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Archaeology of Cultural Space hauntology Theory/Praxis

Valences of Hauntology

Hauntology is everywhere these days, or should I say, everyone’s talking about it, or maybe it’s more that everyone’s complaining that everyone’s talking about it? It all becomes a bit tiring when you’ve spent some time sequestered online, once you’ve been through the umpteenth iteration in some kind of endlessly repeated discussion that would like to think it’s a weighty debate at the acropolis but is closer in resemblance to “my dad could beat your dad in a fight”; who has the best take, the spiciest or the hottest? Tune in after the break to find out…

Regardless, read what you want into the time of year I’m writing this, but I found myself lately in something of a Hauntology hole, probably after watching Ken McMullen’s Ghost Dance and returning to Derrida, the thinker that strangely enough for me I can’t seem to escape, who seems to wait for me somewhere however far I travel, whichever paths I go down. For all that he can be frustrating, and I very much understand the criticisms of Deconstruction as often being a kind of desiccated critique, there’s something more, and something vital within his critique of metaphysics that I can’t escape; indeed there’s something of the denaturalising impulse that we must search for in an emancipatory sense that seems to permeate much of Derrida’s work. When it comes to Hauntology, I think it is immensely valuable at this stage to strip away some of the dissatisfaction, repeated points, misrepresentations and identify a certain strand, something that very much still resides in Specters of Marx.

By this point a lot of what is pointed towards or identifies as such seems to be distinctly un-hauntological, a kind of flattening of the term to mean simply “haunting”, and a disconnection almost entirely from its implications of disjuncture, the intention of Derrida to invoke the “conjuring” of ontology, centred around the unspoken, the said and the yet-to-be-said, the “presence” of the text itself becoming a spectre. What is lost often is what is contained within the Hamlet quote “time is out of joint”, which Derrida evokes repeatedly throughout SoM. Hauntology is never about a simple haunting, the past coming into the present, a straight lineage of time, it revolves around the very unsettling of temporal lines, the paradox of presence and non-presence, the disjointedness of time and memory, it has everything to do with our state of being in time. Hence the wordplay, a portmanteau of haunt and ontology, it is, if we are to simplify it at all Ontology as Haunting, Being as Spectre. It is by its very nature an unsettling, just as when Hamlet speaks the above line, it is to evoke the idea precisely that something seems wrong, that the world is not as it should be…

Do You Believe in Ghosts?

You know that point of coincidence, when at some undefined point you encounter something familiar somewhere it shouldn’t be? It might be a flicker of a television advert, or something re-occurring years or decades later in some unexpected corner, a piece of writing, a snippet of lyric, a phrase that lay dormant and forgotten, but suddenly flickers into view for a second or more. It’s in this way that our lives are populated by ghosts, that time does not operate as we think it should. It’s not just that we remember something long buried, but the sense that the past remembers us.

But this seems like it should be impossible, it makes no sense. How could something that no longer exists still exert a pull on us? It is precisely this that Hauntology draws on, the strange slippages and dispersed fragments of time that exist at the intersection of being, the words before they are spoken. Indeed Derrida draws heavily on the sense when we speak that our words come from someone else, that we speak and write as ghosts. In Ghost Dance, we find him ruminating on being asked whether he believes in ghosts, “here, the ghost is me..”. The Hauntological displaces any sense of metaphysical grounding and places the present as a space of spectral projection, always out of view, always peripheral. In short, it undermines the Metaphysics of Presence. Hauntology teases out the threads of this unspoken periphery from the fabric, the implicit connections lying behind a form. There is no “haunting” something; if we intend to do something “Hauntologically” we have failed before we’ve begun, for the spectres we find, the hidden glimpses, must be prior to the expression itself, immanent to the text. The point of SoM was always to pick out what lay behind the text, the terms and associations that haunted the text, ones that inevitably Marx himself was not aware of.

This is all to counter the easy assumptions that Hauntology is merely a kind of calling-back, a kind of appeal to the past, which I’ve hinted at before but wanted to go into in more depth. If we are looking at a simple vision of the past we’ve gone badly wrong somewhere. Hauntology is by necessity a complication of the past, a tangling of it with its own future in which, and I can’t emphasise this enough, the unspoken becomes key. We enter a world of the not-quite, the never-here, the out-of-sight.. the echo precedes the shout.. a distinct uncertainty, where did that sound come from? Hauntology precisely dismantles our comfortable temporalities and disrupts chronology to the point where we can no longer say A then B then C with confidence in our memory of this progression, it becomes jumbled, disordered, out of joint.

Partial Recall

Hamlet already began with the expected return of the dead King. After the end of history, the spirit comes by coming back [revenant], it figures both a dead man who comes back and a ghost whose expected return repeats itself, again and again.

