Fictive Credit: Aesthetics and Economics in Rockers (1978)
In the 1978 cult classic film Rockers (Dir. Theodoros Bafaloukos) we get a glimpse at what it might mean for economic credit to be grounded in fundamentally aesthetic categories. While there will not be room to elaborate fully on the topic, what I am ultimately interested in, here, is the role of narrative, especially narratives about possible futures, in constructing credit. I cannot argue at length for the position here, but my reading of Rockers is a part of a larger project in which I argue for the politically salient role of certain kinds of fiction in the creation and maintenance of economic credit. The gist of that idea is that stories we tell about ourselves, even when coded in complex mathematical models constructed from economic data, contain irreducible elements of projection into the unknown and the uncertain. If those projections are in some sense more or less likely stories, then ultimately credit is given or withheld on the basis of fictions we find more or less plausible. Simultaneously, our distributions of credit reveal the stories—the fictions—to which we are already committed and in accordance with which we are collectively and individually committed to give or withhold credit.
For the sake of my argument here, I propose that style can be considered a fiction in miniature, a condensed narrative. By “condensed” I mean that style expresses individual and collective potency by simultaneously suggesting and suspending possible action, by compressing its potency. Style operates not so much by simultaneously revealing and concealing, but by simultaneously engaging and disengaging in activity. Style does not represent but persuades, partly by inviting others into an imaginary action that is not yet, but could be undertaken, on multiple levels and along multiple dimensions. Style thus compresses a continuum of possible futures, and the most dramatic styles play on a power that Aristotle in the Poetics called the ability of the poet to concoct plausible impossibilities. Style is a form of daring, challenge, and enticement.
In Rockers (1978) the challenge is, a defiance of the poverty and degradation of tenement life in Kingston. Thus the elaborate and continuously evolving styles of the “Rockers” (the reggae musicians portrayed in the film) are much more than mere personal expressions. The styles here are tactics of survival undertaken in a mode of defiant chicanery and trickster hustle, echoing (dubbing, as it were) the ingenious sound engineering of the reggae studios, where distortion, error, and mere noise are transformed into unanticipated music.
Rockers is perhaps the crown jewel of a cluster of films that emerged from Jamaica in the 1970’s, the most famous of which is The Harder They Come (1972), directed by Perry Henzell and starring Jimmy Cliff. At the center of Rockers is Horsemouth, played by Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace. Horsemouth is (and was, in reality) the most in-demand drummer of the roots reggae scene at the time. He is known by his friends as the “hard” drummer, an appellation roughly equivalent to the current “badass.” He’s the best. He plays with everyone in Jamaica, including Burning Spear, and does regular session work for all the biggest producers, including Jack Ruby. There are several scenes of Horesmouth drumming live, and as a long-time drummer myself, I can aver that Horsemouth is an extraordinary musician, with exceptional grace, touch, and creativity behind the kit. Since the rhythm guitar tends to anchor the meter in reggae music, the drums are left to play an extremely light-handed role in the music, accenting, coloring, and in some sense “singing” along with the lead vocal. This sung role of the drums is of course not accidental, since drums in the West African traditions from which reggae derives are always considered voices, and were originally designed for long-distance communication as well as communication with the spirit world.
Horsemouth’s touch on the drums is not accidental to his ability to “touch” his friends for the credit he needs to start his own business. Not content to wait for his big break as a hard-working musician, Horsemouth decides to try his hand hustling records. This is profoundly ironic, since he is the drummer on many of the records he must now try to push to the various shacks that sell reggae scattered across the island. Horsemouth needs to first raise the cash to buy himself a motorcycle from which to make his deliveries. This he does by going around to his friends and asking for loans. The nuance and subtlety of these requests for credit are fascinating. Some of his friends demand a cut of the earnings. Others seem to trust Horsemouth so much that they simply hand over the cash with best wishes, not questioning whether one day he will be good for the loan, let alone better off or profitable from it.
Everyone Horesmouth interacts with, including his wife, is deeply skeptical that this venture will work out. It’s worth wondering why everyone plays along. The odds are against him. Surely these are not loans that would be approved by a local bank. So what is the basis of the credit? The mix of motives here is fascinating. Perhaps some of it is sympathy, some of it is a desire for adventure, some of it is the trill of being part of someone trying to stick it to the man.
The drummer is obviously “playing” his friends, but they are playing, as well, as they offer some minimal support for him to get his venture off the ground. There are no formal contracts, no terms drawn up, as Horsey is handed various sized wads of cash. They know he is good for it. They know where he lives, who he is. Their agreements resemble the Islamic tradesman’s handshake and glance toward heaven: God, or in this case Jah, stand surety between you and me, between I-and-I and thee. Horsey has established his credit not by being a good businessman, but by being a good drummer, a great drummer—by being a known style. His style is so important, so impressive, that many are surprised that he is hustling, at all—that he is not simply biding his time, waiting for his big break. One of his friends in particular is shocked that he would even be taking up the hustle. Just keep drumming, his friend says—that’s the way to get to the big man, to impress the big man. But Horsey doesn’t want to impress the man. He wants to be the man.
