Who is Van Halen? To some not knowing the answer to that question is unforgivable, a mark of disrespect to ones elders, what came before you, to these guardians of music history there is a right and a wrong way to listen, talk about music, and it invariably arcs back towards the pull of the self-evident classics, the ones we all know are immortal, game-changing and iconic. Not knowing one of these monoliths is a failure in this sphere, and immediately places you lower down in the hierarchy as the head of the pack shows off his gleaming credentials, going off on one about their favourite Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Black Sabbath records, potentially even displaying them in pride of place like trophies.
So when Billie Eilish recently received inordinate amounts of heat from people indignant that she didn’t know who Van Halen was, it was hardly surprising, all these I-used-to-practically-live-in-a-record-shop-and-knew-who-the-velvet-underground-was-when-I-was-3 music trivia buffs with all the right reference points, these arbiters of rock heritage who ensure that you like all the right kinds of things and if you don’t will make damn sure they tell you are just waiting for opportunities like this. Old rockers schooling the youth on good music taste is a cliche by this point, but as it turns out they are only too happy to oblige, passing on a musical canon as if it were a divine pantheon, carved into the rock of an ancient temple and passed via myth from father to son.
The patriarchal aspect to such indignance is more than a passing comment; there is a distinct masculine posturing at the heart of this heritage culture, the kind we may encounter within the usual pissing contests between men over cars or equipment, the phallic subtext behind the competition, the display of craft and ability, is a Pseudo-Darwinian Fantasy of Capital, the howling of the alpha-male into the valley, the ability to dominate your surroundings. This is at the heart of so much of the crude rock-classicist fantasy, whether it be that of the omniscient record collector or the gruff, denim-wearing man hefting a guitar, that reactionary cynicism towards ones surroundings serves as an excuse to elevate yourself above the rabble, to be the beholder of true value in the world. And all so you can interject into conversations in mock-outrage [this behaviour is usually masked behind a kind of jokey demeanour] that someone doesn’t rate the Clash or Bob Dylan, and how you know how to appreciate what your elders gave you, or in other words what you are supposed to listen to.
This exists in constant tension with its supposed enemy, that of the pop-hedonist, the “there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure” injunction to enjoy, the effacing of oppositions as a radical transgression. The dominant tone of, say, some in the Guardian music pages for some time now has been one of flaunting the very fact that you like pop as if you’re sticking it to the high-culture snobs, who in fact exist in tandem with these critics, their perfect mirror. Beyond this facile dynamism however, both tendencies within music criticism, now firmly embedded in our critical institutions and publications, fall into the same trap. What is completely effaced is any kind of excitement or indeed, reason to get excited, concerning the music itself. The Big Other is always present, the non-existent arbiters of taste who have to see how correct you are, and in this context demand your authentic credentials as a writer. Hence we see a reflexive disavowal, a stepping back from strong positions, and a maintained detached“cool” that forecloses any kind of embroilment in the vicissitudes of fandom or enthusiastic prose.
The flat plane of anhedonic positivity that results never manages to escape the stale hallways of heritage [it ends up invariably raving about the unimpeachable and timeless perfection of the classics alongside everything else], but it is against this that the guardians of the ancient rock gods can maintain any sense of “outsiderness”. In truth, their reactionary pull towards the past has masked a distinct lack of adventurousness in the present, but the idea that the disruptive impulse of rock may have calcified into a museum exhibit itself never occurs to them. As accomplished as IDLES are for example, musically they are about as innately transgressive as a Hovis advert. The sound of blaring guitars has been taken as a marker of punk subversion tout court, where one might gradually find the sounds of dance and electronic music causing far more consternation among certain well-to-do suburbanites . The problem with “punk rock” now is, frankly, that its all bit too together, the freakouts are too co-ordinated, the stage invasions too glossy.
So if I call back again to that opening salvo from Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant than the Sun, it is now to point towards the privileging in the way we talk about music of the immaculate, the pre-determined and the carefully combined whole, as a continuity. The power of Afrofuturism [or even its relative in the Hauntological] is not in some kind of straight vector from the past to the present to the future, rather in breaks, stutters, cuts, remixes, scrambled time. I’ve spoken before about how the most exciting music tends to exist in a kind of tension, where you get the sense its hanging together on a thread, ready to fall apart at any minute, or about to fade from view. This has far more in some sense to do with how we write or talk about music, as in doing so we communicate what we prioritise, we choose what to amplify about it in our language. The tendency has been to elevate the finished, the rounded, the whole, while denigrating the partial, trailing or fractured. Where music might exist in fraught oscillation with its underside, with its own characteristics, we prefer to think of it as an uncomplicated presence.
Pop music, at its best, is always anything but uncomplicated, always compromised, broken, frayed. This might not be what’s most often celebrated in her music, but this inchoate translucency lies everywhere in the lurid dreamland of Lana Del Rey. Her latest album Norman Fucking Rockwell! was subject to some frankly huge misfires that tried to jam the baroque mystique of the record, where the abstracting vortex of the american cultural imaginary pulls us into an eerie calmness, into some “necessary” “important” commentary on the american dream. A common tactic among the critiquarium, the open vein of desire and fantasy that might spray over the walls are insistently reined in, closed off, dialled down into the most banal examples of “important” art, the vivid power of pulp collage sidestepped in favour of a neatly packaged “message”. To do so, to insist that art stands or falls on its ability to either be read as a pure slice of hedonist utopia or as a serious, unalloyed political comment, is, once again, that old tired attempt to tie off loose ends at all costs, cauterise affect, avoid anything that might cause too much consternation.
But if we’re not being even slightly unsettled, if there is no tension, no risk, then what is there to be excited about? In truth, what turns writers away from the uncertainties that spark the engine of popular culture is the degree of spikiness, the presence of the forbidden, the there be dragons of inscribed opacity. Once we’re out here, there are no maps to guide us anymore, so we have to rely on our own navigation. The constant appeals to the correct way of doing things, the deflection to the Big Other, are easier than committing to any kind of encounter with the discontinuity of affect, rather take refuge in the whole, where contradictions are neatly plastered over and the abstractions of experience calcify into the kind of mummified discourse that has defined all too many “intellectual” engagements with pop culture. To talk about pop, or pulp, we must engage with its surface, its colours, forms, rather than continue to deliver the hackneyed hagiographies of the genteel critical class.
Hauntology is everywhere these days, or should I say, everyone’s talking about it, or maybe it’s more that everyone’s complaining that everyone’s talking about it? It all becomes a bit tiring when you’ve spent some time sequestered online, once you’ve been through the umpteenth iteration in some kind of endlessly repeated discussion that would like to think it’s a weighty debate at the acropolis but is closer in resemblance to “my dad could beat your dad in a fight”; who has the best take, the spiciest or the hottest? Tune in after the break to find out…
Regardless, read what you want into the time of year I’m writing this, but I found myself lately in something of a Hauntology hole, probably after watching Ken McMullen’s Ghost Dance and returning to Derrida, the thinker that strangely enough for me I can’t seem to escape, who seems to wait for me somewhere however far I travel, whichever paths I go down. For all that he can be frustrating, and I very much understand the criticisms of Deconstruction as often being a kind of desiccated critique, there’s something more, and something vital within his critique of metaphysics that I can’t escape; indeed there’s something of the denaturalising impulse that we must search for in an emancipatory sense that seems to permeate much of Derrida’s work. When it comes to Hauntology, I think it is immensely valuable at this stage to strip away some of the dissatisfaction, repeated points, misrepresentations and identify a certain strand, something that very much still resides in Specters of Marx.
By this point a lot of what is pointed towards or identifies as such seems to be distinctly un-hauntological, a kind of flattening of the term to mean simply “haunting”, and a disconnection almost entirely from its implications of disjuncture, the intention of Derrida to invoke the “conjuring” of ontology, centred around the unspoken, the said and the yet-to-be-said, the “presence” of the text itself becoming a spectre. What is lost often is what is contained within the Hamlet quote “time is out of joint”, which Derrida evokes repeatedly throughout SoM. Hauntology is never about a simple haunting, the past coming into the present, a straight lineage of time, it revolves around the very unsettling of temporal lines, the paradox of presence and non-presence, the disjointedness of time and memory, it has everything to do with our state of being in time. Hence the wordplay, a portmanteau of haunt and ontology, it is, if we are to simplify it at all Ontology as Haunting, Being as Spectre. It is by its very nature an unsettling, just as when Hamlet speaks the above line, it is to evoke the idea precisely that something seems wrong, that the world is not as it should be…
Do You Believe in Ghosts?
You know that point of coincidence, when at some undefined point you encounter something familiar somewhere it shouldn’t be? It might be a flicker of a television advert, or something re-occurring years or decades later in some unexpected corner, a piece of writing, a snippet of lyric, a phrase that lay dormant and forgotten, but suddenly flickers into view for a second or more. It’s in this way that our lives are populated by ghosts, that time does not operate as we think it should. It’s not just that we remember something long buried, but the sense that the past remembers us.
