Rotating through the tattered remnants of something that used to stand here in resolute defiance, you stand in the back alley, staring at the arc of detritus, spewing out from some torn bin liner around the corner. Consult the legend, the signals, figure out what’s supposed to be here. Up until this point, you had the rhythmic choreography down to a tee, had been following the cues perfectly, until you followed them off the map, the paradox that rises from mistaking the abstract for the ground beneath your feet. Here you are in unfamiliar territory, some alien ship or unexplored piece of turf somewhere in the wilds. It’s right there on the piece of paper, on the satellite image; it didn’t say it was going to be like this.
The Urban is full of folds and cracks, that much is clear; the classic distinction of town and country, like that between state and civil society in Hegel, is something that precipitates closure even as the global flows of exchange, the “market” precipitates fracture and atomization. The core problematic of contemporary “neocapitalism” lies in this paradoxical movement, one replicated down to the individual objects and experiences of the every day. What is this wistful emptiness of culture that accompanies us, the flat PoMo anything-will-do landscape in which nothing can be expressed without quotation marks, phrased in the form of a question, in which the constant self-reflexive questioning has taken the place of all conviction, where popular music is simply reduced to an aesthetic consumerist qualifier and any statement of taste has to be made in the constant fear of breaking rank, than an ongoing symptom of such contradictions? Even as Spotify and Netflix present us with a supposed cornucopia, a vast array of choice before our eyes; is this what it comes to, choice?
For even as streaming encapsulates this ubiquitous, global similitude, the effects to move towards a unified cultural reality in which anything goes, the meaning of such cultural experience is reduced to just this dynamic, where choice = freedom. The choice/freedom mythology is a distinctly liberal one, something rooted in the traditions of the enlightenment, wherein freedom consists of a kind of non-intervention, you-do-you and all that good stuff where the speculative political imaginary lays out a world in which we can proceed unhindered, where we can be ourselves. I’m sure I don’t have to lay out in too much detail what’s suspect here, namely the idea that if we strip back the layers, behind the surface we find some kind of pure self, and that from this basis it is possible to act authentically; from this premise we enter an entire discourse of authenticity and realness, of soul. Herein lies the problem with you-do-you, the dream of the libertarian, those who wish to go about their vital work without intervention, that there is no freedom in being a slave to false authenticity, that authenticity stems from the very feedback loops of capitals central libidinal machinery. This is of course where the dream of neoliberalism itself falls apart, wherein it is revealed not to be the unhindered freedom of markets, the ability for each to make their own fortune, but an enforced politico-economic paradigm of privatized authenticity. Behind the frontier-vision of capital lies the assumption of the traditional rugged survivalist and their family, the safety and comfort of the homestead or the British bourgeois estate, the consignment of our being to a script, a repeated daily routine of reinforcement in which authenticity, the stripping back of aestheticization, merely translates into the most depressing of cyclical reiterations.
Choice = freedom is a limitation, it implies not that we can shift the meaning, the nature of social relations, but that we can choose between them at leisure, defining the emancipated future as one of choice merely bows down to the order of consumer production. There is a certain worldview which seems to echo the incurable optimist, the Whig conceit of teleological progress transformed into confidence that in the end nothing is better than anything else, that no time is better than any other time, that nothing ever changes; before you know it the end of history is here, the sheering away of historicity, the onset of the eternal present suspended in non-time and non-place. Against this, the injunction that culture, that art, music, might mean anything becomes practically unthinkable.
This is an injunction away from choice as predominant motor of autonomy and towards a shift in the mapping of culture itself. Lefebvre writes in The Production of Space of the deceptiveness of maps. The important thing to note, for him, is that maps don’t simply deliver a straightforward reading or empirical datum on the places they represent, but rather they play a part, as representations, in producing them. The same is true in this sense of the ways in which we map between points of cultural interest on a timeline, producing a canon. The process of de-canonising and reinvention is then the process of re-organising the map, and through this the ways in which we navigate it. It similarly, through re-configuring space, excavates new potentials in bringing together and undermining boundaries between separate points. It re-aligns the focus from the non-interventionist liberal ideal towards a new space where these choices are revealed to be predicated on a lie.
London, the capital, is always for me a fleeting place. Like the rushed, sour-faced businessmen pushing you out of the way, it’s there and then its gone, a blast of sickly wind to the face.. but whenever I’m there these days I always try and take the opportunity to wander, rather than just visit; not because I want to position myself as some kind of contemporary flaneur, but just exist somewhere else for a short time without having to go anywhere.
Regardless, when you find yourself rammed into the centre of the business towers, the immense slabs of glass threatening to bear down on you, the romantic ideal of the ego positioning itself as the observer seems to dissipate into so much asset management and ostentatious bars for well paid employees. Even if you wanted to, there’s not much society to observe here amongst the throngs of similitude, the empty shells of finance capital closing off the sky above you. It is ostensibly a teeming centre but winding in between its “phallic verticality” as Lefebvre put it, it feels more like a ghost city, the people becoming nothing but units, photons, atoms firing between the immensity of the capital syphons, asset strippers, resonators of dead labour. Indeed the unbound absurdity of the gigantic monuments to capital such as the Shard seems to overshadow the lives of all who surround it, a sharp, cutting manifestation of the teleology of capital, the hideous and predictable accuracy of its dehumanising impulse.
The expression non-place doesn’t seem to do it justice, here you find anti-places, erasure and decay beneath a propagation of gleaming battlements prepared for war, these wonders of the capital are built on dashed brains, these expensive developments on mangled limbs.. the reflective surfaces in their purity reek of blood. The architecture of central London is psychological warfare, a vertiginous fall into the abyss from the ground up. It strains every muscle to ensure that the social unconscious, that dirty, repressed underside, remains hidden to you, the visitor, but it can’t..
Eventually, if you allow for some drift, you are bound to emerge into the ruins, those parts that it can’t, or more likely has not yet erased and replaced in its constant cut-and-paste sprawl, and here you invariably find traces and leftovers, what the slick inner-city beast has spewed out and what it has abandoned mingles in with what it has yet to touch and what it so desperately wants to ignore. It is here that the gigantic, gleaming emerald city of London finance begins to feel like a cruel joke at the expense of the lives of the people here, an ostentatious display seemingly designed to provoke envy and resentment. The city is a building site, a shifting tableau, but only in one direction..