Originally conceived as a documentary, Rockers morphed into a fiction film during its production. Although the production lasted only two months, and the film was created on a JA $500,000 budget, it is a masterpiece of filmmaking. All of the main characters essentially play their real-life selves, and the scenes of Horsemouth’s home are shot in his tenement house in Kingston with his actual wife and children. These scenes, in particular, are incredibly poignant, exposing the poverty and squalor, as well as the complex conceptions of culture and honor and integrity—at once patriarchal, chauvanist, and intensely emotional—that animate the Rastafarian world view.
The way that the film rides the line between fiction and reality is extraordinarily rich, and provokes a number of possible interpretive possibilities. It might be argued, for example, that a certain minimum of fiction here reveals more of reggae culture than any attempt at straight documentary or cinema verite. That is to say, to the extent that the culture itself is constructed through self-conscious performance, from styles of dress to modes of gesture, projections of affect and attitude through speech, then performance is essential to this culture, and essential to the establishment and promotion of credit. Here it is clear that a person is a style—there is no person “behind” the style, no nihilistic or cynical calculator, because in some sense, apart from abject poverty, style is all there is. This is yet another point that a musical film can help articulate: style for this extraordinary cast of characters is paradigmatically musical style, but it is not musical style without also being a style of life, a mode of comportment, bearing, attitude, and affect. Just as with the purpose of music in relation to life, the purpose of the style is not to adorn or represent or even hide who one is, but is rather a process of selection and improvisation that is meant to be expressive, productive, and ultimately persuasive.
Part of what Rockers exemplifies so well is a form of life where the aesthetic and the economic almost completely overlap. It is a story of impoverished yet brilliant musicians who live by their styles, whose livelihood and survival is linked directly to style. Style is quite literally the meaning of their lives, insofar as these styles are persuasive, insofar as they can be given enough credit to remain viable. And because the film itself rides a thin line between documentary and fiction, it also serves, as film, as a mode of creating and maintaining further accreditation for reggae, for Rastafarianism, and for the stylized hustle that remains the essence of these lives. It is a fiction about the aesthetic dimension of credit, as well as itself being a mode of persuasion, a style, that attempts to attract more of that same credit.
Part of why the film is so revealing about economics has to do precisely with how little “exchange,” in the sense of monetary or contractual transactions, actually takes place. It’s clear that the biggest moves in the economic game are made, on the one hand, through theft and bribery, and on the other hand, through intricate and extensive modes of informal credit. The basis of credit is a certain kind of belonging, a belonging that is itself a certain kind of style, an ethos. What affords credit, what is creditworthy, is the distinctive variation made by the drummer on the ethos.
The film thus joins a long tradition of heterodox thought about economics, a lineage including not only Marx himself, but also Marcel Mauss, Friedrich Nietzsche, Georges Bataille, Norman O. Brown, and more recently Giorgio Agamben, Philip Goodchild, William B. Connolly, and David Graeber. It suggests how economics is not, as it is for the neoclassical view, a closed sphere of exchange governed by the rationality of utility maximization in the face of scarcity, but a general cultural form of antagonistic relations of credit and debt. Such relations have an essential and irreducibly aesthetic dimension, in the sense that credit is grounded on powers of attraction, the ability to improvise, and above all on the maintenance, through style, of both the mystique and the prestige required to inspire and maintain the trust and recognition of others, a trust that constitutes credit, as such. On this view, economics is antagonistic not because humans struggle with one another for access to scarce resources or for other modes by means of which to meet survival needs (for example, through the search for employment). Rather, economics is antagonistic because subsistence needs are embedded in, and cannot be separated from demands for recognition, honor, and prestige. As a game of honor and dishonor, games of credit both over-code and distort subsistence needs, since bids for prestige involve risks and gambles whose outcomes variously enhance, thwart, and generally obscure human survival needs.
Through style one does not hide the real truth about one’s intentions or identity, any more than one escapes the struggle to survive. Rather, the fact that there is no ultimate or fundamental truth of an individual identity, and no direct or simple path to survival, is evidenced by the fact that in human (and arguably in other animal) culture, style is taken seriously, performance is valued for its own sake. The point can be pressed: one attains and maintains credit through repeated performances, through the maintenance of style. Style is how one is who one becomes. A highly contextual and collaborative process, style makes for elaborate and intricate patterns of individuation. These patterns are continuously contested, provoked, and more or less realized variants of fictions. From this point of view, Rockers does not tell us the truth about Reggae or Jamaica. It tells us a story that persuades us to be attracted to a style. This is what Horsemouth does, as a way of developing the credit he needs in order to try to move beyond the subsistence level to which even he, the best drummer on the scene, is nevertheless confined.
