Natural’s Not in It; Militant Otherness in Music

A dark, inscrutable passageway into the undergrowth…

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Scratchy, anxious sound, ready to burst at the seams, lurching in sputters and starts until it crashes into another rhythmic contortion. Shimmering, skating, pummelling, staggering, slippery notes, squeezing into and past each other, squirming into the cracks in the firmament, the orifices in the mask.

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Stilted, empty, the third eye, plastered over the brain, reveals nothing but frothing slime and writhing tentacles, hagfish escaping the clutches of a predator, latching onto a carcass and burrowing into the meat hanging from its bones in loose strips. Disappointed, the priest switches on the television, only to see the same thing.

The only music program that had anything worth watching on it as I was growing up was Later With Jools Holland, and if that isn’t a damning indictment on the state of music culture in the 2000s then nothing is. If I’m honest, it was pretty dire, and it came down to a matter of desperately scratching for and hoping for something notable to knock me out of my seat from dull episode to dull episode; maybe something would every once in a blue moon, but there was always the feeling that this was despite, not because of the characterless production and impossibly enthusiastic old-school-showman-esque flapping of Jools himself to introduce each artist.  Worse than this was perhaps the interviews.. oh the interviews! Those sickly, chummy, trite performances of friendly banter with wrinkly old stars and veteran rock musicians. In fact the whole show often felt as if, when something worthwhile DID show up, Jools would burst up out of the stage in the centre of it and foist some kitsch boogie-woogie piano into the mix, imposing himself on the act with a little bit too much glee.

Later with… as I experienced it was in retospect the apotheosis of the de-othering of music culture, its full incorporation into a middle class bourgeois respectability that burbles on in the background while people talk about how nice the weather is. Any performance that dared to be somewhat confrontational [I might note that Sleaford Mods made an appearance], stuck out like a sore thumb to the extent that these performances where in fact marginalized, receiving far less airtime than the arid desert of larger acts and often being presented in such a way that they kind of fade away in comparison to the huge spectacle afforded the other guests. The stricly regimented and controlled nature of a Later episode foreclosed any real confrontation with the TV audience at home.. all could be neatly packaged so we could sit on the couch and receive a glossy slice of entertainment removed of any danger that it might come out at the screen at us and pull us protesting from our living rooms. 

“There is a future and we’re trying to build one”

Many might place this sense of “danger” firmly in the camp of a certain Rockist mindset, that classic rocknroll mythology, all drug-emaciated bodies, trashing hotel rooms and unchecked misogyny, the male ego allowed to run riot in the name of transgression and anti-authority posturing. This, needless to say, isn’t what I mean, not purely, anyway. The Sex Pistols for instance may have been marketed by McLaren via this mythology of danger and transgressive intervention, but when it came down to it their music is remarkably safe. Listen to Never Mind the Bollocks today, and what’s remarkable about it is how well produced clean and actually non-edgy it really is, with its thick distorted power chords and simple rock tunes.

Where the real radical element of punk came into play, as Simon Reynolds importantly made the case for in his document of the post punk event Rip it Up and Start Again, is in what happened afterwards. The real intervention wasn’t the Sex Pistols as much as it was John Lydon’s deconstruction of Johnny Rotten and the forming of Public Image Limited, drawing not from the tired simplicities of rocknroll but looking more towards the distinctly un-rock horizons of dub reggae and disco to inform their sound. Indeed, if Lydon is to be believed if he had more input on Never Mind… it would have been far more oriented in this direction, something difficult to imagine now. Placing Never Mind the Bollocks next to PiL;s towering post-punk work Metal Box illustrates quite how much of a push into the unknown the latter group was in comparison. Where with the Pistols one finds a thickly produced warm fuzzy wall of sound PiL delivers screeching, deconstructed high-end guitar tones not so much soaring as scattering over dub/disco infused bass/drum rhythms, Lydon’s lyrics plumbing not some image of him as this destructive antichrist come to destroy society but exploring deeply unsettling and strange currents in the sound through imagery and his unpracticed dissonant wail.

What manifested in post punk, despite all its wild variations and conflicting approaches, was the conviction that music culture must look forward. If Punk had been this attempt to strip back to a raw simplicity it was important in inspiring a pushback, many groups such as Magazine and Gang of Four expressing a disappointment in what Punk had actually produced, John Lydon’s own disillusionment leading him to effectively sabotage Malcom McLaren’s dreams of cultural terrorism, famously uttering the lines “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” before walking off stage. What resulted, in a lot of the acts concurrent to and following 1977 was a riotous cultural ferment leading from the meeting of art school bohemia and the working classes into a kind of cultural meeting of high and low culture, what Mark Fisher called Popular Modernism, a popular culture that didn’t feel the need to be populist, that in some way treated its audience as intelligent rather than as cattle ready to be herded into the entertainment playpen.

Reading through Reynold’s book, I’ve re-listened to a lot of music I knew about and discovered a lot I didn’t, and it became more astounding throughout precisely how forward reaching and militantly adherent to ideas of newness a lot of this stuff was. Listening to Gang of Four’s Entertainment! for instance really hits home how absurd it is that the band are reduced to a footnote, influences on groups who are effectively delivering a warmed over non-political microwave-meal version of their sound. These are sounds that aimed to create the future; a modernist impulse infused within its structure that for Gang Of Four also manifests in their politicized content, but in other groups remained an ambiguous but no less militant drive to generate something unlike what had come before.

What I’d propose comes with this is a distinct and actively maintained position of otherness. Much of music culture of the time presented itself as alien, removed, cold.. and yet it drew people in with a non insignificant degree of fervour. Culture within the neoliberal framing of late capitalism predicates itself on a kind of faux-familiarity, a chummy, friendly, real-talk approach one can see in the bloated edifices of Britpop and the YBA movement in the 90s, the music culture of the post punk period often explicitly rejected what many saw as the trite and false appeals to authenticity of rock music, towards “letting it hall hang out” and being “real”. A rejection of this generated a kind of alienated otherness that really allowed the artists to manipulate and play with public image in a kind of demystifying coldness typified really in the name “Public Image Limited” the band’s concept as a corporation, the simple stripping back of typical “album” accoutrements and ease of use to produce the packaging of Metal Box, an effective deconstruction of the music commodity in its blank metal sheen [and yet, in this demystification, all we find is more mystique…] .

“The Way Out is Through the Door…”

This otherness within the music of the late 70s-80s specifically carried through to the image making potential realised in pop music, the spirit of Glam persisting through the generation of countercultures, most notably Goth, predicated on an arch coldness and impersonal wearing of masks, replicable appearances where the individual is subsumed within the culture they embrace, breaking down identity into the signifiers that define it to be remixed and blended at will, but providing a mould, a template that can be used to quickly repeat the same image. Music culture becomes identity thresher and production line simultaneously, a cut-and-paste collage of subject which in breaking down effectively the chain of elements that produce who we are understands our identity not as a concrete anchor keeping us tethered to the spot but a spinozist machine, wherein understanding its workings allows us autonomy over our own lives. The calculated presentation of image becomes taking control, an enacting of autonomy and a resistance of desire.

“The way out is through the door, how come nobody uses it?” asks Mark Stewart of The Pop Group on “Where There’s a Will”, the squalling free-jazz sax solo peppering itself all over the disco driven funk of the music beneath, an explicit formalisation of the implicit assumption of the time, that a new future was just past the next impasse, music was being made with the excited fervour of people who believed that the new was possible and who absolutely were not content with what they were given. There was the door, all we needed to do was use it, cross the threshold… The Avant Garde invading the stage of pop was symptomatic of this approach, the presence of this “other” of sometimes harsh, always strange experimental influence, even the taking up of the mantle held previously by the notably more exclusive Dada and Fluxus movements and translating it to popular forms, appearing as decidedly unsettling and weird presences in the mainstream.

None of this is to say by any stretch of the imagination that the 70s were some perfect utopia, some kind of nostalgic plea to return to a lost age; it is more of a call to rediscover futurity, find our way back to the way out. A certain militant otherness within post punk, an expression of affinity with the outside and through this fidelity to the future, is something that requires nurturing and fostering within the cultural milieu. Indeed we can trace much of this de-othering to what can be percieved as the failure of New Pop, the reduction of music to pure entertainment that resulted from the entryists and proponents of pop music in the mid-80s and their hope that by courting the mainstream they could subvert it. The mistake was to underestimate ultimately the ways in which ironic reflexivity and deconstruction can easily revert to the very things it intends to subvert. While early pioneers of New Pop such as Heaven 17 still maintained a distinct element of post-punk demystificatory ambition, the presentation of their music effectively acting as one big pop meta-commentary, the speed at which these sentiments reverted to the pure hedonist acquiescence of Wham! and Duran Duran is alarming in its totality.

