privilege

Notes on resistance

irritated about extreme outrage

sign at the Stewart-Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, 2010 (image source)

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A note by way of foreword, or forewarning. As I write on my “about” page, I am no expert in any of the subjects I blog about here. I write and publish these posts feeling confident in and not even particularly bothered by the probability that someone has written before and much better about the subjects I’m blogging about. Where that proves to be the case I actually do hope you let me know, though I can’t promise I’ll read or follow up (ars longa vita brevis and all that).

I think of this condition of motivated ignorance (more or less) as not accidental but rather essential to my blogging; it’s why I’m interested in writing (blogging) about one topic and not another in the first place. If a subject impels me to serious thought but doesn’t immediately and entirely reveal itself — no matter for these purposes or to me at this stage if my intuition is correct or not — I’m more likely to make a blog post of it. Another way of saying this is that for a topic to eventuate in a blog post it has to hold my attention at a middle distance — neither so short that I get tired of thinking about it after reading a few articles/writing a few sentences, nor so long that I end up mired in mounds of material and with an unwanted book project on my hands. (I’m thinking of an excellent talk I heard Marjorie Levinson give recently at the NASSR 2014 conference in Bethesda, MD, about a middle-distance mode of analysis as essential to understanding a literary genre such as lyric, if not the workings of genre as such.) The sheer volume of excellent “Bartleby” criticism I encountered in thinking about and writing this post threatened to tip it into a much longer project than I anticipated…I feel lucky to have escaped in under 3000 words.

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My aim for this blog post is simple: I want, as briefly as possible, to relocate the concept of resistance from the domain of the will to that of the (predominantly negative) affects. By rethinking the basis of political resistance I want to (re)claim as acts of resistance some mundane responses of irritation, aggravation, or intolerance — negative affects, “ugly feelings” as Sianne Ngai calls them, none of them especially lovable — occurring regularly in daily life and on the same spectrum, I argue, with more easily recognizable forms of political defiance. I hypothesize that resistance — like intolerance, to which it’s related — is not in the first instance a principle or creed or program, or even necessarily a fully formed idea. Rather, resistance is more in the character of an autonomic affective event, a somato-sensory occasion accompanied by at least minimal acknowledgement (perception) of the event. In the political sphere, resistance is not an action, necessarily, but the acknowledgement of a strong negative feeling — which feeling and/or acknowledgement may, but needn’t be, acted on. This acknowledgement almost always begins in rejection, a recoil or radical estrangement from circumstances judged to be intolerable. “Intolerance” is thus fittingly another name for this mechanism of rejection and recoil.

I describe resistance as springing from intolerance, essentially founded on intolerance, and want to explain what I mean in light of the fact that intolerance is not generally recognized as being among virtues the left seeks to cultivate. Indeed insofar as tolerance is among the core values of liberalism (and has been at least since Locke), intolerance is typically charged to the right as the sign of a benighted hostility to difference. Part of this blog post comes from my suspicion (intuition, strong feeling, whatever) that intolerance is a more interesting and politically productive response than that. (I’m obviously inspired here by Sianne Ngai’s effort in Ugly Feelings to “recuperate negative affects for their critical productivity” [3] — and at the same time share her caution against romanticizing these feelings too.)

…Now I’m almost too embarrassed to turn to this text in discussing political resistance, knowing as little as I do about it, the author, the scholarship, etc. But none of these limitations held (or ever holds) Žižek back, so:

Consider what is (in the U.S. at least) the canonical literary case for thinking political resistance, Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853) and its hero’s famous phrase, “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby’s action is inaction, or as the narrator labels it, “passive resistance.” Beyond being an obvious and persistent source of trouble to the narrator of the story, Bartleby is troublesome to the principle of narrative as well, at least so far as fictional narratives are typically understood to feature characters who either act or are acted upon. An inert force at the center of the story, Bartleby occupies virtually the entirety of the narrative without becoming any more intelligible (to the Lawyer or to us) than he was from his first appearance in it.

