Monday, August 24, 2009

Tell the Historians I'm Right Here Holdin' My Nuts

(I was about to post this two weeks ago when my internet connection went dead, hence the handful of borderline-obsolete references & links.)

While explaining to a friend some of the ridiculous online arguments I get dragged into (okay, often by myself), I remarked that for people speciously concerned with the future, the opposition spends a hell of a lot of time talking only of the past. Now, my friend doesn't waste his time reading overlong & defamatory pseudo-psychoanalytical tracts that basically amount to grandiloquent iterations of "Y'all just hatin'!" But he knew what I was talking about.

"I read these news articles," he said, "about some recently-unearthed ancient Abyssinian wooden tablet that had been written upon in wax. Obviously, the wax has long since disintegrated, but they can use computers and subcutaneous radar to reconstruct it, or whatever, and this will reveal some fantastic ancient truth... Now, perhaps I'm living too firmly in the present, but who cares? In a real and immediate sense, insofar as dealing with the situation we're in right now, who fucking cares?"

Putting a finer point on it, we were wondering exactly what good will be served by the posthumously-conceived cultural theory book about Michael Jackson (that I maintain is as macabre and exploitive as anything Jermaine or Joe is peddling). Is this really needed? Will it actually offer any fresh insights, intimations, angles, or gags that were somehow missed in the past 25 years of MJ's increasingly ulcerated ubiquity? Even if it does flint a new spark, how does that help us?

America's cutting-edge crackpots are putting on their brownshirts, people are losing their jobs all over the damn place, Taiwan was almost washed onto the seabed, Iran's still all kinds of fucked up, and not even Bill Ward & Tony Iommi can keep it together for old times' sake. The fuck do I care about Michael Jackson as reified symbol of Reaganite predatory accumulation?

But oh me, oh my - I've just disqualified myself from the conversation, at least according to Mark "K-Punk" Fisher's rules of (dis)engagement. I've exhibited "the dull malice of snatching people's toys away from them," perhaps even "a poisonous envy of others who are possessed by this kind of depersonalising passion." Maybe I'm what Mark calls a "grey vampire" ("Like moths... drawn by the light of energetic commitment, but unable to themselves commit"), though I'm more probably a "troll". As some gonzoid shit-talker outside the south English inner sanctum of serious cultural theory, surely I "think that is a duty to deflate enthusiasm and puncture projects", what with my incessant entreaties for "more bitterness, less enthusiasm" from behind my "devil's advocate" parapet. Yet fear not, for Mark has a foolproof prescription to counteract my rhetorical toxicity:
Once you've established they are a troll, sever all contact with them and - this is imperative - don't read anything they write... The final victory over them is achieved by simply persisting in the pursuit of a project, refusing to allow yourself to be ensnared in the self-doubts and impotent autocritique... Occasionally GVs can be caught out. Beneath the moth-grey sadness of the GVs, there is always a raging red core of useless anger and resentment - the worst kind of anger and resentment, because it is directed against those who have projects.
To prune this academic survival guide to its essence: ignore anyone who is less than sycophantically supportive, because they're just jealous loafers whose accomplishments are nil. Gosh, I know there's a conventional nickname for this energy-sapping backseat driver that Mark's daintily avoided employing... what is it, what is it, what is it?

Oh yeah, that's right - Haters!

A short while ago, Ads Without Products noted that "grey vampires" and Mark's taxonomic retailoring of "troll" seem to be code for "those who disagree with Mark":
The fact of the matter is that there are no conversational slots to fit into other than fawning agreement apparently. Respectful criticism is in fact disrespectful passive-aggressiveness, but disrespectful criticism won’t even be countenanced... The analysis of social structures and their deformative effect upon discourse isn’t meant to be employed as a sort of defensive wall, an affirmative action programme for the bad ideas of the (self-positioned) abject. Anyone who disagrees with Mark disagrees because they are the over-confident agents of power and class. Sorry, though. Whatever the social dynamics at play, it could be that your ideas are simply wrong.