But this seems like it should be impossible, it makes no sense. How could something that no longer exists still exert a pull on us? It is precisely this that Hauntology draws on, the strange slippages and dispersed fragments of time that exist at the intersection of being, the words before they are spoken. Indeed Derrida draws heavily on the sense when we speak that our words come from someone else, that we speak and write as ghosts. In Ghost Dance, we find him ruminating on being asked whether he believes in ghosts, “here, the ghost is me..”. The Hauntological displaces any sense of metaphysical grounding and places the present as a space of spectral projection, always out of view, always peripheral. In short, it undermines the Metaphysics of Presence. Hauntology teases out the threads of this unspoken periphery from the fabric, the implicit connections lying behind a form. There is no “haunting” something; if we intend to do something “Hauntologically” we have failed before we’ve begun, for the spectres we find, the hidden glimpses, must be prior to the expression itself, immanent to the text. The point of SoM was always to pick out what lay behind the text, the terms and associations that haunted the text, ones that inevitably Marx himself was not aware of.
This is all to counter the easy assumptions that Hauntology is merely a kind of calling-back, a kind of appeal to the past, which I’ve hinted at before but wanted to go into in more depth. If we are looking at a simple vision of the past we’ve gone badly wrong somewhere. Hauntology is by necessity a complication of the past, a tangling of it with its own future in which, and I can’t emphasise this enough, the unspoken becomes key. We enter a world of the not-quite, the never-here, the out-of-sight.. the echo precedes the shout.. a distinct uncertainty, where did that sound come from? Hauntology precisely dismantles our comfortable temporalities and disrupts chronology to the point where we can no longer say A then B then C with confidence in our memory of this progression, it becomes jumbled, disordered, out of joint.
“Hamlet already began with the expected return of the dead King. After the end of history, the spirit comes by coming back [revenant], it figures both a dead man who comes back and a ghost whose expected return repeats itself, again and again. “
The motif of recall, of memory dominates the Hauntological, becoming a central theme of SoM. A memory is something which lingers from that which no longer exists. It returns as spectre, which is precisely not to be, it is not a presence. In this sense, if we are to return to Derrida, “it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept”. To Derrida, Ontology is the exorcism of this haunting… “Everything begins before it begins”… the spectral precedes the real and the real is haunted by the spectral. This is to say that each concept, each form, is by necessity an exorcism of its own haunting, wherein it is conjured into being. This exorcism or ritual is a grounding in presence, where the hauntological concerns what precedes it, the impossibility of presence.
The Hauntological then, concerns everything that is not present, the gaps, frissons and openings; it is moreover an Ontological disturbance, foregrounding our distance from something, its disintegration and transience. This goes on to suggest, however, that a haunting, as Mark Fisher makes explicit, is as much a disturbance of space as it is time. Where the immediate association of haunting may seem a temporal one, the revenant, the return of the past, repetition and rhythms of ritual mourning and melancholy, it is worth pointing towards the prevalence of the haunted house, the connection to location in so many ghost stories. Fisher provides us with a key example in the overlook hotel of the Shining, the way in which family history, trauma, the crimes of the past, become residues in a place, the family drama of psychoanalysis crossing over with something larger and further reaching. So to move on from its one association as a temporal condition to this Ontological uprooting is to find that Hauntology is inevitably spatial. If, as Derrida said, Psychoanalysis is the study of ghosts, those phenomena of the psyche with no real presence that continue to exert influence upon us, then so must our connection to space, and our existence within it, be a spectral one. Here, the primacy of the virtual becomes apparent.
Mourning, The Return of the Dead
There is a specific engagement in Specters of Marx with the time in which it was written, namely the “end of history”, that final triumph of liberal Capitalism evoked most famously by Fukuyama, something that Derrida connected to Freud’s account of the triumphalist phase of the mourning process in relation to the demise of the soviet union and with it the very idea of Communism, of Marx. This approach, famously identified by Fisher as Capitalist Realism, consists of the recall, repetition, incantation, evoked through the spectres of Hamlet. “To the rhythm of a cadenced march, it proclaims: Marx is dead, communism is dead, very dead, and along with it its hopes, its discourse, its theories, and its practices. It says: long live capitalism, long live the market, here’s to the survival of economic and political liberalism!“, Mourning here takes upon itself the task of the aforementioned exorcism of alternatives, the codification of a universal reality and the final expunging of any memory that might still act upon the present.
So what from this is the significance of Hauntology in the cultural sense, the identification of a tendency, indeed a confluence in music and culture? It seems to emerge from what I’ve just described in the condition of melancholia, this refusal to let go. Where Derrida identifies in the end of history a process of mourning, of detachment and triumphalism, the death of Marx and the exorcism of his ghost, he simultaneously speaks of our inability to banish the dead. The Haunting present in culture speaks to something that is no longer with us, but that has been unsuccessfully banished, the work of mourning arrested. It is, more to the point, a refusal to “give up the ghost” that is, to yield with regard to the insidious pull of our own desire, as Lacan put it. The accusations of nostalgia here are misplaced I think quite simply when we realise that what’s being held onto here is not an idealised version of the past, but a potentiality, an alternative that never made good on its aims. While a traditional nostalgia harkens back to a supposedly ideal time, Hauntology points towards what is unfinished, and again, unspoken. It is for this reason that Fisher refers to “lost futures”, it is not what was, but what might have been. Here there is no object to mourn, and so it lingers on in expressions and cultural resonances. The death here does not pertain to some completed construction or project, but an approach, a world-view. For Capital, the dead always return to haunt it.
Many discussions and expositions on Hauntology over the past few years have started with Mark Fisher, but I purposefully did not, firstly because I’m aware that this Blog might quickly become a K-Punk fansite, and also because I think the origins of the term in Derrida is something worth dredging back into view, if only to emphasise the de-ontological qualities of the word. Nevertheless, if I’m going to talk about Hauntology, it has to be said that Fisher is largely responsible, with a few others [Simon Reynolds also had a part to play] for bringing the term into wider usage within cultural theory and criticism, and so addressing what he did with it, and where he applied it, becomes something of a necessity.
It’s often implied that there is an immense difference between Derrida’s Hauntology and Fisher’s, but right away I think that this is overstated. It’s true that Fisher harboured a frustration with Derrida as a thinker, criticising Deconstruction, as it manifested in the academy, as “a kind of pathology of scepticism, which induced hedging, infirmity of purpose, and compulsory doubt in its followers”. This frustration is something I alluded to above, and is not unfounded, and yet is something I can easily look past in his work, partly due I think to the fact that it was Derrida who lay somewhat centrally to my re-introduction to philosophy and theory after a long wasteland of disenchantment some time ago. In some sense it was precisely this pathology of scepticism which provided an opening for me into the paths I ended up exploring, and has pushed me always not into an infirmity of purpose or inability to hold a position, but instead into a constant wariness of simplicity and reduction behind a position. It is of course largely a matter of what you do with a thinker, and Fisher indeed refers to the ways in which Derrida among others drove a creativity and excitement in the music writers so influential to him.
I mentioned above the identification from Fisher and others of a certain cultural confluence with Hauntology, and to go further down that lane will require us to pull together some of the threads I’ve been exploring so far into what Fisher termed Sonic Hauntology, specifically at points linking it to the Hauntological tendencies of Afrofuturism with its displacement and jumbling of time and space. In his essay The Metaphysics of Crackle – Afrofuturism and Hauntology, an astonishing text that I must admit I only chanced upon recently, Fisher outlines this tendency, focusing on the presence of crackle or sonic disintegration in so much of the music to be identified with Hauntology. The railing against the metaphysics of presence is here beautifully opposed to the attachment to the presence or authenticity of the singer-songwriter in the work of Greil Marcus and found within the fiery opening salvo of Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant than the Sun, where Eshun opposes in the strongest terms the “troglodytic homilies” of the “intertia engine”, the tendency of music writers to appeal at all times to a “terminally stupid sublime” –
“The fuel this inertia engine runs on is fossil fuel : the live show, the proper album, the Real Song, the Real Voice, the mature, the musical , the pure, the true, the proper, the intelligent, breaking America: all notions that stink of the past, that maintain a hierarchy of the senses, that petrify music into a solid state in which everyone knows where they stand, and what real music really is.”
What Eshun is doing here is not too far removed from Derrida’s project in Specters of Marx, that is he is opposing the centrality of presence, of immediacy, of the present. In Metaphysics of Crackle, Fisher draws our attention to Dub, the “Afrofuturist sonic science” , and what’s notable is how it is treated by two different music writers, Marcus and Ian Penman. What’s notable about Marcus is not that he doesn’t address or talk about Dub, but that he talks about in the sense that a literary critic might talk about a text. What’s important is its presence, its importance, its meaning, never the materiality of the sound, what it does. What Marcus is ultimately beholden to is a kind of Rock Metaphysics, seen in the proclamation of raw, pure expression, common attitudes towards the blues. And yet, as Fisher points out, something that a writer like Marcus barely ever touches upon is the role of production, of music technology, of everything that mediates between us and the musician. For in truth, while we tend to look towards bluesmen like Robert Johnson as the ultimate purity of expression in music, we listen to them practically through the material haze of time, through the broken up, crackling deterioration of sound. Fisher quotes Owen Hatherley, “there’s surely no music more utterly dominated by its recording technology than 1930s blues. Listening to Robert Johnson you have, rather than the expected in yr [sic] face earthiness and presence, layers upon layers of fizz, crackle, hiss, white noise..”
