Thursday 31 March 2011

Where Now for the UK Anti-Cuts Movement?

OK, so a lot to unpack from Saturday's TUC march/rally in London. Much of the subsequent online discussion, it seems, has centred, not on the rally itself, but on the aftermath, with the arrests of 145 UK Uncut members who'd staged a peaceful occupation of Fortnum and Mason. This seems to mark the moment at which 'softer' activists (i.e. those who are not experienced black bloc members, well-versed in outwitting the cops) encounter the true hypocrisy and opportunism of the police, their willingness to: (a) exploit a situation for maximum threatening effect (don't do this again, don't dare challenge things or disturb the political/social order, don't dare to cause even the slightest hint of 'disruption' beyond the usual managed routes - don't do these things, because if you do, we'll arrest you again, you'll have a criminal record for life which may mitigate against job opportunities, and we might rough you up a bit as well); and (b) to do this while maintaining the media advantage, which ignores the march itself to focus on the 'disgusting' activities of a 'violent minority'. Sample headline on Sky's Rolling News service: '500 anarchists are heading towards Oxford Street'. Sitting in a pub on that very street, we looked out of the window and wondered how anyone could possibly believe such nonsense. But then again, we had actually been on Oxford Street and on the main rally for the previous few hours, so it appeared obvious to us that we were just watching a desperate attempt to stitch together a false narrative from a few innocuous images (protestors in the streets; journalists running at a small line of cops with riots shields, make one of the cops flinch their shield slightly; a couple of hooded people smashing a window and an ATM). As the same footage was looped for the next five minutes, however, the hypnotic and suggestive effect of the false narrative became apparent; and anyone coming at this coverage ‘cold’ (i.e. with no knowledge of what had actually happened on the day apart from what Sky News was telling them) might plausibly buy into the story. And even though this was a particularly hysterical variation on the ‘peaceful march hijacked by violent minority’ line, one also saw such a stance coming through in the pages of ‘liberal’ papers like The Guardian; Millbank might have been fun, something of a journalistic coup for those close enough to capture it, and something which might prove to have symbolic capital later on (perhaps plastered over some gallery showing of ‘subversive’ or ‘rebellious’ images of protest, neutered and neutralised like a Che Guevara T-shirt) – but this, well, this is just a bit awkward. We like to go shopping on the high street on our weekends; so are you implying that we’re in with the bad guys? Tory HQ is one thing (it’s clear who the enemy is then), but BHS is a whole different matter…Considering complicity in this way is not something of which centre-leftists seem capable – thus the need to disguise any real debate about the use of direct action or disruptive tactics with a blanket dismissal of ‘violence’.

Of course, such coverage begs the question, since when is paint-balling a few buildings and attempting (rather unsuccessfully) to smash a few ATMs 'violent'? (And since when is such ‘violence’ considered more newsworthy than policemen wielding batons and dragging protestors to the ground? If half as much column space had been devoted to Alfie Meadows and Jody McIntyre as has been taken up by supposed leftists’ blanket condemnations of anarchists, then the police might actually start to worry about being held accountable for their actions.) This whole argument about destruction of property was one I discussed in my blogposts on last year's education protests, and I stand by my view that: (a) Far more 'violent' than breaking a few windows is the espousal of the exploitation and immiseration of all those not fortunate enough to have been born into wealth, or to be part of the capitalist buddies club; and just as violent, by implication, is to simply accept this as 'the way things have to be' (let's all tighten our belts (well, some of us will tighten our belts, some will just talk about it from our comfy seats of power), the market must be placated because it threw a little tantrum and caused some bother). (b) Sometimes, the 'legitimate', 'peaceful' means of protest are not enough; sometimes, you have to hit them (those in power) where it hurts, just as they hit those in whose interests they are supposed to govern (but manifestly regard as a doltish mass of benefit cheats, scroungers, immigrants and hooligan leftist who might even let them get away with absurd economic and social policy). They are clearly rattled by public expression of dissatisfaction, clearly rattled by the destruction of property - a visible, concrete, physical sign, an ACT that cannot be misinterpreted or 'spun' to mean something other than what it is; a manifest truth. As Rob Ray writes on, a protest that simply stays within the white lines scares nobody:

“Tory MPs are not stupid sheep to be panicked or genuinely outraged by ITN throwing a "breaking news" strapline on the TV screen; they'll take note of the size of the march, its overall level of militancy and what it has to say (which is apparently "oh pwease don't be nasty, pweeeease" even though this approach manifestly didn't work in 2003 using three times the number of people against a supposedly more liberal Labour government which wasn't being directly pressured by the markets). In reality, if this is just a nice, pleasant walk-around, said MPs will almost certainly heave a huge sigh of relief and put those notes in the bin.”

I take Dan Hind's point that smashing things up can play directly into the hands of the cops: as he points out, undercover police instigators love encouraging this sort of behaviour, as it provides perfect material for the ‘violent minority’ media coverage.

