There is joylessness masquerading as wisdom in Chris Rock’s new stand-up special Tambourine (actual wisdom, too, but it’s hard-earned, and seems to adhere more closely to the idea of this world being a world of limitation, which isn’t something I always associate with wisdom), which — if our gentle Adorno-like read of the culture still holds — goes some way towards explaining why it was and has been so well-received in the culture at large; whereas Dave Chappelle’s stand-up special — in particular, the bird revelation — which I’d argue was both joyful and had moments of genuine wisdom in it (especially the warning similar to the one Inherent Vice delivered regarding vertical integration as a application of power and how easy it is for people to not realize that they are living under the application of that power) — did not go over as well as it otherwise could have.
What is the potential animating reason for this dynamic? I worry that the culture — in an attempt to adapt and live; to adapt without realizing it’s adapting — has implicitly decided to agree on a definition of power that Kendrick Lamar clearly seems to offer up as a warning when he defines Erik Killmonger’s definition of power — that is, Killmonger from Black Panther — in King’s Dead (in a warning that exists beyond the lyric’s obvious anti-colonial and autobiographical scope) —
Not your father, not your brother
Not your reason, not your future
Not your comfort, not your reverence, not your glory
Not your heaven, not your angel, not your spirit
Not your message, not your freedom
Not your people, not your neighbor
Not your baby, not your equal
That isn’t necessarily a definition of power that would serve someone well at the level of one’s own self, one’s one-to-one relationships, or at the level of the community. It seems to be a definition of power borne of a certain kind of nihilistic anger, something borne of a perpetual sloughing off, and anger — as Rebecca Solnit noted in Harpers in the spring of 2017 — is tempting, as —
A 2001 study by Jennifer Lerner and Dacher Keltner found that feeling angry makes people as optimistic about the outcome of a situation as feeling happy. In other words, anger may make people miserable, but it also makes them more confident and obliterates other, more introspective miseries: pain, fear, guilt, uncertainty, vulnerability … The more you expect to get your own way, in other words, the more upset you are likely to be at being thwarted; those who are most thwarted must learn to apportion their wrath with care … Many accounts of American anger focus on what people are angry about, as though reactive anger were inevitable and the outside stimulus provoking it, the only variable. They rarely discuss the status of anger or the habits of mind that support it.
And this is one reason why I feel like Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama and the brief window through which it diffused through the American narrative landscape was so welcome. I was and am very okay with a presentist image of muted joy and a disarming level of comfort with power that — due to its status as a painting — finds itself unable to move.
It’s an image that springs to life as if it has emerged clean and crisp from a Polaroid camera (I suppose I can also see a touch of Frida Kahlo-styled portraiture here, too) — but what sort of set up and what sort of camera could give us an image like this? One can imagine Kehinde Wiley waving the photograph in the air as he waits for the image to develop, a hidden bird chirping in the depths of the green, and the 44th President of United States casting a quiet, half-quizzical look over his left shoulder before turning back to the artist and saying, “You got birds in here, man?”
And, of course: there is the now inescapable fact that this portrait and the portrait of Michelle Obama now serve as a touchstone. Imagine the next president and the next artist looking up on these two paintings and saying to themselves, “Yeah, I can beat that. I can bring more color to the conversation. I see that — the history, too — and am all too happy to offer up the ‘next.’”
This painting and the contrasting reactions to the two specials also raises the question (amongst many others): can power (and our self-conception of it) be as ecstatic as it is solemn? Can this joy be as decisive as anger? “Ekstasis,” the academic Jose Muñoz reminds us in the conclusion to his book Cruising Utopia, “in the ancient Greek (exstare in the Latin), means ‘to stand’ or ‘to be out outside of oneself,’ ex meaning ‘out’ and stasis meaning ‘stand.’” He continues —
Generally the term has meant a mode of contemplation or consciousness that is not self-enclosed, particularly in regard to being conscious of the other … Knowing ecstasy is having a sense of timeliness’s motion, comprehending a temporal unity, which includes the past (having-been), the future (the not-yet), and the present (the makingpresent.)
“I am so happy to know you,” I can almost hear the next President saying at the State of the Union. “And you, and you, and you, and — ”