tan or Ellis, I think that's basically dead on. Take that comparison as you will, I suppose; I for one was not especially enthusiastic about it.

That said, however, I did enjoy the book well enough, and think it had a variety of interesting things going on. I don't have a copy of the book anymore, so I'm not going to be able to do anything like close textual analysis, but I think the book's stronger points are in its playing with generalizations anyway, so I think I'll survive.

The book's protagonist, Fiona Yu, is a 28-year-old, Asian American private sector lawyer. Its narrative revolves around her meeting up with an elementary school friend who convinced her to beat up the school bully with a lunchbox full of rocks, and was himself sent off to a Juvenile Detention Facility for lighting a girl's hair on fire. He is a hymen-reconstruction surgeon in San Francisco, and they begin a sort of asexual love affair as he reveals himself to be a serial killer, and she starts to follow suit, killing off the men her father sets her up on blind dates with and her boss. This is all, as you may imagine, very fucking transgressive.

I mentioned this book, before I read it, in my essay Hello Kitty Everything & Hostile Object Theory, and I think what I said there still basically applies. In a way, actually, it's even more accurate than I anticipated; when Fiona complains about Hello Kitty, it's mostly in asides like the one quoted above, and her anger almost always fixates on Kitty's absent mouth. I still feel like this particular issue is one that can be worth pursuing, in terms of subversion and reinterpretation, but that it stems from a misreading of Kitty's function, positioning her as a representative object when her real power lies elsewhere.* What I didn't expect out of Hello Kitty Must Die, and was pleasantly surprised by, was the way this particular obsession plays out within the narrative.

Although this connection is never drawn explicitly in the text, to my memory (oh, and, uh, spoilers to follow, I suppose, though some probably preceded as well), it just so happens that when Fiona does start murdering people, there is a distinct orality to the way she goes about it. She plans to murder one boy by eating a bunch of Snickers, then kissing him with a mouth full of the peanuts to which he's deathly allergic; she constantly carries around roofies to dispatch unwanted advances; and there's, well, something weird going on with cigarettes.

One of Fiona's first dates is killed by Sean when he steps outside for a cigarette, and it is after that that she begins to uncover his secret, and advance the plot. Sean is also a smoker, and the climactic moment of the novel, when Sean is getting sloppy and is about to be caught, involves Fiona filling Sean's apartment with gas and taking off, allowing the explosion sparked by him lighting a cigarette kill him. And then she smokes one of his cigarettes, staring at his burned building.

It's a pretty hackneyed moment, as most smoking-as-metaphor moments tend to be, and it's described with (if I'm remembering correctly) vaguely annoying descriptions of how she's ingesting his essence, or something, but there's something else there, too. Because that list of things that he hates Hello Kitty for not being able to do, aren't exactly things she does a whole lot of herself. She doesn't fuck, or give head. She certainly thinks of telling people to go fuck their mother often enough, but she doesn't ever say it. She drinks sometimes, and eats, but it's always in the context of a man, and so a murder being plotted. There is even a moment where she recounts an uncle attempting to molest her, which she fended off, not with a bite, but a fork. Even the date she intended to kill with a kiss ends up crushing himself with a barbell, avoiding the need for her mouth at all.

Fiona's moment with the cigarette, for all she tries to make it a symbolic gesture to evoke Sean, is, I think, the only moment in the whole text where it really matters that she has a mouth at all. Through the rest of it, what's important is that other people have mouths; those are how she gets power over them. And the thrust of making the smoke symbolic is precisely that it takes away her own power, opens her to being invaded by Sean. Getting a mouth makes her vulnerable.

Vulnerability is, of course, a major theme throughout the text. Fiona goes to great lengths to explain that just because she's a lawyer doesn't mean that she's in charge; in fact, her job consists mostly, according to her, of bending before the whims of the partner she works for, and she characterizes him as a real asshole. She is constantly being stepped on, whether by an overbearing boss or her parents, and she exorcises it with more exhibitions of vulnerability, as when she explains that she wears 4-inch Jimmy Choo heels everywhere because of the pain they cause her, and likens it to foot binding. It is made very clear that those things which purport to provide autonomy are really just ways of fostering new dependencies.

This is, I think, and to make a sort of crude rhetorical move, the point of the whole sociopathic narrative. Capitalism gives you two options: play the game, or play the fucking game. Fiona's aspirational diatribes against her heritage and fashion porn fetish-lists aren't evidence of a lack of character, they're how she stays alive. Traditions require space to develop; interiority needs time. And those are two things that you can have, sure, in direct proportion to how often you're willing to not eat. And when you finally realize how fucked over you're getting, and decide to protest against it, your protests are just as conditioned by those two options, else you're shit out of luck. You can play the game, like Fiona has been doing, of private pain, in a crypto-foot binding procedure, or you can play the fucking game, like Sean does, learn to act like those who put money over everything, and prey on people who can barely even play the game in the first place. There's no out, no middle ground, because that's where we all already are, passively abetting a system of exploitation. You can infantilize yourself, you can murder quasi-discriminately, or you can pretend neither of those things are happening while you feed them.

I feel like I'm pretty far away, at this point, from anything resembling a "review." I'll try, for the rest of this, to step back a bit and shut the fuck up about things I want to think about, and end with a couple of relatively brief points, that are a bit more review-y.

Most descriptions of the novel, whether positive, negative, or neutral, are fond of throwing around the word satire. The question they all beg, in their own way, is of course, "of what?" And almost uniformly, they seem to say without saying, being Chinese American. But that seems like bullshit to me, and it taints all the reviews with moralism. Now, I came into this book reading it as Asian American Literature, so what I'm about to say may not be all that surprising, but here it is: in my estimation, if this book is a satire of anything, it's of Asian American Literature.

I have no idea how familiar Choi is with the Asian American Literature canon (insofar as that even exists), but for what I want to say it doesn't really matter. I do think that the tradition she's working in is a lot more Chuck Palahniuk than Frank Chin, but the fact that it's so often likened to Amy Tan is more than enough context for me to feel justified in what I'm trying to say.

One thing that's fairly easy to notice about this book - and I mean book, like the physical object, not novel - is how similar the author's bio is to the story we're reading. Choi's a 30 year old Chinese American ex-lawyer with a parakeet; Fiona a 28 year old Chinese American Lawyer with a parakeet. They're both from San Francisco. Choi's official author bio even says that she "refuses to be anyone’s ... hole-in-a-mattress," a phrase that Fiona uses in the novel.

It is a fact about most, or all, marginal literatures, especially those of ethnic minorities, that they get pigeonholed into a sort of native informer role, and that this means they are heavily stilted toward memoir. White people like Amy Tan because they can read her and feel like they understand the Authentic Chinese Experience, without ever having to interact with a Chinese person. Even something as weird as Maxine Hong Kingston's debut novel, Woman Warrior, gets saddled with the subtitle "Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts." Woman Warrior seems to draw on experience, certainly, but it's sure as fuck not a memoir.

So Choi's ability to keep the specter of memoir foregrounded, even though there is nothing in the text of the novel to support it, and all while distancing herself from it, is relatively interesting in this context. But it is also sort of something that's been done to death. Kip Fulbeck's Paper Bullets: A Fictional Autobiography makes a similar move in the title, and is a book I did not have a whole lot of love for; Suki Kim's The Interpreter is another example, and one which I would much more unreservedly recommend, as is Chang-Rae Lee's Native Speaker or even more borderline stuff like Pamela Lu's Pamela: A Novel. Memoirs like Jane Jeong Trenka's Language of Blood trouble this equation from the other side, and do so with absolutely breathtaking beauty.