“I support direct action. I was at the UK Uncut occupations in December, for example. But I am wary of photogenic attacks on shop windows precisely because they distract attention from what is a serious - potentially fatal - challenge to the Coalition.

In general I am very reluctant to adopt tactics that are actively encouraged by police agents. Peaceful civil disobedience and rational argument hold out our best hope of stopping the cuts and securing a wider transformation of the country.

The state wants to encourage violence because it can win a fight.

It cannot win the argument.

So, let's have an argument.”

Given this, one might feel that one is stuck between a rock and a hard place: a mass, peaceful demonstration of public opinion can be politely noted and then completely ignored (as per Iraq), while simply ‘smashing things up’ plays into the hands of those who wish to bring repressive tactics to bear on protestors, thus threatening peaceful protestors as well as those who want to take things further. I’m not convinced, though by Hind’s “[the state] cannot win the argument”; I’m not convinced that the current government wants to have an argument in the first place, or that they would be willing to have one in the second; and neither I am convinced that they give a flying fuck what anyone on the left of the political spectrum believes should be done in response to the financial crisis, or, indeed, about any ‘movement of the people’.

What am I advocating, then? Despite the impressive turn-out on Saturday, I remain sceptical about the TUC’s ability and willingness to organise a genuine resistance movement; it still seems to me that they will end up compromising with the Labour party leadership (as per Ed Milliband’s insipid headlining speech at the rally), hoping that the ConDems will shoot themselves in the foot and that we’ll be back to New Labour for the next election (which will suddenly seem like rather a good option after several years of Tory rule, much as we despised Labour’s right-ward turn under Blair and Brown). To which it could be said: but what do you really expect? Stop being so idealistic (unrealistic) and put your efforts behind something that can actually work, that can actually have some effect. Well, perhaps some people are fed up of the pressure to be all peaceful and unthreatening and 'reasonable', when something more angry and maybe, yes, 'violent', would be much more convincing. I don’t just mean paint-balling high-street shops and smashing ATMs, but strikes, sit-ins, occupations, street theatre, squats, ‘actions’; all these are visible, public measures which do not have to be governed or organised by a centralised, nationwide leadership. Given the extremity of the government's right-wing measures, calling for something as 'extreme' as a general strike or civil unrest is not unreasonable, and one feels it’s only because we’re in England (where the tradition of resistance and protest is either ‘underground’, glossed over in the official histories (the Luddites, Ranters, Diggers, Chartists, poets, artists), or becomes neutered by mainstream acceptance (punk’s (semi-)recuperation by the culture industry)) that something like a general strike seems so extreme, seems beyond the pale.

In the end, perhaps that’s the problem: we are too scared, too often; we are too timid, too afraid, when, perhaps, encouraging/ forcing the powers that be to play their hand, to step up repressive measures, might allow us (we, the opposition), to start winning the media battle, to make things go so far that even woolly liberals start braying in unmediated anger. Or perhaps we should stop focussing on media coverage so much and focus on scaring the shit out of the government through a movement full of spontaneous, unpredictable action as well as mass, organised protests such as Saturday’s; for while big rallies in London are all very well, London is not the only place in England – the cuts will be felt across the country, and mobilising support, moulding a network of interconnected pockets of resistance, seems like a more attractive option than simply relying on centralised union bureaucracy. The student protests were (I use the past tense, though I’m not suggesting the movement has died away; instead, it may align itself with the general anti-cuts outrage that will surely become more and more prevalent in the coming months) a loose coalition between students and supportive academics; when the NUS failed to take the lead they should have, despite organising the first big march, a much looser group of occupations and protests filled the gap left by an insufficient/non-existent centralised leadership. Millbank didn’t happen because Aaron Porter directed us toward it like a lollipop man; it happened because a general feeling seized a small and spontaneous crowd, and it suddenly seemed possible to take action rather than simply standing politely and watching some well-meaning anti-cuts videos. With general anti-cuts protest, the scope is clearly much wider, and a broader movement may have to be more organised; yet local, less centralised occupations, squats, etc, will still be vital as the main meat of the movement, the bricks in the wall for which central organisation is merely the cement. Those are a couple of dodgy metaphors; and the idea of wall is not fluid enough for what I mean to suggest: collectivised decision-making processes; workers’ councils; direct action; self-organisation; that which is organic, rather than circumscribed.

