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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.