Ironically for a story with such a profoundly arid main character, “Bartleby” has proven extraordinarily fertile for thinking the politics of resistance. The significance of the character and of Melville’s “Story of Wall-Street” to the Occupy movement in NYC and worldwide is well known and was well documented at the time (see for instance here and here). The bizarre career and influence of “Bartleby” has been just as prominently marked in contemporary fields and industries associated with the scrivener’s profession. No other literary work has remained so indelibly attached to the institutions of literary production and consumption. Melville’s title alone has spawned two major companies representing these spheres of literary consumption and production, respectively: bartleby.com, a massive, post-scribal electronic archive of the world’s classic literature, and Scrivener, the word processing program designed for authors.

How we read Bartleby’s peculiarly inert force in Melville’s story, and thus the unique power of his passive resistance, will of course depend to a great extent on how we read the declaration “I would prefer not to.”  Here is how Leo Marx describes Bartleby’s famous phrase in his influential 1953 essay [JSTOR link], by most accounts a watershed for modern readings of Melville’s story:

“‘Prefer’ is the nucleus of Bartleby’s refrain, and it embodies the very essence of his power. It simply means ‘choice,’ but it is backed up…by will.” (621)

Marx reads in Bartleby’s phrase, in his preference “not to,” an exercise of choice backed by the faculty of will — choice and will implied here as granted by nature to autonomous human beings, and to a minimal degree at least protected by law. Standing at the head of a mighty stream of modern criticism on and political appropriations of Melville’s classic tale, Marx unfolds from Melville’s story and from Bartleby’s famous phrase all the nascent terms for understanding political resistance in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. Choice, will, agency, reason, defiance — these are qualities we typically ascribe to acts of political resistance; even today these terms seem to structure our understanding of politically resistant action and personhood.

But though choice and will are undeniably compelling and commendable qualities, they are explicitly not the terms Bartleby offers to describe his act of resistance. That these are not Bartleby’s terms is plain from a brief early exchange with the narrator [for the text of Melville’s story see the version freely available online at bartleby.com]:

“I would prefer not to.”
“You will not?”
“I prefer not.”

Žižek’s 2006 assertion [pdf article link] that Bartleby’s phrase needs to be taken literally is both eminently commonsensical and obviously also a gesture in sympathy with the unsettlingly radical conservatism of Bartleby’s quiet protest — both in general and in this particular case against the Lawyer’s slippage from “preference” to “will.”

In “Bartleby,” the scrivener’s “I would prefer not to” is precisely not an expression of willful action and heroic defiance. Instead, the story invites us to think of resistance as taking origin in some poorly defined and understood though powerfully and clearly felt affective response. Resistance is in this sense something closer perhaps to an instinct or a “gut reaction” than to a considered opinion or belief. Bartleby’s paradoxically negative assertion is founded on a judgment, as civilly expressed as possible, of disaffection, distaste, disgust. Intolerance of this sort is typically understood as a form of protest at the bodily level, a physical aversion to and rejection of certain objects or stimuli, food or noise or light, etc., as in the widely reported condition of lactose intolerance. “Intolerance” and related terms — disgust, revulsion, aversion, resistance — is often applied to forms of jointly physiological and ideological response. These autonomic operations of the limbic system, spasms of amygdalic or epiglottal refusal and recoil, cut across and communicate between these separate domains.

What I want to emphasize here is resistance’s orientation in the regions of the gut, linking the mundane complaint of lactose intolerance (say) to more vividly particularized forms of resistance and recoil such as Cayce Pollard’s aversive physical reaction to certain brand logos and icons in William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition. Following Ngai’s lead, Aaron Bady observes the “peculiar communicative efficacy of negative affect” in “Bartleby.” What gives these ugly feelings their peculiar efficacy is that they communicate with perfect clarity and precision without the subject’s ever once appearing compelled to make them intelligible. As with complaints of the body, one may not know the cause of upset but know very well from the fact of upset that something is deeply not right.

