Tuesday, September 13, 2011

On the Libidinal Economy of Hip Hop, Continued

Caveat lector.


Kanye West as Obscene Superego

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Schadenfreude as Obscene Superego

In the comments to Ben Gabriel’s essay, Toward a Reading of Post-Kanye Hip Hop @ The New Inquiry, user “pomoradio” poses the all too obvious, but nonetheless necessary question: 

 “So what do we lose by shedding the hater-troll dynamic?” 

Firstly, I think what we gain in hip hop’s Post-Kanye turn is the libidinal economy of schadenfreude (pleasure in the pain of others) in its purest reification.  In Zizekian terms, we gain the obscene Freudian Superego injunction to “Enjoy!”—where “the cruel and sadistic ethical agency bombards us with impossible demands and then gleefully observes our failure to meet them” (Zizek).  Patrick Harrison in the comments to Ben’s essay puts it this way:

“Listening to Kanye West makes me want to buy a bunch of expensive shit I can't afford with credit cards.”

Secondly, and more importantly, I think what we lose in the shedding of the hater-troll dynamic is the Symbolic mediator of the socialized Ego. The sublimation of this Ego (as culture) keeps the unholy matrimony of the Id (as drive) and the Superego (as desire) at bay, through a minimum veil of Symbolic appearances which are not “merely” appearances—in that although the Symbolic ego does not “exist” in reality, it nevertheless makes reality “consist.”

From this wellspring of the Symbolic—the structural basis of language and culture—arise poetry and the beatific impulse to create; and not just for calculated profit, but for the sake of mending the mediated fabric of the human life-world itself through meaning.  Although it's double, the socialized Ego via the Symbolic functions as a necessary bulwark against the trauma of capitalist excess, jouaissance, and the ”Real” of speculative capital, which by its disruptive nature occludes and dismantles the very possibility of meaning in favor of calculation.

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Ego Ideal, or "Knowing the Ledge"

Prior to Kanye, the rapper’s transgression against his haters functions as a form of antagonistic identification with the Symbolic ego, which mediates hip hop as a cultural and social organization.  In Lacanian terms, the rapper is informed by the “Ego Ideal” of the Symbolic, or “the agency whose gaze I try to impress with my ego image, the big Other who watches over me and propels me to give my best, the ideal I try to follow and actualize.” (Zizek)

The Ego Ideal in hip hop is the result of a hermeneutic horizon that Rakim describes as “knowing the ledge,” where the reality principle of black disenfranchisement functions as the grounds for hip hop as a generative cultural movement.  It serves as the ontological basis for the structural antagonism between the "inauthentic hater" and the "authentic b-boy" with aesthetic style, in a game of appearances where Symbolic cultural capital (via “signifying,” props, and respect) is created and exchanged over and above that of the disruptive “Real” of quantitative monetary capital.

Who is authentic or inauthentic, the b-boy or the hater, is here of little consequence in the ontological sense.  The one can only exist by virtue of his antagonism with the Other; they are locked in a perpetual game of appearances and aesthetics one-upsmanship, which in it's wake creates its own universe of signifiers and meanings:  in essence, a culture.

Hip hop here is a life-world that exists not only in spite of, but precisely because of, it's exclusion from neoliberal capital, via what Jeff Chang describes as "the politics of abandonment".  

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Aesthetic Style vs Performative Swagger

This inevitably begs the question—what is the difference between aesthetic style and performative swagger?

I see aesthetic style as establishing, at the very least, a minimum of Symbolic distance between the signifier and the signified.  It’s that space (-) between re-presentation, where the one who swaggers is not yet overdetermined by his swagger. However, as soon as we enter the stage of swagger as being performative (and as performative being), the distance between signifier and signified collapses into the “Sign”—namely that of capital—and it’s liquidation of bodies and the Symbolic life-world into speculative dollar value, where money as Image is paradoxically the only thing that “matters.”

