Consuming iconographic material via general media, one is often overwhelmed with the challenge of making meaning within the margins of celebrated personification. Messages are charmingly packaged within voluptuously orange cleavage, chiselled out mega-abdominals, and perpetually kitsch teleshoppery. Indeed, we have heard this neo-Marxist voice countless times. Such a mundane diatribe is not my intention here, for these are the icons of our time. Starting with Barack Obama, we are sure to be remembered for Gaga’s latex, Evo’s pully, and Jackson’s skin. Here, however, I want to make mention of two underdogs. Both rather unfashionable, pretty forgettable and plain. Neither stand out in particular. One finds himself in the public light far more than is deserved, the other may just end up going gaga within the darkness of solitary confinement. One distracts us away from the true villain that is our current prime minister. The other could be lauded a hero of our young century. His brevity shall expose the irony of ladylike gags that seem ever so convincing at times.
Here are their names: Nick Clegg and Bradley Manning.
For those who recognize each of these names, both are underdogs. Nick Clegg is a Liberal Democrat who currently shares government with his friend David Cameron. Bradley Manning has been kept in solitary confinement for the past 7 months under the suspicion of having supplied classified information to Julian Assange’s Wikileaks. Here I shall present the case of two underdogs that, silently or not, occupy our current cultural zeitgeist.
Fellow NP collaborative editor and friend Peter Eramian had decided to join the riots in central London as I travelled to Oxford where I would spend a couple of pleasant hours at the nation’s finest Pitt-Rivers Museum. What Peter met at the site of demonstration before 10 Downing Street was the barbaric method of containment known as “kettling”. Peter later informed me that he was glad that I had opted out of going to the demonstration, having preferred the similarly barbaric Pitt-Rivers. The tensions at the demonstration were such that he had a feeling I may have been arrested had I been present. I adamantly didn’t beg to differ. Stories of young children contained within a barricade of police officers, some more sensible than others, disgusted me. The concerned gaze of female police officers that Peter spoke of as they emitted sentimental rays of maternal desire were intensely gripping. The contradictorily bestial aura of male police officers that Peter described also reminded me why it was probably for the best that I wasn’t there. As the day progressed and the movement frustrated, the police officers slowly let a few protesters out of the “kettle”. Peter as incisive participant observer noted that those who were allowed out were usually young white females. There again, I would have encountered problems. Though Peter was eventually liberated, as he recounted the story in his psychological exhaustion I was left to wonder about the aesthetics of those who were kept in the kettle to boil. I can imagine that many looked like those “exotics” that I had seen at the museum early that day. Naturally, the obvious perpetrator of this blatant crime against humanity can be traced back to Cameron. But my resentful preference here is most definitely directed at Clegg. The Cameron argument is there and I like it. He’s vulgarly aristocratic, unintellectual, and boring, yet he actually fancies himself fit for the job of PM on the basis of a simple binary oppositional argument where Blair’s stands on the other side. Not unlike liberals that feel self-validated having read Samuel Huntington’s most profoundly placed question of who we are (Huntington, 2006), Cameron is a tightrope walker balancing his fascistic mediocrity against his predecessor’s unembarrassed terrorism. Indeed, Cameron and his nascent blue eyes are only so adorable in contrast to the backdrop of a Blairite terrorism. It's the same reason why we think Obama is the second coming while he unfortunately isn’t. Obama seems good when seen from the perspective of what came before. So the Cameron argument, to the extent that it’s fitted within a simple binary of incompetence, is rather banal and frustrating. Not to worry dear reader, be sure that Cameron’s time will come. The problem, however, seems to be that an all out fulmination against Clegg obfuscates the real criminal that is Cameron. We must first deal Clegg away before we contend with the superior oppressor that is Cameron. Frankly, what does it matter if Clegg “regrets” that he broke the promise of abolishing tuition fees? Beyond an anger that we must all share towards his utter lies, we must recognize that Cameron may well be remembered as the foremost oppressor of our time. To reiterate my claim, the problem with Clegg is that he distracts away from an outright lambasting that Cameron unequivocally deserves. Clegg is an underdog in that he will never have the power that Cameron does. Connected to his status as literal underdog is his role as a puppet that diverts criticism away from Cameron as though the two of them were collaborative manipulators of Derridian différance. (Derrida, 1967/1976) Clegg seems to be getting so much attention nowadays that we are ignoring the possibility of a Thatcherite revival. Media attention to Clegg’s multiple follies will hopefully pressure him into resigning from his already rather insignificant position as deputy prime minister. Insofar that critical energies are solely focused upon the underdog, however, it is hard to see how Cameron’s hegemonic positioning may be penetrated at its core. The underdog here functions in ways that satisfies two hegemonic interests. First, Cameron’s need to buy time for his plans that will inevitably throw Britain into a greater state of oppression. Second, Clegg’s want for screen time which means he is happy to take the punches as literal underdog. Here again, there seems to be the possibility that Cameron takes credit as he is measured against Clegg’s mediocrity. Clegg may be playing the same game thinking that he will come out on top against Cameron’s conservative chicanery. Just like Cameron and the Conservative Party seemed the better, and perhaps only, choice against Blair, Clegg as a failed underdog is only fuelling Cameron with narratives that could set the conservatives up as a saviour of sorts. Given that Clegg stands in the way of an all out battering that Cameron surely deserves, he must be displaced along with his manipulative underdog strategies. Only then can we mount a real battle against the conspicuous revival of a Thacherite governmentality.
