Archive for April, 2007

Zizek/Hollywood

Monday, April 30th, 2007

Zizek is typically, and willfully, perverse in his praise of 300 (found via Dejan): everyone else on the Left has denounced the film as a fascist spectacle, allegorically praising militarism and the American war in Iraq, so of course Zizek must instead praise the film as a revolutionary allegory of struggle against the American evil empire.

Now, I still haven’t seen 300 (I don’t get to see many movies except on DVD these days), so I obviously can’t judge whose reading is more ‘correct.’ But that can’t stop me from wondering to what extent Zizek’s contrarianism is just a sort of idiotic macho one-upmanship (as in: I can be even more outrageous and anti-commonsensical than anybody else), of the same sort that is routinely practiced by right-wing political economists like David Friedman and Steven Landsburg (who delight in arguring, for instance, that Ralph Nader’s safety regulations caused automobile accidents to increase), or evolutionary theorists like the guys (whose names escape me at the moment) who wrote about how rape was an adaptive strategy.

There is something drearily reactive about always trying to prove that the opposite of what everyone else thinks is really correct. It’s an elitist gesture of trumpeting one’s own independence from the (alleged) common herd; but at the same time, it reveals a morbid dependence upon, or concern with, the very majority opinions that one pretends to scorn. If all you are doing is inverting common opinion, that is the clearest sign possible that you are utterly dependent upon such common opinion: it motivates and governs your every gesture. That is why you need so badly to negate it. Zizek totally depends upon the well-meaning, right-thinking liberal ideology that he sets out to frustrate and contradict at every turn. His own ideas remain parasitic upon those of the postmodern, multicultural consensus that he claims to upset.

Zizek, unlike the free-market economists and evolutionary theorists, justifies his contrianism in Hegelian terms; he’s performing the negation of the negation, or something like that. But this is exactly Deleuze’s Nietzschean point, that a critique grounded in negation is an utterly impoverished and reactive one. Zizek’s favorite rhetorical formulas all always of the order of: “it might seem that x; but in fact is not the exact opposite of x really the case?” Zizek always fails to imagine the possibility of a thought that would move obliquely to common opinion, rather than merely being its mirror reversal; and that is why I find him, ultimately, to be so limited and reductive.

Even a far better recent article by Zizek, on Robespierre and revolution, suffers from this sort of defect. Glen of Event Mechanics pointed me to this piece; Glen rightly observes that Zizek is in fact quite good here when he expounds on the view of revolution-as-event that we find in Deleuze, and in Foucault’s much-maligned (but wrongly so) comments on the Iranian revolution. To see the hope and promise of the revolutionary event, despite all that goes wrong when that revolution is later institutionalized, is essentially a Kantian position, and one that I think is necessary for us to maintain today; it is our absolute, categorical moral obligation to reject the ideology of No Alternative, and to act as if something other and better than today’s universal market capitalism were possible. We know that there will always be a gap between this moral imperative and whatever empirical accomplishments we manage to make; the revolution will always disappoint to some extent (we can, and should, try to make it less disappointing rather than more, but we will never entirely succeed); yet we may not give it up and acquiesce in the “actually existing” system of systematic injustice.

Zizek almost makes this point — but this is again where his reactivity, his will to the negative, reasserts itself and spoils everything. Zizek moves from a Kantian recognition of the gap between the noumenal and the phenomenal, or between our obligations and their (always incomplete) realization, to a Hegelian bridging of that gap via the creaky mechanisms of negation. He moves from Deleuze’s and Foucault’s Kantianianism regarding the hope of revolutionary action, to his tiresome and glibly romanticized Hegelian praise of “terror” and “ruthless punishment” as a means of institutionalizing the revolutionary event. There are the usual invocations of Lenin and even Stalin (once again, we get Zizek’s communism as a matter of anybody except Tito).

A lot of this recalls the debate, a year or so ago, on this blog, and also here, with contributions also by K-punk and Jodi among others, around the question of revolution and “subjective destitution” as raised in V for Vendetta. I am not sure I am able to revive that discussion here — if for no other reason than because (as I said) I haven’t managed to see 300. But I have to comment, at least, that the thing I found most repellent in either of the Zizek articles I am discussing was the following:

In today’s era of hedonist permissivity as the ruling ideology, the time is coming for the Left to (re)appropriate discipline and the spirit of sacrifice: there is nothing inherently “Fascist” about these values.

