Outsiders The Left

Hip, Woke, Square: Postscript on Mailer

“Woke” once denoted an oppositional mentality. How has it come to mean something close to “square”?

Recently, the journalist Michael Wolff reported that a centenary republication of Norman Mailer’s work had been scrapped due to objections to his notorious 1962 essay “The White Negro.” In what follows, I will add a few additional observations to my recent essay on the continued relevance of Mailer’s perennially controversial polemic. In my previous comments on the subject, I noted that:

today’s reader will . . . find lines that could have been published recently, with slight modifications, such as: “No Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk.”

The passage I quoted from Mailer continues as follows:

The cameos of security for the average white: mother and the home, lob and the family, are not even a mockery to millions of Negroes; they are impossible. The Negro has the simplest of alternatives: live a life of constant humility or ever-threatening danger.

Any observer of our cultural discourse over the past five to ten years will know that a large proportion of today’s white writers and intellectuals share the preoccupation Mailer voices here. In particular since the rise of Black Lives Matter and the publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, the quotidian dangers facing black Americans at the hands of the white majority and the state have been invoked at every turn. However, Mailer’s purpose in emphasizing this theme differed from those pursued by our contemporaries. He did not aim to call out “white privilege”or to demand a world in which such danger is eliminated, or at least distributed more proportionately across demographic groupings.

Rather, Mailer’s claim was that deprivation and oppression had allowed black people to see through the hollowness of the entire modern project of progress and prosperity – a realization that the crises of the twentieth century had also begun to force on their “hip” emulators. The a-bomb and the Nazi camps, he believed, had laid bare the fraudulence of the West’s fantasy of civilizational advancement, at least for a minority of outsiders who were willing to be honest about the implications of these events. But they were proceeded in this recognition by black Americans, who had always known the dark truths about America and the West that whites had denied.

Black people’s awareness that the game was rigged against them was, for Mailer, one of the seeds of a larger subversive insight of universal relevance to the denizens of advanced Western civilization, an insight that the “Hipster,” who placed himself on the margins of society and rejected its dominant values, had also glimpsed: “[s}haring a collective disbelief in the words of men who had too much money and controlled too many things, they knew almost as powerful a disbelief in the socially monolithic ideas of the single mate, the solid family and the respectable love life.” These realizations had come from direct experience and observation, but the means of articulating them – in particular, linguistic and musical expression – had come from black America. “It is no accident,” Mailer writes, “that the source of Hip is the Negro for he has been living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries.”

In a word, Mailer viewed black Americans as uniquely “woke,” in the sense of the term that was becoming current precisely at the time he wrote the essay. As it happens, although Mailer doesn’t use it in “The White Negro,”“woke” first passed from black vernacular into mainstream usage in the same period as “hip,” “cool,” and so on, although it took far longer for it to gain a similar vernacular currency. Just a few years after the publication of “The White Negro,” the novelist William Melvin Kelley wrote a New York Times Magazine article about white appropriation of black lingo entitled “If You’re Woke, You Dig It” – one of the first appearances of the term in print. “Wokeness,” in its original sense, maps directly on to the themes explored by Mailer: it implies an awareness of the injustices of the system that translates into everyday behavior, in the form of reasonable mistrust of authority and dominant values. White hipsters had gotten woke, Mailer claims, by appropriating from black jazzmen not simply their musical and linguistic innovations, but the insurgent cultural and political sensibility that informed the latter.  

It is a curious reversal, then, that “woke,” which in Mailer’s time might refer to the incendiary insights he believed were afforded by black marginality, is now more often used to refer to the opposite: the ideological conformity of the liberal political establishment and its adherents. To Mailer, the ambient violence faced by black people in white America was an existential wake-up call heeded only by rebels and outcasts. Lately, the same predicament has become a cause-célèbre promoted by Fortune 500 companies and corporate media. Now that a version of this cause is promoted from the pinnacles of power, “woke” has come to mean, for detractors, something close to “square”: an unquestioning embrace of establishment propaganda.

This development results in part from a broader trend I observed in my previous essay on the subject: “in the decades after ‘The White Negro’ appeared, American capitalism embraced the same values Mailer regarded as antithetical to its functioning.” Expressive individualism and sexual permissivism, as observers from Christopher Lasch to Slavoj Žižek and Mark Fisher have argued, were absorbed from the counterculture into the fundamental logic of capitalist functioning, which rendered much of Mailer’s analysis glaringly obsolete by the decade after he published the essay. Indeed, within a few years of the publication of “The White Negro,” Herbert Marcuse proposed the concept of “repressive desublimation” to refer to the ways capitalism could enjoin its subjects to pursue pleasure and liberation as a means of extending its own dominance.

What lately came to be called “Woke Capital” is a distinct paradigm from the permissive hedonism that became prevalent post-1960s. Rather than enjoining us to pursue individual satisfaction through consumptions, corporations may now declare that using their goods and services is contingent on accepting certain ideological and moral injunctions, as when Uber launched an ad campaign centered on the slogan, “If you tolerate racism, delete Uber.” Note that it is not being racist that disqualifies you from consuming the product; it is “tolerating racism,” i.e. presumably not “calling it out” at all opportunities, marching, organizing, etc. The consumer must now be an activist, and to be “woke” is not to reject the imperatives of consumer society, but to be the predilect follower of them.

The convergence of “woke” and “square” was perhaps most potently represented on “Blackout Tuesday,” in 2020, when Instagram feeds became a uniform sea of black squares, posted in protest of the murder of George Floyd, a gesture promoted and implemented by a wide array of celebrities and corporations. A passage from Mailer’s essay, written sixty years prior, has an unmistakable resonance with that uncanny digital spectacle that reveals both the continuities and discontinuities of the moment he evoked with our own:

One is Hip or one is Square (the alternative which each new generation coming into American life is beginning to feel) one is a rebel or one conforms, one is a frontiersman in the Wild West of American night life, or else a Square cell, trapped in the totalitarian tissues of American society, doomed willy-nilly to conform if one is to succeed.

Since these lines were written, the cultural values associated with the fringe whose cause Mailer took up were not only integrated into the cultural mainstream but turned into the moral imperatives issued from the commanding heights of economic and cultural power. Today’s most potent conformism now takes the form of ritualized repudiation of any remaining traces of the dominant values of an earlier era. In this topsy-turvy panorama, various sorts of reaction – advocacy of racial and gender hierarchy, idealization of the very “square” 1950s America lambasted by Mailer – have been able to repackage themselves as countercultural provocation. In the aftermath of Mailer’s posthumous cancelation, Eric Kaufmann suggested that he was being devoured by the cultural revolution he helped initiate – “reaping the anti-whiteness he sowed.” In reality, Mailer cuts a more ambiguous profile, particularly because of his celebration and practice of a form of hypermasculine sexual exuberance that has once again become taboo. For this reason and for the surprising resonances of his controversial work with present cultural antagonisms, he bears rereading.