Kline “The Inverse Theology of Kayne West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”
Theodore Adorno and Kanye West are unlikely conversation partners. With Adorno’s disdain for all forms of “popular” art, he certainly would have been dismissive of West as a pop artist, and he most likely would have found West’s celebrity and mainstream popularity as evidence of West’s irrelevance towards the sort of radical Marxian philosophy to which he was devoted. It is also difficult to imagine the mega-celebrity Kanye West having much interest in a radical Marxist theorist that thought that popular culture was nothing but a form of mass distraction and deception that ensured the un-freedom of human beings. However, as I hope to show in this essay, despite their apparent polarity, West and Adorno seem to share a particular theological sensibility that gestures towardswhat I describe asamaterialist theologythat hinges on the rejection of all forms of positive revelation that would function as an abstract consolation in a concrete world of violence and suffering.Limiting my analysis to West’s 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,I suggest that Adorno’s category of an “inverse theology” provides a helpful way of uncovering what I take to be West’s inherent materialist theology. By listening to the album through the lens of an inverse theology, listeners will be able tohear in the album the contours of a materialist theology of humanist responsibility. Taking the album’s final song “Lost in the World/Who Will Survive in America” as a hermeneutic for the entire album, I suggest that the album expresses a longing for redemption that is ultimately denied for the sake of turning the listener’s gaze back onto material reality and its damaged nature. As a fantasy album that exposes the misogynistic desire, violence, and contradiction of what Adorno calls “damaged life,”My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy provides an artistic example for how theology’s primary task, following Adorno, should not be to provide objective promises of redemption in which human beings ultimately hope, but rather to expose the damaged world as untrue and in so doing point to human being’s responsibility to create a better world for themselves.
An inverse theology approaches material life critically from the conceptual perspective of redemption while refusing to represent anything that might actually constitute redemption. The primary objective of inverse theology is to expose the violence of the world’s material arrangement in order to critique it and provide conceptual space for thinking the possibility of a better world.Adorno, an atheist that had a philosophical fondness for theological concepts, thinks that theology is a way of articulating the limits of rationality and—in response to such limits—the longing for a coherent and meaningful world beyond the world that actually exists. In other words, Adorno thinksthe discipline of theology represent the quest for a truth that rationality in itself cannot provide. For Adorno, the condition for truth in this world is to “allow suffering to speak,” and the resources of theology provide an essential part of the quest for truth in the world. An inverse theology utilizes theological concepts—for example, the concept of an eschatological redemption of the world—as a means to dialectically pose challenges towards the oppressive status quos of material reality and its structures that cause suffering in the world. This is to say that in order to effectively critique the dystopian reality of the world, one must take the perspective of utopia, which, as Adorno puts it, reveals the world to be “as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light.”The concept of utopia (or, redemption), however, cannot be accessed or intimated apart from the material world because utopia can only signal an unrealized possibility within the world itself. In other words, utopia can only function as a means of negative revelation. One of the major theological concepts that an inverse theology adheres to is, as Adorno puts it, “an extreme loyalty to the [Jewish concept of the] prohibition of images, far beyond what this once originally meant.”In this way, the concept of redemption can never be imaged as an objective reality awaiting to be realized, but can onlyfunction as the illumination of what the world is not. This is the end of an inverse theology’s reach, and any positive revelation that would provide a concrete image, analogy, or guarantee to the concept of redemption is strictly denied. Furthermore, because an inverse theology is fundamentally a materialist theology, any notion that redemption might come from somewhere beyond history is stringently denied.. This, as Adorno understands, places the focus not on an absent God—or any metaphysical principle—who will eventually intervene and redeem society, but back ontothe damaged nature of a world determined by the powers of human reasoning.This makes human beings, not a God, responsiblefor the challenges that the theological concept poses and the conceptual spaces of possibility it opens up.
Returning to West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, I read the album through a theological lens that hears within its lyrical content the inverse theology that I have just described above. To be clear, I am not suggesting West is being a theologian or even has any intention of expressing any theological convictions. To be sure, my own theological interpretation of the album betrays certain things that West has said publicly regarding the album and his own faith. This is to say that the inverse theology that I locate within the album is most likely accidental in terms of West’s own intentions. Nevertheless, I hear out of the album’s material an emerging theological sensibility—a sort of “bubbling up” of a theology out of the material—that has the contours of an inverse theology.
