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Capitalism Theory/Praxis

Industrial Pastoral

There is a staple of BBC daytime television I remember filtering into my brain as a child called “Escape to the Country”, an example of the property/lifestyle programme in which prospective buyers are shown round a series of houses in a particular rural location. The very premise of the series, contained in the title, lies in the idea that the countryside is where one escapes. Usually in this context this means well-off city couples looking for somewhere they might be able to “get away from it all”, live out their days in idyllic peace and quiet, they’ve has too much of the hustle and bustle of city streets and want to find a nice cottage in a picturesque heartland, the good life.

Of course having grown up in a country village, this didn’t quite square with me, this clear-cut duality.. why would I want to escape to the country when I was already there? On top of this, it was far from the pastoral idyll these city-dwellers seemed to envision; sure, you might relish the idea of having a view over the fields, but just wait until that breaks down into a sea of industrial agriculture. Sartre pointed out the ways in which city people often see in the countryside an untrammelled natural world that belies the carefully managed ways in which the landscape is effected by human activity, how a hedgerow or a field, entirely man made, are interpellated as the sublime beauty of mother nature, undisturbed. What happens when someone else’s outside is your inside? What for many represents this mysterious other becomes for another a deeply familiar, even banal reality. The “escape from modernity” implied in its twisting branches fades into a pile of discarded kebabs and coke bottles, the terrifying sublime into a half completed building project.

This is of course the issue of familiarity that inevitably follows such distinctions. Home, where we come from or where we live, inevitably carries with it a certain familiar tinge that disavows us from the illusions and mythologies others stretch on top of it. For me, the Norfolk landscape I grew up with is as much a site of blasted industry as folk tales and crooked trees, as much the place that framed my awkward adolescence as a place of nostalgia and yearning. Of course such phenomenological inconsistency is ironed out completely in escape to the country, devoted as it is to selling a dreamlike vision, it is practically a textbook example of a capital-driven fetishization of an other, the ideal other free of blemishes and faults. Of course while this example is a clear, explicit move to sell, hawk wares in the most base sense, another way we encounter the same issue is in the attempt to escape such banalities. The problem here becomes an overall equation of “outside” with a particular subject, a particular place.

To us, of course, the inside/outside division will always re-orient itself along the lines of familiarity. Home=familiar, inside, Away=unfamiliar, outside. Someone who grew up in the city might indeed view the countryside with a kind of rapt fascination, or idealism, but then of course from the other side of the mirror the city begins to look just as exciting, a hive of modernity and hedonism, of the new, the future.. both an interlinked burrow of contradiction and negation. Familiarity on both counts becomes a moderating influence, what in psycho-analytic terms we could call a reality principle. From the unbroken mask, we begin to see the cracks, the guano on the pavements, and are disavowed of our previous excitement. The search for the outside as Lacanian objet petit a, always frustrated whenever we think we have reached it.

Mark Fisher, in Weird and the Eerie, as well as elsewhere referred to the “inside as a folding of the outside”. This is indeed an apt observation, but by itself incomplete. What this seems to point towards at various points in his writing is if anything the collapsing of an inside/outside distinction as ontological truth, akin with both a Spinozist collapsing of Cartesian dualism and the post-structuralist death of the subject. And so just as much as the inside may be a folding in of outside influences, it is equally true that the outside is a projection of the inside. The point, as ever, is not the search for the green grass on the other side, but the collapsing of the boundary itself. Here we find the alien contained within the human and the human in the alien, nature in civilisation and civilisation in nature, the country in the city and the city in the country, each clear distinction muddied, questioned and broken down. It is here that the subject becomes an extension in contravention of experience which might hold each of us to be a walled off entity in our own right.

From this then, it becomes a matter of de-familiarisation. If it is the familiar that generates reality, to generate another reality, what Alenka Zupančič would attribute to a process of sublimation, requires a de-mystification of the banal, the reality principle itself. It is of course this process, this “revealing” of the ideological mediation that is experience, that opens the door to new worlds within the familiar; it is not the projection of some ego ideal but the very unfolding of what we perceive as natural and real. The conception of nature is a prime example of such a reality, a nice comfortably sectioned-away, bottled and labelled thing that must stand in opposition to the human subject, in a kind of pre-copernican anthropocentric universe. To de-familiarise, to unfold our surroundings is then to place the outside within the inside, the inhuman within the human as it were. But just so I don’t fall into a particular trap here, this unfolding is not any kind of revealing, not the mechanism hidden behind the magicians illusion; indeed don’t we have to assume that within this action of unfolding is contained the inherent precedent to a “re”folding, wherein the act of sublimation not only unveils the contingency of reality but transforms it, creating new possibilities.

