Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Post-Modern P-Funk

Preface: This is a final paper i wrote for my English 120 class, which is Critical Methods/Theory. It's normally a terribly boring class, but Professor Antonio Lopez is just insane enough to make it fascinating (also just insane enough to be my adviser). Evidence, i got to write my final paper about the post-modernistic tendencies of George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. As my big friend Bruce once said, "P-Funk is proof that more black people should take acid." Anyway, i'll try to add some relevant pictures and lyrics to go with the essay (which i warn you, is long, and sometimes technical). My source citations didn't copy and paste with the text, so you'll have to trust me, unless you want to pay $1.35 to print it out at Gelman and see the footnotes for yourself, that is also fine.
The word 'essay' is derived from the French 'essayer', which means 'to try'. As such, here is my attempt at an explanation.

Music is truly the universal language. The same melody is a personal experience for every individual, yet it can serve to unite strangers and break down boundaries of race, ethnicity, language, politics, class, education, religion and whatever else. The right music, especially live music, easily bridges gaps no other medium can touch. Something ethereal, beyond definition, is expressed that could never be spoken or seen, evoking deep and pure emotions spanning the spectrum from unabashed joy to painful rage. Music is as old as humanity, and this primal nature speaks to its universality.
“If James Brown is the Godfather of Soul, George Clinton is the Crown Prince of Funk. He’s the ringleader of Parliament and Funkadelic.” George Clinton and P-Funk pioneered funk into a new era with a series of albums in the 1970’s. Beginning with the release of “Mothership Connection” in 1975, followed by “The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein” (1976) and “Funkentelechy Vs. The Placebo Syndrome” (1977), P-Funk announced their social and political message through the...
"Starchild Allegory. Starchild represented life, freedom, sex and positive energy. His opponent, Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk, represented hypocrisy, constriction, repression of emotions and actions, and death. The true message was that everyone had a choice; everyone could move towards maximum [F]unk in their life."

The Allegory was established through song lyrics, album art and liner notes, but most especially live in concert, when:
guitarist Gary Shider flew over the crowd, wearing diapers of course, blasting at the crowd with a strobe light attached to a space-age rifle, "Chasing the Noses away," which forces Sir Nose to "give up the funk" and dance.

I will attempt to summarize the Allegory as succinctly as possible. Funk is the cosmic ooze, the most basic, underlying force in the universe. “Funk doesn't have to be heard because the aural music is only a physical manifestation of the yet deeper, noumenal galactic vibe, which is always felt by one whose receptors are tuned to Channel One.”4 (Channel One refers both to the accentuated first beat in their music, as well as the Cosmic One). Earth, as evidenced by our constant wars, political power mongering and consumerist greed, has become “devoid of Funk”. Luckily, “the secret of Funk was placed inside the [Egyptian] pyramids 5,000 years ago.”3 Now, the Starchild (represented by George Clinton) and his band of cosmic Funkateers have come down from the Mothership (a silver flying saucer from which George Clinton would descend onto stage) to battle our collective nemesis, Sir Nose, D’Void of Funk, who is constantly trying to keep everyone quiet and still, under control, maintaining the status quo. But with the help of the Starchild, we can defeat Sir Nose, because even he is not immune to the galactic power of Funk, and in the end, in the song “Flashlight”, even Sir Nose gives in and gets down.
George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars sought to shift the paradigm of the Other in modern society. With the creation of the Starchild Allegory, they took ownership of their status as Other in America, essentially saying, ‘We’re so Other, we’re not even from this planet. But while we’re here, we might as well share the secret to salvation.’ There are two meanings at work in this Allegory, the first being black empowerment, shifting the paradigm of the Other and claiming it in a positive way. The second is the message of human peace and unity evident in the conclusion that everyone has the Funk in them and can join the new ‘us’ if they free their minds from the unFunky ‘them’.
I will use the social theories of authors such as Louis Althusser, Stuart Hall and Bell Hooks to frame my argument on the postmodern sensibilities of P-Funk. Their self-consciousness as the Other leads them to a transcendental philosophy of life that they transmit through their lyrics and musical stylings, as well as the artwork accompanying and inspired by their albums. I intend to use lyrical evidence in conjunction with some of George Clinton’s artwork to support the creation of the Starchild Allegory as an empowering postmodern narrative.

