Saturday, June 29, 2013


Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors” has many of the things I like in a song: romantic themes, a melancholic atmosphere, and it calls everyone to the dance floor. But the most striking thing about the song is the profusion of visual and ocular imagery. Love in “Mirrors” means being able to see clearly what had before been made obscure by the lack of belief. Understanding feeling in “Mirrors” is expressed as the clarity of vision: “You were right here all along/It’s like you’re my mirror/My mirror staring back at me.” In this, Timberlake sounds very much like my man, Husserl. For he too believed that understanding a sensation meant being able to see it clearly.

A feeling. Sometimes the distance between yourself and the easy conversations you see shared by other people seems like the space between the bottom of the sea and the face of the sun. An impossible distance. All these discontinuous events and thoughts that make up a life remain opaque and indecipherable. Sometimes all you want is a feeling. A tepid, breezy night and I sit by the window. I close my eyes and feel the air move over me. Perhaps this is what Husserl wanted all along: to sense and have that sensation destroy the impulse to see beyond it, to reconcile it to meaning. He wanted to describe no further than he could touch. He placed a boundary before him that contained all he could depict as the residue of experience. Everything beyond it was fuzzy and indistinct and unknowable, not in any reliable way at any rate. This was a man after my heart, a man that wanted to know only what life gave us to experience and not why. Nothing could be known except what could be adequately represented as experience. The desire for meaning was forestalled with the ruthless devotion of an ascetic. I drive down Telegraph as the day ends and the street is divided by the sinking sun. The top halves of the oaks shine like coins in the oblique light. Their leaves reflect and soften the light. The tops of the buildings have all turned rose-colored. The windows and the part of the street above the rising shadow-line are painted by the tired light. Everything else is in shadows. The bottom halves of the trees appear obscured as though you were looking at them through darkened glass. The pavement looks like a stagnant river as it stretches away from me. The grayish world of the shadows is the context that allows the sun its last moments. What would Husserl say about that? The lights and shadows transform the way we apprehend objects. They either clarify or obfuscate what we see in such a way that they allow us to confuse what is simply an optical effect with what might seem like an epistemological or perhaps even a moral one. True that. But I construe it nonetheless as the inequity of the sun. Just as I apprehend the night air over me as a benediction. My point is that I make a shitty phenomenologist.

Monday, June 17, 2013

This Kind of Game Is Hard to Come By

How do you like that Nietzsche? (Tall, pretty girl talking to me at the bar. Answer nicely.) I’m embarrassed to be reading this in public. It’s the kind of book that someone usually reads at the bar in order to get asked about it. (Jesus.) Do you like it? (She’s obviously trying to chat you up. Make inoffensive small talk.) I got tired of reading it at home. I didn’t want to bring it with me because, to tell you the truth, it seems to me like a book that people would have with them in order to seem intellectual. But I see why Nietzsche is attractive to some people. He poses irrationalism and the embrace of artistic mysticism against the positivism and instrumentality of the German nineteenth century. Mostly I’m reading this because I never have before and I don’t see the point of being proud of ignorance. (For fuck’s sake.) Huh. What do you do? (Say you teach.) I’m a professor. (Are you for reals?) Can I ask you something? (Yes, please do all the talking, so I can shut my fucking mouth.) I’m working on something and I want to hear an opinion from someone outside of my own social circle. (Whatever she asks say something positive.) Let’s hear it. (Whatever she asks you will be encouraging.) I’m developing an interface that allows people to engage in alternative kinds of economic transactions. You can list goods or services and exchange them for equivalent things with other people on the site. So for example, say you can provide an hour of yoga and in exchange you can get back a handmade pair of earrings. Does that sound like something you think that people would be interested in? (You will say something generous.) Yeah, it sounds like something that would really appeal to people with a predisposition toward bourgeois forms of economic romanticism. It’s like farmers’ markets, you know, where people participate in alternative kinds of exchange in order to purchase the illusion that in enabling other people’s unalienated labor they have somehow affirmed their own? (Jesus.) Yeah but couldn’t this also be a way of making it possible for other kinds of people to get things that they might not otherwise be able to get? (She’s white, be gentle.) Are you talking about people of color? ([My mind gave me a silent reproach here.]) I mean, don’t you think that this could make it possible for people of color, as you say, to get stuff that might not be available or cheaper than they might through traditional means? (This is a good point.) That’s a good point but I doubt that they would turn to these kinds of models generally. (Good answer!) Why? (Keep it up!) Because this would appear to most communities of color as a white economic initiative and those communities hold a deep and historically well-founded distrust of white people and their claims of economic betterment. (Fuck.) Hey, thanks for talking to me. [She turned back to her things and didn’t say another word.] (Yep, this is how I thought this would go.)

