Multiple instances recently I’ve tried to search for a piece of music on streaming services [in this instance spotify, but pick your poison], and either the version I found there was surpassed by one I found out in the wilds, uploaded to youtube or what have you, or it was nowhere to be found. Times like that really drive home what a limited tool such services can really be in their current state beyond their obvious ethical implications, and it’s really led me to reach a little further in my explorations. Turns out that beyond the recommended tracks and official playlists of that domain you can still find a huge amount of unexplored avenues, and probably more effectively…
I’ve decided I’m too precious about what I post here. It’s a blog, not a newsletter. In an effort to shake off some of my self-enforced formalities here’s a run down of some stuff I’ve been listening to lately.
This song, and that first Os Mutantes record, seems to arc back into my consciousness every now and then; I haven’t thought about it in a while, then bam, it crops up in some mix I’m listening to or something, and that scraping guitar, the skipping euphoria.. it works, without delay. Another favourite from the album, the magnificent Francois Hardy cover –
I can’t say I’ve been gravitating towards sounds of late that sound much like one another, simply enjoyed the feeling of drifting again, which I feel like I haven’t been able to, or simply haven’t afforded myself, in a long time, that process of moving between virtual rooms and searching for recommendations, picking up on signals. It’s something I remember quite well from the simpler times of youtube, when its purpose to me was little more than a kind of music sharing/discovery platform, and a feeling I’ve found difficult to recapture, possibly since university around 5 years ago.
I had heard of Strawberry Switchblade before, I think as an aside in a few histories of new wave/new pop, but truth be told their big hits are a little over the sugar-line for me, indulging in a few too many of those 80s pop production tics that render a lot of that material time-locked beyond repair, but somewhere beyond the drum-machine kitsch there are rolling clouds of melancholy. It goes without saying that the name was something of a clue here, but the beauty of these colder, soaring moments can’t be understated.
The recent Arca record has also emerged from her back catalogue of spiky, abstract electronic confrontation and formed one of the most compelling pop projects I’ve heard in some time. I don’t feel like I’ve done it justice yet and need to sit with it for longer, but it feels like the disquietude made flesh of her previous albums has been exacerbated into a more direct and compelling realisation of the recent tendencies in “future-pop” – with an extra fuck you to anyone who is driven to run for the nearest exit for good measure.
To expand on the half-formed thoughts on Fantasy in my last post on the subject, what becomes more interesting is the thread that connects it to reality. Rather than the refuge, the blueprint or diagram, perhaps more accurately the circuit-breaker. Reading this short reflection from Paul Raven over at Velcro City Tourist Board [a recent discovery I can happily point any readers towards] accentuated and drew out some more of my own uncertain probing in this area so far…
Put simply, sf has always been a deeply nostalgic genre, and the UK is deep in a period of nostalgic escapism more broadly—one that affects its soi-disant liberal left just as much as its Brexit-exceptionalist right, if not perhaps more so in some respects. Maughan and Hill refuse both British exceptionalist nostalgia and the comforts of technological utopianism; there is a market for that refusal, but it is probably too small for the already-struggling publishing houses of the UK market to gamble upon, when they can make more reliable returns with more traditional material.
This observation strikes at what in some sense is a broad truth about the culture industry; it tends inexorably toward nostalgia and the familiar. Where science fiction for instance has long been connected to the futuristic, the seemingly counter-intuitive notion that it is a nostalgic form seems to undercut this claim, often made for and about it. SF, like any other form, is subject to the determined logics of markets, hinging on the illusion of an indeterminate system yet locking it into an eternal return, a melancholia in which literature loops back around to what has been established, finds comfort in prior archetypes and sidelines the perhaps brilliant but untested waters of the speculative or innovative that might be plugging away somewhere in the background.
In this manner, it becomes evident that the fantasy, utopia, speculative futures, if they are to remain a viable popular commodity, must remain passive, an act of wild imagining and pure escape. This is perhaps the key problem with any discussion around “Utopia” or even “Dystopia” today, that of distance. The issues we have with these terms seem to revolve around distance, around some conception of realism. The fantasy/utopia is not only an extrapolation from the real, or so we have come to understand it, but the thin link that this provides has been shorn entirely, the speculations have become so wild as to depart from any serious consideration and become the mere act of “imagination”, a daydream conjured from a brief flash of light. We like to speak, especially now, of imagining new worlds, inventing the future, but all too often this devolves into a kind of flabby and innocuous rambling around ideas that will never see the light of day, a kind of imaginary that exists in tandem with the secret knowledge that its confabulations will never come to pass…
Rather than abandon these forms where they stand, monuments to our failure to construct new realities, I suppose a lot of my writing and research is interested to some degree in reconstructing that link, even seeing if it still exists, no matter how tattered and prepared to snap, sending the whole fragile sculpture hurling into the abyss. The key issue here has often been that we cannot think past the term “Utopia” when we talk about world-building, and in it we see a static framework; an eternal present just like that of late capitalist civilisation. This leads me to think of Raymond Williams essay on Utopia and Science Fiction, in which he assesses William Morris’s Utopian novel News From Nowhere, and remarks specifically on the way in which it sets itself apart from prior Utopias largely in the detail it affords to the revolutionary process itself, the way in which one society became another and the ideal society he goes on to describe at length came to be constructed. This new focus, while it doesn’t pull Morris’s imaginings out of the daydream in which they remain locked, remains key to any understanding of thinking world today.
I recently returned to watch Children of Men, and something that arose as a central concern today was its proximity to reality. Indeed, we like to describe such films as dystopian, but the question began to arise; is there a degree to which a world has to depart from this one to be described as a dystopia? If we described as a Utopia a society which bore a close relation to ours but with positive accents heightened, issued shifted around, geography and chronology confused, what weight does the term or its opposite continue to have. Indeed, it’s often mentioned when we look at fantasy, that genre of pure detachment, in which we find probably the most glaring examples of what could be termed “retrotopian” impulses, the worlds created often bare a far closer resemblance to ours than intended.. so is the thread that connects worlds here as thin and unsubstantiated as we are led to believe?
