Public Enemy, 1987

I’ve been a Public Enemy fan for a long, long time. They were one of my primary gateways into hiphop. Loved the production, the politics, the interplay between Chuck’s and Flav’s voices, the whole package. And the aesthetic. Let’s not kid ourselves, Public Enemy has a very distinct aesthetic.

It’s a very militaristic aesthetic. Uniforms, military signifiers, a lot of berets. The guys in the berets, of course, are the S1Ws (for “Security of the First World” in PE parlance). Theoretically, they’re PE’s security force. Functionally, they dance at shows and look cool at press events.

Anyway, Public Enemy is a smart band and Chuck D is a smart guy in particular. This isn’t random. This resonant look came from somewhere. It’s naggingly familiar.

Huey P. Newton of the Black Panthers

Chuck D

 

It’s naggingly familiar because it’s pretty much a direct visual quote of the distinct aesthetic of the Black Panthers. It’s clearly not an accident.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Panthers, for what it’s worth, were very savvy about the use of imagery. They were great at mass communication; I’ve seen some fascinating presentations about their use of visual art in their newspaper.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, OK. A militant rap group borrowed some visual tropes from a militant political group. So what?

Well, the interesting thing is that the Panthers pretty clearly borrowed a lot of elements of their look – the military signifiers, the regimentation – from the Nation of Islam. If you’ve read this far, you probably already know who the Nation of Islam are; if you don’t, they’re a major combination Black nationalist/religious group. They have supporters and detractors, but you can’t really minimize their importance in the history of 20th century America.

Members of the Nation of Islam

Muhammed Ali in NOI regalia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here’s where it gets really interesting… the Nation of Islam, in their turn, clearly borrowed a lot of their imagery from Marcus Garvey, the pioneering pan-Africanist / Black nationalist who was active in the early part of the 20th century.

Marcus Garvey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These pictures of Garvey are from 1924. The one on the right was taken by James Vanderzee, a prominent Harlem photographer.

Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey, photo by James Vanderzee

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, OK, we can trace this thread of visual signifiers for Black militancy back to the 1920s. What of it?

Well, here are some paintings of heroes of the Haitian revolution, the only successful rebellion by African slaves. Pretty obvious thing to hearten back to if you’re Marcus Garvey.

General Toussaint Louverture

Jean-Jacques Dessalines

Henri Cristophe

 

 

 

 

 

Pictured above, we have Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Cristophe. Those uniforms look a lot like the uniform Marcus Garvey was wearing, which of course inspired everything after.

 

 

 

(By the way, do Michael Jackson’s bedazzled military uniforms make more sense now? They should)

 

So… Public Enemy is old news. Barely a band now. What does this have to do with today?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, Beyonce’s 2016 Super Bowl Halftime show wasn’t that long ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And that freaked some people right the fuck out.

This imagery is obviously still present, and still powerful.

–Fin–

Oh, but:

Emperor Napoleon, by Jacques-Louis David

Huey P. Newton of the Black Panthers

One of the recurring themes of my adult life has been my getting the itch to go back and take a look at some book or movie or album that I loved when I was younger but haven’t re-engaged with for a while. The vast majority of the time, I walk away from the revisit shaking my head and telling myself that hey, it’s no crime to have liked something bad or silly when you were younger.

So, recently I got the revisit urge for Lord of the Rings. I was pretty sure I knew how this was going to play out; I hadn’t read Tolkien since 2002, and I did vaguely remember not digging it at the last go-round. Which had been a bummer- these were foundational books to me in the 80s and 90s, but my turn-of-the-century reaction had been that the books were humorless, and trite, and just generally kind of bad.

A few things have happened to me since 2002, though. Big-picture, I’ve lived an adult life, with attendant ups and downs. More directly relevant, I’ve gained a historical consciousness, reading a ton of history (both cultural and political) and particularly boning up on World Wars 1 and 2.

And that’s the key. While I think there’s a lot of valid criticism that can be aimed at Lord of the Rings, I absolutely loved it on this reread, and a great deal of that love is based on my fascination with the way that Tolkien’s experience in World War 1 is smeared onto every page of the book (even beyond the physical descriptions of places around Mordor sounding almost word-for-word like descriptions of Western Front battlefields). Tolkien was at the Somme, arguably the most disastrous and harrowing British military experience of the 20th century. As he points out in the preface to The Fellowship of the Ring, by 1919, most of his close friends were dead. British tactics at the Somme were, essentially, to hop up out of somewhat-safe trenches in waves, charging into a maze of barbed wire covered by German machine guns. You’d watch the wave ahead of yours go over the top and get cut to pieces. And then the officers would blow their whistles and your wave would go. Tolkien survived the war because a serious illness brought on by lice bites took him off of the firing line. But he saw a lot of people he knew die. And, as a junior officer in WW1 infantry, he was trained to order men to immediate, useless deaths and display leadership by joining them.