With the Post-Kanye turn away from a cultural aesthetic style towards a performative swagger informed by capitalism, the agency of the inauthentic hater disappears, along with the structural antagonism which informs the illusory but necessary “reality principle” of the Symbolic ego as social mediator in hip hop culture.  Capital liquidates the cultural life-world of hip hop once the disruptive "Real" of money enters into the equation.

With this structural shift, the consummation between the innocent yet evil Id (which is nothing but drive), coupled with the injunctions of the Superego (as obscene father figure of desiring Capital), comes full circle—we find ourselves in the realm of Kanye West and “[His] Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy,” where hip hop as history and cultural movement disintegrates into capitalist solipsism.  The "politics of abandonment" becomes the "politics of containment," and the internalization of capitalist struggle qua "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" takes primacy in hip hop culture,  over and against the culture itself.

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The Jouaissance of Thug Life



I argue in my essay about Dr. Dre (via Joshua Clover) that beginning with N.W.A. and their antithetical mode of excess/their instantaneous “get mine” credo, what we have is a mode of transgression that not only rebels against the socialization of the Symbolic Ego Ideal (against “knowing the ledge”), but a simultaneous reification of the obscene capitalist Superego, which goads one to “Enjoy!” and overindulge in the jouaissance of capitalist utopia.

This inevitably results in more pain than pleasure, even and especially at the expense of one’s own well-being in the absence of a "reality principle".  To put it crudely, it’s akin to an erection “which lasts for more than 4 hours,” where you can have too much of a good thing.  With capitalist utopia, you must be careful what you wish for, because you always get more than you bargain for.

This destructive mode of jouaissance in hip hop finds its first apotheosis with Tupac and the peak of the gangsta rap era circa 1996.  The collapse of the space between signifier and signified, and the loss of the Symbolic mediator of “knowing the ledge,” occurs when Tupac takes the notion of “keeping it real” to it’s logical (but irrational) maximum.  This finds its performative expression in Tupac’s “thug life” mentality, and in the East Coast equivalent of Biggie’s “Ready to Die” credo.

But at least with “thug life,” we have an episteme which functions through an existential awareness—perhaps an even all too justified paranoia (via Biggie’s “Mo Money, Mo Problems)—against the “evil of the money” that conditions the disappearance of the Symbolic distance between the affluent rapper and his gangsta rap persona.

With Kanye, the collapse between the signifier and signified takes place during a post-gangsta rap era, where pop-in-itself can show it’s true face—as the Sign of capital as Image, which finds its performative realization through swagger.  Arguably this shift indeed begins with P Diddy—immediately after the death of Biggie and Tupac, no less—as Myrna Jacobs mentions in the comments to Ben’s essay.

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Hip Pop as the End of History

What MHG describes as Hip Pop—and I think this applies to all pop music in general, again via Joshua Clover—is a genre where the swagger of the individual rapper functions as a “presencing” without historical precendent.  It is the individual liberated of history and self-reflection through the utopia of capital and its injunction to "Enjoy!"

What implications does this have for hip hop as a culture and a history?  For one, it creates an episteme which is simultaneously anti-geneaological and anti-writing; that is to say, anti-historical (or as Bernard Stiegler would put it, against secondary and tertiary retention, respectively). 

What this means in practice is that the artist as an individual overdetermines his historical context in favor of a self-referential present, obfuscating hip hop’s historical genealogy, as well as occluding the possibility of writing as a form of self-reflection.  (I will argue in another post that this theme begins with Jay-Z, who refuses to write his lyrics on paper.)

Hip Pop not only speaks to a Hegelian synthesis of the hater-troll dynamic, in which the latter consumes the former in a flattened ontology of Image = swagger = Capital (precisely sans the Symbolic/cultural realm of the socialized Ego); but it also speaks to capitalism as the mode of an “End of History,”  precisely through the liquidation of culture in favor of a solipsistic individualism overdetermined by the mystification of consumption as production (i.e, a defanged hipsterdom).

