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If I were asked to answer the following question: What is slavery? and I should answer in one word, It is murder, my meaning would be understood at once. No extended argument would be required to show that the power to take from a man his thought, his will, his personality, is a power of life and death; and that to enslave a man is to kill him. Why, then, to this other question: What is property! may I not likewise answer, It is robbery, without the certainty of being misunderstood; the second proposition being no other than a transformation of the first?
Proudhon, What Is Property?
day of rest, it occurs to me that a word of encouragement for (and explanation of) the people who post in this newsgroup might be in order. These days,
a lot of people would have you believe that labor unions are Public Enemy #1: enemies of truth, justice, and the American Way. And these views are supported, not only by policy papers churned out by right-wing think tanks at the behest of organizations other than the Republican Party, but forthright (and even subtle) campaigns against the values of people drawing attention to their own workplace exploitation. Although interest in organized labor has revived since the
New Economy of the 90s passed, the true ferocity of these attacks may be unfamiliar to all but those who have studied American labor history intensively, or working people forced to fend for themselves. Is there much intellectual support on our side?
The answer is not today — enemies of militarism have other fish to fry, and enemies of globalization often have their own ideas about how the flow of capital and people between nations should be regulated. Furthermore, putative
friends of labor in twentieth-century American intellectual life — from John Dewey to Arthur Schlesinger — are rarely friends indeed; and the disconnect between labor and socialism worked by the 50s CIO purges has not been healed by John Sweeney’s DSA membership, on account of there being no socialist electoral politics worth mentioning. But beyond that, the tradition of
worker intellectualism is no TV joke;
what a revoltin’ development, a artful lie which has thankfully been forgotten, is a travesty of the words working people across the world have committed to print in the last two hundred years.
And I would like to make the character of such writing clear by speaking of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon; today remembered as an anarchist, but frankly one of the finest examiners the
test of wills which determines economic dominance ever had.
Proudhon was a printer by trade, and although he occasionally did not work (
starving in a garret to buy books, as George Lichtheim once put it) his major works What Is Property? and The System Of Economic Contradictions: Or, The Philosophy Of Misery are shot through with the problems of labor, that is, the problems of laboring: Proudhon approached the topics he studied like a raw material to be worked upon with art and skill, that is, not to be adulterated. Are the final results clear? Very clear, and this perhaps might give us some pause: how did this peasant-born Frenchman do us one better in terms of understanding the plight of those who do, rather than tell to do? Perhaps he did not, and there have been any manner of criticisms of Proudhonian mannerisms on the left since Marx; Proudhon is
unscientific, he was insensitive to the threat posed by imperialism, etc., etc.
These things are true; Proudhon wrote of society as he was given to understand it, and left a significant margin of error for other writers. But what is also true is that there is still very much a need for
men of labor (feel free to construe this phrase extremely widely) as a figure on the scene of social struggle. Radicalism of other sorts has persisted since the 60s, but never amounts to much in the long run; and the reason is not that, as Keynes once said,
in the long run we are all dead; laborers, employed and unemployed, know that is an optimistic view of the situation. The problem is Keynesian considerations are supposed to obviate the brute facts of workplace exploitation; if we only wait a little while, a Great Pinko Hope will emerge from the Democratic Party and give us luxurious family leave for taking care of seriously-ill children. I’m sure everyone here needs that money right now instead, and knows that a lot of times there’s no reason in the world, no reason at all you don’t have it; and the radical laborer is the person brave enough to say that out loud, a proud (and sad) tradition.
So there really is a need for what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who in later life became the intellectual patron of French unions, called the Realpolitik of reason; for up-front union members to go right ahead and say what is on their mind, even if someone’s feelings get hurt. And the funny part is, society in general needs such
free agents in thought so badly it can’t afford to pay for them, and I mean this seriously. Objective views of society, such as the political right touts, require a vast mass of
just sayings to operate upon; lest they be revealed as simple impostures or get tangled up in their own leading-strings. But, unfortunately, most people in higher stations of life are too
judicious with their words to properly serve this function. So I would like to commend everyone here, even (brave) interlopers, for taking the time to say things that aren’t getting said other places — whatever the cost; that cost should be higher.
Nevertheless, I build no system. I ask an end to privilege, the abolition of slavery, equality of rights, and the reign of law. Justice, nothing else; that is the alpha and omega of my argument: to others I leave the business of governing the world.
Proudhon, same work
Ann Coulter has recently issued a challenge to round up all liberals who own American flags. Is this rhetoric intemperate? Well, it’s none too tall an order for liberals, but the thinking apparently at work behind the statement bears some examination. Are there red-in-tooth-and-claw leftists who have shown enthusiasm for the American flag and what it represents? Yes: to name a few — Marx, Engels, and Daniel De Leon of the Socialist Labor Party. De Leon once described the American flag as a symbol of a prototype of what the international socialist movement intended to work all over the world, and further in no wise despicable; the First International sent a letter to Abraham Lincoln at the close of the Civil War (its inauguration) thanking him for the Union having set the standard of fighting for freedom worldwide. Well, we have located flag-friendly reds. But are these figures of great contemporary relevance? Well, De Leon was arguably to the left of every existing American politician (his party is still in existence, but it no longer runs candidates; it would be more accurately described as the left flank of the Communist Party than the Democrats), and furthermore was none too popular during his lifetime, but this goes to show that we are dealing with a signifier which is, as the postmodernists say, somewhat
slippery. Prior to the advent of mass consumerism, the American flag was an easy item to respect, because it stood for something relatively palatable and it didn’t stand for it very often; flags were relatively rare, and if people owned them they came out on Flag Day. There was a strict code governing the handling of flags, and it would never have occured to anyone to make an article of clothing out of a flag except for (maybe) in the Ziegfeld Follies. Furthermore, burning the flag was not an expression of loathsome anti-Americanism, it was what you were supposed to do if the flag became desecrated: it would be disrespectful not to.
But today every right-thinking American can slap a flag on everything they own and do. Would this have been considered
in poor taste by the old code? Indeed. But what is the motivation? Well, to indicate a worldview which excludes terroristic conduct as a legitimate option. But what is the reality? Well, like I said De Leon, the
excluded figure of the left, was foursquare against terroristic activities: he even predicted an
underground America where nihilistic atrocities on the order of tsarist Russia would occur, if the labor movement failed to comprehend the limitations of direct action. But if the American political spectrum today does not reject this premise of De Leon’s, do we not have to realize that terroristic behavior is
unpolitical in a sense the most extreme left-winger can grasp — and based instead in a witches’ brew of vice, violence and economics?
And for a slightly more satirical perspective out of the past, consider this 1917 verse from the IWW’s Industrial Worker:
I love my flag, I do, I do, Which floats upon the breeze, I also love my arms and legs, And neck, and nose, and knees One little shell might spoil them all Or give them such a twist, They would be of no use to me, I guess I won’t enlist.
I love my country, yes, I do, I hope her folks do well. Without our arms and legs and things, I’d think we’d look like hell. Young men with faces half shot off Are unfit to be kissed. I’ve read in books it spoils their looks, I guess I won’t enlist.
Can a myth, however, be non-constructive? How could an instrument conceivably be effective if, as in Sorel’s vision of things, it leaves the collective will in the primitive and elementary phase of its mere formation, by differentiation (“cleavage”) — even when this differentiation is violent, that is to say, destroys existing moral and juridicial relations?
