Have a Good Time

December 5, 2011

There never was a time

“But perhaps it is a misnomer to label this a progressive or liberal movement at all.”—Stephan Jenkins, lead singer of Third Eye Blind, in the Huffington Post

I really enjoyed The New Inquiry‘s recent dialogue on the occupations and pop culture, in which Max Fox and Malcolm Harris begin with the seemingly undeniable premise that the Third Eye Blind song “If There Ever Was a Time” fails to claim the space of soundtrack-to-a-crisis that’s already been happily occupied for a while by Rihanna, Ke$ha, and other pop music. For a few days I’ve been trying to put together some speculations in response to this piece—about a kind of rhyme between the respective sounds of the “long 1989” explored by Joshua Clover in 1989: bob dylan didn’t have this to sing about and the long 2011 that Fox and Harris point to; about some other great things people have written about love songs, love in politics, and the “ugly feelings” of those who are or are not occupying; and about attending, not only to those pieces of mass culture that seem to represent a preemptive appropriation of resistance as such, but also to those that might be helpful for thinking through the other feelings, the quieter political affects (which may or may not be traceable along genre lines). And I’m still hoping to finish that post. But yesterday, for the first time, I actually screwed up my courage and listened to “If There Ever Was a Time” all the way through, and there’s something in that I want to address briefly, first, because it strikes me as pretty extraordinary.

“If it were opportunistic,” Harris says of the song, “it would have a better beat.” So it’s appropriate that the one moment of real opportunism in “If There Ever Was a Time” should be the sampling of a better beat from a better song: it comes at the very end, after Stephan Jenkins’s repeated injunction, “Come on, meet me down at Zuccotti Park” and a guitar solo, as we continue to hear the voices of selected American protesters while the music lurches from blithe sunshiny rock into the beat (and only the beat) from Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”

Let’s remember, this is at the end of a song that earlier said:

and i saw a sign in the oakland spring
it said “occupy everything!”
or by and for and of won’t mean a thing

To which I have a few reactions. First, are we in Oakland or New York, and does the song think that matters or not? Second, isn’t there something almost too perfect in the lyrical reflection of a certain kind of liberalism here—in the way that, at the moment of articulating the danger that democratic ideals will become meaningless, what’s actually revealed is a fetishization of the ideals so abstract—merely “by,” “for,” and “of”—that they’re close to meaningless already, because anything resembling “the people” has disappeared from view? Third, and most important: the audacity of quoting “Fight the Power” in a rock song that insists the time is now, because only now are “by” and “for” and “of” (“the people”) at risk of losing their meaning, is incredible. It feels like the precise musical equivalent of Naomi Wolf suggesting that Occupy Wall Street has faced “unparalleled police brutality.” And the title of a brilliant response to Wolf from DJ Ripley—”change comes from connection across difference not by erasing difference”—expresses an insight that was already embedded in the song whose radical energy Third Eye Blind tries to appropriate. (“People, people, we are the same / No we’re not the same / ‘Cause we don’t know the game!”)

A fuller explication of the politics behind a song like “If There Ever Was a Time” can be found in Jenkins’s piece for the Huffington Post, which situates the recent police violence against students at UC Davis as, again, unique and unparalleled (or as an example of bad policing, rather than as an example of policing), and responds to it with statements like “We need to take care of our cops so that they can take care of us.” Or, maybe even more remarkably: “every time a protester throws a bottle at a police officer, or breaks a window, or spray paints a tree, he or she does exponential damage to the Occupy movement.” Is Jenkins aware that he sampled a song from a movie that bravely refused to condemn a riot in the wake of racist violence? No, more than that (as Daniel pointed out): a song explicitly written to emblematize resistance to police violence in a movie about resistance to police violence. And if every protester really means every protester, then did Mookie with his trash can in Do the Right Thing do “exponential damage to the Occupy movement” twenty years before it began? Questions like these are part of why I think “If There Ever Was a Time” is actually a perfect anthem for (some aspects of) the Occupy movement, in depressing ways that were not intended—as a making-audible of the racial, cultural, and national blind spots that so many people are doing critical work to address. And in this case a kind of political failure makes itself felt dramatically as aesthetic and historical: a song that wants so badly to be the sound of 2011 can end only by leaving us feeling cheated out of hearing Flavor Flav and Chuck D herald “nineteen … eighty … nine!”

November 25, 2011

A map of the country

“So we heard the proposition last night, ‘We need to dismantle the United States.’ This sounds kind of preposterous and silly to most people but the question is, ‘Why? Why does it sound so absurd to say that we don’t want to live under a settler state founded on genocide and slavery?’ That the proposition seems silly shows the extent to which we have so completely normalized genocide that we cannot actually imagine a future without genocide.”—Andrea Smith, March 2011, at Critical Ethnic Studies and the Future of Genocide

Occupy Thanksgiving: Decolonize! / DisOccupy / IMAGINE OTHERWISE

July 17, 2010

…but enough on that subject?