Physicians describe digestion as an autochthonous system of the human body, operating synchronously but not isomorphically with the workings of the brain and central nervous system. The gut-mind is capable in other words of “thinking” and delivering with clarity and authority conclusions that the mind-body may not (or not yet) be able to reach. The connection of these kinds of autonomic somatic response to Melville and “Bartleby” is not far-fetched: Ralph Savarese has a 2003 article [article pdf link] illustrating in “Bartleby” and “Cock-A-Doodle-Doo! (another story from 1853) Melville’s extensive engagement with contemporary medical texts that tie the pains of dyspepsia and other digestive complaints to the social ills of modernity. Resistance, like intolerance, is a potent reminder that while some things can be swallowed or stomached, some things simply can’t.

Of course, too much trust in judgments issued from a subjective point of view leaves one open to charges of solipsism based either on ignorance (as in the case of intolerance) or on the unexamined privilege of those who enjoy the liberty to consult, speak for, and act on their own feelings. Charges of snobbery, egotism, or privilege-blindness may be true enough in these circumstances, and are in any event inescapable when judgments are made from a partial (particular, embodied, human) standpoint. The Lawyer early on compares Bartleby’s behavior to that of “the meddlesome poet, Byron” — the implication clearly being that Bartleby’s resistance, his “prefer[ence] not to,” is of a lordly character, aristocratic in temperament and behavior, as if directly patterned after the mad-bad-and-dangerous-to-know poet himself.

But the charge of egotism seems somewhat beside the point here too, in Bartleby’s case as in Byron’s. After all, the stomach may function as the condition of mindedness — as Virginia Woolf famously remarked, one can’t do anything properly if the stomach isn’t satisfied and in good working order — but is not itself “minded” at all. Many of Byron’s protagonists, his Childe Harold and Don Juan and Sardanapalus, are epicurean characters for whom bodily and especially stomach upset is the marker of deep-seated political complaint, even or perhaps especially in circumstances where it is only peripherally perceived in these terms by the complainant. The hero Sardanapalus says, ” I hate all pain, / Given or received.” Whether this position can be made a basis for substantive political action is a question held in suspension and openly debated to the play’s tragic end.

For Byron (as later, in Savarese’s account, for Melville), the monism of body and world is principally inscribed through the digestive organs. Indigestion is Byron’s figure for the body that registers and reacts against social ills and excesses, including those of the individual. In a late canto of Don Juan, indigestion gives the lie to the philosopher George Berkeley’s fantasy of “universal egotism”:

For ever and anon comes Indigestion,
(Not the most ‘dainty Ariel’) and perplexes
Our soarings with another sort of question (11:1-13)

Byron does not disclose *what* question or what sort of question, exactly, proceeds from indigestion; in putting the stomach and mind in a relationship of continued mutual “perplexity”, though, he makes clear that our mental “soarings” remain responsive and ultimately answerable to thought’s material ground.

I’m fascinated by but not especially invested in declaring a side in current philosophical debates about whether powerful emotions such as disgust have a propositional content or depend on prior ideas or beliefs. (For a good summary account of these debates, adjudicating carefully between opposing viewpoints, see Carolyn Korsmeyer, Savoring Disgust, chapter 1.) Like Ngai, I’m interested to think in more pragmatic terms about how everyday responses of disgust, recoil, and intolerance could be more widely reclaimed for political thought and action. To ask how irritation, exasperation, and intolerance might give new energy to political resistance is to revisit more explicitly the agenda of an older generation of critical theorists too. Herbert Marcuse’s essay “Repressive Tolerance,” his contribution to the volume A Critique of Pure Tolerance with Robert Paul Wolff and Barrington Moore Jr. (1965), closes with the extraordinary assertion that the left should make available for politics not less intolerance, but more. Where the ideology of tolerance fortifies rather than upsets the status quo, Marcuse reasons, the cultivation of informed and “militant” intolerance is an essential facet of resistance. Marcuse calls in the 1968 postscript to this essay for “minorities intolerant, militantly intolerant and disobedient to the rules of behavior which toleration destruction and suppression.” Marcuse finds this militant intolerance to be an action of the minority, heroic virtually on that basis alone. It is an exercise of political will, the expression of an irresistable impulse to seek freedom wherever people are unfree.