Lou Reed: The Mystery Man, Or, Were You Confused?
In the history of postwar American popular music, there is no more enigmatic figure than Lou Reed: to the point that consideration of the Velvet Underground has been hampered by the perception that they were a band rather than a group. And they are much so-considered, even thirty-six years after their first record and thirty-three years after their last one; but perhaps this is, in some fairly definite sense, a bad thing. Do people like the Velvet Underground? People will never like the Velvet Underground, but their rising popularity with individuals during the 90s said something about that era. Not about the Velvet Underground, whose music was “obsolete” when it was recorded, but about the coming of a “long present” in youth culture –- where references to long-ago acts could be much more with-it than contempo confabs. Was this a bad thing? I don’t think so, although I am very much of that era. Did Lou Reed think this was a bad thing? Who the hell knows, and that’s the subject of this section.
Normally, this would be the point in the essay where I would give a run-down of Reed’s maturation and formative influences: but no such thing is really possible, since Reed really got “younger than that” as time went on. He went to Syracuse and studied under Delmore Schwartz, went to the city and wrote a couple minor hits for the then-dwindling Brill-Building system, formed a band with a Welsh Fluxus reject and “made an honest proposition of it” by confounding record company hopes for the longest recorded stretch ever; first by being the most-talked-about, least-purchased act of all time and then being the most-purchased solo artist you wouldn’t want to take home to mother. Who is this Welsh Fluxus reject? Everybody knows, and Lou Reed’s interviews for many years have consisted largely of asking exactly why it is him, and not the chain-smoking radical historian or Southern Wal-Mart checker, who was the figure of Zen out of the bunch. Yeah, the German chick was great. No, not like that.
Reed himself is not a Zen figure, and really doesn’t have to be: after a couple years, more than a couple thousand people started buying Velvet Underground records and stopped forming bands (in a trick of genealogical sleight-of-hand, it seems rather obvious that was the purpose of the Pixies, which were engineered to be). Lou Reed is mad; and he has some reason, because people buy the wrong records. Yes, that’s right, some VU records are better than others; and Doug Yule didn’t actually make the group worse, ’cause those are the better records. Is it unfair that the Velvet Underground was Lou Reed’s group? It’s unfair that they are remembered as Warhol’s flash-in-the-pan freak-out kit, and not the band which later exerted a powerful tellurian influence on proto-punks. The powerhouse live band which toured with later-released material is the one persons of the era remember, and fondly: the opposite of Michael Jackson was Lou Reed, you couldn’t get molested by Lou Reed if you wanted to.
Why is this? As reported in Lester Bangs’ fan’s notes, Lou Reed doesn’t tip much; but he always pays, and not just up-front. It seems clear that a lot of Reed’s career moves were intended for other people’s careers, and at a distance of several years; he is nothing if not unselfish. Perhaps this is because there is no natural appeal to Lou Reed: he is also the opposite of Al Green, there is absolutely no reason for Lou Reed to act as he does. Laurie Anderson tolerates Lou Reed, does your woman tolerate you? Probably not, so why fuck up a good thing? And so the question is, why do so many people try to act like Lou Reed? And the answer is, you can’t do it wrong because you can’t do it right: Lou Reed doesn’t take sides, and you are.
DJ Shadow: Waxidermy At UC-Davis
Who is the preeminent man of contemporary popular music, the “man by virtue of which other men are men”? The answer I can think of is Josh Davis, AKA DJ Shadow; and that’s because I can’t think of anyone else and I have a few ideas why. Davis is known as a purveyor of “trip-hop”, but this is something of a sop to James Lavelle and company; “trip-hop” is either DJ Shadow only or something else, and not quite because he is sui generis. DJ Shadow is not generous at all, because he is not “talking with his hands” to other people, or even to himself; his records are about as close to visual art as contemporary culture gets, but what are you gonna do? Nothing due to his influence. Shadow walks a different sort of “razor’s edge” than Lou Reed, one first articulated by Bowie (Joseph, that is): that some layabout be most intellectual at their most earthy. Does DJ Shadow accomplish this by fusing his art completely with black culture? It would never in a million years occur to you that DJ Shadow was black, but it doesn’t occur to me too often that he should be; he is the complete master of his instrumentation.
Should he be? Maybe it should occur to me, and this is the underside of Shadow’s focus on the “spiritual”; his (rather massive) cultural influence is not worked by speaking to you with his soul’s tongue, and in fact may primarily derive from a record predating his rather massive popularity: “In/Flux”, available on the (popular enough) Preemptive Strike, which collects material released before Endtroducing. The 12-minute “In/Flux” is typically referenced as the founding document of trip-hop, and it is not completely of a piece with the rest of the DJ Shadow records: it’s a lot funkier. Or so it seems, but in my opinion what “In/Flux” really accomplished was ending the Sixties, and not the Sixties of Davis’ parents. The subject-matter of the song (quite definitely established through heterogeneous materials, which is a testament to the character of this piece as “masterwork”) is the media reception of the 1967-68 riots (a time period later revisited with “Six Day War”). DJ Shadow is from Davis, California; and there weren’t any riots anywhere near Davis; Oakland, which has never burned for much of anything, did not turn over a new leaf at the Black Panthers’ behest.
But you don’t know what I mean by that, and not necessarily because you don’t know the Panthers were against riots; consideration of those events is consigned to the study of history, and not least because of this record: Shadow crystallizes the structure of the media response, such that it cannot be utilized as a tool for getting at “on-the-ground” realities of the riots: Andrei Codrescu once said he had a great time during the early part of the Detroit riots. But Andrei Codrescu is a) from Romania and b) prone to saying a lot of stuff; and really, who’s to say, including someone face-to-face with Andrei Codrescu? Nobody, and this is DJ Shadow’s function: to “reveal” that portion of American cultural history which is “dead” (has only visible means of support). Does he accomplish it well?
I couldn’t imagine anyone doing it better, and so he reminds me of nobody so much as the person contracted to preserve the utilitarian moral philosopher Jeremy Bentham for display in King’s College London (that city also being one of his haunts); to resolve sound-impressions which moved the masses into absurd remainders. By contrast, Prince Paul’s most recent record (which has Paul engaging in the contemporary form of the early-modern business of “colportage” on the cover) features Paul asking for money, or love, or neither, and young fools from Paul’s neighborhood stepping up to the mike. That’s not the right kind of kind of control for DJ Shadow’s project; Paul does too much with too little. Does Shadow appear on his records? Nobody appears on Shadow’s records. Does Shadow do anything more than what we’ve talked about? In my opinion, no: The Private Press, one of the most intellectual music projects of recent years, is fundamentally of a piece with the aforementioned antiquarian tendencies.
This record (although I can’t imagine Shadow ever listening to wax and not using the CD, that’s what it is) deals not with the present nor the inflammatory past, but features snippets of sound from “private-press records”, novelty vinyl records cut at cottage-industry “studios” such as the one Elvis recorded for his mother. Is it a fascinating project? Oh yes, and if it is a choice between Davis and Stephin Merritt as curator of our musical heritage I’ll say something I’ll regret. Is it living culture? No. And perhaps this says something about more than Josh Davis’ life-world, but perhaps it’s not what you’d hope for. For example, when writing this essay I forgot the 1969 People’s Park riots in Berkeley; and although they are not part of the subject-matter of “In/Flux”, I know someone who participated in the protests following the death of a Park activist at the hands of the Berkeley Police (and Berkeley’s occupation by the National Guard) well enough for this to be a little disturbing. However, the failure of Governor Reagan’s “Funkmaster Flex” routine to abate dismay at the sanctioned nonlethal-control-unto-death of a young Northern Californian — the only blindspot for an otherwise storied career — notwithstanding, I don’t think Davis, Reagan, or even S.I. Hayakawa (who had a vested interest in keeping Berserkleyites in line) had much to with my forgetting this. I’m not sure some other social phenomenon didn’t, though.