I will allow Louis Althusser to begin building the structure of my arguments. In his essay “Ideology”, Althusser observes that, “the ultimate condition of production is…the reproduction of the conditions of production” (p. 1483)5. So in order for a culture to perpetuate itself, there must be some mechanism(s) in place that continually create(s) the conditions for the status quo to be reinforced. These are understood to be the institutions that constitute the structure of society. Althusser explains,
"I shall call Ideological State Apparatuses a certain number of realities which present themselves to the immediate observer in the form of distinct and specialized institutions. I propose an empirical list… the religious ISA, the educational ISA, the family ISA, the legal ISA, the political ISA, the trade-union ISA, the communications ISA, the cultural ISA…" (p.1489)

These ISA’s are essentially eternal. That is to say, the content of culture is in constant flux, but it always fits into the overarching structure created by the ISA’s. The result is that, “individuals are always-already subjects” (p. 1505). Meaning that the ISA’s are acting on every individual from the second they are conceived. There are certain expectations of a person created solely by the ISA, regardless of who that person may turn out to be as an individual. The ISA’s are self-perpetuating because they seek to control the thought process and scope of an individual’s perspective. By influencing the family structure, the system of education (know-how) and the political system, most individuals will be born, live and die while serving to maintain the system. I wish to be clear; this is not necessarily a bad thing. However, it is an enlightened individual who can transcend the knowledge structure imposed by the ISA’s. It is this person who can act to change, rearrange or break down ISA’s (in theory, for the better). Using the Starchild Allegory, George Clinton and P-Funk were trying to raise consciousness and open minds to the oppressive nature of the racial structure imposed by existing ISA’s. Awareness is, of course, the first step to resolving any problem.

Bell Hooks’ work also has crucial relevance to the discourse on P-Funk and their Allegory. She provides the black, female perspective on the socio-cultural theory known as Postmodernism. She says,
"I find myself on the outside of the discourse looking in. As a discursive practice, [postmodernism] is dominated by the voices of the white male intellectuals and/or academic elites who speak to and about one another with coded familiarity." (p. 2478)5

Though Hooks grasps the concepts of Postmodernism and is not necessarily opposed to what they are saying, as a black woman, she is wary of who is saying it and how, and why. It is a discourse that recognizes her as a crucial piece of culture, but in the role of Other. That is, not a part of the mainstream. As Edward Said describes in his essay “Orientalism”, mainstream culture (here, referring to our ‘Postmodern’ condition) is defined, in part, by the Other, meaning that the two are co-dependent, and can never be understood independently from one another. This ‘binary opposition’ (Stuart Hall, to be discussed next) is a societal obstacle, an ISA that must be broken down, not just altered, in order to make serious progress toward peaceful and cooperative human cultures. Hooks elaborates from her perspective:

It has become necessary to find new avenues to transmit the messages of black liberation struggle, new ways to talk about racism and other politics of domination. Radical postmodernist practice, most powerfully conceptualized as a ‘politics of difference,’ should incorporate the voices of displaced, marginalized, exploited, and oppressed black people. It is sadly ironic that the contemporary discourse which talks the most about heterogeneity, the decentered subject, declaring breakthroughs that allow recognition of Otherness, still directs its critical voice primarily to a specialized audience that shares a common language rooted in the very master narratives it clams to challenge. If radical postmodernist thinking is to have a transformative impact, then a critical break with the notion of ‘authority’ as ‘mastery over’ must not simply be a rhetorical device. It must be reflected in habits of being, including styles of writing as well as chosen subject matter.” (p. 2479-80)5

