So last Saturday three communists walked into Duffy’s bar in Leicester and started talking about economic crisis, pop music and comedy. Let me give you a summary.
The talk was in three sections. The first set the scene of pervasive crisis. Arguing that in this context we should expect the rise of characters who seem to signify the spirit of the times and that people identify with politically. In the crisis of the 1930s these figures tended to be political leaders but in the 1960s and 70s, after the birth of pop culture, such figures were equally likely to be pop stars. In the current crisis this seems to have changed. By raising the examples of Russell Brand, Beppe Grillo and Dieudonné we suggest that figures of political identification (on both the Left and the Right) are now more likely to be comedians than pop stars.
The second section charted the social and technological changes that make it much less likely that figures of political identification will arise from pop music. Exhibit one: last night’s celebration of bland at the Brit awards. Co-incidentally I spent yesterday evening listening to a talk by Viv Albertine, who raged long and hard about the poshification of pop and Thatcherism’s impulsion towards conformity. As the popular modernism of the 60s, 70s and 80s showed, freedom rests on material underpinnings. The subsequent removal of collective protection has produced more risk averse and defensive subjects.
The third section asks: if not pop stars then why comedians? Arguing that one contemporary mode of protection against risk has been the adoption of an all-pervasive posture of cynical irony. This hyper-ironisation of contemporary culture has made sincere statements of belief both hard to make and difficult to take seriously. Yet our condition of pervasive crisis has created an obscured desire for the kinds of change that can only be proposed through sincere statements. Within this frame the huge social movements of 2011 can be seen as ‘explosions of sincerity’. While those countries with no such explosions, E.G. Britain, France and Italy, must make do with seeing this desire reflected in the character of certain public figures. It is comedians who are most practiced at this dance between irony and sincerity and so it is they who are most likely to be figured.
For those interested the slides and text of our talk can be downloaded here.