fragments of an attempted writing.

capitalist realism and rap. and beer.

This post by El P reminded me of this passage in Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?:

…For most people under twenty in Europe and North America, the lack of alternatives to capitalism is no longer even an issue.  Capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the unthinkable.  Jameson used to report in horror about the ways that capitalism had seeped into the very unconscious; now, the fact that capitalism has colonized the dreaming life of the population is so taken for granted that it is no longer worthy of comment.  It would be dangerous and misleading to imagine that the near past was some prelapsarian state rife with political potentials, so it’s as well to remember the role that commodification played in the production of culture throughout the twentieth century.  Yet the old struggle between detournement and recuperation, between subversion and incorporation, seems to have been played out.  What we are dealing with now is not the incorporation of materials that previously seemed to possess subversive potentials, but instead, their precorporation:  the pre-emptive formatting and shaping of desires, aspirations and hopes by capitalist culture.  Witness, for instance, the establishment of settled ‘alternative’ or ‘independent’ cultural zones, which endlessly repeat older gestures of rebellion and contestation as if for the first time.  ‘Alternative’ and ‘independent’ don’t designate something outside mainstream culture; rather, they are styles, in fact the dominant styles, within the mainstream.  No-one embodied (and struggled with) this deadlock more than Kurt Cobain and Nirvana.  In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, Cobain seemed to give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened.  Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realizing it was a cliché.  The impasse that paralyzed Corbain is precisely the one that Jameson described: like postmodern culture in general, Cobain found himself in ‘a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, [where] all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum’.  Here, even success meant failure, since to succeed would only mean that you were the new meat on which the system could feed.  But the high existential angst of Nirvana and Cobain belongs to an older moment; what succeeded them was a pastiche-rock which reproduced the forms of the past without anxiety.

Cobain’s death confirmed the defeat and incorporation of rock’s utopian and promethean ambitions.  When he died, rock was already being eclipsed by hip hop, whose global success has presupposed just the kind of precorporation by capital which I alluded to above.  For much hip hop, any ‘naïve’ hope that youth culture could change anything has been replaced by the hardheaded embracing of a brutally reductive version of ‘reality’.  ‘In hip hop’, Simon Reynolds pointed out in a 1996 essay in The Wire magazine,

‘real’ has two meanings.  First, it means authentic, uncompromised music that refuses to sell out to the music industry and soften its message for crossover.  ‘Real’ also signifies that the music reflects a ‘reality’ constituted by late capitalist economic instability, institutionalized racism, and increased surveillance and harassment of youth by the police.  ‘Real’ means the death of the social: it means corporations who respond to increased profits not by raising pay or improving benefits but by …downsizing (the laying-off the permanent workforce in order to create a floating employment pool of part-time and freelance workers without benefits of job security).

In the end, it was precisely hip hop’s performance of this first version of the real – ‘the uncompromising’ – that enabled its easy absorption into the second, the reality of late capitalist economic instability, where such authenticity has proven highly marketable.  Gangster rap neither merely reflects pre-existing social conditions, as its critics argue – rather the circuit whereby hip hop and the late capitalist social field feed into each other is one of the means by which capitalist realism transforms into a kind of anti-mythical myth.  The affinity between hip hop and gangster movies such as Scarface, The Godfather films, Reservoir Dogs, Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction arises from their common claim to have stripped the world of sentimental illusions and seen it for ‘what is really is’: A Hobbesian war of all against all, a system of perpetual exploitation and generalized criminality.  In hip hop, Reynolds writes, ‘To “get real” is to confront a state-of-nature where dog eats dog, where you’re either a winner or loser, and where most will be losers’.