My point, I suppose, more than that Choi's book functions to deconstruct how Asian American Literature is supposed to function, is that you should probably be reading more Asian American Literature, because there's some fucking incredible shit out there.

And I guess the last thing I want to say, to make this seem like a real review, like I'm really a real reviewer, the kind of guy who you should trust to tell you whether or not to spend your hard-earned dollars on a book, I guess as that guy I want to say, yeah I would recommend you read this book, but while you do it, keep the two songs below in mind, and think about it as if it had been written with them in mind, and how fucking cool that would be.







*The point, though, is that she's misread this way daily, and this misreading creates its own power, which gets transformed into ammunition for noxious stereotypes, and there is an effectiveness to fighting that misreading on its own terms.

Friday, September 30, 2011

i dont even fucking know

Two (more or less*) adjacent montages from 2004's I Downloaded A Ghost

The first, the moment of defeat, when all hope is lost; having just got her father fired, and her ghost-friend condemned to limbo, Ellen Page enters the lowest point of the film. The narrative arc has bottomed out, and we can tell because... she's putting on makeup and a dress.








But, then! She and her friend find evidence of where the BURMESE FELINE has been taken, and know just what to do. The boy asks: So, who is going to fix this situation? The new Stella, or the old? And she doesn't skip a beat; "the old." So they don smocks and power tools and build a fucking house.








So, I did what I do





*Okay, fine, they're split up by a scene where Carlos Alazraqui does a fucking stand-up comedy routine in the bus he was killed by, to try to learn how to haunt it. Fine. Fuck.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Post-Kanye Schematized; On Swagger

(A response)

I've made a couple overtures towards a reading of "Post-Kanye" hip hop, without really establishing on what grounds I'm attempting to claim this paradigm. So, first of all, I'd like to get out of the way the assumptions, or givens, or whatever, that I believe act as the foundation of this argument.

First and foremost, it requires a view of hip hop as a self-replicating system - an inhuman, like capital, corporations, or nations. I think this is true of most proper genres; something doesn't really act as a genre until it establishes the conditions of its own replication. Genre, that is, is more than the coordination of aesthetic points; it is the mill, into which the grist of labour (of producers, consumers, aesthetics, and so on) is fed, in order to generate more genre.

Second, since hip hop is an aesthetic inhuman/genre, its primary knowledge of self is its embedded meta-narrative; since genres are not necessarily self-sufficient or coherent, for one to engage in its own reproduction it must subsume objects as relations to this meta-narrative, which is not fixed. Debate over what it is that the meta-narrative of the genre consists of are, of course, always rampant - thus, sub-genre - but it can suffice to be said for our purposes that it provides the structure of narrative, along with a more or less fixed set of protagonist-types, antagonist-types, and structures of viable struggle.

My initial argument for a "Post-Kanye" was that if Kanye's impact on hip hop was considered to be structural, what could most coherently be argued was not that his impact was aesthetic, but rather on this meta-narrative, and that what it consisted of would be the shifting out of the category of antagonist the figure of the hater. For Kanye, the hater is not someone to be struggled with, but is straightforwardly a category that produces value. Haters no longer have to be contended with in any way; they provide no critique worth legitimizing, and they don't even need to be overcome; they simply exist, en masse, and can be seen as a stable source of value-production.

This is, I'm arguing, very different from how haters were dealt with before Kanye - and I do not mean to claim that before, they were simply universally reviled. "Fuck the haters" and "Love your haters" are very different statements, and both existed long before Kanye had any impact on anyone. What they share, however, is an orientation towards haters, which the shift to "I <3 Haters" lacks; that of the hater as a contentious force, vs. the hater as a simple given, towards whom no proactive measures need be taken. What Kanye's hip hop does then, I might try to say, is very different from proletarianization; it is, in fact, more analogous to a making middle class than a making prole. It pretends that the structural antagonism on which hip hop is predicated simply doesn't exist. And when we're all in this together, well, being radicalized becomes a bit passé.

When I say Post-Kanye in this phrase, I mean it in the way I've always understood the 'Post-' prefix - as a moving past, but one which is indelibly marked by that which it surpasses. In this way, what Post-Kanye means to me is the generation of rappers who (perhaps unconsciously) recognize the structural deficit in hip hop imparted by Kanye, and attempt (also probably unconsciously) to rectify it. Thus, rather than taking a strictly Yeezian view of the structure of hip hop, they recognize that the hater is no longer necessarily a viable narrative opponent to the artist, and yet recognize the need for such a figure to exist.

The political economy of Kanye's hip hop, the argument might then go, is basically Keynesian, papering over the structural antagonisms with increasingly spurious wealth. That his celebrity biography is defined by unrelenting careerism (which feeds back into the music he releases - at the height of his manufactured controversy, he released 808s & Heartbreak, which seems like it should be enough to unequivocally prove my point) only underlines why, when Nico says "But taken in another context, couldn’t [Kanye's I <3 Haters] just as well be a sincere and almost Christ-like manner of speaking," my immediate response is to say, no, and fuck Kanye.

To return to Cher Lloyd, though, and swagger: Nico's post seems to me, at first, to conflate haters with trolls, and then to argue more along the lines that the haters are actually those being trolled, while the trolls themselves are the swaggerers. In a sense, this latter version is precisely what I'm trying to say Kanye obviates; for him, there seems to be no need to troll or goad the haters. They're simply an ontological fact of hip hop, to be afforded only the most cursory (dis)respect. And so, too, for Cher Lloyd, in this song. Her naysayers are very real, and prominent, but there is no sense in which she envisions them as serious opponents. They aren't even motivation; they simply exist, produce (unintentional) value, are abstractly addressed. There is no production of schadenfreude going on, because there simply aren't two agents. Haters have been absolved of their agentivity, and one doesn't go about taking pleasure in the pain of rocks.

There is a similar claim, I think, in the final paragraph of the post JR linked me to, which points up the similarities betwen Lloyd and a young Mick Jagger, in order to make a dig at "rockist authenticity." Which is all well and good, I suppose, but again it leaves me cold. If your target is a group of people so desperately musically illiterate as to find anything "novel" about this song, then you aren't contending with a group against whom you have to truly struggle; surely they are a very privileged group, and socially ingrained, even moreso in Britain, but they're still a group that can be easily bypassed, whose very definition makes their criticisms irrelevant. The GZA line "First of all, whose your A&R / A mountain climber who plays an electric guitar," or the Jay-z line "Industry shady it need to be taken over" aren't irrelevant at this point - the music industry, like most industries, is still largely by and for straight white men, of course, and it would be stupid to claim that it wasn't - but the conditions have changed. Twenty years later, that same A&R is almost certainly listening to Gaga while he's climbing the rock wall at the gym, or smiling and tapping along when he hears Arcade Fire leaking out of his sons room. Maybe he even turns on Rihanna's S&M to hide the sounds of the Internet porn he's watching when he's masturbating while his kids are home. The point being that while rockist authenticity he may crave, he's sure as fuck not going to let that stand in the way of his profit, and he knows as well as anyone else that deep down he might be a hater - but so what? And isn't that, in a very real way, a good thing?

