Posts Tagged ‘theory’

songs of revolution

January 29, 2011

Following the events that have been unfolding in Tunisia and across the Arab world, I can’t help but comment on something that at least in most major media, has gone unnoticed. That is, to draw attention to a new phenomenon – a force at play in the popular uprisings in Northern Africa – Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, and elsewhere as well – to say nothing of Jordan and perhaps Lebanon as well.

But there was a crucial event at the start of it all – when popular unrest began on a massive scale in Tunisia – that was smoothly if quickly glossed over by most U.S. media. I’m referring to the hip-hop video above, of course.

After what we’ve seen over the past few weeks, it’s become impossible to deny that Hip-hop is truly a global phenomenon now, with potentially significant political implications.

And some of the most exciting events are centering on the Arab world, where a diverse mix of insurrectionists are swiftly disproving the oft-repeated lies and stereotypes about Islamic politics and divisive sectarianism in the Arab world.

While Internet-based strategies of resistance and activism seem to bear frequent mention in the media, hip-hop activism receives only passing mention (as for example when the song “Mr. President Your People Are Dead” landed a 22-year old Tunisian rapper in jail and stoked the fires of popular rage against Ben-Ali’s government).

To my mind, the omission masks a fear of hip-hop and the political possibilities it offers for transforming and redefining public space.

I’ll offer my argument for this claim after posting some more hip-hop videos:

Check out, for example, this video of the Narcicyst featuring Shadia Mansour:  Narcicyst is originally from Basra, Iraq, is super-original, and you can buy his album on iTunes. I’d recommend it.

And here is a track from Behrang Miri called Ramallah (I have Sameh Zakout a.k.a. Saz to thank for this link). This track – and video – are awesome. (In the case of this track I suppose it’s the eponymous subject rather than the MC that’s Arabic per se. I hope I wasn’t using the word “eponymously” incorrectly – I think I wasn’t, but let me know via the comment box if you think I was): 

You should also check out Saz, a rapper and beatboxer (and producer I believe) from Ramle. There is actually a documentary film about him directed by Gil Karni. You can check out some clips here, on Gil Karni’s site.

Now for good measure here is a video from DAM, a Palestinian hip-hop group from Lyd / Lod:

WHY IS HIP-HOP POLITICALLY SIGNIFICANT?

Hip-hop is more than its core “elements” (b-boy/girl, graff, DJ, MC); it’s a way of life. And as such, hip-hop is about a lot more than the vagaries of materiality and insignificance. It’s not just “ho’s, bankrolls, and clothes,” as Nas once eloquently put it – what hip-hop really is about (to my mind) is the intersection between life and culture, between environment and individual identity. It’s about rebellion and reconstruction.

Hip-hop was created by young people growing up in the shattered ruins of an urban war that humanity lost. If hip-hop politics is a politics of urban renewal, of individual expression triumphing over bland conformity and mindless consumerism, then its absolute antithesis would be the politics of “benign neglect.” Hip-hop’s not just another dance style or musical genre. Notwithstanding its own emphasis on originality, style, method, and individuality, I’d argue that hip-hop is fundamentally more intrinsically social (and more political) than any of these, because it was about people (mostly young people) deciding they were fed up with the violence, abandonment, and neglect in their community and creating a style of communally-based expression to counter these phenomena. A distinctly urban style of expression born out of realism – the realism of universalized oppression and shattered communities.

Hip-hop can be recognized as both familiar, recognizable, and yet at the same time a culturally distinct style of expression. Whether you witness it in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Bogota, Ramallah, or Cairo, you’ll still know it as hip-hop…but I’ll bet you’ll discover hip-hop to be local in character, diverse in its forms of expression, and often idiosyncratic in the way it relates to the distinctive character of the cities or territories out of which it operates. This is because, I would argue, hip-hop poses a distinct challenge to the conventional categories of group-forming and the attendant processes of identity formation. That’s because hip-hop is a way of life.

It’s time to acknowledge the truth: “Hip-hop” doesn’t just mean rap –  and perhaps it also doesn’t just mean the “four elements” of breakin’, DJin’, MCin’, and graffiti. In other words, maybe hip-hop is not just another form of “cultural expression,” a “subculture.” In fact, I would argue that history is now demonstrating more clearly than ever that if anything, hip-hop is perhaps something akin to what we might call a “trans-cultural” mode of expression. Or, if you will, a new way of addressing the difference between “culture” and “subculture” – maybe even a process of making the “sub-culture” transcultural.

