Prole Art Threat: Cynthia Cruz On The Melancholia Of Class

With her new book The Melancholia of Class just out from Repeater Books, author Cynthia Cruz talks to Enrico Monacelli about identity politics, class consciousness, and why Mark E. Smith was one of the great working class militants of the 20th Century

Melancholia of Class, the new book by Cynthia Cruz, is manifestly about class and class conflict. Even the title puts the aftermaths of class war, a term so powerfully passé, at the centre stage. Reduced to its barest bones, it is really a gothic novel about the ghostly lingering of class in our lives.

One of the ways in which class haunts us is through its repression, a repression that is perpetuated not only by the interests of the ruling class but, also, by the structure of contemporary left discourse. The most popular form of leftist class repression, I believe, is the injunction to avoid and scorn “class reductionism”, a school of thought that claims that class is the ultimate truth of all social oppression – a way of thinking which seems to be everywhere and nowhere to be found, since most of the times it is hard to pinpoint which author is so crass in their political analysis.

Nonetheless, if we scour leftist discourse, online and IRL, this commandment – thou shall not reduce everything to class – is not only felt, but it is the source of much anxiety and panic. So much so that most of the times it feels rude to talk about class at all in fear of being misconstrued as one of those, the ones who deny that social oppression is complex and should be analysed accordingly.

So, let me ask you: is your book one of those scary examples of class reductionism? What is your stance in this debate? And why does class scare us so much?

In the United States the assumed reality is that there is no social class, thus there are no working class. At the same time, the majority of US citizens are working class or working poor. This seeming paradox is at the centre of The Melancholia of Class – how does a working class subject survive when she doesn’t exist? The void where class exists but has been excised, is now filled in with neoliberal terms that float over this void but never get near to it.

The term identity politics was coined by the Combahee River Collective in 1977. “The goals of the collective,” as stated on the website for their organisation, “were to make Black feminism and lesbianism a part of the women’s movement because before this group the feminist movement was based solely on the heterosexual white middle class women.” In their statement, the group asserts:

We have arrived at the necessity for developing an understanding of class relationships that takes into account the specific class position of Black women who are generally marginal in the labour force, while at this particular time some of us are temporarily viewed as doubly desirable tokens at white-collar and professional levels. We need to articulate the real class situation of persons who are not merely raceless, sexless workers, but for whom racial and sexual oppression are significant determinants in their working/economic lives.

In other words, the original term identity politics insisted on class as an integral, if not primary, form of oppression to be analysed among other forms of oppression.

The contemporary meaning of the term identity politics has little to no resemblance to its original meaning. The current definition of the term is “a tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics.” That the term identity politics has been coopted and reformulated to fit the liberal left’s agenda (a focus on the individual, above all, and a move from the communal) should come as no surprise. This is the very definition of capitalism.

Let me insist a little more on class terror. One of the striking features of your book is its interest in a very peculiar feeling associated with class, a way of seeing the world through a very peculiar and situated experience. Melancholia of Class is mostly about the longing, the fear and the failures of those who leave the working class behind in one way or another. Your book is chock full of class heroes and class traitors, from Mark Linkous’s musical country ways to Paul Weller’s libidinal body to Cynthia Cruz herself, who exited the working class identity that has been pinned on them by being inserted in the cogs of the social machine. It is a book about leaving and failing, an angle which is quite unusual for most analysis of working class characters – a genre that usually falls flat on the hagiography of the lucky ones that made it big. Why did you choose to concentrate on this melancholia? Why is it so important to analyse the emotional complexities of leaving the working class behind, of abolishing our class identity?

I was unaware of my class background well into adulthood. As a result, when, for example, I left home, I had no idea I was leaving my class background behind. The term social class or working class, because they’ve been excised from US discourse, were unavailable to me. The closest I came to class awareness was through music – listening to bands who sang about hating authority figures. And without class-based language or theory, I believed my failures, my self loathing and lack of confidence, were part of who I was, which is to say: my own personal problems I needed to deal with on my own.

And this experience is not an aberration: it is how we are meant to feel. The result of well-functioning capitalism is a society where the bourgeoisie (middle/ruling class) has taken control, is in charge of all aspects of society, and the working class are made to feel as if we are of the same class as the ruling class. Furthermore, rather than feeling a sense of kinship among one another (i.e., as we might when we recognise ourselves as working class in a society run by the ruling class), we are meant, instead, to see one another as enemies in competition for entry into the middle class world. We area meant to step over each other as we race up the class ladder.