And this is where, I think, swagger as a sort of labour is necessary to understand this turn in hip hop. At its very core, swagger is of course a jaunt, or a sneer; it is fabric hung from your frame just so, or stones and chains. It is, in other words, an etching of the body in the world, a performative gesture, and it is a very specific sort of performance. Following Evan, I would say that it is a performance of a very particular kind of dispossession, an affective position which codes for no resolution, and whose only outlet is a form of explosive violence. Swagger is, that is to say, both the schematization of Kanye's hip hop, and the precondition of a riot.

This is only so performatively, of course, but then I'm not the person to come to to see performance as a secondary, or parasitic, form of action. And swagger is precisely, of course, the performance of this position as if it could be otherwise, as if this position could produce, have effects.

To turn back, as I'm sure I will again and again, to Soulja Boy's "hop up out the bed / turn my swag on / took a look in the mirror, said what's up / yeah, I'm gettin' money, oh;" it is precisely the garbling of language here, the accident of ambiguity that this lyrical construction creates, that points through the impasse of labour/swagger vs. rage/swagger. Is Soulja Boy, here, describing a situation in which he looks in the mirror, swag turned on, and gets money, or one in which he looks in the mirror, swagged turned on, and says to himself "I'm getting money?"

It, of course, absolutely does not matter; Soulja Boy is a figure who quite literally gets money by saying "get money." There is no gap. And to reach the point where the word and the thing are one and the same - or, more precisely, where there is no differentiation between performance and action - one must simply turn one's swag on.

To swagger is to perform - to make of one's body a sign - an affective condition - which, to be clear, I mean to be much closer to 'material conditions' than 'feelings' - as though it could possibly be productive. To labour is to perform - to transmute one's body into labour-power - a productive process - the creation of consumer objects or services and surplus-value - as though labour itself were outside the regime of production. Both are, in the end, a mystification, a falsifying of origin; and it is only the swagger jacker/jagger, or the scab, whose material demystification of this individualism brings about the proper return to real order of things.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Post-Kanye: Cher Lloyd

I've just read a short post over at my friend Nico's blog Breakbeats, Beatitudes, & Becomings called Cher Lloyd and the Proletarianization of a Generation, and I thought I should respond to it. So here's what I've written.



There are certain obvious musical predecessors to this song - Ke$ha's "the boys linin up cuz they know we got swagger / but we kick em to the curb unless they look like Mick Jagger" line, most immediately, and people's subsequent inability to find another word that rhymed with swagger is here made vacuous even of the cultural reference, but also moments of Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl" (particularly the beginning of the second verse), perhaps some Diplo/Afrojack*, or a chorus that seems to be cribbed from My Darling Clementine. I think it's interesting that the song isn't called the nearly-homophonous "Swagger Jacker;" the rhyme there is admittedly at a (very slight) slant, but that seems to be much more descriptive of what the song is talking about. In that sense it's actually a deeply stupid chorus ("Swagger Jagger, you should get some of your own" - as though the Ke$ha similarities weren't obvious enough already - and, I mean, fuck, even the video seems like a real low rent version of the "Your Love Is My Drug" video (or, you know, one of many shitty consumer technology commercials from the early '00s)).

But I'm really interested in this song as an extension of the claim I was trying to make about a Post-Kanye aesthetic in rap, defined by a structural shift from the hater as antagonist to the hater as primary site of value production. This song seems to possess that shift as an already complete ideological imprint - it is, as it were, the "common sense" of the song that the ephemeral "hater" is a source of value.

There is something unclear, here, however, a seeming muddling of the addressee. When the song makes recourse to that least-ironic of all dance music injunctions: "get on the floor," the idea that this song is addressed directly to haters (see: every other lyric) gets a bit confusing. The musical tradition that that trope comes from is an utopian one, or one in which the assumption of the audience is of one preaching to the choir; it is a musical tradition which operates in a very specific space, and has a respect for that space's sanctity. When it gets transposed, as in "Swagger Jagger," into the context of being addressed to an audience that is both generalized and explicitly heretical, there is (or, perhaps, should be) a bit of cognitive dissonance.

The point of recognizing the (possibility of**) cognitive dissonance in this song, in relation to the claims I've tried to make about the paradigm shift in rap music that Kanye epitomizes/enacts, is to say that this is precisely what we would expect to happen if my "post-Kanye" were the new norm. Common sense is not a form of knowledge, but a particular structuring of understanding; common sense (as an ideological construct) is not, that is, how you understand the world, but rather how you understand what you are capable of understanding. When someone says, for instance, that "you should stay off that street at night - it's just common sense," what is common sense about that is that one should hate the poor. And, to continue with this example, if 'hate the poor' is one specific kind of 'common sense,' then it is clear that common sense is not something that gets expressed unambiguously. All kinds of 'aspirational' films - a movie I find personally intolerable, Slumdog Millionaires, springs immediately to mind - reinforce this exact common sensical view of reality precisely by expressing it in its inversion, that poor people can be just wonderful too.

And this is not quite exactly how Cher Lloyd's song works - there is still a bit of strain in insisting that haters are monetized, a bit of the stench of rhetoric about the whole mess - but it is much less strained about it than, say, Kanye's "Stronger," or other similar "I <3 Haters" anthems, and is willing to let itself devolve into babble (her swagger's in check, just so you know!).

The main thing I'm interested in responding to though, in terms of Nico's response to the video, is the way in which he points to swagger as commodity. Many of his individual points I tend to agree with - that there is the scent of planned obsolescence about the whole endeavour, and the mirroring that it shares with consumer electronics, especially - but, as a whole (and as I've tried to write elsewhere on this blog), I tend to be more convinced by the argument that swagger is a reference to work, rather than product. Which, I mean, isn't to fetishize labour - "Labor is a commodity, like any other," after all - but simply to say that when one talks of swagger, one talks of entering a (head)space in which commodities and surplus-value can be generated. Swagger, that is, is not what is being sold, but the simultaneous avowal and mystification of where what is being sold came from. There is a difference between a "swagger ja[ck]er" and a "biter," after all.

These two points - that of the "hater" as primary creator of value, and swagger as (might I go so far as to say fetishized?) labour - seem to me to be indispensable to an understanding of this song, and the milieu out of which it rises. The particulars of the political economy - that is, how it produces value and allocates resources, and how this is inextricably tied to the regulation of its sociality - of the contemporary entertainment industry (in all its blazing glory) are well worth investigating, precisely because - well, actually, fuck it, I'm sure the reasons you can imagine me saying here are better than the ones I can come up with right now, I've just listened to Swagger Jagger probably a hundred times in a row, fuck it.

Happy fucking #based day.



*Actually, if you google [Cher Lloyd Swagger Jagger Diplo] you get a bunch of results claiming that he produced it, though both discogs and wikipedia disconfirm that.

**I make no claims on how others experience this song.

Monday, June 6, 2011

songs about kitty





































shouts out to keishi for doing most of the legwork here

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Hello Kitty Everything: An Introduction

I
(The Mouth, Between Representation and Image)

“At the risk of enraging French-influenced literary theorists the world over, we'll take a stab at a boilerplate definition of post-modernism as it applies to Kitty. Basically, the PoMo set believes that there are no ultimate truths about things. That's an illusion. Instead, how one views something – a piece of literature, history, or vexing questions such as why Kitty and her twin sister Mimmy appear with mouths in videos, but sans mouths on store shelves – is heavily influenced by history, prevailing ideologies or otherwise socially constructed by bias, yearnings or whatever.”

