Archive for April, 2009

Experience Music Project: Pop Conference (3)

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

Here are the rest of my notes on the 2009 Pop Conference. The last panel I went to on Saturday, “How Low Can A Punk Get?,” had only two speakers. Tavia Nyong’o presented an overview  of the work of video and music artist Kalup Linzy. Linzy has created a series of soap-opera videos, together with an album of songs accompanied by music videos, recounting the lives of characters whom he has created, and many of whom he plays. These characters are black, Southern, poor, and mostly gay; they play out tacky, trashy, and campy scenarios of love and desire; they enact or embody exaggerated stereotypes, sending up (but at the same time lovingly reinvesting) images of black folks that may well be racist in certain contexts. Abjection and parody thus become ways of expressing desires that have historically been debased and devalued. This is a camp strategy which has a long history among gay men in North America and Europe; but Nyong’o argued for its racial specificity in Linzy’s work, and for the way it took on a punk sneer as well as a campy sigh.

Drew Daniel is one half of the great electronic band Matmos. He described his paper, “Why Be Something You’re Not?’: The Afterlives of Queer Minstrelsy,” as the second in a series of reflections on queer punk music and culture. Daniel told the story of his encounter with the music of Hawnay Troof, who engages in over-the-top, and deliberately crude and excessive (hence “punk”), almost pornographic, expressions of gay male sexual desire. Daniel recounted his own assumption that the Hawnay Troof performer was (in actuality, or in “real life”) gay, and had fantasies on this basis, only to discover that he was actually bi, and showed up with a girlfriend for the recording session Daniel had set up. Daniel used the incident to critically reflect on those old questions of normativity and authenticity: why should a queer performer have to be “really” queer? why should a punk performing style, one that is so evidently artificial and enacted, nonetheless have to be grounded in the actual sexuality of the one who is doing the performance? It’s easy to be anti-essentialist in theory, but much harder to divest oneself of “essentialist” attitudes and assumptions in practice. Or, in more concrete terms: when is a performance of queerness by somebody who isn’t a legitimate and even powerful expression, and when is it minstrelsy in the most pejorative sense, a putting-on of the queer role by somebody in order to ridicule it and to separate oneself from it (because it is “only” a put-on performance)? By reflecting back upon, and in effect psychoanalyzing, his own initial response to Hawnay Troof, Daniel provided one of the most powerful and thought-provoking talks of the entire Pop Conference. However, I felt that the answers he gave were not quite up to the level of the dilemmas he explored. For he said, finally, that his assumption that a queer performer ought to be “really” queer was an instance of what he insisted upon calling “homonormative naive realism.” Now, this seems to me to be a bad way to criticize the tendency. First of all, because, as Graham Harman has argued (though I cannot find the precise posting), the denunciation of “naive realism” is itself something that should be viewed with suspicion. For the person who critiques naive realism is probably not thereby asserting that there is a more sophisticated sort of realism that would not be thus subject to critique; he is rejecting realism altogether, and saying that it is always naive. But as we’ve seen from Harman, from Quentin Meillassoux, and from the other “speculative realists,” the anti-realism of so much Continental theory of the last several decades ought not to be given a free pass. I’d even go so far as to say that “social constructionism” only makes sense to the extent that we are realists about “social constructions” themselves. And, given the richness of Daniel’s overally presentation, I don’t think that any sort of “realism” (naive or otherwise) is the problem; nor do I think that “homonormativity” is the problem either, even given the fact that pressures towards a kind of normativity of behavior exist in queer communities as in other social spaces, despite the non-normativity of queerness overall in relation to heteronormative society. Rather, the problem is that Daniel’s fundamental question does not have a fixed, conceptualizable answer. When do we judge a work of queer mimicry to be offensive minstrelsy, and when do we judge that it has critical and expressive power? (The same question can be asked, of course, in relation to racial and gender mimicries). The answer is that there is no answer: no criterion, no normative principle with which to make the judgment. We just have to judge this matter case by case, example by example, without being able to extract some higher principles to guide our judgment. This is what Daniel in fact was doing, as he moved through various instances of “fake” queer performativity. Case by case, the talk was cogent and compelling; it is only in its theoretical generalization that it ran into a certain amount of trouble.

