“There is commonly thought to be a certain age at which people are especially rich in hope, or people talk of there being or having a certain period in their lives or a particular moment when they were so rich in hope and possibility. But all that is just a human manner of speech which does not get to the truth.

…the decisive moment only comes when man is brought to the utmost extremity, where in human terms there is no possibility.” – Anti-Climacus (SUD)

When a crisis emerges, and one eventually will (it’s programmed into the pattern), it always makes me reflect on the notion of hope – both the operative notion and the abstract notion. The distinction being that the former is grounded and urgent, the latter is poetic and ripe for art.

Years ago, a professor I had mentioned his grandmother’s adherence to the Catholic tradition. My professor was not a believer, however, in a display of paradoxical Schopenhauerian sympathy, he expressed that this adherence to the tradition was necessary to function – a function that depends upon a belief in a grounding force that operates with lack of intelligible logic or justice yet remains insulated from skepticism; because at a certain point, as Kierkegaard points out – one is unable to return from doubt. Once you pass that point – doubt itself becomes a health risk. Arguably, this adherence could exist without a recognizable love – or, maybe the love that motivates this adherence is altogether subterranean and deeper, maybe it’s a marriage.

Meandering through that story is a consistent reminder to focus on hope as a material matter – rather than an abstract poeticism that ultimately risks trivializing the unromantic life-sustaining force of hope. The life-giving force shines in its incremental victories. When Camus asks if he should kill himself or make a cup of coffee – and he makes a cup of coffee — that is the strength of hope. One’s decision to get out of bed, one’s decision to forego a meal out in order to save money for gas (thus imagining a future), one’s decision to watch a movie, read a book, or learn about an artist, the decision to make dinner, go on a walk — this is hope.

Point being – grandiose rhetoric and the too-often self-aggrandizing displays or quips of “having hope” risk obscuring the conditions of our existence so completely and strategically fucked that such expressions of, shall we say, sloganized hope reflects privilege – a privilege that places hope in an aesthetic category. Hope lives in the existential category – a hope that is vitally present particularly when, as the opening quote says: “the decisive moment when man is brought to the utmost extremity…[and] there is no possibility.”

The hope that functions like delusion, that is, “always floating,” such that, “it sometimes appears quite light and spiritual” (Kierkegaard, Works of Love) neglects the urgency of need and the rote patterns that constrain and curb our subjective embellishments and joys. I prefer the lower class hope – the hope that appears as routine, yet hides the strength it takes to continue the routine.

We’re all in a tough spot right now – and our hope is not colorful or curated, it’s hidden within our despondency and sadness and, as it were, “hopelessness.”

Jeff Hewitt

It’s the end of a sad day for many of my Norfolk and Hampton Roads friends. I learned of Jeff’s passing when my friend Josh called me to let me know. We both were in shock.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I was surprised by my reaction. I wasn’t surprised that I was sad, I was surprised at the shape and depth my sadness was taking.

I didn’t know Jeff too well personally, but I couldn’t stop thinking about him.

The “scene” is a funny thing. It’s also a serious thing.

We can joke the scene, laugh at Hardtimes.net headlines. We can bitch about the scene, perform our cynicism to boast our experience as members of the scene. We can critique it, complain about it.

But for people like me, (with all of its challenges) the scene is a serious thing.

The scene is an important thing. For me, “the scene,” both the abstract conception and material artifact – was, and is, formative.

The scene is many things to many people, but to me, it’s underscored and formed through punk rock. Aside from my family and close friends, punk rock is the most important thing to me. It’s what offered me solace when I was a struggling adolescent and now as struggling adult, it’s what gave me courage and confidence, it’s what taught me about righteous anger, racism, feminism, Noam Chomsky, class struggle, humility, friendship, relationships, ethics, and so much more.

I didn’t come to Hampton Roads till 2006, and didn’t begin frequenting Ghent and growing relationships there till around 2010 or 2011. So, compared with many of my close friends now, I’m new. I started Demons and we eventually played a show.

At our first show, Jeff was there. He took photos. And that experience can’t be understated. Not the show itself, but being in a new band, being afraid, and having someone validate your presence. Jeff’s enthusiasm and support are invaluable, and for so many new artists who are scared and uncertain – it’s necessary.