This is necessary because circumstances have changed, and the traditional leftist modes of resistance may not always prove appropriate. In particular, I’m thinking of union organisation; the history of trade unionism is indeed a vital one, but there is a sense that it is not always adequate to changing standards and practices in working life. For instance, say I have just left university, and cannot afford to do a post-grad course; so I sign on at the local job centre (where the workers tell me that their own jobs are unsafe, thus filling me with confidence), and eventually get a lowly office/admin job at a big financial firm. For all the disadvantages of old-style factory jobs, at least they offered a certain amount of job security, opportunities for collective organisation, a tradition of standing up to the bosses, going on strike, etc; with the new, information-based job market, organised around job agencies and temporary contracts, it is that much harder to organise oneself into a body that can negotiate with the bosses to ensure fair pay and working conditions. Each individual is in competition with at least 200 others from similar backgrounds and with similar skills; they are all scrapping over one crappy little six-month temporary contract, after which, if they’re lucky, they may get re-employed by the same company for another six-month period. Of course, everyone hates the fluorescent lighting, the inane and anal little do’s and don’ts, the senseless office rules for whose instigation no one claims responsibility and which no one seems able to change; but, if you’re not careful, if you complain too much or to the wrong person or at the wrong time, then you can be dismissed as if you were simply a fly, idly swatted away with the back of the hand on a summer’s day. Everyone, then, is encouraged to toe the line, to mutter and grumble a little (but only when no one’s looking), to chat about the X factor or Heat magazine, and to get their head down over their desks. ‘Solidarity’ exists only as a tamed and regulated ‘banter’ that disguises deep-set anxieties about getting fired for doing something ‘inappropriate’ or because the boss just doesn’t take a shine to you; and traditions of unionism and campaigning for one’s rights as a worker have been virtually erased. You are an individual, trying to get by, and living for the weekend; screw everyone else. Elements of this fit with what Nina Power’s analysis of ‘the feminization of labour’ in ‘One-Dimensional Woman’: the sort of secretarial, admin and call-centre work that used to be done by women has now been ‘generously’ extended so that men can do it as well. This is not a fine sign of gender equality, but an extension of old means of oppression/ keeping women down, across the board – a kind of reverse equality, in which we don’t make give some people rights equal to those enjoyed by others, but give everyone the same rights to inequality.

So, let’s take our prototypical mid-twenties graduate working on a temporary contract in an anonymous admin job (soon to become our prototypical mid-twenties non-graduate (who wanted to go to university but was frightened off by the rising cost of tuition fees, so squandered themselves on the job-centre scrap and a life of very English ‘quiet desperation’)). Depending on their level of political awareness, they make take trade unionism to stand for a distinguished and important history of workers’ organisation; but it will remain just that, a history, and one to which they have no access as a present means of support. Public sector workers may be in a more favourable position vis-à-vis unions – though they are obviously in dire straits in general terms – but the growing generation of educated/aware but financially badly-off admin workers cannot be ignored. And it is for those such as them (I’m sure there are many other thumbnail social analyses one could do for similar categories) that new methods of resistance and organisation have to be found, away from union bureaucracy and centralised TUC initiatives (remember that these people may not be able to afford the extortionate train fare to London in the first place). This will require people taking the initiative, taking matters into their own hands, rather than waiting for the next big march in London; it may involve hours of tedium, apparent failure, and miserable, poorly-attended rallies in the rain outside the local shopping centre. It will also require creativity, a desire and a willingness to disrupt and go beyond social norms, without simply retreating into an ‘underground’ of those who are ‘hip’, those who are ‘in the know’. Can it be done? Of course. Will it? Let’s see what happens…

Wednesday 23 March 2011

'Dogville' (2003)

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany
Music: Antonio Vivaldi, David Bowie
Director: Lars Von Trier
Screenplay: Lars Von Trier
Director of Photography: Anthony Dod Mantle

"And they asked me which heads should fall, and the harbour fell quiet as I answered 'All'."
(Berlot Brecht, trans. Marc Blitzstein, 'Pirate Jenny')