...doesn’t this seem like the sort of thing you would say when you’re not so much resolute in your ideas, single-mindedly committed to your project, but rather scared shitless that someone’s found a hole or holes, someone is asking questions that you simply don’t have the guts or brains or honesty to answer?
Two months later, Mark still refuses to respond directly to any of AWP's criticisms - which at least demonstrates a practical harmony among Mark's ideas & actions. Unfortunately, limiting discussion of the academic bestiary to what amounts to a monologue doesn't bolster Mark's own hypothesis. Bloody-minded fealty to an idea that someone else has discredited isn't gambling to "uncover new worlds", it's just ol'-fashioned idiocy. This puerile plugging of ears reminds of one of my favourite Space Ghost quotes, as he calmly describes to Bob Costas the sensation of having his skull heated to "a scorching 450 degrees":
You see, my brain's sending a message to my arms right now to put my head out. But I'm choosing to ignore that.
To be sure, this speculatively-inflated vilifcation of phantom Haters is one of the dumbest memes to have gathered steam around certain blogipelagos - and not just because it's the dialectic equivalent of going foetal. If Mark wasn't Quixotically trying to reappropriate the term "troll", then he appears to have radically misunderstood the word. First, he fails to distinguish between just some prick talkin' shit on a bulletin board, and a troll. Real trolls, trolls-by-vocation, capital-T troublemakers who can crack into Kevin Mitnick's iPhone - like those profiled in the NYT "Malwebolence" article from last August - are the frontiersmen stationed at the ever-expanding outermost fringes of the internet. They are the self-styled outlaws of an online Wild West of which most of us genteel folk are scarcely aware. Contrary to Mark's understanding, trolls neither "[spend] a great deal of time on the web saying how debased, how unsophisticated, the web is," nor do they "lose all their power once you cease to pay them attention." Trolls are the very engine of internet innovation, thanks to their fluid approaches to morality & identity, their circumvention of authority, and yes their ability to expand online hostilities into the physical realm. (For a detailed illustration of how trolls can bring the intermedial ruckus, google Adam L. Goldstein.) Trolls' ability to infiltrate & incinerate an online environment is the very kind of revolutionary, scorched-earth, "Year Zero" program of which Mark is (or until very recently was) very fond.

Orotund excuses for ignoring any & all criticism are very seductive, and so aboard the bandwagon an embarrassing number of people jumped, often making their own additions to the menagerie of academic boogeymen. Larval Subjects proposed a defensive counterpart to the grey vampire's passive-aggressive parasitism: the Minotaur.
For the Minotaur it is never possible for there to be a genuine philosophical difference or a genuine difference in positions among philosophers. Rather, the Minotaur converts every philosophical opposition into a misinterpretation. The text(s) guarded by the Minotaur thus become a Labyrinth from which there is no escape.
Of course, when Mikhail Emelianov pointed out that the Minotaur was a prisoner, not a guardian, of the Labyrinthe, he was immediately accused of being... a troll. How quickly that conversation cocooned itself.

This mythological mix-up, along with Mark K-Punk's erroneous understanding of what monsters actually inhabit the internet, is symptomatic of the pandemic problem with online punditry: far too often, people just don't know what the fuck they're talking about.

Seems quite obvious, I know. But I'm not even talking about the scatological free-for-alls of, say, YouTube comment threads; I'm speaking strictly of widely-read, respected writers with obvious enthusiasm for their subjects and a large font of knowledge & experience from which to draw. Even they seem to suffer from twin inabilities to admit (1) there's knowledge beyond their specific proficiency, and (2) that sometimes, sometimes, they're wrong. I've made each of these missteps, mostly the former, though I try to outline the gaps in my expertise up front. I know next to nothing about the broader sweep of popular electronic music; in such a discussion, I'd have to defer to Simon Reynolds, Zone Styx, et al. Similarly, I'm largely ignorant about architecture (beyond the perfunctory opinion that brutalism is butt-ugly) and so submit to the superior acquaintance of E&V's Murphey or Owen Hatherley.

