I’ve been reading Andrew Ross’s “Low Pay High Profile” and enjoying it very much, even in its earnestly worthy moments and tone. Am I getting mellow? Can’t say there is a huge amount of it that is going down as notes to use later, but it’s a good book and I’m glad to have put it on my reading list – and not only as compensation for the less favourable review of something else of his that you can find included in its text file pre-published version below.
So what am I doing resuscitating another old thing from the battered filing cabinet? Partly pressure of work means me posting here less often than I might like of late, partly it is to clear out that closet, and partly to refresh memories and a sense of a mission – this was a review of an important book. I had read Tricia Rose’s incredible “Black Noise” and so stumped up money for this one. Andrew Ross later went on to write the “Celebration Chronicles” which was based on a year or so of fieldwork in the Disney town of Celebration – a special kind of torture. Thing was, “Black Noise” and “Microphone Fiends” were part of the blackground for my own forays into the world of music and politics. This even led to my own editing adventures (Dis-Orienting Rhythms: the Politics of the New Asian Dance Music – eds Sharma, Hutnyk, Sharma). So the questions asked below to Ross were really questions asked to myself – what are you doing editing a book on music??
Well, that was then – the book I helped edit was published ten years ago this month, and so we are having a party (or a wake) to celebrate that fact – come along to the New Cross Inn on 17 November 06 – see the Dis-Orient X flyer Anamik has prepared. There is a workshop on beforehand at Goldsmiths to discuss the changed circumstances in which now the war of terror, the demonization of Muslims, and shoot to kill on the streets/tube etc etc all make the anti-racist, anti-imperialist themes of that book still more relevant, and more necessary to update, than ever.
[Other editing moments from the zone of “music and politics” included:
‘Music and Politics’ special issue of “Theory, Culture and Society” Vol 17 no 3, 2000 (co-ed Hutnyk and Sharma).
‘Music and Politics’ special issue of “Postcolonial Studies” Vol 1 no 3, 1998, (co-ed Hutnyk and Kalra).]
*Whaddayamean Cultural Studies? So hip it hurts to dance* by John Hutnyk (1994)
Review of Ross, Andrew and Rose, Tricia “Microphone Fiends: Youth Music, Youth Culture” Routledge: New York. 1994, 276 pages ISBN 0-41590908-2 (PB)
Andrew Ross – is he groovy or what? Is he just another one of those writers whose name seems to be always associated with the more interesting interventions in cultural politics, or is he a hyperreal self-cloning media machine? Either way he seems always to be at the forefront of each new fab fad presentation-volume of *culture-interests* to hit academic bookstore display tables. In the latest glossy version of this commodity form he begins his Introduction to the collection *Microphone Fiends: Youth Music, Youth Culture* with a very astute observation. Indeed an astonishing cultural paradox (ma-an). That a recent mainstream hip hop magazine Vibe (Time Publishing) offered “twelve lavish pages” of lifestyle advertising, followed, in one of those “bone-crunching contradictions of postmodern youth culture”, by a “swinging assault” on hip hop commercialism in a feature-length article (Ross 1994:1).
In my view it is possibly also quite contradictory that a cultural critic and baby-boomer like Ross is the one who introduces a work on Youth Culture and Hip Hop. His short essay deserves separate attention as it offers a commentary on a wide range of contemporary cultural problems (much in the same way that Brian Massumi introduced *The Politics of Everyday Fear* in 1993) and is, I think, indicative of a particular malaise that affects academic work in the otherwise excitingly productive era of desk-top/Mac-virtual publishing and consequent proliferation of writing styles. This malaise is one of a verbose and vacuous gee-whiz criticism, fascinated with moments of irony and political curios, but lacking in any deeper analysis or program.
Introductions such as this one entail a proliferation of generalisations (elsewhere in the book another boomer-commentator, Larry Grossberg, who also has a discipline-shaping role as editor of the journal *Cultural Studies*, proclaims the validity of generalities, but I will ignore his paper here in order to concentrate my abuse of Ross), almost as if the time has again come where ‘public intellectuals’ are called upon to provide opinions and views on all manner of things (echoes of Sartre, Marcuse, Adorno and Benjamin very much in fashion). The new popularity of criticism, after years of specialisation, offers a return to earlier times, and to the styles of the cafe or salon. Generalities? Andrew Ross asks, for example, in this collection of fine writing on youth culture, the question “What then is popular music good for?” (Ross 1994:3).
Surely we agree it is important to recognise the “level and attention and meaning invested in music by youth” (Ross 1994:3), even if it’s unclear why mild ironies about the use of Fleetwood Mac songs by a campaigning US President might be relevant in a book about youth culture, hip hop and dance. (I think Ross actually likes Clinton; well, I can’t tell if he hates him or not). But then I was also annoyed by Ross’s first words which address themselves to northern hemisphere types who identify parts of the year with the word ‘Fall’. Its all well and good for subcultural entrepreneurs like Ross to write about the fabrication and commercialisation of categories like ‘Generation X’, but to then present Beavis and Butthead, The Simpsons, Roseanne and other manifestations of post-Brady Bunch middle-class entertainment as providing “a genuinely critical response to the simple functionality of the American family” (Ross 1994:5) is too much. In my view, despite Ross’s dismissal of the show, watching Beverly Hills 90210 is an experience which evokes critical thinking in a way that the sit-com rehearsed transgressions of Simpsons et al do not. (Surely everyone recognises 90210 as satire?). It was the cartoon rebellion of Bart himself which became clear to me after hearing a trade union speaker from Thailand talk of her experience leaping from the third story of a burning factory onto the bodies of her fellow workers, who had been forced to jump before her and who cushioned her fall and saved her life. These women, aged between forteen and twenty-eight, had been locked into their mass production factory for fear that their low wages would otherwise encourage them to run off with the merchandise – they were making plastic Bart Simpson dolls for export. Sentimental, perhaps, this story even brought tears to the eyes of Mr John Halfpenny, the tired reformist leader of the Victorian trades hall, at the meeting where the Thai worker was speaking – showing that there is yet a point where such life experiences cut through the crap that is televised sedation.