…[In the case of gangster rap], capitalist realism takes the form of a kind of super-identification with capital at its most pitilessly predatory, but this need not be the case.  In fact, capitalist realism is very far from precluding a certain anti-capitalism.  After all, and as Žižek has provocatively pointed out, anti-capitalism is widely disseminated in capitalism.  Time after time, the villain in Hollywood films will turn out to be the ‘evil corporation’.  Far from undermining capitalist realism, this gestural anti-capitalism actually reinforces it.  Take Disney/Pixar’s Wall-E (2008).  The film shows an earth so despoiled that human beings are no longer capable of inhabiting it.  We’re left in no doubt that consumer capitalism and corporations  - or rather one mega-corporation, Buy n Large – is responsible for this depredation; and when we eventually see the human beings in offworld exile, they are infantile and obese, interacting via screen interfaces, carried around in large motorized chairs, and supping indeterminate slop from cups.  What we have here is a vision of control and communication much as Jean Baudrillard understood it, in which subjugation no longer takes the form of a subordination to an extrinsic spectacle, but rather invites us to interact and participate.  It seems that the cinema audience is itself the object of this satire, which prompted some right wing observers to recoil in disgust, condemning Disney/Pixar for attacking its own audience.  But this kind of irony feeds rather than challenges capitalist realism.  A film like Wall-E exemplifies what Robert Pfaller has called ‘interpassivity’: the film performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity.  The role of capitalist ideology is not to make an explicit case for something in the way that propaganda does, but to conceal the fact that the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief.  It is impossible to conceive of fascism or Stalinism without propaganda – but capitalism can proceed perfectly well, in some ways better, without anyone making a case for it.  

- bold emphases mine.

Fisher goes a little stodgy old white British guy with his take on hip hop and "gangster rap" here, but aside from that I like his points.  I wonder about the phenomenon of white suburbanite kids listening to the more extreme rap - is this a phenomena wherein they are listening to the mainstreamed presentation of a message that is framed as non-mainstream and representative of experiences outside of capitalist success (even as the rap artists are successful businessmen or trying hard to be) - an act of listening and consumption which is intuited to offer some sort of 'corrective' or mimetic recapitulation via empathy that (so the intuition goes) enables the suburban white youth to get an 'authentic' taste of 'real' humanity (thus escaping the banality of his suburban existence) by embracing this 'fuck the man' message of a man getting paid well by the man?  Of course such an activity prepares that white suburban youth to become a good servant of a corporation, even as the youth 'feels' the very opposite.

So many fully operative contradictions, leaving us embracing what we didn't mean to embrace at all.

Now think of the hipster PBR drinking phenomenon (next it will be trust fund kids making a point of hanging out at Walmart on Friday nights) - because drinking microbrews carried an anti-macrobrew self-awareness to it that was easily co-opted and capitalized upon, you have the phenomenon of hipsters drinking macrobrews to reject the microbeer drinking qua social rejection of macrobrews.  The important thing isn't the beer, it's the rejection, which, of course, is nothing more or less than an embrace.  Now, I have friends who will protest "I've always enjoyed both macro and micro beers - I've always embraced both!"  [They usually follow this up with the apples and oranges language - They like each for different reasons, etc., sort of like how these same folks wear Levi's for one occasion and Dockers for another.]  Great, in the end you've drunk a lot of both macro and micro beer, as has the hipster, drinking micro in his first rejection and macro in his second (or more than likely drinking both all the time like you, the micro to suit his bobo tastes and the macro to suit his fashion, changing rejections to suit the occasion).   The perceived social/commercial "tensions" between macro and micro beers, and even the consumer choices "between" the two, are superficial.  The choice between macro and micro beers is a new variation on the "tastes great! less filling!" debate - it is a "debate," a social/commercial tension, manufactured to increase sales - no matter what you choose, your money goes to capitalists who sell a product, and whose one immutable goal is to make a profit selling a product.


  1. > "The choice between macro and micro beers is a new variation on the "tastes great! less filling!" debate - it is a "debate," a social/commercial tension, manufactured to increase sales - no matter what you choose, your money goes to capitalists who sells a product, and whose one immutable goal is to make a profit selling a product."

    I ran into a striking embodiment of this point in Des Moines, where El Bait Shop--notable for its 100-odd taps for beers from around the world--and the High Life Lounge--boasting shag carpeting, dark wood paneling, and "no beers introduced after the 1970s"--share not only the same building but the same ownership.

  2. Great post.

    " But the high existential angst of Nirvana and Cobain belongs to an older moment; what succeeded them was a pastiche-rock which reproduced the forms of the past without anxiety."

    I have read some interviews of David Foster Wallace and he basically expresses the same views of Fischer in relation to literature. DFW stated somewhere that the "age of authenticity" is over and I think he is right. My Dad is 71 and was a factory worker in Romulus Michigan. He barely made it of highschool but got a good factory job at 19. I don't think he ever tried or thought of being "authentic". He worked, went to Sunday Mass, played some golf, cleaned the house, mowed the lawn, drank beer because he liked it, and was an all around good guy. Whether he was being manipulated and playing some part in the "system" probably never entered his mind. I'm not saying that this is a necessarily a good thing: to be unaware, but most of the time I pray that I could be so "authentic".

