The BBC Radio 4 programme “New Weird Britain” presented by John Doran, is the kind of thing that begins to suggest in some way that the end of history is itself at an end. Something notable about the musicians interviewed and explored here is not only that they firmly turn their eyes away from the commercial viability of their art, but also that they resist identification with those marked off “alternative” spaces which for so long have made the kind of cultural percolation that leads to more widespread innovation incredibly sparse and difficult.
What this phenomena, whether the name of “New Weird Britain” sticks or not, points towards is a change in atmosphere. “It’s finally happening” exclaims Cosi Fanni Tutti in the last segment of the programme, in reference to what we might tentatively see as a largely DIY cultural response to times of heaving angst and danger. The rulebooks are useless, and those who still desperately adhere to them increasingly resemble the hopeless gestures of a dying empire. In this climate, one where the bedrock of political confabulation churns and shudders with the trauma of centuries, where a reactionary Frankenstein’s monster attempts to claw back to an organic totality, an idealistic golden age, it is in many ways no surprise that the world of the freak, the alien, makes the most sense. It is in this spirit that currents of weird or experimental culture have always acted, and it is at times of confluence, where socio-political and material effects come crashing into our cultural consciousness, that a blossoming of the weird promises to emerge, pulsating, into the light.
The problem with “alternative” culture for a long time has been precisely the problem with what its an alternative to. Rather than being an experimental underground feeding up into the mainstream, it has been presented separately, kept to the margins, at best when it is brought up being treated with a kind of sneering condescension. Another issue, increasingly I think, is connected to the differing modes of consumption now dominated by streaming, by an ostensible world of individual choice, where we can listen to or watch anything we want at any given time. What this leads onto is the reality of this world, driven by algorithms and consumer preference, in which a general beige-ness begins to dominate. This isn’t to say there is nothing weird going on, merely that we are drawn inexorably to what we already want to consume, and so instead of experiencing this percolation of different elements of culture we begin to simply play to our individual tastes.
Indeed this is something notable about New Weird Britain even being aired on Radio 4, the radio being something that can potentially still deliver surprises, rip through the curtain of consumer taste, deliver a challenging programme on fringe culture somewhere in the vicinity of who’s line is it anyway. What I think is truly important about the fringes is not simply their alternative status, “alternative” as such having become another product on a shelf, another consumer identity signifier, but their ability to disrupt the everyday. There is some amount of truth to the idea that the world, politically and environmentally, is becoming weirder in terrifying ways, inasmuch as the rather comfortable assumptions we held about the end of history, of liberal civility, that everything would more or less continue as it did, have fallen apart. This, however, I don’t think necessarily translates into cultural developments without a legitimate establishing of underground experimentation, not only that, but one that feeds in, that extends feelers into the media, appears when you least expect it, that embodies what we might consider as weird by being where it doesn’t belong.
New Weird Britain is in essence identifying what seems to be a resurgent underground space which might itself have discordant echoes in the churning cultural landscape itself. The presence of a thriving underground in British culture is something that itself seems so alien now that its mere presence has a kind of power. It may admittedly be my own biases speaking however I think if we truly are seeing an incursion of the weird, it is imperative that it is encouraged, pushed further, that its resonances are amplified. The danger here would be simply in assuming its some other place were the freaks gather, something somehow completely disconnected from widespread cultural production. The power of a DIY approach here is notable not because it escapes these constrictions but because it reacts to them. And isn’t this what proves so exciting ultimately about the prospect of this new underground, the prospect of culture that believes in itself, that sets forth its own way of being. The act of reacting to what comes before you, against it, is something that moves beyond the mere act of producing work which pleases you into a militant act.
[Note: I realise I end this referring to militancy and this brings up the complex issue of didacticism in music. The marvellous Richard Dawson brought this up in the programme, mentioning what he perceives as the problem of didacticism in protest music, in contrast with how he approaches the political in his own work. This I think deserves a whole post at some point, but suffice to say that I think this hits at some core problems with how we talk about “political” culture, this division between the kind of folky back to basics didacticism and music as dictated by the pleasure principle, that pretends to be “a-political”. To clarify I do think Dawson’s own music manages to move past this divide extraordinarily well]
Acid Communism. Probably one of Mark Fishers most evocative coinages, and yet the one that we have the least material on. Immediately it begs questions regarding what exactly the term Acid implies, the use of Communism as opposed to post-capitalism or other alternatives often strangely falling behind due to the manifold interpretations of the modifier. Ostensibly we only have a single unfinished introduction to a planned book and a few mentions here and there, and yet… while this doesn’t seem a whole lot to go on, from the material that’s there, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to trace the lines of Acid Communism through the rest of his work. Of course as a project in and of itself, it remained unfinished on Fishers death, but like every other project Fisher undertook, it can’t really be considered a walled off singular set of ideas, and it isn’t hard to sense the spectre of acid communism hanging over the rest of Fishers oeuvre. Here I want to attempt to sketch out this spectre, and to attempt, in the words of Jameson, and in the spirit of Fisher, to “read the imperceptible tremors of an unimaginable future”.
