The caterpillar is a prisoner to the streets that conceived it
Its only job is to eat or consume everything around it, in order to protect itself from this mad city
While consuming its environment the caterpillar begins to notice ways to survive
One thing it noticed is how much the world shuns him, but praises the butterfly
The butterfly represents the talent, the thoughtfulness, and the beauty within the caterpillar
But having a harsh outlook on life the caterpillar sees the butterfly as weak
And figures out a way to pimp it to his own benefits
Already surrounded by this mad city
The caterpillar goes to work on the cocoon which institutionalizes him
He can no longer see past his own thoughts
He’s trapped When trapped inside these walls certain ideas start to take roots
Such as going home, and bringing back new concepts to this mad city
The result? Wings begin to emerge, breaking the cycle of feeling stagnant
Finally free, the butterfly sheds light on situations
That the caterpillar never considered, ending the eternal struggle
Although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different
They are one and the same.
Some of you may recognize this excerpt. It is the final monologue, from the final skit – the post script to the final song – of Kendrick Lamar’s recent release, To Pimp a Butterfly (2015). I’ve heard the album receive praises so high that they call it ‘the Great American Hip Hop album’; so high as to say that it marks Kendrick’s completed ascendancy towards becoming ‘hip hop’s Miles Davis.’ And they aren’t hyperbolic. If you haven’t listened to the album, go and do that now. Or, you can read this excellent piece by Vice on the conceit of the caterpillar and the butterfly that underwrites the narrative structure of the whole record.
The caterpillar is the icon. He is the center of his world. But at once, the world closes in around and constricts him – it is his cocoon. The track King Kunta evokes the image of Kunta Kinte, the 18-19th century plantation worker who had his foot cut off to prevent his escape: “… where you when I was walkin’? / Now I run the game got the whole world talkin’, King Kunta / Everybody wanna cut the legs off him.” Kendrick’s success is counterposed to his freedom. His rise to fame shot him “straight from the bottom …” not to the top, but to “this the belly of the beast.” The belly of the beast suggests the digestive; the caterpillar is also consumed, digested, parasitized by the cocoon. The belly of the beast corrupts – it consumes and excretes only bile. In keeping with the album’s conceit, it pimps. It consumes the host and excretes an endless audiovisual static noise of advertising and iconography attached to generic club beats and mind-numbing soulless pop music. I am reminded of a quote from the protagonist of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, Rob Gordon: “Do I listen to pop music because I’m depressed, or am I depressed because I listen to pop music?” – even the title of Hornby’s book suggests the constant intrusion of such noise. It is depressing because – as Kendrick describes – this noise is the excrement of a parasite. We are wading in shit like souls of sinners in Malebolge, the 8th circle of Dante’s Inferno, where (among other horrific punishments) we see those guilty of excessive flattery – surely a close conceptual cousin to ‘pimping’ – plunged endlessly into an eternally flowing river of human excrement.
Kendrick’s journey in some ways resembles the first book of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The poet cum hip hop artist journeys through the depths of Hell, and the experience resonates in his verse. Dante’s itinerary takes him safely through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven as a tourist, an observer. But of course there is no such thing as pure detached observation. The Dantes of Kendrick’s world are just spectators and first-wave agents of gentrification. Kendrick’s story is one of escape from circumstance; the caterpillar escapes the cocoon as a butterfly. He is consumed, transfigured, and released from bondage. But is the butterfly free – any more so than the caterpillar?
In The Parasite (1980), Michel Serres describes a primordial theory of human and natural relations set upon the foundational chain of a ‘parasitic cascade.’
The chain of parasitism is a simple relation of order, irreversible like the flow of the river. One feeds on another and gives nothing in return. Asymmetry is local on a chain and is propagated globally the length of a series, through transitivity. They make a line … For parasitism is an elementary relation; it is, in fact, the elements of a relation (Parasite, 182).
Parasite. The prefix para- means “near,” “next to,” measures a distance. The sitos is the food. In this open mouth that speaks and eats, what is next to eating, its neighboring function, is what emits sound. Para measures a difference between a reception and, on the contrary, an expansion. The latter makes one’s own what is common and what will soon be even more one’s own, the living body (Parasite, 144).
Noise is the sum of parasitic relations. The elementary factor of the parasitic relation is that the host receives nothing in return. Jacques Derrida might call the hospitality the host shows towards this always uninvited guest as a trace of the gift, aneconomic and non-reciprocal. Thus, all of the gifts bestowed on the pimped caterpillar only cover it in shit: flashy cars, gold chains, and all the regular trappings of the big-shot recording artist du siècle. There is no reciprocity. Only consumption.
Understanding the thematic transfiguration of To Pimp a Butterfly as a parasitic relation in the sense that Serres describes shows that the butterfly hasn’t any more freedom than the caterpillar. The butterfly represents only a temporarily removed terminus on the chain of parasitizing relations. There is no outside of history, and history is the dimensionality of time added to the topology of parasitisms. In effect, what Serres argues for is a Deleuzian understanding of our situatedness in history. The butterfly who thinks himself free is a self-deceiver. He is the result of a totality of parasitizing relations, and we – receivers of the message, of a wavelength or frequency or particular fidelity articulated out of this noise – are parasites in turn, consuming as uninvited guests the body of the host. The careers of illustrious celebrities are just so much noise to us, and we cannot but consume it (for it is forced down our throats.)
Of course the break from bondage, the escape of a man confined and institutionalized by his cultural and socioeconomic context, the transfiguration of the caterpillar strikes us as something to behold. This is symbolized by the figure of the butterfly; the butterfly is beautiful, a creature of grace, every part a naturalized metaphor for spiritual ascent. It is the grace of the creature that enchants us, and its struggle is implicit in its figure, its form and telos (in a loosely Aristotelian sense.) Like Dante, Kendrick’s verse rides on the back of a nearly religious elevation or realization. But the verse of Kendrick’s album, like the verse of Dante’s Divine Comedy, lacks the aspect of the eternal which it approaches in its characterization; the last track on Kendrick’s album, Mortal Man, also signifies this. We are, in the last analysis, confined by mortality. All of our creations, our artefacts are temporary in view of the infinite beauty and eternity of the divine, the cosmos, or the realm of the idea. The butterfly is a passerby, a temporary visitor fluttering past in time. It does not escape decomposition, and reintegration into the chain of consumption – none do. The transfiguration of the caterpillar, the escape of the butterfly from the cocoon, the temporary break and flight from the parasitic cascade must also thereby approach the infinite, the eternal, constantly breaking and returning and then breaking free again. The detachment of the host from its uninvited guest (Serres would remind us that the French hôte signifies doubly both ‘host’ and ‘guest’) is a recurring chain; the butterfly’s new cocoon is simply a larger world, where the illusion of freedom is perhaps the most insidious danger – his new environment still conspires to consume him, to parasitize the butterfly. And his escape can again be expected as a transfiguration.
Perhaps the circularity of this escape from bondage defines the only meaningful sense of freedom in eternity, as the constancy of consumption and flight through transformation. If nothing else, the enduring renewal of the conceit might promise us another intensive and deeply reflective album from Kendrick Lamar, hopefully in the not too distant future. The caterpillar and the butterfly are indeed one in the same – just as the ‘guest’ and the ‘host’ – but the ‘endless struggle’ is as incontrovertible as it is interminable.