Is There Just Us? Should the contemporary American left be united behind a cause, such as the electoral defeat of George W. Bush? Would this be good for America in general, good for the left, both, or neither? In this piece, I’d like to consider this question whether the core beliefs of
progressives, who make up the majority of people with political beliefs to the left of the Democratic Leadership Council, and
radicals, people to the left of widely-electable Democratic politicians, are really so similar or whether their ideal strategies (as well as tactics) diverge in important ways. Why is this a pressing question? Well, as a unified group, progressives and radicals are responsible for voicing many views not popular with Americans in general, such as a critique of the Iraq invasion; views that would not be voiced at all were it not for a support network that legitimates potentially
This is to mind a service to America in general, since it both serves the function of informing the public of views and information they may actually find agreeable, and also serves the function of allowing other Americans to define their own views more sharply such that major disagreements with practical consequences, based upon faulty assumptions of shared premises, are avoided. But as a member of the radical fringe, that is someone whose views are further left than those of any major political party or those which are tacitly expressed in the editorial policy of a popular magazine or newspaper, I think this schema for reasoning about the political spectrum can be applied more thoroughly than it at present is. In other words, from this vantage point
progressive activism occasionally appears under an oppressive aspect, similar to those shadows widely cast by the RNC and DLC; and before this gets dismissed as the dream of a spirit-seer, I would like to explain how this can actually sometimes be so.
Progressivism’s Initial Promise: So Fresh, So Clean
Firstly, I would like to provide a little history of the big-P Progressive movement in American politics, beginning around 1900. Contrary to what one might expect, the Progressive movement began in the Republican party: and the most celebrated Progressive politician, founder of the magazine which bears that name, was Wisconsin Republican Robert LaFollette. Furthermore, in states West of the Mississippi Progressive Republicanism was a proud tradition; so much so that as the Sun Belt state Republican parties moved sharply to the right during the postwar, Progressive Republicans continued to be elected in other states (in my state, Oregon, up until the 1980s). Dyed-in-the-wool progressive democrats may question the relevance of this factum about political nomenclature, but considering the Progressive movement in terms of the Democratic Party’s traditional concern with the welfare of all the people is misleading. Let me explain.
At heart, Progressive politics was not at
redistributionist in its policy initiatives, which were manifold: initiative systems, non-partisan civic and state elections, sunshine laws, and other measures intended to make government clean, efficient, and accessible were not intended to rectify wealth imbalances (In fact, Progressivism was popular with business leaders as the Midwestern insurance company’s name suggests). Although Progressives cohabited with the embers of the Populist Party, the first major US political party to offer a systematic critique of government-enabled exploitation of the common man, in reality they were not one and the same; Populist leader William Jennings Bryan was an evangelical minister who had a significant following in deeply religious agrarian communities, whereas Progressives took a
fair-but-balanced attitude to the discoveries of modern science and changes arising in social mores.
What’s Progressive For
The progressive may say
Well, that’s all well and good, but today we know that damage worked by corporations to the fabric of American life must be repaired by organized activism, not just left to bellyachers, and this is the issue (really, the problem) between radicals and progressives. Contemporary progressives want to have their
cake and eat it, too; they want to be occupying a position of critique vis-a-vis the existing order, and at the same time be exemplary members of that existing order. And there is much to be said for both, but rather little to be said in terms of the compatibility of both; it might be possible for someone to
click with opposition to the powers that be both on legal (social) and economic (occupational) levels all the time, at the price of their not talking about it very much.
And since politics is really the art of getting things done with (relatively kind) words, a
unified approach to tackling social problems has relatively little to say in favor of it: it’s a nice idea. But at bottom, a lot of the social movements radicals work with (organized labor, community activists for impoverished neighborhoods and regions, critical journalists, etc.) are not really
good ideas: they more-or-less involve a lot of
dirty work, which even people who practice such arts feel bad about. Is there another way to get much done with relatively few resources? No, there’s not; even asking for help from social-welfare organizations minded by good people is fraught with peril for the
subaltern, the person without social standing.
Who Are The Mystery Girls?
Could there be a way we could get there from here? That’s a great idea, but again, unfortunately I am a doubter and I would like to explain why. In the last few decades, social critique based in academia and the relatively few left-wing think-tanks has been very optimistic about
new social movements, organizations for the betterment of an immiserated group which are free of the dynamics of party politics or state power: and the exemplar of the new social movement is the NGO,
non-governmental organization. About a decade ago, political scientist Joel Rogers founded a new party (the New Party) which in part captures some of the flavor of the NGO; the New Party’s strategy is to build effective connections between progressives such that good candidates can get elected and good policy enacted.
The successes of the New Party are numerous enough to be impressive, but from my vantage point (which, as I said, is very far to the left) their strategy of
fusion leaves something to be desired.
Fusion involves either running a New Party candidate when they have a reasonable chance of success, or endorsing a Green or Democratic candidate when a New Party candidate would split the vote. This is not a concern of the Greens, which came in for some debate in 2000; and from an electoral standpoint it is extremely wise, but from a general political standpoint it leaves something to be desired. The New Party claims to be
grassroots in its orientation, and compared to its competitors this may be true enough, but in reality their strategies represent existing constituencies stepwise rather than build them in that manner. If this sounds like
much of a muchness, you can be forgiven that: this comment would have struck me the same way a few years ago.
However, as I said in a recent essay which appeared elsewhere on Usenet, adequate representation has to balance concerns about equality with concerns about accuracy: if I were to politically
count for the same as someone who is much wealthier than I am in a very strict sense, that is, not only at the ballot-box but also in a party hierarchy, there would be some genuine question about whether I was being properly represented (that is, my views counted for whatever they are worth) or counted as a
live body necessary for legitimating a policy chosen by someone else with a clear conscience. Now, the latter is more or less the way the national Democratic party has always run. But in previous decades there was a
fine structure to the party, a ward system operating at a level below even civic elected officials, which had celebrated problems (Boss Tweed) but also something to be said for it: it was really democratic.
And what the contemporary progressive movement does not quite do is grip this dilemma by the horns: that is left to politically-active members of the labor movement (which does not include all unionists). But if progressives are to be asked to consider whether they really find
all the people in all their facets all that appealing, the
real reds (the radical fraction of the aforementioned labor activists and their natural constituencies) are going to have to let go of one particular trope. In truth, today’s progressives resemble no group so much as the Whites of revolutionary Russia, romantic populists who want a better world, without violence and
dirty pool. And in truth, there’s really not too much to be said for violence and
dirty pool, or all but a few moments of the Russian Revolution (a view it took one particular section of the world left no time at all to arrive at); and something directly possible without such considerations, namely genuine culture.
