Published Winter 2005
The Wages of Liberalism:
An Interview with Eric Lott
Eric Lott established his reputation with the book Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (Oxford UP, 1993), which won the MLA First Book Prize, and the Organization of American Historians' Avery O. Craven Prize in 1994. Related essays include "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Abraham Lincoln: Revolutionary Rhetoric and the Emergence of Bourgeois State" (CLIO [Winter 1993]); "White Kids and No Kids at All: Languages of Race in Antebellum U.S. Working-Class Culture" (in Rethinking Class, Columbia UP ); and "Mr. Clemens and Jim Crow: Twain, Race, and Blackface" (in The Cambridge Companion to Mark Twain, Cambridge UP ). He also had a hand in the reconsideration of whiteness studies, in "The Whiteness of Film Noir" (American Literary History [Fall 1997], rpt. in Whiteness: A Critical Reader, NYU P ); "White Like Me: Racial Cross-Dressing and the Construction of American Whiteness?(in Cultures of United States Imperialism, Duke UP ); and "All the King's Men: Elvis Impersonators and White Working-Class Masculinity?(in Race and the Subject of Masculinities, Duke UP ). He has also championed the political potential of aesthetics in "Double V, Double-Time: Bebop's Politics of Style" Callaloo [Summer 1988]); "The Aesthetic Ante: Pleasure, Pop Culture, and the Middle Passage" (Callaloo [Spring 1994]); and "Class of '77: Music Making History" (in Poetics/Politics, St. Martin's ). His more recent work targets the centrist politics of erstwhile boomer radicals, in "Boomer Liberalism" (Transition ) and "After Identity, Politics: The Return of Universalism" (New Literary History [Fall 2000]). He teaches American Studies and was a member of the Labor Action Group at the University of Virginia.
This interview took place at the Futures of American Studies Institute at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire on 23 June 2004. It was conducted and transcribed by Jason Arthur, editorial assistant to the minnesota review while a doctoral student at the University of Missouri.
Arthur: A decade after Love and Theft, is the book ancient history or has it, with some unexpected help from Bob Dylan, informed the work of Americanists since? Looking back, how do you see it now?
Lott: Before Dylan's record Love and Theft (2001), I would have said that it was feeling very quickly like ancient history, but that record has revived it to some extent. I haven't been able to chart yet, in royalties statements, whether it's given the book a new boost, but it's provided a jumping-off point for recent conversations about American pop culture, music in particular, in the last couple years, especially by the people who link the record to the book. In fact, I was called by the New York Times to interview Dylan as the record was coming out. Dylan didn't do it, but I did find out from his publicist, in the official quote, that "Mr. Dylan does not deny a connection between the title of his record and the title of that book." I have no idea if he read the text, what he thinks of it, or if he just thought it was a catchy title. Greil Marcus told me Dylan's something of a scholar of old time music, so I suppose it's possible he read it.
In terms of whether the project of the book was followed up in the 90s, I was trying to put a fairly well-elaborated tradition of labor history together with a critique of race and racial subjectivity, to produce a more refined and racially-sensitive version of labor history while giving political weight and urgency to the readings of texts and to the critique of racial subjectivity. I took Richard Johnson's injunction in "What is Cultural Studies Anyway?" to be the real point of the undertaking, that cultural studies is after some understanding of historical forms of consciousness and subjectivity. I'm certainly not alone in trying to do this.
Arthur: David Roediger's Wages of Whiteness (1991) came out about the same time.
Lott: Right, as I was putting the final manuscript together, Wages of Whiteness appeared. He was nice enough to let me see chapters in proof. He talks about the racial complications of antebellum racial history together with an extreme textual sensitivity, especially in his two chapters on minstrelsy.
I've been gratified to see how Love and Theft has been picked up both as a way of working and as a convincing trope for cultural interrelations, both in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It's pretty clear that the minstrel shit hit the fan immediately after that with Michael Rogin's Blackface, White Noise (1996), Susan Gubar's Racechanges (1997), W.T. Lhamon's Raising Cain (1998), and others.
