We Jam Econo

Last Wednesday I caught John Akomfrah’s The Stuart Hall Project at the Gene Siskel. It is always a pleasure to exit the Red Line so close to one’s destination; makes me feel urbane (i.e., still urban, but wealthy). The film was amazing. It made a labyrinth of my thought & feeling, rearranging neural circuits, combating the apathy of routine visual consumption.

My immediate reaction was deep melancholy, a mood which overcame me a few hours before I left for the screening, was exacerbated to the extreme by watching the film, and slowly leaked out all night via a series of gloomy comments. My sadness involved a nostalgia for a way of relating to Stuart Hall, which recalled a way of being in the world most simply described as “being a graduate student.” I wanted to relate to Hall through texts & frequently found myself wishing the movie was less visual; that it could include more of Stuart Hall’s words, his patient explaining, careful elaborations (but it’s a movie, my friends patiently reminded me). I also felt angry with myself for being such a fuck-up & angry at Hall for not being one, despite what were apparently much more demanding conditions. I identified with Hall as a fellow laborer & alternately blamed myself & my circumstances for my failure to live out a similar professional/personal trajectory. To use my favorite Stuart Hall term, my feeling involved an articulation of my relation to the marketplace, one that bound together the commodity—Hall’s texts—with an economically determined, “structural” position, in this case a fantasy about finding an ethically & economically comfortable place within the professional class. Akomfrah’s movie dispelled this fantasy; this act of dissolution provoked my foul, i.e, nostalgic mood. (Nostalgia as foul via corruption via a loss of traditional moorings via madness, depravity via hollowed out by worms.)

One cure for nostalgia is to confront the objective reality of the thing you regret losing; there’s nothing like going home to make you wonder what you were missing. To this end I devote this post to my favorite of Stuart Hall’s texts, “The Problem of Ideology: Marxism without Guarantees.” Akomfrah’s film nicely emphasizes the importance Hall put upon patiently sorting out of what should be retained and what should be let go. This is the basic method of analysis to which he implies himself in “The Problem of Ideology,” in which he argues that it is “possible to ‘re-read’ [Marx] . . . in such as way as (a) to retain many of the profound insights of the original, while (b) expanding it, using some of the theories of ideology developed in more recent times” (35). There is something in the fetish object worth defending & another something it would be better to give up. This balance between things as they are and things as they might be is one way in which I come to terms with the Stuart Hall I am not or will be.

For me, blogging involves the construction of thought patterns over time, points of interest conceived of in terms of weaving: the integration of strands. To this end, this post, like every fourth or fifth one following, intertwines some of the ideas that proceeded it. In this way, the blog finds its subjects through a gathering of the future into the past, a new future determined by a new past. The first two posts involved populist ideology, the third punk nostalgia. This one reads Stuart Hall while listening to the Minutemen. It may or may not be immediately apparent what the greatest postwar British intellectual on the left has to do with the California Punk trio, other than worldly co-existence. Hopefully, articulation of one with the other generates a productive f(r)iction.

Reading Stuart Hall

Hall’s essay is available in Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, edited by David Morley & Kuan-Hsing Chen (London: Routledge, 1996). It tackles “ideology” as “a general problem—a problem of theory, because it is also a problem of politics and strategy” (25). In populist terms, the problem can be restated: how should Marxists assign value to the contributions of “the people”? One aspect of Hall’s thought I love (in retrospect) so much is his lack of anxiety about who/what constitutes “the people.” For Hall, this concept is “practically” self-evident: he carefully defines the concept (relying on Gramsci, Althusser, Lacan) but doesn’t dramatize the struggle to conceptualize it. “The problem of ideology,” he writes,

concerns the ways in which ideas of different kinds grip the minds of masses, and thereby become a ‘material force’. [. . .] the theory of ideology helps us to analyze how a particular set of ideas comes to dominate the social thinking of a historic bloc . . . and, thus, helps us to unite such a bloc from the inside, and maintain its dominance and leadership over society as a whole. It has especially to do with the concepts and the languages of practical thought which stabilize a particular form of power and domination; or which reconcile and accommodate the mass of the people to their subordinate place in the social formation. (27)

