Filed under: Anthropology, Cultural Studies, L.A., Politics, Video | Tags: Anthropological Materialism, Crips and Bloods, Death and Life of American Cities, Documentary, Film, Gangs, Los Angeles, Marginal Affinities, Race, Stacy Peralta, Tribes
While caught onto relatively late here at tirado/thrown, we were moved by Baron Davis’s and Stacy Peralta’s astounding documentary Crips and Bloods: Made in America. What we first thought to be a historical reappraisal of urban unrest in Los Angeles unfolded into as comprehensive a survey of L.A. gang violence in South Central that a two-hour documentary could offer.
Immediately, the film took us back to the Los Angeles that we grew up beside and had a tangential relationship to: Sundays with family at the Slauson Swap Meet, occasional forays into South Central to visit friends, the sensationalized coverage of gang life that frightened the affluent but did not do any justice to the daily tales of suffering, tragedy, and strife in afflicted neighborhoods. The civil disturbances in 1992 in the wake of the Rodney King acquittals were pivotal events that could not escape the attention of any Angeleno living there at the time. Crips and Bloods captured the parts of the southland that at times felt so removed from the San Fernando Valley or even Hollywood.
Part of what makes this film noteworthy was that Peralta, the creator of Dogtown and Z-Boys and the Bones Brigade videos, stepped outside of making lifestyle films about surfing or skating to produce what is probably the most profound treatment on the creation of the most noted street gangs in contemporary American life.
Or is it that much of a stretch? If the 80s and 90s showed us anything, it was that gang bangers in the city and skater kids in the suburbs, beaches, and valleys were near-simultaneous occurrences of group cultures at the margins of institutional life: the family, education, workforce, church, and state. While the stakes of their activities could not be any more disparate, they would each have a profound impact on American cultural expression in late capitalism. **
Peralta’s documentary potently cites racism (institutional and otherwise), post-war demographic shifts, police brutality, economic stagnation, geographic isolation, and outright state repression as the sources of social arrangements that have wrought uncounted amounts of human tragedy.
The film’s most lucid insight grasped the relationship of gang violence to a hegemonic state, one where those who stand to most to lose from oppression perform the work of oppression, acting out and generating an exponentially vacuous cycle. Multiple commentators in the documentary noted how the disruption of community building and self-determination on the part of authorities, the introduction of a cheap and highly addictive narcotic, mass incarceration, and a social climate bereft of economic opportunity generated the perfect environment for a self-destruction that folded very readily with hegemony’s maintenance of social immobility. It performed a task more effectively than state repression was able to perform, since it did not require the National Guard to perform the violence it did in quelling the Watts rebellion. Bloods and Crips shows how these broader lines and vectors intersect in the existence of gang members themselves, their families, and community activists. It deftly demonstrates the human toll exacted by a complex interaction of personal actions, social situations, and psychological exigence.
Among the documentary’s most distressing scenes were aerial shots of the L.A. basin, with its districts, neighborhoods, and development tracts- not so much for the scattering and dispersion of peoples it implied, but for the way that those distributions of space resembled camps organizing life into some form. If anything, the helicopter shots give occasion to reflect on the thesis that the camp is the biopolitical law of modernity. They lead to ask how similar or different are cities than concentration camps? In certain parts of LA, simply responding the question of where one is from can easily be the cipher encoding one’s life or death.
Peralta’s film left us wondering, however: who will tell the stories of the Latino gangs that have developed since the 1930s? Who will tell of how clicks and maras such as 18th Street, White Fence, Florencia, and the Mara Salvatrucha were born and mutated in response to multiple waves of immigration, how they continue to be shaped by the forces of globalization and political upheaval in Mexico, Central America, and the United States? Such a sequel would be worth the wait.
**Strangely enough, The Serach for Animal Chin takes up as leitmotifs the creation narrative of skateboarding, its co-opting by commercial interests, and a marginalized community whose members are bound by their affinity for skateboarding’s originary ethos.
