Friday, December 21, 2012

Hip Hop and Capitalism

Kanye West’s “Clique” draws a familiar and tired contrast between white people and black people. White people, he says, save their money, they “don’t spend it,” or else they buy businesses. Risking Spike Lee’s judgment, West says that he would rather buy “80 gold chains and go ig’nant” with his money. In other words, white people hoard or invest their money, while black people are profligate with theirs and this fundamental distinction explains their relative position in the modern order. “Clique” implicitly suggests that proponents of black uplift, which Spike Lee represents here, encourage the community to be more responsible with their money in order to obtain relative autonomy within contemporary capitalist society. From this perspective, reckless black consumerism is an acceptance of capitalist conventions and ensures that the community will remain subordinate. I’m not sure that the song represents Spike Lee’s position accurately, but it does speak to a general judgment within and from outside African-American communities: the portrayal of extreme consumerism in hip hop is a blind acceptance of the principles of capitalism and contributes nothing to the liberation of black people from the power of capital, which is still controlled by whites in the North Atlantic homelands of the modern world system.

There is some truth to this, of course. But there is more going on in this song and in hip hop as a whole. “Blame it on the pigment, we living no limits,” raps West, thus suggesting that nihilistic consumerism is endemic to African-American communities. And if you equate, as most people do, capitalism with consumerism, then this sentiment, which is expressed often in hip hop, confirms the view that hip hop music affirms capitalist culture. But while there is an intimate relationship between capitalism and the market in which people buy commodities, these are not the same thing. Commodities, markets, and money exchange have nearly always existed but capitalism is a more recent invention—there isn’t enough room here to go into that history. More pointedly, while capitalism ultimately requires the market, consumerism and capitalism are motivated by contrasting logics. The market operates by people willingly transforming their money into goods for their own consumption. The market runs by money turning, as it were, into things. Capitalism works differently. The ONLY purpose of capitalism is to make capital productive, that is, to make money make more money. When fifteenth-century Genovese capitalists bought three tons of pepper from an eastern trader it was not to consume a bunch of pepper. Their purpose was also not to sell it as vendors in the market. In fact, if the profit was not to their liking, those Genovese capitalists would not sell the pepper to anyone at all but stock it in warehouses in order to raise prices. Their purpose was to transform the money they invested in the pepper into a lot more money by reselling it to other traders, who would then sell it to vendors who would finally bring the pepper to market. Those early Genovese or Venetian capitalists perfected the means through which initial monies, capital, could be used not for consumption or display but for the creation of more revenue, which could then be used to generate even more. Capitalism is thus ruled by the logic of accumulation. So while consumerism works by transforming money into things, thereby dispersing money, capitalism works by liberating money from things so that its primary purpose is to breed money, thereby accumulating wealth (Jay-Z’s verse illustrates his business man’s enjoyment of capitalist accumulation). That is why the economic zones that are most profitable (stock exchanges, financial markets, money markets) are areas in which capital is relatively independent from the commodities that people actually use. Those economic zones treat capital itself as if it were an actual consumable commodity rather than what it is, something that has an exchange but not a use value—dollar bills will only be good for starting small fires when the zombie apocalypse comes.

West’s and hip hop’s affirmation of excessive consumerism, then, is a sometimes ambivalent but always engaged resistance to the logic of capitalism. Against an economic system that values the accumulation of money, hip hop revels in the wasteful dispersal of money. Rather than the sober building of a nest egg, hip hop urges you to part with your money, to reject the notion that the primary incentive of making money is to make more money, to use money not as capital but as something that you can exchange for transitory joys in these short lives which are given to us. It is easy to disagree with the revolutionary financial irresponsibility of hip hop, but as one of the great expressive forms of the descendents of people who were once considered commodities by capital, whose lives were reduced to numbers on a ledger, it makes perfect sense to me.

