“One morning you awake and all the time has melted away: no more hotel bedroom afternoons, light moving like seaweed over the pale impersonal walls. All your life, dreaming of the other side of the mirror, where the colours all reverse, and now you finally remember what it was you saw in that dressing room mirror, so long ago: clouds, full of rain.”
Ian Penman’s new collection of writing, what feels like an exquisitely chosen sequence of essays already published elsewhere but here forming so many cross-continental, cross-colour threads; a slight volume, it feels perfectly formed in its open ellipsis, dicing repeatedly with characters who we like to think of in trite, closed-off semiotic terms, as icons. Indeed, the subjects of the essays here read when listed off like a dusty pantheon, a museum of objects no longer invested with any kind of current or force today, devoid of lasting tension or relevancy. Elvis? Sinatra? Mod? Surely all bygones, remnants kept by rusty elders in the shed, mouldering in a box for the last decade?
What is absolutely remarkable about Penman’s approach here is that these symbols, characters, icons, subject elsewhere to text after bulging text of fawning empty platitudes and heritage fluff [let’s be honest, do we really gain anything from one more write-up going on at length about “iconic musical genius” or “trailblazing influence” et cetera], open up into a complex mesh of uncomfortable and uncertain threads, here emerging as pathetic man-children and there as existential melancholy personified. Above all it must be noted that on even the most surface level consideration, Penman’s is some of the most essential and electric music writing around at this current juncture, and that is despite his status as an “elder” of the British music press by this point. While younger writers toil ceaselessly at outlets like Pitchfork churning out barely-readable attempts at ego-fulfilment-fantasy, Penman’s work, while undeniably rooted in his own predilections, practically rolls off the page in a cascade of riveting prose, something which barely conceals the glint of a hard-edged analysis.
Indeed, links can be drawn here to Barthes and Derrida, even if they don’t appear in the text itself. Instead of explicit reference or extensive footnotes, here these influences are implicit, woven into the text but never weighing it down. James Brown as a figure is dissected as a mess of contradictions and unresolved tensions, between his militaristic approach to his music and image, and the lack of control over his own impulses. Everywhere here we find such tensions, whether it be between the perfectly groomed set of signifiers of their iconic status and their unavoidably unpleasant personal behaviour or for example between the modernist, pan-european hipness of Mod as an emerging phenomenon and its current iterations as saccharine, empty, postmodern shell.
It would be easy to simply tie the essays together through the “Home” of the title, but this seems to do it something of a disservice. Ostensibly what emerges is what Penman describes as a “cross-colour” collision of culture, a threading together wherein Black and White commingle and again move across the Atlantic. Within this however we find that symbols like Mod and figures like Elvis must be unwrapped, prised open into their component parts. Yet what we hope to achieve with such dissection, a closure, to finally uncover the core nugget of “soul”, leave bare the “me” underneath the constructed persona, or retrospective vision. Thankfully, or not depending on your disposition, the opposite occurs here. Instead of the pretence of some questionable uncovering of the true spirit of Sinatra, we find Sinatra from the ready-and-set-showman-glitz-mafioso-darkness dualism that we all know, fan out into into a cornucopia of unfinished sentences/an intermingling of threads.
It is this intermingling wherein we find the home, both its excess and lack. As we find through the exploration of Prince and his meticulously controlled excess and demand, notably for perfectly curated hotel rooms, “Look in the mirror children: each and every space is simultaneously fantastical, but also an endless repetition of the same. Nothing ever changes in Prince world … everywhere is home, nowhere is home”. Similarly with Elvis we enter a world of oedipal supply and demand, where every wish is catered for and it bloats, fattens, dulls.. even if, as it is pointed out, the immortality of Elvis itself does need some solid explaining given his deeply inconsistent catalogue of work.
Home ultimately always comes down to the music, and the relationship between the music and the people who produced it is something that doesn’t escape complication here. Much is said, in the form largely of slightly uncomfortable soundbyte discussion, of “removing the art from the artist” with regard to the deeply unpleasant behaviour of an artist we may admire or respect. Penman here makes no such easy concession, and both the essays on James Brown and John Fahey deal directly with the [in different ways] troubling nature of their personal conduct, and how this effected or made itself known in their work. Here we find a temporal drift, attempts to rediscover, reform, claw back, keep alive, a constant “re”, whether this be the retrospective nostalgia-porn of today’s Mod or the rat-a-tat-tat of Charlie Parker’s heroin fuelled virtuosity, what Penman points to in his music as the lack of drift, of reflection. The figures here in many ways attempt to escape home but are continuously drawn back towards it, whether this is the finality of death/old-age, the empty museum pieces of retro or the immortality of heritage, supposed “influence”, the undead.