I went to two panels on Sunday morning, the last day of the conference. The first panel, “Constrained Pleasures,” included my own talk on Grace Jones and Afrofuturism, which I will not discuss here. (I am still working on or revising it; eventually I will make the full text available on my website). The other talk on my panel was by Adrienne Brown, who discussed the use of music — or rather, perhaps, its non-use — on the TV series The Wire. Brown noted that, although music is ubiquitous on The Wire, usually as a diegetic feature of the scene, there is no attempt to use hiphop (for instance) thematically, even though hiphop arguably expresses much the same sorts of insight into poor black urban life as the show was striving for. Brown showed how this denial of the power of hiphop is programmatic: “The creators of The Wire have little use for hip-hop as a potential life-force, situating it as one more institution that has cut out those people whose imagery it profits from.” Affluent white suburban teenagers listen to hiphop; for the creators of The Wire, the people whom hiphop is ostensibly “about” do not have the luxury to draw sustenance from it. Listening actively to music is thus associated in the show, at best with feelings of grief and paralysis; at worst, as Brown illustrated with several clips from the show, it leads characters into trouble when their investment in music causes them to relax their street smarts and not notice what is going on around them. Brown argued both that “music intervenes in the show, in spite of itself,” in several important ways, and that the creators’ rejection of its expressive power, though justified in part, goes way too far.

The last panel I went to was called “Liminal Grooves.” Four speakers gave accounts of “lost” musical moments. Oliver Wang gave the history of what was supposed to be Betty Davis’ fourth album, Crashin’ from Passion. It was recorded in 1976, but not released, due to various factors that still remain murky, but that were both internal and external. One can only speculate as to whether the album could have given a boost to Davis’ career if it had been released back then; instead, she basically retired from singing. Betty Davis was never a truly popular and successful artist; she is probably better appreciated now than she ever was when she was actively performing. In any case, he album is now, finally, being prepared for its first proper release.

Mark Villegas was next, with the story of Joe Bataan’s “Rap-O Clap-O.” Bataan is an American artist of “mixed” ethnicity: his father was Filipino and his mother African American. “Rap-O Clap-O” was actually one of the first pieces of rap music ever recorded: it dates from before the initial successes of the Sugarhill Gang. Bataan originally wanted to provide a musical background for some Bronx rappers; but when they didn’t show up as planned, he did the rap vocals himself. He had difficulty getting the track released, and it never got noticed in the US at all; but it became a hit in Europe and South America. Villegas’ recovery of Joe Bataan exemplifies how so much musical history is a matter of contingencies and missed encounters.

Jason King examined the music of Maxwell, whose Urban Hang Suite made an impression in 1999, but whose laid-back, slacker ethos, and long fallow periods between albums, has made his relations with his fans difficult. Today, Maxwell sends out self-deprecating Twitters to his followers, and posts half-finished tracks on MySpace only to withdraw them shortly afterwards. Fans are still waiting for his long-promised fourth album. King linked Maxwell’s public performance of his persona to the themes and affects of his “ambient soul” music; he worked through “Maxwell’s radical embodiment of femininity, not only in his queer
deployment of falsetto, but also in his bohemian imaging and his
approach to original songs and covers.” All in all, this was a fascinating and deeply insightful look at a truly peculiar, and indeed wilfully self-marginalized, artist.

Finally, Andy Zax described his rediscovery, in the vaults, of a long-lost and never-released album which Chic (Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards) produced for the singer Johnny Mathis in 1981. The album is an odd one; it was not released due to its clash of styles (between Mathis’ lite crooning and Chic’s sophisticated swing). Zax only found the tapes two years ago, and hopes to release the album soon. The story of its loss and rediscovery is an exemplary one, for what it says about how the music industry operates.

All in all, the Pop Conference was an exhilarating experience. It stimulated me to think about music differently, and about different sorts of music, than would ever otherwise be the case. And although I have tried to give an account of all the talks I heard, this itself represents only a selection of what went on at the Conference. Other people, who heard other talks, may have come away with entirely different overall impressions.

Experience Music Project: Pop Conference (2)

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

Saturday was my busiest day at the Pop Conference: I went to five panels. The first was called “Shock and Awe.” I came in a bit late, so I missed the beginning of David Hesmondhalgh’s presentation on “Sex, Music, Pleasure and Politics.” But from what I heard, it was a great presentation, both sweeping and brilliant. Hesmondhalgh sought to map the contours of sexual expression in Anglo-American pop music from the 1960s to the present. Starting from the evident ambiguities of how 1960s rock expressed a sexual “liberation” that was nonetheless heteronormative and male-centered, he went on to consider how more recent genres and styles negotiated the demands of both sexual pleasure and sexual propriety. Most interestingly, from my point of view, was his effort to work out forms of sexual expression and sexual pleasure that were not transgressive in the manner of so much 60s rock: precisely because transgression always remains in complicity with the laws or norms against which it is transgressing. Next, Barry Shank spoke on the relation of pop music to notions of democracy, drawing especially on Lauren Berlant’s formulation of the “intimate public sphere” — this has to do with commonalities that are affect-based (rather than being cognitive in the manner of Habermas’ normative notion of a public sphere). If pop music can be a force for democratic collectivity, it would be through its power to create communities of affective expression (this could be developed further, in opposition perhaps to the overused notion of rock concerts as being like fascist rallies). I wish I had taken better notes on both these speakers; in their different ways, Hesmondhalgh and Shank were both proposing a change, or widening, of theoretical focus that would allow us to think about popular music in much richer ways than are allowed by the customary “empowerment” vs “commodification” debates.

