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Notes on Fantasy

I have always yearned for escape. Reading this post from Carl Neville recently reminded me of that. I don’t want to make some kind of major claim toward epiphany, a discovery of who I really am, what I’ve really wanted; such things are not only philosophically suspect but simply boring. Everyone does them, and they don’t get more engrossing the more strength we give to them, staking out our identity around some kind of monism of intent. Instead, what I’m trying to describe here is the identification of a schism between worlds, or multiple schisms.

First there is that of adulthood, the point at which, from the kind of drifting obsolescence of childhood we are catapulted into reality, from the daydream into a world of machine-locked routine and ruthless competition. It doesn’t feel like a divide at the time, largely because you don’t notice, but at some point the whiplash kicks in; our dreams are sold out, our stupid hopes turned into dust, and we have to crack on and make it in the world of work. This is, personally, something that I eventually struggled with, but grew into a deep distrust for. If there’s one thing that I remember really strongly about New Labour’s still much vaunted focus on education, education, education, it is the cloying, awful feeling of being railroaded into a “career”. 

The moment where a careers adviser laughed when I intimated I wanted to go to university stands out particularly, but the general annoyance I always had was being alone among my peers in the deep distrust I had [but couldn’t necessarily explain] for normality, everything I hated about that grey suit the deputy head wore all the time, the kind of insistence that if we wanted to make it, we had to accept compromise. Selling out was not an issue, in fact it was encouraged. If there was an underlying term behind education at that time, it was “career”. Anything and everything was transformed into a way to mold us into gladiators, to be sent out into the pits and against the mercy of boardrooms and managers. The explicit funnelling of education into so much wood-chip to be fed into the compactor fomented in me a long-standing dislike of the world in all its deathly banality, and in some respects I entered into something of a war of attrition in which it was a question of whether it could, over time, break down my teenage illusions, or whether I could just drift past its security channels and get out unharmed…

This meant escape. There was a heavy aspect of this in my retreat into the art classrooms, my decision that to hell with everyone’s insistence on business ambitions and preparing for interviews, I was going to be an artist, a philosopher, or something like that, didn’t matter, just as long as it allowed me to enter some other world away from this one. I spent my youth in libraries, in video games, engrossed in worlds as far away from my own as I could muster, whether it was prehistory, feudal Japan, Gormenghast or Tolkien, and I largely aspired to create worlds of my own. If reality was so dull and horrifying then I would create another.

Eventually, this was funneled into the serious world of contemporary art. Eventually finding myself in the art school I’d been told was a futile hope, I was struck gradually by a disappointment, a disappointment rooted in fantasy. I had, in my naivite thought of this world as something that must be exciting, bohemian, something more rewarding than than the normal channels everyone seemed to insist I followed, only to find that the same creeping malaise of reality was everywhere, infesting every corner and every alternative. I still found myself attempting to escape. My “existentialist phase” as I might now address it, tongue partially in cheek, was a direct confrontation, in retrospect, with this disappointment. Every alternative I wanted to find was not what I was supposed to be doing. Creating worlds was brutally subjugated to the command of representation. If I couldn’t find them here I’d look to the mythologized cafes of Paris, to bohemian intellectuals and avant gardes that seemed a million miles away from this sterile, scrubbed environment.

It’s taken quite some time of detours, drifting and breakdown from that point to discover where that escape actually lay, to in any respect identify what I was searching for, and if anything it yet again puts me on a collision course with fantasy. When I read Mark Fisher’s Weird and the Eerie perhaps a year or so ago now, a distinction within his definition of the weird was of immediate interest to me. This is between the weird and the fantastical –

“Fantasy is set in worlds completely different from ours – Dusany’s Pegana, or Tolkien’s Middle Earth; or rather, these worlds are locationally and temporally distant from ours. The weird, by contrast, is notable for the way in which it opens up an *egress* between this world and others.”