Monday, November 26, 2012


In Absalom, Absalom!, Miss Rosa Coldfield stops her feverish remembering of the past in order to repudiate any belief in the objectivity of memory. Memory is nothing more than the body’s longing for what it has lost, she tells Quentin Compson, the young man that sits in her darkened living room listening to the tales of people long dead. Memory for Miss Rosa is desire deprived of its object. Everything we remember, according to her, is subjective and interested and part fantasy, or, in Faulkner’s beautifully crushing language, memory is worthy only of being called a dream. In Absalom, Absalom! this attitude toward memory makes perfect sense. Of all of its narrators only Miss Rosa personally knew the people whose stories she recounts, and by putting the negation of memory in her mouth, Faulkner questions the privileging of the experiencing subject. Language, not experience, insists Faulkner, allows you to know something. This idea is very appealing to literature people and our natural resistance to empirical facts, but I resist it. Like a heavy stone before the breeze, the ineradicable facticity of the past remains unmoved by the subjective remembering of people. There are many people but there is only one past. Though we may fail to remember adequately as individuals, this does not mean that all memories are the same, that they are all equally truthful or fantastic. Such thinking not only relativizes memory, it transforms the past itself into an act of the imagination. It turns history into fiction and doing so it misunderstands the fundamental ontological difference between the two.

Memory might be partial or incomplete but if it is to be truthful it must attempt to be faithful to the past. Many years from now, I will hear Ke$ha’s “Die Young” and I will picture you sitting in the passenger seat singing along ecstatically with your eyes closed, your head bouncing with its slight list to the side, and your hands out as if in supplication. I will remember your spiky hair, so different from when I first met you, and your glasses turning green in the sunlight, and your perpetually runny nose, and the way your woman’s smell mixes with the boy’s deodorant you put on. I will remember waking up to your face pressed against the back of my neck and your arm wrapped around my stomach as you slept and how that feeling defeated all ideas I might have had about getting up early and being productive. And while all of these things did not happen at the same time nor are all these reminiscences related to that silly song and its misleading representation of the triviality of youth and the hedonism of an inconsequential life, the truth of those memories, all compressed into my memory of you, will flood me with nostalgia, and it will remind me of how much I loved you when that song was first popular.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Some of Us Never Learn

Anxious, reading absent-mindedly, and drinking a beer. We were going to meet later but nothing is settled these days. I check e-mail, like a fool.  E-mail and texting have only made the weak even more so. When we were young, before these terrible technologies, people like me had the great luxury of not knowing when someone was not thinking about us at all. But there is a message from her. She says that she can’t come to dinner and that all this is a mistake and that she wants to stop. This is the fifth or sixth time she has said this. I try to take it well, and I write her a message supporting her and telling her that I will try to move on because, after all, this is the best for both of us. And she’s right and so am I. But as I sit getting angrier for falling into this trap again, for accepting the way she changes her mind so that some days I’m in her bed and some days I’m not, I pick up the phone to give her a piece of my mind. She doesn’t answer. I call again and again she doesn’t answer. I’m furious; I go home. Her house is near mine. I look down her street to see if her car is there and it’s not. When I get home, I leave a series of angry messages on e-mail and on the phone. I’m crushed. My heart is beating into itself. My stomach has lost its sea legs and it lurches here and there. The evening darkens. The penumbra chases me outside. Like the idiotic cliché that I am, I walk on the road that puts me perpendicular to her street. Her car is now there. I know that walking to her house is the worst possible choice I can make at this moment. In thirty seconds I am knocking on her door. I knock loudly. Her friend, whom I was not expecting, yells at me through the closed door to fuck off. I yell at her to mind her own fucking business. Soon she replaces her friend behind the door and we are screaming awful, cutting things at each other. I scream the worst things I can think of, trying to kill the thing in me and in her that won’t die on its own. I picture her brown hair and her sleepy eyes, my favorite things about her, on the other side of the door. I hear the hurt in her voice and imagine the way her perfect shoulders drop when she is crestfallen. I can’t go on. I walk away while she keeps screaming in her broken voice from the other side of the closed door. Later I sit in my living room in the dark and after the pain and anger fade away a little I’m left crossing an ocean of shame and humiliation thinking about what’s just happened. I know that after this it is finally all over. Less than four weeks later, I’m in her bed again.

