It is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.-Marx, Preface to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)
If the popular music arts have anything to teach us (besides the sad reality that fewer and fewer popular musicians know how to read music, know music theory, or can play musical instruments), they certainly can teach us at least that ideology is triumphant. While the age of mass production of steel and furniture and radios is waning, the post modern age of mass production of ideology is shifting into its own apex of significance. It is as necessary to be able to read the text of a Beyonce Knowles video or of a Quentin Tarentino film as it was once necessary to be able to read a daily newspaper article (back when there used to be newspapers and Americans could read). We know, with the clarity of the eye of the Western Enlightenment, with all the rational sanity Enlightenment technologies and philosophies gave us in enabling scientific vision, we know that it is necessary to read.
It is crucial to be able to read, because surrounding us are texts, and those texts, whatever else they may be, are codes for the relations of power and coercion that we live under and that either liberate or constrain us. Marx would point out that while the strictly material forms of the conditions of production clearly mitigate (transform) reality in precisely measurable ways (making the material realm the realm of 'The Base' in Marxian terms), the artistic forms are, by contrast, the realm of the 'The Superstructure' and this is a realm in many ways seemingly invisible. Thus, it is necessary to be literate, to be able to read, if one is to become conscious of these forms, of these forces, of that realm. Assuming that there is in fact conflict between the forces of power that coerce, and the masses who are the victims of coercion, the ability to read is the ability to become aware of that conflict and to thus protect one's self, or to perhaps even engage in battle. Or as Marx says, to become aware of the ideological realm is to confront the forms "in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out."
Art, therefore, is one of the forms that ideology takes, most especially popular art and popular art forms, such as music videos. songs, books, paintings, The Symphony, The Cinema, television, theater, The Operas, dance, commercials and other forms of advertising, sartorial style and fashion in general, landscaping, the coif, architecture, news videos, song videos, all and more than this, are texts, and can be, must be read. They inevitably defend, reinforce, reflect, resist, oppose, or attack, the status quo. To not read is a failure to be borne at one's own risk.
I remember how perplexed I was years ago by something my best friend, a professor at the arts academy, pointed out to me in 1991 at CalArts: he told me that Black students at that institution, where he was then a professor of humanities and theory, were influenced by fascism. I was out on the west coast to do a lecture at the prestigious art school in Valencia, California. My friend showed me some of the artworks of young Black students and noted the elements of fascist thought implicit in the visual semiotics of their paintings.
I could see it as he described it to me, but the idea of Black people being 'fascist' was still a very new idea to me then, and if he hadn't expressly pointed the visual and design elements out to me and explained it to me in terms of POWER and IDENTITY, I would not have seen it. Even though I'd had an exceptionally good liberal arts education as an undergrad at Wayne State University in Detroit (lots of humanities, music, and art history, sociology, and philosophy), and was conversant in the principles, history, and forms of classical and modern visual art, and in fact had published some marginally competent art criticism, I was still relatively naive about visual truth, and very visually illiterate when it came to early twentieth century modernism and psychoanalysis. I may have been in a state of mind that one might assume to be more formally educated than a typical Beyonce Knowles fan, and certainly more so than Beyonce Knowles herself takes her own fans to be, but I was as yet unable to immediately perceive and articulate the more complex issues of power, identity, representation, and 'truth' that arise in all visual art forms and all visual information technologies. Those issues are complex, and require a drastically greater ratiocination than American popular culture will admit or wishes to engage in.
Author, Julianne Newton, writing about the mediation of reality that the visual image can and does enact in modernity, approaches the concept of 'truth' and the image from the American photojournalist's point of view in her book, "The Burden of Visual Truth," in which she points out that "the heart of a good photojournalist also is like the mind of a good critical theorist who constantly searches to expose the inadequacies of the status quo." The relationship between journalism (supposedly a 'realist' profession) and visual art (taken to be a 'creative' profession) is exactly the problematic that needs to be taken seriously if cultural/racial/ideological 'truth' is our concern. A news photo (or news video) may be 'real' but this does not make it 'true', since the photographer does not simply 'record' what is real, but selects, edits, manipulates, and represents reality (as does the filmmaker, the painter, and the sculptor). Likewise, the artist does not simply 'create' reality but in fact, is capable of 'recording' what is real in a far more profound and subtle way than can be accounted for with the word, 'creativity'.