In this passage, she is speaking directly about me, and the topic of this paper. Self-conscious of myself as a white male (quasi- / aspiring) intellectual, I do my best to make my ‘habits of being’, and in this case, my ‘chosen subject matter’ reflect my awareness of this heterogeneity. In the Postmodern world, with information and ideas flying everywhere faster than ever, it is crucial, and frankly impossible not to recognize the diversity of voices making meaningful contributions. P-Funk was effective in proposing their perspective to the degree that they were because as Hooks says, “Music is the cultural product created by African-Americans that has most attracted postmodern theorists. It is rarely acknowledged that there is far greater censorship and restriction of other forms of cultural production by black folks” (p. 2483). I will deal more directly with this issue later, but the medium of expression is an important aspect of the whole Allegory.
Hooks continues, asserting that, “part of our struggle for radical black subjectivity is the quest to find ways to construct self and identity that are oppositional and liberatory”(p. 2482). This is precisely what the Starchild Allegory is all about; oppositional in that it is claiming the role of Other and using it as empowerment; liberatory because it attempts to escape the common understanding of black experience, literally representing themselves as ‘out of this world’, beyond what humanity has been ready for to this point.
Hooks goes on to point out that, “postmodern culture with its decentered subject can be the space where ties are severed, or it can provide the occasion for new and varied forms of bonding” (p. 2484). I would argue that the Starchild Allegory attempts to accomplish both of these things all at once. P-Funk severs ties by distinguishing itself from the typical, earthly view of the black man. They claim a new identity for themselves, cosmic and divine. It is appropriate that they trace back to Africa, from where they were abducted, for the hidden gem that will unite us all (the Funk in the Egyptian pyramids). At the same time, by removing themselves from the common discourse, they create a space for ‘new and varied forms of bonding’. They are encouraging us (of all races) to free our minds and accept the Funk and become a part of this intergalactic clan of loving Funkateers. They are creating a new ‘us’, which of course creates a brand new ‘Other’ as well. No longer the black man, or whatever other decentered subject, this new Other is anyone who denies the Funk, who can’t or refuses to boogie and is therefore on the outside looking in. It is an empowering paradigm shift that, in theory, removes race from the equation, and focuses on the content of one’s soul.
At the same time, we are dealing with distinctly black music. Every member of Parliament and Funkadelic was black. Funk evolved from jazz and soul, bebop and rock and roll, all of which was originally black music (stolen by the white mainstream, of course). And it continues today in hip-hop culture; a culture dominated by blacks that samples P-Funk beats and licks left and right.
This leads us into Stuart Hall’s work on “Representation”. He claims that, “meaning ‘floats’. It cannot be finally fixed. However, attempting to ‘fix’ it is the work of representational practice…” (p. 228). So, in this ‘practice’, I am attempting to ‘fix’ the meaning of the Starchild Allegory as it ‘floats’ back and forth between black uprising and world peace. In the end, it is always both:
"…in light of the ‘preferred meaning’, hasn’t the meaning with respect to ‘race’ and ‘otherness’ changed as well? Isn’t it more something like, ‘even when black people are shown at the summit of their achievement, they often fail to carry it off’? This having-it-both-ways is important because…people who are in any way significantly different from the majority – ‘them’ rather than ‘us’ – are frequently exposed to this binary form of representation. They seem to be represented through sharply opposed, polarized, binary extremes – good/bad, civilized/primitive, ugly/excessively attractive, repelling-because-different/compelling-because-strange-and-exotic. And they are often required to be both things at the same time!" (p. 228)6

A critical flaw in the Starchild Allegory is that it maintains this binary definition, those who Funk and those who don’t. Even though it attempts to reframe the debate to include everybody in ‘us’, it necessarily creates an ‘Other’. It is a paradigm shift, yet it is still a paradigm, dig? The difference here it seems, is that according to the Allegory, no one is necessarily excluded. Everyone has the chance to dance and become one with the Funk, whereas, it seems, an African-, Mexican-, Chinese-, whatever-else-American could never become one of the ‘us’ that is the dominant Caucasian culture.
One of the many problems with the binary point of view is that it conflicts with the issue of ‘inter-textuality’. “[The] accumulation of meanings across different texts, where one image refers to another, or has its meaning altered by being ‘read’ in the context of other images is called inter-textuality” (p. 232). Individuals are undeniably inter-textual. Every person can and must be ‘read’ in relation to the circumstances of their existence, the multitude of their experiences and the vast variety of thoughts and opinions that result. This is in direct conflict with the oversimplified binary representation the mainstream gives to the ‘Other’. As is evident in George Clinton’s artwork (to be discussed later), he was well aware of the restricting nature of the binary understanding. P-Funk’s Allegory attempts to flip the script on this simple duality, asserting themselves as the more powerful participants, looking down on the supposedly ‘dominant’ culture.
Hall quotes Frederickson saying, “as portrayed in pro-slavery writing, Africa was and always has been the scene of unmitigated savagery, cannibalism, devil worship, and licentiousness” (p. 243). It is not surprising then, that in the empowering Allegory, the powerful liberating force of Funk has been hidden in Africa, the motherland, the home of the very first humans. This is part of the paradigm shift P-Funk was trying to enact. As opposed to Africa being the source of savagery, it in fact holds the key to salvation. It is important to understand that they were not advocating a physical repatriation the way a Zionist would, but insisting on a spiritual movement that would dig towards our common roots and lead a revival of human unity.
Reversing the standard understanding like this inevitably requires the actor to claim a great deal of power:
"We often think of power in terms of direct physical coercion or constraint. However, we have also spoken…of power in representation; power to mark, assign and classify; of symbolic power; of ritualized expulsion. Power, it seems, has to be understood here, not only in terms of economic exploitation and physical coercion, but also in broader cultural or symbolic terms, including the power to represent someone or something in a certain way – within a certain ‘regime of representation’. It includes the exercise of symbolic power through representational practices." (p. 259)6