Arthur: It seems almost as though the boom in scholarship has made blackface the default introductory subject of encyclopedic histories of pop culture. Jim Cullen's Art of Democracy, for instance, begins with antebellum blackface imagery. I can't imagine that the boom is because of an increased availability of archival information. How, then, do you contextualize the early 90s academic boom?
Lott: The larger picture is the boom in studies of race and a kind of obsession with race in the 90s that hadn't happened in thirty years. The only historical comparison is the mid 60s, an era of texts that range from white-liberal books, like Charles Silberman's Crisis in Black and White (1966), to black radical ones like Harold Cruse's Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967). Culturally, legislatively, and politically, in terms of the Civil Rights movement, the mid 60s was a galvanizing moment. The weird thing is that now there is an obsession with race almost in inverse proportion to activist urgency about it.
I remember as the 90s got underway, the sheer number of volumes snowballed and were crystallized in early 93 by Cornel West's Race Matters. I suppose someone should study why this resurgence of interest and the boom in publishing came about. For instance, the Harvard UP list in American Studies became 100% better when Lindsay Waters went there and paid specific attention to race, racial politics, and cultures of race in the United States. But as a publishing initiative, as a set of conversations and intellectual preoccupations, it's not immediately evident why it would have gotten off the ground just then.
Arthur: So academic interest waxes as activist interest wanes?
Lott: They're not necessarily so inversely related as that. In the 90s, preoccupations with race took a different form; there's a lot of discourse about it. Rather than the activist initiatives one saw thirty years earlier, you saw a series of spectacles—the Hill/Thomas hearings, the Rodney King affair, Clinton's various tęte-à-têtes with Lani Guinier and Joycelyn Elders, his "Conversation on Race," the Simpson case, Farrakhan and the Million Man March—big spectacular events, which in some cases only mimicked the remove that the publishing world had from events on the ground.
The advance, at least in scholarly terms, is in thinking about intersubjectivity in black and white. This advance is also a bit of a retreat. Rather than trying to think through canonical 60s questions of integration and segregation, there's much more attention to sexuality, psychology, subjectivity, and the way racial selves and idioms are produced across the culture. This attention, I think, has mostly made us smarter. I hope Love and Theft contributed to that.
Arthur: Paul Gilroy's seminal The Black Atlantic (1993) seems to have spawned another early 90s scholarly narrative on race, but one that lacks interest in labor history. What do you make of Gilroy's counter-narrative to your own?
Lott: I don't hold it against Gilroy and The Black Atlantic to have separated out diasporic concerns from specifically laboring ones, since the real bursts of brilliance in that book have to do with the laboring of musical cultures or intellectual labor—The Enlightenment and its underside, seafaring, the whole transition from "roots" to "routes." I myself really wanted to get away from epistemological questions, and abstract language like—God help us—"prejudice" and "Racial attitudes," as though dealing with race were a bourgeois matter of getting your head on straight. Instead, I wanted to look at the ways racial and class formations and certain kinds of patriarchal articulations all occur in concert in particular places, like the urban northeast, at particular times, like the antebellum period. So the project of my book was to see all those as happening at once.
It doesn't have to be everybody's project. Other accounts, particularly involving performativity, are really rich and produce insights that my book certainly can't get to, because it's so focused on the referent. Gilroy's book is about space and geography and movement across geographies that's thrilling and useful. I deal with a much more fixed sense of spatiality, where people move through urban spaces and take on different performative identities. I think, though, despite the interest in geography and mobility in Gilroy, there's always also been an epistemological concern with him. His focus on how the Enlightenment sucks on race does more than expose a minor flaw in the Enlightenment; it describes a master/slave dialectic upon which the entire Enlightenment is founded. I think he's exactly right.
