14 April 2014

On Pharrell's "Happy"

This is a cross-post from Cyborgology.

I find Pharrell’s massive hit “Happy” really, really irritating. And, for that reason, I love it. In the same way that The Sex Pistols were Malcolm McLaren’s massive joke on us, this song is, I think, Pharrell’s attempt to pull a fast one on the economy of viral “upworthiness”–an economy that, as David has shown, is really racist.
So, before I get into “Happy,” let me first explain what I mean by the “viral economy of upworthiness.” To be really simplistic, what I mean by the term is this: the rhizomatic, exponential spread of positive affect (“upworthiness”) across social media, which uses fan labor (ie., the labor of sharing and spreading) to generate profits for media corporations (both the social media corporations, like YouTube, and the record companies, who profit from each play/click.) In a way, the viral economy of upworthiness is a lot like finance capital–instead of algorithmically intensifying money, this economy algorithmically intensifies positive feelings and/or affects. For example, as David argues, Upworthy videos “zoom in on heroic moments that are emotionally powerful”; Upworthy banks on the viral spread of these good feelings. The viral economy of upworthiness spreads positive affect like a disease, because the business model only works when happiness spreads like cancer. Social media business models require users to share things (that’s how we make ‘connections’ that generate the oh-so-valuable “data” sold to third parties), and apparently positive affects like happiness are more shareable than negative ones (there’s still no “dislike” button on Facebook, right?). What David’s article brilliantly points out is that this organization of the means of production is also a racialized and imperialist one, one in which non-white, non-Western people do the groundwork for this economy of viral upworthiness. Capitalism says there can be no majority for the pity (Kein Mehrheit Für Die Mitleid--who knew KMFDM basically predicted social media capitalism?), so to speak, so it outsources the work of transforming tragedy or bad feeling into happiness or upworthiness onto the same groups of people who have historically done the white/Western world’s un/undercompensated dirty work.
OK, cheeky music jokes aside, let’s talk about “Happy.”
For a number of reasons, the song sounds manic and anxious. First, there’s the tempo. It’s about 160 BPM. For some reference, Motley Crue’s “Kickstart My Heart” (whose first line is “When I get high, get high on speed”) clocks in at 180 BPM, Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” a proper dance banger, is 128 BPM, Kesha & Pitbull’s “Timber” is 130 BPM, as is Fatboy Slim’s “Eat Sleep Rave Repeat.” So, “Happy” is a full 30 BPM faster than most contemporary EDM-pop songs, songs designed for crowds of twentysomethings hopped up on MDMA. In this light, “Happy” seems a bit like a super-sized dose of sonic Adderall, a properly legal and bourgeois dose of speed that helps propel us through our hyperemployed days and perform the upworthy affective labor so many of our jobs demand. We’d need Adderall to make it all the way through the song’s marathon 24-hour video. Perhaps this video is commenting on hyperempolyment andreal subsumption, capitalism’s increasing ability to realize its dream of the 24-hour work day? (And seriously, don’t those drawn out “eeeeeee”s in the chorus suggest the clenched-jaws of a speed freak?)
Another reason this song sounds manic and anxious is because, as Kariann Goldschmitt (@kgoldschmitt) pointed out in a conversation we had on Twitter, the song never releases any tension. The song is basically one long plateau with two breaks that build a little bit of tension without releasing it in a hit or a climax (like the soar in “We Found Love,” or the drop in something like “Tsunami” or “Bangarang”). The break from 1:49-2:13 builds sonic tension: the clapping intensifies the rhythmic texture, and the addition of the choir and the resonance of the church sanctuary intensifies the timbre, but the downbeat of the new verse doesn’t release that tension. There’s a condensed version of that intensification at 3:02-3:13, and yet again we are denied a proper climax point. Being “Happy” seems like a lot of affective labor with no payoff–the surplus value of our happiness labor goes to somebody else.
And I think that’s what Pharrell is trying to point out. As I read his performance, he’s slyly critiquing the affective labor “upworthy” white supremacist pop culture requires of black performers.