So sonic Hauntology is precisely the foregrounding of that technology, the cracks, deterioration and surface noise, rather than the rockist privileging of the man & guitar, the voice. It is in this sense that Penman identifies it and Afrofuturism as “two sides of the same double-faced phenomenon”. The same material foregrounding of the lack of presence found in Hauntology is central to the diasporic, fractured, cut-and-paste jumbling of space-time of Afrofuturism, where the alienation within black culture, the transience and lack of place, are exactly what becomes emphasised and re-configured. “Afrofuturism unravels any linear model of the future, disrupting the idea that the future will be a simple supersession of the past. Time in Afrofuturism is plastic, stretchable and prophetic—it is, in other words, a technologised time, in which past and future are subject to ceaseless de- and recompostion” So, through the dominance of technologies to how we experience sounds, music or otherwise, sonic Hauntology intensifies this pattern, emphasises it.
But to what end? What purpose does Hauntology really serve, we might ask, where does this distancing of presence lead us? The answer lies I think somewhere in the postmodern world of simulacrum, virtuality and abstraction that has become so familiar to us today, the communicative wonderland and digital landscape. Sonic Hauntology’s heightening of crackle and distortion, the surface noise of old media technologies is something that immediately distinguishes it from the formal nostalgia pointed to by Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism, something which also is immanently connected to the prominence of technology. This formal nostalgia not only separates itself from emotional or psychological nostalgia, it is in some sense predicated on its absence. It is only when detached from its past, when the direct memory is severed, that an attachment to the forms of the past comes into focus. The “Slow Cancellation of the Future” Fisher refers to [from Franco Berardi], is a nostalgia, but one very different from the paradoxical one found in sonic Hauntology for example.
Ghosts of My Life is the project of Fisher’s I’ve found is most sidelined. This is not to say that it is unknown or anything of the sort, but that the main focus tends to be on either of his other books. It has, however, resolved into my favourite of the three he published, and something of this lies in its diaristic, fragmented quality. The book, while it centres on themes, is not a simple treatise on them, but an exercise in the very excavations of lost futures implied through Hauntology as some kind of practice. This is why, far from its distended nature reducing its effectiveness as Hauntological text, it is precisely this that, in the lineage of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, and indeed Laura Grace Ford’s Savage Messiah zine to which Fisher contributed a preface, places it within the Hauntological beyond simply containing a definition of it as a tendency. While we might search for a clear, elegant, singular text, it is the cut-and-paste quality of a project like this, the immediate appearance of cracks and lines in its construction, that presents it as a kind of spectral archaeology par excellence.
So what to take from the yearning for Lost Futures. Is it, as some have tried to insinuate, some kind of re-constituted nostalgia? Are we, through this, doing precisely what donkey-jacketed old socialists are most often accused of and wishing for a return to the 70s? I mention Ghosts of My Life as here we can find an engagement with this –
“What is being longed for in hauntology is not a particular period, but the resumption of the processes of democratisation and pluralism for which [Paul] Gilroy calls. Perhaps it’s useful to remind ourselves here that social democracy has only become a resolved totality in retrospect; at the time, it was a compromise formation, which those on the left saw as a temporary bridgehead from which further gains could be won. What should haunt us is not the no longer of actually existing social democracy, but the not yet of the futures that popular modernism trained us to expect, but which never materialised. These spectres – the spectres of lost futures – reproach the formal nostalgia of the capitalist realist world. “
The point here is precisely not a yearning for times past but of tendencies curtailed. The “Lost Futures” are not a kind of Schlaraffenland we might readily associate with a kind of reactionary nostalgia for the past, nor are they the melancholia of Gilroy or Wendy Brown, “Post-colonial” and “Left” respectively, in which we become attached to either an idealised moment or the repetition of failure. As usual within the purview of Hauntology, the Lost Future concerns the unspoken, the yet-to-exist or the no-longer-existing. This might seem like an obvious point, one I re-iterate here, but it contains within it something immensely important to realise culturally and politically, and that is that tendencies we might look towards in the past, be they Socialism or Popular Modernism, are not restricted to the time within which they existed, and are not finished, packaged wholes. The common line directed at the left that “you just want to return us to the 70s” commits two major errors; it firstly presents us with a retroactively constructed narrative of the 70s, an image of neoliberalism arriving to modernise the clear failure of social democracy [Thatcher’s“Labour isn’t Working” posters come to mind], putting to the side a lot of the inconvenient attempts to forcibly impose neoliberalism and ruthlessly crush opposition, secondly, it assumes that the left, socialism, whatever we want to label the tendencies dominant at the time, are locked within that decade, that any attempt to continue them today is by its very nature some kind of nostalgic pathology.
So, in trying to perceive the flickering, disintegrated echoes of a past era, there is a melancholia, but which takes the form, rather than a time-locked nostalgia, of a refusal, a refusal to mourn, to banish the dead. There is a defiance in yearning for something violently strangled before its time, to hold on to the reverberations it leaves behind. This distinct refusal to mourn, to give up on potential, is central to the political and cultural prevalence of Hauntology and the Spectral. It is the vector towards renewal perceived through a technological haze, just as the lone bluesman is heard through the indefinite layers of crackle and noise. It is the distance afforded us by the technological here that preserves and propagates the ghosts of our lives. The distended, fragmentary cut-and-paste alienation of time from itself that we experience in a landscape where all emerges at once, regardless of time and space, that distinct flattening of spatio-temporal distinctions of our era, is something that Hauntology, both in cultural, political, sonic, psychological, geological terms, intensifies.
It is this process, the intensification of disjuncture, that may become a vector towards a new modernist impulse. For how long now can we continue to hold to the limitations of presence, and for how long can we prioritise the kind of grounding Rockist authenticity demands? The disturbance of causality itself, and the undermining of metaphysical presence itself, becomes today the task of any future, for it is surely the “realistic” appeals to purity, to identity, that form the ritual exorcism of spectres. It is in assuming that what we see it what we get, that it is a solid, unmoving excrescence, that in a real sense we do away with any potential, any echo. There is only the music, and great music speaks for itself, right? Hauntology is to percieve in this gigantic echo chamber a world, a fragmented map of associations far larger than any building or song, to draw out the fabric into an immense spool outwards… unravelling, and through this sensing the tremors, the barely perceptible patterns still present through the gaps, reveal themselves…. like apparitions through the fog…
Reading List [Not all of these are explicitly mentioned here but all are relevant and informed/inspired it, however tangentially]-
Jacques Derrida – Specters of Marx
Ken McMullen – Ghost Dance [Linked above]
Mark Fisher – Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures
Fredric Jameson – Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
Mark Fisher – The Metaphysics of Crackle: Afrofuturism and Hauntology
Kodwo Eshun – More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction
Walter Benjamin – The Arcades Project
Laura Grace Ford – Savage Messiah
Simon Reynolds – Retromania [see also Rip it Up and Start Again]
Greil Marcus – Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century
A problem with the future is that everyone wants to be the one to find it. Just as the music press has often prided itself on having found “the next big thing”, we all want to be the ones to have picked up on the emergent strand, that one element of the present which presents a radical break, the coming of the new. Recently, I’ve noticed some grappling with this, partly in Simon Reynolds [worth reading] piece on “Conceptronica” and some of the murmurings surrounding it and associated acts. Reynold’s piece asks “Why so much electronic music this decade felt like it belonged in a museum instead of a club”, which in itself is not an uninteresting point of inquiry, one that he does his bit to look into; yet I feel there was something missing here. Past all the careful investigation, it comes back to that tagline and the failure to really address it.
One of the artists featured in the piece was Holly Herndon, specifically regarding her latest album, PROTO, an album which from the outset dreams big, in itself no bad thing, about the potentials of AI and technology, attempting to bridge the gap between choral, folk and more traditional musics and the collective ecstasy of the rave via the means of a collective pooling of voices into a kind of personified construct. The ideas swirling around the project scream the future, they grapple with emergent technological issues that may come to effect us all, and seem to point to potential new forms of collectivity through the medium of these very technologies. The problem for me, however, starts when we pass from the script, the blurb, and into the music itself, despite having the impression it was somehow supposed to be everything I’m interested in, a cultural attempt to scout out new futures, a bridging of subjective and objective gaps via music… The thing was, however, that the music left me completely cold.. it came off like a vaguely interesting series of experiments but nothing really imprinted itself beyond some particularly beautiful/ugly passages. It was at point of contact that the ideas, the concept seemed to dissipate into what may have been an impressive technological leap but just came off like a series of vocal glitches and effects, a sound that just didn’t conjure what it said it did. There existed a fundamental disconnect here between what was supposed to be happening and what actually was.
This isn’t a universal problem with all the artists Reynolds mentions, but it is something that I find is also present precisely in the museum press releases and statements he evokes, something that continues to dog contemporary art shows everywhere and lends to this general sense of disappointment or emptiness. The false idea has long been that the main problem with such writing is simply that it is “pretentious waffle” that it is incomprehensible, that it is simply a kind of pseudo-deleuzian art-speak babble that serves to alienate viewers. This may be true, but it’s only half the story, the other being the distance that is covered between the writing, the build up or blurb, and the art itself. Countless times I have read about what a piece of art is supposed to do but been encountered immediately by its failure to actually do it. It takes the same form as a narrative dissonance where we are told what kind of character we are watching or reading about while that character fails to materialise in the story itself, and the times we may have encountered someone who tells us one thing about themselves while enacting the very opposite. It’s not that its actively or maliciously misleading, but rather that it skips the unskippable beat, that it gets ahead of itself, beats itself to the finish line, and insodoing, unmasks itself.