The first, and core point, that I want to arrive at, is at the very beginning of the introduction, that being the reversal of political perspective;
“We on the left have had it wrong for a while: it is not that we are anti-capitalist, it is that capitalism, with all its visored cops , its teargas, and all the theological niceties of its economics, is set up to block the emergence of this red plenty.”
The red plenty he refers to here being “the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy”. This reversal I think is hugely important to excavating what Fisher meant by Acid Communism, and his indentifying within the opening lines of a historical space and time, “the spectre of a world which could be free” from Marcuse pinpoints the use of “Acid” immediately in relation to a history, more specifically to the 60s counterculture.
Does this mean, as I’ve heard floating around in some quarters, that Acid Communism means a return to the 60s? I’m going to get this out of the way up front, no. Fishers approach to the 60s is no more an exercise in empty nostalgia than the 70s; something he wasn’t arguing for, in other words, was a wholesale turning back of the clock to some utopian past. Instead, we can turn to his observation that the past has not yet occurred, meaning that it hinges on re-telling and framing, to understand better what he meant through his evocations of the past. The reference point here would be Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces: a secret history of the twentieth century, a book that excavates the cultural history of the twentieth century to draw the link between Dada Situationism and Punk, demonstrating how echoes of the past can re-emerge in new forms years or decades later, the proposals of the situationists somehow bursting through the walls and into the heart of Popular culture in the form of Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols. The point here is that the past is not a dead entity, but something that re-emerges; the point of Fisher taking Derrida’s coinage “Hauntology” was to effectively illustrate how the past hangs over and suffuses the present. the 60s and the 70s now re-emerge in the 21st century as spectral potentialities, the futures that they promised having receded under the pall of capitalist realism.
Now I’ve addressed that, I will turn to the other common fixation with regard to Acid Communism, and that is on LSD. Now don’t get me wrong, psychedelic culture and experiences are not absent from what Fisher wrote, but it would be remiss to channel that into an Acid Communism that centres on such practices, simply because Fisher appeared to have no interest in psychedelics as such and this is to miss the points he makes regarding such experiences. It is not that Acid is as such some emancipatory, freeing substance, a magical consciousness-machine, even if that was a latent promise in hippy culture, but that Acid is representative of the de-naturalizing Fisher pinpointed as a necessary precedent to emancipatory politics, something that one can find at the heart of the Xenofeminist manifesto for instance;
“Freedom is not a given–and it’s certainly not given by anything ‘natural’. The construction of freedom involves not less but more alienation; alienation is the labour of freedom’s construction.”
A left politics, if it is to be anything at all must be the politics of un-nature, of the alien, the weird. This is the context in which Fisher addresses the psychedelic experience in Acid Communism and its centrality to the 60s counter-culture.
If we’re really going to delve into what Fisher defined under the Acid Communist heading, this strikes me as an unavoidable passage;
“Acid Communism is the name I have given to this spectre. The concept of acid communism is a provocation and a promise. It is a joke of sorts, but one with very serious purpose. It points to something that, at one point, seemed inevitable, but which now appears impossible: the convergence of class consciousness, socialist-feminist consciousness-raising and psychedelic consciousness, the fusion of new social movements with a communist project, an unprecedented aestheticisation of everyday life. “
So, to Fisher what AC represented was nothing less than a historical confluence, a cultural-aesthetic-political-space that once promised to emerge and yet was stifled at birth. It is the cross-contamination of movements, the intersection for instance of a counter-cultural bohemia with a socialist politics and subordinate group consciousness. In truth, this is very much in line with his trajectory until that point, but took on a new dimension with greater incorporation of the 60s as a reference point, Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization becoming an important text in its affinity with the countercultural current of the time. The point I raised at the beginning comes to form more fully now in relation to the promise this period put forward, that of freedom, and not the freedom that Neoliberalism eventually claimed to deliver, but a freedom from drudgery. Something that Fisher mentioned a lot regarding this was the consistent worry of capitalism during this time “what if the working classes become hippies”. This worry, to some degree was the battleground of the 70s, during which the great questions in politics and culture revolved around the relation of each to the other, the promise made in the 60s, of the meeting point between these nodes fighting to make itself known.
For a long time, this promise seemed entirely impossible, the seemingly total political acquiescence of the 80s leading a widespread equation of the left/socialism with the old, with stuffy tweed wearing old men who want to return to the 70s, the socialist left itself struggling to disavow itself of a nostalgia for Fordism which still follows it to this day in some respects. This leads us to what I think is another key axis in AC, and that is Desire, what is desire under, and after, capitalism? Another later piece by Fisher, and one that I think works incredibly in tandem with AC, is his essay titled Post-Capitalist Desire. Fisher here question’s the long-standing equation of Desire with Capitalism presented most openly in Louise Mensch’s appearance on Have I Got News For You in 2011, in which she mocked anti-capitalist protesters for buying coffee at Starbucks and using iphones. The implication here is clearly that, to be a successful anti-capitalist, one has to revoke the desirable, become an ascetic, an anarcho-primitivist living off the land and refusing any and all aspects of modern life.
