A Void.

The Creator was listening to Eric Clapton, which should interest nobody, not even Clapton, and then Clapton started singing “Nobody knows you when you’re down and out”, and this got the Creator thinking deeply, again, possibly a first in history for Clapton.
That song is pretty clearly a Depression-era song (“Bought bootleg liquor, champagne and wine” locates it in Prohibition). It’s a bit more cheerful than the whining “Buddy, can you spare a dime?” but it has the same message: once you were all right, now you’re a nobody, and God knows when you’ll get back on your feet again. A lot of the gangster movies of the era, like Little Caesar, had essentially the same message (although at the command of the censors, all the gangsters had to get killed in the end). Meanwhile, even the pabulum of Ginger and Fred contained a message which paralleled this; enjoy yourself while you can. (“High hats and coloured collars/White spats and fifteen dollars/Spending every dime/For a wonderful time”).
So what the Creator thought was this: what has the cultural impact of the Depression been this time? Where is the radical iconography? Where are the haunting melodies in response to it? Where the defiant architecture? Where the theorizing?
The answer, bloody hell, seems to be “Ain’t none”. The popular music scene is every bit as vapid as Ginger and Fred (although, with due respect, people can’t dance quite as well even if they have prettier bodies to throw around — only Fafblog appears to have noticed the remarkable resemblance between Fred Astaire and Barack Obama) but there’s no visible depression-era content to it. The books which are being written are, for the most part, vastly less interesting than, say, Hemingway (to take an example of someone whom everyone agrees is overrated, so it is easy to make comparisons). The contemporary cultural icon, the blog/Twitter feed, contains nothing of interest at all on this matter. Movies? Visual art? Theory? Look away, look away. (Slavoj Zizek tells us we are living in the end-times because capitalism doesn’t work any more. No, Slavoj, there are alternatives to capitalism. If we are living in the end-times it will be because there are no alternatives to the natural resources we have used up. But there probably will be, for some of us at least.) You might argue that hip-hop is an exception, addressing the real world, but hip-hop is addressing a fantasy world which it created for itself two decades ago; the world may have decayed so much that reality is starting to look like hip-hop’s fantasies, but this does not make Kanye West a prophet.
What is accounting for this void at the heart of consciousness? One factor may, quite simply, be that culture no longer fulfils the function which it did even thirty years ago. In the latter days of apartheid South African culture was politicised, not because there was money in politicised culture, but because the public paid more attention to politicised culture; an artwork like “Butcher Boys”, a song like “Sit Dit Af”, could attract attention where less politicised artifacts simply looked irrelevant. (It did happen that the politicised culture of the time turned out immensely more lasting than the depoliticised culture, in part because the people producing depoliticised culture were essentially running away from a reality which they could not truly avoid. They tended to be the inferior producers who felt that their material would succeed because officialdom liked it.)
Nowadays those inferior producers are at the top of the pile because officialdom likes them, puts up the money and sponsors them, and encourages critics and intellectuals to praise them (or to blame them for stupid reasons). Or, to be precise, because nobody else gets a look-in. There is still interesting music and art out there, but it is on the fringes. More to the point, in the past, the fringes were the centre; the place where you looked for the avant-garde.
Again, the Creator was reading William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition and meditating on precisely what a lost, hopeless person Gibson had become. Gibson’s central character in that text is a rather pathetically ineffectual female geek with serious psychiatric issues who is also, implausibly, a “coolhunter”, a person working for marketing and advertising companies fulfilling the task of identifying new elements of popular culture which might possibly be profitable. Ironically, Gibson presents this person as desirable and attractive, rather than loathesome and contemptible, perhaps because Gibson is himself a geek without a cause and therefore seeks to see some outlet for geekishness which is both intrinsically positive and applauded by the establishment. The contradiction is obvious. (The book was written two years after Naomi Klein’s No Logo blew the whistle on such practices as the ones Gibson favours.)
Now, perhaps this points the way. Not a good way. The way is to see the world as one where everything original is immediately commodified where possible, and where the process of commodification is so privileged that originality, or any intrinsic merit, falls away entirely. Where the value of an activity derives entirely from its commercial potential. It is a very familiar world, isn’t it?
But then, in this world, the one where we live, it becomes actually almost impossible to distinguish cultural activity managed for profit, from cultural activity undertaken out of an expression of individual or collective psychic desire. It also becomes, therefore, almost impossible to introduce anything into the system which does not correlate with profit management. The point being that Gibson’s iconoclastic “coolhunter”, who has a psychological allergy to brandnames, is a contradiction in terms; in the real world she would simply appropriate whatever she thought might be commercially viable and turn it into a brandname, and she would do so as quickly and easily as possible. In other words, genuine art on the edge would be immediately discarded as unnecessarily difficult to brand; what would be more easily appropriated would be what would be most familiar.
Therefore, the reason why our culture does not actually reflect the social conditions of our existence is that the people who stump up the money to promote cultural activities are not interested in those social conditions. Now, this is not altogether the case, but only because sometimes social conditions can be marketable. Pornography, for example, is quite sensitive to social conditions. So is some elements of political branding — an example being the Tea Party in the United States, which is an attempt to appropriate social discontent and, thanks to the ignorance and prejudice of those who feel discontented, make use of it for the political gain of a portion of the people who are responsible for the conditions which led to that discontent. But clearly that is not a reflection of those social conditions; instead, both are appropriations of reflections of those social conditions. Popular culture is by definition controlled and marketable culture.
Now, you might also say, so what else is new? Well, one new thing is the degree of penetration. Another new thing is the extent of appropriation. When Elvis started out he was quite alarming; then he was appropriated. When the Beatles started out, however, they were an already-appropriated commodification of rock’n’roll which suddenly became subversive — even though it did not stop being commodified. In other words, it was possible for those who had been appropriated to undermine the system in spite of that. (Ditto Johnny Cash. Ditto Edith Piaf.) On the other hand, can the same really be said about Brenda Fassie? Certainly it can’t be said about Aryan Kaganof. These are people who are either deliberately constructing themselves for appropriation, or who are extremely open to appropriation in spite of themselves because the cultural system is much more capable of taking your image and making use of it for themselves.
Ouch — that’s painful. It means that rebellion could be easily turned into money, as the Clash complained about while taking money, of course. But there’s another side to it — which is the discrediting of the act of rebellion. You look at Lady Gaga and, oddly enough, nobody sees her as a rebel. They see her as a calculated marketing tool; whether the tool is making use of the system or whether the system is making use of the tool is not interesting. And, therefore, when you wish to rise up in rebellion, you will most certainly not use cultural methods, because culture is part of the system. Everything is part of the system. Therefore it is impossible to revolt. Therefore, stay home in bed.
People have not read Baudrillard, thanks be to Zarathustra, but they are acting as passively if they have. The silence of the cultural lambs as they wait for the knife? Or do they hope the knife will never come? If so, they hope in vain.


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