Happy Mortal

This life, well-lived.

November 22, 2013
by rekonstruct
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Occupy and the New Politic

Two years have passed since Occupy changed the fate of western politics by showing the world what happens when a group of average American citizens exercise their constitutional rights in public (without asking permission or buying an exemption). What followed was a sort of apocalyptic revelation of the actual state of union in the days of late capitalism.

It has become clear since its inception that what Occupy revealed by its activity has been revealed prematurely. We still live with a semblance of free press, a nominal right to assemble, a symbolic tip of the cap to Habeas Corpus… But these are shadows of the freedom that we assume is alive and well at the center of our Republic. What was revealed was also premature in that it had almost no place to resonate within our cultural psyche. I remember reading twitter feverishly during the Gestapo style raids of Occupy camps. I remember watching videos of peaceful protesters being rounded up by riot troops in full body armor. I remember seeing terrified protestors screaming their names to bystanders as they were dragged away other uniformed citizens. I could not reconcile that truth with the fact that life for most of us was relatively normal.

To sum up: Occupy has shown us a prophetic vision of the near future, and it seems that the time to come to start to figure out what it means.

In a time characterized by every shade of verisimilitude, occupiers forced politicians and their police forces to tell the truth.

  • There is no freedom for the lower classes
  • There is no freedom for dissenters
  • There is no guarantee of due process
  • There is no right to remain silent
  • There is no right to peacefully assemble
  • There is no protection against unlawful search and seizure

These so called rights are nothing but the pretense of an economic model that demands inequality in order to function. The genius of Occupy is that it showed these truths of the nascent capitalist fascist state to be self-evident.

But the question remains: What are we to do with this vision of the future (which is already here)? Let’s pursue this question with a quick recap of what took place.

“The revolution will not be televised.” This was one of the many and sundry Occupy memes displayed on signs and mentioned in social media. Typically, these signs were not captured by the MSM (mainstream media).

But the failure of journalists goes far beyond just missing the opportunity to report on ironic signs. The story among occupiers has been that the cameras and reporters pulled up stakes and cut the feed before the riot police show up to do their riot police thing. These allegations from many Occupy collectives ring true when one considers that these days the news is geared more toward entertainment (i.e. it exists to generate ad revenue) rather than information.

This revolution–for Occupy cannot be called anything less than that–remains largely invisible to most who don’t use social media, or don’t personally know people who occupy. Even when the local news decides to “tell the story” of Occupy, reporters seem to locate the least eloquent persons imaginable. Thus the stereotype of young/lazy/entitled/ignorant has become something of a constant misunderstanding of Occupy.

I cannot put it more simply that to say that this characterization is an extravagant and carefully constructed lie. If you think that occupiers are lazy or uncommitted, consider sitting peacefully through a tear gas attack, or surviving freezing weather after the police confiscate your tents, blankets, etc.

Occupiers have, to this point, displayed an astonishing level of non-violent restraint and courage. So far they have faced ridicule, cold, rain, snow, abuse, tear gas, rubber bullets, sound cannons, unlawful arrest, and entrapment. These “stupid kids” have withstood efforts by political groups and marketers to co-opt the movement. And perhaps most importantly, they seem to have a sense of the importance of just such a movement at this point in history.

When I attended my first Occupy Seattle protest, I didn’t know that I would also get to witness a failed attempt by then Mayor McGinn to co-opt the emerging identity of the Occupy movement. The infrastructure of the moment was drenched in irony. The news cameras were pointed toward the north end of Westlake, focused not on the occupiers, but on the podium and rally leaders. The difference between Occupy and formal American politics was immediately apparent.

The rally had equipment, PR connections, and talking points. It is worth noting that while the rally was taking place, Occupy proper was having a meeting at south end of the square. They were using a human microphone to express concerns about safety and to make sure that everybody had a voice. Not surprisingly, the human microphone of Occupy was being drowned out by the megaphone chants of the union-led rally.