In principle, I find little to disagree with. Formally, this is true, a basic distinction of the fantasy is a disconnect from reality, that it is a world entirely distinct from this one rather than explicitly connected to it. Yet, something that emerged from this statement for me is the consideration of fantasy exactly as something that maintains a thin thread with the world from which it is conjured. Tolkien famously hated allegory, and insisted that Lord of the Rings was in no way intended as a work about any real life conflict, and yet the fact he had to draw this distinction at all renders it questionable. The fantasy implies an escape; even if, unlike weird fiction, this escape isn’t explicit in print, it is forever implicit in the creation of the fantasy itself.

Rather than a nagging point of contestation with Fisher’s observation, this is something I would extend into an unfurling of Fantasy as a form into something far more complex than it is often given credit for. Michael Moorcock’s famous critique of Tolkien, Epic Pooh, remains a turning point for me in my engagement with the genre specifically. The nostalgia for a “lost land” in Tolkien and other English writers in the same vein is something that is difficult to ignore once you see it, and it opens up, not a dismissal of fantasy but one of many distinctions within fantasy. Moorcock’s disdain for the sentimental romanticisms of Tolkien is to identify a Fantasy constructed as a yearning for something lost, in which we hark back to a long gone middle england in the hobbit holes and cabbage patches of the shire as an escape from the scouring, the onset of industry and modernity in the fiery depths of Mordor. We build worlds from materials, from ideas and fragments of worlds already available to us; the thin membrane between fantasy and reality begins to tear.

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“Thugs”

“Thuggery” this was the term Priti Patel used, among others, in an outpouring of contempt it seemed largely towards the righteous demolition of the Edward Colson statue in Bristol. This act was conflated with mindless violence, an act of destruction and anarchy that had to be cracked down on posthaste. So when, this Saturday, we find a heaving crowd of inebriated reactionaries throwing their fists in every direction, throwing Nazi salutes and urinating on monuments, we have to wonder whether this is the thuggery they were talking about, and from the evidence, given the clear fears expressed by the likes of Boris Johnson and a host of journalists/commentariat, it was not.

The hypocrisy almost doesn’t bear mentioning it is so absolute. To appear under the pretence of defending the nazi-defeating honour of “our history” and give nazi salutes next to the cenotaph is enough to give us the lay of the land here. As has been mentioned elsewhere, it becomes obvious that rather than the defence of figures like Churchill we hear, some from these neo-brownshirts themselves, as the bastion against fascism, what really provides the animus here is that we defeated Germany, not the nazis. The exceptionalism of the Britannia rules the waves story of world war 2 is, need it be said, completely separate from any understanding whatsoever of fascism; it revolves around a continuation of colonial power, a make Britain great again political program in which the fact we defeated Hitler is a matter of nationalism vs nationalism, the pure hearts of the British vs the corrupted psyche of the Germans. The irony too, of the statement someone attached to the boarded up statue of Churchill –

“Do not destroy our history. Keep our history and learn from it so the same mistakes don’t happen again.”

Of course, politicians and commentators can’t not condemn what was happening here, and on cue, both Priti Patel and Boris Johnson can yet again be heard uttering the word “thuggery” alongside the often rather pedestrian comments from other politicians. At least they decided to be consistent on this we might be tempted to say, but we shouldn’t cut any of them slack for rather obviously whipping up the exact sentiment that led to these rallies in the first place, and this applies just as much to liberals who have long trafficked in triangulation and both sides compromises and the conservatives who plump for the traditionalist law and order position, anyone who gave any credence to the notion that Black Lives Matter was an illegitimate movement, undermined by unacceptable acts of anarchy.

