Ayesha Siddiqi is editor in chief of The New Inquiry. CJLC met her at Max Cafe to talk about myth making in American popular culture.
ADIL: I was reading your piece in The New Inquiry on Lana Del Rey, and how she consciously appropriates banal Americana iconography, so I wanted to talk about the myth of America. How is this myth constructed with discourses of the American dream, of meritocracy, of assimilation? What kind of violences are necessary for the construction of this myth? Are we seeing a skepticism toward or disenchantment with this myth?
AYESHA: Myths are central to any empire – especially America. The way that myth is maintained is by retaining a sense of being untouched by historical forces. That’s what I think a lot of pop culture, film, and music is about. They deal subtextually with notions of race and the frontier, but more so they act to reinscribe existing bodily relations – the way we’re meant to relate and not relate to each other.
So there are a few different forces: Racism is central to capitalism. Capitalism is designed to alienate us from one another. Add to that American individualism. At the same time that one is expected to experience America as an individual, you are also expected to situate yourself within the myth. And obviously that myth is available to white men in a way that it’s not available to other demographics in this country.
What’s interesting is how in we’re observing that myth-formation in real time. The Western, for example, was crucial to understanding racial boundaries in the mid century. In current war films that take place in the “Middle East” – in a Las Vegas sense – or in specific locations, like American Sniper, you again see a normalization of violence inflicted against certain bodies. Before it was Native American bodies; now it’s the normalization of Muslim death, with the attendant aesthetics of desert warfare
I think what’s interesting is how only .05% of the American population is in the Armed Forces. I think that produces a very unique experience of war because, for the majority of Americans, it is a very abstract, far away concept. We weren’t allowed to see any images of the returning coffins from war. That was not part of our media. Add to that the fact that very few people have relationships or knowledge of people in the armed forces. Add to that the fact that these wars are fought increasingly in the abstract, with drones, with people sitting in trailers in Nevada, for whom the Muslims they’re killing are just moving dots on a radar.
When we first got involved in these wars, a ton of our culture turned once again to California, to SoCal: to the OC, to the beaches. All these new reality TV shows were set there. That’s when Abercrombie and Hollister started exporting this constructed California aesthetic to Middle America. It’s as though there was an impulse to turn again to what was once the end of the American Frontier and extend it into myth and enter an entirely open frontier of the imagination. Now Abercrombie and Hollister are both going bankrupt. Those shows and that aesthetic have a very early ‘00s feel. They don’t occupy the same cultural significance anymore.
Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is how America feels like a country where there’s no room for metaphor because everything happens already quite literally. Suffocation as a metaphor feels so trite when people literally can’t breathe and are dying in the streets.
It seems that for all that’s been written about myth-making in America, the best way to understand it would be to look at where alienation is maintained. Alienation between people’s labor and what they would want to see as meaningful work. Alienation between war and the people funding that war. Alienation between different races. And I think right now I’m at the point where I have more questions than answers. I’m looking at how bizarrely intense the ambient anxiety of this country is. Our appetites are shifting. Trying to look at where they’re headed next has always been a fruitful way of understanding what’s really going on in the undercurrents of the american imaginary and subconscious; all of these things that go unnamed but are are in the atmosphere of life in this country.
AH: That kind of preempts a few of my questions. Is pop culture a kind of litmus test, a reflection of how people are thinking? Or is it more engaged in the production of imagination?
AS: I think it’s both. It’s certainly a litmus test for and snapshot of America’s relation to race and gender, and reactions to pop culture are indicative of where people’s heads are at. A few years back, when it was fashionable to disparage the Kardashians, a lot of the jokes about [Kim Kardashian] on SNL and the way people talked about her hinged on her dating history – the fact that she had romantic relationships primarily with Black men hinted at a slightly more promiscuous appetite, that she was “sluttier” for dating Black athletes and entertainers. Sadly, sports is the primary way that many Americans interact with Black Americans. Take Kentucky, for example, where I used to live: there’s an arena named after Adolph Rupp, an unabashed white supremacist. Fans cheer and feel this very deep relation to Black players: “There are our boys! Go get ‘em!” These same people use the ‘n’ word. We could talk more extensively about how the sports world encourages certain relations and entitlements to Black labor: many surveys have shown that white sports fans are more reluctant to compensate college athletes when they are presented with a Black athlete instead of a white one: It’s “Yeah, it makes sense to pay these athletes,” versus “they should just be grateful to have a scholarship.”
As an immigrant, I learned about this country through pop culture. What is this country about? What does it care about? I approached it from an anthropological distance because it wasn’t a culture that I saw myself in.