Of course, in a sense, this de-othering effect ties directly into the increasing inability to imagine an outside. Glam, Post-Punk, Art Pop, all of their science fiction imaginings, dystopias and utopias both, dismissed like the silly fantasies of a child under the singular umbrella of late capitalism. While New Pop initially intended to infiltrate and destabilize, or that was the idea, it became a shibboleth of Thatcherite consumerist fantasies, the legitimate appeals to the alien and the other found in a group like The Associates with their absurdities, mystery, the impossibly sumptuous atmosphere of an album like Sulk, eclipsed entirely by Madonna’s material girl, redolent and shining in the status afforded her by the capitalist fulfilment of desire. This sense suddenly that the pop star is simply us without the wrinkles, a perfect image of an ordinary person, became the archetype, the universal standard.

Fangs Bared

So far I have discussed both the Rockist and Popist approaches to the kind of complex transgression that consists in this militant otherness. Of course this word, transgression is held up often as the core spirit of rock music, but what this actually means seems to evade the grasp of the concrete. Sure, if we look towards the situationist upheaval of punk, the shockwaves it left behind such as the No Wave movement in New York we can note a distinct focus on attempts to transgress social norms. No Wave was arguably such a short lived and brief phenomenon because it was rooted in this self-nihilating trangression, something that in its very nature cannot maintain itself, but in truth if anything defined post punk it is precisely this lack of concrete definition, this image of shifting sands, each grain proceeding to replace the last as the topology shifts again and again, refusing to settle.

Refusal to settle is precisely the situation many post punk acts found themselves in; more than this, refusal to retreat. Capital bakes into its libidinal systems this desire to return, to organic wholeness, to idyllic suburbia, the final defeat of the horror villain so everything returns to the perfect, unbroken utopia of the beginning. Of course, if we are to look towards Jameson’s understanding of the dialectic as a narrative, this becomes a distinctly different exercise, one undertaken if anything by the horror villain themselves, the act of unsettling the natural state of affairs, in order to return to something that is changed, different, a wrenching apart of reality to put it together in a different form. The cultural condition we can call postmodernism, with its stale repetition of historically distended forms, one that reached its apotheosis in a series of “revivals”, of 80s synthpop, of “post-punk”, of house music, eurodance… is in a sense a constant return to the natural state of affairs, the idyllic homestead, the perfectly preserved image of the picture postcard village suspended in a timeless collage.

While the temptation, as the PR narrative of Capital would have it, is an attitude of unbound optimism or even temporal chauvinism, to see not a stale desert of ghosts, but more variety. The ahistoricity of music culture becomes transformed into a flat pick’n’mix of musical styles, the supposedly exciting marketplace of cultural objects, lifted from their socio-historical backdrop and placed against a corporate void.

Reject this. I want to set out carving a path against culture as nothing more than consumer choice. Surely the strange sounds that tore me out of my boredom induced slumber and presented me with a way out mean something more than a damn industry paycheck, surely music is more than its “contribution to the economy”. I’ve long had a burning, simmering distaste for the word “industry” tacked onto things it has no business being associated with. When Adorno and Horkheimer railed against the “culture industry” were they predicting a world in which people think nothing of defining themselves as participants in the “creative industries”? The sheer stultifying de-libidinizing intensity of this linguistic tendency to reduce all to its contribution to capital cannot be understated, and it the fight to return to culture an idea of otherness is criminally undervalued.

Of course, the fact that such militantly outsider culture develops in tandem with the socio-economic situations that allow for its production emerges as something of a hurdle here. The re-emergence or reclaiming of DIY as a form of cultural production is somewhat key here I have come to believe, and something Simon Reynolds has argued; for all the claims of new pop, for all its entryist ambitions to deform from the inside, its submergence in glossy hedonic abandon ultimately gave credence to the social order of the day, and contributed indirectly to the crushing of the systems that made these self-sufficient outer breeding grounds of popular modernism, of experimentation and forward-looking sound-making, possible. It is where we are allowed to develop our ideas for the world, to set forth our manifestos and react to the world around us, that culture thrives again.

The internet at some stage provided a key bastion of hope for this, and for a time it saw a legitimate upsurge in the DIY spirit, of people producing wildly ambitious content from their bedrooms. Of course, the cold fingers of capital couldn’t let this lie for long, and now, and to some degree the dream of completely self sufficient underground culture on the internet crumbled, increasingly driven by the cogs of advertising, monetization and endlessly vapid similitude. Even if such initiatives CAN still be found on the internet, I would in fact emphasise the importance of fostering such an attitude in the flesh, as while the internet is a fantastic tool in some respects, of dissemination, of discussion [sometimes], it also stand consistently in between us and action. The unending low level stimulation of 24/7 connectivity might be marketed as some modernising, forward looking cyber-dream, but it manifests as a constant anxious presence on the edge of our thoughts, a creeping tic, any free time really beset by the constant FOMO … the twitch of the hand towards the phone in the pocket.

To distance ourselves from these deadening tentacles, to reclaim our time… to generate once more an outside, or a sense that there could be one. Even, to move forward with the conviction of our own otherness, may be possible again. To identify with the alien precedes the discovery of new worlds…

Otherness – Playlist

The Positivity Injunction

I lose count of the times I’ve heard someone claim they don’t like a piece of music or a film because it’s “too depressing”. What this means I have yet to find out, but I’ve become aware over the years that it seems to apply overwhelmingly to a lot of my own cultural library, and so tend to be somewhat irritated upon hearing it, even if directed at something that I myself am not terribly keen on. The implication here is clear, all that is not positive begone, we have no need for your emiserating antics.

This attitude is something that has taken its place at the opposite end from the apparent doom-mongers and naysayers, the party-poopers and orgy-ruiners of the world who just want to ruin everyone elses good time. You must be fun at parties goes the line as if being fun at parties was some kind of marker of good humour, as if so many of us were plunging ourselves into a hedonic haze and careening through muddy fields on amphetamines because we’re just so fun to be around. Put away that book it might make you depressed… copious levels of alcohol on the other hand…

To be clear I’m not anti-pleasure and I don’t want to come across as some puritan finger-wagging priest delivering a moral sermon, in fact quite the opposite.. what I want to point out is that it is this positivity injunction which itself functions in this way, denouncing any of us who dare criticize what we are supposed to enjoy. Picture a scene where a group are discussing a fast food outlet. Going around the room they can’t get over how amazing these burgers are, and the superlatives are flowing. Then it gets to you. You… don’t really think much of the place and you have a few words to say on it, so you say so. Silence. Everyone kind of looks at you strangely before someone says “yeahhh but it’s really good isn’t it” the conversation continues as if you had not spoken. Say on top of this your reason had to do primarily with the way the fast food outlet functioned, marketed its food, or produced it. Here, the injunction to be positive becomes an injunction to stay silent and conform. All the keep-calm-carry-on mugs and tea-towels in the world seem to be saying “Pipe down and let us have our fun”.

This all seems to point towards a refusal to think beyond the pleasure principle. Mark Fisher describes something in Capitalist Realism he terms as “Depressive Hedonia”; where depression is generally held as the inability to find pleasure in anything, what we find in Depressive Hedonia is the inability to do anything besides the pursuit of pleasure. Specifically given the breakdown of certain structures within education, the lack of resources or content, students will often find themselves sitting in their rooms getting high consuming entertainment because there’s nothing of interest to do… anything that is not connected to pleasure strikes us as worthless, something we’d have to really force ourselves into. This is connected in my mind to the positivity injunction, something that can be found just as much in the anxious and depressed communities of students as it can people “climbing the job ladder” and in the world of business. Among people my own age and younger however, there seems increasingly to be this attitude that if you are critical of something that provides us FUN then you are de facto ANTI-FUN. You’re slapped with a sticker that announces to everyone that you’re some miserable stick-in-the-mud, you have no time for the good life.