The most obvious political problem that gets identified regularly with Hello Kitty is her lack of a mouth. The argument generally goes that this character design – whether or not it stems from concerns of minimalism or the relative degree of cuteness – embeds Kitty in an antifeminist discourse which is predicated on and reproduces the idea that women's value is contingent on their silence. This is a question that can't ever be sufficiently dealt with on its own terms, and I think in its own way it can be a fruitful problematic; but for my purposes here, and I think most of the time, understanding Hello Kitty as an object that operates on the level of the politics of representation is not the best idea.

If one takes the painting I Haz Mouth by Jason Han, painted for the Three Apples exhibition, and compares it with Renée Magritte's Les Deux Mystéres, the disjunct between the representative object and the image-object can be made clear. Magritte's not-a-pipe acts according to the rules of representation, in that the most common reading of the famous La Trahison des Images requires that the pipe of the painting is coded semiotically as a representative object, which the painted words then disavow, which actually reveals the disavowal that representation is predicated on. With Les Deux Mystéres, La Trahison des Images becomes simply a component in a larger painting that sees another realistic (at least according to the visual vernacular of advertising) pipe situated in a room with no attached textual disavowal. Without this disavowal, the large pipe can be seen to occupy a very unclear space in relation to the pipe with the disavowal. It is both unclear whether this is supposed to be the real pipe that the previous painting wasn't (although that can't be the case), or whether the presence of this pipe is even less real than the pipe that is disavowed, being some sort of dream of pipe-ness that the disavowed pipe constructs. And underlining this, the new pipe cannot be fixed in space in the painting itself, as the framed pipe with its disavowal can – the new pipe is either very large and presented against the wall, or very small and in the foreground of the painting, or somewhere between. This is all playing with the possibilities presented by the representative object, the thing which encodes in itself the knowledge that it is not what it appears to be, because it assumes the form of a thing which possesses more than form.

Jason Han's painting has an obvious structural similarity to Les Deux Mystéres, with the crucial difference that it pivots not around the semiotic movement of disavowal but instead of iterability. If one were to imagine a strict reproduction of La Trahison des Images, with the only differences being that the pipe was replaced by an image of Hello Kitty and the words were made to read “This is not (a) Hello Kitty,” then this might begin to make sense. The obvious reaction to this painting (barring a self-satisfied smirk at the clever intertextuality) is very different to the obvious reaction to La Trahison des Images - the Kitty version does not offer the possibility of “getting the joke.” To say that this is not Hello Kitty means that it is, most likely, a counterfeit Hello Kitty, or that it is in some other way unofficial or imperfect. And this is precisely because Hello Kitty does not represent; she is simply an image, or an icon, structured not by a knowledge of disavowal but by a constitutive excess, a knowledge that there is something more here that cannot be represented, analogous to human consciousness or agentivity.

In the thought experiment that Han represents in his painting, when Kitty (or Mimmy, if you're going to be a stickler about bow placement) finally gets a mouth, that mouth has no powers of expression – in fact, the mouthless Kitty in the painting is able to express her emotions much more concretely than the mouthed Kitty. When Kitty is given the tools to induct herself into the linguistic realm, her reaction is strictly reproductive; a mouth that speaks itself pictorially in a bubble that looks like a nascent, third Kitty. And to be clear, I would not argue that the preconditions of Kitty are such that she is without language – which is more or less just reiterating the critique of her with the politics evacuated – but that, because she works according to the rules of the image rather than the representation, her induction into the regime of language has nothing to do with expressive capacity and everything to do with the spaces she occupies in relation to other signs.

But, to keep the focus on her expressive capacity for just a moment longer, there is one other point about her lack of a mouth that is worth making, which is crystallized in the incident referred to as the Hello Kitty Murder. A Hello Kitty doll became the receptacle for the skull of a woman beaten to death and dismembered, which was discovered only when the teenage girlfriend of one of the gangsters who committed the crime confessed to the police. This “perversion” of Kitty is, of course, so compelling precisely because it falls – like almost all forms of subversion – within the structural coordinates of the context but outside of the accounted-for possibilities. For on some level, this murder is simply the playing out of the speculation on Kitty's anatomical peculiarity, the question of her bone structure being described without the comfortable cushion of hypotheses. And so her mouthlessness takes on a new meaning, a signifier in its own right of her complicity with human and inhuman systems. So whether you see her as the unwilling conspirator who reveals the plot as soon as she is provided the means to, or as the willing conspirator who stabs the backs of those she conspired with as soon as the opportunity presents itself is immaterial; either way, she is revealed to be complicit with the entire political economy which generates her, no matter what fantasies are applied to exempt her from them.

II
(Capitalism, Realism, and What is Popular)

“[H]er head was cocked innocently to one side, she had a bow in her hair, and she was cradling a very large automatic weapon between her chubby little arms. At first I was taken aback. The illustration was hysterical, but wrong. And the fact that this subversive act was committed by a white male made it that much more perverse.”

The core of this project is essentially an engagement with a round of debates that took place between a few high profile Marxist literary theorists that took place in the 1930s, around the revolutionary potential of Modernism and Expressionism and the fundamental questions of how to approach the popular, and Realism. The two main figures in this debate that I'm interested in applying to Kitty are Lukacs and Brecht.

I take Brecht's call for an alliance between “popular art and realism” as being the rallying cry for this project, and am in complete agreement with his definitions of the two:

“Our concept of what is popular refers to a people who not only play a full part in historical development but actively usurp it, force its pace, determine its direction. We have a people in mind who make history, change the world and themselves. We have in mind a fighting people and therefore an aggressive concept of what is popular.
Popular means: intelligible to the broad masses, adopting and enriching their forms of expression / assuming their standpoint, confirming and correcting it / representing the most progressive section of the people so that it can assume leadership, and therefore intelligible to other sections of the people as well / relating to traditions and developing them / communicating to that portion of the people which strives for leadership the achievements of the section that at present rules the nation.
...
“Realistic means: discovering the causal complexes of society / unmasking the prevailing view of things as the view of those who are in power / writing from the standpoint of the class which offers the broadest solutions for the pressing difficulties in which human society is caught up / emphasizing the element of development / making possible the concrete, and making possible abstraction from it.”

These definitions seem at least as applicable to our contemporary moment, if not more, than they were when Brecht wrote them. As the debates about postmodernism seem to have exhausted themselves into declaring that it's over, and we see cultural attempts to work through the exhaustion of cynicism and black irony that revolve around po-faced expressions of sincerity and transparency, as philosophical circles begin defining themselves against the anti-realist tendencies that dominated during the same era, realism again becomes a word with some weight. To take Brecht's definition in this case, rather than defining realism according to some aesthetic regularities, is to reject the neoliberal injunction to operate exclusively in the realm of abstraction while disavowing it – or, to put it more closely to Brecht's terms, to reject the making possible of the abstract, in order to extrapolate the concrete from it.