This is the situation we find ourselves in today. One of the hopes I have for the book is that members of the working class will recognise themselves in it and, as a result, reclaim their place in the class struggle.

To answer your question, then: because this melancholia is a symptom of the repression of our working-class origins, recognising and naming it has emancipatory powers. When we recognize our melancholia for what it is – we can find our place in the class struggle. If all of us woke up from this stupor who knows what could happen.

One of the things that truly struck me is your analysis of fashion and working-class culture, especially when you talk about the mods, rockabilly, and post-punk. Whenever you tackle these subcultures you present them as these mean and lean nostalgists, unapologetic defenders of the no future creed. You claim that: “The worship of progress is nothing new of course, and is, in its ideology, inherently anti-working class” and that these working class cultures – the mods, the rockabillies, and the punks – out-right refuse to participate in the forward-march of society by manically dabbling in the past, stopping the clock and letting some death and uncertainty in. You conclude that: “By insisting on the past and by dragging it into the present, through artefacts such as specific clothing or music of another time, the rockabilly and the mod become, through their mere existence, acts of resistance to the status quo”. I find this idea extremely invigorating and interesting, especially in a time when a lot of posh music, exemplified by Simon Reynolds’ conceptronica, has become extremely hi-fi, enamoured with progress and future-heavy. Could you elaborate a little on this militant, working class anachronism? And which contemporary artists would you describe as heirs to this tradition?

Something I have in common with my parents is a way of including both what is considered high and low culture, talking for instance about philosophical issues (life, death, God, poverty, the working class, capitalism, etc.) while in the same conversation talking about music acts or what’s on the news (while sitting in the living room with the TV on). This is an organic amalgamation –we’re just talking, vocalising the unconscious.

In academic and literary circles neither of these strains are encouraged. Or, rather, they are but with caveats. Talking about “low culture” is fine as long as it’s ironic (the adoration over, for example, Dolly Parton) and the same can be said about serious issues – as long as such conversations are cloaked in context (i.e. speaking about a theorist), it’s fine. This is by no means a form of resistance – the way my parents and I view the world – but insisting on this way of seeing the world might be. So in the end resistance is often not a newly formed reaction to capitalism and the middle class but rather an insistence on not assimilating into the world the middle class/capitalism has created.

One last thing, though, with regard to progress and anachronism, in capitalist culture where the working class has been erased from discourse, one of the most obvious ways of keeping sane is by reminding ourselves concretely what or where we come from. My mother grew up in Völklingen, Germany, a steel town, and my father grew up in a sharecropper family. Because capitalist culture insists there are no classes, there is no working class, we can easily end up losing ourselves, attempting to into society without ever being aware the society is a middle class society. As a result, we become internally split.

This is less likely to happen if I surround myself, in one way or another, with where I come from: my family, for example. And, as with my example above, all of this is organic. I visit my parents, of course, because I love them. It just so happens that when I do I am reminded of who they are, who I am, our values, our culture, our history, and so on. When I am surrounded by my family, I enter the world of storytelling in a Benjaminian sense, listening to my mother or father tell me about their childhoods or relatives I never had a chance to meet.

The word ‘progress’, not coincidentally, is included in the term ‘progressive’, another term for liberals. In terms of political change, progress means making small alterations to the current capitalist system rather than overhauling the system. Progress implies a comfort with the status quo and thus resistance to true change.

‘Progress’ is an ideology that believes there is nothing meaningful – which is to say there is nothing of ‘use’ – in the past. Progress wants things ever more slick, more sleek – faster, more fluid. One example is the constant cutting back of workers to be replaced by machines. At, for instance, the drug store, grocery store, restaurants, or on the telephone where humans are now being replaced by computers. Of progress, Walter Benjamin writes in ‘On the Concept of History’:

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Regarding your question of what artists I think might fit the “working class, militant, aesthetic” – if by contemporary you are referring to twentieth to twenty-first century, my immediate answer would be The Fall. And by The Fall, I mean specifically Mark E. Smith. Smith’s life and music are a solid example of this aesthetic. In his music and life he resisted the slickness of capitalism, its prepackaged, ready-made, formulae, resisting the professionalism of the music industry and insisting, instead, on ‘failure’ as a form of resistance. One example of this is changing the instruments his band members played once they became good at it, while, at the same time, constantly changing the members of the band. Both of these actions helped keep the music alive, immunising it against professionalism.