By choosing to create a counter-image, creating an alternative representation of themselves, P-Funk is seizing this power. They are denying the way history and the dominant culture has represented them by establishing an alternate narrative. Hall makes reference to “Foucault’s power/knowledge argument”, which states that,
"Through different practices of representation (scholarship, exhibition, literature, painting, [music]), [a discourse produces] a form of racialized knowledge of the Other deeply implicated in the operation of power" (p. 260).6

So traditionally, knowledge of blacks has been produced through the way in which the dominant white culture has chosen to portray them, and the cultural contributions of blacks, whether they, in reality, fit that mold or not, have been considered strictly under those definitions, under that structure of knowledge (ISA’s). That is the power. What P-Funk is doing, is grabbing some of that power for themselves, trying to move up and away from the traditional representations of blacks to something beyond. But at the same time, they are doing it in the ‘traditional’, ‘stereotypical’ way, through music. It is perfectly in line with the usual white representation of black culture that they would be pot-smoking musicians, playing new and somewhat crazy sounding music that is eventually adopted and loved and copied by the same white culture that is stereotyping them in the first place. In this way, “’victims’ can be trapped by the stereotype, unconsciously confirming it by the very terms in which they try to oppose and resist it…The problem is that blacks are trapped by the binary structure of the stereotype”(p. 263). In this case, the ‘victims’ are P-Funk, who are ‘trapped’ by the fact that they have done everything possible to break the mold and in the end have done just as much to reinforce it as they have to tear it apart. To really drive the point home, Hall goes back to Foucault as he insists that,
"Power circulates. The circularity of power is especially important in the context of representation. The argument is that everyone – the powerful and the powerless – is caught up, thought not on equal terms, in power’s circulation. No one – neither its apparent victims nor its agents – can stand wholly outside its field of operation" (p. 261).

P-Funk is very much caught up in this game of power. It is trying to seize the power to represent themselves (the black man in America) in a certain way, but doing it in a way that conforms to the way they are already (repressively) represented. This is somewhat paradoxical because if they had chosen any other medium besides music (critical theory, for example), they would, as Hooks pointed out, have been more or less ignored. This is the effect of the binary power structure. The dominant white culture is allowing them a certain amount of power, a way to express themselves, a way to represent themselves, only it is entirely on the terms of the dominant culture. They are allowed only as much power as the mainstream is willing to give, usually just enough for the mainstream to reap the benefits without giving up too much in exchange. Even when the new representation P-Funk presents is attempting to move beyond racialized divisions, it still falls victim to the stereotypes already in place.
So where do we go from here? Gloria Anzaldúa, a lesbian Mexican American writer, explains how we must transcend this restrictive duality in her essay “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza:
"But it is not enough to stand on the opposite riverbank, shouting questions, challenging patriarchal, white conventions. A counterstance locks one into a duel of oppressor and oppressed; locked in mortal combat, like the cop and the criminal, both are reduced to a common denominator of violence. The counterstance refutes the dominant culture’s views and beliefs, and, for this, it is proudly defiant. All reaction is limited by, and dependent on, what it is reacting against. Because the counterstance stems from a problem with authority—outer as well as inner—it’s a step towards liberation from cultural domination. But it is not a way of life. At some point, on our way to a new consciousness, we will have to leave he opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once and, at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes. Or perhaps we will decide to disengage from the dominant culture, write it off altogether as a lost cause, and cross the border into a wholly new and separate territory. Or we might go another route. The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react." (p. 2213)

