Byzantine Conduit

My flight into abstraction.
Welcome to my brain.

Funk constitutes a language of interpersonal communication and collective self-expression that has its origins in African tribal music and dance..

This medium of expression has been largely inaccessible to white culture, in part because of the different roles of social dance in white as opposed to black culture. For example, whereas social dance in white culture is often viewed in terms of achievement, social grace or competence, or spectator-oriented entertainment, it is a collective and participatory means of self-transcendence and social union in black culture along many dimensions, and so is often more fully integrated into daily life. This is particularly true in funk, where the concern is not how spectacular anyone looks but rather how completely everyone participates in a collectively shared, enjoyable experience.

…it sometimes elicited anxiety, anger, or contempt from middle-class, college-educated whites: anxiety, because of its association with black, working-class culture engenders unresolved racist feeling that are then repressed or denied rather than examined; anger, because its both sexually threatening and culturally intrusive to individuals schooled exclusively in the idiom of European-descended tradition of classical, folk, and/or popular music; contempt, because it sounds “mindless” or “monotonous” to individuals who, through lack of exposure or musicological training, are unable to discern its rhythmic, melodic, and topical complexity.

Alternately, funk sometimes elicited condescension or embarrassment from middle-class, college-educated blacks: condescension, because it is perceived as black popularculture, that is, relatively unsophisticated or undeveloped by comparison with jazz as black high culture; embarrassment, because funk’s elicit and aggressive sexuality and use of Gospel-derived vocal techniques sometimes seem excessive by comparison with the more restrained, subdued white- or European-influenced middle class lifestyle. Often the music is also associated with adolescent popularity traumas concerning dancing, dating, or sexual competence. These negative associations linger into adulthood and inhibit one’s ability even to listen to this genre of music without painful personal feelings. 

These and other responses [are] sympathetically confronted, articulated, and sometimes exorcised in the course of discussing and listening to the music. The result [is] often cathartic, therapeutic, and intellectually stimulating: To engage consciously with these and related issues can liberate one to listen to and understand this art form of black, working-class culture without fear or shame, and so to gain a deeper understanding of the cultural and political dimensions of one’s social identity.

…funk music and dance-…has been largely inaccessible to white culture and has consequently exacerbated the xenophobic fear, hostility, and incomprehension that generally characterize the reaction of white to black popular culture in this society. ALL aspects of that culture, including its speech patterns, conventions of social interaction, its music, and its dance, have become the target of the last outpost of explicit and socially legitimated racism, I believe, because these are the last artifacts of black culture that are identifiably black, that is, have not been either appropriated or assimilated into white culture (usually through the back door: witness Elvis’s appropriation of Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones’ appropriation of Don Kovay, Bo Derek’s appropriation of cornrows, Al Jolson’s and Fred Astaire’s appropriations of minstrelsy, Peggy Lee’s appropriation of Ella Fitzgerald,” [Miley Cyrus’s appropriation of twerk] “, etc.; this list is endless). I describe this reaction as racist, but in fact it is more generally xenophobic, because it is as much a response of anxiety and fear to perceived cultural differences that can be alleviated only by denying or appropriating them as it is a response of hostility or contempt to perceived racist stereotypes. 

To see this, consider the progress of the black civil rights movement in this country. Blacks have attained whatever political parity we’ve attained by proving that we can conform to the requirements of white political participation just as well as anyone else (for example, by voting, being self-determining, socially and legally responsible, etc., in the way prescribed by [y]our forefathers). Similarly what economic parity blacks have achieved (as illustrated , for example, by whites’ hiring token blacks, admitting token black into high education and the professions, occasionally resisting the impulse to a general exodus when a black family moves in the to neighborhood, etc.) depends on our ability to “fit in,” that is, conform our public behavior to white social conventions (for example, speak standard English, play tennis and discuss the stock market with the boss, enthusiastically attend concerts of classical music, function at cocktail parties, etc.)

I have no objection to the acquisition and exercise of these skills: They are skills, that is, personal resources, and the more of those that people have, the more flexible and comfortable in a large variety of contexts they are likely to be. What is disturbing is the response on the part of the white majority to the appearance of any other, different skill and modes of self-presentation that fail to conform to those predominant conventions: Even some of the most well-intentioned and politically concerned whites tend to get nervous and angry when confronted by the relatively alien social and cultural conventions of black, working-class culture that they might actually attempt jive talk[slang], a “black” accent, and a diddybop strut when around working-class blacks in order to resolve the perceived dissonance, and of course the severe discomfort and sense of bad faith involved in this effort naturally dispose them to shun those individuals as much as possible. 

Thus social parity and acceptance require conformity to white culture as well. What remains to be attained is a comparably minuscule degree of cultural parity; that is, the respect and recognition of identifiably black cultural conventions as a rich and aesthetically legitimate art form - not just due jazz in all its topical abstraction and formal complexity, and easier to accept precisely for that reason, but black popular culture as well, because it is explicitly and intimately tied to the African roots of black creative expression. But if the xenophobic reaction to perceived cultural difference is as strong and widespread as I fear it is, the requirement of cultural conformity will be just as strongly imposed, funk music and dance will be more or less permanently consigned to a genuinelyavant garde underground, and the Talking Heads and Steve Reich will be the closest white society will allow itself to approach. 

