Categories
Pop/Pulp

Heresy, Insurrection and Pop

“If one can stop looking at the past and start listening to it , one might hear echoes of a new conversation; then the task of the critic would be to lead speakers and listeners unaware of each other’s existence to talk to one another. The job of the critic would be to maintain the ability to be surprised at how the conversation goes, and to communicate that sense of surprise to other people, because a life infused with surprise is better than a life that is not.”

The above passage, from the introduction of Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, is possibly the most succinct distillation of the excitement, the thrill of writing that I’ve discovered. The legitimacy of cultural criticism of any kind is something that’s crossed my mind a good deal in the past few months, to the point where I’ve seriously questioned what I’m doing, whether anyone will be listening and whether there’s really a point if they are. The process of reading Lipstick Traces, something I’ve been meaning to do for some time, has been a timely explosion, a strategic negation and a reminder of why I wanted to write in the first place. Reading it is an undulating temporal experience, an at times dazzling and perhaps confusing array of different reference points woven into a patchwork, a series of disconnected threads that seem to echo one another without touching, phasing inexplicably into one another. It’s also, dare I say it, a fun experience? Ok time to put some qualifiers on this, as I’m not of the opinion that “fun” is in and of itself a marker of anything, let alone quality. What I mean by this is that there is at least the fizz and crackle of enthusiasm in Marcus’s writing here, a sense that through these links between radical Situationist politics, Michael Jackson, medieval heretics and John Lydon, a kind of detournement itself is being conducted, that in this synthetic history there is not only a recounting or a construction, but a toolbox, perhaps more aptly an armoury to be deployed in an act of intellectual desecration…

Potentially all this and more runs the serious risk of a common accusation, perhaps an accurate one, of pseudo-intellectualism. I’m not about to mount a defence of every pseud and poseur on the planet or pull off some kind of reversal here, but the way this accusation is levelled all too often amounts to little more than a crude, general anti-intellectualism. It’s the kind of attitude that insists you don’t use too many complicated ideas or terms lest the poor audience are left in the dark, that you must, above all, communicate with the utmost simplicity and clarity, spell it out in terms a child could understand, assume your audience might as well be children in fact. It harks back to a kind of notion of “appealing to the common man” that practically infantilizes the public, and thereby assumes that the priority, rather than perhaps surprising challenging, educating or confronting the mythical reader, is to offer them something familiar, if not comforting then firmly within known coordinates of discomfort. The anti-intellectualism contained often within the criticism for instance of “over-intellectualising” a subject like music flags us down and demands that we cease our attempts to surprise and confront; those who will not lay down arms become the pseuds of popular imagination, the feared disseminators of complexity, those who won’t respect the traditional boundary between “normal people” and worlds beyond their ken.

If a fear of this had risen in my mind of late, Lipstick Traces has banished it. Or at least it has rendered it obsolete in the way that the most timely interventions can. I can’t speak for the rest of Marcus’s work, but an accusation that this book is lesser due to its supposed ahistoricity, wordiness or tendency towards tangential links [John Lydon and John of Leydon anyone?] seems only to measure it as a work to be submitted to a dusty old board somewhere, and speaks to a certain inability of academized thought to entertain anything that seems to flout its predetermined boundaries. The notion that the links between completely unconnected figures, indeed between punk and situationism itself might be constructed, rather than a matter of strict historical record, is something Marcus states within the text itself, indeed lies centrally to its structure. To note that they are perhaps fantastical or unbelievable from the standpoint of an academic recounting of events seems to sidestep everything the text itself claims for itself, simply assuming that anyone talking about history, relaying elements of cultural and political events, must be writing around a standard, centralised, literal thesis, and that Marcus is simply arguing that there is a direct, verifiable link between Thomas Müntzer and the Sex Pistols.

This said, Lipstick traces is a desecration of sorts, or rather, a signpost towards a desecration. The fact that it plays fast and loose with history is to its benefit largely because it reads as something from very much the same vein as the upheaval and heresy within it. A heresy that, as it scrambles historical narrative and cultural forms, seems primarily at this moment in time to find a particular resonance in my quarantine addled mind. The resistance to boredom and work, the slogans of reversal and subversion found throughout in the words of the situationists as much as the punks, mystics and dubious figures of all stripes that join them remind me primarily of the heresy that drove me here, the drive to subvert, dissolve, destroy and negate the misery of the present. Perhaps it’s the constant threat of boredom in the immediate situation, the enforced isolation, or perhaps the opposite sense of immense upheaval, but the kind of cultural politics we find in this kind of negation has taken on some kind of added significance.

It might also be that I’m reading this in the aftermath of reading through Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, a text that during my time at art school seemed to hang around the peripheries but never penetrate. A little like Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, Society of the Spectacle sometimes seemed to become one of these standard reference points, an idiom that meant nothing beside a vague appeal to images and media. A passage in Lipstick Traces addresses this trend as something preceding my time at university by a good few decades, the use of “spectacle” as a critical term that really meant little beside a complaint that image was more important than object. Debord himself counters these appropriations early on in SoS, saying:

“The Spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”

As Marcus adds, “This was the theatre, but Debord had insisted on the church.  The spectacle was not merely advertising, or television, it was a world.” The spectacle is nothing less than the stage of modern capitalism, the disjuncture of everything with its own representation. The spectacle, for Debord, is a symptom of accumulation so immense that it has become an image. It cannot be reduced to mass media, rather it encapsulates the widespread move of capital into the realm of exchange, the wasteland of empty accumulation we might today be overwhelmingly familiar with today as the financial markets. The spectacle is an extension of the commodity, with all the metaphysical tricks and niceties Marx found within it, an immense reification and hence a removal, a break between the object and it’s representation commensurate with the alienated self.

I began to suspect during my reading of SoS that Debord’s analysis might have more purchase today than the time in which he wrote it. This doesn’t mean that what he observed wasn’t there yet, but that the spectacle may yet to have come into its own as a phenomenon. The rogues gallery of insurrectionists, hellraisers and nihilists presented in Lipstick Traces only made me consider this point further. While it is reductive in the extreme to use the Spectacle as shorthand for mass media, the ubiquity of not just images but images of images of images to fuel social relations today has surpassed anything Debord might have imagined at the time, and at a point during which the possibility of such relation has to be maintained through digital channels, free of touch or proximity, all that remains, in some sense, is the spectacle. Post web 2.0 social relations are those detached from the necessity of direct communication. At a point where phrases like “fake news” or “post-truth” have been floating around like pointed accusations rather than social conditions, in which we continue to bemoan consistently the move away from “genuine relationships” and “real activities” under the assumption that this is a unique feature of the contemporary moment [I recently read Adorno’s Minima Moralia and such observations spill out of its pages] or, even worse, simply a feature of personal failing, the spectacle almost seems quaint in its limited pronouncements. For all his failings, this may be what lends Baudrillard his continued relevance, even as he entirely detaches himself from the kind of material causes and relations that ostensibly seem a requirement for any kind of rupture or disturbance of the status quo…

Indeed, it’s no coincidence that Baudrillard can be explicitly linked, beyond philosophy or theory, to the very same fractured semi-fictional lineage of heretics addressed by Greil Marcus. He delighted often in baffling his audiences and trying to get under the skin of the art world that had embraced him, notably in his infamous text the conspiracy of art where he addresses in the strongest terms its emptiness and failure. An often little addressed element of Baudrillard’s work is his debt to Alfred Jarry’s Pataphysics, the strange realm of imaginary solutions to imaginary problems. Especially in his later work, this is potentially what often lends Baudrillard’s writing this air of speculative fiction as much as theory, as well as that of a fortune teller or a mystic, expounding a series of exaggerations and hyperboles to an audience. This isn’t to lessen the work itself as much as it is to explain to some degree the sense of unreality of each text itself, that notion that Baudrillard is addressing situations and phenomena that have yet to occur, that may never occur.

Much has been said about the prescience, perhaps even the pessimism, of J G Ballard’s fiction. The characters within works like Crash, Atrocity Exhibition and High Rise, whether strange lurid reconstructions of celebrity or television operators, share a particular trait in their relation with crisis, horror and rupture. They are within it, rather than outside it. Whereas a more conventional, moral position in fiction has been to introduce people into the horror and crisis of the world with a stance of elevation or removal, Ballard allows them to seep into it, or it to seep into them. Richard Wilder, from High Rise, for instance, embraces the collapse of the building into violence and chaos in gradual steps, as observer, then participant, then instigator. Ballard’s characters fall prey to something, but they often do so willingly, surrendering their will to the tide. What changes of course from a certain point is that increasingly his books deal with people who instigate and encourage this collapse rather than surrender to something outside their control, but the general tendency is towards an embrace of rupture.

This is, for the reader, a heresy. For those used to fiction firmly rooted in a moralist tradition, where there was always a certain struggle against the horror, Ballards cool, detached account of simply going with it, embracing the violence, finding some perverse glee in the descent to untapped bestial insanity, is itself a horror. It’s a detachment that seems wholly commensurate with the British suburbia Ballard captured so well, and there is a sense much of the time that the characters seek precisely an escape from the kind of boredom of their meek, all-too-untroubled lives. This destruction is the natural counterpart to the suburbs, not its other, it emerges out of it, birthed by its perpetually polite squabbles and painfully regimented social relations.

The figure of heretic steps forward from this fog of regimented factory rows and promises maybe an insurrection, maybe a thunderstorm, perhaps just an unchecked orgy of violence, as long as it steps in to relieve us of duty; the temptation of heresy is a singular negation, a dismantling of intuition, a suburban relapse. The heretic is often the figure for whom the worst tendency becomes an opening to exploit.

The pop star has in the 20th century become the exemplary figurehead of such heretical imaginaries, a construct formed of a thousand channels through which our fears and desires are projected and created. The most remarkable section of Lipstick Traces has to remain the searing exposition on “Jacksonism”, the name he gives to the confluence of social political economic and theoretical focus points around the popularity of Michael Jackson, the flurry of intensification around the billowing demands made of the pop star, indeed how the “star” recedes into the background of the global phenomenon they front. Jacksonism was nothing less than a shift in the cultural imaginary, a lurid display of contradictions, images, icons, catatonic displays of devotion in which everyone was involved, and the pop star became more than a simple figurehead for a cultural object, but a semiotic intersection of an entire world.