Filed under: Mexico, Philosophy, Politics | Tags: Agamben, Biopolitics, fascism, Health, Mexico, Security, State Power
The recent eruption of swine flu that ignited in Mexico has provoked a massive global response on the part of governments. In turn, it has prompted reflection here at tirado/thrown on biopolitics. The surrepetituiously unfolding events afforded an object lesson in how biopolitics, state power, government, and everyday life intersect. The phenomenon’s global scale makes this is an interesting case to examine how the administration of biopower effects social and political life.
Governments and public health ministries the world over are mobilizing at a frenzied clip. Mexico, Spain, the United States, New Zealand, Germany, China were at the vanguard of a growing list. At least in Mexico, the epidemiological situation was (and remains to be) treated as a state of exception. There, President Felipe Calderon issued a decree giving government expanded powers defined only by a vague reference to the epidemiological emergency. Surrounded by relativlely anodyne general public health policy directives, the decree’s second article grants the government powers to:
- isolate and limit the movements and activities of infected people,
- inspect passengers who “may be viral carriers”,
- enter “all type of place or dwelling house for the fulfillment of activities directed to controlling and combatting the epidemic”,
- regulate maritime, air, and ground transport, as well as giving government free use the means of transport and exchange, including, roads, telecommunications, and the mail.
Moreover, the terms of the decree are indefinite. The decree offers no criteria for defining what resolves the crisis other than a tautological one. That is, only the government could declare the crisis resolved, without stating (or even having to state) what a return to a non-exceptional situation would entail.
Legal scholar John Ackerman of Mexico City’s Universidad Autonoma Nacional de Mexico (UNAM) has already pointed out how the government of Felipe Calderon is resorting to the state of exception as an unconstitutional means to strengthen his grip on power and to extend his capacity to declare a state of emergency without legislative consent. Ackerman writes that “[Calderon's] response to the flu epidemic only exacerbates” the “authoritarian tendencies” he has shown in Mexico’s current campaign against the narcotics cartels.**
In the United States, the Department of Homeland Security (which controls immigration and customs agencies), the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been at the forefront of the American response to the outbreaks, highlighting the biopolitical nexus between governmental power, national security, and public health. As of yet, no generalized state of emergency in the United States has been invoked for the government’s assumption of extraordinary powers.
…the fear is changing our lives in dramatic ways.
Mexico City prides itself on holding strongly to its social customs, despite the arrival of American-style Wal-Marts and Starbucks. But suddenly, Mass was canceled. Soccer matches were played to empty stadiums. Suddenly, the bars and clubs shut down. And suddenly, that warm customary greeting of a handshake and a kiss on the check was replaced with a friendly yet uneasy nod.
A culture built on physical contact has become a culture muted by fear, by suspicion, a distrust of others and even ourselves.
What has changed, and we will wait to find out how permanently, are the gestures which are our unmarketable political currency bearing the truth of our lives together. In their being gagged, arrested, and halted, we also notice how now (temporarily) absent gestures shaped a form of life, politics is now suspended by decree.
Just as interesting, and perhaps no less coincidental in this case, has been the general public response to the outbreak: the donning of surgical masks. While not an unusual device to use when airborne pathogens proliferate, the surgical masks’ rapid and widespread use alongside the state’s alacrity in regulating life on a mass scale for public safety gives an occasion to reflect on the ties binding a sovereign authority to the citizens it subjects to its power.
Masks render faces opaque and impenetrable. The swatches of sterile fabric covering the nose and mouth make expressions more inscrutable, more difficult to decode. They also inhibit the act of communication. Fear and distrust are further heightened by ambiguously peering eyes that show the absence of otherwise more full and radiant expressions. The masquerade seems to make our presence to each all the more obscure. In the manner of a photographic negative or an x-ray, the masks illuminate the how the faces they cover are the locus of the truth of ourselves. Giorgio Agamben notes in Means Without End,
Language…transforms nature into face… The face is at once the irreparable being-exposed of humans and the very opening in which they hide and stay hidden. The face is the only location of community, the only possible city. And that is because that which in single individuals opens up to the political is the tragicomedy of truth, in which they always already fall and out of which they have to find a way…
We may call tragicomedy of appearance the fact that the face uncovers only and precisely inasmuch as it hides, and hides to the extent to which it uncovers… Precisely because the face is solely the location of truth, it is also and immediately the location of simulation and of an irreducible impropriety. This does not mean, however, that appearance dissimulates what it uncovers by making it look lke what in reality it is not: rather, what human beings truly are is nothing other than this dissimuliation and this disquietude within the appearance…
State power today is no longer grounded on the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence…rather it is founded above all on the control of appearance (of doxa).
