One: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Chicana/o artistic collective Con Safos regularly put together a parodic “Barriology Exam” for readers of its magazine.
To “know” the barrio, in these mock quizzes, was to be able to answer a series of questions, laid out in the style of a sociological questionnaire (the inspiration, I think, might also have been Army psychometric tests, or Mad magazine’s long tradition of poking fun at pseudo-social scientific quizzes). In the copies of Con Safos’s magazine (or excerpts in scholarly texts) upon which I have been able to lay my hands, the most striking of these often very funny questions might be the following: “What is the greatest single cause of interruption in street games?”
I don’t have access to the answer key to this particular exam, and thus, according to the rubric used in Con Safos’s quizzes (see below), I must come to terms with my status as “pendejo”:
Rate Yourself On the Con Safos Barriology Quotient Scale
20 to 25 Chicano Barriologist, o muy de aquellas
10 to 14 High Potential, o ya casi
5 to 9 Vendido, o culturally deprived
0 to 4 Pendejo
That’s neither here nor there, of course.
To ask “What is the greatest single cause of interruption in street games?” is to illuminate the political centrality of interruption itself as a constitutive force in creating the texture of everyday life.
It brings to mind Roger Caillois’s study of the ludic, Man, Play, and Games. Taking issue with Johan Huizinga’s classic foundational study of games, Homo Ludens, Caillois pointed to several dimensions of sociologically significant play excluded by Huizinga, including the joy that humans (and animals) often take in mimicry, and the lengths to which humans (and animals) will go in pursuit of vertiginous highs.
But the most important category introduced by Caillois may be “alea” (chance): the centrality of indeterminacy in many games, and the question of the intriguing overlap between communities uniquely exposed to risk and the popularity of formalized games of chance. What Caillois’s theorization of the aleatory as a function of the ludic (and vice versa) leads us to is the very same point that Con Safos’s barriologists wish to register: “fun” is different when knowing the sources of interruption becomes as important as knowing the rules of the game.
This point is almost impossible to process without coming to terms with the racialized character of spatio-temporal divisions in post-World War II America, and by the same token, the spatialized/temporalized character of race and racism since the emergence of neoliberalism. As George Lipsitz writes, the increasing division of space into white and non-white over the postwar period was an event with both spatial and temporal consequences.
The suburban landscape of the Levittowns and the gated communities zealously policed by the homeowners’ associations (sponsored, in the last instance, by the FHA, government collusion in or silence about redlining and restrictive covenants, and supercharged by the nightmarish dislocations of freeway building and “urban renewal”) were specifically created to minimize the “interruptions” of urban America. The outmigration of largely white police forces in cities like New York and Los Angeles to the suburbs meant a qualitative change in the character of policing, giving rise to a weaponized hermeneutics of suspicion.
For poor youth of color, then, “interruption” has increasingly taken the form of a random entanglement in a permanent (and if not random, then perhaps stochastic) racialized dragnet. For Chicana/o youth, this dragnet has become more pernicious, by orders of magnitude, since 9/11, as the fantasy formation “terrorist-illegal” gave rise to a crude semiotic racism, both on the Tea Party Right and within the marrow of the national security state apparatus. This semiotic racism has, of course, become a bi-partisan commitment in recent years. One need only watch the powerful, masterful, and devastating documentary Dirty Wars to appreciate how fully a Democratic administration has validated these new collocations of signs and symbols, and at what costs. Or ask the President of my university.
When one adds the exacerbation of chance as a constitutive force in everyday life occasioned by contact with the criminal justice system or what remains of “welfare” (Will the snoops show up today? Will my boss fire me if my parole officer calls to remind him that I am an ex-con?), the randomness engendered by substandard housing (rent hikes, evictions, fires), and the disorder inherent in the business of getting high––one comes to see how very political interruption really is.
My colleague Jonathan Gomez has productively drawn upon Mindy Thompson Fullilove’s notion of “unexpectancy” as a guide to making sense of the effects of this carceral logic and exposure to random police attention in the lives of Chicana/o youth in Los Angeles. “Unexpectancy” is a particularly productive term—it is a neologism suggested to Fullilove by a young informant interviewed while conducting research on one of the poorest of US inner cities.
