The aesthetic ante: pleasure, pop culture, and the middle passage.
It isn't hard to see why cultural studies has had little patience with the aesthetic. Its emphasis on an "anthropological" definition of culture---culture as a "whole way of life," in Raymond Williams's formulation; culture as a "whole way of [social] conflict," in E.P. Thompson's--was precisely an attempt to wrest the idea of culture from its capture by high culture, culture with a capital C.(3) The whole thrust of the word "culture" in cultural studies is against the idea of a repository of great or touchstone texts through which a culture defines itself. The field's radical egalitarian commitments orient it toward a study of the way culture organizes the lives of working people, artificially separated into classes, races, genders, and sexualities. To undertake such study requires calling on (and in the process critiquing) a variety of disciplinary knowledges--history, sociology, anthropology, psychoanalysis--and the result is usually closer to historical anthropology than the aesthetic appreciation of traditional literary criticism.(4) Witness Paul Willis's classic ethnographic study of working-class schooling, Learning to Labour (1977), Paul Gilroy's account of race and nationalism in postwar Britain, "There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack" (1987), Marjorie Garber's examination of transvestism in contemporary culture, Vested Interests (1991), or Jonathan Dollimore's study of homosexuality from Augustine to Foucault, Sexual Dissidence (1991).(5) In the light of these studies the pursuits of liberal humanism appear diversionary, elitist, narrow--not socially-oriented enough. We have recognized too little, though, that art and aesthetic activity generally are recognizable human interests, and ought to find a place in cultural studies accounts. Not only this, but good art can actually further the ends of a politics cultural studies can respect.
Before I try to argue this case, it's useful to remind ourselves of why the question of value is such a difficult one, not only for the left but for us all. One way to register the problem is to try defending off the top of your head a favorite aesthetic artifact--I challenge anyone to do it without sounding hopelessly precious or arcane. A less embarrassing way is to look at a 1983 New Left Review debate between literary critic Terry Eagleton and art critic Peter Fuller, one "against" value and the other "for" it, which broadly puts on offer the available positions and demonstrates their limitations.(6) Eagleton, predictably, savages the "fetishizing" of value in bourgeois culture, implicitly assimilating it to the pursuit of luxury goods. Moreover, he argues that aesthetic value has functioned as a kind of Trojan horse in which all sorts of normative political judgements have been ensconced in order to turn ostensibly aesthetic discussions into rites of social discrimination and exclusion. The fact that aesthetic response is socially mediated or constructed and changes over time means for Eagleton that it's almost illusory; the universal approbation of Michelangelo, for example, has nothing to do with the inherent power of his work, as humanists would argue, but owes instead to its having been recreated or reinvented by critics over the years for different cultural moments and aesthetic ideals.(7)
Ten years on, all of this must sound dunningly familiar if it is not in fact common wisdom. Yet I believe Peter Fuller's advocacy of aesthetic response seems fresh if bruised by some of the problems Eagleton raises. Fuller asserts that far from fetishizing value, contemporary critics actually elide it, submit to the prevailing anaesthesia, pay lip service to (or criticize) the canon without seriously attending to what's in it. Calling on Marxists like Sebastiano Timpanaro who emphasize the materialist significance and relative transhistorical constancy of human biology--the fundamental ground of aesthetics and of pleasure generally--Fuller suggests that something like "inherent" value in aesthetic objects exists and that it's humanly important (which is to say politically important) to respond to it. For Fuller as for the young Marx, grasping art's sensuous imaginative materiality, which has been repressed from daily life under capitalism and from the critical discourse that attends it, is a potentially liberating act. One hears the accents of Herbert Marcuse's The Aesthetic Dimension (1977) in the background of this argument, particularly the insistence that authentic works of art are by definition revolutionary in their indictment of the established reality. Finally, however, Fuller resorts to a sort of aesthetic mysticism all too common in such discussions; for example, he grants the immediacy of aesthetic responsiveness so much autonomy that it floats free of human standards and social definition and critical discourse about art. Aesthetic experience for Fuller is finally inarticulable, a matter of the pulses, beyond language, a thing-in-itself. Fuller remarks that our critical accounts might be dead wrong but it wouldn't matter: the response to a great work would live on.(8)