As the years go on, we become just as much consumers as producers of that culture. At first I felt like an observer of America, and looking at both its history and pop culture from that position, anti-Blackness stood out as a prominent foundational feature. But as I came to understand myself as an American citizen, too, I became another consumer through which anti-Blackness is and can be housed, especially as a South Asian, as part of a community stereotyped as a model minority. Anti-Blackness is not unique to America or American history, and actually as I learned more about it here as I began to understand the ways it exists in Pakistan. We can’t simply transpose American frameworks of race onto Pakistan because white privilege doesn’t exist in the same way there. Anti-Blackness wouldn’t even be in our vocabulary if it weren’t for the dialogue led by Black feminists online, which has brought this discourse further into the mainstream and made it more fully capable of describing the state of things.
AH: On that subject, I’ve been thinking about how the way in which we consume hip-hop and rap, not just locally but also globally, and how this global audience perceives Black America.
AS: Because Black Americans have always been central to American cultural production, people outside the US, especially non-white people, consume an American culture in which they most often see Black America represented in certain ways. This yields an impulse to equate what they interpret as visibility of Black Americans with power and security, which is obviously not the case. Visibility is not necessarily power.
AH: You’ve written a lot about Kanye West, and the way in which the media represents him.
AS: I’ve written about Kanye to discuss white America’s hostility towards creative people of color, especially black men. They feel entitled to their own assessments of genius, talent, or worth, yet in these assessments, they interpret much of what would pass as reasonable from white Americans as aggressive from Black Americans. They also have the impulse to label Black figures as arrogant, undeserving of what they have; as people who having failed to perform adequate gratitude toward white America are causing a great deal of offense.
AH: People are critical of Kanye West for his statement,”I am a genius, I am powerful” calling it arrogance, but if a white man had said it, it would be read as confidence. This self-confidence can be empowering, and Kanye’s analysis of race relations in the music and fashion industries is spot on. But even in these critiques, even with Jay-Z—what they’re talking about is an American exceptionalist, individualist explanation of the self-made person.
AS: It’s no wonder that America loves that particular narrative. Why reform the ghetto when you can just encourage people to stay there? This brings us back to what we were talking about earlier–-Kanye West’s availability as an example has also reproduced a paradoxical sense of entitlement toward Black culture, this idea that it is available to and can belong to everyone, except Black people. Black producers and Black consumers’ experiences with the culture of production are erased, ignored, or relegated to the margins, especially in conversations that aim to analyze this culture. Any immigrant can take from rap what they need—the narrative of achieving the American Dream, the narrative of outsider status– as can an angsty white teen in the suburbs. In fact, the ways in which black artists have been used has also been shaped by this white teen consumer base.
Even “fellow people of color” are replicating that sense of entitlement to black culture and its availability. This is a very unique element of the American cultural experience, and it makes anti-Blackness a more precise term for discussing this form of racism—it highlights a very specific phenomenon that people of color are just as complicit in. “People of color” has always been a very useful phrase in naming our shared position in solidarity against white supremacy, but we need to be very careful about the ways in which that condition is not shared homogeneously. There are moments when “POC” is a useful phrase and moments when it is incredibly insufficient and erases textures of struggles that aren’t shared between the proverbial “us.”
AH: That’s a big debate I was having with someone during the Mizzou protests, when there were a lot of people of color who made Facebook posts expressing solidarity with the protestors. The pushback asked why you had to identify as a person of color when it was a specifically Black struggle.
AS: That impulse to relate occurs again even in activist circles. The idea that there is a narrative that is primed and available for you to not only consume and participate in but to center yourself in is ultimately incredibly disrespectful and comes at the cost representing the situation honestly. If you’re erasing Black voices to center yourself, how is that any different from reiterating the same historical violence against the Black community?
AH: Absolutely. I am interested in the capitalist individualism that you see in musicians. I think it has a deep value because it articulates a humanity that has been denied for a long time. But what kind of “human” you are trying to be included into? Who is this subject? If an artist says, “I’m going to start from the bottom and climb to the top,” what structures of inequalities are being erased?
AS: I think you answered that question with a pretty accurate summation of what that process requires. It’s an invitation to participate in a cycle of exceptionalism, oppression, and complicity. What celebrities do and what their celebrity does for us is worth considering. These people exist as avatars on personal levels. The other side of that individualized process is of consuming and engaging in pop culture—which isn’t always hyperidivudalized. Stanning and fandom build bonds that, while seemingly superficial, resist capitalist alienation. What people feel within themselves and toward each other can be useful. Look at what Black women have written about what Beyoncé means to them.
Elements of pop culture can be experienced in ways that really free people to do the “real work.” If someone feels less depressed or anxious because Beyoncé’s incredibly provocative performance at the Super Bowl has attuned them to a certain racial solidarity, that is useful; if someone feels that Kanye West antagonizes white America and helps them better resist White supremacy, then that’s useful. We don’t want to say that these figures are necessarily liberatory. Obviously, Kanye West has his own history of misogyny, but people need mirrors that encourage them to do the work that needs to be done.