And it is not really possible to disentangle this intuitive dissonance; nor should we wish to. In the frisson of this confusion lies greater insight into what it is both photographers and painters do, as well as greater insight into how profound the mediative powers of visual representation are. The artist can record, or can represent; in fact, she can abstract, and wholly create, reality. The photographer likewise can wholly create, abstract, or represent, or can simply record, reality. The so-called 'objective' photographer and the so-called 'subjective' painter can be seen as two poles on the same continuum, moving toward one another, meeting, passing one another, and at some point reversing their original, assume positions on the continuum. I will say more about this in the second part of this post on 'Visual Truth', taking up the issue of the artistic movement known as 'photorealism,' taking the modern American painter, Andrew Wyatt as an example.
But back to today's topic: Beyonce Knowles, Black fascism, and visual truth.
I was not very alert to the elements of fascism in Black thought when I was befuddled at CalArts, however, nowadays, after many more years of teaching (I was a grad student and professor-in-training at Cornell in 1991), and also many more years of studying visual semiotics, studying the films of Sergei Eisenstein, studying the dynamics of videorgraphy, the nature of ideology, and reading Black filmmaker Andre Seewood's critical writing about African American visual ideology, as well as writing journalism and critical academic analysis, I am more literate. I can read visual culture more deliberately, taking it more seriously than I used to when I was younger. It doesn't hurt also, that I've gotten a lot more reading in Freud under my belt, and a lot more of a sense of how to read, understand, and apply psychoanalytic discourse.
I can see more readily now, the abundant evidence of Black fascist thought in post Black Power culture. The end of Black Power and the end of civil rights as culturally dominant models of Black popular thought and the rise of nihilism among the American masses in general and among the Black masses in particular, has ushered in a new identity politics grown after Reagan and grown, as if on the nourishment of fluorescent light, under the sunless regimes of America's mass media, advertising industry, and entertainment industries. Young African Americans who either share no affinity whatsoever with the self-empowered imagery of Blues culture, of Black power and liberation Politics, or even of the original hip hop aesthetic, do indeed over-identify with the American fascist cinematic and visual projects of Capitalism (paterocentrism and universalized masculinity, Laura Mulvey has called, 'scopophilia', and the generalized dominance of pornographic visual techniques). And I will go so far as to say that the extremely over determination of African American cultures fetishizing of these visual projects is particularly dominant, even indeed strident among the scions of the Black petty bourgeoisie).
Using Beyonce Knowles merely as an example of this complex cultural paradigm shift, this shift from self reflexivity to a sort of self unconsciousness among young people born only twenty years ago, I have been saying and lecturing in the academy for years now that Black youths (not wholly of their own volition, of course) have been seduced by mass media and an new aesthetic of nihilistic consumption and have thus been convinced to reject their own roots culture.
Cornel West's, article, "Nihilism in Black America," (which also serves as the first chapter of his book, "Race Matters") argues that Nihilism is a “lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness.” One reason for this common experience among Black youths of 'lovelessness' is the triumphalism currently being indulged by American Capitalism and by corporate cultures of consumption, a triumphalism that is wholly unjustified, since Capitalism is in the process of the final stages of collapse, but nevertheless a triumphalism that has managed to co opt major cultural institutions such as public education, The Church, The Family, colloquial language, music and film, and most important to our discussion, visual culture. The arrogant twenty year victory lap of Capitalism, though a pretense meant to act as anodyne to its own defeat at the hands of historical forces, is nevertheless a jog that has pulled us all along for the ride.
It so happens, however, that those in their twenties are unaware of the extent to which it is all bogus, this victory lap (with all the attendant, fevered consumption of cell phones, poorly constructed automobiles, and sneakers and baggy denim pants sold at inflated prices, the venality and shallow poseury). The flip side of American triumphalism, which is the slow motion catastrophism that is simultaneously unfolding, entailing the collapse of economies of scale and of production, the death of literacy, and the loss of global power and influence for America, is easier, I suppose, for old people like me to see. As the proliferation to insane excess of automobile commercials super fetishize the automobile, I cannot help but notice the glaring lack of workmanship and rigor in their construction. I can't help but notice the lack even of legitimate bumper (instead, they bear plasticine-like shells that fold and crumple under pressure rather than resisting or deflecting force) on those modern automobiles so seductively displayed in fetishistic TV commercials. They are regarded as 'looking' good, yet cannot survive slight fender benders that will cost nearly a thousand dollars per shell to repair.
