Categories
Pop/Pulp

Heresy, Insurrection and Pop

“If one can stop looking at the past and start listening to it , one might hear echoes of a new conversation; then the task of the critic would be to lead speakers and listeners unaware of each other’s existence to talk to one another. The job of the critic would be to maintain the ability to be surprised at how the conversation goes, and to communicate that sense of surprise to other people, because a life infused with surprise is better than a life that is not.”

The above passage, from the introduction of Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, is possibly the most succinct distillation of the excitement, the thrill of writing that I’ve discovered. The legitimacy of cultural criticism of any kind is something that’s crossed my mind a good deal in the past few months, to the point where I’ve seriously questioned what I’m doing, whether anyone will be listening and whether there’s really a point if they are. The process of reading Lipstick Traces, something I’ve been meaning to do for some time, has been a timely explosion, a strategic negation and a reminder of why I wanted to write in the first place. Reading it is an undulating temporal experience, an at times dazzling and perhaps confusing array of different reference points woven into a patchwork, a series of disconnected threads that seem to echo one another without touching, phasing inexplicably into one another. It’s also, dare I say it, a fun experience? Ok time to put some qualifiers on this, as I’m not of the opinion that “fun” is in and of itself a marker of anything, let alone quality. What I mean by this is that there is at least the fizz and crackle of enthusiasm in Marcus’s writing here, a sense that through these links between radical Situationist politics, Michael Jackson, medieval heretics and John Lydon, a kind of detournement itself is being conducted, that in this synthetic history there is not only a recounting or a construction, but a toolbox, perhaps more aptly an armoury to be deployed in an act of intellectual desecration…

Potentially all this and more runs the serious risk of a common accusation, perhaps an accurate one, of pseudo-intellectualism. I’m not about to mount a defence of every pseud and poseur on the planet or pull off some kind of reversal here, but the way this accusation is levelled all too often amounts to little more than a crude, general anti-intellectualism. It’s the kind of attitude that insists you don’t use too many complicated ideas or terms lest the poor audience are left in the dark, that you must, above all, communicate with the utmost simplicity and clarity, spell it out in terms a child could understand, assume your audience might as well be children in fact. It harks back to a kind of notion of “appealing to the common man” that practically infantilizes the public, and thereby assumes that the priority, rather than perhaps surprising challenging, educating or confronting the mythical reader, is to offer them something familiar, if not comforting then firmly within known coordinates of discomfort. The anti-intellectualism contained often within the criticism for instance of “over-intellectualising” a subject like music flags us down and demands that we cease our attempts to surprise and confront; those who will not lay down arms become the pseuds of popular imagination, the feared disseminators of complexity, those who won’t respect the traditional boundary between “normal people” and worlds beyond their ken.

If a fear of this had risen in my mind of late, Lipstick Traces has banished it. Or at least it has rendered it obsolete in the way that the most timely interventions can. I can’t speak for the rest of Marcus’s work, but an accusation that this book is lesser due to its supposed ahistoricity, wordiness or tendency towards tangential links [John Lydon and John of Leydon anyone?] seems only to measure it as a work to be submitted to a dusty old board somewhere, and speaks to a certain inability of academized thought to entertain anything that seems to flout its predetermined boundaries. The notion that the links between completely unconnected figures, indeed between punk and situationism itself might be constructed, rather than a matter of strict historical record, is something Marcus states within the text itself, indeed lies centrally to its structure. To note that they are perhaps fantastical or unbelievable from the standpoint of an academic recounting of events seems to sidestep everything the text itself claims for itself, simply assuming that anyone talking about history, relaying elements of cultural and political events, must be writing around a standard, centralised, literal thesis, and that Marcus is simply arguing that there is a direct, verifiable link between Thomas Müntzer and the Sex Pistols.

This said, Lipstick traces is a desecration of sorts, or rather, a signpost towards a desecration. The fact that it plays fast and loose with history is to its benefit largely because it reads as something from very much the same vein as the upheaval and heresy within it. A heresy that, as it scrambles historical narrative and cultural forms, seems primarily at this moment in time to find a particular resonance in my quarantine addled mind. The resistance to boredom and work, the slogans of reversal and subversion found throughout in the words of the situationists as much as the punks, mystics and dubious figures of all stripes that join them remind me primarily of the heresy that drove me here, the drive to subvert, dissolve, destroy and negate the misery of the present. Perhaps it’s the constant threat of boredom in the immediate situation, the enforced isolation, or perhaps the opposite sense of immense upheaval, but the kind of cultural politics we find in this kind of negation has taken on some kind of added significance.

It might also be that I’m reading this in the aftermath of reading through Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, a text that during my time at art school seemed to hang around the peripheries but never penetrate. A little like Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, Society of the Spectacle sometimes seemed to become one of these standard reference points, an idiom that meant nothing beside a vague appeal to images and media. A passage in Lipstick Traces addresses this trend as something preceding my time at university by a good few decades, the use of “spectacle” as a critical term that really meant little beside a complaint that image was more important than object. Debord himself counters these appropriations early on in SoS, saying:

“The Spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”

As Marcus adds, “This was the theatre, but Debord had insisted on the church.  The spectacle was not merely advertising, or television, it was a world.” The spectacle is nothing less than the stage of modern capitalism, the disjuncture of everything with its own representation. The spectacle, for Debord, is a symptom of accumulation so immense that it has become an image. It cannot be reduced to mass media, rather it encapsulates the widespread move of capital into the realm of exchange, the wasteland of empty accumulation we might today be overwhelmingly familiar with today as the financial markets. The spectacle is an extension of the commodity, with all the metaphysical tricks and niceties Marx found within it, an immense reification and hence a removal, a break between the object and it’s representation commensurate with the alienated self.

I began to suspect during my reading of SoS that Debord’s analysis might have more purchase today than the time in which he wrote it. This doesn’t mean that what he observed wasn’t there yet, but that the spectacle may yet to have come into its own as a phenomenon. The rogues gallery of insurrectionists, hellraisers and nihilists presented in Lipstick Traces only made me consider this point further. While it is reductive in the extreme to use the Spectacle as shorthand for mass media, the ubiquity of not just images but images of images of images to fuel social relations today has surpassed anything Debord might have imagined at the time, and at a point during which the possibility of such relation has to be maintained through digital channels, free of touch or proximity, all that remains, in some sense, is the spectacle. Post web 2.0 social relations are those detached from the necessity of direct communication. At a point where phrases like “fake news” or “post-truth” have been floating around like pointed accusations rather than social conditions, in which we continue to bemoan consistently the move away from “genuine relationships” and “real activities” under the assumption that this is a unique feature of the contemporary moment [I recently read Adorno’s Minima Moralia and such observations spill out of its pages] or, even worse, simply a feature of personal failing, the spectacle almost seems quaint in its limited pronouncements. For all his failings, this may be what lends Baudrillard his continued relevance, even as he entirely detaches himself from the kind of material causes and relations that ostensibly seem a requirement for any kind of rupture or disturbance of the status quo…

Indeed, it’s no coincidence that Baudrillard can be explicitly linked, beyond philosophy or theory, to the very same fractured semi-fictional lineage of heretics addressed by Greil Marcus. He delighted often in baffling his audiences and trying to get under the skin of the art world that had embraced him, notably in his infamous text the conspiracy of art where he addresses in the strongest terms its emptiness and failure. An often little addressed element of Baudrillard’s work is his debt to Alfred Jarry’s Pataphysics, the strange realm of imaginary solutions to imaginary problems. Especially in his later work, this is potentially what often lends Baudrillard’s writing this air of speculative fiction as much as theory, as well as that of a fortune teller or a mystic, expounding a series of exaggerations and hyperboles to an audience. This isn’t to lessen the work itself as much as it is to explain to some degree the sense of unreality of each text itself, that notion that Baudrillard is addressing situations and phenomena that have yet to occur, that may never occur.

Much has been said about the prescience, perhaps even the pessimism, of J G Ballard’s fiction. The characters within works like Crash, Atrocity Exhibition and High Rise, whether strange lurid reconstructions of celebrity or television operators, share a particular trait in their relation with crisis, horror and rupture. They are within it, rather than outside it. Whereas a more conventional, moral position in fiction has been to introduce people into the horror and crisis of the world with a stance of elevation or removal, Ballard allows them to seep into it, or it to seep into them. Richard Wilder, from High Rise, for instance, embraces the collapse of the building into violence and chaos in gradual steps, as observer, then participant, then instigator. Ballard’s characters fall prey to something, but they often do so willingly, surrendering their will to the tide. What changes of course from a certain point is that increasingly his books deal with people who instigate and encourage this collapse rather than surrender to something outside their control, but the general tendency is towards an embrace of rupture.

This is, for the reader, a heresy. For those used to fiction firmly rooted in a moralist tradition, where there was always a certain struggle against the horror, Ballards cool, detached account of simply going with it, embracing the violence, finding some perverse glee in the descent to untapped bestial insanity, is itself a horror. It’s a detachment that seems wholly commensurate with the British suburbia Ballard captured so well, and there is a sense much of the time that the characters seek precisely an escape from the kind of boredom of their meek, all-too-untroubled lives. This destruction is the natural counterpart to the suburbs, not its other, it emerges out of it, birthed by its perpetually polite squabbles and painfully regimented social relations.

The figure of heretic steps forward from this fog of regimented factory rows and promises maybe an insurrection, maybe a thunderstorm, perhaps just an unchecked orgy of violence, as long as it steps in to relieve us of duty; the temptation of heresy is a singular negation, a dismantling of intuition, a suburban relapse. The heretic is often the figure for whom the worst tendency becomes an opening to exploit.

The pop star has in the 20th century become the exemplary figurehead of such heretical imaginaries, a construct formed of a thousand channels through which our fears and desires are projected and created. The most remarkable section of Lipstick Traces has to remain the searing exposition on “Jacksonism”, the name he gives to the confluence of social political economic and theoretical focus points around the popularity of Michael Jackson, the flurry of intensification around the billowing demands made of the pop star, indeed how the “star” recedes into the background of the global phenomenon they front. Jacksonism was nothing less than a shift in the cultural imaginary, a lurid display of contradictions, images, icons, catatonic displays of devotion in which everyone was involved, and the pop star became more than a simple figurehead for a cultural object, but a semiotic intersection of an entire world.

“The commodity was the agent of reification: Jackson’s built its own heaven, and everyone reached for it. It was wonderful, in that year of Michael Jackson, just to get up in the morning, open the paper, and follow the dance: to discover that a clandestine Michael Jackson cult had formed within the Jehovah’s Witnesses (which, as everyone knew, counted Jackson as a devotee, and which, one was informed, was based on a belief in the return of the Archangel Michael)”

The passage proceeds into one of the most heady demonstrations of pop culture analysis in the book; Jacksonism takes its place in the annals of the spectacle, the glaring centre of the commodity, a monumental construct of triumph and tragedy and a tsunami of religious fervour that shifted and warped its visage. Jacksonism was the edifice of pop given not so much flesh or form, as much as an entire reality of artifice, more real than real, yet eternally signalling its own unreality. Notable in Marcus’s progression in the book from Lydon to Jackson is the magnitude of the event, in many of ways the tidal wave of Jacksonism outstrips that of the sex pistols, reaches much further into social life. While the link between the situationists and punk has long been known and discussed to some degree, the perhaps uncomfortable implication that emerges here is that the most prominent realisations of their proposals lay at the heaving centres of popular culture, the spectacle intensified. In Jackson, we see a force in which political, economic, social and cultural issues converge in a whirlwind of ostentation, a time in which people clamoured for the tiniest piece of the phenomenon and tore their hair out if they could only gain a tiny glimpse of its glory. Pop was an earthquake.

Pop has always been the domain of heretics. It makes sense that it is in the heart of the commodity that the destructive negation of punk took hold. Adorno was wrong, it is precisely in the deterritorialised form of pop itself that we see the strongest negation. Of course while we rail against Adorno’s anti-pop absolutism, it would be amiss to ignore the heresy contained in his own work. The very intransigence of his hatred is a shock to the system; his refusal to acknowledge that any kind of mass commodified culture can be remotely modernist jettisons the positive, relegates resistance of any kind to the very fringes. Adorno’s singular, strictly regulated modernism is a kind which refuses pop at a fundamental level and trades it for the spontaneous act of creation.