I marvel at the conviction in Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Getting Back Together.” She seems to me one of those incomprehensible people that appear to learn from their mistakes. Whereas she sings with an unwavering conviction about the truth of what she says, a dope like me sees in life only equivocation and misunderstood lessons. I listen to her with the pathetic realization that she already knows how to live better than I ever will.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Epic Life and the Demands of Time

The hero is complete and unchanging in the epic view of life. The hero faces trials, is confronted by challenges that would break a less capable, less resolute person. These trials may be physical (a test of strength or endurance), emotional (separation from or the loss of a loved one), or moral/ethical (the choice to forsake a friend or help a foe) and their completion, though arduous, affirms the hero’s character. Affirms, that’s the crucial point. These tests don’t reveal character because in order for the epic hero to be truly epic we cannot maintain, in advance, the possibility that those qualities were not already present in the hero, awaiting only the moment that would make them manifest. An epic hero never knows the choice between courage and fear. The hero only requires the right occasion in which to display courage in the face of danger. The trials the hero confronts also do not affect him/her in any fundamental way. The hero does not grow or change, nor does our understanding of the hero develop as we see him/her confront increasingly more difficult obstacles. The hero’s deeds serve only to illustrate for us who s/he was all along. They bring out elements of the hero’s personality that were always and forever present and unchanging. An epic hero’s deeds confirm indeed that s/he could be nothing but an epic hero.  The epic hero, thus, embodies our highest aspirations, presents to us the image of whom we wish we could be. The epic hero cannot change precisely because we believe, implicitly at any rate, that those aspirations and the values they represent are themselves immutable and everlasting.

Imagine Dragons’ “It’s Time” posits a sort of epic protagonist. This protagonist is a young person facing a transitional moment in his life. The choice he makes will be unconventional—the “rain checks” he refers to—but it is consistent with who he is, which is described in distinctly epic terms: “I get a little bit bigger, but then I’ll admit/I’m just the same as I was/Now don’t you understand/That I’m never changing who I am.” Just as the actions of the epic hero affirm who s/he always was, so too do the choices of this song’s protagonist affirm his static nature. This is of course coded in purely positive terms. His rigidity and fastness seem to be related to an ethical purity that remains untouched by changing circumstances. His body grows bigger, his situation might shift, but he never changes because he is always the person he was meant to be. Like I said before, this is an appealing self-image to have. If we see ourselves as unchanging, that is because we want to see ourselves as living in an uncompromised way the values we hold dear .

The problem behind the epic view of life is that it makes no space for the historical self: the part of us that fails sometimes in the face of life, the part that changes over time, the part that learns from experience, the part that becomes more entrenched in stupid beliefs. In other words, that part of us that confronts and is affected by the motherfucking ticking of the clock cannot really enter into the epic and heroic view of life. The epic hero shows us the person we want to be. Life reveals to us how often we fall short of that ideal.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

All the Music

We lay in bed curved around each other like a pair of intertwined question marks. I threaded my arm around her and pulled her closer as we drifted off to sleep. In that quiet haze of unawake and unasleep I kissed her neck and the back of her head, the unfamiliar bristle of her short hair the last thing I remember. Earlier that night we had wandered into a street fair. It was a warm summer night and the wide avenue was a beating heart. All manner of people were out and of course it was the young people that wanted the most attention. They spoke loudly to each other in stupid platitudes but they were no less sweet and charming for it. Bands of every style and genre occupied their own little corners, half moons of people standing in audience before them. We went from band to band listening, dancing, laughing. It was loud, and we tried to carry on a conversation over the noise but a lot of what we said got lost in the tide of sound. Sometimes I would put my arm around her waist and pull her in some direction or other. She kissed me in the middle of the street. We went from one end of the fair to the other, looping from one side to the next in an affectionate pilgrimage amongst the music, the drunks, and the loudmouths. By the time we returned the whole thing was breaking apart. The place was emptying and garbage displaced people as the most noticeable thing on the pavement. Earlier still that evening she had come home with me for the first time. We kissed the whole way there. The sex itself was terrifying and inelegant, as first times are when you are with someone you care about. Afterward we had lain in bed sweaty and shy talking, talking, talking as the vertical shadows from the blinds grew longer and were eventually swallowed up by the night. “Let’s go out,” I said. We dressed, and a little later we saw the roadblocks and the crowd milling just beyond them, and we plunged smiling into the torrent of people. So it was after we had been naked and alone that we drifted through all of the music and noise. I wanted to hold her hand but somehow it didn’t seem right. And this is why adulthood is so fucked up sometimes: it is only as adults that holding someone’s hand seems more intimate and personal than sex. After everything we had already done I could not find the courage to take her hand in mine and interlock our fingers in the way that we interlocked our bodies later that night as we fell asleep. For reasons I don’t understand and that at any rate are beyond my control, I'll probably never see her again. But I will remember the street full of music and the way her body fit mine and that I never held her hand.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The End of the Beginning