Affect theorists have in the last decade made considerable progress toward understanding how a range of everyday, mostly involuntary affects including anger, dissatisfaction, and depression might differently ground a politics in theory or practice. The more recent work of Ngai and others enters productively into dialogue with the tradition of left cultural criticism to which Marcuse’s work obviously belongs. (See, in addition to Ngai’s Ugly Feelings, Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint; Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness; Ann Czetkovich’s scholarly-activist work on depression as a public and political feeling; Rei Terada’s work on a condition she calls “phenomenophilia,” the perverse attachment to transient perceptual phenomena, in Looking Away). More in line with this recent work, my notes here don’t make a call to action outside the potentially momentous acknowledgement of many actions already underway — forms of resistance more voluptuary, intolerant, and far more widespread than one might expect. Think of the most everyday revulsions and distastes — the daily irritations, effusions of biliousness, splenetic episodes — that punctuate a normal day: rush hour traffic, terrible drivers, oblivious pedestrians, the press of bodies on the street or public transport; interminable lines; bosses, toadyism, manipulators, assholes generally; some idiocy or other on the internet; frustration at one’s own body and physical appearance (often a submerged complaint against the fashion and beauty industries and the impossible standards they support). Think of all the things one would prefer not to do, and surely wouldn’t do if not doing so didn’t (as it did for Bartleby and many Occupiers) carry the threat of certain punishment and reprisal. The condition of being repelled by the world is not an exception any longer, but the rule — “Shit is Fucked Up and Bullshit.” The consensus generated from this great seething irritable mass may be the unacknowledged (possibly unacknowledgeable) ground for more particular individual acts of resistance and rebellion that are more readily identified as acts of political resistance and disobedience, whether civil or not.

 

Postscript:
This book comes out in October, and while on social media the title will doubtlessly inspire a lot of cheap jokes at Žižek’s expense, I’m curious to learn whether it has anything to say about the embodied politics of the “recoil” I describe here.

Lucky beggars

Lucky-Beggar-Wallet_21648-l

So a Chinese multimillionaire invited “1000 poor and destitute Americans” to lunch in Central Park with the promise that each would receive 300 dollars. Far short of the 1000 invited actually made it into the event venue: an estimated 200-250 were at the lunch (with many more in line left outside), and, surprise, nobody received a dime.

Chinese millionaire Chen Guangbiao performs magic tricks during a lunch he sponsored for hundreds of needy New Yorkers at Loeb Boathouse in New York's Central Park

Mr. Chen performing magic tricks for the audience in Central Park. (“Surprise! There’s nothing there!” [source])

The multimillionaire in question, Chen Guangbiao, introduced plans for this “charity luncheon” by running a full-page ad in the June 16 New York Times (below). The invitation was issued to the “poor and destitute” — a phrase that seems tautologous until one remembers the distinction, once in regular use and made popular by Jeremy Bentham, between the indigent and the “merely” poor. Chen wanted his philanthropy to reach only the most bad off, those who had nothing — as opposed to, say, the single working mother. (The article about the luncheon episode that ran in the Times this week does not link to the original advertisement.)

Chen ad NYT June 16 2014

Who could not have foreseen that this ill-conceived and thoughtlessly executed scheme would be a flop? One vexing and as far as I know under-reported aspect of this stunt is how the Times in effect gained twice from this situation: once in running the ad of a clown or madman or both, and a second time in covering his antics.

In any event the number of major news outlets covering the luncheon, microphones and cameras at the ready, suggest that Chen’s exercise in philanthropic self-promotion could have been served without paying a cent. What were all the reporters hoping or expecting to see at the event? Were they there to witness the train-wreck that would inevitably unfold? Or — a possibility maybe even worse to contemplate — did they show up to capture the exultation and gratitude, the rapturous looks on the faces of the individuals who gained entry to this odd spectacle and collected their promised $300?