If your question is whether I can think of anyone producing music today who fits this description, then the answer is no. This may well be because the musical acts that are able to make it in the contemporary music world are, by default, middle class. Working-class musicians are too busy working and/or trying to find work.

Lastly, let me ask you a question that I deem both necessary and quite scary. One of the core theses of your book is the necessity of confronting working=class desire, without pruderies and avoiding embellishing the terror, especially when it expresses an unbridled death-drive, a will to destroy and be destroyed. The work of a theorist is to look for parts of the social body that twitch and tingle, and to become an active witness of these collective erogenous zones, even when they are shameful, sorrowful or destructive. Your way of doing this is by connecting the dressed to kill ethos of the mods and other forms of cultural destruction and your own experience of anorexia. You seem to be longing for an unearthing of the disquieting power of your desire and your past, connecting it to a wider manifestation of working class death-drive, from Paul Weller’s electric presence to Amy Winehouse’s way of being “libidinal in extreme compression”. You claim that: “The anorexic body is often imagined as being without desire, due, in part, to the anorexic body’s lack of hips and breasts, superficial representations of sex or sexuality. And yet, the act of refusing desire, or rather, the act of refusing the world in order to create a space for one’s yet unfulfilled desire, is indeed a libidinal act. The libidinal is an energy force. And the anorexic body, itself a compression of desire, is constructed of this energy. It is the libido in its unadulterated state”. My question is: why do you think that the death-drive is so crucial to emancipatory struggles? Why should we tap into this unadulterated desire? Isn’t it dangerous? I ask you this because I found your way of proposing a politics of desire that openly refuses to “be somebody” extremely moving and, banally enough, I wanted to read more.

The death drive is inherent to the working class. When society is ruled by the middle class – their rules, law, values, beliefs – and the working class have been erased from social discourse, the result is that, though, of course, the working class exists, we exist as a hum, a form of excess, a circuitous loop that gains energy and speed as it continues; we are death drive. So, it isn’t so much that I believe the death drive is crucial to emancipation for the working class, rather it is crucial that we recognise this force for destruction so we can short circuit it, using it instead toward emancipatory power.

Also, it was important to me, when writing the book, to directly address this propensity for self destruction because it has been and continues to be leveraged by the middle class as a means of moral judgement. In the US, one example is the opioid epidemic which ravaged and continues to ravage entire towns, families, and communities. This is not unlike the drug epidemics in the urban centres that have historically ravaged the predominantly non-white working class and poor.

The question of where the drugs originate, how people are introduced to these drugs and what preconditions may be in place making certain populations more vulnerable to drug use and its subsequent abuse, are rarely, if ever asked. Instead, what we have is a conflation of certain populations with drug abuse and self-destruction and the resulting idea that certain populations (the poor and working class) are somehow more inclined to such behaviours. By looking more closely at the various, complicated factors that inform why someone from the working class might end up using alcohol or drugs (or not eating, spending beyond one’s means, and so on), my aim is to unfold some of these false narratives while, at the same time, complicate matters.

In addition, without the death drive, we wouldn’t have Joy Division, The Jam, or The Fall. We wouldn’t have punk, we wouldn’t have an endless list of extraordinary artists. I am drawn to writing and music, film, and art constructed from the libidinal, work that is alive with this unstoppable flow of energy. This energy has nothing to do with subject matter.

Acts instructed by their manager to “perform sexuality” or sing or play songs with lyrics about sex or sexuality are more often than not flat, sleek, homogenous. Boring. In contrast, a musician whose life is precarious, who walks onto the stage in sheer terror (of not being able to pay rent, buy food or clothing, support their parents), who feels self-loathing and rage may very well be able to stream these disparate aspects of oppression into something no one has ever seen or heard before because the music is coming from a real, lived, experience, something beyond what the artist is conscious of.

The death drive vs. the desire to make money and become famous – this is often the difference between genius and mediocrity. The death drive is beyond and as such it pushes the subject beyond their self, catapulting them toward something past their limits of comprehension. It is this quality that I respond to in a work, this aliveness.

The Melancholia of Class: A Manifesto for the Working Class by Cynthia Cruz is published by Repeater

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