Now, Brother Richard Rorty has addressed these issues to some acclaim, but I am afraid I must side with Brother Leszek Kolakowski against him on the issue of
ironism as it pertains to solidarity. Solidarity is not ironic in the slightest. But, by the same token, those of us with some taste for irony but relatively little room in our practical dealings for it need to
let go of people for whom aestheticist conceits and other finer things can be a way of life; such conceits are not yet great art, and other finer things not yet sources of altruistic attitudes, but they form part of the material of such art and such charitable impulses and it would frankly be resentment of the sort which is frequently imputed to the left to
over-criticize such aspects of bourgeois life.
However, I must say that progressives do their part in terms of imputing such resentment to people like me on the
bleeding edge of American politics; and the reality that there is really no accurate way to express how this makes you feel says something about politics, and aesthetics, which is often ignored — perhaps at the peril of all topics considered and persons concerned.
The history of the appropriation of electrified African music (“Afrobeat”) by the developed world, occurring since roughly the middle of the 80s with a significant falling-off as of late, is a strange one. Although records by the Talking Heads and Paul Simon featuring African musicians and motifs were big sellers, there seems to have been very little permanent influence on Western popular music worked by that period; today bhangra from India has a significant following among club kids, but what is to be heard of Africa is primarily musicians influenced by the sounds of the Carribean (reggae, dancehall). During the period of African electrified music’s great flourishing, these were dominant influences; above all, the figure of James Brown (still one whose consideration is clouded by a great deal of unnecessary awe at Brown’s showmanship skills) was the leitmotiv for the adaptation of traditional genres to the social life of a post-independence, modernizing Africa.It is rather well-known that the dominant figure of this period (occurring during the 1970s) was Fela Anikulapo (Ransome) Kuti, who patterned his mature act on Brown but whose showmanship is rather downgraded due to the inaccessibility of his music. Kuti’s Africa 70/Egypt 80 records are rather widely available on CD, at the “contemporary” price point of $18-19; and Kuti music of this period is something like a maximal extension of Brown’s New Breed-era longform grooves. Was Fela Kuti better than James Brown? In some respects yes, as Bootsy Collins once remarked; the swing-size band manages to bristle with virtuosity in a very restrictive format. But Kuti was not that much better, such that this explains his legendary status; rather, comprehensive consideration of his oeuvre requires one to attribute a great deal of influence to his activities as a practical politician, which in my opinion tend to be misprised as disliked but necessary concomitants of aesthetic production in an unfree country, although this is probably accurate enough for purposes of “musical history”.
In a piece on Public Enemy, I recently wrote about a connection between “actually existing socialism” in the Eastern Bloc and the culture of the African diaspora mediated through the pan-Africanism of that period: when Chuck D says “plus I never have, and plus I never been” there’s more than a little of the left-handed compliment present. And to my mind, Fela Kuti was the epitome of this: the “New Man”, transposed into an Third-World context. By contrast to Kuti, Ho Chi Minh was veritably Eurocentric, with his Western intellectual education and distaste for much of Asian culture; but (and this is important, since Kuti was never any kind of Stalinist) what is of value in that political and cultural tradition is present in Kuti’s defiance of corrupt Nigerian governmental and corporate authority, though perhaps not in his easy familiarity with native religions he was not born to.
So, is Kuti, who fought these murderous authorities for decades, an objectionable figure in any sense? The answer is yes, and it comes from his son Femi Kuti, who remarked that his father had fought these people all his life, and nothing changed. And for all we know, perhaps that young man would have liked to have seen something different from his father. Has there been something different? Yes; for many years in sub-saharan Africa, the musical tone has been set not by Kuti but by others, chiefest among them Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour. N’Dour is also a hard figure to know, as his image has been wrapped up following the earliest years of his band Super Etoile with the aforementioned appropriation of African music by the West; I claim no special expertise in this essay. But music from that period is inexpensively available on a disc from Rough Guide, and although this is still more than a little precious the record is well worth owning.
Why? Well, for starters Robert Christgau’s characterization of Super Etoile is not quite right (although I still believe every word in the Consumer Guide is literally true): Super Etoile is the best electrified band ever, this is what amplified instruments were made to do. From a technical perspective, although there is limited soloing the band as a unit is the most technically proficient outfit “since Thinking Fellers”, and like that defunct SF group their music is frankly pretty. Furthermore, like that group (which was affiliated with a sound subsisting across the bay, in the tonier parts of Oakland) a genre which blends rock and R&B with traditional sounds, mbalax, grew up around Super Etoile. Supplanting earlier “Star Bands”, this became something like the national sound of Senegal. Are there better mbalax bands? I doubt it very much, but I also doubt that this is important, which this linguistically challenged listener takes to be the point of N’Dour’s music.
N’Dour’s music is, in its way, perfect qua sui generis; to emulate him would be to engage in something of a conceit for the entertainment of one’s self and one’s friends, both of which could be construed rather widely. Is it perfect from the standpoint of the liberation of the Senegalese people? That question does not apply, and this is something like the criterion of the first status. N’Dour is not a hypermasculine figure like the “openly polygamous” Kuti; his aural signature is his extremely high register, but I suspect it wouldn’t bother him too much if the style did not appeal to you. In other words, he is not a figure of open rebellion; but he is not apolitical, either. Much of the political valences of N’Dour’s work are inaccessible to the Western ear, as he often writes in native languages; an early hit included on the Rough Guide disc is the song “Thiapatholy”, but what exactly is being said is likely to remain inaccessible to my ear forever. However, I suspect something of the flavour of N’Dour’s political stance can be gleaned from the song “Woman Is The Future Of Love”, included on the recent Nothing’s In Vain.
This twist of Louis Aragon’s dictum “Woman Is The Future Of Man” is rather obviously a cut on the modernizing tendencies of “Afro-bolshevism”; and with all due respect to Negativland, I suspect it is a perfect cut given the cultural context of N’Dour’s career, the AIDS pandemic among African youth. As is well-known, AIDS is omnipresent in Sub-saharan Africa (claiming the life of Fela and many other notables), but I suspect close listening to N’Dour may be the first indication that the Lord Of The Flies understanding of contemporary Africa promoted by Robert Kaplan in his popular Atlantic Monthly essay of about a decade ago “The Coming Anarchy” may not be entirely correct, although the large-scale economic damage caused by AIDS is real enough. Super Etoile is not escapist; their music is not particularly “luxurious”, having a minimum of flourishes added to the challenging-enough concept of mbalax (double-tracked rhythm). But neither are they particularly cautionary; these are not tales of “life among the lowly” and its attendant risks, those are well-known. I recently introduced the Hegelian concept of reconciliation into the consideration of country and western music’s relation to existing institutions, and I would say that N’Dour’s music goes further than any of those acts do in grasping the suffering caused by the world order. It is either reconciled or post-reconciliation, and figuring out the difference between the two might take a while, since no clues are offered by the artworks themselves. If you are looking for a tool to amplify desires for sociopolitical purposes, this isn’t it; but, y’know, it might be okay anyway.