Of course, there are other possible explanations for the reactions of most whites to funk music and dance (even well-meaning and politically correct friends and acquaintance have described it to me me as “animalistic,” “crass,” “vulgar,” “exhibitionistic,” “escapist,”“decadent,” and so on). Some argue, for example that it’s just a clash of cultures that is exacerbated by the fact that dance and music have an integral social function in black culture that is absent in white culture until you reach adolescence, at which point you’re automatically supposed to perform like Fred and Ginger on the dance floor at dancing and necking parties, upon pain of permanent social ostracism; thus anxiety and paranoia of many whites at having to “perform” on the dance floor. There’s no question in my mind but that this is a part of the hostility that usually greets these aesthetic idioms; it is unfair to be required to be instantly competent at a social skill at which one has had virtually no prior social training, and those negative reactions don’t easily disappear just because one has grown past adolescence. But this fact doesn’t prevent people from trying vainly to dance complicated Israeli horas or Greek circle dances, even though they’ve had no prior social training in those skills, either.

Another explanation of the kinds of racism this idiom elicits is that there’s a general tendency among the educated to dismiss any aspect of popular culture as unworthy of serious attention, and that this tendency increases in direct proportion to one’s socioeconomic ascendancy into the higher reaches of the middle class. Again, while this seems to me to be generally true, it ignores the fact that we can be unctuously reverent of the popular cultures of other societies..

Of course, it’s also easy to understand how whites might feel threatened by being thrown into the middle of the black cultural milieu without having already learned the rules; blacks feel the same way about being thrown into the white one similarly unprepared. There are few experiences more unpleasant than the realization that not only can one do absolutely nothing “right” as defined by the prevailing social and cultural conventions but also that one calls attention to oneself - often hostile or derisive attention - by doing everything wrong. But this doesn’t account for the dismissive, contemptuous, often paranoid response at having funk music and dance introduced into apparently all-white social contexts.

Finally, it has been suggested to me that the antipathetic reaction to funk music and dance is the inevitable consequence of its explicit sexuality, when thrown in the face of a predominant culture shaped largely by repression and sublimation. I don’t think this explains the response to lyrics that have nothing to do with sexuality but rather with self-transcendence, social unity, betrayal, self-respect, and the many other themes that are prominent in funk music; nor does it explain why whites are perfectly comfortable with sexually explicit language in Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Monteverdi. But I also recognize that for a culture obsessed with sex and the stereotype of blacks as more sexually potent than anyone else, it is easy to read sexual interpretations into these lyrics even when it is not appropriate to do so. This phenomenon just confirms my suspicion…that the white response to this idiom is overwhelmingly racist and xenophobic, and that we won’t make any real progress in race relations at the deepest level until we are able to confront and transcend this response.

…These responses made me realize that I was not, in fact, as fully assimilated into white society as I had always thought. Having gone through the process of aesthetic acculturation into “high art” in art school, I had always supposed that I shared the same set of assumptions as the audience to the “high art” I produced: about formal inventiveness and exploration, and the value of using my experience of various aspects of social life and popular culture as resources for my work, and so on. But these responses forced me to recognize that this supposition was false, and that in fact this audience would (or perhaps could) accept only a certain circumscribed range of inventiveness, exploration, and sociocultural art resources as aesthetically legitimate; a range circumscribed, in the final analysis, by ignorance and xenophobia.

To realize this forced me to make a choice: either to abandon a cultural idiom of communication that had always been part of my life and personal identity as a black..or else to share this idiom with my audience so I could use it successfully in my work as a recognized and comprehended medium of communication; or shared language. It also gave me a very different perspective on my status as an artist and relatively privileged member of society. I had always assumed that any meaningful political work I did had to involve utilizing the advantages of my middle-class education and aesthetic acculturation as resources “for the benefit of” the disadvantaged community from which I came; as though those resource were unequivocally invaluable gifts, unparalleled by anything that that community might have to offer, and were to be distributed as widely as possible. This view now seems to me to be laden with patronizing, elitist assumptions about who has what of value to offer to whom. The funk idiom of black working-class culture is an unbelievably rich and enriching art form that I disseminate in the performances not only to facilitate comprehension of my work but also for the cultural benefit of my largely white, upper-middle-class audience. That is, it is black working-class culture that has the invaluable gifts to offer that audience, and not just the other way around.

The responses to the performances so far have been polarized… On one side are those who respond with interest, enthusiasm, the desire to test biases..therapeutically, as way of trying to come to terms with deeply internalized racist stereotypes by which we are all victimized in one way or another. On the other side are those who begin by expressing objections to the overt didacticism.. But pressing these objections further usually uncovers the underlying attitude fairly quickly, which is, Who are youto tell me what I need to know?- as though merely supplying new information were an affront to the recipient’s intelligence… that it is, in fact, a kind of insult to suggest that there is any deficiency in information there to be remedied. I feel quite helpless in the face of this response, as it seems to be the kind of attitude that lacks the concept of gaining knowledge through dialogue and communication… Certainly that kind of knowledge and insight is what my audience to this work offers me; if it didn’t, I would have the very strong sense of thrashing and flailing around in a sensory deprivation tank with only my ego to keep me company.