In fact, when you scan the horizon, you’d sometimes be forgiven for thinking an entirely new city was being built amidst the patchwork. Each new development and project comes with its own mediocre utopia, a little vision of an updated, “modernised” neighbourhood, an architectural model with miniature residents strolling in front of it. The problem of course as that these aren’t architectural models and these people aren’t blank plastic clones. The city-as-playground-for-investors planning approach is nothing less than a tactic of war where the lives and bodies of the marginalised and the poor are subjected to emotional and psychological violence and displacement in the name of the UK’s “place on the world stage”. To keep up this gigantic facade, those parts of society it doesn’t want you to see, that might turn off the money-taps, must be obscured between the folds and the cracks, still seen sometimes in flashes and glimpses, the reflection in the glass from the window of a bus.
And the ideal can be seen right there, in the centre, the living graveyards of investment and entrepreneurial capital. At one point you imagine people may have seen this as exciting, a new horizon, a symbol of prosperity, but it seems now like these impossibly solid bastions of industry are little but cold glass and steel staring back at you, employees faces a blank picture of banal misery as they check out for lunch break or a cigarette. The people here often seem like empty shells, they could be anyone but they try to be no one; as they gather around for an evening drink each face blends into another, everyone dresses the same way, everyone talks about the same things, where is the famed plasticity of capital here? The answer of course is that this plasticity exists only in order to maintain just this kind of simulation of socialisation. Even off-hours people rehearse their lines, practice a kind of set routine that they simply improvise in varying orders from day to day. This is the world where talking to people becomes networking, where nothing exists if not subordinated to a business and finance based logic, Mark Fisher’s “business ontology”, a wasteland of imaginary capital.
The wastelands of business flow, or rather shudder into the limelight of a consumer tourist wonderland, coffee chains lining the streets and the push and pull of crowds swelling the pavements. But again, the people fade into insignificance, the slick wet pavements in the rain hold more interest than a thousand faces. Here again life seems to play second fiddle to the mechanised operations of production and consumption playing out under the rubric of colourful branding and smiling, welcoming faces. I’ll revise what I said earlier, the spit and grime of the city is hidden, repressed, but it lies in plain sight at all times. The exasperated employee selling the five hundredth latte of the day, the homeless man sitting beneath the famous landmark, meters away from groups of tourists, the simple dirt on the streets.. a facade relies upon displaying its own inadequacies, in emphasising the cracks, to work, and here it is not that the marginalised and displaced are completely out of sight in a literal sense, it is simply that the space around us draws away from what’s in front of our own noses, the violence all around us.
Just as historically the city works by excreting layers on top of its crumbling past, it simultaneously canonises and elevates to an ideal certain monuments and mythologies, the impossibly fragile spires and gleaming domes, the remnants of the neoclassical, the Victorian morality play, all reactionary paeans to the past, solid pillars and defined perspective. In fact isn’t this somewhere at the heart of the London facade, and in the most literal sense of its most damning economic effects. On the one hand we have the dystopian shadow of finance capital, and on the other the similarly threatening Dickensian imaginary, each playing its part in a war machine, a disappearing engine, erasing hearts and minds by the day…
The city is a war zone, but we can’t see the combatants.
I, and others like me who were born after a certain point in the late 20th century, have never known anything but the long dark night of neoliberalism. The first time I ever became aware of politics it was Tony Blair’s innocuous grin in the newspaper, perhaps 9/11, the Iraq war.. New Labour, for many now, has been the limitations of our horizons, the extent of what “left” has ever meant. Shorn from the long experience of defeat altogether, is it hardly any wonder that, setting forth on the task of rebuilding leftism practically from the ground up, we struggle and falter?
What is “electability”? Those who often throw it around talk as if it were some kind of impartial judgement delivered from somewhere above, perhaps by some political demigod, but beyond that what can it really designate besides an ideal, a mould against which all politicians are measured? Of course what brings this into much clearer focus is the assembly lines of immaculately coiffured replicants pioneered under the New Labour brand of politics, wherein your average politician was a shiny, branded white male android programmed on demand to deliver a series of relatively believable platitudes to the public and perhaps emote to specifications. Politics appeared as, and was expected to be a branding exercise, a slick, well produced sheen akin to an apple commercial wherein the future was contained in the perfectly ironed folds of a suit and the “relatable” grin of a young prime minister. Tony Blair’s administration very much pioneered this more-human-than-human approach and you can see its innovations all over the off-putting smarm of David Cameron.
What this has done is nothing less than building the image of the ideal politician that now we either wish to escape or return to. It seems reasonable to think that this is a huge reason why Ed Miliband was given such a hard time both as Labour leader and in the 2015 election for reasons often beside his politics. Many references were made to the “wrong brother” being put in that position, and this speaks to a particular expression of the political hegemony. What was it that made David Miliband a supposed preferable option to his brother? Simply put, he looked and seemed correct. David fit perfectly into the model of the New Labour politician, the cloned appearance, free of blemishes or hiccups, the look of a car salesman with a healthy salary. “Red Ed” was simply a faulty model, and deviated from what we were supposed to be looking for in a politician, the effortless PR gloss that reeked of finance capital.
This really seems to lie behind the idea of electability; it is an idea of what we are supposed to expect, a baseline. Tony Blair became a kind of original from which all must be cloned, each time with just enough differences that we mistake them for another person… this vision of the default, the baseline test to ensure we don’t stray too far from our purpose, is something familiar to all of us in the form of the everyday etiquette of work, of interaction, the conformity of ritual that defines the rhythms of postmodern capitalism. It is the ideological hegemony, contained in a million repetitions; kneel and clasp your hands as if in prayer, and you shall believe, to paraphrase Pascal, and once we know nothing but the action of prayer, any deviance from this motion is an unacceptable break in rank..
