The Olympic Semiosphere

The chafing constraints of a thesis prevent any original reflection on our hallowed Olympic moment (not least because Rahul has already said so much, and so well). There was little to better Iain Sinclair’s apt diagnosis of “a wonderful national hallucination: a beautiful conjuring between William Borroughs and Charles Satchi…the combination of paranoia and advertising run wild” (a clip worth watching for Jon Snow’s outraged ignorance at the origins of the Olympic Flame [clue: Nazis]). Reports had filtered through that the economic miracle was not as originally billed, with talk of Central London’s ‘ghost town’, stimulating a description elsewhere of the Olympics as an “economic bomb deployed against world cities”. And now there is the most welcome return of K-Punk. At length:

Welcome to the Hunger Games. The function of the Hunger Games is to suppress antagonism, via spectacle and terror. In the same way, London – 2012 preceded and accompanied by the authoritarian lockdown and militarisation of the city – are being held up as the antidote to all discontent. The feelgood Olympics, we are being assured, will do everything from making good the damage done by last year’s riots to seeing off the “threat” of Scottish independence. Any disquiet about London 2012 is being repositioned as “griping” or “cynicism”. Such “whinging”, it is claimed, assumed its proper place of marginality as the vast majority enjoy the Games, and LOCOG is vindicated…

…But once the Olympic floodlights are turned off, most will switch back from an attitude of mild interest to indifference towards even the most dramatic Olympic sports, never mind those many Olympic sports which plainly have limited specator appeal. This isn’t the point though: disquiet about London 2012 was never necessarily based in any hostility towards the sports. Enjoyment of the sport and loathing for LOCOG and the IOC are perfectly compatible.

Cynicism is just about the only rational response to the doublethink of the McDonalds and Coca Cola sponsorship (one of the most prominent things you see as you pass the Olympic site on the train line up from Liverpool Street is the McDonalds logo). As Paolo Virno argues, cynicism is now an attitude that is simply a requirement for late capitalist subjectivity, a way of navigating a world governed by rules that are groundless and arbitrary. But as Virno also argues, “It is no accident … that the most brazen cynicism is accompanied by unrestrained sentimentalism.” Once the Games started, cynicism could be replaced by a managed sentimentality.

Affective exploitation is crucial to late capitalism. The BBC’s own Caesar Flickerman (the interviewer who extracts maximum sentimental affect from the Hunger Games contestants before they face their deaths in the arena) is the creepily tactile trackside interviewer Phil Jones. Jones’s “interviews” with exhausted athletes, are surely as ritualised as any Chinese state broadcast. Emote. Emote again. Emote differently. Praise the crowd.

And, just in case you somehow missed it, the irrepressible CassetteBoy:

We are Illafifth Dynamite!

The Roots

In Capitalist Realism, Mark “K-Punk” Fisher writes of Kurt Cobain:

“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 classic dramas, and the multidisciplinary use of cinema, 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 Boisidea 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.

Things Fall Apart (1999) 

We are illafifth dynamite

“I am no man, I am dynamite.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

On Beginnings

“Listen close to my poetry, I examine this like an analyst, to see if you can handle this”

– Black Thought, “Next Movement

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.

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Has the Left given up on Economics?

With the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression continuing to slowly unfold, one of the most surprising consequences has been a non-event: the dearth of high-quality economic theorizing in leftist groups. [1] This is in spite of the opportunity the crisis presents for alternative economies, and in spite of the economic conundrum that developed economies find themselves in: too indebted for stimulus and too weak for austerity. This differend between austerity and stimulus indexes the insufficiency of either and yet few have taken up the necessity of thinking proper alternatives.

The leftist response to the economic crisis has instead been mostly been to focus on piecemeal reactions against government policies. The student movement arose as a response to tuition fee and EMA changes; the right to protest movement arose as a response to heavy-handed police treatment; and leftist parties have suggested a mere moderation of existing government policies. The project to bring about a fully different economic system has been shirked in favour of smaller-scale protests. There is widespread critique, but little construction.