As Clyde Woods once noted, this “unexpectancy” gives to daily life the quality of the sacred—even in forms of aesthetic expression thought to be unproblematically profane. Raúl Homero Villa writes of the sacrality of certain Chicana/o aesthetic projects as a turn to “barriology” as against the degradation of “barriozation.” This is an interpretive turn with which we really ought to linger.
Two: In the early 1990s, performance art duo Los Anthropolocos (Richard A. Lou and Robert J. Sanchez) mounted a series of “counter-anthropological performances.” Lou and Sanchez worked to excavate, in Chon A. Noriega’s words, a “lost white culture in California.” A photograph of one of these performances finds Lou and Sanchez at work at a dig site in East County San Diego, near an auto repair shop.
Further inspection of the photograph reveals that Lou and Sanchez, hunched over the excavation pit, have unearthed a prized object: a weathered Barry Manilow LP. Lou and Sanchez would later solemnly report that this discovery confirmed their initial hunch: the dig site was once a ceremonial graveyard, where white San Diegans buried their most precious possessions.
That what Lou and Sanchez are up to with this performance is an act of interruption seems to me a difficult point to argue against.
A skeptic might ask: what, exactly, are they interrupting? The answer to that question, I think, leads us significantly closer to the heart of the politics of interruption.
In the first instance, Los Anthropolocos interrupt the flux of everyday life in San Diego on a particular day in the early 1990s. It is not every day that one comes across an archaeological dig in urban Southern California, but it is not an unimaginably exotic occurrence, either.
But the passersby who came across Los Anthropolocos’ dig site on a particular day in 1993 no doubt expected that such excavation would be in service of discovering artifacts of “legitimate” subjects of anthropology. To “discover” a Barry Manilow LP is to interrupt a fantasy of normative whiteness and settler colonialism (“we” belong here, even though “our” ancient artifacts are in Europe somewhere; in fact, “our” excavations of others’ artifacts becomes a paradoxical warrant for their violent elimination). It throws into question the ways in which the scientific gaze erases historical contingency, and the ways in which the project of archaeology naturalizes the violence and dispossession that subtends these always arbitrary and contradictory processes of identification and differentiation.
At a further level of precision, the “discovery” of a Barry Manilow LP illuminates a certain set of anxieties that ordinary discourse often obscures. If “culture” rather than “blood” is what validates white America’s claim to supremacy, then the question emerges: what is white American culture?
Constructing their dig site at about the same moment that Governor Pete Wilson was drawing upon a deep well of white vainglory to push the infamous Prop 187, Los Anthropolocos craft a brilliantly subversive way to destabilize fictions of white cultural superiority.
As students of popular music, and as advocates of what should be a non-controversial position (that music is a kind of thinking, and thus should be studied by intellectual historians), we should press the question: why a Barry Manilow LP as the privileged signifier of a dead white culture? Why not a Farah Fawcett T-shirt or a Swanson’s TV dinner? Why does the vinyl container of “Mandy” and the “Copacabana” serve as so immediate a figure of aesthetic nullity and so hilarious a refutation of racial conceits?
The answer, most likely, is that Lou and Sanchez chose the Barry Manilow LP because popular music’s inscriptions of identity and difference are uniquely powerful and historically meaningful. Dominant fantasies are extraordinarily resilient and, as such, resistant to interruption. It is in the nature of fantasy, in fact, to deflect interruption. Music–strategically deployed–might have a unique power to bore from within.
The question for the cultural provocateur, then, is how does one sneak in and introduce certain short circuits in the network of desire so that the subject of the fantasy is forced to do a “double take” (as most pedestrians surely must have done when they walked by Los Anthropolocos’ dig and apprehended Barry Manilow’s glowing face)? Once we have confirmed, experimentally, that a “double take” can in fact be triggered, we can put that knowledge to use—with full awareness that what is a sobering moment of dilating awareness for some is an injury to ego––sometimes a deadly one––for others. That is a theme I will take up in the next essay.
 Raúl Homero Villa, Barrio-Logos: Space and Place in Urban Chicano Literature and Culture (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), 9.
 Roger Caillois, Man, Play, and Games (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1961).
 Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949).
 George Lipsitz, How Racism Takes Place (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011).
 Chon A. Noriega, “The Orphans of Modernism” in Rita Gonzalez, ed. Phantom Sightings: Art After the Chicano Movement (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art and University of California Press, 2008).