However, when Hatherley starts waxing forlorn about the Wu-Tang Clan, my bullshit detector registers in the red. That Hatherley "decided to investigate what the GZA is up to now" - as opposed to having given Pro Tools several spins when it dropped - betrays what's little more than a touristic interest in hip-hop. The anonymous plaintiff who asks "where's [Wu-Tang's] grit, the murk?" has clearly missed the first ten years of Cage's career, Ghostface's fantastic Fishscale, the widely-hailed Madvillain, Madlib's grubby production on Mos Def's The Ecstatic, and damn near the whole Def Jux catalogue. More disturbingly, the litany of references to The Wire and preoccupation with "unglamorous, non-gangsta poverty" seem to insist that potent hip-hop (and perhaps African-American culture in general) is born only of dire, undesirable circumstances. At its most benign, this is the juvenile drama-club/Hot Topic contention that suffering is essential to art; at worst, it's a patronizing claim that authenticity within hip-hop can only be earned by dodging bullets at Cabrini Green. Evidently, middle-class black musicians such as Erykah Badu, Outkast, and the Roots need not apply.

Aside from literally ghettoizing an art form that is meant to be emancipatory, this condescension demands that hip-hop remain immature. It demands that Jay-Z, rather than celebrating his ascension from the Marcy Projects to the Forbes Top 20, continue slinging rhymes about "bare cupboards, late cheques, unemployment." It demands that Ghostface, age 39, remain the raging 23-year-old he was on Enter the 36 Chambers. Dennis Coles himself, however, refuses to deny the passage of time and its effect of both himself and his art:
There aren’t enough men in the world. You got all these cats running around, trying to be little 19-year-old niggas and shit. But you’s a man, B. It’s time to grow up.
But this isn't a pissing contest about who has a more genuine affection for hip-hop. This is about the manner in which "cultural theorists" (at least those who deserve the scare quotes) construct and support their arguments. Most arrive at the table with a well-manicured set of aesthetics and/or a predetermined cultural hypothesis and cherry-pick music, film, etc. that supports the conclusion to which they've already come. They do this by focusing on relics, ephemera that has already settled into a well-worn niche in the cultural canon - precisely why an old co-worker of mine lambasted hip-hop "fans" who only listened to hip-hop that was at least already a decade old. There's not much bravery in basing a theory entirely on hindsight, nor is parading the urn of a long-interred artistic phenomenon, a.k.a. hauntology, anything other than another form of necrophilic post-modernism. So until someone produces an essay on how, for example, Lil Jon or the Three Six Mafia are demonstrative of the post-millenial rapacity of George W. Bush's America, I won't believe that they approach their analysis in any other way.

Not to mention - I defy anyone to come up with a succinct-yet-sweeping diagnosis of Michael Jackson's terminal simulacrum in America's memory to top Katt Williams'.


Mikhail Emelianov said...

As someone who most certainly knows not what the fuck he's talking about, I'm excited to have appeared in this post! I don't think my humble nitpicking vis-a-vis the actual meaning of the figure of Minotaur made any sort of difference, did it?

Seb said...

Yeah, I'm afraid your "nitpicking" about things like facts and accuracy had precious little effect on the discussion over at Larval Subjects. In the end, it looks like LS decided that "philosophy should not seek converts, but rather should aim at the proliferation of differences." Pity they still cling to their erroneous definition of "minotaurs".

I just wanted to draw a little more attention to your argument - especially since your contribution to the AWP conversation had me in stitches. ("You pathetic gang of energy-sucking, life-enjoying, carefree-blogging, other-interests-having jerks...")

Dan said...

So: you're implying that I shouldn't write about hip-hop unless it was released in the last 5 years, or something similar. Or, more charitably, that I shouldn't write about this music that I happen to like until I've educated myself in the entire history of said genre. Consider: I'm a 20 year-old white kid who only began seriously listening to hip-hop (alongside about half-a-dozen other genres - only so much cash and time, remember) a year and a half ago. Dude, I'm still working way through the 'Planet Rock'-era stuff! Also: I'll admit that I don't follow contemporary hip-hop as closely I should, but I do listen to Madvillain, Sa-Ra, Juice Aleem, Ghostface; the last DOOM album has been one of my biggest turntable fixtures this year (one of the reasons I haven't written about it being that I don't feel qualified to do so). Moreover: the Ten Songs posts are not, unlike Owen's post, attempts at canon-building, but an ongoing diary of what I happen to be listening to. Now that I don't write for a magazine, and no-one reads my blog, I don't pretend to the illusion that my observations might constitute 'critical commentary' or have any cache. You just happened to catch me on a week where I was listening to Public Enemy; and I see nothing wrong with writing about them, although I've nowt to say that others haven't already said.

