U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Two Interruptions

Con Safos detail

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?”[1]

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.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4]

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.

Anthropolocos detail

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.”[5] 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.

[1] Raúl Homero Villa, Barrio-Logos: Space and Place in Urban Chicano Literature and Culture (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), 9.

[2] Roger Caillois, Man, Play, and Games (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1961).

[3] Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949).

[4] George Lipsitz, How Racism Takes Place (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011).

[5] 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).

21 Thoughts on this Post

  1. 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”

    Welcome to my life, Kurt.

    (as most pedestrians surely must have done when they walked by Los Anthropolocos’ dig and apprehended Barry Manilow’s glowing face)?

    Sounds pretty elitist, and clumsy. Then did they go to Watts and excavate chicken bones and watermelon rinds?

    Next time anybody’s in LA, drive around and find a station playing actual Mex-American music, ranchero, norteño. Shmaltz on steroids.

    America does that to a person, I reckon. Loss, desire, sentimentality*. Julio, Teddy, Barry. They can make a grown man weep.

    *That famous Irish standard “I’ll take You Home Again, Kathleen.” Written by some guy named Westendorf in Indiana.

    • TVD: This is a RIDICULOUS and unprofessional comment. I’ve engaged you a couple of times here—almost *always* to correct your erroneous or misguided interpretation of a post, or another comment. You’re lucky that Kurt and Kahlil were polite enough to acknowledge your presence. – TL

      • You’re playing the old attack-and-now-I’m-a-victim game—after you’ve taken advantage, for months and months, of our tolerance. My ‘tolerance’ for your comments is now at an end. – TL

      • If this blog is offering blatant socio-political cant such as

        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,

        [BF mine] as serious “intellectualism” or professional scholarship, that’s the discussion that needs to be had.

        My substantive objection remains that

        Los Anthropolocos craft a brilliantly subversive way to destabilize fictions of white cultural superiority.

        is neither “brilliant” nor “destabilizing,” but rather it was clumsy and ineffectual. Further, that Barry Manilow represents “white cultural superiority” in any fashion is unsupportable—anyone who knows any white people knows most of us prefer Motown.

        As for my “victimhood,” this blog has planted its flag on United States Intellectual History. Since you’re the establishment now, it’s only fair you come in for a little subversion yourself, and certainly demurrals on the questionable merits of some of the assertions contained herein.

        As for your “tolerance” to this point, Tim, it has been appreciated. I will miss it.

  2. “Then did they go to Watts and excavate chicken bones and watermelon rinds?”

    I have no words. This is so ugly.

    This makes me want to quit writing forever.

    So, congratulations. You win.

    • Don’t you dare, Kurt.

      (as most pedestrians surely must have done when they walked by Los Anthropolocos’ dig and apprehended Barry Manilow’s glowing face)?

      was the ugliness. Indeed, it was infantile, as we see with the Watts comparison. You want to be hip, get hip. Making fun of Barry Manilow then or now isn’t hip.

      I like norteño. I like Barry Manilow too. So do all real men.

  3. Thanks Kurt for this very interesting post. I’m presuming that interruptions as you present them are teaching moments of one sort or another whereas others may have more puerile purposes. Do you see a taxonomy of interruptions similar to a taxonomy of irony that James Levy suggests 7/26/2012 on this blog?

  4. What Tom perhaps doesn’t get is the humor in the Anthropolocos’ intervention. Hell, starting from their silly name you know they are working with humor.

    But perhaps what bothers Tom is that you have not really answered why the Anthropolocos chose Manilow as a signifier of “whiteness”. You allude to popular music and popular fantasies, but I am sure one could go further than that in interpreting their choice.

    I wonder also to what extent the Anthropolocos disidentify from Manilow. Is the act of excavating Manilow necessarily a performance of differentiation? In addition, more references to East San Diego and other performances from the locos would help us in grasping the more theoretical parts of what you say here. I like the latter, but I think it always helps the reader, specially the theory-phobic reader–to try to let the objects be at the centerpiece of the story.

