I never have time to write anything but my dissertation these days, but in reading the media theory necessary to make my argument an interesting pattern emerged I want to briefly outline.  My first exposure to “theory” was a graduate class on Marx and Freud which ended up being mostly an exploration of Lacan through Zizek.  I didn’t find this confusingly telescoped approach to political economy and psychoanalysis to be all that instructive, but the kinds of questions the class raised did kindle my interest in the enterprise of “theory” largely conceived.  Later, I read Derrida’s work, particularly his earliest essays in the Grammatology and Writing and Difference.  From Derrida, I went back and read several of Heidegger’s works, including Being and Time and Poetry, Language, and Thought.  I don’t find myself thinking of this reading much in my current work other than that, more recently, the topic of presence, perhaps the central concern for Derrida and Heidegger, has become important to my dissertation’s argument on print media and modernist information management.

In “Signature Event Context,” Derrida says,”[A] written sign carries with it a force that breaks with its context, that is, with the collectivity of presences organizing the moment of its inscription.  This breaking force [force de rupture] is not an accidental predicate but the very structure of the written text” (9).  Derrida insists that writing, as a practice, does not operate despite the possibility of the producer’s absence, but because of it.  I am not interested in getting into an extended discussion of deconstruction, but in my dissertation research these notions of presence, media, and literature keep surfacing together.  Derrida’s entire philosophical project can in some sense be understood as a defamiliarization of our normalized understanding of language.  Both inside and outside the scope of my dissertation’s argument, I feel modernist literature is a particularly rich site on which authors see print media and language in alternative ways and that the notion of presence is at the center of this shift.

Friedrich Kittler was the first actual media theorist I was exposed to.[1]  However, it wasn’t until I read Wolfgang Ernst’s essay collection Digital Media and the Archive, that the notion of presence in media began to catch my eye.  Ernst focuses on digital media and the microtemporalities they rely upon that are and should be understood as alien to human experience.  In “Toward a Media Archaeology of Sonic Articulations,” he says,

“The media archaeologist, without passion, does not hallucinate life when he listens to recorded voices, as does the notorious dog Nipper when listening to ‘His Master’s Voice’ on a phonograph.  The media-archaeological exercise is to be aware of the fact that at each technologically given moment we are dealing with media not humans, that we are not speaking with the dead but dealing with dead media that operate.” (183)

I am not practicing the strict media archaeology Ernst is defining here, but as a literary scholar, it seems to me even more important to resist the urge to speak with the dead because it is easy to fall into the romantic notion of authorial presence in a text.  We frequently refer to authors and poets speaking in their texts, and even if we qualify it as a text, it’s easy to “hallucinate life” in the literature that arrives before us through print’s media effects.

Ernst’s thinking on this matter caught my attention immediately, but I needed to renovate it in order apply it to print.  This move was anticipated by Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman in their Introduction to Comparative Textual Media.  They theorize that the interposition of the type of technology Ernst describes, these conspicuously non-human electric and digital media, recontextualizes how we interact with print:

“[W]hen writing was accomplished by a quill pen, ink pot, and paper, it was possible to fantasize that writing was simple and straightforward, a means by which the writer’s thoughts could be transferred more or less directly into the reader’s mind.  With the proliferation of technical media in the latter half of the nineteenth century, that illusion became much more difficult to sustain, for intervening between writer and reader was a proliferating array of technical devices, including telegraphs, phonographs, typewriters, Dictaphones, Teletypes, and wire recorders, on up to digital computing devices that themselves are splitting into an astonishing array of different protocols, functionalities, interfaces, and codes.  The deepening complexities of the media landscape have made mediality, in all its forms, a central concerns of the twenty-first century.  With that that changed cultural emphasis  comes a reawakening of interesting in the complexities of earlier media forms as well.” (loc157)

From our 21st-century vantage we can see print through the prism of these undeniably non-human digital media.  This revision prompts a defamiliarization with the normalized characteristics of print.  We had become accustomed to seeing the author in the literary text and now we can see it as a material medium. [2]

The chapter of my dissertation I am currently working on depends on a similar reappraisal of print media.  Pound, in developing the poetics for his earliest cantos, underwent a radical shift in his approach to print media.  Rather than seeing his poetry as a conduit for the transmission of his interiority or a simulated interiority, he began to use print as an information management tool to revitalize, what was in his mind, a derelict archive and literary tradition.  Implicit here is also a banishment of the simulated human presence in print media.  Like the electronic media of his time and the digital media that would follow, Pound began to see his work not as a magical container for his presence, but as material objects through which he could transmit information.  In order for Pound to capitalize on print’s media effects, he sacrificed the simulated human presence in the text, the fantasy that he was speaking directly to his reader.

