|Consumption and Control
The progressive commodification of the world, and especially of human affects and fantasies, does not merely reflect the fact that the free market represents the most efficient and equitable model for all human relations. Rather, it attests to the deployment of relations of exchange as relations of discipline and control. The commodification of minority culture, that is, representations produced by and for members of oppressed groups in the United States, serves multiple political functions. Specific needs are met both in the oppressed community and in the communities of the oppressors; aside from the profit produced for the large media conglomerates and retail music outlets, and aside from the benefits garnered by the individual music producers, a complex series of disciplinary moments are kept in motion by the mechanisms of the culture industry.
Adorno and Horkheimer presciently noted this tendency in late capitalism some forty-five years ago in their incomparable Dialectic of the Enlightenment. Culture, in the form of mass culture, mediates social control. It simultaneously homogenizes and atomizes the subjects of contemporary mass societies. One recurrent figure mass-marketed by this apparatus is the asocial character: the gangster, the gunman, the killer. Horkheimer and Adorno would argue that one consequence of this figure's proliferation was the Nazi apotheosis of the asocial thug to dictator. But this is not the only result of the mediated fascination with the criminal. On a far more banal (and insidious) level, it helps to transform the cultural consumer into an asocial character, in the sense that he or she no longer participates (politically) in the social. The society comprised of highly individuated consumers, who belie their lack of individuality precisely through their compulsive relation to the commodity, is an asocial society. The social status conferred by the richness and variedness of one's preferred commodities grants the primary model for contemporary identity formations. The expression "Be American, Buy American" shows that even earlier models of mass identity, like nationalism, must express themselves in terms of an ethics of consumption.
The commodification of the gangster experience serves both to allow a certain sector of the underclass access to the electronic public sphere while simultaneously giving those individuals a stake in the perpetuation of the status quo that pays their bills. It also propagates an image of underclass—usually black and male—subjectivity "comfortable" to the ruling order: one that is sexist, violent, and criminal. This image is comforting, or so the argument would go, because it both reinforces racist stereotypes, making the users comfortable with the continuation of racist oppression, and provides the consumer with a titillating thrill. This thrill could easily be interpreted as the sadistic buzz afforded the overclass by the sight of its systemic racism having a real effect on real bodies. These are not only the bodies of black men, violated by police, white racists, and other black men, but above all the bodies of black women being brutalized by society at large.
In the sphere of the culture industry, the "anarchy" inherent in capitalist relations of production expresses itself in the moment of indeterminacy, the unavoidable moment of autonomy granted the cultural producer. The music industry, like the movie industry, cannot produce a hit through formula and hype alone. It requires a moment of aesthetic autonomy to produce (at least) the appearance of diversity in the market, a diversity necessary to generate desire for the latest product. Although a calculated part of the system, this autonomy gap does allow for the insertion of something else into the cultural commodity. Conceiving of the culture industry not as a monolithic power machine, but as a terrain organized but not entirely dominated by particular hegemonic interests, we can understand this gap as the site for intervention and resistance.
Gangsta rap, as a genre and a cultural practice, occupies a zone of volatile intensity on this terrain. For reasons that will become clear, gangsta rap can function as a kind of guerrilla warfare waged across the labyrinthine, electronic surface of the culture industry. The "extremity" of the shock produced by this music trains bodies to endure brutality and produces a militant consciousness. It thereby wages guerrilla warfare by pedagogically producing the guerrilla. What happens in and through gangsta rap matters because it has the potential to form the node around which an entire radically democratic politics of liberation could organize itself. However, through its production of profit, as well as less tangible (though equally significant) forms of social value, and its inherent ideological contradictions, it also has the potential to perpetuate and preserve the status quo (and maybe even make things worse).