But Fuller's essential point is worth developing: the problem with aesthetic value and pleasure is not that it's a bourgeois illusion but that it's a bourgeois reality. For me, the political urgency of aesthetic value is not so much that it's socially constructed, culturally relative, and so on than that some get to experience it more than others. The deconstruction of aesthetic pleasure, however useful in showing the social limitations of bourgeois conceptions of art, is often merely a mark of academic privilege; the redistribution of pleasure is the harder and more significant task. Our society is aesthetically unhealthy because in even the most privileged lives art (and playful, intuitive, imaginative activity generally) is cordoned off from the daily round of drudgery and made ancillary to it; but in the least privileged, aesthetic activity perforce emerges in reduced or marginal ways--in, let us say, the sort of ornamental objects sheet-metal workers construct for themselves on company time from company materials, or the self-ornamentation of office workers. Obviously I am making discriminations of value already here, and I confess that I am doing it from the standpoint of bourgeois aesthetics. While in certain local instances I am sympathetic to the relativizing of standards, as in Jane Tompkins's provocative work on the nineteenth-century domestic novel, generally it strikes me (like it did Leon Trotsky) as condescending to excuse the popular classes from the rigors--and pleasures--of aesthetic experience.(9) Why throw out the aesthetic principles of "psychological complexity, moral ambiguity, epistemological sophistication, stylistic density, [and] formal economy"(10)--academic relativists call on them all the time in private conversation--just because they are associated with a historically obsolete and morally crudescent class? Especially when, as I want to show, these uualities survive in the experience of the best popular art, which embodies an aesthetic excellence that profits those without access to or cultivated interest in museums and literary canons and explores realms of life and feeling that museums and literary canons have usually, as Eagleton quite rightly argues, left out of account.(11) This is where aesthetic value can do cultural studies good: representing facts of mind and feeling of the popular classes, popular texts often demonstrate that good art can be forceful politics. We ought to be arguing for more of it for more people, not less of it for the few.(12)
My examples all involve New World history in the context of the slave trade's middle passage and its legacy. The pop artists I discuss all avoid scoring the easy points such a history begs, and instead summon complex visions of race in America that, in their way, offend much more deeply and imaginatively than the puny carping of the recent Whitney crowd. The first is a very brief song by white pop singer Randy Newman, "Sail Away" (1972).(13) Though it takes a moment, if not a second listening, to realize it, the song is sung from the point of view of a white slaver imploring some Africans to come with him to America. This preposterous and even disgusting conceit pays off in what it's able to say about the terror and pleasure of being an American. Arriving on the shores of West Africa, one imagines, the trader steps off into the crowd as the music begins and utters his quiet and chilling entreaty:
In America, you get food to eat Won't have to run through the jungle and scuff up your feet You just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day It's great to be an American Ain't no lion or tiger, ain't no mama snake Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake Everybody is as happy as a man can be Climb aboard little wog sail away with me Sail away Sail away We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay Sail away Sail away We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay
Newman's irony is anything but cheap; the song's earnestness, and the outrageous beauty it conjures out of the slave trade in the majestic vision of Charleston Bay, confront you with all the awful contradictions of American history. The song isn't cynical; it acknowledges and even encourages your love for America; indeed it tempts you for a moment to believe that this image of America is true, and packs a wallop the instant you start to do so.
