Month: January 2014

On Drake; or, private media

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In the artist of all kinds I think one can detect an inherent dilemma, which belongs to the co-existence of two trends, the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found.            – D.W. Winnicott

Do people write appreciations of Drake anymore? A lot of the discourse about him is pretty negative these days. Just as Drake arrives as one of the undisputed leaders of contemporary hip-hop, his reputation seems to diminish considerably. Could Drake, of all people, require a defense?

Of course, one suspects that this kind of attention suits a figure like Drake just fine. It is not necessary for us, after all, to like Drake, so long as we keep hearing and listening to his songs. The Drake Product needs only to remain in the awareness of others; the specific content of our feelings is mostly irrelevant. In a review for the New York Times, Jon Caramanica calls Nothing Was The Same, Drake’s third and latest studio album, the definitive announcement of the “Tough Drake era.” Spin, presumably less taken with this new voice, calls the album “cold and isolated.” The braggadocio of the album’s first single, the anthemic “Started from the Bottom,” raised doubts of Rick Ross proportions about the authenticity of its narrative. With another of the album’s hit songs, “All Me,” Drake reaffirmed this stance of independent self-actualization: “Came up, that’s all me; stayed true, that’s all me; no help, that’s all me; that’s all me, for real.”

One of my recent blog posts was about Wordsworth; this post about Drake, which I guess could be considered a sort of companion piece, ventures a very few thoughts about another famous egotist. In a rather instrumental way I will make some thoughts about Drake lead to consideration of a broad and somewhat amorphous domain I’m calling “private media.” Social media has commanded attention now for so long that it feels at once inevitable and strange to attend to the nominally opposite “private sphere,” and to mediated practices of asociality or anti-sociality, esotericism or self-withholding. I think of private (“antisocial,” “nonparticipatory”) media as referring to a wide array of practices, products & platforms that make anonymity, singularity, or hermeticism central to the user experience or to the medium concept as such. In attaching this concept to Drake I obviously don’t mean to suggest that he or his music is any less “public.” I mean simply to mark Drake’s insistence on the irreducibility of private experience; and from this fact I make a (dramatically abbreviated) case for the relevance of this private sphere to understanding some aspects of hip-hop and other popular media.

“Private Media” was the subject of a panel I convened for the 8th Media in Transition conference at MIT last spring, with brilliant presentations by Natalia Cecire, Yohei Igarashi, and Stefan Helmreich (Tressie McMillan Cottom was scheduled to present but missed the conference due to illness). The conference title was “Public Media, Private Media,” and the panel was initially motivated by the question of what a “private medium” could actually be, given that most existing definitions of the medium emphasize its status as a channel for communication, and thus social in its structure. The medium concept typically presumes the existence of a public, without which there would be no need for the medium to exist. Nancy Baym and danah boyd speak to this widespread assumption when they write that the terms “Media and ‘public’ have always been intertwined.” Working somewhat against the grain of these associations, the panel was an early attempt to define some characteristics of private media practice, tracing its expression in objects as diverse as experimental poetry (Cecire), legal cases of search and seizure (Igarashi), and seashells (Helmreich), whose involuted forms offer a visual figure for the “private medium” as such. 

I want to claim now that Drake, spectacularly popular as he is, inhabits an interesting position in the much broader arena of what I’m calling private mediation. Characteristic of Drake’s work is the detailed reporting of private experience. The toughness and aggressive me-centeredness of Drake’s recent work is in one sense only surprising in the context of his extraordinary career. Drake is widely thought of as having opened hip-hop to a greater range of emotional depth, mainly through crooning love songs and stark confessions of emotional vulnerability. Mark Fisher calls Drake’s signature move “the transition from rap to singing, the slipping down from ego-assertion into a sensual purring.” The shift from rapping to singing may correspond to a shift in emotional register, as Fisher notes. Even in his raps, though, Drake moves with disarming rapidity between boasting and confession:

In person I am everything and more,I’m everywhere these other niggas never been before
But inside I’m treading waters steady trying to swim ashore (“Successful”)

As a singer too, Drake makes similarly rapid transitions between invocations of rap cliché and the confrontation with stark emotional truths:

I be yelling out money over everything, money on my mind
Then she wanna ask when it got so empty (“Headlines”)

These confessions and indications of emotional conflict have led Drake to be characterized as a guy who’d rather read you his diary than his bank statement.” The diaristic content of Drake’s work is more often offered in his songs through the medium of the telephone. The song “Marvin’s Room,” from the second studio album Take Care, is sung as if it were an extended late-night plaint over the phone to a former lover (“I’m just saying you could do better”). “Look What You’ve Done,” from the same album, ends with the recording of a voicemail message from his late grandmother. 

