Friday 7 November 2008

The accursed cultural theory, excess and the morbid imagination

Great Satan's Rage: American Negativity and Rap/metal in the Age of Supercapitalism by Scott Wilson (Manchester University Press, 2008)

Scott Wilson’s topics cry out for a book to be written about them: the negative urge lying deep in the very national consciousness that claims to represent everything positive about capitalism; the morbid imagination that challenges upbeat political branding and corporate impression management. Informed by the work of George Bataille, drawing on most notably The Accursed Share, this book makes inroads before blocking its own path with ‘cultural theory’ as thick and congested as the cultural practices it describes. It curses itself, just as ‘rap/metal’ puts a bad spell on its own neighbourhood. 

The opening bodes well. Wilson introduces the idea of fear of the Devil coupled with a desire for him, and goes on to establish the United States of America as a symbol of both good and evil. America connotes evil not only to those outside its borders, but for many born and brought up within them. Thus, Wilson sets the stage for a logical reconstruction of self loathing as it currently appears in the most advanced capitalist nation. But instead of stripping down this phenomenon and then rebuilding it to show how it is determined, Wilson takes us on a tour of its manifestations in the work of rappers (Public Enemy, NWA, Dr Dre, Ice Cube) and mainly metal bands (Korn, Negativland, Slipknot), though he extends the latter section as far as Nirvana. Each musical showing is framed by different theorists; but Bataille and the idea of excess is the riff that Wilson repeatedly returns to.

One of the problems with Wilson’s tour of music is that it is not sufficiently musical. He is comfortable discussing lyrics, but there is little reference to the grain of voice or texture of sound, and even less attention paid to the precise forms in which American ‘negativity’ appears as music. But why focus on music if the artform’s defining features are never mentioned?

The Wilsonian concept of ‘supercapitalism’ is potentially effective: it captures the sense of another, even more internally problematic layer of capitalism superimposed upon its earlier operations. But Wilson suggests that war is the default position of ‘supercapitalism’; that it hinges on permanent war as the point of articulation between the production and disposal of excess. This sounds like a new version of an old canard, reconfigured with Bataille’s The Accursed Share instead of Michael Kidron’s Permanent Arms Economy. All this jaw of war sounds odd when published during the year of unprecedented international cooperation - not conflict – fostered by the attempt to prevent financial crisis and industrial recession becoming an altogether different means of ‘excess’ capital disposal. Odd too that Wilson’s ‘supercapitalism’ is rarely engaged with the financial economy.

When Wilson turns from ‘supercapitalism’ to its soundtrack, in the early stages of his musical tour the main difficulty is the change of register between cultural theory and song lyrics, and he acknowledges that music is best heard. But as the tour proceeds this gap shrinks unexpectedly, especially when Wilson’s deployment of cultural theorists comes close to building its own wall of sound. By the time he has blasted Lacanian neologisms, structuralist equations and Guattarian graphs, I realised this was partly a laudable attempt to get beyond the daily turn of events, and partly an exercise in negativity about theory and its role in cognition. Although incognito, (not meant to be recognised as such), cultural theory was surely being applied as a defensive measure against the accusation that theory is inextricably linked to Enlightenment.

Against this accusation, Wilson’s theoretical strings were wound up to a level that matches the histrionic intensity of rap and metal. Each in accordance with the particular form by which it is defined, this sort of music and kind of theory both seek to transcend their immediate circumstances, while together they take an equally negative attitude to their original, defining roles. Here in negativland, theory mocks logical appropriation by verging on the inexplicable; music scorns pleasure by making itself excruciating. The show both of them are staging is the rejection of human perfectibility, though in rejecting this because it does not apply, they themselves confirm the belief that it should.

On the jacket, Wilson is described as ‘Reader in Cultural Theory’. On this showing, the problem with cultural theory is that it is neither cultural enough – it does not discuss music in terms of the forms which make it specifically musical; nor is it sufficiently theoretical. If Wilson had identified one or two theoretical categories and worked them through by reference to a handful of songs, at the same time working through them to a better understanding of social contexts and the terms used to encapsulate them, his account might have been both more comprehensible and more comprehensive. In its current mix, his track is ‘dilettante’ rather than ‘definitive’.

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