Of course, Jeff is much more than a photographer, he’s an archivist with a special focus on, and care for, his community – not just music, but all art (Just check out The Antonym to see how diverse his coverage was). And when we talk about our scene, it is only through people like Jeff that we are even able to do so.

There is a scene to talk about because Jeff’s work and love formalize it, he evolves it into something tangible. He doesn’t build the scene (we all do that), but he gives it form and beauty – a labor of love and appreciation and experience and knowledge. At the bottom of our hearts and behind our cynicism, we love the scene. Jeff creates an appropriate idol to reflect upon and be grateful for.

Jeff reminds me of what I love about punk rock, art, and our community. He reminds me of its romance. He maintains its aura. Walter Benjamin defined aura of natural objects as a “unique manifestation of remoteness however close it may be.” Juxtaposed with the immediacy of his photographs, they simultaneously offer a vantage point that encapsulates the whole. He historicizes us. He creates and curates our museum in real-time. He constructs its contours, its corners, its color, its grit, its power, its fury, its love, its energy. He does so not as a gatekeeper, but as someone who is in its service.

He always reminded me to check my cynicism, but keep my opinions.

I’m saddened by his loss because our community is always in need of reminders of what we have because we’re constantly bombarded with what we’re losing.

Thanks to all of you artists, photographers, bartenders, bands, venues, journalists, promoters, and art lovers who give people like me an outlet that understands.

RIP Jeff.

In transit from Norfolk to Seattle, via Detroit

There’s something unsettling about an initial descent and final approach in the fog of cloud cover. You can feel the plane descending, but you don’t know where the ground is. I always get this suspicion that the world may have fallen away and….and that’s it, the plane will just keep descending and I’ll be stuck in my small chair, and I won’t be able to get out of my small chair because it’s against FAA violations. I’m just stuck in my seat defending forever.

But then, the clouds break and the ground becomes visible. All of a sudden, you remember your suspicions…your fears; are foolish.

I’ve had 3 or 4 drinks and my head feels heavy. Disoriented a tad, but I’m always disoriented. I’m never oriented with clarity. My gaze is always shot through and blurry with desires, concerns, and distractions.

Leaving is mostly disheartening…or, this weird type of privation of domestics comforts (the routines that make “normal life” boring become sought after when those routines are unavailable or disrupted), but depending on where you’re going, that feeling can be offset a bit. However, right now I just want to be in the hotel room.

No matter how much fun tour is (and it’s a lot fun), if I’m without my wife and my daughter, I have no paddles. I can enjoy the currents a bit, but it’s informed by helplessness and a toothless jouissance.

<turbulance>

An hour or so out from Seattle, a few more hours out from rehearsal. Right now, I’m worried about finding a ride to the hotel. I have three guitars, a pedal board, and a suitcase.

When you’re 37 going on 38, tour is an uncomfortable canoe.

above atmosphere clouds flight

Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

From a the previous entry:
Talk of happiness has, for so long, seemed uncritically poetic. That is, it has seemed unmoored and strategic. I don’t believe it. The term itself is a commodity and, paradoxically, its interest has nothing to do with happiness. Rather, it’s a horizontal manipulation – unrelated to vertical roots that grow skyward or descend to terrifying Truth.

But, in this case, Mae…or music, is just an example, and is just one dimension. It’s a useful one, but it’s still not the salient artifact. Maybe the things we identify with and subsume are mechanisms that allow the alleviation of pain, stress; or, the concentration and reproduction of pain, melancholy. Indeed, the reproduction of joy as well, creativity – the gears of vitality for better or worse. So, in that way, music points to something else, books, academia,  movies – they are language in a conversation we engage in with hopes of arriving at some point of clarity.  They are also mechanisms we take refuge in to distill moments of awe, laughter, a distraction from outside, reflection, critical attention, forgiveness, appreciation, adoration – but these moments and hopes rarely arrive, and if it does, it quickly becomes unrecognizable.