In my own experience this has emerged through my disdain for festivals. I was somewhat excited by the idea of the festival when I was younger for the novelty aspect, but gradually it becomes increasingly evident that festivals are where punk comes to die, events of staggering cultural emptiness predicated on the idea that nobody who goes to them actually cares, or will be too off their face to care, about what’s actually going on there. Even essential or exciting acts are drained of potency in the open fields, the whole sorry affair being a muddy slice of flabby carnivalesque bourgeois boredom alleviation designed not as a cultural event but a way to forget. Just camp out in a muddy field, take some drugs, forget about everything and enjoy Foster the People won’t you? The headline acts are often non-acts, non-culture, Marc Auge’s non-places in the form of bands, an airport waiting area on a musical stage, going through the motions of performance but having given up any attempt to carve out anything beyond a flat, meaningless success in a continuum of similitude. At it’s worst the festival is in fact a cavalcade of awkward nostalgia, the geriatric rolling stones still desperately pulling the same old shit despite the valorisation of youth suiting them now like… well like leather trousers on an elderly Mick Jagger. When did anything of any import really happen at a festival?

Well, suffice to say I don’t really think much of the festival environment, predicated as it us on the reduction of culture to museum, even worse, to a kind of repeating wallpaper design in front of which we drool over the settee in a ketamine haze. I’ve found this however a notably unpopular thing to say, the enjoyment of festivals being taken as something of a necessary, why WOULDN’T you enjoy this, you puritan.. the expectation here is that we just draw our mouths into a grotesque smile and just get down with everyone else. Hedonism here can be taken as some kind of Bataillean limit experience, the thing that provides the rest of our mundane lives with some exit, an outside where we don’t have to worry about paying the rent. As soon as we take those amphetamines or drink those beers, we enter a headspace away from all that miserable shit, all that politics, the boring stuff. It is like some kind of transcendental move, a heavenly experience … is it any surprise that festivals have become intertwined often with a kind of typical new age mysticism, the kind of religion where we can engage in its practices while simultaneously feeling above them.

And so the positivity injunction is a call to accept this state, to simple go ahead and dope yourself up, become numb to the world for a few days, accept mediocrity, accept the state of affairs as long as you can purge it temporarily, accept the endless waiting room, the repetition, the cultural logic of late capitalism, it’s all worth it for this moment of transcendent bliss, knocking down a few pints in a miserable field of desperate people on a cocktail of drugs and believing wholeheartedly that this is the best life will offer us. In this way the festival, and the positivity injunction itself, becomes a stagnant river, heaving with waste. It is the place where culture comes to a standstill, repeats itself due to the lack of will to accept anything could be better. Judgement, negativity is the ultimate sin, surely you can accept that all eras have their bad parts, nothing is inherently worse about now … except it is, there is an air of deprivation, and as much as we may hope against all hopes that really this is just how things are and it’s just different, no worse or better, there are concrete political reasons for this negativity.

The consistent dismantling of social security, the demonization of the unemployed & the working classes, the lack of cultural urgency [brought on non insignificantly by our subsistence on a diet of cyberculture and connectivity, the strange temporal effects of having access to a seemingly endless and overwhelming stream of data, described by Franco “Bifo” Berardi as Overload]. We have more than sufficient reason to be pissed off, and it’s about time to draw a line under this kind of forced positive attitude. Culture is more than entertainment, and as long as we insist that the only recourse we have is to a hedonistic escape from this earthly domain, we continue to reinforce the hegemony of Capitalist Realism and neoliberal theology. What we need is not some kind of neo-spiritual affirmative love-solves-all positive oppressive injunction, but a renewed sense that this is not all we can muster. We have a lot to care about, and if we didn’t care we wouldn’t spend all this time trying to suppress it; dare to think beyond the pleasure principle, and maybe we can build new forms of collectivity.

The Stare of Empty Bliss

Theresa May, summoning each swiftly waning digit of strength as her government continues careening into the abyss, and with no small degree of sheer gall, spoke recently at a “youth violence summit” about the need to tackle violent crime amongst young people.

“We cannot simply arrest ourselves out of this problem”

Indeed, we cannot, but even if we could in some absurd counter-reality, it’s hardly as if the Police have the resources to undergo such a task in the first place. In this conservative governments attempts to appear to have a hold of itself it only appears more and more out of sync, the words spoken gradually slipping into a spacio-temporal disconnect with the world around them. We cannot arrest ourselves out of it .. so clearly the blame is to be placed on those working in public services, already under hideous strain and threat of redundancy under further cuts, to somehow “spot the signs” of violent crime amidst the youth in their purview.

The grotesque contortions of these suggestions are compounded by the routine denunciations of culpability; of course we have nothing to do with it. Of course, neither the full bombardment of police forces or the watchful eye of public service workers will do anything; at least, for all the lip service to adressing the “causes” any actual addressing of cause is what is notably absent from the whole discussion. In placing the focus on a purported duty to report crime what the government is doing here is attempting to depoliticize it, to remove from the realm of possibility any hint that a rise in crime may be connected to a rise in poverty and dispossession, of precarity and homelessness.

The irony here is that what May is suggesting is simply another way of trying to arrest our way out of the problem. She and her cabinet likely know full well that addressing violent crime, crime of any stripe for that matter, requires addressing the socio-political issues that birth it, but to do so is simply beyond their political programming. The wasted remains of the neoliberal terminator still slowly drags itself across the blasted sands, unaware at this stage of its lost functionality, its state of comatose denial. Crime, like terrorism, must time and time be reduced to transcendential causes. When Donald Trump made that comment, about good people with guns stopping bad people with guns, he vocalised without the double entendres and politesse of neoliberalism exactly what it implies with its approach to such issues; that people do bad things because they are bad. This worrying rise in violent crime amongst young people, it must just be because they simply aren’t behaving properly, or we aren’t disciplining them properly.

The cause is left mystified, in a haze of infinite distraction. It must all be reduced to some kind of problem related to moral character or strength of will. Some people just want to watch the world burn … some just want to earn a living. It has become obvious in most quarters that we exist now in some strange state of transition, that the putrescent moderation of the past decades has fallen into disrepute … and yet it continues. Despite everything, in the conservative government, in the rather amusingly limp posturing of the newly minted replicants of the “new centrists”, in the neoliberal bastions over in europe, institutions remain locked in a dystopian fantasy land where business and markets dominate our consciousness and will do for the foreseeable future.

This stare of empty bliss is nothing however if it is not an opportunity for the left to take action. We don’t have to acquiesce and we don’t have to rely on the glimmer of hope, but if we cannot in the twilight of the doddering clowns of westminster seize onto a newfound confidence, then we have some way yet to go.

Reflections of K-Punk

It’s likely no secret to many who have spoken to me recently that the work of Mark Fisher has become something of an important reference point to me; this goes beyond simply being an investment in a certain writers style, or some facile obsessive regurgitation of a someones’ ideas I might be particularly into at the time. Fisher’s writing has, the more of it I’ve read, managed to shift my perception of the world around me, and really, though this may at first pass sound a little melodramatic, given me what feels like a renewed vigour and purpose in life after a prolonged period of stagnation, repetition, depression and boredom, namely precisely the symptoms and conditions Fisher examines and takes a scalpel to over the trajectory of his books Capitalist Realism, Ghosts of My Life, The Weird and the Eerie, and the main subject here the recently published collected works, the mammoth tome I recently read from cover to cover.

There is a distinct melancholia in reading this collection, containing as it does enough of Fisher’s most important writing to put together the coherent strands that defined his project[s], and putting into perspective its tragically unfinished status. It cannot be said enough that Fisher was one of the most lucid, cutting and important cultural critics of his time, and his writing breathes new life into a leftist politics previously assumed to be long calcified into redundancy. The introduction to what would have been his next book Acid Communism, included at the end of K-Punk really hits home how really, he was just getting started; his appeals to the hauntology of lost futures manifesting itself in his own foreshortened political project. In the context of all else here, Acid Communism feels like the beginning of a culmination to where his ideas were going, the proposal to match the critique seen in Capitalist Realism and an intersection of the many influences and strands one finds him returning to throughout.