Later in Post-Capitalist Desire Fisher importantly, and a little provocatively calls for the left to reconcile with terms such as “Designer Socialism” and “Radical Chic”;
“Instead of the anti-capitalist ‘no logo’ call for a retreat from semiotic productivity, why not an embrace of all the mechanisms of semiotic libidinal production in the name of a post-capitalist counterbranding? ‘Radical chic’ is not something that the left should flee from—very much to the contrary, it is something that it must embrace and cultivate. For didn’t the moment of the left’s failure coincide with the growing perception that ‘radical’ and ‘chic’ are incompatible? Similarly, it is time for us to reclaim and positivise sneers such as ‘designer socialism’—because it is the equation of the ‘designer’ with ‘capitalist’ that has done so much to make capital appear as if it is the only possible modernity.“
This, I think, it is reasonable to link to what Fisher in AC calls the “unprecedented aestheticisation of everyday life”, namely, that an element of AC is most definitely the reclamation of the “new” on the side of the left, a retreat from left wing melancholia, the attachment to and repetition of aged aesthetics and strategies and instead the plotting of vectors into the future. What does this mean with regard to culture and aesthetics?
I would hold that partially at least an answer can be found in the Freudian dreamwork, and it’s importance that Fisher recognised in analysing the operations of power. This blog post contains I think some important material on the matter;
“How could it ever be possible for us to believe successive or even co-extensive stories that so obviously contradict one another? Yet we know from Kant, Nietzsche and psychoanalysis that waking, as much as dreaming, experience, depends upon just such screening narratives. If the Real is unbearable, any reality we construct must be a tissue of inconsistencies.
What differentiates Kant, Nietzsche and Freud from the tiresome cliche that ‘life is but a dream’ is precisely the sense that the confabulations we live are consensual. The idea that the world we experience is a solipsistic delusion projected from the interior of our mind consoles rather than disturbs us, since it conforms with our infantile fantasies of omnipotence; but the thought that our so-called interiority owe its existence to a fictionalized consensus will always carry an uncanny charge.“
This, as well as the observations on the Wendy Brown lecture, furnish us with an idea of how capitalism employs the Dreamwork to conflate contradictions, to present a fiction to paper over the cracks. And this I think begins to get at why the Dreamwork has relevance to AC. The realisation that the world we perceive, the way we perceive it, is not so much a vision projected from our minds but a consensual dream, that we are, for all intents and purposes, dreaming the dreams of capital, links in with the problem of post-capitalist desire. Fisher talked in one of his seminars on the topic of how advertising operates via Dreamwork, giving the example for instance of the famous, Ridley Scott directed 1984 apple advert, wherein apple is presented as the new, forward thinking, colourful, exciting alternative to the old technologies, presented as a 1984, soviet bloc style oppressive grey world. Here we see the desirable, the new, unambiguously conflated with capital.
Here we get a sense of why Fisher called for the reconciliation of radical chic. AC sets itself around the idea that there is no real desire for capitalism, that capitalism is itself the suppression of desire for emancipation. What then, that apple advert did, was to conceal that fact through conflating capital with emancipation, a reversal of intention. Fisher, in the same blog quoted above, and speaking about the Wendy Brown lecture American Nightmare: Neoconservatism, Neoliberalism, and De-democratization;
“What the dreamwork does, Brown recognized, like Le Guin before her, is to produce an – always retrospective – narrative consistency which covers over anomalies and contradictions . Brown’s analysis had the literally stunning effect of rousing us from the trance in which we blithely accept that neoliberalism and neoconservatism are in some way logically consistent”
Something that has long cemented the dominance of capitalism is the genuinely impressive extent to which these principles have been used to erode collective consciousness. Desire has, despite the contradiction in terms, been repeatedly conflated with capitalism, anti-capitalism, as for Mensch, with regression, primitivism, stuffy old miserable societies in which nobody wants to live. What Acid Commmunism promises on some level is the re-alignment of the left with desire, a Left that can again lay claim to the new, to innovation, to creativity and freedom, such terms as have been adopted almost wholesale under the umbrella of neoliberal dogma.
“The Past is So Much Safer”
” “The past is so much safer”, observes one of the narrators of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian satire, The Heart Goes Last , “because whatever’s in it has already happened. It can’t be changed: so, in a way there’s nothing to dread”. 8 Despite what Atwood’s narrator thinks, the past hasn’t “already happened”. The past has to be continually re-narrated, and the political point of reactionary narratives is to suppress the potentials which still await, ready to be re-awakened, in older moments.”
Here we come in more detail to the historical element of AC, that is, the focus of Fisher on historical narrative. This always seems to arise in his work in the form of opposition to canonization. That is, within culture there tends to be story, a series of works, groups or individuals considered to be part of a classical “canon”. This usually also pertains to how they are perceived, there are accepted interpretations, they are taught in a certain way. Something Fisher often did was upend these canons, taking aim at the comfortable talk-show reels and mythology of genius that is abound in most contemporary cultural broadcasting. A similar attack on the stagnant, platitudinous, calcified remains of the dance music press can be found at the beginning of Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant Than the Sun, leading onto what Eshun calls the “Futurhythmachine” effectively an afrofuturist synthetic collage in which the past marks out the vector towards the future. The historicism of AC then, can I think be understood as drawing upon similar ideas running through Fishers own work, the past not only as future, but a future in progress. Hereby I wouldn’t suggest as much that its a return to a singular historical moment but the cutting and pasting of an unfinished project, an synthetically re-written history to set out future co-ordinates. To re-iterate, the past has not yet happened. It must always be re-told.