The motif of recall, of memory dominates the Hauntological, becoming a central theme of SoM. A memory is something which lingers from that which no longer exists. It returns as spectre, which is precisely not to be, it is not a presence. In this sense, if we are to return to Derrida, “it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept”. To Derrida, Ontology is the exorcism of this haunting… “Everything begins before it begins”… the spectral precedes the real and the real is haunted by the spectral. This is to say that each concept, each form, is by necessity an exorcism of its own haunting, wherein it is conjured into being. This exorcism or ritual is a grounding in presence, where the hauntological concerns what precedes it, the impossibility of presence.

The Hauntological then, concerns everything that is not present, the gaps, frissons and openings; it is moreover an Ontological disturbance, foregrounding our distance from something, its disintegration and transience. This goes on to suggest, however, that a haunting, as Mark Fisher makes explicit, is as much a disturbance of space as it is time. Where the immediate association of haunting may seem a temporal one, the revenant, the return of the past, repetition and rhythms of ritual mourning and melancholy, it is worth pointing towards the prevalence of the haunted house, the connection to location in so many ghost stories. Fisher provides us with a key example in the overlook hotel of the Shining, the way in which family history, trauma, the crimes of the past, become residues in a place, the family drama of psychoanalysis crossing over with something larger and further reaching. So to move on from its one association as a temporal condition to this Ontological uprooting is to find that Hauntology is inevitably spatial. If, as Derrida said, Psychoanalysis is the study of ghosts, those phenomena of the psyche with no real presence that continue to exert influence upon us, then so must our connection to space, and our existence within it, be a spectral one. Here, the primacy of the virtual becomes apparent.

Mourning, The Return of the Dead

There is a specific engagement in Specters of Marx with the time in which it was written, namely the “end of history”, that final triumph of liberal Capitalism evoked most famously by Fukuyama, something that Derrida connected to Freud’s account of the triumphalist phase of the mourning process in relation to the demise of the soviet union and with it the very idea of Communism, of Marx. This approach, famously identified by Fisher as Capitalist Realism, consists of the recall, repetition, incantation, evoked through the spectres of Hamlet. “To the rhythm of a cadenced march, it proclaims: Marx is dead, communism is dead, very dead, and along with it its hopes, its discourse, its theories, and its practices. It says: long live capitalism, long live the market, here’s to the survival of economic and political liberalism!“, Mourning here takes upon itself the task of the aforementioned exorcism of alternatives, the codification of a universal reality and the final expunging of any memory that might still act upon the present.

So what from this is the significance of Hauntology in the cultural sense, the identification of a tendency, indeed a confluence in music and culture? It seems to emerge from what I’ve just described in the condition of melancholia, this refusal to let go. Where Derrida identifies in the end of history a process of mourning, of detachment and triumphalism, the death of Marx and the exorcism of his ghost, he simultaneously speaks of our inability to banish the dead. The Haunting present in culture speaks to something that is no longer with us, but that has been unsuccessfully banished, the work of mourning arrested. It is, more to the point, a refusal to “give up the ghost” that is, to yield with regard to the insidious pull of our own desire, as Lacan put it. The accusations of nostalgia here are misplaced I think quite simply when we realise that what’s being held onto here is not an idealised version of the past, but a potentiality, an alternative that never made good on its aims. While a traditional nostalgia harkens back to a supposedly ideal time, Hauntology points towards what is unfinished, and again, unspoken. It is for this reason that Fisher refers to “lost futures”, it is not what was, but what might have been. Here there is no object to mourn, and so it lingers on in expressions and cultural resonances. The death here does not pertain to some completed construction or project, but an approach, a world-view. For Capital, the dead always return to haunt it.

Lost Futures

Many discussions and expositions on Hauntology over the past few years have started with Mark Fisher, but I purposefully did not, firstly because I’m aware that this Blog might quickly become a K-Punk fansite, and also because I think the origins of the term in Derrida is something worth dredging back into view, if only to emphasise the de-ontological qualities of the word. Nevertheless, if I’m going to talk about Hauntology, it has to be said that Fisher is largely responsible, with a few others [Simon Reynolds also had a part to play] for bringing the term into wider usage within cultural theory and criticism, and so addressing what he did with it, and where he applied it, becomes something of a necessity.