Admittedly, the left is not entirely devoid of high-level economic theorizing. Rather, the more specific problem is that those few who do such work are a relatively tiny minority and are typically marginalized within the leftist scene. The attention and effort of the leading intellects of leftism (at least in the UK) are on social issues, race issues, rights issues, and identity issues. All important, to be sure, but there is no equivalent attention paid to economic issues.

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What We Talked About At ISA: The Monstrous Masculine: War Rape, Race/Gender, and the Figure of the Rapacious African Warrior

If there is something in these utterances more than youthful inexperience, more than a lack of factual knowledge, what is it? Quite simply it is the desire – one might indeed say the need – in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest.

Chinua Achebe, ‘An Image of Africa’ (1978)

Sometimes it seems that we’re merely Constructions made out of yarn, paper & wood with threads rising from our toes and fingertips. We pretend to talk and act as though we were alive but actually we don’t have any choice in the matter. Some secret power directs us.

Evan S. Connell, The Diary Of A Rapist (1966)

1. Rape, Ultra-Violence and Beethoven

When we speak of men in feminism, we might speak generally or specifically, of properties of maleness and masculinity or of things done by particular men (and usually some combination of the two). What is at stake is the distinction between masculinity as a set of internal properties and as a set of relational, and hence contingent, ones. Although this can be taken as denying any substance at all to that category ‘man’, it is perhaps just as well to say that we all build our own subdivided orders of maleness – from men we know, knew, or think we are; from our salient models of true and false and ambiguous masculinity; from the postures and poses we take as appropriate towards them; and from the frames we adopt for dealing with variety, with all the space for the exemplar, the exception, the masquerade and the average that they bring.

The monstrous masculine is one such model, or rather a set of models united by family resemblance. An object of horror, the monstrous masculine is a repository for tropes that identify the hideous excesses and obscene pleasures of maleness. Channelling Barbara Creed (and some Sjoberg and Gentry), it is a set of tropes and themes in our imaginaries of social action, frequently evoking, among others, ideas of a limitless and aggressive sexuality, a cold and calculating self-regard and/or a submerged, if frequently actualised, hatred of women and Woman that borders on the instinctual. In accounts of wartime sexual violence, this figure of the rapacious warrior (usually African) comes to be represented in terms of the calculating soldier-strategist (who chooses rape as a hyper-efficient means to an accumulatory end); the angry soldier-rapist (expressing a deep desire and sexuality); or the habitual soldier-ritualist (enacting the memes and symbolic imperatives of a community, culture or even race).

Think of the figure of the unreason-laced psychopath rapist, whether in the version Joanna Bourke examines as the ‘rapacious degenerate’ or that which Susan Brownmiller addresses as the ‘police-blotter rapist’: “[t]he typical American perpetrator of forcible rape…little more than an aggressive, hostile youth who chooses to do violence to women”. Such protagonists are common in popular representations of rape. In A Clockwork Orange, Alex and his droogs prowl the streets and lanes of town and country, opportunistically submitting the unlucky to attacks driven by a relentless juvenile machismo. And in the scandalous Irréversible, rape is also the product of a subterranean drive. ‘Le Tenia’ does not even search his victim for money as an afterthought – his priorities are only to enact his spontaneous lust and be called ‘daddy’ as he does so.

The monstrous masculine unites conceptions and intimations of masculinity as pathology. This is the Real of a “terrifying dimension, as the primordial abyss which swallows everything, dissolving all identities”. Put otherwise, it embodies in its most psychoanalytic inflection the idea (following Nick Cave) that the desire to possess her is a wound.

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Men In High Castles: The Politics of Speculative Fiction in International Relations