The politics of truth pertains to those relations of power that circumscribe in advance what will and will not count as truth, which order the world in certain regular and regulatable ways, and which we come to accept as the given field of knowledge. We can understand the salience of this point when we begin to ask: What counts as a person? What counts as a coherent gender? What qualifies as a citizen? Whose world is legitimated as real? Subjectively, we ask: Who can I become in such a world where the meanings and limits of the subject are set out in advance for me? By what norms am I constrained as I begin to ask what I may become? And what happens when I begin to become that for which there is no place within the given regime of truth? Is this not precisely what is meant by “the desubjugation of the subject in the play of […] the politics of truth?”
—Judith Butler, “What is Critique? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue”

One day Emily was holding a very high and intellectual conversation with ———— where they were quite above the mundane plane. Mrs. Dickinson had fussed in and out many times to see if they needed anything, and at last she bustled in, just at some fine climax of the talk, and asked if ————’s feet were not cold, wouldn’t she like to come in the kitchen and warm them? Emily gave up in despair at that. ‘Wouldn’t you like to have the Declaration of Independence read, or the Lord’s Prayer repeated,’ and she went on with a long list of unspeakably funny things to be done.

—Millicent Todd Bingham, quoted in Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Emily Dickinson

Two recent news stories about the discovered textual practices of the framers of the U.S. Constitution seemed to assume an easy metonymical resonance. First, on the margins of the origins of American exceptionalism: three months ago we learned that George Washington stole the book on international law, and the debt has been accruing ever since. And late last month—certainly in time for July 4, but also broadly in time for Arizona’s escalation of the “debate” over “illegals,” and just about in time for the delivery of an involuntary-manslaughter verdict in the case of the unspeakable Oscar Grant—a U.S. citizen who was suddenly not a citizen, because he was lying face-down on the ground, a picture of guiltless subjection to the law, when the law, as represented by Johannes Mehserle, shot him in the back—the Library of Congress announced that when Thomas Jefferson was drafting the Declaration of Independence he wrote “fellow-subjects,” blotted it out, and replaced “subjects” with “citizens.”

A computerized column showing five grayscale views of Jefferson's handwritten "fellow-citizens," with his original second word, "subjects," progressively emerging in yellow and, by the final image, replacing "citizens" completely

Above is a digital snapshot of the hyperspectral imaging process, from the AOLNews story. It embodies an archaeological reverse-teleology that I would hope to pause or to apprehend, at least for a moment.  Like Micki McGee, writing for the Social Text blog, I’m not sure how helpful it is to describe this correction the way the news stories do, as the heretofore-successful burial of the traces of a “Freudian slip”—although I’m unsure for different reasons. McGee says it is “not clear at all that this wording and rewording would qualify as a repressed idea or desire percolating up from Jefferson’s unconscious, even if such psychoanalytic parlance can be applied to a draft developed more than a hundred years before Freud came up with the concept”: for one thing, I’d say (if I were pretending to be a strict psychoanalytical reader), wouldn’t a century-old draft be almost the ideal site for the application of this parlance? (But if I were pretending to be a strict psychoanalytical reader I would go on to say something really tedious about the distance between the parlance of strict psychoanalysis and the popular parlance of “Freudian slips”…) More to the point, though: noting that the import of the words “subject” and “citizen” is in so many ways still under contestation, McGee adds that the picture of those words here led her back to John Zerzan’s anti-anti-humanist “critique of the post-structuralist parlance of ‘subjects’ and ‘subjectivity'”—the implied move being, I think, an affirmation of Jefferson’s corrective intentions, a celebration of the autonomy that might result from thinking of ourselves as (global?) citizens over thinking of ourselves as subjects. I was actually led in what must be the opposite direction—back to Butler’s “What is Critique?”, with its reminder that Foucault’s project aims to involve not only the delineation of the constraints of subjectivity, but also the desubjugation of the subject. And I started to wonder if this account of Foucault and of critique (not to mention Butler’s more recent thinking on states and citizens) might enable, or even necessitate, a kind of Dickinsonian choosing-not-choosing among variants in the reading of Jefferson’s draft.  A kind of recognition that, however much we might debate the benefits of considering ourselves subjects over citizens or citizens over subjects, we remain something unspeakable (at least by a single voice): .

I’m talking about “us” partly because that’s how McGee frames her question.  (“On this Fourth of July weekend, I find myself wondering broadly: where are we building spaces of autonomy, and where are we bowing like subjects?”)  But I also want to call “us” into question, because it’s worth saying something, though I’m not an especially well-equipped person to say it, about the context of Jefferson’s revision, and about the relation between his erasure and the further erasures that are enacted in all the popular news coverage of this story.  The sentences in which Jefferson replaced “subjects” with “citizens” run as follows:

he has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, & conditions of existence;

he has incited treasonable insurrections in our fellow-, with the allurements of forfeiture & confiscation of our property;

Those sentences don’t quite appear in the final draft of the Declaration:

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us , and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

“Domestic insurrections” are slave revolts.  In Jefferson’s original draft the charge of “insurrections” is followed by the self-incriminating condemnation of the slave trade that was simply cut from the final document; Congress’s version also turns “incited” to “excited” (muddying the question of agency), “treasonable” to “domestic” (because slave revolts aren’t treasonable, because slaves are neither subjects nor citizens), and an ambiguous “in” to an all-too-comprehensible “among”; and collapses “Indian savages” and unspeakable slaves into one group, the Others at the frontiers of a frighteningly simple “us”—”we” who incorporate “all ages, sexes, & conditions of existence,” or in other words we white people who belong on this land—as if admitting that the choice between “citizens” and “subjects” was in the end both undecidable and irrelevant.

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