Ross also provides cartoon explanations of the origins of Hip Hop in the Bronx and of the entrepreneurial independent record sector which “exploits social prejudice – as nasty as they wanna be – as unscrupulously as the lords of narcotraffic exploit poverty and social despair” (Ross 1994:6-7). This ‘lords of narcotraffic’ stuff would qualify Ross for membership in one of the late 80s Nancy Reaganite stormtroop patrols marching double-time through the backstreets of urban suburbs in riot gear chanting ‘War on Drugs, War on Drugs’ (apologies to Thomas Pynchon). Little here of the larger institutional and economic interests behind these scenes. Certainly the fact that some few black males in America can eke out a career in music or in the informal economy, or end up dead or in jail at a rate of one for every four in the twenty to thirty age group (“In other words they can rise to the top or crash to the bottom” (Ross 1994:7)) seems no justification for the comment that “the gap in opportunity between youth of colour and white youth is not as wide as it used to be” (Ross 1994:7). What is Ross trying to say here – that Clinton, Fleetwood Mac and the glories of capitalism are eroding racial inequality? All the throwaway lines in the world about the dead-end nature of jobs in the fast-food industry could not redeem the placatory republicism of this suggestion that things are getting better (they are not), or that Black males are not subject to continued capitalist exploitation (they are).
To me, Ross seems intent on leaving the system intact. There is a case for suggesting that cultural studies, with all its guerilla tenured (ex)Marxists, does little more than offer palliative support to a reconfigured but unchanged system. This might be elaborated again in the contemporary period: “in its monopoly stage, capitalism needs sociologists as critics even more than in the former role of apologists and ideologists” (Piccone 1976:137). There is less need for ideological legitimation where oppositional thought has been discredited – so we don’t need comprehensive ‘theory’ – and yet the decline of the national market as regulation in a context of internationalisation means it becomes useful to support a regulatory criticism for the time being – an internal control mechanism, also prefigured in the Westminister Democracy as the notion of the Loyal Opposition, now generalised to all aspects of culture. This of course can be permitted to appear, in its most ‘radical’ forms, at best in social democratic and revisionist manifestations, but more often than not it is a celebrated lifestyle leftism, repleat with dark glasses, sportscar, and invitation to all the right parties (champagne ones, not Leninist). All this happens in cartoon form and on MTV. Full integration of the global order may again obviate the need for this tolerance of hip sociology – cultural studies – but for the time being it exists as repository of a dissenting view that is corraled in such a way that it provides no threat, and rather maintains the system through a role similar to a dysfunctional steam valve.
It is, however, insufficient to think that the new productions of pop sociology, critical anthropology and cultural studies, et. al., are merely ideological and/or co-opted components of bourgeoius life. In a letter to a newspaper (‘On Proudhon’) in 1865, Marx pointed out that economic categories were “theoretical expressions of historical relations of production corresponding to a particular stage of development of material production” (Marx 1865/1950:356). It is today clear that the interests of the culture industry – both academic and commercial, if there is a difference – must still be considered in the same way. The poverty of philosophy, which in the guise of Proudhon imagined theoretical categories to be eternal and preexisting ideas, remains a relevant accusation – impoverished – as a corrective to the ways we think of culture today. Complacently, within the frame. Get with the program. Museums and satellite television, coffee table reproductions, critical conferences. The new cultural studies seems very much like the old salon of the ancien regime, where booty plundered by imperial adventurers was shown for the edification of select guests in bourgeois drawing rooms. This is an inadequate, and elitist, forum which offers little hope for political intervention. We need to do far more than point like grinning monkeys at the ironies of the cultural system that attends global exploitation (hitherto cultural studies has done little more than this, anthropology hasn’t even come close).
I’d like to know how they let this guy loose as co-editor of an otherwise interesting collection of papers? He doesn’t contribute anything other than the introduction, while the other editor, Tricia Rose contributes both an article and an interview. The interview is great stuff, an expose of the music industry – indeed, the whole book is good, and it would be disastrous if anyone was put off by the intro. The ‘editor’ Ross has made some good choices. advised no doubt by Rose, but good nonetheless. Perhaps he just rushed the first bit. Whatever. All this makes me wonder how contracts for edited volumes are awarded today? Who gets the funds? How the work gets divided up? (Who are the people mentioned in the acknowledgements – students? and what parts of the production process were theirs?). Having done a similar job myself, all this makes me suspicious of the role of an ‘editor’ – which seems to me to sometimes border on that of the pimp, at least of the broker, and too often the real estate agent. I wonder what this does for one’s career – to write a book about hip hop without writing on hip hop; or to write a book with Andrew Ross; or to be shelved in the library as author (is this still important for tenure? Or research grants?). The importance of how these cultural artifacts circulate today, under whose auspices and patronage, and to what ideological and political gain, I wouldn’t want to guess. It would of course be very mean to underline the subcultural ‘contacts’ afforded to Ross as Director of the American Studies Program at New York University. But there you are: he is the man with his finger on the pulse. Hola.
Massumi Brian (ed) 1993 “The Politics of Everyday Fear” University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis.
Marx, Karl 1865/1950 ‘On Proudhon’ in “Selected Works Vol 1”, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow.
Piccone, Paul 1976 ‘Review of Helmer, The Deadly Simple Mechanics of Society’ in “Theory and Society” 3(2):135-8