Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Notes on reactions to MJ's death

I started compiling some notes on the reactions to Michael Jackson's death four weeks ago, and then never came back to it. (I had an exam to prepare for, a move coming up, and, you know, life. And so I forgot about it.) Here are those notes, since they'll otherwise just sit, unread.
  1. If discussions on Facebook and at softball (with other graduate students, mind you) are any indication, the response to Michael Jackson's death has been incredibly polarizing: among those who care too much and those who care not at all; those who find it newsworthy and those who wonder why we've suddenly stopped paying attention to Iran. (There is, of course, a minority of people who don't seem to think we need to fit one model or the other.)
  2. The people who decry all the attention seem to characterize the response to MJ's death in terms that seem like Bourdieu's notion of the 'carnivalesque' - a debased space of excessive affect and grotesque expression, the lowest of low cultures. (And, I would add, a hysterical space.) It's at once a liberating space of enunciation, on the periphery of culture, and a mode of containment by hegemonic culture - ejected from the center but nonetheless under its regulatory power. Importantly, the gesture of placing something within the carnivalesque marks it as illicit, and so both an object of repulsion and desire. It's also, as Gael Sweeney notes, a particularly apt model for theorizing the relation of ghettoized cultures to the middle-class mainstream - white-trash and black pop-culture in relation to the white norm.
  3. Charges of the grotesque and excess have, of course, been levelled against MJ himself for at least the past two decades. In his infamous interview with Martin Bashir, Jackson associates with 'taste' ('good taste', implicitly) those objects and artworks which Bashir deems gaudy and tacky. (And so MJ is also guilty of the sins of those who are 'new money'.) Jackson's obsession with plastic surgery and whitening, of course, are both grotesque and excessive, though they're also expressive of another element of the carnivalesque - its normative function in race politics. Just as those who think themselves universal must believe that the occupants of the carnivalesque would reject it if only they knew better, MJ's bodily transformation seems to express how non-whites aspire to whiteness - and how, because the non-white is carnivalesque in its essence, that transformation can never convincingly happen. (Though this is perhaps too obviously and problematically essentializing a gesture for anyone but the most racist of white people to admit of black people. Of white trash, though...)
  4. There's a gendered element to the response, too. As Victoria reminds me, the public performance of women's grief, seemingly irrespective of race, is made to seem less carnivalesque. I'm guessing that the ostensible naturalness of women's affective responses has something to do with this. And while the carnivalesque nature of non-white people is also naturalized, it's strikes me as a more pejorative description - the emotions of women are thought to serve a role in maintaining society that the carnivalsque simply can't and won't.
  5. Of course, white people (men, implicitly, since white women are a great deal more ambivalent when you need to consider their whiteness and womanness as positions that exist in some ambivalence) engaged in the carnivalesque are a far more problematic thing, given that they are the ostensible bearers of a rationalist tradition. (Appropriately, stereotypical funeral conventions, and gendered roles that people are expected to play, illustrate this rational/carnivalesque difference rather aptly.) And a hysterical response marks a rational subject as suspect - someone who should be marginalized, which is especially troubling if that person looks as if they belong at the center, and so makes visible the contingency of a racialized and gendered hegemony.
  6. And so this takes me back to 'guilty displeasure', which I wrote about - and others helped me develop - a long while back. For many of those (mostly white people) who are tired of hearing about Michael Jackson, complaining about his overexposure (or about the celebrity culture that he exemplifies, etc.) has become something of a worthwhile performance itself. And it's not about reveling in the displeasure that one feels toward MJ as it is about the displeasure one feels for the people who have reacted hysterically to his death - especially those people who mark themselves as either traitors to one's race (white women) or one's gender (white men).
  7. I'm overstating my point, I realize. I don't think that, for the most part, this is a conscious logic or even an unconscious one. But I'm trying to trace a tradition that I think these responses mirror in an eerie way.

1 comment:

Streebo said...

Nice read, Neil. I think the old zen axiom to "stop complaining" would serve many well.