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hauntology post-capitalism

Brutal Fantasy

After recent visits to the Barbican centre in London, I’ve been left wondering what it is I find so uniquely compelling about it’s stark concrete geometry in direct contrast to the sleek contradictions of minimalism and ostentatious corporate sheen in the sprawl surrounding it. What makes these concrete abstractions better than those glass abstractions? Indeed Brutalism as a style has proved controversial, representing as it does something of a departure from ideas that buildings must be positive, welcoming spaces first and foremost, choosing instead to ostensibly [more on this in a minute] value utility and function, presenting a cold facade rather than a cosy idyll.

In fact, I think that the idea Brutalism represents some kind of stripping back of aesthetic is somewhat ill-judged, as any brief encounter with a brutalist monolith might make abundantly clear. They are cutting aesthetic statements through their commitment to an anti-aesthetic, in the same manner as the spiky experiments of post-punk were exciting musically precisely because of their departure from aesthetic norms of their cultural time and place. What we have in the alien forms of concrete in these structures is a negation of the sensible, an unseating of the comfortable. They arrive in the landscape like something utterly strange, but not, as it happens as visitations. They encapsulate something a little more uncanny, the unfamiliar within the familiar, the parasitic alien residing within the host.

Perhaps this is why Brutalism is commonly associated with failed Utopian socialist experiments, more than any explicit connection [which needless to say do exist]. Not only is there an attempt to use a common, banal material to produce strange, angular distortions in a different aesthetic dimension to both cosy homeliness and baroque flourishes, but we find a rehoming of the homely. In something of an inverse of Freud’s uncanny, the strange/unhomely within the familiar becomes the familiar situated within the strange. The banal surroundings of the home are assimilated into alien surroundings. This produces an interesting effect; the buildings reflect a kind of attempt to rethink social structure in their design, the concrete walkways, balconies and escarpments all tying into a unified vision of a communal space that stands in stark contrast to the open plan slabs and corporate minimalism of much contemporary architecture.

Of course Brutalist architecture stands today as something of a lost moment, symptomatic of many of the failed utopian experiments themselves, a place like the Barbican now exists as a kind of other-worldly reminder, an element of that ghostly residue of failed revolt that hangs over the present. The hauntological element of these structures today in no small part lends them power, that sense of lost possibility within their concrete walkways. Brutalism, as utopia, was a fantasy of the new, a grounding of the possibility of achieving something beyond, of an emerging outside, an alien bursting from the chest of the urban environment. This alien space, now foreclosed as a failure, a monument to what could have been, exists like a surreal temporal shift within that landscape. Emerging from the hyper-simulated labyrinth of smooth lines, incongruous shapes, brushed aluminium, reflection and stale corporate minimalism of postmodernist capitalism around it, the Brualist enclaves act as softly disquieting ruins, in the case of the Barbican acting as a cultural hub, in others simply lying abandoned or in disrepair, eerie monuments rather than living buildings.

So what becomes compelling about the Brutalist project, and it’s leftovers today, is the spectre of modernism they embody at a time when the futurist drives of modernism seem a distant memory, dissolving into a pool of PoMo reflexivity, ironic tricks and a distinct fear of the fantastic. If there’s anything that screams out of the tower blocks and minimalist apartments of the modern city, the building blocks of the overload, cybercapital given form, is an aesthetic realism. Where the geometric abstractions of Brutalism organise into a utopian symbolism, albeit one that lies forever beyond reach (walkways above the streets, buildings organised into a kind of grand communal living space) , the emptiness and functionalism one finds in, for example, the Shard, a phallic capitalist monolith on the London skyline, embodies much more a kind of foreclosure, the clean glass surfaces enclosing apartments, offices, endless repetitions and brands… a sleek, shimmering cage.

Something that is lacking in these structures, grand cathedrals to commerce, is any sense of a beyond, something to reach for beyond capital. The very top of a skyscraper is usually a huge status symbol, incredibly expensive and only procured by someone immensely successful under the rules of Capital. This is it, all there is. Don’t dare to dream beyond these metal girders, because there’s nothing up there…

What one finds by contrast within the forbidding concrete of Brutalism, as controversial and a matter of taste as they may be to many, is an attempt to imagine some kind of outside inside. It is suddenly possible within these structures to imagine something that isn’t confined by the blinding fug of Capital, something alien to the given natural order that forms of “realism” demand we lock into place as the underlying real governing our lives. Through the perhaps utopian folly of the concrete dream, we can rediscover a kind of sublimation, a rejection of the repeated refrain “be realistic”.

In the eerie, abandoned remnants of our dreams we find the echoes of the future.

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Machine Horror

The door slides open with a hiss and an uncertain scraping sound, and you step into a cavernous tunnel, extending into a gradual arcing trajectory as it bends in on itself. Pipes extend from pulsating nodules and cables hang from metal vertebrae, the entire construction somewhat resembling the carcass of a dead whale, a machinic leviathan abandoned and rotting, dead code, useless beings suspended.

I wrote many drafts of something approaching what you’re about to read, and each time it broke down from neatly organised blog entry to something else, something less defined and scarier, something more akin to unrefined chunks of my consciousness scattered over a page.

Inside the machine, becoming the machine, using the machine, controlling the machine, submitting to the machine. The machine is a beast, a leviathan, a cold inhuman monolith of production with pinpointed and telegraphed desire in every piston, every line of code, every polished chrome plated part or harsh glowing rectangle. The desire we implant within its algorithmic inner workings, the libidinal push towards learning, ascended consciousness, transcendence, an uncertain but defined future. The future is contained within this construct of rhythmic apprehension, the envisioned future can be seen reflected in its design, a future of satisfied desire never attained. For the machine is not a mechanism of desire, but a generator of it, an endless stream of things, connected things, an internet of things. 

