The unfathomable shard pierces the fog around it, erupts from the gently billowing forms to loom over its surroundings in the most unsettling way. It is formed from some inky black material within which can be seen the beginnings of the infinite, drifting away into a non-horizon. It resists the penetration of our gaze, the probing of our feeble constructs of rationality, writhing away and slithering into the darkness whenever any definition was within grasp. With every step it expands ever inwards to evade us. Shapeless horrors intersect with pure wonder as paradox is synthesised into singular form, defined yet entirely absent. It appears we have lost our way.
I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the unknowable recently. It might have something to do with the fact I’ve been brushing up on my knowledge of Kant and Transcendental Idealism, but in truth that’s probably more of a symptom than a cause, as I’ve been lead backwards from thinking about the limits of possibility and knowledge in relation to both political, philosophical, ecological and creative ends, towards reconsidering Kantian Metaphysics and various other thoughts that had been gathering dust somewhere in the vaults. Tying all this together, I think, are my thoughts on our idea of Horizon.
Horizon is something that in physical space we can see, measure and represent relatively accurately. Look out of any window, and you will likely see some measure of horizon, some point where things recede from view. At its most simple definition, the horizon is the point where we can see no more. The two common dictionary definitions of horizon;
The line at which the earth’s surface and the sky appear to meet.
The limit of a person’s knowledge, experience, or interest
Both roughly get at the same phenomenon, and the visual, spacial horizon often provides us with a handy metaphor to consider its more difficult to place counterpart. Is, however, the visual horizon a sufficient means to describe mental, ontological and epistemological horizons, in other words the limits of our understanding, and can these more elusive horizons really be defined as limits at all?
I am drawn to ask this from an exchange within the first episode of Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House, which, by the way, is wonderful and I wholly recommend. Towards the beginning of the episode, a question is asked about the supernatural, to which the response is that there is no such thing. The idea here is that, contrary to our idea of there being a natural and a supernatural; things that are natural phenomena, and things that are not, there are only things we do not yet understand. Within the context of the show, this exchange also contains the arrogant assumption that these things can in fact be known, and are simply phenomena waiting to be conquered by reason.
For if these things are simply natural phenomena waiting to be accounted for, this goes on to imply the horizons of knowledge are constantly shifting but all can be overcome, that there are, even in a universe of infinite possibility, no limits. This is maybe something that comforts us or feeds into our sense of rational superiority, but it seems to ignore entirely the possibility, the lurking presence of the infinite, the unknowable and the indefinable. To think wholeheartedly that our horizon is 1.definite and 2.encompasses the entire possibility of knowledge seems to ignore the fact that we are operating from a position of marked limitations, that in effect however much we push into the unknown, however much we rationalise phenomena, this expansion of horizons is achieved over a world distinctly unknowable to us, a world of things removed from us, without us, an ontology without humanity.
Here I have reached the horizon of much of my own understanding in some sense, as I have yet to read some of the key texts leading towards object oriented ontology and the anti-correlationist view often defined under the umbrella of speculative realism, but so far I have my own thoughts on how this could be visualised. The realism of the knowable overlying the unknowable thing-in-itself, perhaps even, as Eugene Thacker might say the world-in-itself, is in some sense the act of terra-forming the void. We push further into the unknown, and thereby we form a kind of layer, a layer of form onto the formless beneath. The understood world is in some sense a kind of actively formed ontological landscape, into which we drill and dig, carving out new caves and quarries into the cliff-faces and hills, but never penetrating into the unknowable underneath.
In this sense, the horizon becomes something far more difficult to place, less a horizon at all than a shifting plateau into which our perceptions of objects, our processes of exploration constantly uncover ever increasing horizon. Expeditions into the unknown linger just above the unknowable, they probe into the depths, but as is the nature of the infinite, only more is to be found. I’ll probably disagree with myself in a few posts or so, so take all this with maybe a little bit of salt, but this stuff has been too potent in my mind recently for me not to blog about it.
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:
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.
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.
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.
I drink a branded soft drink, from one can of billions manufactured worldwide every day, standing a building erected in the 19th century, watching a film made in the 1960s on a smartphone made in 2016. During the day I will consume items and culture from the past and the present and from countries spanning the globe. I will continue to assert some kind of identity through this consumption, some kind of construction founded upon a confusing and heady mixture of information chunks and mental patterns shifting in and out of focus as the world changes around me.