“The commodity was the agent of reification: Jackson’s built its own heaven, and everyone reached for it. It was wonderful, in that year of Michael Jackson, just to get up in the morning, open the paper, and follow the dance: to discover that a clandestine Michael Jackson cult had formed within the Jehovah’s Witnesses (which, as everyone knew, counted Jackson as a devotee, and which, one was informed, was based on a belief in the return of the Archangel Michael)”

The passage proceeds into one of the most heady demonstrations of pop culture analysis in the book; Jacksonism takes its place in the annals of the spectacle, the glaring centre of the commodity, a monumental construct of triumph and tragedy and a tsunami of religious fervour that shifted and warped its visage. Jacksonism was the edifice of pop given not so much flesh or form, as much as an entire reality of artifice, more real than real, yet eternally signalling its own unreality. Notable in Marcus’s progression in the book from Lydon to Jackson is the magnitude of the event, in many of ways the tidal wave of Jacksonism outstrips that of the sex pistols, reaches much further into social life. While the link between the situationists and punk has long been known and discussed to some degree, the perhaps uncomfortable implication that emerges here is that the most prominent realisations of their proposals lay at the heaving centres of popular culture, the spectacle intensified. In Jackson, we see a force in which political, economic, social and cultural issues converge in a whirlwind of ostentation, a time in which people clamoured for the tiniest piece of the phenomenon and tore their hair out if they could only gain a tiny glimpse of its glory. Pop was an earthquake.

Pop has always been the domain of heretics. It makes sense that it is in the heart of the commodity that the destructive negation of punk took hold. Adorno was wrong, it is precisely in the deterritorialised form of pop itself that we see the strongest negation. Of course while we rail against Adorno’s anti-pop absolutism, it would be amiss to ignore the heresy contained in his own work. The very intransigence of his hatred is a shock to the system; his refusal to acknowledge that any kind of mass commodified culture can be remotely modernist jettisons the positive, relegates resistance of any kind to the very fringes. Adorno’s singular, strictly regulated modernism is a kind which refuses pop at a fundamental level and trades it for the spontaneous act of creation.

Heresy is not a position, but a negation, the very threat that the acceptance of the present might not hold, or that the peace of the moment is a lie. The presence of heresy is not a promise but an insult, a demand hurled into the faces of anyone who cares to listen, a challenge, can you face up to my truth?

Categories
Film & Television

Life in Marvellous Times – Thoughts on the X-Files and Twin Peaks

“In these strange times” is becoming one of those endlessly repeated platitudes that are becomes such a staple of journalese, something that we type out in lieu of anything else, that fills a hole rather than saying anything and belies the morbidity of a media largely resigned to simply delivering tautological reiterations of the current state of affairs ad infinitum. Place this term alongside “truth to power” and countless others in the crypt, seal it off and force yourself to look elsewhere, perhaps even challenge your audience. A challenge for the ages.

I’ve assigned myself the task of writing something after simply stewing in my own juices for a little too long. The problem with quarantine so far is that is has exacerbated the proliferating anxieties of constant communication that were already ever present outside it. Ubiquitous connection isn’t necessarily the blessing we might assume as soon as it becomes necessary to stay physically separate from one another; indeed, it’s in this scenario that the sheer effect of networked technology on my consciousness has twitched at the back of my mind, insect-like. Psychic pressures, the ever-present feeling that I’m not doing what I’m supposed to, creeping unease that I’ve just become too familiar with this screen, these buttons, this mindless action that I couldn’t even recall without its attendant task, the world closes in through its possibilities rather than restrictions. While the various plans I’ve had regarding projects have still stayed with me, the fragmented, frayed ends of my brain have struggled to articulate them for varying stretches of time.

To mitigate this, my newfound love of the X-Files has been an immense help, a love that has grown increasingly after I resolved to systematically watch through every episode [Currently making my way through season 3]. The fondness I have for a lot of these stand-alone stories and, yes, the alien conspiracy story arcs, by this point knows no bounds and I can’t see myself tiring of it. There has been some rough points, a standout worst episode so far is perhaps 3 at the centre of season 2, an attempt at pulling off this somewhat questionable sexy contemporary vampire shtick that was somewhat popular at some point in the 90s. The result is 45 minutes that feel horribly disconnected from the show around it, a Mulder who seems to have become an entirely different and much more baffling character for one episode only, something that only succeeds in coming off like a tacky exploitation film in tone. That this mediocre interlude stood out as much as it did is largely testament to the success of the show around it, and that it’s sandwiched in between a particularly moving three episode arc centred on Scully’s abduction [perhaps another reason 3 fails is due to her conspicuous absence from proceedings].

Watching the x-files today it comes across as something of a catalogue of concerns, fears, and notably technological developments. Early on, in the first season, a story involving a killer computer presents what seems for all the world like a kind of fictional Apple/Microsoft, and later on we increasingly begin to note the presence of the early internet, season 3’s 2shy even explicitly addressing the then novel fears around online dating. Many of these early 90s tech focused narratives are interesting to see today partly because of how quaint they sometimes seem, addressing these developments as supplementary experiments rather than immanent features of social life, the internet gradually appearing and developing with the show as it tried to keep abreast of the contemporary moment it occupied. Even more interesting than this is the way these technologies intersect with the central paranormal and supernatural elements of the show. Very early on in the first season, the notion that new technologies are “alien” is presented literally through Mulder’s theory that the government is trialling new military craft using UFO technology. Later on, however, this is complicated, where computing and the genesis of the internet become introduced both as tools for investigation, and portals through which unsavoury new threats may slither into our lives.

The paranormal in the x-files is always something explicitly there but never fully there, it lingers at the centre of Mulder’s belief and Scully’s scepticism, her faith and his atheism. Whereas at the show’s beginning this dualism seems a simple one, and the issue of faith not yet a glimmer in Chris Carter’s eye, it unravels in fits and starts not only during the alien conspiracy arcs, but throughout the succession of stand-alone episodes, perhaps more so. By the time we reach season 3, we’ve already seen them switch roles, perhaps evidence that both may not be as assured in their beliefs as they first appear, indeed that they both hold contradictory views. This hasn’t yet reached some kind of ultimate apotheosis, but it strengthens the conceit of the show immeasurably, and lends this dual characterisation the justification it deserves. The question arises, at least in my mind, what separates the paranormal from the normal, the supernatural from the natural? In a basic sense, the supernatural is nature that we haven’t explained yet. It makes me think of the point Mark Fisher makes in The Weird and the Eerie, where he says “In many ways, a natural phenomenon such as a black hole is more weird than a vampire”. If not in weirdness but in abjection this finds itself reflected in the 2nd season episode Irresistible, in which the central horror is revealed and/or accepted to be no alien or monster, but a man, a death fetishist digging up corpses who progresses to murder. Scully’s sheer horror in confronting this is one of the notable times her scepticism and scientific demeanour fails her, and one of the first times of a few until this point where the show has endeavoured to tackle the immediate emotional weight of the circumstances Mulder and Scully find themselves investigating. In this instance, as in others, even when the monsters and aliens are real, flesh and blood beings, when in the midst of uncovering US government conspiracies, that it’s not the extraterrestrial or paranormal events themselves but the powerlessness and suffering of their victims that disturb or unsettle.

Duane Barry is an astounding episode of television when it comes to this, in both its simplicity and its potency. Even shorn of the other episodes in this story arc, the hostage situation here serves to lead us into an exploration of trauma and the re-visitation of childhood horror build on in future episodes, and as both Mulder and Scully grapple with the weight of family action and responsibility, the past weighing on the conscience of the present. The past becomes an alien, a horrible parasite as much as a source of comfort, and the disorienting, dehumanising process of abduction is mirrored in the unveiling of truth as falsehood, of their own subjectivity as a lie. The show is at its best when shifting around the co-ordinates of what natural or real implies, whether it’s in the form of the episode humbug, something of a love letter to outsiders and freaks and a genuinely funny outing, or the constant questioning of beliefs and knowledge. “The truth is out there” we are assured at the beginning of nearly every episode, and yet the meaning of this remains consistently obscured, whether we are talking about the truth of conspiracy, the truth that lies behind the closed doors of power, or the truth of what is scientifically verifiable, a naturalistic truth.

Part of this ambiguity in the x-files, partly facilitated and necessary to the set-up of the show, reminds me, though it is a very different piece of work, of the ambiguity of Twin Peaks, which in its case ended up leading to its own demise. The previously mentioned X-Files episode 3 feels so off precisely because, with Scully briefly out of the picture both Mulder as a character and the writing of the show seem to be spinning off their axis, unsure of where to go. In the case of Twin Peaks, this was a far more extensive sensation, coming to bear after the unveiling of the killer around halfway through the second season [the episode itself a masterstroke of uncoupled horror that shouldn’t be overlooked]. The central conceit of the show done away with, many of the plot-lines thereafter feel like Peaks desperately trying to find new land, rediscover itself somehow, resulting in some of the only moments where the show feels hackneyed and weightless in tone. There are some hits here and there but many of the new characters read more like straightforward and played out caricatures than anything prior. The irony here is that it’s leading up to the shows final moments, and its infamous cliffhanger, that it becomes wholly compelling again. While the show had failed again and again trying to right itself, introduce such quaint oddities ascoherent narratives”, it was with its final lurch into untrammelled, fractured and abstract structure that it went somewhere again.

The X-Files is, in some ways, a more standard show, but also the kind of show that doesn’t particularly get made anymore. It’s structure, wherein the standalone “monster-of-the-week” style episodes provide the glue for the periodic story arcs to hold together rather than the other way around, is something unthinkable for prestige TV with all its seamless singular narratives running the course of a season. There is a sense, and this is where similarities with Peaks and its soap opera structure emerge, in which both shows at their best emphasise, rather than trying to smooth away, the cracks and mould lines in the medium. This provides the pretext for their moments of failure, but also their enduring success, in which this hour to hour shift and lack of faith to the coherent narrative structure demanded of them prove something that could only be done via television. Perhaps its better, rather than to attempt a kind of melding of mediums into a smooth entity, to accentuate the broken, weird qualities of television as a medium. If the perhaps indulgent but largely unapologetically brilliant return of Twin Peaks a few years ago demonstrated anything, it’s that there’s nothing particularly wrong with being a television show.

