I read The Black Pacific while walking through Coast Salish territories on Turtle Island, known in colonial vernacular as Washington State, USA, and the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, Canada. Attesting to the wide reaching applicability of the ideas advanced within this book, I engage it by drawing examples from Turtle Island, where I live.
The Black Pacific asks readers to reconnect with our shared humanity through cultivating a decolonial science of “deep relation.” This starkly contrasts with the prevailing “colonial science” of categorical separation and developmental hierarchy that is essential to ‘uni-versal’ modernity. To understand the distinction between “deep relation” and “categorical separation,” Shilliam says “We must start by acknowledging that the manifest world is a broadly (post)colonial one, structured through imperial hierarchies that encourage the one-way transmission of political authority, social relations and knowledge from the centres outwards” (20). Colonial science depends on the rigid separation of manifest and spiritual domains, as well as the separation of people into categories such as “enslaved, indentured, native, free, poor and masters. None can relate sideways to each other. They are fixated by the gaze of Britannica, the master” (23).
The Black Pacific is a nuanced, multifaceted call to abandon the science of separation that renders “profane” the myriad knowledges that people cultivate globally. The distinction offered between knowledge production/consumption vs. knowledge cultivation makes a valuable methodological contribution to decolonial research by treating the past (as opposed to History) as something in need of oxygenation:
Unlike knowledge production/consumption (a subaltern under-taking), knowledge cultivation turns matter around and folds it back on itself so as to rebind and encourage growth. This circulatory process of oxygenation necessarily interacts with a wider biotope, enfolding matter from diverse cultivations. (128-129)
With thanks to Elisabetta Brighi and Xavier Guillaume for putting together the Rhythms of the International roundtable and their inspiring contributions, to Robbie Shilliam for his song, and Kyle Grayson for his spirited and thoughtful engagement. And by no means least, to the pleasingly sizeable and lively crowd who gave the last panel of the last day such a buzz.
Below is a write-up of my contribution to the roundtable, in which I reflected on the relationship of rhythm and history, and drew out some of the potential disruptions that a different rhythmic sensibility might have on our conception of history.
What is rhythm?
To my shame, colleagues, and partly out of curiosity, I looked it up in the dictionary. Shame, because if you are looking something up in a dictionary before giving a talk on it, you probably shouldn’t be giving a talk on it. Curiosity, because I wanted to know how they would define ‘rhythm’ in words rather than in noises.
The dictionary answers were not particularly edifying. One definition spoke of ‘repeated, regular beats’, another of a ‘regulated succession’ of beats. Thud, thud, thud. Boom, boom, boom. Boom, thud, boom, thud. These definitions felt flat, and rather forbidding. But I suppose this is because they were the generic definitions of all kinds of ‘rhythm’, and not just the samba playing in my head.
This yielded a much more direct answer: it is the production of rhythm that makes time itself knowable. In the making of music, rhythm generates movement and flow, and makes it possible for sounds to synchronise and arrange themselves. Continue reading →
When you look at it head on, from just the right distance, the world seems solid. The order of things presents itself as impenetrable. Yet a change in the angle of vision reveals fissures, fusions, flukes – a world of pieces shifting ceaselessly. One vision of the world promises stability and order, the other freedom and creativity. Which of these is more attractive depends on where one finds oneself: pressed upon by the weight of the world, or abraded by the shifting fragments.
Which of these worlds is real? This is the metaphysician’s diagnosis: “If you want to calm your nerves, then find the arrangement of the world as it really is.” But the physician can only prescribe convalescence or catharsis: “Accept the reality of the given world or realise the subliminal essence of the immanent world.” This regiment exhausts us rather than making us well. It lacks the vigour of creative activity. We don’t need to know; we need to make.
In our times we can neither endure our thoughts nor the task of rethinking them. We think restlessly within familiar frameworks to avoid thought about how our thinking is framed. Perhaps that is the ground of modern thoughtlessness.
Creativity requires us to leave the metaphysician behind – the making of the world requires dreams, contradictions, promises, lies, empty space, messy abundance. Turning away from knowing does not force us to apologise for the durable architecture of the world – this is the vice of Richard Rorty’s ironic liberalism. He calls on poets of the self to write their lines on the walls of the world as if they were solid, so not to upset things too much – a consolation of the comfortable, irony in the face of human disaster.