  5. Spot on about Manilow’s music as the “deflection of interruption.” This poses another question: what does Manilow’s music do, or how is cultural hegemony maintained? Is Manilow’s music supposed to invoke continuity, stasis, or perhaps even consensus behind the fantasy of ruling class culture?

  6. Paul–thanks so much for this comment. The prompt to think about a taxonomy of interruption is extremely helpful… I don’t think I have a complete sense of what that would look like yet, but I think, provisionally, it would be threefold (with further subdivisions and border cases to emerge, no doubt): 1) works wherein “interruption” or “interruptability” is thematized within a narrative (everything from the early poetry of Langston Hughes to The Wire, the proletarian novels of the 1930s, the Hollywood screwball comedy); 2) works that bear formal traces of “interruption” or “interruptability” (primarily short and fragmentary forms, which, as Cary Nelson once observed, tend to be treated with much less respect than the modernist very long work; also graffiti, breakdancing and many forms of improvisatory social dancing, freestyle hip-hop, death metal, bebop and other musical forms that have a certain temporal plasticity, material portability, and construction around modular units (the bebop “head” and solos, the alternation of improvised verses in a cypher, the down to business jackhammering of the thrash band); 3) works that seek to temporarily “interrupt” something in the minds of readers, listeners, audiences (with the question of who and how and for how long the crucial variables).

    My proposal would be that “interruption” is something like what Fredric Jameson, Terry Eagleton, and David Lloyd, among others, began in the 1970s and 1980s to call an “aesthetic ideology”: to use a metaphor that I hate–“interruption” connects a base and a superstructure around a common term. Is that useful? It’s useful to me! Thanks, Paul.

    Kahlil, as always, thanks for the push. Thinking about why Barry Manilow really is the priority, which I skirt here. Your question is so generative because it forces us to recall that moment in time wherein Manilow, along with The Carpenters, John Denver, Olivia Newton-John, Debbie Boone, et al really did come to re-assert a kind of normative white mainstream musical subjectivity in a really breathtaking manner. By the 90s–after punk and New Wave and the massive event of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and then the birth of contemporary R and B and hip hop, Barry Manilow –never cool–had become a punchline, as would Kenny G, John Tesh, and Michael Bolton after him. (I wonder who the equivalent figure is today?) Had Los Anthropolocos used, say, a Buck Owens record, I don’t think the piece would have worked… nor would a Motley Crue record have worked, or even a Beach Boys record. That gives us a lot to think about.

    Kit–great point. The question with someone like Manilow is always about how well capitalism is performing, not at the margins, but straight down the middle. We know that Aveda can probably make a good shampoo for 40 dollars, and that the CVS brand 99 cent shampoo is probably terrible. An interesting question (not the only one, but one that isn’t always asked) is: how good is the bottle of Prell that costs 9 bucks? How good is 2 and a Half Men? How good is the latest superhero movie?


    TVD: I wish no further interaction with you. I will regard all future comments by you on my posts as harassment. Leave me alone.

    • Kurt and Kahlil,
      I too was struck by the specificity of the Manilow album, and have been thinking a little more about why it strikes me more deeply than the normal jokes about the awfulness of Manilow’s music.
      One question I think we could ask is whether Los Anthropolocos mean Manilow to stand in for white culture in toto, or merely to point to whiteness. I think it’s the latter, because the former is pretty broad humor and could support the weight of neither the interruption Kurt describes nor the lingering disturbance I think others may feel in looking at the image.
      What seems to me to be going on here is a conflict between the two definitions of culture: the definition which sees it as the achievements which reflect well on a society and the definition which emphasizes the connectedness of all parts of a whole way of life. Because Manilow is so eagerly and often disavowed by white people as part, not of “white culture,” but rather part of a culture-less void of “schlock” or “elevator music” or “commercial crap,” he is a very apt figure on whom to stage this confrontation of the two definitions of culture. Los Anthropologos are claiming for themselves the right to assert that Manilow is, in fact, connected to white culture, that “white culture” is about a whole way of life (and a whole history) rather than just what reflects well on people-who-happen-to-be-white.
      This confrontation sets in train further questions about the connectedness of other disavowals–like the history of settler colonialism invoked by the action of excavation. But I think the initial step is disabling that first definition of culture, which allows a separation of unbecoming things from “white culture” and gets to place them in a void where they are no one’s culture.