Something it would be hugely amiss to ignore; both Melancholy and Depression feature heavily, although he is careful to distinguish between the two, as he is between the nostalgia mode, as defined by Jameson, and Hauntology. Something that rears its head throughout his work is his own grappling with mental ilness, one that becomes almost difficult to read about in hindsight, but I think still essential at a point where many speak of the mental health crisis and I’m not sure I know many people, if anyone my own age, who does not labour under some form of anxiety or depression. While as one may read in Capitalist Realism he makes sure not to simply state that all mental illness is caused directly by political issues, he nonetheless makes the point repeatedly that Mental Health is a Political Issue. Indeed is it so difficult to imagine that the notable proliferation of mental health issues among younger generations is connected to changes in the way we organise our society? In the years since the rise of Neoliberalism we have increasingly had to live in a world of a million pressures, precarity; a damocles sword threatening us with the constant threat of collapse, we may lose our job, suffer a pay cut, be called in at a moments notice, we may be evicted from our home… we’re expected to be flexible, but this is code for what Franco “Bifo” Berardi describes in Precarious Rhapsody, a post-fordist capitalism where the line between work and life is blurred to an indistinction , where time is at a premium. Fisher references the film In Time as possibly the first science fiction film about precarity, where time itself becomes a currency. In this climate, it is hardly any wonder people everywhere, especially young people who are thrust out into this world after having been promised success for hard work, are buckling under the weight, especially when one factors in the transformation of the welfare state into a perverse system of punishment for the unemployed … increasingly we are told “it’s YOUR fault”, a mantra that worms its way into our brains, forming a thread of anxiety and despair.

Let it not be said that this is some dry, sad, lifeless tome of Marxist analysis; quite the opposite… Regularly Fisher reiterates a distinct venom for the kinds of theory and cultural attitudes that might deign to reduce political engagement down to some academic parlour game, the ways in which the the lifeless corpse of real political action is dressed in the dull rags of realism and put to work by the useful idiots of capital. The writing here is notable for its fire and drive, for the sense that it is by no means intended as empty pontificating. The focus is on doing something, an interjection into the social realities of the reader rather than a series of lumpen musings with designs only on a select few pompous clowns.

Something that shines through much of the writing here, besides the urgency that practically bleeds through each line, is a conviction in the importance of culture; through Fisher, one gains practically a new cultural canon, where the importance is always placed on historicizing and contextualizing every film and piece of music within the arena that produced it. To this end there is often a certain excitement in Fishers distinctly punk proclamations, both in the ones that played directly into some of my younger predilections [Siouxsie and the Banshees are more important than the Smiths!] and ones that drew me towards strange things I had never encountered [Artemis 81!] or finally lead to an immersion in something I’d never previously managed to crack [The Fall!]. Always running behind the words is what he terms as “a fidelity to the post-punk event”. That is to say, a yearning for a modernism, and an ongoing critique of what Jameson called “the cultural logic of late capitalism” or postmodernism as a cultural condition and malaise. The material here which coalesced into Capitalist Realism, Ghosts of My Life and Weird and the Eerie can be traced as three connecting tissues throughout, certain points acting as nodes in a larger political project that can be mapped across the book, and organically [perhaps synthetically] emerges in the connections drawn between sections; on books, film & television, music, politics.. the confidence throughout that the world can be transformed for the better, and the fear that we may have lost the ability to imagine this, defines the great extent of it, appearing in pieces on cultural objects as varied as Cronenburg’s Existenz and a Damien Hirst retrospective. While in many cases he directs ire at culture that he sees as reinforcing capitalist realism, hence the dominion of capital, some of the most stirring moments are often the surprising places he sees a way past this impasse, notably for instance in The Hunger Games, pulling no punches in declaring it anti-capitalist realist as opposed to for instance culture that previously engaged in a successful illustration of our cultural condition, prominently The Thick of it and The Wire. Fisher is equally as good at pulling unexpected joy from a maligned piece of art as he is ravaging your chosen idols in the strongest terms [see his choice words on Alan Moore at one or two points].

Increasingly, throughout all this, you sense a strong yearning, and eventually an open call for what he terms “Pulp Modernism”, probably described in the most detailed terms in his magnificent three-part analysis of the Fall, Memorex for the Kraken. This was for him the hope that the dull flame of modernism might re-emerge in popular culture, subsumed as it is beneath a haze of reflexive pomo irony and self-satisfied snark, in which fidelity to fantasy is the ultimate heresy and everyone strives towards a kind of underlying sincerity, the stripping away of the surface to reveal the underlying real; this can be seen at its most screamingly egregious within the image fostered by Britpop, the blokish “realness”, all denim jackets and no-frills performance, a pompous cavalcade of anti-sensuality that reflected itself in much of the culture to follow, when it was not presenting itself behind unfathomable layers of ironic detachment.

Something that struck me reading this stuff in fact, as well as the fact that I myself only discovered Fisher years after his death, was that I could probably count myself as one of those generations who had entirely escaped the history we are experiencing repeated all around us. The excitement of discovering a new band predicated on not being aware of everything they’ve unimaginatively drawn from, who discovered the past largely through a long laundry list of influences relayed to us by our favourite artists, or as a cloyingly nostalgic narrative of rock-stardom and male ego crudely compacted and re-organised through duller-than-dishwater talking head documentaries where a rotating line-up of people would repeat like clockwork the tired old myths of the rock & pop establishment. I was to some degree a little lucky in that I chanced upon Siouxsie and the Banshees and Public Image Limited when I was quite young, the post-punk scene that Fisher loved so much having appeared to me like this compelling ghost of an era alien to me, when this kind of culture could still happen; of course, I didn’t phrase it as such at the time, but the appeal of the music to me was precisely that it sounded like nothing else, drawing from an unfamiliar pool of influences, something that only became diluted and lessened by the bands that so impotently tried to copy-paste their sounds. The existence of a culture this exciting, that could evolve like this, was something that looking back was in all honesty pretty notable in its absence from my growing up, it was more of a case of tracing musical influence, going back across the timelines and family trees, scenes and acts waiting to be plucked like fruit. In terms of contemporary cultural production, although I think we’re beginning to see stirring in that department at the very least, at the time it was dominated by things that sounded not only like each other, but like their influences stripped of urgency.

The reclaiming of the idea of the new, of the future, of urgency, of collective agency on the left and within our cultural moment is what can be found throughout the book, ringing through each piece of analysis and each swelling of anger. A pall of fatalism hangs over the present, the left operating as if against an inevitable failure, the right towards a luridly imagined “collapse of the west”. Everywhere we turn, we find people throwing their hands up in resignation and despair. If this sounds like an inescapable impasse, it’s worth noting that the pall may be gradually lifting, that we are starting to see the kind of speculation and confidence in the idea of another world as Badiou might put it, that was so utterly foreclosed for so many years. I speak in smaller terms of the resurgence of genuinely leftist approaches in parliamentary politics and the collapse of the toothless neoliberal populism that dominated as the naturally assumed status quo for decades, the retreat of the right from modernization, towards a position of imagined return to an idealised past. But also, we have I think seen a resurgence of cultural urgency, of experiments and sounds aiming to disconnect themselves from those of the past. Even if these approaches seem still like a flicker, it feels to me as if they are rapidly expanding to a flame. This is the one-two punch of the arc in Fisher’s writing, that of melancholy, of mourning lost futures, and that of a re-invigorating push forward, not unlike the way reading Fisher for me has re-invigorated theory and politics.

I have mentioned Capitalist Realism as a book I would practically recommend to anyone, acting as it does as a pointed and effective analysis that definitely in my case contributed to a genuine re-alignment of perspective and flaring of consciousness from a point of relative fuzzy ennui. K-Punk may be a good bit less accessible, it being a few pages shy of 800, but it is no less valuable, a collection of writing that acts not only as an indispensable companion to the dystopian landscape of neoliberal capitalism, but a clarion call to imagine something else, to rediscover the potential of those lost futures and cease to accept reality as it is. My reading of the pieces here was, I should note, supported by reading a good bit of K Punk material not actually included in the book for whatever reason, and it’s worth noting that there’s still some excellent material out there that may not have fitted comfortably there but are still very worth a read for any interested party. Something else I read that really tied beautifully into Fisher’s concerns, especially towards the back end of the book, was Ray Brassier’s essay Prometheanism and its Critics. This is by no means essential reading, but I found for me there was a clear undercurrent of Brassier’s point in Fisher’s call to recognise the ephemeral nature of social reality. For Brassier, the idea that there is some underlying natural order is imminently theological, something that runs against any emancipatory politics. The key quote from Capitalist Realism, one that can now be found as a mural at Goldsmiths, reflects this;

“emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable”

This is something Fisher recognised as a through-line between all radical thought of different stripes. The implication being here, one that Fisher re-iterates at various points notably in his discussions of James Cameron’s Avatar, that any left that appeals to a return to the basic order of things, a return to natural simplicity, becomes a reactionary project, for to do so we must arbitrarily assert an order of things that cannot but reveal itself to be a phantom under closer viewing. Indeed, and one can see this in Fisher’s explorations of Glam and Goth, we see here a call for a closer affinity with fiction/fantasy, in a sense moving away from appeals to any kind of pure interiority towards the idea that in fact, the exterior, the mask, that is the locus of change itself. Image becomes a machine, a generator of affect.