For counterpoint, the third speaker on this panel was David Thomas, legendary frontman of the great band Pere Ubu. Thomas delivered what can only be called a RANT. It was energetic, hilarious, impassioned, self-conscious and self-reflexive yet entirely sincere, and utterly wrongheaded. Basically, Thomas argued that (as the Romantic poets put it) “we murder to dissect.” Thomas said that all the talks he had heard in the course of the Pop Conference, brilliant as they were, in effect negated the genius of the creators whose work was being defined, delimited, and analyzed. He especially objected to any attempts to “psychoanalyze” musical creators, citing specifically Robert Fink’s discussion of masochistic sentiment in the music of Marvin Gaye (this was from a panel that, unfortunately, I missed). He also took a strong “rockist” (as opposed to “popist”) line, denouncing critics who spent their time analyzing and praising the work of pop icons like Britney Spears, whom he regards as commercial products, rather than artists of genius. His prime example, throughout the talk, was the Raincoats — he spoke of his love for this band, and said that critics who talked about them in terms of feminism and women’s empowerment were by that very fact negating and besmirching the entirely singular genius of the band and its members.

Now, I thought that Thomas’ talk was wonderful, in much the same way that Pere Ubu’s music is wonderful. A lot of this had to do with Thomas’ performativity as a speaker (or singer), the way that he seemed at the same time utterly hysterical, yet clearly in control and very precise in what he was saying. But this doesn’t mean that I buy his argument. To understand feminist empowerment as a context for the Raincoats’ music does not mean to reduce the Raincoats to being merely another instance of generic “politically correct” feminism. If done non-reductively, this sort of identification enriches, rather than restricting, our enjoyment of the Raincoats and our sense of what they are doing. All art, popular or elite, depends precisely upon the tensions between the unique or singular, on the one hand, and the generic or familiarly categorized, on the other. (This is precisely what is at issue in Kant’s notion of the aesthetic as involving universal communicability, while at the same time being singular and ungrounded). To reduce the Raincoats to their singularity alone is as misguided as to reduce them to their generic characteristics alone. If mere generic familiarity does not tell us anything new, absolute singularity does not communicate at all. The spark of aesthetic rapture can only come about when a work is at the same time both communicative (by means of being generic) and singular (or exceeding the bounds of generic recognition, by proposing something new). Thomas’ purism fails because it ignores one side of this relation — without the tension between the generic and the singular, the aesthetic force field simply collapses. In the Q&A, one person in the audience, supporting Thomas, invoked Norman O. Brown to say that we ought to be fully and bodily involved in all our experiences, rather than distanced and contemplative. Hesmondhalgh, in response, said “I hate that shit”; he said that he was fully and bodily involved when he played soccer, but he certainly didn’t want every moment of his life to be like this. And at the end of the Q&A, Robert Christgau maintained (not nastily, but just in a matter-of-fact tone) that in the last ten years, Britney Spears had produced better music than David Thomas; Thomas nodded and shrugged, but didn’t respond (instead, the moderator called for a few moments of silence so that everybody could cool down).