Unlike literature, music doesn’t really require interpretation. In Truth and Method, Gadamer gives a convincing account of how the interpretative dimension of reading works. The brilliance of Gadamer’s description of what he calls the hermeneutic circle paradoxically illustrates the poverty of considering music in literary terms. In Gadamer’s thinking, interpretation happens through a series of projections that guide the process of reading but that are also consequently revised by it. What a text means, therefore, is not something that is passively revealed by the literary work; rather, interpretation requires projecting hypotheses that at first limit our engagement with the actual heterogeneity of text. Continued reading, however, transforms and enriches those original hypotheses and those reshaped possible interpretations open the hermeneutic circle yet again. In other words, as soon as you start reading you think you know where it’s all going to go but then, SURPRISE MOTHERFUCKER, THINK AGAIN! Interpreting the meaning of something is the dynamic mediation between the reader and the text.

While music has the same temporal dimension as literature—its experience involves the passage of time—it doesn’t involve the same kind of interpretive projections. The anticipation is experiential not semantic, more bodily than cognitive. Take for example the arresting yet completely enigmatic Super Beagle sample that opens Kanye West’s “Mercy.” The question one asks is not “What does that mean?” but “What is he saying?” But even without understanding one word, you experience it musically as counterpoint to the heavy, deliberate, and minimalist beats at the songs opening. It’s a stunning intro. The first time I heard it I could feel my body dilate to the song to feel where it was going. I anticipated affect not meaning, an ending but not a resolution. If it plays any role at all, interpretation is something that happens in music only after most of the somatic sensations that connect us to music dissipate. (This might sound like an odd claim in this blog, but if you notice carefully I hardly ever interpret songs here. Mostly I describe what they do and then use them to illustrate the social/aesthetic/theoretical/personal context that I want to write about.)

Listening to a song for the first time is not like reading a novel for the first time. It’s more like kissing someone for the first time. In such a situation you are very present and aware of your body and what it is feeling. You feel that transitory instant when the space between you and the other person changes from a border separating you to a substance that contains you both. The unshakeable terror of the moment makes you move cautiously and so you sense if your movement towards her (sorry, I can only write this from the perspective of a man who kisses women) is reciprocated. You close your eyes, and if you are moving slowly enough you can feel her breath on your skin and all of the little hairs on your face electrify just before your lips touch. After that, all the situations are different. Some lips are soft and inviting, some oscillate between reserved and daring, some are fixed and unyielding. With some people you know that they will always like the way you kiss them because of the way they kiss you, others you know will never enjoy the way you want to kiss them, and others still seem like mysteries that only time will tell which way the kissing situation will go. Generally though, after that first pause you know how you feel about kissing someone, and when a song ends that first time you have a pretty good idea about how you feel about it also. The first time you hear a song and the first time you kiss someone are similar in one last way: because it’s about newness and raw sensations rather than analysis and reflection, the experience usually doesn’t mean very much.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Time to Party