I agree with these terms but want to reverse their polarity: to put the accent on how “we” “unite such a bloc from the inside” when the bloc is not the dominant culture/class, but an emergent counter-culture. Hall’s analysis points me neither toward or away from this inflection. He regards the problem of ideology as an effort to decode “practical as well as theoretical knowledges,” i.e., those forms of knowing that “enable people to ‘figure out’ society, and within those categories and discourses we ‘live out’ and ‘experience’ our objective positioning in social relations” (27). The little quotation marks are worth noting as textual ‘gestures’ that point to something beyond the “scientific” “limitations” (Hall’s terms, magnifying Marx’s) of this essay—the ‘scare quotes’, like little fists raised above the text, indicate practical or popular ways of knowing; in this sense, Hall’s greatest accomplishment is to conserve, through his words, his performances on late-late-night TV, his work toward the institutionalization of “cultural studies,” a space within the British/Caribbean/American left for thinking and writing about the “daily” rhythms, postures, neighborhood dynamics, accents, and other cultural enclaves that reproduce/reject our various, often habitual, relations to market forces.

Hall attacks the concept of “false consciousness” while continuing to ask “how does an economic structure generate a guaranteed set of ideological affects?” (32). As regarded by Marx, the problem involves a question about whether or not “spontaneous thought” should be regarded as leading toward the truth of the encounter between capital and its various discontents. It’s fairly obvious and no surprise to learn that most people relate to capital through the marketplace relations—buying commodities and selling one’s labor, i.e., working—that define daily life. The goal is to develop a ‘science’ that corrects for the “distortions” that are generated, spontaneously, by the ordinary lives of capitalists and laborers (of all kinds, need it be said). Hall agrees with Marx in arguing that the general mode of distortion involves the fetishization of a particular position within the social; a certain class perspective succumbs to “eternalization” and “naturalization,” which Hall conceives of as “effects” which allow us to “treat” the “products of a specific historical development as if universally valid,” thereby liquidating the desire we organized in association with an earlier market structure. Hall describes the Marxist concept of reification in practical terms that designate hegemonic aesthetic categories: the freezing of the event in scenic time and the gluing of the subject to its objective environment.

While Listening to the Minutemen

The California punk trio the Minutemen were inspired in the sense that they spoke the language of the people. “Spontaneous thought” was simultaneously practical and theoretical in their lyrics & song forms. They conceived of the punk song as correcting the distortions produced by the culture industry and the marketplace fetish more generally.

Little Man with a Gun in his Hand, when we first encountered it in the late 80s / early 90s, astonished because of its aesthetic structure. It began with a long lead in, followed by one verse, a solo, and one chorus. It was, to use a term they would emphasize, economical. In public interviews, such as on Sound Opinions, Mike Watt defines “econo” as being willing to live with what you can get away with. To “jam econo” was to make the most of what you found around you. It was a philosophical expression of what was often referred to at the DIY aesthetic of the punk movement. To “Do It Yourself” meant insisting upon difference, upon making something new, but not accepting a lack of qualifications to making the new world now, today. Because it was “econo” it didn’t sound like most punk songs, which more rigidly relied upon the pop-culture formula (Stooges, Sex Pistols, Ramones, etc.) The lyrics were non-narrative, and directly addressed nostalgia:

The highest love, a woman’s touch
Harmony, a strong mind, a strong body
Beauty all the things he couldn’t be,
All the things he couldn’t have.

The first two lines sketch objects of desire regarded as gendered ideals. The third line diagnoses these as aesthetic forms, which are in the fourth line redefined as lost in advance. Macho melancholy understood as the fixation upon the idealized other and idealized self. After a musical interlude these lines are juxtaposed with the chorus, song by all band members:

Little man with a gun in his hand

Little man with a gun in his hand

Little man with a gun in his hand

Little man with a gun in his hand

Little man with a gun in his hand

Little man with a gun in his hand

The effect is to draw an analogy between the subject of desire in the lyrics and the figure disdainfully dismissed in the chorus. The Minutemen definitely turn away from the aesthetic ideas of the culture industry, at the same time performing their own right to remake basic generic categories of popular forms. The music video of This Aini’t No Picnic may help to explain my point; the lyrics voice a popular working-class complaint, while the video depicts the band playing among a ruined industrial zone and being strafed by a U.S. fighter pilot whose related to Reagan at the end. Again, thinking economically is key to understanding the totality of the piece. The video was a low-budget version of popular music videos at the time, the early days of MTV. The video is not a spoof or farce; it earnestly participates in the music-video genre, but it maintains a dark humor by foregrounding its own lameness–not with a knowing wink, but as an earnest demand.