The juxtaposition of old politics with the emerging politic were in stark relation here. One group was shouting for congress to act on their behalf. The other was acting on their own by actively challenging the boundaries of existing law, and demanding that they had the right to act on their own behalf.

It should not be lost that Occupy has claimed a right to common spaces–a right that has been denied by city, state, and federal representatives. All should take notice. The common has been dissolved into the private, and the private belongs to those who control vast quantities of capital.

I don’t think that it is grandiose to say that, at its heart, the Occupy movement is a polemic against the untenable ethical stance of Western Capitalism. These ethics create a profound cognitive dissonance among consumers. We have tried to drown it out, but the anxiety has become pervasive.

Insofar as occupiers have become aware of that anxiety–which takes the form of political, social, and economic disenfranchisement, a declining job market increased school, food and medical costs and the ballooning of individual debt–they are a univocal entity whose purpose is the expression of that anxiety.

In every aspect of life, they suffer the practical alienation of the individual in America today. Habeas Corpus has been trampled by the Patriot Act. Money has been declared the equivalent of free speech by the highest court in the nation. The right of citizens to peacefully assemble has been questioned, violated, and questioned some more. Their capacity to approach the government for a redress of grievances has been diluted by all of the above, and so, they have been left with no other option than to occupy the commons (which have been taken from them) with their bodies whose legal right to which has also been taken from them.

This act (of occupying the commons) turns out to be harder to ignore than their vote.  Indeed, the Occupy movement has decided to solve the problem of western capitalism with the very thing that it has threatened to take from them: their bodies.

And the occupiers have started to answer the question of how we should live together not simply by thinking about it, but by actually living together. Occupy together. Another thing that should not be lost in the endless punditry is that they are in the process of solving the problem of western capitalism, not with abstractions, but with their bodies.

It has become clear at the dawn of the 21st century, that there are many things that the capitalist machine can do. In the opening paragraph of Capital, Marx suggested that the world has never seen a more productive economy than the capitalist mode of production. Looking back on the last 100 years I am inclined to be less generous than Marx.

Yes, capitalism is a powerful means of structuring the political economy. Capitalism accomplishes this by shaping the infrastructure of human culture around the production and circulation of capital. And we are finally starting to grasp the unavoidable ramifications of this.

In its simplest terms, capitalism has brought about a world where one thing is true. We have never been better at turning the world into trash and cash. In fact, at no point in history have we had more trash and more cash than we have today. And to what end? Have we even bothered to think about the outcome? Well, occupy is living it. And it’s our loss if we haven’t taken notice.

One way of measuring our capacity for ethics (at least in part) is by paying attention to what we do with our excess. What does it say about us that the disparity between the wealthy and poverty-stricken has never been greater? If we have learned anything in the august years of western civilization, it is that capitalism as we know it cannot shape a world worth living in.

Marx and Heidegger wondered about whether or not the modern industrial apparatus could be re-appropriated for other purposes than serving the capitalist mode of production. We are at a place in history when we can answer begin to answer that question. The material and ideological apparatus of capitalism cannot be made to do anything other than alienate those who labor in it and pollute the area surrounding it. This is not a function of the technology of the factory; rather, it is the tragic result of the shape of its purpose.

The modern industrial apparatus was constructed to exploit a labor population, exploit the environment, and produce massive amounts of stuff. The factory (and its offspring) has accomplished these things at rates never before seen in the history of human being.

Zizek has spoken eloquently about the need for people to reclaim their commons. This is an essential act, and it is something that Occupy has attempted in the court of the real. It is my contention however, that there is a more fundamental and iconoclastic activity for us. We must also begin to shape our culture and its economy around life rather than capital. It is precisely this conversation that has become available as a possibility in the wake of what has been revealed.

The occupy movement was founded on the radical notion that our rights, our interests, and our power are derived not from the abstraction of capital or some rarefied notion of political process, but from our very presence to each other. By defining it in this way, occupy has reclaimed the ontological foundation of politics. Occupy has reduced the conversation to an intelligible exchange that exists between objects.

In the wake of this movement, serious questions emerge for the rest of us. What will we do with our excess? To whom do the commons belong? How can we live together without exploitation being the fundamental definition of relationships?