The condition of the world impels those caught between the monuments of the given to return to the fissures, fusions and flukes, in hopes of exercising our creativity on the social architecture. We need world makers. We need lovers.
It is with these thoughts in mind that I return to The Roots. Phrenology, the follow-up to Things Fall Apart, explores the creative challenge the band faced after producing an album that reconstructed hip-hop – trying to avoid becoming a parody of themselves or reducing their message to braying didactic verses. The difficulty of achieving real creativity is political as well as artistic and it demands not knowledge but love, desire and risk; it is the Roots’ exploration of how to make worlds anew that offers up lessons of wider import.
We’re on a roll now. On Friday, Omar became the fourthofus to ascend the greased pole of academic accreditation since we began cultivating this little corner of the internet. Forever more to be known as Dr El-Khairy, his burgeoning cultural insurgency notwithstanding. The work in question? American Statecraft for a Global Digital Age: Warfare, Diplomacy and Culture in a Segregated World. And who said it was good enough? Faisal Devji and Eyal Weizman, actually. So there. And I have promises in writing that he will be telling us more about it all real soon.
Music is a world within itself
With a language we all understand
With an equal opportunity
For all to sing, dance and clap their hands
But just because a record has a groove
Don’t make it in the groove
But you can tell right away at letter A
When the people start to move
But there are at least two ways of thinking about the relationship between politics and music. The question which is perhaps most often asked and answered is: how, when and where is music political? So, why did the Tunisian protesters sing the national anthem in front of the courthouse, how did music support the anti-apartheid struggle, and why did the Haitian revolutionaries sing the Marseillaise? How did the musical character of these expressions facilitate a particular kind of political act? Lots of excellent writers, both scholarly and otherwise, have turned their attentions to the nature of political music, and especially protest music, in a variety of times and places.
However, the question that I want to focus on mainly here though is slightly different: how, when and where is politics musical? This question was stimulated by the general observation that when we try to make sense of politics, we often use metaphors related to music. A common phrase is that a political statement or value ‘struck a chord’ with an audience, or that protesters are ‘banging a drum’. Politicians may or may not be ‘in tune’ with publics, and relations may be ‘harmonious’ or not. Coups will be ‘orchestrated’.
Perhaps surprisingly, in moving from vernacular to scholarly modes of understanding politics, the metaphors of music are no less important. In fact, in some cases they seem to be more important. The genre-defining work of the historical sociologist Charles Tilly in the study of contentious politics is a revealing and fascinating case in point.
In September 2009, Ugandan Parliamentarian David Bahati introduced a draft ‘Anti Homosexuality Bill’ that proposed enhancing existing punishments for homosexual conduct in the Ugandan Penal Code, introducing new ‘related offences’ including ‘aiding and abetting’ homosexuality, ‘conspiracy to engage’ in homosexuality, the ‘promotion of homosexuality’, or ‘failure to disclose the offence’ of homosexuality to authorities within 24 hours, and mandating the death penalty for a select class of offences categorized as ‘aggravated homosexuality’. The bill remained bottled up in parliamentary committees for the duration of the 8th Parliament, thanks in large part to a sophisticated localcampaign that sought to bring international pressure to bear on the government of President Yoweri Museveni, but has since been reintroduced in the current 9th Parliament and therefore remains a live concern. In August 2010, I travelled to Uganda to interview a range of actors associated with ongoing debates over sexuality in the country. Rather than commenting on the urgent and pressing substantive concerns at issue in these debates, at an ISA panel entitled ‘Researching sexuality in difficult contexts’, I chose to reflect on some of the methodological dilemmas I encountered in the field, for which my training in international relations had left me unprepared. Emboldened by recent ISA panels on storytelling and auto-ethnography (and utterly bored by what passes for mainstream IR), these reflections take the form of excerpts from my diary (italicized), interspersed with the more censorious, academic voice that I trotted out at ISA. (I make no apology for not writing about the more ‘serious’ issues at stake—on this occasion—because it occurs to me that where sexuality is concerned, the pursuit of fun can raise deadly serious questions, making distinctions between the trivial and the serious difficult to sustain.)