At this point I want to set forth my intention with this blog leading into the near future. Not to restrict myself to a narrow and total project, or to simply try and ape the lifeless desiccation of the academy, but reading K Punk has really fired me up and clarified to me the ways in which I want to engage in the blogging platform, and how I want to proceed from here. I find it generally unhelpful to leave the field completely open, an anything-goes-buffet of themes that may organically coalesce [indeed I feel they have to some degree] but, much like political action itself, amount to nothing if this coalescing is not grasped and fashioned into something.

I mentioned that during my reading of K Punk I read some other complimentary material, and this lead to the themes of essentialism and fatalism irrevocably connecting. From reading The Communist Horizon Jodi Dean’s fantastic articulation of what may be meant by a collective political subject on the left, to Brassier’s essay, to the Xenofeminist manifesto, to Donna Haraway, to Deleuze & Guattari … all in some way shape or form must unseat natural order as a fundamentally theological and reactionary concept, to be discarded if we are to build another world. I will provide a reading list below for anyone who is interested, covering some things I have referenced here and others I have read partially or fully along the way. From here, however, I intend to set myself a project; by which I don’t mean a strictly regimented 10 part [a] to [b] narrative, god no. What I mean is that I intend to proceed from this point into an in depth critique of fatalism and eschatology.

For while in many respects capitalist realism may be showing cracks, it is still far from over as Paul Mason prematurely declared it some years ago, and this can be ascertained simply through the everyday, quotidian reality where capitalist realism takes root. While on some levels and in certain quarters we now see murmurs of communism/the end of capitalism that would have been unthinkable half a decade ago, if we look away from these and towards gossip, small-talk, general conversation, we still find those attitudes heavily embedded in the way we see the world. Something I’ve noticed enter the frame however, something that ties undeniably into capitalist realism, is a general depressive fatalism, often tied to an unconscious eschatology. Time and again I encounter the idea that we are headed unerringly and unchangeably towards some kind of hobbesian warlike future, a desperate struggle for resources in a world blasted by climate change. The collapse of society, we hear, will lead of course to an eruption of international conflict and a descent into a situation where only the strongest survive. It’s effectively like the most lurid fantasies of the right, and the fantasy driving those people dubbed “doomsday preppers”. But it goes further than this, it’s something I have encountered on both the right and the left, and it’s something I want to tackle properly.

Is my problem here that I’m some kind of humanist who hates the idea that there might be a world without humanity, or am I driven by a fear of collapse? Well no and maybe, but this is not where my primary issues lie. Rather, I find this dour breed of fatalism is itself, like any kind of overtly pessimistic approach, a hyperstitial spiral when translated into action, that is when it is enacted on the level of ritual, an internalised truth. We believe it to be inevitable so it is inevitable, it is inevitable so we believe it to be so. It, like realism, presents itself as a grand unveiling of the underlying truth, stripped bare of ornament, at the same moment becoming its own realisation, failing to take stock of itself as fantasy. If we empirically examine the world around us, and take this examination to its limits, we increasingly find that the very things that we live our lives by, the construction of a subject, the very idea of humanity, break apart, and this is to say nothing of meaning. What does meaning have to do with the world as it is?

And this is the problem, that in positioning oneself on an unerring line towards the post-apocalypse scenario, or towards the final retreat of humanity to their base, violent state, a whole host of theological assumptions are being made, not least that of some underlying natural order; the “way things are” that we suppress or build on top of. In applying to the future an arc against which it is futile to struggle we contribute to making it a reality. If enough of us believe that humans are ultimately competitive and violent that is precisely how we will act. It posits that a certain situation will come about but fails to consider the circuit breaker, the “unless we do something else”. This all largely connects to the unfathomable nature of climate catastrophe, something that a number of writers have tackled, some which I will mention below, but as Fisher observed takes up within capital the status of Lacanian real, something which is so traumatic to the state of things that it cannot be seen straight on except as some formless blur, only approached indirectly, Lacan used here the example of the skull in Holbein’s ambassadors, simply appearing as some spectral shape at the corner of our perception until we approach the painting from the side.

This incomprehensible trauma combined with the close proximity of said trauma, relatively, breeds it as an increasingly strong symbolic assertion within capital, which tells us time and again that we are all individually responsible. The lack of a systemic analysis here can lead us to no other conclusion that the worst is inevitable. IF we continue, everything in our nightmares will come true. IF. The eschatological approach will deny that this IF means anything, claiming that really there’s no chance, that people are just too enmeshed in capitalism to do anything about it. Isn’t the problem here yet again that by believing this we make it a reality? We cannot keep returning to these theological fatalisms if we are to undergo a promethean transformation, and in some sense what I want to do is make the case for staying the course, for continuing to believe in a future beyond the hobbesian scenario, for in the absence of the certainties provided by capital, we need a confidence in uncertainty, or, to put it another way, one which many have already put forward, we must act as if collapse has already occurred, because in many ways it has. The time is not for hunkering down and preparing for the absolute worst, it is for new systems of organisation, new forms of libidinal engineering. Fisher quotes Micheal Hardt in Acid Communism;

“The positive content of communism, which responds to the abolition of private property, is the autonomous production of humanity – a new seeing, a new hearing, a new thinking, a new loving

Pause.. I don’t want to give the impression here that I’m engaging in some kind of positive thinking exercise, as nothing brings forth the sickly taste of bile in my mouth than the positivity injunction, the coping mechanisms we employ in order to avoid confronting the negative fabric of our lives, that which manifests itself in younger generations in our constant search for pleasure, whether that be through drugs, alchohol or any other kind of dulling, escapist drive to enjoy. In fact, something else that I find ties a lot of Mark Fisher’s work together is his insistence that we must think beyond the pleasure principle. Culture must be more than mere enjoyment, consumer choice, politics, theory cannot be some purely affirmationist, even vitalist initiative. To move into the future is to grasp the negative. To quote Fisher from Terminator V Avatar, on Francois Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy;

 “Not far beneath Lyotard’s “desire-drunk yes,” lies the No of hatred, anger and frustration: no satisfaction, no fun, no future. These are the resources of negativity that I believe the left must make contact with again.”

That is to say that what I really want to do is to take Lacan’s observation that when we think beyond good and evil we only tend to think beyond good, and try to think good and evil simultaneously. The aim is to arrive not at the blasted hellscape of fatalist eschatology, nor the cult of affirmationist creativity and the multitude, but in a new form of organising, to recognise that both forms are theological in nature and both resolutely fail to encapsulate the way in which the future is dependant on our compliance, not some kind of unerring motor propelling us into certain oblivion. I want to make clear not only the parasitic, draining effect of fatalism but the ways in which an ostensibly opposing pure affirmation is similarly damaging on our ability to conceptualise the future.

I wish I could explore everything Fisher wrote, and that I plan to write, but then this already rambling post would potentially continue forever, and leave no space for future ones. Suffice to say I want to be ambitious, and to this end I want to make much more concerted use of this blog, potentially formulating a more extended critique or proposal that could be sculpted into a long essay or book format.

K-Punk is finished, but not done.

Reading list, compiled from things that I have read lately, not including Mark Fisher –

Ray Brassier – Prometheanism and it’s critics [Can be found alongside a lot of other helpful material, provocations and weird musings on the outside in the Accelerationist reader, from Urbanomics]

Laboria Cuboniks – The Xenofeminist Manifesto

Jodi Dean – The Communist Horizon

Spinoza – The Ethics [of course, as one might expect I would not claim to have a full understanding but having it to hand has been highly valuable]

Donna Haraway – The Cyborg Manifesto

David Toop – Oceans of Sound

“See You Don’t Bump His Head”: Scott Walker’s Anti-Mythology

While plucking feathers from a swan song, shit might pretzel Christ’s intestines” intones Scott Walker with operatic fervour on the opening track of his final 2012 album Bish Bosch. It surprises even myself that this sprawling and utterly strange avant tract of absurdity grotesquery, ugliness, beauty, horror was my introduction to Scott Walker, but in truth a section of it may have been the first material I ever heard of his. It is only after stumbling like a blinking stranger into the terrifying chasms of this album that I really took sight of his astonishing career trajectory, the uncompromising leap into the weird he undertook at the tail-end of the 70s and maintained for the rest of his life. By that point, the damage was done, Scott Walker had rewired my perception of what music could be.

