hip hop psychasthenia

Pierre Klossowski & Miyazaki

The Forgotten Future in the Past. from left to right: "Mr. de Max et Mlle glissant dans les rôles de Diane et Actéon" Pierre Klossowski (1992); "Howl's Moving Castle" Hayao MIYAZAKI (2004).

Is hip hop, like a Miyazaki film, an exploration of “the forgotten future in the past”? To be considered really Real and hard as a rapper is to recount what just happened around the corner and to reaffirm the pursuit a naïve set of symbols. Dave Berman, in his epic poem Self-Portrait at 28 succinctly describes the acquisition of cool:

You could tell who was in the big second line...

If you were cool in high school
you didn’t ask too many questions.
You could tell who’d been to last night’s
big metal concert by the new t-shirts in the hallways.
You didn’t have to ask
and that’s what cool was:
the ability to deduce,
to know without asking.
And the pressure to simulate coolness
means not asking when you don’t know,
which is why kids grow ever more stupid.

Klossowski, like Kandinsky before him, was deeply committed to manifesting the spiritual in art, a desire to lower the transcendental realms of the Ideal and Abstract into the profane world in which we live. The mission of the revolutionary avant-garde, it must be remembered, was to revolutionize all social relations, a reaction to the transformational nature of capitalism itself. Wherever colonialism went, so went capitalism (someone’s gotta work that rubber plantation) and wherever this occurred so also followed the radical transformation of the indigenous culture. But a culture doesn’t change only by imposing new social structures in place of the already existing ones, for the changes to take root, the individuals themselves must see themselves as different.

Although not expressed directly, in the previous two posts here at The Avant Guardian we’ve explored how this transformation might be possible, the guiding hypothesis from this author is that “who I am” is fundamentally an aesthetic practice. First we considered the role of trauma in how we develop our sense of self, and we’ve also considered the role of sharing memories in creating a sense of community in situations where we may never actually meet. Today we will consider the possibility of being lost in our experiences as the process of the commodification of memory develops in the newest stage of advanced capitalism, what Guy Debord called spectaclism.

The commodification of memory, as George Markus so succinctly put it, “reconciles the individual-as-consumer with this world, offering a seeming re-assertion of his or her unique personality – by making choices among mass produced commodities the affirmation of one’s taste.” This process only occurs if a complex mimicry industry is developed – the hype machine and superstars. These exist simply as models for others to emulate. In Lil’ Wayne’s words, “We’re creating it to where that’s the artist you have to be period. To where a motherfucker just gotta like YOU. That’s a superstar. […] I believe I am here for nothing else but this, what I’m doing. Not to rap, but to do what I’m doing.”

A spectaclist economy assumes that human beings believe, or blindly accept, that they are fundamentally alienated from each other and the objects that come to them throughout their day. Walter Benjamin saw two sides to this alienation, however. Yes, the worker is alienated from the product they manufacture (they only make the door of the car, not the entire car), but this alienation also means that objects are freed from being used only for their

Take a bite outta the dead space of leisure!

utility: that comb could be used for anything now, including a shiv in prison. In light of this transformation of society, Benjamin saw the role of the intellectual critic as committed to constantly reinvigorating the conversation about possible uses for the materials of this world. The transformation would have to be toward reuniting a sense of community in the sea of alienation that floats the capitalist captains of industry.

Why have a show called Pimp My Ride? So that others will pimp-out their rides as well. This isn’t simply done at the behest of auto accessory store magnates, but also because there has been the rise of sub-culture. The viewer is encouraged, in the spectaclist economy, to join the Pimp My Ride chat group hosted on Mtv’s website, the viewer is encouraged to meet in the parking lot of the local shopping mall and show-off their pimped-out rides. Together. At last. Community.

Not to be overly academic about the thing, but… The highest pursuit in hip hop culture, as displayed by it’s most prominent figures is the pursuit of what all children want: the Mother’s unending satisfaction of the child’s needs (bitches & ho’s), the accumulation of and total immersion in play objects (getting that cheddar, achieved by slingin’ that sack, then makin’ it rain at the Club). If anything marks the shift from the kind capitalism that Marx described and that Debord’s Situationist International railed against, it is the overwhelming force and tyranny of cool.

