Monáe’d Again – Jakob Henselmans
Suddenly, everyone around me is thinking about Janelle Monáe. A new co-worker wrote his thesis about her a few years ago; a good friend of mine just recommended me her second album (and happened to have caught her drummer’s drum stick two times in a row); my partner shared “I Like That” with me. And then there is Dan Hassler-Forest’s double book launch about her work. All avenues in which I do not normally expect pop to be so popping; all avenues that suddenly find themselves attached. As it so often happens with sudden bursts of mass love from academics and intellectuals to something loved by masses, again I wonder: why does this suddenly pop up here, and why not other pop culture precious?
The question itself is already woven into Hassler-Forest’s contagiously enthusiastic lecture, with a reference to cultural studies’ inherent tendency to find a concentration of societal debates in popular culture produce. But that seems like a bypass; for though popular culture has indeed more substantially found its place within academic thought, it is still seldom that its objects find such wide-open arms and warm embrace (apart from a side-step or two, not one critical note hits the lecture, in a genre that invariably calls itself ‘critique’!). Is it than just that Monáe’s work is simply right and true and important? Maybe, but probably not, and what I find myself skeptical about is this: it seems also as if what breaches the walls of high talk is simply that which has a nature already quite adept at its mode of thought and analysis, so that it is not the academy opening up to (a love of) popular culture; it is popular culture sometimes accidentally finding itself at the right time at the right moment, offering its analysis up as a way for the intellectual to find themselves ‘engaged’.
This is by no means a critique of Hassler-Forest or Monáe, whose works I both enjoy, but rather a questioning of the general absence of work like the former’s on the latter’s; work that does not (only) take as its great angle the critique of representation in the new Marvel Studios film (though that matters too, of course), but also dares to find there what Lauren Berlant has recently called the “scenes of ambivalence” – the opening-ups – in objects and pop sociality. “An anti-capitalist thinker, today, is always also in capitalism – and that’s okay,” says Hassler-Forest. Okay, then, because it is inevitable, and we can better deal with this than ignore the problematics. I agree, and let’s extend that to academia: Anti-capitalist thought [that of the academic left, for example], today, is always also in capitalism [surrounded by its objects] – and that is also okay. No need to study Shakespeare out of sly evasion, or keep busy with avant-garde video art. Capital exists, and art that makes capitals exist – why not study it like we study Monáe? If everything is in capital anyways – resistance too – who knows what we’ll find at its high stage.