But this conversation is shot through with various needs that pollute motivations – not because I am weak (although, I am weak), or eager to surrender control to external stimuli. No, I’m thinking more about livelihood, sanity, devotion, pragmatism – those needs that are just as important, yet more demanding. It’s a dynamic, a dialectic – that unfolds over time and through time. We learn, but there are limitations to that learning – like immediacy; the inability to grasp what we are learning in a way that we can employ. Rather, it only arrives in hindsight and offers some good fodder for poetry and pseudo-wisdom.

From the previous entry:

This is the map of my brain, the brain that was forced to consider a question put to me and my friend Jacob one night in Atlanta while I was on tour with Mae in November – “Why do you still do this?” That is, why do I still tour after 18 years?

That question seems easy enough, and it seems straightforward enough – but I still haven’t given the friend who asked, or myself, a satisfactory answer.

It’s hard to answer because the question is earnest and important, yet presumptuous; its complexity is veiled by its brevity. And to be sure, there are no simple answers and whoever corners someone into a giving a zero sum answer to an obviously complex question is interested in competing, not understanding.

What would be a satisfactory answer to this question? What do I make of the fact that the question evokes contradictions? That is, I have fun but would rather not be actively doing it – I’d rather be doing it theoretically. I love playing music, but the joy is so heavily mediated to the point of being unrecognizable. Of course, the cruel irony, as with all psychological comforts, is that its value is only recognizable in hindsight — which presents a dilemma that brings forth notions of self-will, the fortitude and “frank” confidence to make decisions. What decision is to be made? Whatever constitutes my current identity is, inarguably, made up in large part by music – not just listening to music, but playing music, and being in a creative relationship with close friends. It brought me to my family, it’s challenged me, affirmed me, undermined me, insulted me, etc.

Although, something so deeply ingrained and demanding is rarely understood clearly. That is, the foundational components that consist and compound through various phases of your identity are often those that require intentional digging to recognize and grasp. Combine that with its attachment to your livelihood – then it all gets really fucked up.

See, I never take things lightly, nor do I trust positivity. Thus – the answer to the initial question asked by my friend — well, there is no answer to the question.

Who is such an asshole that he or she has confidence in the decisions they make? Who has the audacity to be OK with him or herself, to forgive him or herself? Forgiving oneself is both christian and worldly – and as such it evokes suspicion and skepticism. I prefer to keep my errors close by to remind myself what I’m capable of.

Talk of happiness has, for so long, seemed uncritically poetic. That is, it has seemed unmoored and strategic. I don’t believe it. The term itself is a commodity and, paradoxically, its interest has nothing to do with happiness. Rather, it’s a horizontal manipulation – unrelated to vertical roots that grow skyward or descend to terrifying Truth.

The feeling I have most consistently could be described as insecure uncertainty.

It creates its own disposition. Generally speaking, I’m grateful and I try my best to be kind; however, I continually feel a suspicion of everything (myself most of all), one that isn’t necessarily rooted in a distrust of someone or of people, but a distrust of evolving circumstance. The conditions of our social environment necessitate an awareness that is rooted in self-interest and varying degrees of ambition, such that the latter is inseparable from the former. It creates a mental and emotional space that is vulnerable to various possibilities that, at any moment, could force a change in direction – a change we initiate ourselves, a change that someone else initiates, etc. This dynamic is ultimately underscored by a lack of control.

As a critical point, and as unwise as it may be, I reject the encouragements that suggest one shouldn’t waste time worrying over things we can’t control. Regardless the roots of this wisdom, be it Christianity, Buddhism, Jess from Gilmore Girls, it misses a fundamental point — it is the very fact we don’t have control that is the source of insecure uncertainty. It’s not about a particular bad thing happening, it’s about something, anything at all happening, that could fundamentally alter how I live and how I engage in the world. I simply don’t understand how one could not be impacted by this apparent reality – more so, I don’t understand how one could be vitalized by this apparent reality, i.e. the excitement of the unknown. Filling out the spaces that surround and inform these ephemeral commercials of happiness is a larger palette of indescribable, and inexplicable, melancholy and pain. Maybe it’s not acute pain, maybe it’s not physical pain, maybe one is even lucky enough to avoid a direct collision with injustice (be it divine, social, or economic) – even still, I am of the position that positive emotions only gain their meaning against the fabric of an otherwise indifferent (not evil, not painful, not metaphysical) existential matrix.