So what does this mean for desire? The most obvious consequence is that post-capitalist desire already resides within capitalism. For Fisher, what becomes apparent is not that we must generate a new form of desire from scratch, but that, in the manner of such provocations that might be included under the heading of accelerationism, or Jameson’s Utopia as Replication, wherein the forms, spaces, desires of a post-capitalist future, of communism, are found within the very structures of capitalism. This is why Fisher begins by reversing the age old anti-capitalist formulation; he evokes the question, is there any desire for capitalism? And the answer is a resounding no. To say otherwise immediately equates, with problematic consequences, the desire of modernity with that of capital. Of course, the modernity we currently exist within, subsist from, has been largely generated via capitalism, but that doesn’t mean the desire for it is the same as the desire for the system that drives it. In fact, I may point towards Fisher’s piece on the 2012 London Olympic games here;
“It’s clear that what people are already enjoying in the Games is everything for which Capital is not responsible: the efforts of the athletes, the experience of a shared publicness. Insofar as the torch relay was a success, this, too, was not due to the parade itself – a dreary countrywide corporate carnival, consisting of Samsung, Coca Cola and Lloyds TSB floats – but because it allowed people to experience their own sociality.“
It doesn’t seem far fetched to suggest that if enjoyment is even what’s at stake here, what people enjoy about modernity is often that for which capital is not responsible, inasmuch as people don’t seem to display any notable desire for soaring costs of living, ecological devastation, corporate sponsorship or business jargon.
So in a way AC IS a return, but it is less returning us to the 60s/70s than it returns those decades to the present. More specifically, it is the unforgetting as Fisher put it, of a confluence of consciousness, of culture, politics, aesthetics that mapped out a future beyond the grey drudgery of capitalist work. It is not that these things have ceased to exist, it is, to refer to Jameson’s postmodernism, there has been a collective dehistoricizing of culture, a grand forgetting, wherein all that begins to exist is a present moment, shorn of narrative continuum or discontinuum. This all feeds into the consciousness deflation that allowed capitalist realism to take hold. As long as we remain captured within the dreamwork, dreaming the dreams of capital, not only this but as we retain the illusory notion that this is real [Fisher of course mentioned that “capitalist realism is not a particular type of realism; it is more like realism in itself. For what is the triumphalism of capitalism based on if not the claim that it has dissolved all illusions?”] , then the historical processes of emancipation become lost to us. Something that remains locked in a kind of museum, a hall containing a succession of past artefacts with no meaningful attachment to the present.
In looking back to the counter-cultural potentials of the past, AC evokes a cultural space of experimentation, wherein politics and aesthetics in some sense converge towards emancipatory goals; it is important to note here that this is meant not in content necessarily, but in form. The aesthetics spoken of here are not just some uninspired decent into psychedelic fractals and mind-bending imagery, it is the capacity of culture to denaturalize. In this sense, the “Acid” simply cannot be divorced from its paring “Communism”. Fishers formulation appears to refer if anything to the intersection of both, of the dream of psychedelic culture, of a life freed from work and daily concerns, with that of radical left politics.
What the spectre of Acid Communism presents us with is a call to unforget this intersection, it describes a latent space within which counter-culture and politics dialectically interact, intertwining and playing off one another as they are thought as one. Acid Communism is image, it is Glam, it is the Dreamwork set to new tasks, it is the autonomy of collective consciousness within cultural forms; within Acid Communism seems to lie everything Fisher wrote about the power of counter-cultural expression in post-punk. What changes here is the introduction of the 60s not merely as the dream that go co-opted by neoliberalism, but the desires that were suppressed, the utopian promise that was crushed. What was thought as possible then decades later would be dismissed as a child’s fantasy. Acid Communism is that dream, that spectre, and the counter-exorcism thereof.
Following thoughts from what I posted last, what’s evident to me is the sheer difficulty of mapping class politics accurately onto Brexit. While there is quite an easy picture that’s been drawn, one that presents us with a working class “Brexit Heartland” in the north, it’s worth bearing in mind the multiple reasons we have to be deeply suspicious of this, not least the common appeals to what’s become called the “traditional” working class demographic. Of course, as figures like Ash Sarkar have accurately pointed out, despite the “metropolitan elite” that some have pointed to being at the heart of the remain vote, there are many living in metropolitan areas who are anything but elite, many from immigrant backgrounds who reside in council estates and high-rises. On top of this we must add the precarity of city existence that really intrudes now on any sense that anyone living in London is within some kind of luxury bubble. I don’t mean this to suggest that, as some people have suggested “class doesn’t exist” [to suggest that is simply absurd on quite a basic level, who would believe that we have somehow already transitioned into some classless society?] but that when it comes to what motivates remain/leave in the trashfire of Brexit really doesn’t project neatly on top of it in the way that would be required to see it as a direct parallel of class conflict.