Heresy is not a position, but a negation, the very threat that the acceptance of the present might not hold, or that the peace of the moment is a lie. The presence of heresy is not a promise but an insult, a demand hurled into the faces of anyone who cares to listen, a challenge, can you face up to my truth?

Categories
Film & Television

Life in Marvellous Times – Thoughts on the X-Files and Twin Peaks

“In these strange times” is becoming one of those endlessly repeated platitudes that are becomes such a staple of journalese, something that we type out in lieu of anything else, that fills a hole rather than saying anything and belies the morbidity of a media largely resigned to simply delivering tautological reiterations of the current state of affairs ad infinitum. Place this term alongside “truth to power” and countless others in the crypt, seal it off and force yourself to look elsewhere, perhaps even challenge your audience. A challenge for the ages.

I’ve assigned myself the task of writing something after simply stewing in my own juices for a little too long. The problem with quarantine so far is that is has exacerbated the proliferating anxieties of constant communication that were already ever present outside it. Ubiquitous connection isn’t necessarily the blessing we might assume as soon as it becomes necessary to stay physically separate from one another; indeed, it’s in this scenario that the sheer effect of networked technology on my consciousness has twitched at the back of my mind, insect-like. Psychic pressures, the ever-present feeling that I’m not doing what I’m supposed to, creeping unease that I’ve just become too familiar with this screen, these buttons, this mindless action that I couldn’t even recall without its attendant task, the world closes in through its possibilities rather than restrictions. While the various plans I’ve had regarding projects have still stayed with me, the fragmented, frayed ends of my brain have struggled to articulate them for varying stretches of time.

To mitigate this, my newfound love of the X-Files has been an immense help, a love that has grown increasingly after I resolved to systematically watch through every episode [Currently making my way through season 3]. The fondness I have for a lot of these stand-alone stories and, yes, the alien conspiracy story arcs, by this point knows no bounds and I can’t see myself tiring of it. There has been some rough points, a standout worst episode so far is perhaps 3 at the centre of season 2, an attempt at pulling off this somewhat questionable sexy contemporary vampire shtick that was somewhat popular at some point in the 90s. The result is 45 minutes that feel horribly disconnected from the show around it, a Mulder who seems to have become an entirely different and much more baffling character for one episode only, something that only succeeds in coming off like a tacky exploitation film in tone. That this mediocre interlude stood out as much as it did is largely testament to the success of the show around it, and that it’s sandwiched in between a particularly moving three episode arc centred on Scully’s abduction [perhaps another reason 3 fails is due to her conspicuous absence from proceedings].

Watching the x-files today it comes across as something of a catalogue of concerns, fears, and notably technological developments. Early on, in the first season, a story involving a killer computer presents what seems for all the world like a kind of fictional Apple/Microsoft, and later on we increasingly begin to note the presence of the early internet, season 3’s 2shy even explicitly addressing the then novel fears around online dating. Many of these early 90s tech focused narratives are interesting to see today partly because of how quaint they sometimes seem, addressing these developments as supplementary experiments rather than immanent features of social life, the internet gradually appearing and developing with the show as it tried to keep abreast of the contemporary moment it occupied. Even more interesting than this is the way these technologies intersect with the central paranormal and supernatural elements of the show. Very early on in the first season, the notion that new technologies are “alien” is presented literally through Mulder’s theory that the government is trialling new military craft using UFO technology. Later on, however, this is complicated, where computing and the genesis of the internet become introduced both as tools for investigation, and portals through which unsavoury new threats may slither into our lives.

The paranormal in the x-files is always something explicitly there but never fully there, it lingers at the centre of Mulder’s belief and Scully’s scepticism, her faith and his atheism. Whereas at the show’s beginning this dualism seems a simple one, and the issue of faith not yet a glimmer in Chris Carter’s eye, it unravels in fits and starts not only during the alien conspiracy arcs, but throughout the succession of stand-alone episodes, perhaps more so. By the time we reach season 3, we’ve already seen them switch roles, perhaps evidence that both may not be as assured in their beliefs as they first appear, indeed that they both hold contradictory views. This hasn’t yet reached some kind of ultimate apotheosis, but it strengthens the conceit of the show immeasurably, and lends this dual characterisation the justification it deserves. The question arises, at least in my mind, what separates the paranormal from the normal, the supernatural from the natural? In a basic sense, the supernatural is nature that we haven’t explained yet. It makes me think of the point Mark Fisher makes in The Weird and the Eerie, where he says “In many ways, a natural phenomenon such as a black hole is more weird than a vampire”. If not in weirdness but in abjection this finds itself reflected in the 2nd season episode Irresistible, in which the central horror is revealed and/or accepted to be no alien or monster, but a man, a death fetishist digging up corpses who progresses to murder. Scully’s sheer horror in confronting this is one of the notable times her scepticism and scientific demeanour fails her, and one of the first times of a few until this point where the show has endeavoured to tackle the immediate emotional weight of the circumstances Mulder and Scully find themselves investigating. In this instance, as in others, even when the monsters and aliens are real, flesh and blood beings, when in the midst of uncovering US government conspiracies, that it’s not the extraterrestrial or paranormal events themselves but the powerlessness and suffering of their victims that disturb or unsettle.

Duane Barry is an astounding episode of television when it comes to this, in both its simplicity and its potency. Even shorn of the other episodes in this story arc, the hostage situation here serves to lead us into an exploration of trauma and the re-visitation of childhood horror build on in future episodes, and as both Mulder and Scully grapple with the weight of family action and responsibility, the past weighing on the conscience of the present. The past becomes an alien, a horrible parasite as much as a source of comfort, and the disorienting, dehumanising process of abduction is mirrored in the unveiling of truth as falsehood, of their own subjectivity as a lie. The show is at its best when shifting around the co-ordinates of what natural or real implies, whether it’s in the form of the episode humbug, something of a love letter to outsiders and freaks and a genuinely funny outing, or the constant questioning of beliefs and knowledge. “The truth is out there” we are assured at the beginning of nearly every episode, and yet the meaning of this remains consistently obscured, whether we are talking about the truth of conspiracy, the truth that lies behind the closed doors of power, or the truth of what is scientifically verifiable, a naturalistic truth.

Part of this ambiguity in the x-files, partly facilitated and necessary to the set-up of the show, reminds me, though it is a very different piece of work, of the ambiguity of Twin Peaks, which in its case ended up leading to its own demise. The previously mentioned X-Files episode 3 feels so off precisely because, with Scully briefly out of the picture both Mulder as a character and the writing of the show seem to be spinning off their axis, unsure of where to go. In the case of Twin Peaks, this was a far more extensive sensation, coming to bear after the unveiling of the killer around halfway through the second season [the episode itself a masterstroke of uncoupled horror that shouldn’t be overlooked]. The central conceit of the show done away with, many of the plot-lines thereafter feel like Peaks desperately trying to find new land, rediscover itself somehow, resulting in some of the only moments where the show feels hackneyed and weightless in tone. There are some hits here and there but many of the new characters read more like straightforward and played out caricatures than anything prior. The irony here is that it’s leading up to the shows final moments, and its infamous cliffhanger, that it becomes wholly compelling again. While the show had failed again and again trying to right itself, introduce such quaint oddities ascoherent narratives”, it was with its final lurch into untrammelled, fractured and abstract structure that it went somewhere again.

The X-Files is, in some ways, a more standard show, but also the kind of show that doesn’t particularly get made anymore. It’s structure, wherein the standalone “monster-of-the-week” style episodes provide the glue for the periodic story arcs to hold together rather than the other way around, is something unthinkable for prestige TV with all its seamless singular narratives running the course of a season. There is a sense, and this is where similarities with Peaks and its soap opera structure emerge, in which both shows at their best emphasise, rather than trying to smooth away, the cracks and mould lines in the medium. This provides the pretext for their moments of failure, but also their enduring success, in which this hour to hour shift and lack of faith to the coherent narrative structure demanded of them prove something that could only be done via television. Perhaps its better, rather than to attempt a kind of melding of mediums into a smooth entity, to accentuate the broken, weird qualities of television as a medium. If the perhaps indulgent but largely unapologetically brilliant return of Twin Peaks a few years ago demonstrated anything, it’s that there’s nothing particularly wrong with being a television show.

Categories
Current Affairs Updates

Quarantine Dream

“Well this was unexpected” I say to myself in strangely vertiginous moment of calm. But then this exclamation is followed by a doubt, a question, was it? Was a global pandemic like this ever actually that far away, isn’t it true that for some time now it has been reasonable to suspect a crisis of some magnitude to befall the global economy, virus or no virus? The possibility of a normality-shattering crisis has lain at some indistinct moment arguably for a decade now. It was a question of when, not if it would arrive.

This doesn’t really do as much as we’d like to think to prepare us for its moment of arrival. As Jodi Dean observed poignantly on Twitter, no amount of dystopian fiction prepares you for the sadness of collapse, and in this vein no amount of theory prepares you for the events of history to play out in front of your eyes. Perhaps there is something of this to the immediate and widely derided responses of various theorists, from Agamben to Badiou, not to mention the almost impossibly fast announcement of a new book by Zizek on the coronavirus pandemic. Where do these academics of varying fame find themselves in the progression of events? Arguably, nowhere. They, like the rest of us, are simply swept up within them, whether they are pantomime performer or lecturer. Their comments, while previously more welcome, now have a tendency to come off as hackneyed, detached responses from people who have spent too long staring at the same piece of paper. Sure, we could apply the analysis that holds the virus as the confrontation of capital with its suppressed Real, and perhaps it holds, but in some sense, it all seems to be a bit obvious, and more to the point it tells us nothing of how to handle it, how to proceed from this moment, even the minutiae of living under it.

Part of the problem with tackling events this time around is quite how simultaneously real and unreal they seem, evoking in one breath a million fictional pandemics, zombie outbreaks and collapse scenarios, but in its horrifying, alienating reality outstripping any of them. Only a month ago, the idea Europe would now be in an effective quarantine scenario would have sounded outlandish, more like some kind of alternative history series than current affairs. The notion that nothing really happens here, that epidemics, wars, social collapse are things that happen in other places, the “third world”, had set in deeper than we could possibly imagine, a bubble of western exceptionalism that was inexplicably supposed to keep us safe from the ravages of the world. There was never really any reason to think that “normality”, as in the rhythms and flows of daily life, would continue unabated indefinitely, even if its sudden imposition means that the eventual disruption was nigh impossible to plan for.

All of this means in all likelihood that a lot will have changed on the other side of this crisis, the co-ordinates will shift, in fact they already have [What Brexit?] but it’s entirely unclear at this stage to whose benefit and to what end. It’s possible, yes, that the floor may be opened for a number of previously maligned socialist policies and ideas, but just as likely, indeed the pessimist in me suggests more so, that the far right will gain more from all this. It’s not hard to see how an argument for hard borders can be constructed from the emergence of the pandemic, as much as for UBI or other measures. The left should be careful in our pronouncements, and remind ourselves of the current stakes of power. While the virus and its reaction is demolishing our unchecked notions of capitalist normality, in some quarters it only seems to be more fuel for the fire of anti-leftist contempt. In light of all this, before any grand calls for building a utopia from the ashes, I will hold my tongue. Reality is too violent and mercurial to fashion as we would wish.

And so I’m left to read through the rest of Adorno’s Minima Moralia, a text that I’m finding takes on a strange relevance at a time like this. Adorno’s famous miserablist outlook, aphorism after aphorism, seeming to make a morbid degree of sense in the current climate. That famous quote of his from a Spiegel interview has come back to me repeatedly. Two weeks ago, the world seemed in order, well, not to me… I don’t mean, and I doubt Adorno did, to single myself out for some kind of special awareness here, but something Adorno really strikes at, more than a lot of Marxist thinkers I’ve read, and even in his most questionable moments, is the horror and death that not only lies underneath but facilitates our comfort. It’s why, while I understand our wish in these situations for a return to normal, that it would all go away, this wish is also predicated on a kind of exceptionalism. We expect to live in a bubble for which others must die. Not only this, but their deaths are invisible, buried, easily ignored. The kind of stark inequality and societal violence that oils the cogs in the quotidian monolith of capitalist routine becomes a horror we can’t collectively turn away from at times like this. Society returns with a vengeance in conditions of isolation.