    Also, about the microbrew issue. I drank a lot of cheap beer in HS and college to get drunk period. This also goes for most of my peers at the time. I quit drinking because I was sick of being drunk on the weekends and had better things to do. Well, it wasn't until about 4 years ago that I started drinking beer again and it was due to the microbrews. I actually enjoyed the taste and found that I could drink just one. But of course to much of a good thing usually turns out bad. I think the prices are riduculous and the number of "BeerFests" is maddening. Maybe I thought drinking the microbrew made me different:) At my local Wholefoods I saw PBR and couldn't believe my eyes. Now it's cool to drink PBR and its sold next to the microbrews. Hilarious.


  3. My wife, daughter, and I went to my parents' house for break-fast on Sunday morning. My father mentioned how five or six million slaves were imported into the Caribbean to reap sugar-cane and how sugar, dessert, and a desire for sweet things--"A good wife always has a sweet thing ready," etc.--was manufactured by advertisements.

  4. Gordie,

    That reminds me of this speech Wallace gave were he kept self-consciously noting that he was attending a working class church, and I couldn't help but think he was the one fucking it up for the rest of them. If authenticity is consuming without thought of authenticity, well, most people are still authentic and only the authenticity seekers are inauthentic.

    My dad is a warehouseman who never gave thought to authenticity, but his tastes are as shaped by capital as everyone else's. Such as, when he was a kid, he and his friends would sneak down to the river bottom to smoke Chesterfield Unfiltereds, because James Bond smoked them in one of the novels. My grandfather never graduated high school, and worked for the gas company reading meters. He drank PBR because it was a cheap drunk and it was considered cool by family and friends. Though he was drunk often, the later reason was as important as the former.

    I got into microbrews when I was into Distributism. It was a "moral" consumer choice, more authentic and all that shit. There is third wayism and postmodern authenticity seeking for you, moralizing middle class consumerism. It gets hard not turning into Drehr.

    Right now I'm renting out the house I'm losing and not paying a mortgage on, so I can afford to drink a $10 beer for the hell of it. There's nothing moral or authentic about it, I can afford it, so fuck it. Soon I'll be back to drinking $10 a case beer.

  5. On PBR and hipsters...

    The whole thing started with poor young 20 something artists/radicals/what have you living in metropolitan ghettoes who had to drink cheap beer because that's what they could afford. PBR was the ironic choice because it had a vague sense of Middle American authenticity or whatever... art fags living in hollowed out post-industrial depressed urban zones drinking something that seems authentically connected in some way to macho industrial working class America of yesteryear, hahah get it? So in certain parts of the US this became the beer of poor countercultural people. PBR noticed this and started a sponsored a highly successful whisper campaign to sell 20 something year old "creatives" with money that this was the authentic/ironic drink of choice of the real bohemian class lifestylism they identify with, but don't have to deal with their houses getting broken into or bikes stolen... so the neo-yuppies take it on as their drink of choice (eff you Dad and your Heneiken, I'll be like Dennis Hopper and drink PBR!), and because they are the fashionable class in most metropolitan areas, people not necessarily associated with all this start seeing PBR as an "annoying fad" but have a repressed envy, wanting to belong to it because the people in it have a sense of weird superiority, sexiness, and seem like they're having fun. PBR made and is making tons of money off this when their beer is just as shitty as any other macrobrew. Colt 45 started up a campaign similar with the help of Vice, but I don't know how successful it has been. The trad-yuppies of today drink Stella Artois, which is not very good. The "hip" neo-yuppies drink PBR, and I've noticed among the circles I associate with (and myself) that most people like good microbrew beer if they have money for it, but will settle on free beer regardless of what it is... like at gallery openings or sponsored events like SXSW where all sorts of marketers are pushing everything on you for free because they want pictures to be taken of you as good marketing for their products...

    and that's the key to the whole "hipster" phenomenon, it's a means of marketing for neoliberal cultural capitalism. All cities with pretensions of being "global cities" want to attract "hipsters" (the poor bohemian ones who are "authentic" and cheap labor for coffee shops, bars, etc.) to kick off the gentrification cycle and bring money and neo-yuppies into their cities. A gang of unemployed liberal arts educated 24 year olds on foodstamps riding their bikes around a city is an ad campaign for the city. In the US Brooklyn, Portland, and Austin are all good examples of this. Read up on Richard Florida if you want to see the mindset of the urban developers/city councils of these cities that are trying to become "global cities" through cultural capitalism.