In America, every man is free To take care of his home and his family And be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree Y'all gonna be an American Sail away Sail away We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay Sail away Sail away We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay
Greil Marcus's words describe the trader brilliantly: "Of course he is lying. He has seen babies thrown into the sea, smelled the death and excrement in the hold, watched the brand burn into the flesh. He has looked without flinching into the bewildered eyes that are perhaps the most terrible of all. But for the moment, he believes himself", and in a way that illuminates how white inhabitants of the United States experience themselves as American citizens. The song depicts a faith in the idea of America so strong that even the violence on which it is founded comes to seem beautiful. Insisting on the violence as well as the beauty, Newman's after something more than a complacent sense of "ambivalence"--he wants it to hurt every time white people feel like Americans. He wants the feeling to be earned. It is all there in the combined temptation and violence of the last words to the slaves-to-be, in "y'all gonna be an American" (that is to say, whether you like it or not), in the way Newman rolls the word "American" around in his sly drawl. Indeed the song's final irony lies in the fact that this very drawl and the gospel-bluesy cadences of the melody would only come into being after those Africans had become African-Americans and generated musical forms that would infiltrate and define American music: the song is in this sense literally impossible, and this discrepancy forces us to acknowledge the thievery and the forced racial embrace of the beautiful music itself. All of which seems to me every bit as realized and incisive as the ending of The Great Gatsby, when Nick Carraway imagines the wonderment of Dutch sailors upon first landing on American shores, that "transitory enchanted moment" in which (given the plunder that will follow their arrival) they see for the last time "something commensurate to [their] capacity for wonder"--the Dream shadowed by its negation.(14)
My second example is from comedian Richard Pryor, a stand-up monologue that depicts a hilarious conversation between a black wino and a black junkie (1974) and that might in fact be seen as one legacy of Newman's slaver's American vision ("sing about Jesus and drink wine all day").(15) It goes without saying that transcription to the page does no justice to Pryor's performance (although, like a transcription of a Charlie Parker alto solo, it does reveal the integrity of Pryor's design):
Winos don't get drunk like everybody else, though, right? Wino be directing traffic on Sunday morning, that was my favorite thing about the winos, 'cos I didn't want to go to church so I'd hang with 'em. Wino be standing there, Hey, fool, you better slow that car down! Goddamn don't come drivin' down through here like you crazy! This a neighborhood, this ain't no residential district! [Sings:] "Jesus on my mind..." Hey, ice cream boy, you wanna turn that goddamn noise off? Don't nobody wanna hear that shit this time o' mornin'! Well jump on out there, nigger, you bad I got somethin' fo' yo' ass! I'm a vet'ran boy, I was in World War I, the battle of the Chateaubriand...I got mustard gas wounds all over my body! [Notices a junkie.] Who's that boy...? That genius--look at that nigger. Look at him, in the middle of the street, junkie motherfucker, look at that--nigger used to be a genius! I ain't lyin', booked the numbers, didn't need paper or pencil. Now the nigger can't remember who he is. Say, nigger, get yo' ass out the street, boy! [Whistles.] Move out the way, boy!
Junkie. Ah! Wha's happnin'? [Softer, woozy.] Wha's happnin'? Shit, I know somethin' happening, cos everything's movin'! Baby--hey, pops! Come on, old motherfucker, I'll dust yo' ass off, baby--bip! bip-bip! ahaha! Shit! [Whistles.] Pops--n'you listen to me--
Wino. Don't you hit me no more, boy, I'll dust yo' junkie ass off! Oh I will, nigger--you all right w'me, boy, I'm just ashamed to see you like that!
Junkie. Ashamed to see me? What about the shit out here?! Niggers is fuckin' with me, baby...[extended pause] Was I finished? I went to the unemployment bureau, baby...I vomited and shit on the floor. I did, man--they'll make that nigger with that pistol down there clean it up! Nigger talkin' about, "Clean up that vomit, motherfucker!" Ahahaha! I said, "Fuck you, nigger, I ain't cleanin' that shit up." He said, "You don't clean that shit up I'll shoot yo' ass!" I said, "Well who gon' clean up the blood, nigger?!" Ahahaha! That's the politics, baby. I'm sick, pops--boy, can you help me? My mind's thinkin' about shit I don't wanna think about--I can't stop the motherfucker, baby. Movin' too fast for the kid! Tell me some of that old lies o' yours to make me stop thinkin' about the truth. Would you help me?
Wino. Yeah, I'mo help ya, boy, 'cos I believe ya got potential. That's right. You don t know how to deal with the white man, that's yo problem. I know how to deal with him. That's right: that's why I'm in the position I'm in today!