Another way to put this would be to say that, “what we need now is a better sense of the real divide to be drawn, between the realism effect and affective realism, between what we've inherited as the 'look' of realism and what actually nails down and pins, like a shaking butterfly of the present, the feel of our historical moment,” as Evan Calder Williams did in his blog post On Laughter and Realism or The Moral Economy of a Fat Nude Man Running in Slow Motion Through a Shopping Mall Only to be Shot Point-Blank. What is needed, that is to say, is a realism which doesn't just look realistic, like Magritte's pipe, but which feels real, in ways beyond reflection or comprehension, that feels the same way (no matter the aesthetic vernacular employed) that living under the hegemony of financial capital does. But this is not entirely correct either, because it is beyond feeling; realism is, at its core, a question of (un)masking what is real, which is to say that which structures reality.

What Hello Kitty brings to the table in the contemporary search for realism is basically a series of likenesses. The first of these, and most obvious, draws on her closeness with the Pacific Rim discourse, and how she has come to stand as a sort of emblem of globalization. With the Pacific Rim being, as it were, the center of the globalized economy, Kitty's position as being both of and Othered within the Pacific Rim discourse is a good way to see just how this works.

She is of it in a very concrete way; Kitty is the creation of a Japanese corporation, Sanrio, and is very much a product of the aesthetic history of Japan and a product of the cultural moment in which she was created. I'll talk a little bit more about her specifically Japanese cultural heritage later, but it is important to note that Kitty was created in 1974, and Sanrio in 1973 (after having been the Yamanashi Silk Company for the previous thirteen years), which are important years in another Pacific Rim country's history, and also the global development of political economy since then. The coincidence of Pinochet's coup and Sanrio's turning into a company focused on peddling minor, communicative luxuries obviously does not speak to any necessary historical reality, much less a conscious organization of history; it is, however, a fruitful coincidence in how both of these things have developed.

In a review of Belson and Bremner's Hello Kitty: The Remarkable Story of Sanrio and the Billion Dollar Feline Phenomenon, Gary LaMoshi gives a summation of the reasons that Sanrio CEO and founder Shintaro Tsuji made the switch from the Yamanashi Silk Company to Sanrio:

“His friends in the government of remote Yamanashi prefecture got him started promoting local silk and vegetables in the 1950s. But by 1962, Tsuji had expanded into rubber sandals that featured a flower design, reportedly observing, "If you attach added value or design to the product, they sell in a completely different way." As a result, he began commissioning cartoonists to create designs, eventually hiring his own to avoid paying royalties. Tsuji also obtained Japanese rights to Snoopy from Peanuts for Japan and exclusive (money-losing) import deals on Barbie dolls and Hallmark cards.”

This basically reads, to someone like me at least, like a (re)discovery of surplus-value. That something might “sell in a completely different way” is, almost certainly, the difference between a product and a commodity, the “added value or design” exactly a description of the aura that allows the commodity an appearance of holism which obscures the real labour relations that went into it, and which aura itself is the product of the originary commodity of labour. That Kitty is created precisely because of this realization is inarguable – but more importantly, that there isn't an immediate translation from the realization (that added value can make things sell differently, or using labour to obscure labour creates additional capital out of nothing) to the execution (of a proprietary character/brand/thing like Kitty). Instead, the attempt is made to deal with commissions, and (more interestingly) to license characters like Snoopy, which speaks to a number of things, but most pertinently given what I've just been talking about the sense in which Sanrio and Kitty operate as both of the Pacific Rim (a character like Snoopy can be imported relatively easily, and there is an assumption that a market for it already exists) and Othered by it (there is still the distance that requires a licensing contract, and the assumed market isn't quite there, and there is always something just slightly off).

To make this brief, I'll only bring up the last couple points I want to talk about in this section without trying to extrapolate them too much. First, I want to briefly quote from an essay by Mark Fisher, “SF Capital,” in which he talks about the trajectory of the “hype[r]verse,” the university of commodities which surround a text:

Star Wars is metonymically implicated in late capitalism in a way that 2001 never quite could be. What was bought and sold when audiences consumed Star Wars was not in any sense a single (aesthetic) object, but a world, a hype[r]verse. It is, of course, possible to retrospectively transform a single commodity into a series of objects-for-sale, and there are numerous, now very familiar, techniques and strategies that have been employed to this end … Star Wars was designed as a hyper-commodity; not so much a film as a fictional system - a plane of consistency that could be populated with any number of commodities. The switch is from a system of objects to a hype-system, where what is sold is abstract, fictional - but very real.
...
Hype-vorticism has been through a whole series of thresholds since. The simultaneous emergence of the Transformers toys and TV series in 1984 was one enormously significant moment: the toys were designed as 'characters' in a 'narrative', in part developed by Marvel, who also published a Transformers comic book series. What began to disappear here was the sense of an original or primary entertainment 'text', surrounded or 'supported' by secondary commodities, a disappearance that has been achieved almost completely now. Remember that moment in Jurassic Park when you realise that the logo of the theme park in the film is exactly the same logo on the Jurassic Park merchandise you can buy outside the cinema? And, with Disney's Toy Story, the loop between advertising, fiction and commodity achieved an unprecedented tightness: here was a film about toys/commodities, some of which were already-established brands, some of which were established precisely by the film (Buzz Lightyear, Woody) all of which were able to commingle on a single plane of (digital) reality.” (italics his, bold mine)

What is relevant here, of course, is that this “disappearance that has been achieved almost completely now” is very much exactly what was achieved almost thirty years prior, with Hello Kitty. This is what makes Kitty such a fascinating problem for anyone who is interested in how texts work, I think – whether you take the understanding of the marketing world, which Fisher lays out pretty adeptly, that the text is that which unifies otherwise unrelated commodities, or if you take a more liberal understanding of text as, for instance, textile, stuff thats been weaved together, I still think Kitty opens up some serious problems.

The major problem, of course, is that while Kitty doesn't fit chronologically into Fisher's lineage, she certainly is the completion of this trend. Which is to say that we intuitively understand her as operating according to the same logic of something like Star Wars, even though if one were to simply describe her it might seem more obvious to think of her as a logo.

The final point I want to make in this section is that I draw these analogies, particularly between Kitty and surplus-value, with an eye toward the negative spaces they create. This is, I think, the work of the real, no matter which register you are speaking about it in; it is those spaces, like the ones created by the analogy between Kitty and surplus-value, that resist all productive relations, and simply litter the ground like so much junk.


III
(Cuteness)

“In 1974 large numbers of teenagers especially women began to write using a new style of childish characters. […] Cute style began as an underground literary trend amongst young people who developed the habit of writing stylised childish letters to each other and to themselves”

Hello Kitty works in a very straightforward way: she provokes an affective reaction which inspires a consumer to purchase the product on display. The discursive component of this affect is what we call cute.