No, the revolution will not be televised. And no, its outcome will not be immediately apparent. But the dialectic has already been set in motion. What remains for the rest of us? Simply this, to try to do justice to the possibilities that have been opened up for us.

October 30, 2011
by Will
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OWS & Social Media: Tech and Economic Systems

So far Occupy Wall Street has critiqued current political and economic systems–wall street, the fed, the distribution of wealth, etc. Yet the question hangs in the air, thick as tear gas–what is your vision of a better system? How do we right this catalog of wrongs? I am not suggesting we jump to answer. In fact, I’m with my friend at Vacuous Savor, who argues that OWS’ refusal to provide a clear list of demands packs more political punch than quick answers ever could.

Why raise the question then? Because it gives context to a query I’ve had for some time: to what extent does technology belong only to the economic system that created it? Basically, I want to know what we can take with us. If this ship is sinking, what can we use to construct our lifeboat? Allow me to tip my entire hand: I want to know to what extent social media is a capitalist instrument. What role, if any, can it play in a brighter, better future?

Few would dispute that capitalism uses social media to produce value. But are Facebook and Twitter always and forever instruments of alienation and exploitation? Rob Horning, over at The New Inquiry (a fantastic blog, btw), seems to think so. Here’s a snippet of his Marxian critique: “Our Facebook updates don’t allow us to express ourselves so much as allow consumerism to express itself through us while we provide the labor that sustains it as a communication system.” Point taken–and there’s a lot more to his argument by the way–but what about the role that social media has played in providing first-hand news during the Arab Spring? What about the way that Twitter told the story of OWS movements around the U.S., before mainstream news sources jumped on the bandwagon? This too belongs to consumerism, as a news source, but doesn’t it also have emancipatory dimensions?

We could at least invoke Michel de Certeau and say that while corporations may have strategic control over social media platforms, consumers have tactical control.  Those who use Twitter and Facebook can use social media in surprising and even emancipatory ways. Yet the deeper question remains–is there something inherently capitalist about social media (other than the fact that it emerged in a capitalist society)?

In Capital, when Marx critiques the machinery of large-scale industry he contends that large-scale industry converts “the worker into a living appendage of the machine” (614). [OMG you guys, are those human bodies feeding the illusion of the matrix!?] In Marx’s day the human-appendage phenomenon would have been easier to see. The machines belonged to the industrial revolution. They were visibly made for a specific mode of production, a specific division of labor. Can you imagine using the power loom in a system devoid of an antagonism between capital and labor?

But we can’t think social media in the same way we think a power loom. Horning doesn’t. To get at the “work” done in social media, he marshals Maurizio Lazzarato’s concept of immaterial labor, which “seeks to involve the worker’s personality and subjectivity within the production of value.” By his lights, capital dictates and exploits our virtual ego-maintenance. [And I thought my pictures of macchiatos and updates about my son made the world a better place!] Again, while I do see social media working this way, I don’t think this represents the entire story. Social media poses a challenge to both capitalism and communism because it functions neither as private property nor as a true commons. Twitter owns the site, but who owns a private tweet? Many people can see my Facebook page, but only I can change it. Is it public space?

I suspicion then that social media belongs to a class of technology which has outpaced current economic forms and ideologies. In a letter to Buckminster Fuller, McLuhan writes, “If one says that any new technology creates a new environment, that is better than saying the medium is the message. The content of the new environment is always the old one. The content is greatly transformed by the new technology.” Doesn’t social media function thus? Social media has created a new environment.  What is the content of social media? To a large extent, it is the “private” lives of individuals, the humdrum rhythm of the personal, displayed in streams flowing down screens. My life is now, at least partly, enveloped by the environment of social media. The question then becomes, how has this changed the way that I live? How has it changed the way you live?

I don’t want to jump to an answer here. Why raise the question? Because it can give context to my initial queries about OWS. Perhaps we should not ask Occupy Wall Street to create an alternative system solely from the wreckage of the old. Perhaps we should view its first task  as catching up with where we already are. How do we build a system that makes sense of our current realities? In any case, I still don’t think this begins with a list of demands. What say you?