The word “Thug” is a loaded one, replete with notions of the unsophisticated barbarian, the knuckle dragging neanderthal. When it is unleashed on a movement fighting for racial justice, the pregnant associations hiding behind such language often mirrors the war on terror, and further back Stuart Hall’s policing the crisis. It is ambiguous enough to ensure plausible denial, but evocative enough to provoke a host of behaviours and unsavoury associations. The fact that this is the term that was directed at Black Lives Matter always exuded a horrible odour, but now something interesting has happened. It is important to note on the one hand that the Tories have already implied a “both sides” narrative simply through the similarity of statements made regarding both BLM and this far right retaliation, the only small difference being a minor acknowledgement of legitimate cause with the former. It is also true, however, that what has happened here is by its nature somewhat humiliating; the seething moral panic that developed in the last week over protecting history, in which a mob of cultural revolutionaries was supposed to be preparing to rampage across the country pissing over our heritage, is replaced by one of our brave history-protectors pissing over a monument to a dead police officer.

And so “Thug” is now used to imply equivalence, to suggest that the drunk fury, racist chants, and testosterone fuelled violence of this Saturday is on any way level with a group of excited protesters pulling down a statue. They are all thugs, it is all wrong, we make no distinctions, left or right, we’re not taking sides… this must be resisted. There is a key difference delineated in what you are fighting for, not in the difference between legitimate and illegitimate forms of protest, riots and demos, but between fighting for justice and fighting for an imaginary history and against the oppressed. The term used in reporting by some to describe the protestors, “anti-antifascists”, the very generous label applied to them of “counter-protesters”, all speak to the insidious ways in which reactionary outbreaks of violence are framed as exceptions rather than rules, while riots and looting are framed as the rule itself, an essential characteristic.

Where for some thuggery is something that they occasionally break into, a symbol of momentary lost control, for others it is taken as who they are, it is extrapolated into the undermining of their entire cause.

And that, inasmuch as it applies to the media apparatus and the framing of current events, is the problem.

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Little Richard, or The Mind-Body-Music-Machine

I recently, found myself chancing upon some videos of early Little Richard performances, shared around in the wake of his death not too long ago, and it’s the kind of thing that, without warning, kick-starts a series of connections and far flung references spiralling out of what is, really, a remarkably powerful document. I say this because there’s perhaps an innate assumption that if we look this far into the past, all we’re going to find is a collection of dusty, faintly ridiculous wall hangings; the nasty suspicion is that all that we have left of these times is a comedy performance, that it is impossible to really understand what might have made something like rock’n’roll such a controversial cultural force at the time behind its time-locked fuzz.

On the contrary, some of this footage brought this to the fore in a flurry of sweat, jerky movements and riotous audience applause… while there’s no mistaking the fashion, surroundings, the music itself for anything beside a product of that moment, the tension remains. Little Richard’s notable effeminate appearance in many of these clips merges with his voice, a kind of twisted gospel-shout-yelp that seems to be trying to escape his body in some kind of psycho-sexual possession. It’s not difficult to see the root of the moral panic right here, the sight of a black performer who brooked no quarter, who threatened to break free of the sidelines and stage an invasion of the respectable domains of white culture. To be able to witness this today remains a remarkable glimpse, and begins to find echoes in all rhythmic interventions, the power contained in submitting oneself to the demands of a bodily sensation, that are replicated across temporal chasms today.

Of course, it wasn’t Little Richard who was eventually dubbed “the King”, and in the brief overview of rock’n’roll I remember seeing in multiple documentaries growing up he was glossed over before we got to the main act, Elvis Presley and, inevitably, the Beatles. This tendency extends to the mythology of the blues, Robert Johnson, the devil at the cross-roads, the old black man with his guitar pouring out his suffering on the porch somewhere in the Mississippi. There is always a sense, somehow, that these figures value lies not in their performances as much as who they influenced. They become nothing more than a blueprint from which the final product of Led Zeppelin was derived. What is again often glossed over here, is the tense relation between influenced and influencer, the sometimes exploitative channel between them. Led Zeppelin, for instance, were serial offenders when it comes to taking and performing songs recorded first by black singers and crediting them as their own. White rock music has an uncomfortable underbelly when it comes to its admiration for the blues, we might say something of a reactionary character.