To be more accurate, I would add that the concept of “class” must be expanded. It can no longer be held to mean merely a white male worker, some gruff northern chap who works in a factory, an outdated archetype that no longer has much bearing on post-fordist labour, and actively excludes consideration of black or immigrant working class communities. In many ways we can speak not just of class consciousness, but as Fisher suggested of subordinate group consciousness, in this way approaching a more intersectional analysis of how capital captures groups into a system of oppression and moving away from the risk of adopting a kind of reactionary, nationalist reading of class which fundamentally goes against the aims of emancipatory politics on an international scale.
It all comes to this; Brexit cannot simply be seen as a vehicle for class. It is an ideological tool, one that was employed for reactionary ends but could [and perhaps must at this stage] be taken as a hint towards collective desire for change. What Farage and his lackeys have successfully intimated in their audience is this desire for change, and in their vision this becomes a reactionary change, a move away from the future, towards a fascist-golden age scenario… your situation is bad, things used to be better, here we can return to that! From this it can most successfully be taken as a call to galvanize left politics, to offer something Brexit can’t; the future.
Below I present a piece of writing sent to me which presents a series of interesting points to consider and importantly frames the Brexit conversation within the much ignored and [regardless of any who might throw the ludicrous line around that “class doesn’t mean anything anymore] ever looming issue of class conflict. I’ll leave it without comment for now, but may consider adding my own remarks at some stage in the future.
The Brexit Dichotomy, by the Stranger –
Brexit represents a civil war within the British Establishment.
The EU Referendum of 2016 was constructed by David Cameron. He wanted to create a battleground on which the hard-right faction of the Conservative Party — who do not believe in the ongoing project of integration into Europe, the dissolution of nationality into globalised capital — could be defeated, and so consolidate the power of his faction, the centre-right faction, in the party, and thus the British Establishment. He gambled, and he lost, turning a brief political skirmish into a protracted civil war.
Brexit is an attempted revolution by the hard-right faction of the British bourgeoisie against the centre-right faction of the British bourgeoisie.
The centre-right faction of the bourgeoisie is socially liberal and globalist. The hard-right faction of the bourgeoisie is socially conservative and nationalistic.
Let us first recognise that electoral politics is an abstraction of warfare – specifically, and most usually, CLASS WAR.
Representative democracy is a vent for class frustrations, without which society would erupt into physical confrontation between interest groups who are essentially opposed to each other.
As with the many military conflicts humans have fought on this island in centuries past, it was the common people that were the meat in the armies, dictated to by the warring factions of the ruling class of British society. The feudal lords amassed armies of peasants to act out their opposing self-interests. Whoever has the biggest army wins – and so it goes with electoral politics. In the first-past-the-post system, the aim is not to reach a consensus or compromise but to have a large enough voter base to beat your opponent into submission.
The pro-Remain movement is a counter-revolution.
The pro-Remain movement is an alliance between the petit-bourgeoisie and the centre-right bourgeoisie, in the interest of the continuation of neoliberal capitalism, which makes the upper-middle class and Establishment succeed economically (at the expense of the working class).
At the beginning of the month of June in the year 2019 of the Common Era, the Labour Party faced betrayal by the petit-bourgeoisie, who have allied themselves with the centre-right faction of the ruling class. They call for a People’s Vote, to recreate the conditions of the loss of the centre-right establishment against the hard-right establishment, with the hope of instead defeating the hard-right and returning the prevailing neoliberal political consensus to a period of stability. However, this is impossible, as the conditions which caused many of the working class to be recruited to fight for the pro-Brexit hard-right bourgeoisie have not changed; namely, the continually decreasing ability for the working class and lower middle class to economically survive under neoliberal capitalism.
If there is another EU referendum it is just as likely Leave will win.
Where does the working class stand in this civil war?
Leave vs Remain is a false dichotomy that does nothing for the prospects of the working class. If Britain Remains in the EU the working class remains fucked. If Britain Leaves the EU the working class will be fucked. The working class is fucked because of the breakdown of the post-war social contract, caused by the neoliberal consensus.
The leadership of the Labour Party is shrewd to reject this false Brexit dichotomy. The petit-bourgeois elements within the Labour Party who demand Labour commit to a People’s Vote and explicitly Remain position do so in their own class interests. This class interest seeks to stabilise neoliberal capitalism, which makes it opposed to the interests of the working class.
Another solution must be devised by the Left that rejects the Brexit Dichotomy.
I will admit I recently fell into a bit of a political slump. Usually I’ve maintained, despite volatility, an optimism and a confidence in the left’s capacity to win, and the potential to build a future, but the labyrinthine collapse into personal grievances and polarized trench warfare that the issue of Brexit provokes has really tested that optimism with a choking, persistent aura of dread. Now that positions have calcified around an all or nothing scenario it’s difficult to see past the pissing contest that ensues, and attempting to do so has practically left me with a migraine… this, coupled with my creeping thoughts regarding the catastrophic consequences should the left be defeated again, has led me also to an exasperation; at the Remain camp as much as the leavers, if not more. Despite this, I’ll attempt to unravel my thoughts somewhat, if only to get this crushing feeling out of my head.