The problem of course with drift and reflection, something in short supply in the midst of the semiotic tidal waves of cultural consumption today, is that we find things we might rather ignore. When we visit, for instance the British museum, can’t we just be left to marvel at the immaculately carved marbles, the array of objects from various slices of geography and history? To unambiguously do this of course requires the kind of suppression, we must, the museum itself must at all costs draw our attention away from the blood soaked into the stones on display, that we also find in our attempts towards some “pure” enjoyment of past cultural objects. If we simply don’t allow ourselves to drift backwards, keeping a kind of perpetual present in which everything simply exists in one place shorn of its bedrock like a plant cut off at the stem, then the uncomfortable, the ambiguous and the downright disturbing remain where they belong and we can make some kind of pretence of “art without artist”, fantasise about the past without complication.
When it comes down to it, Penman’s beautiful de-constructions of a certain, carefully chosen pantheon of figures is simply a small antidote, an important gesture at a time seemingly still dominated by the ideal constructions of past moments. Where the dominant mode of writing about figures like this is one of cloying reverence, writing like this remains essential and valuable, wherein rather than a cut-and-paste revue or ego-bloating attempts at virtuoso analysis we find a short and sweet series of thoughtful and propulsive, simple yet deeply complex, affecting yet biting essays. IF you want to delve into a single example of music writing at all this year, or the next even, I can think of no better than this.
It’s likely no secret to many who have spoken to me recently that the work of Mark Fisher has become something of an important reference point to me; this goes beyond simply being an investment in a certain writers style, or some facile obsessive regurgitation of a someones’ ideas I might be particularly into at the time. Fisher’s writing has, the more of it I’ve read, managed to shift my perception of the world around me, and really, though this may at first pass sound a little melodramatic, given me what feels like a renewed vigour and purpose in life after a prolonged period of stagnation, repetition, depression and boredom, namely precisely the symptoms and conditions Fisher examines and takes a scalpel to over the trajectory of his books Capitalist Realism, Ghosts of My Life, The Weird and the Eerie, and the main subject here the recently published collected works, the mammoth tome I recently read from cover to cover.
There is a distinct melancholia in reading this collection, containing as it does enough of Fisher’s most important writing to put together the coherent strands that defined his project[s], and putting into perspective its tragically unfinished status. It cannot be said enough that Fisher was one of the most lucid, cutting and important cultural critics of his time, and his writing breathes new life into a leftist politics previously assumed to be long calcified into redundancy. The introduction to what would have been his next book Acid Communism, included at the end of K-Punk really hits home how really, he was just getting started; his appeals to the hauntology of lost futures manifesting itself in his own foreshortened political project. In the context of all else here, Acid Communism feels like the beginning of a culmination to where his ideas were going, the proposal to match the critique seen in Capitalist Realism and an intersection of the many influences and strands one finds him returning to throughout.
Something it would be hugely amiss to ignore; both Melancholy and Depression feature heavily, although he is careful to distinguish between the two, as he is between the nostalgia mode, as defined by Jameson, and Hauntology. Something that rears its head throughout his work is his own grappling with mental ilness, one that becomes almost difficult to read about in hindsight, but I think still essential at a point where many speak of the mental health crisis and I’m not sure I know many people, if anyone my own age, who does not labour under some form of anxiety or depression. While as one may read in Capitalist Realism he makes sure not to simply state that all mental illness is caused directly by political issues, he nonetheless makes the point repeatedly that Mental Health is a Political Issue. Indeed is it so difficult to imagine that the notable proliferation of mental health issues among younger generations is connected to changes in the way we organise our society? In the years since the rise of Neoliberalism we have increasingly had to live in a world of a million pressures, precarity; a damocles sword threatening us with the constant threat of collapse, we may lose our job, suffer a pay cut, be called in at a moments notice, we may be evicted from our home… we’re expected to be flexible, but this is code for what Franco “Bifo” Berardi describes in Precarious Rhapsody, a post-fordist capitalism where the line between work and life is blurred to an indistinction , where time is at a premium. Fisher references the film In Time as possibly the first science fiction film about precarity, where time itself becomes a currency. In this climate, it is hardly any wonder people everywhere, especially young people who are thrust out into this world after having been promised success for hard work, are buckling under the weight, especially when one factors in the transformation of the welfare state into a perverse system of punishment for the unemployed … increasingly we are told “it’s YOUR fault”, a mantra that worms its way into our brains, forming a thread of anxiety and despair.
