A car rolls by on the street with the windows down, music blaring, loud bass and nail-flattening drums from the speakers breaking up the serenity one found at a street side café, a rapper stammering. It’s kids telling us where it’s at, and they are in our face, says an associate, and suddenly, you feel like you’re in the Culture Wars once again.
Progress means moving forward. Four-letter words blasting from car speakers on public streets isn't progress for anyone, it's a loss, both in civility and to respect others. Same goes for morons who yammer about their hemorrhoids or some other aspect of their inane and consumerist life to fellow dunderheads as they drive their cars or fill our stores, theaters, and cafés. It's another degeneration of the public sphere, unless you think that being able to establish yourself as a lout and a self-obsessed boor rapidly in the presence of strangers constitutes an improvement. I am willing to concede, however, that for some of us becoming a full-time creep with pretensions of Thug Life constitutes an improvement, which only underscores how pathetic a large portion of our youth has become, shrill and vain.
Moreover, any kid, black, white, Hispanic or Asian ambling down school halls emulating 50 Cent is regression of an odious sort, a realization of Norman Mailer's romantic ideal of “The White Negro”. It's doubtful even Mailer would find this trend enviable, a generation of young people placing a value on the ill formed locutions of millionaire goons and wallowing in a subculture that prizes accumulation of material and money at any costs, including the sacrificing of one's humanity and the community one lives in.
Being from Detroit in the 8-Mile Road area, I know full well what “Wiggers” are, and I'm old enough to realize that the phenomenon is not a new wrinkle in the scheme of things. Times and styles change, but a constant in my life and in my parents' life was white kids affecting the style and musical habits of the current edge of black culture. My reference was to Norman Mailer's famous essay “The White Negro”, written in 1957, where he argues that whites who want to free themselves of crushing and killing conformity must emulate the style and language of blacks because blacks, he opined, are closer to violence and thus privy to kinds of rapidly deployed existential knowledge that a bookish and emotionally neutered dominant culture could never know.
Mailer had a continuing theory that living close to violence, the kind of violence that is an intractable quality of your race's metaphysical being, was an entry to spectacular influxes of new perception and awareness that dismantles the many veils of false consciousness. It's all beautifully if boggling argued in the essay, and there is an insightful discussion here of Mailer's work, ideas and this particular essay here [www.english.upenn.edu]; the short of it is that Mailer thought whites blessed to be attracted to black style and culture and sought to emulate it with "spontaneous bop prosody” (Jack Kerouac's phrase) were the hope of the white race. Mailer was speculating that the kind of knowledge of violence that blacks had would do well to help the questing Hipster gain new perception and new experience and allow him to create a truthful world where real choices are possible and individual responsibility for them is a matter of what private, divinely derived ethics one has made with the God of their understanding.
Among the problems with all this righteous forecasting and waxing poetic is that the Revolution as described never starts, and Heaven does not arrive at the planet, conditions that are easily explained away by revisions to theory where it practice is at fault, not the catechism. The romanticization of major criminal acts as a people's spiritual rebellion against crushing falseness and capitalist hegemony is one of the trends and marketing clichés. Above all this is Marcuse’s fleeting notion of “repressive tolerance”, often mocked and maligned but prophetic, timeless and tersely wise when one witness their idealistic style turn into advertising slogans and their manifestos become the humorless rationale for being a monster, a thug. Everything is allowed, everyone has their say, each word of dissent and radical exception is allowed, nothing is forbidden, and everything is the same. Nothing happens.
Simply put, the Man, as he was affectionately called in the Sixties, makes your protest and revolutionary style ineffectual by allowing you the means to express yourself and your peculiar take on the erring course the culture has taken. Your protests become part of the news cycle, more factoids to fill the spaces between advertisements. Nearly fifty years later one wonders if Mailer would approve of the bragging self-regard that black style has turned into, and if he would admit that "wiggers", albeit emulators of black style, are merely followers of fashion and consumers after all is said and done with.
It would seem that an especially troublesome tract from the recently belated Norman Mailer's writings will be his essay The White Negro, published in Dissent in 1957 and later included in his landmark 1959 collection Advertisements for Myself. In a rough paraphrase, Mailer argues that whites need to emulate some of the jazz-inflected style of black Americans, whom, he said, had developed an attitude, a lived philosophy in the face of the violence they face daily solely because they are black. Mailer placed a good amount of hope that the Beats might be such an evolution in the Caucasian mind. Authenticity,a self, rooted in primal reality and not lodged in a language-locked template, was the goal. Mailer's assertions, to be sure, came under attack, not the least of the asides being that he was taking something of an exotic and racist view of the lives of black people. The misgivings are understandable.