I oppose Brexit. I think it is, as it stands, something borne out of reactionary fantasy and mired in impossible promises, a conjured chimera presented as a kind of backward-looking medicine for our troubled times. This said, it didn’t emerge out of a vacuum; we have to understand our politics in terms of structures and networks of affect, not simply a series of events that happen out of the blue yonder, and Brexit is no different. It emerged due to a number of factors, promises made and campaign lines run on, but the core libidinal attractor of the Brexit vote was a distinct disaffection and sense of impotence. The lesson we can pull more broadly from the rise of the far right, of styled eccentric populism, of reactionary sentiment both here and across the atlantic, is a desire for change, and as it happens what precise form that change takes becomes of little importance. This is why Farage and others have found it so easy to appeal to their followers on the most simple terms, they have an understanding of what people are looking for, that being a way out of their predicament, and they have at their disposal a cabinet full of nice easy solutions for a cheap price.
In this regard, the fundamental error of the remain campaign, one that aligns with the error of the Clinton campaign, contradicts the initial surge of Corbynism, and one that has been made again and again, that we show no clear signs of learning from, is the lack of positive solutions. What Farage is increasingly pushing now is not only pulling on the disaffection soaking the very ground we stand on, but an optimistic vision and promise of how to escape it. Now from this position we can tell he’s selling snake oil, but that doesn’t belie precisely how well he’s selling the stuff, shifting boatloads not because “people are idiots” but because he knows, like any good capitalist, how to take hold of people’s desire, to fashion it into profit. This has been the major impasse of the left for some time now, the failure to deliver a positive vision. If we continue to campaign on the back of “we’re not those guys” or “not that”, we will fail, fail, and fail again, as this simply misunderstands where we’re at, through appealing instead of to a desire for change, to the desire of the bourgeoisie for things to stay the same.
This of course feeds into a widespread fantasy, one where we can speak magic, consign Brexit to some crazy episode of history and everything will revert back to a pre-brexit state where things definitely seemed more stable. Did they? We seem to have lost our memory. Surely this is the only explanation as to why we are so quick to reconcile none other than Alistair Campbell, key figure of the left’s neoliberal capitulation and architect of Blairite limbo, speaking as if he is some noble, beset upon figure. What of the Liberal Democrats. They have become no more convincing in their utter lack of conviction, refusal to stand for anything and readiness to say anything if it might lead to election success.. have we forgotten the part they played in ushering in the best part of a decade of Conservative rule? That despite their current opportunistic anti-Brexit platform they had been pushing for an EU referendum since about 2008? What do they represent more than some petit-bourgeois protest party? We claim to vote for them based on their lack of fence-sitting over Brexit while they are a party of fence-sitters. They do practically nothing but sit on fences all day and only announce a position if it might garner them more votes, making sure they can nimbly hop back onto the fence again at the first sign of difficulty, the Lib Dems are an answer to nothing and a home to nobody. They offer nothing but more of the same, turgid, grey dystopia, a melancholic attachment to the neoliberal boom of the 2000s.
And so this is the root of my fear, that due to the total dominance of Brexit as an issue we have completely lost sight of any kind of slightly large picture, that we will happily jump behind anyone, no matter how dubious their political aims if they support a remain position. It seems, based on recent outcomes, that we will happily risk scuppering the left’s chances of victory and opening the floodgates for the far right if we get our personal wishes on Brexit validated. The famous Rosa Luxemburg quote has repeatedly come back to me at this moment; “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.” It strikes me that we stand at just such a crossroads, and that the left simply cannot afford to fail, lest instead of collectively building the future we regress through individual fragmentation into a fascist resurgence. The centre has died, and it will not wake up again no matter how many times we try to resuscitate it.
This all seems to represent nothing less than one giant hangover from Thatcherism, the neoliberal doctrine that languishes now in a state of terminal decline economically and yet still maintains a spectral hold on our consciousness. We still think in terms of individual preference, of voter as consumer, of the nicely packaged individual psychology wherein our subconscious musings stem from us and us alone, where the political can sit in comfortable distance separate from the personal. This is how we justifiably expect a political movement, instead of moving us towards a broader aim, towards changing society, to simply give us what we want. The consumer logic that drives an ostensibly free market applies here to the ways in which, rather than think in terms of collective transformation, politics resembles instead the segmented, individualised and yet notably formulaic factories of social media, where the illusion of that mythical beast, individual autonomy, takes hold of our psyches in the darkness of cyberspace.
I still maintain confidence. It is definitely true that anti-capitalism is inching its way into mainstream discourse, and that there is a general sense that things cannot proceed as they are for much longer, especially set against the looming threat of ecological collapse. What is essential now, if we are to progress, and to move towards an imagined collective future in earnest, is a psychological re-orientation, nothing less than to change what Thatcher addressed as the “heart and soul”. What is needed is a reconstitution of solidarity, abstract political belonging and ultimately comradeship as Jodi Dean outlines it, for unless we can meaningfully unite as a political entity this left future is but an individual fantasy, consigned to the scrapheap to be ground up into paste under the ironclad boots of the future war machine. We must on top of this realise precisely what is at stake, the serious polarity of the situation and the cost of failure, to pull from this crushing negativity a reason to continue.