Internet summaries of the film's plot are plentiful, but I'll add my own re-cap to start things off in any case. On the run from gangsters, Grace (Nicole Kidman) is taken in by the citizens of tiny, dead-end town Dogville, in return for doing (paid) manual tasks. After a honeymoon period (capped by her guest-of-honour status at a Fourth of July meal), the town’s kindness turns to distrust and abuse, as they shackle her, repeatedly rape her, and force her to work as a slave. Eventually, they call her gangster father to come and take her off their hands; he does, but, with his daughter’s permission, also massacres the whole town in the process, thus contributing yet another of Von Trier's head-scratching 'happy endings'. So that, in broad outline, is what happens during the film's three hours: talking points and moments of controversy aplenty, as you can imagine. Let's begin our exmination of the film proper, then, with what has been perhaps the most controversial of the many controversial issues dogging Von Trier throughout his career: namely, his attitude to women, his supposed misogyny. Well, the way Grace bears her sufferings does uncomfortably play into the stereotypes of woman as suffering saint (not only because she refuses to give up her virginity, but because she persists in doing so (rebuffing Thomas Edison Jr.’s advances) even as it is repeatedly taken from her by all the other male inhabitants of the town; at once virgin and whore, have your cake and eat it). And her turn to avenging angel at the end is no better: it seems that the only option she has is to be a victim and to rely on 'daddy' to over-react to the bully when the time comes. (Yes, she shoots Edison Jr. herself, but only because daddy's gangster thugs give her the ‘manpower’ to do that). Consider briefly: what if the victim figure in the film were not a white woman at all, but a man of colour? Or even a white man? Would the things that happen to a female character be allowed to happen to a man? Or can they happen as they do only because Von Trier is following in a long tradition of exploiting and even glamourising female suffering, albeit with a twist of apparent knowing irony? It's unlikely, for example, that a male character would be repeatedly raped with a look of winsome resignation on their face (and then there's the whole S&M aspect of Kidman's collar (joined as it is with her fur-lined coat)). In addition, the sexual violence takes place in a way that doesn't really feel violent at all - like much of what happens in the film, it seems somehow to be veiled with a certain knowingness, a caustic and dispassionate knowningness. It's almost as if we, the viewers, are supposed to be in on some sort of joke, of which rape is a part. Von Trier, then, does not really intend to convey a wider point about the status/treatment of women in American society, or any society – not that he's above trying to make (quite heavy-handed) political points, just that he's got a blind-spot in his view of women which doesn't enable him to give even the remotest justification for their exploitation.

OK, so what about the Christian angle? Well, it would be a mistake to view ‘Dogville’ as too overt or direct a Christian allegory – not only because Von Trier hasn't emphasized that interpretation in his interviews, but because the Christian elements in his films seem to me more window-dressing than thought-through theological tussle. This is hardly a surprise given statements such as: “I don't know if I'm all that Catholic really. I'm probably not. Denmark is a very Protestant country. Perhaps I only turned Catholic to piss off a few of my countrymen.” Like everything else that his perplexed interviewers scribble down, this is designed to shock, without necessarily having a specific programme behind it – if he contradicts himself, so much the better; who said that he should be the conscience of society? (“I also don't want you to think I'm a moralist. I want you to think that I'm cruel, hard and manly” is another eminently quotable line from the same occasion, in which he also proclaimed: “I am an American woman. Or 65 percent of me is.”) Still, even with all that deliberate contradiction and provocation taken into account, the statement about Catholicism does capture something about the way his films unfold – hinting at, even blaring in your face, a certain type of symbolism, or allegorical reading, or horrific/absurd shock-image (remember the talking fox in ‘Antichrist’? or those more famous moments of sexual violence in the same film?), but never connecting these fragments into an cohesive overall picture. (In that sense, one thinks of Jodorowsky’s mystical-psychedelic kaleidoscope of symbols in ‘El Topo’ and ‘The Holy Mountain’.) He's good – very good, in fact – at general effects (in ‘Dogville’, the combination of John Hurt’s snide faux-story-book narration, the bare Brechtian backdrops, subtle jump-cuts within scenes adding a kind of fluid discontinuity to their flow, ranging camera-movements around the studio set giving an efficient sense of the community as pervasive, invasive, looking in, looking on, spying, complicit), less so on sorting through the specific points he wants to hammer home (the credit sequence at the end, in which David Bowie’s ‘Young Americans' accompanies photos of poor US citizens, both white and black, is caught between being wilfully ambiguous and wilfully didactic – it ends up awkwardly placed between the two). Nonetheless, that Christian element is undoubtedly there: Grace (yes, a loaded name) as female Christ figure, come to earth to be taken into our community, her good nature abused, persecuted; yet maintaining an attitude of acceptance despite all the suffering. (The shedding of tears, like Christ's shedding of tears on the cross, happens not because of his own pain but because of how far others have stooped – well, ok, both because of others’ sin and because it’s actually quite painful to be crucified.) But here comes the twist away from the traditional resolution of the Christian story; 'Dogville' doesn't end with the redemptive, sacrificial death of the lone victim, but switches to the rather different moral territory of the revenge climax. Grace does not utter the words, 'forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do', given that, in this case, 'Father' is mob boss James Caan. No, after a chat in his car, she comes to believe that they know very well what they do, the moral hypocrites; they are unredeemable, and therefore it’s only right to have them all killed as payback. So that is what happens. Grace's attempt to bear suffering with, yes, grace, and to always give people the benefit of the doubt, to think the best of them, comes a-cropper, and the only alternative is just to exterminate the scum, the dogs. In that sense, we're really meant to go along with Caan's speech in the car about not trying to understand rapists or murderers, just blowing their fucking heads off. Social explanations – pah! – who needs those?; just kill them all. Here is where Von Trier's social sense falls short, because, although he wants to present a vision of nasty small-town America and its intolerance, he himself has an intolerance for poor Americans that doesn't just condemn their racism or ignorance or whatever else he wants to attribute to them, but refuses to listen to any justification for it, refuses to think, for example, about the way that poor whites were set against poor blacks as a distraction against their own exploitation by governing classes (as documented in Howard Zinn's 'People's History of The United States'). Dogville is such an isolated community – at the edge of the wilderness, the limits of what is acceptable – that it could be considered a rogue, extreme or distorted version of small-town America, with all of its flaws and none of its virtues; trouble is, it's this very isolation that prevents it from being very effective as the wider allegory that Von Trier wants it to be. For all their dialogue, then, the townsfolk end up not all that far from the nightmare-cartoon-rapist hillbillies of 'Deliverance'.