It perhaps shouldn’t bear mentioning, but music directly positioning itself conceptually around the future does not make it of the future any more than lasers and androids are the sum of science fiction as a genre. It is possibly the largest mistake we can make about culture to assume that its proclamations of concept, that its evocations form the whole of its content and form. In other words, music that arrives in a cloak of future imagery and technological innovations does not automatically evoke such ideas in its execution. What I find here is that the mistake is a assumed prioritising. Similarly to the Logocentrism of western philosophy attacked by Derrida, here the content of words is placed above their form and textures in a cultural context, lyrical content above the timbre of voice, speaking above writing and photography above painting.
This brings me to something brought up by both Mark Fisher and Kodwo Eshun, and that is the place of the cultural critic not simply as a tastemaker, expert or institution, but as an intensifier. It is through such writing that sounds and images, are libidinally heightened, that they are interpreted in some sense and amplified. It also makes me think of the way Ian Penman, specifically in the essay on Sinatra included in his recent collection but throughout his work, puts so much focus not merely on what is being sung, said or we could say even written, but how. Sinatra took a significant amount of influence in his singing from observing horn players and their inflections, pauses and emphasis, and here we begin to see a fundamental rift that often persists between music writers and musicians themselves [where the whole “dancing about architecture” canard arises]. While you will find many music writers searching for a kind of explanation, an exposition of language-born meaning to the music, indeed this has developed into a blatant overvaluing of “pure” lyrical content itself, on contact with a musician, for all their ideas and concepts it quickly becomes apparent that all this is in service to the sound itself.
In a recent piece on Debussy in London Review of Books, Nicholas Spice mentions how Adorno found distasteful Debussy’s supposed Fetishism of the materiality of sound, and the way in which Schoenberg himself mocked Adorno’s championing of him [“Was macht die Musik?” “Sie Philosophiert”].. both of these indirect interactions between musician/composer and philosopher speak something of the above disconnect, of a certain misunderstanding that the critic or theorist in their pomp might stand to make in demanding a certain conceptual rigour from the work they’re addressing. It leads to writing and analysis that for all its complexities, for all its length or reference points, often fails point blank to evoke the power of the music itself, functions at a kind of arms length from its subject, refusing to actually delve into the murky worlds of sonic texture and rhythmic communication, the cracking of the voice or the artificiality of an instrument. It is probably worth mentioning in the same breath here Susan Sontag’s call for an “Erotics” over an “Interpretation” of the arts, something that feeds into a sense that what music writing so often abandons is a sense of precisely of the materiality of its subject. For all Adorno’s disdain for the formulaic nature of pop, he missed an important element of it, and that is the effect of the sound itself.
This isn’t to evoke some kind of sublime here [something that most obviously Sontag argues against], some kind of primal spiritual presence or romanticised purity of the material, rather something of the opposite, that the writer can here function as something of an interpreter or amplifier for its effect. Some of the best sleevenotes I’ve found for instance have served just such a purpose in channelling the intensity of sound, the atmosphere of it, rather than providing a bone dry exposition of content. This is the last point at which we want to find a scientific thesis, but a plane of the poetic elaboration, of the power of masks and theatre. Rather similarly to the way in which we use clothes and makeup to construct rather than hide ourselves, it is in the resonances of the surface rather than a phantasmic pure nugget of authenticity beneath that we encounter the complexities and conceptual potency of art.
In a post about Japan’s Tin Drum, Mark Fisher asked, after Deleuze in Logic of Sense, “why, if superficiality is defined as lack of depth, is depth not defined as lack of surface?” This question still bears a good deal of consideration today, even as in response to the overload of signs and information the modern world heaps upon us we continue to find recourse to fantasies of some pure existence away from “modernity”. Here it is assumed that there lies an ideal sublime underneath the trash of the everyday, that if we scrape away the layers of makeup we find the real identity beneath. Such attempts at a kind of demystifying ambition, where we find a kind of absolute space or identity lurking beneath its surface, belies that it is precisely in this surface that an expanse of complexities and unspoken resonances emerge. It is the mask worn by the actor, the makeup and the costume, that construct the character, and is there anything gained by searching for the scaffolding beneath in the hope of an instructional document, some unadulterated truth? Indeed rather than an era of superficiality, might it be just as apt to ascribe to this current moment a priority of transparency? It’s something we’ve come to expect in all things that they remain true to themselves, real. You do you, just do your own thing… I’m just a normal bloke like you… isn’t this transparency, this injunction to bare all at all times, the constant deference to the authentic, the problem?
So rather than try to either ground or justify the music via the concept underpinning it, the kind of writing and exposition Reynolds talks about in relation to “Conceptronica” might be better served if they didn’t take as a point of assumption the music-as-thesis, art as pointing towards resolution, recourse-to-explanation of the museum piece itself. Against the backdrop of a kind of widespread disavowal of surface in favour of a supposed depth, it seems that the only way we can think of communicating complexity of ideas is via an accompaniment, by something beyond or above. The vicissitudes of futurity are that of the event, that of retrospective causality. Pointing towards a future potential in an artist due to their technological or conceptual proclivities says nothing in truth of the future, something which always lies masked. It is not in the process, in the conceptual underpinnings of a musical project that we might seek to place it in some kind of alternative canon, some kind of potential future form, but in its textural qualities and effects. If we wish to perceive the reverberations of as yet unheard futures, then it is to be found in the material of sound, the performance and surface, and the ambiguities and spectres held within this echo chamber of affects. If the future always wears a mask, then only an examination of masks, a serious approach to superficiality, will tease out its fragile strands into the light of day.
“It had everything that I thought rock and roll should have. It was violent, paranoid music for a violent, paranoid time “
The shrieking, disjointed funk of the Pop Group is something I distinctly remember discovering via a Nick Cave interview at some stage, during a long trawl through the archives of youtube in which I spent a great deal of my time. Indeed a similar quality immediately excited me in the Pop Group to much of the earlier Bad Seeds output, and it comes back to this sense that it was all on the verge of falling apart. Cave is at his best when the music and his singing exhibit an almost unbearable tension between fantasy and contact with reality [I am reminded when I was playing Tender Prey once and a friend remarked that it sounded like “bad karaoke”, YES, exactly]. The tight rhythmic stabbing and falling-apart dub-noise crescendos of the Pop Group existed on a level of tension which was far more formal than character driven, driven by a kind of abandon which you can only imagine some kind of stuffy muso calling “sloppy”, you get the constant sense that the sound hangs together on a thread. You can FEEL the tears and cracks in the recording, through which bleed the paranoiac screams of a political present.
A political present not of now, but of the 80s. When Cave called it “violent, paranoid music for a violent, paranoid time” could he have been referring to any other moment? Indeed, its interesting to note that for many the 80s, and in fact the 80s of our ballroom-decadence-consumer-wonderland fantasies, the entire simulacrum of neon, shoulder pads and analogue synthesizers, it is anything but violent and paranoid. The 80s which we now experience, lifted from its moorings and floated somewhere out into the ocean of time-locked pathologies, is one drained of this paranoia, a grainy VHS filter on a time of excess where the political and social horrors of Thatcher and Reagan become at best historical markers, at worst just a kind of background fuzz to the never ending carnival of glitzy fitness regimes and faded primary colours. The Pop Group seem then to speak more to a subterranean unrest, and indeed existed as a vestige of anger and refusal of this sickly-sweet vision that we can now recognise as the dreamscape of the new capitalism, the promise of a future of endless neon, shoulder pads and synthesizers becomes the vanguard of a stifling regime of individual competition.
Mark Fisher pointed to the Pop Group as holding on to art as Marcuse’s “Great Refusal” of the status quo, as something that still contained something of that negative power against the increasing realist dogma of acquiescence. When I found them in the sprawling bootlegs and leftovers of the internet it was, like so much I found there, like a kind of radio transmission from a subterranean, buried history. The jagged, screeching lines of the dub-cracked, distorted guitar tones, the voice like some kind of detournement of not only political but ontological proportions, burst through the earth. A sense of urgency that still resonated in that expansive chamber that couldn’t be entirely extinguished, a thread of an impulse could be drawn out of the well and couldn’t simply be hung on the wall as a museum piece without reducing it to an empty simulation, a diorama in a glass case.
Part of this is the simultaneously open-ended yet sharp and contained nature of this sound, the apparent contradiction that keeps it in motion, that tension.. Its something that few groups now allow themselves, that level of disjunction, perhaps even inventiveness, where each musician comes from a different corner and what seems like it shouldn’t work combines into a tight yet cacophonous textural schizophrenia [a similar loose-discipline can be found in the Fall’s best material]. The best thing about the Pop Group, and what really got me about them back then, was that element of refusal, the refusal to recycle or replicate, the refusal to allow a kind of simple reconciliation with the pop mainstream and commitment to marginal pop appeal, a refusal to iron out tension and hence to dull an edge which is so needed to slice through the thick, muggy atmosphere of the present. Their “violent, paranoid music ” is something that seems to act like a kind of spatio-temporal disuption of sorts, its yelped proclamations and warnings, fractured dub funk and driving confrontation seeming more, not less immediate, as if these transmissions from a lost underground have appeared through the radio static, directly beamed from some remote outpost on another planet into the violent, paranoid present.. they become part of a barely-perceived scattered world that lies concurrently to this one, where subversion was still something that could convince.