As one Manning would have been the centre of attention throughout America on Thanksgiving Thursday 2010, there would have been another Manning that wished he liked Lady Gaga more. The first, of course, is the living legend and quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, Peyton Manning, the other, our present focus of attention: Private First Class Bradley Manning. As America worshipped the older Manning’s superior athleticism for the umpteenth time, the younger Manning would have contemplated a bleak life ahead where those very football fans that worshipped the iconic All-American would taunt him for being unpatriotic and un-American. Bradley Manning, currently under investigation for allegedly leaking vital intelligence to Julian Assange, has been in solitary confinement for the last 7 months. Manning has been reported as claiming that getting his hands on the information was of no particular difficulty. According to The Guardian, with “14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months” (www.guardian.co.uk) all he had to do was insert a CD that had Lady Gaga written on it, proceed to delete Gaga from the CD and transfer vital information that would lead to groundbreaking journalism. “Lip-synching” Gaga’s “Telephone” (Gaga, 2008) as he paved the way for revolutionary media communication, Bradley did what an underdog must do at the helm. He challenged a global hegemon to a duel and in so doing reduced the latter to fragile infancy for a minute. At 23, one is unaware of Manning’s intentions. Perhaps it was the radical cultural Marxist in him that invoked the daring impetus that led to one of the greatest media heists of all time. On the contrary, it may have been his like for Lady Gaga and his want to see H. Clinton get riled up that made it happen. In fact, reports suggest that Manning was quite aware of what he had done: “I want people to see the truth ... because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public”. (www.forbes.com) Manning must be recognized for being conscientious about the oppressions of an American global hegemony, but what is seen here is more than an earnest political awareness. It is a gut reaction to the multiplicity of injustices that America has and continues to commit upon the world. Indeed, what this shows us is that it doesn’t take an elitist education and political recognition to engage in radical mobilization. In such a way Manning as underdog par excellence stands as an important example to all of those who aspire to radicalism. As the world literally goes Wikileaking gaga, Bradley probably wishes he could make a few telephone calls but should, for now, revel in the fact that he probably deserves the epithet of most courageous underdog of the early 21stcentury. Without doubt, this is a great story to be consumed by revolutionary idealists. It’s incredibly satisfying to read about America blushing with an inexhaustible sense of embarrassment. Bradley himself must be quite happy about this radicalism materialized. He did, after all, describe the prospects of such a leak to be “beautiful and horrifying”. And Bradley is right about this. It is beautiful and simultaneously horrifying. What’s beautiful about it is that America is exposed as not so beautiful. What’s beautiful is that Gaga was somehow involved in this continuing saga. What’s beautiful is that a young man with access to this information was compelled to do what he did and in so doing risked lifetime incarceration and more (The Guardian has reported that Manning may face up to 52 years in prison). What is horrifying is, first and foremost, fellow hacker to Manning Adrian Lamo who snitched. He is possibly as abominable a character as Clegg. What is horrifying is that Bradley may end his life in prison. What is horrifying is that America, the Enlightenment’s most successful child, condemns one of its most earnest children in Bradley. In fact I would go so far as to say that the greatest crime that America is committing is that which it will soon to perpetrate upon Bradley Manning. Where America commits crimes against its own people, we simply cannot expect it to be good to those who stand in its way of capitalist domination outside of its sacred grounds. Yes, America’s crimes against humanity are deep and far reaching. No doubt, this has more to do with capitalism than the American people itself, for indeed, Bradley is an example of what America is capable of. As a population of original underdogs, where America gets it right, it gives birth to Bradley Manning. But most of the time it’s no better than a mediocre Clegg. It pretends to be liberal and democratic while in fact it uses that excuse to give itself a partially good life; infamously, 40 million people in America live under the poverty line. (www.census.gov) Clegg is a partial PM, Clegg is unflinchingly mediocre. It is remarkable how much cruelty such mediocrity can perpetrate. Bradley is certainly a victim of this mediocrity while the impetus upon which he acted was far from the average intuitive capacity that the capitalist society enthusiastically engenders.
