Tuesday, November 03, 2009

WORKING NOTES: INTELLIGIBILITY OF CONFLICT


At the Steak-A-Licious sub shop on Main Street in Buffalo the irony is twofold. The door entering into the shop is flanked on either side by large storefront windows. On the window to the left we encounter a hand-painted steak sandwich with the word "Steak-A-Licious" above it and "Buffalo's Best" below. To the right is a portrait of Obama with a view of the Capital Building over his right shoulder. The words below Obama read, "STEAKS / 2 for $8.00." Further to the right we see Obama's campaign catchphrase: "YES WE CAN!"

Two cheese steaks for eight dollars is a surprisingly good deal, but the newsprint pasted behind the image of Obama and his catchphrase quickly transforms this "can" into an especially painful "can't." The shop's location — literally on Main Street — further intensifies the ironic intelligibility of the phrase. Next to this even the most outrageous détournement strategies are kid stuff.

The fifth rigorously revised and exponentially enlarged edition of The Oxbridge Complainion to Hummerican Anglisc posits that economic contexts for the fricative /r/ reside in springwells of power. Cowboys /r/ hard. But the dialectically inverted sliding tax scale insists Lyndon Johnson's Texarkkkana /r/ is structurally coeval with the /r/ discovered by linguistic anthropologists in the shit-stained shanties inhabited by Roscoe Holcomb in Hazard, Kentucky and Hazel Adkins in Boone County, West Virginia. Even more troubling, the Complainion fails to account for the silent but nonetheless savory /r/ in the cramped urban Po' Boy (a gRindeRRR) or the spacious iveyleague luxury sedan referred to by yokels as Ha'va'd, Massacheussetts.

Bluntly: this ain't no joke. Or, Why Marx? Since the rise of Marxism coincides with the ascendancy of the oil industry perhaps it should be scrapped in a gradual and whimpering manner as dependency on oil slowly gives way to other forms of energy production. Unfortunately, a shift in commodity (energy) production already fails to promise a commensurate shift in class difference — i.e. market-driven commitments to solar power rhyme ideologically with passive zen-like imperatives to just be happy (viz, bright sunny smiles in fields of swaying wheat invite us to calm down, take a step back, love one another and purchase products manufactured by solar energy). Put differently, single mothers exchanging WIC tickets for grape soda on the way home from a double at the slop barrel really should feel badly for Richard Cory. Like Jon Gosselin, he had everything and still he hung himself.

When not reduced to a quaintly charming but otherwise disposable "interpretive lens" for reading culture, invoking Marxism speaks to capital with an impressive measure of stubborn clarity. It insists (quixoticity notwithstanding): This really is a pitchfork.

Althusser and Jameson each offer useful and curiously compatible working definitions of a Marxism that provide ample wiggle room for climbing out of orthodox commitments to economic determinism, the base/superstructure model, the teleology rabbit hole and other troubling stumbling blocks that have allowed critics to toss baby and bucket out with the bathwater.

Althusser: ... Marxism should not be simply a political doctrine, a 'method' of analysis and action, but also, over and above the rest, the theoretical domain of a fundamental investigation, indispensable not only to the development of society and of the various 'human sciences', but also to that of the natural sciences and philosophy (For Marx 26).

Jameson: — I would prefer to grasp Marxism as something rather different than a philosophical system (incomplete or not). I believe that it shares, uniquely with psychoanalysis in our time, the character of an as yet unnamed conceptual species one can only call a 'unity of theory and practice', which by its very nature and structure stubbornly resists assimilation to the older philosophical 'system' as such (foreword to the second vol. of Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason xiii).

In their brevity and vagueness both definitions leave a crawlspace for contingency and invite expanding the field of investigation. Weirdly, however, each allows the elephant in the room to go unnamed. But if there's any confusion make no mistake: for both Althusser and Jameson the name of the enemy is clear.