Yesterday, Theresa May, despite holding on by her fingertips for months, finally let go of her position as Prime Minister, delivering a resignation speech in front of number 10 that picked apart was a truly offensive display, at every turn giving an opposite account to the political consequences of her government. In what was an interesting and jarring echo of history May, like Thatcher, broke into tears on her way out, giving credence to those who hold that these times stand in parallel with the 80s, with the hopeful Corbyn Labour party representing here the failure of Michael Foot and the wider, bitter failure of the left during that decade. Of course, the comparison holds about as much water as a sieve, falling apart as soon as one bares in mind the stark contrast between what both Thatcher and May were leaving behind.
Thatcher, despite her eventual fall, had succeeded. Unlike May’s government in the very first instance, she had set out to wage ideological warfare with an uncompromising goal, and over the course of the decade, had fought tooth and nail to achieve the complete demoralisation of the left, the dominance of neoliberal economic doctrine. Her iron-clad war-machine had run rough-shod over all opposition. Amid the bodies, the spoils of war, she had been victorious, and as such her tearful exit holds an air of the army general ousted before his time. She had more war to wage … if only she’d been given the chance to wage it. She didn’t have to, however. Her victory proved total, to the extent where in the following decade the Labour party rode in through acquiescing to the war machine, surrendering to the neoliberal terminator and ultimately turning it onto us, leading into a time dominated by the underlying assumptions of Capitalist Realism. We now enacted our own domination, the march of post-fordism ensured our inability to see past it, in time dividing not only resources but time, time to act, time to think, time to change.
May came in, the result of a sudden leadership contest in the aftermath of the EU membership referendum, amidst the dying embers of the established order. The total ideological victory of Thatcher, neoliberalism, had grown lazy, arrogant, and decadent. During the 2000s the assumption was that it would last forever, Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation of the “End of History” was all too real, an endless limbo from which we could not escape. First the financial crash of 2008, then years later the surprise result of the EU referendum and the election of Donald Trump in the US, alongside a number of sudden resurgent fascist interests and imitators, were ugly impositions on the assumed comfortable reality of Post-Fordist capital, of course representing the repressed knowledge that it was never that comfortable at all.
The time of Theresa May’s PMship can be recognised as the desperate scrambling attempts of the conservative party to restore some semblance of order, against the backdrop of a gradually more apparent descent into squabbles and infighting. The Tories, having put into practice their idea of being the natural party of government for so long now, can’t now reconcile their insistence on maintaining the limbo of yesterday with the collapse of today. May exits on a pile of unspoken misery, of the onward march of a ruined respectability. Increasingly she struck the figure of the aristocrat holing themselves up in castle Gormenghast, away from the destitution below and amidst the crumbling, overgrown parapets of a dead or dying order.
It is against all this that her sadness must be measured. In a blustering, sputtering response to Owen Jones yesterday upon his statement that he felt “less than no sympathy” for May, we heard a plea for a “human response”. What is a human response if not to point out the absurdity of presenting a “woe is me” narrative in relation to someone who in tandem with their allies furthered a wave of misery and destitution, who refused to acknowledge their part in the deaths of hundreds of working class people in fear of weakening their ideological hegemony. There should be no more sympathy here than she and her government ever displayed to the people they plunged into precarity, poverty and homelessness, the people they have systematically shamed for finding themselves at the bottom of society.
Theresa May’s sadness cannot be seen as a mere individual reaction, it is a sadness undeniably loaded with the delusions of the ruling classes. The fact that so many right wing politicians and commentators will jump onto this to moralise at the left … show some empathy … demonstrates precisely how rich her tears are with symbolic leverage. For years we’ve seen the unspoken insistence reign that more empathy is to be shown for the respectable bourgeoisie than the feckless scroungers at the bottom, and this is why; so that when it comes to facing up to the human consequences of their actions the leverage of sympathy lies with them, so that we all feel sorry for the fallen politician who was dealt a rough hand and was only trying to do their best, rather than tackle the real violence they perpetrated in the role and the ideological underpinnings of their policies. So by all means, show some sympathy, but not for May, for all the people who’s lives she and her government helped ruin and take. Indeed is it sympathy as much as anger that should be driving us in this moment, an anger that can be effectively channelled into something to replace this crumbling edifice for good.
It feels like it’s been a while since I posted anything here, much to my discontent… this has largely coincided with my moving into a new flat, an event that has been surreal and stressful not just because of the usual reasons but also because it was involuntary. Indeed the whole process has put somewhat into perspective just how the private rental system, something that vast amounts of young people now find themselves interminably caught within, stacks the benefits in favour of Landlords, tenants being forced to live under the constant threat of eviction, not necessarily any fault of their own and something that while a minor inconvenience for the Landlord, requires their tenants to effectively turn their life upside down on a whim.
There’s something else about moving, beyond the flagrant power dynamics at play… I have found myself in past few years moving around this city incessantly, and this has a strong relationship with my state of mind during this time. As, for about a year, I found myself sinking into a slow depression and despondency, I have realised on reflection that it was largely due to my surroundings, that my mental distress was inexorably connected to place and influence; it became a matter of necessity to extricate myself from that position or rapidly unravel to the point of no return.