Cuteness has two primary cultural and economic touchstones, both of which are heavily imprecated into Pacific Rim discourse; on the one hand with American capitalism, and on the other with the Japanese “kawaii culture.” The latter of these is an aesthetic that has been operating in Japan since the 1970s, of which Hello Kitty has been both a forerunner and a mainstay. The culture takes on much more than just aesthetic dimensions; “The cute style extends beyond consumerism as seen in grown-ups with infantile behavior — acting silly, giggling, speaking with a squeaky voice, pouting and throwing temper tantrums.” This kind of acting out, rather than signifying a generation spoiled by its parents and just waiting for “the harsh reality of traditional values [to] hit home,” seems to me to point toward a sort of cultural hysteria, a particularly canny enacting of the roles to which they are subordinated by their objective situation. Not, as the cultural conservatives are fond of suggesting, a willed refusal of responsibility, but more along the lines of “if you refuse to treat us like adults, then we will be children until we die.” This refusal to acculturate oneself to a society which only has it in its interests to alienate and infantilize you is an oppositional stance, but one which can be subsumed under the culture of consumer capitalism which Japan is wholeheartedly importing by the time that kawaii culture becomes a real force, and which is the same time as Pacific Rim discourse is at its peak. But it didn't start as a function of that discourse; as the epigraph to this section points out, kawaii began as a trend in literature, or penmanship. The difference between contemporary cute culture and this “underground literary trend” is enormous and is traceable through a logic of self-determination that consumer capitalism as propagated through the Pacific Rim discourse posits, and it also highlights the power of the commodity form under the society of the spectacle: when as recently as the early 1970s (contemporaneous with the creation of Hello Kitty) it was conceivable to have an “underground literary trend” become the dominant aesthetic, and yet a similar occurrence is unthinkable today, the culprit would fairly clearly be the mystification of societal relations through objects/images.

The way that cuteness operates outside of Japan, however, is as a sort of diluted, partial affect, only able to be completed by the assuagement associated with retail therapy. This kind of relationship to affect can be seen in a broader context as well within American Pacific Rim and post-Pacific Rim culture, especially in formulations like Quentin Tarantino's films which use irony and supposed parody to flatten out all the possible affective reactions to his films into a generic “cool.” This is called a number of things, including “the death of affect” by JG Ballard and “the waning of affect” by Fredric Jameson, and it points to a kind of collapsing of affective reactions into affective potentials, with the ultimate goal (for the most part) of fueling consumption. Because kawaii culture is in some sense symptomatic of Pacific Rim discourse, it is implicated in this affect-flattening, consumption-prone society. The origins of the culture, however, point to the necessary evidence that this is not the only way that cuteness can be brought to bear in the world, however, and that in certain cases it can actually point in quite different directions than the one it currently does.

If the main inspiration for this project was the question of realism and popularity, then the main goal is an attempt at a fundamental reordering of cuteness. Because a critique of Hello Kitty is, at its core, a critique of the affect of cuteness, in which affect must not be understood as a psychological term, but as a material one, not a feeling but a sign inscribed on the consuming body. And this is important because cuteness, with all its baggage of capriciousness, is probably the single most powerful force behind which the troops of capitalism - especially a capitalism which does not just exempt, but actually models itself after, reproductive labour – martial. To be able to understand cuteness as a productively anti-capitalist force, and not just to understand it that way but to force it to become so, without it slipping backwards into nu-domesticities or other reactionary constructions of individualist value-producing units, is the (admittedly fucking utopian) goal of this project. And I've no idea how to do it, but I feel that it must be done.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Dancing Till




So I'm going to go ahead and, as you might imagine, respectfully disagree with this wonderful youtube comment on the video for Salem's remix of Britney Spears' Till The World Ends.



The basic point of singing "We'll keep dancing till the world ends," seems, fairly obviously, to me at least, to be not a point about the apocalypse, but about dancing. And specifically, about what one avoids doing by dancing. Which is to say, fucking. To take the song as being about the apocalypse, then (which, admittedly, the video does, albeit a very mild apocalypse, one which is obviously situated in the contemporary mythological vernacular ("DECEMBER 21ST, 2012") and which cannot only be avoided by dancing in a sewer for a couple minutes, but can be actively watched approaching from a few blocks away with no ill effects), seems fairly inane.

The video is, on the other hand, pretty blatant about its citation of Spears' I'm a Slave 4 U, which it recontextualizes into an apocalyptic setting. In this light, the fact that dancing is basically an elision of fucking in Till The World Ends becomes more pertinent, as I'm a Slave 4 U was very much a song, both in itself and in the context of Spears' career as a public figure, a song about (dancing as) fucking.



Which isn't, of course, to say that I'm a Slave 4 U doesn't defer sex, but on the contrary that how it does so is basically identical to the deferrals of the visual/aural grammar that has colonized sexual entertainment - in a word, pornography. It adheres to the syntax of submission and fragmentation, the visual dismembering and aesthetic re-membering of bodies as signifying vehicles with the phallus as master signifier. Till The World Ends is, on the other hand, about holistic bodies with mastery over themselves, reacting in the face of crisis.

Because dancing is, essentially, a question of the body's mastery of itself, in which the mind is elided. This is where, incidentally, Black Swan either succeeds miraculously or fails miserably, depending on whether you view it as a melodrama, a genre concerned with hysteria and the general question of the mind's intrusive presence in the face of its obsolescence, or as any other genre. Viewed as melodrama, the narrative arc of the film is not about Portman's character losing her mind due to stress or mommy issues, but is rather a film about a mind that is radically disconnected from its body (of necessity) restructuring, according to its own (symbolic) grammar, the events of the body's learning process.

It's worth noting, as well, that Spears is not exactly the most technically accomplished dancer among her peer group. Her dancing, while frequent, is always jagged, a product of consideration rather than impulse, primarily consisting of controlled arm movements while stepping to the beat. Her dancing is, it might be said, more arithmetical than primal, an expression of the mind (whether mechanically, as premeditated actions being carried out, or creatively, as symbolic gestures) which employs the body as its tool. There is actually an argument to be made, I think, that I'm a Slave 4 U is the point at which Spears transitioned into a project in which her primary goal began to be to naturalize this form of dancing which directs attention away from (or, perhaps more accurately, past) the explicit, which is to say the body, and towards what is implied. And what is implied by dancing, quite naturally, is usually fucking.

This, then, is the real sense in which Till The World Ends is an apocalyptic song. It is an unveiling, as the culture that sustained Spears' project is in the process of being displaced by a culture which, heralded by dubstep and textualized by Gaga, has no room for it.



The video for Hold It Against Me then reveals itself to be a particularly canny mixture of autopsy and apocalypse, as Gaga's visual aesthetic is linked with the projection of old Spears videos through a dubstep-influenced aural environment. And the symbols of the video become an unveiling as well, as the implicit argument throughout her older videos that Spears' bodily perfection is, paradoxically, the reason she is not an accomplished dancer becomes basically explicit as her monstrous progeny spring forth from her giant wedding dress and dance quite well, or her obvious body doubles battle each other for domination.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Rap's Coming Insurrection: A Review of mansbestfriend volume 5, an Exegesis of Based, and an Exploration of the Negativity of the Underground

I used to think I was a Communist, a silly dream
It was a lonely place, now everything I do is for me
And I don't like how it sound, but that's the way it go*

In August of 2009, Sole & The Skyrider Band released their second LP, Plastique, on Fake Four Records. The record sees Sole's inner-cyberpunk unleashed and looking for war. The music is a dystopian soundscape, all drums crashing like cars, and the lyrics at points get so caustic that they burn off their own tone. But from an album whose first words are, "To the children of privilege / Taste the pavement / You paid to see an entertainer / But this ain't entertainment," or an artist whose most popular chorus goes:

Cops ain't shit to me
Jobs ain't nothin but free pens and long-distance calls
Thought I had it all, but God got birth control
The white man's the fucking devil
I wanted to be black at age 14
So when they say I don't respect the culture
Truth is, I only rap cuz I ain't smart enough to write a book
I've never paid a parking ticket
It's $20 now and $300 then
You want your money? come and get it
But better bring two hundred guns and a hundred men

what less would you expect?