The problem here is in which direction the connection is established, and we can find a key example in the problem of intention. J.R.R Tolkien famously despised allegory, and rejected any suggestion whatsoever that the Lord of the Rings trilogy was a metaphor for world war 2, as some had speculated. The problem is glaring; whether Tolkien intended this to be the case or not, he has less control over the work he produces and certainly how it is read than he thought, and any intention of allegory or message on the part of the creator is bound and subordinated to the reception and the interpretive matrix within which it exists. Whatever merits or otherwise we might attribute to Barthes death of the author today [and oh boy has that essay been used and abused] the “original intention” of the creator is often far less relevant than we like to assume. A work then becomes not an intervention from the author, a means with which to shape their surroundings, more a reflection and cipher for the ideological, political and social mores of its environment. The reason fantasy might tend to mirror reality is less that of a purposeful interjection than an unconscious determination, the work becomes, through its wish to escape and to take refuge, a simple reiteration of pre-established values under the augur of detachment, we find a separate world which feeds our presumptions, filters values precisely through the justification of the fantastical – anything that happens in reality becomes justified once it is realised instead in the form of a reflexive daydream.
So, fantasy simply becomes a mirror, a place into which we can pour our fears, hatreds and otherwise unjustifiable inclinations as well as our hopes and dreams. It tends towards a kind of unconscious baring of fangs behind an oneiric barrier. Once the thread which connects something to lived reality dissipates, it more than ever begins to re-construct itself in the image of that reality, untethered from it but obscuring the entire topography in the manner of Baudrillard’s re-appraisal of Borges map overlaying the landscape as the simulacra, the effacement of the original entirely. In middle earth, the epic struggles of good and evil, we find more of a refraction of reality than an escape from it; again like Baudrillards beloved image of the moebius strip, the fantasy loops back onto reality, one only reasserts the other, and the “original” recedes from view. Rather than a site of construction, the fantasy in its purely detached form is a realism, a fatalism of real possibility than leads only to a failed escape. In the same manner in which it’s been reiterated that capitalism was a failed escape from feudalism, the fantasy world is all too often a failed escape to feudalism.
In this manner, its opposite number, realism, the attempt, as best we can, to represent reality, and, often to confront ourselves with it, refracts back into its opposite. Realism, directly opposed to the fantastical in any regard, has often been attached to politics in the same manner as fantasy authors have attempted to maintain an essentially apolitical character in their work, and yet the more it unfurls the more the representational characteristics fall apart, the 10-pints-a-day everyman often presented in a lot of classic social realism as an archetypal prole is and always has been just that, an archetype, a construction against which we can model our beliefs or preconceptions rather than a straightforward unveiling. Rather than a demystification, realism, the closer it reaches for the fabled land of direct representation, provides us with a kind of naive anecdotal reality in which what we directly encounter becomes a thin film stretched over reality.
So rather than a thread connecting the fantasy to reality, it is more of a folding, in which middle earth becomes middle England and middle England middle earth in a perpetual reflexivity of reality and imagination. Rather than an exit, a schism through which we can peer or enter some other world, or through which something might leak, the fantasy is a totality, and in this it is reality itself, the thread disappears entirely as the topography of one starts indistinctly melding with the other, and the perpetual struggle of good and evil, the denizens of Minas Tirith or Mordor, start to resemble those we see around us, and vice versa. The main characteristic of fantasy is its all consuming realism.
Can anyone reasonably argue for capital at this juncture? This question hangs in my mind as we stand on the brink of what is widely described as an economic “reckoning”, and as the demands of the financial markets actively abandon any pretence of resembling the real world.
The great lie is that moderation and triangulation is pragmatism, the more realistic option posed against the wild and dangerous radicalism of totemic opposition, when its pathological attachment to fantasy is the most acute and the most morbid. At a moment when the conservative party is sending forth their most accomplished actors to tell a tale of glorious rebuilding efforts and an optimistic striking forward into a golden future, is this really the time to turn around and say no, you can’t have nice things, and we won’t fight for them? Of course it goes without saying that “build back better” “bounce forward” et al shouldn’t be taken remotely at face value, and are effectively Boris Johnson mustering his last vestiges of elan to scrape back the lost romance of victory, and that the Labour party’s retreat from political opposition in any meaningful sense is simply an attempt, however misguided, at bagging an imagined socially conservative flag-worshipping working class, but it doesn’t make it any less galling that at such a time, when we don’t just want but need a radical opposition to capital, it disappears from view.
I say this because the fantasy of the centre is that we can proceed for some indefinite amount of time, in theory infinitely, with some minor tinkering, maybe some nice words slapped on top. This is a concoction of almighty proportions, it may as well be claiming that the streets of London are paved with gold, such is its faith in the complete lie. The reasoning that lies behind this approach is wheeled out often, and it goes something like this – 1. To change anything we need to win elections, and so [this second part remains unspoken] 2. To win elections we need to change nothing. Whatever you think of Tony Blair, it is said, at least he won elections, as if this is some kind of inherent virtue, as if to do so he didn’t simply roll back any last hint of leftist politics and submit to the continuation and exacerbation of Thatcherite economics. Yes, he was an accomplished politician, but what did this give us? For every positive social reform attributed to new labour is the nullification of their reactionary-baiting and economic conservatism. Blairism may have ridden a wave of stability and contentment to some degree, but its legacy casts a deathly pall.