This enables the revenge aspect to seem more uncomplicated; yes, OK, the gangsters shoot kids and a baby, but we'd only seen the baby as a rocking cradle prop anyway, the only kid with dialogue was a nasty brat who's getting what he deserved, and Kidman spares Moses the dog at the end anyway (‘Gee, I do hate it when animals are killed, don't you? I can watch a hundred people blasted away quite happily, but I blub like a baby if one animal is harmed.’) I had a similar problem with the Coen's ‘True Grit', a film which was much more about efficient story telling and nice period-atmosphere touches than about grand narratives, allegorical dimensions, but still…Like the original novel and the John Wayne film, it rendered its villains ill-drawn, not exactly pantomime baddies, but not exactly characters anywhere near as fully-drawn as the three protagonists either. We end up accepting revenge as 'just the way it was back then', revelling in it, going along gleefully with the simple law of 'an eye for an eye'. That's partially to do with the whole western genre, which so often turns on that element – though of course the notion that the hero must lose this bitterness and forego their revenge is also a part of that tradition. (Even if they do manage to have their cake and eat it when the antagonist tries to kill them, so that they've no choice but to fire back. Yes, you did kill them, even though you’d foresworn revenge; but, don’t worry, your conscience may remain clear; you only killed them ’cos you had to, not because you were hunting them down for any selfish motives.) Often, a pretended moral grapple with the whole notion of revenge is simply window-dressing for the violent denouement we knew was coming – at least the spaghetti westerns were less hypocritical than that in their straightforward revenge narratives. Even 'Unforgiven', one of the most thoughtfully considered views of violence and revenge clichés within the genre, turns on its head at the last minute – all the talk and demonstration of the griminess of violence, its ingloriousness, the toll it takes on lives, is swept aside for a western gothic shoot-em-up, Eastwood then riding, almost literally, into the sunset (not when he leaves the town, heading into the portentous raging storm, but over the final credits, as he stands silhouetted by his wife's grave). I’ve always wondered: was this Eastwood playing on the audience's demand for revenge, only to reveal its disgusting reality? Or was it something more unresolved, simply a re-tread of Pale Rider’s atmospherics, a cloak of style disguising a sudden lack of substance? The difference in 'Dogville' is that we're not in a western, the bloody revenge shoot-out is not what we've been waiting for/ expecting/ dreading/ enjoying in equal measure (à la any number of Peckinpah movies, ‘Straw Dogs’ (a western in all but setting) in particular). So is Von Trier lulling us into a false sense of security? – not so much that we don’t expect the harmlessly eccentric townsfolk to turn nasty, and are suitably shocked when they do, but that we expect the process of the innocent saint's abuse to lead to her martyr's death (perhaps then leading the townsfolk a realisation of what they've done, or to another hypocritical moral justification revealing their essential meanness). Instead, not only are we given the revenge we weren't expecting, but we can enjoy it all the more for its unexpectedness (urging Kidman on as she ponders whether or not to spare the townsfolk). Is Von Trier doing a Haneke (Funny Games)? Well, not really, he hasn't thought it through that much – essentially, what I get from it all is: small-town hick, dirt-poor America is nasty and mean, full of people grasping for what little money and advantage that can be extorted from their desperate situation, and from people in that situation even worse off than themselves (e.g. immigrants, which Kidman’s character isn’t exactly (in fact, she comes from a far wealthier milieu than the small-town hicks and pretenders into whose midst she is cast), but for whom she could easily be taken as a metaphor). Not only this, but said abuse is ‘backed up’ by all sorts of sentimental/sanctimonious cod-philosophical/religious justification. Such moral hypocrisy means that the aforementioned small-town, dirt-poor America thoroughly deserves what’s coming to it. Chickens coming home to roost / the glamour of gangster violence (all 1930s cars, hats and tommy guns; if the small-town milieu is America is seen/filtered through the perspective of stage plays (Brecht, ‘Our Town’), this gangster element is America as seen through the movies) / this glamorous violence as an efficient solution? I wouldn’t have a problem with this if it was so obviously within the moral context of a movie – Tarantino’s ‘Inglourius Basterds’ isn’t pretending to be anything other than a ludicrous fantasy, the ultimate WW2 entertainment – but Von Trier seems to be consciously trying for a wider moral high-ground (particularly given the fact that he decided to make his ‘US trilogy’ at around the time the whole business of American intervention in Iraq was rearing its head), and thus forces himself into a corner, where provoking liberal do-gooders turns dangerously close to espousing view such as the following: “Rapists and murderers may be the victims according to you, but I call them dogs and if they're lapping up their own vomit the only way to stop them is with the lash.” So “Shoot them and burn down the town.” These are the words given to the mobster father, but Von Trier himself seems to endorse them: “I liked the idea that the father, this hard-nosed gangster who's not particularly likeable, brings a sort of truth to the story. He has a healthy understanding of people. His daughter wants to be good to everyone and only causes damage.” We know that VT delights in making provocative statements (“Until that point I thought I had a Jewish background. But I'm really more of a Nazi” (he’s referring to his genetic background, in case you’re wondering); still, how much slack can you cut? How many pinches of salt can you...etc. Maybe it’s the Zizek syndrome: because you’re expected to be a good leftist, you constantly try to provoke your own audience (who lap it up and love it – treat me wrong, Slavoj, treat me wrong), by making points about cowardly liberals and honest fascists, and, consequently, you end up valorising racist working-class violence against gypsies. Not that you really believe all that, but your own status as a provocateur has driven you to a position where you can’t back down, where everything that you say has to be controversial, even when that position of constant controversy becomes little more than a stylistic tic which often misses the mark (that well-worn strategy: ‘this well-known fact is often trumpeted; but does it not mean the opposite of what it is commonly thought to be saying?’ recurs throughout Zizek’s writing, but, especially in the recent work, one often ends up thinking, ‘well, no, it doesn’t. You’re just saying that for rhetorical effect.’)