Such as world is inevitably “hybrid” to use a term frequently associated with Hall’s work. It is world in which identify is allowed to remain unsettled, a world in which shame is not allowed to have its way with you; consider how in I Felt Like a Gringo the public expression of shameful feelings is contrasted with D. Boon’s exuberant bouncing–there is an optimism of form that adds buoyancy to the painful encounter with cultural boundaries as encountered in ordinary life.

Reading Stuart Hall

Hall makes the case for the value of appearances. Re-reading Marx’s distinction between “the ‘surface forms’ of the capitalist circuit” and “the critical domain—the ‘hidden abode’– of capitaist production itself” (33), he argues that “key political themes,” such as “’Freedom’, ‘Equality’, ‘Property’ and ‘Bentham’ (that is, Individualism),” while not in themselves “adequate” explanations of the social circumstances produced by capital “derive from the categories we use in our practical, commonsense thinking about the market economy,” & thereby reveal that aspect in which a particular mode of critical analysis might be “universally encountered and experienced” (34). Marxists need to recognize their own fetish object (the reification of ‘economic determinism’, according to which either syndicalism or academic deconstruction should be regarded as the singular way forward) as one of multiple ways to recognize a problem we all have in common. Hall exemplifies this problem by observing how “the concept ‘democracy’ does not have a totally fixed meaning” (41). He argues that the contradiction or ambivalence inherent in this highly contested concept should not dissuade Marxists from organizing (theoretically & practically) in its name. “We cannot allow the term to be wholly expropriated into the discourse of the right. Instead, we need to develop a strategic contestation around the concept itself” (41).

Here is some of what I learned from Stuart Hall:

that “The expropriation of the concept has to be contested through the development of a series of polemics” (41)

that “No ideological conception can ever become materially effective unless & until it can be articulated to the . . . struggles” faced in ordinary life (42)

that “Ideas only become effective if they do, in the end, connect with a particular constellation of historical forces” (43).

Ultimately, there’s another thing I (once) love(d) about Hall: his closing commitment to the “openness” of the struggle to secure an ideological synthesis capable of becoming eternal and natural. “The effective coupling of dominant ideas to the historical bloc which has acquired hegemonic power in a particular period is what the process of ideological struggle is intended to secure,” he writes (44). The basic formula is Althusser’s, but the optimism for a future that is never limited to reproduction, but instead subjected to a making new, is all Hall’s. As Akomfrah so well documents, he contributed optimism to the otherwise cold calculus of BBC interviews,while lending optimism a science: the oh so necessary calculus by which we might disentangle what shall continue from what should be left behind.

While Listening to the Minutemen

The Minutemen wrote “our band is scientist rock,” referring to the theoretical bent of their lyrics. Like the Dead Kennedies, Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, they used the quasi-popular form of punk lyrics to analyze cultural traditions, finding in them forms of inculcation but also resistance. An obvious example is the critique of the childhood game in another low-tech music video, King of the HIll. This is a critique of appearances in the language of the same; by juxtaposing various scenarios while foregrounding the DIY aesthetic of the whole, the Minutemen poise themselves in the borderland between “as it is” and “as it might be”; like Hall, they sort through the available psychic /objective material, taking what they can use but rejecting an aesthetic predicated upon ideals. This is the legacy Hall leaves in the form of public interviews, public lectures, textbooks, institutions: the intellectual’s goal being to build new structures (of feeling, but also new practices, no spaces in which new practices might survive or even flourish).