But the circular reasoning continues. The liberal obsessions with electability and respectability blossom into the kind of sanctimonious, preachy bullshit the left has been constantly accused of [sometimes with due cause], before long the claims start coming out that leftists who refuse to vote in another conservative are supporting the conservatives, under the assumption that whatever their faults, surely anything has to be better. As a matter of fact it doesn’t, and we can’t afford to think this way. Arendt was wrong about a lot of things I’m sure, but that famous quote remains apt;
If you are confronted with two evils, the argument runs, it is your duty to opt for the lesser one, whereas it is irresponsible to refuse to choose altogether. Its weakness has always been that those who choose the lesser evil forget quickly that they chose evil.
This principle is quickly forgotten even by those who regularly use Arendt as an inspiration. In the context of the left, there is the constant temptation of capitulation; we start reasoning ourselves in knots, telling ourselves that we need to play the games of the enemy to win. It’s true that in some scenarios it is justified to support an option that isn’t necessarily wholesale radical change [for many Corbynism was in fact such an option], but there is a vector of triangulation which causes us to shift further and further into a fuzzy realm of non-belief until we forget what we stood for in the first place, and why we were fighting for it.
I have always yearned for escape. Reading this post from Carl Neville recently reminded me of that. I don’t want to make some kind of major claim toward epiphany, a discovery of who I really am, what I’ve really wanted; such things are not only philosophically suspect but simply boring. Everyone does them, and they don’t get more engrossing the more strength we give to them, staking out our identity around some kind of monism of intent. Instead, what I’m trying to describe here is the identification of a schism between worlds, or multiple schisms.
First there is that of adulthood, the point at which, from the kind of drifting obsolescence of childhood we are catapulted into reality, from the daydream into a world of machine-locked routine and ruthless competition. It doesn’t feel like a divide at the time, largely because you don’t notice, but at some point the whiplash kicks in; our dreams are sold out, our stupid hopes turned into dust, and we have to crack on and make it in the world of work. This is, personally, something that I eventually struggled with, but grew into a deep distrust for. If there’s one thing that I remember really strongly about New Labour’s still much vaunted focus on education, education, education, it is the cloying, awful feeling of being railroaded into a “career”.
The moment where a careers adviser laughed when I intimated I wanted to go to university stands out particularly, but the general annoyance I always had was being alone among my peers in the deep distrust I had [but couldn’t necessarily explain] for normality, everything I hated about that grey suit the deputy head wore all the time, the kind of insistence that if we wanted to make it, we had to accept compromise. Selling out was not an issue, in fact it was encouraged. If there was an underlying term behind education at that time, it was “career”. Anything and everything was transformed into a way to mold us into gladiators, to be sent out into the pits and against the mercy of boardrooms and managers. The explicit funnelling of education into so much wood-chip to be fed into the compactor fomented in me a long-standing dislike of the world in all its deathly banality, and in some respects I entered into something of a war of attrition in which it was a question of whether it could, over time, break down my teenage illusions, or whether I could just drift past its security channels and get out unharmed…
This meant escape. There was a heavy aspect of this in my retreat into the art classrooms, my decision that to hell with everyone’s insistence on business ambitions and preparing for interviews, I was going to be an artist, a philosopher, or something like that, didn’t matter, just as long as it allowed me to enter some other world away from this one. I spent my youth in libraries, in video games, engrossed in worlds as far away from my own as I could muster, whether it was prehistory, feudal Japan, Gormenghast or Tolkien, and I largely aspired to create worlds of my own. If reality was so dull and horrifying then I would create another.
Eventually, this was funneled into the serious world of contemporary art. Eventually finding myself in the art school I’d been told was a futile hope, I was struck gradually by a disappointment, a disappointment rooted in fantasy. I had, in my naivite thought of this world as something that must be exciting, bohemian, something more rewarding than than the normal channels everyone seemed to insist I followed, only to find that the same creeping malaise of reality was everywhere, infesting every corner and every alternative. I still found myself attempting to escape. My “existentialist phase” as I might now address it, tongue partially in cheek, was a direct confrontation, in retrospect, with this disappointment. Every alternative I wanted to find was not what I was supposed to be doing. Creating worlds was brutally subjugated to the command of representation. If I couldn’t find them here I’d look to the mythologized cafes of Paris, to bohemian intellectuals and avant gardes that seemed a million miles away from this sterile, scrubbed environment.
It’s taken quite some time of detours, drifting and breakdown from that point to discover where that escape actually lay, to in any respect identify what I was searching for, and if anything it yet again puts me on a collision course with fantasy. When I read Mark Fisher’s Weird and the Eerie perhaps a year or so ago now, a distinction within his definition of the weird was of immediate interest to me. This is between the weird and the fantastical –
“Fantasy is set in worlds completely different from ours – Dusany’s Pegana, or Tolkien’s Middle Earth; or rather, these worlds are locationally and temporally distant from ours. The weird, by contrast, is notable for the way in which it opens up an *egress* between this world and others.”
In principle, I find little to disagree with. Formally, this is true, a basic distinction of the fantasy is a disconnect from reality, that it is a world entirely distinct from this one rather than explicitly connected to it. Yet, something that emerged from this statement for me is the consideration of fantasy exactly as something that maintains a thin thread with the world from which it is conjured. Tolkien famously hated allegory, and insisted that Lord of the Rings was in no way intended as a work about any real life conflict, and yet the fact he had to draw this distinction at all renders it questionable. The fantasy implies an escape; even if, unlike weird fiction, this escape isn’t explicit in print, it is forever implicit in the creation of the fantasy itself.