This dense piece is mimetic art of the highest order: it communicates the ravages of black addiction and oppression with an intimacy and intensity rivalling anything in the more portentous undertakings of William Burroughs or Donald Goines. Notice, first, that the laugh the wino gets with his malapropistic traffic directing refers us quite specifically to cars moving at high rates of speed though wasted black neighborhoods; the observation is buried in the wino's discourse but gives it a fully imagined realism.(16) Note also the ironizing of masculine prowess in the wino's threats against both the ice cream "boy" (!) and the defenseless junkie. The wino conceives of his power in bodily terms, relishes his status as a veteran--as though the social power from which he's been exiled (in, for instance, having been sent to the front lines in the first place) is recovered in reduced form in physical strength. This insight, so crucial to a developing body of social scientific inquiry, is deftly and quite casually incorporated into Pryor's scene.(17) The junkie's interiority, his sickness and disconnection, is rendered with supreme expertness and sensitivity--in his repeated "wha's happnin'?," for example, the first one addressed to the world and the second to himself, as if by repeating the greeting he could bridge the two realities; and also in the dissociation of his uncompleted thought ("was I finished?"). The junkie is also invested in physical prowess as a kind of last refuge of self-respect; his irony toward the black security guard, another disempowered black man in a masquerade of puissance, is as succinct and bleak as anything I know. We might remark more generally the superior tone the previously quite drunk wino adopts in regard to the junkie, which refers us, I think, to a hierarchy of addiction that's rooted in black generational conflict--to each generation his drug of choice--though it is ultimately referable, we find, to the white man. Pryor's restraint is notable in this last regard; he refuses to insist on the broader context of white racism, as though it would interrupt his account of these two subjectivities, and rather assumes it, especially in the final joke that laughs it away at the wino's expense. One might say that the "joke" is precisely at the expense of all these characters, as is made clear in the junkie's final pathos, the wino's self-delusion, and--one of the additional richnesses of Pryor's records--the predominantly black audience's laughs of recognition.
My last example is the almost universally vilified (and misunderstood) Michael Jackson video "Black or White" (1991).(18) Usually read as some kind of celluloid translation of William Julius Wilson (The Declining Significance of Race, etc.)(19)--the song's refrain is "it don't matter if you're black or white"--Jackson's brilliant video is the surest recent report on the contradictions of racial identity in the United States. Its brief intro finds white tyke MacCauley Culkin (of Home Alone fame) listening to the very loud guitar (played by Slash of Guns 'n' Roses) of white rock 'n' roll. His father (George Wendt of Cheers) demands that he "Turn that noise off!" After some give and take of this nature, Culkin wheels huge speaker columns into his parents' living room, plugs in his guitar, hits a chord, and blows Pop in his easy chair through the roof and all the way to Africa. The opening guitar chords of "Black or White" proper now begin, sounding not unlike the music Culkin has been listening to, and Michael Jackson with some "African" dancers starts to dance in front of Father Wendt, still in his easy chair.
The complexity and self-consciousness of this opening scene alone are enough to blast Jackson's critics back to their pigeonholes. For one thing it locates the source of white rock and white suburban youth rebellion in cultures of the African diaspora, the ultimate referent of Culkin's power chord. Indeed the middle passage is invoked and reversed in George Wendt's educational trip to Africa, itself a rather scandalous repudiation of the sitcom ethos of Cheers. Nor can it be accidental that Jackson chose Slash to play the opening chords of the song, for this choice both ironizes and embraces Slash's African-Americanness, disavowed in the racist context of Guns 'n' Roses but foregrounded here as (again) the propelling force of "white" rock 'n' roll. And it is this music that Jackson has in turn self-consciously appropriated (he wants you to hear that he's appropriated the appropriation) in the chordal backbone of "Black or White." Jackson has us right where he wants us--ignorant and dazed in our easy chair, waiting to be educated--and the video has barely begun.