Categories
Music Politics

Utopia at the Weekend

“Can music change the world?” is the question that dogs me more than any other at the moment, and suffice to say, as Simon Reynolds acknowledged during this years Mark Fisher memorial lecture, it has no simple answer. There is always the risk of a kind of theory-based wish fulfilment fantasy when addressing this, as evidenced by countless incidents wherein we will place whatever we are concerned with at the heart of some world-shifting rupture, as not only a method, but a central mechanism of change. Because my investment in music comes from a well of emotion it would be all too easy to progress from a confident affirmation of emancipatory power, to insist from the off that music is a revolutionary force as if this is a given. When I place importance on the question of music and political change, it is to avoid this assumption, but to commit to a certain confidence, perhaps misplaced but difficult to dislodge, that music is of importance, that it deserves more than we give it, and that in fact, the very act of writing about music still has a point.

This last point is something that I unambiguously take a side on, for good or ill, if only through my subjective experiences of music writing as an expansive tool, whether as a reader or writer. Without the idea, found largely in writing, of new worlds and experiences heralded through music, I probably wouldn’t have started this blog or rediscovered the value of theory in the first place. Whether it is in the form of a linking of ideas to cultural production or the heightening of emotional potential in the very sound of the music itself, the prism of the music-writer has continued to prove invaluable to me. This is something that has emerged for me particularly upon reading through Agnes Gayraud’s Dialectic of Pop, David Wilkinson’s Post-Punk, Politics and Pleasure in Britain, and attending the Simon Reynolds lecture, three “events” which have intertwined and coalesced into a series of concerns and questions.

Reynold’s lecture in particular channelled a lot of my reading through what was a stimulating if meandering excavation of Mark Fisher’s engagement with music and what it entails, as well as more specifically surprising engagement with bands like the Jam and the counterculture of the 60s, which earlier on had come under some notable ire in a few K-Punk posts. The evocation of the power of music here, and its utopian tendencies [even as often this utopia is deferred, the weekend is constantly on the horizon, the revolution is always tomorrow] emotionally channelled a lot of what I’d read not too long prior from Gayraud. Dialectic of Pop, notably, is far from an unambiguous culturalist defence of pop as utopian force, or even a defence of pop as artform as such, something that I would argue barely needs saying today, rather it is an invigorating philosophical engagement with pop-as-artform via a critique of its most famous detractor Adorno. The implications of the work I think demand further engagement, and I’m curious as to how this emerges in time, but for me it begged further questions regarding the implications of production.

By addressing technology, mediation and production as the central components of pop as a musical form, Gayraud immediately hits at something I think is key to addressing it, whether we do so as a critic or an academic or both. Derrida didn’t make an appearance in the book explicitly, but in addressing the inherent deferral of authenticity in recorded music and expression, I couldn’t help but think of him. What Gayraud implicitly deals with through her addressing of a paradoxical “grounded authenticity”, as well as her account of both pop and music concrete being arts of “fixed sounds”, defined not, as in prior forms in which the “object” was prefigured, symbolised by a score, by the particularities of the performance itself as inscribed on the recording. In this way, the idea of the authentic expression, the grounded, the lone bluesman pouring out their soul on the porch, is mediated as soon as it is played, even as its image is reproduced in the recording, the presence only occurs in its absence.

This seems to prefigure what Reynolds draws from in Fisher and others, the reference he made during the lecture of music forming identity, heralding new worlds, all in a way opposing the old conception of music expressing an authentic “soul” or emotional bedrock, rather pointing to it as a locus of production, of the new. It’s not often here that I’ve referred back to the CCRU, partly as its already such an overbearing reference point in online theory circles, but the most interesting thing about that moment today I think is how it was tied together with a cultural one. Reynolds, when talking about it, will never fail to mention how the CCRU was practically inseparable from its musical influences in Jungle, seeing in the heightened, machine-gun proliferation of drum-hits made possible via new technological openings a kind of cultural blueprint for the ideas that would eventually become attached to the name accelerationism. Whatever value we attach to that label now, and whatever’s in a name [I myself became so frustrated with the online discourse around it a while ago that I instigated a clean break on this blog, not something I’d do again but not something I regret either], the presence of jungle in the 90s as a kind of supposed sign of things to come is a marker of the ambiguous power of music. It can be argued I think that even as the excitement of new electronic forms of music, of audio-technological possibilities opened up, that power of the new failed utterly to connect with the socio-political moment, in which Blair, Britpop and a reconstituted mashup of 60s references was the order of the day.

So even as we maintain that music has power, that it can indeed herald other worlds, new possibilities, utopias, we have to question the implications of this power, and hence the implication that music is somehow inherently revolutionary or a force for change. The power it holds is one that is tied up in the changes of the day both material and abstract. As Fisher often pointed out and Reynolds reiterated, there is an uncertainty and a seeming contradiction in the kind of “realism” we sometimes find in Hip-Hop, where at the same time as being at the forefront of a contemporary modernist impulse sonically, tends towards reinforcing capitalist realist tendencies in its lyrics and relations. This, when we look at jungle, seems to manifest in the simultaneous acceleration and deceleration that occurred at that time, and what we could perhaps now see as the disappointment of that moment, that the much-vaunted heightened abstraction of capital, the kind of accelerated ruptures to the outside heralded by the intersection of cyberpunk, jungle, Lovecraft and the other host of reference points the CCRU drew from, never materialised, the 2000s instead becoming dominated by the kind of flaccid indie-pop-rock continuum that couldn’t stand in greater contrast with the rhythmic psychedelia, as Kodwo Eshun dubbed it, of Jungle, and the possibilities it suggested.

That was 20ish years ago, and now we exist in the world which seems to be the fruit of that moment, not as a kind of vivid auto-destruction of capital, but a stasis of effect. Rather than a lurid eroticism of machines, a technological rupture, the future is that of google and facebook, the reterritorialised thrill of machinic abandon made manifest instead in the billionaire figure, the tech guru, the data manager around which we gather in worship. The underground promise of technological mutation promised through genres like jungle, and the much-mythologised moment of the CCRU, remained just that, a myth, a teleology some still cling to even while we live in its manifestation. This all paints a somewhat hopeless picture, and in fact I would hold that we shouldn’t shy away from, to some degree, acknowledging a certain degree of pessimism, an emotional air of failure, in the present, not only from the left, but from the counterculture, wherever that can be found.

The flipside to this is the questioning of purpose. Something I’ve come to realise is a certain turmoil of believing in, and committing to, an emancipatory politics and some kind of future. Especially in the current climate, outside influences make themselves known, voices consistently asking you “what’s the point?”, on some level you wonder if it wouldn’t all be easier if you gave up hope, simply threw in the towel and accepted perhaps that culture doesn’t mean anything, that there really isn’t any escaping. It is here that, speaking personally, but also as something of a justification for my interest in theories and politics of aesthetics and culture, culture, and in this instance especially music, holds open the door. The “heralding of worlds” enabled through pop music must be more than a simple ability to ignore the world as it is.

This is something that, especially given the somewhat archival nature of Reynold’s lecture, and my current reading on post-punk, appears not simply in some ineffable thought-realm, but on a spatio-temporal level. When I was discovering swathes of new sounds each presented to me a world with which I wasn’t familiar, a kind of fantastical apparition of the period from which it came. I referred previously on this blog to the Pop Group as appearing like a kind of transmission from elsewhere, and indeed a lot of the music I discovered felt the same way. Gayraud puts a large amount of emphasis on the development of recorded music, describing how recordings were in those early days sometimes treated with suspicion, how upon being played a recording of a song, the voice might be regarded as a spectre, something unnatural being brought back from the grave. This sense never truly goes away from recorded music, the particulars of each recording being inscribed technologically rather than dissipating with the singer/musician. On some level, the pop song, the recorded piece of music does give us a transmission from somewhere that no longer exists, or doesn’t exist here.

This is both the hope and the melancholy of pop, the moment that it promises something else while deferring it. Something Reynold’s referred to, specifically in conjunction with a song by “the Australian Beatles” the Easybeats, was this idea of “Utopia at the weekend” contained in their lyrics, the infinitely deferred promise of good times, without worry, always appearing as soon as they disappear. This is a conflict I’ve found within the form of songs repeatedly, whose sounds and forms encourage langour, enjoyment, dance, a kind of moment in which you are encouraged to remain… yet the song finishes, it can’t not, to lead onto the next. The euphoria always prefigures the downturn, the revolution is always tomorrow. Nonetheless the promise remains.

And what does the music writer have to do with all this? Is writing about music like dancing about architecture? No more than making music itself is like talking about paintings. That ridiculous canard should have been done away with a long time ago, not simply because its a case of “apples and oranges” but because it belies a constraint, a straight-jacket on music as well as writing, which assumes that one sphere simply lies apart from the other, that any imposition of writing or thought must necessarily lessen the impact, cheapen the music itself. I have to contest this on a personal level; I would never have, for instance, listened to the cracked ceramic majesty of the Associates Sulk had the presence of their music not been drawn up in such a compelling form in Reynold’s Rip it Up and Start Again, and in this instance it ceases to matter whether the writing itself resembles the form of the music, it was never about that, but the conjuring of its spirit, its emotional resonance in the listener.

This is, to tell the truth, what I objected to for so long in the music reviews I found in the guardian, which I encountered more regularly than any other paper, in which professional critics would time and again proceed to review from a supposed position of cynical distance, where they couldn’t be seen to be too invested, where even praise came with the insistent and mind-numbing implication of white-middle-class-cool heaped on top of it, as if I was being lectured by the frontman of the latest mediocre indie-rock outfit week after week. It is the bind of the man who simply grunts in response so as not to break his uncaring facade, the same that grips the hipster, the cool-police who stalk newspaper columns everywhere and deliver packaged and manufactured snide remarks on the latest pop single not because it has any bearing on anything, but because they need to make snide irreverent comments on something lest they lose their edge.