The obnoxiously obvious planned obsolescence of manufactured goods; the spread of the maquiladora from third world to first world; the fall of the dollar and the waning of American military might both projected and real, these are the glaring realities that Youth shows no sign of recognizing, having been taken in, hoodwinked, and bamboozled; but anyone who remembers 99 cent gasoline and beef that was free of mad cow's disease, knows better than to cheer the bum that is Capitalism as it limps round the track leering its toothless smile and talking smack.
Beonce Knowles, so universally hailed as a 'singer', as 'beautiful,' an as 'talented,' is the dog on the track; she is a no-talent poseur of the rank, three-card molly type, an easy to spot con game that offers no content, no talent, no expertise, no chops, no ability ro improvise, and thus no soul, no African American identity to speak of whatsoever, except for the blind loyalty of the young, the naive, the tasteless. There ain't no corn on that cob. What is 'the corn' that is missing in the lives and in the imaginations of these contemporary, rich, over-produced, mostly talentless mas media models and strip club dancers such as Beyonce, masquerading as singers? Again, the words of Cornel West:
Our culture of consumption has promoted an addiction to stimulation — one that puts a premium on packaged and commodified stimulation. The market does this to convince us that our consumption keeps oiling the economy for it to reproduce itself. But the effect of this addiction to stimulation is an undermining, a waning of our ability for qualitatively rich relationshipsThe responses I get from young people (die Widerstände) when I make this incredibly obvious, incredibly mundane critique of vapid pop culture are quite often very much out of proportion to the importance and the value of the object of critique: their reaction is disproportionately defensive, angry, outraged, and hostile--signs that my critique must indeed be touching upon submerged, neurotic formations in the psyches of those who hear me and who for very definite reasons, don't like what I'm saying about their fetishized icons. I have 'struck a nerve' as Freud argues will always be the involuntary response when neurosis is teased at by illumination and by critical analysis. It is in fact an aching emptiness that is being protected from exposure to the conscious American mind, which in late capitalims is not unlike a corn cob with no corn left to speak of. The 'corn' that is missing from the 'cob' of contemporary American culture is identity, and by that I mean primal identity, a true cultural identity hinted at in the films of Mel Brooks, of Woody Allen, of Spike Lee, and hinted at in the books of Toni Morrison and Norman Mailer; an identity rooted in history, rooted in ethnic self knowledge, an ethinic core which is ironically the very essence of hetero ethnic, miscegentated America in all its 'native' cultural forms and expressions. This is the thing denied yet is also the thing that forms American identity and that has traditionally formed the love that can only arise from ethnic self knowledge as a rich, complex, and non-commodifiable trait. Everyone in America possesses a roots culture that is essentially repressed in the classic Freudian sense, by Capitalism. Ah, but not just repressed for it is far more macabre a process than that. Ethnic self knowledge is repressed but then brought forward again, in deaf and blind commodified form, in chains, into a matrix called the marketplace, to be sold as chattel into enslavement under market values. The missing corn on the cob are the cultures' now amputated humanist folk values ('folk' becomes 'volk').
Contemporary Capitalist culture as well as contemporary political ideology in America necessitate this repression of identity--Irish, Italian, Appalachian, Polish, Yiddish, Gaulish, Latino/Latina, Indio, Aztec, Amerindian, Asian, Iberian, the Wikang Pambansâ of Tagalog, Russo-Scandian, Hebrew, etc...