That West’s album is a fantasy suggests that he is already contemplating something from a point removed from the reality of concrete existence, and that such a fantasy, as I hope to show, is rooted in a longing for some sort of redemption that is an escape from the existing world. This is most clear when the album is read backwards from the last track, “Lost in the World/Who Will Survive in America?”Reading the album as a whole, “Lost in the World”is certainly the most transcendentally and spiritually driven song on the album, using the language of heaven, hell, angels, and eternity. In the line that I take West to be expressing his hope for salvationfrom the damaged world of his fantasy,he raps:“You’re my Devil, Your my Angel/You’re my Heaven, You’re my Hell/Your my Now, You’re my Forever/”…etc.True to an inverse theology, this dialectical theological language points not to a version of redemption’s possibility that is unmediated by the world, but to one that is inseparable from the world and its damaged nature. Heaven can only be conceived through the revelation of the hell of earth; forever must be read alongside of the limits of temporal reality; freedom must always be read against its opposite.
The utopic urge to escape the world expressed in West’s evocation of breaking out of the “plastic world” of reality—“Lost in the plastic life/let’s break out of this fake ass party/turn this into a classic night”—and pointing towards a redemptive afterlife—“If we die in each other’s arms/Still get laid in that afterlife”—I read as a judgment of the world portrayed throughout the album as false.Redemption from the damaged life of misogyny, violence, and contradiction seems to be an overarching theme throughout, though this is never stated explicitly save for a few spots. For example, as he raps in “Gorgeous,” “This week’s been a bad massage/I need a happy ending and a new beginning/I need a new fitted and some job opportunities that’s lucrative/this is the real world..,they done stole your dreams.” In this case the “real world” is the damaged one of broken dreams; it is the world to be escaped from and redeemed with a new beginning.
Aside from the few direct references of longing for something redemptive, the rest of the album speaks for itself as a revelation of damaged life. This happens in two thematic motifs throughout the album: contradiction and violence. Almost every single track on the album expresses a contradictory account of desire—usually articulated in sexual terms—that leads to violent behavior, mostly against women. Two particularly representative songs that expose this and provide a vivid portrayal of Adorno’s concept of “messianic light” that uncovers and illuminates a world of contradiction and painare “All of the Lights” and “Monster.”“All of the Lights’” chorus consists of the refrain: “Turn up the lights in here, baby/Extra bright, I want y’all to see this/Turn up the lights in here, baby/You know what I need/Want you to see everything/Want you to see all of the lights.” The lights the song refers to take the form of “cop lights/flash lights/spot lights/ strobe lights/street lights” that reveal the “fast life/drug life/thug life/rock life” of West’s fantasy. In the song, the lights reveal and illuminate a suffering reality where West takes on the persona of a deadbeat dad and abusive partner as he raps from the perspective of an abuser in a situation of domestic abuse. West’s character in the song goes to jail for beating his partner—“I slapped my girl, she called the feds”—and is eventually released only to find her cheating on him with another man and then having “to take him to that ghetto university.” West receives a restraining order and is “sucked dry” of money by the courts and can only see his daughter at a public visitation, leading him to plead for the chance to continue to be a father to child so that she will not have to “grow up in that ghetto university.” The damaged world where a man that is longing for conditions where he can genuinely reconcile the relationships in his life is exposed as caught in the actual world where well-intentioned and rationalized desire is contradicted by irrational violence which does nothing but repeat itself over and over again. By exposing the horror and violence of life’s contradictions, a profound longing for redemption emerges—heard loudly in West’s crying out to his alienated partner, “Baby please!”—in the face of his daughter having to remain stuck in the “ghetto university” of cyclical violence. In this way, the suffering that is revealed as the messianic lights of exposure are turned on in the song express the longing for redemption embedded within West’s fantasy.
After exposing to the light the damaged world of West’s familial violence, “Monster” takes the character of damaged life even further and seems to perform something similar to what Adorno perceives the composer Schoenberg to be doing in his text Philosophy of New Music(although in a completely different artistic medium that Adorno would have certainly disapproved of). Like the music of Schoenberg, which Adorno perceived as a negative revelation of the world’s absolute guilt and violence against the modern subject, West “takes all the darkness [sic] and guilt of the world on [him]self.” He shows that longing’s object of redemption “is in the knowledge of unhappiness; all its beauty is in denial of the semblance of the beautiful.” “Monster”—certainly the harshest and most violent song on the album—is an exercise flaunting the depravity and contradiction of extreme wealth and misogynistic sexual desire. It seems to willingly and deliberately take on all the darkness and guilt of damaged life and in so doing illuminates the world’s monstrous character. The refrain that runs through the entire song over and over again—“Everybody knows I’m a motherfucking monster”—is the acknowledgement of an inherently damaged world that apparently only a God can judge, heard in the refrain as the repeated words “I crossed the line, and I’ll let God decide” end the song.
