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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.

Categories
Archaeology of Cultural Space

Where is the Underground?

There is something of an autobiographical line following me in my work. Indeed, despite everything, I increasingly find that it is this element that anchors and grounds what I do, write and produce; not in the sense that everything begins to revolve around me, the pure individual me that’s supposed to exist within the human shell, but the environment, events, people and places that have informed and pasted it together.

I could go back to the point where as a child I travelled over to Britain from Germany, something that I am not old enough to remember but I have been acutely aware of, especially in the bureaucratic sense that I have grown up entirely in a place of which I am not a “citizen” on paper. This strange position where the only place I’m overly familiar with is somewhere where I’m on the verge of non-existence, where I cannot partake in general elections for example, and the ongoing issue of Brexit has only served to heighten that neither here-nor-there sense, that strange paradoxical feeling in the peripheries of my experience. The general sense is that I am being somehow exorcised from the body I have for the longest time acted within without recourse or thought, a cell within the bloodstream.

So my relationship to space has constantly been haunted by this transition; not only have I often been confronted by my own state of semi-erasure on paper, but the cultural and social centre of the 2000s and early 2010s struck me as something I didn’t want to be a part of, and so I actively, and no doubt often obnoxiously tied myself to the margins of taste. The reason for this still hadn’t become clear by the time I became somewhat attached to romantic images of intellectual post-war Paris in art school, or heavily invested in the militant experimentation of punk and post-punk after picking out a CD of Siouxsie and the Banshees Juju in HMV. It was a constant striving towards something other than the cultural objects offered on a platter, about as appealing as rotten fish. I didn’t realise all this time of course that there was something of a flickering strand connecting all these obsessions and interests, one connected it seems irrevocably with the empty core of postmodern cultural irony, the encroaching ubiquity of privatised capital and eventually the precarity of survival beneath it. What this strand represents was a yearning for a space that was constantly eluding my grasp; the post-punk period, post-war Paris or a host of other locuses of interest represented these spaces that I could not access, but which I frankly fantasised about. These were spaces soaked in the juices of an exciting experimental momentum where around me all I encountered were the encrusted delibidinizing icons of rock n roll, the uninspiring heritage roundabout where even interesting artists and musicians were reduced to a pastiche of veneration. These were all spaces of an underground which I wanted so desperately to find, but which seemed to only exist within the haze of times past, glances in the rear-view mirror as I drove forwards into the nerve-jangling grey metropolis.

So everything I do now seems to revolve somewhat around the question; where is the underground? Does it still exist in a meaningful sense or has it by now been entirely expunged and pressed out of the urban environments via endlessly replicating programmes of privatisation, gentrification, reduction, and corporate PR? I live in the city of Norwich, a curious example of a place which I would argue has long had an alternative with no underground. What I mean by this are the local music/art/other scenes that define themselves as being outside the centre, as being the “alternative” to mainstream fare, but which themselves are possibly even more repetitious and banal than the popular forms they avoid. In my experience, while its not that there’s nothing of any value in these spaces, its notable that there is no real underground behind it, no space of experimentation or militant forward momentum, no sense of an actual engagement beyond the typically painful ennui of postmodern detachment. What bleeds through is the struggle of detachment itself; we become unable to honestly immerse ourselves in anything, commit to it, without the self-reflexive wink that must surely follow, like the lover who can’t profess their love without first disowning it. We become terrified of the very possibility of ridicule so any expression must be filtered through a potentially infinite number of mediations, amplifications, walls… this isn’t to say that the only true culture is an unmediated one, the authentic spontaneous expression, which becomes a mere fetish object itself, but that culture effectively dies, grinds to a halt, at the point where the barrier to entry is reinforced. It reaches the point where all the alternative represents is a group of people trying desperately to make money from what they do, and cultural production as something that has the potential to change, move forwards, excite.. simply vanishes.

I realise this sounds like a grim prognosis without respite, and I’m not going to refute that; it is, and its supposed to be. Most rejections of such a picture I’ve seen come from the point of “there’s still innovative/good stuff out there!”, but that isn’t the point. Not only must we look beyond the mere metric of “good” or even “innovative”, but holding up a specific act or artist as if they immediately mean a trend is reversing tends to be a poor substitute for looking at cultural space itself. The point is that the space within which communes, collectives, and simply projects could once gather, the cracks and folds in the social fabric where artist squats and communities intersected with the dispossessed to form something we can meaningfully call an underground has been brutally suppressed. For capital, the underground has always been an inconvenience, the lingering idea that there could be something out there that was better, that we could in fact, have some kind of agency, could not stand.