The reified ideology of hip pop as presencing is supported by the ontology of modern modes of communication, via the instantaneous media available to us today.  Not only does this include television, but especially the internet—which through a dispersed mode of planned obsolescence gives the illusion of an ever-present “present” wherever it is found (but where ironically, nothing happens.)

In terms of temporality, all prior retentions or memories of the past are lost in pop’s “ever-present” mode of presencing.  This has paradoxical effects on the future, in that all protentions or predictions of the future are grounded in past experience.  With the obfuscation of past experience in favor of an ever-present presencing, protentions lose their capacity to predict “with care,” and are based solely on a calculated, speculative and spectacularized view of the future whose ground(lessness) is nothing but “hype.”

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Re-presencing as Worlding

So what is called for now more than ever?  How do we move past this aporia in hip hop?  I claim that over and against the performative mode of swagger that hip hop artists should reclaim the mode of “representing,” not in the mode of an identity politics, but precisely as a “re-presencing”, taken in the Deleuzian sense of the Virtual/Actual, or the Jamesonian sense of the revolutionary/Utopic.

In order to do the work of representing, one does not merely copy what once was.  Here we must take our cue from Pusha T, who states:



The game can't go by just followin the leaders
You gotta be better than the ones who precede you
Upgrade them, upstage them
Change the whole body shape and just update them, Pagans (Pusha T, Alone In Vegas)

Thus, the only way to keep true to the original Spirit or Virtual dimension of hip hop as a genre is to “one-up” what came before it in actuality.  The term “Pagans” here is of special relevance, in that it describes a Symbolic universe where the past is not forgotten or disregarded, but “added onto” via a reflexive system of “ands” that incorporates new “gods” or artists into its midsts, that then restructures the meaning accorded to the “gods”/artists of old (akin to the way T.S. Elliot describes literary "Tradition and the Individual Talent.")

“Re-presencing” is a way to re-engage with hip hop not only as a literature, but as a  “worlding,” where the genre can re-generate itself through a multiplicity of artists who take up the mantle of its metanarrative, over and against the apotheosis of Antichrists (like Kanye, and Nas before him) who while claiming to save Hip Hop are actually hammering the final nails in its coffin.

In praxis:  firstly, we should seek a return to sampled Hip Hop, which is always-already a multiplicity of authors and history via the palimpsest of the remix; secondly, we should seek a return to written lyricism, which serves as a ground for self-reflection via secondary and tertiary retention, and libidinal production; and lastly, we should seek a return to aesthetic style, over and against performative swagger, where “Keeping it Real” is not determined by the quantitative “Real” of capitalism, but by the qualitative “reality principle” of poetic impulse.

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Photo Credits:

1. http://fashionbombdaily.com/2010/05/30/snapshot-kanye-west/kanye-west-i-told-you-so/

2. we are at war, "Biggie and Pac" May 18, 2009 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Post-Kanye Kanye: How He Learned to Stop Trolling & Love the Haters

My friend Ben at his blog Uninterpretative! wrote a recent lengthy response to my short commentary on Cher Lloyd’s hit UK single, “Swagger Jagger.” He states:

"I'm really interested in this song as an extension of the claim I was trying to make about a Post-Kanye aesthetic in rap, defined by a structural shift from the hater as antagonist to the hater as primary site of value production. This song seems to possess that shift as an already complete ideological imprint - it is, as it were, the 'common sense' of the song that the ephemeral 'hater' is a source of value. 
"These two points - that of the 'hater' as primary creator of value, and swagger as (might I go so far as to say fetishized?) labour - seem to me to be indispensable to an understanding of this song, and the milieu out of which it rises."

I wanted to do him the courtesy of writing an even lengthier response which further develops his theory of a Post-Kanye aesthetic in hip hop, and how that relates to our broader contemporary ideological paradigm.

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In my view, the labor of the hater, and by extension the bourgeois of the "troll," translates into the libidinal economy of “schadenfreude,” a German word translated into English as “the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others.” 