So it was with some sadness I read this morning that he had passed away, considering really in light of that how important his music really was to me, the sheer cliffs of sound and violent lyrical contortions of Bish Bosch, as well as the majestic terror of Drift, staying with me like little else I’d heard and really percolating through all the music I loved thereafter. In a more general sense Walker is important because he stands in contrast that could barely be starker against the trajectory of most stars of his generation, collapsing into a tragic capitulation to mediocrity in the latter years of their lives, simply falling into reiteration and pastiche of their former selves.

Instead, the music Walker produced was in any sense of the imagination a hundred times more adventurous and alien than anything being produced by people less than half his age. Listening back to his material, out of chronological order, it strikes me also how his uncompromising tendencies, to produce what he wanted the wishes of the record companies be damned, can be seen as far back as records like Scott 3, and especially in Scott 4, not only in his choices of song topics but in the overt influence he takes from Morricone on the latter album, breaking with the explicit crooner stable and moving firmly into his own lane, an album of masterfully executed string arrangements and atmospheric and affecting song progressions where he sings about, among other things, Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal and Stalin.

This kind of confident breaking with form is something we need more of now than ever, and I cannot think of a better example than Scott Walker of someone who resolutely refused to submit to the injunction to be harmless, safe, homely, especially towards those who we enter into a dusty old hall of statues where they are to be endlessly ogled as elder statespeople of rock and pop and never disturbed. Scott Walker, from a background of 60s pop crooning, moved ever away from this mythologizing influence, the staid, calcified remnants of something exciting, culture become museum artifact. Scott Walker’s mysterious alien presence, where fame is concerned, was a kind of anti-mythology; musically he occupied a place of constant, wrenching uncertainty, where, ultimately the profoundly beautiful meets the nonsensical and the visceral where an utterly absurd line could lurch out of an atmospheric majesty. It is somewhere in this place where we all reside, and in that Walker really hit close to the bone of experience through the medium of phantasmatic weirdness.Indeed for a man who appeared often like a phantasm, appearing every now and then followed by a blast of bafflement and exhileration in equal measure, his presence will be deeply missed.

The Brexit Balderdash Meat Carnival

You take a half-hearted bite of the dried meat, a vaguely rancid flavour hitting the back of your mouth as it goes down, with a good few particles of dust. It barely registers. A jolt of electricity might perhaps, straight to the nervous system. It feels like ten wretched, misbegotten years of dragging your feet down this dust trail without any sense of movement or change. In truth it’s been far less than that, but you severely doubt anyone would be around to question you regardless.

Almost as if in answer to that thought a fuzzy humanoid form seems to materialise ahead of you, though you know better than to trust your eyes at this point, reaching for your water bottle and taking a conservative swig. The form gradually becomes more defined, until, like a pallid nightmare, a dying man looks back at you through hooded eyes, all cracked parchment skin, a husk, ready to crumble at the slightest invocation. He lies, propped against a rusty pipe, perhaps a vision of flickering hope, more likely just another failed attempt at reconciliation, the residue of an experiment in living.

As you approach him, he attempts to raise his arm but cannot, and it flops down in resignation. You have a hand on your water bottle, both in anticipation that he may be deceiving you and that he may ask for help. You draw close and it becomes clear that he is not in a good way, oscillating between the living and the dead at this point he is in a delirium, even if he is still cogent enough to recognise you as another human face. He looks you straight in the eyes, and in his you find the milky whites faded, strata of rock leading to a central point, covered in fleshy membrane. As he looks at you his lips part, with great effort, and great pain. A wheezing croaking sound at first, but eventually words, he slowly asks you a question.

“what … is … your … opinion …”

He pauses, continuing is a difficulty. In this moment you are baffled, but wait to hear the end, part of you hopes he’ll pass out before that happens.

“… on … Brexit?”

As soon as this word passes his lips you stand back and look at him with horror and pity. What on earth could possibly lead a man to the point where such concerns override his own survival? What unearthly possession must take hold, what hellish program? You suspect he is one of the acolytes, abandoned by their own gods, stripped of rank and denied meaning during the aftermath in which you are now a traveller. His face suddenly takes the form of an emaciated dog, caught between a bark and a growl, drooling over the shuddering artillery blasted concrete beneath, eyes rotating in their sockets as he starts to choke on something. He falls to the side coughing manically, clawing pathetically at the ground, staring wide-eyed ahead in panic.

Something emerges from his gullet, hitting the ground with a muted thud, covered in drool and slime. He drops, lifeless, and disintegrates, drifting apart in the wind. Stepping closer you begin to ascertain something, a smell, the awful, acrid smell of rancid meat overtakes the senses. It’s a slab of rotten flesh lying there covered in grey dust. a small note is stapled to it, barely readable and soaked in slime. IN HERE it reads, and with certain degree of sheer disgust you realise it’s telling you something is IN the meat. You close your eyes and pick up the degraded brown-green slab, holding it at arms length and thrusting your other hand into it until you find something there.. something hard, a stone? You extract it, little pieces of rotten meat falling off its smooth surface.

There are words on the stone, scratched into it roughly and very small. You squint but can barely make it out. Taking out a handkerchief you wipe first your hands and then the stone, an actually rather boring granite pebble. Holding it up the light you make out the words, written in a hurried and simple script. With dawning confusion and exasperation, you intone the words as they stand; “Brexit means Brexit”. What on earth? You ask yourself under your breath, trying to recall what this is supposed to mean, what it refers to. This word, Brexit. Ugly, sticks in the mouth like the an acrid aftertaste. You dimly remember reference to it, but these memories slide away from you as soon as they appear contorting out of vision constantly. All that returns to you is the slab of rotten meat, now lying distended on the ground before you as you investigate the stone.

Wait, the meat is reconstructing itself. Slimy, discoloured tendrils slither together, weaving into a solid sickening wall of fibrous mulch. It keeps going, extending and duplicating, a crude meat figure emerges, a poorly formed humanoid meat man standing in front of you, gulping up gobbets of gristle and unidentified matter. The rotten meat golem attempts to speak but cannot, only succeeding in rasping strange noises. You back away slowly in fear, the meat man advances; for what purpose? It is a ramshackle being, falling apart as it walks, but the sheer sight of it flares up as panic, compelling you to run, despite your utter despondency, your lack of a reason to care, you sprint away from the creature as it walks towards you, juices leaking onto the ground, creating channels in the layers of dust…

As you run, you spot a building to your right, a particularly run down construction, barely a shed, and slip through the door, immediately on the look-out, still hearing the slurping sound behind you somewhere as the golem drags himself with increasing speed towards you. Did he spot you? To your dismay a poorly formed hand immediately reaches around the door, flailing for a grip, and you back towards the corner of the structure, thinking of ways to avoid the meat man without directly engaging it, the door opens and two newly formed eyes gleam from crude sockets, barely holding their position and likely struggling to get even a solid visual. It walks, assuredly this time, towards you and grabs you by the arm, dragging you painfully out of the building. You look around and let out a muted cry.

Obelisks of meat tower over the landscape, barely holding together, slowly pulsating and expanding, tentacular limbs grasp onto each other forming lattices up which more meat climbs, forming heads, hands, shoulders, hearts, disembodied pieces of people and animals growing from the meat walls. Vaguely, a low chanting is heard, an unintelligible language amidst which the word rings out loud and clear, that awful word; Brexit. You see a circle, people dressed in meat, drinking from cups made of meat, enjoying themselves, a hideous carnival of meat. They speak some kind of strange patchwork of language, words known and unknown hastily glued in place and splurged out into space. Meat juice pools on the ground, and where it runs up sprout new forms, new walls and structures, but of meat. They instantly collapse into vast piles of rancid, awful meaty nothingness.

Better Dreams; Memories of Cyberpunk

“Don’t think of it that way” McClane said severely. “You’re not accepting second-best. The actual memory, with all it’s vagueness, omissions and ellipses, not to say distortions – that’s second-best”

Phillip K Dick’s We Can Remember it For You Wholesale

I recently, for whatever reason, decided on a whim to watch the 2012 remake of Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 Schwarzenegger starring action blockbuster Total Recall, itself an adaptation of the Phillip K Dick short story We Can Remember it For You Wholesale. While in some respects it is slightly less distracting than the Verhoeven film, Colin Farrell being slightly more believable as an everyman than the over-the-top action juggernaut of Schwarzenegger, in many other respects it is a pale and flaccid regurgitation, lacking both sci-fi heft and action effervescence.

