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Why Is America So Cracked?
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Let us begin, as we often do in this space, with music, as clarion signal of the self-image of its makers. Let us begin with the interpretation of a whole continent’s dreams.
We have witnessed a minor flurry these past weeks of calls for the critical examination, in light of our growing historical distance, of the sub-genre of fin-de-siècle American popular music known as nü-metal. I can never understand why one bit of culture gets churned back up, and another does not. Carly Simon, Fleetwood Mac, the Bee Gees, have all been hauled out of storage a few times by now. But who has a word today for, say, Juice Newton, or Captain and Tennille? Why did “I’ve been to paradise, but I’ve never been to me”, like some Lacanian koan, never impose itself as an ironic catch-phrase for this our new millennium? The past is a world-sized grab-bag, full of infinite surprises, yet this particular carnival game, like a count-the-marbles contest with a giant softball hidden at the center of the jar, seems somehow rigged.
If only for this reason I was somewhat pleased to see the aggressively low-brow, gleefully lumpen output of Korn, Limp Bizkit, et al., brought up recently for a first round of critical reappraisal, and to see these bands adjudged, by downwardly mobile college graduates too young to remember the first time around, to be “pretty good, actually”. This is one of those moments when aesthetic judgment comes to seem not just partly but entirely conditioned by history. I was there at the beginning, and nothing could have prepared me for a world in which the awfulness of nü-metal was not axiomatic, which is to say for a world washed clean by the innocent ignorance of youth.
It is just this process of endless renewal that is captured in the sustained crescendo of clarity that is Le temps retrouvé, the seventh and final volume of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Here is Marcel the narrator describing his final tour before death of the salons of le monde that he had frequented years before, and the astounding ignorance in these places, both familiar and unfamiliar at once, of so many things that he had once assumed to be eternal:
This ignorance was not only an ignorance of le monde, but also of politics, of everything. For memory lasted less long than life among individuals, and moreover some who were very young, who never had the memories that had been abolished in the others, were now part of le monde too, and most legitimately — even with respect to nobility origins were forgotten or never known to begin with, they took people at the height or at the nadir at which they were now found, believing that things were always so, that Mme Swann and the Princesse de Guermantes and Bloch always had the most exalted place, that Clemenceau and Viviani had always been conservatives.1
My own monde congregated not in salons, but in the parking lot of the Cattle Club on Folsom Boulevard in Sacramento, a common destination for touring bands on the circuit between Seattle and LA in the late 1980s and early 1990s. If I am able to revisit it now, this is not because I have been released from the sanatorium, powdered my face, and put on my haut-de-forme one last time, but because all of the culture I know has been dematerialised and thrown into the great memetic synthesizer of the internet, for all to see and to adapt to their own ends.
The origin story of nü-metal, as I recall it, unfolded in that very parking lot. I had stopped frequenting the place by 1991, when I withdrew into the chrysalis of my life to come. Wikipedia disconfirms what I am about to say, as it tells us that Korn only formed in 1993, but somehow I have a clear memory of standing next to that band’s beloved Munky, after a show, and gawking as some sorry lad sought to press his grievances against the club’s security guard, a hard-working family-man who never wanted any trouble, and who worked his shifts with Stoic indifference whether the venue was hosting its Thursday-night “alternative” acts, or, in its incarnation as “The Stables”, its Tuesday-night gay country-western bacchanale. The guard was also portly, and he was black, two features the young man at odds with him was determined to highlight in his verbal imprecations. He picked up a handful of gravel, and threw it, along with the N-word, at the guard. The guard flinched. His white assailant had his hair shaved on the sides, and falling down from on top in small, carefully wrought, bleached-blonde dreadlocks. He screamed that awful word again.
“This is bad”, I said, to no one in particular, as Munky wandered off. My simple friend S****, who would later, the internet tells me, make a fortune with some bit of software on which the entire online pornography industry depends, tore me away to leave before things got even uglier. I had already seen guns pulled more than once in parking lots like that one, and I was by nature averse to conflict, so I went with him. “Poor guy”, I said, thinking of the guard, as we were driving down Highway 50 a while later. “You know what I like about you?” S**** said in response. “You’ve got a sense of ethnics. You’re a person with a strong sense of ethnics.” He meant ethics. Few people could combine malapropism and non-sequitur as fluently as S****.
