Don’t hate the media; become the media
Jello Biafra, The Dead Kennedys
Noise. It’s just noise, shouting, it’s ugly, it’s not music. These sentiments have grown so long in the tooth through constant repetition that they have in some respects been reduced to an exaggerated cliche, something that an older family member might exclaim stumbling upon you listening to some modern, avant-garde, transgressive, even trashy or popular music. These cultural objects are often ridiculed or sidelined, thought of as distasteful, strange, pretentious, simply outside the boundaries of what is considered acceptable at the collective dinner table. This transgression of aesthetic form is, to a certain extent, inevitable. Once a standard is set, it will be flaunted, and once a culture is established, given the room a counterculture will thrive. This is a distinct push and pull that established itself probably most prominently in the twentieth century, from the rebellion of rock and roll, the breaking down of musical form in jazz, the wacked out drug haze of the 60s, the telegraphed chaos of punk, the wild inventiveness of the post-punk 80s leading all the way to the establishment of hip-hop, in many ways a natural bedfellow to the punk and post-punk underground. But what if this narrative/counter-narrative we have come to be familiar with no longer holds true? What happens when the counterculture becomes culture and the rebellion splinters?
This is why, perhaps, some have noted the lack of a notable current of counterculture in the 21st century. It is not, as I will be only too happy to point out, that punk is dead, that there is nobody out there treading the furrow of resistance or stepping off the beaten path, but something far more embedded within the aesthetics of information and our relationship with the past and future. The wild abandon with which we once tried to strike out into the unknown has, at some stage, dwindled and stammered to a halt, and culture now appears somewhat horizontal. Rather than a bold gathering of souls excavating for unrefined nuggets of untested sound and vision, we have arrived at some kind of impasse, a cavern of riches at our feet, but no clear path forward. We are left to do what we can in this space, but there is a pervading sense that the immediacy felt during that initial push through the rock face is no longer with us.
The term Hauntology was coined originally by everyone’s favourite post-structuralist Derrida in his work Spectres of Marx, referring to a disjunct, a haunting of something that seems to be by what was and will be, in the same way a word in a sentence cannot be understood fully without referring to the words, grammatical structures and punctuation immediately preceding and following it. Mark Fisher developed this idea to concern our obsession with nostalgia and the idea of a “slow cancellation of the future” under neoliberal, postmodern society, which leads to a certain “suspended” vision of future worlds. In this view, society is being “haunted” by past versions of its future, a future it failed to deliver but to which we still cling. It is a sense that instead of envisioning new futures, we become engaged in a cyclical repetition of our past; while technologies progress to unprecedented levels, they are simply leveraged to reproduce the past in new and more advanced ways.
How does this relate then, to the lack of immediacy in contemporary counterculture? Simply put, that excitement and sense of new-ness that defined a lot of the most daring counter-cultural moments has dissipated with our drive for the future. Admittedly I am too young to have experienced this era myself, but listening back to the sounds, getting a sense of the atmosphere that hung around the uniquely alien experiments of post-punk bands and collectives, it feels as if, almost in an ironic response to the sex pistols lyric, there absolutely could be a future, one that we built. The futures of cataclysmic and deconstructed soundscapes generated during this period however cascaded from the nexus of punk just as the aesthetics of counter-culture more obviously began a decent into trite commodification. The image many conjure when one mentions punk is one that has become comically ironic in its subservience and appropriation by the capitalist hierarchy it supposedly raged against. It is perfectly encapsulated by a story I remember the marvellous St Vincent telling during a concert on her encounter with Mark Stewart, the lead singer of post-punk avant agitators the Pop Group. He hands her a hair brush modelled on Sid Vicious, and says “This is what’s become of punk”.
The Sid Vicious hairbrush is in many respects a perfect analogy for the appropriation and commodification of counter-culture aesthetics. The kind of revolt one might find in an art gallery is often a revolt in appearance only; one might see in it the words “fuck the Tories” or purposeful scribbling on top of beauty magazines, or some such gesture, but ultimately this is counter-culture designed to feed back into the culture it counters, a cavalcade of imagery that is vaguely reminiscent of punk and rebellions of the past but stops there, refusing to forgo the appeal of the mainstream and aiming itself squarely at the feet of suited businessmen looking to pick up on the “next big thing”. Similarly one might point to the punk aesthetics now found in many brands and fashion accessories for sale on the high street. This is punk de-fanged, rendered harmless by the shifting unknowable of capitalist ideology and put to use in the machinated cyber-cacophony of modern consumer ontology.
