Have you ever felt out of time and place? I did, while watching Netflix’s recent series Sex Education. As a dramatized exploration of awkward teenage sexual discovery it is, well pretty serviceable, even well done, if it does rely upon exaggerated stereotypes to get its points across in many instances. It is admittedly a step above some of the other misfiring attempts to do the same thing in recent years; that said something that stood out above all this while watching it, having decided to give it a go on a whim, was the luridly surreal disjuncture of the setting.
Immediately, like many viewers in Britain I would wager, I noticed something incredibly strange. While ostensibly it takes place in England, and everyone in the show speaks with a British accent of some kind, the setting of the school seemed to be screaming american high school at me. We here had all the known stereotypes of the american high school drama, the jock, the nerd, the angry outsider, the bully… you get the picture, and multitudes of details within the show merely accentuated this, from the american football to the clothes people wear.
And it goes further; numerous times in the show I asked myself when it was actually supposed to taking place. While certain aspects of it seem to communicate a contemporary setting, others seem to flit about between the 70’s, 80s, other distinct time periods. As it went on, the show embodied not just a spacial disconnect, but a spacio-temporal one. The setting was multiple folded into one, some mash-up of now, then, here there that created a strangely disorientating effect, further amplified by the strange absence of references to an outside world [as one might reasonably expect to filter into the teenage experience]. Not only is the world of Sex Education one where multiple times and places can be found in one location, the location itself appears to exist in some bubble, removed from the comings-and-goings of any country beyond its walls. People arrive, people leave, but outside the strangely indistinct environs of Sex Education, somehow achieved despite obviously shooting on location in multiple instances, there appears to be no communication.
Believe it or not, the makers of the show weren’t actually trying to create some strange Lynchian dream-space, this is the material interests of capital at play. Gillian Anderson, who stars, talked about the purposeful decisions made in an interview, and that it was a purposeful attempt to make a British show that would appeal to the huge American market. Regarding the strange incongruities of the setting, perhaps heightened by the realism the show shoots for in other areas, it was hoped seemingly that “Americans wouldn’t notice”. Indeed the strange intermingling of settings is probably noticeable largely to anyone who has experienced the British education system.
The setting of Sex Education then, encapsulates the folding of capital, the singular cutting and pasting of time and place that occurs when one can walk into the same shop on two different sides of the planet and buy the same product. The British sixth form becomes the american high school and vice versa, every high street becomes the same high street, every cultural object has the same reference points, a universal patchwork of repeated cultural touchstones repeated ad nauseam. Combined with the temporal confusion and we have a product redolent of Jameson’s postmodernism, the collapse of historicity and a culture of nostalgic repetition under the stretching, abducting and re-configuring construct of capitalist desire. It is something that is only heightened by the move to streaming platforms, the shrinking of the planet not only via transport but via the interlinking of cultural objects, the object of desire becoming a singularity of one-sides-fits-all cultural interface, where all become one and one becomes all.
This is by no means the first instance of this, but Sex Education simply provides me with the most obvious example to date, where the utterly surreal quality of the breakdown of difference and the folding of space and time in fiction when considered outside of the shows purpose and context resemble a Phillip K Dick story. It a simulacrum of a place we all have in our heads, we all see as real, but doesn’t actually exist. It is real as a disparate connection of pop-culture references, representing a pulling together and blending of various things we recognize from countless shows, films, books and other artifacts. This is largely in fact extended to the characters themselves, who I mentioned earlier resemble exaggerated stereotypes. Like the setting of the show, these aren’t people, but pieces of other people we know from other fictional references pulled together into a collage. Peel back the layer of Sex Education and you find only more cultural references, as far back as it goes.
This is not, despite appearances, dismissing Sex Education as something worth watching entirely, but despite it being well made and written in many regards there was a distinct feeling dogging the whole show for me, a constant reminder that none of this was real. It exists in some capitalist hyperspace, suspended in the collective consumer fish tank, perfectly assembled, filed off, sanded, polished… designed for purpose and beauty, but strangely devoid of its own identity.
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.