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ABOUT THE DEPARTMENT OF STAR WARS STUDIES

On one hand, I’m pretty tired of Star Wars as an omnipresent cultural phenomenon that’s now going to be marketed to death every year for the rest of our lives, and the behavior of hardcore Star Wars fandom often makes me want to poke my eyes out with chopsticks.

But on the other hand, the Star Wars movies are as close to a cultural lingua franca as we’ve got these days. Everybody knows them, everybody understands references to them, and so they make good universally-accessible subjects for critical thought. And for me, well, I was born in 1974, grew up watching the original trilogy, and then spent my early brain-tuning years obsessing over the movies like any late-80s/early 90s nerd; the critical faculties that I use now to argue about the role of science in the paintings of Thomas Eakins or the use of autobiographical comics as vehicles for the assertion of female identity, well, that all got started in thinking about how the first chunk of IV is pretty much a Western and why Han and Lando share so many of the same lines in V. Thinking about Star Wars is how I got started thinking about culture to begin with, so really, I’m just sort of coming home by thinking about it some more.

So the Department of Star Wars Studies is my catchall name for a recurring thing I’ll be doing where I poke and prod at Star Wars stuff and try to apply some of that fancy critical thought to a bunch of movies that usually feature a walking dog who flies spaceships.

Punch it:

WICKET DON’T SURF

This is a real comic that was licensed by Lucasfilm.

In 1983, George Lucas quietly entered the shit-stirrer hall of fame. The United States was still trying to figure out how to deal with the end of the Vietnam War, and was in fact about to kick off a decade of (retrospectively terrifying) cultural freakout about it. And in that milieu Lucas tricked the entire country into paying to go into theaters and root for thinly-veiled stand-ins for the Viet Cong.

I mean, think about it. In the last act of Return of the Jedi, the Empire has forces stationed on Endor, a place known for rough terrain filled with thick vegetation that impedes conventional open-field tactics and rewards hit-and-run ambushes. Imperial troops, with armor, laser blasters, speeder bikes, and various armored walkers (which are impractical but really cool-looking) have vastly more firepower and conventional training than the local insurgency they’re trying to put down, but the Ewoks overwhelm this superior conventional force with their guerilla tactics and knowledge of the local terrain. This is barely subtext; it’d be hard for it to be any more blatant. The parallels couldn’t be more clear, down to the fact that American forces suffered greatly in Vietnam from being built around theoretical open-field tank battles with Soviet forces on the plains of Europe; tanks don’t look as cool as AT-STs, but they’re clearly filling the same role of having their battlefield usefulness blunted by thick foliage and resourceful guerilla fighters.

You just have to be amazed at the politics of this. If the Ewoks are thinly-veiled stand-ins for the Viet Cong, what about the other side of that analogy? The Empire is the US. With the timing of this, there’s a curious historical hiccup: Return of the Jedi was released in May of 1983; Ronald Reagan first referred to the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire” in March of 1983. So it’s not possible that Lucas was specifically tweaking Reagan’s usage with his US-Empire conflation, nor that Reagan was directly responding to it. But one of the strengths of Star Wars is that it is built out of easily-applied analogies, and both men were no doubt looking at bigger-picture parallels that were obvious to them (or their speechwriters, in Reagan’s case).

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Hank Fuckin’ Williams

It’s hard to admit, but I don’t really have a lot of good memories of my mother, or much of a sense that I got any great legacy from her (except for being alive, which I guess, yeah, that does count for something). Mostly, I remember her needing stuff from me – a lot of going to the kitchen to fetch her drinks or cigarettes when I was younger; writing her resume, engaging in one of her ritual “debates” about the Kennedy assassination, or lending her money as I got older. And emotional validation all the way through.

On the cultural front, not much. She introduced me to Herman Wouk’s books about World War II, and that’s something that’s paid off in a bunch of ways throughout my life. So that’s a definite plus. Otherwise, almost nothing.

Except: my mother loved country music. Not the country music that was current when I was a kid – this was the 80s and early 90s, so I guess the current stuff at that point would have been Randy Travis and Garth Brooks – but the country music of her parents’ generation. We had this enormous 70s-vintage console stereo (turntable, radio tuner, and yes, an 8-track) and when my father wasn’t around she’d often put a Hank Williams or Johnny Horton record on and crank the fuck out of it. And the giant console stereo had giant console speakers, so when it cranked, it really kicked out the jams. And, like punk, classic country is music that really, really benefits from volume. Hank Williams and Johnny Horton (along with Roger Miller and sometimes Johnny Cash, and I’m sure a bunch of others) do this thing where they’re singing out at the very edge of what their voice can handle, and you can hear their vocal chords distort just like an overdriven guitar amp and it’s fucking glorious at extreme volume. And Hank’s wonderfully spare arrangements sound great when they can fill up a room with sound.

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And here’s my first stab at a new direction after Nowhere Band. After reading and thinking about autobio comics a ton for my thesis work, I couldn’t resist making one of my own. And this is a story I’ve always wanted to tell. I wouldn’t bet against more of these coming out in the next few months.