Is all lost then? Is counter-culture, as they say, dead? Have they found the body? If so, when will they conduct the postmortem, find the cause of death? Was it suicide or murder? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and assume something is dead merely because we can’t make out its outline in the darkness. Counter-culture, as I hinted earlier, is still very much alive, it must simply take on other forms in lieu of its splintering and subsummation, and the loss of hope in further worlds beyond capitalism under the neoliberalist program. It seems to us that culture has somewhat flattened out in this moment, suspended in animation and haunted by constantly repeated echoes of its past. “Is there anything new on this earth?” we are tempted to ask in a world of revivalism and re-appropriated images of lost worlds.
In light of this question, I think it’s prudent to remind ourselves that the Sex Pistols, one of the most revered groups of Punk, forming almost a shibboleth of the movement in their adoration, were manufactured. They may have struck upon a counter-cultural current, but a large part of their aesthetic and their actions were no more “sincere” than the generated backstage banter of a boy band. They were in some respects (some might take some serious issue with this, but I’ll just take the heat) the Monkees of the punk generation. The commodification of counter-culture, its use to generate capital rather than rebel against its apparatus, is no new phenomenon, and in many ways has simply become easier with our removal from the immediacy of its origins. Our focus on 1977 has cast an immense shadow on the almost more exciting sounds of proto and post-punk, as well as some of the work being done by recognised but far less influential figures on both sides of the Atlantic.
What to do now, in this suspended time, this horizontal plane? In this age of seemingly unlimited digitisation, technology, information, connectivity, we almost are trapped in a cybernetic extension of reality and placated by our own access to these riches. Our connection to these streams seems somehow to introduce a distance between us and any real sense of urgency, as if we begin to think of time as limitless. Of course what we see before us is never limitless, but given the illusion, it’s hard to think there’s any kind of immediate need to fight back, to push forward into the unknown, to confront the void. We sit back and happily consume as if the vast stretches of eternity lay before us, thinking always “I’ll do that tomorrow” “We’ll do that tomorrow”. Information technology becomes, in a way the perfect acceleration of neoliberalism, atomising us to almost unprecedented levels, placing each of us within our own suspended reality, an augmented cyberspace acting as an extension of ourselves. We feel connected yet each of us sit staring at our own screen in our own room somewhere. We are more connected than ever in theory, but more alienated from each other in practice, a contradiction that serves the politico-economic interests of our time.
The difficulty comes from trying to reach past this and achieve a sense of immediate connection with this fractured, splintered mess that is the modern world and salvage the exploded shards of our past ideals to disrupt the flow of information anew. If there’s something good that can be said about the recent waves of political unrest, it has, if all goes well, provided something of a reality check for many of us who were under some impression that the world would simply carry on as it was, problems would be ironed out, that capitalism might actually deliver on this future it had been promising us since the tail end of the 80s. This illusion was, for many of us, shattered, as soon as the neoreactionaries made themselves known, as soon as the distorted, surreal ascendancy of a blundering puppet to one of the most powerful seats on earth. That it took these things to happen for us to realise political action and criticism of the capitalist orthodoxy were necessary speaks to how strongly the atmosphere of capitalist realism embedded itself in our lives, how much we took solace in illusions and mirages that continuous progress was a given, that the future would arrive, one day.
An urgency of some kind can now be felt again, to some degree, though if it can be maintained is another matter. It is doubtless the case that for a meaningful disruption of the core to happen, we would have to take our actions beyond the confines of social media melancholy, but aesthetically it’s my belief a real pushback could occur in the coming decades. While many still hold that despite all the negatives, this must be the best we have, and much of the left of this persuasion are mired in outdated concepts of revolution, I think creatively we have all the tools at our disposal to counter the ideological apparatuses that exploit, divide, trap and isolate us. Those of us who create, who experiment effectively have the ability to disrupt the radio signal, to counter the stifling inanity of this suspended corporate version of society with noise. As potential critics of this consumerist ontology, we can be the ones to counter it, to point out its absurdities. Noise is more than the sum of its parts. It is more than a simple rejection of taste, it is a tool of resistance. An aesthetics of capitalist banality, of unending repetition and cyclical generation of norms, must encounter an aesthetics of disruption.