Cool is to spectaclist economics as value is to capitalist economics.

Phyllium-gigantium (from wikimedia)

Cool is, to be very academic about it, a fully mimetic-communicative relation between all reality (actual and perceived). Cool, impossibly, seeks to collapse into each other the subject that questions and the object that would answer. Mercifully, the reduction of the subject into the object is an impossibility, because as the two do converge the more acutely one is intoxicated by psychasthenia, that is, losing oneself in one’s surroundings.

Roger Caillois, in his 1935 essay “Mimicry and Legendary Psychastenia” considers mimicry in the animal kingdom, e.g. the stick bug or the praying mantis and points out two problems with the common assumption that these master imitators mimic their surroundings for defensive purposes: for one, this would only work for hunters that rely upon sight which is not the dominant mode of apprehension, but furthermore predators often ignore motionless prey (if it’s not moving it’s probably already dead and so likely to make the predator sick). So then what gives? How can this mimicry be accounted for and doesn’t this mimicry imply a complex ability to perceive space on the part of these insects? This ability to comprehend oneself in an environment is a strong statement about the presence of a consciousness in a place and this is the point at which the conversation enters the domain of psychasthenia, a term developed by Pierre Janet, the founder of psychology.

Although not as noted as his contemporary, Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalytic model, Janet was the first to suggest that events from an individual’s past could be the source of psychological problems in the present as well as coined the term subconscious. In the introduction to his 1920 edition of The Major Symptoms of Hysteria, he suggested that repression was less prevalent in hysteria and more so in a condition he called psychasthenia. The psychasthenic was defined as having a form of mental depression that is fueled by obsessive doubts about oneself, agitations, anxiety, and the ideas that express these feelings. At the core of the psychasthenic experience, however, is a collapsing of the distinction between who one is and where one is, a persistent inability to distinguish oneself from their surroundings. This is another way we can understand Lil’ Wayne.

Mr. Carter

In Adam Bhala Lough’s documentary, The Carter, we get something like an intimate portrait of the rapper. But, crucially, Wayne won’t allow an interview with the film crew. As the film progresses it becomes understandable why Lil’ Wayne would not want to sit with the filmmakers for an interview: his whole day seems to be filled with interviews. He does not write his lyrics nor his ideas, seemingly nothing, “No evidence,” he drawls at one point. But this isn’t entirely true. Wayne maintains an extensive written record on his body: tears tattooed on his face, he also prodigiously records his raps.

Caligo, or Owl Butterfly, of Brazil

Let’s juxtapose, however, two music creation strategies in light of Caillois’ mimicry and psychasthenia discussion. Beck’s “Qué Onda Guero” is mimetic: the entire song is composed of fragments of conversations in a Latino neighborhood, horns honking, and the automatic writing style of André Breton in his novel Nadja. The effect of Beck’s song is surrealism, a realism over the realist representations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In contrast we have Lil’ Wayne’s “La La La” from The Carter III, “Born in New Orleans/ Raised in New Orleans/ I will forever remain faithful, New Orleans/ I thank you New Orleans…” he even states at one point in an interview while preparing this album that he “can’t help but be New Orleans.” While it’s a common trope within the hip hop genre to rep your block, or your ‘hood, something else seems to be at work in Lil’ Wayne’s case. He has “Fear God” tattooed on his eyelids not as a reminder to himself, but it is a mimetic response, not unlike the owl butterfly that Roger Caillois discusses in his essay. We can only see Lil’ Wayne’s tattoo when he sleeps (but why would we be staring at him in his sleep?), or when he blinks. Of course, given the nature of blinking, these unexpected invocations of the wrath of Judgement serve to unsettle the viewer – perhaps in the way some moths raise their wings so as to mimic the face of a predatory bird. But Lil’ Wayne seems lost, in the process of dissolution in to that paradoxical shadow world of fame, this is beyond the intoxication of weed smoke and drank.