This is my lens. And while I am concerned over it, it’s also a source of comfort – not as a vice, but as a mechanism that doesn’t let me get too far ahead of myself.

Put simply, it’s Kierkegaardian anxiety.

This is the map of my brain, the brain that was forced to consider a question put to me and my friend Jacob one night in Atlanta while I was on tour with Mae in November – “Why do you still do this?” That is, why do I still tour after 18 years?

That question seems easy enough, and it seems straightforward enough – but I still haven’t given the friend who asked, or myself, a satisfactory answer.

steve-stephans-with-car

I got a glimpse, via my Facebook feed, of what appeared to be measured response of horror in the wake of Steve Stephens’ “Facebook Live” murder of Robert Goodwin Sr. on Easter. While I’ve been holed up within my own obligations and not paying too much attention to “mainstream” news or coverage of the event, I can’t really speak to the national response. That being said, in the very general sense, it seems as though the response was less than what I expected – less fatalistic, less enraged, less sensational. Not sure if that represents anything at all..but it did lead me on a thread.

In recent weeks I’ve been reading Whitney Phillips’ book “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture,” and she makes some helpful observations – first, that “Lulz is engaged by internet users who have witnessed one major economic/environmental/political disaster too many.” Second, that in the wake of 9/11 “Americans were asked to dissociate. They were asked not to dwell on the consequences of the wars, of torture, of the resulting economic bloodletting. They were asked to go on vacations, and to shop, and to not ask too many tough questions. Is it any surprise, then, that trolls- who essentially function as cultural dung beetles – would hold the tragedy of others at arm’s length? Is it any surprise that trolling…following a series of massively mediated tragedies, would be explicitly and unapologetically fetishistic?”  And lastly, that “regardless of how aberrant (and/or abhorrent) it may appear, trolling makes a great deal of sense within the context of contemporary American media.” 

Ultimately, while the behavior of trolls are so often targeted and characterized as these indications of moral decline in younger generations, Phillips argues that within the context of media – trolling is an understandable, if not logical, response to media culture (or contemporary culture informed by media) relying on sensationalism, spectacle, success, and profit (monetary and cultural). Trolling reflects behavioral norms displaced, exposed in new social contexts, amplified by new media affordances and media narratives, feeding off of the attention gained from media coverage, and motivated by the same exploitative appeals that motivate media coverage. That is – two sides to the same coin.

Elsewhere, in his 2009 book “The Fragile Absolute,” Slavoj Zizek in his meandering prose, discusses the “void of the thing,” or, how sublimation hides the fact that behind the representation of some idealized aesthetic object/subject lies the abhorrent object itself, an unadorned, unmediated, actuality. He draws upon Courbet’s “Le Origine du Monde” to illustrate his point: “Courbet masterfully continued to dwell on the imprecise border that separates the sublime from the excremental: the woman’s body in ‘L’origine’ retains its full erotic attraction, yet it becomes repulsive precisely on account of this excessive attraction. Courbet’s gesture is thus a dead end, the dead end up traditional realist painting…In other words, with Courbet, we learn that there is no Thing behind its sublime appearance – that if we force our way through the sublime appearance of the Thing itself, all we will get is the suffocating nausea of the abject.”

So, using realist representations of feminine beauty as an example, Zizek argues that what these paintings were hinting at is ultimately the pornographic – that is the fantasy these representations tease, however masterful the painting. To be clear, from an art history/art crit standpoint, this position could easily be challenged.  This particular excerpt in within a larger text that is not interested in art criticism. However, I do think that Zizek’s analysis, combined with Phillips’ analysis of trolling, offers a helpful framework to think about the spectacle and tragedy of Steve Stephens. The two analyses constitute a contemporary context informed by a creeping, dramatized, nihilism-lite, one populated with false flags; the very basic desire for murder (in the figurative, or Leonard Cohen, sense of the word) dressed up in some aesthetic or culturally trimmed disguise that obscures a more destructive or unimpressive logic.  Murder is not new, nor is commodification of different characteristics that could loosely be considered “human nature.” Spectacle gains a lot of mileage – and the Stephens event is spectacle. As Guy Deboard wrote, “the spectacle is the bad dream of a modern society in chains and ultimately expresses nothing more than its wish for sleep.”

