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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.

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On the Virus

Virus_Blaster

A central conceit of Ridley Scott’s poorly executed return to the Alien franchise was the existence of what many have jokingly referred to as the black goo. This strange substance becomes a recurring theme throughout the bloated mess of backstory in Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, but if we are to look at the better of the two films [though it is still replete with rather tired biblical references and questionable writing] Prometheus, the black substance takes on something of an interesting role. The film’s best scene is its first, wherein an engineer, this supposed superhuman alien race, seems to imbue some of the strange black substance, upon which we see strands of DNA dissolving and recombining as the humanoid alien falls into the waterfall, body decomposing. The strange liquid is speculated in the film to be some kind of biological weapon, and is seen to be working in the manner of a virus, infecting the DNA of the host and dismantling/reassembling it in some way. In Covenant, the end effects of the substance appears to transform it into a rather uninteresting tool of mass destruction, although its actual effect and purpose becomes rather muddled, but if we focus in on its warping, changing capabilities, it becomes a far more interesting beast.

One of the crew members in Prometheus, having taken some of the black goo into his system, returns a horrifically mutated beast with superhuman strength, and it is here the namesake of the film becomes apparent, the promethean aspiration in the form of an insidious virus, realigning blood and flesh into something else, changing the underlying structure of our biology and transforming us. The black goo as a tool of destruction and rebirth. In Prometheus of course this rebirth has horrific consequences, but is this in effect not the very same action as that proposed by radical politics? Is the aim not, when looked at in stark terms, to realign the very DNA of material society? The alien virus destroys and rebuilds in the same way as an ecosystem, constantly shifting, realigning and adapting in reaction to its inside and outside components, constantly engaged in the process of falling apart and coming back together, an unending process that belies the fixed identities projected onto its mutative surface.

Identity is an incoherent babbling monster, consistently and violently rending itself to shreds, down to the connecting tissue, that which melds and connects, thrives in direct contact and sticky disharmony. This is in some sense why the language of the machine is no longer sufficient to describe the multitude that forms us. While on one hand we and all around us are governed by connection, cause/effect, lines of communication, forming a sprawling computing network, and in this sense we can grasp the basics of programming matter, on the other, if we take a detour we must realise that the complexity of these forms exceed any of our machinic enterprises in sheer weirdness and abstraction. For now, the common understanding of the machine, the robot, the android, is something that on a basic level has a creator. It requires a sophisticated intelligence, usually pooled intelligences, to come into being, and whats more these intelligences must purpose themselves towards the creation of the machine, applying a certain concerted objectivity to the affair, and cementing the limitations of the machine itself.

Ideas of Cyborg are key here not because of their framing of the organic as artificial, or the artificial as organic, but both of these things. Organic=artificial=organic=artificial. In this sense if we look at the Virus we find a key example of a term that encompasses both, viruses. in linguistic terms, infect both other organisms and computers, and so if we link the two uses of the word we bridge the gap between us and the machine and perhaps find encompassed the sticky difference and consistent linkages between the two, the advent of posthuman ecologies.

In discussing the virus in these terms, I wish to avoid two distinct attitudes. The trap of vitalism, of placing into the world some kind of unverifiable “life-force”, and the inverse trap of on-brand-nihilism; by this I mean a kind of thinking that falls back on tired and uninteresting observations regarding lack of meaning, that often comes across more like a teenager who has just discovered existentialism than any kind of creative or valuable interjection into thought. It often seeks to unsettle and yet only ever succeeds in boring me with its ceaseless repetition of banal nihilistic observations of the most shallow variety; tackling the seething underbelly of the seemingly idyllic surface of an ecosystem is far more than a simple acknowledgement of the void, or violence, or even chaos. It is all of these things and more, not necessarily at the same time, but connected in some way, links in an ongoing chain expanding outwards in consistent realignment. This is again, lest anyone read into this more than I’m saying, not some questionable assignment of transcendential forces linking everything, but is something I would conceptualize as a far more materialist phenomenon, something inherent in the dynamics of matter, and something that doesn’t need some pseudo-spiritual vitality to drive it. It is neither a drive to life, nor to death … even to describe it as a drive at all belies its fundamental material nature.

In this sense, I want to return to the virus not as something inherently generating death, nor as something representative of some underlying life but as a process devoid of explicit moral connotation. We tend to fear the virus, something that has taken on connotations, quite understandably, of disease and death, of breakdown. A computer virus an invasive code that breaks down our doors and puts our digital identity at risk, and the organic virus an invasive bacteria entering our bodies and causing havoc within our complex systems. The virus in both instances is defined as an invader, but it is also important to note the difference in effect of different viral organisms, in severity/specific area/direct effect/lingering effect/infectiousness etc … and in this sense, when conceptualising the intervention in human societies, the political movement as a virus, a collective organism spreading itself through, it emphasises the importance of effect, the directness of action as the definition of new societies.

As we move across some kind of threshold into what may be some disconcerting no mans land of unknown potentials it remains important to consider exactly what we want to achieve, the direction in which we want to programme the virus, how exactly we want to infect the body, disrupt its antibodies as they tirelessly transform production and desire into the reanimation of maggot-riddled corpses, the army of the dead to ward off the tendrils of ruination. It becomes increasingly necessary to organise movements beyond the limitations of human quantities, to map out into uncharted territories and move forward as a virus might move into the body of a host, utilizing the parasitic nature of our capital driven ontologies and twisting it into itself, an act of sheering off the branches to encourage new growth, of redirecting the flows of viral infection.