Uganda, August 2010: I am here to do interviews and I spend most of my day setting them up, preparing for them, travelling to or from them, or conducting them. The rest of the time I hang out, people watch, trying to piece together a picture of how life outside heteronormativity survives in a climate that seems—on the surface at least—as inhospitable as Uganda is supposed to be. On Friday, Al (name changed, and this account provided with permission) invited me to a strip-tease. This was going to be a straight strip-tease, but one that some of the gay men went to so that they could watch the straight men getting off on watching the women strip. It sounded convoluted, but unmissable. Plus, I’d never been to a straight strip-tease, so it seemed important to plug this gaping orifice in my sexual history. We entered a dimly lit hall and took seats at the back in a group near the bar. I think I was the only brown man there. There was also one white man in the whole place, in our group. He had evidently been to the place before, and because he came with the same motivations as Al, he had been traumatized on a previous occasion by the way the women flocked to him (money?). So Al was instructed to tell the emcee (a short guy dressed in a white track suit) to make sure that the women didn’t come to our corner. The real attraction, from the point of view of the gay guys, was that the women sometimes got the straight guys to get on stage and strip. Al told the emcee to do his best to encourage this possibility. Call it Straight Guy for the Queer Eye. I was impressed by the brazenness with which Al communicated all this to the emcee. As for the show, let’s just say it took the ‘tease’ out of strip-tease. The first woman (girl? all the performers looked like they were in their 30s, but they could have been younger and prematurely aged by their work) danced to some vaguely familiar Western pop number. She was followed by another woman with bigger hips. Somebody in the group, setting himself up as my informant, tells me that she is ‘a real African woman’. She danced to Shania Twain’s ‘From this Moment On’ (a song I played to my last (and final, I think) girlfriend on the first day I met her, after a year-long correspondence). Just when Shania reached the second verse, the woman dropped her panties. None of the performers took off their bras. ‘African men aren’t interested in breasts’, my self-appointed informant intones. The next half-hour is a blur of female anatomy. So here I am, in a country that people have been calling ‘conservative’ and that American evangelist Rick Warren has decided is ripe for transformation into the world’s first ‘purpose driven’ nation, looking at more naked women in ten minutes than I have seen in ten years, to the soundtrack of my failed romantic history.
“In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, Cobain seemed to give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened. Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realizing it is a cliche”. (p. 15)
This is as concise and accurate a summary of the dead-end of Nirvana’s nihilism as one could ask for – but as an illustration of the wider impotence of cultural and artistic expression to push beyond a dominant social vision of neo-liberal capitalism it’s not wholly convincing.
Fisher is right about Cobain, but his observation begs the obvious question: is Nirvana the wrong listening choice? If we turn to artistic expression for exemplars of how to begin anew, to think beyond our current moment, to escape the scripted thoughts, words and movements that structure our lives, this is actually a vital question.
Who should we be listening to?
This is a question that overflows beautifully, but here I want to explore the significance of one group – The Roots. This is partly an expression of personal love, but it’s also borne out of two less subjective impulses: (1) The Roots are insufficiently appreciated as an artistic and intellectual resource – they are artists in need of critics and journalists equal to their own insight and intensity; and (2) while I appreciate the efforts of those studying politics in an academic setting to bring in cultural resources, I don’t identify with International Relations’ obsession with Science Fiction (even as I appreciate the significance genre fiction can achieve), nor do I get much out of Political Theory’s tendency to appeal to classicdramas, and themultidisciplinaryuseofcinema, while fascinating, rarely leaves me inspired – so, returning to what one knows and finds inspiring – I want to argue it’s well worth listening to The Roots (and hip hop music) to understand the world and find profound insights.
A simple proposition: The Roots are the most important artists in popular music today – not bigger than Jesus, or the only band that matters – but possibly the best hip-hop group ever and a creative and intellectual force the quality of which is rare in music, especially music that maintains a popular orientation. This proposition matters because understanding and appreciating The Roots’ work over the past thirteen years takes the listener into an artistic world that expresses a very particular experience of the first decade of the 21st century (black, urban and American) through profound musical originality and penetrating intelligence, this experience provides a very different vision that has the potential to disrupt the exhausted and nihilistic sense of inevitability that Fisher so rightly identifies.
