by Tavia Nyong’o
“Hysteria,” says downtown New York queer performance legend Justin Bond, “is the wave of the future.” Two recent events in the news — the new pat-down policies of the Transportation Security Administration, and the release of Kanye West’s fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — strongly hint that the future may be now. From the wall-to-wall cable TV coverage of the federal government’s latest iniquity to the hoopla over whether to co-sign or berate Kanye for acting out grandiose and abject male fantasies, we are all speaking the hysteric’s discourse now. But if that’s the case, then who are we speaking it to?
On the track “Gorgeous” off of Dark Fantasy, Kanye complains about being pulled out of line at the airport for a bag check, jeering at the claim that this treatment is “random,” and consoling himself with thoughts of receiving oral sex and of spreading piles of cash around like AIDS. Mild mannered software engineer John Tyner contented himself with a different kind of viral message when he too was subjected to the TSA’s tender mercies. His blog post and YouTube, painstakingly documenting the perceived humiliation of a “groin check,” rapidly ignited a nation into a rage not seen since the government tried to slip “death panels” into the healthcare bill. “Touching our junk,” apparently, is the only fate worse than death at the hands of terrorism or a lack of health coverage.
Tyner believed himself to be speaking to his fellow citizens in the newly democratized public sphere of the internet, just as Kanye imagines his role in hip hop to be continuing, as opposed to simply sampling, what he calls “soul music for the slaves.” Too bad that the very technological terms through which both men produce themselves as exemplary male rebels are the very ones that render that counter cultural public sphere increasingly virtual.
It takes no genius to notice the sharp increase in public grievance, anxiety and aggression. But more critical attention is required to trace these latest waves of symptoms back to to their systemic cause. In the wake of 9-11, Cornel West annoyed many Talented Tenthers like myself by saying that now white Americans knew what it felt to be “niggerized.” The (very white) John Tyner’s outrage when confronted with the sort of treatment black women and men have been accustomed to ever since they were pawed and poked on the auction block, suggests that West may have been right, if for the wrong reasons. It wasn’t Osama bin Laden that punked America, but then-president George W. Bush, with his permanent global war on terror and illegal war in Iraq, his indefinite suspension of civil liberties at home and in Guantanamo Bay, and, as we are now witnessing, his reluctant creation of a TSA that his party opposed as an expansion of federal government, and whose staff they subsequently left underpaid and un-unionized even as they were called upon to do the increasingly impossible for the ungrateful, and with a smile.
President Obama shouldn’t get off scott free in all of this. But it was Bush who left America’s junk as exposed as was the president’s own during the notorious Mission Accomplished aircraft carrier photo op, clad in a flight suit that, as Mark Greif noted at the time, presented “his crotch tightly cupped in nylon, secure as a flyer in someone else’s plane.” That military codpiece fairly screamed America’s back, bitches, with balls.
Balls are also on Kanye’s mind on Dark Fantasy, and never mind for the moment that he’s pretty sure by now that George W. Bush doesn’t care much about him. The symmetries between Bush’s conservatism and Kanye’s consumerism are increasingly hard to deny, and no, having Gill Scott Heron on your album does not a revolution make. The “people that tried to black ball me,” Kanye raps on “Gorgeous, “forgot about 2 things, my black balls.” Dark Fantasy recycles balls out braggadocio on song after song, most pornotopically on “Blame Game” with Chris Rock, performing the declension of black soul into what Paul Gilroy called the “biopolitics of fucking.” Gilroy got a lot of grief back in 2000 for calling out rappers and R&B singers for reducing the soulful apex of 1970s transfigurative love and redemption into a privatized fantasy of consumption and freaky sex. Ten years later he looks pretty spot on.
On “Dark Fantasy,” Kanye asks, via a Mike Oldfield sample, “can we get much higher?” and gives that classic soulful question a plaintive propulsive thrust that is undeniably compelling. But it is the very virtuosity with which Kanye points out the obvious on that track — “you’ve been putting up with my shit for far too long” — that makes him such a bellwether of the hysteria of our moment.
If Kanye’s frenetic lyrical, self-promotional, and all caps textual production could be reduced to a single question it would be that of the hysteric’s: why am I who you say I am? This question has undeniable traction in the current moment, not the least because it anticipates and, as it were, folds into itself, the predicted objection. There is he toasting himself as a douchebag, asshole, and scum bag, before we get to it. But lets notice the last proviso: he is also a “jerk off” who never takes work off, that is to say, who has internalized the obscene imperatives of capitalism to labor, accumulate and expend endlessly. Here is the rock star as mogul, a brand obviously perfected by co-producer Jay Z, but one whose hysterical, spastic, obverse Kanye is determined to hype.
