Archive for January, 2005

Everything But the Burden

Sunday, January 30th, 2005

Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture, edited by Greg Tate, is an anthology of essays that endeavors to deal with what the title says: how much of American culture has been invented by black people, but appropriated and sold by whites. It’s a not-unfamiliar tale, that ranges from 19th-century minstrelsy, through Elvis, to Eminem, and that has been long examined by white and black authors alike (among the former, most notoriously in Norman Mailer’s willfully outrageous essay “The White Negro”). But it’s such a central topic, for any understanding of American culture, that discussion is far from exhausted, even today.

Everything But the Burden is (unsurprisingly), like most anthologies, a mixed bag. As befits the subject, perhaps, the best essays here are the most over-the-top. Carl Hancock Rux uses Euripides’ The Bacchae in order to position and define Eminem; Melvin Gibbs moves from the Five Percenters to John Walker Lindh’s embrace of the Taliban, in order to anatomize white America’s love affair with hip hop; and best of all, Arthur Jafa brilliantly reads Kubrick’s 2001 as an allegory of white people’s fascination-tinged dread of everything black. There are also a number of great essays that only obliquely focus on the issue of white appropriations of black creativity and style: Cassandra Lane’s moving “Skinned,” which tells some unpleasant truths about fantasies of interracial sex; Manthia Diawara’s theoretical memoir about the appeal of James Brown to the youth of 1960s Bamako; Beth Coleman’s essay on “pimpology”, and Hilton Als on a TV collaboration between Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin. The only (as far as I can tell) white contributor, Jonathan Lethem, illuminates the racial/autobiographical background (as a white boy growing up in a mostly-black neighborhood) of his novel The Fortress of Solitude.

The volume does a lot to examine the projections and fantasies that persist, among both whites and blacks (though in different ways), even (or especially) in today’s supposedly post-race America. But it doesn’t really get me much closer to understanding what role white people’s fantasies about black people play in the overall economy of American racism. (Not that this necessarily was the book’s goal: putting the emphasis in this way, so that Mailer’s “White Negro” becomes the issue, is yet another way of making the discussion, once again, be focused upon white people instead of black people). But then, I doubt that the issue of white fantasies of blackness can be dealt with any more definitively than it has already been in Darius James’ savage and wickedly satirical novel Negrophobia. Mailer’s fantasies of Negritude are really no different than the ones James dissects; even if Mailer writes in existential celebration, rather than paranoid dread, he is responding to the same image that is really a white projection/imposition to begin with.

Part of racism’s double bind is that there is really no way to approach the issue in “good conscience.” White people need to realize that neither their pious declarations of colorblindness, nor their acts of homage to Tupac and Biggie, accomplish anything worthwhile. As for black people, Beth Coleman suggests, in her “Pimpology” essay, that the trap to avoid is the one in which an effort at liberation, finds itself compelled to “reproduce the structure from which it hails,” the “logic of mastery” of which black people were the victims.


Thursday, January 27th, 2005

Peter Watts concludes his “Rifters” trilogy with Behemoth (though this concluding volume is separated, for publishing reasons, into two separate books: Behemoth:B-Max and Behemoth: Seppuku). (I have previously discussed the earlier volumes, Starfish and Maelstrom).

Behemoth doesn’t add much conceptually to the earlier volumes of the trilogy; but it works out in ruthless detail, and to the bitter end, a logic of paranoia, sexual sadism, and the catastrophic ecological breakdown of both the natural world and the technosphere. Watts envisions a world — only slightly extrapolated from our own — in which organisms can be tweaked genetically in fairly precise ways, or even created and synthesized from scratch; and in which brains can be tweaked on a neurochemical level, resulting in human beings crippled by guilt, remorse, and self-loathing, or to the contrary utterly devoid of empathy and conscience. (Software can also be hacked in nearly infinite ways, with controlling and/or destructive results for the entire social and communicational infrastructure). The paradox is that the more perfect, precise, and far-reaching our instrumental technologies become, the more chaotically unpredictable are the outcomes.

