Friday, May 13, 2005

Michael Bertrand Kicks Ass

Before I get into why Michael Bertrand over at Tennessee State University is a genius, I want to say a couple of things about what I think constitutes good scholarship. One thing that really frustrates me about the academy is that it seems to be in constant denial about what it's doing in its graduate programs ("We're not making [fill in the blank] professors; we're making [fill in the blank]ers!" Well, that might work in the sciences, but in the liberal arts, there are only so many mountains for sages to stake out and we hermits have enough problems without having to comfort jobless PhDs. There's not a large call for people who can think but can't teach.) and blind to the real value their work might have.

I think these two things go hand in hand--the desire to pretend like they're crafting "scholars" not professors and their inability to understand how their work might affect the broader culture. In fact, both of these things are probably two symptoms of the same thing: that the academy is out of touch with real life, and not just life outside of the academy, but the lives the people who are in the academy need to lead. This leads to really troubling situations in which individuals are blind to their own needs.

But this is not a post about the many ways scholars are ineffective.

This is about what I think makes an effective scholar, what makes good scholarship. 1. The writing must be clear and precise. One doesn't need to use the biggest word or the hippest jargon. One needs to use the exact word that clearly and precisely conveys meaning. 2. The scholar's audience must be larger than the four other people who know exactly what she's talking about. It doesn't have to be a million people, but it has to be broader than just the people who already care. If you can't communicate your ideas to people who don't know anything about your subject, then you're just masturbating; you're just writing or speaking for your own pleasure. 3. The scholar is guided by theory and familiar with what other people are saying, but she's not held captive by it. She's not trying to show how her scholarship proves so-and-so correct; she's trying to get at the truth of the matter for the benefit of herself and her audience, if the insights of so-and-so are relevant to getting at the truth of the matter, fine. If not, they aren't included. And, most importantly, 4. The scholarship is measured against real experience, real life. If someone argues that "That cat can cut a cake" is a smooth and soothing line, an effective scholar ought to ask whether that someone ever read that out loud.

What does it matter? What does what you're doing matter? What does it have to offer the world and how will you communicate that value to the world?

Scholarship must get out and walk around. Scholars must go see.

So, I picked up A Boy Named Sue: Gender and Country Music edited by Kristine McCusker and Diane Pecknold mostly because Barbara Ching has an essay in it and I just don't believe she can do any wrong. (Her essay in the book on "No Depression" is typically awesome.)

But I'm still mulling over Michael Bertrand's essay on Elvis, "I Don't Think Hank Done It That Way: Elvis, Country Music, and the Reconstruction of Southern Masculinity." Here's why I love it, because the conceit behind the essay is basically "Let's take everything we think we know about Elvis and try to figure out whether it's true." The essay is one assumption-busting move after another, not just about Elvis, but about commercial culture, race relations, and regional identity.

Listen to what he says about how scholars typically understand Elvis:

And if one accepts the postmortem examination conducted by the historical profession, cultural guardians and institutional forces successfully isolated and contained the contagion, thereby preventing Elvis and rockabilly from causing any serious damage or leaving any permanent scars or impressions. As one esteemed historian of the twentieth century definitively concluded in a blurb, the singer was simply a "consumer culture hero" who sang "tunes that were instantly forgettable." (p. 63)

And now, he speaks to what damage he says this point of view does:

Yet in addition to highlighting the obvious political nature of "history," this viewpoint is also rudimentary; it assumes that through manipulations an omnipotent culture industry readily transforms dynamic individuals into a homogeneous mob of passive consumers. By ignoring or obscuring a variety of inherent tensions and contradictions, it oversimplifies (and helps mystify) the popular culture process. (p. 63)

As he says on the next page, "Customer reception and application do not inexorably correspond to producer intention. Consequently, popular culture remains in everyday life, if not in academia, an often intricate, enigmatic, and persistently open-ended phenomenon."

Woo-hoo! (Yes, I believe scholarship could be improved by hoots of approval from the audiences, as well.)

But let's move on. He's talking about Elvis's appropriation of African American masculinity and he makes a couple of really interesting points. One is that if we just look at Southern poor people as a whole, both black and white, poor blacks were the first group to migrate to the urban areas en masse, followed by poor whites. So, when Elvis got to Memphis, his immersion in African American culture had a great deal to do with him attempting to emulate what he saw as a kind of masculinity that had made the successful jump from rural to urban and him attempting to "manipulate his 'body' and create an identity that would mitigate a migrant's invisibility. [...] In taking on such an exaggerated persona, Presley was arguably trying to establish that he was 'somebody.'" (p. 66) The other is about how this process, white culture and black culture feeding into and off of each other, had been going on in the South for as long as there'd been a South, but that there were elaborate (and, obvious to anyone who's seen folks commenting on Nelly and Tim McGraw's duet or Cowboy Troy's act, still are) cultural elements at play to mask this from both cultures.

Why should you give a fuck, you ask? You don't like Elvis or rockabilly, so what does this essay have for you?

Ah, my friends, I point you here and ask you to consider rap music. Bertrand's not talking about rap music, of course, but keep it in mind:

If one could find no available employment (in an environment where there was little work to be had), he rationalized that he was too smart to work. If he could attain no marital stability (in an economic, racial, and gendered climate that emasculated men), it was because he was too highly sexed to be satisfied with one woman. If he fathered numerous children with several different women (in an impersonal world that denied his very being), he could boast of his generative powers. [...] While unlikely to enhance their status with whites or African Americans of the middle class who would have considered such behavior dubious at best, hipster-tricksters nevertheless utilized a value system that provided a feeling of personal satisfaction, fulfillment, and triumph. And as Charles Kreil has suggested, the working-class community from which they emerged considered them not to be social deviants, but rather cultural heroes to be admired and emulated. They had, after all, defied several obstacles meant to deprive them of their individuality, pride, and dignity. (p. 71)

It gets better. Here's the important truth of the matter in a couple of sentences: "Specifically, it provided a means for men to create an alternate space or identity so that they could rest, play, and recuperate under conditions that they controlled. Doing so allowed them to take back and do what they wished with their own bodies." (pp. 71-72) How can you read that and not think that it's some important shit? How does it not change, even slightly, your perception about one of the ways rap music works?