Yet the degree to which he's interested in philosophical, indeed epistemological, questions that have led to books like the one entitled, in this country, Against Race (2000). Such books are much less sensitive to activism and organizing than they are to the epistemological politics of movements like Garveyism in the 20s. This puts Gilroy in particular into really preposterous positions, taking Anthony Appiah's critique of Du Bois and Walter Benn Michaels' elaboration of that critique—race doesn't exist, so it's a mistake to talk about race at all—way too far. First of all, you don't need yet another person doing work liberal suckers like Appiah and Michaels are already doing. Moreover, this line of thinking results in some of the implausible political assertions Gilroy advances, such as that Garveyism amounted to black fascism and that race inevitably leads to an exclusionary and indeed fascist dispensation. It's not unlike the tired arguments about Marx leading straight to the Gulag. The logical outcome of black separatism anyway isn't fascism; it's apartheid, self-segregation, and self-inferiorizing. For him to call it, in such hyperbolic and politically wrongheaded terms, "black fascism," is not only an incorrect judgment but an effect of his being so epistemologically-oriented in the first place, as opposed to having a fuller sense of performance or of activism or of labor in organizations in the 20s.
Arthur: Another obvious difference between you and Gilroy is nationality. Sometimes I think minstrelsy is an untranslatable American phenomenon. I have a hard time explaining to international students why minstrel show punchlines might be considered funny. Is minstrelsy an untranslatable, if not nationalist, phenomenon? If so, how do you fit it into an American Studies field that is currently making a lot of transnational gestures?
Lott: That's a really interesting question. Minstrelsy is a nationalist phenomenon. Yet some of the best American Studies work coming out of Germany, for example, has been on race. Berndt Ostendorf comes to mind; his Black Literature in White America (1982) has some great remarks on minstrelsy. American national culture is so often taken by those abroad to be black culture in a way that white Americans themselves don't understand. White Americans understand our exports to be baseball and hotdogs and Frank Sinatra. They're not in the position to understand the popularity, for example, of a hit British TV show of plantation skits called The Black and White Minstrel Show, which aired until the late 70s—shockingly late. Whatever else it is in terms of complexity of racial representation, the show embraces American national culture in its guise as black culture.
Arthur: I see your point about how issues of race and national culture exist abroad. You're saying that minstrelsy itself is exported and available transnationally. Is it exported to the extent that Liam Kennedy is right to assert that British Americanists have better scholarly access to America, and are therefore better Americanists than American Americanists?
Lott: Well, Jagger, Richards, and Clapton certainly had to reintroduce younger white generations in the United States to their own musical culture. These artists have a perception that the real cultural truth of America is that of the downpressed. Ostendorf has a great line about how black people have been called on for two purposes in the United States: for the labor to produce the material civilization, and for the culture that heals the wounds of the very material civilization they themselves were called on to build. It may be that there are certain extra-US traditions of studying the United States that can see that better than we do.
As for finding the humor in a racist joke, especially your being able to feel it in a way someone not from here can't, I think that's a really interesting point. In Love and Theft I quote the Gramsci line, which still strikes me as one of the greatest ways to think about racialized cultures in the United States, regarding the way history "has deposited in us an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory." The minstrel show is an inventory of all the crazy, oppressive, offensive, affectionate, libidinous, dangerous energies that have arisen around racial cultures and interactions in the United States. A lot of it is embedded in the humor. When a white person laughs or when a black person laughs at a transparently racist joke by Emmett Miller, there's a whole complex of feeling and affect going on that defines great swaths of American life. I used to have a Puritan superego that responded: "This is a racist joke. You will not laugh at it." That's a false response that denies the racial (and racist) practices in which I've been schooled. That's obviously not to say that one should indulge those racist practices, but you can't disavow them, only deconstruct them.
That raises another thing about Love and Theft. It sees the minstrel show as a contradictory cultural form—in contrast to both the racist indulgence of it in scholarship and culture up until the 60s and the post-60s scholarship that sees it as a wholly racist form—and charts a dialectical course between those two positions. I make certain allowances for the positive and politically emancipatory impulses that crop up here and there in the racist form. White liberals have never been interested in hearing that. Minstrelsy is always to them completely suspect, which is a symptom of their guilty superego in denial.
In other words, they were enlightened by the 60s and 70s antiracist critique, but their minds were also closed by it. Condemning minstrelsy as racist is the beginning of a response, but not an interesting one. It's not a response that allows you to think very sensitively or complicatedly about race in the United States. By contrast, black responses to my text have always been more open and willing to entertain the possible polarity—however fucked and dark it might be—of certain of these skits. I think black people have had to live with this kind of mess more deeply, and black scholars have come across more complicated faces of it, whereas white people cling too anxiously to their distrust and antiracist repulsion from the form. That's understandable, but it's not the whole story.