This model of the politician may no longer hold the sway it did, but it plays into a certain hankering for the times of old, the supposed glory days of the 2000s from which we have been so violently torn. How else could we explain that some in fact think this era was some kind of golden age than that we have no direct experience of anything better than its profound mediocrity?
I disagree with Paul Mason on a lot of things [and will proceed to do so here], but I think his reference to Eric Fromm here is worth picking up on. I think it’s very true that the ruling classes are now very much relying on a deep despair and frustration to consolidate their position. They are gambling on the assumption that we will all be too fed up with the situation surrounding Brexit to do anything to stop them. But then, should our aim here be “the road back to normality”? Bluntly put, no, and I think this is a misstep if we are intending to move forward. The wish to restore normality has been the driving force behind political hegemony for decades now, the pull to the centre. If we have any commitment to the socialist project we must if anything resist the pull of the normal. This return is surely the most reliable gesture of the reactionary?
“Normality” like “Electability” in politics are values we should move away from entirely at this juncture. If there is something the populist right have picked up on and steamrollered ahead with, it is the realisation that these paradigms no longer hold the all-encompassing sway they did. We on the left should not oppose them by countering this realisation, as surely the situation of normality here is, if we are to understand it in terms of power dynamics, hugely damaging. We may look back to the pre-crash era of the 2000s with fondness, when there was the illusion of prosperity [for some], but surely in the long term we must take into account that such recessions are a regular an inherent feature of Capitalism, never mind the bloated debt fuelled economies of today. All we’ve been doing is living on borrowed time, as borrowed time is the only time capital can offer; the time of work, frittered away worrying about whether you can make the next payment, until the next time your landlord decides to up the rate of blood extraction.
Any point of normality we might hanker towards is defined by this, it was never going to last, and was simply the moment of decadence before the fall. What Blair and his cohorts may have sold to us as a time of plenty, what some who still stand by their politics seem to hold as a golden age, was a time, if we look under its surface, thick with the viscous sludge of ruling class excess, an edifice at the brink of collapse. I’m sure some of us would love to simply undo the crash and all its particulars, but this belies its place in the historical continuity of capital, the events that led up to it, ignores the sheer economic despondency, the depressive impotence of the left New Labour represented in all its pomp and hubris. Indeed, we now stand upon the edge of what might, by some accounts, be a global recession many times more serious than that 11 years ago, demonstrating that in all this time we simply pushed forward the inevitable, that all this pretence that underpinned the brutal program of austerity and the “Fiscal responsibility” of successive Tory governments is nothing but a pathetic sham.
9 years. That’s how long we’ve now been under conservative rule, and taking into account the broken promise of new labour, we can reach back through the millennium into the 20th century and find that it may have been at least 4 decades since the left was a meaningful political force in Britain. Given this context, it is indeed understandable why many now believe that New Labour is simply the best we can expect.. what else have we to go on? But it is imperative that we create something new, and glimmers of this already exist today. Of course the surges in leftism among younger people have been imperfect, the organisations and parties they underpin have made mistakes and will continue to do so, but given that we are trying to build something that has lain shattered on the ground in a million pieces for decades, this is understandable and to be expected. Right now we must avoid condemning what little we have to go on for its imperfections and try collectively to move politics to the left. The socialist project today remains fragile and ready to fall apart, but if we ensure its further success into the future we may in fact be able to see something beyond the vapid, empty forms of normality.
There is a staple of BBC daytime television I remember filtering into my brain as a child called “Escape to the Country”, an example of the property/lifestyle programme in which prospective buyers are shown round a series of houses in a particular rural location. The very premise of the series, contained in the title, lies in the idea that the countryside is where one escapes. Usually in this context this means well-off city couples looking for somewhere they might be able to “get away from it all”, live out their days in idyllic peace and quiet, they’ve has too much of the hustle and bustle of city streets and want to find a nice cottage in a picturesque heartland, the good life.
Of course having grown up in a country village, this didn’t quite square with me, this clear-cut duality.. why would I want to escape to the country when I was already there? On top of this, it was far from the pastoral idyll these city-dwellers seemed to envision; sure, you might relish the idea of having a view over the fields, but just wait until that breaks down into a sea of industrial agriculture. Sartre pointed out the ways in which city people often see in the countryside an untrammelled natural world that belies the carefully managed ways in which the landscape is effected by human activity, how a hedgerow or a field, entirely man made, are interpellated as the sublime beauty of mother nature, undisturbed. What happens when someone else’s outside is your inside? What for many represents this mysterious other becomes for another a deeply familiar, even banal reality. The “escape from modernity” implied in its twisting branches fades into a pile of discarded kebabs and coke bottles, the terrifying sublime into a half completed building project.
This is of course the issue of familiarity that inevitably follows such distinctions. Home, where we come from or where we live, inevitably carries with it a certain familiar tinge that disavows us from the illusions and mythologies others stretch on top of it. For me, the Norfolk landscape I grew up with is as much a site of blasted industry as folk tales and crooked trees, as much the place that framed my awkward adolescence as a place of nostalgia and yearning. Of course such phenomenological inconsistency is ironed out completely in escape to the country, devoted as it is to selling a dreamlike vision, it is practically a textbook example of a capital-driven fetishization of an other, the ideal other free of blemishes and faults. Of course while this example is a clear, explicit move to sell, hawk wares in the most base sense, another way we encounter the same issue is in the attempt to escape such banalities. The problem here becomes an overall equation of “outside” with a particular subject, a particular place.
To us, of course, the inside/outside division will always re-orient itself along the lines of familiarity. Home=familiar, inside, Away=unfamiliar, outside. Someone who grew up in the city might indeed view the countryside with a kind of rapt fascination, or idealism, but then of course from the other side of the mirror the city begins to look just as exciting, a hive of modernity and hedonism, of the new, the future.. both an interlinked burrow of contradiction and negation. Familiarity on both counts becomes a moderating influence, what in psycho-analytic terms we could call a reality principle. From the unbroken mask, we begin to see the cracks, the guano on the pavements, and are disavowed of our previous excitement. The search for the outside as Lacanian objet petit a, always frustrated whenever we think we have reached it.
