Monday, December 27, 2010

Work

"First of all, we think the world must be changed. We want the most liberating change of the society and life in which we find ourselves confined. We know that such a change is possible through appropriate actions."

Industrial Music for Post-Industrial People

Industrial Records Ltd. opens its doors in 1976, the same year that Milton Friedman won a Nobel Prize and as the Industrial Common Ownership Act, and four years after DJ Kool Herc pioneers the "Merry-Go-Round" technique. Three years later, 1979, sees the release of Throbbing Gristle's 20 Jazz Funk Greats, the election of Margaret Thatcher to Prime Minister and the appointment of Paul Volcker as Chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank, and Rapper's Delight.

"Industrial Music for Industrial People," then, of course, comes exactly at the moment that industrial society ceases being a relevant term. Certainly this doesn't mean that there are no more industrial people for whom to make industrial music (or to have industrial music made by); but that that music was being made at the same time as Thatcher took her first tentative steps towards a program of asset-stripping that would be one of the major symbols of an economic turn to a post-industrial society can't be unimportant.

What interests me about this, in light of what I'm about to try to talk about, is the way in which "Industrial" can be collapsed into "work." Obviously this isn't all there is to it, and I hope to go more into it somewhere else, but in my opinion Industrial provides the model for representing work in art that continues to prevail today.

What I'm interested in is something I've been thinking about as something like the work of representing non-work. In some sense the opposite of Castiglione's sprezzatura, this is about the way an explicit rejection of work (or the productions within a piece that themselves signify work) becomes the dominant mode of doing work.

The connection between rap and industrial music stretches as far back as Afrika Bambaataa's sampling of Kraftwerk before the genre had even established itself as such. As rap became a, and then the, dominant commercial force within the music industry, it continued flirting with the industrial aesthetic. And while the aesthetic influence goes in and out of style, or can better be tracked along the lines of individual artists, the ideological connection between the two of them lies in the way that rap appropriates and alters industrial's work ethic. To speak ridiculously broadly, industrial models its work after the factory, from its acoustic environment to its refusal of the craftsman. Rap, I would argue, actually starts from the same place - the factory, where value is produced en masse with an unfailing, clanking regularity, out of the partial objects produced both there and elsewhere - but only with its rejection, in favor of the model of entrepreneurship.

Lil Boss

Skip forward to 2010, and our first object of inquiry; Lil B. His two most immediate and obvious predecessors, Lil Wayne and Soulja Boy, have been working hard at redefining rap for the new millenium. Lil Wayne's syrup-driven unwritten rhymes and mixtape glut combined with Soulja Boy's Internet presence and rejection of technical mastery. As soon as Lil B comes into existence in the minds of the public, he has already oversaturated, with new songs being released on a near-daily basis. Lil B extends the swag as work (or more specifically, affective labour) metaphor ("Hop up out the bed / turn my swag on / took a look in the mirror said what's up / awwww, get money, yeah") to its limits, as in his self-reference as a pretty boy/pretty bitch.

In the dichotomy which has always existed within hip hop, between the streets and the party, Lil B is clearly on the side of the streets, against T-Pain's party (now club) aesthetic; Lil B presents himself as grinding constantly, his wealth is in what he can use to alter his body (cars, jewelery, head), and he (at the broadest level) is engaging with the struggles of living as such. This is all in contrast to T-Pain, whose struggles are strictly delimited (whether they are the difficulties of picking up a bartender or dealing with biters), whose bodily alterations are the background to the wealth he is trying to procure,* and who presents himself as partying constantly. As with all other rappers whose primary imaginary space is the streets, this means that Lil B's primary signifier of his allegiance to the entrepreneur ethic is his grind/hustle. Which he, it must be said, works hard at maintaining. At the same time, however, he twists it, and this is where his non-work comes into play.