A new political opposition has taken shape: hip-hop versus benign neglect.

Will governments continue to get away with not-so-benign neglect, as Ben-Ali, Mubarak, and many other dictatorial regimes have for so long? Or will hip-hop intervene, in forcing a confrontation with the world as it is, which really means a struggle to change it: to live in the world as it really is so that we can live the lives we want to live, rather than to ignore the implications of responsibility and try to hoard or plunder as many of its spoils as possible.

It shouldn’t be hard to see which of these political approaches is winning the day in many parts of the world today, particularly in the Arab world – or why.

What hip-hop might be saying to us – at its most radical – is to destroy or subvert the shattered remnants of an obsolete order, and to recreate a new and idiosyncratic style that’s grounded in the particularities of one’s daily existence.

I think it’s hard for Americans to think about hip-hop culture in a way that decentralizes it from its contiguity with American popular culture – given the subversiveness with which hip-hop has come to define many of the values and experiences associated with pop culture in the public sphere. But I’m beginning to see some of the exciting things happening with hip-hop right now in the Arab world and elsewhere, and to realize that hip-hop will never, ever be the same.

Hip-hop is more than (musical or visual) style; Hip-hop is a way of being. It’s a kind of lifestyle choice, which involves social and thus also political being. This is why real hip-hop is really more about communities and individuals, really. It’s not really about bling but about winning.

And this is why I’m not surprised that its role in popular uprisings in Tunisia and elsewhere is not being widely acknowledged. As El General’s video attests, it’s difficult to argue that hip-hop is giving rise to the voicing of discontent and affirmation of popular resistance in a more direct, unequivocal, and emphatic way.

So that’s why I wanted to write this post.

Now go check out some hip-hop you never heard before – and leave me some recommendations in the comment box, because I’ve barely just begun to stumble upon amazing Arabic hip-hop and I just know there is so much more dope shit out there.

And cheers to the Tunisian people for putting hip-hop on the map along the road to revolution, now to all my people it’s time to take action for change and start wrecking shit!

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Writing and Sacrifice

June 29, 2010

I happened across a document of free-writing I composed while trying to generate ideas for my thesis (probably written close to a year ago, at this point). Of course, my thesis has long since been completed, but on re-reading this, I still find it interesting and thought-provoking. It’s probably a good sign that my interest in this topic hasn’t waned since have actually turned it in…

Writing and Sacrifice?

When it is hinted that the body is a text, what – if anything – might this mean for the experience of the body – the way we experience ourselves as being bodies, as well as how we experience others as bodies? Both body and text (as well as the act of writing, and of communication more broadly) are spatially and temporally contained. What would it mean to relate to bodies as we might to texts, and vice versa? What are the implications, significances, and problems inherent in thinking about embodiment and textuality in proximity to one another?

As Derrida has emphasized, it is crucial to take notice of differences within a text – its ambiguities, inner tensions, contradictions, and paradoxes – and to try to understand how this play of differences creates meaning. In some ways the value of this insight may be easy to understand – for a text that is not dynamic, that does not disseminate multiple, conflicting meanings and at times turn against itself – is a dead text, one that ultimately may fail to engage its reader. It is the dynamic play of differences throughout time and space – and especially, within a “text” – that renders meanings not only intelligible, but vibrant and compelling. The insight that texts are crucially grounded upon difference is also essential for noticing how such differences may be built upon fundamental existing hierarchies, tensions and inequalities, and to attempt (through interpretive practice) to subvert and transgress the reign of binary oppositions implicitly invoked within “text”. Can “the body” be deconstructed in this way – related to as one relates to writing?

I put the word “text” within quotation marks to provoke the question: just what exactly is, or qualifies as, text? In the contemporary world, we increasingly realize, perhaps, that anything can be a text; a social ritual, a tradition, a historical event. We furthermore recognize (often implicitly, without even bothering outwardly to acknowledge the fact) that such “texts” are far from univocal, but rather, to borrow words used by Whitman, “contain multitudes” of voices. We may even be comfortable with the notion that any absolute determinacy of meaning is impossible. What, however, makes bodies “meaningful”?