The Stephens event is not the terminal end before a cultural reset, it’s the entrenched pattern of life in late capitalism. While the actual event is tragic and complex, the mediated spectacle is algorithmic output. It’s not about an increasing degree of extremes exploited by content producers. It’s about the dead end of meaning, the dead end of our ability to grasp the event from any cohesive static foundations of moral reference against which to utilize, understand, or process meaning.  We want it to be deep, we want to ascribe to this event some cultural diagnosis – but there’s nothing there.

I guess this is my own attempt to conceptualize this event somehow – and I can only seem to do so theoretically, not necessarily poetically. In one sense, there’s really no logical thread to trace that offers a satisfying explanation (satisfying in the sense that it offers some degree of closure).

Crowdfunding has been a huge shot in the arm for the arts, especially for musicians like myself. It emerged in a period of crisis for the industry and artists and it reflected a double movement. On the one hand, the large players (i.e. major labels) lost some of their leveraging power. As technology has made it more feasible to produce content from the confines of bedrooms and living rooms, and the capabilities afforded by social media has made content dissemination and promotion cheaper and easier, the artist was indeed liberated and empowered. On the other hand, because the artist did not have to rely on traditional (constraining) channels to finance creation, production, and dissemination, he or she had to look elsewhere. The emergence of crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo provided a good way for artists to fund their projects, however, the platforms nurtured and benefited from a dynamic between fan and artist that had the potential for progress and regress. Progress because the fan and artist could more easily build a productive relationship that further undermined the need for corporate involvement. Regress because crowdfunding facilitated a one-way relationship capable of exploiting fan support under the guise of egalitarian rhetoric that emphasized value over cost. What emerged was an environment with massive potential and great vulnerability.

I see these vulnerabilities being manifested in two ways. 1) Obvious wrong doing on the part of crowdfunders (e.g. not fulfilling promises, high price points, and general forms of exploitation that are readily recognizable); 2) The proliferation of crowdfunding into various segments of society reinforce the process of neoliberalism that has long been at work. A vulnerability less easy to recognize (or perhaps criticize), but much more influential in relation to the negotiations of cultural values.

Neoliberalism has become a buzzword, but it is not always clearly defined. As one article antagonistically claimed — “’Neoliberalism’ has now morphed into a vague concept loaded with everything the left dislikes about market economics.” Honestly, that’s fair. So, let me try to define neoliberalism before moving on. I take from David Harvey ’s summation – that neoliberalism seeks to “bring [coerce] all human action into the domain of the market,” or more specifically, we can draw from Christian Fuchs who characterizes neoliberalism as the “dispossession of the commons in order to generate new spaces of accumulation and an intensified dispossession of income and wealth in order to raise profits.” This is accomplished by the creation a “legal framework for flexible wages and flexible working times,” the activation of “entrepreneurial thinking of the individual by creating new forms of self-dependence and self-employment, reducing unemployment benefits and welfare.”

One of Neoliberalism’s strengths is that it allows for a favorable rearticulation of certain cultural values in the service of market logic (we see this being played out in the gig economy). The contemporary fetishism over entrepreneurism has all but made it into a principle good, a moral value. It draws upon long standing cultural notions of individualism and work ethic, underscored by a free market ideology that understands economic productivity as the main goal. Indeed, embedded in the language of the neoliberal economy is an emphasis on flexibility, entrepreneurialism, and self-dependence. These three terms inform the ideological power of neoliberalism, and at the same time, signal inroads towards a restructuration that increases influence within the private sphere at the expense of the public sphere. As Zygmunt Bauman has written: “Public power has lost much of its awesome and resented oppressive potency, but it also has lost a good part of its enabling capacity.”