The state’s issuing of masks to cover faces becomes, then, an accidental, though no less important, metaphor for the glory of state’s reign: the de-politicization of citizens and the production of bare life by quaratine and separation. Gestures and faces alike are blocked; politics and truth are potentially suppressed, in part through the control of their appearances. These are among the political dimensions of the crisis worth adverting to.
Images: Felipe Calderon speaking at hospital opening, April 25, 2009, photo by Alfredo Guerrero, Latin American Herald Tribune; Our dear Citoyen du Monde riding the first wave out in DF; David De la Paz, Xinhua.
**tirado/thrown highly recommends the near-daily coverage of the swine flu crisis over at Daniel Hernandez’s blog, Intersections for reflections and analysis.
Filed under: Books, Philosophy, Politics | Tags: Add new tag, Agamben, Editorials, Julien Coupat, Philosophy, Political Thought, Politics, Thought, Tiqqun
[Ed note: This post was initially meant to publish sometime in the dead of winter, around January of 2009. For a variety of reasons (procrastination, laziness, business, preoccupation with other matters, reservations, etc.) the post has sat around in a mostly-completed state in the 'Drafts' folder for a long time. Maybe the post has its own schedule, or its publication is not really meant to come out in quite this fashion. (In retrospect, there were probably three or four separate blog posts just waiting to be made out of the compendium below.) At any rate, they are words coming from an exigence that was ultimately frustrated and arrested, leaving you with a post whose timeliness is at best ambiguous.]
The last couple of months of 2008 have been busy on news regarding Giorgio Agamben and work being done on his thought. Usually some piece of information ocasionally drifts in, or a new, nearly inaudible video on YouTube of Agamben’s lectures catches my attention. But I don’t remember there being such a relative volume of Agamben-related news since he protested the U.S.’s policy of ‘biopolitical tattooing’ under provisions of the US-Visit act and consequently turned down an appointment at NYU. Maybe it’s just that my antennae are more finely tuned to pick these kind of things up now than they were before. Be that as it may, though, the news is welcome. Some bits follow:
- The final installment of Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer tetralogy was published in Italy in late 2008. Entitled, Il Sacramento del linguaggio: Archeologia del giuramento (The Sacrament of Language: Archeaology of the Oath), it comes quickly on the heels of Il Regno e la gloria: Per una genealogia teologica dell’economia e del governo (The Kindgom and the Glory: For a theological geneaology of the economy and government), published in 2007. Roughly paraphrasing, the publisher’s website describes the The Sacrament of Language as an inquiry seeking to offer reasons for the strategy and functioning of an institution that has encroached its way into religion, politics, and law- the oath. Agamben places the oath as a decisive anthropogenetic gesture at the threshold between language and power. At a quick blush, the work treats themes that Agamben takes up in a chapter from The Time That Remains entitled, “The Sixth Day.” David Kishik at Notes for the Coming Community offers a rough translation from an excerpt for a sampling. [Notes for the Coming Community].
