The Livingston Avenue Review Of Zines

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Saying___Meaning___Doing (1998)

The effort to see and really to represent is no idle business in face of the constant force that makes for muddlement. The great thing is indeed that the muddled state too is one of the very sharpest of the realities, that it also has color and form and character, has often in fact a broad and rich comicality.
—Henry James, Prefaces (1907-1909). What Masie Knew.

"What wrong is with people who like this talk?"
—Samuel R. Delany, Nova (1968).

As much as I've enjoyed listening to rap music and learning some of its ever-changing hip-hop slang, there are certain phrases and idioms from that subculture that just drive me crazy, you know what I'm saying? And probably the one I find most annoying is the "intransitive 'represent' ".

I had some liner notes—I think they were for America Is Dying Slowly—that quoted somebody as saying "I will represent.". Period. Unfortunately, I seem to have sold the CD; anyway I can't put my hand on it. Those among you who avoid rap—and I know you're out there—will have to take my word for it: there's a lot of folks out there representin'. That ain't representin' any particular thing. They just representin'. The best citation I have at hand is "Representing straight outta the Windy City, Tung Twista and his Infa-Red posse have their sights set on blowing up the Chicago hip-hop scene" (The Source, Number 69, June 1995). Which isn't so bad—at least he's representing from somewhere...

According to the Totally Unofficial Rap Guide website, Nas (Nasir Jones) put out a record in 1994 called "Represent!"; I only ever started noticing the vogue for the intransitive "represent" within the past year or two but I'm slow. Probably it's already going away (along with the related intransitive "recognize"—[Y'all betta reckanize.]). Good riddance.

But what's going on here, anyway? Why should this bother me so much? Well, to put it as succinctly as I know how, "I will represent" sounds really stupid. Now, I'm more than a little bit of a language snob. I could easily come up with a long list of usages that annoy me, in a wide variety of contexts—like the (paren)theses of the pos(t-mod)er(n)s, the sMashEd caSeS of (weirdly) the punks and the package designers, or the meaningless/carriage-returns of the/would-be/poets. My reaction to all of these is usually something along the lines of "yeah, right... who are you kidding"—they strike me as affectations, meant to carry a meta-message: pay extra attention to me.

Is intransitive "represent" anything like those? Not really. I guess it does sound sort of affected, but I don't see any hidden agenda about it. The first few times I heard it, I didn't quite get what it intends to signify (means to mean), but it's clear enough now, and probably should have been obvious along: like the Paul Simon song says, "We stand for the neighborhood" ("The Vampires" on Songs From The Capeman, 1998). To "represent", then, is to show pride in one's background.

There's even a sense in which, by merely saying "I will represent", the speaker is in fact marking herself as different from, say, me—some old white guy who would never dream of making that particular assertion—and thus is "representing" in this hip-hop sense.

Is there really anything more to this than just me thinking, "my English is better than yours"? I think so... after all, there are a lot of other usages, in and out of hip-hop, that are just as "incorrect", that I find amusing or interesting or barely worth noticing. I affect quite a few of 'em myself.

Even now, as I'm writing this, intransitive "represent" is starting to feel less unnatural... you can get used to just about anything. But there's something else that bothers me here—apparently I don't approve of the idea that one should represent (one's hood or city or "race" or what have you). A human should not mean, but be, to paraphrase Archibald MacLeish.

It's the whole "society of the spectacle" thing. All too often, the symbol of a thing becomes more important than the thing itself: the American flag is granted sacred status even as the rights it ought to stand for are worn away to nothing and the cops beat us up, lock us up, and cover us up.

Maybe there's a hidden agenda after all: that of wrapping oneself in the flag. Suppose I represent Mom and apple pie. Why then, if you disagree with me, I can claim that you're against Mom and apple pie.

And yet, I guess I do it too, all the time. In my role as a teacher, for example. As the academy is taken over more and more by careerism, it seems more and more important to me that somebody should stand in front of groups of young people and, dammit, "represent" certain parts of the traditions of learning that I grew up in: literacy for its own sake and so-called "pure" mathematics (which I call simply "mathematics").

Maybe what I'm getting at is that representation isn't the whole picture. If I've spoken somewhere (as I admit I have) of wanting to turn my entire life into a work of art—by way of zines, math classes, whatever—I've been using poetic license. Hyperbole, if you will. Lying, if you must. I think I believe that there is life outside the text. But then, it's not the rappers that say any different.

In closing, then: on the other hand. I seem to be more than a little bit confused. I may know something about art, but I don't know what I like. Are we having fun yet? We?

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