Jerome Bruner On Cultures That ‘Breakdown’

In Acts of Meaning (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1990, pp. 96-97), Jerome Bruner writes

When there is a breakdown in a culture…it can usually be traced to one of several things. The first is a deep disagreement about what constitutes the ordinary and canonical in life and what the exceptional and divergent….this we know in our time from what one might call the “battle of the life-styles.” exacerbated by intergenerational conflict. A second threat inheres in the rhetorical overspecialization of narrative, when stories become so ideologically or self-servingly motivated that distrust displaces interpretation, and “what happened” is discounted as fabrication. On the large scale, this is what happens under a totalitarian regime, and contemporary novelists of Central Europe have documented it with painful exquisiteness–Milan Kundera, Danilo Kiš, and many others. The same phenomenon  expresses itself in modern bureaucracy, where all except the official story of what is happening is silenced or stonewalled…finally, there is breakdown that results from sheer impoverishment of narrative resources–in the permanent underclass of the ghetto, in the second and third generation of the Palestinian refugee compound, in the hunger-preoccupied villages of semipermanently drought-stricken villages in sub-Saharan Africa. It is not that there is a total loss in putting story form to experience, but that the worse scenario story comes to to dominate daily life that variation no longer seems to be possible. [links added]

My reasons for posting this passage, at this time should be clear enough.

The first state of affairs that Bruner lists above has been a feature of American life for as long as I can remember it, and indeed, has been from the birth of the nation; it constitutes a  dynamic and creative tension in American culture. It has led to many species of politics and political engagement, not all of them conducive to the continuance of the American polity. The third condition too, has been realized in ample measure in American life; it is what makes the ‘voices of the downtrodden’ especially worth listening to–as rappers like Public Enemy were fond of saying, by listening to them you learned something about a world most American citizens did not need or want to interact with; that music offered affirmation that despite the ‘impoverishment of narrative resources’ powerful, creative voices still spoke loudly and clearly. The second condition is the one that will seem especially familiar to us now in this era of ‘fake news–the relentless, seemingly unstoppable lying, the bald-faced denial of ‘what is in front of our nose.’

The crucial mistake, a self-congratulatory one, would be to imagine that this state of affairs is entirely new; bald-faced, persistent, and systematic liars have long worked their trade. What is new is the materiality of our information exchanges, their speed and ubiquity, their all-pervasiveness. They make possible the ‘breakdown’ in communication many experience today; the so-called ‘echo chambers,’ the sense that some divides cannot be bridged by discourse. The central irony in all of this, as media scholars have not tired of pointing out, that it is our civilization’s most pervasive, most efficient, most democratic communication system ever that has facilitated this state of affairs.

Breakdowns in cultures are not trivial affairs, and there is no sign that the current political and cultural tensions in American life will lead to anything like an irreparable rift; but complacency is no substitute for thinking about what changes in material conditions can induce a different social and personal consciousness that could help heal the present schisms.

Coming For You with Chuck D and Public Enemy

In reviewing Jay-Z‘s book Decodeda collection of lyrics with extensive commentary–(‘Word‘, The New Yorker, December 6 2010) Kelefa Sanneh writes:

Too often, hip-hop’s embrace of crime narratives has been portrayed as a flaw or a mistake, a regrettable detour from the overtly ideological rhymes of groups like Public Enemy. But in Jay-Z’s view Public Enemy is an anomaly. “You rarely become Chuck D when you’re listening to Public Enemy,” he writes. “It’s more like watching a really, really lively speech.” By contrast, his tales of hustling were generous, because they made it easy for fans to imagine that they were part of the action. “I don’t think any listeners think I’m threatening them,” he writes. “I think they’re singing along with me, threatening someone else. They’re thinking, Yeah, I’m coming for you. And they might apply it to anything, to taking their next math test or straightening out that chick talking outta pocket in the next cubicle.”

Jay-Z is on to something here, though I disagree with him about the distinction he is trying to draw, a doubt induced by what he says about his own lyrics. In part, this is because Sanneh describes Public Enemy‘s lyrics/rhymes as ‘overtly ideological,’ (pop version: they are ‘preachy’ or ‘intend to deliver a message or raise consciousness’.) That is certainly true in one dimension. But more broadly, it is an inaccurate description of the effect of Public Enemy’s lyrics, for they work and achieve their effect on listeners, not just because of the ‘political message’ but also because they induce the same effect that Jay-Z claims for his lyrics.

Consider for instance, the following amazing closing sections of ‘Rebels without a Pause‘ from the brilliant It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back . These bring the sonic power of the preceding sections to a dynamic crescendo; here, the barely contained force that has been been building up through the song threatens to break loose, through the barricades:

No matter what the name – we’re all the same
Pieces in one big chess game
Yeah – the voice of power
Is in the house – go take a shower boy
P.E. a group, a crew – not singular
We were black Wranglers
We’re rap stranglers
You can’t angle us – I know you’re listenin’
I caught you pissin’ in you’re pants
You’re scared of us dissin’ us
The crowd is missin’ us
We’re on a mission boy

Terminator X

Attitude – when I’m on fire
Juice on the loose – electric wire
Simple and plain – give me the lane
I’ll throw it down your throat like Barkley
See the car keys – you’ll never get these
They belong to the 98 posse
You want some more son – you wanna get some
Rush the door on a store – pick up the album
You know the rhythm, the rhyme plus the beat is designed
So I can enter your mind – Boys
Bring the noise – my time
Step aside for the flex – Terminator X

The effect of these lyrics, I suggest, is precisely that which Jay-Z ascribes to his own. This is not just a ‘lively speech’ – this is a dynamic invocation of action. The listeners, even if they don’t ‘become Chuck D’, want to be him, they want to be the force that he summons up, ascribes to himself, and more importantly, seems to instantiate. And as Jay-Z suggests above, the listeners don’t think Chuck D is threatening them. Instead, they are singing along, trying to be the person, or the member of that group, which is capable of saying ”Attitude – when I’m on fire/Juice on the loose – electric wire/Simple and plain – give me the lane/I’ll throw it down your throat like Barkley’ or my personal favorite: ‘I caught you pissin’ in you’re pants/You’re scared of us dissin’ us.’

But Jay-Z is right: that mood can be invoked for almost anything. Besides ‘math tests’, for lifting weights, stepping out of a plane with a pack on your back, or meeting your future in-laws for the first time.