This is the sort of slippery slide, fueled by the spirit of negation, that I think needs to be rejected as much as acquiescence in the actual world system needs to be rejected. There is a real analytic acuity behind identifying what Zizek calls “hedonist permissivity as the ruling ideology”: this has to do with the way that, for today’s neoliberal capitalism, it is much more effective to turn something into a commodity than to ban it or censor it or otherwise repress it. Anything can be commodified, and by that fact alone what has thus been packaged and offered for sale is deprived of any radical efficacy, any potential for real change. The difference of the future from the past, or what Whitehead called “Creative Advance,” is neutralized by being drawn into the structures of the market, of “individual choice” in a condition of overall “scarcity,” etc etc ad nauseam.

However, the neoliberal nostrum of the market as a regulatory mechanism for everything is a utopian (or more properly, dystopian) ideal that doesn’t actually work out in practice, which is why — as Wendy Brown in particular has written about — neoliberalism needs to be supplemented by neoconservatism, with its harshly repressive moralism. Neoliberalism without neoconservatism threatens to explode into violence and chaos, or otherwise go astray. Whereas neoconservatism on its own — the homophobic and patriarchal strictures of the fundamentalist Christian Right in America, for instance — would lead to the stagnation or collapse of capitalist productivity; which is why neoconservatism is always presented only as a supplement to neoliberalism, its Biblical moralism sugar-coated with a bizarre sense of the individual, or more often the family, as a sort of economic enterprise in its own right, to be treated with a combination of market discipline and New Age-y regimes of healing and self-regulation.

Zizek, I think, does indeed grasp this dynamic quite well. But he goes astray, yet again, when he essentializes and psychologizes the situation in terms of his theory of the superego command, or imperative, of enjoyment. In other words, he sees the psychological dilemma of meaning and groundedness — the reason why neoconservatism is needed as a supplement, why neoliberalism by itself cannot produce the social cohesion necessary for the “market mechanism” to function at all — as the root of the problem, and totally ignores the way the whoe process is driven by the drive of capital accumulation (reflected in the neoliberal replacement of all other social forms with that of the market).

The result is that Zizek displaces and misrecognizes both the motor force of capital accumulation, and the force of the Kantian categorical imperative. By identifying “hedonist permissivity” as the problem — when it is really just a product of the forces of capital accumulation — he in effect gives the exact same analysis of postmodern capitalsim as the fundamentalist Christian right does, and offers a pseudo-solution (discipline and the spirit of sacrifice) that, like theirs, only serves to preserve the world market system from its own disaggregating tendencies. Discipline, the spirit of sacrifice, and the embrace of terror also function as a sort of grotesque parody of the categorical imperative, the result precisely of betraying it by institutionalizing it. (Zizek defends the appeal to terror in the Robespierre article as a form of what Badiou calls “fidelity to the event.” I don’t know Badiou well enough to either support or reject this reading; but from a Deleuzian point of view, it is precisely a betrayal of the event to seek to incarnate or effectuate in this way; rather than practicing a “counter-effectuation,” which is how fidelity to the categorical imperative can in fact be maintained despite all inevitable disappointments).

Perhaps it is all too easy, in the wake of how the 1960s counterculture has become the official market culture (or one of its cultures) in the 21st century, to invoke Emma Goldman’s famous statement about how, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.” But the denunciation of “hedonist permissivity” is certainly not the way to go — Zizek’s loathing for this, like the similar loathings on the part of fundamentalist Christians and Jihadist Muslims, is a false response, based upon a misrecognition of the basic problem. (The Jihadists are responding, in their own way, to the depredations unleashed on the world, and the Muslim world in particular, of predatory capitalism; but their solution is as bad as, or worse than, the problem, and bespeaks only the way that any liberatory or creative alternative has been systematically blocked by the marketization of everything). I don’t think emulating either the Spartans or Robespierre is much of a solution to the mess, and the exploitation, we find ourselves in. Zizek’s theories are little more than yet another demonstration, or symptom, of the situation that he himself has pointed to: the fact that, in the current climate, we find it difficult to imagine any alternative to capitalism; that in fact we find it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Zizek’s thought itself is one more demonstration of our current blockage of imagination.