Mark Fisher, in Weird and the Eerie, as well as elsewhere referred to the “inside as a folding of the outside”. This is indeed an apt observation, but by itself incomplete. What this seems to point towards at various points in his writing is if anything the collapsing of an inside/outside distinction as ontological truth, akin with both a Spinozist collapsing of Cartesian dualism and the post-structuralist death of the subject. And so just as much as the inside may be a folding in of outside influences, it is equally true that the outside is a projection of the inside. The point, as ever, is not the search for the green grass on the other side, but the collapsing of the boundary itself. Here we find the alien contained within the human and the human in the alien, nature in civilisation and civilisation in nature, the country in the city and the city in the country, each clear distinction muddied, questioned and broken down. It is here that the subject becomes an extension in contravention of experience which might hold each of us to be a walled off entity in our own right.
From this then, it becomes a matter of de-familiarisation. If it is the familiar that generates reality, to generate another reality, what Alenka Zupančič would attribute to a process of sublimation, requires a de-mystification of the banal, the reality principle itself. It is of course this process, this “revealing” of the ideological mediation that is experience, that opens the door to new worlds within the familiar; it is not the projection of some ego ideal but the very unfolding of what we perceive as natural and real. The conception of nature is a prime example of such a reality, a nice comfortably sectioned-away, bottled and labelled thing that must stand in opposition to the human subject, in a kind of pre-copernican anthropocentric universe. To de-familiarise, to unfold our surroundings is then to place the outside within the inside, the inhuman within the human as it were. But just so I don’t fall into a particular trap here, this unfolding is not any kind of revealing, not the mechanism hidden behind the magicians illusion; indeed don’t we have to assume that within this action of unfolding is contained the inherent precedent to a “re”folding, wherein the act of sublimation not only unveils the contingency of reality but transforms it, creating new possibilities.
Isn’t there a problem then, with our assumption of the “otherness” of the country? Should we be staring at the mirror hoping to reach the reflection on the other side? It is true, and I value these experiences very much, that we can stand in the middle of the woods and experience a remarkable and refreshing emptiness, feel somehow that we have “escaped”, but today what’s the likelihood we can do this without both coming across some clear evidence of manmade intervention or being interrupted by a holidaying family? More to the point, doesn’t this simply leave one familiar for another? The urban industrial for the pastoral industrial, we move from one to the other side of the river in the hope that the other we so desperately seek is contained there, and neglect the vital work of re-orienting the perception of the ground beneath our feet.
“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.
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.
Peppered throughout the new track from Algiers, “Can the Sub-Bass Speak?” are conversation-pieces, quick-fire statements, on the bands music, on the classification of Black music and the Black experience, a direct quotation from a negative review of the band’s last album on that gleaming bastion of taste-making “cool-kid” pluralism Pitchfork. “The effect is weirdly impersonal.” The track is unlike anything the group have made before, and cements their status as a genuinely exciting and exhilarating imposition on the musical landscape, an overwhelming machine-gun fire montage of re-contextualised snippets, a re-construction of experience and a conflation of segments surging through a justifiably venomous savaging of absurd outbursts of criticism, a re-framing of ugly behaviour and points of reference that might otherwise slip past the field of vision.
“The effect is weirdly impersonal.” Indeed, impersonal, it’s not about you. Weirdly impersonal is the unique capacity of art to re-frame subjectivity, not the tired cliche of “wearing someone else’s shoes”, but a genuine deconstructive tendency that probably owes more to the developments of modernism than the fluffy ironisms of PoMo culture. It’s the stage at which, rather than simply aiming to reflect an experience back at us we are struck roundly by a barrage of disconnected snippets threaded together into a narrative dis-continuity. It is not a no-nonsense account of real life we are faced with here, but in its overwhelming scattershot sprawl we find a certain worldview, each place it appears cut-and-pasted into the next, spread across the floor before us in a single line and only then being projected full force back towards us. There is a necessary violence to the track, a broadside directed at safe platitudinous assumptions around the supposedly “unified” Black experience. It’s supposed to be hip-hop, or soul, or one thing or another, “You don’t know how to act”.
The construction of experience, is it “weirdly impersonal?” Is this a problem? Is it in fact a mistake to assume we need to broadcast the personal to have an effect? What is contained in the assumption that a deeply political expression of urgency is “impersonal” in a negative sense? Isn’t it the impersonal, the dis-continuous, the cross-referencing, here that precisely gives the track its power? It is indeed not about the individual subject but about an experience, a very real, material experience, but one we don’t all share, that is not a unity, that lies fractured on the planes of subjectivity… what emerges on this track nothing a searing statement of anger and intent. It’s fast, its disconcerting, its profound and its a deep and unassailable cultural-political flash of energy in the best way possible..
I find myself, as I often do at this time of year, away from the perpetually bedraggled kingdom that for now still seems to be holding on for dear life to its browbeaten and blood-soaked photographs of past glories, nestled instead somewhere in the north of Germany where if I’m perfectly honest I haven’t much of an idea what specifically is going on. This said it has already been constructive to peel myself away from the quotidian day-to-day realities of city-life for a little bit; it seems that certain repetitions that prove necessary for a minimum level of survival also tend to channel my thoughts into a kind of analogous Nietzschian eternal return, whereupon I never truly allow myself a moment of commitment or pause to gather together whatever I’ve been working towards. The constant routine, while reassuring somewhat in its similitude, also is punctuated by blockages, pulses of activity that seem to interject and swirl up silt into the currents just as it was on the verge of settling.
Some thoughts that have emerged since I have been here, and as I was reaching the final passages of Fredric Jameson’s monumental Valences of the Dialectic [a book that will no doubt be informing my writing for a while yet and from which I have noted a staggering amount of new reference points] have surrounded as much what I intend to do, leading up tentatively to a potential PHD application in the coming year, as vigorously as what I absolutely want to avoid. Since it seems prudent to undergo a process of elimination before we reach any kind of statement of intent, I will first of all outline the latter in the most euraesthetically despondent way I can.