But, following that off-topic wander, I’ll leave it to someone else to lay down a better final word on ‘Dogville’ than I could:

“The sequence in Dogville that inspires the strongest reaction is the closing credit sequence, which is accompanied by a montage of photographs of American poverty and misery — Depression victims immortalized by Dorothea Lange, dead bodies lying in the street, miserable inner-city images of hungry children and unsteady adults. (It’s jauntily scored to David Bowie’s “Young Americans.” [Interpolation: I’m not sure that ‘jauntiness’ of the song isn’t belied by its lyrics, actually, which one might read as linking into what’s just happened in the film, bringing out an analysis of female exploitation – on those grounds, though, I think Bowie’s analysis in three minutes is actually more thoroughgoing than Von Trier’s in three hours…] Looking at these faces right after you’ve spent three hours seeing America as it looks through von Trier’s eyes has the most extraordinary effect: whatever feelings of respect or sympathy or righteous anger these faces might have inspired before, now they look like the denizens of Dogville, and it would be natural to make the next leap and conclude that wherever they are in life, they’ve gotten what they deserve. (The conclusion of Dogville, like that of Unforgiven, is likely to make you feel that way even as your brain dutifully recognizes that you’re meant to see the horror in it.)”

I think that gets it spot-on.

Saturday 12 March 2011

Common - Nag Champa

I've been listening to this track a lot over the past few weeks and thought I might as well pop down a few thoughts; not anything structured, just a brief (or not so brief) glance through some lines which seem to me particularly to stand out, and attendant reflections which may be sparked off by them. Having only come to ‘Nag Champa’ recently, I can't help but view the song through several lenses – that of Miguel Atwood-Ferguson's orchestral version on the Suite for Ma Dukes album, that of the original track sampled by Dilla for the song ('Morning Order', from an obscure 1980 duo album by Hugh Hopper and keyboard player Alan Gowen), and that of the mix (available on youtube) which pairs Common's original vocals with Atwood-Ferguson's orchestral arrangement.