(Man, one assumes, is the proper study of Mankind. Years ago we were all cave Men. Then there is Java Man and the future of Man and the values of Western Man and existential Man and economic Man and Freudian Man and the Man in the moon and modern Man and eighteenth-century Man and too many Mans to count or look at or believe. There is Mankind. An eerie twinge of laughter garlands these paradoxes. For years I have been saying Let me in, Love me, Approve me, Define me, Regulate me, Validate me, Support me. Now I say Move over. If we are all Mankind, it follows to my interested and righteous and rightnow very bright and beady little eyes, that I too am a Man and not a Women, for honestly now, whoever heard of Java Woman and existential Woman and the values of Western Woman and scientific Woman and the alienated nineteenth-century Woman and all the rest of that dingy and antiquated rag-bag? All the rags in it are White, anyway. I think I am a Man; I think you had better call me a Man; I think you will write about me as a Man from now on and speak of me as a Man and employ me as a Man and treat me as a Man until it enters your muddled, terrified, preposterous, nine-tenths-fake, loveless, papier-mâché-bull-moose head that I am a man. (And you are a woman.) That’s the whole secret. Stop hugging Moses’ tablets to your chest, nitwit; you’ll cave in. Give me your Linus blanket, child. Listen to the female man. If you don’t, by God and all the Saints, I’ll break your neck.)

Joanna Russ, The Female Man (1975)

The wordless histories of walking, dress, housing, or cooking shape neighbourhoods on behalf of absences; they trace out memories that no longer have a place… They insinuate different spaces into cafés, offices, and  buildings. To the visible city they add those ‘invisible’ cities about which Calvino wrote. With the vocabulary of objects and well-known words, they create another dimension, in turn fantastical and delinquent, fearful and legitimating.

Michel de Certeau, Heterologies (1986), cited in Carolyn Nordstrom, Shadows 0f War

In ‘A Scanner Darkly’, as in ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’,  all intersubjective relations devolve into webs of suspicion and betrayal. It goes with the territory, and the territory is nowhere – an existential East Berlin where everything you do has to be deniable. You’re guided by the grim categorical imperative which agents ignore at their peril: act as if the person to whom you are talking to will sell you out. If they haven’t fucked you over yet, just wait… If they don’t fuck you over, you’ll do it to yourself… Before long, you split in two, like Arctor, and then there’s no way back (all the king’s horses and all the king’s men … ). But total mental breakdown is the best cover of all (‘they can’t interrogate something, someone, who doesn’t have a mind’). Double agents, double lives, shivering on street corners, not sure if you’re the Man or waiting for the Man, but you’re always waiting… Cold war and junkie Cold, cold efficiency (‘I am warm on the outside, what people see. Warm eyes, warm face, warm fucking fake smile, but inside I am cold all the time, and full of lies’), the duplicities and self-deceptions of the addict doubling those of the spy in deep cover.

Mark Fisher, ‘Mors Ontologica’

Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction. The international women’s movements have constructed ‘women’s experience’, as well as uncovered or discovered this crucial collective object. This experience is a fiction and fact of the most crucial, political kind. Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness, the imaginative apprehension, of oppression, and so of possibility. The cyborg is a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women’s experience in the late twentieth century. This is a struggle over life and death, but the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.

Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (1991)

These extracted sentiments cast a weird light on some recent examinations of Science Fiction and international politics. An emergent sub-sub-field its own right, the interface of SF and IR at first sight signifies the expanding openness of the discipline to the hitherto forbidden joys of aesthetics and culture [1]. Yet, despite nods to various low-political concerns, the more obvious, and better-worn, link between this social science and that culture is to trace a commonality of geo-political units and event cycles. Space opera empires, inter-galactic wars and cross-species diplomacy order the day in a game of analogues.

This incipient tendency indicates a rather different path than that suggested by the self-image of the cultural turn. Continue reading

Zero-Level Protest, the Student Movement and the Spectacle of Politics

I agree with Joe.

The fall-out from Wednesday’s fees protest has congealed into some familiar oppositions. On the one side, we have disavowal. The violent minority, undermining the broad case against cuts, inarticulate in their regression to a juvenile acting-out. On the other side, affirmation. The real vandals are Clegg and Cameron, the insurgents were the epiphenomenal expression of legitimate mass anger, and broken glass is the not-that-unfortunate substratum of all great political movements.

These are not morally equivalent narratives. The case for the disavowers is built on a palpable desire to appeal to bureaucratic reasonableness, and to present the case in terms sympathetic to the cadences and tones of power, as if the problem was one of flawed communication. More ‘rational debate’ please! More damagingly, the internal disciplining necessary to any movement conceived of as a Party is already under way. Bad protester, good protester. Wayward foot-soldier, clear-sighted leader. There was a serious message, and the hijackers lost it.