Arthur: So Ben Vereen was a genius to have performed for Reagan in blackface! He claimed, and was criticized by blacks and whites for claiming, that certain manifestations of black blackface minstrelsy should be celebrated moments in the history of black entertainment.
Lott: In the pages of Crisis magazine in the 1920s, Jessie Fauset spoke of Bert Williams, part of the great black blackface troupe Williams and Walker, as the soul of the race. Such instances mean that we're dealing with a cultural form that is much more variable than one is used to thinking. By the time Ben Vereen does it in front of Reagan, we're dealing with a different phenomenon and context, which is only to say that we have to be sensitive to the cultural circumstances of any of these performances in order to talk about their politics.
Spike Lee's Bamboozled is obviously not friendly to the minstrel show, and I don't think it should be. But it's not an easy critique of the minstrel tradition in black. Even before Savion Glover and the other guy sell out and do the minstrel show, the movie nicely shows all kinds of ways these two are framed by minstrel perceptions. Even when they do their, as it were, culturally authentic dance on the street, they do it on a board that resembles the shingle that slaves used to dance on in lower Manhattan. They're framed by the white gaze and so forth; they're always already minstrelized. I think that's a really smart representation, to show that there's no outside to the minstrel text. Then Lee moralizes it in the second half of the movie, as it becomes a story about active sellout.
But the stern critique of the first part of the movie is that you can't even sell out because there's no way out of minstrelsy anyway. What is also great is that, when they do put on the blackface mask, the viewer can't laugh it away as a transparently stupid and objectionable thing. It tugs at your heart, it tugs at your emotions. In some ways it looks completely fascinating. It's infectious. Lee was courageous to do that, because you have to confront those facts in order to deal with this history. Then of course, he can't fully take that on, and it has to become a kind of gangsta picture in which people get killed.
Arthur: Those scenes of violence seem to function under a "one drop" rule, or what Michaels calls the "no drop" logic of racism. In the key violent episode, the shootout between the black gang and the cops, the white member of the gang is the only one not killed. In the aftermath, he feels duped, crying hysterically that he has one drop of black blood and should die too. So the white gangster is bound by that racist logic, which ultimately flaws his ability to identify with black culture. In Love and Theft, you say that white minstrel identification is sometimes liberatory, but I wonder how, considering that racial parody can backfire, does white minstrelsy become a liberating act?
Lott: The liberatory moment is always contingent upon context, social location, and political climate. In the 1830s working-class white men are actively thinking about their increasing proletarianization, about their status being ever more like that of slaves, and about the rhetoric of "wage slavery." There is already a discursive situation in which identificatory links are being made between white workers and black slaves. They are certainly also made in order to differentiate their two positions: "We're white men. We shouldn't be slaves, and yet we're being forced into the position of slaves." But I think, at the same time, there's sometimes an unconscious that these two groups are just not as different or as hierarchized as the rhetoric of the day would have them be. I don't think you can carry that situation into the present without a great deal of violence.
In Black Like Me (1961), John Howard Griffin goes undercover as a black man in order to discover "what it's really like to be black," as though plenty of black authors hadn't told him that already. Texts like Griffin's make me think that the conditions are still there; despite the obvious racism of the minstrel show and the liberal apparatus of the Black Like Me text, Griffin is in that minstrel tradition. Seeing him as part of the minstrel tradition is part of a critical effort to see how political circumstances change. With Griffin, I suppose you have to say that it works inversely to antebellum minstrelsy; while there seems to be a sympathetic gesture, there are all kinds of exploitations that undergird it.
Arthur: But Griffin's crossing over is no longer about amusement. That starts to explain why you've stopped writing about cultures of amusement. Though your many articles since Love and Theft are difficult to schematize, it seems like you've begun to articulate a new universalism instead of what was called whiteness studies. How would you define your work since Love and Theft?
Lott: I'm not interested in participating in whiteness studies per se, but I'm glad it happened. Even though it was of limited value, the effort to particularize whiteness, to de-universalize it, keeps it from being an invisible norm or unmarked category. It was important to see whiteness as a political color.