“I’m kinda like W.E.B. Du Bois meets Heavy D and the Boyz”
– Dice Raw, “Get Busy”, Rising Down (2008)
W.E.B. Du Bois‘ idea of double-consciousness provides a way of appreciating the importance of The Roots. Double-consciousness is defined by a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” While this burden threatens to overwhelm a positive sense of self-awareness and confidence, it also enables a second-sight in women and men systematically repressed and whose experiences are devalued, allowing a sharper vision of social violence and providing substantial resources for struggle and emancipation. The Roots carry over this sense of double-consciousness, but rendered more positive and confident by decades of growing black self-awareness, increasing social strength and important political victories in the US and more widely, such that they render the potential psychological weakness of double-consciousness into an incisive and positive vision, one wholly at odds with Cobain’s musical and cultural legacy of frustrated exhaustion.
Speaking of traditions of black music in America, Du Bois says,
“Little of beauty has America given the world save the rude grandeur God himself stamped on her bosom; the human spirit in this new world has expressed itself in vigor and ingenuity rather than in beauty. And so by fateful chance the Negro folk-song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands to-day not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas. It has been neglected, it has been, and is, half despised, and above all it has been persistently mistaken and misunderstood; but notwithstanding, it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.”
Black culture in America provides an alternative reservoir of tradition (in the form of hip-hop culture, black musical traditions, political radicalism and distinctive forms of socially engaged religious practice) that not only nourishes the social imagination but is resistant to co-option. Hip-hop music is received by the dominant culture as a threat that must be commodified and tamed, but the refusal of a hip-hop artist to acquiesce to their own commodification need not reduce to an empty and ironic refusal nor solipsistic underground fetishism. The Roots, among others, maintain both a lucrative musical career and a challenging artistic output, at least in part, because of their capacity to occupy multiple subject positions – knowing that the music business is a business, intentionally challenging young, black, urban identities normally associated with hip hop, exploiting the fear of black assertiveness in mainstream culture in the US and working as “working musicians” who write, perform, produce, arrange for multiple artists, across generations and genres. But they are not simply polymaths too nimble to succumb to commodification – they are also self conscious creators of their own musical and intellectual space, shared in common, tied to tradition, and pushing relentlessly outward and forward. It is this quality, so essential to beginnings, that I focus on here.
Over a series of posts I want to consider the visions contained in The Roots music, with a particular focus on the political importance of their work – running from their groundbreaking 1999 album, Things Fall Apart, to their 2011 concept album, undun, I pull out a central theme from each album, which hardly defines the limits of their significance, but rather focuses on some of the insights they offer up with abundance.
Beginning are difficult – this is a simple truth that is particularly pertinent to anyone who feels pressed in by the world as it has been given, who struggles to find fractures in the world that might be expanded far enough to stand up to their full height. Partly this is a struggle to give expression to the discontent one feels – it’s not enough to know, as the early Roots’ records insistently documented, that one’s culture has been distorted, co-opted, defiled and weakened by its basest impulses – we need an analysis, an account of the dynamics that make’s our present condition combustible material for making new worlds.
Nothing could compromise a joint blog project more than disagreement over music. Luckily, this much-delayed follow-up to Joe’s sonic assault on global politics gets to play the role of supplement and supplicant, and not that of adversary. And no, it’s not bloody Christmas-themed.