So when we consider that crowdfunding is being increasingly relied upon to fund public school classrooms, higher education research, town/state civic projects, and even Smithsonian exhibits, it calls into question the economic or social environment that necessitates this type of fundraising, i.e. private expenditure for public projects. The successes of certain crowdfunding projects, its novelty, and the opportunities for new modes of engagement that are often publicized across various blogs or news sites serves to redirect a critical glance away from critical questions that ask why private fundraising on the behalf of public school teachers, for example, is even necessary? Or, what are the potential implications that might develop from crowdfunding academic research? Even if we charitably assume that these are isolated instances rather than a reflection of problematic structural patterns, the increased need to crowdfund, i.e. to compensate for a lack of funding typically provided by state resources, may very well lead to budgetary policy that justifies the further withdrawing of state or federal resources motivated in part by the reported successes of crowdfunding projects. This article from Huffington post exemplifies this concern. While it briefly acknowledges the reason crowdfunding is needed, it ends by positing crowdfunding as a fix: “Luckily, though, crowdfunding sites are well positioned to shift the focus toward equity. Recent endorsements from celebrities, including Sheryl Crow and Stephen Colbert, lend credibility and help increase the numbers of people who use these sites.”

Thus, when we read about the success of crowdfunding campaigns that were launched to cover school costs, when we read about the un-coerced financial contributions from private citizens, it is celebrated as way to solve a particular problem, but it still fails to address the larger problem. Further, it reinforces the socio-economic patterns that continue to aggravate the wound – a neoliberal practice in which market logic becomes an “entire way of life, a common sense in which every action – crime, marriage, higher education and so on, can be charted according to a calculus of maximum output and minimum expenditure” (Michel Foucault), and within this process, our bodies, our minds, and our work, are reduced commodities that are only justified through formulations of cost and productivity. Thus, it crowdfunding justifies itself through its successes while simultaneously furthering its own need.

Crowdfunding is a powerful and productive tool with the potential to substantially impact standard practice in a positive way, but what happens if it becomes the standard practice?

Perhaps it is odd drawing from 19th century Christian existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard to help make an argument that supports transgender equality. Although, my goal is not to convince those opposed to reverse their position, but rather, to suggest a more empathetic understanding of transgendered identities through an existential lens, which then might influence a shift in how they view the individual, free from the stigmas associated with identity politic “agendas.”

In his 1847 text The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard explores what he refers to as “despair,” which is a “sickness of the self.” It assumes three general forms: the despair of having a self, not wanting in despair to be oneself, and wanting in despair to be oneself — these forms of despair occur when one is unable to be one’s self authentically. He writes, “having a self, being a self, is the greatest…concession that has been made to man.” What does “authentic” mean in this context? Well, for Kierkegaard, it has to do with Christianity…but we do not need to go that far, because what transgendered individuals are being deprived of is a very explicit expression of their being that is directly associated with their authentic self, and expression that cisgendered individuals have never needed to give a second thought too. As such, it doesn’t even venture into metaphysical or spiritual oppression. It is in the material..the here and now. What is crucial for Kierkegaard’s diagnosis is that it recognizes despair is born from mis-relation within the dynamics of one’s self. Thus, on the one hand, he recognizes an essential self with which we are tasked to develop authentically, on the other hand he recognizes that the reason for despair is born from an inability to relate to one’s self authentically. To express the magnitude of psychological disruption that inheres within despair, Kierkegaard writes that the despairer is “mortally ill…yet he cannot die,” and further, “to be forced to be ‘self’ in a way that he doesn’t want to be — that is his torment.” This degree of dysphoria might sound hyperbolic, but it is echoed by Laura Jane Gracewhen she interviewed by Marc Maron.

What Kierkegaard understands, and what social conservatives are apparently incapable of recognizing, is that in order for the self to authentically develop, it must be allowed to relate to itself authentically..which of course includes a representation of self that is aligned with the type of person one truly feels they are. Thus, if we consider this framework and apply it to the current debate, it is quickly understood that what is being denied these individuals is the freedom so much of us take for granted — freedom to be one’s self. Because, again, one’s gender is not an ornament or an accessory, it defines who someone is, it defines one’s place in the social dynamic…it is extremely meaningful.

Beyonce’s release of “Lemonade” has inspired a myriad of different responses, commentaries, and critiques, I want to discuss three of those responses here. Lasha’s piece in Salon that critiqued bell hooks’s critique, hooks’s critique posted to her website, the third was another critique of hooks’s critique offered up by Tamara Winfrey Harris at BitchMedia.org. After reading all of them, I began to wonder if these three pieces could be conceptualized as a dialectic with hooks offering the thesis, Lasha the anti-thesis, and Harris the synthesis. As it regards the function of criticism, I think that the examination of these three inter-related pieces provides a useful intersection through which to discuss the role of criticism and how it operates as a method and in a dialogue.