First, what role to black culture workers play in white supremacist upworthiness? As I have argued before, black culture workers are often like sous-chefs who prep the affective/emotional mise en place for “our” performance of upworthiness (they do the work of “organizing” whites’ ignorance of ongoing racism). That is, they’re supposed to perform positive affects and emotions–like heroic overcoming, as in the example David discusses in his post–that audiences then transform into a higher-order upworthiness. “We” perceive “our” appreciation of “their” performance as evidence of “our” commitment to multiculturalism. However, if black people were manifestly unhappy, that would shatter the myth of post-racial multiculturalism. So, post-racial white supremacy demands blacks play happy. [1]. And that’s just what Pharrell does. He plays happy.(Perhaps this is one reason “Happy” was the song that broke the recent 14-week absence of lead black artists from the top of the Billboard Hot 100? It provided precisely the kind of surplus value people expect from black artists?)
But, there are (at least) two ways that his performance works against the literal interpretation of it as the expression of happiness. First, his vocal performance adopts some strategies used by Billie Holiday to transform banal, racist and sexist Tin Pan Alley rejects into nuanced art songs. Angela Davis discusses Holiday’s “working with and against the platitudinous content” of pop songs (Blues Legacies & Black Feminism, 163) at length. Here, I want to focus on one specific type of vocal embellishment that Holiday uses all the time, and that Pharrell also uses throughout “Happy”: they both mimic, in their vocal melodies, the pitch shifts that people use in spoken language to indicate sarcasm. Holiday does it here in “When a Woman Loves a Man,” which, when taken literally, is a really sexist song. Listen to how she dips down and back up in the first verse (e.g., “just another ma-an,” “she’ll just string al-ong”):
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Sure, these are super sexist lyrics. But by mimicking the pitch patterns that Americans use when being sarcastic, Holiday ironizes these lyrics. She’s not endorsing them, she’s making fun of them. This is reinforced by the song’s last line, which doesn’t go down in pitch, but up. In spoken language, that indicates a question: “That’s how it goes, when a woman loves a man?” By phrasing this as a question rather than a declamation, Holiday sarcastically critiques the song’s sexism. Pharrell echoes Holiday’s vocal sarcasm in “Happy”’s verses–for example, listen to how he moves the pitch around on “balloon” at 0:26 in the first verse. There’s also “news” in the beginning of the second verse. The choruses use another type of sarcasm: deadpan. The choruses are sung almost entirely on the same pitch. This mimics the flat deadpan one uses to indicate that you don’t fully believe what you’re saying or reiterating, often because you’re expected/forced to say it.
So, I think there’s a good bit of musical evidence that Pharrell is critiquing the white supremacist expectation that he perform upworthiness for white audiences. But his visual performance also gives us some evidence that he’s pulling a fast one on us: his hat.
He wears the hat throughout the video, but it’s central to his overall ‘brand’ at the moment. It even has its own Twitter account. So, this hat is important.
The hat is a vintage Vivienne Westwood hat. As Alison Davis notes over at The Cut, this is the same style hat that Malcolm McLaren wore in his hip hop video, “Buffalo Gals.”
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This is the same Malcolm McLaren who formed and managed The Sex Pistols–mainly as a huge art prank. McLaren was the master of “The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle”. The “swindle” here is that the joke is on us–the Pistols are basically a prank, a massive troll designed to rile up the general public. The Pistols aren’t authentic working-class rebellion–they’re manufactured for some too-clever art-school condescension at bourgeois moralism.
And that’s precisely what “Happy” is–it’s trolling bourgeois upworthiness. That’s what the hat is supposed to tell us: in the same way that McLaren was trolling Thatcherites, Pharrell is trolling Obama/upworthy liberals.
Most (white) people seem to take the song literally. They don’t get the sarcasm, or the troll. Perhaps the question this song begs most is: Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?
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[1]This accords with what Sara Ahmed says in her famous “Feminist Killjoys” essay: “Marilyn Frye argues that oppression involves the requirement that you show signs of being happy with the situation in which you find yourself. As she puts it, “it is often a requirement upon oppressed people that we smile and be cheerful. If we comply, we signify our docility and our acquiescence in our situation.” To be oppressed requires that you show signs of happiness, as signs of being or having been adjusted. For Frye “anything but the sunniest countenance exposes us to being perceived as mean, bitter, angry or dangerous”.”