Gradually, since then, I have been thinking through and coming to terms with this period of my life, as much connected to feelings of guilt as to a lot of emotions that at the time I could not explain, but since I have been able to effectively hold under a microscope and analyse. It’s not that I have entirely “healed” or anything so total, but that I have come to understand my position within the outside world and the things that led me towards certain points. The central mistake, one made all too often, is simply to attribute these dark episodes and struggles with identity throughout ones life with some pure inner cause, as if there is some mental interiority that drives our actions disconnected from outside influence. The effect of this is ultimately to cloud an understanding of these actions and the network that influences and/or controls them.
I’ve lately followed up on the work of radical therapist David Smail, a practitioner who really focussed on the social and political contexts of mental health, the way that our inner psychologies are effected by outside power dynamics. Reading through some of his work I found set forward clearly the ways in which our individual psychology is placed within a wider socio-political framework, of power and economic necessity, that we should resist the attempts to individualise these issues that emerged largely in tandem with Thatcherite, Neoliberal attitudes wherein the individual takes precedent over his or her place in society, where the entrepreneurial ideal of the intrepid individual making a name for themselves in a competitive world covers over a systematic and extensive dismantling of systems of solidarity, consciousness and social security, nothing less than a war on collectivity, and one that led to a revolution in capitalism, not just in economic organisation, but the very way we think about and approach the world. Competition, we are led to believe, is now in our very DNA.
There’s quote from Margaret Thatcher Franco Berardi uses in his book Futurability that sets out quite how extensive this war was intended to be;
“What’s irritated me about the whole direction of politics in the last 30 years is that it’s always been towards the collectivist society. People have forgotten about the personal society. And they say: do I count, do I matter? To which the short answer is, yes. And therefore, it isn’t that I set out on economic policies; it’s that I set out really to change the approach, and changing the economics is the means of changing that approach. If you change the approach you really are after the heart and soul of the nation. Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul. ”
“Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul“. Berardi rightly points out that this places Neoliberalism not as merely economic, but practically spiritual doctrine. The aim here was not simply material reform, but a rewiring of the social brain towards the valorization of individual economic concerns, and to this end we saw the consolidation of the ruling classes and the pacification of their subordinates via the promise of greatness, the assurance that “if you put in the hard work you can get here too”.
In terms of issues such as mental distress, this sees its effect in what Mark Fisher termed the “privatization of stress”. What becomes important then in this scenario where we have all become separated into our little cocoons, medicated to the eyeballs, plied with promises that we can all make it better through force of will, is solidarity. The simple act of understanding, offering support, as vapid and simple as it may sound, is hugely important to counter the loneliness of the connected world. It is precisely when we have been shorn off from the social, when we have succumbed to the illusion of autonomous individuality decoupled from mechanisms of power, that we are deprived of the ability to shape our surroundings. Something that I find is repeatedly missed by those who place great emphasis on self-improvement is the simple realisation that any semblance of hard work improving ones own well-being is only truly possible or meaningful given the autonomy that arises from power, a comfortable position in society. It is not, in fact, our own willpower that drives our ability to improve, but overwhelmingly socio-economic conditions.
In my own case it is certainly true that I’ve managed to extricate myself from an awful situation and now find myself in a better state of mind than I have ever been, but it’s been notable that at every turn the structures of society have provided obstacles, hurdles and fences to this progress, and indeed that this improvement was in reality not down to some sheer willpower on my part as much as it was the people around me and coming to understand my position in relation to the other within the neural network. It is in this sense mistaken to argue that a politicization of mental distress is some kind of undermining of autonomy, taking it out of the equation entirely; indeed it is more accurate to argue that, in taking into account the outside world and our place within it we salvage the idea of autonomy from individualist theology, placing the emphasis, instead of on some mythical will-power, on our connection to and influence from the outside.
It is worth mentioning now, as we stand on particularly shaky ground, as the flaring up of a new fascism and the hope of a new socialism pull in opposing directions, that our mental distress, our inner commentary, our social voice is not some magical wellspring that emerges from the subconscious, and that just as the earth beneath our feet cracks and shudders, so does our state of mind. It is not through what Smail terms “magical voluntarism” the faith that, through some magical force of will, through “positive thinking” or personal strength, through a number of incantations found in self-help texts, that we will build a future that works, and find our way out of the labyrinthine horrors of our psychological impasses, but through the building of a new sociability, a collective subject to invert the theological reliance upon the transcendental individual.
All this aside, I’m excited to be back to blogging. Writing here really is quite valuable and whenever I cease to do so regularly I admit I fall mildly into a vague despondency. While blogging networks now are somewhat buried and difficult to excavate in certain regards, being present within a wider conversation at all, and creating/adding to an ever-shifting entity is something I’m immensely thankful to have at my disposal; again it’s not through some magical willpower that I have dragged myself out of the murk, but through connecting to something larger, becoming part of a purpose. While blogging isn’t the be all end all, and I would dearly love to set in motion some projects that I’ve had kicking around my brain for some time now, it provides me with a much needed outlet and a sense that what I’m writing will actually reach someone. After what feels like much too great of an absence, I look forward to sinking my teeth into some upcoming posts, especially given the most interesting and changeable political landscape we’ve seen in decades playing out as I speak. More on that later.
A dark, inscrutable passageway into the undergrowth…
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.