October 8, 2011
by Will
2 Comments

Radiohead & Shabazz Palaces: Plateau Effect

Ever since James Blake dropped his self titled LP, I have been arranging and re-arranging my best albums of 2011 list. Amidst the tinkering, I discovered a captivating phenomenon in some of my favorite records. I call this the “plateau effect” (with apologies to Gilles Deleuze).

I noticed the plateau effect first in Black Up, the Shabbaz Palaces record. Many of the tracks find Lazaro rapping over hodgepodge–buzzes, clicks, off-kilter beats, chopped loops, sounds that belong more to post-dubstep than to mainstream hip hop. It is Lazaro’s flow that gives the tracks coherence. The pieces depend on his rhymes to make sense of otherwise unsteady alliance of sounds. [See especially A Treatise Dedicated . . . and Yeah You].

However, my thoughts on the plateau effect didn’t fully coalesce until I heard Radiohead’s NPR interview on The King of Limbs. When they started making KOL, the band spent five weeks experimenting with loop-creation using a new software. According to Yorke, they ended up producing tracks that were more “sounds and layers flying at each other, like a collage,” than structured songs. Yet Yorke says that the moment he recorded his vocals, the tracks made sense; that he unleashed latent melodies with his singing. You can hear this phenomenon so well on Bloom, the first track of the album. Yorke doesn’t come in for a whole minute. But when he does, you move from listening to a collection of sounds, to hearing a song.

For me, a song produces the plateau effect with these three elements: 1. an unstable alliance of sounds–you are not even sure if they “go” together 2. an element that lends coherence to the track, but which comes in after the song has begun (Lazaro’s flow, Yorke’s singing) 3. a continuing sense of the precariousness of this assemblage. So for the third point, we still hear the hodgepodge of sounds underneath Yorke’s vocals, and thus remain aware that the song is built of elements that sound like they might at any point just go their own separate ways.

The name “plateau effect” is loosely inspired by philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s concept of a plateau, “an intensive continuity” composed of “very heterogeneous elements” (cf Two Regimes of Madness, pp. 176 – 179). The plateau effect draws attention to the fact that the elements (sounds) that make up a specific intensive continuity (song) are “very heterogeneous” (don’t obviously belong together). At the same time, the plateau effect also highlights (via the vocals) the unity of the “plateau,” and the fact that we have a tendency to see things as units versus assemblages.

The plateau effect is unsettling. Its reliance on an unsteady combination of sounds reminds me that objects–in this case, songs–are composite, and that the composition is unsteady, temporary. Alliances can be dissolved; objects can pass away. Recognizing the plateau effect in a piece of music is like recognizing that I have trillions of microorganisms in my gut that help me digest my food. My body is an assemblage and my consciousness is an element that represents my body to me as coherent, unified. This is not to say that I do not possess a unified body apart from consciousness! The analogy just helps to highlight that uncanny moment where we come into contact with the fragile interpenetrations that make up objects. It is also the uncanny moment where we sense what is alien within the familiar, that which is in some way “in but not of” (like the microorganism in my intestines, or the blip that helps make the song what it is, but still does not quite fit).

But the plateau effect does more than highlight an object’s fragility and strangeness. It also exposes the power of those elements that obfuscate the fragile (and composite) nature of objects, elements like a sung melody, an author, or a logo. We often mistake these elements for the essences or foundations of an object or assemblage, when in fact they are either emergent properties, single elements among many, or fictions posited after an object’s composition. After you listen to Bloom once, you cannot help but hear the melody even before it comes in, as if it was always already there. Subconsciously you might even begin to smooth over the uncanniness in the music, to consider the song itself as smooth, homogeneous, a nice scoop of vanilla ice-cream.

Stay tuned for my Best Albums of 2011 List, which will present shining examples of the plateau effect in a neatly unified list. “Some you play, then move on, couldn’t find the notes/Some friends they groove on you and haunt you like a ghost/You can’t sleep/Always hear that beat/It flow back to mind, every time you breath” (Shabazz Palaces, The King’s New Clothes . . .).