This form of criticism is an anathema to the power of music, it aims to lessen it, to dismiss it. Even what’s good is only so because you enjoy it, or because it fits a certain standard of irreverent cool to be a credibility-booster for the critic in question. The idea that music could in fact do something, that talking about it might be something more than recommending the best product for an audience, is laughed at, hit with the same insufferable hipster cool as everything else. In contrast to this, the best music writing, encapsulated for me in the past year in Ian Penman’s It Takes Me Home, This Winding Track, holds on, not to some artificial sincerity, but the weight of culture, the commitment to its power. To oppose the empty nostalgic commodification of Mod today is not simply an exasperated old man-ism, as if they “aren’t doing mod right” or something, but an acknowledgement of the wider implications, the nostalgia-porn for instance hanging around punk and, most bafflingly today, Britpop, isn’t simply something not to be liked, something distasteful, but a sign of something broader, something powerful.

The power of music remains an ambiguous one, to be handled with care and critically, but its existence is precisely why this critique is necessary, why despite the ineffability of sound, music and music culture deserve to be taken seriously. To not do so is to let this power bend to others, to give up the ghost, to leave music at the whims of the hipster critic is to leave it to the whims of political change. If we are to accept, as we should have realised long ago on the left, that politics operates through emotional means far before it does analytic ones, then the emotional pull of culture, the establishing of its power, has its part to play. By saying this, I don’t want to insinuate a call for some kind of “left culture offensive” in the manner of Red Wedge or Grime 4 Corbyn, both of which not only failed but subscribe to the logic that only explicit political messaging and content matters. Rather, it is for a re-alignment of how we criticise, talk about, address music. We need to assume that it matters regardless of content, that the future of music has something to offer, and that the dream of a re-invented structure of feeling presented by the history of its form still lives on, in whatever form this may take.

Categories
Archaeology of Cultural Space hauntology Theory/Praxis

Valences of Hauntology

Hauntology is everywhere these days, or should I say, everyone’s talking about it, or maybe it’s more that everyone’s complaining that everyone’s talking about it? It all becomes a bit tiring when you’ve spent some time sequestered online, once you’ve been through the umpteenth iteration in some kind of endlessly repeated discussion that would like to think it’s a weighty debate at the acropolis but is closer in resemblance to “my dad could beat your dad in a fight”; who has the best take, the spiciest or the hottest? Tune in after the break to find out…

Regardless, read what you want into the time of year I’m writing this, but I found myself lately in something of a Hauntology hole, probably after watching Ken McMullen’s Ghost Dance and returning to Derrida, the thinker that strangely enough for me I can’t seem to escape, who seems to wait for me somewhere however far I travel, whichever paths I go down. For all that he can be frustrating, and I very much understand the criticisms of Deconstruction as often being a kind of desiccated critique, there’s something more, and something vital within his critique of metaphysics that I can’t escape; indeed there’s something of the denaturalising impulse that we must search for in an emancipatory sense that seems to permeate much of Derrida’s work. When it comes to Hauntology, I think it is immensely valuable at this stage to strip away some of the dissatisfaction, repeated points, misrepresentations and identify a certain strand, something that very much still resides in Specters of Marx.

By this point a lot of what is pointed towards or identifies as such seems to be distinctly un-hauntological, a kind of flattening of the term to mean simply “haunting”, and a disconnection almost entirely from its implications of disjuncture, the intention of Derrida to invoke the “conjuring” of ontology, centred around the unspoken, the said and the yet-to-be-said, the “presence” of the text itself becoming a spectre. What is lost often is what is contained within the Hamlet quote “time is out of joint”, which Derrida evokes repeatedly throughout SoM. Hauntology is never about a simple haunting, the past coming into the present, a straight lineage of time, it revolves around the very unsettling of temporal lines, the paradox of presence and non-presence, the disjointedness of time and memory, it has everything to do with our state of being in time. Hence the wordplay, a portmanteau of haunt and ontology, it is, if we are to simplify it at all Ontology as Haunting, Being as Spectre. It is by its very nature an unsettling, just as when Hamlet speaks the above line, it is to evoke the idea precisely that something seems wrong, that the world is not as it should be…

Do You Believe in Ghosts?

You know that point of coincidence, when at some undefined point you encounter something familiar somewhere it shouldn’t be? It might be a flicker of a television advert, or something re-occurring years or decades later in some unexpected corner, a piece of writing, a snippet of lyric, a phrase that lay dormant and forgotten, but suddenly flickers into view for a second or more. It’s in this way that our lives are populated by ghosts, that time does not operate as we think it should. It’s not just that we remember something long buried, but the sense that the past remembers us.

But this seems like it should be impossible, it makes no sense. How could something that no longer exists still exert a pull on us? It is precisely this that Hauntology draws on, the strange slippages and dispersed fragments of time that exist at the intersection of being, the words before they are spoken. Indeed Derrida draws heavily on the sense when we speak that our words come from someone else, that we speak and write as ghosts. In Ghost Dance, we find him ruminating on being asked whether he believes in ghosts, “here, the ghost is me..”. The Hauntological displaces any sense of metaphysical grounding and places the present as a space of spectral projection, always out of view, always peripheral. In short, it undermines the Metaphysics of Presence. Hauntology teases out the threads of this unspoken periphery from the fabric, the implicit connections lying behind a form. There is no “haunting” something; if we intend to do something “Hauntologically” we have failed before we’ve begun, for the spectres we find, the hidden glimpses, must be prior to the expression itself, immanent to the text. The point of SoM was always to pick out what lay behind the text, the terms and associations that haunted the text, ones that inevitably Marx himself was not aware of.

This is all to counter the easy assumptions that Hauntology is merely a kind of calling-back, a kind of appeal to the past, which I’ve hinted at before but wanted to go into in more depth. If we are looking at a simple vision of the past we’ve gone badly wrong somewhere. Hauntology is by necessity a complication of the past, a tangling of it with its own future in which, and I can’t emphasise this enough, the unspoken becomes key. We enter a world of the not-quite, the never-here, the out-of-sight.. the echo precedes the shout.. a distinct uncertainty, where did that sound come from? Hauntology precisely dismantles our comfortable temporalities and disrupts chronology to the point where we can no longer say A then B then C with confidence in our memory of this progression, it becomes jumbled, disordered, out of joint.

Partial Recall

Hamlet already began with the expected return of the dead King. After the end of history, the spirit comes by coming back [revenant], it figures both a dead man who comes back and a ghost whose expected return repeats itself, again and again.

The motif of recall, of memory dominates the Hauntological, becoming a central theme of SoM. A memory is something which lingers from that which no longer exists. It returns as spectre, which is precisely not to be, it is not a presence. In this sense, if we are to return to Derrida, “it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept”. To Derrida, Ontology is the exorcism of this haunting… “Everything begins before it begins”… the spectral precedes the real and the real is haunted by the spectral. This is to say that each concept, each form, is by necessity an exorcism of its own haunting, wherein it is conjured into being. This exorcism or ritual is a grounding in presence, where the hauntological concerns what precedes it, the impossibility of presence.

The Hauntological then, concerns everything that is not present, the gaps, frissons and openings; it is moreover an Ontological disturbance, foregrounding our distance from something, its disintegration and transience. This goes on to suggest, however, that a haunting, as Mark Fisher makes explicit, is as much a disturbance of space as it is time. Where the immediate association of haunting may seem a temporal one, the revenant, the return of the past, repetition and rhythms of ritual mourning and melancholy, it is worth pointing towards the prevalence of the haunted house, the connection to location in so many ghost stories. Fisher provides us with a key example in the overlook hotel of the Shining, the way in which family history, trauma, the crimes of the past, become residues in a place, the family drama of psychoanalysis crossing over with something larger and further reaching. So to move on from its one association as a temporal condition to this Ontological uprooting is to find that Hauntology is inevitably spatial. If, as Derrida said, Psychoanalysis is the study of ghosts, those phenomena of the psyche with no real presence that continue to exert influence upon us, then so must our connection to space, and our existence within it, be a spectral one. Here, the primacy of the virtual becomes apparent.

Mourning, The Return of the Dead

There is a specific engagement in Specters of Marx with the time in which it was written, namely the “end of history”, that final triumph of liberal Capitalism evoked most famously by Fukuyama, something that Derrida connected to Freud’s account of the triumphalist phase of the mourning process in relation to the demise of the soviet union and with it the very idea of Communism, of Marx. This approach, famously identified by Fisher as Capitalist Realism, consists of the recall, repetition, incantation, evoked through the spectres of Hamlet. “To the rhythm of a cadenced march, it proclaims: Marx is dead, communism is dead, very dead, and along with it its hopes, its discourse, its theories, and its practices. It says: long live capitalism, long live the market, here’s to the survival of economic and political liberalism!“, Mourning here takes upon itself the task of the aforementioned exorcism of alternatives, the codification of a universal reality and the final expunging of any memory that might still act upon the present.

So what from this is the significance of Hauntology in the cultural sense, the identification of a tendency, indeed a confluence in music and culture? It seems to emerge from what I’ve just described in the condition of melancholia, this refusal to let go. Where Derrida identifies in the end of history a process of mourning, of detachment and triumphalism, the death of Marx and the exorcism of his ghost, he simultaneously speaks of our inability to banish the dead. The Haunting present in culture speaks to something that is no longer with us, but that has been unsuccessfully banished, the work of mourning arrested. It is, more to the point, a refusal to “give up the ghost” that is, to yield with regard to the insidious pull of our own desire, as Lacan put it. The accusations of nostalgia here are misplaced I think quite simply when we realise that what’s being held onto here is not an idealised version of the past, but a potentiality, an alternative that never made good on its aims. While a traditional nostalgia harkens back to a supposedly ideal time, Hauntology points towards what is unfinished, and again, unspoken. It is for this reason that Fisher refers to “lost futures”, it is not what was, but what might have been. Here there is no object to mourn, and so it lingers on in expressions and cultural resonances. The death here does not pertain to some completed construction or project, but an approach, a world-view. For Capital, the dead always return to haunt it.