In many of its tics this Total Recall feels like it belongs in the early 2000s in a kind of post-Blade Runner, post-Matrix continuum, seeming to ape both films in the appropriating of a cyberpunk dystopia now as well worn as the action-structure of its plot, and the paper-thin philosophical dallying worked into its themes. In this, however, it could exist no other time but now, a blockbuster trapped in its own PoMo referential purgatory, finding itself unable to muster any kind of modernist impulse besides a copy-pasted hall-of-fame, even giving into the screamingly obvious impulse of referencing the original Total Recall.

It becomes difficult to buy the typical PR spiel at release that it is more of a re-interpretation of the source material than a remake of the adaptation, especially when if anything the film generates yet more stages of removal from the story itself with its piecemeal appropriation of sci-fi cinema visuals, and even takes the disentangling of ambiguities of the political themes in the Verhoeven film further, really driving home our main character Quaid [notice that again the name Quail, much less forgiving on the male ego of our protagonist, is yet again hardened into the much more action-hero-suitable denomination applied to Schwarzenegger] as a heroic [flawed of course; “he can be a real ass”] political freedom-fighter, starkly set against Bryan Cranston’s Chancellor Cohaagen, who in his enthusiasm for international conflict and torture seems to be a rough caricature of bush administration neocon politics, missing the essential component of smiling “likeability” that accompanied it. Something that Hollywood films often seem to miss when presenting their neoconservative archetypes is the banality of their warmongering, that sense of thumbs up and a smile as the meat-grinder kills a few hundred people somewhere else in the world bonhomie. This duplicity would never have conceivably worked given the explicitly authoritarian visage of Cohaagen in the film.

The kind of warmed over political simplifications we receive here only become more notable when set against the Phillip K Dick story, which in contrast keeps the actual political motivations for any of its developments almost entirely ambiguous. Indeed the main question we are intended to take away from both Total Recalls [and I say intended as I’m not sure either really succeed in the reality-questioning they supposedly reach for.. it all comes across as far to telegraphed and obvious], whether the whole thing is simply an implanted memory itself, really doesn’t factor into the story at all in such a fashion, somewhat ironic as these are the main pretences both films make towards sci-fi credentials. Instead the focus is on the nature of memory and fantasy itself, the “Vagueness, omissions and ellipses, not to say distortions” inherent to remembering something, and, by implication, inherent in how we experience the world.

This ambiguity, the partial nature of memory and experience, is something lacking in both films not in theme but in form. Just as one could say that Inception is a film that’s good at talking about dreams but not at representing them, Total Recall is good at mentioning the fallibility of memory without actually showing it meaningfully. The rote action film structure, built on the bare bones of a very short story indeed, forecloses any meaningful sense that what we are witnessing may not be real, the confusion simply acting as an explicit hint rather than an implication of the film itself. Dick’s story explores in many respects the unsettling idea that our memories are simply a simulacra, that is to say, that they an unreliable patchwork constructed of approximations, and that an actually imposed, artificial memory may be better than the real thing as it were. This is at least hinted at in the newer film, but this hint is immediately frustrated by the film’s need to throw us headlong into rather unexciting action set pieces for the rest of its duration.

“We need to get you some better dreams” says Quaid’s wife, played by Kate Beckinsale, towards the beginning of the film. The ultimate irony is that the film has nothing to offer in this regard, the dreams it offers are the same old dreams we’ve become used to, clad in the same old monotonous fabrics. Of course, Phillip K Dick was in every sense more than a simple sci-fi writer, his work toeing the line between speculative futures and psychedelic subversions constantly, even if the interests of commodification drive his work, much like J.G Ballard’s, out of its un-definition to be crammed into the sardine tins of bookshelf conformity. This is precisely what we see in this ultimate repackaging of the old cyberpunk standard, a tinned, vacuum packed reiteration with as much life as a nuclear desert. Its appeals ultimately rest upon our perception of culture becoming so fuzzy that the Blade Runner-Matrix dynamic just beds in as the best we can expect. This is particularly noteworthy when if anything the actual sequel to Blade Runner explored the theme of artificial memory much more effectively and, while not entirely empty of its past more often than not broke free of the cyberpunk-noir shackles of its legacy. Striking at something quite different in terms of theme and focus, it became that wonderful thing; a sequel that manages a re-imagining, a complete shift in perception within the same space. Total Recall on the other hand only musters a gutted out, empty vision of a future we’ve already seen.

We need to get ourselves some better dreams.

Brutal Fantasy

After recent visits to the Barbican centre in London, I’ve been left wondering what it is I find so uniquely compelling about it’s stark concrete geometry in direct contrast to the sleek contradictions of minimalism and ostentatious corporate sheen in the sprawl surrounding it. What makes these concrete abstractions better than those glass abstractions? Indeed Brutalism as a style has proved controversial, representing as it does something of a departure from ideas that buildings must be positive, welcoming spaces first and foremost, choosing instead to ostensibly [more on this in a minute] value utility and function, presenting a cold facade rather than a cosy idyll.

In fact, I think that the idea Brutalism represents some kind of stripping back of aesthetic is somewhat ill-judged, as any brief encounter with a brutalist monolith might make abundantly clear. They are cutting aesthetic statements through their commitment to an anti-aesthetic, in the same manner as the spiky experiments of post-punk were exciting musically precisely because of their departure from aesthetic norms of their cultural time and place. What we have in the alien forms of concrete in these structures is a negation of the sensible, an unseating of the comfortable. They arrive in the landscape like something utterly strange, but not, as it happens as visitations. They encapsulate something a little more uncanny, the unfamiliar within the familiar, the parasitic alien residing within the host.

Perhaps this is why Brutalism is commonly associated with failed Utopian socialist experiments, more than any explicit connection [which needless to say do exist]. Not only is there an attempt to use a common, banal material to produce strange, angular distortions in a different aesthetic dimension to both cosy homeliness and baroque flourishes, but we find a rehoming of the homely. In something of an inverse of Freud’s uncanny, the strange/unhomely within the familiar becomes the familiar situated within the strange. The banal surroundings of the home are assimilated into alien surroundings. This produces an interesting effect; the buildings reflect a kind of attempt to rethink social structure in their design, the concrete walkways, balconies and escarpments all tying into a unified vision of a communal space that stands in stark contrast to the open plan slabs and corporate minimalism of much contemporary architecture.

Of course Brutalist architecture stands today as something of a lost moment, symptomatic of many of the failed utopian experiments themselves, a place like the Barbican now exists as a kind of other-worldly reminder, an element of that ghostly residue of failed revolt that hangs over the present. The hauntological element of these structures today in no small part lends them power, that sense of lost possibility within their concrete walkways. Brutalism, as utopia, was a fantasy of the new, a grounding of the possibility of achieving something beyond, of an emerging outside, an alien bursting from the chest of the urban environment. This alien space, now foreclosed as a failure, a monument to what could have been, exists like a surreal temporal shift within that landscape. Emerging from the hyper-simulated labyrinth of smooth lines, incongruous shapes, brushed aluminium, reflection and stale corporate minimalism of postmodernist capitalism around it, the Brualist enclaves act as softly disquieting ruins, in the case of the Barbican acting as a cultural hub, in others simply lying abandoned or in disrepair, eerie monuments rather than living buildings.

So what becomes compelling about the Brutalist project, and it’s leftovers today, is the spectre of modernism they embody at a time when the futurist drives of modernism seem a distant memory, dissolving into a pool of PoMo reflexivity, ironic tricks and a distinct fear of the fantastic. If there’s anything that screams out of the tower blocks and minimalist apartments of the modern city, the building blocks of the overload, cybercapital given form, is an aesthetic realism. Where the geometric abstractions of Brutalism organise into a utopian symbolism, albeit one that lies forever beyond reach (walkways above the streets, buildings organised into a kind of grand communal living space) , the emptiness and functionalism one finds in, for example, the Shard, a phallic capitalist monolith on the London skyline, embodies much more a kind of foreclosure, the clean glass surfaces enclosing apartments, offices, endless repetitions and brands… a sleek, shimmering cage.