Let it not be said that this is some dry, sad, lifeless tome of Marxist analysis; quite the opposite… Regularly Fisher reiterates a distinct venom for the kinds of theory and cultural attitudes that might deign to reduce political engagement down to some academic parlour game, the ways in which the the lifeless corpse of real political action is dressed in the dull rags of realism and put to work by the useful idiots of capital. The writing here is notable for its fire and drive, for the sense that it is by no means intended as empty pontificating. The focus is on doing something, an interjection into the social realities of the reader rather than a series of lumpen musings with designs only on a select few pompous clowns.
Something that shines through much of the writing here, besides the urgency that practically bleeds through each line, is a conviction in the importance of culture; through Fisher, one gains practically a new cultural canon, where the importance is always placed on historicizing and contextualizing every film and piece of music within the arena that produced it. To this end there is often a certain excitement in Fishers distinctly punk proclamations, both in the ones that played directly into some of my younger predilections [Siouxsie and the Banshees are more important than the Smiths!] and ones that drew me towards strange things I had never encountered [Artemis 81!] or finally lead to an immersion in something I’d never previously managed to crack [The Fall!]. Always running behind the words is what he terms as “a fidelity to the post-punk event”. That is to say, a yearning for a modernism, and an ongoing critique of what Jameson called “the cultural logic of late capitalism” or postmodernism as a cultural condition and malaise. The material here which coalesced into Capitalist Realism, Ghosts of My Life and Weird and the Eerie can be traced as three connecting tissues throughout, certain points acting as nodes in a larger political project that can be mapped across the book, and organically [perhaps synthetically] emerges in the connections drawn between sections; on books, film & television, music, politics.. the confidence throughout that the world can be transformed for the better, and the fear that we may have lost the ability to imagine this, defines the great extent of it, appearing in pieces on cultural objects as varied as Cronenburg’s Existenz and a Damien Hirst retrospective. While in many cases he directs ire at culture that he sees as reinforcing capitalist realism, hence the dominion of capital, some of the most stirring moments are often the surprising places he sees a way past this impasse, notably for instance in The Hunger Games, pulling no punches in declaring it anti-capitalist realist as opposed to for instance culture that previously engaged in a successful illustration of our cultural condition, prominently The Thick of it and The Wire. Fisher is equally as good at pulling unexpected joy from a maligned piece of art as he is ravaging your chosen idols in the strongest terms [see his choice words on Alan Moore at one or two points].
Increasingly, throughout all this, you sense a strong yearning, and eventually an open call for what he terms “Pulp Modernism”, probably described in the most detailed terms in his magnificent three-part analysis of the Fall, Memorex for the Kraken. This was for him the hope that the dull flame of modernism might re-emerge in popular culture, subsumed as it is beneath a haze of reflexive pomo irony and self-satisfied snark, in which fidelity to fantasy is the ultimate heresy and everyone strives towards a kind of underlying sincerity, the stripping away of the surface to reveal the underlying real; this can be seen at its most screamingly egregious within the image fostered by Britpop, the blokish “realness”, all denim jackets and no-frills performance, a pompous cavalcade of anti-sensuality that reflected itself in much of the culture to follow, when it was not presenting itself behind unfathomable layers of ironic detachment.