09 April 2014

"Waves of Moderation"--My plenary talk for the Sound, Music, & Affect Conference at Stony Brook on 4/18

I'm honored and excited to be giving one of the plenary talks at the upcoming Sound, Music, & Affect conference at Stony Brook.

Here is the full text of my talk. 

IASPM attendees will notice that this is a more fully fleshed-out version of the talk I gave there.

Here is a preview of what it's about: 

Waves of Moderation: the sound of sophrosyne in ancient Greek and neoliberal times

“The ear serves as the organ of balance, readily ‘making sense’ of things and recognising resonances and proportions between the frequencies of sound waves--as with an octave, for example. The eye can make very accurate alignments, but has no way of telling the proportional relationships between the frequencies of light” (Henriques, Sonic Bodies, xxix)

For those of you who aren’t pop music scholars and/or Pixies fans, the title of this paper puns on the Pixies’s song “Waves of Mutilation”. I use the concept of waves--both this image of a cresting wave, taken from Ludacris’s 2012 video for “The Rest of My Life,” and the idea of algorithmic wave-functions—to unpack one way neoliberalism’s market logics get translated to and manifest as affects and modes of affective production. Sophrosyne—often translated as moderation or self-mastery—is a (maybe the) switchpoint between waves and affects. Sophrosyne can translate between algorithms and affects because it is a type of affective self-relation modeled on acoustic harmony—that is, on sound waves. So, the sonic logic of sophrosyne is central to its role in neoliberal epistemologies, structures of subjectivity, and values or ideals.
But before I dive into that argument, I want to situate it for you in terms of both my larger project and, more importantly, the themes of this conference: sound, music, and affect.
As a philosopher, I have two interrelated questions about sound and affect: (1) Why are affect and sound studies popular and trendy now? What set of epistemological, institutional, political, and other conditions exist such that both sound, on the one hand, and affect, on the other, have risen to prominence (alongside digital studies) as the new vanguard subfields across the humanities…excepting mainstream analytic philosophy, of course? (This exception is worth further consideration, but not something I can address here.) (2) Why is the slippage between sound and affect so common in scholarship in both areas? For example, sound studies scholar Julian Henriques argues “Sounding…is not a thought but a feeling” (Sonic Bodies xvii), and affect theorists repeatedly use terms like “vibes” or “attunement” in their work. Stony Brook’s own Eduardo Mendieta just published a paper that uses sound as a framework to discuss racialized “affect” and “the viscera of racism” (1). What about “sound” makes it such an attractive tool for theorizing affect?
The Foucaultian-Nietzschean genealogist in me knows there is no one reason for the rise of affect and sound studies. Lots of big and small factors coalesced so that these constellations of sound and affect gained traction as sites of intellectual productivity. I can’t give a comprehensive genealogy of sound and affect studies, nor is that my aim. Rather, I think the rise of sound and affect studies is a symptom of something broader and more fundamental, which I call neoliberalism’s sonic, acoustic episteme.
The neoliberalism of the early 21st century West has upgraded the regime of the gaze to the regime of acoustics, panopticism to algorithmic sorting of metadata into signal and noise (to use Nate Silver’s terms), a metaphysics of subjects and objects to one of vibes, that is, as Julian Henriques puts it, of “dynamic patterning propagated through a medium” (xvii). As this quote from Henriques suggests, neolibearlism’s understanding of sonic is very specific. This is not the proportional theory of Ancient Greece, or what Attali calls the “combinatoric” or “representational” theory of the Moderns, but an acoustic and algorithmic theory of sound. This acoustic episteme grounds our metaphysics, our ontology, our ethics, and our aesthetics. We think, perceive, and feel acoustically—that’s one reason why sound studies make sense now more than they did fifteen or thirty years ago. Because we think, perceive, and feel acoustically, we care about vibes, about affect understood as non-propositional, non-representational implicit knowledge (what Adriana Cavarero calls, following Levinas, the “Saying,” and what Jean-Luc Nancy calls “resonance”). This acoustic, algorithmic episteme is manifest in many prominent theories of affect—from Steve Shaviro’s work on post-cinematic affect, to Sarah Ahmed’s work on feminist “bad vibes,” to Deleuzian-inspired work on affect (e.g., Massumi, Puar, etc.). The “affect” that’s the subject of affect theory is generally understood as an acoustic, sonic phenomenon—as a dynamic patterning propagated through a medium.
This is obviously a very big claim. Too big, in fact, for me to fully substantiate here, and big enough that it’s the topic of a book manuscript I’m currently writing. Today I want to present a part of this research, a slice that begins to substantiate the bigger claims I just made. This slice is focused on the concept of sophrosyne as the “orthos logos” of both ancient Greek and neoliberal political and ethical thought.
In what follows, I will first discuss ancient Greek (mainly Platonic) notions of sophrosyne, and show how this concept is grounded in ancient Greek music theory, specifically, their understanding of harmony as geometric proportion. I will then use Jacques Attali’s work on music and Michel Foucault’s late work on both ancient Greek thought and neoliberalism to first (a) establish that moderation is important to neoliberalism’s marketization of everything, and then (b) show that this neoliberal concept of moderation is, like ancient Greek sophrosyne, grounded in a concept of harmony, but a concept of harmony that’s different than the Greeks’ geometric one. This neoliberal concept of harmony is acoustic and algorithmic. I will conclude with an example of acoustic sophrosyne, both as a structure of subjectivity and as a musical gesture—the aforementioned Ludacris song.


