Of corn kernels and Columbine

Keith Kahn-Harris on how hip-hop and nu-metal rage against and within US 'supercapitalism'

July 24, 2008

It is said that the American "nu-metal" band Korn got their name from an anecdote in which a gay man who was engaged in "rimming" his partner received an anally discharged corn kernel on his tongue. Some people might be revolted by this anecdote, some amused, some merely unimpressed. For Scott Wilson, the author of Great Satan's Rage, the anecdote is the object of an intense six-page analysis (complete with diagrams) drawing on the work of A. J. Greimas and Georges Bataille, arguing that the piece of corn "takes itself out of the use-circuit, turning itself into the demonic, hardcore corn-kernel of straight American mainstream negativity in order to protect itself from the contamination of gay marginality".

This is no ordinary academic book. It is a sometimes brilliant, sometimes infuriating and sometimes baffling piece of cultural analysis that attempts to shed light on the current structure of American "supercapitalism". Wilson draws heavily on the work of authors such as Jacques Lacan, Giorgio Agamben, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari as well as Bataille, replicating both their virtuoso perceptiveness and their often wilful obscurity.

Wilson understands post-Cold War supercapitalism as a fundamentally American seductive force with a profoundly excessive nature. American supercapitalism is filled with "satanic rage" in its destructive potential, and it provokes the same rage in both its advocates and detractors. Through a series of interconnected case studies, Wilson looks at some of the ways in which this satanic rage has been "negotiated, contested, raged against, survived, exploited, simulated and performed".

Through readings of the work of Leo Strauss, Alexandre Kojeve, Francis Fukuyama and Allan Bloom, Wilson shows how such thinkers are caught in an impossible bind: while they are supportive of the economics and power structures of supercapitalism, they are highly pessimistic about its cultural consequences. In contrast to the self-defeatingly contradictory "negativity" of neoconservatism, contemporary American popular music has developed a more penetrating and potentially transformative kind of negativity.

Wilson looks in particular at hip-hop and nu-metal (a recent version of heavy metal that draws on hip-hop), arguing that while they cannot escape the logic of supercapitalism - according to him, nothing can - they can produce forms of community that are meaningful and critical in their own way. The chapter on "gangsta" rap provides a sensitive appreciation of the ways in which the gangsta lifestyle offers a kind of ironic commentary on excess and desire in modern consumerism. Readings of nu-metal, death metal and the Columbine high school massacre produce similarly thought-provoking reflections on the ironies of excess, transgression, negativity and rage within a supercapitalism in which such previously "oppositional" strategies have become an ambivalent part of the system itself.

Although Great Satan's Rage is a fascinating and lively (if sometimes impenetrable) read, its value is ambiguous given that the book is predicated on a view of capitalism as a self-contained system that incorporates its own critique. Like the cultural critics he liberally draws upon, Wilson builds very impressive theoretical castles in the air, but it is hard to know what to do with them. This is not to say that all criticism has to have a practical application, yet surely one might hope for some kind of inspiration for everyday practice. Tellingly, the readings Wilson produces often make little reference to the ethnographies and other studies that might help in understanding the sociological ground on which the texts and events he studies rest. Moreover, his reading of supercapitalism as essentially American seems to ride roughshod over global diversity.

This is a book to be enjoyed for its brilliant flashes of insight without taking its bigger claims too seriously.

Great Satan's Rage: American Negativity and Rap/Metal in the Age of Supercapitalism

By Scott Wilson

Manchester University Press 240pp, £55.00

ISBN 9780719074639

Published 1 March 2008

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