Something that struck me reading this stuff in fact, as well as the fact that I myself only discovered Fisher years after his death, was that I could probably count myself as one of those generations who had entirely escaped the history we are experiencing repeated all around us. The excitement of discovering a new band predicated on not being aware of everything they’ve unimaginatively drawn from, who discovered the past largely through a long laundry list of influences relayed to us by our favourite artists, or as a cloyingly nostalgic narrative of rock-stardom and male ego crudely compacted and re-organised through duller-than-dishwater talking head documentaries where a rotating line-up of people would repeat like clockwork the tired old myths of the rock & pop establishment. I was to some degree a little lucky in that I chanced upon Siouxsie and the Banshees and Public Image Limited when I was quite young, the post-punk scene that Fisher loved so much having appeared to me like this compelling ghost of an era alien to me, when this kind of culture could still happen; of course, I didn’t phrase it as such at the time, but the appeal of the music to me was precisely that it sounded like nothing else, drawing from an unfamiliar pool of influences, something that only became diluted and lessened by the bands that so impotently tried to copy-paste their sounds. The existence of a culture this exciting, that could evolve like this, was something that looking back was in all honesty pretty notable in its absence from my growing up, it was more of a case of tracing musical influence, going back across the timelines and family trees, scenes and acts waiting to be plucked like fruit. In terms of contemporary cultural production, although I think we’re beginning to see stirring in that department at the very least, at the time it was dominated by things that sounded not only like each other, but like their influences stripped of urgency.
The reclaiming of the idea of the new, of the future, of urgency, of collective agency on the left and within our cultural moment is what can be found throughout the book, ringing through each piece of analysis and each swelling of anger. A pall of fatalism hangs over the present, the left operating as if against an inevitable failure, the right towards a luridly imagined “collapse of the west”. Everywhere we turn, we find people throwing their hands up in resignation and despair. If this sounds like an inescapable impasse, it’s worth noting that the pall may be gradually lifting, that we are starting to see the kind of speculation and confidence in the idea of another world as Badiou might put it, that was so utterly foreclosed for so many years. I speak in smaller terms of the resurgence of genuinely leftist approaches in parliamentary politics and the collapse of the toothless neoliberal populism that dominated as the naturally assumed status quo for decades, the retreat of the right from modernization, towards a position of imagined return to an idealised past. But also, we have I think seen a resurgence of cultural urgency, of experiments and sounds aiming to disconnect themselves from those of the past. Even if these approaches seem still like a flicker, it feels to me as if they are rapidly expanding to a flame. This is the one-two punch of the arc in Fisher’s writing, that of melancholy, of mourning lost futures, and that of a re-invigorating push forward, not unlike the way reading Fisher for me has re-invigorated theory and politics.
I have mentioned Capitalist Realism as a book I would practically recommend to anyone, acting as it does as a pointed and effective analysis that definitely in my case contributed to a genuine re-alignment of perspective and flaring of consciousness from a point of relative fuzzy ennui. K-Punk may be a good bit less accessible, it being a few pages shy of 800, but it is no less valuable, a collection of writing that acts not only as an indispensable companion to the dystopian landscape of neoliberal capitalism, but a clarion call to imagine something else, to rediscover the potential of those lost futures and cease to accept reality as it is. My reading of the pieces here was, I should note, supported by reading a good bit of K Punk material not actually included in the book for whatever reason, and it’s worth noting that there’s still some excellent material out there that may not have fitted comfortably there but are still very worth a read for any interested party. Something else I read that really tied beautifully into Fisher’s concerns, especially towards the back end of the book, was Ray Brassier’s essay Prometheanism and its Critics. This is by no means essential reading, but I found for me there was a clear undercurrent of Brassier’s point in Fisher’s call to recognise the ephemeral nature of social reality. For Brassier, the idea that there is some underlying natural order is imminently theological, something that runs against any emancipatory politics. The key quote from Capitalist Realism, one that can now be found as a mural at Goldsmiths, reflects this;
“emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable”
This is something Fisher recognised as a through-line between all radical thought of different stripes. The implication being here, one that Fisher re-iterates at various points notably in his discussions of James Cameron’s Avatar, that any left that appeals to a return to the basic order of things, a return to natural simplicity, becomes a reactionary project, for to do so we must arbitrarily assert an order of things that cannot but reveal itself to be a phantom under closer viewing. Indeed, and one can see this in Fisher’s explorations of Glam and Goth, we see here a call for a closer affinity with fiction/fantasy, in a sense moving away from appeals to any kind of pure interiority towards the idea that in fact, the exterior, the mask, that is the locus of change itself. Image becomes a machine, a generator of affect.