5. Conclusion
Neoliberal sophrosyne is the practice of distorting oneself as much as possible--being as “loud,” as “gaga,” as manic-pixie-dreamy, as “ludacris” as we can--without upsetting the overall signal. It’s “healthy” risk-taking that doesn’t pass over into pathological over- or under-use. To be successful entrepreneurs of ourselves, we must be moderate. And as the Luda video suggests, being “moderate” means being just white, masculine, homonormative enough so that your self-entrepreneurship doesn’t distort the overall distribution of wealth and privilege.  
If human capital is, as Angela Mitropoulos puts it, “the unfolding of (capitalist) economic logic onto putatively non-market behaviours” (Mitropoulos Contract & Congagion 149), sophrosyne explains how market mechanisms—that is, algorithms--can manifest in and across bodies as affects.
            Sophrosyne translates algorithms to affect, mathematical propositions to kinesthetic and aesthetic properties. It is a tool neoliberalism uses to make affect, corporeality, and non-propositional/drastic/implicit knowledges legible to, and thus controllable by, market logics. That is, sophrosyne allows us to think of and/or experience affect, bodies, habit, non-propositionalizable phenomena as a (neoliberal, deregulated) market.
            It’s how we bring otherwise non-quantifiable phenomena into algorithmic quantifiability. This is why the sonic metaphor is so important. Understanding something in sonic terms lets us think of it algorithmically, which then easily translates into statistical/algorithmic terms. I’m arguing that sonic metaphors do important ideological work for neoliberalism—it’s one significant way that non-quantifiable, non-propositionalizable phenomena are conceivable as markets or in market terms.

28 March 2014

Against "Ordinaryism" as an alternative to Accelerationism

Recently Robert Jackson wrote an essay that considered "ordinaryism" as a possible alternative to neoliberal accelerationism. He argues:

Our provocation towards, what I call ‘ordinaryism’ is less of a tactical move, not a hostile polemic, certainly not a threat, than it is a sympathetic twin operating alongside accelerationism’s endorsement of universal self-mastery. The philosophical fate of the human creature, tends to re-assert self-mastery from time to time, until it runs out of steam, or submits to itself that the best “science” undercuts its own majestic foundations, leading to critical revisions. Ordinaryism is not intended to trump accelerationism, than it is presented as an alternative to think about the ignorance of limitations within human finitude and of human creatures, which constitute the very presence of the ordinary. Ordinaryism doesn’t advocate a traditional ‘ordinary’, natural, ‘way of life’ against future mastery - nothing of the sort - rather, it seeks to expose the hidden wound of human mastery which becomes unavoidable.
I have a forthcoming article on, among other things, Spandau Ballet, which I think shows some of the problems with something like 'ordinaryism' or 'normcore.' Here is a full copy of the unedited proofs of the article, which will come out sometime this summer in Culture, Theory and Critique. I've re-printed a relevant excerpt below:

Regimes of ‘True’: ‘True’ is uncool in two different ways: one is sonic, and one is political. Its sonic uncool is primarily economic, whereas its political uncool is primarily aesthetic. Comparing the two types of uncool, I argue that uncool can be an effective alternative to the biopolitical dimensions of neoliberal hegemony only insofar as it targets populations, as the first (sonic) example does. The second (political) example shows that, as an individualized ethos, uncool actually reinforces the biopolitics of cool.
First, ‘True’ is sonically uncool – it’s so sonically moderate that it can’t be profitably loudened. The economics just don’t work out. As recent research in audio engineering suggests, the original mix is so precisely and carefully normalized (in the general sense, not the technical audio sense) that it cannot be profitably deregulated (‘dynamically processed’ in audio engineering jargon). In their study of the limits of ‘loudness’, specifically music listener’s tolerance of ‘distortion’ and ‘potentially fatiguing sound’ (that is, just the sort of ‘noise’ or ‘difference’ prized by cool), Tomas and Furdek (2007: 1) chose to use a 30-second sample from ‘True’ as the audio track for the control and, in remixed form, the variables. They were studying ‘the perceptibility of aggressive digital audio broadcast processing’ and its effect on audio quality (2007: 1). In contemporary audio engineering, it is common practice to push sounds to their limit – to maximize the ratio between a carrier signal’s frequency deviation (how much the signal speeds up and/or slows down as it is broadcast) and its amplitude (how much power it has, its voltage) (Devine 2013; Hinkes-Jones 2013). ‘Today’s music is louder than ever’, the authors note, because the technique called dynamic processing makes it easy for audio engineers to ‘push the loudness envelope as far as it goes’ (Tomas and Furdek 2007: 1). Dynamic processing is an automated system for constantly monitoring and re-balancing audio signals (like an FM radio signal). All broadcast signal needs processing, just as all recorded music needs mixing – the act of broadcast or recording introduce noise into signal, and processing deals with that noise so that the resulting mix sounds better. In this case, ‘better’ means loud. ‘In many markets, broadcasters believe that being louder than the competing stations will make listeners stop on their station when tuning across the dial’ (Tomas and Furdek 2007: 2). So, loudness is an aesthetic preference. ‘True’ is economically uncool because the cost of achieving this aesthetic ideal outweighs the benefits.
Tomas and Furdek chose ‘True’ for their study because ‘it is difficult to process dynamically’ (2007: 2; emphasis mine). In other words, it’s hard to make ‘True’ loud, to push its mix to this limit. In a sense, the original is so narrowly mixed, so ‘spectrally sparse’ (2) that generating a sufficiently ‘loud’ imbalance between frequency and amplitude introduces obvious glitches and distortions into the mix. Pushing ‘True’ to its loudest limit actually creates diminishing returns: it won’t sound attractively loud, just odd or damaged (i.e. distastefully over-compressed). It produces unfavorable frequencies that can’t be brought in line with more favorable ones.  