Rather than a nagging point of contestation with Fisher’s observation, this is something I would extend into an unfurling of Fantasy as a form into something far more complex than it is often given credit for. Michael Moorcock’s famous critique of Tolkien, Epic Pooh, remains a turning point for me in my engagement with the genre specifically. The nostalgia for a “lost land” in Tolkien and other English writers in the same vein is something that is difficult to ignore once you see it, and it opens up, not a dismissal of fantasy but one of many distinctions within fantasy. Moorcock’s disdain for the sentimental romanticisms of Tolkien is to identify a Fantasy constructed as a yearning for something lost, in which we hark back to a long gone middle england in the hobbit holes and cabbage patches of the shire as an escape from the scouring, the onset of industry and modernity in the fiery depths of Mordor. We build worlds from materials, from ideas and fragments of worlds already available to us; the thin membrane between fantasy and reality begins to tear.
“Thuggery” this was the term Priti Patel used, among others, in an outpouring of contempt it seemed largely towards the righteous demolition of the Edward Colson statue in Bristol. This act was conflated with mindless violence, an act of destruction and anarchy that had to be cracked down on posthaste. So when, this Saturday, we find a heaving crowd of inebriated reactionaries throwing their fists in every direction, throwing Nazi salutes and urinating on monuments, we have to wonder whether this is the thuggery they were talking about, and from the evidence, given the clear fears expressed by the likes of Boris Johnson and a host of journalists/commentariat, it was not.
The hypocrisy almost doesn’t bear mentioning it is so absolute. To appear under the pretence of defending the nazi-defeating honour of “our history” and give nazi salutes next to the cenotaph is enough to give us the lay of the land here. As has been mentioned elsewhere, it becomes obvious that rather than the defence of figures like Churchill we hear, some from these neo-brownshirts themselves, as the bastion against fascism, what really provides the animus here is that we defeated Germany, not the nazis. The exceptionalism of the Britannia rules the waves story of world war 2 is, need it be said, completely separate from any understanding whatsoever of fascism; it revolves around a continuation of colonial power, a make Britain great again political program in which the fact we defeated Hitler is a matter of nationalism vs nationalism, the pure hearts of the British vs the corrupted psyche of the Germans. The irony too, of the statement someone attached to the boarded up statue of Churchill –
“Do not destroy our history. Keep our history and learn from it so the same mistakes don’t happen again.”
Of course, politicians and commentators can’t not condemn what was happening here, and on cue, both Priti Patel and Boris Johnson can yet again be heard uttering the word “thuggery” alongside the often rather pedestrian comments from other politicians. At least they decided to be consistent on this we might be tempted to say, but we shouldn’t cut any of them slack for rather obviously whipping up the exact sentiment that led to these rallies in the first place, and this applies just as much to liberals who have long trafficked in triangulation and both sides compromises and the conservatives who plump for the traditionalist law and order position, anyone who gave any credence to the notion that Black Lives Matter was an illegitimate movement, undermined by unacceptable acts of anarchy.
The word “Thug” is a loaded one, replete with notions of the unsophisticated barbarian, the knuckle dragging neanderthal. When it is unleashed on a movement fighting for racial justice, the pregnant associations hiding behind such language often mirrors the war on terror, and further back Stuart Hall’s policing the crisis. It is ambiguous enough to ensure plausible denial, but evocative enough to provoke a host of behaviours and unsavoury associations. The fact that this is the term that was directed at Black Lives Matter always exuded a horrible odour, but now something interesting has happened. It is important to note on the one hand that the Tories have already implied a “both sides” narrative simply through the similarity of statements made regarding both BLM and this far right retaliation, the only small difference being a minor acknowledgement of legitimate cause with the former. It is also true, however, that what has happened here is by its nature somewhat humiliating; the seething moral panic that developed in the last week over protecting history, in which a mob of cultural revolutionaries was supposed to be preparing to rampage across the country pissing over our heritage, is replaced by one of our brave history-protectors pissing over a monument to a dead police officer.
And so “Thug” is now used to imply equivalence, to suggest that the drunk fury, racist chants, and testosterone fuelled violence of this Saturday is on any way level with a group of excited protesters pulling down a statue. They are all thugs, it is all wrong, we make no distinctions, left or right, we’re not taking sides… this must be resisted. There is a key difference delineated in what you are fighting for, not in the difference between legitimate and illegitimate forms of protest, riots and demos, but between fighting for justice and fighting for an imaginary history and against the oppressed. The term used in reporting by some to describe the protestors, “anti-antifascists”, the very generous label applied to them of “counter-protesters”, all speak to the insidious ways in which reactionary outbreaks of violence are framed as exceptions rather than rules, while riots and looting are framed as the rule itself, an essential characteristic.
Where for some thuggery is something that they occasionally break into, a symbol of momentary lost control, for others it is taken as who they are, it is extrapolated into the undermining of their entire cause.
And that, inasmuch as it applies to the media apparatus and the framing of current events, is the problem.
I recently, found myself chancing upon some videos of early Little Richard performances, shared around in the wake of his death not too long ago, and it’s the kind of thing that, without warning, kick-starts a series of connections and far flung references spiralling out of what is, really, a remarkably powerful document. I say this because there’s perhaps an innate assumption that if we look this far into the past, all we’re going to find is a collection of dusty, faintly ridiculous wall hangings; the nasty suspicion is that all that we have left of these times is a comedy performance, that it is impossible to really understand what might have made something like rock’n’roll such a controversial cultural force at the time behind its time-locked fuzz.
On the contrary, some of this footage brought this to the fore in a flurry of sweat, jerky movements and riotous audience applause… while there’s no mistaking the fashion, surroundings, the music itself for anything beside a product of that moment, the tension remains. Little Richard’s notable effeminate appearance in many of these clips merges with his voice, a kind of twisted gospel-shout-yelp that seems to be trying to escape his body in some kind of psycho-sexual possession. It’s not difficult to see the root of the moral panic right here, the sight of a black performer who brooked no quarter, who threatened to break free of the sidelines and stage an invasion of the respectable domains of white culture. To be able to witness this today remains a remarkable glimpse, and begins to find echoes in all rhythmic interventions, the power contained in submitting oneself to the demands of a bodily sensation, that are replicated across temporal chasms today.