It is an economy of desire whose basis of “production” is predicated on the perpetuation of negative externalities (the suffering of others) and speculative short-term value (doing it for the “lulz”.)

Cher Lloyd is merely the corporate manifestation of the bourgeois “troll,” who uses the labor of the hater to generate temporary fame and market value via notoriety. This is evidenced by the fact that “Swagger Jagger” reached #1 on the UK’s Singles Chart, despite the overwhelming amount of “dislikes” (121,837) compared to “likes” (63,616) on the song’s YouTube page.

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"To feel envy is human, to savor schadenfreude is devilish." - Arthur Schopenhauer

When I think of a hater, a few essential characteristics come to mind.

The hater is powerless in everyday life; he is resentful due to his own lack of political efficacy; he is uncritical in his critique, and is a sophist as opposed to a philosopher; and he has ultimately been wronged in the past, and is eager to project his insecurities in the form of envy.

In an era where the majority of youth are jobless, socially disenfranchized, and politically powerless (see:  London rioters), it doesn't surprise me that the primary site of value production comes from haters.

Thus, in my perspective, the hater’s work is always-already proletarianized by the "swagger" trolls who condition their envy. Not only does the hater wield the instruments of hate, he himself becomes an instrument of hate---and in the case of Cher Lloyd, one that is used in the service of corporate marketing.

The hater does a type of "work" that does nothing to benefit himself or society, other than to function as a scapegoat and a producer of negative affection.  It is not a kind of work that produces “savoir-faire” (ways of knowing) and “savor-vivre” (ways of living)---in fact, it is just the opposite, in that it disinvests the one doing the hating of any work towards self-knowledge/self-improvement.

I should mention that by no means am I intending to "naturalize" the hater's work.  Haters often have a reason to hate, and a "troll" who baits them into their haterdom---precisely in order to generate value via short-term notoriety for a self-serving agenda which only further destroys the livelihood of the hater-laborer, perpetuating his hatred.

Just think of Republicans, FOX News, and the British conservatives condemning the London rioters as barbarians, and you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

With that said, trolling haters is neither a craft, a skill, nor a trade. It does not create, it only destroys. It is the antithesis to art---it is death.

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Digressions:



1. I would like to argue that the internet provides the perfect outlet for this libidinal economy of schadenfreude to thrive. This is in that the web, with its default recourse to anonymity, precludes personal responsibility for one’s actions, making it an abundant playground for trolls and their subsequent haters to thrive in. The hacker group “Anonymous” is one manifestation of this tendency, in that their primary motivation is not to benefit people or society, but to “do it for the lulz.” They are essentially trolls in hiding who “Profit!!!” from the suffering of others.  (Their move towards hacktivism and political protest, while commendable and valuable, appears only to be a secondary phenomenon to the trolling which they spawned from.)

2. The libidinal economy of schadenfreude---based on envy, anger, and general negativity---is the equivalent of trying to cash in on thousands of bad checks. Perhaps an even better analogy in light of recent events is to compare it to deficit spending, and the raising of a debt ceiling so that one can continue to invest with toxic assets.  Eventually that bullshit has to bounce. It is unsustainable, and destroys the social base on which all production is founded.

3. To illustrate how the libidinal economy of haterdom/trolling is unsustainable, think of those figures who benefit from the liquidation of a “real economy” of production, such as repo-men and pawn brokers. What happens when no one has stuff left to repossess or to pawn? When the bank and/or pawn shop owns all of the assets, what happens to the basis of the economy (exchange?). 

When envy and schadenfreude destroy the broader libidinal economy whose basis is the exchange of desires, what happens?---stratification into self-doubt, self-loathing, and paradoxical self-obsession, in which personal insecurities disinvest the social strata of their ability to "build" in a trans-individual manner.