At this point I want to set forth my intention with this blog leading into the near future. Not to restrict myself to a narrow and total project, or to simply try and ape the lifeless desiccation of the academy, but reading K Punk has really fired me up and clarified to me the ways in which I want to engage in the blogging platform, and how I want to proceed from here. I find it generally unhelpful to leave the field completely open, an anything-goes-buffet of themes that may organically coalesce [indeed I feel they have to some degree] but, much like political action itself, amount to nothing if this coalescing is not grasped and fashioned into something.
I mentioned that during my reading of K Punk I read some other complimentary material, and this lead to the themes of essentialism and fatalism irrevocably connecting. From reading The Communist Horizon Jodi Dean’s fantastic articulation of what may be meant by a collective political subject on the left, to Brassier’s essay, to the Xenofeminist manifesto, to Donna Haraway, to Deleuze & Guattari … all in some way shape or form must unseat natural order as a fundamentally theological and reactionary concept, to be discarded if we are to build another world. I will provide a reading list below for anyone who is interested, covering some things I have referenced here and others I have read partially or fully along the way. From here, however, I intend to set myself a project; by which I don’t mean a strictly regimented 10 part [a] to [b] narrative, god no. What I mean is that I intend to proceed from this point into an in depth critique of fatalism and eschatology.
For while in many respects capitalist realism may be showing cracks, it is still far from over as Paul Mason prematurely declared it some years ago, and this can be ascertained simply through the everyday, quotidian reality where capitalist realism takes root. While on some levels and in certain quarters we now see murmurs of communism/the end of capitalism that would have been unthinkable half a decade ago, if we look away from these and towards gossip, small-talk, general conversation, we still find those attitudes heavily embedded in the way we see the world. Something I’ve noticed enter the frame however, something that ties undeniably into capitalist realism, is a general depressive fatalism, often tied to an unconscious eschatology. Time and again I encounter the idea that we are headed unerringly and unchangeably towards some kind of hobbesian warlike future, a desperate struggle for resources in a world blasted by climate change. The collapse of society, we hear, will lead of course to an eruption of international conflict and a descent into a situation where only the strongest survive. It’s effectively like the most lurid fantasies of the right, and the fantasy driving those people dubbed “doomsday preppers”. But it goes further than this, it’s something I have encountered on both the right and the left, and it’s something I want to tackle properly.
Is my problem here that I’m some kind of humanist who hates the idea that there might be a world without humanity, or am I driven by a fear of collapse? Well no and maybe, but this is not where my primary issues lie. Rather, I find this dour breed of fatalism is itself, like any kind of overtly pessimistic approach, a hyperstitial spiral when translated into action, that is when it is enacted on the level of ritual, an internalised truth. We believe it to be inevitable so it is inevitable, it is inevitable so we believe it to be so. It, like realism, presents itself as a grand unveiling of the underlying truth, stripped bare of ornament, at the same moment becoming its own realisation, failing to take stock of itself as fantasy. If we empirically examine the world around us, and take this examination to its limits, we increasingly find that the very things that we live our lives by, the construction of a subject, the very idea of humanity, break apart, and this is to say nothing of meaning. What does meaning have to do with the world as it is?
And this is the problem, that in positioning oneself on an unerring line towards the post-apocalypse scenario, or towards the final retreat of humanity to their base, violent state, a whole host of theological assumptions are being made, not least that of some underlying natural order; the “way things are” that we suppress or build on top of. In applying to the future an arc against which it is futile to struggle we contribute to making it a reality. If enough of us believe that humans are ultimately competitive and violent that is precisely how we will act. It posits that a certain situation will come about but fails to consider the circuit breaker, the “unless we do something else”. This all largely connects to the unfathomable nature of climate catastrophe, something that a number of writers have tackled, some which I will mention below, but as Fisher observed takes up within capital the status of Lacanian real, something which is so traumatic to the state of things that it cannot be seen straight on except as some formless blur, only approached indirectly, Lacan used here the example of the skull in Holbein’s ambassadors, simply appearing as some spectral shape at the corner of our perception until we approach the painting from the side.