The paper today announces that Enron intends to sell Portland General Electric to a new utility company backed by Texas investors, Oregon Electric, after a bidding period openly designed to defuse objections. It is my expectation that this plan (backed by former governor Neil Goldschmidt, among others) will put an end to talk of making PGE a public utility along the lines of those which serve smaller Northwest towns, but it is my feeling that the hoopla which is clearly coming will be designed to put an end to talk of a different kind before it starts. Namely, discussion of the fact that the Oregon Electric name is well-known to longtime residents as that of the company which operated various rail lines from Portland to many places the northwestern quadrant of Oregon, and offered regular interurban passenger service on those lines for roughly twenty-five years (1908 to 1931).Perhaps those with a newfound nostalgia for the days when Portland had a widespread streetcar system can be expected to perk up here, but Oregon Electric did not operate Columbia Crest and the myriad other lines (which were going concerns for a somewhat longer period): that was the Portland Traction Company, like Oregon Electric a private concern. What Oregon Electric did was build the metro area, in a fairly literal sense: many area cities were farm towns with no direct connection to Portland before the interurban provided them one, and Garden Home and Beaverton were nothing at all before the railway built stops where their civic cores are today. Was this a “disinterested service” to the area? Something like, because where there is nothing there is nothing to carry; the Oregon Electric was owned for many years by Jim Hill, operator of the Great Northern Railway (today part of Burlington Northern Santa Fe), and this is not quite an irrelevancy, if you know what I mean. The Great Northern employed a similar strategy all across the upper Midwest and Rocky Mountain states, settling immigrants along the line; and they are the reason Seattle, rather than Vancouver became the dominant city in the Pacific Northwest.
So the Oregon Electric was a major force in shaping the character of Northwest Oregon, but it is important (given the context) to realize that it was really in no sense a predatory corporation (this was no longer the era of robber barons, if you know what I mean). And proof of this is that there was a competing interurban line operated by the Southern Pacific, the Red Electrics (which ran from Portland to points south along what are the routes ot the present-day 99W and 99E). And faced with the prospect of this great new locally-based company which provides most of the metro area with its only source of electricity, I think we would be justified in asking: “In what sense does this company resemble, or not resemble, the company whose name it is taking over?” This is not an otiose question, as during the Enron years PGE, and not only the Enron affiliate, was frankly predatory: I, and perhaps others, will remember them as the company that ate Civic Stadium (and to me, that seems likely to have been “a matter of principle”). And for all we know, we could be expected by OE to “feel the tiger” on a regular basis; and frankly, I for one am long past feeling a need to buck up corporations and other institutions as a “matter of course”.
A writer remarked a few years ago in Puncture magazine that the best song on the radio at any given time is a CCR song; and the popularity of CCR is an interesting case, as the songs of those El Cerrito boys are mainly given over to hellfire-and-brimstone visions mined from the living memory of Aimee Semple McPherson and points further distant, with a pause for the most effective military-brass-tweaking song of all time. But I would venture to say that, of that period, the best song that isn’t on the radio is a Don Covay song; and this fairly Platonistic thought requires some explanation. For those who don’t know, Don Covay was the man who wrote “See-Saw”, “Chain of Fools”, “Mercy Mercy” and many other songs you know much better from their other versions. Additionally, he had his own act, which went through various versions (one including Jimi Hendrix) before arriving at the present. Although Don Covay has had a stroke, he’s still recording music; and my hypothesis is that he hasn’t noticed, because there’s nothing to notice.
Let me explain. Although Covay was responsible for many of the greatest soul songs of all time, he’s not really a soul artist; a protege of Little Richard, who nicknamed him “Pretty Boy”, Covay is squarely within the “black rock” genre which was later refounded by groups like Living Colour and 24-7 Spyz. That is, Don Covay plays rock, and as with Ike Turner it’s your problem. Why is it your problem? Well, let’s consider Chuck Berry (one of Turner’s least favorite people): who is widely regarded as a master of 50’s rock, because he was the best. But not only are Chuck Berry songs more musically interesting than what was going on at that time (Vincentolatry aside), there’s more going on lyrically than anyone at that time wanted to admit. Chuck Berry songs are definitively extensional: there’s never an assumed distance between Berry and the narrator of the song. But that’s not all; there is an assumed distance between Berry and the audience of the song. For example, “Brown-eyed Handsome Man” brings together disparate elements that really don’t congeal, and doesn’t he know it.
Now, this is more interesting than white Negritude already, but what is even more interesting is that Don Covay songs are completely extensional; Don Covay is basically just saying some words, including the figurative words. Do the lyrics mean something? Words mean something. Are there subtexts to the words? Don Covay didn’t notice, and there’s really no reason for him to have noticed; truth be told, there’s really nothing more interesting than Don Covay going on in Don Covay’s environment. The environment is important as backdrop, and Covay treats it well enough; but he’s not “hitting and getting hit”, and sometimes the inanimate portions of the environment are friendlier. Now, is this a character? Yes, but it is the character of objective truth: Don Covay would like you to come back and take that hurt off him, come hell or high water. Can you think of worse things? I suspect he can as well.
Quasi: Breaking Up Is Easy To Do
"You always hurt the ones you love, that may be true/ but truer still, you always hurt the ones who love you"
The topic of “morals in art” is famously questionable, and in the twentieth century the didactic style in literature went out of fashion in favor of “realism”; and the value of cynicism as a guide for coping with life ethically was massively upgraded. In the academic study of ethics, however, a vogue began in the 1960s for studies of substantively ethical behavior, also known as “virtue ethics”; and the major practitioners of this art (Oxford dons) were fond of recommending great works of literature as guides to developing an ethical sensibility. By such standards the contemporary “substantive ethical life” (social standards) of young people would seem impossibly poor, as they derive in large part from pop-cultural tropes (and derivations thereof); but this is arguably more complicated than it appears.
Here I would like to consider two recent musical acts, rather unpopular ones actually, in this light; specifically, to consider what their artistic praxis and its reception says about contemporary mores among a subset of American youth. The first act, Portland’s Quasi, consists of Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss, formerly married to each other; that is, married before the band began (when they were in other bands, including one with another fellow). Coomes plays a variety of instruments, but primarily a Roxichord: an electronic keyboard instrument which is “period” rather than “vintage”, as the sound produces evokes no popular music of the past; Weiss plays drums, as she does in the rather more popular Sleater-Kinney.
What is Quasi’s music like? You could say it was gloomy; not a little bit, a whole lot (all of it). The topic of much of Quasi’s music is their failed marriage, and the rest describes a life in an incredibly hardscrabble sector of society — young “creatives” without marketable skills, yet unwilling to compromise their artistic vision. Specifically, it’s about a lot of unpleasant daydreams (which theme predominates in earlier material) and recently unpleasant realities. If we think about it a little, there’s really no reason for Coomes and Weiss to get along well; they once liked each other well enough, but from the present vantage point this can be nothing but a problem.
But problems make good art, and Quasi is a band privately listened to a great deal: their music is well-known and well-liked, but I have never personally experienced a good response from playing a Quasi record for someone else. What is really patent in Quasi’s music is that Sam Coomes is sensitive but not wimpy: he whines about a life which is much harder than “tough” people are used to. But what is not patent is that Janet Weiss, qua voice in the Quasi songs, “enables” the Sam Coomes character to express this, and precisely by being a bete noire for him. How can this be? Well, considering the semantic position known as “quasi-realism” can help understand the ethical implications of the Sam-Janet dynamic, and vice versa. Realism is the view that a set of objective matters of fact outside the mind of any particular person (in effect outside any human minds at all); “anti-realism” the view that there are no such objective matters of fact.
