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.