Claude Lévi-Strauss died today. A related passage from Structural Anthropology:

... as soon as the various aspects of social life — economic, linguistic, etc. — are expressed as relationships, anthropology [&c &c &c] will become a general theory of relationships. Then it will be possible to analyze societies in terms of the differential features characteristic of the systems of relationships that define them.

Structures of kinship. Relatedness. Any relationship can be imagined as a blood tie.

My daughter sleeps best when we drive. When she fusses and seems sleepy but resists sleep we drive. We drive all over Buffalo and when I need a smoke while she snoozes I pull over, step out and spark up, looking in on her while I quickly suck down a cigarette. The disjunctive leap from the opulent stone mansions we drive by along the Lincoln Parkway, near the Albright-Knox, to the dilapidated hovels west of Grant Street or on the East Side of the city persistently astound me. However boring, intellectually unsophisticated or simply mundane calling attention to the disparity might be, radical economic differentiation from one neighborhood to another is nonetheless palpable and lived. According to a 2007 Census Bureau report, Buffalo is the second poorest large city in the US.

She hasn't gotten a handle on consonants yet, but the range of wildly inflected vowel sounds my daughter utters daily is something to behold. At four and a half months she is still without language. Unlike her mother and I, she is also without or prior to linguistic difference. She has no /r/ yet. What is at stake is the almost undetectable difference between an oil mogul's gritty Texarkana /r/ and the comparably hard /r/ located in a forty-a-month Kentucky shack or the similarly callous but distant /r/ in a Paterson project complex. Clearly the line in the sand ain't reducible to this alone but certainly a determinate pea in the pod of Hummerican Anglisc.

In the appendices to the "second volume" of Sartre's Critique there's what appears to have been a hastily sketched note on his theory of totalization (a concept a little too complex to parse here). In the note Sartre addresses mass culture, focusing on radio and television, insisting — like Gramsci, Laclau, Jameson, Zizek &c &c &c have with markedly different conceptual tools — that mass culture is ideologically bourgeois in character:

That means the dominant class finds a new means of diffusing its own ideology (i.e. the practical justification of its praxis) ... The part provokes the contradiction by posing as the whole (universal culture). This is called 'integrating one's working class'. But this integration is false, because it gives a culture of the advantaged to men [and women?] who remain disadvantaged. It gives the enjoyment of luxury by sight, rather than by lived reality. There is a working-class and peasant culture that is prevented from emerging or developing. Hence, a contradiction between the universal and the class divide. The latter being deeper and more definitive. However, even as the universal veils the struggle, this is a superficial unification which brings out more clearly the reality of the contradiction (bourgeois culture is exposed, as soon as the workers go back to work).

Admittedly this passage is just par for the course. Sartre's more fundamental contributions reside in his theorizations of scarcity, totality and, according to Jameson, the via media he navigates between idealism and materialism. But the passage calls my attention to two restaurants, one just around the corner on Forrest Ave going east and the other on Forrest Ave going west. Both were within walking distance. One was a small coffee shop admirably stripped bare of all the feel-good hypersentimental-but-youthfully-edgy illusion-of-fair-trade fluff. The other was the first fried chicken joint not KFC in the neighborhood. Both closed within two months of opening and I imagine both disasters were built on small business loans. Vacations are permitted before returning to work but they must be paid for. And I'm not so sure bourgeois culture is adequately exposed when the workers punch the clock. They might be bitter, they might have difficulty coping with the impossibility of being-your-own-boss and extending the vacation indefinitely, but it seems gratuitous or naive to insist any fundamental contradiction becomes patently clear in the return to work. A worker might assign accountability for a failed business scheme to the local economy, the neighborhood, poor business practices, or simply their own inability to "dig deep" for the pluck and determination essential to success — anything but the fundamental structure of the market.

Working people often hate themselves. Measured against the success of working families in mass culture, they know in advance they were never worthy. Even Rosanne's Dan managed to get a bike repair shop off the ground.