Quasi-realism, developed by Simon Blackburn, is an intermediate view which holds that the psychological resonances of assertions create an effect similar to realist “facts”, in that one can reason about how something which is not the case would be by extrapolating from things which are the case; and Blackburn recently applied this stance to problems of practical rationality (reasoning about what to do) in his book Ruling Passions, coming with something like the skepticism of David Hume about ethical norms. But I would like to suggest that quasi-realism, which parallels the “transcendental-pragmatic” approach to language of Karl-Otto Apel, can motivate another ethical stance: something like hyper-realism about ethical norms, the view that not only are moral facts and norms pertinent to ethical judgments, but also the “tone” (technical term in Fregean semantics: Farbung, which is closer to the opera term coloratura than “coloration”).
What does this mean? Well, that in ethical life substantive actions, metaethical imperatives, and the overall tendency of an interaction all count in terms of moral evaluation at a given time. What does Quasi teach us about this? That art can be moral, because it is not ethical; it is obvious that Quasi comes out of a great deal of pain, which the production of the music actually prolongs. But because this is obvious, Quasi can serve as an “object lesson” about breaking up but getting along: it won’t work for either of you, but something good for other people can come out of it. In other words, they are “minimally moral” because the tendency of their artistic praxis is to reduce harm generally (although harm of various sorts is involved).
Husker Du: Land Grant Records "Government-authorized invitation don't mean a thing/ Saturation stars-and-stripes don't mean a thing"
But to make the argument that various forms of dancing around facts are not all there is to thought, I will invoke a musical group which has fallen out of fashion — the Twin Cities “hardcore” act Husker Du. Husker Du was one of the more popular “underground” acts of the eighties: and although phenomena such as a piss-poor coolie-job in the preening Motorbooty some years ago indicate that this form of “anti-FM action” is not in step with the times, and Husker Du’s earlier, even angrier records received a positively unjust treatment at the untrained hand of the SST Records recording engineer Spot one document of their blistering glory does exist: the live album The Living End, in my opinion the most exciting live record in any genre ever. The Living End was recorded during Husker Du’s final tour in 1986, and serves as a retrospective covering all phases of their career: pure hardcore played as fast as teenagedly possible, the pop-friendly moves of their middle period (though their only hit “Makes No Sense At All” is not present), and finally songs from their final records.
This last group of songs, which are extremely emotional by the standards of popular music generally in that they are truly not introspective, raises a very interesting question about “sentimental education”: namely, whether it is possible that some part of ethical cultivation is necessary and some part absolutely despicable. Husker Du were products of the unique political of the upper Midwest. These states had been the stronghold of the Populists, who posed the first serious challenge to the moneyed interests of the Eastern Seaboard, and as a result land-grant colleges are the rule rather than the exception; and in the early part of this century the Socialist Party flourished in Minnesota and Wisconsin, electing officials all over the place.
Husker Du’s music was explicitly political, and although the sentiments expressed are for some reason somewhat indeterminate they felt absolutely no compulsion to encode a critique of the existing order into cultural tropes; they were the cream of the Midwest, well-fed and well-educated boys who really didn’t need help from anyone. In fact, Bob Mould became the first openly gay American musician to be widely accepted by youth culture precisely on the unerotic strength of Husker Du records (although this took some time, and he has continued to be coy with pronouns throughout his songwriting career). The romantic songs are handled by Grant Hart, and are “power ballads” worthy of the name, but the gender politics of Husker Du is interesting for this reason.
As I once said, Pere Ubu is “Not For Girls”, because exposing them to it creates mutual incomprehension; but Husker Du is not for girls, it’s aimed at people in power and the threat of their vociferousness is palpable. Why not then? Because Husker Du are just obviously really good guys: their routine (which makes big-scary contemporaries Big Black look like Phyllis Schafly) was so aggressive on every level except “tendentious” moral judgments about other people that they ordinarily would just not be tolerated at all; it’s quite clear they must have built up an incredible reservoir of good will to develop the chutzpah to record things like “Data Control”, “In A Free Land” and “Divide And Conquer” as in principle aimed at a mass youth market.
So if we are ever to consider the question of “natural goodness” in connection with people encultured through American tropes, I think Husker Du is exemplary of a small-r republican sensibility: the natural adequacy of the citizen to the task of self-government, and I think this makes a lot more sense in the American context than recalibrating ethical discourse to a “play of presence and absence”, an excess of the former indicative of defective moral judgment. Must murder advertise? It must advert simpliciter, and this is exactly what the Huskers did not do. What was the cost? They were rather obviously not ladykillers, start to finish; and this is no small thing, but the passing of such a sensibility from the American scene is I think to be mourned.
It seems that above all, the question of postmodernity — which question is now several decades old, as the term first appeared in a C. Wright Mills essay in the 1960s — is the question of style as constitutive. The notion “constitutive”, as it is used today by analytic philosophers, first appeared in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as “regulative principles of reason”: under this heading Kant included notions pertaining to causality and materiality without which everyday observations about the world could not be coherently thought. It is used to good effect by Donald Davidson in discussing the philosophy of psychology deriving from Bayesian decision theory/marginal-utility economics, but has also appeared in a more sinister aspect as a dike against the “fashionable nonsense” associated with the French intellectual Sixties and Seventies. Without seeking to completely “overdetermine” the apple cart, I will begin by saying that this seems to completely miss the point of that period’s “new Nietzsche”, which was to point out the amalgam of modernism and mass culture had already made style an integral part of the cognitive environs and that existentialist plainsong fell back behind its own object. But what is this to us today? Honestly, nearly everything, and in no very pleasing way; but there are a few cultural landmarks (and recent aesthetic techniques) which suggest that a bit of aesthetic apperception is still possible, and I would like to suggest that something more rewarding than “reconciliation of the spirit with itself” can be on the agenda as a result. With what does consideration of “post-postmodernity” have to begin?
The answer I can come up with is “the reflexive closure of futurity”, but this requires some explanation as it is unlikely to please anyone. The philosophy of time is an abysmal subdiscipline, from which tense logics deserve to thoroughly liberated; but in this essay I will develop these themes by considering the work of Niklas Luhmann, whose work is still not as well-known in the United States as his work deserves to be. This is partially because, like Juergen Habermas, Luhmann was a follower of the sociologist Talcott Parsons, who has been almost completely forgotten: and although one relevant essay of Luhmann’s is “The Future Cannot Begin”, we cannot even begin with this until the power of Parsons’ scientific vision is understood. Parsons’ best-known work, The Structure of Social Action, is a compendium of the views of “classic” sociologists: but even then Parsons was a systematic thinker, not a systematizer, and the architectonic dimension of his work increased over time. In fact, it seems to me illuminating to say that the mature “systems theory” of Parsons is nothing but architectonic, in contrast to the “anti-systematic” approaches that were arising at the end of Parsons’ life; Parsons’ aim was to develop the structures of social life, right down to the level of individual experience, out of operations performed on formal automata which play a constitutive role in social interactions. Although the end result is often decried as arid and meaningless (and if you feel this way about Parsons, you shouldn’t read Luhmann), Parsons actually developed many powerfully explanatory models of trans-interactive social phenomena (structural features that cannot be subsumed under the exchange of information and other delights between individuals).
Where Parsons’ theory fails is in explaining “what it’s like” to engage in practical behavior in society (which encompasses both works and days), unlike the “ethnomethodology” of the sociological Sixties in America and Bourdieu’s “reflexive sociology” of practice. Various theories of the “micro-macro link” between social systems and interaction were bruited in the 80s; but to me it seems that Luhmann’s Parsonsonianism is the most fruitfully considered one, because Luhmann’s program incorporates popular reflections on the “postmodern condition” into structural-functionalism in a way sociologists in general failed to do. For the curious, Luhmann was Hegel after Derrida; and thusly examining what he has to tell us in the light of postmodern aesthetics may be informative, if not quite as exciting.