Almost as an ode to Bradley and the subversion that he represents, I want to conclude by making a point about how it simply isn’t enough to be an underdog or to even think one is. Clegg probably doesn’t feel like an underdog (and as part of the oppressive class of Britain he isn’t) and yet he is a de facto underdog relative to Cameron. Bradley probably doesn’t see himself as an underdog but he is also a de facto underdog relative to the oppressive capitalist society. As such, what makes one an underdog is not the consciousness of being an underdog. That is not to say, however, that such a consciousness is mutually exclusive to being an underdog. To read Karl Marx certainly seems to be one of the most important things in life. What I am claiming here is that radicalism is not about breaking through a supposed false consciousness. It doesn’t matter if you think or don’t think you’re an underdog. If anything, my claim here is that radicalism, or to be a true underdog is to allow one’s body to react to the musicality of life beyond that which is logically discernible and consciously palpable. And by musicality I mean the somatic ephemera of rebellion, the libidinal ambience of discomfort, the visceral encounter with phenomenal reality. Radicalism confined within the rational framework of the Enlightenment mode disables radicalism from being materialized. It is all talk, no action. The faulty cogito prevents the subject from overcoming a fundamental Enlightenment doubt. It is true that there is a strong desire to equate such a fundamental doubt with an overarching false consciousness manifested in a distrust of self that prevents activism. I shall forgo this conceptualization, however, because false consciousness operates as a self-negating device that presupposes the impossibility of the subversive subject. That is to say that the very notion of a consciousness that is false seems to assume that the autonomous social agent cannot get up and discover inner radicalism. Indeed, many would have claimed that Bradley was under the spell of a false consciousness (the oppressive aesthetic logics expressed in Lady Gaga music, his categorical identification as a homosexual, not belonging to the dominant class etc.) and yet he has exposed the global hegemon. In fact, the claim here is that if there is anything like false consciousness it is something that is confined to the rational half of the enlightenment binary and so there is hope. To the extent that we are more than our rational faculties, false consciousness understood as an all-encompassing mental deception does not hold. Though the effects of the enlightenment rationality have been such that the irrational has been denigrated to the position of effeminate sentimentality, it is precisely here that so-called false consciousness can be overcome (In what Eramian and myself called a post-symbolic sentimentality at the incipient moment of our creative movement surrounding our publication Shoppinghour, sentimentality and compassion as a non-nostalgic forwardly emotionality is seen as the only path to overcoming the symbolic fetishisms of the Enlightenment rationality). The philosophical travesty that is the Enlightenment aside, by now we must come to terms with the fact that subversion and the appropriation of the means of production, thereby, must take place through encouragement of musicality, romantic mobilization and poetic impetus. It is that which has been called the irrational for far too long that we must be empowered through. In this sense, Bradley stands as a superior example to us all. It was the political conscience held by many a philosopher combined with a comfort for Gaga held by so few a philosopher that exposed the Americans. Where Marx famously proclaimed, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”, (Marx, 1845) my claim is that political conscience alone does not suffice as a means to overcome the oppressive qualities that are first coded within the Enlightenment rationality.
The argument here is emphatically not that Bradley Manning is going to bring about the final stages of capitalism. The claim isn’t even that he has advanced the revolutionary cause. The claim here is that if there is anything that can be done, it is to do what Bradley did and listen to Gaga. Sometimes Gaga’s fetishistic nihilism can do more for the world than children of the Enlightenment can, rebellious or not. Relative to Clegg, a fairly competent child of the Enlightenment, and America, the foremost child of the Enlightenment, a lot of radical intellectual work can seem brilliantly subversive. But this idea is problematic. What me must do to counter the oppressions of the Enlightenment genealogy is to subvert it at its heart. Contrary to the Frankfurt School I say we listen to more Miley Cyrus (Mortensen, forthcoming) Gaga, and K$SHA. It is when we can turn our backs on the Enlightenment for a minute and remind ourselves that we are human beings that enact through the soma that we can realize that we must subvert through real physical activism. Yes, read Marx, but don’t hate yourself for moving to Gaga. In the scientism that you employ in fighting hegemonic scientism you are no underdog. The underdog is that which lies outside the rational. Radicalism is found in life as an expression of oft-cacophonous musicality. The separation between idealism and materialism is far too problematic and resentment inducing. You think and you act. When that act doesn’t fulfil the ideal even after much oppression and murder, you resent. That resentment creates further negative idealisms that go onto perpetrate further crimes, so on so forth. That Enlightenment model no longer seems to work. Despite its deceptive acknowledgement of material phenomenality, the material is still a slave to an Enlightenment prowess. And so yes, the engagement with the so-called irrational or what here