*and, breathe*

Seb said...

Dan, I'm afraid you were collateral damage this time: I did "just happen" to catch you on a week where the only hip-hop platters you'd spun were at least a decade old. I know the "Ten Songs" posts are strictly circadian, but it was too convenient an illustration to resist. Sorry, dude.

It took no small amount of indiscriminate rage to build before I posted this, because I knew it'd sound like I was telling people to stay in their holes and not be adventuresome about music - which is honestly the last thing I'd ever want to do. My problem is essentially twofold:

(1) People making grand declarations, upon which they'll doubtless base further hypotheses, based on some cursory knowledge. (E.G. K-Punk on doom- and black-metal) This may yield interesting ideas, but then people had some fantastic notions about celestial composition & motion before the invention of the telescope, too.

(2) An Orientalistic fetishism towards a culture other than one's own. (See: Momus) This bugs the shit outta me. Hatherley's ghetto voyeurism reminds of the white collegiate crowd in Baltimore who, five years ago, became obsessed with Baltimore club even though none of 'em had the balls to go within a three-block radius of the clubs where the subgenre originated. By all means, investigate, listen, learn, and enjoy, but don't talk some bullshit about how real "unglamourous, non-gangsta poverty" is when you've never had to suffer through it yourself. This isn't to get all prolier-than-thou; this is simply out of respect for the experiential & cultural divides that exist. Affluent kids who attended private (for Brits: public) school don't get to quote "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" with any authority, and getting pulled over by the cops isn't earning your Oppressed-By-The-Man merit badge.

owen hatherley said...

If you think what I was doing in those Wu-Tang posts was glamourising or fetishising poverty or 'realness' then you can read about as well as you can think. As it is, I do have a comments box in which you're welcome to raise your misreadings, or you can corral it all into a misegotten thesis about how bloggers just won't listen to you. As you wish.

And the new Doom LP is indeed very good.

Seb said...

Ladies & gentlemen, Owen Hatherley, the angriest dilettante on the playground!

I'm sorry I so "misread" you that you felt the need to come over here and insult me (rather than prove me wrong). But Christ, man, you honestly think I think your Wu posts are just about how poverty is cool? You're not a Greek St. Martin's student and I'm not Jarvis Cocker. But if you harp on that the Clan's "account[s] of raw, unbearable poverty" are the lion's share of what make them important/fascinating/integral to your thesis, you do sound like a voyeur of the American urban underclass.

I also wasn't complaining that no one's listening to me - I said by the "adopted standard", a lotta folks have good reason not to listen to me. If anyone was being stonewalled, it's Ads Without Products. Hell, if I thought I was being cold-shouldered, you just proved me wrong, right?

I'm also sorry I didn't realize all controverting had to be carried out on your home turf, where comments live or die by your mouse-click. I was under the impression that freewheeling & scopious argument was the internet's raison d'etre, so I thank you for deigning to stroll outside your comfort zone to contribute.

owen hatherley said...

Angry dilettante indeed, I quite like that. Anyway, the reason I mentioned my comments box was that you seemed to be bewailing the loftiness and unwillingness to debate on the part of other bloggers, so I thought I'd make it clear that you're welcome to raise stupid shit with me anytime you like - and I've never deleted any of your comments.

As it is, I thought it pretty obvious in the posts that what interests me in the Wu is their expansiveness - that they could accommodate millennarian prophecies, dodgy five-percenter philosophy, superhero mythology, etc etc and a human vulnerability that contains a depiction of poverty that is fairly unusual in hip hop, in that it doesn't proceed through cliches, but concentrates on grim, lived detail. Sure you're welcome to think that's voyeuristic, but please don't imply either that I went to public school or get my jollies from listening to black people talk about living in a house full of roaches. I didn't, and I don't. As it happens, there's a lot in say, 'All that I got is you' that I recognise from experience and a lot I don't - english council estates are obviously not as bad as american projects, yet. Anyway - absolutely the last thing I wanted to do was give the impression that I think people should stay in their place and stay Real - the great thing about the Wu was they did neither, from the start.