The Plane of Total Abstraction [No I don’t want to associate with Fascism]
My own experience studying Fine Art at university familiarised me a little too well with the kind of obfuscatory poetic allusion that dominates a certain mode of discourse there. Unfortunately, the same language extends, despite what one might assume, beyond the doors of the art school, as anyone who has encountered the reams and reams of pseudo-deleuzian romanticized creativity porn might attest to. The issue quickly becomes a wider theoretical one, in which you may find yourself buried amid attractively worded poetic and mysteriously aesthetic passages that nonetheless appear to have little to no purchase on anything concrete. This is the plane of total abstraction, where progressive really means reactionary, where emancipation is less desirable than reading ones preferred gothic allusions into Marx & Engels. We here end up at the point where largely online writers congregate, where we find the slippage between the emancipatory and the deeply conservative, where people are intent on transforming commitments to revolutionary/leftist politics into the same grey mulch of word syrup where practically mystical conceptualisations stand in for collective praxis, where “the left” is intoned with the same ironic cynicism as one finds in the worst right wing snake pits. Everywhere in this plane we find an unbearable malice towards those who in reality have good, if perhaps misguided intentions, and you don’t have to walk far through this blasted land to find the bitter, unpleasant aroma of first a general misanthropy, then as the fog thickens more immediately objectionable outbursts of racism, misogyny, the worst kind of reactionary poison until it all coagulates in the viscous sludge of fascism [here come the cries of “everything is fascism now!”].
Unfortunately I find that despite the moment of cyber-futurism that led to what is called Accelerationism holding some degree of historical interest now, I would take aim at a good portion of the online communities around what now carries that label. Am I saying they’re all fascists? No. What I’m saying is that I have less than zero interest in reactionary politics, in maintaining social relations with “ironic” fascists, or people who form their online identity around an obnoxious edginess and occulted language. In terms of actually effecting the world, in considering others, in any form of democracy, empowerment or collective joy, these online cultures are a lead weight, a choking cloud of dust, at worst actually dragging people down to their level and emptying them of blood. Their aloofness, objection to emancipatory desire, insistence on removing themselves from the social and political particulars, remaining behind the veil at all costs, make them little better than the academic professors they often so despise, and even on a surface level all that we really find here is a universal ironic dismissal where everything is weightless, nothing forms unless around the individual ego…
So where do I stand here. No doubt there is no small degree of abstraction per se in the sometimes labyrinthine texts I’m approaching, so it’s not the abstract itself clearly that I object to, lest I be accused here of a monumental hypocrisy. Where the problem intervenes, and shows itself time and again online, is in the failure to bridge the gap from here to the particular. Something is wrong, quite simply, when what is objected to in the work of a political thinker is precisely the point at which they directly engaged with politics, the point where Lefebvre becomes actively involved with the production of space he wrote about, the point, in other words, where theory intersects with praxis. The whole idea of praxis in this regard becomes lost in the plane of total abstraction, a place where a concept shared between a few clued-in people somehow stands for a whole process of collective engagement.
The issue here is a shortcut taken in between conceptualisation and realisation that unfortunately must be somehow bridged, whether in potentiality or actuality. We can’t progress, for instance, from some extensive pontification on “exit” towards a genuine radical redress of social reality without at some stage theorising how this in the starkest terms translates into material processes and affects. This of course means not simply from the position of the individual subject, but also the ripples we can perceive across the totality, by which I mean the vast webs of cause/effect that criss-cross the reality beyond direct experience and can largely be accessed through a kind of narrative topology, or in some sense a conceptualization, whether that be explicitly through the avenues of theory or the no less effective dreamworks of cultural collage and social imagination. Either way, the shortcuts taken in this regard often lead into an effervescent confusion in which the entirety of the political and historical processes that form the socialist project and horizon becomes transmuted into something… fuzzy. In this no-mans land, discussion of political strategy becomes unfashionable, so it is not approached, anything as concrete or dry as history becomes something more sexy to some perhaps, but loses its hold on particular reality.
The problem with accelerationists
Even worse is the perturbation from these spheres to anyone who dares “misunderstand” their chosen buzzword. Let me for example take the term “accelerationism”. I repeatedly see protestations from people who to a certain extent identify with accelerationism as a term, often in the form of a modifier such as U/acc. Much of accelerationism it must be said keeps itself intentionally occulted, vague, easy to appropriate into a million different forms, but let’s be honest, upon hearing it our first associations will likely come from the word “accelerate”. In both senses it becomes patently absurd when people connected to this term complain in the most vociferous, hard-done-by-terms about the association with speed. I’m not one usually these days to attach to a term concrete and unmovable definitions, but we choose a certain language for certain reasons, and if we don’t want our philosophy [or project, or politics, or whatever it is] to be associated with a concept like speed I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest you probably don’t use a word of which the dominant connotation is precisely to “go faster”. If we look towards the singular [and relatively brief] moment of the 90s in which the current usage of the term online largely arose from, there is a general quickfire, heightened aesthetic and lifestyle and way of writing that is indelibly connected to it and formed its dominant mode. Even extending to the use of amphetamines, or “speed” no less, the heightening suggested in this cyber-futurism was dominated by the implications contained in the term accelerationism itself, it was either an injunction, a prediction, a wish perhaps, for something faster, more intense, bigger, more total. Now of course before I am accused here of wilfully misinterpreting anything I’m acutely aware that many do not actively pursue it in this way, but in lieu of that it must be said it’s not particularly clear what’s being offered. A theory of time? Perhaps, in fact quite likely, but frankly if acc-heads don’t want their philosophy or label to become so frequently appropriated or misused according to their own ideal interpretations I might advise setting forth something a little bit clearer about what precisely it is supposed to be.. what it really is, what implications it has, other than some kind of easily ignored teleology. If it is not a political project for instance, or just another, cooler word for futurism what is it? The more you read about it, the less clear it gets. In the plane of total abstraction, things are made to be misinterpreted.