Over the course of his career, Sole's output (in all its ups and downs) has closely mirrored the best strains of underground hip hop. Both have always had, as their core, a negativity; a fundamental rejection around which a project is built. This is negativity not in its colloquial sense, as meanness or wanton destruction, but as political or philosophical project; negativity as response to a set of established (often implicit) real conditions that refuses the idea that politics can or should be done (or even conceived) in a vacuum (think, for instance, of the difference between Socrates in the Republic and Diogenes wandering the city with a lantern, saying "I'm looking for an honest man!"). Whether it is the underground insistence on creating an alternative space to the perceived paucity and desuetude of the mainstream, or Sole's explicit attacks on political, aesthetic, and traditional (rap) forms through the creation of his own rap, the force of negativity in (underground) hip hop is dominant.

The other day, someone thanked me for making real music
My response, "Art imitates life."
The worse the music it is, the realer it is
I'm a fake
On pieces of wood, pinned, like an executed slave or a bug
That might be true, if the sun would only show
I don't wanna be real, like a prison guard or bank-teller or a politician
This is my castle, only ghosts can live here
I had to kill everyone to save the city

God grant me the MIC to hack away at negative change
Can you read bones?
I can read a face like a milk carton
Like a cliff
Like a trash heap with fresh food in it
And a blank face forming in the center

This poem was written for a machine gun
But the weapon jammed, and my generation don't know how to fix things

Following Plastique, Sole began work on the Nuclear Winter mixtape series (volume 1 was released in January of 2010, and volume 2 is currently being released piecemeal through youtube and soundcloud as it is completed) which adapts the rap mixtape format to the Situationist praxis of détournement, he announced his departure from the collectively-owned label anticon. of which he was a founding member, he released his first book, an "illustrated epic poem" collaboration with Ravi Zupa called The Pyre, and he released a new installment in the mansbestfriend series (mansbestfriend volume 5). And he is slated to release the next Sole & the Skyrider Band album on May 2nd.

Test me I’m negative
Must be my blood type
X
Like the target on my back

Since Plastique (and especially since leaving anticon.), Sole's ethics have turned towards a Lil B-inspired approach, focusing on proliferating his music to the point of oversaturing the niche he has been cast in for the past two decades, and reorienting the content of his music to a more generally (or you might say, perhaps a bit cynically, more nominally) "positive" outlook.

Never work is my anthem
I never stop working
Even when I’m sleeping
Or in a bath where I’m reading
Proletarian dreams
I got nothing but work

The weight of this shift, from a political perspective, is the transition (on the level of business praxis – Sole's personal politics may or may not reflect this) within the spectrum of hard left political traditions, from one inspired by Marxism to one inspired by anarchism. One way to oversimplify this would be to say: rather than using the business-end of the rap game as a way to attempt to promote a collectively-owned and managed commons, he has begun using it to promote a commons free of ownership. Both are equally anti-capitalist; they simply draw on different theories in their approach.

Hip hop – both as artistic tradition, and living body of artists – is much, much more sympathetic to the anarcho-leftist tradition than it is to the Marxist. To see this sympathy in practice, one only has to look at the relative level of popularity between the two most popular representatives of these traditions in rap: Public Enemy and The Coup. The number of people who would even just recognize the name of The Coup as being a rap group is almost certainly significantly smaller than the number of people who would consider themselves rabid Public Enemy fans. The most likely reason for this sympathy seems to me to be the fact that rap takes entrepreneurship as its basic model of work, and so has a much more natural sympathy to the right-libertarian political position – it being, more or less, the ultimate cult of the entrepreneur – than it does to anything either centralized or communal. And since there is a thin line between the underlying arguments of right-libertarianism and of left-anarchism, a line which consists, almost exclusively, of a theory of capital, the tendency to misidentify anarchists as libertarians is already in place. When you compound this with the fact that rap has a very strong tradition of being obsessed with establishing its own authenticity, and insisting that its exclusive subject is reality (over and against theory, especially), the ability of someone to exploit the proximity of these political traditions to advance left-anarchism with complete sympathy from the right-libertarians is almost unimpeded.

They always say
"You gotta be radical when you're young
To grow up and be a good conservative"
That's dead wrong
Be head strong like Sadaam Hussein's fallen statue

Concomitant with Sole's political/philosophical transformation is the rise of Lil B in the eyes of the underground and fringe-mainstream hip hop world, which he rides on the wave of his philosophy/meme, "Based." That Sole has taken up this idea for his own purposes at this particular juncture in his career is at least as much a tactical maneuver as it is a historical accident.

Based is, if you take Lil B's claims exclusively, basically just a retread of tired corporate culture bullshit like The Power of Positive Thinking, with a bit of hip hop's perennial obsessions (about authenticity, craftsmanship, &c) sprinkled in for good measure. This is of course not to say that he knows not what he does, or to discount what he has to say about it out of hand, or even to suggest that there is no possible value in positivity as such – although you probably won't catch me wandering the streets talking to myself about how beautiful the world is and shit – but to attempt to (perhaps a bit polemically) get beyond what is simply stated about something, and see how that thing actually works.

No such thing as the illuminati
Just a dynamic corporate body
Fuck the smoke in mirrors, steady aim
Alex Jones CIA plant
Like cocaine
Stop sending me links to Zeitgeist and Loose Change
Junk food filling up your brain
They keep you occupied with youtube while the world is in flames
Hash tag I’m #justsaying

Looking at the effects that being Based has, and the things that it really promotes, it gradually becomes clear that the real point of becoming Based is to establish in oneself a philosophy which looks something like an absolute conviction that everything one thinks, feels, considers, or vaguely encounters is worthy of communicating in its totality on a generically-determined scale. That is: to be Based is to reach a state at which one's very essence becomes communicable. And one step to becoming Based (if I can be permitted this teleology) is to recognize communication as an imperative.



The most obvious counterpoint to this understanding of Based is the song Age Of Information. But it is important to note that in the song, Lil B's claim that "information has hurt the race" is primarily not a problem with communication, but with a specific form of communication, an atomized, scientistic method of communication, which is being attacked on the basis of its not being sufficiently communicative. This is where generically-determined comes into play in the definition. And this generic element is why the utopian demands of the Based philosophy – presumably everyone is capable of becoming Based, which would mean every incidental thing that happens to every human being can and must be communicated – are less interesting in and of themselves than are the demands they effect on the forms which it propagates itself through.

And forget the last decade of poverty
These days I’m killing em
Like if Ice Cube was reading French philosophy
And still making Death Certificate

If hip hop is marked as a political aesthetic by its juxtaposition of the plenitude of its production (the bricoleur aesthetic of sampling creates a situation in which music production draws from an infinite (or near-infinite) base of sounds) with the scarcity of its lyrics (strict de facto 'quality control' measures enforced by fans on rhyme structure, syllabic regularity, and lyrical content force any innovation into an oppositional ghetto where the music is marginalized and the purity of the emcee is constantly in question, forcing them to adopt a reactionary stance on every formal question except the one they are innovating in, and constantly discouraging any subsequent development of the innovation (see: "biters")), then Based goes a step farther than even the saturation of vocals with autotune (which made fuzzy the line between production and vocals, and then exploited this weakened border to smuggle a sense of plenitude over and allow for the incorporation of previously unacceptable lyrical content (viz. Kanye)) in providing a position from which to productively antagonize this configuration. If you are convinced that all things can and must be communicated, and that rapping is the ideal form of communication, then it is inevitable for you to butt heads with any regime of lyrical austerity. This is, presumably, why Lil B can have lines like "Even though I'm in the game / Bitch, I'm not a rapper," or "short films" like "Am I Even A Rapper Anymore?" It's what the kids call an existential crisis – those moments when you realize that everything you know is riven from everything you know, that reality is incommensurable with reality, and you become acutely aware of all the pain that causes.