Insofar as this taste for sonic loudness is a version of cool-hunting (pushing audio signals to their limit), ‘True’ is uncool because it can’t be profitably loudened. Strategically or practically, this uncoolness is the result of excessive regulation and regularity (Clayton 2004). The original mix and mastering had to be careful and precise – sparse spectra means less room for error: inexactness would be more obvious. Its refined normalization (a very precise mix) undermines attempts to intensify irregularity. Working in the early 1980s, neither the band nor the record’s producers could have anticipated postmillennial audio engineering technologies and conventions. They wouldn’t have known this specific type of loudness would be ‘cool’ (i.e. a profitable transgression), so ‘True’’s sonic uncoolness isn’t an intentional result of an explicit, subjective choice. However, ‘True’’s immunity to distortion anticipates later, more explicitly critical uses of uncool. Writing in 2004, Jace Clayton notes shifts away from distortion in various musical subcultures including crunk and grime: ‘think about Lil Jon’'s clean synth lines, squeaky clean, narcotically clean, as clean as synthetic drugs in a plastic pill case – crunk is HEAVY, but without distortion… the new hardcore embraces cleanliness like never before’. Here Clayton argues that underground music aesthetics use ‘cleanliness’ as a way to distinguish themselves from a mainstream aesthetic that emphasizes distortion. 
In ‘True’, what’s normalized is the mix: an overall balance is maintained by regulating relationships among individual tracks, not individual tracks in isolation. Dynamic processing deregulates these relationships. Just as ‘the phenomena addressed by biopolitics are, essentially, aleatory events that occur within a population that exists over a period of time’ (Foucault 2003: 246), the sonic phenomena addressed by loudness and dynamic processing are, essentially, aleatory events that occur within a mix that exists over a period of time (i.e. dynamic processes). ‘True’’s sonic regularity is biopolitically uncool because it intervenes on the same level that biopolitics does – the mix, the ‘milieu’ (Foucault 2003: 245), or the population.
Given contemporary tastes for ‘loudness’, ‘True’ sounds sonically uncool. It is aesthetically uncool because the economics can’t be made to work. But why might the song’s original audiences, like those aforementioned critics, have heard it not just as bad or distasteful, but as uncool? To answer this, we have to return to the gendered and racialized dimensions of those critiques. This will also help me distinguish between an individualized politics of uncool, uncool as taste-entrepreneurship, and a biopolitics of uncool, uncool as means of counter-productivity.
The biopolitics of cool is a system in which elites, by investing in ‘cool’ ventures (i.e. their own human capital), rise to the top of the population. A rejection of the mainstream by those who would otherwise be identified with it, cool targets mainly white (cis/hetero) men.  Because white supremacist patriarchy normalizes and centers white masculinity, ‘cool’ subjects establish their exceptional status as men by feminizing mainstream averageness.  For example, a website dedicated to (implicitly white) fraternity culture describes Carly Rae Jepson’s 2012 megahit ‘Call Me Maybe’ as ‘so excruciatingly mediocre’ that ‘I would rather… ge[t] an electric charge run through my dick than hear “Call Me Maybe” one more time’ (stufffratpeoplelike 2011). Responding to the prospect of hearing ‘Call Me Maybe’ yet another time, the author is reacting not so much to the song itself as to its pervasiveness; it’s excruciatingly mediocre because it was an excessively successful hit record. Arguing that this mediocrity is more intensely damaging than the torture of male genitalia, this post equates mediocrity – the failure to be cool and cutting-edge – with emasculation. This is why the above-cited critiques of ‘True’ and Hard can use the language of failed gender performance to describe these records’ aesthetic and political faults: their uncoolness reads as a deficiency in masculinity. This begs the question: is uncool available only to already-privileged subjects? For example, though a white man’s deficiency in masculine cool reads as uncool, would a (white or non-white) woman’s or non-white man’s deficient masculinity be read this way? In white supremacist patriarchy, could women and non-white men ever appear too normal?