Categories
Capitalism Theory/Praxis

Dial P for Philosophy: Notes on “The Blogosphere” and Blogging

Now that the dust has settled, solidified and developed into its own geographic strata, what to make of that mythical construct we like to call the blogosphere, wherever we might identify it. What is its supposed influence? Does it still exist? Did it ever exist? What lessons can be learnt from it? Was it even important? Did it succeed? Did it fail? If so, why? All of these questions are beyond my specific knowledge to answer, so in an act of knowing disappointment to anyone who might have started reading this and expected answers, I’m about to utterly fail to deliver any of them, speaking as I do from a position outside any kind of identifiable “blogosphere” if it did or does exist. The only reason it arises for me at all is as influence, a something I discovered or unearthed as a retrospective echo among the still present archives of K-Punk. The blogosphere everyone refers to is largely only evident in that vast hall of dead hyperlinks, in hundreds of severed references, mentions whose referents are long forgotten, perhaps buried on someones hard drive but likely never to see the light of day again.

And perhaps its better that way, as a ghost. It’s quite likely, given its ongoing, unfinished nature, that a lot of that material was “better when you were there”, that much of it has dated, faded like the hopes and fears that drove it, like the neoliberal consensus it responded to. Its important not to hypostasize our wishes in the failures of the dead, and therein lies the risk of a million hagiographies and gleaming platitudes regarding the excitement of a faded institution or moment. To keep, preserved in formaldehyde, some idealised vision of the early internet era belies our current moment, one in which any “blogosphere” cannot really exist in that form again; in fact, the promise of the net, that counter-cultural excitement swirling around cyberpunk imagery and tech-futurism has, like countercultures before it, become largely and seamlessly subsumed into the silicon valley sprawl, a vast network of information harvesting and management prefigured by the famous essay by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron on the Californian Ideology.

This tendency of countercultures to become re-incorporated into hegemonic structures can be felt throughout the 20th century, exemplified in the “capitalist hippy” archetype of the Californian Ideology. In some sense, it strikes at the heart of the critical apparatus of sub-cultural politics or aesthetics, reflecting the libertarian critique of the state back in the form of endless cybernetic flows and free market teleology. It is this movement, from underground opposition to newly adapted forms of hegemonic social control, that above all may lead us to question what value cultural politics by itself can have. It might not be a stretch to say that there was something absent from the hope of these movements, from the faith in aesthetic and culturalist change they exhibited. There is a tendency for some to place an inordinate degree of faith/hope in cultural politics, usually in a transparently self-engorging manoeuvre, placing their own discipline of interests at the centre of change. “Art can change the world” sounds good, as does “art changes how we think”, and both may be true in one way or another, but they remain problematic in some key ways. My skepticism of both statements emerges not in their underlying truth, but their implications, what might be missing from these statements and what may lead us to uncritically support them.

The problem with these approaches is, to risk repeating some Marxist slogans, but necessarily so, that they will tend to remain locked into, at the mercy, of the current social order, the mechanisms of production and exchange which foreclose and stifle the change they hope to enable. If we are to tentatively return to the subject of the phantasmic blogosphere, this issue arises, we could say, in the ubiquity of the internet itself, and the problem facing theory/philosophy at all in the age of the very online. If it existed anywhere, the “sphere” as such is to be found in the comments and hyperlinks, the tethers and conversations extending beyond the blog posts themselves, and which have mostly become either inaccessible or eerie remnants. Whereas its conceivable that at one stage this engagement was an exciting back and forth, where sparks flew and ideas were exchanged, such conversation has long since dissipated, moved into the perpetual hellscape of twitter or calcified into the odd response here and there. Where it does exist [twitter, for example] the problem I’m getting at asserts itself, whatever one says, whichever carefully worded, lengthy provocation, statement or revelation you unleash into the world, the internet as a perpetual, ubiquitous parasitic supplicant is there to swiftly bury it under a heap of clout-chasing generic content. In the days of always-online totally wired total anxiety, the idea of using the internet seems relatively quaint, such is its presence as a kind of second unconscious nagging at the back of your brain.

Of course, every social media application has arranged itself around such compulsive feedback loops, and is designed to become relied upon. Over the last decade at least its become commonly accepted knowledge [though increasingly perhaps an imaginary salve] that success or popularity comes with riding the algorithm, and countless how-to guides have been vomited out of the self-help industry regarding social media branding, on how to optimise your presence, gain followers, become insta-famous, and so on. This reminds me most prominently of some thinkers connected to Operaismo, specifically Paolo Virno regarding the prominence of virtuosity in the workplace, roughly speaking labour without product, where the performance inherent in the work itself is tantamount to the product we might expect of it. It may not be overstepping the mark too much today to say that in comprising a kind of 21st century virtuoso, the social media entrepeneur takes Virno’s formulation of Poiesis and Praxis on board and then some. Their labour is the presentation of life, the sustained simulation of behaviour seen in profiles, updates and curated posts, geared carefully towards gaming the system, repeated and practiced to the extent to which lives are lived around it in a wholly predictable inversion of the supposed supplementary nature of the online. What’s more, none of this, in the name of furthering their brand and product, makes an iota of sense without the public reach afforded it by the internet, while at the same time this same public reach serves as a constant barrier, an insurmountable distance to the kind of “presence” once pined for; we inevitably find that even given a certain degree of reach or success, the sheer amount of available material online is the very thing swamping the spotlight.

The emergent nature of this new, parasitic entity of information and communication, whether we call it communicative capitalism, semio-capitalism, not capitalism at all, or just, quite simply the internet [though this does admittedly seem wholly insufficient given the kind of social stratification and sheer level of functionality that is afforded it beyond the merely online components], is something that arguably inevitably swamped the hope of an online intellectual counter-hegemony in an avalanche of information and “content”. And all this content, for what, to what end, to what benefit? It’s inevitable to bring him up in this context, but Baudrillard offers us the best prefiguring of this situation when in The Ecstacy of Communication he emphasises the loss of both private and public space, “The one is no longer a spectacle, the other no longer a secret.” What this text perhaps emphasises is something of the futility of our attempts to escape all this, to retreat to “real life” when real life itself exists in thrall to this supposedly immaterial online space. Baudrillard, in his retreat from Marxism, somewhat abandoned himself any kind of hope of radical change, and there is little of this to be found in his texts, which tend to function more as diagnostics or provocations.

And here is where I step back from fully accepting the thesis of Baudrillard’s work, and the problem common to many of the outer reaches of post-structuralism presents itself, precisely that of immaterialism, and the way this move towards an all-consuming open-ended-ness itself begins to preclude any hope of shifting reality, of building something anew. The problem with much of our attempts to grapple with the issue of the virtual is perhaps simply the assumption of its virtuality, the shearing of it from the body, from visceral being, and even from the technics and commodity production that made it possible. Could it be that buried within all our texts and expositions on the virtual is an unspoken, unaddressed privileging, or assumption of the real? What is, ultimately, so unreal about the virtual. In which way can we so readily separate our “real” and “online” existence beyond an enacted mythology? Indeed this is the primary feature of Baudrillard’s hyper-reality, precisely this confusion of reality and unreality. But perhaps he didn’t go far enough, was there every any distinction between the two?

This is the problem we face if we wish to undertake any analysis and prescription of cultural politics today, that of materiality/digitality, the inevitable inadequacy of any approach which attempts to fallaciously extract the tendrils of economy, production, flesh and bone, from the lake of information and knowledge. The importance of Baudrillard was precisely in noting the extent to which the two were connected and could not be unconnected, to which the influence on our behaviour and thought by machines could not be undone. This was the fear of Adorno when he spoke of the fascistic mirror of the machine in Minima Moralia, the authoritarian movements of technology exerting its malign influence on human bodies, and the problem of the technological cannot be sidestepped if we wish to change a world already driven by it. A critique of the seeping influence of the californian ideology and the undoubtedly reactionary tentacles of its largely unnoticed ideological aims surely must be accompanied increasingly by a plan of action, a new form of engagement with the technological.

Blogging at least partially failed as some meaningful underground through a failure to really achieve this. The onward march and current domination of web 2.0, the ubiquitous social media twitch, smartphone at the side of every good citizen of the Californian republic, every denizen of Apple Google, Microsoft, likely all of the above, has centralised communication and data in a way that might have seemed like Sci-Fi imagining twenty years ago, and ultimately we all answer to those who sit in the drivers seats of these corporations. McKenzie Wark has identified from this what she calls the “Vectoralist” class, an attempt notably to reimagine the terms in which we describe the current moment that, even if it doesn’t catch on, should be taken more seriously than some have done. Because, in all our time advocating some kind of cultural alternative, a kind of digital Gramscian-ism of counter-hegemonic strategy, it could be that our failure to, in Wark’s terms, be more “Vulgar” in our Marxism, our forgetting of how important the underlying structures of production and exchange are, may have allowed something nastier to creep in through the back door.

Categories
Film & Television

Upstairs/Downstairs – Cinema and Class War Today

Recently, there seems to have been an explosion of films implicitly or explicitly about class divisions becoming a popular concern. This years best picture winner at the Oscars, Parasite, held class as its central dynamic; where some have argued that its popularity and critical acclaim, which doesn’t escape without some degree of irony, are testament to its perhaps noncommittal or ambiguous position [something I’m not sure I can agree with] the point still stands that, as of now, class war is something of a running trend in mainstream film. Joker, in 2019, became a perhaps surprising smash hit, partly on the basis of the controversy swirling around its release, and despite this being a film which I find takes a far more predictable middle ground, the presence of class conflict in the narrative is nonetheless again pronounced. Jordan Peele’s US, in the same year, again foregrounded issues of class, while such themes arise again in surprising places, such as Rian Johnson’s whodunnit homage Knives Out. Class is everywhere, even if the way its approached changes and may sometimes shy away from uncomfortable conclusions for the rich socialites of the film industry, the divisions and impasses between the attic and the basement seem to have bubbled to the surface of popular culture, at least in the cinema.

This can be contrasted perhaps with the trend earlier in the 2010s for dystopian narratives, found in another of Bong Joon-Ho’s [Director of Parasite] film Snowpiercer, or the popularity of the Hunger Games series and a host of imitators. This often dealt similarly with Class, and yet did so through a relatively easy to parse analogy. In Snowpiercer or the Hunger Games, we are left in no doubt as to who to oppose, who is in the wrong here, a picture is drawn of a pseudofascist authoritarian regime violently keeping people in line; even when ambiguities arise in the revolutionaries, as they often do, somewhere at the heart of these is a struggle of good versus evil. Here is where the recent wave of class war in cinema changes, especially when we reach Parasite, whose title itself has a double meaning. These films have, rather than focusing themselves on a revolutionary uprising, or a resistance to fascist regimes, attempted to take a scalpel to class relations themselves, and the assumptions that drive them. The friction between the rich/powerful and the poor/downtrodden here sits within a broader social dynamic, and there’s a general sense here, in nearly all films mentioned, of people from differing backgrounds who would usually simply avoid each other or never come into contact, being thrown into a room with each other.

The significance of this could possibly be overstated by some, but in terms of its symptomatic nature it seems to be a little more than the kind of typical political #resist Oscars fare that poured out of Hollywood in the wake of Trump and Brexit. An awareness of class however, seems to have been made an increasing concern in the years since this double whammy, with conversations around the left’s ability to connect with the working classes and the ever-rising dominant and unavoidable sheer cliff of inequality becoming a regular talking point in the public-political sphere. That it would make its way gradually into the realm of pop culture phenomena may not be surprising, and yet its worth examining for a few reasons, if only to examine our own interaction with not only the idea of class in the abstract but our particular place within it, something we may be naive to expect naturally emerging from the popularity of these films in itself.