Super Secret Philosophy Society

Or have I not been generous enough with Lil’ Wayne? Too quick to suspect that he is less a man and more a puppet in the hands of the hype machine – a Bobby Brown for the aughts. We return to the photo at the top of the essay, and consider Pierre Klossowski thoughts on the matter, “My drawings, like my texts, are of a dramaturgical order…. For me, the most authentic vision of what I do is in what I show.” Maybe it is more productive to read Lil’ Wayne’s “Fear God” tattoo as aligned with the pursuit of the sacred in the profane, much as Klossowski, Bataille, and Caillois in their secret society Acéphale (the name is from the Greek, meaning headless and so suggesting a group without a rational drive). The amalgam of tattoos across Lil’ Wayne’s body, resonate with Kandinsky’s call for a new form of art and of life. A call for the harmonization of those things that don’t necessarily follow one from the next, a fortuitous collection of forms on a canvas, “Their external lack of cohesion is their internal harmony.”

Perhaps what we see in Lil’ Wayne isn’t the fear of dissolution into the unreality of celebrity, perhaps it is something at the core of Dostoevsky’s writing: the non-convergence of Truth and the lived experience. This is the source of that other response to modernity, existentialism. We will discuss this next week.


swederland3, yoyopop, hurricanebrassband, mtv, wikimedia, creative loafing, livewild, wikimedia



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14 responses to “hip hop psychasthenia

  1. Fantastic as usual. Though we’ll have to agree to disagree about my friend young Weezy:Young Money’s “I Wish I Could F*ck Every Girl in the World” came dangerously close to making it into my post this week. Talk about the non-convergence of truth and the lived experience.

    Lil’ Wayne definitely builds his cult of personality around the pursuit of the sacred in the profane. But how could the romantic in you not feel even a tiny spark when you hear the line: “Oh yes I love her like pussy, money, weed?”

    We won’t dissolve into the unreality. TAG team 4evah.

  2. TAG Team 4evah-evah, no doubt.

    I don’t think I communicated well enough how hype Weezy gets me. He’s on his grind, for sure. I’m tired of hearing the same old talk about hip hop and about the Dirty South thing. I’ve lived in Atlanta for a minute and, musically, it’s like living in Detroit during the Motown days. But people don’t recognize that this snap and chopped n’ screwed and crunk music is about something different than what was made in the Boogie-Down Bronx.

    The romantic in me likes Wayne’s lines more than Fifty’s “I love you like the fat kid loves cake.” Catch you on the flip!

  3. rachel simhon

    Chicken Flava to me: “by they way, you and Paul Boshears sound like the two whitest people on the planet in the comments section of his post.”

    F*ck the haters.

    • well, yes.
      but if Chicken Flava doesn’t have a f*cked up grill and a big clock on his neck, then he needs to change his last name.

    • (Not tryin’ to throw my man, Chicken Flava under the bus at all, thanks for reading)
      I suppose I should kinda clarify my thinking a little bit, because it’s been on my mind for a minute now.

      I do have some reservations about (not really Weezy alone, but) the mainstream “urban” scene at large. It’s not only the plain-as-day misogyny (and it’s simply misogyny here in Atlanta, it’s not post-gender or third wave feminist or nothing resembling a detournement through the employment of irony), nor is it the baroque use of autotunes, but something more.

      The Roots, on their album Things Fall Apart have a great clip of someone approaching some of the problem of hip hop: the genre itself is considered disposable. Clearly, that’s only partially true because I just referenced that album, and who could live without their copy of their pet hip hop album? Even further, to include Ari’s essay on grunge from earlier, were it not for key hip hop moments like Onyx and the Wu Tang Clan (both billed at the time as grimy) there could not have been the grunge movement, and there couldn’t have been the Dirty South rebuttal.

      It might seem like I’m going all over the place with that, but actually, Kurt Cobain was a central figure in Lil’ Wayne’s adolescence and he states Cobain is the reason Weezy won’t write anything down (so they don’t exploit his journal like they did his boy, Kurt).

      But, back to my concern about hip hop…and I’m gonna have to include Marx here, but it’s important to include him, ’cause most folks don’t read him.