I need to find a higher calibre of people, I thought to myself, and that’s what I spent the next several decades trying to do. Mostly in vain.
A few years later, I’m in Germany for dissertation research, and I go into a record store with its peculiarly German divisions: “Hard und Heavy” is one, “Black” is another. In the former section I see some albums from the Deftones, who had oft stopped along the same circuit up and down the valley of Central California, with whom I had also, probably, stood around in the parking lot. I go out to the supermarket, and see at the check-out counter the little bottles of grain alcohol called “Korn”, sold for a few coins to mendicant drunks, alongside a brand of Schnapps, also in mini-bottles, called “Kleiner Feigling” — a play on words meaning, literally, little coward, but also drawing on the fact that this Schnapps is made from figs (Feige). It seems you can never truly leave home.
Nor can you ever go back of course. A few years later still, it’s 1999, and I’m in Berkeley, back in my home-state, but things are different now. I’m at a grad-student party and the talk among the philosophy boys is all of Tarski and Gödel. But behind me I hear a young woman who seems to come from literature or rhetoric, is probably a Judith Butlerite, and who clearly has her finger more firmly on the pulse of the age than the little cluster that has me momentarily ensnared. She is saying: “And I’m not joking, the main chorus is literally I did it all for the nookie (the nookie) / So you can take that cookie / And stick it up your ass. I’m sorry but that’s not OK.” This is the first time I ever heard Fred Durst’s signature couplet, and it is also the first time I heard the phrase “not OK” with that special emphasis on the “not”, no doubt an early occurrence of it, in the sense of “problematic”, i.e., “what one simply does not say in le monde” (unless in quotations, about which, see Tarski). In hindsight it is as if there was a rush, in 1999, to get the basic template of conventional speech in place before the coming of the new millennium, to settle on a way of speaking that would relieve us of any need to find words of our own; language as auto-fill in the wake of Y2K.
The most recent occasion for the reuptake of nü-metal appears to be the discovery by today’s youth of a minor hit by Alien Ant Farm, also from 1999, a cover of Michael Jackson’s 1987 song “Smooth Criminal”. So many memories come to me whenever the Jackson epos is summoned up —the headline in the New York Post from perhaps 1998 that read “Wacko Jacko Flat on Backo” (there had been some sort of prescription-pill incident); the issue of Ebony that I read while waiting at the check-out counter at a Cincinnati Kroger in 2002, where in an interview Jackson described fleeing to New Jersey from Lower Manhattan on 9/11 in a rental car with Liz Taylor, a scene I really wish some talented author would treat in short-story form— and someday I hope to do him full justice. What seems relevant here is the familiarity of the formula that make’s AAF’s cover “pretty good, actually”. It is a formula I witnessed at the very first punk show I saw, in 1986 (I don’t remember who was playing), where the band provided a rousing encore with its rendition of Janet Jackson’s mega-hit of that same year, “Nasty”. And it is the same formula enacted, I hate to say, if considerably more viciously, when a white American kid with dumb little dreads on his head and a red-yellow-and-green ganja pouch around his neck, whose entire social identity is a fantasy of métissage, reaches, in a moment of shameful conflict, deep into his ancestral thesaurus and conjures up a word that is, quite literally, not OK, a word that can hurt like gravel, the only word in any language that I, a lover of unfettered expression, agree I must never write.
When this quintessentially American posture is not dialed up to the levels at which it can truly cause harm, the sentiment behind it is one that is typically expressed in the comic mode. Alien Ant Farm’s performance of “Smooth Criminal” is a joke, and if you want to know who the joke is on, the only conceivable answer is that it is a running joke that white America plays with black America as its butt. The joke conforms almost too perfectly to the so-called “incongruity theory” of humour, which as articulated by Kant involves “the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing”, but more generally is instanced wherever you find an incongrous mixing of registers or elements, one coded as “high” and the other as “low”. The joke is, then, that you have white people playing black music. That’s it. More broadly this is the same comic formula deployed in the PG-rated “street talk” of the diminutive mammals in the Ice Age franchise (which I glimpsed on an airplane), or of the crows in Disney’s Dumbo of 1941 (which I watched and internalised as a child). The joke is that, rather than simply being a default human being —which is to say, implicitly, a white human being—, as you would expect an anthropomorphised animal to be, these cartoon animals are black. Again, that’s it.