I am convinced that literary modernism is a particularly important period for these overlapping issues.  In my dissertation, in addition to Pound’s A Draft of XXX Cantos (1930), I will argue H. D.’s Notes on Thought and Vision (1919) and Palimpsest (1926) and Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) exhibit a similar type of media shift.  Outside the scope of my dissertation, I find William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All (1923) and his poetry in general to be a parallel critique of human presence in language.  Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man” is a description of the natural world in the in which human presence is completely removed.  The “Time Passes” section of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is a representation of space and objects in the absence of human actors.  In other words, the origins of the media theory appearing here in the 21st-century had been conceptualized in the creative works appearing over a 100 years earlier.

[1]: My understanding of Kittler isn’t thorough enough to comment on his engagement with presence/absence.  However, as Geoffrey Winthrop-Young remarks in Kittler and the Media, Kittler was to some degree influenced by Heidegger, so making the connection between the thinkers is not inappropriate.

[2]: In addition to restricting my comparisons between print literary texts and digital media, I am also not able to discuss the multiple realms Hayles and Pressman see comparative textual media expanding into.  They, for instance, say “Media are necessarily associated with specific technologies and material structures as well as economic, legal, and social institutions” (loc252).  By necessity, I only discuss the material and literary contexts for the texts I analyze.

Zombie Jay and his Dollar Chain

Last year I attended the Modernist Studies Association Conference in Las Vegas.  I saw a lot of great panels and presentations, but one in particular got my attention.  On a panel entitled “Zombie Modernism” two separate presentations made me think about some of my old ideas in new ways.  One paper argued that rap music, and Kanye West in particular, engaged with the zombie tradition (dating back through Haitian culture and up into the present).  The other paper was not quite as central to my own ideas/interests, but mentioned object oriented ontology.  The confluence of rap, zombies, and object oriented ontology got me thinking.

I would like to think I’m a serious fan of rap and so I am eager to connect that discourse to my other interests, but I have never been able to access the concepts or vocabulary that are necessary to stage any kind of nuanced argument.  It had occurred to me that ideas about the “monstrous” presented some ways to approach the material and are everywhere in the music (Lil’ Wayne and his references to himself as a goblin, alien, and monster, Kanye and Jay Z discussing themselves as monsters, and Nicki Minaj as a perverse Barbie and the monstrous feminine).  I found the connection between the zombie (as an abstract idea) with rap music particularly interesting because if we examine the lyrics (where rappers literally say they inhabit various kinds of monstrous identities of which zombies are just one kind) rappers are continually embracing these monstrous identities.  In addition, and this idea I owe in part to one of the presentations at MSA, is that the idea of reanimation and recontextualization is a hallmark of zombie theory and makes it possible to take rap music’s form into account and provide an explanation of sampling and redeploying/zombifying pieces of other music.

For a while now, I have been toying with the idea that there is something important and interesting about rap’s excessive materialism.  Rap’s obsession with luxury goods is one of the chief reasons it is excluded from the category of serious art.   In other words, and if I’m permitted to unfairly and reductively ventriloquize a bit, “How serious of an artist can Kanye West be if all he raps about are luxury cars, jewelry, and designer labels?  He is shallow.” My argument would be that rap not only reappropriates and zombifies elements of culture, but in doing so also rejects the liberal humanist value system that has historically marginalized and degraded African and African American culture.  Their hyper-materialism is a direct reaction to these values: as Kanye said in “All Falls Down,” “We shine because they hate us, floss cause they degrade us.”  As an aside I’ll add, my feeling is that this extends beyond strict materialism and extends into the rap’s rhetoric as well.  Jay Z refers to his own way of expressing himself often, but seldom as clearly as here in “What More Can I Say?”: “God forgive me for my brash delivery/ I remember vividly what these streets did to me.”  I may be overstating the case that people make against rappers a bit; especially more lately, major news outlets and even the academy have been pretty willing to acknowledge Kanye and other rappers as artists, but I’m being hyperbolic to make my argument.