To many, the blues becomes soul, and soul becomes music, and music becomes an inscrutable thing that cannot be understood or spoken about lest we are to break the mystery, and yet behind this veil of whispers and adoration lies a complex darkness, a wish to have ones cake and eat it, claim the soul for yourself and nibble it in the corner while others sit and watch. Somehow, this vibrating frequency that is known as rock was reduced to a root, some kind of distant past relegated to a hall of fame in which visitors can stroll around and catch a glimpse of a preserved eyeball or a mummified elder statesman gyrating in the back room somewhere, but here in the mechanical reproduction of one space in time are echoes of punk, of glam, of everybody from Prince to Tricky spiralling out of this single man in his oversized suit, or throwing his shirt into the heaving crowd, delighting in the result. The mystery is broken and reconstructed into a crackling pylon of glorious artifice in which the soul is jettisoned and worn as a mask, and then again turn around on itself and directed back at the interviewer.

There is no doubt in these moments as to who “the king” is, as the man himself reiterated in interviews with great force, he was the originator, the king, the redeemer. This kind of forceful, strutting proclamation later became stock in trade for the swaggering white rock star, if you didn’t claim you were bigger than Jesus who were you really, but here it suddenly seems daring again; Little Richard is reconstructing his own legend on screen, and succeeding. He is absolutely the afrofuturist par excellence, taking that seam of gospel and the blues and distorting it into unheard forms, placing the future into the hands of the man who would find other worlds out there in the fractured miasma.

Rock’n’roll, the and contracted into an ‘n’, the sound of it replicating a speech pattern, the lyrics descending, as Agnes Gayraud and Nick Cohn have expanded on, into Glossolalia; the voice merges into a noise-rhythm, and it is as if the participants are escaping themselves, constrained by their frail human forms and turning themselves into something else entirely. It is, in some respects, the power of a popular form coming into its own, the communion/ritual directed onto the stage, between the stage and the audience, between the audience and the musicians, between the musicians and the singer, between the entire constellation and the recording, between the recording and the living room where we sit, hunched over radios, laptops, or stereos.

When people speak of “rock” “blues” or “rhythm” its often set against a futurism or a modernism, it is the realm of pop tradition, the standard against which the now is set. In many respects however, that is not what emerges on closer inspection, whereupon the mind-body-rhythm machine is made apparent.. the winds of time might make our teeth chatter and our muscles ache, but the pop machine unfurls into some extra-terrestrial cephalopod, possessing us and sending us careening down hallways and avenues. The figure of Little Richard, self-proclaimed progenitor and king, was dethroned, replaced by a shuffling queue of white inheritors. His claim to the throne is one which reckons with its own overshadowing, and he strikes, despite the crowds, a lonely figure there, sexually ambiguous and yet charged so heavily. Little Richard was a progenitor, he one of many who took what was there and grappled with it, crucifying and worshipping it, whose religiosity channelled back into his own identification with a king or a god. Rock’n’roll here isn’t about soul, but movement, everywhere we find the movement of vibration, a whole lotta shakin’, indeed a lot of bluesmen made their living playing for the purpose of dance… soul dissipates into sound, sound into space, space into electricity.

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Liberal Democracy is an Inertia Engine

It’s been somewhat difficult to focus of late, and from what I hear I’m not alone in that sentiment. As much as claims of immanent collapse have been a regular feature of social life for some time now, there is a sense, month after month, of the world unravelling. It might be overstated, and it’s possible that eventually this will all settle down and we’ll all retreat into our cottages pretending nothing happened, but it seems unlikely; the notion that we will emerge blinking into the sunlight in a month or two’s time seems to ignore an inevitable surge in devastation that is going to follow and perhaps last well into the next decade, first from the notable perpetual catastrophe of neoliberal economic policy, and then more existentially in the increasingly mounting waves of climate change. The next decade or two are more likely to see the continual return of history in a cumulative sense and various explosions of social unrest than some kind of neatly segmented segue back into the rhythms of everyday capitalism.