Pop Conference

Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

Since I had a great time at the EMP Pop Conference, I should probably say something about some of the talks and panels I enjoyed, in addition to my own.

The best panel I went to was called “Breaks in Time: Rethinking Hip Hop Roots.” It was really about the multiple genealogies of hip hop: the ways that various cultural elements (beats, musical motifs, dance moves, forms of presentation, attitudes, etc.), coming from disparate sources, mutated and coalesced in the South Bronx in the early 1970s to produce what we know now as hip hop. In other words, the panel was focused on how cultural innovation happens: how instances of sampling, recycling, and appropriation lead to the production of something new. This also meant showing the ways that cultural production and innovation come from “below” (rather than, as institutional art histories like to claim, from “above”), and how miscegenated, mixed, and hybrid such innovations nearly always are.

Oliver Wang started things off with a discussion of Boogaloo (aka Bugalu) a New York City Latino (and specifically Puerto Rican) dance craze or musical subgenre of the mid-1960s that is largely forgotten today (or written off as merely commercial exploitation), but that mixed Latin/Caribbean and African American funk rhythms in interesting ways, and that in turn influenced both salsa (which emerged a few years later, in the late 1960s) and early hip hop.

Second, Jeff Chang, author of the well-nigh definitive hip hop history Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, looked at the evolution of the break beat, that rhythmic moment that hip hop DJs would isolate and play over and over again — which is the musical characteristic that first marked hip hop as a distinct musical genre (and not only musical, of course; since the break beat was really for dancers, even more than for listeners). Chang found Latino as well as African American/soul/r&b/funk antecedents to the break beat.

Next was Garnette Cadogan, who extended these genealogies to Jamaica. He traced the ways in which reggae and its predecessors (like ska and rock steady) appropriated and reworked various strands in North American r&b, how reggae lyrics interacted with other Jamaican sources like the poetry of Louise Bennett-Coverley, how the reggae mix then returned to the United States starting in 1969, and how Jamaican music entered into hip hop both musically and via DJ Kool Herc’s famous adaptation of Jamaican sound systems to the South Bronx.

Finally, Joe Schloss looked at how the breakdancing of early hip hop was influenced by a dance form called uprock. Breakdancing was done mostly by African American youth in the Bronx in the early 1970s; uprock was mostly done by Puerto Rican youth in Brooklyn in the late 1960s. Once again hip hop culture was shown to have miscegenated roots, and to have coalesced from a multiplicity of sources.

All four speakers played copious samples in the course of their talks — which was great, as you could actually hear what they were talking about. Joe Schloss also demonstrated the dance moves he was talking about, which was great (not to mention impressive on the part of a guy who looked like he was in his 40s, rather than being 17 or so like the original dancers). All in all, this was an exciting panel, and also one from which I learned a lot. It reached a point where academic and non-academic (journalistic) modes of writing/research/scholarship become indistinguishable from one another, and where genealogical investigations fuse with the appreciation of, and active involvment within, living culture. The panel was exemplary — as was the conference as a whole — in the way it moved transversally between deep involvement in, and critical reflection upon, popular music — something that we could well emulate in the ways we approach film, video and new media, and other forms of living culture today.

PS: there were many other interesting talks I heard at the Pop Conference; but I will only mention one more: RJ Smith‘s discussion of Destroy All Monsters, the band formed in the 1970s by Jim Shaw, Mike Kelley, and Cary Loren, all of whom went on to become famous as Los Angeles conceptual artists. Smith moved between the times of the band and the murals that the group made for the Whitney Biennial of 2002, which presented a dazzling pop art monumentalization and mythologization of Detroit popular culture and the attitudes derived therefrom. It was weird, magnificent, and hilarious, and, as a Detroiter, I really appreciated it.