Something that is lacking in these structures, grand cathedrals to commerce, is any sense of a beyond, something to reach for beyond capital. The very top of a skyscraper is usually a huge status symbol, incredibly expensive and only procured by someone immensely successful under the rules of Capital. This is it, all there is. Don’t dare to dream beyond these metal girders, because there’s nothing up there…

What one finds by contrast within the forbidding concrete of Brutalism, as controversial and a matter of taste as they may be to many, is an attempt to imagine some kind of outside inside. It is suddenly possible within these structures to imagine something that isn’t confined by the blinding fug of Capital, something alien to the given natural order that forms of “realism” demand we lock into place as the underlying real governing our lives. Through the perhaps utopian folly of the concrete dream, we can rediscover a kind of sublimation, a rejection of the repeated refrain “be realistic”.

In the eerie, abandoned remnants of our dreams we find the echoes of the future.

Imagine a World like That…

A song that has stuck with me in particular lately, not merely due to a catchy hook but for its distinctive pathos, is Imagine, from Ariana Grande’s magnificent new album Thank U, Next. With the song Grande paints an idealised picture of a relationship with the romantic subject undercut constantly with the refrain, a plea to “imagine a world like that”. The lyrics maintain a certain ambiguity, presenting multiple possibilities; That the world she describes is possible yet the subject cannot imagine it, that the world is not possible and the subject cannot imagine it, that this world comes into being through imagining it or that it cannot, but must be imagined regardless. Within these possible readings lies a pathos of unrequited fantasy, a symbolic ideal that remains out of reach.

This might the point where I come out with some pseudo-nihilist statement, coolly staring into the middle distance as I proclaim that love is just a chemical reaction maaan, it doesn’t exist. This, however, is only half the point. To be in love is to imagine, to dream. The mistake is to proceed from this to claim that love doesn’t matter. The fact remains that at some point we experience the strange and discomforting feeling that none of this is real, and in a sense we are correct. Nothing about this is as it seems, something we can ascertain as soon as we move past transcendential explanations for affects; the reality we all experience is founded upon a collectively consensual dream, the raw, unvarnished reality merely revealing itself as a further servant of the symbolic under scrutiny.

So love, in a Spinozist sense, is a series of affects given symbolic form.. this is only a step away from the “love as chemical reaction” statement, indeed shares with it a kind of cold analysis of human emotion, and yet does not in the manner of this former trite framing render it somehow less important as a result. To live is to dream, as it is to love and to feel. As such, Ariana Grande’s call to imagine becomes both a call to imagine something inevitably unfulfilled, and to express love in its true form, for the romantic subject to submit to the fantasy world of the relationship. This element of gossamer thin tension lies between the twin subject of a relationship and its outside, the point at which both enter the immersion tank and a new symbolic reality forms from the affects generated by their interaction.

So romance, love, becomes the formation of a symbolic reality. It is to “imagine a world” in a true sense, as any collaboration with another human being is to generate affects with symbolic resonance, creating each time a new microcosm of further effects. Love is necessarily a kind of imaginary world, the horizon of which defines its possibilities. To love someone or something is to create between two things a desiring multitude of effects, and in this sense one can easily refer to the DeleuzoGuattarian multiplicity, that within such a relationship is not merely two actors but a many more in the branching effects produced.

To imagine a world then, is to love. To engage in a romantic coupling is an unconsciously desiring production of reality, and this in turn maintains itself through the contradictions of the imaginary and the symbolic, the symbolic representations of affects becoming the imaginary worlds of containment. Love is a swarm. It is a re-alignment of perception, a psychedelic invocation. This renders what begins as a realisation that love is predicated on fantasy and catapults it towards a singular power more potent than any transcendental conception of love as a spiritual force. The transcendent is removed, inarticulate; it contradicts its own attempts to lend power to worldly affects through its own rendering of them as ethereal nonentities. In truth, as anyone who has experienced any kind of emotion might have realised, it is in affects we find that which profoundly alters our experience. To imagine is to love, which is to re-align the vectors of perception itself.

Ecological Antagonisms

A talk by Rupert Read I recently intended at UEA proved very much “something interesting to think about” in the words of Twin Peaks’ Gordon Cole, largely in the sense that it illustrated some of the antagonisms within ecological discourse. It also, need it be said, made some very important points regarding the reality of the catastrophe we find ourselves within and the value of ecological thought, and I want to make it clear that I saw much value there, even if what I say here is largely points of disagreement that it raised with me.

Something that became apparent to me during the lecture was the absence of a specific term. For whatever reason, despite openly talking about it at various points, referring to a “system”, and even towards the end mentioning the “means of production” the word Capitalism failed to appear. Despite everything being talked about within the lecture being some facet of the complex system of effects we may designate as the capitalist order, it was never directly references, becoming something of an elephant in the room even as Read referred to the scale of necessary change necessary to fight ecological collapse.

On key points I agree absolutely, the sheer scale of climate catastrophe, the need for large scale change, but in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but constantly question the notion of an environmentalism removed from anti-capitalism as something that is as deeply flawed as anti-capitalism devoid of environmentalism. Read made some interesting observations on how we may or may not be governed by nature in the sense that nature is or isn’t something we are part of, trying to negotiate a position between those two points and arriving at a point where nature both is something that opposes us and that includes us. For me this lined up with my inclination towards the fundamentally incomplete and ruptured order of reality, and gave me some extra impetus on route towards an idea of re-weirding the structures of reality that inform us.

Re-weirding in this context sounds very much like a slight diversion from the term re-wilding which was discussed much here, the idea of returning the land back to a percieved natural state, and something that actually I find quite interesting and promising as a practice, having grown up within the countryside myself and witnessed the sheer ravaging of the land that is wrought by industrial agriculture and other practices. As I see it, Re-weirding the landscape is a natural bedfellow to this, something the aim of which is to excavate the antagonisms within nature, hint at the underlying and terrifyingly alien forms lying beneath the idyllic surface of a country meadow. During the Q&As Read endorsed a kind of romanticism, hinting at ideas of the sublime, of a kind of spiritual veneration of nature found in some indigenous cultures. This struck me as something that could quite easily be extrapolated into a process of re-weirding, but actually strangely at odds with the statement heard elsewhere in the talk about de-alienating ourselves and, as it were, getting back in touch with nature. In truth what this process seems to suggest is a different state of alienation, or a re-alignment of perception, rather than a simple re-assertion of affinity.

Highly interesting to me was mention of James Cameron’s Avatar, mentioned with regard to it being one of the highest grossing films of all time and containing a clear ecological message. My immediate thought was back to Mark Fisher’s Terminator vs Avataran essay in which Fisher presents Avatar as a wholly more contradictory film, one that is far from presenting a simple ecological program, or even an effective critique of techno-capital. From the piece;

“James Cameron’s Avatar is significant because it highlights the disavowal that is constitutive of late capitalist subjectivity, even as it shows how this disavowal is undercut. We can only play at being inner primitives by virtue of the very cinematic proto-VR technology whose very existence presupposes the destruction of the organic idyll of Pandora.

And if there is no desire to go back except as a cheap Hollywood holiday in other People’s misery – if, as Lyotard argues, there are no primitive societies, (yes, the Terminator was there from the start, distributing microchips to accelerate its advent); isn’t, then, the only direction forward? Through the shit of capital, metal bars, its polystyrene, its books, its sausage pâtés, its cyberspace matrix?”

This highlights my main criticism of the talk, something I might call “eco-primitivism”, the desire to return back to a state close to nature, live in communion with it, something that contains within it some deep contradictions I think Fisher effectively excavates. If we are to return to this state of nature, to re-wild ourselves so to speak, the only way we seem to be able to do so is via the very tools which are currently facilitating ecological disaster, the technologies of late capitalist subjectivity, the libidinal drives of advertising, the digital spaces of the internet, the “shit of capital”. This is an issue that I think is going to come more and more into focus as we proceed into collapse, that we are already past the event horizon as it were of capitalism, and that the only way to truly overcome the hugely damaging modes of production, the systems of ecological destruction, is via the very means in which we are already engaged. This is not to say that we cannot to some extent pay more heed to the world around us, but it does suggest a deep contradiction that we must work past rather than against.

“Hands up who wants to give up their anonymous suburbs and pubs and return to the organic mud of the peasantry. Hands up, that is to say, all those who really want to return to pre-capitalist territorialities, families and villages. Hands up, furthermore, those who really believe that these desires for a restored organic wholeness are extrinsic to late capitalist culture, rather than in fully incorporated components of the capitalist libidinal infrastructure.”