Lost Futures

Many discussions and expositions on Hauntology over the past few years have started with Mark Fisher, but I purposefully did not, firstly because I’m aware that this Blog might quickly become a K-Punk fansite, and also because I think the origins of the term in Derrida is something worth dredging back into view, if only to emphasise the de-ontological qualities of the word. Nevertheless, if I’m going to talk about Hauntology, it has to be said that Fisher is largely responsible, with a few others [Simon Reynolds also had a part to play] for bringing the term into wider usage within cultural theory and criticism, and so addressing what he did with it, and where he applied it, becomes something of a necessity.

It’s often implied that there is an immense difference between Derrida’s Hauntology and Fisher’s, but right away I think that this is overstated. It’s true that Fisher harboured a frustration with Derrida as a thinker, criticising Deconstruction, as it manifested in the academy, as “a kind of pathology of scepticism, which induced hedging, infirmity of purpose, and compulsory doubt in its followers”. This frustration is something I alluded to above, and is not unfounded, and yet is something I can easily look past in his work, partly due I think to the fact that it was Derrida who lay somewhat centrally to my re-introduction to philosophy and theory after a long wasteland of disenchantment some time ago. In some sense it was precisely this pathology of scepticism which provided an opening for me into the paths I ended up exploring, and has pushed me always not into an infirmity of purpose or inability to hold a position, but instead into a constant wariness of simplicity and reduction behind a position. It is of course largely a matter of what you do with a thinker, and Fisher indeed refers to the ways in which Derrida among others drove a creativity and excitement in the music writers so influential to him.

Sonic Hauntology

I mentioned above the identification from Fisher and others of a certain cultural confluence with Hauntology, and to go further down that lane will require us to pull together some of the threads I’ve been exploring so far into what Fisher termed Sonic Hauntology, specifically at points linking it to the Hauntological tendencies of Afrofuturism with its displacement and jumbling of time and space. In his essay The Metaphysics of CrackleAfrofuturism and Hauntology, an astonishing text that I must admit I only chanced upon recently, Fisher outlines this tendency, focusing on the presence of crackle or sonic disintegration in so much of the music to be identified with Hauntology. The railing against the metaphysics of presence is here beautifully opposed to the attachment to the presence or authenticity of the singer-songwriter in the work of Greil Marcus and found within the fiery opening salvo of Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant than the Sun, where Eshun opposes in the strongest terms the “troglodytic homilies” of the “intertia engine”, the tendency of music writers to appeal at all times to a “terminally stupid sublime” –

The fuel this inertia engine runs on is fossil fuel : the live show, the proper album, the Real Song, the Real Voice, the mature, the musical , the pure, the true, the proper, the intelligent, breaking America: all notions that stink of the past, that maintain a hierarchy of the senses, that petrify music into a solid state in which everyone knows where they stand, and what real music really is.”

What Eshun is doing here is not too far removed from Derrida’s project in Specters of Marx, that is he is opposing the centrality of presence, of immediacy, of the present. In Metaphysics of Crackle, Fisher draws our attention to Dub, the “Afrofuturist sonic science” , and what’s notable is how it is treated by two different music writers, Marcus and Ian Penman. What’s notable about Marcus is not that he doesn’t address or talk about Dub, but that he talks about in the sense that a literary critic might talk about a text. What’s important is its presence, its importance, its meaning, never the materiality of the sound, what it does. What Marcus is ultimately beholden to is a kind of Rock Metaphysics, seen in the proclamation of raw, pure expression, common attitudes towards the blues. And yet, as Fisher points out, something that a writer like Marcus barely ever touches upon is the role of production, of music technology, of everything that mediates between us and the musician. For in truth, while we tend to look towards bluesmen like Robert Johnson as the ultimate purity of expression in music, we listen to them practically through the material haze of time, through the broken up, crackling deterioration of sound. Fisher quotes Owen Hatherley, “there’s surely no music more utterly dominated by its recording technology than 1930s blues. Listening to Robert Johnson you have, rather than the expected in yr [sic] face earthiness and presence, layers upon layers of fizz, crackle, hiss, white noise..”

So sonic Hauntology is precisely the foregrounding of that technology, the cracks, deterioration and surface noise, rather than the rockist privileging of the man & guitar, the voice. It is in this sense that Penman identifies it and Afrofuturism as “two sides of the same double-faced phenomenon”. The same material foregrounding of the lack of presence found in Hauntology is central to the diasporic, fractured, cut-and-paste jumbling of space-time of Afrofuturism, where the alienation within black culture, the transience and lack of place, are exactly what becomes emphasised and re-configured. “Afrofuturism unravels any linear model of the future, disrupting the idea that the future will be a simple supersession of the past. Time in Afrofuturism is plastic, stretchable and prophetic—it is, in other words, a technologised time, in which past and future are subject to ceaseless de- and recompostion” So, through the dominance of technologies to how we experience sounds, music or otherwise, sonic Hauntology intensifies this pattern, emphasises it.

Virtual Disjunctures

But to what end? What purpose does Hauntology really serve, we might ask, where does this distancing of presence lead us? The answer lies I think somewhere in the postmodern world of simulacrum, virtuality and abstraction that has become so familiar to us today, the communicative wonderland and digital landscape. Sonic Hauntology’s heightening of crackle and distortion, the surface noise of old media technologies is something that immediately distinguishes it from the formal nostalgia pointed to by Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism, something which also is immanently connected to the prominence of technology. This formal nostalgia not only separates itself from emotional or psychological nostalgia, it is in some sense predicated on its absence. It is only when detached from its past, when the direct memory is severed, that an attachment to the forms of the past comes into focus. The “Slow Cancellation of the Future” Fisher refers to [from Franco Berardi], is a nostalgia, but one very different from the paradoxical one found in sonic Hauntology for example.

Ghosts of My Life is the project of Fisher’s I’ve found is most sidelined. This is not to say that it is unknown or anything of the sort, but that the main focus tends to be on either of his other books. It has, however, resolved into my favourite of the three he published, and something of this lies in its diaristic, fragmented quality. The book, while it centres on themes, is not a simple treatise on them, but an exercise in the very excavations of lost futures implied through Hauntology as some kind of practice. This is why, far from its distended nature reducing its effectiveness as Hauntological text, it is precisely this that, in the lineage of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, and indeed Laura Grace Ford’s Savage Messiah zine to which Fisher contributed a preface, places it within the Hauntological beyond simply containing a definition of it as a tendency. While we might search for a clear, elegant, singular text, it is the cut-and-paste quality of a project like this, the immediate appearance of cracks and lines in its construction, that presents it as a kind of spectral archaeology par excellence.

So what to take from the yearning for Lost Futures. Is it, as some have tried to insinuate, some kind of re-constituted nostalgia? Are we, through this, doing precisely what donkey-jacketed old socialists are most often accused of and wishing for a return to the 70s? I mention Ghosts of My Life as here we can find an engagement with this –

What is being longed for in hauntology is not a particular period, but the resumption of the processes of democratisation and pluralism for which [Paul] Gilroy calls. Perhaps it’s useful to remind ourselves here that social democracy has only become a resolved totality in retrospect; at the time, it was a compromise formation, which those on the left saw as a temporary bridgehead from which further gains could be won. What should haunt us is not the no longer of actually existing social democracy, but the not yet of the futures that popular modernism trained us to expect, but which never materialised. These spectres – the spectres of lost futures – reproach the formal nostalgia of the capitalist realist world.

The point here is precisely not a yearning for times past but of tendencies curtailed. The “Lost Futures” are not a kind of Schlaraffenland we might readily associate with a kind of reactionary nostalgia for the past, nor are they the melancholia of Gilroy or Wendy Brown, “Post-colonial” and “Left” respectively, in which we become attached to either an idealised moment or the repetition of failure. As usual within the purview of Hauntology, the Lost Future concerns the unspoken, the yet-to-exist or the no-longer-existing. This might seem like an obvious point, one I re-iterate here, but it contains within it something immensely important to realise culturally and politically, and that is that tendencies we might look towards in the past, be they Socialism or Popular Modernism, are not restricted to the time within which they existed, and are not finished, packaged wholes. The common line directed at the left that “you just want to return us to the 70s” commits two major errors; it firstly presents us with a retroactively constructed narrative of the 70s, an image of neoliberalism arriving to modernise the clear failure of social democracy [Thatcher’s “Labour isn’t Working” posters come to mind], putting to the side a lot of the inconvenient attempts to forcibly impose neoliberalism and ruthlessly crush opposition, secondly, it assumes that the left, socialism, whatever we want to label the tendencies dominant at the time, are locked within that decade, that any attempt to continue them today is by its very nature some kind of nostalgic pathology.

Archaeologies

So, in trying to perceive the flickering, disintegrated echoes of a past era, there is a melancholia, but which takes the form, rather than a time-locked nostalgia, of a refusal, a refusal to mourn, to banish the dead. There is a defiance in yearning for something violently strangled before its time, to hold on to the reverberations it leaves behind. This distinct refusal to mourn, to give up on potential, is central to the political and cultural prevalence of Hauntology and the Spectral. It is the vector towards renewal perceived through a technological haze, just as the lone bluesman is heard through the indefinite layers of crackle and noise. It is the distance afforded us by the technological here that preserves and propagates the ghosts of our lives. The distended, fragmentary cut-and-paste alienation of time from itself that we experience in a landscape where all emerges at once, regardless of time and space, that distinct flattening of spatio-temporal distinctions of our era, is something that Hauntology, both in cultural, political, sonic, psychological, geological terms, intensifies.