More music and philosophy mash-ups:

September 18, 2011
by Will
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Next Level Google Searches

SEOmoz has a fantastic post outlining a strategy for getting the right sites to link to your blog. While the whole piece is worth it, I want to highlight three advanced google search filters that will take your googling to the next level, no matter what you’re looking for. [You can also find these tips on google.com]. Wherever you see the term “SEARCH,” that’s where you would type what you are seeking.

If you want to search only one kind of site (blogs, forums, etc):

  • SEARCH inurl:blog, SEARCH inurl:site, SEARCH inurl:forum, etc
  • Example, how to reach bloggers inurl:blog

If you want to search for sites that have each of the words in your search within the content of the page:

  • allintext: SEARCH
  • Example, allintext: guessing game creativity

If you want to limit results to a certain domain type (e.g. edu, com, gov), domain, or exclude a certain domain. I’ll just give examples of each, using the search, “google reader hack”:

  • google reader hack site:edu
  • google reader hack site:happymortal.com
  • google reader hack -site:happymortal.com

These tricks should make your searches efficient and fruitful. Happy hunting!

For a fun google reader hack, check this reconstruct post.

September 13, 2011
by Will
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Guessing Game Creativity

Ever panicked when you saw the title of a book or article because it looks exactly like the book or article that you are attempting to write? Me too. That happened to me this morning. I was sitting on our green couch, browsing the usual passel of blogs, and bam! There it was. My book. The book that I was supposed to write. It winked at me. My stomach shrank, my butt clenched, and my inner monologue monologued:

“Why should I go on? I should let sexier, more seasoned experts have their way with this topic. Maybe I’ll get in the game after 10 more years, at least 5 of which will be spent abroad under the sadistic tutelage of a wildly-bearded guru . . .”

Then I remembered that I am writing about creativity. Then I remembered some sound advice from reconstruct: be an ouroboros. Write your book about creativity using the very ideas that you are writing about in your book. Genius. I am writing about using principles from improv theater as a vehicle to unleash your creativity. So, to ease myself out of the quagmire of self-pity, I thought of the best improv technique to use in guessing games (even though this probably won’t be in the book).

Guessing games involve one improviser who is kept in the dark about an audience suggestion–e.g. a crime they committed. During the game, the improviser tries to guess the crime she has committed, while other improvisers feed the guesser clues, all while acting out a specific scene (like an police interrogation).

A prime temptation for many guessers is to keep their guesses vague, so they don’t get it wrong. But this means that the other improvisers have no idea what the guesser is thinking, so they can’t adapt their clues to help the guesser discover the right answer. The more the guesser can make strong, specific offers, the greater the chance of success, because the other improvisers can adjust their hints to shepherd the guesser in the right direction. If I say, “I stabbed a mechanic with a turkey beak.” Then you can snarl, “Yes, but you did something that wasn’t quite so fowl too!” Now (hopefully) I know that I should drop the idea of birds and try again.

Application station! Let’s say that you are the guesser and life is made up of other improvisers trying to steer you in the right direction. It is our job to give the world strong, specific offers. The world’s job is to give us clues to let us know if we are headed in the right direction. In my case, the world was saying, “Hey check this book out. It will let you know if you need to adjust your topic slightly to an unexplored area.” Three implications of this mental model:

  • Our environment is not static. We are part of a dynamic network. Creation is collaboration.
  • We shouldn’t let fear of failure keep us from getting in the game. In fact, jumping in is the only chance we have of success.
  • A blocked path is not always a cease and desist order. It is a nudge in a different direction, and an encouragement to keep going.

Happy creating . . . in the dining room with the candlestick . . .