The recurring image of society’s poorest somehow also blessed by fortune has it seems an irresistible attraction. The lucky beggar comes up so often and resides so durably in the public imagination that it is hard not to see this entity as serving the function of wish fulfillment. This figure escapes the common (also fictive) distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor; instead, it reflects a universe that is theoretically indifferent, in which rewards are handed out through luck alone. (In the universe of the lucky beggar, impoverishment by chance may be implied but certainly isn’t specified.) Success and failure are distributed randomly, and the condition of having or wanting money simply happens by happy accident — as if poverty is not, for many minority, rural, and other populations prepared and in cases virtually assured by the economic mechanisms that ensnare them. The lucky beggar sustains a fantasy, perhaps, that beggars would be so lucky that beggary or even poverty itself would cease to exist. Yet it also welcomes an “it could happen to anyone” mindset that may rather sustain than alleviate poverty in the long run.

Late in 2012 the “Lucky Beggar Wallet” was introduced for sale by CB2, the hipper and more affordable branch of the Crate and Barrel retail empire. CB2’s ad copy read: “Inspired by the iconic blue and white coffee cup often seen in the hands of New York City panhandlers, this quirky wallet begs to be seen.” The wallet was quickly pulled after public complaint, though it remains for sale online.

Lucky-Beggar-Wallet_21648-l

The Lucky Beggar Wallet episode has in common with Chen’s exercise in self-promoting philanthropy more than its spectacular misdelivery; both posit the same imaginary figure. In each case the failure to launch of these schemes became a newsworthy item in its own right — as if the potency of the lucky beggar fantasy extends to feelings of disappointed expectation at being deceived. (Disappointment may indeed be as intrinsic here as the incitements of illusory promise; Pity would be no more.)  A seductive but prohibitive fiction, the lucky beggar is an appealing prospect but also mostly banished from sight. Perhaps what America finds intolerable in this figure is not its patent falsehoods but its kernel of truth: that with so few sources of security available, anyone who has “made it” today can only consider themselves the beneficiaries of blind fortune (lucky beggars, of a sort). That poverty is no longer exceptional, but ordinary. That there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

 

*Thanks to @hystericalblkns for first bringing the Chen story to my attention.

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.

 

Of lightness (a likeness)

     If I had any intention in starting this blog (which is questionable), it was not to serve as a space for autobiography or memoir. But neither was it to present a record from which the autobiographical subject is entirely absent. Both principles, the inclusion of something which for want of a better term I’ll call “subjectivity,” and demurral from making self a world of its own, do not seem like positions I take so much as automatic and reflexive responses that are in a sense taken for me. All this to say that in the course of things on this blog I will describe what I see; and if doing this I also happen to describe facets of myself, so be it. (But if I start posting pictures of my late grandparents, please contact the authorities.)

     This past weekend I visited several New York City museums. It was intensely hot outside; inside, the crowds were overwhelming. In these crowded spaces I saw three current exhibitions that make light and the absence of light a central subject: James Turrell’s exhibition at the Guggenheim and two exhibitions on separate floors of the Whitney:  Hopper Drawing, pairing the sketches and finished canvases of Edward Hopper, and Robert Irwin’s Scrim Veil – Black Rectangle – Natural Light, a recreation of the 1977 exhibition in that space. The exhibitions by Turrell and Irwin are natural complements, as both artists are associated with the Light and Space movement originating in southern California in the late 1960s. Hopper’s use of light, his lifelong fascination with the properties and effects of light, is legendary.