I want to pursue further the idea of writing, for it strikes me that the materiality of writing provides a crucial mode of reference for the oft-cited concept of the body as writing, the view that understands the body as text. If we reflect and free-associate on the idea of writing, we might think first of the experience of reading, or of the graphical representations that constitute writing (letters, words), or perhaps the apparent fixedness of the boundaries that define a text, or even the unresolvable absence of the text’s author, and the fundamental indeterminacy of meaning. How do such conceptualizations accord with our understanding of the body?

It is easy to see that the body-as-text is a way of thinking the self in a way that goes against the grain of liberal notions of the subject, which tend to ground the self in an ideological set of convictions about individuality, autonomy, responsibility, agency, and the like. However, I struggle to understand where the textual analogy of the body leaves us vis-a-vis the realm of bodily experience. It is one thing to attack entrenched notions of the self, and to show that ideas of the self, and perhaps even modes of embodiment, have as their genesis processes that are social, material, and that ultimately come to define our idea of (and certainly help to enforce the centrality of) the individual. The insights produced by such critique are both necessary and valuable. It is another thing, however, to overlook the proximity of the body to individual experience, and thus also the way it is linked to how we think of ourselves as individuals. Is the idea of the body as text alienating to the way in which we experience ourselves, through our bodies?

And how do we express to others (using what language?) the idiosyncratic ways in which we experience ourselves as embodied?

At this point – precisely the point where it becomes most crucial to comprehend the implications of this textuality of the body – and the processes of “writing” presumed to constitute embodiment – precisely here the idea seems to fall short. For ultimately, we seem often to think of writing in terms of representation (its materiality has power precisely because it is stable – its systems of representation, of organizing graphical signs will remain the same, not fade or be rendered meaningless overnight). But do we actually think of our embodied experience as being representational in this sense? Or is our bodily experience characterized more by immediacy and felt sense, with our awareness of processes of signification, representation – even discourse as an abstract whole – taking on a more secondary role?

Clearly, much is at stake in these questions. Yet I believe they point clearly in a particular direction – that is, toward thinking about the link between body and communication (materiality and signification), and inquiring into the limits of what can be said about this link. We often seem to want to think of the body as living, dynamic, creative – perhaps as resistant to the kind of shaping that would enable it to signify, like text does – and conversely, that we often think of text as dead, inert, passive, lifeless – a receptive materiality that, like the earth of Genesis 2, can be shaped by a creative force and, when bestowed with living spirit (“Adam” – lit. human being, but the word is related to that for earth, “Adamah” – is essentially inert matter in-spired, or breathed into, by the divine Creator), may be transformed into something meaningful, something that lives.

This may be (I would suggest that it is) a problematic kind of binary opposition, although it bears thinking about: I would contend that we might, intuitively, want to object to the idea that the human body could be a kind of text. But why is this so? What is disconcerting about this recasting, or “reterritorialization” of the body as “text”? What would it mean for the body to be textual, and why might this be problematic (or, perhaps, hold promise) for the way in which we think about embodiment?

One way of approaching the link would be the claim that the body faithfully records its experiences – ALL its experiences. (see Freud, Civ. and its Discontents)

The connection between the body and language seems difficult to fully theorize – that is to say, the link between the body and language (or “text”) is difficult to understand because we can find no reference point within language within which to fully express the experience of bodyness. But is the reverse true?

what I’ve been reading lately.

July 28, 2009

OK, in lieu of actually reading (it’s hard if not impossible to chat with two people, listen to Bassdrive and read philosophical essays about Agamben’s theory of the homo sacer all at the same time), I decided to write about what I’ve been reading lately. On the positive side, this might help me actually keep track of it all. It’s hard for me to just read one thing at a time, and it can get hard to keep track of what books I am in the middle of.

When the last school semester ended, I decided I would be proactive and buy / borrow from the library lots of books to read over the summer. Especially since I am gearing up to write my BA thesis this coming year, I really want to read stuff and get some ideas flowing. The only bad thing about that is that nearly everything I read seems to tie in, in one way or another…

So in the last week of school or so I bought Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, thinking it would make for fun summer reading. Whoops. Kind of ambitious. I read like 20 or 30 pages, I think. Don’t get me wrong, I love Pynchon. I read The Crying of Lot 49 – twice – and loved it. Only thing is, Gravity’s Rainbow is like five times its length. It hasn’t moved from its spot on my shelf in probably two months or more.