Isn’t there a problem then, with our assumption of the “otherness” of the country? Should we be staring at the mirror hoping to reach the reflection on the other side? It is true, and I value these experiences very much, that we can stand in the middle of the woods and experience a remarkable and refreshing emptiness, feel somehow that we have “escaped”, but today what’s the likelihood we can do this without both coming across some clear evidence of manmade intervention or being interrupted by a holidaying family? More to the point, doesn’t this simply leave one familiar for another? The urban industrial for the pastoral industrial, we move from one to the other side of the river in the hope that the other we so desperately seek is contained there, and neglect the vital work of re-orienting the perception of the ground beneath our feet.

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DISRUPT

Don’t hate the media; become the media 

Jello Biafra, The Dead Kennedys

Noise. It’s just noise, shouting, it’s ugly, it’s not music. These sentiments have grown so long in the tooth through constant repetition that they have in some respects been reduced to an exaggerated cliche, something that an older family member might exclaim stumbling upon you listening to some modern, avant-garde, transgressive, even trashy or popular music. These cultural objects are often ridiculed or sidelined, thought of as distasteful, strange, pretentious, simply outside the boundaries of what is considered acceptable at the collective dinner table. This transgression of aesthetic form is, to a certain extent, inevitable. Once a standard is set, it will be flaunted, and once a culture is established, given the room a counterculture will thrive. This is a distinct push and pull that established itself probably most prominently in the twentieth century, from the rebellion of rock and roll, the breaking down of musical form in jazz, the wacked out drug haze of the 60s, the telegraphed chaos of punk, the wild inventiveness of the post-punk 80s leading all the way to the establishment of hip-hop, in many ways a natural bedfellow to the punk and post-punk underground. But what if this narrative/counter-narrative we have come to be familiar with no longer holds true? What happens when the counterculture becomes culture and the rebellion splinters?

This is why, perhaps, some have noted the lack of a notable current of counterculture in the 21st century. It is not, as I will be only too happy to point out, that punk is dead, that there is nobody out there treading the furrow of resistance or stepping off the beaten path, but something far more embedded within the aesthetics of information and our relationship with the past and future. The wild abandon with which we once tried to strike out into the unknown has, at some stage, dwindled and stammered to a halt, and culture now appears somewhat horizontal. Rather than a bold gathering of souls excavating for unrefined nuggets of untested sound and vision, we have arrived at some kind of impasse, a cavern of riches at our feet, but no clear path forward. We are left to do what we can in this space, but there is a pervading sense that the immediacy felt during that initial push through the rock face is no longer with us.

The term Hauntology was coined originally by everyone’s favourite post-structuralist Derrida in his work Spectres of Marx, referring to a disjunct, a haunting of something that seems to be by what was and will be, in the same way a word in a sentence cannot be understood fully without referring to the words, grammatical structures and punctuation immediately preceding and following it. Mark Fisher developed this idea to concern our obsession with nostalgia and the idea of a “slow cancellation of the future” under neoliberal, postmodern society, which leads to a certain “suspended” vision of future worlds. In this view, society is being “haunted” by past versions of its future, a future it failed to deliver but to which we still cling. It is a sense that instead of envisioning new futures, we become engaged in a cyclical repetition of our past; while technologies progress to unprecedented levels, they are simply leveraged to reproduce the past in new and more advanced ways.  

How does this relate then, to the lack of immediacy in contemporary counterculture? Simply put, that excitement and sense of new-ness that defined a lot of the most daring counter-cultural moments has dissipated with our drive for the future. Admittedly I am too young to have experienced this era myself, but listening back to the sounds, getting a sense of the atmosphere that hung around the uniquely alien experiments of post-punk bands and collectives, it feels as if, almost in an ironic response to the sex pistols lyric, there absolutely could be a future, one that we built. The futures of cataclysmic and deconstructed soundscapes generated during this period however cascaded from the nexus of punk just as the aesthetics of counter-culture more obviously began a decent into trite commodification. The image many conjure when one mentions punk is one that has become comically ironic in its subservience and appropriation by the capitalist hierarchy it supposedly raged against. It is perfectly encapsulated by a story I remember the marvellous St Vincent telling during a concert on her encounter with Mark Stewart, the lead singer of post-punk avant agitators the Pop Group. He hands her a hair brush modelled on Sid Vicious, and says “This is what’s become of punk”.

