John G Bell


Fall '02 - Hill & Gilliam

Book Response: Holler If You Hear Me by Michael Eric Dyson

A. Important things about ...

  1. the power and limitation of dialogue

    There seems to be a natural development of the skills of compassionate dialogue. In quite a few of our readings, there's been glimpses of the tools people used to connect with the Other. I wonder however, about the links in this book between Tupac's experiences and his development of these ideas. For one, it seems that part of his development comes from being raised by his mother, and thus having a stronger connection to the culturally transmitted feminine roles. He was also from a radical environment, as opposed to a more conservative one. There's seems to be a link between more liberal attitudes and the idea of compassionate listening. It's the more liberal elements that attempt to engage in hearing the Others. Typically in the political world, the liberal will cooperate and be willing to share, but the conservative will attempt to keep the benefits of effort for themselves. The liberal typically reaches beyond the borders of affinity groups, but the conservative tries to maintain the boundary. So, is this a limitation of the kind of dialogue were trying to create? Is this a process of preaching to the converted? What happens when we reach out and find that the Other really is invested in keeping the boundary between themselves and the Other as a matter of principle? That's a point when mutual altruism creates the opportunity for deception to be profitable by one member of the dialogue. Do we continue to lead with our vulnerability in this case or is this a point where there's a recognized limitation?

  1. American or world society

    In the face of authoritarian harassment, the effect is a dismantling and dismembering the leadership. This is the similarity between the second generation Black Panthers, the children of the Intifada and other post-revolutionary groups. There tragedy in what happens to the children as the society tries to forget the struggle. This isn't just the children of the Black Panthers, but also the children of the Vietnam veterans feeling the effects of their parent's experiences.

  1. these specific groups

    The struggles in the subculture illustrated in this book seem to me to be mirrors, specific instantiation, of much broader issues. The hip-hop culture is struggling to reconcile the hyper-real with the mundane, revolution with regression, and the “silence and invisibility” of cultural misogyny.

Across the world, there's examples of these kinds of issues. For example, in our readings about the conflict between Palestine and Israel, there's examples of the children of revolutionaries attempting to find balance, the struggle of the women in both cultures to have a voice and place and the struggle between the revolutionary zeal and regressive violence.

The struggle between the violent-minded PLO leadership and the social revolutionaries resonates in my head with the struggle between the conflicting notions of what it is to be an authentic black man. There's the desire for self-determination and self-respect in both, but there a constant conflict between the positive and negative, the supportive connection and the self-interested separation.

What's authentic blackness? The violent thug or the positive blacks? What's the authentic voice of Palestine? The violent Hamas and PLO movement or the social revolutionaries? The thing to realize is that there's no single voice. To pick one, is to ignore the complexity of human experience.

  1. myself

    I've been finding myself thinking about the fact that there's glimpses of the tools in compassionate listening all around us. The evidence is there that people find these tools useful, but that they've been around and aren't universal makes me wonder if there's something missing. There's the notion of deception, which seems to have utility in any instance where there's an agenda, that could undermine the notion of compassionate communication. There's links between compassionate communication and liberalism's mode of cooperation and what are traditionally feminine modes of thinking. On the opposite side, there's the utility of deception and anarchic individualism and conservative intramural cohesion maintenance.

The idea that ethics is a liability is threatening to sustained altruism. At what point is compassionate communication a leap of faith that in the end, in spite of deception and greed, it's all worth it. The trouble Tupac had in reconciling his gender identity in the face of rejection for being too nice is an example of this dilemma. I have a huge amount of dissatisfaction with the bad boys getting away with everything and getting the attention when it seems like being nice should be the winning strategy. I've had this struggle going on in my life for as long as I can remember. At some point, I end up with nothing more than that article of faith that being nice and not becoming an ethical egoist is justified and better. But how much of this is my liberal upbringing by a single mother and just represents a specific strategy among many, instead of some moral imperative?

