Monday, August 13, 2007

Hitler's Record Collection

If you click on this link, you will read a very silly article about the recent coming-to-light of Hitler's record library, saved by Russian officers at the end of World War II. The main contention of the article is this:

The pillaged recordings, taken by a Red Army officer after Berlin fell in May 1945, show that Hitler was a hypocrite as well as a monster.

This rests on the following contradiction:
1) Hitler forbade his followers to listen to anything other than German composers. Even jazz was banned as "negro swamp music" and orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic were forbidden from playing anything other than Teutonic classics. The rest Hitler labelled "sub-human music."
2) But the discovery of the recordings of Russians and Jews show that Hitler did not practice what he preached to his people.

In the most obvious way, Hitler does not need this very mild character assassination. Moreover, I don't even see the apparent contradiction.

1) In Nazi ideology, "Russians and Jews" is hardly an umbrella category as used in this article.
2) Thus, we see Tchaikovsky (Russian) but NOT Mendelssohn or Mahler (Jews).
3) There is no demonstration in the article that Hitler was even being hypocritical (its main claim): he only (informally?) prohibited "his followers" (what category is that??) from listening to Jewish and Russian music. And when? During the non-aggression pact with Russia? The article's main point about Jews is that these records had Jewish soloists playing on them--- ought he to have exhaustively researched this before having his secretary buy his albums? I hardly see how this qualifies as hypocrisy (a charge we hardly need lay at Hitler's door).
4) Hitler's comment on jazz music is a complete non-starter: there is no jazz in his collection. Further, OF COURSE THE BERLIN PHILHARMONIC IS NOT GOING TO PLAY JAZZ MUSIC.

In short, it must have been a slow news day for these items to cause a stir:
  • Hitler owned no music by Jewish composers
  • Hitler listened to Tchaikovsky

I include this here because this is a blog about taste, under which "record collections" certainly fall, but clearly I intend something else here as well (as perhaps indicated in the last post, about race and taste). What impulse is behind the charge of "hypocrisy" in this innocuous and obvious event? I offer the following:
  • A relentless fascination with the unfathomable "personal life" of Adolf Hitler (in which we would trace his dubious lineage, his pathetic artistic aspirations, his perverted love life, and all other character assassination---again, complete overkill that leads to garbage like Norman Mailer's recent novel): the worst kind of historical investigation.
  • A strange desire which apparently cannot be helped to retroactively impose multiculturalism on a cultural climate that would not have comprehended it. Should this backwards, militaristic hick from Austria have listened to jazz music? To satisfy whom??? Surely the wry, misleading journalist of 2007 would not have been satisfied.
  • On the most banal level, a strange project to suggest the irresistible appeal of the censored, the banned, the underground, even when it (Tchaikovsky, banned Jewish composers) is music 90% of Americans would be unable to distinguish from Wagner. That is to say, the most insipid liberal self-congratulation on our openness and belief in the aesthetically subversive.
  • Finally, the bizarre double project of multiculturalism, which comes out in this article in strange ways: 1) to relativize and "tolerate" the culturally other, and 2) to make them "just like ourselves." AND most strangely, to bring HITLER into this project!!! So that he evidently could not resist the cultural products of the racially-other and against his better judgment indulged in these verboten albums. But doesn't this (perversely) make Hitler "human" and "tolerant"? (if we grant, which I don't, the premise of the article). For, if anything, making Hitler into a hypocrite here also makes him out to be lazily tolerant and lax on his dogma of anti-semitism.
In short, this is not just bad writing, boring, and astonishingly stupid, it is also offensively wrong-headed and finally makes of HITLER someone more or less "tolerant" and covertly multiculturalist!!

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Race and Taste

Here are two recent articles/reviews on this topic:
NY Times article on "nerds"
Shit-Fi review of "Vikings Invasion"

The unifying element of these two pieces is the idea that "cool"* can somehow be routed through an exclusively white cultural space--- one not premised on exploitation of black culture. Both punks and nerds are "traitors" to whiteness and the appropriation upon which "white youth cultures are founded" (Times).

The problem, of course, is that hyper-whiteness, or a total avoidance of other cultures, despite its neurotic apologism and OCD-style guilt avoidance, LOOKS a lot like cultural segregation. If punk is "honest" because it doesn't mimic black musicians in the manner of Mick Jagger, it is also disengaged from interaction with black people in America. Because punks tend to be middle-class white males, and black people tend to be neither middle-class white males nor punks, the "honesty" of distancing oneself from the (musical) culture of black America is itself an exercise of privilege that applauds itself while merely retreating into itself, reifying (albeit while ironizing) "whiteness."

[I should add that the Times article is extremely embarrassing, references phenomena that I have a hard time believing ("Saying 'blood' in lieu of 'friend'"), and makes no mention of Jews. Is not the supreme American nerd Woody Allen? Is "Whiteness" a category I am supposed to understand? Certainly the KKK is not "nerdy."]

Stuart Schrader's (who, I should say, is not without his nerdish qualities) review of a bootleg of a Swedish 70s hard-rock band thankfully is more about taste than identity, but also seems unable to overcome this central problem: Neither the appropriation of, nor the avoidance of, black cultural paradigms, is any indication of one's attitudes towards race. Let's pose this in terms of Mick Jagger and Kraftwerk. (We can also tie this to the other article, Jagger being clearly not-a-nerd and Kraftwerk obviously being nerds). Plenty of whack, probably-racist suburban frat boys listen to the Rolling Stones, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Red Hot Chili Peppers (white people) AND rap music (mostly black performers). THIS MEANS NOTHING. It has, of course, to be situated in mainstream culture and all its impossible-to-calculate determinations. No one would assert that listening to rap music means anyone has a more sympathetic or accurate idea of Black America. (Enter the phenomenon of the suburban "wigger," about which someone needs to write a book right away! I'm not joking.) The question seems to be, "If backwards, racist frat boys can listen to rap and black music with no shame of appropriation, *is it only this appropriation* that makes me unwilling to also listen to this music?" Mr. Schrader locates a foundational discomfort he feels about the blues. He wants to be "honest" and to be free from appropriating black culture, but sense that there is something else (an "essentializing imagination," I'll call it) that is part of that discomfort. I think there is no need to distinguish, psychically, between the two.

Are the Rolling Stones "based on cultural theft"? If you answer yes, you have to say the same about the entire history of art, a series of unacknowledged influences, appropriations, and even actual theft. To show the stakes of this answer, we then would have to re-assert the tired claim that RAP MUSIC is also "based on theft" (even more literally) because of its use of samples, which has been repudiated repeatedly.

There are experts who may want to chime in, but the very IDEA of artistic theft is a fairly-recent white capitalist notion of ownership that broadly corresponds to the idea of ownership-of-land which was used to "steal" our country from the native population. That is, the idea of ownership and the practice of theft go hand in hand. Thus, perhaps the *most "white" behavior* evidenced by these nerds is their reification of cultural property and intellectual copyright.

* on the idea of "cool," I think even hyper-nerds and the scroungiest punk are operating with an idea of cool, of social approval and distinction within their communities. That "nerd" is the opposite of the cool kid has never been tenable: Buddy Holly, Alan Ginsberg, Elvis Costello being the most obvious rebuttals. The nerd is cool within a certain framework. Thus, I think the article about nerds IS ultimately about a "cool whiteness," despite all of its protests contrariwise.