In Germany, where he is well-read, Luhmann is often accused of being technocratic: a very popular book containing a series of discussions between Habermas and Luhmann was titled Systemtheorie: Theorie der Gesellschaft oder Sozialtechnologie?. But “social technology” in this sense does not mean technology in society — rather the understanding of society as a sort of machine, of which the instrumental manipulation of physical machines forms only one part. Luhmann avoided Wittgensteinian objections to “super-rigid machines” as models of meaning not only by not talking to Wittgensteinians, but by decentering “social physics” from a “great chain of being” centered on the individual humanistically considered, and constructing microsocial systems out of operations performed upon larger ones (the largest, society in general, being a nearly perfect analogue of the Derridean text: it is simply what no communication is outside).
As a result, the individual that counts for social purposes — and this in a “constitutive” rather than “constructionist” sense — is a composite of characteristics acquired as stipulated parts of social systems: not only “labels”, but also relational properties: in the terminology of analytic philosophy, we learn to attribute counterfactual properties to people based on their utterances and beliefs ascribed to them. We must for the purposes of social interaction attribute some such properties, on pain of not being able to communicate at all: this problem, posed by Parsons as “double contingency”, forms not the explicatum of Luhmann’s theory of interaction but its explicatum. The problem of double contingency is what is preserved in observing social interaction; and preserved, not “sublated”, sublimated, or subliminated it often is in interaction itself.
This is all very enlightening to me, but a feeling people often have reading sociological treatises (a feeling they should probably have more often) is “What can that possibly mean?” And this is the problem of double contingency, which I mentioned first in the high-sociological style. Why? Well, as I said Luhmann’s point is not that “socialization” is the only way we can come to know other people — perhaps we can’t — but in fact that the question of any other way does not even make sense. From the perspective of Rousseauist concern with the authentic voice, this seems “bass-ackward”; and this is rather clearly the intent of Luhmann and other writers who employ such “front-loading” techniques. Are they “problematizing” concepts, questioning widespread assumptions? No, they are trying to get you to think of the issue in a certain way, and by means which are devious on the printed page. So it’s really bad, even if intellectually empowering. But is there a remainder beyond that?
Yes; what “closure under interaction” guarantees is not that you never learn anything new, but that there is a dimension of linguistic power beyond information communicated directly or indirectly — “perlocutionary force” — which can be coherently thought about. And so what the widespread realization of such a phenomenon would bring about would be the coming of Fichte’s fourth age, the age of will to power or science; and this would be postmodernity. But Luhmann goes this one further, and excludes another possibility: the concrete future. This is not the actual future; pure postmodernists maintain surprisingly stable beliefs about the continuity of time and institutions, and make statements about what it is they expect will happen in a more-or-less despairing tone. But Luhmann argued very seriously that modernity could only persist, not be replaced, on the grounds that thought without real abstractions gathered from social systems could not occur; this is the future which cannot begin. (Horkheimer and Adorno’s prescription “the only cure for enlightenment is more enlightenment” appears positively Brechtian in this light.)
Well, what would such real abstractions be in a period where eternal fixities have subsided (known to Marxist theoreticians as “late capitalism”)? Styles, but Luhmann’s point is that even this “aestheticist relativism” cannot be done with cognitive questions on account of micropower, and I would like to expand that out by considering a hopeless case: the music of the band Royal Trux. Formed out of the ashes of the shock-art band Pussy Galore, Royal Trux are not what you would call popular (although they had their shot); and they have not been “much-loved”, especially during their highly experimental phase which produced such masterpieces as Twin Infinitives. What they are is much-listened-to, such that their tours are very popular, and furthermore controversial; there has always been some stink about Royal Trux, from a $100,000 record advance spent on heroin addiction to Jennifer Herrema’s retirement from recording.
What is the aesthetic effect of the music, though? “The Trux” is canonically trashy; Herrema and Hagerty travel back to their tidewater roots so often you’d think they hadn’t left. And they really haven’t, but that’s not the point: the experience is such that it is clear the style is detachable, and as a result young people have probably known a undistinguished white kid or two who acted real bad for no apparent reason. But is more going on with Royal Trux’s music than that? Yes, and the shift back and forth between author-function and “authorial persona” is critical here. In their self-dubbed “Intensionality Triad” Thank You/Sweet Sixteen/Accelerator, the rock landmarks of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties are “blown up” to levels of figuration you would not have believed possible before hearing the records, but in the meantime an immensely realistic narrative about the present day runs through Jennifer Herrema’s “falsetto tenor” and Hagerty’s conceptualism (the band has explicitly claimed a harmolodic focus).
These are enormously unsentimental records, extremely useful for riding things out; but before “toughness” is taken for the mark of the productive style — which enables social interaction to take on a new conformance, such as Luhmann declares the “language of romantic love” appearing in the early-modern era to have done — I invite the reader to consider another artist, to my mind the initiator of this tendency in American popular music, Curtis Mayfield. Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions had a number of crossover hits in the 60s, but today few people remember him as a major figure except for those who can’t forget his songs (and it is notable that the music of Superfly, his best-selling solo record, is eminently forgettable). Mayfield’s role in the black cultural field was that of creator: unlike most R&B artists he composed nearly all his own songs this was a selling point, such that he was sued for incorporating part of a Holland-Dozier-Holland composition into “Can’t Satisfy”), and unlike James Brown there is a great deal of thematic variety and pointedness to Mayfield songs.
Is “We’re A Winner” message music? Not quite, and this point is underscored by stage patter captured on live recordings. Is it intended to have a formative effect? Not on the dedicated listener, but indeed it is: and his solo recordings shift away from the onward-and-upward thrust of Impressions records, towards a consideration of the black community in its totality (although Mayfield is fairly well-known among whites, it is patent that his “interlocutor” is in truth never one such) and the black man qua individual. Mayfield is highly regarded for the reason that he didn’t just “have something to say”, but something worth saying to the point that repetition would be superfluous; Mayfield lyrics are not catchphrases, but rather formed part of the “intuitive” cultural framework of their period. So, both acts demonstrate that another aesthetic goal beyond “exact imagination”, perfectly capturing the essence of a particular: “effective reception”, working a self-chosen change in people’s mindedness beyond the level of information communicated by making figures available for personal use, either in language as vehicle or language as medium of thought. And frankly, although the implications of some work in this vein are frightening indeed, I could not imagine a more extensive ambition for art.
The question of the relationship between the American radical left and American black culture has not recently been posed, owing to the decomposition of the former into “grades of organizational involvement”. But as an admirer of black culture and an adherent to a quite venerable tradition on the American left, I would like to here take up the question where it was last posed in full generality, in the work of Ralph Ellison, and go on to examine events prior to Ellison’s publication of Invisible Man (the major statement on the topic) in the light of intimations of leftism in subqsequent cultural products.Ellison In Addition To Sartre
As is well known, Invisible Man is quasi-autobiographical and the activist organization the Invisible Man is involved with, to his cost — the Brotherhood — evokes the Communist Party, an organization with a relatively immense following in American life at the time. Ellison had close dealings with a number of Party members, including Richard Wright; and both Invisible Man and Ellison’s essays address not only the reality of black involvement with communism but also the intellectual tenor of the Communists, specifically the concerns of “existential” French intellectuals associated with the Party. In a collection of his essays Shadow And Act, Ellison tells an interviewer that to his mind the finest European intellectuals associated with the Party had concerns fundamentally other than those of party functionaries, and that he felt the former to be well-represented in his work.