B. Talking points

  1. Messianic impulse

p13 “But as his legend grows, Tupac recedes further from historical view and is trapped in the ruthless play of images that outline his myth in the culture.”

p16-17 “... a reflection of the desperation of the youth who proclaim him and a society that has had far too few saints that could speak to the hopeless in our communities.”

p22 “if mother is central in black life ...”

p25 “named ... after a 18th century Incan chief and revolutionary who was killed ... tore his body apart ...”

p208 “entertaining voices have been mistaken for the messiahs of a generation who has lost their way ...”

Is it that he died that made him an authentic voice of his age, so that people weren't confronted by his humanity defusing his legend?

Tupac fills a cultural need and the parts that don't fit that need become heresy and the parts that do are gospel: being tattooed is celebrated as canon, but wearing crystals is ignored even though it was just as authentic to the man.

The focus on Tupac's mother in this book mirrors the matrilineal nature of Jewish culture and includes elements of the misogynist too. Here's a celebration of the mother of Tupac, which continues the religious imagery. This is a celebration of the Madonna, or the cult of the Magdalene.

That Tupac was named after a revolutionary leader that was killed, and had his body torn apart, reminds me of the sacrifice of the sacred corn king, killed and torn apart to ensure the future harvest. This is the drama of Isis & Osirus, Mary & Jesus, Inanna & Dimuzi. The sacred king that represents the highest nobility but must be killed in order to be reborn.

The author has tried very hard to develop the religious imagery in this book. What is it about our need to fulfill our messianic impulse? We create avatars of our perfect selves from which we demand self-destructive intensity, somehow requiring a sacrifice as proof of authenticity. Is this a culturally created way to be vicariously revolutionary, but remain safe?

  1. Compassionate communication

p6 “The love and inspiration black men need to stay alive is only a brother away”

p53-54 “if you don't respect yourself, then you can't respect your race, then you can't respect another's race.”

p59 “willingness to take risks, which [also meant] his willingness to fail”

p79 “... see life through the eyes of the poor, and visa versa.”

    These are examples that seem to show an awareness of the same ideas behind compassionate listening. There's bits of things that reflect the ideas of hearing the story of the Other and leading with vulnerability. There seems to be a natural movement toward these ideas. I find it curious that Tupac was raised by a single mother, as I was for the most part. There's the notion that links compassionate communication with traditional female roles of connected thinking, which seems to link here.

It's not just the story of the Other that we need. We need to reaffirm the humanity and community in our own groups. Community has been increasingly dismantled and replaced by the artificial, controlled media. Compassionate communication isn't just for intermural connections, but is also important for intramural bonds.

  1. Roses for the post-revolutionaries

p25 “revolutionary turned mother ... personal political flaws as the intelligible explanation for her son's hieroglyphic rage and self-destruction.”

p29 “resistance became a commodity for the cultured classes to consume”

p35 “... to be a black revolutionary – and thus risk totalizing governmental repression and the vicious indifference, even ingratitude, of the black bourgeoisie ...”

The rage that comes from seeing the flaws in older radicals could explain the 80s, for example. The history of politics in the US is one of the integration of the radicals into the mainstream. I can see this process not specific to this case but as a much more important process across the world, anywhere there's a strong movement that comes to maturity. This is similar to the need to reconcile the hyper-real with the mundane.

The illicit consumption of the ideas and culture of the resistance captures the counter-culture leanings of the ruling class, but keeps them safe. It acts to direct those urges into mostly meaningless fad culture expressions instead of action. Then, the involvement of the elite tends to discredit and at the same time dilute the revolutionaries. This mechanism keeps the status quo from changing too quickly, perhaps.

The failure of the rank and file to embrace more than just the fruits of the revolutionary movement is a recurring failure of society to follow through with change. This ends up becoming a mediating force between the extreme and the mainstream, creating an ebb to the flow of change.

I see in the rise of the thug the same kind of post-revolution that occurred in Palestine when the socially mature strength behind the Intifada was literally dismembered. The militant PLO leadership took over and moved increasingly away from the effective political and social protests toward more questionable violent expressions of rage. Similarily, the dismemberment of the increasingly more mature and effective Black Panther leadership created the vacuum into which the questionable violent expressions of rage, and cult of personality, replaced.