At the same time that Drake has made the reporting of inner experience a staple of his work, however, he highlights as well its difficulty (if not impossibility). The phone calls dramatized in “Marvin’s Room” and recorded in “Look What You’ve Done” represent, after all, missed connections rather than moments of successful communication. We think of music, to paraphrase Madonna (someone whose decades of pop success make her an authority on this subject), as art that invites us into a collective experience. Contemporary artists like Kendrick Lamar and Lorde invoke the provisional coming-together of collectives made up of the disaffected and/or disenfranchised. Instead, Drake fashions an intimate public predicated on the irreducibility and inaccessibility of private experience. 

With these gestures, Drake dramatizes the two competing impulses that Winnicott, in the epigraph above, attributes to the artist in general: the urge to communicate and the urge not to be found. Drake’s genius sometimes turns on the reversibility of these two positions, at a point where the disclosure of inner experience meets the assertion of its inaccessibility. In the album of the same title, the phrase “take care” evokes intimacy and solidarity (“I’ll take care of you,” Rihanna sings in the refrain to “Take Care”) at the same time that it reminds us, with menace, of our own vulnerability (as in the closing lines of the song “The Ride”).  

“Art,” Stanley Cavell wrote in a famous essay on music, “is often praised because it brings men together. But it also separates them.” The outcomes may be indifferent for Drake, divided as the music is between the impulses of communication and self-concealment. One finds a small but telling example of this self-division in the spoken words that open “The Ride,” the final track of Take Care:  

I hate when – I hate when people say they feel me, man. I hate that shit. It’ll be a long time before y’all feel me – if ever.

If I feel you, I understand you, I sympathize with your situation. But Drake rejects the possibility of our identification; we can’t know or even imagine what it’s like to be him. The superstar musician is literally untouchable: “Walking through airport security with your hat down / Instead of getting a patdown, they just keep on saying that they feel you.” The trope of untouchability in “The Ride” at once cites (“Can’t Touch This”) and brings up to date the rapper’s conventional boast that he is so ahead of the game that competitors stand no chance. In literal and figurative senses, Drake declares his exemption from the necessity of being “felt.” Characteristically, though, Drake modifies the trope to make the expression of irritation stand at the borders of a claim to the incommunicability of experience (“I hate when…I hate that shit”). The testimony of inner experience asserts the impossibility of what the reporting of inner experience is conventionally expected to produce (the sympathetic union of the speaker with the audience). We are invited to share Drake’s feelings only to be reminded that Drake’s feelings can have no reality for us whatsoever.

This paradoxical stance of something shared and unshared, both public and private, is I think crucial to what we can (with equal alertness to paradox) call Drake’s private media presence. I am not the most qualified to answer how far these developments in the language of rap reflect or overlap with developments in the music industry today. It is at least striking to note how as the reach and influence of hip-hop has expanded dramatically, so too has the iconic object associated with its playback decisively shifted, from the boom box 

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to the headphones.

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Drake’s equivocal assertions of privacy raise questions barely addressed here too about race, power, and privilege. How many black men today are able to experience undisturbed privacy in an age of stop & frisk, “random” traffic stops and security checks, and mass incarceration? What factors influence whether and how a young black male will seek to go undetected in contemporary life? and how successful in this will he be? What vectors of class and prejudice determine whether a black man will experience the self’s inaccessibility instead as a condition of involuntary isolation, of being an invisible man in public circumstances? These questions too are bound up in Drake’s music and in hip-hop’s language of private experience.

For Wordsworth, what is private in the artist’s work can arise from a failure to communicate inner experience or to be understood, whether from “the inadequateness of our own powers, or the deficiencies of language.” But the artist’s asociality may just as plausibly derive from the rejection of a straightforwardly communicative role for language. One thinks of Dickinson’s famous eschewals of a public for her art, or Wordsworth’s account of the poet’s “peculiar language, when expressing his feelings for his own gratification, or that of men like himself.” In both cases, involuntary or voluntary, the notion of private media may be more broadly applicable to what Winnicott calls the “incommunicado element” of human subjects and human language. How this incommunicado element is translated into contemporary artistic and cultural practice — how popular media forms may support non-communicative ends alongside more obviously communicative ones — is a subject worth closer attention.

 

Romanticism panels at the MLA

I am not going to the MLA convention in Chicago this year. Can’t say that I’m very broken up about the fact, either.