To be sure, I am not writing here to provide my approval of one critique over another (they all offer important insights), nor offer my own review or criticism of Lemonade. My voice regarding the focus of these critiques (i.e. Beyonce, black feminism, representation, and commodification) is somewhat neutralized by my subject position (white male). Rather, my inspiration for writing was born initially from what I perceive as a counter-productive conflation of affective commentary and mis-executed criticism of hooks’s critique on the part of Lasha, as compared with Harris’s commentary and critique which was able to better assess hooks’s critique from broader assessment of current instantiations of feminist representations.

Lasha’s main issue with hooks’s critique is that it neglects how the content might meaningfully connect with the listener, and that it suffers from a sort of quarantined elitist immunity. She writes:

Black women are enthralled, moved to tears, and motivated to unpack baggage and trauma, dead set on seeking support within the sisterhood because of ‘Lemonade.’ It is contrary to any stretch of feminist ideology to then issue us an edict that we have been duped, reducing our connection, a legitimate feeling of transcendent sisterhood and reclamation of our own selves substantiated by shared lived experiences, to our inability to recognize and reject imperialist propaganda.

Lasha definitely makes a solid point. Perhaps, hooks’s critique undermines the affective impact Lemonade, and the potential that affective impact has in nurturing a solidarity for black women. Indeed, Lasha recognizes a valuable and influential role that has long inhered in the power of art. Although, the critique then turns and attempts to implicate hooks within her own criticism. When hooks recognizes the representations of varied and diverse black female bodies displayed in Lemonade and writes that “Commodities, irrespective of their subject matter, are made, produced, and marketed to entice any and all consumers. Beyoncé’s audience is the world and that world of business and money-making has no color,” Lasha attempts to accuse hooks’s of hypocrisy in that she, like Beyonce, profits off her own mode of representation.

Fundamentally, any body in capitalistic service has been commodified. Yes, Beyoncé sells ample hips and enticing cleavage. Yes, she sells an hour-glass figure and a beautiful face. But does not Dr. hooks sell the image of her body, too? Is she, with folded legs sitting at a computer typing her thoughts from arched fingers, not commodifying her body? Is her choice not to show as much leg or to cover her bosom not because she has commodified the idea that women should be modest in their presentation of their bodies?

This point, while provocative, is undermined by its lack of faith in the reader to recognize the obvious distinction in these representations and how they both function, and how they are intended to function. Is Lasha seriously suggesting that hooks commodifies herself in the same way (i.e. using her body and voice) and to the same end that Beyonce is? Further, Lasha uses the ubiquity of neoliberal capitalism to neutralize one mode of critique (hooks) while still attempting to validate her own. To dismiss a critique that recognizes the systemic functions of patriarchal oppression so that one can then consume particular representations with a “principled” pleasure illustrates the very thing hooks is so persistent in pointing out. I feel as though Lasha’s piece reads more like a very thoughtful review of Lemonade, that for some reason also takes hooks to task. Although, hooks is not arguing against subjective enjoyment. Because, like both hooks and Lasha imply, all art and representation is commodity. Rather than using this fact to criticize a critique (a criticism based on what is seemingly motivated in part by fandom), why not recognize the how neoliberal capitalism appropriates and mobilizes all expressions and representations in the service of the market? As such, it should be recognized art operates on various levels that can maintain simultaneous meanings.

Ultimately, if Lasha wants to recognize the affective power of Lemonade, it doesn’t mean that hooks’s criticism isn’t useful in reminding us of how it operates within the larger context still infused with patriarchy, misogyny, and racism. Both are important and are not mutually exclusive. As consumers of media content and fans of art, when we earnestly engage in the latter, we are implicated in the former. hooks does not have the ability, nor does she intend, to take the affective meaning away from us. She just reminds us to remain diligent and not be easily taken by “empowering images” which, not only fail to meaningfully challenge power structures, but often redirects anger and reinforces those structures against which artists like Beyonce are, I do believe, attempting to disrupt.