I have an idea of self, but no core, none of us can truly claim such a solid idea of who we are behind the layers of clothing and masks that form what we experience as a reality. This is the postmodern condition, a hyperreality of things where what is true and what is tangible is as difficult to place as where I was on this day six years ago, where hundreds of different identities suddenly mingle shoulder to shoulder and experience the difference of the world in simultaneously greater immediacy. Everything more immediate, more now, and yet immediacy breeds distance, information is here, and yet to process that information is to remove ourselves. Some say, for varying reasons that we are approaching some kind of end point, a level of saturation, and that we should either worry or hasten the end.
What if it has already happened? What happens if we are living within an aftermath of an event we didn’t even realise occurred? We might keep ourselves in a state of constant apprehension and expectation, but what happens if the true event isn’t the altering of our course but the lifting of the curtain. The more heightened things become the more evident its workings become, the more those systems work to cover them, the more we try to distract ourselves, the more we accept the state of events and centre ourselves around a future we are now certain will happen. As the late Mark Fisher once noted “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of Capitalism”, and yet why do we seem to automatically assume it is always an end, is this our brain reading understandable patterns onto random occurrences? Is it really easy to imagine the end of anything? Does anything end?
Italian philosopher Emanuele Severino proposed an idea countering the common assumption that all things return to the nothing from whence they came, an Eternity of all Beings, a dismantling of the notion of becoming, a deconstruction of the notion of distance between being and non-being, the proposal that perhaps, being does not come and go, we do not come into being and then dissipate. Being in this model is a constant, a shifting eternal thing, something that can never become nothing. In this most heightened postmodern technological future of constant information feeds and digital preservation this notion seems to gain practical resonance. Of course the digital is the physical, civilization is nature and nothing is eternal, and yet.. even when things dissipate, they remain, ineffable but there, a thread of being.
Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here but maybe counter to the idea that the eternal has nothing to do with the postmodern it has everything to do with it, for if anything is eternal is it not the transient, the temporary? It is the contradiction of countering the all consuming narrative by proposing an all consuming narrative of non-narrative that must be made if we are to tackle the non-narrative flow of modern life and reach some kind of understanding of any kind concerning ourselves and the people around us, if not the planet we reside on. Is not contradiction another constant, uncertainty? Surely this non-modernist interpretation is in itself a solid foundation? The foundation upon which to dismantle every preceding foundation? The establishment of a model with which to critique all other models?
For this is the defining response to the postmodern condition, that of critique and dismantling, that of examination, that of resistance. It is not destruction, but a close observation and understanding that defines this, a drawing back of the veil. Social construction, an all encompassing one, an increasingly complex one, defines who we are and that cannot be undone, but if we become aware of the machinery by which it operates social construction can be shifted and crafted anew, and to achieve this perhaps I suggest we must operate somewhere outside the bounds of both philosophy and Praxis, at some intersection of method and theory where contradiction breeds affirmation.
To sit in a room and call it philosophy, then hope the room tells us something meaningful in response, it is entirely ineffectual as any meaningful way of moving forward, and so we reach a point where culture and philosophy compliment each other, the avant-garde and the experimental, those forms of expression that dismantle the excepted modes and create a poetic dissonance, an aesthetics of transgression in response to a stifling unanimity of cultural homogeneity. We must manipulate the very forms of critique and expression to serve as an effective tool of protest, protest at the mandates of socially conservative appeals to normality, to mundanity and banality. To encompass the staggering variation in our number, to recognise difference as an essential component we must endeavour to practice it and look outside the construction of acceptability and prejudice we have erected like a fortress to protect our most fragile works of power and artifice.
It is with an act that defies the narrative we are provided that this fortress can be dismantled, block by block, an act of creative manipulation. An act of creativity as transgression, as a political and philosophical interrogation of what we consider true, real, natural, human, sane, ordered, normal. Both the artist and the philosopher, and the point where both intersect, are at a unique spot somewhere at the fringes of social change, not driving it per se, but operating outside the eye of the storm. This makes the area of creativity and philosophy far more valuable to us than commonly believed. Think of both as encompassing the role of social critic, of helping us probe and investigate our assumptions of how we live. If there’s one thing that is necessary in this age of information, shifting conceptions of truth and power, of unprecedented complexity and progress despite staggering inequality and exploitation, it’s that. The ability to be critical of the values that drive us, the hierarchies that constrain us, unpick the prejudices that dictate our decisions, take a closer look at what we consider normal and fair. The humanities, the social sciences, art movements harking back to Dadaism, the genuine spirit of experimentalism that drives free improvisation and conceptual art; these more than anything provide us with the tools to interpret this subjective postmodernist cornucopia of horror and riches. Thus, fundamentally, the artist, the philosopher, the critical theorist, the free spirit, they have a key role to play in the times to come. They have the power to speak up for outsiders and to transgress the social norms that define us. We may not have to look to the agents of order to iron out our differences, but the practitioners of chaos to celebrate them.