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Kanye and the Dharma

I believe what is needed now more than ever is a libidinal economy of “metta,” or loving-kindness---that is, of beatitude, OMs, blessings, good-will and understanding---essentially, the foundation for an economy of contribution “in which to economize means ‘to take care’” of both the world and the people in it (Bernard Stiegler).

Along with “karuna,” (compassion: “the hope that a person's sufferings will diminish”), “mudita” (empathetic joy: "the wholesome attitude of rejoicing in the happiness and virtues of all sentient beings."), and “upekkha” (equnamity: "not to distinguish between friend, enemy or stranger, but regard every sentient being as equal”)---these “Four Immeasurable Virtues” form the basis of a prefigurative politics, whose infinite objects of desire are capable of producing trans-individual “hopes for the future,” in the Husserlian sense of protentions. These are powerful and ancient ideational strctures that have the capability of restoring momentum to a libidinal economy on which “real” economies of (industrial, social, and psychic) production depend upon.

With that said, I am not a Buddhist.  But certainly, I believe there is something life-affirming and libidinally productive about the Four Immeasurables. Oddly enough, insight into these virtues is also the reason why I’m beginning to like Kanye more as both an artist and a person.



Despite Kanye’s lack of tact, moral deficiencies, and personal blunders, he has always made a point to publicly apologize for his actions and to take responsibility for his past indiscretions.

For example, in the song “New Day” on Watch the Throne, he describes the life of his unborn son via the trope of “the sins of the father” as a thinly veiled conceit for acknowledging his insecurities and admitting regret towards his unscrupulous deeds---in particular, declaring that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” on a national telethon:

And I’ll never let my son have an ego
He’ll be nice to everyone, wherever we go
I mean I might even make him be Republican
So everybody know he love white people
And I’ll never let him leave his college girlfriend
And get caught up with the groupies in the whirlwind
And I’ll never let him ever hit the telethon
I mean even if people dyin’ and the world ends
See, I just want him to have an easy life
Not like Yeezy life, just want him to be someone people like
Don’t want him to be hated all the time judged
Don’t be like your daddy that would never budge (“New Day,” Kanye West)

I admit, when Kanye says “I <3 Haters,” it can definitely be read as a method of trolling that utilizes the envy of haters to produce a kind of notoriety that he can profit from. But taken in another context, couldn’t it just as well be a sincere and almost Christ-like manner of speaking?

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. (Matthew 5:44, King James Bible)

To end, I quote from a friend of mine on Facebook, whose recent status update puts what I’m preaching into applicable practice, and which may help (us) proletarianized haters into reclaiming the means to (libidinal) production:

"So often we spend time acknowledging the presence of 'haters' and all the negativity they send our way but we don’t take the time to acknowledge and appreciate all the ones who love and support us and supply us with the positive energy we need to overcome."

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Watch the Throne Review, Part 1: Spectacle and Speculation



spectacle mid-14c.,
1. "specially prepared or arranged display," from O.Fr. spectacle,
2. from L. spectaculum "a show, spectacle,"
3. from spectare "to view, watch,"
4. frequentative form of specere "to look at,"
5. from PIE *spek- "to observe" (see scope (1)).

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speculation late 14c.,
1. "contemplation, consideration," from O.Fr. speculation, 
2. from specere "to look at, view" (see scope (1)). 
3. Disparaging sense of "mere conjecture" is recorded from 1570s. 
a. Meaning "buying and selling in search of profit from rise and fall of market value" is recorded from 1774; short form spec is attested from 1794.

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In a recent blog post reviewing Watch the Throne at MostlyJunkFood.com, the author "slenst" brings up two rich yet contentious points:  that the majority of what is marketed as hip hop today is conditioned by it’s relationship to “hype,” and that the cultural legitimacy of hip hop as a source of creative vitality is being devalued by its relation to economic utility.

What I want to do is push this argument further.

I propose that it is not only hip hop, but our entire ideological paradigm that is conditioned by “hype," including serious domains of human existence such as financial markets.  This is especially true in the sense of political economy, or rather, how the value of anything is regulated and determined in our society.