Wu-Tang Forever

Saturday, April 21st, 2007

This morning, at the Experience Music Project Pop Conference,, we had our panel on the Wu-Tang Clan, and I think it went rather well. First, Leonard Pierce spoke about the Wu-Tang’s, and particularly the RZa’s, embrace of Marvel comics, and how they turned the ultimate nerdy/fanboy obsession into something cool. Next, Nate Patrin gave a detailed account of the RZA’s use of southern soul samples, and how this helped change the sound of hip-hop. Then, my old friend Charles Tonderai Mudede pondered the politics of nostalgia, with particular reference to Killah Priest’s song “From Then Till Now.” Finally, I talked about Ghostface’s voice, and his use of soul samples, with particular reference to “Can Can,” a banned track that was originally supposed to appear on Fishscale. (You can find a rough, not entirely finished, draft of my paper here). The real reason the panel went so well was that we were really all addressing common questions: sampling as transformation, the relevance of the past, how soul relates to hip-hop, etc. The song that kept on coming up was “I Can’t Sleep,” from the Wu-Tang Clan album The W, featuring Ghostface and Isaac Hayes.

Pop Conference

Wednesday, April 18th, 2007

I leave tomorrow for Seattle, for the Pop Conference at the Experience Music Project, which in past years has been one of the best conferences I have ever attended, mixing journalistic and academic writers on popular music. I still haven’t quite finished my own paper, on Ghostface Killah’s use of soul samples (file under: sonic hauntology) — it looks like I will be typing away on the airplane until my laptop’s battery runs out.

The Virtual and the Future

Thursday, April 5th, 2007

Sorry there has been so little posting lately — but for the past several weeks, every free moment has been devoted to writing my talk for the Deleuze conference that is coming up this weekend. The subject of my talk is “Deleuze’s Encounter With Whitehead.” Unfortunately, I haven’t quite managed to finish the paper, or get to the end of what I am trying to say — but perhaps this is just as well, since the paper has also gotten too long, even if I finished I wouldn’t be able to get through it in the time provided.

The part I have finished — the part I will be giving at the conference — is really little more than “Whitehead 101 for Deleuzians.” I work through Whitehead’s notion of events, show how important this notion is for Deleuze’s own thinking of the event, and compare Whitehead’s and Deleuze’s treatment of some of their most important common predecessors (Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, and Kant). This leads up to a comparison between the virtual in Deleuze and the potential (also known as “eternal objects”) in Whitehead. I argue that both Deleuze’s virtual and Whitehead’s potential are “conversions” of Kant’s transcendental argument. They seek to define conditions of actual emergence instead of Kant’s conditions of (mere formal) possibility; but they join Kant in refusing to allow these conditions to be hypostasized as belonging to some radically other, transcendent realm. And they posit their transcendentals, not (as Kant does) to answer the epistemological question of how we can know, but instead to answer the (ontological? kairological? temporological?) question of how change is possible, or of how to account for a future that is not predetermined by the past.

However, this discussion is really just a preliminary to the argument that really interests me — and this is the part I have not written yet. I want to argue that Whitehead’s eternal objects offer us a better way to talk about change and becoming than the orthodox Deleuzian vocabulary of virtuality provides us with. And I want to suggest, similarly, that Whitehead’s notion of God provides a more useful alternative to Deleuze and Guattari’s formulations about the Body without Organs. Whitehead defines God – or at least what he calls “the primordial nature of God” – as the “graded envisionment” of all eternal objects, i.e. all potentials. The vision of God accounts for “how the actual includes what (in one sense) is ‘not-being’ as a positive factor in its own achievement.” Whitehead’s God, like the Body without Organs, is a non-totalizing and open “whole”, and can be regarded as the “quasi-cause” or “surface of inscription” for all events, in such a way that it does not determine these events, but allows precisely for their indeterminacy and continuing openness to difference in the future. But in a powerful way the notion of God (at least Whitehead’s notion of God, I don’t see how this would apply to anyone else’s) is a more flexible, more empirical, more pragmatic notion than D&G’s BwO is. Which means that it is, in a way, more accountable, more open to “temporal” considerations (like how to think the monstrous body of Capital) as well as to aesthetic ones (like how to conceive the affective qualities and implications of post-cinematic formal/technological developments). So I trying to ask Deleuzian questions — ones that Whitehead never thinks about — but arguing that these questions are better answered (or worked through) in Whiteheadian terms than in Deleuzian ones.

Will this work out or make sense? I don’t know. So far all I have is an intuition, and a project. I don’t know what will happen when I get the time to work through the actual argument.

Better post this now; I gotta go to the airport.