To go directly to Freudian theory then, in order to clarify a psychosociology of this, I will note that Freud discovered the phenomenon of 'resistance' common to the neurotic psyche and made it a cornerstone of his basic theory of the unconscious and his technique for freeing the subject from the illnesses of the unconscious through the psychoanalytic routine (essentially a Socratic routine of questioning--the so-called 'talking cure'). He writes that,
He says further thatThere is, however, another point of view which you may take up in order to understand the psychoanalytic method. The discovery of the unconscious and the introduction of it into consciousness is performed in the face of a continuous resistance (Widerstände) on the part of the patient. The process of bringing this unconscious material to light is associated with pain (Unlust), and because of this pain the patient again and again rejects it (Freud, "Freud's Psychoanalytic Procedure", London 1959)
And so those among we Americans who have been conditioned by the mass media and by capitalism to see our roots cultures as ugly, awkward, knappy, funky, foolish, awkward, 'ignorant' and unsophisticated, particularly those who are politically and economically dis-empowered, politically marginalized even if culturally represented in the relatively trivial sense of pop culture representation, (as is the case always with strong, supple, healthy, attractive, but unknowing, naive, disposable, exploitable, politically abject youth) those very ones look in turn upon transhumanist, post humanist, cyborg-plastic, empty, commercial and mass media images as seductively 'beautiful' (as being 'cool'), as new and desirable models to emulate. Such ones are trained daily under saturation advertising techniques (see "The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and The Birth of Public Relations" by Larry Tye) to think this way and to think that their thoughts are their own (see 'Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media," by Noam Chomsky), when in reality their thoughts are mere memes, mass produced as inevitably in the intellectual sense as badly made, automobiles, dangerously fragile but imbued with a surface sheen, are mass produced and paradoxically fetishized and desired under late Capitalism's advanced senility.It is for you then to interpose in this conflict in the patient's mental life. If you succeed in persuading him to accept, by virtue of a better understanding, something that up to now, in consequence of this automatic regulation by pain, he has rejected (repressed), you will then have accomplished something towards his education... Psychoanalytic treatment may in general be conceived of as such a re-education in overcoming internal resistances. (ibid.)
The choices the captive populations of American mass media and mass consumption make are thus NOT their own 'individual choices' but merely the bric-a-brac tossed compusively into a shoppers' cart of ideas, opinions, assumptions and fantasies for sale, in the mechanical, commercial sense (see Walter Benjamin's book, "The Work of The Arts in the Epoch of Mechanical Reproduction"--title roughly translated, since my German, where book titles are concerned, is often weak).
Amusingly, Bernays himself wrote and said several things that lead one to suspect that he was either a liar or a fool, where the issue of mass psychology and advertising are concerned, particularly in light of the fate of Walter Benjamin, who, pursued by the Nazis and thinking they were about to capture him, committed suicide in Sept 1940). Bernays wrote for instance, in "Manipulating Public Opinion", in the American Journal of Sociology number 33, in May of 1928, that:
Yet, in "Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of Public Relations Counsel" in 1965, he also said, when confronted by the clearly fascist implications and even eventual fascist outcomes of his theories in the hands of less sanguine men than he:
This is an age of mass production. In the mass production of materials a broad technique has been developed and applied to their distribution. In this age, too, there must be a technique for the mass distribution of ideas.
Goebbels was using my book, "Crystallizing Public Opinion" as a basis for his destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany. This shocked me. (ibid.)
Really. REALLY? Not to say that Bernays should or could be plausibly blamed for fascism. Not even the rhetorical agitations nor the will toward proto-fascist idealism of the very nearly insane Neitsche, in his der Wille zur Macht ("The Will to Power"), can reasonably be blamed for the rise of a literal, material, fascist state (see Louis Althusser's "Ideology and Idealogical State Apparatuses: Notes Toward an Investigation"). Still, Bernays' striking lack of insight and foresight, as well as his apparent inability to be critical or cognizant of the obvious misuse of his ideas by real politik suggests the tragic discontinuity possible between the cultural production of ideas, language, and imagery promulgated by corporate power, and the literal industrial production of bombs, tanks, guns, bullets, and Zyklon B gas.
Thus, contemporary Black American youth culture (popular youth culture that is) aggressively assimilates and disseminates the mind set, perception, and values of commercialized, commodities culture under an imperialist positivism much like the German cultural positivism of late Weimar Republic Germany, just before the rise of the Nazi Regime (see "They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45", by Milton Mayer).