This troubling of racial categories is central to the perhaps deceptive vignettes that Jackson now wheels onscreen. For while he has placed himself amid African dancing in the first one, the dancing itself looks patently approximate, West Africa by way of Michael Jackson; Jackson has already begun to assert the manufactured character of "racial" cultures--African cultures not as survivals but as reclamations, disrupted and mediated transmissions, acts of memory and desire. (Of course the fact that Africa is being reclaimed at all gives the lie to Jackson's "race-men" critics.) This view of culture is reiterated as Jackson leaps out of the "African" scene onto the visible soundstages of others, in one of which the slaughter of Native Americans by rioting, gun-toting cowboys is in progress. Jackson dances on a little platform, joining an Indian girl in distress--but on close inspection the girl doesn't look Native American at all, she's playacting, as is, of course, Jackson himself. And yet he is doing this in solidarity with the Indians, stressing in these vignettes, not unlike Randy Newman, the violence on which America rests, his awareness of that violence, and, most of all, his ability to embrace its victims through imaginatively and self-consciously constructed cultural acts.
More vignettes follow, perhaps the most striking being that of Jackson in India dancing with a woman in the middle of a metropolitan street, with traffic whizzing by and an enormous billowing factory in the background. They all bear witness to Jackson's understanding of the historical weight of culture as well as its inessential--one might say antiessentialist--character. The scene in India is a particularly delicious riposte to American notions of Third World "primitivism" and a testament to the (industrial) leavings of imperial history. If Jackson's serial entrances onto all these scenes seem a little too touristic and globe-trotting, they nonetheless underscore the cultural hybridity in which "Black or White" revels. The fiercest affirmation of this hybridity comes in the song's bridge, as Jackson hurls himself through a wall of fire:
I ain't gotta do jack I ain't gotta do stuff I ain't gotta do gravy Ooh when the going gets rough I ain't scared of no brother I ain't scared of no sheets I ain't scared of nobody
The song's summing statement on race comes in the rap rhymes that follow this take-no-prisoners yawp:
Protection for gangs called the nations Causing grief in human relations It's a turf war on a global scale I'd rather hear both sides of the tale See it's not about races, just places, Faces, where your blood comes from Is where your space is, I've seen the bite get duller I'm not gonna spend my life bein' a color
For Jackson, that last line may be literally true; his color doth undergo a sea change every few years. That these rhymes are, in the video, stuck in the mouth of none other than MacCauley Culkin, however, indicates a faith in racial transcendence that far exceeds the paltry dreams of your average crossover artist (the child being, in Jackson's worldview, the vehicle of such transcendence). Culkin's lip-synched rapping, for instance, intimates an identification with black life that is nonetheless not blackfaced, that option forcefully displaced by the prominent golden forelock drooping through the front of his backwards ballcap. As if to confirm this faith in transcendence the video immediately cuts to the extraordinary image of Jackson emerging from behind the Statue of Liberty torch, singing, "Don't tell me you agree with me/when I saw you kickin' dirt in my eye"; while I personally might have preferred an enlarged image of C.L.R. James to the Statue of Liberty, Jackson is rebarbative, obstreperous on the torch, as it were refusing to hide behind it, demanding an equality in fact as well as in name. (The very first sound on the album from which "Black or White" comes, Dangerous, is that of someone shattering a glass window.)
The two extended sequences that close the video elaborate the complex and uncompromising position between hybridity and sell-out that Jackson has claimed. The over-hyped "morphing" sequence, in which a variety of remarkably luminous and attractive faces are electronically superimposed so as to flow "magically" into one another, is important not for the wizardry of its effect but because it perfectly sums up Jackson's vision. The sequence imagines race mutable, the burden of its construction lifted; boundaries between self and other are permeable even as the particularity of faces and races is stunningly present. It is identity politics with a (universalist) human face. The faces sing, over and over, "it's black, it's white," as if it hardly mattered which color face were singing which, and indeed the black-white binary is wholly exceeded by the beautiful heterogeneity on display here. When the last face appears, the camera pulls back to reveal a soundstage and a director yelling "cut!," the video self-conscious to the last about the manufactured character of racial identity. For most audiences this has been the end of the video.