This incomprehensible trauma combined with the close proximity of said trauma, relatively, breeds it as an increasingly strong symbolic assertion within capital, which tells us time and again that we are all individually responsible. The lack of a systemic analysis here can lead us to no other conclusion that the worst is inevitable. IF we continue, everything in our nightmares will come true. IF. The eschatological approach will deny that this IF means anything, claiming that really there’s no chance, that people are just too enmeshed in capitalism to do anything about it. Isn’t the problem here yet again that by believing this we make it a reality? We cannot keep returning to these theological fatalisms if we are to undergo a promethean transformation, and in some sense what I want to do is make the case for staying the course, for continuing to believe in a future beyond the hobbesian scenario, for in the absence of the certainties provided by capital, we need a confidence in uncertainty, or, to put it another way, one which many have already put forward, we must act as if collapse has already occurred, because in many ways it has. The time is not for hunkering down and preparing for the absolute worst, it is for new systems of organisation, new forms of libidinal engineering. Fisher quotes Micheal Hardt in Acid Communism;
“The positive content of communism, which responds to the abolition of private property, is the autonomous production of humanity – a new seeing, a new hearing, a new thinking, a new loving“
Pause.. I don’t want to give the impression here that I’m engaging in some kind of positive thinking exercise, as nothing brings forth the sickly taste of bile in my mouth than the positivity injunction, the coping mechanisms we employ in order to avoid confronting the negative fabric of our lives, that which manifests itself in younger generations in our constant search for pleasure, whether that be through drugs, alchohol or any other kind of dulling, escapist drive to enjoy. In fact, something else that I find ties a lot of Mark Fisher’s work together is his insistence that we must think beyond the pleasure principle. Culture must be more than mere enjoyment, consumer choice, politics, theory cannot be some purely affirmationist, even vitalist initiative. To move into the future is to grasp the negative. To quote Fisher from Terminator V Avatar, on Francois Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy;
“Not far beneath Lyotard’s “desire-drunk yes,” lies the No of hatred, anger and frustration: no satisfaction, no fun, no future. These are the resources of negativity that I believe the left must make contact with again.”
That is to say that what I really want to do is to take Lacan’s observation that when we think beyond good and evil we only tend to think beyond good, and try to think good and evil simultaneously. The aim is to arrive not at the blasted hellscape of fatalist eschatology, nor the cult of affirmationist creativity and the multitude, but in a new form of organising, to recognise that both forms are theological in nature and both resolutely fail to encapsulate the way in which the future is dependant on our compliance, not some kind of unerring motor propelling us into certain oblivion. I want to make clear not only the parasitic, draining effect of fatalism but the ways in which an ostensibly opposing pure affirmation is similarly damaging on our ability to conceptualise the future.
I wish I could explore everything Fisher wrote, and that I plan to write, but then this already rambling post would potentially continue forever, and leave no space for future ones. Suffice to say I want to be ambitious, and to this end I want to make much more concerted use of this blog, potentially formulating a more extended critique or proposal that could be sculpted into a long essay or book format.
K-Punk is finished, but not done.
Reading list, compiled from things that I have read lately, not including Mark Fisher –
Ray Brassier – Prometheanism and it’s critics[Can be found alongside a lot of other helpful material, provocations and weird musings on the outside in the Accelerationist reader, from Urbanomics]
Laboria Cuboniks – The Xenofeminist Manifesto
Jodi Dean – The Communist Horizon
Spinoza – The Ethics [of course, as one might expect I would not claim to have a full understanding but having it to hand has been highly valuable]
“Don’t think of it that way” McClane said severely. “You’re not accepting second-best. The actual memory, with all it’s vagueness, omissions and ellipses, not to say distortions – that’s second-best”
Phillip K Dick’s We Can Remember it For You Wholesale
I recently, for whatever reason, decided on a whim to watch the 2012 remake of Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 Schwarzenegger starring action blockbuster Total Recall, itself an adaptation of the Phillip K Dick short story We Can Remember it For You Wholesale. While in some respects it is slightly less distracting than the Verhoeven film, Colin Farrell being slightly more believable as an everyman than the over-the-top action juggernaut of Schwarzenegger, in many other respects it is a pale and flaccid regurgitation, lacking both sci-fi heft and action effervescence.
