Now I’ve definitively extracted my foot from the mulch of certain online theory trends, there is a certain bracing wind that accompanies where I go from here. It is my intention from here to turn into this wind, taste the salt it brings in from the crashing waves and relish it. There has been a trajectory I’ve found myself on that I can most clearly identify from the evening I read Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism; something that I would compare to a genuine epiphany towards the anti-capitalist convictions that have only grown stronger. In the year since it’s been a wavering line rather than a strong arc, but as it clarifies, it became clear that it was defined by two distinctive currents; put simply that of a Praxis towards a communist alternative, the radical re-configuration of the means of production, and that of culture, of its production and its influence on social relations. This divides in different terms somewhat into the political imperative to build a better future, and that of what lies close to my heart so to speak, or more succinctly to the collective and the particular.
To elaborate on this I want to go further back in my own experience and elaborate on the significance music has for me. Music was actually something I never really got into until I was 16. By this I don’t mean that music had no significance, it was ever-present in my childhood, around me at home and in the circles I encountered, but until that point I had never really been a fan of a particular band, musician or anything like that. It was the fateful meeting of a guitar and a book of White Stripes tabulature that catapulted me into actually listening to music, and it was here at the intersection of creating and experiencing music that I found some kind of escape from the rather miserable experience of my social reality at school, an opening onto a world removed from the one where I had to endure the gauntlet of other people, something better. A few years on from this, the musical experience opened up to me in what I can now recognise as a characteristically postmodern deluge of multiplicity, flashing lights, different sounds, a million new things at once. I discovered probably hundreds of groups and figures in one sweep, and each successive sound was one I hadn’t really encountered before.
Nonetheless, despite this overwhelming wash of musical discovery, something else comes out at me from those initial years, and that’s how music consistently offered me something apart from the endlessly careers-focused hell of college, the social anxiety I faced in the outside world. This seems in a sense perhaps a result of the fact I was experiencing music at a greater rate as most of what I was stumbling across was both new and old, from multiple different decades and eras at once. At that time, the dizzying array was exhilarating and I embraced it. Music, the experience of sound, captivated me in the way that nothing else could, and the further I explored its corridors, the more it was this experience, not simply listening to a song but letting the song hit me in the face, that appealed to me. I distinctly remember playing Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennae to Heaven from front to back in a room on my own and being driven to tears simply by the combination of sounds at a particular moment, and this experience, similar to the experience of the mystical that often emerges into the lives of characters in Clarice Lispector’s stories, that began really to drive my musical obsessions. When it comes down to it, what bleeds through all the music that I’ve really attached to myself is this sometimes violent, sometime strange, always somewhat blissful entrance of something that seems otherworldly [and yet it’s worth noting that the reason it seems this way is precisely because it is not].
What is the point of this lengthy exercise in self-reflection? It is in part to ground more clearly what precisely it is that forms my intimate connection to cultural production as something that can change the constitution of the world. I felt the need to elaborate on this precisely because at this point the “communism” part is far more easy to understand without much exposition. The point, then, is how we might achieve it. Of course I might note at this point that I am not a professional musician and my university education thus far has been in Fine Art, so there is quite clearly more to this, but I find even my focus via visual mediums is often defined irreducibly by musical influence as much as or more than other visual ones; music is something that one might say haunts any work I produce. This leads in fact to what I want to start defining more in terms of the overlap between cultural forms and modes, the ways in which a piece of music may lead directly or otherwise towards a book, or the latter towards a film… the space in which it is possible to open up new worlds and teach new languages, something I will tentatively call a pedagogical cultural space.