Of course, it wasn’t Little Richard who was eventually dubbed “the King”, and in the brief overview of rock’n’roll I remember seeing in multiple documentaries growing up he was glossed over before we got to the main act, Elvis Presley and, inevitably, the Beatles. This tendency extends to the mythology of the blues, Robert Johnson, the devil at the cross-roads, the old black man with his guitar pouring out his suffering on the porch somewhere in the Mississippi. There is always a sense, somehow, that these figures value lies not in their performances as much as who they influenced. They become nothing more than a blueprint from which the final product of Led Zeppelin was derived. What is again often glossed over here, is the tense relation between influenced and influencer, the sometimes exploitative channel between them. Led Zeppelin, for instance, were serial offenders when it comes to taking and performing songs recorded first by black singers and crediting them as their own. White rock music has an uncomfortable underbelly when it comes to its admiration for the blues, we might say something of a reactionary character.
To many, the blues becomes soul, and soul becomes music, and music becomes an inscrutable thing that cannot be understood or spoken about lest we are to break the mystery, and yet behind this veil of whispers and adoration lies a complex darkness, a wish to have ones cake and eat it, claim the soul for yourself and nibble it in the corner while others sit and watch. Somehow, this vibrating frequency that is known as rock was reduced to a root, some kind of distant past relegated to a hall of fame in which visitors can stroll around and catch a glimpse of a preserved eyeball or a mummified elder statesman gyrating in the back room somewhere, but here in the mechanical reproduction of one space in time are echoes of punk, of glam, of everybody from Prince to Tricky spiralling out of this single man in his oversized suit, or throwing his shirt into the heaving crowd, delighting in the result. The mystery is broken and reconstructed into a crackling pylon of glorious artifice in which the soul is jettisoned and worn as a mask, and then again turn around on itself and directed back at the interviewer.
There is no doubt in these moments as to who “the king” is, as the man himself reiterated in interviews with great force, he was the originator, the king, the redeemer. This kind of forceful, strutting proclamation later became stock in trade for the swaggering white rock star, if you didn’t claim you were bigger than Jesus who were you really, but here it suddenly seems daring again; Little Richard is reconstructing his own legend on screen, and succeeding. He is absolutely the afrofuturist par excellence, taking that seam of gospel and the blues and distorting it into unheard forms, placing the future into the hands of the man who would find other worlds out there in the fractured miasma.
Rock’n’roll, the and contracted into an ‘n’, the sound of it replicating a speech pattern, the lyrics descending, as Agnes Gayraud and Nick Cohn have expanded on, into Glossolalia; the voice merges into a noise-rhythm, and it is as if the participants are escaping themselves, constrained by their frail human forms and turning themselves into something else entirely. It is, in some respects, the power of a popular form coming into its own, the communion/ritual directed onto the stage, between the stage and the audience, between the audience and the musicians, between the musicians and the singer, between the entire constellation and the recording, between the recording and the living room where we sit, hunched over radios, laptops, or stereos.
When people speak of “rock” “blues” or “rhythm” its often set against a futurism or a modernism, it is the realm of pop tradition, the standard against which the now is set. In many respects however, that is not what emerges on closer inspection, whereupon the mind-body-rhythm machine is made apparent.. the winds of time might make our teeth chatter and our muscles ache, but the pop machine unfurls into some extra-terrestrial cephalopod, possessing us and sending us careening down hallways and avenues. The figure of Little Richard, self-proclaimed progenitor and king, was dethroned, replaced by a shuffling queue of white inheritors. His claim to the throne is one which reckons with its own overshadowing, and he strikes, despite the crowds, a lonely figure there, sexually ambiguous and yet charged so heavily. Little Richard was a progenitor, he one of many who took what was there and grappled with it, crucifying and worshipping it, whose religiosity channelled back into his own identification with a king or a god. Rock’n’roll here isn’t about soul, but movement, everywhere we find the movement of vibration, a whole lotta shakin’, indeed a lot of bluesmen made their living playing for the purpose of dance… soul dissipates into sound, sound into space, space into electricity.
It’s been somewhat difficult to focus of late, and from what I hear I’m not alone in that sentiment. As much as claims of immanent collapse have been a regular feature of social life for some time now, there is a sense, month after month, of the world unravelling. It might be overstated, and it’s possible that eventually this will all settle down and we’ll all retreat into our cottages pretending nothing happened, but it seems unlikely; the notion that we will emerge blinking into the sunlight in a month or two’s time seems to ignore an inevitable surge in devastation that is going to follow and perhaps last well into the next decade, first from the notable perpetual catastrophe of neoliberal economic policy, and then more existentially in the increasingly mounting waves of climate change. The next decade or two are more likely to see the continual return of history in a cumulative sense and various explosions of social unrest than some kind of neatly segmented segue back into the rhythms of everyday capitalism.
If there’s something recent events have done for me it’s bring a few things into perspective, drawn them back into the limelight as it were, and one of those things is the pathetic illusion of liberal democracy, or whatever current title we give the integrated spectacle. The sudden rise in militant protests in reaction to a widely shared video of a police officer murdering George Floyd, the latest catalyst in a long, trailing lineage of horrific police violence against Black Americans, has lead more than anything in recent memory to an active confrontation not only with the thinly veiled blood soaked history of “western” Capitalism, but an illustration of quite how used we had become to the depressing inertia of official channels. When respected politicians, journalists and assorted commentators sit in their usually comfortable positions and demand that you reign yourself in, sign petitions, get elected, it seems like they aren’t quite aware of how staggeringly empty these words sound against a deafening backdrop of nothing happening.