The symbolic power of capital has never come from its capacity alone, the thing to realise is that there is no great enthusiasm for the mediocrity it provides. One of the most powerful parts of Mark Fisher’s Acid Communism introduction is the reversal, from anti-capitalism to the need for capitalism to systematically undermine its alternatives “with all its visored cops and tear gas”. This immediately puts into perspective the struggles of the past few decades of the underground to maintain itself against the distaste of the centre, from the onward march of gentrification to the creeping sprawls of luxury apartments which seem to be bit by bit replacing every empty spot, every space of potential, every last vestige… The mistake that we make is to assume that in our every day existence, in the culture we consume and produce and the way we navigate the space in which we live, the most banal details, that we don’t have to “pick sides”; the illusion, far beyond the halls of Westminster, is that peoples lives are a neutral centre, when we have to realise that it is precisely lives that are at stake, that are the site of conflict. When we move from country to city, we do more than search for “success” or “prosperity”, we submit ourselves to a process of human movement, what Braudel termed “Transhumance” that forms the shifting boundaries and territories of the space itself, and ultimately the drawing of battle lines between the centre and the peripheries.

Lefebvre uses the phrase the Dialectic of the Lived and the Concieved, and at the beginning of her book on the Paris Commune Communal Luxury Kristin Ross emphasises how within this action precedes thought, that it is “the creative energies and excess of the movement itself” that dreams and ideas are generated. Therein lies the importance of Spatial Practice; Lefebvre states –

“The spatial practice of a society secretes that society’s space; it propounds and presupposes it, in a dialectical interaction; it produces it slowly and surely as it masters and appropriates it. From the analytic standpoint, the spatial practice is revealed through the deciphering of its space.”

Here we have both this preceding of thought via action and deciphering of action via thought that co-exists with space. Passing through this refraction we can see in sharp relief how the stark realities of class conflict might emerge through the vicissitudes and violence of every day life, in ritual and attitude. The way in which our co-dependency and co-creation in the name of Capital produces the battlefield within which any kind of slippage is quickly stamped on, sliced off the whole if it cannot be incorporated into it. It is these abstractions that exist at a somewhat unconscious level through which the violence of destitution and homelessness, of dispossession and loss of life are generated. We produce the space of capital even as it produces us.

So here it comes to space, and the necessity of a space for an underground culture to inhabit. Where are we to go when we seek something else, where indeed when we want to find people who share our passions, or when we want to combine forces, to experiment? Much has been said about the value of boredom regarding culture, the importance of suburban existence in generating the militant expressions of post-punk for example, but the point here rests upon there being somewhere to go. While the boredom of a suburb, or even a village, may drive us towards underground expressions, a search for something to break us out of the loop, increasingly the space to conduct these expressions simply isn’t there, or cannot be found. For a moment I myself thought I’d found something like it online, but after some time it fell apart into a pile of orthodoxies. The issue here may be the attempt to create an underground subculture without the space to really maintain it. And so we return to Lefebvre’s point that an alternative system cannot come into being without an alternative space, and this in turn without an alternative spatial practice.

So is this ultimately a search for an underground or do I intend to issue an injunction to bring it into being? The truth encompasses both, and leads into the notion that’s become increasingly potent in contemporary futurisms and discussions around alternatives that the future we want to create is not so much a potential in time, but in space. Jameson’s characterisation of Utopia in the final paragraph of Valences of the Dialectic comes to mind –

“It would be best, perhaps, to think of an alternate world— better to say the alternate world, our alternate world—as one contiguous with ours but without any connection or access to it. Then, from time to time, like a diseased eyeball in which disturbing flashes of light are perceived or like those baroque sunbursts in which rays from another world suddenly break into this one, we are reminded that Utopia exists and that other systems, other spaces, are still possible. “

This other space in this context is something I’d er away from calling a Utopia, but the move from the temporal to the spatial here is important in our capacity to not only excavate and discover but build an alternative. If we are to rediscover a sense of subculture against the all-consuming high rise corporate battalions of the contemporary city, it can be thought of not as time travel, but as archaeology, the unearthing of something that lies under the paving stones, the back alleys, the cracks in the concrete. In the traces found around us we can feel our way out of the decay, and even move towards something of a re-purposing and warping of the ruins, subterranean distortions that re-orient our bearings and create a new way of acting and being, a future urban practice and cultural underground, the imperative again to re-invent, to destroy itself, to revolutionize. Perhaps, in the reflections and immaterial forms perceived in empty shop windows, or the decay of abandoned lots, the echoes of the revolution can still be heard...