More generally, the post repeats a criticism you made at the time of one commenter who complained about the lack of dirt and murk in mainstream hip hop (and part of what was interesting in the Wu was that they stepped in and out of the mainstream at will), and then lists some recent(ish) hip hop with murk, as if this ends the argument, which then is linked to the idea that I should have heard Pro-Tools when it 'dropped' - well, funnily enough I had about as much interest in hearing it as I did the last Manics LP - both are people who I loved in around 1995 who later did some absolute rubbish, and whose later careers I haven't followed that closely. I know you're a fierce adherent of the idea that we should all force ourselves to find whatever good music is out there, but the argument was over the public presence of the music, the interaction between underground and mainstream, what it says about the culture in general. I'm well aware there's good stuff being made all the time, I even listen to some of it, but I'm not writing for Pitchfork here, and I'm no obligation to look for wheat among a fairly enormous mountain of chaff.

Finally, with ref to writing about current music, well I seldom write about current anything, it's not really what I do. You can call it necrophilia, I call it history, but whatever. I have at various points in my time as a writer written about Bruza and Bonecrusher (and wrote a post about bass recently, hell I may even have mentioned Lil Jon at some point), I just don't feel the need to be relentlessly contemporary and optimistic on my blog. That is all.

Seb said...

The nexus of culture, class, and race (especially in the context of black American culture) is a button very easily pushed with me, thanks to irreversible psychic damage accrued during high school. For example, the crack about public school kids quoting Gil Scott Heron wasn't directed at you personally, and in fairness to you I should've made that clear. In the mid-'90s, a friend & I had a near-bloody falling-out, not the least because he refused to visit my house on account that I lived "in the ghetto". Shortly post-schism, he performed "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" at some poetry reading and I blew up at him mid-performance for being a hypocrite.

I realize it comes off as overly aggressive & perhaps missing the point to call you out for being a potential transcultural slummer, but I'd rather risk being an asshole than let what could be voyeuristic condescension slide. I've gotten burned too many times by giving people the benefit of the doubt of not being smug, ignorant, or even straight-up racist.

As for what qualifies as "mainstream" hip-hop, that's a tough understanding to strike across the Atlantic. Everyone knows, for example, "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" but in America, not only has everyone heard that song but almost everyone who heard it bought the album and would've heard grimier tracks like "Takeover". If Jay-Z were as popular in the UK as he is in North America, he'd be playing Wembley this month, not the Roundhouse. There's also been plenty of acts - Dead Prez, The Roots, Common, and Mos Def - that got heavy airplay on both radio & MTV who defied gangsta/playa convention by saying ain't nothing glamorous about being broke. The problem is that most of those artists fell under what would become known as the "backpacker" umbrella, and I completely agree with you that "classicism in an art form that's only 30 years old is truly unforgivable." Indeed, the crux of the problem is finding artists whose worldview and aesthetic you like.

And I've got nothing against history, as it were. What so bemuses me are people (of whom you're far from the worst) who complain at length about how modern culture is failing them but (a) show little evidence having meaningfully investigated what's out there, and (b) love love love certain cats who spit-shine an archaic idea (hauntology) yet have nothing but scorn for others doing the exact same thing (every rock band out there). Granted, pretty much everything I do is somehow wrapped up with music, so I'll cop to being unrealistically evangelical. But it also means people who complain too much without doing their homework are red rags to a bull.

By the way - relentlessly contemporary, sure, but relentlessly optimistic? Only to the extent that the ache of perennial disappointment is the mark of an optimist.

Finally, about comment threads... funny, the very reason I turn my own stupid shit into blog posts is because I respect other people's blogs. Thousand-word comments are, to me, as trollish as a brief "Fuck you, clown!" graffito because of the attention & space they hog. (Not to mention long comments are invitations to "tl;dr") I also think it's just better sport to lay out my counterargument in full, in public, and afford someone the chance to respond as they see fit: with a swift comment, or with another long-form rejoinder. As I'm sure you saw, I did leave a few comments on your initial Wu post because at the time, all I wanted was to recommend some further listening. But when it came time to take bigger issue, I thought I'd host the fray myself. I'd rather tempt a flame war on my own turf than inadvertently burn down someone else's abode. It's not my place to go blow up your spot.