The concept of reproductive labour must come into play here. As Marx notes,
"The maintenance and reproduction of the working class is, and must ever be, a necessary condition to the reproduction of capital. But the capitalist may safely leave its fulfilment to the labourer’s instincts of self-preservation and of propagation. All the capitalist cares for, is to reduce the labourer’s individual consumption as far as possible to what is strictly necessary, and he is far away from imitating those brutal South Americans, who force their labourers to take the more substantial, rather than the less substantial, kind of food."
Through a series of complicated collapses, we can identify reproductive labour as the paradigm of non-work** in that it is a positive space within capitalism where the fundamental structure - labour is a commodity with an exchange-value which gets purchased with a wage in order that surplus-value may be produced - of work is negated.***

Feminist theorist Nina Power has argued, amongst others, that the Feminization of labour goes both ways; that is, not only do women become more and more interpolated into the field of labour, but also labour itself begins to take on qualities associated with feminine work.
Nina Power, One Dimensional Woman, 20

As the ultimate example of women's work, then, the broad shift towards reproductive labour, and the related field of affective labour, in a post-industrial society are what defines it.

The two terms that Power provides ('precarity' and 'communications-based') should already ring bells with anyone familiar with Lil B's work. The latter is precisely what is so uncanny about Lil B's hustle; everyone knows that advertising is in many ways what the hustle boils down to, and certainly it would be a stretch to argue that rap isn't communication-based from the outset. What makes Lil B's grind seem so estranged yet familiar is, I think, not a reflection of the content of the work, but of the model on which the work is based; instead of the entrepreneur's need for communication, what we have with Lil B is basically the affective labourer/service worker's need for communication. One imagines that Lil B probably doesn't have a meticulously compiled e-mail list, or a release schedule designed to optimize his quarterly earnings. What he does have, however, is a web presence wherever he is allowed to, with a few more-or-less central spots, such as his website and his twitter and his youtube, any (or all) of which you can go to to keep up to date with his never ending blitz of media output.

Precarity in rap is, on the other hand, something which is often alluded to but rarely seems real; no matter how much Dr. Dre may've insisted we forgot about him in 1999, no one really believed that he was going to lose his job - just that he was doing it worse (to all of you who said I turned pop / or the Firm flopped / y'all are the reason that Dre ain't been getting no sleep). On the other hand, Lil B resides within the permanent impermanence of the Internet, and the question of whether or not he's going to end up a meme remains wide open.

Art of Uff

2010 also saw the release of Uffie's debut album Sex Dreams and Denim Jeans, in which she presents herself as the consummate non-worker. Whether she's saying "Me and my myspace with only three tracks a year, and they still talk about me?" or "I'm an entertainer / not a lyricist," it is hard to miss the fact that she has no interest in presenting herself as possessing any sort of work ethic.

If it can be said that what Uffie does is exactly the opposite of staying on her grind, then it must also be noted that she neither fully coheres with the contemporary party aesthetic in rap. There is, actually, a real way she harks back to the original role of the MC; she is not there to add to the music a sense of space and narrative, but to be the master of ceremonies, to move the crowd. This is in contrast to T-Pain's role, which is very much to imagine the club. The biggest departure from this is a song like ADD SUV, where not only is the imaginary space a car, but the ontological reality is that it's impossible to imagine anything, much less a club.

As discussed earlier, the paradigm of non-work, reproductive labour, would seem to be what Uffie embodies (even to the point of suggesting that "What I cook for my husband" is one of the topics her fans are getting sick of hearing about) as the ultimate non-worker. Her affluence, of course, belies this, and it is here that we can identify how the reversal from a non-worker - someone whose work cannot be structurally recognized as such, and therefore who cannot be paid except through proxies - to someone who is paid not to work**** takes place.

The narrative of a disenfranchised individual being specially raised to a status where they have to do no work and still get rich is not new. What we might argue is actually new about this, in Uffie's case, is the sense she constantly gives off that, although she might not be working, nevertheless there is still work being done.

The Work of the Novel

If it is the job of the writer to produce books, and the novelists, novels, then the work that the novelist does, in the popular conscious at least, can be broken down to two points. The first is a style, which is generally perceived as the less important of the two as it is supposed to be intrinsic to, or constitutive of, the novelist. The second is the creation of characters.