But originally, something so extraordinary happened at this moment that the video's initial audiences couldn't take it in. "Black or White's" last several silent minutes caused such an uproar that Jackson cut them from future showings.(20) If Jackson can be faulted for "Black or White," it is because his belief in a place beyond race led him to mar his art. For what follows the morphing sequence is a spectacularly deployed repertoire of black political images; the political and artistic intelligence and intensity of this final scene is shattering. The scene forms a compressed drama of white violence against black bodies and Jackson's violent retort. Moments after the morphing sequence ends, a panther--a black panther--walks away from the soundstage, slinks down some steel steps, and morphs into Michael Jackson. Jackson emerges from the panther in front of what look like prison bars (is this death row?); he walks a few steps only to find himself caught in a harsh surveillance light; he reaches for an imaginary pistol but, as is coded in his brilliant dance moves, he is taken down in a hail of bullets. A small alleycat squeals from a nearby trashcan, underscoring this drama of diminution, panther reduced to pussycat. In response Jackson summons a windstorm of rage and fury, and if his violent, sexual dance carries more than a whiff of hysterical remasculinization, its anger counters and at the same time earns the democratic faith embodied in the rest of "Black or White."
Grabbing and stroking his groin, Jackson dances with unprecedented urgency and even insurgency. He signifies wittily and trenchantly on Astaire and Kelly, stomping in the rainy puddles of this dark, deserted street, smashing bottles with elegant toe thrusts. Seeing a car scrawled with racist slogans--"Hitler Lives," "Nigger Go Home," "No More Wetbacks," slogans that identify the enemy much more sharply than the song's swipe at "brothers"--Jackson administers a tire iron to its windows in a whirl of absolutely stunning violence. (That Jackson imagines his penis as the locus of this liberating violence is conveyed in the rather baroque moment when Jackson stops to zip up his fly; the whole final scene insists on the link between black male sexuality and political resistance.) Not even the radical will displayed in the rest of the video has prepared us for this, or for perhaps Jackson's ultimate gesture: his heaving a trashcan through a storefront window (cf. the end of Do the Right Thing). There really is a riot going on, and Jackson has danced us directly into it. No wonder nobody wanted to see the end of "Black or White"! It reveals the underside of the urge to transcendence the video depicts: a recognition of violent racist suppression, an inwardness with violent resistance, and, in the very final moments, an acknowledgment of the mutilations (including plastic surgery?) suffered by black bodies in the act of self-liberation. Taken as a whole, "Black or White" conjures an incredible depth and complexity of responsiveness to the ongoing predicaments of racial demarcation in America.(21)
Newman, Pryor, and Jackson, in their ability to imagine and portray intimate scenes of human feeling along the color line, demonstrate that great art can issue in scabrous, unassimilable political meanings. Newman achieves a major insight in a compact little pop song for a mass audience; Pryor represents lives that have been too little represented in the canons of high art; Jackson does both. That they do this in artistic forms that many would not give the time of day, and yet work these forms to meet the standards of bourgeois aesthetics, is a contradiction to which cultural studies ought to turn more of its attention.
1. Arthur Danto, The Nation (April 1993); Peter Schjeldahl, The Village Voice (April 1993).
2. Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic (Seattle: Bay Press, 1983).
3. Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, 1780-1950 (1958; New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 333; E.P. Thompson, "The Long Revolution," New Left Review 9-10 (1961): 33.
4. Michael Green, "The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies," Re-Reading English, ed. Peter Widdowson (London: Methuen, 1982), 77-90.
5. Paul Willis, Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs (1977; New York: Columbia University Press, 1981); Paul Gilroy, "There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack": The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (London: Hutchinson, 1987); Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York: Routledge, 1991); Jonathan Dollimore, Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).
6. Terry Eagleton and Peter Fuller, "The Question of Value: A Discussion," New Left Review 142 (November-December 1983), 76-90.
7. These arguments and others like them constituted much of the 1980s debate in literary studies; for examples, see Canons, ed. W.J.T. Mitchell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985); Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983); Jane P. Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985); Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988); and perhaps the summa of this work, Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (London: Blackwell, 1990).
8. For Fuller's position, see especially The Naked Artist: "Art and Biology" and Other Essays (London: Writers and Readers, 1983) and Seeing Berger: A Revaluation of "Ways of Seeing" (London: Writers and Readers, 1980); Fuller's view arose in large part out of conversations and arguments with British critic and writer John Berger, whose key works include The Success and Failure of Picasso (Baltimore: Penguin, 1965) and Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin, 1972). See also Sebastiano Timpanaro, On Materialism (London: Verso, 1975) and Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension (Boston: Beacon, 1977).