Cultural Hegemony is the term used by Gramsci to refer to the naturalised social order, the idea that for the ruling class to maintain control, the natural order must seem like second nature, common sense [of course this has a lot to do with good ol’ ideology which I will no doubt address further down the line]. Something I’ve often held with me from my musical excursions is precisely an instinct of resistance to what was held to to be normal or natural, but one that at the time I obviously had no idea how to effectively talk about or channel into anything. All that the regular drumming into us in college of the market stalinist dogmas of careers and economic success achieved for me was an inherent distaste for the stultifying banalities that it promised, and I have no doubt that while this has caused me much grief in the form of existential/identity crises and persistent nagging anxieties, and capital is geared consistently towards making you feel like shit for doubting its good word, it set me in good stead. It’s when you consistently flout the rules of common sense that you simultaneously discover how contingent they are and how keen people are to reinforce them.
So in this sense, I’ve always had a distrust of the hegemonic ideas that are spoonfed by decree, the rather distasteful implication that growing up is a process of self-imposed exile and disillusionment from our stupid dreams, that upon exiting into “the outside world” we just have to suck up, get a proper job and be happy with our lot. The most we can expect is a promotion at the behest of some depressed stooge whose task it is to shift the decks endlessly on board a sinking ship. In this sense, what culture offered me, in its otherworldly potential, was an alternative. It undoubtedly opened me up to worlds I would never have encountered without it, even as I grew frustrated at the endless covers of classic rock songs everyone insisted on learning whenever we actually managed to play music together.
Of course before I get too carried away I’m not trying to romanticise culture here as some autonomous zone, a genuine utopian enclave away from the troubles of reality, but it is apparent to me that this is precisely how it felt at the time, as if through the collection of music that I carried with me I could walk through the door in the wall and spend time in some ethereal wonderland for a bit. This sense of escapism through culture is something I want to come back to, but for now I want to address that culture cannot in fact magically detach itself from its own means of production any more than another facet of society. Indeed, what I’ve just described might all fall under the heading of Fetishism, a kind of reified description of something that is, when all is said and done, nothing but a commodified, packaged product from a supermarket aisle. As we are aware now, even alternative cultural spaces are by no means pure, untainted by the logics of the Culture Industry. In fact, its potentially in alternative cultures where it sometimes makes itself more apparent, whether that is in the sectioning of “avant garde” or experimental forms far from the centre where everything stays in its lane, never to intersect, or simply in the surface level adoption of an “alternative” aesthetic, symbols of resistance, transgression and “Punk” that have now become so much semiotic slurry in the every-day experience.
An object of study; the recent episode of Black Mirror, starring Miley Cyrus, called “Rachel, Jack and Ashley too”. Much has been said about why elements of the last season of Black Mirror didn’t necessarily come together, but what really stood out to me about this episode in particular was the way it presented the culture industry in what amounted to a good vs evil, imprisonment vs freedom ethical narrative wherein the malicious influence of “pop” is set against the transgressive freedom of “alternative” forms of music and presentation. Throughout the episode we have persistent black and white contrasts between the cartoonish villainy of the dystopian pop industry, an inhuman machine that must churn out palatable content at all costs, and the freedom of “liking what you like “, doing your own thing. This is exemplified in the relationship between the main character and her sister, who both constantly argue over this very cultural divide.
Much of what’s presented here echoes some of the blistering critique Adorno & Horkheimer levelled at the Culture Industry, but even they, often somewhat unfairly given short shrift today, grimly noted how expressions of spontaneity, freedom, improvisation, often are made palatable, they are accepted, but only through the absorbtion of their disrupting influence as a new tool in the Culture Industry’s armoury. We can experience the alternative, but only as another sub-heading of the commodity. Paolo Virno notes in On Virtuosity [from Grammar of the Multitude]that while at the time such deviations where considered by Adorno & Horkheimer as remnants, something that remained from the old cultural modes and was soon to be lost somewhere in the innards of capital, chewed to a pulp, it seems now, after the convulsive propulsion into post-fordist modes of production and labour, that these elements have re-aligned to the centre of the culture industry itself. Virno proposes, in a similar vein to the common statement that neoliberalism and post-fordism emerged as a result of a desire to escape the misery of fordist capitalism, that the very aspects of culture that in that primary critique were held to be dead meat, have become part and parcel of what Jodi Dean might call “communicative capitalism”.