- In May 2009, Stanford University Press will be publishing a very short collection of Agamben’s essays under the title, What is an Apparatus? and Other Essays. consisting of the title essay, and works on friendship and contemporaenity rounding out the tiny, 80 page book. Frankly, I’m a little disappointed, as seeing a relatively larger text like Il Regno e la Gloria come out in translation before such a short collection of texts would be more desirable. But it’s a trivial complaint. Jason Adams’ translation of the title essay (which will not appear in the collection, David Kishik’s translation will), originally entitled Qui est une dispositif? What is a Dispositor? is a good place to start for a glimpse of what the book will offer. [Stanford University Press/Notes for the Coming Community]
- Lacan.com and Notes for the Coming Community have published translations of a recent editorial that Agamben wrote for France’s Liberation, calling for the release of Julien Coupat* and the Tarnac 9. In the process he challenges a significant feature political life in our time: the concentration of state power that has made dissent a suspect activity by appealing to security (whether real or perceived) as a basis for governance. A outstanding blog with updates and documents on the Tarnac 9 situation is can be found here. [Lacan.com/Notes for the Coming Community/Support the Tarnac 9]
- Leyland de la Durantaye’s recent work on Agamben, “Homo Profanus: Giorgo Agamben’s Profane Philosophy” appears in the most recent edition of the journal boundary. At a cursory glance, it appears to be an in-depth treatment bringing ideas developed in Profanations to bear as part of Agamben’s philosophical and political projects. Namely he places Profanations in proxmity to works outside of the Homo Sacer series- The Coming Community, Means Without End, The Idea of Prose, and The Time That Remains. The article holds out the possibility of reading Agamben’s work systemtically to present some possible prospects and directions for Agamben’s thought, especially in relation to ideas discussed in Walter Benjamin’s work. Interestingly, he alludes to the Flamen Diale as an example of a profane figure. Could this counterpart to the sacred [hu]man be a hint pointing towards the next phase of Agamben’s thinking? Next May, Stanford University Press will be publishing de la Durantaye’s text Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction. [Duke Journals/Stanford University Press]
- Adam Kotsko’s essay, “On Agamben’s use of Benjamin’s Critique of Violence” appears in the latest issue of Telos. Only a short excerpt serving as an abstract is available online, so it’s either to the library or to forking over $15 for an issue.
- Infinite Thought, a tirado/thrown favorite, posted this little item with a link on ”How to Write Like Agamben”** from a blog that is the latest addition to the blogroll, No Useless Leniency. Worth checking out is a commentary on Agamben’s essay “In Praise of Profanation”, in the style of another of Agamben’s essays, Notes on Gesture. It’s called Notes on the Image. [Infinite Thought/No Useless Leniency]
*As it happens, Coupat is the editor of the French-based journal Tiqqun. For a sample of work featured in the journal, Soft Targets published some excerpts from a piece entitled Introduction to Civil War. Very Roughly speaking, these fragments throw situationism, Agambenian philosophy, and samplings of Hardt-Negri’s autonomism into the mix, offer offer a response to neo-liberal imperialism and preventive counter-revolutionary politics. The Support the Tarnac 9 site also has additional texts from Tiqqun and the Inoperative Collective available. [Soft Targets Journal/Support the Tarnac 9]
**As a rejoinder to IT, another possible way to score a Warburg Institute fellowship is to write like Richard Rodriguez, whatever the Chicanada may think of him. This here one finds Rodriguez to be essential reading on the dynamics of mestizaje and subject formation.
Image Credit: Reiner Gahnal, Seminar/Lecture, Giorgio Agamben, Filosofia teoretica,istituto universitario di architettura di Venezia, 6/5/2007, 20 x 24 inches. 51 x 61 cm
Filed under: art, Flaneurie, Ideas, Poetry, Politics, Psychoanalysis, Uncategorized | Tags: City of Work, ICite, ideology, Language, meaning, Michael Lewy, Ontology, speculations, word clouds
The image above is from artist Micheal Lewy’s City of Work tumblr. (His website is well worth paying a visit.) It caught my attention in light of some reflections at ICite that I’ve been following at a distance concerning the phenomena of word clouds and their relation to language, poetry, politics, psyche, and symbolic efficiency. It started with this post, and has so far continued here and here. Juxtaposing the blog posts and Lewy’s work raised more questions than answers.
First, some questions regarding the relationship of Lewy’s piece to language, its social use, and the piece’s orientation as an artwork. If, as ICite argues, word clouds flatten sense and the possibilities of meaning (through ’marking a moment’, or being a form of secondary orality, a trace of chatter, or a positionless marker of intensity, etc.), does Lewy’s rendering of office lingo serve to pit this terminology against itself? In effect, the piece seems to expose the terminology’s flatness, its lack of tonality, and its reliance on the frequency and intensity of its use in our working lives. Could it be argued that Lewy’s piece is a parody of technical applications of language upon the seemingly neutral language of work?
A second group of questions arise with respect to discourse, psyche, ontology, and politics. Is workplace jargon an apparatus of master discourse reliant upon biopolitical coersion to acheive its politcal-economic ends? Does it not reveal that the language of work is not merely natural, but vulnerable to a decline in symbolic efficiency?