      • Beautiful, brilliant analysis–and I love the distinction between invocation and indexicality–very Peircean. And helpful.

        I wonder how we might compare the Manilow LP, qua object, to two other species of object–one) the elevated-to-sublime kitsch object in certain works of queer art and cinema; two) the choice made by Vh1’s “The White Rapper Show” several years back to deploy jars of mayonnaise as privileged signifiers of whiteness…

        Whoa, are we on the verge of an object-oriented ontology of Barry Manilow?

  7. Paul Kern seems to have sparked something … and now we have not only a list but a performance — TVD provides a provocation [#3], in a medium that allows unlimited opportunities for interruption [#2], and Kurt’s response [#1] shows that one person’s interruption is another’s harassment.

    Wow, short-circuits all around. Somewhere, Barry Manilow may be laughing. Hey, play nice gang !!

  8. Kurt,

    Thanks for this post, and for this helpful comment (#6, above) – especially the lines following the asterisks.

    Several months back, Tom Van Dyke tried to initiate a backchannel email conversation with me. Among his other agendas, he wanted to ascertain whether our bloggers had some kind of agreement to collectively ignore his comments. I suppose it never occurred to him that individuals committed to sharp and substantial intellectual exchange would, as a matter of course, find little in his comments that merited a response.

    In any case, his emails to me were unexpected, uninvited, and most unwelcome. After a few such emails, I told him not to contact me any more. Naturally, he just had to send one last message after that, but since then he has not pestered me further via email. However, he has continued to comment on some of my posts here on the blog. I find that behavior a little weird, and a little desperate, but up to now it hasn’t struck me as anything that merits a response on my part. He is easy to ignore.

    However, I think the gesture you’ve made here may be the more helpful one at this moment. In particular, I think your use of the word “harassment” is both apt and important in terms of signaling to our readers – especially those new to the blog – that we recognize the difference between clever provocation and abusive behavior. Comments we may tolerate as the basic price of practicing free and open discourse on the internet nevertheless do not represent the approach we ourselves model in how we engage each other in conversation. Moreover, such comments do not represent how any of our readers should expect to be addressed here or in any other community that values the free and open exchange of ideas in an atmosphere of mutual respect. I’m grateful to you for very clearly and succinctly pointing that out.

    That such abusive behavior happens so seldom in our comments is a testimony to the genuine hospitality and integrity of this community – our writers, our readers, our professional society. People who are looking for a venue to showcase cheap shots and shallow thoughts generally tend to go elsewhere. That we have nevertheless attracted one desperate hanger-on who will resort to abusive behavior in a bid for attention that he cannot get on the merits of his ideas alone is, I suppose, a weirdly dysfunctional tribute to the desirability of being a part of this thoughtful and respectful community of inquiry. We do well to remind readers that the criteria for belonging are just those two things: being thoughtful and showing respect for one’s fellow interlocutors. That’s all it takes to be an “insider” here.

    Besides our visible interlocutors, our silent readers are an important part of that community too. In calling out the meritless ugliness of Tom Van Dyke’s latest excretion, notable only for its peculiarly noxious combination of vapidity and venom, you have no doubt validated the reactions of countless readers, and you have signaled that they can and should expect a better return on the valuable time they spend reading what has been posted here. Well done.

  9. “Ooo” and Barry Manilow–a logical match!

    There’s a great monograph that came out the year before last that also addresses similar associations as the mayo thing: Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s White Bread: A Social History of the Store Bought Loaf. (It also secretly works as one of the best syntheses of twentieth-century US history I have read: somehow, white bread connects to everything.)

    I’m not sure how to relate Manilow and kitsch: like Lawrence Welk, he’s just someone our parents listened to–I’m not sure you can make kitsch out of that!

    • Many thanks for the ref to Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s White Bread: A Social History of the Store Bought Loaf. Somehow had not heard of it. Will seek it out immediately!

      • I have a sibling deeply involved in the project of Billy Joel reputational rehabilitation, so will hold my tongue. Let it be understood that this requires a great deal of self-discipline.

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