A very (refeshingly) penetrating analysis by a psychologist, which is not a psychoanalysis per se, arises from my friend and colleague, professor and psychologist, Dr. James Nadell, who teaches and practices clinical psychology in Miami, Florida. In a correspondence with me about popular culture and the economic/psychological effects of 'branding' on youths, particularly Black youths, Dr. Nadell wrote,
[Beyonce's] cultural productions [are] not an expressive or artistic end in and of themselves, but a vehicle by which to further evolve and grow her brand, toward profit maximization. What is it to be branded? It is to be thingified,or self-objectified, if I can reference Fanon. It's bad enough when your oppressor inflicts this on you without your willing participation, in part because you don't have the means or tools to protect yourself from it. It becomes corrupt and counterrevolutionary when an artist not only allows this to be done to them, but when they consciously and purposefully participate in and initiate this branding process themselves. A brand is also a marketing calling card that precedes you, with a purpose of conditioning a consumer to internalize you as a product rather than to identify with you as a human being because you speak to their yearnings, struggles, and sufferings via your cultural productions. At a more disturbing level, you'll recall that slaves were branded in order to indicate ownership of them as commodities by their slave whip wielding masters in the event that they escaped the plantation. The unconscious underpinnings of tattoo fetishism I observe in black as well as other youth cultures may be an index of a pathological desire to be branded and enslaved, but this is a hypothesis and the phenomena is probably more complex than that.
The sad fact is that I have heard Beyonce perform material that reveals talent and soul, especially her cover of Etta James' "I Hear The Bells Ringing." But otherwise, her material is lightweight, fluff, psuedo soul that may look pretty and sexed up, but ultimately lacks in pathos or strong connection to organic, dynamic, blues culture that is the root of black American musical culture. Don't mistake what I'm saying. I want new cultural motifs that are not a reproduction of what has come before. But the deeper structures of the music, the pain, the suffering,the desire, the resistance, the humor, the beauty, the loss, the sorrow, the rage, the tenderness, the love, the striving, the unity, the loneliness, and the funk must be in the mix for it to really resonate and speak to the human condition of black people in particular, and of all people more generally.
Beyonce may be an economic success and the beneficiary of fame and accolades provided by the dominant capitalist culture. For some, these are measures of greatness. I would remind these people that Billie Holliday died with a net worth of about what was in her pocketbook. Jimi Hendrix, the highest paid artist of his day (upwards of 100k per performance), died with only the proceeds of his last three shows to his name, desperately trying to break the grips of his mafia/MI6 management. These are two artists for the ages who will resonate for generations to come, exemplars of black national culture who speak to the universal human condition. Beyonce, if she remains on her present vector, will be an afterthought, disposable and lightweight, much like a porn star who will long be forgotten (no offense to porn stars). There is always the chance she will become critical in her thinking and tap her potential, but there are few if any signs that this will occur. [Certainly] by conventional, narrow minded standards, Janis was considered an unattractive woman physically. Not by my standards. She was a beautiful person who sublimated her pain and made the world a more humane and empathic place to live. Beyonce may be beautiful on the outside by contemporary (read capitalist, marketing) aesthetic values, but I don't see much beneath the veneer. I think Ronnie Spector in her heyday was much more aesthetically appealing, radiating a wholesome sexuality without all the fascist and synthetic trappings. The general decay of black national culture in America is directly tied to the overall decline of American culture, both of which are in part a function of the economic hollowing out of the country in service of the financial sector and ruling class.
And so, cognizant of the crucial nature, in fact the the human necessity of what Dr. Nadell calls "the deeper structure," I have for years done lectures on the rise of ugly, militarist, and capitalist images used in advertising and in White supremacist ideology. White supremacist ideology, in fact has little to do with 'Whiteness" (since 'race' is a myth, as Roland Barthes assures us, and since that myth, we know from reading "From Columbus to Castro" by Eric Williams was invented in the 1500's as a tool to rationalize the trans Atlantic Corporate Slave Trade). Rather, it is useful, now that orthodox slavery has ended, for selling commodities (such as the commodity of racial identity). These militarist, capitalist images are adopted both by Blacks and Whites in America, in other words by target consumer populations (such as young Black people) as self-identification! A horrific development in global culture, not just in America. The 'deep structure' of a living folk and mass culture, the structure that was intact during the Weimar Republic, is exactly what is missing from Nazi culture (Jewish, Socialist, Marxist, Anarchist, Futurist, Surrealist elements--the elements of Modernism that Nazism abhorred and wanted to kill in a partly metonymic gesture by killing every Jew the Nazis saw as the source of 'degenerate culture, art, and science'). Deep structure is what the right wing cultural forces now mobilized and active in America, is what the Republican Party seeks to root out and kill (Gays, Lesbians, women, Blacks, The Poor, The Elderly, etc.). Specifically, Dr. Nadell says, again, "...the deeper structures of the music, the pain, the suffering,the desire, the resistance, the humor, the beauty, the loss, the sorrow, the rage, the tenderness, the love, the striving, the unity, the loneliness, and the funk must be in the mix for it to really resonate and speak to the human condition..." It is this deep structure that is the meat and matter of all the arts; it is what makes a national culture a legitimate expression of the lives and humanity of the masses, rather than a commodified imposition upon them by triumphal Capitalism.