The Sid Vicious hairbrush is in many respects a perfect analogy for the appropriation and commodification of counter-culture aesthetics. The kind of revolt one might find in an art gallery is often a revolt in appearance only; one might see in it the words “fuck the Tories” or purposeful scribbling on top of beauty magazines, or some such gesture, but ultimately this is counter-culture designed to feed back into the culture it counters, a cavalcade of imagery that is vaguely reminiscent of punk and rebellions of the past but stops there, refusing to forgo the appeal of the mainstream and aiming itself squarely at the feet of suited businessmen looking to pick up on the “next big thing”. Similarly one might point to the punk aesthetics now found in many brands and fashion accessories for sale on the high street. This is punk de-fanged, rendered harmless by the shifting unknowable of capitalist ideology and put to use in the machinated cyber-cacophony of modern consumer ontology.

Is all lost then? Is counter-culture, as they say, dead? Have they found the body? If so, when will they conduct the postmortem, find the cause of death? Was it suicide or murder? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and assume something is dead merely because we can’t make out its outline in the darkness. Counter-culture, as I hinted earlier, is still very much alive, it must simply take on other forms in lieu of its splintering and subsummation, and the loss of hope in further worlds beyond capitalism under the neoliberalist program. It seems to us that culture has somewhat flattened out in this moment, suspended in animation and haunted by constantly repeated echoes of its past. “Is there anything new on this earth?” we are tempted to ask in a world of revivalism and re-appropriated images of lost worlds. 

In light of this question, I think it’s prudent to remind ourselves that the Sex Pistols, one of the most revered groups of Punk, forming almost a shibboleth of the movement in their adoration, were manufactured. They may have struck upon a counter-cultural current, but a large part of their aesthetic and their actions were no more “sincere” than the generated backstage banter of a boy band. They were in some respects (some might take some serious issue with this, but I’ll just take the heat) the Monkees of the punk generation. The commodification of counter-culture, its use to generate capital rather than rebel against its apparatus, is no new phenomenon, and in many ways has simply become easier with our removal from the immediacy of its origins. Our focus on 1977 has cast an immense shadow on the almost more exciting sounds of proto and post-punk, as well as some of the work being done by recognised but far less influential figures on both sides of the Atlantic.

What to do now, in this suspended time, this horizontal plane? In this age of seemingly unlimited digitisation, technology, information, connectivity, we almost are trapped in a cybernetic extension of reality and placated by our own access to these riches. Our connection to these streams seems somehow to introduce a distance between us and any real sense of urgency, as if we begin to think of time as limitless. Of course what we see before us is never limitless, but given the illusion, it’s hard to think there’s any kind of immediate need to fight back, to push forward into the unknown, to confront the void. We sit back and happily consume as if the vast stretches of eternity lay before us, thinking always “I’ll do that tomorrow” “We’ll do that tomorrow”. Information technology becomes, in a way the perfect acceleration of neoliberalism, atomising us to almost unprecedented levels, placing each of us within our own suspended reality, an augmented cyberspace acting as an extension of ourselves. We feel connected yet each of us sit staring at our own screen in our own room somewhere. We are more connected than ever in theory, but more alienated from each other in practice, a contradiction that serves the politico-economic interests of our time. 

The difficulty comes from trying to reach past this and achieve a sense of immediate connection with this fractured, splintered mess that is the modern world and salvage the exploded shards of our past ideals to disrupt the flow of information anew. If there’s something good that can be said about the recent waves of political unrest, it has, if all goes well, provided something of a reality check for many of us who were under some impression that the world would simply carry on as it was, problems would be ironed out, that capitalism might actually deliver on this future it had been promising us since the tail end of the 80s. This illusion was, for many of us, shattered, as soon as the neoreactionaries made themselves known, as soon as the distorted, surreal ascendancy of a blundering puppet to one of the most powerful seats on earth. That it took these things to happen for us to realise political action and criticism of the capitalist orthodoxy were necessary speaks to how strongly the atmosphere of capitalist realism embedded itself in our lives, how much we took solace in illusions and mirages that continuous progress was a given, that the future would arrive, one day.

An urgency of some kind can now be felt again, to some degree, though if it can be maintained is another matter. It is doubtless the case that for a meaningful disruption of the core to happen, we would have to take our actions beyond the confines of social media melancholy, but aesthetically it’s my belief a real pushback could occur in the coming decades. While many still hold that despite all the negatives, this must be the best we have, and much of the left of this persuasion are mired in outdated concepts of revolution, I think creatively we have all the tools at our disposal to counter the ideological apparatuses that exploit, divide, trap and isolate us. Those of us who create, who experiment effectively have the ability to disrupt the radio signal, to counter the stifling inanity of this suspended corporate version of society with noise. As potential critics of this consumerist ontology, we can be the ones to counter it, to point out its absurdities. Noise is more than the sum of its parts. It is more than a simple rejection of taste, it is a tool of resistance. An aesthetics of capitalist banality, of unending repetition and cyclical generation of norms, must encounter an aesthetics of disruption.