The theme of shifting identity, destroying and regrowing, and the indifferent mutative qualities of the ways the organic combines, recombines and changes itself according to an unpredictable logic lies at the centre of Jeff Vandermeer’s weird fiction tour de force Annihilation and its film adaptation. New growth from self-destruction, the horrific confrontation with the serene, unsettling twisted nature of the unknown, the infection of the land using the latent possibilities within it, collecting, melding, utilizing thoughts, memories, attributes, features, and re-organising them.

This disease, knowing nothing of moral fortitude or transcendential human logics, must operate quite apart from our anthropoid assumptions, a cold entity moving with undecipherable purpose. The virus is the rational disconnect from our assumptions, the affect-action realignment of causes using the inside to encourage outside growth. The logic of the virus is the rediscovery of a lost coldness and negativity, long subsumed by the new-age creative wallpaper paste dynamic of unbridled affirmation. It moves past the language of thanatos, death, the machine, past the virile subjective male libido, the organic/synthetic distinctions, towards a direct engagement with the nullity of reality and the succession of affects that drive it. The virus is the organism moving and changing with a predetermined agency within a causal universe, and so it becomes the potentials of systematic political realignment, the negation of social systems as a strengthening of ecosystem rather than utter destruction.

By all this I don’t mean to propose a distinct system, by no means do I suggest to form some new political movement; “the virus manifesto” – yes, we haven’t had quite enough pointless manifestos recently already [see “hopepunk”, “vitalist manifesto” et al], but as a blogging mechanism I found it useful to expand my thoughts around a certain organism/structure, and how this might pertain to political realities. Certainly I wish to avoid the traps I mentioned earlier, and to focus on somewhat dialectic syntheses instead of utter resignation, collapse-porn or their opposite blind affirmations and new-agey appeals to essential creativity. I may expand on these thoughts in the future, although not necessarily via the framing device of the virus. It is important, moreso now than it has been at any point in the 21st century to consider the future with a lens of possibility, and this means straying away from the empty pathways of “love over hate” or moral proselytising that have proven so utterly ineffectual, and looking for new exits.

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The Weirdening

After a week of yet further political disarray in this somewhat cursed little island, I attempt to arrange my own thoughts into some uncharacteristically ordered fashion against my better judgement. The nature of these snippets and connections doesn’t really lend itself to clarity of purpose, my instinct is to just sprawl them over a page and mask them in metaphor or some other obfuscation. 

The ludicrous display of Brexit continues, each time it threatens to flatten into a normal state of affairs poking its putrid, rotten head above the parapet and giving us a wave, one of its fingers falling off in the process straight into a previously tempting bowl of porridge. There’s something interesting that’s been manifesting itself for me about our political predicament, and it might just be a symptom of my current concerns, but there’s a heavy dose of weirdness that defines it all. We are now seeing something intruding on a long period of widely perceived safety, where everything seemed to be running on autopilot.

Underneath this of course the forces underpinning the suffering, paranoia and anxiety of the late twentieth century simmered ominously and increased in pressure, and the obvious shortcomings of capitalism continued to broaden themselves as we conned ourselves into apathy. Even the left as a political force had effectively de-fanged and disarmed itself, forgetting its past days of spirited political ideals and eventually settling into an incredibly unexciting and ineffective role of somewhat beige opposition to a blindingly beige Conservative government. This point, arguably, may have been our most Jameson-esque moment, where his vision of a capitalism sliding into a rhythm of banal repetition really hit its peak, as everything mushed itself together into some vague blob of sociopolitical nothingness.

To use a worn out proverb, however, pride comes before a fall, and so it has proved, with the rather rapid collapse of the dangerously perched liberal edifice we happily resided within for a decade or more, faces locked in grins redolent of the assumption that we were headed towards enlightenment. Enlightenment eh? Fat lot of good that turned out to be when the chips were down, indeed the enlightenment itself providing a great deal of succour for those misguided souls who ramble on and on about “free speech” and “classical liberalism”, warping “enlightenment” itself something of a questionable concept, into some strange process of self-deluded ultra-rationality, manifesting itself as a group of people who unlike the rest of us had never passed their new atheist phase, simply transferring the rather shallow contrarianism of that “movement” into the political sphere.

Point is, the crumbling walls of the neoliberal fortress provide glimpses to the outside, and it’s scary out there. It comes leaking in through the cracks and we get a sense of the fragility of everything we have existed within for so long. Soon we get a sense that we will be falling straight into that shifting and uncertain current, and it’s a prospect so different from what we know that many of us are frantically trying to plug the gaps, keep this whole thing afloat despite the best efforts of gravity to pull us under. Let me be clear, the failure of neoliberalism isn’t a cause to crack out the champagne and celebrate, it isn’t some glorious victory and indeed allows just as much horror to creep in as joy, as we witness in the increasing boldness of the far right in recent years. It opens the playing field so wide that anyone can suddenly have a pop, something that america’s current president very much embodies, this sense that now anything can happen, so opportunists will jump at the chance to grab hold of the puppet strings. 

This all contributes to the weirdening of society, of politics, of modernity. There is a very distinct quality to both Trump and Brexit, that a great deal of us assumed they couldn’t happen. They were crossed from our minds as viable events, and so when they happened they were more than just a political or social shift, they represented this distinctly weird challenging of reality. Fixed axioms were blasted out, rules were shattered and a mist of uncertainty descended. A way to describe this would be as a kind of society-wide existential confrontation. We had to suddenly come to terms with the demon we thought a work of fiction standing in the fireplace grinning at us.

And while over time it is true that we almost started to settle, to become desensitised, it is notable that weeks like the last one, where the fragility of our government becomes so glaringly obvious, can even happen. It is terrifying in many ways, simply as we have to come to terms with the fact that our point in history is no more or less secure, important, fixed, comfortable, than any other. We stare into the infinitely complex possibilities beyond our carefully constructed horizons and, like a character in one of Lovecraft’s tales, we can’t comprehend what lies therein.