Like the gag where Buster Keaton, silent-film genius, saw someone from behind whom he took to be his friend, tapped him on the shouder only to see a black person’s face when he turned around, the joke is that you’ve got white Americans investing themselves in forms of affective community —music, friendship— across lines of long-naturalised division.
I have said that I was there at the beginning, but the truth is there is no beginning. This is a manoeuvre that, like so many manoeuvres in American history, is practically guaranteed to appear new each time it is attempted. Nü-metal’s supposed innovation, to fuse rock and rap, was a weak and derivative echo of Run DMC and Aerosmith’s collaboration in 1986, itself already a weak echo of Johnny Rotten and Afrika Bambataa’s 1984 “World Destruction”, engineered by Malcolm McLaren, who always understood that punk and hip-hop, at least as financial endeavours, are interconvertible.
These collaborations of the 1980s, were happening within the context of Reagan-era cultural segregation. The 1960s and 1970s by contrast are characterised by a relatively natural cross-hybridity between musical forms and across racial lines, though much of the work of normalisation here is being done by white British musicians who don’t share in precisely the same historical pathologies as the Americans, and who are thus able, like the young Brian Jones in the presence of Howlin’ Wolf, to indulge their sincere fandom and gratitude, without any deep awareness of why the American TV studio that is recording this scene likely has its trigger-finger on the “censor” button the whole time. (That same innocence would largely endure in the Old World, for better or worse, as when Keith Richards recently said, upon learning that “Brown Sugar” was being withdrawn from the Stones’ catalogue, that he would have to consult with “the sisters” to find out what the big deal was.) We have to go back to Elvis to find the sort of faux-surprise that “Walk This Way” would trigger, when he adapts the gestures and affect of “race music”. Though an alternative mythology, drawn from the American picaresque of Forrest Gump (1986, 1994), would tell you that he learned it not from black America, but from a disabled and simple-minded white boy when he removed his leg-braces.
There is of course a fine line between homage and lampoon, between earnest absorption and cynical commandeering of what is not yours to take. And this is why the regulation of “cultural appropriation” should never be left to philistines, who believe there is an a priori principle that can extend to any possible case, whereas in fact, for better or worse, a fair judgment against any cultural appropriator will be one arrived at by considering each case in its full cultural and historical context. The boy in the parking lot deserves condemnation; Django Reinhardt, when he picks up some Louis Armstrong records circa 1928 and nativises jazz in Europe, quite plainly does not.
It is of course significant that European jazz was in its first instance “Gypsy jazz”, and thus the music of people who, according to a certain well-known ideology that significantly impacted the life of Django himself, were themselves not native to Europe. This question, of nativism and musical expression, would continue to haunt post-war European jazz as well. The great “squonk jazz” saxophonist Peter Brötzmann pleads for the legitimacy of his own art by insisting that “even Germans get the blues”. But Brötzmann’s specific strain of the blues is, by his own lights, shaped by the 1968 generation’s brutal discovery that its parents were a bunch of Nazis — thus an experience very much unlike the paradigmatic form of the blues, which, as Nina Simone sings in her world-shattering “Four Women” of 1966, comes rather from the fact that one’s parents were slaves.
Can this other kind of blues still be acknowledged, as a species of the genus? It has long seemed to me that the answer is a clear “yes”, in Europe, while in America things are rather more complicated. And here I arrive, finally, at the recent news item I initially set out to analyse: the mass murder, on the 4th of July, carried out in a suburb of Chicago by Bobby Crimo, also known as “Awake the Rapper”. The United States is deep in the throes of a wave of political violence, whether we wish to call it that or not. Idiots on social media are predictably and futilely shouting back and forth about whether Awake was “Antifa” or “MAGA”, when in fact what he was, simply and obviously, is online, and this is all it takes to turn your soul into a dank potage of mutually contradictory extremist memes.