What then, does Parasite say about class? The answer isn’t entirely easy, but by any standard it isn’t comfortable. I’m loathe to simply recount the events of the film here as it’s very much worth watching if you haven’t already, but there’s a certain capacity for ambiguity here that is perhaps why notably rich socialites and industry figures could happily proclaim it their favourite film of the year without a second thought. Cinema is cinema, narrative is narrative, indeed, the film takes place in Korea, so we can happily, if we so wish, take this as an example of something that exists “over there” but we don’t have to concern ourselves with. It’s entirely possible, in other words, to list the reasons Parasite is one of the best films of the year without even mentioning class once, despite its centrality to the relations of the film. This, in a sense, reflects how on a regular basis the relations of class are sublimated into its component symptoms, a micromanagement of subjectivity where class is the unspoken abstract.

We may notice mental health, social norms, gender essentialisms, even rampant inequality, without even thinking about class dynamics, despite any and all of these factoring into such an analysis. Something that’s notable to Parasite is the way it looks at class consciousness, or rather the lack of it, and this is reflected quite prominently in the praise its received; both illustrate the ways in which we may recognise any number of injustices and factors of a world driven by economic inequalities, something that may manifest differently yet remains as true as when Marx originally pinpointed it, and yet fail to recognise that we sit within that same dynamic. So, when we watch a film that tackles class conflict, we can safely be a spectator, existing in the “real world” where these things aren’t actually happening, the link between cinema and life is severed as soon as we enter the theatre.

This doesn’t quite kill off my hope however, that the success and prominence of a number of films tackling class, inequality and expression at their thematic core is on the whole a sign of something at least, even if it doesn’t lead to some phantasmic era of “class conscious cinema” as I’m sure some towering monoliths of orthodox Marxism are demanding. Rather than ushering in some kind of pseudo-Lukacsian social realist cinema revolution, it’s notable how many of these films haven’t taken up that mantle at all. Rather than a plodding Ken Loach-esque realism Parasite’s cinematography is itself exquisite and sometimes painterly, colours are heightened, in other words, it makes no bones about its cinematic qualities, and as Mark Kermode has noted, there’s a distinct Shakespearean quality to the narrative here. The problem with the dull realism that someone like Loach churns out to predictable acclaim on a regular basis is that its destiny is perhaps only ever to play to the choir, it is cinema reduced almost entirely to message, an exceedingly simplistic vision of what Political Art can ever be, similar to the kind of folksy protest songs of a Billy Bragg or similar figures.

Beyond Parasite, the films I listed above are all found quite far from the realist tree, all presenting either an outright analogy or a kind of heightened world of cinema quite separate from the muted colours and mockumentary didacticism of “real life”. While it could be argued this somehow leads to the very ambiguities and disconnection I mentioned earlier, I would contend that it is, if anything, more effective at mirroring our lives than some direct translation, given for example the extent to which pop culture drives our interactions with and interpretations of the world, and the way in which, existing as we do in something of a post-Kantian, post-post-structuralist world, we might have to contend with the ways in which “real life” is defined more than anything by fantasy, far from the colour drained authenticity realism tends to demand. What we are offered in the class mirror presented to us through say, Horror, Science Fiction, Cinema more generally, is a subjective mirror, a process of interpreting rather than simply representing reality. In this way the prominence recently of class in cinema is more important than any film Ken Loach has produced, not simply due to the popularity of these films, but their lack of hesitation to exist as cinema, to take up the role of image production rather than simply some kind of simply reflective surface. The warp in the mirror is accentuated rather than ironed out, and so the reality presented in these films, while ending up quite far from any kind of solution to the problems they tackle, does end up moving away from the tendency to risk reinforcing those problems through implying they are what lies underneath, that if we strip away the fantasy and image, the real problems of real people is what remains. In this way, perhaps this wave of films about class might begin, rather than to re-enforce the reality of class identity, lead us to question it, to displace it from the assumed real rather than anchor it to the centre. While its important not to claim for these films some kind of revolutionary capacity, perhaps its a sign that class inequality is not quite the unspeakable it has been in the past.

Categories
Music Politics

Utopia at the Weekend

“Can music change the world?” is the question that dogs me more than any other at the moment, and suffice to say, as Simon Reynolds acknowledged during this years Mark Fisher memorial lecture, it has no simple answer. There is always the risk of a kind of theory-based wish fulfilment fantasy when addressing this, as evidenced by countless incidents wherein we will place whatever we are concerned with at the heart of some world-shifting rupture, as not only a method, but a central mechanism of change. Because my investment in music comes from a well of emotion it would be all too easy to progress from a confident affirmation of emancipatory power, to insist from the off that music is a revolutionary force as if this is a given. When I place importance on the question of music and political change, it is to avoid this assumption, but to commit to a certain confidence, perhaps misplaced but difficult to dislodge, that music is of importance, that it deserves more than we give it, and that in fact, the very act of writing about music still has a point.

This last point is something that I unambiguously take a side on, for good or ill, if only through my subjective experiences of music writing as an expansive tool, whether as a reader or writer. Without the idea, found largely in writing, of new worlds and experiences heralded through music, I probably wouldn’t have started this blog or rediscovered the value of theory in the first place. Whether it is in the form of a linking of ideas to cultural production or the heightening of emotional potential in the very sound of the music itself, the prism of the music-writer has continued to prove invaluable to me. This is something that has emerged for me particularly upon reading through Agnes Gayraud’s Dialectic of Pop, David Wilkinson’s Post-Punk, Politics and Pleasure in Britain, and attending the Simon Reynolds lecture, three “events” which have intertwined and coalesced into a series of concerns and questions.

Reynold’s lecture in particular channelled a lot of my reading through what was a stimulating if meandering excavation of Mark Fisher’s engagement with music and what it entails, as well as more specifically surprising engagement with bands like the Jam and the counterculture of the 60s, which earlier on had come under some notable ire in a few K-Punk posts. The evocation of the power of music here, and its utopian tendencies [even as often this utopia is deferred, the weekend is constantly on the horizon, the revolution is always tomorrow] emotionally channelled a lot of what I’d read not too long prior from Gayraud. Dialectic of Pop, notably, is far from an unambiguous culturalist defence of pop as utopian force, or even a defence of pop as artform as such, something that I would argue barely needs saying today, rather it is an invigorating philosophical engagement with pop-as-artform via a critique of its most famous detractor Adorno. The implications of the work I think demand further engagement, and I’m curious as to how this emerges in time, but for me it begged further questions regarding the implications of production.

By addressing technology, mediation and production as the central components of pop as a musical form, Gayraud immediately hits at something I think is key to addressing it, whether we do so as a critic or an academic or both. Derrida didn’t make an appearance in the book explicitly, but in addressing the inherent deferral of authenticity in recorded music and expression, I couldn’t help but think of him. What Gayraud implicitly deals with through her addressing of a paradoxical “grounded authenticity”, as well as her account of both pop and music concrete being arts of “fixed sounds”, defined not, as in prior forms in which the “object” was prefigured, symbolised by a score, by the particularities of the performance itself as inscribed on the recording. In this way, the idea of the authentic expression, the grounded, the lone bluesman pouring out their soul on the porch, is mediated as soon as it is played, even as its image is reproduced in the recording, the presence only occurs in its absence.

This seems to prefigure what Reynolds draws from in Fisher and others, the reference he made during the lecture of music forming identity, heralding new worlds, all in a way opposing the old conception of music expressing an authentic “soul” or emotional bedrock, rather pointing to it as a locus of production, of the new. It’s not often here that I’ve referred back to the CCRU, partly as its already such an overbearing reference point in online theory circles, but the most interesting thing about that moment today I think is how it was tied together with a cultural one. Reynolds, when talking about it, will never fail to mention how the CCRU was practically inseparable from its musical influences in Jungle, seeing in the heightened, machine-gun proliferation of drum-hits made possible via new technological openings a kind of cultural blueprint for the ideas that would eventually become attached to the name accelerationism. Whatever value we attach to that label now, and whatever’s in a name [I myself became so frustrated with the online discourse around it a while ago that I instigated a clean break on this blog, not something I’d do again but not something I regret either], the presence of jungle in the 90s as a kind of supposed sign of things to come is a marker of the ambiguous power of music. It can be argued I think that even as the excitement of new electronic forms of music, of audio-technological possibilities opened up, that power of the new failed utterly to connect with the socio-political moment, in which Blair, Britpop and a reconstituted mashup of 60s references was the order of the day.

So even as we maintain that music has power, that it can indeed herald other worlds, new possibilities, utopias, we have to question the implications of this power, and hence the implication that music is somehow inherently revolutionary or a force for change. The power it holds is one that is tied up in the changes of the day both material and abstract. As Fisher often pointed out and Reynolds reiterated, there is an uncertainty and a seeming contradiction in the kind of “realism” we sometimes find in Hip-Hop, where at the same time as being at the forefront of a contemporary modernist impulse sonically, tends towards reinforcing capitalist realist tendencies in its lyrics and relations. This, when we look at jungle, seems to manifest in the simultaneous acceleration and deceleration that occurred at that time, and what we could perhaps now see as the disappointment of that moment, that the much-vaunted heightened abstraction of capital, the kind of accelerated ruptures to the outside heralded by the intersection of cyberpunk, jungle, Lovecraft and the other host of reference points the CCRU drew from, never materialised, the 2000s instead becoming dominated by the kind of flaccid indie-pop-rock continuum that couldn’t stand in greater contrast with the rhythmic psychedelia, as Kodwo Eshun dubbed it, of Jungle, and the possibilities it suggested.

That was 20ish years ago, and now we exist in the world which seems to be the fruit of that moment, not as a kind of vivid auto-destruction of capital, but a stasis of effect. Rather than a lurid eroticism of machines, a technological rupture, the future is that of google and facebook, the reterritorialised thrill of machinic abandon made manifest instead in the billionaire figure, the tech guru, the data manager around which we gather in worship. The underground promise of technological mutation promised through genres like jungle, and the much-mythologised moment of the CCRU, remained just that, a myth, a teleology some still cling to even while we live in its manifestation. This all paints a somewhat hopeless picture, and in fact I would hold that we shouldn’t shy away from, to some degree, acknowledging a certain degree of pessimism, an emotional air of failure, in the present, not only from the left, but from the counterculture, wherever that can be found.

The flipside to this is the questioning of purpose. Something I’ve come to realise is a certain turmoil of believing in, and committing to, an emancipatory politics and some kind of future. Especially in the current climate, outside influences make themselves known, voices consistently asking you “what’s the point?”, on some level you wonder if it wouldn’t all be easier if you gave up hope, simply threw in the towel and accepted perhaps that culture doesn’t mean anything, that there really isn’t any escaping. It is here that, speaking personally, but also as something of a justification for my interest in theories and politics of aesthetics and culture, culture, and in this instance especially music, holds open the door. The “heralding of worlds” enabled through pop music must be more than a simple ability to ignore the world as it is.

This is something that, especially given the somewhat archival nature of Reynold’s lecture, and my current reading on post-punk, appears not simply in some ineffable thought-realm, but on a spatio-temporal level. When I was discovering swathes of new sounds each presented to me a world with which I wasn’t familiar, a kind of fantastical apparition of the period from which it came. I referred previously on this blog to the Pop Group as appearing like a kind of transmission from elsewhere, and indeed a lot of the music I discovered felt the same way. Gayraud puts a large amount of emphasis on the development of recorded music, describing how recordings were in those early days sometimes treated with suspicion, how upon being played a recording of a song, the voice might be regarded as a spectre, something unnatural being brought back from the grave. This sense never truly goes away from recorded music, the particulars of each recording being inscribed technologically rather than dissipating with the singer/musician. On some level, the pop song, the recorded piece of music does give us a transmission from somewhere that no longer exists, or doesn’t exist here.