If there’s something recent events have done for me it’s bring a few things into perspective, drawn them back into the limelight as it were, and one of those things is the pathetic illusion of liberal democracy, or whatever current title we give the integrated spectacle. The sudden rise in militant protests in reaction to a widely shared video of a police officer murdering George Floyd, the latest catalyst in a long, trailing lineage of horrific police violence against Black Americans, has lead more than anything in recent memory to an active confrontation not only with the thinly veiled blood soaked history of “western” Capitalism, but an illustration of quite how used we had become to the depressing inertia of official channels. When respected politicians, journalists and assorted commentators sit in their usually comfortable positions and demand that you reign yourself in, sign petitions, get elected, it seems like they aren’t quite aware of how staggeringly empty these words sound against a deafening backdrop of nothing happening.

If there’s anything that we’ve learnt from electoral politics in Britain more specifically in recent times, something that anyone who had any minor hope that the Labour party might have had some kind of positive impact will be aware of, it is surely that electoral politics is a vampiric entity more than a galvanising one, it builds us up to tear us down, it catches us between its monumental cogs and grinds us into a thin paste, at every turn the engines of capitalist democracy frustrate autonomy and hope. Recently, Rosa Luxemburg’s incredibly prescient arguments in Reform or Revolution have come to mind again and again, and the impotence of reformism rears its ugly head more than ever. It is easily forgotten that social democracy was always as much a way to prolong the existence of capital as an eventual vehicle for socialism. The question that forever arises for those who would call themselves social democrats is how, in their planned unbroken chain of social reforms, we can avoid simply building Capital mk2 instead of actually replacing it. Recently, this point has arisen regarding police, even if we are to abolish or defund police, something I do not stand against, how could we possibly prevent capital simply producing something that talks like a cop, walks like a cop, but calls itself something else?

The problem with official channels is precisely this, they are official. They require us to play within the co-ordinates provided, within the system we hope to oppose. The myth of entryism has always been the promise that you, personally, can resist the pull of the system you enmesh yourself within. Rather than outwitting it, it becomes simply a way of mitigating it, a gigantic exercise in damage control, meanwhile you become a link in the chain of propagating systems, swept away in a wave of complex counter-insurrectionary procedures. The emptiness of Labour politics today, the non-political slurry of it all, behind a mask of supposedly adult metrics and election-winning charm, was always going to be the result, a left that simply picks apart the faults in rhetoric, wags its finger at the prime minister like he’s stepped out of line in high school. It might all be very satisfying if we stake everything on politicians “messing up” and being inadequate, but unfortunately it remains true that, as Gil Scott Heron pronounced “The revolution will not be televised”. We have to realise surely that the justifications of Capital work not despite but because of its fuck-ups and contradictions; it doesn’t make sense from the ground up, relies on the strength of cognitive dissonance to survive. Simply pointing out inadequacies, stepping back and thinking we’ve done a good job is a fantastic way of ensuring its perpetual authority over political life at the same time as taking a moral high ground. It is the myth of a good and bad form of capital personified.

Reza Negaristani recently tweeted the following –

At the time it flew by, but increasingly I can’t agree more. While on the surface this could be interpreted or extrapolated into what I outlined above as the incredibly dreary failure of entryism, but in line with my recent research into the Situationists, a picture begins to emerge of a kind of extra-electoral action that itself relies on “feats of cunning and education”.Indeed, the fact that Guy Debord and co saw themselves as strategists is an important distinction to make, given their regular domestication into social or cultural theorists alone. While it can be fairly pointed out, and has been time and time again, that the uprisings of 68 failed, can it be said that the post-68 slide into a kind of endless anti-representation, the political coping mechanisms that theorists employed were any better?