The youth of the world are effected by this 'triumphal' Capitalism and its attendant power and identity politics expressed culturally through mass media (though certainly I am not claiming this about 'the youth' in majority numbers, since we know that anti-imperialist movements such as the anti-nuke, anti-globalist, and anti-crusades movements, are all very strong right now among European, Asian, African, and Latin American youth!)
Still, the prospects seem dim here in America where growing numbers of Black youths are concerned. Let's therefore get to the major experiment of this essay: an exercise in the fascistic overtones of Capitalist-produced Black bourgeois youth culture under the auspice of the mainstream entertainment industry. This exercise might work best if you go to YOUTUBE, open TWO TABS, one for the Nazi video, the other for the Beyonce video, or you might perhaps be able to open both videos at once here on this blog page. Either way, follow directions in my comments below, related to the Beyonce video. It's an experiment in a phenomenon called "The Dialectical Happenstance." Look past the creepy simultaneity of it to see more deeply into the implications of cultural truth in the visual matrix created dialectically by simple juxtaposition. This is a type of visual/conceptual experiment that as far as I know was invented bywriter and cultural theorist, Kofi Natambu, who would often have a television set on when I would visit his home, but very often with the sound deactivated. In eeiry silence, decoupled from the glib rationalizations of the narrative element of Capitalism (dialogue, narration, and other such facile dramatic poseury) the television would display simply an amazingly fecund, effusive stream, an eruption of signs pouring up from the cultural unconscious all visually exposed for what they were. This steady stream of alarmingly articulate, ghostly, disturbing, horrific, comic, even revelatory cultural imagery without the sound, displayed the image alone, which comprised in a sense, unmediated, signs 'freed from their signifiers', to crib Saussure (see Ferdinand de Saussure, Roman Jacobson, and Noam Chomsky, although Chomsky is said to have rendered Saussure 'obsolete' I believe all three theorists set a good ground upon which to understand the profound work of semiotician Roland Barthes' idea of disembodied Signs--the 'floating signifyer). Kofi's TV would expose semiotics and meanings that would alarmingly communicate racist, sexist, classist, and metaphysically ugly themes, sub themes, relationships, and fetishes that would otherwise have been mitigated or even elided by the sound element (narrative, voice over, and the naturalizing element of sound effect).
What I have done below is a form of this conceptual experiment, which rests on the dialectic of juxtaposition. Resist the muddle-headed popular programming we suffer from in current society that pushes us to see every aspect of enlightenment critiques as an indication of supernatural 'Illuminati' phenomena, but instead look upon this apparent simultaneity as an opportunity to apply RATIONAL thought to just one single bit of evidence that the Black petty bourgeoisie is fascist.
Begin the Beyonce video from time code 0:08 WITH THE SOUND OFF, only AFTER you have begun the "Nazi German Anthem video, from exactly 0:10 time code, SOUND ON. You will now WATCH the silent Beyonce video with the Nazi soundtrack playing. The Nazi video provides the sound, song, and music for the Beyonce video. Now do the experiment:
Again, it's eye opening, ISN'T it?
The truly SAD thing here is that this Beyonce video was probably conceived as a hypocritical, half-assed, lowbrow attempt at saying something 'revolutionary' and feminist (yikes!). This is feminism as interpreted by a Black adolescent who has grown up on too many reruns of "Good Times"; too much fetishizing of costume as political action, too many Johnson hair product ads in Ebony Magazine--not enough literacy to speak of. Witness the video's title, which is a typically ambiguous and garbled, contemporary Black pop cultural attempt at progressive thought ("Rule the World-Girls"). But these no-reading-a-book, fashion show actors, singers, producers, and no-music-reading musicians can only think about history, struggle, and revolution as a Revlon commercial.