  6. Lotar:

    So our tastes are formed by "capital". Is this any different than saying our coices are formed by our culture? I think of Sancho in Don Quixote: what formed his tastes? My answer is desire. But we do have free will. So my Dad although very far from perfect does his best. Supports the union, helps out his neighbors, gives blood, loves my Mom, etc. at the same time drinking beer, watching sports, and playing golf. Choices: some banal, some saintly, some ridiculous.


    "Instead, they skip overt marketing altogether and engage in ``murketing,'' says Rob Walker in his revealing new book, ``Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are.'' Companies like American Apparel, Apple, Pabst, Timberland and Red Bull have done remarkably well over the past decade by trading on our desire for authenticity and our reluctance to seem like easy marks."

    Hip, cool and no one can fool me. Right! Hilarious

  7. I agree. My point is that there is no special "authenticity" imbued in that generation lacking in yours or mine.

  8. Now I'm not going to say that there's not a lot of asshats out in Brooklyn who've somehow incorporated drinking PBR into their asshatery. But, I went to college in Athens GA which is quite the well of one brand of hipsterdom and, granted, in a state that has a lot of red tape preventing microbreweries from getting off the ground. So there was not at the time a real microbrew-macrobrew dialectic, but much, much PBR was consumed-- you could get it at happy hour for .50 a can! The real rednecks drank High Life, of course, but I've always found it too syrupy-tasting to drink in bulk, while PBR if cold tastes crisp, and its metallic zing hides the rice-taste you get with Bud or the peanut butter weirdness of Rolling Rock (my second choice for the price). Most people I know from home still choose between PBR or a sorta-semi-kinda-micro beer like Sierra Nevada purely on the basis of how much money they want to spend drinking that night, regardless of their degree of hipsterness. If anything, I'm thankful to the hipster crowd for popularizing PBR pitchers such that it's cheaper to spend a Saturdays watching football.

    Can't beer drinking just be like bourbon drinking? I mean, top shelf stuff is a delight, but so is Jim Beam and so too Evan Williams, right? Alcohol should be a bringer of harmony, not a sower of divisions...

  9. I buy a 5 gallon bucket of honey for $100. This makes me 5 batches of 5 gallons of mead. So after secondary fermentation and minus the yeast cake, I get about 23 gallons of mead for $100. Figure you get a little more than 4 bottles of wine/gallon, and I drink a pretty decent $1 bottle of mead (at about 13-16% alcohol). Making mead ain't rocket science (my next door neighbor thought drinking mead rather "faggy" until I did the math for him), and it's not at all labor intensive. A 5 gallon batch of mead takes me a total of about 2 hours (tops) to clean, brew, transfer, and bottle.

    My wife brews beer, good beer, but even that costs about $1/bottle for a decent stout--$6 for a six-pack. That's way too much for me. She doesn't like mead.

    Anyway, Owen, I like the analysis above, especially the bolded parts about Wall-E.

  10. Would it shock you to learn that PBR is no longer brewed by Pabst? They also reneged on the pension for their workers in Milwaukee.

  11. Capitalist Realism is a great read, as is Fisher's K-Punk blog. Unfortunately he doesn't update it much anymore.

  12. Good stuff.

    Alright, alright. So what's the scoop on Nemo?

    I think the overly rational father clownfish's fear of leaving the anemone is a clear indicator of his homophobia. DISCUSS.

  13. If you guys like imaginative didactic critical theory readings of popular culture from an Insurrectionist perspective, this article is great. I hope Williams continues to write stuff like this:

  14. Samn!, You wear white suits. If that means nothing else it means this - you're not allowed to engage in social commentary regarding any alcoholic beverage less than 80 proof.

  15. LOL, I can soooo not relate to this GenX angst about what's hipster pretension and what's not. DH drinks Bud and has always drunk Bud and has never thought about it one way or the other.

    My kids drink Guinness because they're into Celtic Stuff.

    Good grief, it's just beer. ;)


  16. Diane,

    The reasons your kids and husband drink as they do are inconsequential. Whatever their particular reasons, Bud became Bud and Guinness became Guinness because of carefully planned manipulation of markets. Talk about two companies that have successfully kicked other corporate ass.