This is both the hope and the melancholy of pop, the moment that it promises something else while deferring it. Something Reynold’s referred to, specifically in conjunction with a song by “the Australian Beatles” the Easybeats, was this idea of “Utopia at the weekend” contained in their lyrics, the infinitely deferred promise of good times, without worry, always appearing as soon as they disappear. This is a conflict I’ve found within the form of songs repeatedly, whose sounds and forms encourage langour, enjoyment, dance, a kind of moment in which you are encouraged to remain… yet the song finishes, it can’t not, to lead onto the next. The euphoria always prefigures the downturn, the revolution is always tomorrow. Nonetheless the promise remains.

And what does the music writer have to do with all this? Is writing about music like dancing about architecture? No more than making music itself is like talking about paintings. That ridiculous canard should have been done away with a long time ago, not simply because its a case of “apples and oranges” but because it belies a constraint, a straight-jacket on music as well as writing, which assumes that one sphere simply lies apart from the other, that any imposition of writing or thought must necessarily lessen the impact, cheapen the music itself. I have to contest this on a personal level; I would never have, for instance, listened to the cracked ceramic majesty of the Associates Sulk had the presence of their music not been drawn up in such a compelling form in Reynold’s Rip it Up and Start Again, and in this instance it ceases to matter whether the writing itself resembles the form of the music, it was never about that, but the conjuring of its spirit, its emotional resonance in the listener.

This is, to tell the truth, what I objected to for so long in the music reviews I found in the guardian, which I encountered more regularly than any other paper, in which professional critics would time and again proceed to review from a supposed position of cynical distance, where they couldn’t be seen to be too invested, where even praise came with the insistent and mind-numbing implication of white-middle-class-cool heaped on top of it, as if I was being lectured by the frontman of the latest mediocre indie-rock outfit week after week. It is the bind of the man who simply grunts in response so as not to break his uncaring facade, the same that grips the hipster, the cool-police who stalk newspaper columns everywhere and deliver packaged and manufactured snide remarks on the latest pop single not because it has any bearing on anything, but because they need to make snide irreverent comments on something lest they lose their edge.

This form of criticism is an anathema to the power of music, it aims to lessen it, to dismiss it. Even what’s good is only so because you enjoy it, or because it fits a certain standard of irreverent cool to be a credibility-booster for the critic in question. The idea that music could in fact do something, that talking about it might be something more than recommending the best product for an audience, is laughed at, hit with the same insufferable hipster cool as everything else. In contrast to this, the best music writing, encapsulated for me in the past year in Ian Penman’s It Takes Me Home, This Winding Track, holds on, not to some artificial sincerity, but the weight of culture, the commitment to its power. To oppose the empty nostalgic commodification of Mod today is not simply an exasperated old man-ism, as if they “aren’t doing mod right” or something, but an acknowledgement of the wider implications, the nostalgia-porn for instance hanging around punk and, most bafflingly today, Britpop, isn’t simply something not to be liked, something distasteful, but a sign of something broader, something powerful.

The power of music remains an ambiguous one, to be handled with care and critically, but its existence is precisely why this critique is necessary, why despite the ineffability of sound, music and music culture deserve to be taken seriously. To not do so is to let this power bend to others, to give up the ghost, to leave music at the whims of the hipster critic is to leave it to the whims of political change. If we are to accept, as we should have realised long ago on the left, that politics operates through emotional means far before it does analytic ones, then the emotional pull of culture, the establishing of its power, has its part to play. By saying this, I don’t want to insinuate a call for some kind of “left culture offensive” in the manner of Red Wedge or Grime 4 Corbyn, both of which not only failed but subscribe to the logic that only explicit political messaging and content matters. Rather, it is for a re-alignment of how we criticise, talk about, address music. We need to assume that it matters regardless of content, that the future of music has something to offer, and that the dream of a re-invented structure of feeling presented by the history of its form still lives on, in whatever form this may take.

Categories
Politics

Into the Breach

As it turned out, this election was just a continuation of the trend, a link in the chain of right wing nationalism that’s been enjoying a resurgence, albeit in some slightly more complex ways. One of the most galling elements of Boris Johnson’s ascendancy is how planned it feels; how, with the aiding and abetting of a number of media figures and commentators who loved for so long to think of him as some kind of loveable buffoon, who practically fed him material for his routine and perhaps laughed to his jokes as long as they got a light jab at him occasionally, it all seems inevitable. Mark Fisher rightly pointed to Johnson as the manifest weaponizing of satire to consolidate rather than attack, the status quo, and there have been whispers for as long as I can remember of his designs on power. Now, finally here we are. He has his wish.

The defeat was devastating, there’s no way around this, it was a massacre. Norwich the next morning felt like a graveyard and there was a kind of unspoken shock on a lot of people’s faces. In the realm of possibilities I imagined a loss perhaps, but such a landslide victory felt like a gut punch when I heard about it, and that sense of it being a bad dream still lingers. The fact that Johnson proceeded to talk about “healing”, and then [amid already stirring mentions of Scottish independence and a united Ireland] protecting the union, seemed like something of a bad joke; but then that’s what “Boris” is, a series of terrible jokes somehow crammed into a sock standing on the steps of downing street. There is little consolation to be had from the result, as much as we try desperately to pull something from it, so the question turns, now at this moment of dreary, crushing defeat, where next for the British left?

Alan Johnson has the answer. The man who wouldn’t know what class politics was if it hit him in the face with a copy of the communist manifesto suggests we have abandoned the working class. The irony of this coming from Alan Johnson, central figure of New Labour runs deep. New Labour was the utter abandonment of the working class by the Labour party. It was the pretence, moreso, that class simply didn’t matter anymore, that we were in a post-political world; the last thing we should do is accept righteous lectures from stranded political agents desperately trying to claw back the time when their world-view still made sense, when they had the hegemony of support and nothing could ever change.

Righteous lectures aplenty however from centrists everywhere, columnists who would probably be better off admitting their desires and aligning with the right if it means that they’ll stop pretending they’re constantly opposing the left out of some kind of limp moral purpose. What we are supposed to believe is that it is over for the left, that the centrists, the moderates have all won the debate. Can’t we get back to some good old sensible politics now, abandon all this… hysteria about fighting for the powerless, building a better world, roll back the utopian ambitions a tad and settle back into the dull, plodding, empty, hopeless and deteriorating limbo of Capitalist Realism. This is supposed to be a thrashing for stepping out of line, for thinking above our station. Does this line up however with the people I’ve spoken to and seen online who disliked Labour BECAUSE of New Labour and Blair, under the mistaken assumption that they remained unchanged? Does this speak to the fact that Blair and co fundamentally cemented a universal distrust of politicians in the British psyche? What left politics tries to do is provide agency to those who have none, and in that matter, New Labour abandoned left politics wholly, coasting by election after election on low turnouts rather than inspiring any confidence, ensuring that the horizons remained closed even as people ceased to care, resigned to their fate.

What we have to do first of all is reject wholesale this idea, that if only we had a “sensible” candidate we would have won. We can’t know for sure of course, but by all accounts this simply isn’t true. We only have to look at the Lib Dem performance this election and the hasty immolation of Change UK in the European elections to see how much people are supposedly flocking to that kind of politics, and what is being suggested here is that we follow the same route. We suffered a disaster this election, of course, but are we really suggesting that the only alternative is to embrace a tactic that is now failing everywhere, that is out of ideas and out of support, facing embarrassment everywhere it plays its hand. No. For one thing this roundly ignores the far better performance Corbynism put forward in the prior election [the missing element Boris Johnson, which is key to understanding this one] which does somewhat mitigate the idea that there was something fundamentally rotten that people rejected about the project, and for another it ignores the rather obvious point that Johnson’s landslide was won on anything but the kind of moderate, Cameronesque, centre-right platform this might suggest is the only route to victory, rather we have seen the fringe right offer their near blanket support, hard right rhetoric and talking points becoming somewhat accepted fare among the Conservative party.

Does this mean that the British electorate are all fascist lunatics? No, it doesn’t, and we shouldn’t sink to such easy and clumsy answers. That Johnson’s appeal to the right wing of the Tories and beyond was constantly disavowed and hidden behind BORIS the character, the clown, the court jester, speaks to a rather well-executed campaign of misdirection. That people fell for this shouldn’t be surprising, not because they’re plain old idiots, but because it appeals directly to their fears and anxieties in a way that Labour sadly failed to accomplish. Johnson was, to those who supported him, a heterodox figure, an anti-establishment, punk rock figure who didn’t give a damn about the press or well-groomed speeches. This has always been at the heart of the project of BORIS, a degree of flippancy and carelessness that feeds into an image of British eccentricity and avoids what are seen as the typical politician’s evasions all while plying us with dreams of affable upper class englishmen.

Against this, what was seen as Labour’s constant triangulation all too often fell into the trap of appearing to be “like the rest of them”, too much like what was innately distrusted. This is despite the best of foundations, the pleas to “bring the country together” and a strong Manifesto of genuinely meaningful positive changes, things which were lovely, and admirable, but we now have to tackle not that they were completely misguided missteps, but that they failed to cut through the indeterminate paste of Brexit and political disillusionment. The reasons are, honestly, complex. While guardian columnists are busy admonishing the Labour left and recommending that we re-install the Blair auto-pilot, and some are making much of how many votes were lost to leave, a host of issues, many of them contingent, emerge. When it comes to Brexit, we lost votes to both leave and remain; on top of this there’s little to suggest many 2017 Labour voters stayed home this time, which all lends itself to a slightly confusing shifting picture.

So if we have established that capitulating to the sensible middle is off the cards, which, let me re-iterate, I will establish a thousand times, how can the Left survive this? A partial answer is that it already has. Unexpectedly I found on Friday a strong network of support and solidarity that I can’t see disappearing overnight. There is now an active, enthusiastic left contingent in British politics that for its flaws is remarkable for simply existing where there was a void not so long prior. If we are to continue into this long dark night, we have to brace ourselves for a series of oncoming crises which I can only see wracking the Tories and their support from top to bottom. The umbrella of these crises is the impossibly fragile base material of the Tories recent majority, and that is the promise of “Get Brexit Done”, three words which in their simplicity play directly towards all our fatigue, our wish to move on to different, perhaps greener pastures. The idea of getting something like this “Done” is however deeply questionable at best once we consider the length of time we will be stranded negotiating trade deals in varying scenarios, the very real possibility of the complete breakup of the union, a global recession, and the knock-on effects of all of this in at least mild social unrest and even breakdown. We have to come to terms at some point with the impossibility of this simple wish, and I hate to say this but it may take the active deterioration of life for this to dawn. The point however, is that “Get Brexit Done” is a house of cards and a promise of an ineffable utopian middle England that will collapse with the slightest pressure.

It is at this point that we cannot repudiate the need to fight for the dying, the dispossessed and the powerless, for they will be at a greater risk than ever, without recourse. This is central to what we should consider on the left, and was central to that crushing feeling of defeat when I heard the exit poll. What bothered me about the shrugs of some was that this isn’t just about my football team losing, millions of lives and their wellbeing are at stake in an election, so the cost of this runs far beyond my own feelings of discontent. In effect, vast amounts of people did end up voting for their own repression yet again, and that, for me, is profoundly depressing not simply because of some failing on their part, but because of the avalanche of piss that they themselves are going to have to endure. Of course, this question; “Why do men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation?” can be found running through Deleuze & Guattari in Anti-Oedipus, and continues to be a primary issue for the Left to counter. To many, there is nothing innately attractive about emancipation, again they are resigned to their fate through a series of impersonal drives.

It is here that that Lacanian injunction also becomes apt “The only thing of which one can be guilty is having given ground relative to one’s desire”, this becoming of course a key realisation as to how elections like this work. The vote for BORIS was jouissance, a capitulation to the demands of desire at the expense of shared value or support, and this is no surprise given the emaciated sense of political agency of the British electorate. We want better lives, but we can’t see how. We may have thought or hoped that a programme of social democratic reform might have spoken to people in this regard, but truth is its never about the ideas, its how you sell them, how you eroticize them. The BORIS programme presented that in spades, no matter how unpleasant it seemed to us, a sunlit uplands beyond Brexit as objet petit a, even the cartoon buffoonery of his projection was an appeal to a kind of unsubstantiated British ideal, the Prime minister who embodies a kind of little england aristocrat. In this way this election becomes about the past more than the future in so many regards, that wish to retreat, to return. As in Brexit, via a subconscious post-colonial melancholia a dark strain of nationalism seized the moment and implemented itself behind the mainstream dominance.