There are two strands of whiteness studies. The Roedigerian strand seeks to abolish whiteness. Particularizing its character as a political color, looking at the ways in history it has been mobilized to do various political things for white workers, has been a very useful intervention. Another strand is the campy reclamation of whiteness and white trash, which seems to me less useful. It's making use of whiteness to do other kinds of cultural work than the abolition of whiteness, as Roediger would have it or Noel Ignatiev would have it in the pages of Race Traitor. It makes use of white trash in order to valorize the white working class or to make class visible. But it's a misguided way of talking about both race and class at their meeting ground in white lower-class cultures.
I don't think that it's possible to wish away whiteness in the way Ignatiev hopes that you can, but I do think that many of those critiques are quite telling. Whiteness studies made whiteness visible from the Left at the very moment when the Right was also making it visible via patriot movements and militias—a major development in racial politics in the 90s, whose crowning moment would obviously be the Oklahoma Federal Building bombing in 1995.
Arthur: How does that legacy of whiteness studies impact your work now?
Lott: What I'm working on now breaks down into two different areas. I'm really interested in white subjectivity; that was the main impulse behind Love and Theft. I tried to take a step back and meditate on my own interest in black cultural forms, and the question of what right I had to be so invested in black cultural forms and what authority I had in talking about them. I became interested in the whole history of white interest in black cultural forms, so the book came from a self-reflexive attempt to think that history through. I'm not saying that having written Love and Theft gives me the authority to talk about black cultural forms, but at least I know more about my own investments in them.
The place that my interest in race has gone is in a series of essays that I'm pulling together under the title White Like Me, which has to do with both white subjectivity and encounters with "blackness" and black cultural forms, like that of Mark Twain, Elvis impersonators, film noir, and John Howard Griffin. The other project is called Boomer Liberalism. I see a generational formation of baby-boomer men who started out as radicals in the 60s—they're 68ers really, most of them—and either held to their radical beliefs, which have been so overtaken by history that they now appear reactionary, or about-faced or slipped into the political middle. It's a study of how that generation of liberals has come into formation across the 90s as a powerful intellectual group constituting a front whose argument about politics and culture in the United States has been really disabling to the Left.
Arthur: Who are these traitors?
Lott: Richard Rorty is the bland old man of the group. But the group is populated by people like Todd Gitlin, Paul Berman, Walter Benn Michaels, Joe Klein (the author of Primary Colors), certain black intellectuals like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Michael Eric Dyson, and Cornel West, and rock critics like Greil Marcus. It's a vast array of writers who, in the guise of leftist political thought, have pushed forward a liberal nationalism that is at best Clintonian in its critique of political matters today. So some of my interest in race gets worked out there as well. There's a chapter on David Hollinger (author of Post-Ethnic America) and the whole post-ethnic crowd, including Michaels and his attempt to kill ethnicity altogether. I try to look at how a certain view of political life in the United States works out to a not very helpful intellectual critique of things like racial subjectivity.
Arthur: I know you've been critiqued on the grouping rationale of your boomer liberal category. Its writers are similar in that their middle-of-the-road discourse is rooted in white male identity. How do you account for this disparate grouping, other than the fact that they are all baby-boomers, which you yourself are?
Lott: My joke is that I'm trying to reinvent invective as a new polemical form. But I think it's more than that. There's a grouping of French intellectuals Kristin Ross took to task in a book called May '68 and Its Afterlives (2002). I ask similar questions not only about what happened to the generation of 68, but also about how the revolutionary demands of that moment have been incorporated into the culture, how the culture has changed as a result of those demands, and so on.
One of the things I like about the grouping is that these figures seem random and idiosyncratic, indeed maverick, in their political writings. That's one of the freshest things about some of these people. Greil Marcus, for example, seems to have his own history, Joe Klein and Paul Berman similarly, or Rorty, who's obviously not a boomer but who is the sort of intellectual sponsor of this group. They all seem to come out of nowhere and have their own bailiwicks, but I think they're generationally localizable. Their politics can be specified and critiqued in the following fashion: they are all, in Ellen Willis's words, "economic majoritarians." They believe that class, rather than any other social ill, is the primary axis of oppression. They all tend to be really awful on race, gender, sexuality, etc. and decry the rise of identity politics.