     Each of these exhibitions is well worth seeing. To exhibit these works in summer, the season of sun and long hours of daylight, makes perfect thematic sense too. The Hopper exhibition is large and intricately curated, featuring two main types of work: preparatory drawings for his major paintings, paired with those iconic works; and free-standing sketches. This latter type of Hopper’s work (to me equally as exciting as the sketches for the famous canvases) contains early self-portraits, including several sketches of his hands, occasionally bearing the tools of the artist’s trade; of his wife Josephine, portrayed tenderly, or at times with frank eroticism; of New England, Gloucester and coastal Maine (among other places), its architecture and bleak natural beauty. The centerpieces of James Turrell’s exhibition are the installation pieces, including the site-specific installation Aten Reign (2013), which fills the space of the Guggenheim rotunda in concentric circles of colored LED light. A separate room contains Turrell’s works on paper, each lit from above by a powerful spotlight, creating impressions of stark whiteness on a dark surface, as in an image backlit, or illuminated from within. Robert Irwin’s Scrim Veil is simplest of the three exhibitions, consisting of one large installation, but may to my mind be the most powerful of the bunch. The Scrim Veil is Irwin’s name for the diaphanous barrier that extends across the upper two thirds of a large museum room (the “Black Rectangle” of the title), which it cuts in half along its length. This barrier is solid at its narrow base of steel and wood (most spectators will need to duck to pass from one side of the room to the other), but its sheer vinyl plane is partially transparent as it rises to the ceiling, illuminated across its surface by the natural light that makes the third element of the title.

     I take away from these exhibitions a single, simple impression, a retinal afterimage of sorts, of light in an empty (or near-empty) room:

Edward Hopper’s “Sun in an Empty Room” (1963)

Turrell’s “Meeting,” from the portfolio First Light (1989–90)


Robert Irwin’s Scrim Veil — Black Rectangle — Natural Light (1977).

 

Each of these images is marvelously resonant, evoking a sense of quiet and secular mysticism. That these spare, majestic, auratic works of light are also all creations of white men is not I think entirely incidental. What is it in these vacant illuminated spaces that tells of self? And why should that self be coded as a privileged one? Light is on one account impersonal and available to all: that the sun rises and sets on the good and evil alike is a notion as old as the Gospels (Matthew 5:45). But the enjoyment of sunlight is also of course a privilege. Light is not guaranteed to all, as the New York Times’ Real Estate section and Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” both clearly remind us:

Some are Born to sweet delight

Some are Born to sweet delight

Some are Born to Endless Night

It is in the nature of privilege that its lack is more clearly specified than its possession. Light confers visibility on objects, but the possession or enjoyment of light (e.g. as whiteness) is itself less visible than its absence. To be “Born to sweet delight” (the language of inheritance is unmistakable here) is to be born to space and light in plenty — the vacant sovereignty of privilege, the room of one’s own. The object of privilege is here clearly pronounced in Blake’s powerful lines (“delight” / “de light”) and conspicuously absent from it.

     Formless and contentless, the medium of light focuses attention to a great degree on the act of seeing itself. One way of putting this is to say that the vacant space invites introspection. But the dark room penetrated by beams of light is one of Locke’s prominent metaphors of mind too. The vacant and illuminated interior, far from representing a site of extreme impersonality, can thus represent a sublime figure of Mindedness in its own right. Such a figure is evident in Hopper’s Sun in an Empty Room (1963). A late work, Hopper’s painting removes the solitary human figure that most often appears in his interiors, leaving the geometrical play of light and shade in a straw-colored room (“outside” is represented by a single windblown tree seen through the window). The painting verges on abstraction, but it is no less inclined to narrative than other of his great canvases — only the narrative subject is more obviously Hopper himself. The painting lays bare, theatrically as in other of his great works, the principle that has animated his life’s work. (“All I really want to do is paint light on the side of a house.”) When asked what he was after in creating the painting, Hopper said, “I’m after ME.”

    Of the three artists, Turrell is most explicit that what one sees as a spectator of his light-based art is in large part nothing other than perception itself. So too, the exhibition struck me as most willing of the three to invite association between the artist’s work and the fiat lux of the creator. At the exhibit, one woman within earshot had a brief exchange with another about the spiritual feeling that Turrell’s light works instilled in her. I felt at once the deep truth of the sentiment and embarrassed to overhear it.