It is this process, the intensification of disjuncture, that may become a vector towards a new modernist impulse. For how long now can we continue to hold to the limitations of presence, and for how long can we prioritise the kind of grounding Rockist authenticity demands? The disturbance of causality itself, and the undermining of metaphysical presence itself, becomes today the task of any future, for it is surely the “realistic” appeals to purity, to identity, that form the ritual exorcism of spectres. It is in assuming that what we see it what we get, that it is a solid, unmoving excrescence, that in a real sense we do away with any potential, any echo. There is only the music, and great music speaks for itself, right? Hauntology is to percieve in this gigantic echo chamber a world, a fragmented map of associations far larger than any building or song, to draw out the fabric into an immense spool outwards… unravelling, and through this sensing the tremors, the barely perceptible patterns still present through the gaps, reveal themselves…. like apparitions through the fog…

Reading List [Not all of these are explicitly mentioned here but all are relevant and informed/inspired it, however tangentially]-

  • Jacques Derrida – Specters of Marx
  • Ken McMullen – Ghost Dance [Linked above]
  • Mark Fisher – Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures
  • Fredric Jameson – Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
  • Mark Fisher – The Metaphysics of Crackle: Afrofuturism and Hauntology
  • Kodwo Eshun – More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction
  • Walter Benjamin – The Arcades Project
  • Laura Grace Ford – Savage Messiah
  • Simon Reynolds – Retromania [see also Rip it Up and Start Again]
  • Greil Marcus – Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century
  • Ian Penman – It Gets Me Home This Winding Track
  • Wendy Brown – Resisting Left Melancholy
  • Paul Gilroy – Postcolonial Melancholia
  • Sigmund Freud – The Uncanny
  • Mark Fisher – The Weird and the Eerie
Categories
Archaeology of Cultural Space Music

The Future Wears a Mask

A problem with the future is that everyone wants to be the one to find it. Just as the music press has often prided itself on having found “the next big thing”, we all want to be the ones to have picked up on the emergent strand, that one element of the present which presents a radical break, the coming of the new. Recently, I’ve noticed some grappling with this, partly in Simon Reynolds [worth reading] piece on “Conceptronica” and some of the murmurings surrounding it and associated acts. Reynold’s piece asks “Why so much electronic music this decade felt like it belonged in a museum instead of a club”, which in itself is not an uninteresting point of inquiry, one that he does his bit to look into; yet I feel there was something missing here. Past all the careful investigation, it comes back to that tagline and the failure to really address it.

One of the artists featured in the piece was Holly Herndon, specifically regarding her latest album, PROTO, an album which from the outset dreams big, in itself no bad thing, about the potentials of AI and technology, attempting to bridge the gap between choral, folk and more traditional musics and the collective ecstasy of the rave via the means of a collective pooling of voices into a kind of personified construct. The ideas swirling around the project scream the future, they grapple with emergent technological issues that may come to effect us all, and seem to point to potential new forms of collectivity through the medium of these very technologies. The problem for me, however, starts when we pass from the script, the blurb, and into the music itself, despite having the impression it was somehow supposed to be everything I’m interested in, a cultural attempt to scout out new futures, a bridging of subjective and objective gaps via music… The thing was, however, that the music left me completely cold.. it came off like a vaguely interesting series of experiments but nothing really imprinted itself beyond some particularly beautiful/ugly passages. It was at point of contact that the ideas, the concept seemed to dissipate into what may have been an impressive technological leap but just came off like a series of vocal glitches and effects, a sound that just didn’t conjure what it said it did. There existed a fundamental disconnect here between what was supposed to be happening and what actually was.

This isn’t a universal problem with all the artists Reynolds mentions, but it is something that I find is also present precisely in the museum press releases and statements he evokes, something that continues to dog contemporary art shows everywhere and lends to this general sense of disappointment or emptiness. The false idea has long been that the main problem with such writing is simply that it is “pretentious waffle” that it is incomprehensible, that it is simply a kind of pseudo-deleuzian art-speak babble that serves to alienate viewers. This may be true, but it’s only half the story, the other being the distance that is covered between the writing, the build up or blurb, and the art itself. Countless times I have read about what a piece of art is supposed to do but been encountered immediately by its failure to actually do it. It takes the same form as a narrative dissonance where we are told what kind of character we are watching or reading about while that character fails to materialise in the story itself, and the times we may have encountered someone who tells us one thing about themselves while enacting the very opposite. It’s not that its actively or maliciously misleading, but rather that it skips the unskippable beat, that it gets ahead of itself, beats itself to the finish line, and insodoing, unmasks itself.

It perhaps shouldn’t bear mentioning, but music directly positioning itself conceptually around the future does not make it of the future any more than lasers and androids are the sum of science fiction as a genre. It is possibly the largest mistake we can make about culture to assume that its proclamations of concept, that its evocations form the whole of its content and form. In other words, music that arrives in a cloak of future imagery and technological innovations does not automatically evoke such ideas in its execution. What I find here is that the mistake is a assumed prioritising. Similarly to the Logocentrism of western philosophy attacked by Derrida, here the content of words is placed above their form and textures in a cultural context, lyrical content above the timbre of voice, speaking above writing and photography above painting.

This brings me to something brought up by both Mark Fisher and Kodwo Eshun, and that is the place of the cultural critic not simply as a tastemaker, expert or institution, but as an intensifier. It is through such writing that sounds and images, are libidinally heightened, that they are interpreted in some sense and amplified. It also makes me think of the way Ian Penman, specifically in the essay on Sinatra included in his recent collection but throughout his work, puts so much focus not merely on what is being sung, said or we could say even written, but how. Sinatra took a significant amount of influence in his singing from observing horn players and their inflections, pauses and emphasis, and here we begin to see a fundamental rift that often persists between music writers and musicians themselves [where the whole “dancing about architecture” canard arises]. While you will find many music writers searching for a kind of explanation, an exposition of language-born meaning to the music, indeed this has developed into a blatant overvaluing of “pure” lyrical content itself, on contact with a musician, for all their ideas and concepts it quickly becomes apparent that all this is in service to the sound itself.

In a recent piece on Debussy in London Review of Books, Nicholas Spice mentions how Adorno found distasteful Debussy’s supposed Fetishism of the materiality of sound, and the way in which Schoenberg himself mocked Adorno’s championing of him [“Was macht die Musik?” “Sie Philosophiert”].. both of these indirect interactions between musician/composer and philosopher speak something of the above disconnect, of a certain misunderstanding that the critic or theorist in their pomp might stand to make in demanding a certain conceptual rigour from the work they’re addressing. It leads to writing and analysis that for all its complexities, for all its length or reference points, often fails point blank to evoke the power of the music itself, functions at a kind of arms length from its subject, refusing to actually delve into the murky worlds of sonic texture and rhythmic communication, the cracking of the voice or the artificiality of an instrument. It is probably worth mentioning in the same breath here Susan Sontag’s call for an “Erotics” over an “Interpretation” of the arts, something that feeds into a sense that what music writing so often abandons is a sense of precisely of the materiality of its subject. For all Adorno’s disdain for the formulaic nature of pop, he missed an important element of it, and that is the effect of the sound itself.

This isn’t to evoke some kind of sublime here [something that most obviously Sontag argues against], some kind of primal spiritual presence or romanticised purity of the material, rather something of the opposite, that the writer can here function as something of an interpreter or amplifier for its effect. Some of the best sleevenotes I’ve found for instance have served just such a purpose in channelling the intensity of sound, the atmosphere of it, rather than providing a bone dry exposition of content. This is the last point at which we want to find a scientific thesis, but a plane of the poetic elaboration, of the power of masks and theatre. Rather similarly to the way in which we use clothes and makeup to construct rather than hide ourselves, it is in the resonances of the surface rather than a phantasmic pure nugget of authenticity beneath that we encounter the complexities and conceptual potency of art.

In a post about Japan’s Tin Drum, Mark Fisher asked, after Deleuze in Logic of Sense, “why, if superficiality is defined as lack of depth, is depth not defined as lack of surface?” This question still bears a good deal of consideration today, even as in response to the overload of signs and information the modern world heaps upon us we continue to find recourse to fantasies of some pure existence away from “modernity”. Here it is assumed that there lies an ideal sublime underneath the trash of the everyday, that if we scrape away the layers of makeup we find the real identity beneath. Such attempts at a kind of demystifying ambition, where we find a kind of absolute space or identity lurking beneath its surface, belies that it is precisely in this surface that an expanse of complexities and unspoken resonances emerge. It is the mask worn by the actor, the makeup and the costume, that construct the character, and is there anything gained by searching for the scaffolding beneath in the hope of an instructional document, some unadulterated truth? Indeed rather than an era of superficiality, might it be just as apt to ascribe to this current moment a priority of transparency? It’s something we’ve come to expect in all things that they remain true to themselves, real. You do you, just do your own thing… I’m just a normal bloke like you… isn’t this transparency, this injunction to bare all at all times, the constant deference to the authentic, the problem?

So rather than try to either ground or justify the music via the concept underpinning it, the kind of writing and exposition Reynolds talks about in relation to “Conceptronica” might be better served if they didn’t take as a point of assumption the music-as-thesis, art as pointing towards resolution, recourse-to-explanation of the museum piece itself. Against the backdrop of a kind of widespread disavowal of surface in favour of a supposed depth, it seems that the only way we can think of communicating complexity of ideas is via an accompaniment, by something beyond or above. The vicissitudes of futurity are that of the event, that of retrospective causality. Pointing towards a future potential in an artist due to their technological or conceptual proclivities says nothing in truth of the future, something which always lies masked. It is not in the process, in the conceptual underpinnings of a musical project that we might seek to place it in some kind of alternative canon, some kind of potential future form, but in its textural qualities and effects. If we wish to perceive the reverberations of as yet unheard futures, then it is to be found in the material of sound, the performance and surface, and the ambiguities and spectres held within this echo chamber of affects. If the future always wears a mask, then only an examination of masks, a serious approach to superficiality, will tease out its fragile strands into the light of day.

Categories
Books Music

Drifting… Reflection; on Ian Penman’s “It Gets me Home, This Curving Track”

“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.

Categories
Theory/Praxis

Discordant Concordance Part 2: Tasting the Wind

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.

Categories
Music

“You Don’t Know How to Act”

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..

Categories
Music

Natural’s Not in It; Militant Otherness in Music

A dark, inscrutable passageway into the undergrowth…

.

