Norman Mailer’s The White Negro from 1957.The search for rebels of his generation led to the hipster. A prophetic inquiry into violence and rebellion? Or a basic re-packaging of his Harvard education into its logical extension which was a racist rant on black jazz musicians living more authentic lives since they seemed, to Mailer, to correspond to some variant of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s noble savage. I guess to read Mailer at the time, was some kind of cool thing. On the one hand, he won the Pulitzer Prize not once, but twice; a miracle given he was such a poor writer and cause for all those scribblers who assert there is no justice in this world.
..It can of course be suggested that it takes little courage for two strong 18-year old hoodlums, let us say, to beat in the brains of a candy-store keeper, and indeed the act even by the logic of the psychopath is not likely to prove very therapeutic for the victim is not an immediate equal. Still, courage of a sort is necessary, for one murders not only a weak 50-year-old man but an institution as well, one violates private property, one enters into a new relation with the police and introduces a dangerous element into one’s life. The hoodlum is therefore daring the unknown, and so no matter how brutal the act it is not altogether cowardly…. ( Mailer, The White Negro)
But, at least mailer he can claim that he mastered the American tradition of branding himself; part of a long tradition of hucksterism and swagger that drew for Mailer like some figure out of Constance Rourke’s history of black minstrelry and pre-civil war public entertainment. Like Peter Max, Mailer was a great salesman, a hawker of his wares and a mediocre talent who was nonetheless smart enough to turn the axiom that truth is the relationship between an idea and reality on its ear and actually make the public believe that he was uncovering- over the course of writing the great American novel- some absolute truth that is not discoverable.
But timing is everything, or almost so. He came onto the literary scene and was one of the first with a new kind of genre: the “critique of mass society” , along with Rachael Carson and Vance Packard etc. Although Mailer seemed like a rebel he did little to undermine American consumerism, in fact he reinforced it.
Mailer was trying to create a piece of modern mythology in the same semi-crude manner of a Kerouac or Miller. The central idea is fairly routine and has been expounded on with great comprehensiveness by Thomas Frank. The assumed dynamic is that capitalism needs conformity to function correctly. So, the system is based upon a generalized system of repression. Individuals who resist the pressure to conform therefore subvert the system, and aid in its overthrow.
…Of course there’s a lot in his idea that’s offensive, absurd, and so stereotypical it’s hard to believe he took himself seriously. Still, it’s just one in a long train of attempts on the part of white artists and performers we’ve examined (Jolson and O’Neill most recently) who seek both to imagine themselves or their characters as part of some form of cross-racial exchange and, in doing so, to mark their status as outsiders. It’s hard not to see the connection to Ginsberg’s angelheaded hipsters, Lou Reed’s “Waiting for the Man,” and Patti Smith’s “Rock and Roll Nigger.” Should such efforts be dismissed as misguided out of hand, or is there something more interesting to be said about attempts, however flawed, at a sort of cosmopolitan imagining? Are there more nuanced things we could say about ways in which cultural production doesn’t respect notions of cultural purity?…
Except, its a theory that holds no water. And Mailer plowed through the trope that lay between sexual frustration and mass society. The African American was simply a convenient prop from which to construct his “psychic outlaw” whose rebellious imperatives were fodder for sociological observation and an aesthetic manifesto which involved a personal investment in myth on his part to cinch some semblance of plausibility in projecting the fantasy, real and imagined, of African American masculinity. Mailer was a part of a long line who personified the idea that rebelling against mass society is not the same thing as rebelling against consumer society.
Christian Lorentzen: But plenty of what Mailer prophesised has come to pass. He predicted either widespread rebellion marked by violence, or that “Hip would end by being absorbed as a colourful figure in the tapestry.” As it happened, the absorption came after the rebellion. Mailer saw the hipster class which he estimated at around 100,000 “p
icians, professional soldiers, newspaper columnists, entertainers, artists, jazz musicians, promiscuous homosexuals, and half the executives of Hollywood, television, and advertising” as a rebel elite that had succeeded the radical Marxist elite of the 1930s at a time when dissent was no longer safe. Whereas Marxism is now less seditious than laughable, the rebel aesthetic has been absorbed and co-opted by the only elite we have left the wealthy….
…It seems hardly a week passes that we aren’t subjected to a profile in New York, the New Yorker, or the New York Times Magazine of some courageously trend-bucking tycoon rebel. Whatever violence is left isn’t perpetrated by hoodlums in candy stores; it grinds away quietly behind the phrase global capitalism. Meanwhile, the character who in the style pages and the service magazines appears under the name hipster is distinguished mostly by the eccentricity and capriciousness of his consumption, repopulating blighted neighbourhoods and ironically reappropriating exhausted cultural artefacts. The menace is gone, but the hipster remains now as merely the most colourful figure in the tapestry of commerce. Read More:http://moreintelligentlife.com/node/768
What is obvious, and explained by Veblen over one hundred years ago is that consumption is not about conformity, it’s about distinction. People consume in order to set themselves apart from others. The rub is that all of these comparative preferences generate competitive consumption. “Keeping up with the Joneses,” meant better parties, more costly stunts and establishing an example of the competitive structure of consumption that would be chiseled off as it made its way down the food chain. Mailer was an embodiment of this bandwagon principle: After too many people get on the bandwagon,the early adopters take off to preserve their distinction, hence generating the cycles of obsolescence and waste condemned as consumerism. And consumerism and male patriarchy and misogyny as promoted by Mailer seem to go hand in hand.
Mailer shares a similar view of the primitivism and sexuality of Negroes. In their view of Negroes, Mailer and Kerouac draw on a stereotype shared by such noted analysts of human behavior as Rankin, Bilbo, and Eastland. Mailer and Kerouac differ from them only on the emotive dimension of prejudice; they like super-sexed, narcotics-using, primitive, easy-going, spontaneous, irresponsible, violent Negroes, while racists dislike them. Their conception of what it means to be a Negro probably differs greatly from the experience of most black people. 27
In this racial glorification of black men irrespective of their individual attributes, beats seek out Negroes simply because they are black. 28 In observing how readily beats identify with Negroes, use their jargon, assume that they understand what it means to be a black man in America, think that they can even speak for them, and that they are accepted by them (all the while ignoring or being unaware of the hatred many Negroes have for whites at some level of consciousness), we may note the phenomena of misplaced intimacy and identification. Part of the current negative reaction against liberal, and even radical, whites must be understood in these terms. 29 In commenting on his associations with Mailer in Paris, James Baldwin has written, “The Negro jazz musicians among whom we sometimes found ourselves did not for an instant consider him [Mailer] as being remotely ‘hip’ and Norman didn’t know this and I couldn’t tell him.” Read More:http://web.mit.edu/gtmarx/www/whitenegro.html