So here’s another art project I’ve been working on for the past few months: drawing my way through the major arcana. I wanted an excuse to try some different stylistic stuff and not always have to draw guitars and drumsets (I didn’t count on finishing Nowhere Band before I finished this). Some of these are pretty rough, but I really like a bunch of them. I wound up learning a lot about artistic technique, archetypes, and a bunch of weird little bits of European history. So, good project all around.

I *might* go back and do more polished versions, at least of some of them. Not sure.

FWIW, my process was pretty simple: I looked up the Rider-Waite version of the card (since I like the style of them, and they seem to be default) and just sort of stared at it for a few minutes and then started drawing, trying honor whatever popped into my head at the moment.

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As I write this, it’s June of 2017, which means that I’ve spent at least the last 18 months preoccupied with politics at a level that I’d never matched before; and I was pretty preoccupied with politics before. But now, for me and big chunks of the rest of the country, it’s saturation level.

In this headspace, I reread Dune recently and started thinking about how often I see it cited as a novel that has things to say about politics. And to me, that’s a really interesting question to poke at. Can a book about future feudalism and giant sandworms really help us understand actual nuts-and-bolts politics in our mundane world? Looking beyond Dune, what about other novels that get mentioned as “political?” Is it that crazy to look to fiction for insight when we appear to be living out a William Gibson rewrite of the Johnny Gentle stuff from Infinite Jest?

So, then, here’s my overview of books I’ve read recently(-ish) with a “political” reputation. Looking at it, I’m keenly aware that it skews towards books by men, and science fiction. For the former, that’s definitely a problem; I’ve actively been trying for a couple of years to read more books by women, but it’s a case of a few years of active effort taking a long time to counteract the sausage party that results from decades of reading guided by systemic sexism. And for the latter, hey, no regrets: science fiction is a perfectly cromulent area of fiction.

With that in mind:

Dune, Frank Herbert

As I mentioned above, Dune has a reputation for being a political novel. But is it, really? The book’s largely about schemes and counterschemes (I think you could argue that Dune Messiah is more actively concerned with politics, or with a mixture of politics and its close cousin governance); the action consists of a move, a sneak attack, an escape, and then years of acculturation and training before a battle. But insight into politics does undergird all of this. Most especially, Paul Atreides’ realization that having the power to destroy a resource gives you control over it is an apt crystallization of a real principle from strategic power politics (CHOAM is modeled after OPEC, after all). Along the same lines, the discussion of the three-legged nature of the Imperial power structure, where the interests and capacities of the Imperial army, the combined armies of the Landsraad League, and the economic power of the Spacing Guild all press against each other to create a roughly stable equilibrium is another good demonstration of a real-world strategic power politics situation. Moreover, Duke Leto’s exhausted dismissal of his own use of propaganda to win public loyalty doubles as an nice observation of the power of cultivated image (especially when contrasted with the just-below-the-surface examination of how the Harkonnens propagandize their own population in the chapter where Feyd-Rautha fights in the arena). This look at propaganda extends into a discussion of loyalty and how it is earned.

Overall, Dune winds up having a lot of good nuggets that may or may not add up to anything useful; it’s hard to imagine Donald Trump reading Dune and coming out of it any better at his job.

 

A Song of Ice and Fire (series), George R.R. Martin

I understand (and share) many of the frustrations and qualms about Martin’s series. But the fact remains that, buried in the thousands of pages of text are a great many astute observations about power, persuasion, and governance. The two core goals of the series are an examination of political systems and a deconstruction of standard fantasy tropes (I’d argue that the TV series retained both of these more or less by accident for a while, in greatly watered-down form, before just ditching them in the name of streamlining into an action-adventure narrative).

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What the title says. Made these as sort of a detour from narrative Nowhere Band strips, but they don’t really belong over there. So here they are. Will probably do more at some point….
2016-10-13-production-1

2016-10-17-production-2

quiltedThis was originally written as a paper for an art history class in curation.

Last year, my birthday fell shortly before David Bowie Is, the “first retrospective of the extraordinary career of David Bowie,” closed its run at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. My wife surprised me with tickets to the long-sold-out show. We packed for a crash road trip, hopped into the car, and drove from Minneapolis to Chicago, listening our way with mounting excitement through the entire Bowie oeuvre during the 10-hour trip.

Viewing the exhibit was an overwhelming rush; the line to enter the museum had stretched around the block. The show was designed to hit attendees through multiple senses – as one walked through the space looking at objects, a location-sensitive headset would blast music or interview clips related to the object under view. The crowd itself – packed into the galleries as tightly as the fire marshals would allow – provided a constant buzz of energy as several rooms full of Bowie superfans communed with artifacts connected with the great man.

We left the exhibit exhausted and happily dazed. But on the drive back to Minneapolis, questions started to bubble up as we talked it over. What had we learned in that exhibit? It didn’t really seem like we’d gotten much in the way of new information. The experience had been intense and fun, but had there been an intellectual point? Had the whole thing really been an enjoyable but ultimately empty wallow in pop idolatry? As months passed and the undigested bolus of David Bowie Is lingered in my head, a slow, slinking surety settled in that it had all been a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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