It would seem that Lewy’s ‘work cloud’ brings to sharper relief the contingent properties of social relations, capitalism included.
Filed under: Aesthetics, Books, Chicano, Ideas, Latinos, Literature, Mexico, Philosophy, Politics, Publications, Uncategorized | Tags: Agamben, Aura Estrada, Badiou, Benjamin, Bernard Steigler, Biopolitics, Books, Foucault, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Journal of Theives, Literature, Mexico City, New Blogs, Photography, Pochismo, Science
- From Mexico City, Intersections returns from its hiatus with an update on recent events honoring writer Aura Estrada as part of an effort to create a literary prize in her memory. The prize will offer promising Mexican women writers an opportunity to hone their literary chops.
- Intersections follows up with a post on recent programming at Mexico City’s Center for Contemporary Culture. Maras y la Cultura de la Violencia focuses on La Mara Salvatrucha, among the most widely-publicized and feared street gangs in the US and El Salvador. The show raises a host of questions, especially about the way in which museums and cultural institutes address highly charged contemporary issues. Is the show an instance of the ongoing ‘museumification of the world’? Is it an attempt to deal with a matter usually placed under the sign of public safety/police/crime journalism with the resources of humanistic reflection? Or is it just a foolish, useless, and unsympathetic expedition glorifying a way of life marked, or perhaps defined, by cruelty, aggression, and ruthlessness?
- The MIT Press is holding its Winter White Sale until January 31, which is the press’s coolest discount book buying opportunity next to their loading dock sale. If any dear readers wish to donate books to the tirado/thrown staff (ahem…), please feel free to ask how you can send Ruben Gallo’s Mexican Modernity and/or Adam Sharr’s Heidegger’s Hut. Generosity will be compensated with a treatment of received book on this blog and recognition from a grateful beneficiary.
- Perverse Egalitarianism reflects on Bernard Steigler’s Acting Out. The call to philosophy and the discipline required in its practice, which, at the risk of oversimplifying, is part in parcel with getting on in this existence of ours.
- Why has No Useless Leniency not been in my reader? Why were three outstanding posts missed here at tirado/thrown? In the interest of making amends, first some notes on Badiou’s The Meaning of Sarkozy, highlighting some useful precepts. Second, a post reflecting on the ontology of the interval, with some hints for further reflection regarding the conquest and creation of the New World. Third and last, some notes on Walter Benjamin’s essay Capitalism as Religion, an essay that Agamben riffs heavily on in “In Praise of Profanation.”
- This Recording’s recent “Science Corner” entry, aside from being colorful, is an example downright cool science blogging for the barely initiated. And now we are a little more familiar with the mating habits of the banana slug.
- I Cite shares with readers some notes on Foucault’s 1978-79 lectures on the genesis of modern biopolitics. Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
- Guillermo Gómez-Peña, who has helped bring pochismo into the cultural vernacular, is The Mexorcist. Yes, xenophobia is a spiritual disorder. An interview with the Tuscon Citizen elaborates. (Note: Gómez-Peña will be giving a talk at USC on January 28. For more context, his article in The Journal of Visual Culture from 2006 titled El Mexorcist lays out the basic idea.)
- Rhizome calls our attention to the brick being thrown at us. Buffalo Head: Media Practice, Media Study, Media Pioneeers 1973-1990 is the 800-plus page , 10 pound book documenting the work of SUNY Buffalo’s Center for Media Studies.
- tirado/thrown receives a greeting from Journal of Thieves. Not at all safe for work, or for those who are easily offended. We were definitely charmed by the assault on sensibility that makes easily reproduced spectacle and images of extreme ambiguity render pornography inoperative. tirado/thrown thanks JoT for making us think. We welcome you to the blogroll, with open, er, you get the point.
- Please, click through the link at the end of the bullet . You’ll find your computer to be interesting and fun again. http://www.zigzagphilosophy.com/
Image: Screenshot of zigzagphilosophy.com, (2009). Digital work by Angelo Plessas, found at Rhizome.