The next panel I went to was called “Spectacular Diva Excess” — a topic I find entirely irresistible. Maureen Mahon gave an account of the career of Ronnie Spector,  focusing on her miscegenated racial identity and on her “bad girl” image, and deployment of sexual suggestiveness, in pre-British Invasion rock of the early 1960s. (She also, unavoidably, spoke about Ronnie’s marriage to, and abuse by, Phil Spector). Mahon convincingly argued that Ronnie Spector deserves a larger place in the history of rock ‘n’ roll than she has been accorded heretofore: her singing style, and her dancing, were important, innovative, and influential alongside, and in addition to, the (more widely recognized) impact of Phil Spector’s “wall of sound.” Tina Majkowski followed with a discussion of the stange identity play in Cher’s solo (post-Sonny) career. Cher’s signature songs, often performed together in a medley, (fictively) identified her as a Cherokee “half-breed” (“Half-Breed”), a Gypsy (“Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves”), and as a murderess (“Dark Lady”). This led to an oddly excessive and off-kilter performance of racial and ethnic difference. Majkowsi thereby discovered in Cher’s performances and videos something that is embarrassing and laughable, but that somehow can’t simply be dismissed, because of how strongly it resonates within the racial and ethnic confusions of 20th century American culture. Lauren Onkey followed with a discussion of the vexing problem of Janis Joplin. Janis is a figure of “sexual, sartorial, and narcotic” excess, as well as vocal and performative excess. Yet her mythic reputation has turned into an irritating cliche, in the decades following her death; and the way her performance style is really a form of minstrelsy, in its imitation of African American blues singers, is all too obvious. Onkey explored various ways of rethinking Janis Joplin, rather than coming to any definitive conclusions; I found her talk compelling, because it helped me to articulate my own confusions about Joplin: I loved her and her music in my teens and twenties, but later I came to feel that I had become enamoured of her only because of my ignorance of black music. Finally, Lucy O’Brien gave a talk about “Damaged Divas,” in the course of which she looked at Amy Winehouse, both as a singer and as a figure notorious for her drug dependencies and bad behavior, in the context of a tradition dating back at least to Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf. Must female singers lead such damaged lives, and dramatize that damage publically, in order for us to regard their emotional expression as “authentic”?

In the afternoon, I was the moderator for a panel on “Viral Video.” Richard Poplak discussed the phenomenon of sexually suggestive music videos that are broadcast and seen throughout the Arab world, including especially in extremely conservative countries like Saudi Arabia. These videos seem to provide an outlet for sexual expression that is otherwise forbidden; they are hated by religious conservatives, but financed and supported by elements in the Saudi ruling class that see in them a way of managing and channeling desires that otherwise might explode. SMS text messages can be sent commenting on the videos; through these, young people are able to flirt and otherwise express themselves in ways that would be forbidden in any more open and explicit context. One couldn’t really call these videos and text messages “transgressive,” but they do suggest the complex negotiations of feeling and expression that continue to occur even in “closed” societies. Carol Vernallis followed this with a discussion of the expressive power of music videos. She first made general comments about how music videos address their audiences, and create them as audiences; and went on to exemplify this with a close analysis of will.i.am’s “Yes We Can” video for the Obama campaign. Though Vernallis didn’t use the phrase, her discussion was consistent with Lauren Berlant’s notion of an “affective public sphere,” which was invoked by various speakers throughout the conference (including Barry Shank’s presentation that I discuss above). The last speaker on the panel, Kurt B. Reighley, traced the strange history of “Papaya,” a song by avant-garde Polish singer Urszula Dudziak, which was first picked up, and danced to, by drag queens in the Philippines during the Marcos era, but subsequently, much later (starting in 2007), became a mainstream dance craze thanks to its being featured on a Philippine game show: it has now spread around the world, appeared on TV in the Us and elsewhere, and inspired more than 17,000 youtube videos. Reighley’s account of viral video proliferation made an interesting contrast to that of the will.i.am video discussed by Vernallis.

The next panel I went to was called “Sex Machine.” Charles Kronengold unearthed, and analyzed in depth, some of the strangest soul songs (from the 1970s) that I have ever heard. I can’t reproduce the full subtlety and complexity of Kronengold’s argument; but his key terms were articulation and disarticulation. In the course of articulating (i.e. expressing) feelings in these love songs, the musicians also articulated (literally — in the sense of joining together) a number of widely disparate, and sometimes even incompatible, musical elements. Kronengold took apart these ungainly articulations, and then brought them together again, in order to evoke a sense of oblique affectivity (this is my phrase, not Kronengold’s). Carl Wilson followed with a close look at the widespread use (one might even say, deliberate abuse) of Autotune software in recent pop music, especially hiphop. The current Autotune mania can be related to the use of falsetto and other sorts of voice alteration (like Zapp and Roger’s use of the vocoder in the 1980s), predominently by men, throughout the history of soul and r & b. This explicit denaturalization of the voice is affectively and erotically ambiguous, modulating machismo with vulnerability, and intimacy with robotic affectlessness and distance. I am not doing full justice to Wilson’s argument — one result of attending so many talks in a row is that I haven’t retained as many details as I would have liked — but this is another talk which, despite the fuzziness of my explicit recall, continues to resonate richly in my mind. The last speaker on this panel was Daphne Carr, who speculated on our (meaning, music critics, and more generally, writers) autoerotic love affairs with our laptops. This talk was somewhat audience-involving and performative, as Carr asked everyone in the audience carrying a laptop to turn it on, and perform certain actions on her cues. The actions ranged from playing a few seconds of one’s favorite mp3s, to allowing strangers to touch or caress one’s laptop, to encircling the laptop in one’s arms in a sort of protective cocoon. The point of all this was to think hard about how our laptops are not just tools we use, but (erotic as well as prosthetic) extensions of ourselves, and objects with which we interact in highly charged ways. Carr worked through ideas about the emotional costs, as well as the obvious benefits, of our monadic and work-obsessed (or work-avoidance-obsessed) cyborgian relationships with our machines. All in all, this was one of the most intriguing panels I attended; all three speakers spoke suggestively about how subjectivity is mediated and modulated through our technologies (including songwriting and song recording as technologies in their own right; and suggesting that there is no such thing as a pure subjectivity free of any such modulations and articulations).