Going back to “Lost in the World,” the “I’ll let God Decide” line in “Monster” seems to be affirmed (although this time not as judgment but as a positive and redemptive possibility) with the reference to the afterlife: “If we die in each other’s arms/still get laid in that afterlife.” This seems to suggest the idea that “if the damaged life consumes us beyond repair, don’t worry, we will be redeemed in the end.” Reading the album backwards, it has been this idea that illuminates the world as damaged and highlights the longing fora redemptive escape into an afterlife that seems for a moment to be the culmination of the entire album. However, as soon as the song seems like it is about the let this reference to the afterlife close out the fantasy with escape from the damaged life that is illumined by the song’s notion of redemption, West samples Gil Scot Heron’s “Comment #1,” a thoroughly materialist reflection on the futility of trusting in the God of the preachers for salvation—“People don’t even want to hear the preacher spill or spiel because God’s whole card has been thoroughly piqued/And America is now blood and tears instead of milk and honey”—and the damaged life of the reality of a racist and colonialist America that has been exposed as evil and false: “America was a bastard/the illegitimate daughter of the mother country whose legs were then spread around the world and a rapist known as freedom, free doom.” Though West has been expressing a fantasy of exposing the world of its brokenness and ultimately escaping it, his use of Heron’s poem affirms that there can ultimately be no recourse to utopia or escape. Utopia can only point to the fact that the world is not utopia; in the end utopia’s concept must be denied as ultimate responsibility remains in the hands of human beings. Heron’s poem turns the listener’s gaze back onto material reality, denying utopia’s promise as it places responsibility for thinking a better world back into the hands of human beings, who remain under the challenging question posed to it through the world’s exposure: “All I want is a good home and a wife, and a children [sic], and some food to feed them every night/After all is said and done build a new route to China if they’ll have you/Who will survive in America?” As West use of Heron shows, true to an inverse theology, the possibility for a better world cannot come from a force outside of material reality, but only from resources already embedded within it.Though theological concepts such as an escape to a redemptive afterlife that allow for a perspective removed from damaged life have the power to pose to society challenging questions regarding the world’s damaged nature,such questions cannot in turn be answered by anything outside of damaged life.The focus is ultimately turned away from the theological concept and back onto material reality and the responsibility for human beings to work towards its betterment. In the end, it is only human beings that have the power within themselves to respond to the unveiling of a world in need of redemption and figure out for themselves what it will take to create a better world.
 Minima Moralia
 Negative Dialectics,
 Minima Moralia
 In an MTV interview West says “Its all in God’s path, when you do things with a very positive intent, even when you make mistakes, God will put you on the right path.”
 See “Monster,” “So Appalled,” and “Devil in a New Dress,” “Runaway” and “Hell of a Life”
 Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, 102.
 West’s verse: “The best living or dead hands down huh?/less talk more head right now huh?/and my eyes more red than the devil is/and I’m bout to take it to another level bitch/there you go again, ain’t nobody as cold as this
do the rap and the track triple double no assist/but my only focus is staying on some bogus shit/argue with my older bitch acting like I owe her shit/I heard the people saying raps are gettin trap mayne/bought the chain that always give me back pain
fucking up my money so yeah I had to act sane/Chi nigga but these hoes love my accent/she came up to me and said this the number 2/if you wanna make it number one your number 2 now/this that goose an’ Malibu I call it Malibooya/God damn Yeezy How I hit em with the new style/know that motherfucker well, what you gonna do now/whatever I wanna do, gosh it’s cool now/nah gonna do, uh its a new now think yo motherfucker really really need to cool down/cause you will never get on top off this/so mommy best advice is to get on top of this/have you ever had sex with a pharaoh/I put the pussy in a sarcophagus/now she claiming I bruise her esophagus/head of the class and she just want a swallowship/I’m living the future so the presence is my past/my presence is a present kiss my ass”
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