This is nonsense. That the march was larger than expected would have made news, barely. But the aerial shots of Westminster, and the collections of amusing signs and fancy dress, would have concurred fully with the established parameters, the well-worn rituals, of polite English disagreement. There would have been patronising cod-support about how polite the young are these days and Mock-The-Week non-jokes about the difference between Parisian insurrectionists and London shufflers. In such symbolic space, and especially on The Right, the trope of the feckless student is impermeable to disproof. This is the mistake of those scrambling for respectability. No amount of denouncing The Crazed Vandals Of Millbank will make the cause of education palatable (although those heading up the NUS will ascend, like those before them, into the lower ranks of party politics).

Slavoj Žižek put the appropriate response nicely:

“You could have delivered the same message without violence”. Fuck them, of course you can deliver the message. But nobody would hear the message. This is what they like, that 100 people gather and write a message and then you don’t even get the bottom note [in the day’s paper]…You have to break some windows to get the message through.

This is true enough, but should already alert us to some dangers, and to the necessity of overcoming the choice between affirmation and disavowal. Continue reading

Beware the Academic Troll-Master!

But I see motivating students, passing on enthusiasm, as the first and most important task of a teacher. (Which isn’t to say that one has to blindly encourage everything a student says or writes; far from it.) That’s why I would say that one of the most despicable figures in the academic bestiary is the Troll-Master: the figure who feeds on the crushed enthusiasm of belittled students. The easiest way to win a cheap kind of respect is by adopting a nothing-can-impress-me hyper-critical stance, doused in cool weltweltschmerz, finding fault everywhere, handing out praise and encouragement only very rarely; it’s a transparent tactic, but one that works surprisingly well, and not only on jejune students, but also on very accomplished people, even those who have written a number of books. Often, the Troll-Master’s own intellectual project will be mediocre and/or suspended – it’s clear that all their libidinal energy is tied up in enslaving students into neurotic servitude. Troll-Masters can permanently insinuate themselves into students’ heads, but usually their power depends upon the hothouse claustrophobia of the university department – they are village despots, whose charismatic tyranny seldom works outside their own turf. If they have a long-term effect, it is only to produce more grey vampires.

K-Punk, ‘Break Through in Grey Lair’

One temptation is the patronizing attempt to over-identify with the imperative “not to learn” supposedly possessed by students. We could call this the “slacker” temptation – of course all students want to do is smoke dope and play Playstation! This model of teaching presupposes two intellectual classes: those who (contingently) want to learn (the lecturer him- or herself) and those who do not (most students, and by extension, most everybody). This approach is a kind of mastery, disavowed in this case and all the more pernicious for it – I know enough to tell you that you do not need to know. It is the supercilious attitude of the newspaper columnist who chucks in references to Marx, postmodernism, etc. before airily informing the less-informed reader that he or she doesn’t need to bother finding out anything about them for him- or herself. Equality of intelligence is here smothered by the laziness, not of the students, but of the teacher, who churns out information without really believing that the audience will be interested in receiving it. As Rancière puts it, “explication is the work of laziness”. The fear masked here, both by assuming student apathy and by preserving the knowledge you yourself possess, is the idea that actually there is nothing “special” about your capacity to learn…

…We must acknowledge a changed landscape: not exclusion, straightforwardly, but a peculiar form of staggered expansion. The supposedly elite institutions are still there at the top, the old-boys and girls networks still churning out elite fodder for the same kinds of jobs – politics, diplomacy, high-end culture industry work, etc. At the same time, the expansion of higher education and the re-branding of ex-Polytechnics as universities in the UK has created a situation in which no one need be excluded. It is no longer a question of keeping them out, but of ensuring they go where they are supposed to. A further change comes at the economic level. As noted, fees have created a kind of split-subject of the university: the “client” who pays for a service and yet is still a subject “supposed to be criticized” or even failed. Endless feedback forms, along the lines of customer satisfaction surveys, entail that students are supposed to know how well that which they don’t yet know is being conveyed.

Nina Power, ‘Axiomatic Equality: Rancière and the Politics of Contemporary Education’