      In Chapter 9 of Capital, vol. 1 he makes a really interesting formula for understanding how capitalism – as exploitative as it is – can continue to get laborers to support their bourgeois oppressors. Central to capitalism is the need for surplus value, because surplus value is what can be used to create profit and this extra value that comes from production means there is something more that can be invested in the marketplace. With me so far?

      Surplus value is also surplus labor time, because this surplus value can be utilized to purchase goods – that were harvested by other laborers, and sold at a profit to the owner of that labor power, e.g. the actual labor of the lumberjack and the amount paid to that laborer that went into logging that tree and this cost passed onto the purchaser that then processes the tree into paper (and so must pay their laborers, and so on.)

      So the capitalist has to buy the laborer at a certain amount, and then must recoup that cost (by selling a product), and so the laborer must work a certain amount of time to pay off what the capitalist already paid. But the laborers must also be provided for beyond simply getting their energy back – the laboring class has to reproduce itself otherwise the capitalist won’t have a factory after a generation.

      This is where “urban” music comes in. Just get the kids singing, as soon as possible, we do not want them missing this message, “I just wanna f*ck evry girl in the world.” It’s a problem similar to the Bling-reinforces-african slavery. This is a vital element of the spectaclist economy. All leisure time must be filled with the thrill of leisure, the thrill of choosing between chunky Prego and cheese flavored Prego.

      I heard my parents extolling the virtue of shopping at Wal-Mart versus the other chain grocery store, “Wal-Mart just gives you so many choices…” as though this were some sort of civic duty. In fact, I think that IS why Wal-Mart is successful in the U.S.: like de Tocqueville said about the U.S. back in the earl 19th century: what makes the U.S. so fascinating is that anyone in the country can potentially sit on that jury that will hang a man. Choices such as these are central to the U.S.er psyche and these kinds of choices are the lynchpin of spectaclist economics.

      David Graeber wrote in his pamphlet Fragments that it’s absurd that so many social scientists would seriously ask the question “why did the West develop capitalism and conquer the world and not South America?” Why is it absurd to ask this? ‘Cause no one else would have thought to annihilate and colonize all the other countries they came in contact with the way Western Europeans chose to do back then. A great example would be from the Chinese and Zheng He, who had the biggest and best navy of all human history to that time. They went exploring at the same time as da Gama et al, but they chose not to colonize the way Western Europe did – because it’s just base to do that. Basically the sentiment would be, “yeah, I could enslave your populations and pillage the land, but that would be a dick-move, why would I want to do that?” So, Graeber, puts it, there’s nothing special about Europe beyond the willingness to commit a centuries-long dick-move campaign.

      How do you get the colonized to accept the exploitation? Find the music that gets them procreating, find the liquor that helps that happen, encourage certain sections of the population to sexually dominate the others (by regulating who can marry whom), and provide panem et circenses.

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  5. 30c

    paul, here is that passage from Debord I was telling you about. It is section 60:

    The celebrity, the spectacular representation of a living human being, embodies this banality by embodying the image of a possible role. Being a star means specializing in the seemingly lived; the star is the object of identification with the shallow seeming life that has to compensate for the fragmented productive specializations which are actually lived. Celebrities exist to act out various styles of living and viewing society unfettered, free to express themselves globally. They embody the inaccessible result of social labor by dramatizing its by-products magically projected above it as its goal: power and vacations, decision and consumption, which are the beginning and end of an undiscussed process. In one case state power personalizes itself as a pseudo-star; in another a star of consumption gets elected as a pseudo-power over the lived. But just as the activities of the star are not really global, they are not really varied.

    This kind of seem to be what Weezy F. was getting at. Its not at all about music or his(or other celebrities) unique abilities/contributions so much as their roles as bizarre “managers” of culture, maintaining a certain aspect of the status quo by their ever-visible being, and essentially by that alone. Unlike Weezy, most are probably completely unaware of their function in this role. Foucaultian.

  6. Very cool, Thirty!
    It does seem Foucaultian. Actually, I think that Baudrillard might also be really appropriate here. He apparently – I haven’t read it yet – wrote an essay called something, like, “Forget Foucault” to which Foucault replied, “I will have a harder time recalling…Baudrillard.” I should read more of this.

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