Given that Hopper and Dilla both died in recent years, the track takes on a poignancy it wouldn't have previously had – a poignancy, a nostalgic, sentimental quality which suffuses the Atwood-Ferguson album and gives it its emotional weight (for instance, listen to the way that the eight-minute version of 'Stakes is High' becomes near-epic, stretched out in length and intensity not just by the way that it takes a full three minutes for the song proper to begin, but by the weight of Dilla’s memory, by the crowd who have come to the concert to pay him homage, by the self-consciously ‘classic’ status of it all – treading the right side of that fine line between simple rehash/ retread and true tribute, true memorial). The downside of this is the sense that Dilla's death has made it impossible to criticise his work – ‘the good die young’, etc – and he's become a virtual saint within the hip-hop community, as if invoking his name is a placeholder for talking about 'quality' hip-hop, music that doesn't go along with the 'guns/ hoes/ bling' or cheesy naffness of mainstream rap. Of course, his own attitudes with relation to women, or at least, certain attitudes that appear to be expressed in lyrics (though I'm aware that over-identification of the voice in the song with the voice of the singer in all aspects of their life, outside the music, is something which can land us in hot water; and which is a problem with much hip-hop misunderstanding, perhaps) were not exactly exemplary. And in this song we get Common’s own casual homophobic toss-off: “You couldn't hang if you was a poster/
Posin like a bitch for exposure/ It's rumours of gay MC's, just don't come around me wit it / You still rockin hickies, don't let me find out he did it.” One might think here of Amiri Baraka’s almost obsessive use of the word 'faggot' (just look through any sample of his mid 60s-mid 70s work), compared to which Common’s “gay MCs” seems fairly tame – and yet the seemingly milder slur 'gay' in fact hurts more, because, unlike ‘faggot’, the word is not in itself an insult, merely a description; it only becomes a slur through intention. Baraka seemed to pour a whole lifetime of rage and despair and fire into the word ‘faggot’, not only on behalf of himself but on account of the racial and political injustice of sixties America, and on account of his own disillusion with the quietism and 'drop-out' attitude of the bohemian artists with whom he had previously associated – a lifetime that did not, of course justify him using the word, and did not disguise the fact that his homophobia was genuine (along with anti-semitic, anti-italian, anti-irish and anti-female tirades) – but a lifetime that seems trivialised by Common's casual, off-hand dismissal of what might more normally be called “wack MCs” as “gay MCs” (particularly given the fact that ‘Nag Champa’ comes a few decades after ‘Black Art’ et al, and might be expected to know better). It appears that C has since modified his views, most notably in the song 'Between You, Me and Liberation', in which he describes his shock at a close friend's coming out; but even so, there's still some way to go – one might, for example, reasonably take offence at the way he likens his friend's revelation to the revelation that his girlfriend has been raped by father and to the loss of a relative to cancer. Still, I suppose, it’s a start.

OK, so far, so unsavoury: but over to Dilla again, his voice on the song’s chorus like a ghost, fuzzed up and hazed over with echo, not 'amplified' by electronic treatments but made strange, other, honeyed-haunting. Yet there are also moments where the untreated, original recording of the voice itself sounds through – fragile, not ‘weak’ exactly, but not 'strong' either (in the sense that Dilla is not normally a 'singer'); it has a delicate quality to it, accentuating and counter-pointing the underlying, under-running sample, emphasising its melodic qualities as Common emphasises its rhythmic qualities during the verses.

And that brings us to the rap itself, Common really entering the 'flow' (yes, that word) of things, entering into things proper after an initial psyching up: "Yeah baby the be". The place/space established by setting up a particular mood, vibe; nag champa as a device for mood alteration – ashram incense, fragrance, Dylan and the Dead using it as part of their concert rituals (a complete sensual experience - sound, sight, smell, touch (vibration)) – also, "When I was working on Like Water for Chocolate, I would go to Detroit like two to three times a month. When we would go to Jay Dee's basement we would always burn nag champa incense, that's where I got that title from"; so "the place to be" is the place where the music was made (the physical place that Common was in when he recorded the words of that intro), but also the place where you the audience will listen, using this as make-out music or chill-out music or just simply as music). Into the rap: dividing up three words to emphasise the final "-ting" at the end (like a modified version of the 'ping' sounded at the end of a line when writing on an old-fashioned typewriter) – "Excite-ting, enlight-ning, invite-ting" - an invocation, invitation in, a slight brag, a self-description, a calling card, but also a kind of manifesto: music and lyrics that will seek both earthly excitement and spiritual enlightenment (teaching), and will embrace an audience to whose concerns they speak, with which they chime. "I'm writin' shit that I feel, [I'm not a faker, I'm not just doing for the cash, this is not just a pose] Raps are Black Steel In the Hour of commotion, the motion of Com": here a nod to Public Enemy, and perhaps the song's best wordplay, free associated from the PE reference, as '[Black Steel in the Hour of] Chaos' becomes its synonym 'Commotion', and the motion of that word moves forward into Common's own name (alias), so that this becomes *his* (finest) hour ("in the hour of the motion of Com"), *his* movement, *his* flow; moving with the times, moving in them, even against them (against the commercialisation or 'corruption' of hip-hop); moving with others (co-motion) - and now moving to the next line, rhythm in the music dictating rhythm in the speech and also shifts (movements) in the meaning of the words, hip-hop's alliance of beats and speech leading to free associations/connections that reach beyond themselves, beyond initial intention or mere propositional statement, despite the fact that, on first listen, raps can sound very straight-up, accessible on first hearing (‘what you hear is what you get’). There's something more subtle at work here, however – allegiance to rhythm and rhyme almost working against allegiance to 'sense': "Raps are Black Steel In the Hour of commotion, the motion of Com/ Is like that of a ocean, devotion cuz I'm / The Earth, Wind, and Fire of hip hop" - from Public Enemy (musical forebears, inspirations) to the speaker himself (Com) to movement/(e)motion in metaphorical comparison to oceans and elements - which brings us back to musical forebears, beyond rap this time to Earth Wind and Fire, connections sliding smoothly and suggesting something exciting about a mind's movement, a mind's play. The rest of the verse is more straightforward - a nice routine on the ‘common’ "time is money" catchphrase ("time is money/ The mind is funny, how it's spent on getting it") - and then we're into the chorus (already discussed) for the first time, the words of which are, I now notice, again about *movement*.