But if Awake —whose very moniker draws out his country’s constitutive fracture, as an alternate form of “woke” that seems to connote rather the false-enlightenment of a certain class of white Americans who gave up on political community as commonly understood in favour of individual pursuit of “higher consciousness”— if Awake, I was saying, congealed out of the internet, he is also, in certain unmistakable respects, a descendant of that boy I saw in the parking lot assaulting the guard, though the dreadlocks and the ganja pouch have now been traded out for face tattoos. Both are in turn a variety of “border ruffian”, whose identity is shaped, whether they know it or not, by the historical experience, on the American frontier, of a foundational coexistence with other groups of people who are perceived, variously, as in need of extermination, or absorption, or —and this part is key—, extermination by absorption.
When we fret about “cultural appropriation”, this is what is really at issue. I keep going back to the fascinating dispute between Thomas Jefferson and the Comte de Buffon concerning the relative state of degeneration of North American flora, fauna, and people. Buffon believed that all of these categories of being were greatly weakened on that continent, that American bears and elk are puny next to their European counterparts (patently false!), and that Native Americans in particular lack strength, virility and even body hair. Jefferson protests that the French naturalist has it all wrong, that no peoples are more robust than the American autochthones. But Jefferson quite obviously is not interested, with this argument, in carving out a space for the self-determination and sovereignty of Native Americans. He is interested in conjuring a story about America in which the Europeans, by settling the continent, absorb the strength of its prior inhabitants. Buffon is interested in denying that it’s worth the trouble. These are exactly the positions you might predict representatives of the respective parties to the Louisiana Purchase, buyer and seller, to take up.
It is being noted with greater frequency recently —as the United States returns to its basic instability after a period of post-war calm that for at least a time was able to appear permanent— that, while that country is a chaotic outlier relative to Western European democracies, by many indices it is a fairly average country if you place it instead in comparison with Latin America. It’s true, it is because of our legacy of racist inequality that the United States is not like Europe. But it’s also racist, when you stop to think about it, to assume that Europe is the natural and obvious home of the countries with which the United States should be compared. Who says?
The early US’s assertion of hemispheric hegemony with the Monroe doctrine was at the same time, unwittingly, an acknowledgment of our community with the other countries that were shaped by the legacy of trans-Atlantic slavery and Indigenous genocide. The Mississippi Delta, the Caribbean, Brazil: these are also the places, it is worth noting, that generated the most important new forms of musical expression in the era of recording technology — with the exception perhaps of Gypsy jazz, for which the Nazis were known hesitantly to organise concerts in occupied France, even as the Porajmos raged.
Otherwise, this dynamic is, as they say in college football, distinctly “All-American”: characteristic of a hemisphere permanently cracked by violence and repression, and by a fixed and paradoxical condition of forever wanting to celebrate what it also wants to exterminate.
I have an essay out this month in Liberties on “the simulation argument”, on gamification of social reality, on David Chalmers’s new book Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy, and other things still.
I had a great time talking about that same book in an interview with Kinokuniya Bookstore in New York. I particularly enjoyed getting to know my gracious and very well-informed host, Ariel. Give it a listen/watch. It comes in two segments, the first here and the second here.
The book was also reviewed by Geordie Williamson in the Australian Book Review. From what I can see the review gets off to an auspicious start, but it is behind a pay-wall and I am unable to read the whole thing. I was delighted to see the reference in the first paragraph to my “well-regarded Substack”. Perhaps I will end up subscribing to the ABR.
Speaking of subscriptions, I have seen significant “churn” among my own subscribers over the past few months, as old subscriptions expire and fail to be replaced by new ones. The Hinternet is a subscriber-supported publication, and if you have enjoyed reading it, if you “regard it well”, I heartily encourage you to show your support.
Cette ignorance n’était pas que du monde, mais de la politique, de tout. Car la mémoire durait moins que la vie chez les individus, et d’ailleurs, de très jeunes, qui n’avaient jamais eu les souvenirs abolis chez les autres, faisant maintenant une partie du monde, et très légitimement, même au sens nobiliaire, les débuts étants oubliés ou ignorés, ils prenaient les gens au point d’élévation ou de chute où ils se trouvaient, croyant qu’il en avait toujours ainsi, que Mme Swann et la princesse de Guermantes et Bloch avaient toujours eu la plus grande situation, que Clemenceau et Viviani avaient toujours été conservateurs.