clap clap blog: we have moved

Tuesday, April 05, 2005
Because I haven't given you anything substantial in a while, it's time to recycle!

Here's the first major letter I wrote to Pitchfork more than 2 years ago, about a very early WATW entry that now appears to be unlinkable. First thing is my response to the Ott portion, followed by my response to his response. Enjoy, or something.


Chris Ott writes of The Temptations' "Ball of Confusion": "What reason, exactly, do white people have to be ironic?" Well, Chris, white people don't have to have a "reason" to be ironic, because it's not an emotion, it's a form of expression, and a form of expression is only valid insofar as it successfully communicates the point a writer is trying to make and/or provokes a reaction in the reader, depending on what school of criticism you're siding with. Black people have reasons to be ironic, white people have reasons to be ironic, and George Bush has reasons to be ironic. Sad but true. Indeed, despite his attempt to avoid the "incestuous load of posturing" of white music, Chris' comments are a pretty good demonstration of why indie-rock criticism always ends up being so incestuous: it funnels its political concerns through culture rather than actually directing them at politics, and then it commits the even worse crime of trying to apply cultural standards to politics. This all makes for a self-enclosed discourse that looks a lot like post-revolutionary France: in a context where basic needs are not being met (in this case, for mainstream cultural voices we can respect and political efficacy) there rises up an ethic of purity that declares song A better than song B because song B has committed a certain crime, often the empty one of "hypocrisy," which I'm guessing is what you're implying by saying that "Ball of Confusion" is a better song than "Anarchy in the UK" purely because the former was written and performed by black people.

But even if you grant that this is a valid critical assesment, it's a symptom of privileging cultural standards over political ones. If you look at it from a political standpoint, you have to ask: what was the meaning the song was trying to convey, and to whom did it convey this to? In this case, the message was that white hippies' dreams of universal harmony/love/justice were belied by the fact that most American blacks felt little solidarity with them, since the hippies ignored the very real differences between their respective groups and triedto pretend as if everyone could be magically equal if you just decided they were. But wouldn't this message have been far more effective if it was conveyed by white people, to white people? Weren't they the ones who really needed to be told this? The audience for Temptations records probably knew this already, and so it just reified the existing status quo. I'm not saying that it makes it a bad song--I'm just saying that if you're going to try and apply political standards to it, it DOES make it look like a worse song.

Rather than engaging in the kind of "my form of political expression could beat up your form of political expression" we see in Ott's entry, it seems more valuable to me to open up the ways in which cultural expression is read in order to bring out the political meanings contained within and shout them into the mainstream conversation. To claim that a large group of people don't have the "reason" to use irony, a primary political tool, seems less of a democratic move and more of a autocratic obsession with "purity" that will only serve to further entrench the status quo. And is that what Ott really wants?


> Have you ever considered that "culture" is merely a nice word for a given
> society's prejudices?

Ah, but which society, which culture, and which prejudices? (I'm not entirely sure what bearing this has on my original point, but I'll bite nevertheless. Maybe I should be more clearer in pointing out that by "culture" I didn't mean the "way of life" thing that we get taught in high school social studies, I meant "the output of individual artistic production"? At any rate, I'll use "artistic expression" instead of "culture" and maybe that'll be clearer.)

Within a given society (generally defined as a nation-state these days), there are, in fact, many different cultures that have very different prejudices. So the average Pitchfork reader probably has the prejudice that Republicans are dumb, and the average wrestling fan probably has the prejudice that George Bush is great. But even within these cultures, there goes on arguments over what the prejudices should be, and these arguments can sometimes result in a realignment of the assumptions. So, for instance, in the indie scene, there was effectively an argument over whether or not we should be prejudiced against synthesizers. And through a combination of bands putting out albums with synths, critics reviving old artists who used synths in a good way, and the nostalgia cycle, that prejudice was overturned, and we now think synths are cool. Great.

When you bring it up to the societal level, things get even more interesting. There's a mainstream culture, and then there are a number of subcultures. But contrary to what popular opinion would have you believe, the mainstream and the underground are hardly at war; in reality, there is a complex and ambiguous love/hate relationship between the two wherein each borrows from and overruns the other. So, for instance, 70's punk is a reaction to the mainstream rock of the time. Punk becomes hardcore; one of the seminal hardcore bands, Black Flag, makes an album (My War) heavily influenced by mainstream metal; My War is picked up by sludge-minded musicians in Seattle who go on to form a local music scene around the sound; and the mainstream picks up grunge, bringing it to kids in far-flung places who might otherwise never have heard it. It's an argument, and it's a big part of why I like culture/art so much, and why I'd like to see it have more of a political impact--as I suspect you would, too, judging from your comments on the Temptations song.

The problem here is that you're blithely positing "culture" as a received, immutable set, THE prejudices. But it's not. Most of us learn to recognize and reconsider these things that are received information in our youth, and a big way we do that is through artistic expression. But to cynically say that only black people can REALLY be ironic is a tragic stance; it cuts off avenues forchange ("Oh well, we're white and we can't do anything"), and while it's fine to take that stance, there doesn't really seem much point in participating in music or criticism or political action or anything like that if that's your attitude. I mean, maybe the Beatles shouldn't have been making pop records while people were suffering. But should the Temptations have been making records, then? Should either of us be sitting here, e-mailing each other, while people are suffering in the world? When you start to critique the "value" of art, you get into some weird places, especially when that critique of art comes through art.

Me, I think it's kind of useful for there to be a bunch of commonly-recognized sets of shared assumptions out there; it lets us communicate without starting from scratch every time. But that's me.

> I don't think we see eye to eye on the utility of ironic expression; for me
> true irony simultaneously communicates tacit understanding of an incongruous
> situation and invalidates or at least undercuts the reasons for that
> situation via insightful contradiction. In my opinion, whites have never
> seen an incongruous situation, as they've made the rules since long before
> pop music existed.