The song that best captures their popular/theoretical relation to the culture industry is probably “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing.” The idea as Mike Watt says in the Sound Opinions interview, was to get into the public realm lyrics that the King of Pop might actually record. In other words, the song was both a Minutemen song and a Michael Jackson song which the Minutemen were covering in advance of Jackson’s version. Listening to it involves hearing the Minutemen’s version of MJ’s version:

Iron-fisted philosophy…
Is your life worth a painting?
Is this ‘girl vs. boy’ with different symbols?
Being born is power
Scout leader nazi tagged as ‘big sin’
Your risk chains me hostage
Me, I’m fighting with my head, I’m not ambiguous

I must look like a dork

Me, naked with textbook poems
Spout fountain against the Nazis
With weird kinds of sex symbols
In speeches that are big dance thumps
If we heard mortar shells
We’d cuss more in our songs
And cut down on guitar solos

(guitar solo)

So dig this big crux

Organizing the boy scouts for murder is wrong
Ten years beyond the big sweat point
Man, it was still there ever without you
Coming back around, look!
Coming together, for just a second
A peek, a guess
At the wholeness it’s way too big
At the wholeness it’s way too big

The final lyrics are perhaps the best antidote to nostalgia: the dream of “wholeness” leaves us facing a world that is too big for us; a world in which the self aspires to harmonies it will not achieve. The other way to do it, as Hall and The Minutemen articulate so well, involves sorting through what is available in ordinary life–not to the neglect of other, more ‘scientific’ or ‘theoretical’ approaches, but without seeking the ‘purity’ they often appear to harbor.

“I Belong to the Blank Generation & I Can Take It or Leave It Each Time”

In college, my friends & I were way into what at the time was called “alternative” radio. We listened to the latest albums & read the reviews, played what we liked. It was all in the music. Alternative Tentacles. Sub Pop, etc.

Our tastes were educated by older students, the seniors teaching the juniors & sophomores, the juniors & shop-mores teaching the newcomers.

When we heard Richard Hell & the Voidoids’ Blank Generation our collective ears pricked up. (Joe Orton’s Prick Up Your Ears was already important to us.) It spoke to us for reasons we didn’t understand. It spoke of this failure to understand. We understood the “blank” in “I belong to the blank generation” to be a ______________; a space in which anything might be filled in. This affective realization may be understood according to Raymond Williams’ notion of “structures of feeling,” which (as Shianne Ngai observes) refers to a feeling that sticks without clear ideological reasons to back it up. It marked us as all potential, no possibility.

We were not wrong to feel for this song. I am reminded of it today as I hear on the radio (NPR) another report comparing the “I generation” to the Baby Boomers. The millennials come across in glowing terms, being more ‘diverse,’ more ‘liberal’ than their grandparents. Missing are the parents, uncles, godparents, big brothers & sisters who were born in the late 60s, early 70s.

In the mid-1990s, around the time we were meant (according to the narrative of continual progress that so frequently determines US nationalism) to come into our own, there were a number of stories in newspapers that observed how we had failed to ‘make our mark’ as a generation. We were at the time referred to as the X-generation, a term which balanced our collective incapacity to live up to our parents’ expectations & our collective interest in punk/alternative culture, symbolized by the band X.

What was the blank generation? Affective theory provides one answer. Raised in the 1970s we grew up in an age of agitation & revolutionary dreams, only to come of age during the Reagan revolution. Like the “lost generation” that came of age during WW I we were largely obliterated by technological changes, which were accompanied by a fundamental shift in public/popular cultural perceptions. In this sense, the X-generation does not indicate all members of a generation, but an ideological split, both sides of which were lost to history–the Young Republicans dissolved into the prosperous public sphere of the Clinton era, making big bucks in digital/financial start up, while the majority took temp jobs.Either way, we were dismissed: as ‘good sons’ who followed the right-ward trend or ‘bad/riot girls’ who bucked it but were not able to resist the cultural tide.

We were, in short, a queer generation. A group who defined ourselves primarily as outsiders, & whose outsider status came without rewards.