Filed under: Aesthetics, Ideas, Politics | Tags: Architecture, criticism, Kazys, markets, political economy, theory
Goodbye marketechture, um I mean, starchitechture: many hardly knew ye.
At his blog, architecture theorist Kazys Varnelis shares some thoughts and questions on the post-critical moment in architecture, that lavish marriage of private wealth, tidal infusions of capital, technology, building, and design. This movement might be mercifully on the wane, at least for the time being. Varnelis summarizes:
Now that architecture has allied itself with a failed theory of the market, what will become of it? This isn’t an idle question. As society and culture reconfigure, an architecture that has little to offer except a direct representation of capital flows is unlikely to succeed. Moreover, the fascination that post-critical architects had with producing designs through software parallels the reduction of architecture to complex financial instruments that existed primarily in the network. This has already been called into question in the market. Architecture is, as usual, just a little behind.
The failure of markets to justly dispense goods and resources not only re-poses the question of a just political economy, but also with respect to the political significance of architecture. Will we begin witnessing the dethronement of the starchitect as the paradigmatic figure of building and design in culture? Can more critical perspectives on these relationships gain serious traction in architecture education, urban design, philosophy, and aesthetics? I would like to believe so, and in the process make amends for fawning over the overwhelming and nearly stultifying triumphs of Gehry, Mirer, Koolhaas, and the market-driven architecture that defined my adolescence and early adulthood. [kazys.varnelis.net]
Image: The Frank Ghery designed Deutsche Bank building in Berlin. As of this post, DB’s US stock closed today at $30.68 a share, down from a 52-week high of $135.49. Image source, Paw89, Flickr; stock source, Google Finance.
Filed under: Politics | Tags: Al-Jazeera, Journalism, Presidential Debates, Presidential Electoral Politics, Race, Racism, Video
After watching this evening’s increasingly onerous debate and catching the end of a nailbiting and disappointing tie between Mexico and Canada in World Cup Qualifying, the above video landed in my reader, courtesy of the best post-Chicano blog this side of high culture: Ken Burns Hates Mexicans.
Reportage such as this from (ostensibly terrorist-loving, dontcha’ know…) Al-Jazeera English only makes John McCain’s example-as-digression (search for “Lewis”) concerning Georgia Rep. John Lewis’s comments on the recently racialized and paranoid tenor of McCain/Palin rallies and the respective campaigns’ responses worth re-evaluating. When you’re noticing the kind of speech openly making the rounds and carrying currency at these events and the rather earnest concern on the part of the last interviewee, Rep. Lewis’s remarks actually ring more true upon review. This is so in spite of both the McCain campaign’s falsely humble attempts to play the Congress member’s remarks up as a variety of liberal race-baiting and the Obama campaign’s overly-cautious desire to downplay and discredit nearly anything that could be remotely construed as controversial and seemingly anti-American. It should give us pause to consider our population’s information consumption and (more importantly) analysis habits.
Filed under: art, Latinos, Music, Politics, Rock | Tags: Chicanos, culture, El Vez, El Vez of Prez, emancipatory culture, Potentialities, Upcoming Shows
Wednesday started off decently enough when I picked up my free copy of the Weekly Dig at the Green Street T stop. Seeing a thumbnail of El Vez sporting the table of contents, I was eager to see what their writer had to say about Robert Lopez’s creation. What followed was a pretty good profile that I found lacking in the end. Then again, for how short the piece was, it was a decent try. The writer’s misuse of the term kitsch worked me up enough to ask whether anyone could get beyond the speechless wonder that comes with encountering El Vez for the first few times.
I’d argue that there’s nothing kitschy. Kitsch is possibly the last word to describe what’s at work in the El Vez character. He recovers certain cultural references from their being relegated to kitschiness. But I digress. Some of the more interesting points the Dig’s writer could have mentioned in reference to Lopez’s work in the guise of El Vez:
- Lopez’ contribution to punk rock history as a member of The Zeros, arguably the first Chicano punk rock band. They were hailed as “The Mexican Ramones”, and played at the Germs first show in 1977.