September 11, 2011
by Will
2 Comments

How We Never Forget 9/11

Trending twitter topic on 9/11: “never forget.” I think I first saw the phrase tattooed on a biker’s arm at a gas station in Lowden, WA. As I remember he was also wearing a black bandana and leather vest, and the words were inked under a sketch of the twin towers set against an American flag. Never forget . . . Why should we never forget? The immediate answer is the obvious answer–”Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” (I had to google to find out that Edmond Burke wrote that).

If we sweep the New York heap of twisted metal, plastic, and bodies under the rug, then we make ourselves more vulnerable to further attack. When we say “never forget,” I assume it refers to learning from 9/11, so that we can protect ourselves from future terrorist acts. I also assume it means honoring the dead and the families of the those who died. Leaving an empty seat at the table, so to speak (cf the World Trade Center Memorial).

I find these common sense meanings take on fresh significance when we consider neurobiological research on human memory. Though we are far from understanding exactly how the brain retrieves memories, researchers have discovered that every time we “call up” a long term memory–every time we bring it into “working memory”–we adapt the memory based on our current state of mind, and that adapted memory is what gets stored again in long term memory. Simply put, humans do not have completely separate writing and recall functions.

Dr. Suzanne Corkin, professor of behavior science at MIT, puts it this way, “We believe that when you remember something it’s really an active process. You’re not tuning into a few cells in your brain where a particular memory is stored. What you’re really doing is creating a memory based on information that you have stored in many parts of your brain” (italics mine). This “created memory” gets created differently each time it is recalled. You add new info, fill in gaps with imagination, and color the memory with whatever emotions you are experiencing at the time. This must be why I can’t for the life of me recall what my picture of Harry Potter was before Daniel Radcliffe came into my life. This is why people misidentify their assailants in police line-ups.

What’s the point? Certainly not that we will distort the “facts” of 9/11 beyond recognition. After all, we got it on video. My point is that we should remember the nature of memory when we “never forget 9/11.” The neural activities associated with “never forget” have just as much (if not more) to do with what is happening in the present than what happened in the past. We are not merely changing our present and future by learning from the past, we are changing the past by calling it into the present.

The collective nature of 9/11 could mean that we have more reliable data from which to “never forget”–more testimonies, video, written studies, etc. Then again, the political and symbolic nature of 9/11 makes the act of recall subject to prevalent political, economic, and religious interests (this even includes the control and presentation of the data). What are the memories we are creating as we re-live the planes smashing into the towers a decade ago? What is our state’s “state of mind” as we recollect the images of people flinging themselves out of windows? In what ways are we, right now, shaping this tragic past event by re-articulating it in the present?

Never forget 9/11. Maybe it’s time to replace this static phrase with a question about the dynamics of the present. How are we remembering 9/11?

August 24, 2011
by rekonstruct
1 Comment

Favorite Google Reader Hack: Rehacked

If you’re like me, you enjoy soaking up the content of the interwebs in all of its lovely forms. There are many and sundry ways that I go about hoovering up the data: Flip Board, Zite, Newser, Fluent, but for now I’d like to share a little trick I picked up today for Google Reader.

Google Reader has been one of my favorite tools for aggregating stuff for many reasons. I won’t list them all now, though I will point you to Close to Bliss which does have a nice little write up on the Google Reader Next Button.

The reason I’m writing this blog is that just today I had some trouble executing my favorite little trick. See, as much as I love hoovering, I don’t always have the 2.7 seconds it takes to do a search for the topics/people that I’m interested in.

What I started doing was subscribing to a Google Blog Search query as a feed. Just copy the URL from your query into the add a subscription box, and voila, you have your very own little RSS to a search query that delivers the most recent blogs (with your specified search term) to your reader. At least that worked until today. The URL used to look like this:

http://blogsearch.google.com/blogsearch_feeds?hl=en&q=zizek&ie=utf-8&output=atom

Trouble is, when I tried to add another search query this afternoon, the add a subscription wouldn’t recognize it.

The new search looks like this:

http://www.google.com/search?tbm=blg&hl=en&source=hp&biw=&bih=&q=zizek&btnG=Search

I despaired. Then I got desperate. Then I got clever.