It’s three in the morning on Highway 30 in what used to be known as Industrial Northwest Portland, and we are watching runners go by in some ridiculous race called “Hood to Coast” that involves teams of competitors running through the night.  We’ve been drinking since four in the afternoon the day before, and we stare at these good, sober people in wild disbelief and bemused outrage. We had poured out of a house we called The Diner (because it had once been a diner) an hour earlier in order to get one last round of beers before they stopped selling for the night. Now we’re each holding partly drunk six-packs of Hamm’s and Rainier’s laughing over-loudly as we watch these goofballs go by in a hurry to somewhere they don’t need to be. We begin drifting back to The Diner past warehouses and train cars. We’re screaming and throwing empties at each other. At some point I fall over and my buddy Joe picks me up and puts a fresh beer in my hand. He says, “watch this,” and with the strength of a very strong and very drunk man he pulls a manhole cover out of the road and throws it through a plate-glass window. We roar and run away. A little later I walk next to Jimmy Gallentine smoking Kools not because I like menthols or am even a smoker but because he had offered me one, and I was so full of love for him and the other boys that night that I couldn’t imagine saying no. A year or so later Jimmy moved to San Francisco in hopes of kicking heroin. I wished him the best but had my doubts about the move: you can’t get away from yourself and novelty only distracts the appetites, it doesn’t satisfy them. So when I came home one day and there was a message from Joe asking me to call him back, I knew before I dialed the number what it was all about. The funeral was in Eastern Oregon, on the other side of Mount Hood, where those idiots we saw on the highway had started their stupid race. It was a long drive back and everybody was happy to get to The Commodore Lounge, the place where Jimmy and the rest of us loved to get drunk. It was less than a year later when we met up there again.  Such little time had passed that there were people that I hadn’t seen since Jimmy’s funeral. This time we were there after Mike Ford’s funeral. Mike had been drunk when he crashed his bike into a concrete traffic divider on the Morrison Bridge. He had cracked his skull and bled to death just out of sight of the traffic that passed by all night until someone found his body in the morning. We closed down the bar that night, tears turning to laughter. It was only later while I lay in bed watching the ceiling spin that I cried thinking about Mike’s lonely death.

Good morning and good night/I wake up at twilight/It’s gonna be alright/We don’t even have to try/It’s always a good time,” sings Owl City. Believe me, I understand boozy decadence so it’s not the subject matter that I find alienating in this song. Nor is it that I have repented the sins of my youth and so I find its message about careless partying against my moral code. I can guarantee you that I have learned very little from my mistakes and though I happily admit that God is great, for me Satan will always have his charms. It’s the general attitude of the partying in this song that I don’t get, the happy joining of friends whose only purpose is to have a good time. Is that the way people drink after work? The way young people socialize at bars? Where is the desperation, the shared loneliness, the brackish taste of death that alcohol either puts in your mouth or washes away? Without these things, I have no interest in your good time.

Friday, August 31, 2012


Love and life are similar in that they both end. Nothing on this green earth lasts, but this is easy to forget in the comfortable embrace of the quotidian. One day, however, you stand in dumbfounded silence before the immobile remains of what once was, pain muddling the memories. All that’s left is mourning. In Specters of Marx, Derrida argues that mourning is a way of making present that which no longer is. It is an ontologizing, a giving the form of being, to an absence by locating it here at the place of mourning before this thing that was alive. Mourning is the need to know. To know that what you mourn is what was and that what is left of its essence is here and not somewhere else. In Derrida’s thinking, mourning, then, stages the problem of language. Specifically, the problem behind all semantics: the desire to know shapes meanings that language itself cannot make concrete. Language names things, feelings, and ideas that because of their temporal singularity cannot be properly contained by words, which could only define what was and not what is. The absolute anteriority of life to language does not, however, make life a privileged site of meaning for Derrida, for the dissolving power of time means that life is always in the process of transformation and is therefore never present to itself. Life appears here as a set of singularities forever absorbed into the flowing of time. Furthermore, words are incapable of defining one another so that any definition is simply the naming of equivalents or the giving of examples. To define words requires more words all of which require their own definitions, a process that leads to an endless play of signification. Meaning is the unstable effect of the passage of time and the circulation of language. It is what remains when our need to know confronts the absences created by the relentlessness of time and the instability of language.

The relationship between language and mourning is perhaps what draws me to heartbreak songs. In the best ones, loss becomes a frantic recounting of mistakes and recriminations. By describing the completeness of the grief—the heartbreak when someone stops loving you is total, rounded, and perfect—heartbreak songs attempt to bring to life dead relationships just long enough to draw some meaning or lesson from them, knowing full well the futility of that kind of necromancy. There are too many great examples of this but for some reason I keep thinking of Lola Beltran’s extraordinary version of “La noche de mi mal.” There is possibly no more beautiful rendition of the anger, pain, and self-loathing that accompanies the emptiness of someone walking away from you. But the sun rises everyday on new heartaches and music continues to be made for them. Keyshia Cole’s recent “Enough of No Love” is part of this tradition. Her voice sounds haunted, resigned, and determined—she mourns in order to get over it. But, as always, the convictions that accompany mourning are betrayed by the act itself, which grieves over the body in order to bring to life the spirit.