I will post this now; the remaining sessions (one more Saturday afternoon, and two on Sunday) will be the subject of yet another post.

Experience Music Project: Pop Conference (1)

Monday, April 20th, 2009

This weekend I attended the yearly Pop Conference, at the Experience Music Project in Seattle. This is one of may favorite conferences — it’s been going on for eight years, and this is the fifth time I went. It is good because everyone is passionate about the music they are discussing, and because there is a great mix of academics and music journalists. There’s a certain synergy to the conference, which makes it more interesting than nearly any other one I have attended. There are discussions of an amazingly wide range of popular music, from the early 20th century to the present. This year, I went to 11 panels, and heard something like 26 presentations (not including my own). I will try to say at least a little about all of them — noting that, since there were usually up to four panels running at any single time, people who made other choices might well have had an entirely different sense of the conference than I did. This posting will be part one — it will be followed shortly by a second post.

The conference opened Thursday night with a Q&A with the great Nona Hendryx. What can I say? She was inspirational. She spoke at great length about her career, both with Labelle (as a singer and frequent songwriter) and as a solo artist. She gave a shout-out to her high school English teacher, for initiating her into the pleasures of language and rhythm; recalled her collaborations with artists ranging from the Rolling Stones to Talking Heads to Bill Laswell; spoke about how the changes in Labelle’s music in the early 1970s related to the spirit of Black Power and other social and political stirrings of the Sixties and Seventies; traced the genealogy of funk from gospel to r ‘n’ b and talked about how funk is about motion plus singing plus libido. But of course it wasn’t just what she said, it was her presence, her gracious intensity, and the way she communicated the sense that music matters, that it can be life-changing and affirmative, that it isn’t just about the Benjamins. Excuse me for gushing — but this is one case where I really can’t help it. Someone asked Hendryx about her image as being ferocious or “fierce”; she responded that she was just attracted to what was dangerous, edgy, and apart from the norm. [The issue of describing unconventional black women as "fierce" -- and the question of how this adjective is applied racially -- is of course something that is equally relevant in relation to Grace Jones, the subject of my own presentation at this conference].

I went to three panels on Friday. The first, “Dance Floor Democracy,” featured my old friend Michelle Habell-Pallan, talking about Chicana punk singer Alice Bag, from the early-80s Los Angeles scene, and about the influence of “ranchera” music (the Mexican mariachi sound she listened to as a child) on her performances — a whole hidden history of women’s emotional expression and how this complicates the history of punk. The other two panelists also talked about the racial history of music in Los Angeles. Anthony Macias traced the interplay between Mexican Americans and African Americans in the popular music of East LA in the 1940s and 1950s (he played amazing samples from recordings of the period — I only wish I could have heard more). And Sherrie Tucker gave a summary of her oral history research into the Hollywood Canteen of the early 1940s: a dance hall, sponsored by the film industry, where American servicemen, off to fight the War, could meet and dance with local women. Unusally for the time, the Hollywood Canteen was racially integrated: but only to a certain extent. 65 years later, white and black people who went to the Canteen remember things quite differently — the whites tend to remember how it catered to all servicemen regardless of race, while the blacks still remember the separate and unequal treatment they received once inside the doors. Hmm. In particular, white women were strongly discouraged from dancing with black men. Tucker’s talk illuminated, not only a history that would otherwise be lost, but also the differences that persist in forms of memory in the present, as well as in the actualities of a past distant enough that there are not all that many people left who still remember it.