All you need to do to subscribe to a search feed is take the first URL and replace the query term. So, let’s say you want to have blogs delivered to Google Reader that follow the search term “coffee”. Let’s see what that looks like.

First you copy the original URL. Then paste it in the add a subscription box. Then ever-so-carefully, you highlight the search term, in this case zizek. Finally, you replace that term with yours. The final would look like this:

http://blogsearch.google.com/blogsearch_feeds?hl=en&q=coffee&ie=utf-8&output=atom

 

 

August 11, 2011
by Will
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Zeitgeist Coffee Review at CRU

...of coffee and 500 self portraits

Zeitgeist Art and Coffee, 171 S Jackson St. Seattle, WA 98101.

Let’s start with the let down–the (drip) coffee. It’s basically weak diner coffee, and it’s the only option besides espresso drinks. Don’t order the coffee. Do order the espresso. It smells like burnt sugar and tastes like honey and tangy tobacco. Delectable. The latte landed right in the middle. Solid, but nothing to write home about. Zeitgeist also sells both its espresso and coffee beans by the pound, and has a menu of sandwiches, salads, and, of course, Top Pot hand-forged donuts. The baristas that served us were like the latte, right in the middle–friendly but not gregarious, knowledge-able but not geeks, skilled but not masters.

Read the rest of my review at cru magazine p. 29, 30.

July 2, 2011
by Will
2 Comments

Rapitalism II

Seo2

In my first post on rapitalism I indicated that rappers rep capital because of their drive to earn money and spend it on commodities [bling, swag, etc]. However, as I have continued to read Capital, Marx hit me in the face with why this is wrong. Indulge me a dive into Capital to explain why, and then we will return to rap . . .

In part 7 of Capital Vol 1, Marx turns from the trope of the individual capitalist and the individual worker, to examining class relations. In doing so, he summarizes some key features of the individual capitalist, especially in his section on the theory of abstinence (a classical theory holding that the capitalist earned surplus value by abstaining from spending).

Here are the lines that showed me the error of the simple “make and spend money = capitalist drive” formula:

But, in so far as he [the capitalist] is capital personified, his motivating force is not the acquisition and enjoyment of use-values, but the acquisition and augmentation of exchange-values. He is fanatically intent on the valorization of value; consequently he ruthlessly forces the human race to produce for production’s sake (739).

In other words, the capitalist wants to accumulate more wealth, to increase surplus value. Spending money on personal enjoyment is antithetical to this impulse. Yet, as we would expect from any Hegelian bastard, antithesis is the name of the game. So, Marx goes a step further. . .

But original sin is at work everywhere. With the development of the capitalist mode of production, with the grown of accumulation and wealth, the capitalist ceases to be merely the incarnation of capital. He begins to feel a human warmth towards his own Adam, and his education gradually enables him to smile at his former enthusiasm for asceticism, as an old-fashioned miser’s prejudice (740).

So one of the contradictions of capital exists as an internalization of two conflicting drives within the individual capitalist. “At the same time, however, there develops in the breast of the capitalist a Faustian conflict between the passion for accumulation and the desire for enjoyment” (741).

Back to rap. The above clarification does not mean that rap doesn’t often promote capitalist lyrics. Rather, it gives us a more complete picture of the capitalist-drive-made-rhyme. What we would be looking for then is the expression of both the drive to amass more wealth and the drive to enjoy that wealth, and both of these within the context of a capitalist mode of production, where the capitalist gains surplus value on the backs of the working class.

In rap this constellation of themes most often appears in the context of drug dealing, sex trafficking, and/or the music industry. Examples . . .

  • “Who the f*** you think you f****** with, I’m the f****** boss/Seven forty-five, white on white that’s f****** Ross/I’m in the distribution, I’m like Atlantic/I got them mother******s flyin’ ‘cross the Atlantic/I know Pablo, Noriega, the real Noriega/He owe me a hundred favors” (Rick Ross, Hustlin’). Rick Ross rapping about his rare car and his drug trafficking prowess.
  • Here’s Lil Wayne spitting about his own jewelry and how he makes money as a pimp (totally gross and misogynistic) “And my chain Toucan Sam, that/Tropical Colors, you can’t match that/Gotta be abstract/You catch my girl, legs open/Better smash that/Don’t be surprised if she ask where the cash at” (Lil Wayne, Fireman).
  • I got stock in your flow and crops to sharehold/Crops with the prose where cops won’t dare go/Got top centerfolds too hot to wear clothes” (Inspectah Deck, Back in the Game). A little braggadocio about business acumen and popularity with females (suggesting sensual enjoyment).