I also can’t avoid admitting that this is a fairly straightforward argument about rap’s materialism–they literally say these things in the lyrics.  On the other hand, I think it’s interesting that there is a sub-genre conveniently called “conscious” rap.  This term is obviously short for “socially conscious,” but it’s interesting that the conscious/unconscious binary is one by which zombies and objects are separated from human subjects.  Especially in texts like the “Zombie Manifesto,” the zombie represents a human form without that consciousness, or a human object rather than a human subject.  (This seems to tie in with the idea of object oriented ontology to an extent, though the more I read about OOO’s critique of correlationism, the less I like OOO as a theory).  At any rate, a year or so ago it occurred to me that “unconscious” rap of the kind that Kanye, Jay Z, Lil’ Wayne, and Nicki Minaj produce might actually perform a more radical critique of society than “conscious” rap does.  “Conscious” rap embraces liberal humanist values such as education, self-improvement, subjectivity, and social responsibility all with the goal of creating a more peaceful and equal society, and because of this is often more readily accepted by “educated” people (which is, of course, a gross generalization).  In other words, having a consciousness, being a human, means embracing this cluster of social and cultural values.  If someone rejects them, they are somehow not conscious.

Not that this is evidence of anything, but I have had many conversations in which people say they don’t like Jay Z or Lil’ Wayne because they’re superficial, but do like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Lupe Fiasco because there’s a positive message in their music and they propose solutions to the problems they identify.  “Unconscious” (if I’m allowed to coin a truly ridiculous term) rap is more difficult for mainstream discourses to embrace because it doesn’t emphasize the same values.  If the “unconscious” rapper’s goal is a Ferrari, there really isn’t much social programs and education can do to help them.  In other words, it’s a kind of cynical or nihilistic materialism that holds the accumulation of wealth above self-improvement or racial equality, albeit ironically (an ironic object oriented ontology).  In my mind, “unconscious” rap’s rejection of realistic and sustainable improvement for African Americans (e.g. better schools rather than haute couture) isn’t as much the shallowness of the artists that express those values, but a rejection of the opportunity for integration into a social value system that has repeatedly devalued their own cultural values.  As Jay Z is fond of quoting Goodfellas several times throughout his corpus, “F$%k you, pay me.”

This is not to say that I’m seeking to augment a binary between conscious and “unconscious” rap.  Many of the rappers, Kanye, Nas, and Jay Z in particular, have elements of conscious rap and, if forced to be sincere, would say they want the world to be less violent, more equal, and better for everyone, and they often say as much in their lyrics.  What remains interesting, however, is that they also resist wholly embracing liberal humanist values.  To me, this resistance stands as a critique of the value system that holds human subjective growth and development above the acquisition of material wealth, a value system which has also continually devalued African Americans and their culture.  By destabilizing the subject/object hierarchy, it seems to me there’s an argument to be made that rap is, on its own terms, critically entering into this traditional discourse as a sophisticated critique of humanism.  Perhaps, in certain cases, participating in attempts to imagine the posthuman.

There is another aspect to this that I plan to explore further.  In many instances in which “unconscious” rappers talk about the acquisition of luxury goods or appreciation for high art, they also celebrate their lack of formal and social education that is accepted as a prerequisite for appreciating these goods.  It is particularly interesting when Jay Z mentions “graduating to the MOMA” and boasts not having gone to college or had any kind of education in high art, despite being able to not only appreciate it, but also because of his business and artistic acumen, was able to forego the cultural gatekeepers in achieving access to it: “Far from a Harvard student.  Just had the balls to do it.”  This is all in addition to Kanye’s pointed and ongoing critique of higher education, which he says, steals your “streetness.”

In the meantime here is the video for “Monster” from Kanye’s most recent solo album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Text and Medium: Intro to Digital Humanities

ENGL 2393, The University of Tulsa

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