All of this may be of little consolation right now, but its key I think to at least understand not only what the Left failed on, but how the right succeeded. We may have done far better two years ago, but that was against Theresa May, Boris Johnson was always going to be a different, far more dangerous proposition precisely because of his blunders and fuck-ups. There was a tendency to take aim at him for things like snatching the image from the journalist, hiding in the fridge and generally doing the things that were precisely the pull for many supporters. He’s not Trump, but like Trump, its his “not a politician” demeanour that was a huge draw, precisely that he isn’t bound by such things as decent political conduct and will just do things. There is an excitement to that for many that simply became far more important than any list of policies or political programme.

The key thing now I think is to establish that “Corbynism” as a term is dead, but the Left is not. The worst mistake we could make is to attach socialism to one man, as if he is the last representative, the final gasp of left politics. We are not going to progress with “Corbynism”, but with socialism, and keep pushing. If I’m perfectly honest I reach points of thinking what’s the point, really. I imagine how it must feel to have your political side win consistently by hook or by crook for so long that you can’t even remember not winning and a certain degree of despair beckons. The left are never going to win are we, the right will always be a step ahead I tell myself. But really, this is only true as long as we let it be. Physically, materially, there is nothing to stop us building a better world, but it is always the impersonal mechanisms of politics, of desire, that stymie this modest goal. Moving forward, we have to work with this, to try and mould ourselves around these mechanisms and learn their operations. We have to make sure than when push comes to shove, we are waiting with a new offensive, and this time, the tide of feeling won’t be so easily stemmed. The Tories have won, and they’ve won big, but all this means is that the pressure has built to unsustainable levels. We are at a point where things cannot remain, where the immortality of capital has become an impossible dream, and at this point the last thing we should do is retreat, back down, cede ground and accept reality.

BE UNREALISTIC, CHANGE WHAT’S POSSIBLE

Categories
Music

Criticism and the Discontinuity of Pop

“Who?” – Billie Eilish

Who is Van Halen? To some not knowing the answer to that question is unforgivable, a mark of disrespect to ones elders, what came before you, to these guardians of music history there is a right and a wrong way to listen, talk about music, and it invariably arcs back towards the pull of the self-evident classics, the ones we all know are immortal, game-changing and iconic. Not knowing one of these monoliths is a failure in this sphere, and immediately places you lower down in the hierarchy as the head of the pack shows off his gleaming credentials, going off on one about their favourite Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Black Sabbath records, potentially even displaying them in pride of place like trophies.

So when Billie Eilish recently received inordinate amounts of heat from people indignant that she didn’t know who Van Halen was, it was hardly surprising, all these I-used-to-practically-live-in-a-record-shop-and-knew-who-the-velvet-underground-was-when-I-was-3 music trivia buffs with all the right reference points, these arbiters of rock heritage who ensure that you like all the right kinds of things and if you don’t will make damn sure they tell you are just waiting for opportunities like this. Old rockers schooling the youth on good music taste is a cliche by this point, but as it turns out they are only too happy to oblige, passing on a musical canon as if it were a divine pantheon, carved into the rock of an ancient temple and passed via myth from father to son.

The patriarchal aspect to such indignance is more than a passing comment; there is a distinct masculine posturing at the heart of this heritage culture, the kind we may encounter within the usual pissing contests between men over cars or equipment, the phallic subtext behind the competition, the display of craft and ability, is a Pseudo-Darwinian Fantasy of Capital, the howling of the alpha-male into the valley, the ability to dominate your surroundings. This is at the heart of so much of the crude rock-classicist fantasy, whether it be that of the omniscient record collector or the gruff, denim-wearing man hefting a guitar, that reactionary cynicism towards ones surroundings serves as an excuse to elevate yourself above the rabble, to be the beholder of true value in the world. And all so you can interject into conversations in mock-outrage [this behaviour is usually masked behind a kind of jokey demeanour] that someone doesn’t rate the Clash or Bob Dylan, and how you know how to appreciate what your elders gave you, or in other words what you are supposed to listen to.

This exists in constant tension with its supposed enemy, that of the pop-hedonist, the “there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure” injunction to enjoy, the effacing of oppositions as a radical transgression. The dominant tone of, say, some in the Guardian music pages for some time now has been one of flaunting the very fact that you like pop as if you’re sticking it to the high-culture snobs, who in fact exist in tandem with these critics, their perfect mirror. Beyond this facile dynamism however, both tendencies within music criticism, now firmly embedded in our critical institutions and publications, fall into the same trap. What is completely effaced is any kind of excitement or indeed, reason to get excited, concerning the music itself. The Big Other is always present, the non-existent arbiters of taste who have to see how correct you are, and in this context demand your authentic credentials as a writer. Hence we see a reflexive disavowal, a stepping back from strong positions, and a maintained detached “cool” that forecloses any kind of embroilment in the vicissitudes of fandom or enthusiastic prose.

The flat plane of anhedonic positivity that results never manages to escape the stale hallways of heritage [it ends up invariably raving about the unimpeachable and timeless perfection of the classics alongside everything else], but it is against this that the guardians of the ancient rock gods can maintain any sense of “outsiderness”. In truth, their reactionary pull towards the past has masked a distinct lack of adventurousness in the present, but the idea that the disruptive impulse of rock may have calcified into a museum exhibit itself never occurs to them. As accomplished as IDLES are for example, musically they are about as innately transgressive as a Hovis advert. The sound of blaring guitars has been taken as a marker of punk subversion tout court, where one might gradually find the sounds of dance and electronic music causing far more consternation among certain well-to-do suburbanites . The problem with “punk rock” now is, frankly, that its all bit too together, the freakouts are too co-ordinated, the stage invasions too glossy.

So if I call back again to that opening salvo from Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant than the Sun, it is now to point towards the privileging in the way we talk about music of the immaculate, the pre-determined and the carefully combined whole, as a continuity. The power of Afrofuturism [or even its relative in the Hauntological] is not in some kind of straight vector from the past to the present to the future, rather in breaks, stutters, cuts, remixes, scrambled time. I’ve spoken before about how the most exciting music tends to exist in a kind of tension, where you get the sense its hanging together on a thread, ready to fall apart at any minute, or about to fade from view. This has far more in some sense to do with how we write or talk about music, as in doing so we communicate what we prioritise, we choose what to amplify about it in our language. The tendency has been to elevate the finished, the rounded, the whole, while denigrating the partial, trailing or fractured. Where music might exist in fraught oscillation with its underside, with its own characteristics, we prefer to think of it as an uncomplicated presence.

Pop music, at its best, is always anything but uncomplicated, always compromised, broken, frayed. This might not be what’s most often celebrated in her music, but this inchoate translucency lies everywhere in the lurid dreamland of Lana Del Rey. Her latest album Norman Fucking Rockwell! was subject to some frankly huge misfires that tried to jam the baroque mystique of the record, where the abstracting vortex of the american cultural imaginary pulls us into an eerie calmness, into some “necessary” “important” commentary on the american dream. A common tactic among the critiquarium, the open vein of desire and fantasy that might spray over the walls are insistently reined in, closed off, dialled down into the most banal examples of “important” art, the vivid power of pulp collage sidestepped in favour of a neatly packaged “message”. To do so, to insist that art stands or falls on its ability to either be read as a pure slice of hedonist utopia or as a serious, unalloyed political comment, is, once again, that old tired attempt to tie off loose ends at all costs, cauterise affect, avoid anything that might cause too much consternation.

But if we’re not being even slightly unsettled, if there is no tension, no risk, then what is there to be excited about? In truth, what turns writers away from the uncertainties that spark the engine of popular culture is the degree of spikiness, the presence of the forbidden, the there be dragons of inscribed opacity. Once we’re out here, there are no maps to guide us anymore, so we have to rely on our own navigation. The constant appeals to the correct way of doing things, the deflection to the Big Other, are easier than committing to any kind of encounter with the discontinuity of affect, rather take refuge in the whole, where contradictions are neatly plastered over and the abstractions of experience calcify into the kind of mummified discourse that has defined all too many “intellectual” engagements with pop culture. To talk about pop, or pulp, we must engage with its surface, its colours, forms, rather than continue to deliver the hackneyed hagiographies of the genteel critical class.

Categories
Archaeology of Cultural Space hauntology Theory/Praxis

Valences of Hauntology

Hauntology is everywhere these days, or should I say, everyone’s talking about it, or maybe it’s more that everyone’s complaining that everyone’s talking about it? It all becomes a bit tiring when you’ve spent some time sequestered online, once you’ve been through the umpteenth iteration in some kind of endlessly repeated discussion that would like to think it’s a weighty debate at the acropolis but is closer in resemblance to “my dad could beat your dad in a fight”; who has the best take, the spiciest or the hottest? Tune in after the break to find out…

Regardless, read what you want into the time of year I’m writing this, but I found myself lately in something of a Hauntology hole, probably after watching Ken McMullen’s Ghost Dance and returning to Derrida, the thinker that strangely enough for me I can’t seem to escape, who seems to wait for me somewhere however far I travel, whichever paths I go down. For all that he can be frustrating, and I very much understand the criticisms of Deconstruction as often being a kind of desiccated critique, there’s something more, and something vital within his critique of metaphysics that I can’t escape; indeed there’s something of the denaturalising impulse that we must search for in an emancipatory sense that seems to permeate much of Derrida’s work. When it comes to Hauntology, I think it is immensely valuable at this stage to strip away some of the dissatisfaction, repeated points, misrepresentations and identify a certain strand, something that very much still resides in Specters of Marx.

By this point a lot of what is pointed towards or identifies as such seems to be distinctly un-hauntological, a kind of flattening of the term to mean simply “haunting”, and a disconnection almost entirely from its implications of disjuncture, the intention of Derrida to invoke the “conjuring” of ontology, centred around the unspoken, the said and the yet-to-be-said, the “presence” of the text itself becoming a spectre. What is lost often is what is contained within the Hamlet quote “time is out of joint”, which Derrida evokes repeatedly throughout SoM. Hauntology is never about a simple haunting, the past coming into the present, a straight lineage of time, it revolves around the very unsettling of temporal lines, the paradox of presence and non-presence, the disjointedness of time and memory, it has everything to do with our state of being in time. Hence the wordplay, a portmanteau of haunt and ontology, it is, if we are to simplify it at all Ontology as Haunting, Being as Spectre. It is by its very nature an unsettling, just as when Hamlet speaks the above line, it is to evoke the idea precisely that something seems wrong, that the world is not as it should be…

Do You Believe in Ghosts?

You know that point of coincidence, when at some undefined point you encounter something familiar somewhere it shouldn’t be? It might be a flicker of a television advert, or something re-occurring years or decades later in some unexpected corner, a piece of writing, a snippet of lyric, a phrase that lay dormant and forgotten, but suddenly flickers into view for a second or more. It’s in this way that our lives are populated by ghosts, that time does not operate as we think it should. It’s not just that we remember something long buried, but the sense that the past remembers us.

But this seems like it should be impossible, it makes no sense. How could something that no longer exists still exert a pull on us? It is precisely this that Hauntology draws on, the strange slippages and dispersed fragments of time that exist at the intersection of being, the words before they are spoken. Indeed Derrida draws heavily on the sense when we speak that our words come from someone else, that we speak and write as ghosts. In Ghost Dance, we find him ruminating on being asked whether he believes in ghosts, “here, the ghost is me..”. The Hauntological displaces any sense of metaphysical grounding and places the present as a space of spectral projection, always out of view, always peripheral. In short, it undermines the Metaphysics of Presence. Hauntology teases out the threads of this unspoken periphery from the fabric, the implicit connections lying behind a form. There is no “haunting” something; if we intend to do something “Hauntologically” we have failed before we’ve begun, for the spectres we find, the hidden glimpses, must be prior to the expression itself, immanent to the text. The point of SoM was always to pick out what lay behind the text, the terms and associations that haunted the text, ones that inevitably Marx himself was not aware of.