Scratchy, anxious sound, ready to burst at the seams, lurching in sputters and starts until it crashes into another rhythmic contortion. Shimmering, skating, pummelling, staggering, slippery notes, squeezing into and past each other, squirming into the cracks in the firmament, the orifices in the mask.

.

Stilted, empty, the third eye, plastered over the brain, reveals nothing but frothing slime and writhing tentacles, hagfish escaping the clutches of a predator, latching onto a carcass and burrowing into the meat hanging from its bones in loose strips. Disappointed, the priest switches on the television, only to see the same thing.

The only music program that had anything worth watching on it as I was growing up was Later With Jools Holland, and if that isn’t a damning indictment on the state of music culture in the 2000s then nothing is. If I’m honest, it was pretty dire, and it came down to a matter of desperately scratching for and hoping for something notable to knock me out of my seat from dull episode to dull episode; maybe something would every once in a blue moon, but there was always the feeling that this was despite, not because of the characterless production and impossibly enthusiastic old-school-showman-esque flapping of Jools himself to introduce each artist.  Worse than this was perhaps the interviews.. oh the interviews! Those sickly, chummy, trite performances of friendly banter with wrinkly old stars and veteran rock musicians. In fact the whole show often felt as if, when something worthwhile DID show up, Jools would burst up out of the stage in the centre of it and foist some kitsch boogie-woogie piano into the mix, imposing himself on the act with a little bit too much glee.

Later with… as I experienced it was in retospect the apotheosis of the de-othering of music culture, its full incorporation into a middle class bourgeois respectability that burbles on in the background while people talk about how nice the weather is. Any performance that dared to be somewhat confrontational [I might note that Sleaford Mods made an appearance], stuck out like a sore thumb to the extent that these performances where in fact marginalized, receiving far less airtime than the arid desert of larger acts and often being presented in such a way that they kind of fade away in comparison to the huge spectacle afforded the other guests. The stricly regimented and controlled nature of a Later episode foreclosed any real confrontation with the TV audience at home.. all could be neatly packaged so we could sit on the couch and receive a glossy slice of entertainment removed of any danger that it might come out at the screen at us and pull us protesting from our living rooms. 

“There is a future and we’re trying to build one”

Many might place this sense of “danger” firmly in the camp of a certain Rockist mindset, that classic rocknroll mythology, all drug-emaciated bodies, trashing hotel rooms and unchecked misogyny, the male ego allowed to run riot in the name of transgression and anti-authority posturing. This, needless to say, isn’t what I mean, not purely, anyway. The Sex Pistols for instance may have been marketed by McLaren via this mythology of danger and transgressive intervention, but when it came down to it their music is remarkably safe. Listen to Never Mind the Bollocks today, and what’s remarkable about it is how well produced clean and actually non-edgy it really is, with its thick distorted power chords and simple rock tunes.

Where the real radical element of punk came into play, as Simon Reynolds importantly made the case for in his document of the post punk event Rip it Up and Start Again, is in what happened afterwards. The real intervention wasn’t the Sex Pistols as much as it was John Lydon’s deconstruction of Johnny Rotten and the forming of Public Image Limited, drawing not from the tired simplicities of rocknroll but looking more towards the distinctly un-rock horizons of dub reggae and disco to inform their sound. Indeed, if Lydon is to be believed if he had more input on Never Mind… it would have been far more oriented in this direction, something difficult to imagine now. Placing Never Mind the Bollocks next to PiL;s towering post-punk work Metal Box illustrates quite how much of a push into the unknown the latter group was in comparison. Where with the Pistols one finds a thickly produced warm fuzzy wall of sound PiL delivers screeching, deconstructed high-end guitar tones not so much soaring as scattering over dub/disco infused bass/drum rhythms, Lydon’s lyrics plumbing not some image of him as this destructive antichrist come to destroy society but exploring deeply unsettling and strange currents in the sound through imagery and his unpracticed dissonant wail.

What manifested in post punk, despite all its wild variations and conflicting approaches, was the conviction that music culture must look forward. If Punk had been this attempt to strip back to a raw simplicity it was important in inspiring a pushback, many groups such as Magazine and Gang of Four expressing a disappointment in what Punk had actually produced, John Lydon’s own disillusionment leading him to effectively sabotage Malcom McLaren’s dreams of cultural terrorism, famously uttering the lines “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” before walking off stage. What resulted, in a lot of the acts concurrent to and following 1977 was a riotous cultural ferment leading from the meeting of art school bohemia and the working classes into a kind of cultural meeting of high and low culture, what Mark Fisher called Popular Modernism, a popular culture that didn’t feel the need to be populist, that in some way treated its audience as intelligent rather than as cattle ready to be herded into the entertainment playpen.

Reading through Reynold’s book, I’ve re-listened to a lot of music I knew about and discovered a lot I didn’t, and it became more astounding throughout precisely how forward reaching and militantly adherent to ideas of newness a lot of this stuff was. Listening to Gang of Four’s Entertainment! for instance really hits home how absurd it is that the band are reduced to a footnote, influences on groups who are effectively delivering a warmed over non-political microwave-meal version of their sound. These are sounds that aimed to create the future; a modernist impulse infused within its structure that for Gang Of Four also manifests in their politicized content, but in other groups remained an ambiguous but no less militant drive to generate something unlike what had come before.

What I’d propose comes with this is a distinct and actively maintained position of otherness. Much of music culture of the time presented itself as alien, removed, cold.. and yet it drew people in with a non insignificant degree of fervour. Culture within the neoliberal framing of late capitalism predicates itself on a kind of faux-familiarity, a chummy, friendly, real-talk approach one can see in the bloated edifices of Britpop and the YBA movement in the 90s, the music culture of the post punk period often explicitly rejected what many saw as the trite and false appeals to authenticity of rock music, towards “letting it hall hang out” and being “real”. A rejection of this generated a kind of alienated otherness that really allowed the artists to manipulate and play with public image in a kind of demystifying coldness typified really in the name “Public Image Limited” the band’s concept as a corporation, the simple stripping back of typical “album” accoutrements and ease of use to produce the packaging of Metal Box, an effective deconstruction of the music commodity in its blank metal sheen [and yet, in this demystification, all we find is more mystique…] .

“The Way Out is Through the Door…”

This otherness within the music of the late 70s-80s specifically carried through to the image making potential realised in pop music, the spirit of Glam persisting through the generation of countercultures, most notably Goth, predicated on an arch coldness and impersonal wearing of masks, replicable appearances where the individual is subsumed within the culture they embrace, breaking down identity into the signifiers that define it to be remixed and blended at will, but providing a mould, a template that can be used to quickly repeat the same image. Music culture becomes identity thresher and production line simultaneously, a cut-and-paste collage of subject which in breaking down effectively the chain of elements that produce who we are understands our identity not as a concrete anchor keeping us tethered to the spot but a spinozist machine, wherein understanding its workings allows us autonomy over our own lives. The calculated presentation of image becomes taking control, an enacting of autonomy and a resistance of desire.

“The way out is through the door, how come nobody uses it?” asks Mark Stewart of The Pop Group on “Where There’s a Will”, the squalling free-jazz sax solo peppering itself all over the disco driven funk of the music beneath, an explicit formalisation of the implicit assumption of the time, that a new future was just past the next impasse, music was being made with the excited fervour of people who believed that the new was possible and who absolutely were not content with what they were given. There was the door, all we needed to do was use it, cross the threshold… The Avant Garde invading the stage of pop was symptomatic of this approach, the presence of this “other” of sometimes harsh, always strange experimental influence, even the taking up of the mantle held previously by the notably more exclusive Dada and Fluxus movements and translating it to popular forms, appearing as decidedly unsettling and weird presences in the mainstream.

None of this is to say by any stretch of the imagination that the 70s were some perfect utopia, some kind of nostalgic plea to return to a lost age; it is more of a call to rediscover futurity, find our way back to the way out. A certain militant otherness within post punk, an expression of affinity with the outside and through this fidelity to the future, is something that requires nurturing and fostering within the cultural milieu. Indeed we can trace much of this de-othering to what can be percieved as the failure of New Pop, the reduction of music to pure entertainment that resulted from the entryists and proponents of pop music in the mid-80s and their hope that by courting the mainstream they could subvert it. The mistake was to underestimate ultimately the ways in which ironic reflexivity and deconstruction can easily revert to the very things it intends to subvert. While early pioneers of New Pop such as Heaven 17 still maintained a distinct element of post-punk demystificatory ambition, the presentation of their music effectively acting as one big pop meta-commentary, the speed at which these sentiments reverted to the pure hedonist acquiescence of Wham! and Duran Duran is alarming in its totality.

Of course, in a sense, this de-othering effect ties directly into the increasing inability to imagine an outside. Glam, Post-Punk, Art Pop, all of their science fiction imaginings, dystopias and utopias both, dismissed like the silly fantasies of a child under the singular umbrella of late capitalism. While New Pop initially intended to infiltrate and destabilize, or that was the idea, it became a shibboleth of Thatcherite consumerist fantasies, the legitimate appeals to the alien and the other found in a group like The Associates with their absurdities, mystery, the impossibly sumptuous atmosphere of an album like Sulk, eclipsed entirely by Madonna’s material girl, redolent and shining in the status afforded her by the capitalist fulfilment of desire. This sense suddenly that the pop star is simply us without the wrinkles, a perfect image of an ordinary person, became the archetype, the universal standard.

Fangs Bared

So far I have discussed both the Rockist and Popist approaches to the kind of complex transgression that consists in this militant otherness. Of course this word, transgression is held up often as the core spirit of rock music, but what this actually means seems to evade the grasp of the concrete. Sure, if we look towards the situationist upheaval of punk, the shockwaves it left behind such as the No Wave movement in New York we can note a distinct focus on attempts to transgress social norms. No Wave was arguably such a short lived and brief phenomenon because it was rooted in this self-nihilating trangression, something that in its very nature cannot maintain itself, but in truth if anything defined post punk it is precisely this lack of concrete definition, this image of shifting sands, each grain proceeding to replace the last as the topology shifts again and again, refusing to settle.