AH: How would you draw a connection between the construction of the American Dream myth and US-led drone strikes in northern Pakistan?
AS: Part of maintaining the sense of availability of a dream is also maintaining the sense that any threats against it are being eliminated, which explains why fear is such a central component of American myth-making. You don’t have to articulate the dream itself, just to gesture at its availability; the rest of rhetoric, political policy, and cultural production can fixate instead on the fears.
As long as the sense of legitimacy of the fear is maintained, there will be support for efforts presented as threat-elimination. This is ultimately the key of global economies. America’s number one manufactured good is weapons—we need to create a demand and market for their use because we have to move those weapons. The amount of money that cycles in trade depends on maintenance of conflict abroad. Yemenis are dying at the hands of made-in-the-USA weapons that we sell at record-breaking rates to Saudi Arabia. We have to use up all the guns we make—all the array of military weaponry and of course maintain the relationship that many politicians in office have with corporations, lobbyists, and stakeholders. Consider Dick Cheney’s economic assets and the fact that he was a chief architect of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—it seems almost too obvious and too plain to be allowed to be true. You wish it were more complicated. But there it is–drones are a huge industry.
AH: I want to talk about Twitter. If we’re talking about the myths of the country, we now see that people have outlets to vocalize their thoughts about this myth without going through the vetting processes in print media. Could you say a bit about the conversations enabled by places like Twitter, Facebook, even Tumblr, and any outlets that allow you to write and express your ideas, while addressing the backlash they enable?
AS: Over the past few years, digital media has broken down certain points of gatekeeping. Because platforms like Facebook or Twitter have no precedents, the new media generation never feel as if these spaces weren’t for them. So these platforms created a completely blank, open frontier for people to express themselves without inhibition. Writing and thinking publicly is very different from writing and thinking within academia or for an academic journal or a prestige media publication. For many marginalized people, there are spaces that you are socialized to not identify with or feel entitled to. That wasn’t true for Twitter and Tumblr.
We are living in a rare moment that is often described as “outrage culture,” which is a funny phrase to me because I think the outrage is overdue. The people who are newly offended are the people who were previously sheltered from the kind of feedback that is now reaching them. Many conversations only serve to indicate the position of the people having the conversation. Think of liberal pundits that are very suspicious of Twitter and the masses because suddenly the status that their byline in a prestigious publication afforded them is no longer relevant.
People want to talk about the culture of public shaming and how it could threaten someone’s job if they say something bigoted online, but you know what also threatens people jobs? Racists. If shaming ultimately causes people to be more careful with their words, then good—we should be more careful; we should use the correct pronouns and perform these very simple and small acts that make a huge difference in other people’s experience of the world. A lot of conversations about political correctness are about the dignity and courtesy towards people that were previously never considered, and I’m encouraged to live in a culture where that may be changing, where students do demand a recognition of history and experience. The ability to “call out” figures is an incurably rare power for those who don’t have that many resources.
The other side is that, despite the innovative ways these platforms are being used by people of color, they are generating value that goes toward white capitalist institutions, corporate owned platforms.
AH: Twitter is the face for neoliberal economics, in a way.
AS: It wouldn’t be half as relevant and interesting a space if not for black Twitter alone. The work of many different marginalized communities makes these spaces cool and fun, so they’re supplying free labor to generate value for people who are not them, for corporations. Twitter can hand off your data to the government; Tumblr can donate your blog… you’re at the whims of these corporations.
Another element is that just as many people are monitoring these communities. It’s a platform of visibility in a surveillance state—visibility is not power in a surveillance state. Media outlets constantly mine conversations among marginalized communities for content that they then use to generate income. They are monetizing the uncompensated labor of a lot of people, and it goes beyond rampant plagiarism. I’ve seen writers of color on Tumblr have work lifted and used without attribution in some of the most prominent publications today. What makes these spaces innovative is the people, not anything inherent to the platforms.
It’s just as important, if not more, to look at the ways in which existing status quos remap onto digital spaces, and that social hierarchies are reinscribed onto these digital platforms. That is evident from the ways in which the most marginalized face the most abuse, to who gets riffed off of and who gets to see the profits their ideas. For every black teenager that’s so good at Vine that they get hired to make compensated content, for every thinker whose caliber blog has led to invitations to publish work elsewhere, there are plenty more people whose work goes uncompensated and exists only to feed into algorithms and trends trying to exploit them. That’s a story of power and exploitation under capitalism.
We keep discussing black cultural production because it’s such a major and obvious example of that. The girl who coined “fleek” saw none of the coins that a place like Denny’s made when they used that phrase to sell pancakes.
What’s new doesn’t dismantle what’s old—it just shifts it. Monitoring the shifts is what reveals opportunities for intervention, which is what remains relevant as we continue to examine cultural production and consumption.