Malraux is mentioned by name here, but Invisible Man was published well after Sartre’s Being and Nothingness became well-known. Furthemore, it is really no stretch to consider Invisible Man as a very fine treatment of the themes of “phenomenological Marxism”, the position Sartre moved towards following World War II (with the assistance of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, author of The Visible And The Invisible, and Tran Duc Thao). Ellison takes thiscritique of the sequence of “appearances” offered us by society and turns it against the Communists: when the interviewer identifies the Brotherhood with the Communists he is told “the Communists were white, too” –- not invisible in the extremely nuanced sense of the book. But Ellison’s answer here is really extremely equivocal, and there is much room for considering Brotherhood as partially based on another organization: the Agricultural Workers’ Organization, founded by the Industrial Workers of the World in 1915 but eclipsing that organization in popularity during the post-World War I era.
The AWO, which organized migrant laborers and sharecroppers in the West and Midwest, hewed to the IWW Preamble but was unique in many ways: chiefest among them the “delegate system”. Under the delegate system, an organizer is appointed to represent the union in the field in whatever capacity was necessary: they explained the principles of the organization, were authorized to offer reduced-rate memberships, and performed other services for workers. The AWO was later folded back into the IWW as the Agricultural Workers Industrial Union, as part of the organization’s drastic decline in popularity, but the delegate system was adopted by the IWW as a whole and is practiced to this day. (Note: although I am a member, I am not myself a delegate and this is not intended as an “infomercial” for the organization.)
Murray Instead Of Gramsci
This was part of a period in American history when two other organizations which welcomed blacks as complete equals gained members and prestige, the Communist Party and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Formed by breakaway unions from the American Federation of Labor, the CIO was the first organization in America to systematically unionize factories in the “industrial” manner: that is, by point of production rather than craft practiced. The United Auto Workers was the first new union to join the CIO, and in many respects the culture of the UAW was definitive for the organization as a whole (although its leader for nearly all its history was John L. Lewis of the Mine Workers, a man with an ego even FDR couldn’t tame); although the CIO was not a Communist organization, its founder Walter Reuther had been to the Soviet Union with his brother to work in a factory there. Communists were welcome, and communist politics are a hard thing to pin down. And as ethnic division had long been a tactic of Midwestern factory owners, and blacks were migrating north to work on Detroit factory lines, racism was absolutely not tolerated.
Yes, we are talking about the 1930s here; but furthermore, black auto workers remained among the most radical people in the United States for many decades following, a point which we will return to. In the meantime, the New Deal, World War II and 50s prosperity created the more placid America upon which Invisible Man came. But perhaps the mark of greatness in a work of art is not its its elision of some issue for aesthetic reasons, but in fact causing that issue to disappear from the intellectual scene: and the effect of Invisible Man (which is arguably more accomplished than Richard Wright’s novels for other reasons) was to cause the issue of an “intrinsic relation” between black Americans and the left to disappear from the American scene.
Perhaps so completely, in fact, that Ellison’s difficulty in writing another novel — the recently published Juneteenth being an adaptation of materials left behind at the time of his death -– is better explained by Ellison having destroyed the conditions of possibility of his work in forcing the reasonableness of his world-view on the American intelligentsia, than biographical incidents such as a fire at his New England home which destroyed one manuscript. And without seeking to minimize his accomplishment, one can also note that Ellison is frankly remembered as something of a sourpuss and that these can be considered as indications not of “writer’s block” considered in the classic style but of something like a socio-historically granted inability on Ellison’s part to write the kind of material his essays suggest an interest in.
Further support for this idea can be gotten from a reading of an excellent book by Ellison’s friend Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans. Although not as critical as Sacvan Bercovich’s American Jeremiad, The Omni-Americans (alternately subtitled New Perspectives On Black Experience And American Culture, or in more recent editions Alternatives To The Folklore Of White Supremacy) created a furor within the radicalized civil rights movement when it was published in 1970. In essentials, the book is something like a study of the “conditions of the possibility of Invisible Man“; and Murray’s thesis is black Americans occupy what the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci would call a dirigente or “leading” position within American society, such that although they are not at the center of the power structure they have superior vision concerning the social totality. The element of Murray’s book which angered black-power advocates was his political reformism; he remembered the LBJ years with nostalgia, and cautioned against black activists burning bridges with society at large.
“Big Bill” Haywood as John Shaft
Gunnar Myrdal aside, the Omni-Americans is perhaps the most clear-sighted picture of the issue between blacks and whites in America ever: there’s not really an issue. But is there something in what remains which is more than detritus? I would argue yes, and point not to touching examples of black-white friendship across various divides but to the persistence of pure left problematics in black culture. If Ellison and Murray are taken together, the net effect is something like this: Ellison’s elision of the left’s effect on his mind is something like a “laundering” of that part of Communist “proletarian culture” which was genuinely cultural, and black variations on red themes were thusly made valuable to radicals as pure perspectives on social problems amenable to legitimate extension. This to the person who is concerned about the retardation of “progressive” issues by conservative elements of black culture (the church, feasting on meat products and other unhealthy items, limits to assimilation) should be questioning the sagacity of their own beliefs.
Is this in itself exploitative, or fantasy? No, the left has a genuine right to discourse with blacks, one which predates the Communists and the Civil Rights movement they were active in (again, from the 1930s), and which derives from their status as figures of otherness to the black community, even within the black community. Whatever the IWW metalworkers of Albert Ayler’s Cleveland youth were the inspiration for “Universal Indians”, it is really true that the members of the pre-communist American radical left were something like that, who would signify to rapidly urbanizing blacks not “original men” but something like proto-humans in the style of Lilith in the Judaic tradition, whites without the defects of whiteness but also outside concerns about salvation.
“Big Bill” Haywood, the major leader of the IWW, was something like the real-life John Shaft: a lawless man, admitted consort of murderers, but at the same time a civilized one (his power derived from this — Bill was tall but none too big, he was so-called because he was big for a Bill) and the worker’s friend always. For blacks of his time, Haywood would have pointed to some order along the lines of the “postlapsarian” Reconstruction South; and, as Ellison says in this interview, to view the Brotherhood as the bete noire of Invisible Man would be a misreading. But in reality the program of the IWW is something like that of the Revolutionary Union Movements founded by black workers in the auto plants of Detroit and which flourished in the 60s and 70s, and such figures are not so much holdouts against assimilation as walking problematizers of what there is to not assimilate.
So dialogue between American blacks from all walks of life and the American left may also be timely, not because some evil organization threatens to undo enfranchisement, but because the questions posed by the secularization of the American persona, “black” included, are ones that the larger black cultural tradition may not be well-equipped to address in all aspects. “America” as a symbol stands for something good, rationality, and the affinity for rationality in both black and red traditions runs deeper than is generally realized. But America doesn’t really like either group back, and thusly the question of what role “partisans of rationality” of various stripes play in our sufferings is yours and mine; and furthermore, one that can only be posed today on the “terrain” of rationality, rather than that of spirituality.