Bush on book tour recently told Oprah that the most disgusting moment of his presidency was being insulted by Kanye West in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Why was that the worst moment, and not the mountain of invective that the world threw at him for all his many, many crimes, all of which he remains unrepentant of? Perhaps there is a twist to the hysteric’s discourse that Kanye is perfecting, insofar as it clearly got to the president in a way that all the ordinary hysterical protest, by which I mean all our chants in the street, our slogans, and our abuse, did not. Perhaps it was the discomfiting proximity of Kanye West to the ideal subject of Bush’s America, not his oppositionality, that made his acting out so unnerving. West was in fact out shopping like we were all supposed to be doing, as he himself admitted on air, when the levees broke and for several days after. His famous declaration that George Bush doesn’t care about black people only came after several stammering moments of an attempt at a coherent political critique, pointing out the uneven media coverage of black and white victims, and so on, before shifting cadence and flatly, perversely, condensing it into his immortal dictum.
It is for his innovations in our public language or what’s left of it, that Kanye is truly virtuoso. And in this he is again like Tyner, whose riposte to the TSA “if you touch my junk I’ll have you arrested” has elevated what was apparently gay slang for genitalia into a cri du coeur for injured white manhoods everywhere. Kanye got at Bush because he intuited that the hysteric’s discourse is no longer enough. We need new idioms, which is why we need musical geniuses like Kanye, however ambivalent we feel about them for any number of legitimate political and ethical reasons.
The copy of Dark Fantasy I downloaded from iTunes has Condo’s cover art pixellated and the (more obscene) Parental Advisory Label. I guess the censors at Apple don’t want me touching the junk either. Like most efforts at censorship, this one only makes the artwork more titillating: the pixels reduce the details of the two figures engage in sex into a miscgeneous blur of browns and pinks. But what is so dangerous about showing the cock? Much rests here on the question of what orientation we take to the innovative and dangerous creativity of virtuosos like Kanye in an era’s whose hysteria seems attached to the decline in reliable figures of authority. Let the attacks on the TSA stand in as evidence: isn’t there a quiet craving for a return of state authority? Behind every exercise in citizenship in the age of the Tea Party seems to be a not so covert longing for something like fascism, based on the fear of difference. The fringe blog Americans for Truth about Homosexuality (sorry no link, go google them if you can stomach it) raised the “urgent” concern of gay TSA employees touching the junk of male flyers, or looking at their naked bods in the new scanners, and has proposed they be fired. Such absurd logic in fact makes manifest the moves through which hysteria opens a path to authoritarianism.
But opportunism and even cynicism are politically ambidextrous. Tyner’s panicked recourse to every technological appendage he could lay hold of to disseminate the news of the feds touching his junk is the Everyman counterpart of Kanye’s privileged victim. Both are virtuosos of the new communicative media that promise greater sociability even as they reduce us to gadgets. But where Tyner seeks to restore a certain modicum of privilege for the male genitals, quietly ensconcing them back in their protective coverlet, Kanye has cock, balls, and indeed, asshole dangling in the wind, admitting he’s a monster, and daring us to do something about or with it.
The Kanye/TSA mix tape thus presents us with a seemingly stark opposition. Do we, understand the underlying motivations behind the hysterical outburst against authority to be good and authentic, and endorse the gauntlet thrown down to state and censor? Or, admitting these motivations to be possibly destructive and harmful, do we throw our critical weight behind a good enough establishment that is working overtime to keep us from hurting each other? It’s this question that makes the seemingly pointless debate over whether we should call Kanye a genius or not matters. At stake is the definition of what genius is, and, to be blunt about it, what admixture of our darker natures we can admit into our definition of it.
The Italian philosopher Paolo Virno reminds us that this stark opposition between our good self-governing natures or our bad ones, requiring governance, may be a false choice. We may want to admit or even insist upon our darker fantasies, and ground our cruel optimism in a society of more freedom, less scrutiny and oversight, more liberty and more justice within those fantasies nonetheless. We could insist upon what Virno calls the fundamental ambivalence of virtuosity, an ambivalence he suggests that we seize upon. The critical demand to proclaim thumbs up or down or otherwise rank music gets in the way of this harder, but I think, more promising path, which is to hold on to the ambivalence, hold on to the questions, and just the touch the junk if, in touching it, we can dispel the illusion of male mastery and abjection that our fear of touching sustains.