Disappearing World Forum Q&A Session with Arundhati Roy, held at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, 2013
One could write a never-ending book about all that is contained in and around this event so it will be difficult to write anything short here. I could say something romantic about ugliness and beauty, about the drama of our existence, of exploiter and the exploited, of greed and resistance to that greed. Or about the possibility that we humans are flawed in our very DNA and evolution and may never be capable of collective peace and goodwill to all. I could say history is never in the past. I could say ideology is profound, especially when it has almost unlimited power driving it into plastic labile minds. I could say capitalism is a fundamental threat to the survival of almost all living things – especially humans. I could say corporate neoliberal rule is designed to exacerbate the logic of capitalism which is ceaseless accumulation and the commodification of all things. Or I could focus on the institution and histories and ideologies and power relations that brought those specific questioners there at that particular time. Or I could focus on Arundhati and all she is representing and all the superlatives that would flow from there. All of the strength, intelligence, elegance, beauty, all of the eloquence, patience, and fortitude. Or I could point out her seeming prescience about our current state of affairs, which was actually a clear-eyed left analysis that has been on the right (correct) side of history for generations, along with common sense ideas like fairness, justice, right and wrong…and feelings, like passion and empathy. Well, the never-ending book won’t start now, so here ends this bit of thought and feeling, digitized, and published for those few who will come across it.
I’m close to being done with most pop culture, but the reality is that it makes up a large part of culture these days, all over the world. So, anyone expecting to be heard in any way shape or form has a much better chance doing it using pop culture than almost any other subject. I’m also loathe to talk about DT for too many reasons to list. All of that being said, I remembered writing this comment about four years ago in response to this piece
and thought it could add to the discussion – or more likely, be just another cry in the wilderness…Anyway, for the one person who may be interested, here is the comment:
Good piece Ismail. It sparks a lot of questions and associations. Makes me think of Kanye. He has been a great case study in the representation of the subject game. One could easily write a book on the contradictions, confusions, and historical events that led to “Yeezus,” as well as his recent series of appearances in the media making a case for why he should be a mogul, i.e., a capitalist. Aside from his admirable passion and talent, some of his ideas can be attributed to his lack of a deep analysis (which I think could be said of most americans) and his fundamental acceptance of the capitalist system. It’s more troubling if he is simply cynical and calculating, but that automatically brings up questions of what success means under capitalism and what is required to achieve it, to say nothing of his personal struggle. I don’t want to get locked down in a binary construction here or even a judgment, but “New Slaves” certainly points up many a contradiction and confusion, and though it may just be Hip Hop swagger, he makes himself pretty clear here:
You see there’s leaders and there’s followers
But I’d rather be a dick than a swallower
That may be the shortest distillation of the capitalist ethos there is – other than the golden rule: “he who has the gold, rules.” In any case, Kanye made clear in his I-wanna-be-a-mogul media barrage that his major frustration was with the gatekeepers of capital blocking his access to it; thereby, keeping him from being another steve jobs. He constantly couches his desire in terms that distract from the ugliness of capitalism roiling just below the surface. He speaks in corporate phrases about product and being a “creator,” and constantly of his love of design. Not coincidentally, in the past decade or so, design has been elevated and commodified in popular culture like never before. He presents his desire in his own particular bombastic, self-promoting brand of Hip Hop, boasting that usually ends in platitudes, but it cannot disguise the fact that he wants something more than simply to create and design, because he has more than enough money to start a little boutique any time he wants. And though he may just want to bring good affordable fashion to the masses, it cannot disguise the fact that the fashion world he wants to be a part of is a nexus of capitalism. It is based on the exploitation of “cheap” labor out of the consumer’s sight and the creation of both desire and self-hate in “the consumer,” otherwise known as “a person.” Capitalists he sees as role models like steven jobs also made their fortunes from little brown hands working in prison-like conditions, and that is more than germane here.
Along with saying we are all new slaves to consumerism and materialism, and rightly pointing out the New Jim Crow of the prison industrial complex, Kanye says he is just a rich slave now (I know…) because they (the big fashion houses) “let” him produce for them, but he is continually blocked by the big players in fashion (capitalists) from becoming one of them. The hegemony of the fashion industry (and tech, and spirits, and perfume, etc…) in popular culture is now intricately intertwined in Hip Hop (there were early associations as well, like “My adidas” but that looks quaint now). Not only does it present the problems sketched above, but it directly involves creating a need in black and brown kids that makes them feel like shopping (and owning) will accomplish something. Of course, billions of people of all colors are enmeshed and in the thrall of the fashion industry and consumerism, but the irony is especially strong when black and brown kids are constantly extolling the virtues and buying the products of modern day slave masters. And it is compounded many times over when someone like Kanye starts talking about new slaves and then starts a media campaign to be “let in” by vicious capitalists, so he can become an actual modern day slaver himself. In all of his appearances, he has never come close to acknowledging the logical end of winning his campaign to be “let in,” or the evils of the fashion industry, or the capitalists who fund and, needless to say, profit from it.
To broaden the critique, liberals and self-identified progressives who claim to champion equal rights and justice buy (literally and figuratively) into this system as well. Seemingly, without a second thought. No one ever calls martha stewart and ralph lauren and steve jobs and phil knight modern day slave masters, but I think it needs to be done and I think we all need to be involved in stopping it. Most americans now accept that most of what they buy is made by slave labor. In fact, it has been joked about by stewart, colbert, and every late night talk show host and comedian I can think of. It is a disgusting failure on every level that we can’t even respond with a boycott when de facto slaves are throwing themselves out of foxcon’s windows and buildings are collapsing on Bangladeshis. We are all implicated in capitalism and its crimes, and there is certainly no dyad – especially when there is no “outside” commodification.
Well, just a few quick thoughts. Thanks for the piece.
nb: capitalizations and lack thereof are intentional.