Friday, June 27, 2008

Ya'll know me still the same ol' G

Most of you by now have figured out that I am in the long, slow, death knell of finishing a PhD. Many, if not all of you should not care. PhDs delve into the pits of academic minutia—making them interesting to very few, closely aligned, academics into the same mode of academic minutia. PhDs are a strange thing because they are like the David Letterman’s tv show. Long after it’s interesting, or even funny, it still isn’t over—and then there is the band at the end. I have reached that point. No more research, which is interesting. No more reading, which is funny, just typing—day-after-day—and I have the next 16-20 of the same thing. PhD’s are not a measure of intelligence or creativity; they are a testament to tenacity, proof of a stubborn will to get something, really big, done.
All of this beside my main point. Lately, as a result of the particular chapter I am writing about—again, I won’t bore you or me with the details—I have taken keen interest in semiotics. Semiotics, for those that don’t know, means ‘system of meanings and ideas,’ and in particular, I have become interested in how ideas become ideas, and then circulate. In the context of my thesis, this involves all sorts of loaded concepts, terms and words I don’t want to learn how to spell. As a side, this interest has evolved into a fascination with how terms move between subcultures, enter the mainstream and later evolve back into usage within a different subculture. Recent posts on this blog have hinted at some of these broad themes; two examples are ‘Mills is Genius’ and ‘Ghetto Bike Racing.’ Admittedly, even in this blog years ago, I have argued that the theoretical underpinning of semiotics and its parent, linguistics amounts to little more than an ‘academic circle jerk,’ I have since come around—not to thinking that this set of theory is anything more than a academic circle jerk; rather, academia itself, with its insular, self referential world resembles very little more than an academic circle jerk albeit one that is rather post-modern. Though on that token there is nothing wrong with it.
Back to the mobilities of semiotics:
Recently, wrote a news blurb about team Slipstream-Chipotle (now called ‘Garmin-Chipotle’) and their Tour de France roster. This prompted a discussion in my living room about Jon Vaughters, and, specifically, his inability to stay upright in bike races and/or avoid bee stings. In this conversation, my girlfriend, Lowri, queries, ‘so what you’re saying, JV doesn’t have the ghetto skills.’ At this precise moment, the Earth stood still in space and the universe revolved around it very similarly to the clever film editing in the movie version of Stephen Hawkings’ book, ‘A Brief History of Time’ when the coffee mug falls of the table, shatters spilling coffee on the kitchen floor and then is backed up, slo-moed, repeated etc. ‘Ghetto Skills!?’ I proclaimed. And, after a brief flurry of conversation, it was determined that Lowri was using the term ‘ghetto skills’ but referencing ‘ghetto bike racing’ culture in its deployment.
Now, when I heard her say ‘ghetto skills,’ I immediately flashed to the 90’s when inner city basketball was entering mainstream and popular culture with films such as ‘White Men Can’t Jump,’ ‘Above the Rim’ and importantly an entire Nike Advertisement Campaign. But not, this grounding was not in use. Remembering that anyone who was a member of the Ghetto Bike Racing Culture knows of its propensity for gangsta rap: Jed and myself frequently rapped whilst training: ‘She was dressed in yellow, she says hello...’ , or importantly and most famously, whilst warming up for a collegiate race in liberal and very white Minnesota having to put up with utter shit singer songwriter music by the likes of Dave Mathews or Jack Johnson coming from other cars that most bike racers are into, finally snapping, and blowing up the speakers of a rental van with Ice Cube (‘Pimpen aint easy but it’s necessary’)— complete with the image of Pierce’s dad leaning against the bonnet nodding his head to the beat, and Harper stopping, looking at the the white bread with the folk music and back to our car proclaiming, ‘hmmmph, this isn’t Jewel.’ And, finally within the context of Ghetto Bike racing, given Jed’s apartment in Topeka, was that it emerged from the ghetto.

However, Lowri, not being a member of the defunct subculture would not have known this. For her, ghetto ‘bike racing’ and ultimately ‘ghetto skills’ were only in reference to themselves, leaving her usage of ‘ghetto skills’ as representative of an entire semiotic paradigm shift—and it happened in my living room. Many of you are probably wondering by now, ‘what in the hell am I talking about’ (something I ask myself every two hundred words in my work). What I’m talking about is the mobility of language and meaning: both internationally, but also within and through cultures. ‘Ghetto Culture,’ or perhaps urban hip-hop (across generations) culture, exemplifies this cultural therefore semiotic mobility. Take Sugar Hill Gang and ‘Rappers Delight’ ( Musically, it is derived from a number of sources: Queen, James Brown, Pariliament to name a few. And, also lyrically, that is linguistically, deriving its rap from Jive (urban slang)—a language that has its own historio-linguistic trajectory. These two elements, not only produce a truly infectious groove, have later been appropriated, first within its ‘own’ culture but then to others, through music, and then lexicon where, a few twists and turns aside, emerged a new sub-culture—e.g. Gangsta Rap (chicken egg questions not withstanding). Then, this sub-culture, focused in urban slums of coastal cities (specifically, New York and LA) makes its way into the interior, predominantly affluent suburban environs where they become subsumed by pop-culture. Fascinating, as these semiotic systems move and evolve is that the two ‘cultural hearths’, eventually engage in what can only be termed a cultural war as both progenitors of this wider pop-culture vie for supremacy, a contest most famously embodied in the East Coast-West Coast rivalry that ended in bloodshed with the murders of both Tupac (of the LBC) and Notorious B.I.G. (of the Bronx).
Of course, this marginally fleshed out argument, is academic (at best) and mostly irrelevant both to practice and to itself. Mainly I use it to both point out my own fascination with the way words themselves move, and also to ‘warm up’ to the business of writing. And in case anyone is really wondering where I would like to take this argument: I’m listening to Danger Mouse’s Grey Album...whilst killing time.
Thanks for reading and keepin it real in the hood...well, my at least my urban, mostly gentrified middle class hood, complete with artisan cheese shop, fine wine merchant and Italian deli.


This pretty much proves my point


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