Isn’t the problem today that subversion has become something of a hobby, like satire? We have a free reign to subvert, as long as we don’t get anyone into trouble, as long as we do fall within the lines enough to dissolve any actual confrontation into a meaningless bonhomie and stultified politeness; it’s ok to throw things about a bit on Jools Holland as long as you don’t go too far and undermine the structure of the show, the idea of punk transgression, at some point still believably a powerful spectacle of detournement, fully assimilated and thrown back up as another riff, another tic, another form we can endlessly throw up onto an audience. It is demanded that we become caricatures, that we play towards the so-called authenticity behind the mask, the iconoclasm we are supposed to have believed in wafting and mingling with the clouds of stupefaction and similitude. Even Punk has to grow up, right?
The distinction here is what is implied by “grow up”. It isn’t that there is no value in a kind of slowness and reflection that comes with.. well, living, but that this is expected to arrive with a kind of ubiquitous cynicism, the implication that we used to be idealists but then found out about the reality of the world. This is why in putting our ears to the rock and hearing these buried transmissions, in perceiving the vibrations of something that now seems impossible or hopeless, an important metamorphosis can be attempted. The paradoxical intersection of time, space, of entire worlds, begins to weave a tapestry of galvanized potential. It is indeed in rejecting this association of age, or life with disenchantment, from rejecting the incompatibility of a youthful rebellion and an aged reflection, that we can begin to piece together these fragmented broadcasts, and re-orient ourselves not only culturally but in time and space itself.
There is something of an autobiographical line following me in my work. Indeed, despite everything, I increasingly find that it is this element that anchors and grounds what I do, write and produce; not in the sense that everything begins to revolve around me, the pure individual me that’s supposed to exist within the human shell, but the environment, events, people and places that have informed and pasted it together.
I could go back to the point where as a child I travelled over to Britain from Germany, something that I am not old enough to remember but I have been acutely aware of, especially in the bureaucratic sense that I have grown up entirely in a place of which I am not a “citizen” on paper. This strange position where the only place I’m overly familiar with is somewhere where I’m on the verge of non-existence, where I cannot partake in general elections for example, and the ongoing issue of Brexit has only served to heighten that neither here-nor-there sense, that strange paradoxical feeling in the peripheries of my experience. The general sense is that I am being somehow exorcised from the body I have for the longest time acted within without recourse or thought, a cell within the bloodstream.
So my relationship to space has constantly been haunted by this transition; not only have I often been confronted by my own state of semi-erasure on paper, but the cultural and social centre of the 2000s and early 2010s struck me as something I didn’t want to be a part of, and so I actively, and no doubt often obnoxiously tied myself to the margins of taste. The reason for this still hadn’t become clear by the time I became somewhat attached to romantic images of intellectual post-war Paris in art school, or heavily invested in the militant experimentation of punk and post-punk after picking out a CD of Siouxsie and the Banshees Juju in HMV. It was a constant striving towards something other than the cultural objects offered on a platter, about as appealing as rotten fish. I didn’t realise all this time of course that there was something of a flickering strand connecting all these obsessions and interests, one connected it seems irrevocably with the empty core of postmodern cultural irony, the encroaching ubiquity of privatised capital and eventually the precarity of survival beneath it. What this strand represents was a yearning for a space that was constantly eluding my grasp; the post-punk period, post-war Paris or a host of other locuses of interest represented these spaces that I could not access, but which I frankly fantasised about. These were spaces soaked in the juices of an exciting experimental momentum where around me all I encountered were the encrusted delibidinizing icons of rock n roll, the uninspiring heritage roundabout where even interesting artists and musicians were reduced to a pastiche of veneration. These were all spaces of an underground which I wanted so desperately to find, but which seemed to only exist within the haze of times past, glances in the rear-view mirror as I drove forwards into the nerve-jangling grey metropolis.
So everything I do now seems to revolve somewhat around the question; where is the underground? Does it still exist in a meaningful sense or has it by now been entirely expunged and pressed out of the urban environments via endlessly replicating programmes of privatisation, gentrification, reduction, and corporate PR? I live in the city of Norwich, a curious example of a place which I would argue has long had an alternative with no underground. What I mean by this are the local music/art/other scenes that define themselves as being outside the centre, as being the “alternative” to mainstream fare, but which themselves are possibly even more repetitious and banal than the popular forms they avoid. In my experience, while its not that there’s nothing of any value in these spaces, its notable that there is no real underground behind it, no space of experimentation or militant forward momentum, no sense of an actual engagement beyond the typically painful ennui of postmodern detachment. What bleeds through is the struggle of detachment itself; we become unable to honestly immerse ourselves in anything, commit to it, without the self-reflexive wink that must surely follow, like the lover who can’t profess their love without first disowning it. We become terrified of the very possibility of ridicule so any expression must be filtered through a potentially infinite number of mediations, amplifications, walls… this isn’t to say that the only true culture is an unmediated one, the authentic spontaneous expression, which becomes a mere fetish object itself, but that culture effectively dies, grinds to a halt, at the point where the barrier to entry is reinforced. It reaches the point where all the alternative represents is a group of people trying desperately to make money from what they do, and cultural production as something that has the potential to change, move forwards, excite.. simply vanishes.
I realise this sounds like a grim prognosis without respite, and I’m not going to refute that; it is, and its supposed to be. Most rejections of such a picture I’ve seen come from the point of “there’s still innovative/good stuff out there!”, but that isn’t the point. Not only must we look beyond the mere metric of “good” or even “innovative”, but holding up a specific act or artist as if they immediately mean a trend is reversing tends to be a poor substitute for looking at cultural space itself. The point is that the space within which communes, collectives, and simply projects could once gather, the cracks and folds in the social fabric where artist squats and communities intersected with the dispossessed to form something we can meaningfully call an underground has been brutally suppressed. For capital, the underground has always been an inconvenience, the lingering idea that there could be something out there that was better, that we could in fact, have some kind of agency, could not stand.
The symbolic power of capital has never come from its capacity alone, the thing to realise is that there is no great enthusiasm for the mediocrity it provides. One of the most powerful parts of Mark Fisher’s Acid Communism introduction is the reversal, from anti-capitalism to the need for capitalism to systematically undermine its alternatives “with all its visored cops and tear gas”. This immediately puts into perspective the struggles of the past few decades of the underground to maintain itself against the distaste of the centre, from the onward march of gentrification to the creeping sprawls of luxury apartments which seem to be bit by bit replacing every empty spot, every space of potential, every last vestige… The mistake that we make is to assume that in our every day existence, in the culture we consume and produce and the way we navigate the space in which we live, the most banal details, that we don’t have to “pick sides”; the illusion, far beyond the halls of Westminster, is that peoples lives are a neutral centre, when we have to realise that it is precisely lives that are at stake, that are the site of conflict. When we move from country to city, we do more than search for “success” or “prosperity”, we submit ourselves to a process of human movement, what Braudel termed “Transhumance” that forms the shifting boundaries and territories of the space itself, and ultimately the drawing of battle lines between the centre and the peripheries.
Lefebvre uses the phrase the Dialectic of the Lived and the Concieved, and at the beginning of her book on the Paris Commune Communal Luxury Kristin Ross emphasises how within this action precedes thought, that it is “the creative energies and excess of the movement itself” that dreams and ideas are generated. Therein lies the importance of Spatial Practice; Lefebvre states –
“The spatial practice of a society secretes that society’s space; it propounds and presupposes it, in a dialectical interaction; it produces it slowly and surely as it masters and appropriates it. From the analytic standpoint, the spatial practice is revealed through the deciphering of its space.”
Here we have both this preceding of thought via action and deciphering of action via thought that co-exists with space. Passing through this refraction we can see in sharp relief how the stark realities of class conflict might emerge through the vicissitudes and violence of every day life, in ritual and attitude. The way in which our co-dependency and co-creation in the name of Capital produces the battlefield within which any kind of slippage is quickly stamped on, sliced off the whole if it cannot be incorporated into it. It is these abstractions that exist at a somewhat unconscious level through which the violence of destitution and homelessness, of dispossession and loss of life are generated. We produce the space of capital even as it produces us.
So here it comes to space, and the necessity of a space for an underground culture to inhabit. Where are we to go when we seek something else, where indeed when we want to find people who share our passions, or when we want to combine forces, to experiment? Much has been said about the value of boredom regarding culture, the importance of suburban existence in generating the militant expressions of post-punk for example, but the point here rests upon there being somewhere to go. While the boredom of a suburb, or even a village, may drive us towards underground expressions, a search for something to break us out of the loop, increasingly the space to conduct these expressions simply isn’t there, or cannot be found. For a moment I myself thought I’d found something like it online, but after some time it fell apart into a pile of orthodoxies. The issue here may be the attempt to create an underground subculture without the space to really maintain it. And so we return to Lefebvre’s point that an alternative system cannot come into being without an alternative space, and this in turn without an alternative spatial practice.