New verse: “this never-ending battle to please” – the difficulties of expectation, now Common’s moved “from bashful to asshole to international”; play on ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ – “Niggas, magazine writers, MCs/ Who request hot shit, I freeze/ And tell em where I was rose, we always said cold” [the need for a scoop, the pressures of being a ‘spokesman’ or merely the pressure to give a juicy tit-bit of gossip deflected back to talking about the ‘hood’, the origin, ‘where I come from’, grew up, a suggestion of allergy (rose cold/rose fever)]; a few lines on, another nod to influences, predecessors, forebears (“You not gon' respect self, at least respect the heritage”), with the attendant responsibilities of being a major artist –(“Affect the lives, the spread of wealth and the merit is/ I realize what I portray day to day, I gotta carry this”) – a well-placed line break “I gotta carry this/ And beats” [as well as the somewhat grandiose notion of being a spokesman, the realisation that rapping skilfully – not simply speaking polemics over beats, but allowing word and music to reciprocally mould each other – something physical, mental, at this moment, now – “And beats, rhymes and life is where the marriage is”]; now onto religion – “Picked up a fallen angel on the path that I MC / Familiar voice, come to find out the angel was me” (this is, for Marc L. Hill, “a Common who is deeply spiritual but no longer looking to the sky for help”; and the couplet reminds me of Saul Williams’s ‘Wine’, which, coincidentally, I wrote about around this time last year: “So never question who I am, God knows/ And I know God personally/ In fact he lets me call him me / In fact he lets me call him me.”)

What else? Next verse: “My refrigerator poetry's magnetic like ultra” – poetry as down-to-earth, domestic, about life and its niceties, as well as all the grandiose boasts and metaphors and claims; poetry (rap) as moveable, alterable, not fixed but as spoken utterance, existent in the moment of speaking rather than on the page; words as physical things, a kit of objects which can be moved around, re-arranged. (It would be interesting, in fact, to know Common’s writing process, given the way the lyrics’ flow is very much determined by the particular beat they ride.) “Got my eyes on the tiger, eyes on the prize” – wonder about the shift from ‘of’ to ‘on’ – he’s watching the tiger, rather than watching with the tiger’s eyes, as per Rocky III… - “Eyes on the thighs of Mary J. Blige” – hmm, well, the succession of long assonant “I’s” match the “-ting” triad from earlier in the song in terms of delivery, at least. “My verse depth is that of a baby's first step / Or the old lady who died and the nurse wept” – voice as coming from a spectrum of experience, infancy to age, joy to sorrow, the poet as speaking from a collective standpoint, speaking from beyond themselves. Parallels between the spoken and written, words once more as physical objects– “I flow like cursive writing” – water (remember “the motion of Com / Is like that of a ocean”), ink, liquid. And finally, the repeated “We be that, we be that / Afrodisiac, disiac” – does this reveal the whole song as a sexual boast? …as another instance of African-American male pride, those boasts, from the 60s and onward, of sexual potency, which at once played on and fell victim to the old racist notion of the black male rapist/stud – that Black Arts notion of the strong, virile Blackman against the weak white ‘faggot’? But we note that the subtitle to the entire song is, in fact, “Afrodisiac for the world” – we move out to a global scope (‘Common’ ground (noting, on the way, that Common’s alias at once suggests his ‘realness’, the material poverty of his origins, and implies his uncommonness, the fact that he stands out from the crowd)), and we think on the way that hip-hop’s use of sampling increasingly traverses borders, cultures, musical and geographical, in a manner akin to, say, Ghedalia Tazartes – think, for example, of Mos Def’s ‘The Ecstatic,’ or Nas and Damian Marley’s recent collaboration – the way that it elides, glides, jars, brings together, smashes and mashes and mixes up – Madlib’s production on ‘Madvillainy’ (from Sun Ra to Steve Reich’s ‘Come Out’ (itself an early example of ‘sampling’/looping) to 40s educational programme and superhero parody) – Public Enemy and The Bomb Squad – the kaleidoscope of samples on the Beastie Boy’s ‘Paul’s Boutique’...No wonder the record companies started cracking down on hip-hop’s poly-vocal/-phonic/-morphous appropriation, its free treatment of authorship, its opening up and out (“invitin you and yours to my openness”…


Full Lyrics to ‘Nag Champa’
Marc L. Hill - Common, 'Like Water for Chocolate' (review)
Eric S. - Homophobia and Indie Rap
'Suite for Ma Dukes' EP