One thing I want to point out is that in all three of these examples it is implied that the rapper’s surplus capital is derived from labor, whether the labor of drug dealers, prostitutes, or other rappers. This element is key for making these lyrics uniquely capitalist.

Now, just because certain rap lyrics illustrate capitalist drives, does not mean that all rappers are part of the capitalist class, or that the capitalist class is monolithic. My point here is only to highlight a cultural phenomenon that creates a conflict within me. I love a lot of rap music. I loathe a lot of its themes. Thank goodness there is some rap out there that promotes positive and revolutionary content. Though, even here we find contradictions . . .

“We be reading Marx where I’m from/The kids be rocking Clarks, where I’m from” (Digable Planets, Where I’m From).

June 11, 2011
by Will
12 Comments

Rapitalism

bling-bling

“Cash rules everything around me/Cream!/Get the money/Dolla dolla bill y’all” (Wu Tang Clan, C.R.E.A.M).

The naked celebration of money–and the drive to get money (hustlin’)–permeates mainstream rap. It’s long seemed to me that if capitalism had a soundtrack it would be rap music. This might offend some, and of course, we need a touch of nuance at the outset. I’m talking about one theme within a genre, and by no means does the theme “I’m rich/I get money” cover all rap. But there are many lyrical moments in rap where I feel like the voice of capital is spitting flow directly into my ear. As Marx puts it:

“As a capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one driving force, the drive to valorize itself, to create surplus-value . . .” (Capital 342).

In rap, the “money theme” takes a distinctly capitalist tone, because it is not just about the accumulation of capital, but rather about capital’s circulation (most often by earning capital and then putting it back into the market through purchasing extravagant commodities). “Thinking beyond deeper than Ghandi/While I’m in the Diamante/Counting my G’s/I’m out to be a millionare/Dipped in gear/Flickin’ hundred dollar bills in the air/Oh yeah, Cuban Link is into getting benjamins/Cuz if it doesn’t make dollars/Then it doesn’t make sense” (Cuban Link, Glamour Life).

Often this “money theme” appears in rap in a “rags to riches” narrative that involves moving from poverty to crime to rap. “Blame Reagan for making me into a monster/Blame Oliver North and I ran contra/I ran contraband and they sponsored/Before this rhyme was stuck, we was in concert” (Jay-z, Blue Magic). This “worker-turned-criminal” becomes a member of the capitalist class by leaving crime (or not) and turning to hip hop music. After all, when your collar turns from blue to white, your crimes get whitewashed too.

Once the rapper has entered the capitalist class, s/he often has no problem becoming part of the establishment, usually the entertainment industry.  “What I’m doin?/Gettin’ money/What we doin?/Gettin’ money/What they doin’?/Hatin’ on us/But they never cross/Cash Money still a company/And B***h I’m the boss” (Lil Wayne and Birdman, Stuntin’ Like My Daddy).

Herein lies the most insidious side of rap’s money theme: it reinforces the current capitalist system (and its inequalities) by offering salvation through the system itself, saying, “I’m the biggest boss that you seen thus far” (Rick Ross, The Boss), and so implying that the listener might also find success, wealth, and meaning in climbing the capitalist ladder.

At the same time, rap is testament to the great creative force of capitalism. The fact that the simple theme “I’m rich/I get money” can be expressed in so many different ways, that it can continue to circulate in new permutations, shows how the circulation of capital demands the shattering of limits. But at what cost? “In this white man world/We the ones chosen/so goodnight cruel world/I see you in the morning’” (Kanye West, Power).