Ok, now we’re getting somewhere. Anzaldúa acknowledges what we already established with Hall, that the binary structure is a dead end. She takes it a metaphorical step further though, in suggesting that we find a way to stand “on both shores at once”. What does this mean? Anzaldúa gets a little more specific:
Because the future depends on the breaking down of paradigms, it depends on the straddling of two or more cultures. By creating a new mythos—that is, a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves, and the ways we behave—la mestiza creates a new consciousness. (p. 2214)

It seems that this is the same ideal that the Allegory is aiming for, to create a new consciousness that transcends any and all cultures. P-Funk is crying out for “a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves, and the ways we behave”. That is the message! Granted they are not breaking down any paradigms through their choice of medium, but at the same time, part of what they are doing is one of the possibilities Anzaldúa suggested. That is, to disengage from the dominant culture altogether and go a different route. (Representing yourself as an outer space alien is certainly a strong move towards disengagement). And the message is one of love and unity, as there is no exclusion based on anything but one’s personal actions. And that is really what it comes down to, words and action. Because there can be no paradigm destruction unless people, individuals that is, begin to break them down one step at a time. This is a tremendous goal, an unthinkably monstrous task, but that does not mean it is impossible. It takes small, positive choices, repeated over and over again to begin to create meaningful effect, and if enough people start moving in the right direction, anything is possible. Of course the opposite is also true. If enough people start moving in any direction, anything can happen, be it heroic or disastrous.
In any case, George Clinton’s idealistic perspective becomes painfully clear when examining his artwork. Far from a technical master,
There is no formal structure to the works. The exploded doodles reminiscent of ‘outsider art’ portray a narrative of raceless, universal harmony and acceptance… Often incorporating characters from his conceptual recordings and productions, the protagonists are quite definitely "people of color". Characters of all colors -- white, black, orange, green, blue -- appear in attitudes of cooperation and loving interaction.7

Clinton’s artwork is another physical manifestation of the Funk, interpreted through a different medium. A brief interpretation of the over-arching theme of the works is that everything kind of mish-mashes together anyway, so why not celebrate it, as opposed to insisting on ‘difference’, or ‘binary opposition’, in the terms of this paper.
Like P-Funk and [Clinton]'s performance art, the images clash and meld into each other without any perceived reason. Their juxtaposition is merely serendipitous -- a matter of chance and allotted space. A negative space created by one image becomes an upside-down face, tacitly observing the antics of the major players.7

The artwork, much of which is “Untitled”, is created in the same spirit as his music, in that it is a different experience for every individual. Spontaneous interpretation by both artist and observer, blurring the lines between the two, making them both participants:
P-Funk seemed to believe that music wasn't so much something that you made with your instruments as it was something that you caught with them, as if [F]unk was out there in the form of an ambient residual energy left over from the big bang. It was as if their basses and horns were finely tuned, specialized antennae dialing into cosmic leftovers. Funk became a unifying presence -- the godhead as manifest to anyone willing to laugh and boogie at the same time. "One nation under a groove, gettin' down just for the funk of it.
Being "On The One" means never having to call your choreographer, because he would only mess things up. The unity of the dance is given unto the is not their responsibility to keep in step, but their privilege to have "The One" channeled through the band's antennae and onto the dance floor. But "The One" is of course also the cosmic one, the unified field of awareness, or in Hindu terminology, Shiva, the dance itself.

We have leapt into the realm of deep spirituality at this point. Music as religion, the unifying force. It is idealism with built-in practical application. It seems to me, that the Starchild Allegory is proposing the same idea as Anzaldúa; that the utopia, the ideal, will be when we all jump in the middle of the river, ‘see through serpent and eagle eyes’, and create a world based on a keen awareness of reality as it is, beyond any paradigm. Admittedly this is all very idealistic, a criticism to which I respond with a hearty, “Why not?” My argument is that Music (and accompanying Art) is the only medium available when you are trying to convey a message of this magnitude. Because there is endless observational and experiential evidence proving that Music truly is a unifying force, it makes sense to tap into that energy and amplify it (no pun intended). 8


Nikol said...

What do you think of Obadiah Shoher's extensive reply to Ed Said at ?

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