In reading Harris’s write up in BitchMedia, we see a much more productive criticism of hooks’s critique, one that emphasizes hooks’s perceived elitism, and how it can work against the translation of a feminist message. While hooks might remain undiscovered, Beyonce (despite operating within and through a culture industry that surely deserves persistent criticism) has the power to play an important role. One can certainly be introduced to feminism, and the need for feminism, through the lived experience itself. My first introduction came when my mother (who never went to college or read feminist literature) rolled her eyes when a newly married couple were announced as “Mr. and Mrs. Ethan Jones.” For my mother, this was an erasure. It’s something I have never forgotten. Although by so many other standards, my mother plays right into the patriarchal framework. Point being – ground level access is just as important, if not more important, than the nurturing of a feminist scholar. Harris quotes Michelle Wallace:

One of the interesting things about young black feminist intellectuals and academics is how into pop culture they are and how much more populist they are… I think it’s annoying to some people of my generation because they feel like well, you know, ‘You haven’t really earned the right to make statements,’ but I think, ‘Open the door and let them in.’

Where Lasha positions her appreciation of Lemonade in opposition to hooks, Harris is able critically and productively assess hooks’s position by pointing out where it misses a very important aspect of Beyonce’s potential as it relates to feminism. Does the inclusion of a brightly lit “FEMINIST” as a backdrop during her performance at the 2014 MTV Music Video Awards perhaps represent the height of post-modern neoliberal kenosis? It can surely be argued that in such a context, the term is devoid of force and employed a media blitzkrieg reinforcing the very spectacle that necessitates it. Although, at the same time, it is perhaps the first time an 11 year old black girl sees the term and is immediately curious. hooks doesn’t allow for an easy entry point, but Beyonce certainly does, and that is important. Harris reminds us that Beyonce isn’t the end result of a static strategic white supremacist patriarchy, but the beginning of an awareness for young people who then go on to invest themselves in a fluid struggle by whatever means are effective whether it be scholarship, activism, art, education, etc.. Similar to Lasha, Harris calls out hooks for neglecting to consider the lived experience:

She ignores Beyoncé’s humanity and the complicated nature of practicing feminism in the real world, expecting it to follow the clean lines of academic feminism—defiantly anti-capitalist and rejecting all mainstream notions of beauty and sex. But Lemonade is not a textbook—it is the product of a black woman’s lived experience.

But then, acknowledges the variations of feminism that operate in different contexts. She concludes:

Perhaps in bell hooks’s eyes none of this is feminism, but these things and works like Lemonade represent the very real, valid, and important ways that women fight patriarchy. By dismissing them, through her critiques of pop culture feminism, hooks consigns feminism to elitist ivory tower theory and makes the perfect the enemy of the good.

Here Harris allows for hooks’s brand of feminism, but points out where it limits itself. Thus, in a way it validates both. Admittedly, perhaps these distinctions I’m pointing out between Lasha and Harris exists only in rhetoric, but if grad school taught me anything, it is that rhetoric is extremely consequential in how things are interpreted. Lasha seems to make a claim and end it with a period, whereas Harris makes a claim and ends it with en ellipsis effectively inviting more discussion. This is illustrated in the titles of both pieces. Lasha redirects the larger struggle towards an unnecessary, if not counter productive, exchange between herself hooks. Harris addresses the larger struggle and discusses the roles of both Beyonce and hooks

So, yes..maybe it is a stretch to conceptualize these critiques as a Hegelian dialectic. Although, as sites like BitchMedia, Salon, Slate, etc. continue to offer up thoughtful critical pieces that blur the lines of academia and pop criticism, I think this conceptualization helps illustrate how role of critique needs to be understood as a method of discourse, not pettiness or expressions of elevated informed tastes. hooks did not get anything wrong in her assessment of Lemonade, she merely employed a type criticism that readers of hooks have come to expect and engage with. I feel as though Lasha’s framing could have been much stronger if she didn’t locate herself in opposition to hooks, that is, as the anti-thesis to hooks’s thesis. Harris, on the other hand was able to use hooks’s critique, to absorb it into the service of a larger struggle that can benefit from diverse participants, i.e. she provides a synthesis that leads the conversation forward.