It’s as if American youth, Black and Anglo alike, hyped as they are on too much BET, MTV, car commercial rhetoric, 'Final Destination' sequels, Taco Bell, and mishigas television fantasy in general, were to attempt to front a ‘progressive’ video. The result is what we have here: a cynical, visually confused and narratively venal trompe l'oeil ("Narrative's Vice," to quote Detroit educator, poet, and critic, Chris Tysh). Perhaps the creative spirit was on some level willing, but the corpus and the mente are is woefully unable to control or even conceptualize the cinematic elements and visual semiotics they are playing with and presenting, such as mise-en-scene, dramatic irony, crash montage, psychosexual tropology, id and ego drama, social decosntruction, political critique, action editing, and dialectical/materialist thematics. Such are the elements of TRUE progressive cinema.
Why are they unable to manipulate these simple tools in any sort of progressive or even politically coherent way? Because they don’t know what any of that is, at least not in the progressive sense--the sense they seem to be signifying without actually carrying it out ('Girls' is a term, in lieu of 'Women', that pseudo feminist discourse habitually uses in betrayal of its own hypocrisy; likewise, the haphazard flashing of 'progressive' and 'revolutionary' visual canards, such as the raised fist, military step, and combat iconography, are completely defused by the far more deliberate, more aggressive presentation of a repressive as opposed to rebellious, military chic: boots, goose stepping, marching, bondage clothing. What we have actually are merely 'revolutionary' assemblages in the context of a naive, almost comical drag queen chutzpah akin to the sad maundering of end-of-the-Wiemar caberet culture, complete wth the Weimar conceit of a sequence substituting hyenas (!?) on leashes, for fascist doberman pincers).
for them on real Black feminism, which might have then trickled down to express itself in actual, creative feminist choreography and a feminist hyper-narrative. If this were anything more than a gesture of creative expression, Hype Williams or Spike Lee could have really DONE something cinematically with this lame shite. But for all the slobbering Anglo critics at the NEW YORKER MAGAZINE who are lately so on about how he is a hip hop ‘genius’, impresario, Jay-Z ain’t that serious: he ain’t about to call up Spike to direct, or hire Ntozake Shange to write a real video script for Jay-Z’s invidious ass.
And then there is this to consider: if a sleazy, late Weimar strip-tease and burlesque with "Revlon does Sadomasochism" around the edges was what the mobbed-up corporate R&B zombies who produced this tripe really intended, then why the pretense of implying a feminist statement? Why are the undigested gestures of Black Power and Feminist and revolutionary movements used as a veneer? Why not just call it "Strip for the World--Girls." and be honest about it? Well, I think we know why. So here we have the result: a piece depicting rank, blonde-wigged, longerie tweaked dancefraus reifying strip club chic; a cryptofascist Hollywood cliché in the primary psychosexual hues of Reichminister Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda mill (Herr Jay Z, in this case). Eine kleine nachtnegger, jahwol?
Again, my students, representatives of urban African American youth culture par excellence, respond to such a critique in a variety of pre-formed, limited ways, the 'variety' being merely the individuality of their ultimately restricted range of conceptual possibilities of thought. They thus cannot think for themselves in responding but display the voice of the culture essentially speaking through them (as educator and cultural critic, Robert Burgoyne would put it). Some of the common responses are, that I, in doing a critical analysis of the fascism of Beyonce Knowles am being personalist (though they do not know this term from philosophy and theory and express a very complex problematic by using the naive expression, "You must not like her", saying that I am 'attacking' the actual woman, Beyonce, that I am 'hating' on her.
the intellectual legitimacy, or rather, the essential legitimacy of intellectual propositions. If you can convince large numbers of people of your 'opinion' of Beyonce, they suggest, then that 'opinion' becomes true. Cultural and visual truth then, are to them, a numbers game, a kind of popularity test. Consensus equals reality, equals truth, this notion implies. I often respond by paraphrasing Frank Kermode, that if the value of an opinion, the legitimacy of an idea, or the truth of a claim, is to be tested only by its success in the world, then the propositions of dementia can become as valuable as any ther fictions, and the claims of insanity can enjoy just as much legitimacy as the claims of rationality; that the validity of one's opinion of the Jews, as Kermode warns, "Can be proved by killing six million Jews."