What’s brilliant about this is that, for all the negativity of his vision, Watts is not in the least a technophobe. That is to say, in the Rifters Trilogy there is no sense of technology being to blame, precisely because there is no sense of a “nature” that would exist apart from it, or uncontaminated by it. Or in other words: technology and culture have never been anything other than “nature,” still and always. If there is a source of villainy in the trilogy, it’s the foulness of the human heart — but this, too, is nothing else than natural process, given that “personality is just another word for biochemistry” in the last analysis. Watts accepts biological reductionism — in his author’s notes he ridicules “those Easter-bunny vitalists who believe that personality results from some unquantifiable divine spark” (297-298). But it’s precisely on such grounds that he demystifies the comfortable belief — quite widespread these days among technofuturists as well as lovers of nature — that the balance of forces in complex social and ecological systems, like the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith, somehow can be trusted to bring about optimal outcomes, if only we forbear to interfere.

I don’t think I am really giving away anything when I note that, at the end of the novel, humanity is given — just barely — another chance, “even though we don’t deserve one.” Chaos and complexity theories confirm the ancient sense that the future is intrinsically unpredictable — which is why the novel cannot end in the finality of annihilation, any more than it could have a conventionally “happy” ending. That would be letting us off the hook too easily. The only optimism that the novel affords — severly qualified because it is the nearly-mystical, just-before-the-end vision of a woman who has been tortured to death — involves throwing out instrumental reason altogether, giving up on tweaking and reworking, giving up control, “[throwing] the very concept of a controlled experiment out the window,” and instead “rewriting the very chemistry of life,” allowing monstrous and unpredictable mutations to run their course, staking everything on “the most profound evolutionary leap since the rise of the eukaroytic cell” (242-243). Whether this is a grand affirmation, more than worthy of Nietzsche, or just another nihilistic self-delusion, the novel doesn’t tell us — nor could it. What’s most impressive and powerful about Watts’ trilogy is that he doesn’t shy from extremity — but also doesn’t mystify extremity, by turning it into another fable of salvation.

Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle

Wednesday, January 26th, 2005

I simply adored Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle. It may be just another dumb, immature, homosocial/homophobic stoner comedy. But it’s a good one. It wasn’t too sexist or homophobic, the product plugs are sufficiently tongue-in-cheek not to be overly offensive, and it kept me chuckling throughout (though, without pot, I didn’t have any real belly laughs). There’s real chemistry in the Felix/Oscar dynamics between John Cho and Kal Penn: Harold and Kumar are the best pairing since at least Bill and Ted. And it’s not just that both leads are Asian American: a first for this kind of film, and a real breakout from the minority-as-sidekick syndrome. But more, Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle really gets race in America right. Asians are not white — and neither are Jews, quite. However overachieving (and the film has a lot to say with its parody and deconstruction of the Asian overachiever syndrome), they don’t have full access to white skin privilege (though they are closer to it, and better off, than black people, of course). Among white people, the poor and unhip come across pretty well (the film also deconstructs “white trash” stereotypes), while the villains of the movie are racist cops, a gang of abusive skateboard skinhead poseurs, and (finally) a pair of WASPy ex-frat-boy junior executives who get a well-deserved comeuppance for taking their privileged status so smugly for granted. In short, this is progressive filmmaking of a far higher order than Tim Robbins or Warren Beatty has ever done.

After the New Economy

Thursday, January 13th, 2005

Doug Henwood is the most useful economics commentator I know. He regularly calls the professional economists, both liberal and conservative, on their bullshit; he knows enough about the nitty-gritty of mainstream (mathematizable) economics to argue with them on their own terms, while at the same time pointing to how we really need to revive what used to be called “political economy,” instead of treating economics as if it were somehow autonomous from the rest of society, culture, and politics. I liked Henwood’s previous book, Wall Street, for the way it both demystified financial manipulations, and for how it pointed up the bizarre theoretical blind spots in mainstream economic theory, and particularly in its assumptions about the wisdom and perfection of the “free market.” The so-called monetarists, for instance, basically assume that money is of no importance in itself, since they see it as just a neutral and transparent medium of exchange; it needs Marx, or at least Keynes, to call attention to the fact that the medium matters, that the existence (and the ubiquity) of money itself has consequences, all the more so in an age of widespread credit, the fluidity of electronic transfers of money around the globe, and the increasing importance of such bizarre and arcane financial instruments as derivatives. The mathematical and logical language of mainstream economics is based upon highly dubious, and at times flat-out empirically false, premises.