… It just seems to be true that most of my white friends feel less alienated from this aesthetic idiom after having participated in it directly, and discussed their feeling about it in a receptive context, regardless of their reservations about whether “art” or not… For me what it means is that the experience of sharing, commonality, and self-transcendence turns out to be more intense and significant, in some ways, than the postmodernist categories most of us art-types bring to the aesthetic experience. This is important to me because I don’t believe those categories should be the sole arbiters of aesthetic evaluation.

But perhaps the real point of it for me has to do with the ways in which it enables me to overcome my own sense of alienation, both from white and black culture…it gives me the chance to affirm and explore the cultural dimensions of my identity as a black in ways that illuminate my personal and political connection to other…black people, and celebrate our common cultural heritage. At the same time…enables me to affirm and utilize the conventions and idioms of communications I’ve learned in the process of my acculturation into white culture: the analytic mode, the formal and structural analysis, the process of considered and constructive rational dialogue, the pseudoacademic lecture/ demonstration/group participation style, and so on. These modes of fluency reinforce my sense of identification with my audience and ultimately empower all of us to move with greater ease and fluidity from one such mode to another. It also reinforces my sense of optimism that eventually the twain shall meet!

…In these cases, it usually helps for me to address these feelings directly… However, it doesn’t always help, because I don’t always succeed in reducing the distance between me as a representative and advocate of an “alien” art form, and my audience who feels judged, criticized, and found wanting relative to it…

Afro-American working-class culture is in fact part of my white audience’s culture, and not alien to it… it is Afro-American culture, and we all would have continued to waltz, polka, and minuet, like our European ancestors, without it.

…Instead of recognizing their fundamental independence from their European forebears - an independence partly determined from the beginnings by the cross-pollination of Africa and Europe in the Americas - most white Americans aspire to symbiotic identification with Europe, while suppressing the most distinctively American facet of their identities, that is, their intrinsic hybridization - yes, genetically as well as culturally.

Why? I say it’s the racism inherited from Europe’s own cultural inferiority complex, originating in the ancient awareness of it enormous genetic and cultural inheritance from and indebtedness to Africa - an inheritance disseminated via North Africa’s connection to Egypt, Greece, and Italy… In any case, Americans feel culturally inferior to Europeans and aspire to be like them, and this requires the denial and rejection of their own varying degrees of blackness. The suppression of an intimate aspect of oneself in order to identify with an alien other is, of course, a familiar mechanism in neuroses of all kinds, as is the anxiety and fear that suppressed aspects then elicits.

This suppressed blackness is then reconstructed as the alien and threatening Other - hence the xenophobic response of anxiety and fear to black culture (that we don’t have this response to a genuinelyalien Other evidenced by our reactions to dolphins: Maybe they really are smarter, stronger, subtler, and more grown-up than we are, in addition to having a better sense of humor, but that’s acceptable as long as we all know who’s boss [get it? heh heh])

But here’s the double bind: The anxiety and fear response to what is perceived as alien and threatening carries with it the implicit belief that the Other is superior: in strength, cunning, endurance, and understanding - hence the myth of blacks as bigger, stronger, cooler, sexier, wiser, hipper, meaner, and so on. White Americans then get to feel inferior, not only to what they are not (European) because of what the are (African-influenced) but also to what they are not (African-American). Blacks become an object of fear, loathing, admiration, and awe.

It then becomes presumptuous, an act of bad faith, to aspire to experience black culture sympathetically or through participation. It is seen as an attempt to pretend to be what one is not, to be hipper and sexier than one feels. To feel hip and sexy at all then becomes self-deception, a violation of one’s authenticity. So to do anything that might make one feel hip and sexy, or look hip and sexy, or look as though one felt hip and sexy, or is supposed to make one feel and/or  look hip and sexy, is, of course, psychologically, morally, and politically unacceptable on every level, and the only thing left to do is make a joke of one’s self-hatred and withdraw.

One stance that often works as an antidote to the syndrome of the Other is

Fuck It. Let’s boogie.

… My point is simply that someone who tries to maintain personal authenticity by adhering to any circumscribed social or ethnic role will tend to view liberation from that role - anyone’s liberation - as a personal threat. Perhaps a more sedate way of achieving liberation from the syndrome of the Other is to keep in mind that…white Americans might evade victimization by this syndrome by fully recognizing and celebrating all the dimensions of their cultural identity as American; because in fact, we ARE all cool here. We are ALL cool here. “

-Adrian Piper, Out of Order, Out of Sight Vol. 1: Selected Writing’s in Meta-Art 1968-1992

I have and will continue to actively unfollow photoblogs that do not include people of color, particularly people of African descension, in their conception of aesthetics and beauty. The exclusion of color from high art and fashion is an illogical irrational classist convention I do not support.