Tao Lin's 2010 novel, Richard Yates, takes both of these things as its point of departure. The pared-down, minimalist, "lazy" style of the novel is perhaps its most contentious point. Its refusal to do anything more than describe exactly and precisely what is happening in the moment that it happens undermines Modernist assumptions that the ethical novel is the novel that represents interiority in all its complexity, especially in that it itself seems to make the case that its approach is, in fact, the ethical one. And as the equation of the creation of relatable, round characters can, in at least its current configuration, be traced back to this assumption, it is doubly important.

The style also presents itself as transparent, at least insofar as it seems like it requires no work. No one but a parodist could wax poetic over the agony and beauty of Tao Lin's perfect craftsmanship in rendering Haley Joel Osment in all his glory with a neutral facial expression.

Naming the characters Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning seems to me to best be explained along these lines as well. That is, as a refusal to work according to another of the dominant models of fiction writing. In this case, however, what seems to me to be being flouted is not the Modernist tradition, but the dual traditions of memoir and realism. If realism is, as Lukacs would have it, concerned with representing the objective conditions which create modern subjectivity rather than just representing that subjectivity, and memoir is concerned with affording the reader apparently unmediated access into the memories of the author, then taking the names of child celebrities for no reason is basically a way of blocking both of these things. With this move, the mediation rears its ugly head into view, and also the sense that what we're seeing described is in some way a totality is also banished.

What we're left with, then, is a sort of Brechtian realism, completely with the Verfremdungseffekt of interpolated celebrity names, but crucially lacking the didacticism which spawns from Brecht's worldview.*****

With even the ideological work of the novelist jettisoned, Tao Lin emerges as the perfect non-worker, recuperable only through reference to his advertising stunts.

Situations

Perhaps, in lieu of a proper conclusion, where I propose a positive political programme or synthesize this analysis into a tactical endorsement or whatever, you will allow me instead to end with a turn backwards. To before Industrial music, with the greatest theorists against work, the Situationists.

Perhaps what I've been describing can be reduced to Raoul Vaneigam's distinction between work and creativity, and the way in which the former necessarily suppresses the latter.

And perhaps the beauty of Tao Lin's marketing stunts is that it is more in line with the practice of creating situations; and Lil B may turn out to be the greatest psychogeographer of the Internet.

I suppose that, ultimately, what I want to suggest is that, for those of us who really want to think of alternatives to the way the world is today, these are things worth thinking about in our attempts to construct a real counter-system.

It makes me sick
How they do these girls
I'm not perfect
but I still try to save the world.




*This distinction, of course, mirrors the distinction between C-M-C and M-C-M', which is pretty neat. Don't read too much into it though. To turn Lil B into the capitalist and T-Pain into a prole would be as easy as analogizing Lil B's music to outsourcing, as he endlessly pushes out the actual work until it is forced to be done by his listeners, while T-Pain enforces a delimited, concrete working space (which happens to be the real world's most visible and profitable playing space) and doing his work within it.
**This is non-work, of course, not in the sense of "that which is other than work," but as that which specifically negates the value of work.
***Negated meaning, here, far from undermining, something actually much closer to idealized.
****This is, of course, perhaps the best possible definition of "fame," maybe.
*****The obvious counterexample here is something like an Existentialist worldview, characterized by a stoic-yet-frantic acceptance of all things that are. I think Norman Mailer's 1957 essay The White Negro can serve as an explanation of why this philosophical system is important to the hipster, and also why it nevertheless doesn't represent a coherent worldview in the same way that something like Brecht's socialism does.

4 comments:

  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PbBgtkc4F2w&feature=player_embedded

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  2. Benjamin Gaylord GabrielDecember 27, 2010 at 5:27 PM

    I will read all of this right now I promise

    ReplyDelete
  3. Benjamin Gaylord GabrielDecember 27, 2010 at 7:13 PM

    http://img593.imageshack.us/img593/6921/r8318251185456887.jpg

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  4. Anyone interested in following up on my discussion of Lil B, there's a really good conversation going on on Sole's message board http://soleone.org/board/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=17328

    ReplyDelete