And here I reach what really becomes uncomfortable territory for anyone who calls themselves in some regard an accelerationist, and another regard in which I have seen hand-waving protestations, as if one is nothing but a troll for bringing this up in the first place, and that is the nigh-constant flirtations with the reactionary right. The proximity of the acc sphere to Nrx isn’t difficult to ascertain after a small amount of research, and not just because one of it’s primary progenitors Nick Land now spends most of his time spouting exceedingly dull neoconservative talking points on twitter and penned some of the primary literature for what has become known as neoreaction, or Nrx for short [none of this lessens the interest of his early work, but it does bring it into perspective], but because of the consistent allusions, friendly banter, politesse, compromise and praise for right or reactionary ideas and figures. When coupled with a certain brand of misanthropy, irony and the sneering attitude towards left action and politics, one begins to legitimately question the political aims here. Of course if you are more inclined towards the reactionary right, and make no bones about it, then fair enough on your part, but I don’t really have much of a reason or desire to share your predilections.
This is far from some complete denunciation of anything at all connected with the realms of theory I’m here discussing; in fact if it is anything it is my cry of frustration at the state of theory as it is discussed and formulated online at the present moment. Accelerationism as it exists online, in twitter communities and elsewhere, is in some sense merely a symptom for the wider issue I might now connect back to the plane of total abstraction, that discourse that really does seem to result in nothing besides an aesthetic commitment. Of course if we are to hold that aesthetics, or rather the manner of presentation matters, then how can we avoid the conclusion that people who wallow in an aesthetic of mysterious cyber-allusion/gothic darkness/scrambled poetics/irony to some degree are actively resisting interpretation. And, if indeed this is the aim, more power to them, but in this regard, why protest misinterpretation? Is it only the horror at being connected via the term to violent murders that provokes this? And if so, shouldn’t this provoke some reflection, shouldn’t the question be asked “why is it so easy to misinterpret?”, instead of the usual comments on the idiocy of those doing the misinterpreting? Why, even, is the aesthetic of accelerationism, the term itself even, attractive to such people who would commit such acts? Is the fault here not with the misuse of the term, but the lack of feasable interpretation, of structure, of explicit implication?
If this has proved a little negative, I promise soon a more positive affirmation of what I do intend to do; before I did that however I have found it constructive to get these issues out of my system, as the contradictory dominance online of a discourse that claims for itself a fringe status, the constant and unwelcome appearances of reactionary sentiment and abstract edginess, has become on the whole quite irritating, not to mention the consistent hostility towards open and unambiguous leftism. Some of the same problems I would argue extend more generally to people who adhere to a kind of vulgar-deleuzian language and philosophy, who deliver passages that for all the world could have been uttered from the mouth of your local weed-head, but here I wanted to outline specifically some of my issues with accelerationism as it appears and is seen today, precisely to illustrate the sum of what I want to avoid in my own work. It is all too easy to dissolve oneself into the plane of abstraction, to avoid any sense of commitment to a cause and to immerse oneself in a kind of constant deferral of intent. After some time however, perhaps all this effort should be reverted into a single question; why?
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]
Acid Communism. Probably one of Mark Fishers most evocative coinages, and yet the one that we have the least material on. Immediately it begs questions regarding what exactly the term Acid implies, the use of Communism as opposed to post-capitalism or other alternatives often strangely falling behind due to the manifold interpretations of the modifier. Ostensibly we only have a single unfinished introduction to a planned book and a few mentions here and there, and yet… while this doesn’t seem a whole lot to go on, from the material that’s there, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to trace the lines of Acid Communism through the rest of his work. Of course as a project in and of itself, it remained unfinished on Fishers death, but like every other project Fisher undertook, it can’t really be considered a walled off singular set of ideas, and it isn’t hard to sense the spectre of acid communism hanging over the rest of Fishers oeuvre. Here I want to attempt to sketch out this spectre, and to attempt, in the words of Jameson, and in the spirit of Fisher, to “read the imperceptible tremors of an unimaginable future”.
The first, and core point, that I want to arrive at, is at the very beginning of the introduction, that being the reversal of political perspective;
“We on the left have had it wrong for a while: it is not that we are anti-capitalist, it is that capitalism, with all its visored cops , its teargas, and all the theological niceties of its economics, is set up to block the emergence of this red plenty.”
The red plenty he refers to here being “the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy”. This reversal I think is hugely important to excavating what Fisher meant by Acid Communism, and his indentifying within the opening lines of a historical space and time, “the spectre of a world which could be free” from Marcuse pinpoints the use of “Acid” immediately in relation to a history, more specifically to the 60s counterculture.
Does this mean, as I’ve heard floating around in some quarters, that Acid Communism means a return to the 60s? I’m going to get this out of the way up front, no. Fishers approach to the 60s is no more an exercise in empty nostalgia than the 70s; something he wasn’t arguing for, in other words, was a wholesale turning back of the clock to some utopian past. Instead, we can turn to his observation that the past has not yet occurred, meaning that it hinges on re-telling and framing, to understand better what he meant through his evocations of the past. The reference point here would be Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces: a secret history of the twentieth century, a book that excavates the cultural history of the twentieth century to draw the link between Dada Situationism and Punk, demonstrating how echoes of the past can re-emerge in new forms years or decades later, the proposals of the situationists somehow bursting through the walls and into the heart of Popular culture in the form of Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols. The point here is that the past is not a dead entity, but something that re-emerges; the point of Fisher taking Derrida’s coinage “Hauntology” was to effectively illustrate how the past hangs over and suffuses the present. the 60s and the 70s now re-emerge in the 21st century as spectral potentialities, the futures that they promised having receded under the pall of capitalist realism.
Now I’ve addressed that, I will turn to the other common fixation with regard to Acid Communism, and that is on LSD. Now don’t get me wrong, psychedelic culture and experiences are not absent from what Fisher wrote, but it would be remiss to channel that into an Acid Communism that centres on such practices, simply because Fisher appeared to have no interest in psychedelics as such and this is to miss the points he makes regarding such experiences. It is not that Acid is as such some emancipatory, freeing substance, a magical consciousness-machine, even if that was a latent promise in hippy culture, but that Acid is representative of the de-naturalizing Fisher pinpointed as a necessary precedent to emancipatory politics, something that one can find at the heart of the Xenofeminist manifesto for instance;
“Freedom is not a given–and it’s certainly not given by anything ‘natural’. The construction of freedom involves not less but more alienation; alienation is the labour of freedom’s construction.”
