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.

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