    This mediating mechanism can be seen in when the Wobblies are vilified by workers that enjoy 8 hour work days, or by women that claim not to be feminists but wear pants and enjoy a life of choices about birth control.

    There's a conflict between the forces of revolution and of regression. This seems to suggest a reaction to the fruits of revolution that is a the kind of adolescent narcissism or as the book says of the 70s, “self-deification and methods of self-satisfaction.” So, is one of the fallouts of revolution the a whole generation of “anarchic individualism” and ethical egoism?

This is why the golden children of the revolution should be especially protected. They've had a taste of the hyper-real but are forced to live in the real.

  1. Reconciling the hyper-real

p15 “tried to live the life he rapped about, which had spectacular results in the studio but disastrous results in the world.”

    This seems a very common struggle. When one has an experience in the hyper-realism of entertainment, the world often fails to match that no matter how hard one tries to recreate it in the everyday. This leads to internal conflict over what's real and over living up to the image and can lead to outrageous everyday behaviour to hide the mundane. This was true for Jackie Gleason, Chris Farley, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and a host of Hollywood stars that fractured their lives and relationships in the process of trying to integrate the hyper-real into daily life or trying to understand why they were incompatible.

  1. Deferred justification

p118 “... demands a capacity for deferred justification that most adults lack.”

p154 “... the morality of the artistic pursuit constantly impinges on its critical judgment”

“Artists often seek to undermine in their works the ethical prisms ...”

This idea of deferred justification is something that theatre attempts to model by often showing the compressed arc of a character's development. There's elements of humanity in each character that are expressed by the changes that character makes during a performance. By demonstrating this in a time compressed play, one is better able to see that humanity expressed, and then to have that experience to enrich everyday communication.

If one gets hung up on being offended at art, then one's just been made fun of by the artist. In this way, art is a mechanism for training people to become open to finding their connections with what seems alien. If one doesn't defer justification, then one probably has little appreciation for any art that isn't classical.

  1. Porch time

p61 “Man, you've got it good, just to have this soulfulness.”

p206 “He thought that spirituality ... is racially biased. It's a privilege to be able to ponder the great spiritual truths.”

I wonder if this is a misnomer to say racially biased instead of class biased? However, it seems to contradict some of the points made in the interviews in “In Timber Country” about how it was “porch time” that was the best expression of healthy community and not the rushed world of the city.

On the one hand, there's nostalgia for the good old days and an active pursuit for progress. On the other, there's disdain for the directionless rural life and the impersonal machinery of the city. There's a commonality that humanity attempts to find a connection with wisdom in some fashion everywhere. The form and details change, but the common human experience is attempting to find meaning in life. These paths aren't necessarily better than another, in fact the diversity of human experience is a richness that is celebrated by community.

C. Outrageous statement or claim

p116 “... what unifies hip-hop throughout the world is its emergence from the 'others' within the empire.”

p117 “I mean only black people could figure that out.”

At this point, I really was close to throwing the book across the room. I feel betrayed by the author, speaking about shared experience and the hopeless alienation and the self-suppression in the use of terms like “nigga” and “bitch,” who then turns around and resorts to the self-referential racism.

The voice of the suppressed, like the Beat poets and the music of the Gypsy, is that same authentic new language of dialogue of different cultures. This is a mechanism of humanity, not of a specific race that's stereotyped as having rhythm and music, as if no other culture did. Here's the mistaken conflation of race and culture again. Making this true in specific at the risk of losing the truth in a larger context is just another way of re-creating the Other instead of recognizing the broader humanity displayed.

Further, not only is the voice of the repressed expressed in music cross-cultural, so is the creation of a lifestyle while creating music. For example, there's the heavy metal lifestyle of the 80s and even the lifestyle of the Rat Pack which was tied to the music. This is also not just specific to one kind of art, but communities of artists worldwide develop lifestyle and art as a personal and communal dialogue. This is a way to reconcile the hyper-real with the real as a community.