A few personal anecdotes (unnoticed by the “mainstream” who we learned to reject at a young age, what else have we?) will help to explain our situation:

  • I’ve worked full time or 3/4s time (when in school) since i was 16; I’m now 44. In the last 28 years I’ve never been fired from a job, never been disciplined for poor work, and NEVER BEEN OFFERED A PERMANENT POSITION. We are a precarious generation.
  • Leaving college in 1992, I remember being told that my best bet for employment was to seek out the new ManPower Inc., one of the first “temp” agencies. I dutifully went to a large downtown office building, where I was given a typing test on one of these new personal computers. I’d taken a year of typing in high-school, prided myself in being able to type about 85 wpm. But the computer’s keyboard was subtly yet substantially different from the one I’d grown used to, banging out my senior thesis on an IBM typewriter. There was a “back key’ & no reason to hit return at the end of the ‘page’ (the screen). I messed up pretty badly, leaving large gaps in the ‘page’ every time I tried to make a new line. My testers shook their heads, confirming themselves that I’d been lying about my abilities. They denied me an office job, sending me to manual labor pools, which paid minimum wage.
  • I didn’t just write my BA thesis on a typewriter, I wrote my MA thesis on one as well. I simply couldn’t afford the $2,000 for a PC. That was 1995.
  • Shortly thereafter I managed to get a temp job at a major university, working as a functionary in the Chemistry department. My job was to enter numbers on a web page that connected the local Chemistry journal (JACS) to its national organization offices. My manager, a Professor at the University, warned me not to spend my down-time “surfing the internet.” I had no idea what the “internet” was but surfing sounded fun, so I tried it out. It seemed to mean clicking on various words in order to move from one page to another. It was NOTHING LIKE SURFING. To this day, I’ve never understood what the big deal about the internet might be. I’ve joined the ‘conversation’ because no other options seem available. Pulled into a subjectivity we never accepted, the blank generation wails, as Richard Hell put it, “get me out of here!” “It’s such a gamble when you get a face.”

The X-generation has so much to offer generation Y/I. We remember what it was like back when interpersonal/bodily/queer relations organized our subjectivity. But no one listens to us; we are invisible, the ‘left-behinds’. It’s a (non)subjectivity we grew into, learned to live with, but on we must resist if we are to impart our knowledge, based on continual loss. Among our observations, a few key points stand out:

  • There is no significant difference between male & female.Everyone in our generation wore pants (jeans or corduroy). Sometimes we wore them under skirts, both men & women. We talked to each other w/out a sense of intellectual/emotional/cultural difference. We were not a trans generation in the biological sense–we didn’t know of & didn’t need physical transformations of our bodies. Girls could be fem or macho; guys could be macho or fem. “It’s all cool with me” was the predominate ideology.
  • Nothing was more important than “authenticity,” which meant being true to one’s own desire, not capitulating to “the mainstream.” This was regarded by the mainstream as a collective effort to hold ourselves back; we were the original “slackers.” We refused the bullshit they offered us in our continual critiques of ourselves & each other. We disdained anything that resembled “selling out.” How times have changed; now it seems that “selling out” is the sole goal of up-&-comers, & everything that makes one more ‘marketable’ is praised.
  • Subjectivity located in bodies can’t be commercialized in the ways that subjectivity located in spectral images can be. Every generation chooses an efficient mode by which to mediate itself to itself. We insisted, perhaps for the last time (until the zombie apocalypse, an X-generation genre if there ever was one), that bodies in proximity was the best way to gain friends & get laid. We approached each other face-to-face, tasted each others juices before making an ultimate decision. Nothing was check off because there was no conception of boxes to be checked.
  • We located our problems in collective, rather than individual accomplishments. This post & this blog are testimony to this affective stance. The blank GENERATION will rise or fall (mostly fall) collectively. We did not assume the perspective, so prominent today, that each person is responsible for his/her (note the gendered dimorphism, which we did not accept) destiny.

I remember the summer when Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” his the mainstream radio. Kathy, Chuck, Ethan & I were driving north to see Camper Van Beethoven play songs like “Mao Reminisces about his Days in Southern China” & “Take the Skinheads Bowling” when we heard it on FM radio. Some of us thought it was a good sign: as a generation we’ve begun to be accepted! Others, included myself, thought it marked the end of an era: the ultimate sell-out.

We argued about it; argument is something the X generation is very good at. We were never afraid to disagree.

In retrospect, it’s an understandable shame that Cobain died, but it was shame, not Courtney, that killed him in the end.