In many of its tics this Total Recall feels like it belongs in the early 2000s in a kind of post-Blade Runner, post-Matrix continuum, seeming to ape both films in the appropriating of a cyberpunk dystopia now as well worn as the action-structure of its plot, and the paper-thin philosophical dallying worked into its themes. In this, however, it could exist no other time but now, a blockbuster trapped in its own PoMo referential purgatory, finding itself unable to muster any kind of modernist impulse besides a copy-pasted hall-of-fame, even giving into the screamingly obvious impulse of referencing the original Total Recall.
It becomes difficult to buy the typical PR spiel at release that it is more of a re-interpretation of the source material than a remake of the adaptation, especially when if anything the film generates yet more stages of removal from the story itself with its piecemeal appropriation of sci-fi cinema visuals, and even takes the disentangling of ambiguities of the political themes in the Verhoeven film further, really driving home our main character Quaid [notice that again the name Quail, much less forgiving on the male ego of our protagonist, is yet again hardened into the much more action-hero-suitable denomination applied to Schwarzenegger] as a heroic [flawed of course; “he can be a real ass”] political freedom-fighter, starkly set against Bryan Cranston’s Chancellor Cohaagen, who in his enthusiasm for international conflict and torture seems to be a rough caricature of bush administration neocon politics, missing the essential component of smiling “likeability” that accompanied it. Something that Hollywood films often seem to miss when presenting their neoconservative archetypes is the banality of their warmongering, that sense of thumbs up and a smile as the meat-grinder kills a few hundred people somewhere else in the world bonhomie. This duplicity would never have conceivably worked given the explicitly authoritarian visage of Cohaagen in the film.
The kind of warmed over political simplifications we receive here only become more notable when set against the Phillip K Dick story, which in contrast keeps the actual political motivations for any of its developments almost entirely ambiguous. Indeed the main question we are intended to take away from both Total Recalls [and I say intended as I’m not sure either really succeed in the reality-questioning they supposedly reach for.. it all comes across as far to telegraphed and obvious], whether the whole thing is simply an implanted memory itself, really doesn’t factor into the story at all in such a fashion, somewhat ironic as these are the main pretences both films make towards sci-fi credentials. Instead the focus is on the nature of memory and fantasy itself, the “Vagueness, omissions and ellipses, not to say distortions” inherent to remembering something, and, by implication, inherent in how we experience the world.
This ambiguity, the partial nature of memory and experience, is something lacking in both films not in theme but in form. Just as one could say that Inception is a film that’s good at talking about dreams but not at representing them, Total Recall is good at mentioning the fallibility of memory without actually showing it meaningfully. The rote action film structure, built on the bare bones of a very short story indeed, forecloses any meaningful sense that what we are witnessing may not be real, the confusion simply acting as an explicit hint rather than an implication of the film itself. Dick’s story explores in many respects the unsettling idea that our memories are simply a simulacra, that is to say, that they an unreliable patchwork constructed of approximations, and that an actually imposed, artificial memory may be better than the real thing as it were. This is at least hinted at in the newer film, but this hint is immediately frustrated by the film’s need to throw us headlong into rather unexciting action set pieces for the rest of its duration.
“We need to get you some better dreams” says Quaid’s wife, played by Kate Beckinsale, towards the beginning of the film. The ultimate irony is that the film has nothing to offer in this regard, the dreams it offers are the same old dreams we’ve become used to, clad in the same old monotonous fabrics. Of course, Phillip K Dick was in every sense more than a simple sci-fi writer, his work toeing the line between speculative futures and psychedelic subversions constantly, even if the interests of commodification drive his work, much like J.G Ballard’s, out of its un-definition to be crammed into the sardine tins of bookshelf conformity. This is precisely what we see in this ultimate repackaging of the old cyberpunk standard, a tinned, vacuum packed reiteration with as much life as a nuclear desert. Its appeals ultimately rest upon our perception of culture becoming so fuzzy that the Blade Runner-Matrix dynamic just beds in as the best we can expect. This is particularly noteworthy when if anything the actual sequel to Blade Runner explored the theme of artificial memory much more effectively and, while not entirely empty of its past more often than not broke free of the cyberpunk-noir shackles of its legacy. Striking at something quite different in terms of theme and focus, it became that wonderful thing; a sequel that manages a re-imagining, a complete shift in perception within the same space. Total Recall on the other hand only musters a gutted out, empty vision of a future we’ve already seen.