So is this ultimately a search for an underground or do I intend to issue an injunction to bring it into being? The truth encompasses both, and leads into the notion that’s become increasingly potent in contemporary futurisms and discussions around alternatives that the future we want to create is not so much a potential in time, but in space. Jameson’s characterisation of Utopia in the final paragraph of Valences of the Dialectic comes to mind –
“Itwould be best, perhaps, to think of an alternate world— better to say the alternate world, our alternate world—as one contiguous with ours but without any connection or access to it. Then, from time to time, like a diseased eyeball in which disturbing flashes of light are perceived or like those baroque sunbursts in which rays from another world suddenly break into this one, we are reminded that Utopia exists and that other systems, other spaces, are still possible. “
This other space in this context is something I’d er away from calling a Utopia, but the move from the temporal to the spatial here is important in our capacity to not only excavate and discover but build an alternative. If we are to rediscover a sense of subculture against the all-consuming high rise corporate battalions of the contemporary city, it can be thought of not as time travel, but as archaeology, the unearthing of something that lies under the paving stones, the back alleys, the cracks in the concrete. In the traces found around us we can feel our way out of the decay, and even move towards something of a re-purposing and warping of the ruins, subterranean distortions that re-orient our bearings and create a new way of acting and being, a future urban practice and cultural underground, the imperative again to re-invent, to destroy itself, to revolutionize. Perhaps, in the reflections and immaterial forms perceived in empty shop windows, or the decay of abandoned lots, the echoes of the revolution can still be heard...
An eerie cry from another world mingles with the silence of a dead city, the motionless forms stand, empty vessels..
Rotating through the tattered remnants of something that used to stand here in resolute defiance, you stand in the back alley, staring at the arc of detritus, spewing out from some torn bin liner around the corner. Consult the legend, the signals, figure out what’s supposed to be here. Up until this point, you had the rhythmic choreography down to a tee, had been following the cues perfectly, until you followed them off the map, the paradox that rises from mistaking the abstract for the ground beneath your feet. Here you are in unfamiliar territory, some alien ship or unexplored piece of turf somewhere in the wilds. It’s right there on the piece of paper, on the satellite image; it didn’t say it was going to be like this.
The Urban is full of folds and cracks, that much is clear; the classic distinction of town and country, like that between state and civil society in Hegel, is something that precipitates closure even as the global flows of exchange, the “market” precipitates fracture and atomization. The core problematic of contemporary “neocapitalism” lies in this paradoxical movement, one replicated down to the individual objects and experiences of the every day. What is this wistful emptiness of culture that accompanies us, the flat PoMo anything-will-do landscape in which nothing can be expressed without quotation marks, phrased in the form of a question, in which the constant self-reflexive questioning has taken the place of all conviction, where popular music is simply reduced to an aesthetic consumerist qualifier and any statement of taste has to be made in the constant fear of breaking rank, than an ongoing symptom of such contradictions? Even as Spotify and Netflix present us with a supposed cornucopia, a vast array of choice before our eyes; is this what it comes to, choice?
For even as streaming encapsulates this ubiquitous, global similitude, the effects to move towards a unified cultural reality in which anything goes, the meaning of such cultural experience is reduced to just this dynamic, where choice = freedom. The choice/freedom mythology is a distinctly liberal one, something rooted in the traditions of the enlightenment, wherein freedom consists of a kind of non-intervention, you-do-you and all that good stuff where the speculative political imaginary lays out a world in which we can proceed unhindered, where we can be ourselves. I’m sure I don’t have to lay out in too much detail what’s suspect here, namely the idea that if we strip back the layers, behind the surface we find some kind of pure self, and that from this basis it is possible to act authentically; from this premise we enter an entire discourse of authenticity and realness, of soul. Herein lies the problem with you-do-you, the dream of the libertarian, those who wish to go about their vital work without intervention, that there is no freedom in being a slave to false authenticity, that authenticity stems from the very feedback loops of capitals central libidinal machinery. This is of course where the dream of neoliberalism itself falls apart, wherein it is revealed not to be the unhindered freedom of markets, the ability for each to make their own fortune, but an enforced politico-economic paradigm of privatized authenticity. Behind the frontier-vision of capital lies the assumption of the traditional rugged survivalist and their family, the safety and comfort of the homestead or the British bourgeois estate, the consignment of our being to a script, a repeated daily routine of reinforcement in which authenticity, the stripping back of aestheticization, merely translates into the most depressing of cyclical reiterations.
Choice = freedom is a limitation, it implies not that we can shift the meaning, the nature of social relations, but that we can choose between them at leisure, defining the emancipated future as one of choice merely bows down to the order of consumer production. There is a certain worldview which seems to echo the incurable optimist, the Whig conceit of teleological progress transformed into confidence that in the end nothing is better than anything else, that no time is better than any other time, that nothing ever changes; before you know it the end of history is here, the sheering away of historicity, the onset of the eternal present suspended in non-time and non-place. Against this, the injunction that culture, that art, music, might mean anything becomes practically unthinkable.
This is an injunction away from choice as predominant motor of autonomy and towards a shift in the mapping of culture itself. Lefebvre writes in The Production of Space of the deceptiveness of maps. The important thing to note, for him, is that maps don’t simply deliver a straightforward reading or empirical datum on the places they represent, but rather they play a part, as representations, in producing them. The same is true in this sense of the ways in which we map between points of cultural interest on a timeline, producing a canon. The process of de-canonising and reinvention is then the process of re-organising the map, and through this the ways in which we navigate it. It similarly, through re-configuring space, excavates new potentials in bringing together and undermining boundaries between separate points. It re-aligns the focus from the non-interventionist liberal ideal towards a new space where these choices are revealed to be predicated on a lie.
London, the capital, is always for me a fleeting place. Like the rushed, sour-faced businessmen pushing you out of the way, it’s there and then its gone, a blast of sickly wind to the face.. but whenever I’m there these days I always try and take the opportunity to wander, rather than just visit; not because I want to position myself as some kind of contemporary flaneur, but just exist somewhere else for a short time without having to go anywhere.
Regardless, when you find yourself rammed into the centre of the business towers, the immense slabs of glass threatening to bear down on you, the romantic ideal of the ego positioning itself as the observer seems to dissipate into so much asset management and ostentatious bars for well paid employees. Even if you wanted to, there’s not much society to observe here amongst the throngs of similitude, the empty shells of finance capital closing off the sky above you. It is ostensibly a teeming centre but winding in between its “phallic verticality” as Lefebvre put it, it feels more like a ghost city, the people becoming nothing but units, photons, atoms firing between the immensity of the capital syphons, asset strippers, resonators of dead labour. Indeed the unbound absurdity of the gigantic monuments to capital such as the Shard seems to overshadow the lives of all who surround it, a sharp, cutting manifestation of the teleology of capital, the hideous and predictable accuracy of its dehumanising impulse.
The expression non-place doesn’t seem to do it justice, here you find anti-places, erasure and decay beneath a propagation of gleaming battlements prepared for war, these wonders of the capital are built on dashed brains, these expensive developments on mangled limbs.. the reflective surfaces in their purity reek of blood. The architecture of central London is psychological warfare, a vertiginous fall into the abyss from the ground up. It strains every muscle to ensure that the social unconscious, that dirty, repressed underside, remains hidden to you, the visitor, but it can’t..
Eventually, if you allow for some drift, you are bound to emerge into the ruins, those parts that it can’t, or more likely has not yet erased and replaced in its constant cut-and-paste sprawl, and here you invariably find traces and leftovers, what the slick inner-city beast has spewed out and what it has abandoned mingles in with what it has yet to touch and what it so desperately wants to ignore. It is here that the gigantic, gleaming emerald city of London finance begins to feel like a cruel joke at the expense of the lives of the people here, an ostentatious display seemingly designed to provoke envy and resentment. The city is a building site, a shifting tableau, but only in one direction..
In fact, when you scan the horizon, you’d sometimes be forgiven for thinking an entirely new city was being built amidst the patchwork. Each new development and project comes with its own mediocre utopia, a little vision of an updated, “modernised” neighbourhood, an architectural model with miniature residents strolling in front of it. The problem of course as that these aren’t architectural models and these people aren’t blank plastic clones. The city-as-playground-for-investors planning approach is nothing less than a tactic of war where the lives and bodies of the marginalised and the poor are subjected to emotional and psychological violence and displacement in the name of the UK’s “place on the world stage”. To keep up this gigantic facade, those parts of society it doesn’t want you to see, that might turn off the money-taps, must be obscured between the folds and the cracks, still seen sometimes in flashes and glimpses, the reflection in the glass from the window of a bus.
And the ideal can be seen right there, in the centre, the living graveyards of investment and entrepreneurial capital. At one point you imagine people may have seen this as exciting, a new horizon, a symbol of prosperity, but it seems now like these impossibly solid bastions of industry are little but cold glass and steel staring back at you, employees faces a blank picture of banal misery as they check out for lunch break or a cigarette. The people here often seem like empty shells, they could be anyone but they try to be no one; as they gather around for an evening drink each face blends into another, everyone dresses the same way, everyone talks about the same things, where is the famed plasticity of capital here? The answer of course is that this plasticity exists only in order to maintain just this kind of simulation of socialisation. Even off-hours people rehearse their lines, practice a kind of set routine that they simply improvise in varying orders from day to day. This is the world where talking to people becomes networking, where nothing exists if not subordinated to a business and finance based logic, Mark Fisher’s “business ontology”, a wasteland of imaginary capital.
