Kanye West and anarchy discussed in lecture

"No Church in the Wild" used pop culture examples in political contexts

Allison Cosby Sep 23, 2013

Kanye West, Lady Gaga, and Wes Anderson rarely make it into academia as subjects of study, and they’re even less frequently cited in this sense as renowned theorists like Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, and Emma Goldman. But a combination of pop culture and high-brow intellectualism was precisely what queer theorist Jack Halberstam brought to Carnegie Mellon in his Thursday lecture. The lecture — sponsored by the Center for Arts in Society, the English department, and Trans-Q TV — was titled “No Church in the Wild: Queer Anarchy & the Aesthetics of Chaos” and focused on a discussion of queerness and anarchy through the lens of popular culture.

Halberstam is currently a professor of English and the director of the Center for Feminist Research at the University of Southern California. He is a gender and queer theorist, and his books cover topics like female masculinity, critiques of heteronormativity and capitalism, and popular culture. His most recent book, 2012’s Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal, looks at the significance of Lady Gaga’s fame — what she symbolizes and why it matters — and results in a manifesto of sorts, calling for a new type of feminism that encourages creative chaos and fluidity.

Halberstam’s talk on Thursday was focused on ideas of “the Wild” and queer anarchy: what they are, where we see them, and what they could mean for the future. Halberstam defined anarchy as a new form of opposition to the state and to institutionality in general and drew on political movements like Occupy to demonstrate that “people are turning now to political projects of anarchy.” The talk was extremely accessible even to those without a background in queer or political theory. Halberstam relied on popular culture reference points to guide his talk.

According to Halberstam, the current movement toward anarchy is all about disrupting the system and calling into question all of the social norms that we take for granted. The majority of the talk focused on where we see these ideas in popular culture, including Wes Anderson’s 2009 film The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne. “Art is a special place for experiments with anarchy,” Halberstam said, noting that in art, there’s less concern for practical consequences.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is a story about a fox that steals chickens from wealthy farmers every night until the farmers catch on and try to kill him. The fox and his family retaliate, outwitting the farmers and creating new homes underground. According to Halberstam, this film can be interpreted as a radical tale of queer anarchist disruption. The foxes literally go underground to escape the farmers, but this could be viewed as them creating a subculture that rejects capitalism and traditional ideas of male heroism.

Halberstam also discussed Jay-Z and Kanye West’s hit song “No Church in the Wild,” from their hit album Watch the Throne. The song embodies many major themes of the album as a whole: fame, wealth, power, and the challenges of these successes. R&B singer Frank Ocean — who happens to be gay, a point Halberstam finds worth noting — sings the refrain on the song: “Human beings in a mob./What’s a mob to a king?/What’s a king to a god?/What’s a god to a non-believer?/Who don’t believe in anything?”

“I hear anarchy in that lyric,” Halberstam said, discussing the difficulty of “non-believing” in a world where theology and existing power structures rule. Halberstam believes in the power of people to change society through solidarity with others who want the same things. By subverting the power of markets and the average person’s status as a mindless consumer, Halberstam believes we can be heroes like the protagonists of The Fantastic Mr. Fox and create actual, productive change.

Halberstam closed his talk with a discussion of drag culture and a few queer artists who continue to push the limits of art and disruption, before opening the floor to questions.

“I’m not convinced that anarchy is even supposed to be laid out in terms of a political regime,” Halberstam said, in response to an audience question about how anarchy can be understood through the most recent Batman movie. He emphasized his point that the anarchy he sees is more a means of disruption to our typical ways of thinking. “We’re not really debating new forms of subculture, but we are turning to anarchy to ask questions,” he said.

Attendees were left with a lot to think about, from how we interpret popular culture to what questions we ask about political structures. Halberstam acknowledged that he, too, still has questions, and that that’s okay: “I’m happy to sit with some of this material and not know.”