Unnatural Participations: Thoughts on Deleuze & Affect, Paul Ryan, Flava Flav, and Bez
|That’s Bez, Happy Mondays’ hype man, on the left.|
The purpose of this post is both to help the students in my grad class, who are starting out the semester with the “Becoming-Intense” chapter of Thousand Platueaus, and to draw together a few random things that I’ve been thinking about recently.
So, first, Deleuze. In this chapter, he and Guattari distinguish among three styles or regimes of organization found in European cultures: series, structure, and becoming. Series follows a mimetic logic (think Plato’s divided line, where each realm is a successively lower-quality reflection of its immediately superior neighbor).Structure follows a representational logic (signifier/signified, or what Rancière calls the aesthetic regime). Becoming, however, is affective—it transmits relations of speed and slowness (“refrains”), not mimetically or representationally, but contagiously.
So structure/representation is organized by inside/outside binaries: there’s the surface appearance, the signifier, and the inner content, the signified. Structure assumes that every form expresses or indicates a specific content; it’s concerned with the meaning of the content. Becoming, however, doesn’t care at all about the meaning or content of something—it’s logic is not representational. Instead, in becoming “there is a circulation of impersonal affects, an alternate current that disrupts signifying projects as well as subjective feelings” (233). So becoming communicates by transmitting affects, and these affects do not express any inner content or meaning. Expression is a feature of series/representation. So, affects can be unmoored from their conventional connotations, and function in any number of ways. This abstraction of affect from connotation is a key feature of that old thing postmodernism; in the 90s it seemed like everyone was all excited that what we would now call affects were abstracted from their original contexts, their connotations and associations scrambled. So, for example, you’d see something like the band Creed—Christian grunge-rock, or Christian punk rock, or Christian death metal. Or think about Lisa Frank products: psychadelic aesthetics unmoored from their roots in 60s counterculture and sold to tween girls. Affects that used to be countercultural or even Satanic could be co-opted by mainstream/Christian projects. More recently, there’s the use of The Clash’s “London Calling” in NBC’s broadcasts of the Olympics (the song is about the apocalypse), or a cruise line’s use of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” to sell wholesome, life-affirming family vacations (no mention of liquor, drugs, sex machines, or getting it in the ear). So, affects circulate, but they don’t meananything.This abstraction and unmooring means that affects can transmit themselves in ways that facilitate otherwise “unnatural participations” (242). Christian death metal is an example here: Christians adopt affects developed in, by, and for a genre strongly (if often facetiously) associated with Satanism.
Affects circulate without meaning anything in particular. So, this is why objectivist neocon Paul Ryan can claim progressive band Rage Against the Machine as his favorite musical act. Ryan can completely disengage the band’s sound from the content of their lyrics because that’s what the cultural milieu encourages him to do. Ryan’s not anomalous here, he’s just doing what everyone else is doing. You know, being postmodern and all. This “unnatural participation” of Ryan and Rage is to be expected.
|Notice how Flav is the only one in full red; he’s often visually distinct as more playful than the rest of PE, which is portrayed as more militant and serious.|
If affect is the primary mode in which music is experienced, then performers have to think carefully about engaging audiences at this particular level. The importance of affect thus opens up a new job or role in a band—the hype man. They hype man doesn’t play an instrument, and apart from an occasional “hell yeah” or “yeeeahh boyeee!” doesn’t really sing or rap either (these vocalizations are more affective than meaningful, anyway). The hype man instead manages the band’s affective performance, their kind, degree, intensity, and quality of “hype.” They’re a key interface between the band and the audience, almost like an affect synth. This, obviously, is where Flava Flav and Bez come in. They were hype men for Public Enemy and the Happy Mondays, respectively—each hugely important bands in 90s hip hop and Madchester scenes. For a few years now I’ve been thinking about Flav and Bez as parallels or homologues—they’re contemporaries, working in very different genres, but doing more or less the same thing at the same historical moment…so, why? Why the hype man, and why then? Well, I think it has something to do with affect, affective transmission, and the 90s as the moment when this took on increasing prominence in pop music. Obviously there’s a lot more to think about re: Flav, Bez, and the hypeman role in general…
Anyway, there you have it: Deleuze + Paul Ryan + Flav & Bez, all linked by a specific concept of affect.
 “In the case of a SERIES, I say a resembles b, b resembles c, etc.; all of these terms conform in varying degrees to a single, eminent term, perfection, or quality as the principle behind the series. This is what the theologians used to call an analogy of PROPORTION” (234)
 We oppose epidemic to filiation, contagion to heredity, peopling by contagion to sexual reproduction, sexual production. Bands, human or animal, proliferate by contaigon, epidemics, battlefields, and catastrophes. Like hybrids, which are in themselves sterile, born of a sexual union that will not reproduce itself, but which begins over again every time, gaining that much more ground” (241)
 I’m reminded here of Andrew Goodwin’s “Sample and Hold” essay, in which he remarks that timbre is the definitive feature of late-80s pop music. Artists are distinguished not by technique, not by artists’ aura, but by the way they sound, the affective qualities of their overall “sound”.