The wastelands of business flow, or rather shudder into the limelight of a consumer tourist wonderland, coffee chains lining the streets and the push and pull of crowds swelling the pavements. But again, the people fade into insignificance, the slick wet pavements in the rain hold more interest than a thousand faces. Here again life seems to play second fiddle to the mechanised operations of production and consumption playing out under the rubric of colourful branding and smiling, welcoming faces. I’ll revise what I said earlier, the spit and grime of the city is hidden, repressed, but it lies in plain sight at all times. The exasperated employee selling the five hundredth latte of the day, the homeless man sitting beneath the famous landmark, meters away from groups of tourists, the simple dirt on the streets.. a facade relies upon displaying its own inadequacies, in emphasising the cracks, to work, and here it is not that the marginalised and displaced are completely out of sight in a literal sense, it is simply that the space around us draws away from what’s in front of our own noses, the violence all around us.
Just as historically the city works by excreting layers on top of its crumbling past, it simultaneously canonises and elevates to an ideal certain monuments and mythologies, the impossibly fragile spires and gleaming domes, the remnants of the neoclassical, the Victorian morality play, all reactionary paeans to the past, solid pillars and defined perspective. In fact isn’t this somewhere at the heart of the London facade, and in the most literal sense of its most damning economic effects. On the one hand we have the dystopian shadow of finance capital, and on the other the similarly threatening Dickensian imaginary, each playing its part in a war machine, a disappearing engine, erasing hearts and minds by the day…
The city is a war zone, but we can’t see the combatants.
I, and others like me who were born after a certain point in the late 20th century, have never known anything but the long dark night of neoliberalism. The first time I ever became aware of politics it was Tony Blair’s innocuous grin in the newspaper, perhaps 9/11, the Iraq war.. New Labour, for many now, has been the limitations of our horizons, the extent of what “left” has ever meant. Shorn from the long experience of defeat altogether, is it hardly any wonder that, setting forth on the task of rebuilding leftism practically from the ground up, we struggle and falter?
What is “electability”? Those who often throw it around talk as if it were some kind of impartial judgement delivered from somewhere above, perhaps by some political demigod, but beyond that what can it really designate besides an ideal, a mould against which all politicians are measured? Of course what brings this into much clearer focus is the assembly lines of immaculately coiffured replicants pioneered under the New Labour brand of politics, wherein your average politician was a shiny, branded white male android programmed on demand to deliver a series of relatively believable platitudes to the public and perhaps emote to specifications. Politics appeared as, and was expected to be a branding exercise, a slick, well produced sheen akin to an apple commercial wherein the future was contained in the perfectly ironed folds of a suit and the “relatable” grin of a young prime minister. Tony Blair’s administration very much pioneered this more-human-than-human approach and you can see its innovations all over the off-putting smarm of David Cameron.
What this has done is nothing less than building the image of the ideal politician that now we either wish to escape or return to. It seems reasonable to think that this is a huge reason why Ed Miliband was given such a hard time both as Labour leader and in the 2015 election for reasons often beside his politics. Many references were made to the “wrong brother” being put in that position, and this speaks to a particular expression of the political hegemony. What was it that made David Miliband a supposed preferable option to his brother? Simply put, he looked and seemed correct. David fit perfectly into the model of the New Labour politician, the cloned appearance, free of blemishes or hiccups, the look of a car salesman with a healthy salary. “Red Ed” was simply a faulty model, and deviated from what we were supposed to be looking for in a politician, the effortless PR gloss that reeked of finance capital.
This really seems to lie behind the idea of electability; it is an idea of what we are supposed to expect, a baseline. Tony Blair became a kind of original from which all must be cloned, each time with just enough differences that we mistake them for another person… this vision of the default, the baseline test to ensure we don’t stray too far from our purpose, is something familiar to all of us in the form of the everyday etiquette of work, of interaction, the conformity of ritual that defines the rhythms of postmodern capitalism. It is the ideological hegemony, contained in a million repetitions; kneel and clasp your hands as if in prayer, and you shall believe, to paraphrase Pascal, and once we know nothing but the action of prayer, any deviance from this motion is an unacceptable break in rank..
This model of the politician may no longer hold the sway it did, but it plays into a certain hankering for the times of old, the supposed glory days of the 2000s from which we have been so violently torn. How else could we explain that some in fact think this era was some kind of golden age than that we have no direct experience of anything better than its profound mediocrity?
I disagree with Paul Mason on a lot of things [and will proceed to do so here], but I think his reference to Eric Fromm here is worth picking up on. I think it’s very true that the ruling classes are now very much relying on a deep despair and frustration to consolidate their position. They are gambling on the assumption that we will all be too fed up with the situation surrounding Brexit to do anything to stop them. But then, should our aim here be “the road back to normality”? Bluntly put, no, and I think this is a misstep if we are intending to move forward. The wish to restore normality has been the driving force behind political hegemony for decades now, the pull to the centre. If we have any commitment to the socialist project we must if anything resist the pull of the normal. This return is surely the most reliable gesture of the reactionary?
“Normality” like “Electability” in politics are values we should move away from entirely at this juncture. If there is something the populist right have picked up on and steamrollered ahead with, it is the realisation that these paradigms no longer hold the all-encompassing sway they did. We on the left should not oppose them by countering this realisation, as surely the situation of normality here is, if we are to understand it in terms of power dynamics, hugely damaging. We may look back to the pre-crash era of the 2000s with fondness, when there was the illusion of prosperity [for some], but surely in the long term we must take into account that such recessions are a regular an inherent feature of Capitalism, never mind the bloated debt fuelled economies of today. All we’ve been doing is living on borrowed time, as borrowed time is the only time capital can offer; the time of work, frittered away worrying about whether you can make the next payment, until the next time your landlord decides to up the rate of blood extraction.
Any point of normality we might hanker towards is defined by this, it was never going to last, and was simply the moment of decadence before the fall. What Blair and his cohorts may have sold to us as a time of plenty, what some who still stand by their politics seem to hold as a golden age, was a time, if we look under its surface, thick with the viscous sludge of ruling class excess, an edifice at the brink of collapse. I’m sure some of us would love to simply undo the crash and all its particulars, but this belies its place in the historical continuity of capital, the events that led up to it, ignores the sheer economic despondency, the depressive impotence of the left New Labour represented in all its pomp and hubris. Indeed, we now stand upon the edge of what might, by some accounts, be a global recession many times more serious than that 11 years ago, demonstrating that in all this time we simply pushed forward the inevitable, that all this pretence that underpinned the brutal program of austerity and the “Fiscal responsibility” of successive Tory governments is nothing but a pathetic sham.
9 years. That’s how long we’ve now been under conservative rule, and taking into account the broken promise of new labour, we can reach back through the millennium into the 20th century and find that it may have been at least 4 decades since the left was a meaningful political force in Britain. Given this context, it is indeed understandable why many now believe that New Labour is simply the best we can expect.. what else have we to go on? But it is imperative that we create something new, and glimmers of this already exist today. Of course the surges in leftism among younger people have been imperfect, the organisations and parties they underpin have made mistakes and will continue to do so, but given that we are trying to build something that has lain shattered on the ground in a million pieces for decades, this is understandable and to be expected. Right now we must avoid condemning what little we have to go on for its imperfections and try collectively to move politics to the left. The socialist project today remains fragile and ready to fall apart, but if we ensure its further success into the future we may in fact be able to see something beyond the vapid, empty forms of normality.
There is a staple of BBC daytime television I remember filtering into my brain as a child called “Escape to the Country”, an example of the property/lifestyle programme in which prospective buyers are shown round a series of houses in a particular rural location. The very premise of the series, contained in the title, lies in the idea that the countryside is where one escapes. Usually in this context this means well-off city couples looking for somewhere they might be able to “get away from it all”, live out their days in idyllic peace and quiet, they’ve has too much of the hustle and bustle of city streets and want to find a nice cottage in a picturesque heartland, the good life.
Of course having grown up in a country village, this didn’t quite square with me, this clear-cut duality.. why would I want to escape to the country when I was already there? On top of this, it was far from the pastoral idyll these city-dwellers seemed to envision; sure, you might relish the idea of having a view over the fields, but just wait until that breaks down into a sea of industrial agriculture. Sartre pointed out the ways in which city people often see in the countryside an untrammelled natural world that belies the carefully managed ways in which the landscape is effected by human activity, how a hedgerow or a field, entirely man made, are interpellated as the sublime beauty of mother nature, undisturbed. What happens when someone else’s outside is your inside? What for many represents this mysterious other becomes for another a deeply familiar, even banal reality. The “escape from modernity” implied in its twisting branches fades into a pile of discarded kebabs and coke bottles, the terrifying sublime into a half completed building project.
This is of course the issue of familiarity that inevitably follows such distinctions. Home, where we come from or where we live, inevitably carries with it a certain familiar tinge that disavows us from the illusions and mythologies others stretch on top of it. For me, the Norfolk landscape I grew up with is as much a site of blasted industry as folk tales and crooked trees, as much the place that framed my awkward adolescence as a place of nostalgia and yearning. Of course such phenomenological inconsistency is ironed out completely in escape to the country, devoted as it is to selling a dreamlike vision, it is practically a textbook example of a capital-driven fetishization of an other, the ideal other free of blemishes and faults. Of course while this example is a clear, explicit move to sell, hawk wares in the most base sense, another way we encounter the same issue is in the attempt to escape such banalities. The problem here becomes an overall equation of “outside” with a particular subject, a particular place.