From my perspective, they don't even think about class in any sophisticated way, even though it's their main concern. For Rorty, not to be sophisticated theoretically is these days a badge of honor, because at this point he's all about policy proposals. He's constantly talking about passing laws, and consequently imploring the "cultural left" to not think so hard, just work harder to pass laws. Finally, they're all joined as a group by virtue of finding the Left a bigger problem in America than the Right. In the 90s, when The New York Times asked Rorty to write something, he would address bourgeois readers from a liberal perspective. In that capacity he performs a valuable service, but when he's hectoring the Left about how we shouldn't think so hard about race and sex and just love our country, he sounds ridiculous. At the 2000 Organization of American Historians Conference there was a panel on his book, Achieving Our Country. Eric Foner stepped up and said that the book is misguided as history and dangerous as a prescription for the Left, because it's anti-theory, it excoriates the Left, and its flag-waving is redolent of the Truman Loyalty Program.
I think a lot of the boomers have that nationalist urgency, and are part of the group for that particular reason. They hold sway over a whole sweep of writing in the culture, from Dissent to Salon to Artforum to the Times, often The Nation, certainly the New Republic. To see them as just irrelevant, or as people who are basically our allies so why beat up on them, is to miss the point. They’re taking up space and knocking out the Left. I've always thought that the socialist intellectual's vocation is to fight on the ground of the intellect, to take out bourgeois thinkers on that ground. The political enemy in this case is not only the Right but the liberal middle. They are so because they've made us the enemy.
Arthur: By noting their presence in Salon and The New Republic, you seem to say that boomers control the engines of opinion for Left intellectuals. My generation of grad students read these journals as ways of seeing what we assume is the public face of a noble intellectual Left. But, if they have the wrong politics, what are the right politics? I know you've said you're an anarcho-syndicalist.
Lott: I'd stand by that. I've certainly been influenced by the C. L. R. Jamesian thrust, certain traditions of spontaneism, of wildcatting, of a post-organizational collective self-activity. I love James's left anti-Stalinism, over against the Cold War liberalism of somebody like Rorty or Irving Howe. I love the way he thinks about the person already organized under contemporary capitalism, in the office or on the shop floor, as having the imaginative capacity and wherewithal to collectively exert control over the means of production. I am very much enamored of traditions of workers?control. David Montgomery's Workers' Control in America (1979) is an important book to me.
There's probably a mystical edge to that stuff that I don't care to admit—mystical in terms of where the collective impulse will come from if not from hard activist work and organization. It's not that I'm down on hard work and organization—I've done my share of that, believe me! But the mystical aspect of the sudden appearance of collective struggle, predicted by certain theorists of spontaneity like James, does reckon the imaginative activity behind the struggle for happiness, as James called it. And it reckons the way in which that struggle occurs in realms that other political traditions don't normally think of as conditions or activities of struggle—from dancing to laughing to playing rock and roll. I was formed by the moment of 1977, so there's a punk-y and disco-y infusion into those ideas as well. All that plus anarcho-syndicalism!
Arthur: What's amazing to me is that you're really saying that the first article you ever published, "Double V, Double Time" (1988), is still right on! Politics still need to be exerted at the level of style, and virtuosity is a way of being a universalist. But you've never written about spontaneity, nor have you done more than admiringly nod to C. L. R. James. Instead you seem committed to critiquing your cohort, like Cornel West. Is your dual interest in the politics of style and the tradition of spontaneity responsible for your opinion that the welfare state is something to be avoided?
Lott: You draw all those connections well. You're right, there is in that bebop piece an attempt to show that, in the radical decade of the 40s, certain kinds of style centered on jazz and zoot-suit culture authorized political and collective gestures that amounted to radical acts. Part of the animus of that piece is against a leftist tradition that sees art in service to politics—for instance the CPUSA idea of getting Paul Robeson to come sing "Ballad for Americans" at a rally, which I find worse than pathetic as a cultural, not to mention political, idea. So one animus of the piece is aesthetic, to counter that idea of art's relation to politics. The other one is to emphasize the way in which autonomous or independent black struggle not under the wing of a Left organization like the CP would produce advances not only for black people in the United States but for socialism too.