9. "It would be monstrous to conclude...that the technique of bourgeois art is not necessary to the workers....Those who believe in a 'pock-marked' art are imbued to a considerable extent with contempt for the masses...Proletarian art should not be second-rate art." Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (1925; Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960), 204-205.
10. Tompkins, Sensational Designs, xvii.
11. I agree with Pierre Bourdieu, however, that in popular aesthetics one sees a value placed on participatory, collective engagement that such elements of bourgeois aesthetics usually deny; Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (1979; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 32-35, 40-41, 44-50.
12. No critical position is developed in isolation. This essay is indebted to collaborations with Benj DeMott, who first pointed out to me the significance of Peter Fuller. DeMott's fellow writers at Brooklyn's City Sun, Armond White and Charlie O'Brien, have also been influential on the arguments presented here. It is incidentally interesting that such journalist-critics of the popular--others include Robert Christgau, Lisa Kennedy, Ann Powers, Greg Tate, Simon Frith, Mim Udovitch, Dave Marsh, Simon Reynolds, Stanley Crouch, Lisa Jones, Danyel Smith, Peter Watrous, Harry Allen, Rob Sheffield, and Tom Carson--have been far more willing to engage the aesthetic force of pop culture than have most academics in recent years, and have therefore, in my opinion, been a lot more interesting. A recent exception to the academic norm is Tim Brennan, "Getting Off the Gangsta Tip: A Rap Appreciation, or Forgetting About Los Angeles," Critical Inquiry (forthcoming); one ought as well to note the pioneering work in this vein of Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (1957; London: Penguin, 1967); Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel, The Popular Arts (New York: Pantheon, 1964); and Benjamin DeMott, Supergrow: Essays and Reports on Imagination in America (New York: Dell, 1969). For some acute remarks on these matters see Stanley Aronowitz, Roll over Beethoven: The Return of Cultural Strife (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1993), 190-202.
13. Randy Newman, Sail Away (Warner Bros. M5 2064, 1972). Readers of Greil Marcus will know that I am indebted in what follows to Marcus's Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music (1975; New York: Dutton, 1982), 125-28.
14. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Scribner's, 1925), 182.
15. Richard Pryor, "Wino and Junkie," That Nigger's Crazy (Reprise MS 2241, 1974).
16. I have learned a lot about changing representations of the American ghetto from Carlo Rotella, "Plotting the Generic Boundaries of the Ghetto: Warren Miller and Claude Brown," American Studies Association, Costa Mesa, California, November 1992.
17. Paul Willis, "Shop Floor Culture, Masculinity and the Wage Form," Working-Class Culture: Studies in History and Theory, ed. John Clarke, Chas Critcher, and Richard Johnson (London: Hutchinson, 1979), 185-98; David Montgomery, Workers' Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles (New York: Cambridge, 1979), 13-14; Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), passim; Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (New York: Knopf, 1986), 77-78, 95-96, 137-41; Michael Denning, Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America (London: Verso, 1987), ch. 9; Philip Cohen, "Tarzan and the Jungle Bunnies: Race, Class, and Sex in Popular Culture," New Formations 5 (Summer 1988): 27; Nikhil Singh, "Liberation Politics and Identity Politics: The Case of '1968' and the Black Panthers," American Studies Association, Costa Mesa, California, November 1992.
18. Nearly the only exception is the aforementioned Armond White's excellent article on Jackson's video in The City Sun, a piece from which the present discussion takes its lead.
19. Cf. William Julius Wilson, The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978) and The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
20. The full text is now restored on the videocassette Michael Jackson: Dangerous: The Short Films (Epic 19V 49164, 1993).
21. A paper that helped me think (by analogy) about the commercial, racial, and "national" complexities of "Black or White" was Adam Green, "Slumming in the Hometown: Popular Culture and the Black Bourgeoisie in Chicago, 1940-1955," American Studies Association, Costa Mesa, California, November 1992.
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|Title Annotation:||Special Section: Does Literary Value Supercede Other Kinds of Value?|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1994|
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