To us, of course, the inside/outside division will always re-orient itself along the lines of familiarity. Home=familiar, inside, Away=unfamiliar, outside. Someone who grew up in the city might indeed view the countryside with a kind of rapt fascination, or idealism, but then of course from the other side of the mirror the city begins to look just as exciting, a hive of modernity and hedonism, of the new, the future.. both an interlinked burrow of contradiction and negation. Familiarity on both counts becomes a moderating influence, what in psycho-analytic terms we could call a reality principle. From the unbroken mask, we begin to see the cracks, the guano on the pavements, and are disavowed of our previous excitement. The search for the outside as Lacanian objet petit a, always frustrated whenever we think we have reached it.
Mark Fisher, in Weird and the Eerie, as well as elsewhere referred to the “inside as a folding of the outside”. This is indeed an apt observation, but by itself incomplete. What this seems to point towards at various points in his writing is if anything the collapsing of an inside/outside distinction as ontological truth, akin with both a Spinozist collapsing of Cartesian dualism and the post-structuralist death of the subject. And so just as much as the inside may be a folding in of outside influences, it is equally true that the outside is a projection of the inside. The point, as ever, is not the search for the green grass on the other side, but the collapsing of the boundary itself. Here we find the alien contained within the human and the human in the alien, nature in civilisation and civilisation in nature, the country in the city and the city in the country, each clear distinction muddied, questioned and broken down. It is here that the subject becomes an extension in contravention of experience which might hold each of us to be a walled off entity in our own right.
From this then, it becomes a matter of de-familiarisation. If it is the familiar that generates reality, to generate another reality, what Alenka Zupančič would attribute to a process of sublimation, requires a de-mystification of the banal, the reality principle itself. It is of course this process, this “revealing” of the ideological mediation that is experience, that opens the door to new worlds within the familiar; it is not the projection of some ego ideal but the very unfolding of what we perceive as natural and real. The conception of nature is a prime example of such a reality, a nice comfortably sectioned-away, bottled and labelled thing that must stand in opposition to the human subject, in a kind of pre-copernican anthropocentric universe. To de-familiarise, to unfold our surroundings is then to place the outside within the inside, the inhuman within the human as it were. But just so I don’t fall into a particular trap here, this unfolding is not any kind of revealing, not the mechanism hidden behind the magicians illusion; indeed don’t we have to assume that within this action of unfolding is contained the inherent precedent to a “re”folding, wherein the act of sublimation not only unveils the contingency of reality but transforms it, creating new possibilities.
Isn’t there a problem then, with our assumption of the “otherness” of the country? Should we be staring at the mirror hoping to reach the reflection on the other side? It is true, and I value these experiences very much, that we can stand in the middle of the woods and experience a remarkable and refreshing emptiness, feel somehow that we have “escaped”, but today what’s the likelihood we can do this without both coming across some clear evidence of manmade intervention or being interrupted by a holidaying family? More to the point, doesn’t this simply leave one familiar for another? The urban industrial for the pastoral industrial, we move from one to the other side of the river in the hope that the other we so desperately seek is contained there, and neglect the vital work of re-orienting the perception of the ground beneath our feet.
“One morning you awake and all the time has melted away: no more hotel bedroom afternoons, light moving like seaweed over the pale impersonal walls. All your life, dreaming of the other side of the mirror, where the colours all reverse, and now you finally remember what it was you saw in that dressing room mirror, so long ago: clouds, full of rain.”
Ian Penman’s new collection of writing, what feels like an exquisitely chosen sequence of essays already published elsewhere but here forming so many cross-continental, cross-colour threads; a slight volume, it feels perfectly formed in its open ellipsis, dicing repeatedly with characters who we like to think of in trite, closed-off semiotic terms, as icons. Indeed, the subjects of the essays here read when listed off like a dusty pantheon, a museum of objects no longer invested with any kind of current or force today, devoid of lasting tension or relevancy. Elvis? Sinatra? Mod? Surely all bygones, remnants kept by rusty elders in the shed, mouldering in a box for the last decade?
What is absolutely remarkable about Penman’s approach here is that these symbols, characters, icons, subject elsewhere to text after bulging text of fawning empty platitudes and heritage fluff [let’s be honest, do we really gain anything from one more write-up going on at length about “iconic musical genius” or “trailblazing influence” et cetera], open up into a complex mesh of uncomfortable and uncertain threads, here emerging as pathetic man-children and there as existential melancholy personified. Above all it must be noted that on even the most surface level consideration, Penman’s is some of the most essential and electric music writing around at this current juncture, and that is despite his status as an “elder” of the British music press by this point. While younger writers toil ceaselessly at outlets like Pitchfork churning out barely-readable attempts at ego-fulfilment-fantasy, Penman’s work, while undeniably rooted in his own predilections, practically rolls off the page in a cascade of riveting prose, something which barely conceals the glint of a hard-edged analysis.
Indeed, links can be drawn here to Barthes and Derrida, even if they don’t appear in the text itself. Instead of explicit reference or extensive footnotes, here these influences are implicit, woven into the text but never weighing it down. James Brown as a figure is dissected as a mess of contradictions and unresolved tensions, between his militaristic approach to his music and image, and the lack of control over his own impulses. Everywhere here we find such tensions, whether it be between the perfectly groomed set of signifiers of their iconic status and their unavoidably unpleasant personal behaviour or for example between the modernist, pan-european hipness of Mod as an emerging phenomenon and its current iterations as saccharine, empty, postmodern shell.
It would be easy to simply tie the essays together through the “Home” of the title, but this seems to do it something of a disservice. Ostensibly what emerges is what Penman describes as a “cross-colour” collision of culture, a threading together wherein Black and White commingle and again move across the Atlantic. Within this however we find that symbols like Mod and figures like Elvis must be unwrapped, prised open into their component parts. Yet what we hope to achieve with such dissection, a closure, to finally uncover the core nugget of “soul”, leave bare the “me” underneath the constructed persona, or retrospective vision. Thankfully, or not depending on your disposition, the opposite occurs here. Instead of the pretence of some questionable uncovering of the true spirit of Sinatra, we find Sinatra from the ready-and-set-showman-glitz-mafioso-darkness dualism that we all know, fan out into into a cornucopia of unfinished sentences/an intermingling of threads.
It is this intermingling wherein we find the home, both its excess and lack. As we find through the exploration of Prince and his meticulously controlled excess and demand, notably for perfectly curated hotel rooms, “Look in the mirror children: each and every space is simultaneously fantastical, but also an endless repetition of the same. Nothing ever changes in Prince world … everywhere is home, nowhere is home”. Similarly with Elvis we enter a world of oedipal supply and demand, where every wish is catered for and it bloats, fattens, dulls.. even if, as it is pointed out, the immortality of Elvis itself does need some solid explaining given his deeply inconsistent catalogue of work.
Home ultimately always comes down to the music, and the relationship between the music and the people who produced it is something that doesn’t escape complication here. Much is said, in the form largely of slightly uncomfortable soundbyte discussion, of “removing the art from the artist” with regard to the deeply unpleasant behaviour of an artist we may admire or respect. Penman here makes no such easy concession, and both the essays on James Brown and John Fahey deal directly with the [in different ways] troubling nature of their personal conduct, and how this effected or made itself known in their work. Here we find a temporal drift, attempts to rediscover, reform, claw back, keep alive, a constant “re”, whether this be the retrospective nostalgia-porn of today’s Mod or the rat-a-tat-tat of Charlie Parker’s heroin fuelled virtuosity, what Penman points to in his music as the lack of drift, of reflection. The figures here in many ways attempt to escape home but are continuously drawn back towards it, whether this is the finality of death/old-age, the empty museum pieces of retro or the immortality of heritage, supposed “influence”, the undead.
The problem of course with drift and reflection, something in short supply in the midst of the semiotic tidal waves of cultural consumption today, is that we find things we might rather ignore. When we visit, for instance the British museum, can’t we just be left to marvel at the immaculately carved marbles, the array of objects from various slices of geography and history? To unambiguously do this of course requires the kind of suppression, we must, the museum itself must at all costs draw our attention away from the blood soaked into the stones on display, that we also find in our attempts towards some “pure” enjoyment of past cultural objects. If we simply don’t allow ourselves to drift backwards, keeping a kind of perpetual present in which everything simply exists in one place shorn of its bedrock like a plant cut off at the stem, then the uncomfortable, the ambiguous and the downright disturbing remain where they belong and we can make some kind of pretence of “art without artist”, fantasise about the past without complication.
When it comes down to it, Penman’s beautiful de-constructions of a certain, carefully chosen pantheon of figures is simply a small antidote, an important gesture at a time seemingly still dominated by the ideal constructions of past moments. Where the dominant mode of writing about figures like this is one of cloying reverence, writing like this remains essential and valuable, wherein rather than a cut-and-paste revue or ego-bloating attempts at virtuoso analysis we find a short and sweet series of thoughtful and propulsive, simple yet deeply complex, affecting yet biting essays. IF you want to delve into a single example of music writing at all this year, or the next even, I can think of no better than this.