But I would argue that a great deal of the lesson of this film lies in the fact that Horesmouth is not directly concerned about improving his material condition so much as he is about addressing the shame and dishonor that attend the poverty that he and the other musicians somehow survive. Even when there are scarcities that need to be addressed, the value of lives cannot really be attested to by any mere quantitative increase in wealth unless that increase is an effect of an increase in honor, a restoration of dignity. But that demand is precisely the one Horsemouth makes when he refuses to wait in line, refuses wait his turn for his big break in the music industry. When he sets out to become an entrepreneur, he is not so much seeking the level of wealth of The Man, but to regain a dignity that is extracted from the musicians in the form of the honor (the surplus dignity, as David Graeber would put it) of the Mafiosi who employ the musicians at their tourist resorts. The gangster-resort owners also run theft and extortion rackets, and when the resort owner who has hired Horsemouth for a weekly gig hires thugs who steal his motorcycle, Horsemouth decides to take revenge in a big and stylish way. The film ends in this fantasy of redistribution, when the rockers manage a big heist, cleaning out the bad guys’ warehouse and giving the goods away to their friends in the tenement slums. We know that this is not generally how these things end. Those who rise up to challenge the big boys generally lose in the end. What is important, here, as Ernst Bloch might have said, is the “principle of hope” embodied in the style, itself: the utopian overtures of beauty, elegance, and grace with which the heist is done.
From my point of view, this sequence is probably the most poignant and beautiful in the entire film. The camera lingers on each Rocker’s distinctive gait, each distinctive way of walking, of carrying hips and shoulders, of swinging the arms, of bearing a head or focusing the eyes. As the forms by which these more or less desperate, more or less impoverished men create and maintain credit, they are styles become persuasive by inviting participation in the imaginative potencies that these men in some sense are.
As Georges Bataille saw with perhaps more clarity than any other thinker, economies are organized not on the basis of needs for reproduction, but around the expenditure of excess. And that expenditure takes the form of a specific cultural style. This style is itself a complex of geographical, historical, and perhaps even biological determinants, which together form necessary but not sufficient conditions for determining the style in which the surfeit of energy will be expended in a given, relatively autonomous region. Bataille catalogued a few variations: human sacrifice for the Aztecs, Lamaism for Tibet, foreign development schemes for contemporary finance capital. One of Bataille’s most salient points was that because surpluses of wealth (what he called “the accursed share”) cannot, by definition, be productively (that is to say, reproductively) used, it is impossible to understand surpluses outside of a “sacred” logic, a cultural logic that entails that what defines us as people is not what we do in the face of scarcity but how we manage our excess, “gloriously or catastrophically,” as he put it. This becomes most evident at the “extremes” of social life, at the level of both extreme poverty and extreme wealth.
Part of why a film like Rockers can be so instructive for understanding the nature of economy is that it reveals the contours of what Bataille called “general” economy. While “restricted” or “reproductive” economy appears to be intelligible through the use of models or tools that track variables of supply and demand, general economy is neither predictable nor rational. It is driven not by need but by desire, not by prudence but by passion, not by measurement but by gambles, risks, and even by the defiance of death. The highly contextual and contingent nature of these gambles, and the credit they command or refuse or struggle to retain, is, and will remain, the stuff of legend, the stuff of fiction, and essence of Rockers. General economy is ultimately a matter of excess, of giving, and of play. It is, in essence, the style of a life.
 I’m particularly interested in the narratives that are constructed in the context of divination practices—practices in which unforeseeable future contingencies are supposed to be intuitively grasped by competent practitioners or “oracles.” I will explore and critique neoliberal knowledge claims from this perspective in my forthcoming Politics of Divination: Economic Endgame and the Religion of Contingency (Palgrave Macmillan Press).
 For a study of Rastafari women and the paradoxes of their oppression in the context of an explicitly politically-liberatory religious movement, see Obiagele Lake, Rastafari Women: Subordination in the Midst of Liberation Theology (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 1998).
 As Max Weber demonstrated in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, it requires a particular religious style of life (one rooted ultimately in Calvinist doctrines) for the highly peculiar commitments to efficiency, thrift, and reinvestment that mark the form of economy in which wealth is created and maintained primarily in a context of regularized contractual exchange.
 See David Graeber’s recent provocation on this point, at http://thebaffler.com/past/whats_the_point_if_we_cant_have_fun.
 See Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (New York: Norton, 2010) for a brilliant treatment of the decisive significance of honor for moral life in general.
 David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011), p. 170.
 Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, Vol. I (New York: Urzone, 1991).