The internet of things, the connected home. The future is here, now! An unprecedented connection to billions of streams of information, code, images, text, pouring out of devices into one another. Desire, generated at a volume unheard of, and satisfied time and time again, and yet we are not satisfied. Wanting more, we approach the machine, we find ourselves within its clutches, turning to it for advice. Dried of possibilities in the face of endless choice, we have nothing to say. The machine could tell us, but it is only a machine, and has its own business to take care of. Our business is none of the machines concern, built as it was to supplant the desires we now find empty.

For this leviathan is empty, dormant, the echoes of machinery heard from within its bowels suggesting and obscuring movement. We find not the future, but a facsimile, a banal flat metal surface meeting our gaze, mechanised corporate nihilism. 

We live inside such a machine, one that generates flat images of desire, in built with the promise of 3 dimensional engagement, providing only the horizontal plane of business, of capital. The machine is abstract, uniformly plastic, shifting to form itself around our libido, the shape-shifting T1000 Terminator in hot pursuit, a constant state of unrest, of unease. The machine moves around us so as to be inescapable, and a sense of hopelessness envelops us as we see no exit, of horror as we contemplate our fate within the metal corpse, link sheared with our communities, alone. Machine horror, the feeling that, fundamentally, there is nothing else, only the machine, the inhuman, the flat walls of metal. 

All that remain are perceptions of the past future, the future is lost to the regurgitated pellets the machine presents to us. The end of history as Fukuyama once put it, a stalling of progress, the death of the future. Anything outside the machine slowly becomes the unknowable horror to the comfort of its insides as we become accustomed to the acrid smell of metal as the smell of home, of comfort. Finding an exit becomes the unthinkable , a manifestation of the Lovecraftian eldritch terrors beyond our imagination. So pre-occupied we become with the horrors of the beyond we begin to internalise the horror of our very environment.

The more adaptable among us distance ourselves, make excuses, even start attempting communion with the beast, speaking the language of codes sputtered out by the information tunnels criss-crossing its sharpened vertebrae. Eventually, we start to become the machine, we hybridize, link our neurons to its circuits and speaking the machine language more fluently than our own. We speak in code, receding further and further from the outside possibility until it is a myth. Some mutter of its possibilities but are dismissed as  lunatics, utopians, fools. The hypersimulation takes hold and confusion takes root. The fundament looks different now, we see in it the glittering potential of the machine, and we no longer know whether our libidinous energy stems from its apparatus or ours.  

What if we could reach beyond the machine? Could there be a beyond, and could it be found within the machine’s code itself? If we reach beyond our traditional concept of reversal and negation, approach a concept of the machines recycling and re-using of our own resistance, and use the libidinal desires encouraged by the machine’s adherents to hijack its apparatus, could we reach past the suppression of  progress, the halting of the future, escape the end of history? This is something that, frankly, I’ve only just begun thinking abut to any meaningful degree, but over however long it takes me, I intend to scour the information networks for concepts, plans of action, and hints of post-capitalist potential that signal some form or move away from the stifling currents of capitalist realism outlined so expertly by Mark Fisher in his book of the same name. For as far as I see it, only a move beyond the repetitions of the past towards and imagination of the future can we sufficiently fight this machine horror.

Imagining a beyond, the preserve of science fiction writers, theologians, occultists, philosophers, political activists, artists and scatterings of hopeful amateur thinkers for so long, must now become the barrage of the moment, the push into some un-fathomed land, the “thar be dragons” hinterlands on the map. The tradition of science fiction, of speculative critique transplanted into an imagination of other realities must, in some way be interpreted by the anti-capitalist sentiment if it wants to reach any kind of beyond, any kind of communion with the other. The unfortunate relegation of the left’s thought processes to the recycling of past visions is unhelpful, a relic destined ultimately to the continuation of past failures. The alternative is uncertain, but it must on some level involve a reclamation of the new, of the “innovative” from the mouths of the machine cultists. A second necessity is the use of the technologies that have become so central to our everyday existence. We must surely utilize the tools of desire themselves to advance? A reorganisation of structure without technology is no reorganisation at all if we are to recognise that the very organisation of contemporary bureaucracy itself exerts itself throught the screens of our smartphones as much as any government institute. 

Finally, I will note the importance of entertainment. Far from the stifling and frankly, boring requests of many old-school Marxists to renounce all items of capitalism as being somehow “counter-revolutionary” I reject this idea wholesale as a contradiction and a hypocrisy. I feel it necessary to end on this note if the above strikes you somehow as a call to suppress anything created by capitalism (for the purposes of entertainment) for two main reasons:

  1. That is impossible, as capitalism permeates our lives and thoughts, we can’t simply opt out without feeding back into the infinitely plastic and abstract form of capital.
  2. I would never dream of suppressing the very things that keep us sane in this corporatised dystopia. Music, films, art and culture are important to our mental being in the same way the systems that often birth them are bad for it. Calling for people not to “buy into the entertainment industry” is, furthermore (yes I know this is a third reason but forgive me) a conceptual submission to the ideological tethering of art to capital, as if creativity cannot exist independently of the “creative industries”, and art cannot exist if it is not being made for the purposes of generating capital. This is capitalist realism of the first order and although those telling you it might think otherwise will simply break you more. Enjoy art, because its a respite, don’t suppress it out of some misguided revolutionary zeal. 

Now that’s out of the way, I will conclude by saying I have a whole lot more research to do on these topics, and in many ways have only just begun. I will keep a running chronicle of my findings on here, inter-cut on a regular basis with music recommendations and whatever else takes my fancy, often tying back into philosophy or cultural criticism. If you happen to be one of the few disparate people who might have found their way here, I hope you found something of value, and I shall leave you with a playlist of music that in some way ties into the content you have found here.