Nobody was as fully aware of the properly traumatic dimension of the human voice, the human voice not as the sublime, ethereal medium for expressing the depth of human subjectivity, but the human voice as a foreign intruder, nobody was more aware of this than Charlie Chaplin [in The Great Dictator]…Silent figures are basically like figures in cartoons, they don’t know death, they don’t know sexuality even, they don’t know suffering, they just go on in their oral egotistic striving, like cats and mouse in a cartoon: you cut them into pieces, they’re reconstituted. There is no finitude, there is no mortality here. There is evil, but a kind of a naïve, good evil, you are just egotistical, you want to compete, you want to hit the other, but there is no guilt proper. What we get with sound is interiority, depth, guilt, pulpability, in other words the complex oedipal universe. The problem of the film is not only the political problem, how to get rid of totalitarianism, of its terrible seductive power, but it is also this more formal problem, how to get rid of this terrifying dimension of the voice. Or, since we cannot get rid of it, how to domesticate it, how to transform this voice nonetheless into the means of expressing humanity, love, and so on…
[Chaplin’s character] delivers his big speech about the need of love, understanding between people, but there is a catch, even a double catch: people applaud exactly in the same way as they were applauding Hitler. The music that accompanies this great humanist finale, the overture to Wagner’s opera Lohenngrin is the same music as the one we hear when Hitler is daydreaming about conquering the entire world and where he has a balloon in the shape of the globe, the music is the same. This can be read as the ultimate redemption of music, that the same music which served evil purposes can be redeemed to served the good, or it can be read – and I think it should be read – in a much more ambiguous way, that with music we cannot ever be sure, insofar as it externalises our inner passion music is always potentially a threat.
1. Fugazi, ‘Smallpox Champion’, In On The Kill Taker (1993)
Smallpox champion, U S of A
Give natives some blankets
Warm like the grave
This is the pattern cut from the cloth
This is the pattern designed to take you right out, right out, right out
This is the frontier with winter’s so cold
Greed informs action where action makes bold
To take all the cotton that’s cut from the stalk
Weave the disease that’s gonna take you right out, right out, right out
What is good for the future what was good for the past
What is good for the future…won’t last
Bury your heart U S of A
History rears up to spit in your face
You saw what you wanted
You took what you saw
We know how you got it
Your method equals wipe out, wipe out, wipe out
The end of the frontier and all that you own
Under the blankets of all that you’ve done
Memory serves us to serve you
Yet memory serves us to never let you wipe out, wipe out, wipe out
You’ll get yours
2. Ani Difranco, ‘Fuel’, Little Plastic Castle (1998)
I am increasingly concerned about the ways that International Relations (IR) as a discipline seems unable to communicate to everyday citizens about issues of tremendous importance. I am repeatedly struck by our inability to speak to the people whose lives are aﬀected daily by the issues we are supposed to be studying. More importantly, I am struck by how irrelevant we and our work can seem to the world’s population.
In 2003, I grappled quite openly and vocally with this alienation. The annual International Studies Association (ISA) Conference was being held in Portland, Oregon that year. Throughout the hallowed halls of the soul-numbing conference hotel, the discipline of IR was displaying its strengths and weaknesses. The US and its ‘ coalition of the willing’ were on the verge of invading Iraq. But within the ISA, there was little attempt to grapple with what this meant. My few attempts to stage some form of protest and intellectual outrage proved heart-warming but ineﬀectual. Then, at the end of the week, I went to a punk club a few blocks from the hotel to see a Joe Strummer tribute show. Joe Strummer, the frontman for the Clash, had died suddenly a few months before, and now over twenty bands from all over the region were coming together to play a beneﬁt show. Each band performed two or three Clash songs; one band getting up after the other, sharing amps and a drum set. On stage, the bands were using the songs to make sense of the dangerous world we all found ourselves in. The in-between song banter reﬂected this – comments about President George W. Bush, remarks about American fascism, concerns about the impending war on Iraq, and pleas to register to vote. The kids in the club were using the Clash and punk rock, much as I did years before, to help them understand the world they were inheriting. While the discipline of IR pontiﬁcated down the street to itself about world aﬀairs, I swirled in the mosh pit wondering: what relevance did I and the ISA have to these kids? Sadly, it seemed to me that we as a discipline were doing a poor job communicating with most of the people outside that conference hotel.
Leaving aside Dunn’s very interesting analysis of punk rock’s role as a form of counter-hegemonic global communication and subversive political message, the opening lines resonated in a profound way for me, as I share Dunn’s experience of punk music providing a frame for engaging with world politics. This leads me to the question: how does our route into the study of world politics affect our work? Continue reading →