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.

1 comment:

  1. Amazing article. It's great to see someone analyze hip hop and approach the task in a intelligent, thoughtful and reverent fashion. Keep up the outstanding work.

    P.S. I saw your article on Lil Wayne. Perhaps you should do an analysis of his song called "Amen".

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