Sunday, June 16, 2013


Work is always secondary in the aesthetics of hip hop. It is strictly a means to an end. It is the hustle that allows the lifestyle, which is always what matters, for it is the lifestyle that allows the artists to be able to describe how far they have removed themselves from the marginality and disempowerment facing many members of the communities from which they emerged. Besides the hustle, traditional forms of work are generally ignored by hip hop. The elevation of informal routes to financial success represented by the hustle and embodied in such figures as the gangster, the pimp, the drug runner, the baller, and the rapper himself or herself represents the lack of faith of communities of color in general and African-American communities in particular toward achieving success through conventional avenues. The persistently pervasive forms of racism facing workers of color throughout all levels of contemporary society suggest that this lack of faith is well-justified. Nevertheless, hip hop also often mentions, if only in passing, the hard work of parents and the struggle of relatives barely keeping their heads above water through constant labor. It is not often, however, that work is the central object of representation in hip hop.

In its insistence on work against ballerness, Kat Dahlia’s “Gangsta” is quite unlike most commercial hip hop. Against conspicuous consumption and empty posturing, she poses the struggles and sacrifice of everyday life. Mom, dad, grandparents, and siblings are all shown to be managing in their own ways with obstacles placed before them. In its evocation of an entire family confronting the reality of scarcity “Gangsta” reminds me of Phillip Levine’s great poem “What Work Is.” In that text, the poem’s protagonist imagines he sees his brother ahead of him in a line of people hoping to find work for the day. But even while the person turns out not to be his brother, the narrator is overwhelmed by the love for his brother and his stubborn ability to work. Thus he metonymically affirms his love for all the other workers standing in line with him—theirs is a brotherhood based in their shared knowledge of what work is. The protagonist of “Gangsta” also knows what work is: “I’m paying for this session/And I’m paying for rent, food, clothes, phone, Christmas presents/6 shots in and I’m just counting all my blessings/No days off baby I’m not resting.” There is a value to work here, and hip hop is divested in this song of all flashiness and is rendered as a kind of labor that makes possible a better life for the performer and her family. Hip hop matters only in so far as it is work.

Hip hop as a calling. Weber argues that the Protestant idea of a spiritual calling was what made possible the modern notion of work as something which could be spiritually fulfilling instead of something that one is simply compelled to do in order to eat. He argues that capitalism initially penetrated everyday life in the transatlantic Protestant homelands of modernity because it was there that people first considered the banal idea of laboring in order to make money as something that could be seen as demonstrating one’s closeness to god, that economic stability was a sign of one’s good standing in the eyes of god. Work came to be seen as something good instead of something that simply was. What emerged as way for relating this crass world of ours with the other, better world of salvation became in time an asphyxiating limit on imagining human flourishing. The case isn’t that work couldn’t be for some people a satisfying thing but that labor often becomes in modern capitalist society something that eats up people’s lives, particularly poor people’s lives since they are unable to save for vacations or to take time away from work or to take early retirement and thus not have to work constantly. This is an aspect that cultural objects like “Gangsta” and “What Work Is” touch on obliquely but don’t quite come to terms with: work maybe a worthwhile thing in and of itself but it can also so consume people’s time that they are not able to live proper lives outside of it, and again this is particularly acute for poor people. Work can perhaps be meaningful for poor people but the one thing that it cannot guarantee and which could be potentially even more beneficial spiritually to poor people is freedom from work.

Monday, June 10, 2013


Dear Readers,

Berfrois has been kind enough to once again cross-post something from Pop Erratic. Please take a look at it and all the other interesting stuff on Berfrois.