For those who are going to be at MLA, however, and particularly for those with an interest in British and European Romantic studies, I am forwarding (from the NASSR-L) the following note from the distinguished Romanticist Tilottama Rajan, along with a list produced by Mark Canuel of all the Romanticism panels at the convention.  “Vulnerable times” indeed:

Mark Canuel has put together a list of all the Romantics panels at the MLA, including the NASSR panels on “Romantic Systems” and “Wasting Romanticism.” Please try to attend as many panels as you can. The MLA is monitoring attendance at sessions, with a view to eliminating or merging divisions in historical areas, and generally reducing the numbers of panels in these areas. WE have already seen the beginnings of this process in the proposal to merge “Late 18thc British” with “Restoration and Early 18thc”: a proposal on which there has been a great deal of pushback. The idea of merging the Romantics and Victorians was also floated, and the Victorianists were not unhappy about it, though the Romantics Division wrote strongly against it. But we could be next on the chopping block …

ROMANTICISM PANELS AT THE MLA

A little thing

UCR Fund Recipient

So much has been written already about the recent online beef between Rebecca Schuman (@pankisseskafka), the adjunct faculty member, higher ed blogger and journalist, and the historian Claire Potter, aka “Tenured Radical” (@tenuredradical); I am not eager to add one thing more. The occasion of the Schuman-Potter dispute was the revelation on Rebecca’s blog that the English department of the University of California at Riverside would not contact those it intended to interview for its tenure-track position (in American literature before 1900) until January 3, less than a week before the MLA convention in Chicago. Schuman wrote the blog post about this news that went viral; in response, Potter wrote the blog post attempting, somewhat peremptorily, to shut down the controversy as an isolated and irrational instance of academic “rage.”

I objected then, as I do now, to the personal and somewhat condescending terms of Potter’s assessment. I understand anger at a broken system to be more than “merely” personal. In response to this flare-up, Chuck Rybak, Timothy Burke and others have issued sensible calls for solidarity between adjuncts and those on the tenure-track. As these bloggers observe, both populations of university employees are subject to the same forces at the hands of university presidents; both populations too make a small part of a much larger trend toward the casualization of employment in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The dispute between Schuman and Potter has quieted down in the meantime, though a general climate of dis-ease remains in the run-up to the MLA convention. How could it not? The deep inequities of a broken system show more dramatically these days. What faith can we bestow in a “profession” that (as quite a few perceive it) has disappeared in all but name? Why do we ask job-seekers and adjunct faculty to defend institutions that have shown them no favors? What loyalty to the preservation and maintenance of tenure can we expect from those who have been systemically excluded from participation in it?

When I created an Indiegogo campaign to help send to MLA those chosen by UCR for an interview, I wanted a way to contribute to a heated conversation then passing without participating directly in it. I created the campaign to show my support for Rebecca, a writer I greatly respect and admire even where I disagree with some of her opinions. Admittedly, I created the campaign from a sense of anger too, much less at UCR than at Potter’s attempt to rationalize and shut down criticism of its practice. (It took virtually no time to establish an account with Indiegogo and create the campaign — certainly less time than it took Tenured Radical to write a seemingly disinterested follow-up post on the importance of preserving social media etiquette.) Above all, I created the campaign in a gesture of solidarity with graduate students and adjuncts on the academic job market.

To date, 27 people have contributed more than $800 to this hastily-produced campaign. (I chose the fundraising goal more or less arbitrarily; that the campaign is not likely to reach the established goal is I think no indication of its having been a failure.) Contributions came from friends, colleagues, and strangers; from the tenured, junior faculty on the tenure track, adjunct faculty, and graduate students (some of them on the market themselves). Contributions came from academics from fields outside English, and from non-academics as well.

Some may think the gesture misplaced, or mean-spiritedly directed at UCR on account of a technical error. To the latter objection: I am not personally acquainted with anyone in the UCR English department. At the end of the day, moreover, I am glad and grateful that UCR has a tenure line open at all, and that they choose to interview for a specialist in “old” material (being a person who works on such material myself). I wish them the best of luck in their search.

That a fundraising campaign targeted to assist those interviewing at one school does not solve larger problems with the academic job market seems obvious, and somewhat beside the point. I am delighted that the contributions received will help one candidate who has stepped forward at least. But the campaign does not pretend to solve anything so much as its gesture intends, in a small way, to make visible the extent of the problem.

Many thanks are due to the contributors to this campaign — you know who you are — and to those many of you who helped me get the word out about it. I want particularly to acknowledge the assistance of Jonathan Goya (@jkgoya), Lee Skallerup (@readywriting), and the inimitable Rebecca Schuman.