The next panel I went to, “Embodying Electronic Dance Music Cultures,” featured a joint performance by three DJs (Bernardo Alexander Attias from Los Angeles, Fred Church from New Jersey, and Anna Gavanas from Sweden), together with a lecture/performance/demonstration by Mark Gunderson (aka Evolution Control Committee, one of the masters of the musical mashup). Talking over a mix they had made collaboratively over the web, the three DJs (who had never met in person before the conference) talked about the nature of their work, responding to claims that Djs aren’t “authentic” musicians because they are just playing other peoples’ recordings. They emphasized the musicianship involved in what they do; and they also (rightly) critiqued the whole discourse of “authenticity.” But also, they spoke a lot about the question of embodiment in musical performance. All musical expression is physical and embodied in some way; aside from singing and slapping one’s thigh, nearly all musical expression also requires some sort of mediation, via some sort of instrument. Obviously this worrks out differently when  a DJ manipulates turntables from when a guitarist strums a guitar; and activating a digital interface on a laptop is quite different from playing an analog instrument. But binaries of authenticity versus secondary mediation, or of physical versus virtual interaction, are not really good ways of talking about this. Though Arttias, Church, and Gavanas just hinted at this, it seemed to me that they were really talking about becoming-cyborg, as they interfaced with their digitized musical prosthetics or enhancements.

For his part, Mark Gunderson displayed and demonstrated his homemade system for combining and playing samples, and thereby creating mashups live, in a manner that involved physical movement and therefore a kind of performativity in relation to the audience (unlike electronic “concerts” where the performers simply remain behind their laptops). He said that he had first tried a system in which ten rings on his fingers (sort of like The Mandarin in Iron Man comics) controlled software on his laptop, allowing him to move freely about the stage while creating mashups and mixes on the fly. His current system involves an enormous backlit board, the icons on which he could manipulate like a touchscreen, through devices worn on his index fingers. He simultaneously mixed tracks live and explained how he was doing it: his demonstration was quite impressive, as well as entertaining. I was particularly thrilled to see and hear Gunderson, because his early-1990s mashup of Chuck D with Herb Alpert was the very first musical mashup I ever heard, and really blew my mind when I first encountered it. Today mashups have become so ubiquitous as to be banal (despite their still-often-illegal status), but Gunderson reminded me anew of the potentialities of recombination as a musical form.

The third panel I attended Friday was called Rap Memes. Tamara Palmer led off with a brief discussion, followed by a 10-minute audio montage, dealing with the line “it ain’t trickin’ if you got it”, which has shown up with alarming frequency in the past year or two in raps by T-Pain, T.I., Lil Wayne, and others. Not only has this line been repeated in many songs, it has also led to a lot of controversy, with people arguing vehemently about the phrase on youtube. Are the rappers expressing a sense of sexual entitlement (since they got it, the money they spend on atttracting and dating women doesn’t count as “tricking”), or is it merely a big in-joke? Are the phrase and the sentiment demeaning to black women? Etc. No resolutions, but an interesting presentation of a “meme” that has had a significant presence in Southern rap; a microstudy of how cultural meanings are made, and unmade.

Jon Caramanica and Sean Fennessey followed this with an in-depth discussion of the career to date (i.e from late 2006 to the present) of Soulja Boy.Their presentation was both incisive and hilarious. They went through Soulja Boy’s various — and mostly successful — manipulations of the Net in order to gain attention and make money: his youtube videos, his songs, his instructional dance tapes, his crass displays of wealth and of teenboy swagger and stupidity, his inane polemics (answering Ice-T’s charge that he had ruined hip-hop, by observing, basically, that Ice-T was old enough to be his grandfather), his loopy narcissism, etc. And also some of the multitude of response videos that these displays inspired. What can you say in the face of such a minimal, low-concept, low-production-values, and yet insanely successful (in terms of hits received and even  of money received) new-media assault? I can laugh at the sheer idiocy of it all, but I cannot avoid also feeling a certain sort of admiration for the sheer gall, immensity, and (yes) success of such a DIY media assault. Soulja Boy’s egomaniacal self-expression is pretty dumb, empty, and disposable; but any high-minded denunciation of the Soulja Boy phenomenon as representing the decline of western civilization or some such would be even emptier and dumber. As Caramanica said, it may be totally ephemeral, with no lasting value — it may already be gone and forgotten six months from now, “but I’m OK with that.”