- Post-Zeros, Lopez moved to L.A. from his native Chula Vista and became keyboardist for Catholic Discipline, a ur-post punk outfit that counted Phranc (nee Susan Gottleib, whose own music would garner her the title of America’s Best Jewish Lesbian Folksinger) and writer Claude Bessy among its members. Footage of Catholic Discipline performing at the Hong Kong Cafe appeared in the quintessential film document of L.A. punk rock, “Decline of Western Civlization”.
- His curatorial and collecting work in the mid-80s with L.A.’s most recognized outre folk art gallery La Luz de Jesus, which ultimately served as the impetus for finally creating the El Vez character in 1988.
- The near cult-status of El Vez as an underground figure. Far from being a musical project, the El Vez juggernaut puts Lopez in the middle of some pretty fascinating goings-on. He’s been on hand to officiate the occasional wedding, such as those of Exene Cervenka and Anton LaVey’s gradson Stanton (suitably on 6/6/2006). In the latter event, El Vez took a turn towards the demonic, appropriately changing forms as Hell Vez, replete with a pitchfork staff and horns peeking out of his pompadour. He has been on hand to celebrate the achievements of burlesque dancers as MC of the Miss Exotic World Pageant in 2007. Even more amazing, he also helped send off fellow shape-shifting San Diegans Rocket from The Crypt during their final Halloween 2005 show, introducing Speedo, Petey X, Apollo 9, Ruby Mars and the rest prior to their blistering set. This is just aside from mentioning his regular performances that have had him sharing stages with Morrissey and Astrid Hadad, and play in the visually stunning west-coast cabaret/circus/dinner theater, Teatro Zinzanni. (It didn’t seem as if the Dig‘s profile writer wasn’t terribly aware of El Vez’s cabaret performances, but it was an acute observation.)
- El Vez’s place as a topic of various cultural studies that have caught the attention of academics in fields as varied as Chicano Studies, Popular Culture Studies, Queer and Women Studies and Comparative Literature. What remains to be thought is the manner in which the performance of the El Vez character bears philosophic meaning. As Lopez’s performance appeals to thinking in a multitude of disciplines and works in topics touching upon the idea of politics, language, social justice, identity, ethics and love, such a treatment is entirely possible.
- Lopez’s role as a primary source in recording the history of Latinos in American rock. He was a key figure in Seattle’s Experience Music Project’s current exhibit, American Sabor. Some impressions of the keynote address he took part in during April’s Pop Muisc Conference here, here, and here. (My thanks to Carolina Gonzalez at Sound Taste for the great coverage.)
- His multi-recording output that proves Lopez’s El Vez as a master of detrournement, taking on the shapes and images of rock history and popular, both in sound and image, from Bowie and Paul Simon, to The Clash and Brian Eno, from Mexican flyweight boxers and mambo kings to Santa Claus. Of course, his send ups of El Rey are as loving as Astrid Hadad’s take on Lucha Reyes.
Lopez’ genius lies in the way he works as a cultural super-collider, turning themes and references from various quarters on their heads giving them new relevance by enframing them in El Vez’s distinctly (and multiply) chicano perspective. Notice how Lopez uses El Vez by layering the chorus of James Brown’s I’m Black and I’m Proud over Public Enemy’s Welcome to the Terrordome. In the process, he takes issue with Chuck D’s dislike of Elvis from Fight the Power and internalizes J.B.’s pride in a way that shows a certain solidarity between African-Americans and Latinos in the U.S. In an act that only makes El Vez even more complex, Lopez gives the Elvis character the appearance of a militant in a camouflage jumpsuit and bandoleer, offering up the possibility that even one of the most commodified figures in the pop culture pantheon, The King of Rock and Roll, can speak the language of emancipation.
So my point? That the Dig’s profile could have benefitted from better advance intelligence.
Rant aside, El Rey de Rocanrol will be making his Boston campaign stop on Monday, August 11 at The Middle East in Cambridge. He’ll be doing his style-bending brand of politicking, brining along props, costumes, and a town hall format that will have you longing for the possibility that politics can be conducted in a manner that’s far better, more exciting, and Chicano-fied than we’re used to seeing in these parts.
Here’s some early punk rock-era footage of a pre-El Vez Robert Lopez (far right), quietly doing his work with the Zeros in 1977. See you at the show.