This is all to counter the easy assumptions that Hauntology is merely a kind of calling-back, a kind of appeal to the past, which I’ve hinted at before but wanted to go into in more depth. If we are looking at a simple vision of the past we’ve gone badly wrong somewhere. Hauntology is by necessity a complication of the past, a tangling of it with its own future in which, and I can’t emphasise this enough, the unspoken becomes key. We enter a world of the not-quite, the never-here, the out-of-sight.. the echo precedes the shout.. a distinct uncertainty, where did that sound come from? Hauntology precisely dismantles our comfortable temporalities and disrupts chronology to the point where we can no longer say A then B then C with confidence in our memory of this progression, it becomes jumbled, disordered, out of joint.

Partial Recall

Hamlet already began with the expected return of the dead King. After the end of history, the spirit comes by coming back [revenant], it figures both a dead man who comes back and a ghost whose expected return repeats itself, again and again.

The motif of recall, of memory dominates the Hauntological, becoming a central theme of SoM. A memory is something which lingers from that which no longer exists. It returns as spectre, which is precisely not to be, it is not a presence. In this sense, if we are to return to Derrida, “it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept”. To Derrida, Ontology is the exorcism of this haunting… “Everything begins before it begins”… the spectral precedes the real and the real is haunted by the spectral. This is to say that each concept, each form, is by necessity an exorcism of its own haunting, wherein it is conjured into being. This exorcism or ritual is a grounding in presence, where the hauntological concerns what precedes it, the impossibility of presence.

The Hauntological then, concerns everything that is not present, the gaps, frissons and openings; it is moreover an Ontological disturbance, foregrounding our distance from something, its disintegration and transience. This goes on to suggest, however, that a haunting, as Mark Fisher makes explicit, is as much a disturbance of space as it is time. Where the immediate association of haunting may seem a temporal one, the revenant, the return of the past, repetition and rhythms of ritual mourning and melancholy, it is worth pointing towards the prevalence of the haunted house, the connection to location in so many ghost stories. Fisher provides us with a key example in the overlook hotel of the Shining, the way in which family history, trauma, the crimes of the past, become residues in a place, the family drama of psychoanalysis crossing over with something larger and further reaching. So to move on from its one association as a temporal condition to this Ontological uprooting is to find that Hauntology is inevitably spatial. If, as Derrida said, Psychoanalysis is the study of ghosts, those phenomena of the psyche with no real presence that continue to exert influence upon us, then so must our connection to space, and our existence within it, be a spectral one. Here, the primacy of the virtual becomes apparent.

Mourning, The Return of the Dead

There is a specific engagement in Specters of Marx with the time in which it was written, namely the “end of history”, that final triumph of liberal Capitalism evoked most famously by Fukuyama, something that Derrida connected to Freud’s account of the triumphalist phase of the mourning process in relation to the demise of the soviet union and with it the very idea of Communism, of Marx. This approach, famously identified by Fisher as Capitalist Realism, consists of the recall, repetition, incantation, evoked through the spectres of Hamlet. “To the rhythm of a cadenced march, it proclaims: Marx is dead, communism is dead, very dead, and along with it its hopes, its discourse, its theories, and its practices. It says: long live capitalism, long live the market, here’s to the survival of economic and political liberalism!“, Mourning here takes upon itself the task of the aforementioned exorcism of alternatives, the codification of a universal reality and the final expunging of any memory that might still act upon the present.

So what from this is the significance of Hauntology in the cultural sense, the identification of a tendency, indeed a confluence in music and culture? It seems to emerge from what I’ve just described in the condition of melancholia, this refusal to let go. Where Derrida identifies in the end of history a process of mourning, of detachment and triumphalism, the death of Marx and the exorcism of his ghost, he simultaneously speaks of our inability to banish the dead. The Haunting present in culture speaks to something that is no longer with us, but that has been unsuccessfully banished, the work of mourning arrested. It is, more to the point, a refusal to “give up the ghost” that is, to yield with regard to the insidious pull of our own desire, as Lacan put it. The accusations of nostalgia here are misplaced I think quite simply when we realise that what’s being held onto here is not an idealised version of the past, but a potentiality, an alternative that never made good on its aims. While a traditional nostalgia harkens back to a supposedly ideal time, Hauntology points towards what is unfinished, and again, unspoken. It is for this reason that Fisher refers to “lost futures”, it is not what was, but what might have been. Here there is no object to mourn, and so it lingers on in expressions and cultural resonances. The death here does not pertain to some completed construction or project, but an approach, a world-view. For Capital, the dead always return to haunt it.

Lost Futures

Many discussions and expositions on Hauntology over the past few years have started with Mark Fisher, but I purposefully did not, firstly because I’m aware that this Blog might quickly become a K-Punk fansite, and also because I think the origins of the term in Derrida is something worth dredging back into view, if only to emphasise the de-ontological qualities of the word. Nevertheless, if I’m going to talk about Hauntology, it has to be said that Fisher is largely responsible, with a few others [Simon Reynolds also had a part to play] for bringing the term into wider usage within cultural theory and criticism, and so addressing what he did with it, and where he applied it, becomes something of a necessity.

It’s often implied that there is an immense difference between Derrida’s Hauntology and Fisher’s, but right away I think that this is overstated. It’s true that Fisher harboured a frustration with Derrida as a thinker, criticising Deconstruction, as it manifested in the academy, as “a kind of pathology of scepticism, which induced hedging, infirmity of purpose, and compulsory doubt in its followers”. This frustration is something I alluded to above, and is not unfounded, and yet is something I can easily look past in his work, partly due I think to the fact that it was Derrida who lay somewhat centrally to my re-introduction to philosophy and theory after a long wasteland of disenchantment some time ago. In some sense it was precisely this pathology of scepticism which provided an opening for me into the paths I ended up exploring, and has pushed me always not into an infirmity of purpose or inability to hold a position, but instead into a constant wariness of simplicity and reduction behind a position. It is of course largely a matter of what you do with a thinker, and Fisher indeed refers to the ways in which Derrida among others drove a creativity and excitement in the music writers so influential to him.

Sonic Hauntology

I mentioned above the identification from Fisher and others of a certain cultural confluence with Hauntology, and to go further down that lane will require us to pull together some of the threads I’ve been exploring so far into what Fisher termed Sonic Hauntology, specifically at points linking it to the Hauntological tendencies of Afrofuturism with its displacement and jumbling of time and space. In his essay The Metaphysics of CrackleAfrofuturism and Hauntology, an astonishing text that I must admit I only chanced upon recently, Fisher outlines this tendency, focusing on the presence of crackle or sonic disintegration in so much of the music to be identified with Hauntology. The railing against the metaphysics of presence is here beautifully opposed to the attachment to the presence or authenticity of the singer-songwriter in the work of Greil Marcus and found within the fiery opening salvo of Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant than the Sun, where Eshun opposes in the strongest terms the “troglodytic homilies” of the “intertia engine”, the tendency of music writers to appeal at all times to a “terminally stupid sublime” –

The fuel this inertia engine runs on is fossil fuel : the live show, the proper album, the Real Song, the Real Voice, the mature, the musical , the pure, the true, the proper, the intelligent, breaking America: all notions that stink of the past, that maintain a hierarchy of the senses, that petrify music into a solid state in which everyone knows where they stand, and what real music really is.”

What Eshun is doing here is not too far removed from Derrida’s project in Specters of Marx, that is he is opposing the centrality of presence, of immediacy, of the present. In Metaphysics of Crackle, Fisher draws our attention to Dub, the “Afrofuturist sonic science” , and what’s notable is how it is treated by two different music writers, Marcus and Ian Penman. What’s notable about Marcus is not that he doesn’t address or talk about Dub, but that he talks about in the sense that a literary critic might talk about a text. What’s important is its presence, its importance, its meaning, never the materiality of the sound, what it does. What Marcus is ultimately beholden to is a kind of Rock Metaphysics, seen in the proclamation of raw, pure expression, common attitudes towards the blues. And yet, as Fisher points out, something that a writer like Marcus barely ever touches upon is the role of production, of music technology, of everything that mediates between us and the musician. For in truth, while we tend to look towards bluesmen like Robert Johnson as the ultimate purity of expression in music, we listen to them practically through the material haze of time, through the broken up, crackling deterioration of sound. Fisher quotes Owen Hatherley, “there’s surely no music more utterly dominated by its recording technology than 1930s blues. Listening to Robert Johnson you have, rather than the expected in yr [sic] face earthiness and presence, layers upon layers of fizz, crackle, hiss, white noise..”

So sonic Hauntology is precisely the foregrounding of that technology, the cracks, deterioration and surface noise, rather than the rockist privileging of the man & guitar, the voice. It is in this sense that Penman identifies it and Afrofuturism as “two sides of the same double-faced phenomenon”. The same material foregrounding of the lack of presence found in Hauntology is central to the diasporic, fractured, cut-and-paste jumbling of space-time of Afrofuturism, where the alienation within black culture, the transience and lack of place, are exactly what becomes emphasised and re-configured. “Afrofuturism unravels any linear model of the future, disrupting the idea that the future will be a simple supersession of the past. Time in Afrofuturism is plastic, stretchable and prophetic—it is, in other words, a technologised time, in which past and future are subject to ceaseless de- and recompostion” So, through the dominance of technologies to how we experience sounds, music or otherwise, sonic Hauntology intensifies this pattern, emphasises it.

Virtual Disjunctures

But to what end? What purpose does Hauntology really serve, we might ask, where does this distancing of presence lead us? The answer lies I think somewhere in the postmodern world of simulacrum, virtuality and abstraction that has become so familiar to us today, the communicative wonderland and digital landscape. Sonic Hauntology’s heightening of crackle and distortion, the surface noise of old media technologies is something that immediately distinguishes it from the formal nostalgia pointed to by Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism, something which also is immanently connected to the prominence of technology. This formal nostalgia not only separates itself from emotional or psychological nostalgia, it is in some sense predicated on its absence. It is only when detached from its past, when the direct memory is severed, that an attachment to the forms of the past comes into focus. The “Slow Cancellation of the Future” Fisher refers to [from Franco Berardi], is a nostalgia, but one very different from the paradoxical one found in sonic Hauntology for example.

Ghosts of My Life is the project of Fisher’s I’ve found is most sidelined. This is not to say that it is unknown or anything of the sort, but that the main focus tends to be on either of his other books. It has, however, resolved into my favourite of the three he published, and something of this lies in its diaristic, fragmented quality. The book, while it centres on themes, is not a simple treatise on them, but an exercise in the very excavations of lost futures implied through Hauntology as some kind of practice. This is why, far from its distended nature reducing its effectiveness as Hauntological text, it is precisely this that, in the lineage of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, and indeed Laura Grace Ford’s Savage Messiah zine to which Fisher contributed a preface, places it within the Hauntological beyond simply containing a definition of it as a tendency. While we might search for a clear, elegant, singular text, it is the cut-and-paste quality of a project like this, the immediate appearance of cracks and lines in its construction, that presents it as a kind of spectral archaeology par excellence.

So what to take from the yearning for Lost Futures. Is it, as some have tried to insinuate, some kind of re-constituted nostalgia? Are we, through this, doing precisely what donkey-jacketed old socialists are most often accused of and wishing for a return to the 70s? I mention Ghosts of My Life as here we can find an engagement with this –

What is being longed for in hauntology is not a particular period, but the resumption of the processes of democratisation and pluralism for which [Paul] Gilroy calls. Perhaps it’s useful to remind ourselves here that social democracy has only become a resolved totality in retrospect; at the time, it was a compromise formation, which those on the left saw as a temporary bridgehead from which further gains could be won. What should haunt us is not the no longer of actually existing social democracy, but the not yet of the futures that popular modernism trained us to expect, but which never materialised. These spectres – the spectres of lost futures – reproach the formal nostalgia of the capitalist realist world.