Other responses include their commercially trained suggestions that my 'message' is weakened by a 'negative attitude' (betraying their tendency to see the realities of social critique and even of social interaction in terms of a ubiquitous and pernicious public relations model). They instinctually privilege the concept of "Spin" in assessing
Beyonce Tribe Crony, Rhianna Plays With Guns
The salience of Kermode's sentiment, as deft and archly persuasive to me as one of Hamlet's witty asides about Polonius, is usually lost on students, many of whom lack the intensity of feeling about The Holocaust that I was inculcated with as a youth in the public education system and that I have carried like an essential touchstone for all my adult life. A blinkered association with historicity is a common trait amongst American youths, though by no means could one say all of them are lacking historical knowledge. Many are quite well aware of history and its lessons. It is not of them I speak.
Of course I point out to students who insist that I need to not be 'negative' so a to 'get my message' more easily 'sold', that I’m not writing commercials, not trying to ‘convince’ anyone of anything, and that my purpose as an intellectual is not to make anything acceptable or clear to the obdurate audience (if it isn’t already clear as a bell, then the reader needs to read quite a bit more before trying to read me, I suggest to them). As for the charge of personalism, the petty level of thought that regards only 'personality'(see the Black rock group, Living Color's "Cult of Personality")is the problem in the first place, and just doesn't apply to a thoroughgoing critical analysis, which I am seeking to do.
Nor does such trivia as whether or not one 'likes' an artist negate the responsibility we all have, to THINK, about things and to think historically, think politically, particularly with regard to visual truth (at which point I will suggest to them that they check out Andre Seewood's book, "SLAVE CINEMA: THE CRISIS OF THE AFRICAN AMERICAN IN FILM"--available on Amazon.com--for a good analysis of issues of POWER and REPRESENTATION in the context of African American cinema and identity). Above all, I will suggest to my students that they realize how important it is to READ in order to know what is happening in the world around one, in a matrix OUTSIDE of the limited one given to us all by the primary institutions responsible for producing ideology: The Church, The family, and the Educational System.
The implication is not just nihilist, not just PAGAN (the Beyonce video is full of snake and viper imagery reflecting the fall of contemporary Black American Christianity into a strange cult of satanic fetishism) but MISANTHROPIC. My former student, Mike Franco, who is one of the 'youths' I am always trying to instruct, one whose alacrity has far surpassed my tutelage now (he teaches me as much now as I ever taught him when he was younger, and was my student) focuses on the detail of that nihilism; he calls the popular visual style of music industry videos a form of 'intoxication'. When you look at the word, "intoxication", I've pointed out to Mike, it has two meanings at its Greek/Latin roots: to be inebriated, but also to be poisoned. I bow to his analysis, as far as it goes. He points out that what Beyonce is saying is, "I'm beautiful, I'm rich and powerful, don't you want to be me." Mike adds that she's thus showing out in a Freudian sense, within a cult of ego (i.e., Opra Winfrey): 'I'm showing my capacity for either beneficence or tyranny; I have all this going on, I'm famous, you're not, you're beneath my boot. I'm part of an empire.' Of course, where the masses of Black people (and the masses of Latin people) are concerned, this is simply what Freud would call wish fulfillment.On the surface then, the stuff represented in Beyonce Knowles' videos is simply nihilism, which is terrifying enough, but, ultimately, I argue that it goes even deeper, it's misanthropy. To see this requires visual literacy, and remembering not just Hitlerism's visual seduction, but Peronism in Argentina for instance, which turned Evita Peron into an idol PRIMARILY through visual style and representation. In Peru, the struggle of the revolutionaries of Shining Path and of Tupac Amaru against Alberto Fujimori was in part a fight against identity as cultural truth. All those Latin women in south America with bottle blond hair, like Beyonce's wig in the video. Of course, it is not just Beyonce and the satyr, Jay Z. we are talking about--that would be scapegoating Beyonce, which I am not trying to do here, that would be uninformative, a waste of critical energy. It's an ENTIRE CULT of visual semiotics that I indict here, that has 'intoxicated' African American and also Anglo American youth.
instinctual cathexes seeking discharge." It's the response of the abused (such as Germany after the Treaty of Versailles and the destruction of German economy, culture and the destruction of their very humanity beneath the boot of the allied powers), it's the ATTITUDE of the abused towards the abuser--which often is to mimic the values and actions of the abuser (as Dr. James Nadell alludes to in his comments above).
The visual elements of this cathexis, whether German, Latin, Russian, or African American, adolescent, Christian, Israeli, 'patriotic', faux feminist, or whatever, are the same.
Fascism is a dialectic, as I said.