The last presentation at the Rap Memes session was an amazing performance by Holly Bass, called “Pay Purview.” This performance was about “the endless allure of booty — from Venus Hottentots to video vixens.” An announcer solicited all of us in the audience for our dollars; when enough money was collected, a curtain opened and Bass appeared, in a gold lame costume, with two enormous “booty balls” attached to her derriere, transforming her into the Hottentot Venus. She danced for a bit, mostly with her back to the audience, making sure to wiggle that immense booty; and then retreated back behind the curtain. A recorded soundtrack accompanied the dancing, informing us of the history of the Hottentot Venus, and playing musical snippets from then until now that all dealt with the big-booty theme. The ritual was repeated five or six times; whenever the announcer had collected additional  money, Bass would emerge from behind the curtain and dance a little more. Her last dance was to the accompaniment of Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer”; this time she made some eye contact with the audience, which she had declined to do earlier. Bass’ performance was brilliant because of the way it instilled a sense of shame, complicity, and excitement in all of us in the audience: regardless of whether we paid or not, and regardless of how sophisticated our understandings of race, gender, and the economics of exhibitionism might have been, we could not help but being placed in this position, where the ascription of power became a source of embarrassment.

I will continue my account, describing the panels I went to on Saturday and Sunday, in another post.

Charles Altieri

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

The DeRoy Lecture Series 2009 presents:

Friday April 10, 3pm
English Dept Seminar Room (10302)
Wayne State University
5057 Woodward
Detroit

Charles Altieri
“Why Modernist Claims for Autonomy Matter”

Charles Altieri teaches in the English Department at the University of California — Berkeley.  That privilege has allowed him to write several books, the most recent of which are The Particulars of Rapture and The Art of Modernist American Poetry. He is working on a book on Wallace Stevens and a sequel to Particulars.

Without Criteria

Saturday, April 4th, 2009

MIT Press informs me that my new book, Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics, has now been published and will shortly be available (I am supposed to receive my own copies in the next week or so). (Amazon.com still lists the book as not being published until May 29, but you may be able to order it well before then elsewhere).

Of course, given the way academic publishing works, this means that it has been slightly more than a year since I sent the final copy of the manuscript to the Press. The time lag between submission and publication doesn’t seem to have changed at all in the almost twenty years since my first book was published, even though the technologies of publication have been completely revolutionized in the interim. (It will probably take the rise of new publishing operations, like the wonderful, open-source publisher re.press, to extend the benefits of new technologies to the sclerotic world of academic publishing).

I don’t have a pdf of the book as published, I’m afraid, but near-final drafts of all the chapters are available here.

For the most part, I am happy with how Without Criteria came out. I managed to work through, to my own satisfaction (and hopefully other people’s as well), some of Whitehead’s weirder notions, like “eternal objects” and (especially) “God.” I developed Whitehead’s ideas about what he calls “feeling” in relation both to contemporary affect theory, and to contemporary biology. And I showed how strongly and deeply Whitehead’s metaphysics resonates with that of Deleuze. This is not a matter of saying that Deleuze was “influenced” by Whitehead, nor of reading Whitehead entirely through a Deleuzian lens. Rather, I looked at how the concerns of the two thinkers seem to intersect — the problems they look at are closely related, even when their answers to these problems differ. Whitehead’s eternal objects and Deleuze’s virtual are both given as answers to the same metaphysical problems; likewise Whitehead’s God and Deleuze and Guattari’s body without organs.

The one thing that I feel is lacking in the book — and that I have been increasingly concerned with in the year since I handed in the final copy — is a (re)consideration of Whitehead in the light of the issues raised by the (so-called) Speculative Realists. In particular, I finished Without Criteria before I had a chance to read Graham Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics, or Iain Grant’s Philosophies of Nature After Schelling. (I also didn’t read Alberto Toscano’s Theatre of Production carefully enough). All these books put my claims about the relation of Kant to Whitehead and to Deleuze in a different light.

Basically, I am arguing that both Whitehead and Deleuze are “neo-Kantians” of a particular sort. Deleuze himself argues, in his early book on Nietzsche, that Nietzsche put Kant on his feet in a manner analogous to how Marx claimed to have put Hegel on his feet; and that, in so doing, Nietzsche radicalized Kant in the way that the official “neo-Kantians” had tried and failed to do. In my book, I extend this claim to both Deleuze himself and to Whitehead. I try to show how Whitehead and Deleuze take certain ambiguous moments in Kant and push them in new directions — thus opening up areas of thought that Kant pointed towards but ultimately withdrew from. Most notably, I argue that Whitehead and Deleuze work with certain problems that are broached in the Third Critique. In the first part of this volume, The Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, Kant explores the possibility of judgments that are singular and noncognitive, not adjudicable by objective criteria, norms or rules. In the second part, The Critique of Teleological Judgment, Kant tackles the problem of living organisms, or of what today we would more broadly call self-organizing systems (which include, but are not restricted to, living organisms), and argues for a kind of double causality, or for a “freedom” (or perhaps undecidability) that supervenes upon traditional linear and mechanistic causality, not being reducible to it, but also not contradicting it.