There's an /r/ in there somewhere and no one /r/ is ever quite like any other. South of the mesa there's a rolling leaf-blower /r/ hitherto undocumented and markedly different from Felipe Calderón's tumbling /r/. The absence of an /r/ of any stripe is baby talk. The adults are speaking.

O Fatthe' I gitten cowd
I kin sca'ce tawk

And ain't it a fucking riot when working people struggle to will away the busted texture of their devalued downhome speech in the company of highly ain'tchumacated professionals. The gesture is a reliable measuring rod that tells us there will be no riot. The practice proceeds as follows: 1. the voice is lowered; 2. speech is ground down to a snail's pace; 3. inflected tell-tale vowels are carefully reined in; 4. painstaking consonantal annunciation negates the calm dignity of a raised head and unswerving eyes, giving the perpetually shifting home-team advantage to whichever physician, loan officer, educator, officer of the law, gubernatorial candidate, bank teller, telemarketer, retail associate, or high sheriff of shit blood and filth the peasant encounters. At such moments the /r/ is dropped, acquired or hammered out with a flattening iron as needed.

Eliza Doolittle's a good girl. Her Cockney's no less London than Surrey. And she's no Liza Jane.

Today I feel the usefulness of subsemantic utterance while my daughter lives its potential — a brief moment before forms of cultural and economic belonging are inscribed on her vocal chords. The /r/ I offer her through repetitive exposure is in part a determinate one. In cahoots with other factors on a complex field of play this /r/ assumes a decidedly partisan position. One thing to be aware of this. Another to pass the exhaust fumes billowing from your linguistic torch downwind to your child.

Any away-game disadvantage can be recast as an against-the-odds salt-of-the-earth badge of honor. Mass culture, bourgeois in character, in fact encourages this. Such pride guarantees the beautiful losers a very specific relation to power. Remember the backside of the Alamo. Or Daniel Defoe on the Northumbrian /r/ in his 1764 Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain:

... the natives of this country ... are distinguished by a shibboleth upon their tongues, namely, a difficulty in pronouncing the letter r, which they cannot deliver from their tongues without a hollow jarring in the throat, by which they are plainly known ... and the natives value themselves upon that imperfection, because, forsooth, it shews the antiquity of their blood.

Difficulty. But the trouble rolls far beyond the beaten-to-death debates around Received Pronunciation and Standard English and in the Anglophone wo'ld rhoticity cuts across vertical social relations. Again and again, Po' Boys don't go to Ha'va'd.

Whurled or trilled (never in Ourmerican Hinglish), rolled or run through, /r/ can never be framed as a single shooter (i.e. the monophthongization — retraction of dipthongs — occurring before /r/ in labial environs, as in Northern England and isolated perts of the US). And like a shape-shifting comic book character /r/ transforms itself across time as the flesh of our throats moves through the world, from one location to another, one party to another, from home to job to street. A slippery character that discloses its masked identity and betrays the throat that spits it out when we least expect it, the /r/ economically embedded in us lays itself bare to the world in moments of reckless abandon, when we are most ourselves.

Sartre: "Stress the existence of the interiorized Other in everyone."

Small businesses, they say, are the backbone of Harmerica: the industrially-processed chemically-saturated chicken soup that feeds the sole. Shitheel. Be hardpressed to find a working slob that don't want to be their own boss. Elizabeth I'm coming home. When the workers return to work. Liza is a diminutive of Elizabeth. Not Donald Trump as such but a Donald Trump writ small. Archie Bunker eventually had his own place. Fred Sanford was forever the king of his own castle. Earl Hickey doesn't work at all. My Name Is Earl. There's clearly an /r/ in this title. Fortunately my daughter's name is not Elizabeth. There's no /r/ in Elizabeth. Nor is there an /r/ in my daughter's name. But the /r/ in praxis is unmistakably present. The pitchfork component of praxis is indispensable.