The notion of “strategy” seems itself to have become domesticated, and has tended to ignore the kind of militaristic organised attacks and complex, systematised mechanics that we are up against. As sympathetic as I was at a base level for the cause of extinction rebellion for instance, it was [I know it still exists but with all due respect it’s hardly a going concern anymore] the sheer inability of the movement to actually conceptualise an enemy that crippled it as it has any number of movements before it, and this always formed my misgivings towards it. While the kind of militancy of recent events is probably the most welcome development in a long time, it’s already shown signs of becoming rounded off, de-escalated, dissipating into nothing more than a set of reformist demands. The aim must, on a basic level, be to cause consternation, to worry capital.

This is precisely where the recent glorious act of public vandalism in Bristol, in which a statue of a slave trader was pulled down and thrown into a river, succeeded where hundreds of peaceful marches could not. The claim, from conservative ministers everywhere, that the peaceful protests were being undermined by “Thugs”, a loaded term if ever there was one, is the identification on the contrary of the moment the protests might have actually had an effect. It is certainly true that this single act had more of a direct effect than anything said “peaceful protestors” had done thus far, opening up a fault-line in British politics around its inability to imagine its own history as anything besides an abstract good and leading to the questioning of statues and monuments everywhere, but the arguments around it also lead back a long way.

I recently read through Alberto Toscano’s historical study of Fanaticism, a book in which we find that this repeated outlining of protesters, revolutionaries and radicals of all stripes as “religious” Schwärmer opposed to the secular, realistic centre of enlightenment discourse [primarily appearing in the notion, itself utterly absurd, that measured discussion is the cure-all of social ills], has repeatedly arisen in defence of an established order, whether that be feudalism, capitalism, or both. The policing of disorder into “legitimate” and “illegitimate” is at root the wish to ensure that change becomes impossible. You can protest, but only within the square we provide, and only using the methods we’re setting out here. Slow and steady wins the race is, in this context, a way to convince the tortoise that the hare has its best interests in mind and should simply allow it to win.

Of course, Toscano’s final, open ended statement in the book is a complication, and one in line with Negaristani’s observation above-

“Urgency and intransigence must be coupled with patience and strategy, if there is ever to be a history without fanaticism.”

This speaks towards a radical politics that, rather than mitigating its energy in favour of the slow-burn dissipation of elections, or unleashing itself in a singular display of anger and tearing everything down at once, can maintain its energy and couple it with a complex strategy, a way to outmanoeuvre its opponents rather than cede ground to them or throw itself against their shield walls. The problem in part is how we view protests as a single element of the mechanisms they are trying to oppose, and eventually all we can imagine in terms of action is simply turning up with a sign and walking down a road chanting. I’m not demanding that we all become guerilla fighters against capital here, but we have to start thinking around and behind the machinic operations arrayed before us or we will continue to be crushed. The very notion, on the part of the situationists, that they were strategists, and that detournement or the derive folded into pointed tactics, is a valuable pointer towards something that really does appear lacking today in our concept of “organising”, the notion that it’s not just important to oppose but to outwit.

The implication on Negaristani’s part here, that opposition to capital must be a rational one, does of course speak against the transcendental, the notion that markets, elections, politics is to be maintained as some kind of black box through which everything operates, but which we cannot hope to understand or mitigate. This is perpetuated to the degree that a lot of politicians themselves believe it, and simply act as unknowing progenitors of an unconscious engine to which they attribute some kind of supremacy without ever being able to explain it. The notion that the complexities of the systems we hope to overcome is some kind of epistemological horizon must be abolished, as much as the obfuscatory and contradictory claims it makes for itself, and we must attempt to take apart and understand its most insidious mechanisms; more than the undeniably important “diversity of tactics” a left that is to change the course of history must also embrace and practice complexity at the very same time as militant anger. We must seed both consternation and confusion wherever we appear.

… I do apologise that this post isn’t the music-related one I had planned from the end of my last, events got in the way. That is absolutely coming next.