Introducing Based to the rap genre forces a division within the political aesthetic, wielding its aesthetics against its politics – what we hear when we listen to Lil B is rap, but it's not good rap; and I would insist that the reason it's "not good" is not a problem with his craftsmanship (he seems, quite honestly, to be doing exactly what it is he's trying to do, and he's doing it a lot and has been for a while) or any other aesthetic category, but because the politics that are naturally attached to that aesthetic are being flaunted. Combined with Lil B's absolute sincerity, what you see is a superlative example of denaturalization.

When the struggle between lyrical austerity and communicative transparency really gets heated, after negotiations ("well maybe I'm not really a rapper; well maybe the majority of this stuff is disposable except the songs where he's biting a regional style; well maybe...") have terminated, having pre-established “Based” as a philosophy - rather than as simply an aesthetic choice amongst a number of choices – is crucial, as it provides a delimited, but intractable, space from which to launch the offensive.

What this could very well mean (aside from “a lot of really shitty rap music”) is that what we are witnessing is the possibility of a real revolution (in the Foucauldian sense of an epistemic shift) in the history of rap music. The episteme in question is rap's lyrical austerity, and its revolutionary replacement will be conditioned by the ideas that overthrew it, namely, Based. At the very least, given the way things are progressing, with the ascendance of Based (and more directly, the digital technologies and historical particularities that provided the condition of possibility for both Based and its ascendance) we are going to witness the complete dissolution of the current configuration of the underground hip hop scene. What I mean by this is that instead of seeing the current generation of rappers die or fade out or retire only to be replaced with more people continuing their project (re-oriented for their historical moment), there will be some fundamental structural change that will make the current configuration of underground hip hop completely incomprehensible and anachronistic.

Ain't no underground left, gotta come up
Yeah I’m on that

However, given enough militancy (on the part of both artists and fans), coupled with certain strategic coups, we might witness the dissolution of the very possibility of the underground, as the reactionary episteme on which it is premised (which is to say, that which it defines itself negatively aganist) is replaced by a utopian plenitude. If Based wins, as it were, and insinuates itself and its real premise into the hearts, minds, and crafts of the coming generation of hip hop artists, then they must also reject any idea that restrictions on communication are an axiom of the genre, and also the self-imposed police force that enforces it.

So keep your backbiting, Indy hip-hop is dead
Commentary to yourself
Or I’ll ruin it all myself
Like I ruined rap in 1998

The idea of a "plenitude," or "utopian plenitude," is a fairly hazy concept, so I'd like to take a shot at clarifying what I mean by it. Plenitude, in the sense of political economy, can have two obvious definitions, which one might broadly call capitalist and socialist. The capitalist political economy is structured around an economics of scarcity with an infinite capacity for growth, thus marking a plenitude of potential development. The socialist political economy is structured around an economics of plenitude with a finite capacity for growth. This is a really rough definition, but the difference is basically between an infinite, undeveloped world, and a finite but sufficient world. The reason for privileging the latter over the former, in the rap world at least, is that it refuses a false catholicism (that rap's development is necessarily a universal good) and makes space for real freedom. And since rap's freedoms, given its position in the current capitalist social order, are basically reduced to "the freedom to please the market," it definitely needs to find some real freedom somewhere.

Economic guillotine they put your head up on that
I don't cater, to the lowest common denomin’
So I’m obscure, like an American definition of poor
This rap is my tundra; I’m the last wooly mammoth
Running from ghosts of savage businessmen ran this
Border wars fought, cuz I don't recognize the face of DNA
Pol Pot, or distant relative dolphins, that went food
The world is spinning, while suckers stand still
Getting by, staying stoned, looking cool but being owned

Passionless dictatorship of the proletariat yeah we on that

If, as I'm arguing, rap is currently (or imminently) engaged in revolutionary struggle, then the question that must be answered is: where, and how, do we fight? And if, as I argued above, there already exists a more-or-less porous border which left-wing rappers can exploit, by drawing on the anarchist tradition's proximity to right-libertarianism, then we seem to have established a fairly compelling case for a first front. And if, again, Based is the philosophy that has the potential to overturn the reactionary epistemes of rap, then the question of how must certainly begin with Lil B as our Sun Tzu.

Sole's most recent effort, mansbestfriend Volume 5, seems to me like it has already taken these tactical questions to heart, and made the most of them. Perhaps the best example of this, and the most striking thing about the record for me, personally, is, paradoxically, how all over the place the record comes across, politically. He seems to argue, over the space of half an hour, for the redistribution of wealth, for the dictatorship of the proletariat, and for the grand good of the entrepreneurial hustle; his ode to rugged (American) individualism, I Walk Alone, which has lines like "No man is an island, but most of us should be," and which seems at one point to subscribe to the logic of the Return to the Gold Standard, opens with "3rd world America, in a hipster ghetto," and is savagely anti-racist and even at one point suggests the rejection of the logic that this individualism necessarily relies on, with the line "I don't wanna be the best cuz then everybody gonna wanna kill me." The beats often take up quasi-totemic signifiers from the underground rap tradition (in Rep-Resent, this becomes so aggressive a subtext that Sole has to comment "This beat sounds dated"). They are constantly forcing him to make minor, but evident, adjustments to his natural flow (again in Rep-Resent, "This is mansbestfriend / So I don't gotta put a chorus in / but the shoe fits..."), giving the impression that they have a life of their own. They are more monster than machine, each with the weight to destroy cities and a compelling geo-political backstory to match, with the raps serving as, at best, translations, or radicalizations.

If the premise of my earlier post, Work, was that artistic production mirrors and interrogates the hegemonic mode of production through the medium of its reactions to its own assumed tradition, and its theory was that close analysis of artistic products can therefore call into sharp relief the existence and operation of these hegemonies (especially points at which they might be productively resisted, and the embedded potential political economies that might be drawn out of them), then the point of this post is to narrow the scope. To draw a bead on one particular aspect of this approach – in this case, the tradition that the art in question interrogates – and from there to attack that frame in the particularity of the historical moment as I see it.

I’m in this to win this
And when there’s
Nothing left to win
I’ll share the winnings
With whoever’s still standing with me



*all block quotes are Sole lyrics. Respectively, they are from the songs: Longshots [Plastique], Da Baddest Poet [Selling Live Water], This Bad Reputation [Battlefields EP], Can't Kill A Ghost [mansbestfriend vol. 5 [mbf5]], Proletarian Dreams [mbf5], Proletarian Dreams [mbf5], Can't Kill A Ghost [mbf5], Rep-Resent [mbf5], I Walk Alone [mbf5], Terra Dome [mbf5], I Walk Alone [mbf5], Rep-Resent [mbf5].