After the Mark Fisher memorial lecture from Jodi Dean, considering I’d recently picked up a copy of her book the Communist Horizon I decided to promptly give it a full read. Within it, while I found some points she had reiterated within the lecture, I found a wonderfully fleshed out analysis of the problems faced by the left, the loss of the communist horizon, as Dean puts it, to the static repetitions of drive.
In some ways it fits in quite nicely next to Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism as an instalment in an ongoing push to revitalise left politics and pull it out of the stupor of the past few decades, if one with a greater focus on action and strategy. Much of the book is devoted to defining a collective subject, a focus on the we necessary to enact political change, navigating the impasses of fragmentation and individualism so characteristic to what Dean calls “Communicative capitalism” in tandem with its close ally neoliberalism. While she advocates throughout a unified collective effort, it would be amiss to define this as some call for people to simply converge into a like-minded singularity. Something she brings us back to around every corner is the constant presence of rupture and antagonism within groups, and eventually even within the individual subject themselves.
This is a point I think rings out all the more as left movements are fragmenting everywhere, unable to tackle their own differences. Antagonism, between the lack of the subject and the lack of capital, between subjects, are everywhere we look, and yet people are capable of acting with unified purpose. The key observation to maintain is this, one that Dean reiterates from Lukacs, that a collective common desire distracts from, but does not erase antagonisms, that the form remains incomplete rather than a perfect whole. There is no “united” collective in a true sense, but while this tempts us to move towards Hardt & Negri’s approach, the ever-changing multitude, Dean is correct in her criticisms that this forms a collective that is too disparate and ill-defined to really enact the change it seeks. The multitude might sound lovely and inclusive, and yet it doesn’t really have the pointed gaze towards a common horizon that is needed.
A good example in a sense, whether it exactly lines up or not, are the recent riots in France, and the “yellow vests” movements that originated from them. They are a clear case against the collective as multitude, as after a certain point nobody could work out what was being fought for and everybody appeared to be angry about their own pet issue. There was no abstract horizon to tie it all together besides an outpouring of anger. This lines up somewhat with Hardt & Negri’s conception of communism as an imminence within society, and yet it does not. All that happened was anger without a point, a goal. What’s more, the fact that this was a “movement” so open that anyone with a chip on their shoulder could claim it as their own eventually led it to dissipate and become equally appropriated by right wing and left wing groups with entirely different aims. In its founding around the precepts of individual concern the yellow vest phenomenon was a miserable failure even as it made clear the amount of resentment bubbling away beneath the surface of society.
What was painfully evident from these riots is that people were angry and wanted to change things but from this point had no clear idea of what they were angry at or how to change it. What Dean points out was present in the occupy movement, a clear antagonism based in class struggle; the 99% vs the 1%, and a tactic in order to amplify this antagonism, was nowhere to be seen on the streets of France last year. The communist horizon as something to direct our desire towards on the left is in some respects works past this by ensuring that whatever each individuals grievance, a common direction and foundation for strategy is in place.
Something that is confronted consistently, and that Dean is highly critical of, is the lapse of left wing desire into drive, a banal repetitious approach mired in aestheticism [politics as commodity, as a t shirt, an instagram bio, a fashion] and inaction. Protest becomes something people do not out of genuine wish for change, but as a limp, ineffectual gesture designed to prolong the protest itself. All the symbols of political resistance are reduced to pictures on a mood board, shorn of power and rendered mere commodity like everything else, subsumed into capital. Political action then has little to do with politics, merely becoming communication, PR, eventually lapsing into melancholy.
So to rediscover the communist horizon … it is a matter not of devising a specific state formulation as many automatically assume as soon as the term communist is invoked [During the first part of the book Dean addresses the many issues with conflating communism with the specific historical configuration of the USSR, or even Stalinism], but re-asserting a collective desire for collectivity and drawing out the means to enact that desire. In the throes of neoliberalism and communicative capitalism we are repeatedly told of our autonomy as individuals, that each of us is responsible for ourselves and that, in Thatcher’s words “There is no such thing as society” and it is difficult not to argue that we are now waist deep in the quicksand of that ideology. What is required is the organised collective, not just because everything we are told pushes against it, but because by ourselves it will be impossible to pull ourselves out again.