Radiohead-the “All I Need” video and its discontents

The potential critiques of Radiohead’s “All I Need” video are legion. The most obvious, of course, is the potential conjuring of the helpless groveling third world subject just waiting for a few dollars from you in your first world to help buy some food/school supplies. I think the statement “you’re all I need” here works both ways: the more insidious reading is that the first world child needs the Third World child, subjugated, in order to provide for the first world child’s standard of living. But the lyrics and video mean more than this.

If we take the lyrics in a straightforward way, we see that this song is a critique of the traditional NGO/foreign aid/white man’s burden symbolic order. The incessant use of the “you” and “your” in the lyrics is taunting, and the speaker performs on itself the type of benevolent debasement that NGOs tend to map onto the Third World in the pornography of foreign aid (see Arturo Escobar’s work in critical development studies). “I am a moth/ Who just wants to share your light / I’m just an insect / Trying to get out of the night.” Obviously the “just” here is key, to the pantomime occurring here. The very next line sticks the point home: “I only stick with you / Because there are no others.” This is a mocking line, the absolute refusal to be subjected to the normal groveling position, that makes a fool out of the deluded tortured first world liberal.

The video is an important addition/revision to this. The song by itself represents an essential Third World denial of the call-and-response aid narrative, and its separate existence (from the video) is important. But this mocking denial in itself is not a complete plan. The video shows where we might go once the statement of the song independently is established. Once the third and first world subjects approach each other from a standpoint of mutual respect, then we can continue.

The video shows, now, the links, the blooming intersubjectivity, that might deliver us from the trap of the dominant foreign aid narrative.

The split-screen device here is meant to reveal, not what is behind, but what is between these two subjects: the link that binds them. And every link can be used as an opportunity for communication or domination, usually for both. It is a gesture not simply of condemnation but of empowerment. That is exactly the jouissance inspiring, moving Yorke to the song’s stirring climax, rising to fight against his submergence in the audio mix like a voice reaching for a connection between worlds. The startling beauty of the bridge as the piano asserts itself is not accidentally timed, it perfectly soundtracks the imminent revelations between the two subjects, of the latent connections between the two that remain unrealized, in every sense of that word. An isolationism, a moral and intellectual and emotional autoconservation that denies this link or refuses to further it will never bring about the worldwide revolution that so many of us hunger for so deeply in our hearts. This video is trying to film and simultaneously give birth to an intersubjectivity that is greater than each of us alone.

This was the dream of 1968-to bring these two young people together, each recognizing each other’s space in the global order and working mutually to displace that order.

But with all this talk of hearts and minds, what sets this Radiohead clip apart from Crash or, especially, Babel, two films of like fabric that I have railed against/satirized/dismissed vocally and in print? I have written about Crash as “the most anti-Brechtian film ever,” in ironic opposition to Haggis’ quoting of Brecht at the Academy Awards. These films are designed basically to turn the theater or whatever place of viewing into a space of release, a safe space to access the anxieties of race relations and release all such tensions, leaving them back at the movie theater.

Radiohead’s clip, instead, focuses on the capitalist structures that link these two people together, leaving with the haunting image of the matching shoes. We get the emotional impact, but it is up to us to go out and find all the steps in between the two points on this chain. And once the mythological veil of commodity fetishism starts to be unveiled, a chain reaction begins. We are forced into newer and more contorted strategies of repression of these links and responsibilities.

How the hell do you walk away from your placement in the global capitalist system when those shoes you’re exiting on have just been graphically depicted in that system?

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