An eerie cry from another world mingles with the silence of a dead city, the motionless forms stand, empty vessels..

Categories
Archaeology of Cultural Space

Choice for All? No Thanks; Re-Mapping and De-Canonizing

Rotating through the tattered remnants of something that used to stand here in resolute defiance, you stand in the back alley, staring at the arc of detritus, spewing out from some torn bin liner around the corner. Consult the legend, the signals, figure out what’s supposed to be here. Up until this point, you had the rhythmic choreography down to a tee, had been following the cues perfectly, until you followed them off the map, the paradox that rises from mistaking the abstract for the ground beneath your feet. Here you are in unfamiliar territory, some alien ship or unexplored piece of turf somewhere in the wilds. It’s right there on the piece of paper, on the satellite image; it didn’t say it was going to be like this.

The Urban is full of folds and cracks, that much is clear; the classic distinction of town and country, like that between state and civil society in Hegel, is something that precipitates closure even as the global flows of exchange, the “market” precipitates fracture and atomization. The core problematic of contemporary “neocapitalism” lies in this paradoxical movement, one replicated down to the individual objects and experiences of the every day. What is this wistful emptiness of culture that accompanies us, the flat PoMo anything-will-do landscape in which nothing can be expressed without quotation marks, phrased in the form of a question, in which the constant self-reflexive questioning has taken the place of all conviction, where popular music is simply reduced to an aesthetic consumerist qualifier and any statement of taste has to be made in the constant fear of breaking rank, than an ongoing symptom of such contradictions? Even as Spotify and Netflix present us with a supposed cornucopia, a vast array of choice before our eyes; is this what it comes to, choice?

For even as streaming encapsulates this ubiquitous, global similitude, the effects to move towards a unified cultural reality in which anything goes, the meaning of such cultural experience is reduced to just this dynamic, where choice = freedom. The choice/freedom mythology is a distinctly liberal one, something rooted in the traditions of the enlightenment, wherein freedom consists of a kind of non-intervention, you-do-you and all that good stuff where the speculative political imaginary lays out a world in which we can proceed unhindered, where we can be ourselves. I’m sure I don’t have to lay out in too much detail what’s suspect here, namely the idea that if we strip back the layers, behind the surface we find some kind of pure self, and that from this basis it is possible to act authentically; from this premise we enter an entire discourse of authenticity and realness, of soul. Herein lies the problem with you-do-you, the dream of the libertarian, those who wish to go about their vital work without intervention, that there is no freedom in being a slave to false authenticity, that authenticity stems from the very feedback loops of capitals central libidinal machinery. This is of course where the dream of neoliberalism itself falls apart, wherein it is revealed not to be the unhindered freedom of markets, the ability for each to make their own fortune, but an enforced politico-economic paradigm of privatized authenticity. Behind the frontier-vision of capital lies the assumption of the traditional rugged survivalist and their family, the safety and comfort of the homestead or the British bourgeois estate, the consignment of our being to a script, a repeated daily routine of reinforcement in which authenticity, the stripping back of aestheticization, merely translates into the most depressing of cyclical reiterations.

Choice = freedom is a limitation, it implies not that we can shift the meaning, the nature of social relations, but that we can choose between them at leisure, defining the emancipated future as one of choice merely bows down to the order of consumer production. There is a certain worldview which seems to echo the incurable optimist, the Whig conceit of teleological progress transformed into confidence that in the end nothing is better than anything else, that no time is better than any other time, that nothing ever changes; before you know it the end of history is here, the sheering away of historicity, the onset of the eternal present suspended in non-time and non-place. Against this, the injunction that culture, that art, music, might mean anything becomes practically unthinkable.

This is an injunction away from choice as predominant motor of autonomy and towards a shift in the mapping of culture itself. Lefebvre writes in The Production of Space of the deceptiveness of maps. The important thing to note, for him, is that maps don’t simply deliver a straightforward reading or empirical datum on the places they represent, but rather they play a part, as representations, in producing them. The same is true in this sense of the ways in which we map between points of cultural interest on a timeline, producing a canon. The process of de-canonising and reinvention is then the process of re-organising the map, and through this the ways in which we navigate it. It similarly, through re-configuring space, excavates new potentials in bringing together and undermining boundaries between separate points. It re-aligns the focus from the non-interventionist liberal ideal towards a new space where these choices are revealed to be predicated on a lie.