That's James's constant refrain in the 40s; the independent struggle for racial liberation is at one and the same time a struggle for socialism. Black autonomy, if you follow it, will become a universalist movement. His "Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the United States" (1948) is a more radical and socialist-oriented emphasis on what Civil Rights should be than what Civil Rights became in the hands of King in the 50s. In an incredibly prescient way in the 40s, as I say a radical decade, James sees the potential of a King-like movement that was just around the corner. What cultural historians too seldom see is the way in which a form like bebop, or what Ralph Ellison called the riddle of the zoot, contains that kind of radical political potential in its imaginative activity.
Cornel West is about as far from that kind of thinking as you can get when he sits down to write a book like Race Matters, or the new one, Democracy Matters. He makes all kinds of noises in Race Matters about thinking outside the box or not being in the tradition of any previous thought. Basically what he advances is an expanded welfare state. (At this point in history, under George fucking Bush, I’m ready to say bring back the welfare state, all is forgiven! One can push one's anti-statism too far.) I like Cornel—he's a brilliant guy and fun to talk to. But for him—and you can track this consistently through his work—black working-class people are at best passive and at worst nihilistic and self-destructive. To take a fairly recent example, listen to West's spoken-word record Sketches of My Culture (2001). Not only are there all kinds of encomiums to 70s (i.e. pure hip hop) music—"This is music," he says at one point, "real music," when some 70s slow jam comes on—there are Stanley Crouchian depictions of hip-hoppers with caps on sideways, walking swaggeringly down the street, probably packing heat. Somebody on that record, I think West, calls out to a young black kid, something like "you think you're cool right now, but have you ever heard of 15 to 25 in the federal pen," assuming the criminality of black youth and not beginning to connect stylistic impulses with organic intellectual life.
Arthur: Has Jamesian spontaneity cropped up since the 40s bop revolution?
Lott: I attempt in Boomer Liberalism to talk about Seattle in those terms and rescue the word "anarchism" from the mouths of TV commentators for whom it became a term of abjection, as in anarchists throwing bricks through the windows of the Gap. Not only do I not have a problem with the destruction of Gap windows (though I've also shopped there—how's that for contradictory lives at the turn of the millennium?), I think that, to the extent that there was an anarchist presence in Seattle, it was crucial in driving this crazy concatenation of many types of groups, generational profiles, and cultural locations into a movement that found itself a collective all at once on the streets of Seattle, just like James said. Despite the tons of organization that went into events like the Seattle protest, there is a spontaneous component that can't be denied, and that I think gave it its panache and effectiveness.
Arthur: Am I correct in thinking that you are, in an age of proliferated cultural studies, trying to rescue aesthetics and uncover its political backbeat?
Lott: Yeah, its revolutionary potential. If you look at the discourse of aesthetics the way Terry Eagleton has, it's a Trojan horse in which one smuggles all kinds of nasty political affiliations, valuations, and feelings. But if you see it as a space of radical potential for play and the creation of beauty, why shouldn't it be a revolutionary activity?
Arthur: You write about the aesthetic weight of unassimilable images, produced by revolutionary art forms like bebop. How does the passion for such images and forms not become a passion for spectacle? How do you break the cycle of turning revolutionary aesthetics like bop into packaged versions of themselves?
Lott: Pick up a horn and play yourself. I've been associated, since its founding a half decade ago, with a New York tabloid, First of the Month. One of my really close friends, Benj DeMott, is a principal editor there. It bills itself as a paper of the radical imagination. I think it probably comes closest to what I find most exciting about thinking of culture and politics in the same gesture. The musicologist and cultural thinker Charles Keil, who wrote Urban Blues forty years ago, has published some pieces there, one of which is called "Why Not a 6/8 Path Band." He suggests that it only takes two people (really it only takes one person) to pick up an instrument, walk to the local grocery store, and start playing. For that you get rhythms pushed out into the atmosphere and you get people's bodies swaying. That kind of activity is participatory and rhythmic and almost by definition political. It opens onto the political really easily, as Jacques Attali's book Noise also suggests. You don't noun bebop that way, you keep it verbed, as Amiri Baraka would have it. That's certainly one way.