I consider the ephemeral musicality of life is where the true underdog resides. Within such a subjective engagement with phenomena one is unleashed in its total radicalism. In the momentous musicality of life one is compelled to act within a principle of phenomenal unification where all is subsumed under the liberating honesty of harmony/disharmony. The body moves regardless, is what I mean, whether in harmony or disharmony, is what I mean. The musicality that I speak of here is closer to the self-negating meditative quality needed for the acceptance of noise – the musicality of life as a source of radicalism. We must learn to jive with the discomforts of dissonance for we are already very well versed in the mathematics of a Mozartian classical can(n)on. Music as a static categorical device seems to be deceptively esoteric, while musicality as the subjective capacity to listen beyond simple objective consumption offers the possibility of radical incorporation. Rather than the selective consumption of music that Adorno et al. decried, what is proposed here is an incorporation of music beyond the Heideggerian “ready-to-hand”. (Heidegger, 1927/1962) Though the ready-to-hand relation to phenomena seems to imply an incorporation of the object as part of one’s body, to the extent that it exists within the limitations of physical boundaries one is constantly prone to returning to the “present-at-hand” disinterestedness as an intellectual position of default. It is possible to swing between the present-at-hand and the ready-to-hand with music. We are able to critique Gaga in one moment and to dance to her in another. In a sense the argument presented here is against music in its lyrical fetishism and fetishism altogether. Where we focus on the sounds that make up music we realize no such thing exists like racist, sexist, classist, or homophobic harmony/disharmony. In fact I would go so far as to say that no such thing as a distinction between harmony and disharmony exists. Only that we must learn to accept disharmony since we are already so well educated in that which expresses itself as mellifluous. Indeed, it is only by semiotic attachment that such distinctions are borne. And so what should make people move is not lyricism and the rationality that is attached to it. That is not to say that poetry (and harmony) is utterly doomed and that lyricism should be discarded with, but to say that we must be cautious of the rationally/categorically bound elements of claims to radicalism. Whether music or poetry, such creative categorical instruments must be prevented from taking on fetishistic status as they trample on listening as the living source of creativity. Though ready-to-hand phenomenal being emphasises the importance of there-being and activism via immediate perception, it still seems to presuppose the categorical existence of music. That is, whatever comes to one’s hand, whether incorporated or not, must first be cognitively identified through the present-at-hand distance. So here I propose a listening beyond the cognisant: an almost nihilistic approach that allows one to hear that which is over and above what is capitalistically presented and thereby enables the body to be exalted beyond the social constraints of oppression-saturated meaning. Listen to Gaga but refuse to understand her in the terms that society imposes. Recode Gaga, reconstruct Gaga, mobilize through Gaga. Indeed, this is a post-deconstruction proposal of reconstruction where the subject may appropriate any container of meaning towards the radical end. Where we know that all is constructed why do we continue to deploy the fascistic morality of an old world aestheticism and thereby hate Gaga? If all is constructed we should be able, finally, to invoke peace. And it is with great conviction that I propose that we show ourselves that we can do this. Indeed, the claim is that only where we can accept peace and liberation with what we previously admonished categorically as heresy (dissonance), may we expect to mobilize.
Though Bradley only pretended to listen to Gaga, it was in the perceived banality of Gaga that the system was unsuspecting. Clegg may listen to music but that's not enough for him to make a claim to musicality as a visceral source of activism. Ultimately, Bradley embodied the spirit of the underdog in its musicality with far greater ardour than Clegg could ever do. It was certainly all the more fitting that he did so as he lip-synched to Gaga. Where Å½iÅ¾ek tells us to throw ourselves into the abyss, (Å½iÅ¾ek, NLR, 2010)Gaga might be somewhere to start. The problem is that in all our sophistication we can often find it much easier to love Marx, Adorno and the like, but not so much those who make us truly uncomfortable to the point of rebellion. And only in that discomfort do I see the potential birth of a radically mobilizing underdog, macro-sociological revolutionary or not. There are quite a few things we can learn from Bradley and, as ever, nothing from Clegg. God bless Gaga.
Derrida, J. (1967/1976) Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Gaga, L. (2010) “Telephone” from The Fame Monster, Santa Monica, Calif.: Interscope Records.
Heidegger, M. (1927/1962) Being and Time, translated by John MacQuarrie and Edward Robinson, New York: Harper.
Huntington, S. (2004) Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, New York: Simon & Schuster.
Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1845/1970) The German Ideology - Part One, New York: International Publishers.
Mortensen, A. (2010) Summer Sessions, forthcoming.
Å½iÅ¾ek, S. (2010) “A Permanent Economic Emergency” in NLR (64) July-August.
Leigh, D., “How 250,000 US embassy cables were leaked”
Gearan, A., “US says leaks are a crime, threatens prosecution”
(author not stated) “Poverty: 2008 and 2009 – American Community Survey Briefs”
Published: September 2010