But again, you seem to be effectively denying the ability of an entire group of people to do something. You have seen evidence of some white person finding something incongruous at some point in your life, haven't you? I mean: Mark Twain? Socrates? Emma Goldman? Johnny Rotten, as you said? I'm just a little confused here. Do you mean something other than "whites"? Or are you implying that white people don't have the right, from the point of view of justice, to use a technique that primarily relies on utilizing a position of powerlessness?

Like I said before, I think it comes down to judging artistic expression by political standards. In this case, you're confounding groups (political entities) with individuals (cultural). As groups, certainly whites owe much to black people, and I am in favor of affirmative action, etc. But because groups operate in the political arena, it's a complex problem when you try and bring itdown to the personal (i.e., artistic) level, because of cross-cutting cleavages. Does a black man owe anything to white women for historical, sexist oppression? Do black people owe anything to Native Americans? Do Americans, regardless of race, owe anything to Afghanis, or Kosovars? How do we sort all of these things out? Well, through politics and group action, and while it never works out perfectly, to try and calculate at an individual level who owes who what is nearly impossible. And it is at this individual level that artistic expression operates. So while I think that white people should unquestionably work as a group to correct historical injustices against all kinds of groups, I don't think that all individual white people should be deprived of a means of expression simply because they are members of an oppressor group; indeed, doing this would actually prevent white people from engaging in political action that could (given their place on the top of the power structure) prevent them from working to correct injustices. Is that a good thing?

The reason I really like cultural production, and the reason I'm lobbying critics to expand their interpretations of political expression rather than limiting it as you seem to be doing, is that it builds up all these individual instances of expression into a large conversation. So while, in politics, groups need to speak with one voice to be effective (witness the unfortunate success of the Christian Coalition), art exists as an argument between individuals, in which conflicting opinions and norms can co-exist without limiting the effectiveness of any of those arguments. I think if we're more effectively able to tease out these arguments--without necessarily judging them--and building on them, maybe we can achieve something more productive than the tragic situation you seem to be describing. Or maybe not. But it'll be fun along the way.

You seem to be defining "irony" as a variation on its new, bastardized popular understanding, but what you really seem to mean by it is (to use more shiveringly horrible bastardized terms) "cognitive dissonance" or "subversion"--that is, if people could just see the truth behind their horrible situation, the masses would rise up in glorious revolution etc. But that assumes that people don't realize the truth, whereas I tend to suspect that they know and don't care, or know and don't feel the need to get quite so worked up about it, or know and have a different interpretation from yours (or the Temptations'). It also assumes that, even if people don't know the truth, subversion/cognitive dissonance will have some productive effect which, as I argued in my original message, might not be the case. For instance, In _No Logo_ Naomi Klein concludes a description of Adbusters' activities by expressing doubt that "jamming" a message really creates a mind-blowing "cognitive dissonance" because, well, people experience that kind of cognitive dissonance everyday, simply by changing television channels. We don't go, "Whoa! The news is suddenly a show about robots! What's up with that?" so why would changing a Marlboro ad to read "CANCER" make us stop smoking? Humans have an amazing ability to recognize incongruous situations, and then process them or ignorethem. What you're talking about seems just like juxtaposition, a classical rhetorical technique. ("These welfare queens are picking up their unemployment checks in limos while good honest farmers starve!")

But maybe I'm not addressing your argument clearly enough. I sense that we do, in fact, share similar views on the place of irony in our current culture. It's been taken from a powerful, rigorous, and intellectually challenging technique to a simple synonym for "sarcasm." Irony used to be a strategy wherein someone without power would use that position, and the fact that listeners would underestimate the speaker's intelligence, in order to break through the usual assumptions and make the audience really engage with the argument being made--to, say, flatter the reader's intelligence to encourage thought, or to make an argument they know is wrong in order to get the reader to refute it and possibly draw further connections. Now, however, most users of irony have no faith in their audience, and instead of letting the audience think for itself, comedians and lyric writers and columnists employ a standardized series of winks that lets the audience know that they're not REALLY inferior--in fact, they'reprobably smarter than you, and since it's just sarcasm now, the point they're trying to make isn't something you have to work for, but rather glaringly obvious, so just agree with it and move on. Right? And the fact that these winks have become so standardized means that when you DON'T employ them, even when you really shouldn't, the reader is now far more likely to think that you're just being dumb and there's no point in taking you seriously. You look at this debased technique, look at the way the primarily white creators of mainstream culture (and certainly underground culture as well) have abused it, and figure it's high time to just write this one off--to tell 'em that they've abused the privilege and they've got to leave it to others from now on.

I think I disagree. If rehabilitating irony is a critical project you want to undertake, there are probably better ways to go about it: you could pick out examples from the past, as you do with the Temptations, and instead of being a grumpy indie kid and going on about so-many-people-do-this-badly-no-one-should-do-it-at-all, you could more clearly delineate (as you have in your response to me) the way irony is being used, and how it could be used better; you could write reviews that incorporate irony as persuasive technique; etc.

But I still think you're wrong to limit it to just white people. Certainly whites are wholly responsible for the formation of the business end of pop music, but the role black culture (and, from the 20's on, black people) played in the artistic production is undeniable, and there is an important difference. Similarly undeniable is that fact that much of it was made by poor whites, or bydisenfranchised white women, or by white homosexuals, etc. etc. etc. The cross-cutting cleavages that I mention above are an important consideration, I feel. If you want to say "whites shouldn't use irony badly anymore," that's one thing, but to say that they--poor, gay, whatever--just shouldn't use it is, I think, a little too tragic of a stance.