If there’s anything that we’ve learnt from electoral politics in Britain more specifically in recent times, something that anyone who had any minor hope that the Labour party might have had some kind of positive impact will be aware of, it is surely that electoral politics is a vampiric entity more than a galvanising one, it builds us up to tear us down, it catches us between its monumental cogs and grinds us into a thin paste, at every turn the engines of capitalist democracy frustrate autonomy and hope. Recently, Rosa Luxemburg’s incredibly prescient arguments in Reform or Revolution have come to mind again and again, and the impotence of reformism rears its ugly head more than ever. It is easily forgotten that social democracy was always as much a way to prolong the existence of capital as an eventual vehicle for socialism. The question that forever arises for those who would call themselves social democrats is how, in their planned unbroken chain of social reforms, we can avoid simply building Capital mk2 instead of actually replacing it. Recently, this point has arisen regarding police, even if we are to abolish or defund police, something I do not stand against, how could we possibly prevent capital simply producing something that talks like a cop, walks like a cop, but calls itself something else?
The problem with official channels is precisely this, they are official. They require us to play within the co-ordinates provided, within the system we hope to oppose. The myth of entryism has always been the promise that you, personally, can resist the pull of the system you enmesh yourself within. Rather than outwitting it, it becomes simply a way of mitigating it, a gigantic exercise in damage control, meanwhile you become a link in the chain of propagating systems, swept away in a wave of complex counter-insurrectionary procedures. The emptiness of Labour politics today, the non-political slurry of it all, behind a mask of supposedly adult metrics and election-winning charm, was always going to be the result, a left that simply picks apart the faults in rhetoric, wags its finger at the prime minister like he’s stepped out of line in high school. It might all be very satisfying if we stake everything on politicians “messing up” and being inadequate, but unfortunately it remains true that, as Gil Scott Heron pronounced “The revolution will not be televised”. We have to realise surely that the justifications of Capital work not despite but because of its fuck-ups and contradictions; it doesn’t make sense from the ground up, relies on the strength of cognitive dissonance to survive. Simply pointing out inadequacies, stepping back and thinking we’ve done a good job is a fantastic way of ensuring its perpetual authority over political life at the same time as taking a moral high ground. It is the myth of a good and bad form of capital personified.
Reza Negaristani recently tweeted the following –
At the time it flew by, but increasingly I can’t agree more. While on the surface this could be interpreted or extrapolated into what I outlined above as the incredibly dreary failure of entryism, but in line with my recent research into the Situationists, a picture begins to emerge of a kind of extra-electoral action that itself relies on “feats of cunning and education”.Indeed, the fact that Guy Debord and co saw themselves as strategists is an important distinction to make, given their regular domestication into social or cultural theorists alone. While it can be fairly pointed out, and has been time and time again, that the uprisings of 68 failed, can it be said that the post-68 slide into a kind of endless anti-representation, the political coping mechanisms that theorists employed were any better?
The notion of “strategy” seems itself to have become domesticated, and has tended to ignore the kind of militaristic organised attacks and complex, systematised mechanics that we are up against. As sympathetic as I was at a base level for the cause of extinction rebellion for instance, it was [I know it still exists but with all due respect it’s hardly a going concern anymore] the sheer inability of the movement to actually conceptualise an enemy that crippled it as it has any number of movements before it, and this always formed my misgivings towards it. While the kind of militancy of recent events is probably the most welcome development in a long time, it’s already shown signs of becoming rounded off, de-escalated, dissipating into nothing more than a set of reformist demands. The aim must, on a basic level, be to cause consternation, to worry capital.
This is precisely where the recent glorious act of public vandalism in Bristol, in which a statue of a slave trader was pulled down and thrown into a river, succeeded where hundreds of peaceful marches could not. The claim, from conservative ministers everywhere, that the peaceful protests were being undermined by “Thugs”, a loaded term if ever there was one, is the identification on the contrary of the moment the protests might have actually had an effect. It is certainly true that this single act had more of a direct effect than anything said “peaceful protestors” had done thus far, opening up a fault-line in British politics around its inability to imagine its own history as anything besides an abstract good and leading to the questioning of statues and monuments everywhere, but the arguments around it also lead back a long way.
I recently read through Alberto Toscano’s historical study of Fanaticism, a book in which we find that this repeated outlining of protesters, revolutionaries and radicals of all stripes as “religious” Schwärmer opposed to the secular, realistic centre of enlightenment discourse [primarily appearing in the notion, itself utterly absurd, that measured discussion is the cure-all of social ills], has repeatedly arisen in defence of an established order, whether that be feudalism, capitalism, or both. The policing of disorder into “legitimate” and “illegitimate” is at root the wish to ensure that change becomes impossible. You can protest, but only within the square we provide, and only using the methods we’re setting out here. Slow and steady wins the race is, in this context, a way to convince the tortoise that the hare has its best interests in mind and should simply allow it to win.
Of course, Toscano’s final, open ended statement in the book is a complication, and one in line with Negaristani’s observation above-
“Urgency and intransigence must be coupled with patience and strategy, if there is ever to be a history without fanaticism.”
This speaks towards a radical politics that, rather than mitigating its energy in favour of the slow-burn dissipation of elections, or unleashing itself in a singular display of anger and tearing everything down at once, can maintain its energy and couple it with a complex strategy, a way to outmanoeuvre its opponents rather than cede ground to them or throw itself against their shield walls. The problem in part is how we view protests as a single element of the mechanisms they are trying to oppose, and eventually all we can imagine in terms of action is simply turning up with a sign and walking down a road chanting. I’m not demanding that we all become guerilla fighters against capital here, but we have to start thinking around and behind the machinic operations arrayed before us or we will continue to be crushed. The very notion, on the part of the situationists, that they were strategists, and that detournement or the derive folded into pointed tactics, is a valuable pointer towards something that really does appear lacking today in our concept of “organising”, the notion that it’s not just important to oppose but to outwit.