A left politics, if it is to be anything at all must be the politics of un-nature, of the alien, the weird. This is the context in which Fisher addresses the psychedelic experience in Acid Communism and its centrality to the 60s counter-culture.
If we’re really going to delve into what Fisher defined under the Acid Communist heading, this strikes me as an unavoidable passage;
“Acid Communism is the name I have given to this spectre. The concept of acid communism is a provocation and a promise. It is a joke of sorts, but one with very serious purpose. It points to something that, at one point, seemed inevitable, but which now appears impossible: the convergence of class consciousness, socialist-feminist consciousness-raising and psychedelic consciousness, the fusion of new social movements with a communist project, an unprecedented aestheticisation of everyday life. “
So, to Fisher what AC represented was nothing less than a historical confluence, a cultural-aesthetic-political-space that once promised to emerge and yet was stifled at birth. It is the cross-contamination of movements, the intersection for instance of a counter-cultural bohemia with a socialist politics and subordinate group consciousness. In truth, this is very much in line with his trajectory until that point, but took on a new dimension with greater incorporation of the 60s as a reference point, Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization becoming an important text in its affinity with the countercultural current of the time. The point I raised at the beginning comes to form more fully now in relation to the promise this period put forward, that of freedom, and not the freedom that Neoliberalism eventually claimed to deliver, but a freedom from drudgery. Something that Fisher mentioned a lot regarding this was the consistent worry of capitalism during this time “what if the working classes become hippies”. This worry, to some degree was the battleground of the 70s, during which the great questions in politics and culture revolved around the relation of each to the other, the promise made in the 60s, of the meeting point between these nodes fighting to make itself known.
For a long time, this promise seemed entirely impossible, the seemingly total political acquiescence of the 80s leading a widespread equation of the left/socialism with the old, with stuffy tweed wearing old men who want to return to the 70s, the socialist left itself struggling to disavow itself of a nostalgia for Fordism which still follows it to this day in some respects. This leads us to what I think is another key axis in AC, and that is Desire, what is desire under, and after, capitalism? Another later piece by Fisher, and one that I think works incredibly in tandem with AC, is his essay titled Post-Capitalist Desire. Fisher here question’s the long-standing equation of Desire with Capitalism presented most openly in Louise Mensch’s appearance on Have I Got News For You in 2011, in which she mocked anti-capitalist protesters for buying coffee at Starbucks and using iphones. The implication here is clearly that, to be a successful anti-capitalist, one has to revoke the desirable, become an ascetic, an anarcho-primitivist living off the land and refusing any and all aspects of modern life.
Later in Post-Capitalist Desire Fisher importantly, and a little provocatively calls for the left to reconcile with terms such as “Designer Socialism” and “Radical Chic”;
“Instead of the anti-capitalist ‘no logo’ call for a retreat from semiotic productivity, why not an embrace of all the mechanisms of semiotic libidinal production in the name of a post-capitalist counterbranding? ‘Radical chic’ is not something that the left should flee from—very much to the contrary, it is something that it must embrace and cultivate. For didn’t the moment of the left’s failure coincide with the growing perception that ‘radical’ and ‘chic’ are incompatible? Similarly, it is time for us to reclaim and positivise sneers such as ‘designer socialism’—because it is the equation of the ‘designer’ with ‘capitalist’ that has done so much to make capital appear as if it is the only possible modernity.“
This, I think, it is reasonable to link to what Fisher in AC calls the “unprecedented aestheticisation of everyday life”, namely, that an element of AC is most definitely the reclamation of the “new” on the side of the left, a retreat from left wing melancholia, the attachment to and repetition of aged aesthetics and strategies and instead the plotting of vectors into the future. What does this mean with regard to culture and aesthetics?
I would hold that partially at least an answer can be found in the Freudian dreamwork, and it’s importance that Fisher recognised in analysing the operations of power. This blog post contains I think some important material on the matter;
“How could it ever be possible for us to believe successive or even co-extensive stories that so obviously contradict one another? Yet we know from Kant, Nietzsche and psychoanalysis that waking, as much as dreaming, experience, depends upon just such screening narratives. If the Real is unbearable, any reality we construct must be a tissue of inconsistencies.
What differentiates Kant, Nietzsche and Freud from the tiresome cliche that ‘life is but a dream’ is precisely the sense that the confabulations we live are consensual. The idea that the world we experience is a solipsistic delusion projected from the interior of our mind consoles rather than disturbs us, since it conforms with our infantile fantasies of omnipotence; but the thought that our so-called interiority owe its existence to a fictionalized consensus will always carry an uncanny charge.“
This, as well as the observations on the Wendy Brown lecture, furnish us with an idea of how capitalism employs the Dreamwork to conflate contradictions, to present a fiction to paper over the cracks. And this I think begins to get at why the Dreamwork has relevance to AC. The realisation that the world we perceive, the way we perceive it, is not so much a vision projected from our minds but a consensual dream, that we are, for all intents and purposes, dreaming the dreams of capital, links in with the problem of post-capitalist desire. Fisher talked in one of his seminars on the topic of how advertising operates via Dreamwork, giving the example for instance of the famous, Ridley Scott directed 1984 apple advert, wherein apple is presented as the new, forward thinking, colourful, exciting alternative to the old technologies, presented as a 1984, soviet bloc style oppressive grey world. Here we see the desirable, the new, unambiguously conflated with capital.