Then, I actually read a few books in their entirety. Hell yes! Somehow or another, I managed to read, more or less concurrently, a book called Levinas: An Introduction by Colin Davis (a book that is – yes, you guessed it – about Levinas; and yes, right again! – its presentation is of an introductory nature), and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. The latter I actually read for fun, not out of any academic interest particularly (it’s true), yet after about halfway through I started realizing that it connects to my topic of interest for my thesis – quite explicitly, actually. Butler actually mentions the specific Kafka story I hope to address in my thesis – “In the Penal Colony” and suggests that it “provides an interesting analogy for the contemporary field of power and masculinist power in particular” (157n). Also interestingly, she drew heavily on Foucault’s work, particularly History of Sexuality, v. 1 (unsurprisingly), which I have read, and Discipline and Punish, which I have not. So I decided to pick that one up.

That’s where my streak of completing books wore down a bit. I got through about a hundred pages of Discipline and Punish – and it’s quite good, not particularly tough reading – but then I got sidetracked, or restless, or something. I recently bought a few more books though. Since going on hiatus from Discipline and Punish, I’ve started reading a few more things. The first is short, and fun, if not exactly light reading, and bears quite directly on my thesis (which is starting to feel more like a black hole – not that I’m feeling anxious about it, but it would be fun also to read some stuff that is totally unrelated, rather than everything leading back to it, like a burrow, or as D & G would say – a rhizome…): Deleuze and Guattari’s Kafka: Toward A Minor Literature. I’d never read D & G before, and I have to say I like them. They are weird, but engaging.

I’m definitely going to have to give this one a second read. I know I’m missing a lot, but these guys are more approachable than I thought, plus they are fun (you get the sense they were having a good time writing), and radical in the true sense of the word. They take lots of shots at psychoanalysis (and evidently pretty much any major thinker / theory that places strong emphasis on the signifier can equally be a target for D & G) – apparently in Anti-Oedipus they refer to Freud as a “masked Al Capone”. (OK, fair enough – I actually think when you smoke a certain number of cigars, maybe like 3,000 or something, you just become a gangster automatically.)

In this book they claim that to read Kafka in terms of allegory or metaphor is “stupidity.” They also go after people who try to portray Kafka as melancholic or alienated. For them, Kafka is above all ecstatic, imbuing a language within which he was essentially (as a Czech Jew) an outsider, with vibrancy. It’s not about meaning or symbolism but intensity. They like to use terms like “lines of escape,” “deterritorialization,” “Oedipalization,” “unformed material,” “machinic assemblage…” You get the picture, I guess. One of these days I will step up and read Capitalism and Schizophrenia (although I’ll probably start with the User’s Guide). Anyway, this book is short (if a bit challenging) and is really helping me to imagine different ways of approaching Kafka (and hopefully, too, my project as a whole).

I also recently bought Language, Counter-Memory, Practice by Foucault, a collection of ten essays (also has an interview with Deleuze and a conversation with Foucault and some Maoist militants). It’s got an essay about Bataille and the idea of transgression more generally, the essay “What is An Author?” (which I’d started reading before, but never finished), and basically compiles some of Foucault’s writings on language, literature, etc. Looks pretty good.

I also started reading The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World by Elaine Scarry. I’ve only read the introduction so far and actually it is very interesting, extremely engaging, and as far as I can tell so far, extremely well-written. This also corresponds pretty well with the general topic of my thesis. (In a future post I’ll be a bit more revealing about what exactly that is.) This book looks great though. It’s original (check), interdisciplinary (check), corresponds with lots of my interests (check), is politically extremely relevant and is very well-written. It always makes me feel good when I read a book by someone who is a professor of English and actually writes really well! It’s like – hey, your liberal arts education paid off!

So that more or less sums it up for now. I also put down The Kite Runner like three months ago after reading about six or seven chapters of it. It’s solid, and maybe I should pick it up again sometime soon. After all, it’s already so hard to keep track of the three different books I’m in the middle of reading. It might not be so bad to interject a really good novel at reasonable intervals.

Anyway…to you, the reader – I hope this blog wasn’t terribly boring. I think it may have been somewhat helpful or at least entertaining for me, but I’m less convinced that it will be engaging to anyone else to any degree whatsoever.

At best, if you made it all the way through, you might be interested in what the hell it is, exactly, that I am planning on researching and writing about for my BA thesis. If this is so, I’m delighted – and know that you are not alone, for I too am interested in this question. I will certainly post soon with at least some of the preliminary details of what I’m thinking about.

Until then, I’ll still be pondering machinic assemblages and the immanence of desire…