The nature of "hype" as it functions in both hip hop and financial markets is two-fold.  "Hype" consists of both spectacle and speculation---spectacle in the sense of anticipation that builds towards an artificial climactic event, such as a big box office movie release, and speculation in the sense of the future value assigned to such an event, such as it’s estimated box office market value.

I use movies as an example because American cinema in particular has a track record of producing multi-million dollar mindless blockbusters that exclude the existence of most films of substance making it into mainstream theaters.

Aside from movies and hip hop, we have entire economies of exchange who’s value is determined by spectacle and speculation---which is just another way of describing the short-term financialization and corporate marketing of everything in our contemporary lives, from the technology we use on a daily basis to the cultural identities we align ourselves with.  (For more on technological obsolescence and the marketing of identity, see my post on Cher Lloyd and Proletarianization.)

What "slenst" appears worried about is the reduction of the value and meaning of hip hop to this artificial and gimmicky economy of hype. For the most part I have to agree with him.  There is a real danger in falling pray to this logic of late capitalism, as evidenced by the 2008 financial crisis and the popping of the American housing bubble--a careless market that was essentially "hyped" up with no solid foundations on which to stand on.

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‎"What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not." The Road, Cormac McCarthy


But in contrast to the liquidation of hip hop’s cultural legitimacy/longevity through short-term spectacle, speculaction, and marketing, an equally present danger lies in foreclosing hip hop’s dynamic of possibility by declaring that “hip hop is dead,” or by distinguishing between “good” and “bad” hip hop.

To nostalgize upon hip hop’s so-called golden era(s) is to ignore the fact that the foundation of the culture functions through it’s perpetual flux of influences, both high and low, and prematurely forecloses on the possibility of genuine exchange between social strata (i.e. Kanye's line in Otis: “sophisticated ignorance, write my verses in cursive.”).

Hip hop is problematic. Nothing about it is “given” or should be taken as such.  But the fact that it is problematic is also what makes it resilient, adaptable, and able to evolve.

Hip hop is no doubt different than it was in the 80’s, 90’s and even early 2000’s. But this is the inherent nature of music, and of all things in themselves.  Distinguishable forms arise and subside like tides in an ocean, but the momentum of the currents remain, shaping the environment and itself being shaped by the changing milieu.

If we were to extend this metaphor to hip hop as a cultural force, it can only really be seen as a wave of influence that conditions and is itself conditioned by larger forces---such as the political, economic, and social climate.

What is most important to keep note of is the overall momentum of the historical milieu as a whole, and to record the ways in which it builds upon itself like a tsunami that never quite reaches its destination.  Hip hop may never be as it once was, but that’s not to say that it’s effects can’t still be felt, seen, or touched.

What is at stake today is shaping hip hop into a culture of literacy and ideational production, as opposed to a culture of material consumption and spectacle.   


Hip hop fans, whether of the commercial or underground sway, more than ever need to “do the knowledge” and stop accepting what’s given to them as just being given.   To see hip hop for what it is and to anticipate where it’s going, we need a memory of where it came from.  On top of that, it is imperative to realize that this memory in itself is far from absolute and subject to change, both retroactively and during the context of it’s own time.

This is the reason I love websites such as rapgenius.com, where through an economy of contribution users analyze, interpret and give meaning to hip-hop lyricism through critiquing it as poetry.  The future of hip hop as a culture and a way of life depends on communities (as opposed to commodities) of exchange such as this.

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Part 2 of this review offers an in-depth analysis of how Kanye West and Jay-Z's album Watch the Throne juggles the tension between speculation, spectacle, and expanding the "scope" of hip-hop through a return to it's roots in sampling.

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Photo Credits

Père Ubu, "Society of the Spectacle" August 3, 2007 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

Katrina. Tuliao, "Philippine Stock Market Board" July 30, 2008 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

iammeltron, "Hip Hop Sucks" May 5, 2006 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.