But before I fully engage that question, I want to clarify the racial stakes of cool and uncool. The biopolitics of cool, like all practices of hipness, feeds on the ‘difference’ of racially non-white and culturally non-Western people (see Monson 1995).  As I discuss in my New Inquiry article, this difference can give white appropriators the ‘edge’ they seek. White cool is racist, but uncool is not necessarily less racist. One way to be uncool is to practice inefficient or unfashionable forms of cultural and racial appropriation. For example, ‘True’ invokes racist logics of cultural appropriation in the line about ‘listening to Marvin [Gaye]’ – this is a sort of Northern Soul-style reference to classic Motown. But this specific type of racial/cultural appropriation wasn’t transgressive by the early 1980s, when hip hop was the hot new black/Latin/Caribbean thing for whites (like Mick Jones in B.A.D., or Blondie’s rapping on ‘Rapture’) to appropriate. This new type of hipster racism was edgier and more avant-garde than the older style of hipster racism, whose edginess had been blunted by widespread appropriation. So part of being cool is being racist in the ‘right’ ways, and ‘True’ is uncool because it isn’t fashionably racist… it’s just predictably racist. So, perhaps then-contemporary audiences and critics rejected records like ‘True’ because they sounded too normal, too average, too… uncool. The song was judged aesthetically uncool because it couldn’t be made to boost the listener’s ‘cool’ human capital.
This helps clarify the difference between uncool and hipster irony. Hipster irony is a version of cool: it appropriates cultural objects and practices, using their perceived otherness, difference, or aesthetic badness to intensify the hipster’s eccentricity. This eccentricity is the source of the hipster’s human capital – they stand above and beyond the merely average. Uncool may also appropriate and revalue, but that revaluation doesn’t translate into a profit – it doesn’t generate enough surplus value. Hipster irony intensifies one’s human capital, but uncool is a bad investment. For example, just as ‘True’ can’t be loudened without introducing perceptible errors, Spandau Ballet’s appropriation of (Marvin Gaye’s) black masculinity isn’t transgressive enough to overcome the feminizing effects of mainstream pop success – they still get derided as ‘foppish’. So, hipster irony and uncool may bear a superficial resemblance, but they are fundamentally different: with respect to human capital, hipster irony profitably intensifies edginess, whereas uncool brings diminishing returns. Or, hipster irony is aesthetically uncool and economically cool, whereas the uncool I’m theorizing in this article is aesthetically uncool because it is economically uncool.
But back to the question: is uncool a form of privilege? Is it a good investment for individual subjects and hegemonic institutions? As a venture of the individual subject (i.e. an investment in his/her human capital), uncool is an option only to those already privileged enough to be potentially ‘cool’ subjects. Uncool is the effect of refusing or failing to do the work of cool-making, the refusal or failure to rise above the mainstream norm. The queer white masculinity attributed to New Romantic bands like Spandau Ballet differs significantly from the (generally non-white) queerness then frequently attributed to disco, which was also hugely popular and commercially profitable in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Disco’s queerness was such a threat they infamously burned disco records in Comiskey Park; uncool may be distastefully queer, but it’s not threatening enough to start a white riot of sorts. This suggests that uncool registers as an individual’s failure to embody the identity white patriarchy demands of him, not as generalized threat to hegemonic white patriarchy itself. In other words, uncool is the refusal or failure to be sufficiently entrepreneurial as an individual subject.
As ‘True’’s uncool racism suggests, though uncool may be an alternative to entrepreneurial cool-hunting, it could intensify broader structures of white supremacist patriarchy. Individual-level changes may have little effect on macro-level processes. Like deregulatory practice, which is ‘free’ at the individual level and organized at the institutional one, ‘uncool’ allows individuals to opt out of norms and institutions while simultaneously reaffirming those norms and institutions as such. A genuine alternative to the biopolitics of cool, one that addresses these norms and institutions, will work on and through populations, not just individuals.