Henwood’s new book, After the New Economy, is far less ambitious and theoretical than Wall Street; but it is still a useful volume. Half of it is statistics, showing pretty conclusively how the “new economy” — so-called globalization, new communications and computing technologies, what David Harvey calls “flexible accumulation — has in fact widened the gap between rich and poor, led to more exploitation and more poverty, etc. The other half is a polemic against all those thinkers (including ones on the left) who have, in Henwood’s view, exaggerated the social and economic changes that have resulted from that new technology and those new modes of organization.

The book suffers a bit from the fact that it was evidently conceived in the late 90s, at the moment of the great infotech boom and bubble; but Henwood evidently didn’t write and publish it fast enough, so that the bubble had already burst, the boom collapsed, before his (entirely correct) critique of its delusions came out in print. Henwood missed his moment, in short, and what the book gains in being proven unequivocally right it loses in polemical force. The cheerleaders for the New Economy have already been shown up as fools, and nobody really believes their hype anymore. I sympathize with the difficulty Henwood faces here, because, as a slow writer myself (much slower than Henwood, if we are to judge by page count) I know how difficult it is to write about timely matters, before they cease being timely (the difficulty is compounded by the slowness of the publishing industry — one reason why blogs are becoming such an important alternative — Henwood doesn’t have a blog as far as I know, but his monthly newsletter Left Business Observer similarly picks up the slack).

What stands in Henwood’s favor is that the delusions he skewers (the ideas that a period of prosperity will go on forever, and that new technologies will by themselves solve all the world’s problems, thus obviating the need for political change; the tendency of a wealthy elite — in this case the yuppie “digiterati” — to imagine that their experiences are universal, even though 90% of the world’s population cannot afford to share them) seem to be recurrent features of capitalism; so that another technologically-driven boom and bubble is sure to come around, at which point people will forget the lessons of the last one, and the same inane hype will propagate itself again, once more making Henwood’s points overwhelmingly relevant.

The most original and provocative part of Henwood’s polemic has to do with his critique of the very idea of “globalization.” Henwood rightly points out that “capitalism as a world system” is nothing new; he has cogent criticisms both of the excessive claims that have been made for the difference of our current era, and for the often regressive positions taken by anti-globalization activists of a certain stripe (he rightly skewers both Ralph Nader and David Korten, for instance, for their tendencies towards nationalism and/or a sort of ecofascism — sentimentalizing the “local” and seeking to turn back technology will not help anybody, especially not the global poor). I couldn’t agree more with Henwood than when he writes: “Yes, Nike’s shoemakers are hideously exploited — but is there really anything fundamentally wrong with the desire to wear stylish shoes?” (165). This is why Henwood wants to call attention to “the ownership and organization of production,” rather than making moralistic denunciation of ‘wasteful’ Western consumption. I think it’s entirely in Henwood’s spirit to insist that luxury is not the problem, and a Veblenesque critique of luxury and “conspicuous consumption” is pretty much beside the point. It’s not that “we” (the western more-or-less prosperous) have too much, but that so large a portion of the world’s population is denied comparable access. The scandal of capitalism is that, at the same time it produces astonishing plenty, it imposes rigid regimes of scarcity on so many people. In the midst of more abundance (even per capita) than has ever been known in the entire history of the world, we are told that we ‘cannot afford’ the welfare state here in the United States, let alone poverty and security for the multitudes of the ‘Third’ or ‘underdeveloped’ world. That’s what’s truly obscene: not bling or the precession of simulacra.