The implication on Negaristani’s part here, that opposition to capital must be a rational one, does of course speak against the transcendental, the notion that markets, elections, politics is to be maintained as some kind of black box through which everything operates, but which we cannot hope to understand or mitigate. This is perpetuated to the degree that a lot of politicians themselves believe it, and simply act as unknowing progenitors of an unconscious engine to which they attribute some kind of supremacy without ever being able to explain it. The notion that the complexities of the systems we hope to overcome is some kind of epistemological horizon must be abolished, as much as the obfuscatory and contradictory claims it makes for itself, and we must attempt to take apart and understand its most insidious mechanisms; more than the undeniably important “diversity of tactics” a left that is to change the course of history must also embrace and practice complexity at the very same time as militant anger. We must seed both consternation and confusion wherever we appear.
… I do apologise that this post isn’t the music-related one I had planned from the end of my last, events got in the way. That is absolutely coming next.
I discovered recently to my great [pleasant] surprise that Simon Reynolds over at blissblog had shouted out this very site in his recent brief reflection on a remarkable 18 years of blogging and the final winding down of Bruce Sterling’s long-running Wired blog Beyond the Beyond. It’s taken a while for whatever I do here, and it is probably somewhat correct to call it a kind of public notebook, to find a voice that doesn’t simply feel like a stolen echo of others, but at the risk of being wrong in another years time, it’s starting to seem that way. A few posts ago I spoke somewhat ambiguously about the relative failure of the blogosphere, or at least its descent into undeath, and this has brought be back to those thoughts.
Like SR I too have to confess to a continued belief in the blog. Not so long ago on this site I wrote a perhaps ambiguous reflection on the successes and failures of the blogosphere, and it still stands, but I will reiterate that I think blogging is worth it. This is true for me, personally, and I like to hope it is more broadly, as a form which enables more than any other the ability to sketch and engage with ideas with a more freewheeling and discontinuous sensibility than the academy may allow. It might be true that the earliest posts on here are a matter of embarrassment to me now, and I doubt they contain much I’d release into the ether today, but I’m in no doubt that I would never have encountered and engaged with a great number of avenues without this place in which to publicly “dump” them. Keeping up a blog, even when it hasn’t been as regular as I’d like, has allowed a kind of slicing, copying, and pasting together a great deal more interesting an invigorating as a way of “doing theory” than the more reserved methods I’ve attempted before. The blog allows us to scout out territories that might otherwise remain closed off to us. At least, when it works.
If there’s something that I think has reminded me of this lately, and if I’m honest the reason I took an interest in all of this stuff to begin with, it was listening back to Robin MacKay’s lecture “On the Possibility of a Pulp Philosophy” for the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy. Mark Fisher’s notion of a pop, or pulp modernism, has become a key discursive leitmotif for me, something that draws a lot of my specific interests and writings together. This was heightened for me via this particular lecture, especially after reading through the discussed Dialectic of Pop by Agnes Gayraud around the new year. The notion of pop’s vicissitudes, and the heretical but powerful notion that rather than watering down or simplifying complexity or strangeness, pop can heighten or intensify it, feels like a kind of subterranean thread that’s followed me for sometime, but that I’ve only really been able to draw out in the last two years or so.
It is however, beset by tension. There is, at least I like to think so, a difference between what I’d like to achieve and Alain De Botton’s “philosophy as glorified self help” method, in which not only philosophy, but culture, is championed as a form of meditation, a way to escape your problems and find meaning in life. The problem here is obvious; not only does it flatten theory and culture, jettison the parts of it that might rub us the wrong way, but it frees us of the necessary obligations that these concerns provide. It is when something becomes kneaded ruthlessly into the doughy truth of timeless wisdom that it ceases, ironically, to be of much help to the problems at hand. This is where the concept of “inquietude” becomes a key ingredient, the notion that, rather than a calming lake of truth, philosophy is here as a churning ocean of malfeasance, something that might pick apart our brains rather than put them back together.
This goes beyond making fun of School of Life however; at some point a few months back I was watching a long conversation between Ian Hamilton Grant and Ray Brassier, and a brief comment from Brassier stuck with me, where he succinctly described Liberalism as the belief that all antagonisms can be resolved. In the midst of a dense [but worthwhile] exchange on Hegel and Schelling, this stood out, not just because of it’s simplicity, but because it acknowledged so effectively the link between ontology and politics. This is of course an area of great conflict, and it wouldn’t be amiss to point out here that there is an ongoing problem with ontology being conjured out of politics. To link ontology and politics is merely to acknowledge that our ontological and political positions can’t exist autonomously from one another, that the latter must, in some way, lead on from or line up with, the latter.
So, to lead on from Brassier’s brief remark, Liberalism revolves around a distaste for conflict and the notion that every problem arises from antagonism. The issue of Racism for example, is simply an issue that can be smoothed away if we all just act a bit nicer to one another. Politics should be less tribal, we should solve political issues through rigorous debate and win people over to our side. All of these are preceded by the ejection of real conflict, the assumption that underneath the political we really are all in the same boat, that there are no discernible material conflicts beyond the fact that one person dislikes another, Left and Right are just words, it’s all relative, one pure, smooth continuity; the existential arguing of politics out of existence.
Central to all of this is the break, the fracture, tension and disquiet; in effect, there is a potential in culture and philosophy to exacerbate these fractures rather than simply paper them over, to pass into and through manias and conflicts rather than slicing them out of the picture. Take them away, and you are left with said soft, doughy substance, something that seems profound but just sits there provides some kind of solace. Life doesn’t change, it just goes on, the most we can do for you is make it more bearable. Rather, I strive to exacerbate and transform those unbearable seams of discontent, twisting them into a kind of fractured pulp geomancy, a conjuring built from a bolting together of disparate figures, philosophies and traces.