And, since this is my space, I have to ask, how can I read this and not reconsider my brothers? How often, even now, do I portray them as "social deviants"? What would it mean for me to see them creating "an alternate space or identity so they could rest, play, and recuperate under conditions that they controlled?"

And that, my friends, that movement, from Elvis, to rap, to his readers' own experiences, that ability to take his scholarship out and walk it around the intellectual neighborhoods of his audience, is why Michael Bertrand is a genius*.

*I guess I should make clear that I don't know Michael Bertrand. He might not live up to the hype in real life, I don't know. I just stumbled across him by accident. So, as the cool internet folks say, your mileage may vary.


Blogger Steve Pick said...

Well, you found a book that's totally up my alley. I'm gonna look into this one.

I love the idea of taking what we think we know about Elvis - or anything - and seeing if we really know it. And, yeah, great scholarship should often be able to point us towards applications outside of the subject immediately at hand.

5/14/2005 04:39:00 PM  
Blogger Peggasus said...

Very, very interesting. I take it he's a sociologist? I like how you've transferred the theory to the rap community. It makes more sense of what I find to be a rather baffling (and frightening) sub-culture than anything else I've read. And a theory like that, the 'alternate space or identity' could also be more universally ascribed to other disenfranchised groups. But just because it can be explained or rationalized does not mean that it also cannot be destructive to its adherents. Does he make any value judgements like that elsewhere? And in your example, when I try to plug women into the equation, I have trouble imagining what the benefits to and rationalization for them might be.

Re: "it assumes that through manipulations an omnipotent culture industry readily transforms dynamic individuals into a homogeneous mob of passive consumers."

I'm afraid I do, cynically, assume that. And I believe it is done in the quest for the almighty dollar rather than for creative excellence.

Excellent post.

5/14/2005 05:10:00 PM  
Blogger Aunt B said...

Thought provoking questions, Peg, so I'm going to take them in opposite order. He's making a more complex point about consumer culture than I gave room for in my post. I think he'd agree with you (as I do) that the "culture industry" is ready to take everything individual and unique and turn it into something soul-crushingly ordinary.

But I think he's also saying that they don't have the complete control they'd like, that they can't completely mediate what people's response to their product will be. He doesn't explicitly say this in his argument, but I think at the beginning of his article he hints that one of the reasons that the "story" of Elvis is one of an, ultimately, ineffectual lounge act is the culture industry's way of continuing to try to recast the phenomenon of Elvis in ways that diffuse his real power.

I find that to be an ultimately optimistic view of us, that we might have no choice but to eat the shit they feed us, but they can't dictate every single response we have to that shit.

And I completely agree with you, and I think Bertrand would too, that just because we can understand something, and we can appreciate it as a coping strategy doesn't mean that it's not destructive.

I mean, to reduce it to something figurative, say we knew that at some point someone was going to drop a huge boulder on us and that we couldn't escape it, that boulder was going to drop and pin us under it.

If we lived through that, our only response might be to cut off a smashed arm or a demolished leg, in order to get out from under it. Cutting off a body part might be the only way to survive, but clearly, we're fucked up afterwards.

I think a lot of those young men feel like their souls are trapped like that and that they've got to cut off vital parts in order to survive.

I think the thing that scares a lot of folks about rap is that some of it clearly is music to cut your soul apart to, to take the part of you that loves women and hack it off and cauterize the wound with bitches and hoes, for example.

Some folks feel they need to do that to survive, and the music gives them the strength to do it. I think what scares some of us is the wondering whether it gives listeners the idea to do it in the first place and whether everyone who listens to it will feel compelled to shape their souls that way.

He doesn't talk that much about women, except to say that in Elvis's Memphis, it was much easier for working class women, black and white, to find work because rich people would hire them as domestic help.

And this, I think, is why we need more vocal working class feminist theorists, because so many of the things that feminism wanted (and wants) for middle- and upper-class women--jobs, control of their own money, the ability to take care of herself, etc.--working class women had by necessity.

So, I really feel like we're at a loss in terms of scholarship when trying to understand how working class women understand femininity and what it means to be a women, especially because, if the scholars aren't from there, they're never going to know when they're being fed a line and when they're hearing the truth.

5/14/2005 09:09:00 PM  
Blogger Peggasus said...

Thanks for the detailed answer. This is a fascinating subject. It makes me remember how much I loved my Soc classes in college.

5/15/2005 08:23:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...[O]bjectivity, although useful in the field of journalism, proves poor as a general method in interpreting the consciousness of Hiphop . . . unique in the sense that accurately documenting its culture requires its interpreters to participate in its expressions. This is very important: if you can't do it, you can't interpret it."
(The God of Rap)

5/16/2005 09:23:00 AM  
Blogger Aunt B said...

Woo-hoo! KRS-ONE and I reach the same conclusions. Well, you know what they say: great minds think alike.

I'd disagree that hip-hop is unique in necessitating the participation of its theorists. I think we could all benefit from hearing from all kinds of culturally grounded theorists.

But why quibble with a genius who agrees with me?

5/16/2005 09:46:00 AM  

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