Henwood sometimes goes too far in his denunciations of techno-utopianism. I don’t think he is right to (almost) equate Fredric Jameson’s claim that “capital has become both deterritorialized and dematerialized in this ‘globalized’ era” (27) with the inane hype of Wired magazine circa 1997. Of course Henwood is right that electronic financial transactions have not somehow eliminated actual industrial production; but I think that Henwood underestimates both the ways that informatics and communications technologies have reorganized (dare I say “revolutionized”?) industrial production itself, and the extent to which “dematerialized,” flexible and highly “liquid” finance capital has itself become a real material force. Henwood himself admits to overstating his case somewhat: “I’ll admit that I sometimes get carried away with making that point [about the continuities with earlier periods], and I come dangerously close to arguing that 2003 is essentially 1913 plus fiber optics” (174). He goes on to praise Hardt and Negri’s Empire, despite the fact that theirs is pretty much the logic that he had criticized earlier in the book. I’m inclined to think that Henwood’s problem here is that (to use a phrase I almost never have recourse to) he is being insufficiently “dialectical.” It is simultaneously true, I think, 1st) that the new computing and communications technologies of the last thirty years or so have pretty much changed everything, even for the large numbers of people in the world who lack direct access to these technologies (or, to put the point more accurately, these technologies are not the cause of the change, but one aspect of what will be — since it is still in process — a massive political, social, cultural, and economic change) AND 2nd) that the result of this enormous change is to give us a more pure and undiluted form of capitalism than has ever before been the case (which is why so much of Marx’s theorization of capitalism is more uncannily relevant, and necessary, today than it ever was before being ‘discredited’ by the privatization movements of the 1970s and 1980s, and the fall of communism in 1989). Henwood denies the first of these observations, in order to affirm the second. But the trick is to see how both of them work together, how they are both in fact the same process.

Market Forces

Saturday, January 1st, 2005

Richard Morgan‘s Market Forces is a wonderfully nasty near-future science fiction novel about capitalism and globalization. I should say that the book is ostensibly science fiction, for the future world it presents is not all that much of an extrapolation from “actually existing” capitalism today. The main character, Chris Faulkner, is a London yuppie who’s trying to make his mark in the hottest field in global finance: Conflict Investment. This means investing in civil wars and rebellions in Third World countries. You provide your favored combatants with advanced weaponry and communications, and logistical support; in return, if the side you are backing wins, you get extravagant profits in the form of a piece of all the action (whether drug smuggling, graft and taxes, or low-paid factory labor in “enterprise zones”). The stockholders in the West get richer and richer; while the “developing” countries remain permanently chaotic and underdeveloped, with enough death and dislocation to ensure that they will never be a political threat. This is what happens when foreign policy is fully privatized along with everything else. Maybe Bush’s problem in Iraq came from the fact that he didn’t turn the whole thing (instead of just parts of it) over to Halliburton.

In the world of Market Forces, the ethos of ruthless competition rules at home as well as abroad. Corporate executives, of course, are pretty much above the law. When companies are fighting for a contract, or when executives within the same company are fighting for a promotion, the issue is resolved by road-rage duels to the death. The business class drives heavily-armored BMWs and Saabs, and they prove their competitive mettle by driving their opponents off the road in spectacular crashes. Whoever wins — i.e. survives — has thereby proven that he has more determination and drive, more of a ruthless will to succeed, than his late opponents. He gets the promotion, and becomes a celebrity as well. These duels are popular sporting events for the rest of the populace, who are otherwise relegated to living in slums cordoned off by the police from where the well-to-do live.

Emotionally, the novel lures you into sympathy with Chris Faulkner, even as he becomes more and more of a bastard as the book proceeds. At the start, he seems to have half a conscience; by the end, the only thing that redeems his murderous rage and sociopathic attitudes is that his cynicism (unlike that of his “colleagues”) shades into self-hatred and nihilistic fury as well. This almost seems the only plausible attitude to take, in a world where corporate execs basically have license to kill poor people at will, while reformers and leftists are little more than impotent hand-wringers. Morgan dedicates the book to “all those, globally, whose lives have been wrecked or snuffed out by the Great Neoliberal Dream and Slash-and-Burn Globalization”; and he provides a reading list at the end that includes Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, and John Pilger; but he doesn’t hold out much hope for anything besides the worst (and in this age of Bush and Blair, who can blame him?).

There are lots of great passages in the book, but I’ll end by quoting just one of my favorites. It’s when one of the senior partners at Chris’ firm explains matters to the press: “A practising free-market economist has blood on his hands,or he isn’t doing his job properly. It comes with the market, and the decisions it demands. Hard decisions, decisions of life and death. We have to make these decisions, and we have to get them right…” Dick Cheney couldn’t put it any better.