15 March 2014

Some thoughts on "the mainstream"

Yesterday’s plenary panel at IASPM was about “the mainstream” as a (pop) cultural phenomenon, a media practice, and a critical theoretical concept. I have some really nerdy philosophical thoughts about the conversation that I didn’t bring up in the discussion because, well, I’m the only philosopher here and I didn’t want to drag the discussion down an idiosyncratic philosophical rabbit-hole.

Keir Keightley talked about how the “mainstream” is both placeless--it’s EVERYWHERE--and often geographically grounded in a very specific place, such as Tin Pan Alley, Hollywood, Bollywood, 30 Rock, “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere/New York, New York,” and so on.

The mainstream is both abstractly placeless and concretely local. This dynamic--it can be narrowly particular (local) because it is universal (placeless)--is what Hegel calls the dialectic of sense-certainty (which is in the Phenomenology). “Here” and “now” can refer to any very, very, microscopically specific place or time precisely because they refer to no specific place or time at all. Any instant can be “now.”

So this got me thinking: How is the “mainstream,” as a sensory and aesthetic phenomenon--that is, as a practice of sense-discernment--organized by this dialectical movement back and forth between particularlity and universality, concreteness and abstraction? (A dialectic which, if you follow Hegel, is a feature of sense-discernment as such.) Is the idea of “the mainstream” like “here” and “now”? How? Can Hegel’s dialectic of sense-certainty be in any way helpful in thinking about the problem of “the mainstream”?

So, first, let’s walk through the passage. Hegel begins this section of The Phenomenology of Spirit discussing Descartes’ wax passage from the second meditation. Thinking about the wax, seeing and touching it, how can I be certain of its physical existence before me? How can I trust my senses to provide me with reliable information about the wax? Well, I can’t, reasons Descartes, BUT I can be sure that I exist, either as the perceiver of the wax or as the object of deception/false impressions. That’s what Hegel summarizes in paragraph 91.

Then in paragraph 93 Hegel notes a problem: How can I know that there is a correspondence between how things really are and how they appear to me? How do I know what I see and feel here, now, is really what is here, now? To test this out, Hegel does a little thought experiment: write down what “now” is--now is nighttime. But the problem is that “now” is nighttime, now, but later it nighttime won’t be an accurate description of “now.” (Yeah, this is seriously approaching Spaceballs territory….). “Now” is both this precise moment in time, but it’s also not this precise moment in time, but another precise moment in time. As Hegel puts it, “The Now that is night is kept fixed, i.e. it is treated as what it is given out to be, as something which is; but it proves to be rather a something which is not” (96). Now, here, these are both “with equal indifference this as well as that.” So, these very precise, narrowly-focused terms are actually “universal” (96)--their ability to mark a narrowly specific point in space or time is conditioned upon their abstractness, their lack of reference to any specific point in space or time. Any time can be “now,” any place, “here.” But at the same time, the only space that actually IS “here” is right here, where sitting. “Of course we do not present before our mind in saying, so the universal this, or being in general, but we utter what is universal; in other words, we do not actually and absolutely say what in this sense-certainty we really mean” (97). So, the concrete content of “the mainstream” is, according to this logic, necessarily ineffable.

If “the mainstream” doesn’t tell us anything specific about the content we’re using it to describe, the object of our perception, what does it do? What does it indicate? Well, it tells us about us, the perceiving subject. As in Descartes’s second meditation, the certainty in sense-certainty lies not in the object, but in the subject: the wax passage tells us about the Cogito (the kind of thinking thing I am), not about the wax. “Sense-certainty is thus indeed banished from the object, but it is not yet thereby done away with; it is merely forced back into the I” (100). Hegel continues, “what does not disappear is the I qua universal, whose seeing is neither the seeing of this tree nor of this house, but just seeing simpliciter” (102).

And this “I” is similarly universal: By saying “this Here”, “this Now”, “an individual thing”, I say all Thises, Heres, Nows, or Individuals. In the same way when I say “I”, “this individual I”, I say quite generally “all I's”, every one is “I”, this individual I” (102). So what “the mainstream” does is produce the subject as universal, as any individual at all. “The mainstream,” organized by this dialectic between absolute particularity and universality, produces subjects as “anyones”--it mainstreams individuals, in other words.

But, of course, not everyone can be an anyone. Some people are too “particular” to be anyone in general. Only people oriented in the same trajectory I am can constitute this “mainstream.”

So, I think Hegel’s dialectic of sense-certainty can illuminate the concept of “the mainstream.” It unpacks the concept’s paradoxical locality and generality, and it shows how the concept of the mainstream produces its own constituent population.