Half-hearted attempt at a summary of the significance of the negative in Adorno. For Adorno, ‘critical theory’ and ‘negative dialectics’ are the same thing. The possibility of critical thought is precisely the element of the negative: the aim of philosophy is not to, as in Hegel, reconcile all negativities as a positive but rather to draw out the inherent contradictions and aporias that characterise our false world. The positive, the affirmative excludes the negative, the nonconceptual, the nonidentical. Essence is thus identified with appearance: this means that the false world we live in cannot be at all otherwise. The mind is the world, and the world is the mind (the distinction between subject and object is dissolved). Marcuse, too, describes this (or something similar) in One-Dimensional Man, making the point that late capitalist society obviously has an investment in excluding the negative, because by doing so the very possibility of thinking about changing the circumstances we live under atrophies. Moreover, the nonidentical is somehow bound up in the ‘victims of history’: Enlightenment excludes everything that cannot be ratiocinated over, that is, that cannot be conceptualised. Philosophy should therefore attempt to speak precisely that which Wittgenstein famously said, at the end of the Tractatus, we must “pass over in silence.”
On the face of it, the music of Lil B seems directly opposed to this sort of critique. The ‘based’ philosophy he advocates is openly positive and affirmative. It is a message of loving one another and getting along, of healing over rather than dwelling on the wounds of history. (see print-screen of some recent tweets below) It is also identitarian. Not only are we all the same, all “million dollar babies” (and remember that early series of songs where he seemed to be concerned to identify himself individually with everyone under the sun, ‘I’m Bill Clinton’, ‘I’m Paris Hilton’ etc), but, on the recent (and really incredible, like I seriously think it may be the best thing he has ever done) track ‘I’m Winning’, the mind is explicitly identified with the world: “never forget that the world is the mind.”
And yet, it seems innacurate to suggest that Lil B is somehow conspiring with the forces of oppression against the victims of history. Possibly he is just one who, like Adorno’s Holocaust survivor friend who he mentions (telling the same anecdote) in both Negative Dialectics and his lectures on Metaphysics, thinks that people who are confronted with the horrors of history need to be given “courage”, or rather – this is from a tirade Adorno’s friend has launched against Beckett, you see – that if Beckett had been in a concentration camp, he would have written something more motivational (rather than, Adorno obviously thinks, True). I mean to say that maybe Lil B is motivational in this way, ‘giving people courage’. Actually, this might be the most obvious, first-impressions reading of him. But I also don’t think that gets him quite right. Rather, I think that his ‘based’ rhetoric can help us to think critically about the situation we are in by demonstrating to us just how impossible the positivity he advocates is under current historical conditions.
The clue here comes from a review of ‘February’s Confessions’ by a writer called Katherine St Asaph, that I saw flagged up in something by that guy on twitter who is just lines. “The track is gorgeous, Lil B is fine, but I’d enjoy it so much more if it didn’t feel like listening to someone else’s inside joke.” This is the real thing about Lil B: no matter how ‘positive’ he is being, and no matter how consistently he pronounces the same rhetoric, makes the same points, there is a sense in which he is not being quite sincere. His wide-eyed naivity can feel like a pose, and along with his non-traditional flow, the over-the-top, almost jokily epic beats (sometimes I think KLF), the new age elements… not to mention his inhuman rate of productivity, which inevitably means that a lot of his stuff is less than polished, it is almost like: “how are we supposed to take this? Is this guy for real?” In the video (below) for ‘Got The Mack Loaded’, Lil B is rapping along with the track into the camera, but the image and the audio don’t quite synch up: he is always positioned at a level of remove from his words. He made an album called ‘I’m Gay’, even though he’s not gay.
Lil B’s achievement is that he makes positivity seem uncanny. The recent ‘My Arms Are The Brooklyn Bridge’ is maybe the best example of this. On one level, this is a ‘positive’, inspiring song. Lines like “we need to put down these guns and heal these kids” pepper the verses. But in the chorus he mostly just repeats the apparently nonsensical title phrase. And yet in the context of the song, it seems absolutely drenched with meaning. It is just that it is unconceptualisable1. He has introduced the negative, as it were, into the positive. And the effect is disorienting: suddenly the “let’s make everything better” message seems frankly very strange (especially apparent when you hear it against the imagery in that video: BasedGod meeting the faithful). Lil B’s typical sentiments are not radically original: they are of a ‘child’s dream for world peace’ type, you could hear them formulated in any primary school classroom. They are obviously correct to anyone who has any immediate moral sense, and yet social conditions must make them problematic2.
Because the thing is, we should all be million dollar babies. But we are evidently not treated as such at present. But to say, simply: “you’re not a million dollar baby,” is just as cruel as would be, slapping the pen out of the hand of someone who tries to write poetry after Auschwitz. Two ways of enforcing barbarism: 1. describe it as something positive and meaningful; 2. describe it as it is, but as something that could not be otherwise. Lil B’s music is not an attempt to describe conditions as they are as positive but rather an attempt to speak the positive. But it can seem ludicrous: or at least, like it must be someone else’s inside joke. And that is precisely the most telling thing of all. Lil B makes us aware of the fact that the expression of positivity is only, at present, possible as irony3. In that sense real ethical life always must be ‘passed over in silence’, we are unable to speak it as we live currently. Lil B makes us aware of this truth. The world of late capitalism is so false that only a clown can live ethically, or a holy fool.
1. It is, in that sense, truly music. Adorno’s fragment on ‘Music and Language’ from Quasi Una Fantasia is worth mentioning, I think, here. Music is in a way like (intentional) language: I think we might say, it is a sort of language, and we can only understand what it is expressing, as language users. But it is not all-encompassing, all-conceptualising, like language. “Every musical phenomenon points to something beyond itself,” that is: beyond the whole. “Music is almost the opposite of a meaningful totality.” Music precisely allows us to think what we cannot say.
2. I think this is a point Adorno makes somewhere in his lectures on Moral Philosophy (or something similar to this, somewhere)… that we know how to behave decently as a matter of immediacy, but it is as good as impossible to actually ever do it.
3. Perhaps a point to expand on: Lil B’s talk of ‘life on the streets’, etc, often feels like standard hip-hop spiel but it seems like it could be nod to the lived conditions we are trying to somehow do justice to, live in, comprehend… sometimes, on what I think is his best music, his ‘positive’ music, he is talking about how hard life is and we must build something better, but at other times, he is almost celebrating it. What I mean by this… I’ve not had room to draw this out properly in this piece but there are really two sides to Lil B’s music: the positive, we’ll say ‘based’ music, and the darker, ‘street’ music that seems to celebrate the damaged life Lil B is trying to critique. I am unsure quite what the purpose of this second trend in Lil B is; moreover I haven’t explored it in any depth, honestly because I think it is basically bad music and Lil B is no good at making it. But it must have an overall place in his oeuvre. Perhaps as a sort of memento mori.