In Without Criteria, I argue that these two moments in Kant’s thought have the potential to lead us away from the normative and legislative burden of Kant’s thought overall; but also without lapsing into either eliminativist reductionism, or Hegelian dialectics. I see both Whitehead and Deleuze as returning to these strange and “aberrant” moments in Kant, and using them to forge a new direction in metaphysics. One consequence of this new direction is to fulfill the demands of the Speculative Realists for a rejection of what Meillassoux calls correlationism, or the privileging of the human or rational subject, and of the relation between thought and being. My claim is that Whitehead explicitly, and Deleuze implicitly, create an object-oriented philosophy, precisely by arguing that something like Kant’s Transcendental Aesthetic, in which the “forms of sensibility” govern how we respond to objects that we encounter, in fact applies to all interactions whatsoever between objects, and not just to the case of “minds” encountering “external objects.” Rather than either rejecting the very notion of “things in themselves,” as most neo-Kantians have done, or making the correlationist move of dismissing these “things in themselves” as irrelevant to any philosophical discourse, Whitehead transforms the Kantian notion into a recognition (of the sort Graham Harman, in particular, calls for) of the independence of objects from the conditions of our particualar perceptions of them. (I have previously discussed this point here).

Now, my reading of the Speculative Realists has led me to consider two problems with my overall argument, which I do not address in the book, and which therefore I will need to work on further. One of them has to do with my account of Kant’s Critique of Teleological Judgment. Both Toscano and Grant suggest, in different ways, that I haven’t read this part of Kant carefully enough. In particular, they both argue that what I am calling “double causality” — Kant’s contrast between mechanism and organicism — is much more problematic, and internally contradictory, than I have been willing to consider. They both read double causality as an intractable aporia or deadlock; their readings suggest that I can’t get away with simply adapting Kant’s duality to Whitehead’s dualities as cheerfully and unproblematically as I have done. Instead, Toscano describes how this problematic leaves its marks on a progression of thinkers leading through Nietzsche and Simondon, and on to Deleuze; while Grant sees this deadlock as being crucial to, and being displaced and rejected by, Schelling’s Naturephilosophy (together with post-Schelling philosophies of nature, again including that of Deleuze). At the moment, I am still right at the beginning of grappling with this problem; so I cannot be clearer about it than I have been so far.

The second problem has to do, more specifically, with Graham Harman’s reading of Whitehead. Harman indeed praises Whitehead for being object-oriented; that is to say, for refusing to privilege human consciousness, and for making a philosophy that “can range freely over the whole of the world” rather than “remain[ing] restricted to self-reflexive remarks about human language and cognition” (Guerrilla Metaphysics, p. 42). But Harman also criticizes Whitehead (as I mentioned in my previous post) for seeing reality as being entirely relational, rather than accepting the existence of substances, or of “primary qualities” that are irreducible to relational ones. Whitehead, Harman says, “fails to distinguish between objects and elements” (Guerrilla Metaphysics, p. 194), i.e. he fails to consider the “interiors” of objects that are irreducible to the qualities revealed in their relations with other objects. I wrote in my previous post that Harman fails to consider how what Whitehead calls the “prehension” of one object by another involves, not just passive reception, but “contructive functioning.” I will add, here, that Harman also fails to take into account how, for Whitehead, every act of prehension is selective, involving a “subjective aim” on the part of the prehending entity that is not given in advance, and that is not merely the object’s inheritance from other objects. The subjective aim is responsible for the novelty introduced into the world, in greater or lesser measure, by every new entity; it constutitues the “privacy” of the entity, as opposed to the “publicity” by virtue of which it is accessible to other entities in its own turn. My claim is that Whitehead does provide a sense of how an entity is more and other than the sum of its encounters with other entities, and does so precisely without having to resort, as Harman does, to notions of substance and primary qualities. Harman complains that “no relational theory such as Whitehead’s is able to give a sufficient explanation of change” (Guerrilla Metaphysics, p. 82); but to say this is to ignore, once again, the way that an entity’s prehension of other entities always includes more than was present or apprehensible in the other entities. None of this is addressed in the book; and it all needs to be worked out more fully and coherently than I have done here. I hope to do so soon. Stay tuned.