Intellectually, the way I do it is to just keep thinking back into its social milieu. Not to fetishize Bird's virtuosity, but to always think about how the social scene gets summed up when he plays. Baraka, in Black Music (1968), has this really great line: "if you walk into a bank and a James Brown song is playing, and he's singing 'Money Won't Change You But Time Will Take You Out,' everybody in the bank is taken to a different place, a black place." Seeing the way in which music can intersect with scene or location, to completely change it, and also to sum up space in that way, is the way to keep it live. Music is always referring you to a social activity and landscape that is constantly in motion.
Arthur: You've recently started writing about a return of universalism, which is to you a logical way of following the political ineptness of postmodernism.
Lott: Let me go back to the organization/spontaneity question. I speak as an enthusiast of spontaneity, but also as someone who for the second half of the 90s worked pretty hard and steadily to get a staff union organized at the University of Virginia. When the Columbia Teach-In With The Labor Movement was held in October of 96, one of its co-organizers was Nelson Lichtenstein, who at the time was in the history department at UVA. One of the ideas of the Columbia teach-in was to start prairie fires and have teach-ins all across the country. So we had one at UVA; we hosted everybody from Barbara Ehrenreich to Ralph Nader, also people from the UNC-Chapel Hill housekeepers association who had successfully had demands met by the administration and succeeded at forming a union. There were also people from Black Workers for Justice, an organization that is precisely about autonomous black political movement. We certainly raised consciousness about labor issues at the university through that.
Soon after we started a living wage campaign, which was immediately successful in getting lots of attention and in getting a living wage ordinance passed for city workers in Charlottesville, and finally for university staff (although of course the university disavowed that we had anything to do with it). The living wage campaign (and the Labor Action Group that started it) transmogrified into the staff union at UVA, which has affiliated with the Communications Workers of America. So I'm particularly proud of that. For all my enthusiasms that may sound impractical, I know what a struggle on the ground looks like.
In terms of the postmodern fracturing of political initiatives that have, to a lot of people, seemed really frustrating, one response is by Tim Brennan, who talks about the cultural Left not having an organizational imaginary. He says you have to think in terms of institutions and goals and ways of getting things done. In the friendly sparring Brennan and I did, in Cultural Critique (him) and New Literary History (me), he accused me of being insufficiently organizationally attentive in my critique of Rorty, Gitlin, and other boomers. He unaccountably finds room in his heart for Rorty and Gitlin, because they are interested in actual reform and the practical consequences of their work. That's all fine and good, but I don't know why Rorty and Gitlin seem more palatable to him than Judith Butler or Ernesto Laclau, for instance. He tries to put the Leninist clampdown on postmodernism, making all kinds of preposterous claims from the Third International and its organizing initiatives. Brennan's organizational imperative strikes me as too rigidly totalizing and pre-scripted to get much actual political work done.
Going back through Laclau's book Emancipation(s), I take up the question of universalism, which Laclau theorizes in a radically democratic way, as open and contingent but nevertheless collective. That seems to me one way to circumvent the postmodernist fancy dance. Laclau thinks about the universal subject as merely a placeholder; it's an empty space that various groups of the aggrieved are always fighting to occupy, but never quite do. But that's not the point: the very struggle to occupy that place of lack is what constitutes political struggle and the momentary collective coming-together of all kinds of groups from the Left, like in 1999 in Seattle.
Arthur: So the Seattle phenomenon is not a coalition?
Lott: No. You're never going to sit down and have a white working-class country person agree with a green-haired, pierced punk about proper tactics, strategies, demeanor, even political goals. If you try and sit down and work that out as a coalition beforehand, it rarely works. I've seen it happen maybe once in the context of the living wage campaign. But when both of those people are confronted with a situation that pisses them off, and they will always come together against it, and not against each other. That's the space of radical democratic activity, which constitutes a collective almost out of nowhere. That may sound a little cryptic, but I'm convinced that's how it works.