This is, in part at least, the benefit of writing in the perpetually unfinished, fragmentary form of the blog. It allows you, at its best, to conduct a kind of massive online derive, a slicing through boundaries and reconstituting the chronologies and navigation, opening up close channels and reigniting dulled flames. The reason we might still champion the blog is similar to the reasons philosophers have often championed the aphorism, the value of journals and magazines, in any format in which we find some kind of loosely “curated” [though I’m loathe to use that term] crossover of articles and sections. The benefit of the blog however is that, as a kind of public sketchbook/diary/chronicle it is never beholden to the same rules.
Is it a failure? It’s true enough that the blogosphere somewhat appears to have disintegrated, and it’s more tempting now to identify a loose collection of separate blogs than confidently assert that they constitute some kind of textual rhizome in which ideas are thrown around and exchanged. Perhaps however, it is correct to say this is more to do with a kind of mutation of internet sensibilities than anything, in which the blog has often become increasingly sidelined. Blogging, unfortunately, can also lead to a kind of blog-solipsism in which we accrue and attribute a host of reflexive assumptions, or attempt to jam everything into the framework of a blog-post whether it fits or not. This is definitely something I’ve struggled with at times and the reason I’ve held back on posting something I initially thought a great idea. Regardless, I think the blog still holds great value and promise regarding my own ideas and trajectory and I still gladly espouse to anyone who wants to listen the benefits of having this place to write beyond yourself and hash out your wildest imaginings…
I hope to delve into some music-based posts soon, but before then I felt like getting this out of my system, and last but not least expressing my thanks to those who consider what I do here worthy of some kind of attention.
The BBC Radio 4 programme “New Weird Britain” presented by John Doran, is the kind of thing that begins to suggest in some way that the end of history is itself at an end. Something notable about the musicians interviewed and explored here is not only that they firmly turn their eyes away from the commercial viability of their art, but also that they resist identification with those marked off “alternative” spaces which for so long have made the kind of cultural percolation that leads to more widespread innovation incredibly sparse and difficult.
What this phenomena, whether the name of “New Weird Britain” sticks or not, points towards is a change in atmosphere. “It’s finally happening” exclaims Cosi Fanni Tutti in the last segment of the programme, in reference to what we might tentatively see as a largely DIY cultural response to times of heaving angst and danger. The rulebooks are useless, and those who still desperately adhere to them increasingly resemble the hopeless gestures of a dying empire. In this climate, one where the bedrock of political confabulation churns and shudders with the trauma of centuries, where a reactionary Frankenstein’s monster attempts to claw back to an organic totality, an idealistic golden age, it is in many ways no surprise that the world of the freak, the alien, makes the most sense. It is in this spirit that currents of weird or experimental culture have always acted, and it is at times of confluence, where socio-political and material effects come crashing into our cultural consciousness, that a blossoming of the weird promises to emerge, pulsating, into the light.
The problem with “alternative” culture for a long time has been precisely the problem with what its an alternative to. Rather than being an experimental underground feeding up into the mainstream, it has been presented separately, kept to the margins, at best when it is brought up being treated with a kind of sneering condescension. Another issue, increasingly I think, is connected to the differing modes of consumption now dominated by streaming, by an ostensible world of individual choice, where we can listen to or watch anything we want at any given time. What this leads onto is the reality of this world, driven by algorithms and consumer preference, in which a general beige-ness begins to dominate. This isn’t to say there is nothing weird going on, merely that we are drawn inexorably to what we already want to consume, and so instead of experiencing this percolation of different elements of culture we begin to simply play to our individual tastes.
Indeed this is something notable about New Weird Britain even being aired on Radio 4, the radio being something that can potentially still deliver surprises, rip through the curtain of consumer taste, deliver a challenging programme on fringe culture somewhere in the vicinity of who’s line is it anyway. What I think is truly important about the fringes is not simply their alternative status, “alternative” as such having become another product on a shelf, another consumer identity signifier, but their ability to disrupt the everyday. There is some amount of truth to the idea that the world, politically and environmentally, is becoming weirder in terrifying ways, inasmuch as the rather comfortable assumptions we held about the end of history, of liberal civility, that everything would more or less continue as it did, have fallen apart. This, however, I don’t think necessarily translates into cultural developments without a legitimate establishing of underground experimentation, not only that, but one that feeds in, that extends feelers into the media, appears when you least expect it, that embodies what we might consider as weird by being where it doesn’t belong.
New Weird Britain is in essence identifying what seems to be a resurgent underground space which might itself have discordant echoes in the churning cultural landscape itself. The presence of a thriving underground in British culture is something that itself seems so alien now that its mere presence has a kind of power. It may admittedly be my own biases speaking however I think if we truly are seeing an incursion of the weird, it is imperative that it is encouraged, pushed further, that its resonances are amplified. The danger here would be simply in assuming its some other place were the freaks gather, something somehow completely disconnected from widespread cultural production. The power of a DIY approach here is notable not because it escapes these constrictions but because it reacts to them. And isn’t this what proves so exciting ultimately about the prospect of this new underground, the prospect of culture that believes in itself, that sets forth its own way of being. The act of reacting to what comes before you, against it, is something that moves beyond the mere act of producing work which pleases you into a militant act.
[Note: I realise I end this referring to militancy and this brings up the complex issue of didacticism in music. The marvellous Richard Dawson brought this up in the programme, mentioning what he perceives as the problem of didacticism in protest music, in contrast with how he approaches the political in his own work. This I think deserves a whole post at some point, but suffice to say that I think this hits at some core problems with how we talk about “political” culture, this division between the kind of folky back to basics didacticism and music as dictated by the pleasure principle, that pretends to be “a-political”. To clarify I do think Dawson’s own music manages to move past this divide extraordinarily well]