The point here is precisely not a yearning for times past but of tendencies curtailed. The “Lost Futures” are not a kind of Schlaraffenland we might readily associate with a kind of reactionary nostalgia for the past, nor are they the melancholia of Gilroy or Wendy Brown, “Post-colonial” and “Left” respectively, in which we become attached to either an idealised moment or the repetition of failure. As usual within the purview of Hauntology, the Lost Future concerns the unspoken, the yet-to-exist or the no-longer-existing. This might seem like an obvious point, one I re-iterate here, but it contains within it something immensely important to realise culturally and politically, and that is that tendencies we might look towards in the past, be they Socialism or Popular Modernism, are not restricted to the time within which they existed, and are not finished, packaged wholes. The common line directed at the left that “you just want to return us to the 70s” commits two major errors; it firstly presents us with a retroactively constructed narrative of the 70s, an image of neoliberalism arriving to modernise the clear failure of social democracy [Thatcher’s “Labour isn’t Working” posters come to mind], putting to the side a lot of the inconvenient attempts to forcibly impose neoliberalism and ruthlessly crush opposition, secondly, it assumes that the left, socialism, whatever we want to label the tendencies dominant at the time, are locked within that decade, that any attempt to continue them today is by its very nature some kind of nostalgic pathology.

Archaeologies

So, in trying to perceive the flickering, disintegrated echoes of a past era, there is a melancholia, but which takes the form, rather than a time-locked nostalgia, of a refusal, a refusal to mourn, to banish the dead. There is a defiance in yearning for something violently strangled before its time, to hold on to the reverberations it leaves behind. This distinct refusal to mourn, to give up on potential, is central to the political and cultural prevalence of Hauntology and the Spectral. It is the vector towards renewal perceived through a technological haze, just as the lone bluesman is heard through the indefinite layers of crackle and noise. It is the distance afforded us by the technological here that preserves and propagates the ghosts of our lives. The distended, fragmentary cut-and-paste alienation of time from itself that we experience in a landscape where all emerges at once, regardless of time and space, that distinct flattening of spatio-temporal distinctions of our era, is something that Hauntology, both in cultural, political, sonic, psychological, geological terms, intensifies.

It is this process, the intensification of disjuncture, that may become a vector towards a new modernist impulse. For how long now can we continue to hold to the limitations of presence, and for how long can we prioritise the kind of grounding Rockist authenticity demands? The disturbance of causality itself, and the undermining of metaphysical presence itself, becomes today the task of any future, for it is surely the “realistic” appeals to purity, to identity, that form the ritual exorcism of spectres. It is in assuming that what we see it what we get, that it is a solid, unmoving excrescence, that in a real sense we do away with any potential, any echo. There is only the music, and great music speaks for itself, right? Hauntology is to percieve in this gigantic echo chamber a world, a fragmented map of associations far larger than any building or song, to draw out the fabric into an immense spool outwards… unravelling, and through this sensing the tremors, the barely perceptible patterns still present through the gaps, reveal themselves…. like apparitions through the fog…

Reading List [Not all of these are explicitly mentioned here but all are relevant and informed/inspired it, however tangentially]-

  • Jacques Derrida – Specters of Marx
  • Ken McMullen – Ghost Dance [Linked above]
  • Mark Fisher – Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures
  • Fredric Jameson – Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
  • Mark Fisher – The Metaphysics of Crackle: Afrofuturism and Hauntology
  • Kodwo Eshun – More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction
  • Walter Benjamin – The Arcades Project
  • Laura Grace Ford – Savage Messiah
  • Simon Reynolds – Retromania [see also Rip it Up and Start Again]
  • Greil Marcus – Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century
  • Ian Penman – It Gets Me Home This Winding Track
  • Wendy Brown – Resisting Left Melancholy
  • Paul Gilroy – Postcolonial Melancholia
  • Sigmund Freud – The Uncanny
  • Mark Fisher – The Weird and the Eerie
Categories
Archaeology of Cultural Space Music

The Future Wears a Mask

A problem with the future is that everyone wants to be the one to find it. Just as the music press has often prided itself on having found “the next big thing”, we all want to be the ones to have picked up on the emergent strand, that one element of the present which presents a radical break, the coming of the new. Recently, I’ve noticed some grappling with this, partly in Simon Reynolds [worth reading] piece on “Conceptronica” and some of the murmurings surrounding it and associated acts. Reynold’s piece asks “Why so much electronic music this decade felt like it belonged in a museum instead of a club”, which in itself is not an uninteresting point of inquiry, one that he does his bit to look into; yet I feel there was something missing here. Past all the careful investigation, it comes back to that tagline and the failure to really address it.

One of the artists featured in the piece was Holly Herndon, specifically regarding her latest album, PROTO, an album which from the outset dreams big, in itself no bad thing, about the potentials of AI and technology, attempting to bridge the gap between choral, folk and more traditional musics and the collective ecstasy of the rave via the means of a collective pooling of voices into a kind of personified construct. The ideas swirling around the project scream the future, they grapple with emergent technological issues that may come to effect us all, and seem to point to potential new forms of collectivity through the medium of these very technologies. The problem for me, however, starts when we pass from the script, the blurb, and into the music itself, despite having the impression it was somehow supposed to be everything I’m interested in, a cultural attempt to scout out new futures, a bridging of subjective and objective gaps via music… The thing was, however, that the music left me completely cold.. it came off like a vaguely interesting series of experiments but nothing really imprinted itself beyond some particularly beautiful/ugly passages. It was at point of contact that the ideas, the concept seemed to dissipate into what may have been an impressive technological leap but just came off like a series of vocal glitches and effects, a sound that just didn’t conjure what it said it did. There existed a fundamental disconnect here between what was supposed to be happening and what actually was.

This isn’t a universal problem with all the artists Reynolds mentions, but it is something that I find is also present precisely in the museum press releases and statements he evokes, something that continues to dog contemporary art shows everywhere and lends to this general sense of disappointment or emptiness. The false idea has long been that the main problem with such writing is simply that it is “pretentious waffle” that it is incomprehensible, that it is simply a kind of pseudo-deleuzian art-speak babble that serves to alienate viewers. This may be true, but it’s only half the story, the other being the distance that is covered between the writing, the build up or blurb, and the art itself. Countless times I have read about what a piece of art is supposed to do but been encountered immediately by its failure to actually do it. It takes the same form as a narrative dissonance where we are told what kind of character we are watching or reading about while that character fails to materialise in the story itself, and the times we may have encountered someone who tells us one thing about themselves while enacting the very opposite. It’s not that its actively or maliciously misleading, but rather that it skips the unskippable beat, that it gets ahead of itself, beats itself to the finish line, and insodoing, unmasks itself.

It perhaps shouldn’t bear mentioning, but music directly positioning itself conceptually around the future does not make it of the future any more than lasers and androids are the sum of science fiction as a genre. It is possibly the largest mistake we can make about culture to assume that its proclamations of concept, that its evocations form the whole of its content and form. In other words, music that arrives in a cloak of future imagery and technological innovations does not automatically evoke such ideas in its execution. What I find here is that the mistake is a assumed prioritising. Similarly to the Logocentrism of western philosophy attacked by Derrida, here the content of words is placed above their form and textures in a cultural context, lyrical content above the timbre of voice, speaking above writing and photography above painting.

This brings me to something brought up by both Mark Fisher and Kodwo Eshun, and that is the place of the cultural critic not simply as a tastemaker, expert or institution, but as an intensifier. It is through such writing that sounds and images, are libidinally heightened, that they are interpreted in some sense and amplified. It also makes me think of the way Ian Penman, specifically in the essay on Sinatra included in his recent collection but throughout his work, puts so much focus not merely on what is being sung, said or we could say even written, but how. Sinatra took a significant amount of influence in his singing from observing horn players and their inflections, pauses and emphasis, and here we begin to see a fundamental rift that often persists between music writers and musicians themselves [where the whole “dancing about architecture” canard arises]. While you will find many music writers searching for a kind of explanation, an exposition of language-born meaning to the music, indeed this has developed into a blatant overvaluing of “pure” lyrical content itself, on contact with a musician, for all their ideas and concepts it quickly becomes apparent that all this is in service to the sound itself.

In a recent piece on Debussy in London Review of Books, Nicholas Spice mentions how Adorno found distasteful Debussy’s supposed Fetishism of the materiality of sound, and the way in which Schoenberg himself mocked Adorno’s championing of him [“Was macht die Musik?” “Sie Philosophiert”].. both of these indirect interactions between musician/composer and philosopher speak something of the above disconnect, of a certain misunderstanding that the critic or theorist in their pomp might stand to make in demanding a certain conceptual rigour from the work they’re addressing. It leads to writing and analysis that for all its complexities, for all its length or reference points, often fails point blank to evoke the power of the music itself, functions at a kind of arms length from its subject, refusing to actually delve into the murky worlds of sonic texture and rhythmic communication, the cracking of the voice or the artificiality of an instrument. It is probably worth mentioning in the same breath here Susan Sontag’s call for an “Erotics” over an “Interpretation” of the arts, something that feeds into a sense that what music writing so often abandons is a sense of precisely of the materiality of its subject. For all Adorno’s disdain for the formulaic nature of pop, he missed an important element of it, and that is the effect of the sound itself.

This isn’t to evoke some kind of sublime here [something that most obviously Sontag argues against], some kind of primal spiritual presence or romanticised purity of the material, rather something of the opposite, that the writer can here function as something of an interpreter or amplifier for its effect. Some of the best sleevenotes I’ve found for instance have served just such a purpose in channelling the intensity of sound, the atmosphere of it, rather than providing a bone dry exposition of content. This is the last point at which we want to find a scientific thesis, but a plane of the poetic elaboration, of the power of masks and theatre. Rather similarly to the way in which we use clothes and makeup to construct rather than hide ourselves, it is in the resonances of the surface rather than a phantasmic pure nugget of authenticity beneath that we encounter the complexities and conceptual potency of art.

In a post about Japan’s Tin Drum, Mark Fisher asked, after Deleuze in Logic of Sense, “why, if superficiality is defined as lack of depth, is depth not defined as lack of surface?” This question still bears a good deal of consideration today, even as in response to the overload of signs and information the modern world heaps upon us we continue to find recourse to fantasies of some pure existence away from “modernity”. Here it is assumed that there lies an ideal sublime underneath the trash of the everyday, that if we scrape away the layers of makeup we find the real identity beneath. Such attempts at a kind of demystifying ambition, where we find a kind of absolute space or identity lurking beneath its surface, belies that it is precisely in this surface that an expanse of complexities and unspoken resonances emerge. It is the mask worn by the actor, the makeup and the costume, that construct the character, and is there anything gained by searching for the scaffolding beneath in the hope of an instructional document, some unadulterated truth? Indeed rather than an era of superficiality, might it be just as apt to ascribe to this current moment a priority of transparency? It’s something we’ve come to expect in all things that they remain true to themselves, real. You do you, just do your own thing… I’m just a normal bloke like you… isn’t this transparency, this injunction to bare all at all times, the constant deference to the authentic, the problem?

So rather than try to either ground or justify the music via the concept underpinning it, the kind of writing and exposition Reynolds talks about in relation to “Conceptronica” might be better served if they didn’t take as a point of assumption the music-as-thesis, art as pointing towards resolution, recourse-to-explanation of the museum piece itself. Against the backdrop of a kind of widespread disavowal of surface in favour of a supposed depth, it seems that the only way we can think of communicating complexity of ideas is via an accompaniment, by something beyond or above. The vicissitudes of futurity are that of the event, that of retrospective causality. Pointing towards a future potential in an artist due to their technological or conceptual proclivities says nothing in truth of the future, something which always lies masked. It is not in the process, in the conceptual underpinnings of a musical project that we might seek to place it in some kind of alternative canon, some kind of potential future form, but in its textural qualities and effects. If we wish to perceive the reverberations of as yet unheard futures, then it is to be found in the material of sound, the performance and surface, and the ambiguities and spectres held within this echo chamber of affects. If the future always wears a mask, then only an examination of masks, a serious approach to superficiality, will tease out its fragile strands into the light of day.