Refusal to settle is precisely the situation many post punk acts found themselves in; more than this, refusal to retreat. Capital bakes into its libidinal systems this desire to return, to organic wholeness, to idyllic suburbia, the final defeat of the horror villain so everything returns to the perfect, unbroken utopia of the beginning. Of course, if we are to look towards Jameson’s understanding of the dialectic as a narrative, this becomes a distinctly different exercise, one undertaken if anything by the horror villain themselves, the act of unsettling the natural state of affairs, in order to return to something that is changed, different, a wrenching apart of reality to put it together in a different form. The cultural condition we can call postmodernism, with its stale repetition of historically distended forms, one that reached its apotheosis in a series of “revivals”, of 80s synthpop, of “post-punk”, of house music, eurodance… is in a sense a constant return to the natural state of affairs, the idyllic homestead, the perfectly preserved image of the picture postcard village suspended in a timeless collage.

While the temptation, as the PR narrative of Capital would have it, is an attitude of unbound optimism or even temporal chauvinism, to see not a stale desert of ghosts, but more variety. The ahistoricity of music culture becomes transformed into a flat pick’n’mix of musical styles, the supposedly exciting marketplace of cultural objects, lifted from their socio-historical backdrop and placed against a corporate void.

Reject this. I want to set out carving a path against culture as nothing more than consumer choice. Surely the strange sounds that tore me out of my boredom induced slumber and presented me with a way out mean something more than a damn industry paycheck, surely music is more than its “contribution to the economy”. I’ve long had a burning, simmering distaste for the word “industry” tacked onto things it has no business being associated with. When Adorno and Horkheimer railed against the “culture industry” were they predicting a world in which people think nothing of defining themselves as participants in the “creative industries”? The sheer stultifying de-libidinizing intensity of this linguistic tendency to reduce all to its contribution to capital cannot be understated, and it the fight to return to culture an idea of otherness is criminally undervalued.

Of course, the fact that such militantly outsider culture develops in tandem with the socio-economic situations that allow for its production emerges as something of a hurdle here. The re-emergence or reclaiming of DIY as a form of cultural production is somewhat key here I have come to believe, and something Simon Reynolds has argued; for all the claims of new pop, for all its entryist ambitions to deform from the inside, its submergence in glossy hedonic abandon ultimately gave credence to the social order of the day, and contributed indirectly to the crushing of the systems that made these self-sufficient outer breeding grounds of popular modernism, of experimentation and forward-looking sound-making, possible. It is where we are allowed to develop our ideas for the world, to set forth our manifestos and react to the world around us, that culture thrives again.

The internet at some stage provided a key bastion of hope for this, and for a time it saw a legitimate upsurge in the DIY spirit, of people producing wildly ambitious content from their bedrooms. Of course, the cold fingers of capital couldn’t let this lie for long, and now, and to some degree the dream of completely self sufficient underground culture on the internet crumbled, increasingly driven by the cogs of advertising, monetization and endlessly vapid similitude. Even if such initiatives CAN still be found on the internet, I would in fact emphasise the importance of fostering such an attitude in the flesh, as while the internet is a fantastic tool in some respects, of dissemination, of discussion [sometimes], it also stand consistently in between us and action. The unending low level stimulation of 24/7 connectivity might be marketed as some modernising, forward looking cyber-dream, but it manifests as a constant anxious presence on the edge of our thoughts, a creeping tic, any free time really beset by the constant FOMO … the twitch of the hand towards the phone in the pocket.

To distance ourselves from these deadening tentacles, to reclaim our time… to generate once more an outside, or a sense that there could be one. Even, to move forward with the conviction of our own otherness, may be possible again. To identify with the alien precedes the discovery of new worlds…

Otherness – Playlist

Categories
Capitalism Music

The Positivity Injunction

I lose count of the times I’ve heard someone claim they don’t like a piece of music or a film because it’s “too depressing”. What this means I have yet to find out, but I’ve become aware over the years that it seems to apply overwhelmingly to a lot of my own cultural library, and so tend to be somewhat irritated upon hearing it, even if directed at something that I myself am not terribly keen on. The implication here is clear, all that is not positive begone, we have no need for your emiserating antics.

This attitude is something that has taken its place at the opposite end from the apparent doom-mongers and naysayers, the party-poopers and orgy-ruiners of the world who just want to ruin everyone elses good time. You must be fun at parties goes the line as if being fun at parties was some kind of marker of good humour, as if so many of us were plunging ourselves into a hedonic haze and careening through muddy fields on amphetamines because we’re just so fun to be around. Put away that book it might make you depressed… copious levels of alcohol on the other hand…

To be clear I’m not anti-pleasure and I don’t want to come across as some puritan finger-wagging priest delivering a moral sermon, in fact quite the opposite.. what I want to point out is that it is this positivity injunction which itself functions in this way, denouncing any of us who dare criticize what we are supposed to enjoy. Picture a scene where a group are discussing a fast food outlet. Going around the room they can’t get over how amazing these burgers are, and the superlatives are flowing. Then it gets to you. You… don’t really think much of the place and you have a few words to say on it, so you say so. Silence. Everyone kind of looks at you strangely before someone says “yeahhh but it’s really good isn’t it” the conversation continues as if you had not spoken. Say on top of this your reason had to do primarily with the way the fast food outlet functioned, marketed its food, or produced it. Here, the injunction to be positive becomes an injunction to stay silent and conform. All the keep-calm-carry-on mugs and tea-towels in the world seem to be saying “Pipe down and let us have our fun”.

This all seems to point towards a refusal to think beyond the pleasure principle. Mark Fisher describes something in Capitalist Realism he terms as “Depressive Hedonia”; where depression is generally held as the inability to find pleasure in anything, what we find in Depressive Hedonia is the inability to do anything besides the pursuit of pleasure. Specifically given the breakdown of certain structures within education, the lack of resources or content, students will often find themselves sitting in their rooms getting high consuming entertainment because there’s nothing of interest to do… anything that is not connected to pleasure strikes us as worthless, something we’d have to really force ourselves into. This is connected in my mind to the positivity injunction, something that can be found just as much in the anxious and depressed communities of students as it can people “climbing the job ladder” and in the world of business. Among people my own age and younger however, there seems increasingly to be this attitude that if you are critical of something that provides us FUN then you are de facto ANTI-FUN. You’re slapped with a sticker that announces to everyone that you’re some miserable stick-in-the-mud, you have no time for the good life.

In my own experience this has emerged through my disdain for festivals. I was somewhat excited by the idea of the festival when I was younger for the novelty aspect, but gradually it becomes increasingly evident that festivals are where punk comes to die, events of staggering cultural emptiness predicated on the idea that nobody who goes to them actually cares, or will be too off their face to care, about what’s actually going on there. Even essential or exciting acts are drained of potency in the open fields, the whole sorry affair being a muddy slice of flabby carnivalesque bourgeois boredom alleviation designed not as a cultural event but a way to forget. Just camp out in a muddy field, take some drugs, forget about everything and enjoy Foster the People won’t you? The headline acts are often non-acts, non-culture, Marc Auge’s non-places in the form of bands, an airport waiting area on a musical stage, going through the motions of performance but having given up any attempt to carve out anything beyond a flat, meaningless success in a continuum of similitude. At it’s worst the festival is in fact a cavalcade of awkward nostalgia, the geriatric rolling stones still desperately pulling the same old shit despite the valorisation of youth suiting them now like… well like leather trousers on an elderly Mick Jagger. When did anything of any import really happen at a festival?

Well, suffice to say I don’t really think much of the festival environment, predicated as it us on the reduction of culture to museum, even worse, to a kind of repeating wallpaper design in front of which we drool over the settee in a ketamine haze. I’ve found this however a notably unpopular thing to say, the enjoyment of festivals being taken as something of a necessary, why WOULDN’T you enjoy this, you puritan.. the expectation here is that we just draw our mouths into a grotesque smile and just get down with everyone else. Hedonism here can be taken as some kind of Bataillean limit experience, the thing that provides the rest of our mundane lives with some exit, an outside where we don’t have to worry about paying the rent. As soon as we take those amphetamines or drink those beers, we enter a headspace away from all that miserable shit, all that politics, the boring stuff. It is like some kind of transcendental move, a heavenly experience … is it any surprise that festivals have become intertwined often with a kind of typical new age mysticism, the kind of religion where we can engage in its practices while simultaneously feeling above them.

And so the positivity injunction is a call to accept this state, to simple go ahead and dope yourself up, become numb to the world for a few days, accept mediocrity, accept the state of affairs as long as you can purge it temporarily, accept the endless waiting room, the repetition, the cultural logic of late capitalism, it’s all worth it for this moment of transcendent bliss, knocking down a few pints in a miserable field of desperate people on a cocktail of drugs and believing wholeheartedly that this is the best life will offer us. In this way the festival, and the positivity injunction itself, becomes a stagnant river, heaving with waste. It is the place where culture comes to a standstill, repeats itself due to the lack of will to accept anything could be better. Judgement, negativity is the ultimate sin, surely you can accept that all eras have their bad parts, nothing is inherently worse about now … except it is, there is an air of deprivation, and as much as we may hope against all hopes that really this is just how things are and it’s just different, no worse or better, there are concrete political reasons for this negativity.

The consistent dismantling of social security, the demonization of the unemployed & the working classes, the lack of cultural urgency [brought on non insignificantly by our subsistence on a diet of cyberculture and connectivity, the strange temporal effects of having access to a seemingly endless and overwhelming stream of data, described by Franco “Bifo” Berardi as Overload]. We have more than sufficient reason to be pissed off, and it’s about time to draw a line under this kind of forced positive attitude. Culture is more than entertainment, and as long as we insist that the only recourse we have is to a hedonistic escape from this earthly domain, we continue to reinforce the hegemony of Capitalist Realism and neoliberal theology. What we need is not some kind of neo-spiritual affirmative love-solves-all positive oppressive injunction, but a renewed sense that this is not all we can muster. We have a lot to care about, and if we didn’t care we wouldn’t spend all this time trying to suppress it; dare to think beyond the pleasure principle, and maybe we can build new forms of collectivity.