Some of what Mailer said in the essay was embraced by some in the black community. Eldridge Cleaver, another man obsessed with the metaphysics of personal violence as a response against Institutional violence cited him favorably in his book Soul on Ice. Cleaver, though, was doubtlessly trying to rationalize the rapes he was convicted of as being political acts rather than demonstrations of a pathology or, further, that the pathology itself was a result to being oppressed. It's a slippery slope, as Mailer realized. Horrible as it was, Mailer never used his stabbing of his wife Adele as an example of How-To-Be-A-White-Negro; his treatment of violence in later books was more measured, weary. All the same, the ethos of hip-hop and rap culture endorses Mailer's assertion that black Americans have an authenticity and knowledge that white community cannot have because they live with an intimate, daily, as-is knowledge of violence as something that saturates their existence, that it might be visited upon them at any instance merely because of the color of their skin; many rappers, in principle, might agree with Mailer as well that the edgy style of hip hop is a result of their being forced to exist at the margins of the culture. Mailer writes that a major reason that black American culture developed the way it did was in response to the racist violence that might befall them at any moment on any day. This was knowledge of violence whites did not and could not know, Mailer argued, and postulated further that the cultivation of the style he wrote about, complete with its violent elements, was a canny response to the brutality that faces them. Mailer thought that whites ought to emulate the style of black culture to live more "authentically"; in either case, what Mailer talks about in the essay is that one is confronted with having to make a conscious choice in how one confronts stultifying conformity and Statist oppression. He does not argue for anything "intrinsic" in human beings, and argues through the essay that one must deal with the consequences of their action.
It is true that Mailer added violence to the equation for its potential to transform the individual, but he was worried about the constant and pointless violence for its own sake. What he saw in the urban black culture of the time was a particularly acute style and manner that could accommodate and hone the violent impulse and use the energy to a more creative purpose. This presents all sorts of problems for intellectuals, and gullible whites (and blacks) attracted by the flashy density of Mailer's writing, but it should be noted as well that Mailer modified his pronouncements. Mailer, believe it or not, matured. Which is not to say there wouldn't be sufficient grounds to argue with his later writing. I agree, Mailer’s tough guy stances were a species of posing, and it seems to me that he had a rude and crucial awakening after he nearly killed his wife Adele by stabbing her when he was crazed on Benzedrine.
It is interesting that two of his best novels are An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam? are two lyric flights that are fueled by the sort of rage he gloried in a decade earlier, the first book being something of a Blakean purge where his hero, Stephen Rozack, attempts to berserk himself into transcendence through violence against targets that he felt undermined his tenuous grasp on self. Transform he does, but he is an unenviable mess for the carnage, someone stuck on some psychotic edge with virtually nothing to build a new life on. Mailer seemed content to let the violence, the raging burn itself out in the novel, with there being the tacit moral that “encouraging the psychotic within” is a dead end, a nihilist fantasy. The second novel is poised to investigate, through metaphor, the source of this insanity, an obscene cruise through American repression, obsession with masculinity, racism, and an insane obsession with individualism, guns, and God. So many polarities battle each other in the book that the question posed in the title is thus: we were in Vietnam because, as a nation crazed on many ill and contaminated streams, we had to be.
William Carlos Williams is said to have remarked that the “pure products of America go insane”, an idea that Mailer accepts in the form of the book’s crazed, multi-voiced narrator DJ who, representative of a complex cultural stew that will not blend but rather form a thickening cluster of unpalatable projections on the face of the planet, is compelled to expand upon, disrupt, dominate, and decimate the people and resources outside its actual borders. Mailer here echoed Susan Sontag (in attitude at least) that the white race was the cancer on the face of humanity. In any event, we’ve been lucky enough that Mailer had the sense to forgo his armchair philosophizing for long enough intervals, so he could do some real work; I am a fan of his novels, but along with most Mailer partisans, I think it will be his non-fiction that will secure his reputation, Executioner’s Song and Armies of the Night, certainly, but also Of a Fire on the Moon and Oswald’s Tale.