    A caveat - when talking about Bud, it isn't "just beer." It is a malt beverage made from concentrate. And that isn't just a snobbish hack comment toward macro-brews - all marco-brews cut corners in their mass production of their products, but nobody else comes close to Bud with regard to creating a Frankenbeer product.

    You should tell your kids that prior to WWII any brewer employed at Guinness was asked to resign if he married a Catholic girl. Perhaps this is one reason why Irish Catholics in the U.S. didn't usually drink Guinness and it was not the most common Irish stout in actual Irish-American bars until the last generation with the new, completely marketing fabricated, Irish Disneylandish craze. Guinness has always (or at least for a century+) been a product directed at English drinkers (and then American and Australian drinkers. Sure, you can read that 1/4 of all beer sold in Ireland is Guinness but, A) Guinness makes bitter and lager there so it is not all what we think of as Guinness, and B) a hell of a lot of the Guinness Stout sold there is drunk by tourists, as tourism is a huge part of the Irish economy. For many years most Guinness stout brewed in Ireland was exported, until most Guinness stout sold in America began to be brewed in Canada, which remains the case except that recently, with a decline in sales post-recession, Guinness is again selling a six pack here in the states that is actually brewed in Ireland, though not at St. James Gate, of course, but rather in a somewhat unattractive industrial park.

    Also, your kids don't just drink Guinness because they are into Celtic stuff, per se. They drink it because in the 70s Extra Stout was drastically changed (lower gravity, etc.) in order to make it more palatable to younger beer drinkers in England, the U.S., and Australia. They drink it because the large international conglomerate which bought Guinness in the 80s and via merger in the 90s became the largest spirits corporation in the world (with a plurality of shares owned by yet another corporation - a Fortune 50 company that owned Burger King and a shitload of restaurant and big ag interests) successfully reinstated the image of Guinness as an intrinsic part of the Irish Disneyland crave and the all things Celtic craze. The fact is that Guinness has successfully gotten most Americans to believe that Guinness is "Celtic Stuff" - that it is the beer that Irish people drink. But this isn't true. Your average Irish person today drinks Bud or another cheap lager when drinking beer - Indeed, the Irish are somewhat known in the beer drinking world for their love of lager, and this has long been so. Your average Irish working bloke, by that I mean, you know, a Celt, an Irish Catholic, 80-90 years ago drank lager or bitter and not stout when drinking beer. Several histories of beer drinking in the U.S. attribute the American fixation on cheap lagers as being Irish-American influenced. We sure as hell didn't get that trait from the Germans, who have (or rather, had) a palate which could not tolerate dismally produced lager. It is only in the marketing produced fantasy world that Guinness stout actually is "Celtic Stuff" - and this new "reality" came about because of decisions made in board rooms by people consulted by experts in framing images of consumer goods. We're it not for them, your kids, having Irish blood in them, would be drinking much more like your husband.

  17. The stuff I like best sneers at all of this and comes to $10 a bottle, which is one reason why I never drink it. The other is that I never got into the drinking habit. I went through a brief Guinness phase, and several other phases that didn't last because, well, mostly I don't like beer all that much, and I'm sufficiently immune to the social pressure to drink it. (Being in college in the late 1970s went a long way towards that; back then beer didn't come in brands, it came in "3 for $1".)

    On one level I get exactly what Fisher is on to, but I would add that money is not the only coin used in buying and selling that.

  18. Owen, you must have a PhD in Beer. That is the most amazingly informative comment on the subject I have ever read, lol.

    I accept everything you say, as you obviously know waaaaaay more about it than I do.

    BTW, my kids refer to that Irish Disneyland stuff as "Plastic Paddy." But they're really referring more to the sappy Irish-American music of my mom's generation, like "Galway Bay" and "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" and "If You're Irish, Come Into the Parlor" and "Mick McGilligan's Ball" (my mom used to sing all of those while working around the house, lol).

    Another BTW: There's an old Clancy Brothers song with the lines, "But when in the morning I feel kind of rough / Then my curse on Lord Iveagh who brews the damned stuff." Surely this indicates that at least some native Irishmen drank Guinness (whether stout or lager) way back in the day?


  19. Actually, now that I think of it, I have a lot more respect for the Plastic Paddyism of my mom's era than for the hipster affectations associated with Celtic pubs and such. Although our local Celtic pubs have provided welcome venues for some great local Celtic bands.



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