“These were not remnants, but anticipatory omens. The informality of communicative behaviour, the competitive interaction typical of a meeting, the abrupt diversion that can enliven a television program [in general, everything which it would have been dysfunctional to rigidify and regulate beyond a certain threshold] has become now, in the post-Ford era, a typical trait of of the entire realm of social production.”
Here we move past the image of packaged goods on a production line that often comes to mind when we consider the Adornian culture industry, into the elasticity of contemporary communication, the feedback loops and open ended performances of online networks. Of course this does not mean that the promise this offers is legitimate, that we are seeing a complete cessation of formulaic entertainment, more that the means of its production are now supposedly in sync with these means of communication. We can see an example of this for instance in the increasing attempts of brands, from fast food chains to social media companies to Disney, to “appear human”, to generate seemingly spontaneous interaction online, and more generally in the universal PR machine that drives not only the culture industry today but practically every facet of socio-political life. When mark Fisher said “all that is solid melts into PR”, he was perhaps referring to this very tendency towards what Virno calls Virtuosity, away necessarily from packaged, closed off products, towards the open-ended performance.
In the aforementioned Black Mirror episode, this is most clearly criticised on the one hand as the inauthentic pop industry, purposefully hiding and effacing the unhappiness and suffering of Miley Cyrus’s character in order to present an “aspirational” figure, and then celebrated towards the end, in the ability, the implied freedom, allowed her in embracing her trangressive desires… except of course as we’ve found this transgression is not what it seems, for despite the content, in form this is simply another set of etiquettes, another mediating influence that must be maintained. The communicative matrix is the same, all that’s changed is the set of signifiers, the actions themselves… there is no escaping the machine… unless…
I want to return to the idea of culture as an escape. Of course when we talk about culture as escape so far, it is escape in a figurative sense, an abstraction, and so in itself could very easily translate to inaction, the “my planet needs me” approach to disaster or suffering, in which we simply beam up to the stratosphere to avoid tackling earthly problems, seen of course in Elon Musk’s extraplanetary ambitions. But does this have to be the case? The language here, “escape” perhaps belies the framing of the action, for it suggests above all the escape from one reality into another. Of course in this movement of escape its not hard to begin to see a translation into social change.
The issue I see with the way I consumed the vast milieu of music available to me was the lack of what I’ll call a cultural space. I immersed myself in various expressions of culture that were nonetheless completely virtual, they rarely if ever manifested themselves in something that one might call the aforementioned social reality, in any kind of confluence, movement or presence. The move into globalization also facilitated in some sense the raising up of culture with a capital C into a kind of loft space where it could exist as a repressed simulation without really having much of an effect on the building beneath it. In another sense, this meant that music, cinema, literature, all simply became hats that we wear, topics for small-talk, nicely depoliticized chunks of empty entertainment that provide solace but little else. “Have you seen (x) on netflix?” “What music do you like?” becoming common questions but existing in a kind of netherworld of hedonism that can’t make itself distinct enough from serious issues of the world talked about by serious people.
The lack of space here is in some sense this sectioning-away, this mono-disciplinary approach wherein x is x and y is y and never the twain shall meet. By “Space” I here refer somewhat to what Fisher in Acid Communism called a confluence, a meeting point. I will lead off from this more in future posts at some stage but I hold that it is through a process of cross-pollination and intersubjectivity that the process of mere escapism becomes a movement into something else, that the fractured global multitude can collectivize into something more. A pedagogical approach has for too long implied what Lacan attributed to the process of psychoanalytic transference as the creation of a subject supposed to know. We immediately conjure an image singularly of a teacher doling out information like packets of rations to a willing audience, and collectively of a vanguard movement imparting the truth upon the supposed subject who does not know. We must desperately move past this, to open up the relationship between subject and object and to encourage a new form of cultural pedagogy at the intersection. There must be an uncovering, the exposure of each subjectivity to the open air, an archeology, of culture, and of cultural space itself.