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.
“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.
If there is a point of unity for strong (non-Keynesian) critics of neoclassical economics it is their shared rejection of modelling. This is not to say such authors shun all use of abstraction, idealisation, and quantisation in favour of just qualitative, empirical efforts at explanation. Rather, modelling is held out as a practice whereby mathematical attempts to grasp economic laws become unhinged from reality; where abstraction begets abstraction for its own sake. For example, in his famous methodological treatise, Economics and Reality, Tony Lawson firmly demarcates the form of abstraction he recommends for economics from the practice of modelling – placing stress on the point where: “it seems vital that I indicate why the procedure to which I refer does not at all reduce to the activities of the ‘modelling’ project in question.” (Lawson 1997, 227)
For different reasons converging to the same end, advocates of the most active strand of Marxian economics, working from the Temporal Single System Interpretation (or TSSI), are equally averse to modelling, associating it with simultaneous, equilibrium interpretations of Marx’s labour theory of value, diverging from the correct representation of the theory. Inside the pages of Andrew Kliman’s recent book, Reclaiming Marx’s “Capital”, the word ‘model’ only occurs negatively in association with what he argues are flawed abstractions of the theory from Okishio’s theorem through much political economy in the 20th century (Kliman 2007, 44, 48, 66, 101, 176). The idea that Marx’s Capital might itself be considered a theoretical model of the economy is out of the question.
What explains this resistance to modelling for critics of the status quo in economics?
I’ve hesitated to comment on events unfolding in Egypt (and in the wider region, from Tunisia to Yemen). Not only do I lack any special knowledge of events but many others have said all that I would say with greater skill and clarity. Yet, a sense of solidarity with protesters and my frustration with the commentary on events leads me to offer a few thoughts on the ambiguous role that appeals to “realism” are playing in the response to the actions of the protestors and the government in Egypt.
As the protestors and Mubarak’s goons wait it out in Tahrir Square, the rebellion against the president has entered a key phase. Will the threat of continued violence give Mubarak the space he needs to solidify his power till next year, and in the process avoid the thorough changes the Egyptian people are demanding? As protestors face violence, exhaustion and deprivation the prospect of compromise must seem more desirable than before. The time seems ripe for expressions of support from key states and leaders. The protestors need our support; it’s much easier for Mubarak to play for time from the presidential palace than for protesters in the streets, but the men and women able to make a difference do not use their voices to share in democracy’s street-choir. And these moral midgets are attended to by their Lilliputian advisors, who counsel patience, restrain and reform that preserves stability.
Barak Obama has clearly mastered the dark art of evasive support, leaving no doubt that he’s all for Egyptian democracy that doesn’t change too much, too fast, and, most importantly, doesn’t compromise the key strategic interests of the US.
The administration’s restraint is also driven by the fact that, for the United States, dealing with an Egypt without Mr. Mubarak would be difficult at best, and downright scary at worst. For 30 years, his government has been a pillar of American foreign policy in a volatile region, not least because of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. American officials fear that a new government — particularly one dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist groups — may not honor the treaty signed in 1979 by Mr. Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar el-Sadat. (NY Times)
Asked if he would characterize Mubarak as a dictator Biden responded: “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with – with Israel. … I would not refer to him as a dictator.”
As I stand aloof and look there is to me something profoundly
affecting in large masses of men following the lead of those who
do not believe in men.
-Walt Whitman, “Thought”
The winter air has turned cold enough, has pressed in with its full weight, so that there is no more space for lies. The truth of crisis is that the powerful and the wealthy do not take responsibility, they assign it; they do not suffer their follies or their sins, they pay their penance in the currency of our lives.
We’ve spent the last few years living with the anxiety of impending doom, spurred on by hustlers of panic, addled prophets of economic Reformation, and Janus-faced managers of public interest.