Drawing by Sam Icklow.
By Tavia Nyong'o
"I'm not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." --- Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform
"My thoughts are murder to the state." -- Henry David Thoreau, 19th century American writer, conservationist, and proto-anarchist.
Teaching Thoreau's great essay on '
AROUND noon on Saturday September 21, a group of terrorists believed to number 10 to 18 stormed the Westgate Mall in western Nairobi.
By the third day, 69 had been killed during the attack, or died later in hospital. Another 175 had been injured. Today the crisis entered its fourth day. In the evening a downcast President Uhuru Kenyatta, came on TV to give heartbreaking news.
On the way home from Chicago, between bouts of distracted and frantic searching for news from Kenya, where a horrific hostage situation is ongoing as of this writing, I’ve been thinking about a comment Alex Weheliye made in the closing plenary. Perhaps it was throwaway, but it stuck with me. In paraphrase, his comment was that one can do critical ethnic studies even if one couldn’t, as he couldn’t, stand the term “ethnic.”
I admit to disliking the term too, and my dislike kept me away from the first CESA two years ago. But the actual conference, what gets done under the rubric of “ethnic,” was so politically passionate and intellectually stimulating. I found myself taken by it. And then I thought about the institutional rubrics under which I’ve been obliged to work: American Studies, Performance Studies. I’ve come to dislike them equally too. (I’ve never tired of Black Studies or African-American Studies, but then, I’ve never worked under them as institutional as opposed to volitional rubrics.
And yet here I am, glued to my phone for messages, tweets, images, videos from somewhere half a world away that I also call “home.” I am ethnic, like it or not. Whatever else I also am. Being ethnic, and disliking ethnic being leaves me resting on the featherweight hope of that adjectival, elusive criticality.
Finally placating my FOMS (fear of missing something), EMP Pop Conference NYC 2013 was streamlined to a single sequence of panels over the course of two days, allowing me to attend every single panel. Of course, the conference happened concurrently in four other cities: LA, Cleveland, New Orleans, and Seattle. But somehow out of sight was (at least temporarily) out of mind, and the range and depth of conversations we had at 721 Broadway Thursday and Friday held focus for the duration.
As an organizer of the event, I’m particularly proud of the mix of academics, journalists, musicians, dancers, deejays, producers and bloggers that we were able to bring together, often on the same panel. Shout out to Dr. Imani Kai Johnson who brought together legendary dancers and DJs for a revelatory (10 am!) discussion about the underground house dance tribe. EMP stalwarts appeared alongside some first timers, references to Kant and cumbia were fair game, and to my pleasurable surprise, folks defied the “regional” concept behind the 5-city theme, and came to NYC from as far away as Toronto, North Carolina, and London. That people value EMP Pop Conference enough to travel to it, sometimes just to participate from the audience, speaks to the unique status of this event. And it’s need to continue.
Suspended over the event, of course, was the geographically proximate but emotionally wrenching distance between New York and Boston. Many of us had at least one eye on our Twitter feeds for updates on the lockdown and manhunt (thankfully now concluded without any further loss of life). Amanda Palmer’s keynote, oddly enough, spoke directly to this networked condition, and not just because she had herself made it out of Boston, despite the lockdown, to speak at EMP. Now, I personally cannot claim to know her music well or appreciate her social media influence fully. But I was very taken by the forthrightness with which she addressed the dilemmas of living a substantial portion of our lives online.
The networked condition is a topic that has been instantly banalized without being fully understood. 1993 isn’t that long ago, but as the recent New Museum show reminded us, its a world away in many ways. It’s probably not understandable at this moment: I’m still historian enough to believe that the owl of minvera flies at dusk. But that very impossibility made Palmer compelling, insofar as she refused the kind of dogmatic and premature “solutions” offered by digital pessimist and digital Pollyanna alike.
Fred Moten put it well in his remarks delivered via Skype from Scotland, when he riffed off of the dis/placement of virtual presence and called our attention to the no-place of a not-public sphere. Those who know my interest on the “non-philosopher” Francois Laruelle will appreciate how my ears always perk up at the possibilities that inhere to this kind of negation.
History is another kind of virtual presence, especially when channeled through the weird magic of recorded media. We humanists tend to treat classroom media with a mixture of contempt and mock-incompetence, a practice that always startles and offends the 13-year-old me trying to program in Basic on the computer my grandpa gave me. But as Daphne Brooks, Gayle Wald and Alex Vazquez all showed, to bring Diana Ross, Roland Rahsaan Kirk, and La Lupe into the room, even mediatically, is to reanimate musical and political forces that still retain “the fierce urgency of the now.”
Deborah Kapchan and Banning Eyre worried about the loss of affective and aesthetic complexity that digital tools and deskilling has brought to African and African-diasporic musics. I myself am not quite ready to equate quantization with baleful Westernization. Or rather, I would want to push that equation further, the better to understand black and black-influenced musics as “the critique of Western civilization,” produced by organic intellectuals like La Lupe, Kirk and, why not? maybe even the Boss (although Scott Poulson-Bryant’s presentation on Thursday argued that Stephanie Mills, not Ross, truly owns “Home,” Dorothy’s anthem from The Wiz).
“Migrant Locals” brought together a vibrant and sometimes tense conversation about convivial culture in the gentrifying city. Online and outside in the hallway, parallel conversations were being had about what it means to take Harlem, or anywhere else in NYC for that matter, as tabula rasa for migrant strivers dreaming. An open-ended, two-way diaspora has replaced older myths of immigration, with New Yorkers from Mexico, West Africa, and the Dominican Republic retaining linguistic, musical, and familial ties to home. Goods are being trafficked from the Caribbean. Mix CD shout-outs to loved ones circulate on a gift economy between a warehouse under the BQE and towns in Mexico. Houses go up in Dakar on money earned driving black cars in Brooklyn: standing empty awaiting their owners return. There is a tension, however, between the nouveau wealth and optimism of the globalized petty bourgeoisie — no longer comprador exactly, but not revolutionary either — and the multigenerational but still propertyless people of Harlem, Bed Stuy, Bushwick, Red Hook. The generosity and spirit of the “Air Shaft Rent Party” that Moten evoked persists in tension with the acquisitive and possessive familialism of some immigrant cultures (speaking from personal experience).
All to say that multiculturalism, conviviality, and musical cross-pollination (or conversely musical/cultural hermeticism) are fraught and tense issues on the ground, not mere academic or journalistic abstractions. I am attracted to José Muñoz evocation of a “brown punk commons” of those who don’t necessarily have anything obvious (like identity) in common, as one space where these issues can be aired, without of course resolving them. If genre is multiculturalism and world music’s stock in trade, punk in Muñoz’s terms is an anti-genre, a genre of the antithesis and the negation. I heard some of that negation in Kandia Crazy Horse’s totally punk account of being a black female singer in the New York “up-South” country scene. Sometimes anti-genre can sound like genre, but only to those who aren’t paying attention.
Listen to Kandia Crazy Horse, “Cabin in the Pines” here.
I’ll finish this wrap-up with a Part II soon.
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