Here we get a sense of why Fisher called for the reconciliation of radical chic. AC sets itself around the idea that there is no real desire for capitalism, that capitalism is itself the suppression of desire for emancipation. What then, that apple advert did, was to conceal that fact through conflating capital with emancipation, a reversal of intention. Fisher, in the same blog quoted above, and speaking about the Wendy Brown lecture American Nightmare: Neoconservatism, Neoliberalism, and De-democratization;
“What the dreamwork does, Brown recognized, like Le Guin before her, is to produce an – always retrospective – narrative consistency which covers over anomalies and contradictions . Brown’s analysis had the literally stunning effect of rousing us from the trance in which we blithely accept that neoliberalism and neoconservatism are in some way logically consistent”
Something that has long cemented the dominance of capitalism is the genuinely impressive extent to which these principles have been used to erode collective consciousness. Desire has, despite the contradiction in terms, been repeatedly conflated with capitalism, anti-capitalism, as for Mensch, with regression, primitivism, stuffy old miserable societies in which nobody wants to live. What Acid Commmunism promises on some level is the re-alignment of the left with desire, a Left that can again lay claim to the new, to innovation, to creativity and freedom, such terms as have been adopted almost wholesale under the umbrella of neoliberal dogma.
“The Past is So Much Safer”
” “The past is so much safer”, observes one of the narrators of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian satire, The Heart Goes Last , “because whatever’s in it has already happened. It can’t be changed: so, in a way there’s nothing to dread”. 8 Despite what Atwood’s narrator thinks, the past hasn’t “already happened”. The past has to be continually re-narrated, and the political point of reactionary narratives is to suppress the potentials which still await, ready to be re-awakened, in older moments.”
Here we come in more detail to the historical element of AC, that is, the focus of Fisher on historical narrative. This always seems to arise in his work in the form of opposition to canonization. That is, within culture there tends to be story, a series of works, groups or individuals considered to be part of a classical “canon”. This usually also pertains to how they are perceived, there are accepted interpretations, they are taught in a certain way. Something Fisher often did was upend these canons, taking aim at the comfortable talk-show reels and mythology of genius that is abound in most contemporary cultural broadcasting. A similar attack on the stagnant, platitudinous, calcified remains of the dance music press can be found at the beginning of Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant Than the Sun, leading onto what Eshun calls the “Futurhythmachine” effectively an afrofuturist synthetic collage in which the past marks out the vector towards the future. The historicism of AC then, can I think be understood as drawing upon similar ideas running through Fishers own work, the past not only as future, but a future in progress. Hereby I wouldn’t suggest as much that its a return to a singular historical moment but the cutting and pasting of an unfinished project, an synthetically re-written history to set out future co-ordinates. To re-iterate, the past has not yet happened. It must always be re-told.
So what does this mean for desire? The most obvious consequence is that post-capitalist desire already resides within capitalism. For Fisher, what becomes apparent is not that we must generate a new form of desire from scratch, but that, in the manner of such provocations that might be included under the heading of accelerationism, or Jameson’s Utopia as Replication, wherein the forms, spaces, desires of a post-capitalist future, of communism, are found within the very structures of capitalism. This is why Fisher begins by reversing the age old anti-capitalist formulation; he evokes the question, is there any desire for capitalism? And the answer is a resounding no. To say otherwise immediately equates, with problematic consequences, the desire of modernity with that of capital. Of course, the modernity we currently exist within, subsist from, has been largely generated via capitalism, but that doesn’t mean the desire for it is the same as the desire for the system that drives it. In fact, I may point towards Fisher’s piece on the 2012 London Olympic games here;
“It’s clear that what people are already enjoying in the Games is everything for which Capital is not responsible: the efforts of the athletes, the experience of a shared publicness. Insofar as the torch relay was a success, this, too, was not due to the parade itself – a dreary countrywide corporate carnival, consisting of Samsung, Coca Cola and Lloyds TSB floats – but because it allowed people to experience their own sociality.“
It doesn’t seem far fetched to suggest that if enjoyment is even what’s at stake here, what people enjoy about modernity is often that for which capital is not responsible, inasmuch as people don’t seem to display any notable desire for soaring costs of living, ecological devastation, corporate sponsorship or business jargon.
So in a way AC IS a return, but it is less returning us to the 60s/70s than it returns those decades to the present. More specifically, it is the unforgetting as Fisher put it, of a confluence of consciousness, of culture, politics, aesthetics that mapped out a future beyond the grey drudgery of capitalist work. It is not that these things have ceased to exist, it is, to refer to Jameson’s postmodernism, there has been a collective dehistoricizing of culture, a grand forgetting, wherein all that begins to exist is a present moment, shorn of narrative continuum or discontinuum. This all feeds into the consciousness deflation that allowed capitalist realism to take hold. As long as we remain captured within the dreamwork, dreaming the dreams of capital, not only this but as we retain the illusory notion that this is real [Fisher of course mentioned that “capitalist realism is not a particular type of realism; it is more like realism in itself. For what is the triumphalism of capitalism based on if not the claim that it has dissolved all illusions?”] , then the historical processes of emancipation become lost to us. Something that remains locked in a kind of museum, a hall containing a succession of past artefacts with no meaningful attachment to the present.
In looking back to the counter-cultural potentials of the past, AC evokes a cultural space of experimentation, wherein politics and aesthetics in some sense converge towards emancipatory goals; it is important to note here that this is meant not in content necessarily, but in form. The aesthetics spoken of here are not just some uninspired decent into psychedelic fractals and mind-bending imagery, it is the capacity of culture to denaturalize. In this sense, the “Acid” simply cannot be divorced from its paring “Communism”. Fishers formulation appears to refer if anything to the intersection of both, of the dream of psychedelic culture, of a life freed from work and daily concerns, with that of radical left politics.
What the spectre of Acid Communism presents us with is a call to unforget this intersection, it describes a latent space within which counter-culture and politics dialectically interact, intertwining and playing off one another as they are thought as one. Acid Communism is image, it is Glam, it is the Dreamwork set to new tasks, it is the autonomy of collective consciousness within cultural forms; within Acid Communism seems to lie everything Fisher wrote about the power of counter-cultural expression in post-punk. What changes here is the introduction of the 60s not merely as the dream that go co-opted by neoliberalism, but the desires that were suppressed, the utopian promise that was crushed. What was thought as possible then decades later would be dismissed as a child’s fantasy. Acid Communism is that dream, that spectre, and the counter-exorcism thereof.