It’s often implied that there is an immense difference between Derrida’s Hauntology and Fisher’s, but right away I think that this is overstated. It’s true that Fisher harboured a frustration with Derrida as a thinker, criticising Deconstruction, as it manifested in the academy, as “a kind of pathology of scepticism, which induced hedging, infirmity of purpose, and compulsory doubt in its followers”. This frustration is something I alluded to above, and is not unfounded, and yet is something I can easily look past in his work, partly due I think to the fact that it was Derrida who lay somewhat centrally to my re-introduction to philosophy and theory after a long wasteland of disenchantment some time ago. In some sense it was precisely this pathology of scepticism which provided an opening for me into the paths I ended up exploring, and has pushed me always not into an infirmity of purpose or inability to hold a position, but instead into a constant wariness of simplicity and reduction behind a position. It is of course largely a matter of what you do with a thinker, and Fisher indeed refers to the ways in which Derrida among others drove a creativity and excitement in the music writers so influential to him.

Sonic Hauntology

I mentioned above the identification from Fisher and others of a certain cultural confluence with Hauntology, and to go further down that lane will require us to pull together some of the threads I’ve been exploring so far into what Fisher termed Sonic Hauntology, specifically at points linking it to the Hauntological tendencies of Afrofuturism with its displacement and jumbling of time and space. In his essay The Metaphysics of CrackleAfrofuturism and Hauntology, an astonishing text that I must admit I only chanced upon recently, Fisher outlines this tendency, focusing on the presence of crackle or sonic disintegration in so much of the music to be identified with Hauntology. The railing against the metaphysics of presence is here beautifully opposed to the attachment to the presence or authenticity of the singer-songwriter in the work of Greil Marcus and found within the fiery opening salvo of Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant than the Sun, where Eshun opposes in the strongest terms the “troglodytic homilies” of the “intertia engine”, the tendency of music writers to appeal at all times to a “terminally stupid sublime” –

The fuel this inertia engine runs on is fossil fuel : the live show, the proper album, the Real Song, the Real Voice, the mature, the musical , the pure, the true, the proper, the intelligent, breaking America: all notions that stink of the past, that maintain a hierarchy of the senses, that petrify music into a solid state in which everyone knows where they stand, and what real music really is.”

What Eshun is doing here is not too far removed from Derrida’s project in Specters of Marx, that is he is opposing the centrality of presence, of immediacy, of the present. In Metaphysics of Crackle, Fisher draws our attention to Dub, the “Afrofuturist sonic science” , and what’s notable is how it is treated by two different music writers, Marcus and Ian Penman. What’s notable about Marcus is not that he doesn’t address or talk about Dub, but that he talks about in the sense that a literary critic might talk about a text. What’s important is its presence, its importance, its meaning, never the materiality of the sound, what it does. What Marcus is ultimately beholden to is a kind of Rock Metaphysics, seen in the proclamation of raw, pure expression, common attitudes towards the blues. And yet, as Fisher points out, something that a writer like Marcus barely ever touches upon is the role of production, of music technology, of everything that mediates between us and the musician. For in truth, while we tend to look towards bluesmen like Robert Johnson as the ultimate purity of expression in music, we listen to them practically through the material haze of time, through the broken up, crackling deterioration of sound. Fisher quotes Owen Hatherley, “there’s surely no music more utterly dominated by its recording technology than 1930s blues. Listening to Robert Johnson you have, rather than the expected in yr [sic] face earthiness and presence, layers upon layers of fizz, crackle, hiss, white noise..”

So sonic Hauntology is precisely the foregrounding of that technology, the cracks, deterioration and surface noise, rather than the rockist privileging of the man & guitar, the voice. It is in this sense that Penman identifies it and Afrofuturism as “two sides of the same double-faced phenomenon”. The same material foregrounding of the lack of presence found in Hauntology is central to the diasporic, fractured, cut-and-paste jumbling of space-time of Afrofuturism, where the alienation within black culture, the transience and lack of place, are exactly what becomes emphasised and re-configured. “Afrofuturism unravels any linear model of the future, disrupting the idea that the future will be a simple supersession of the past. Time in Afrofuturism is plastic, stretchable and prophetic—it is, in other words, a technologised time, in which past and future are subject to ceaseless de- and recompostion” So, through the dominance of technologies to how we experience sounds, music or otherwise, sonic Hauntology intensifies this pattern, emphasises it.

Virtual Disjunctures

But to what end? What purpose does Hauntology really serve, we might ask, where does this distancing of presence lead us? The answer lies I think somewhere in the postmodern world of simulacrum, virtuality and abstraction that has become so familiar to us today, the communicative wonderland and digital landscape. Sonic Hauntology’s heightening of crackle and distortion, the surface noise of old media technologies is something that immediately distinguishes it from the formal nostalgia pointed to by Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism, something which also is immanently connected to the prominence of technology. This formal nostalgia not only separates itself from emotional or psychological nostalgia, it is in some sense predicated on its absence. It is only when detached from its past, when the direct memory is severed, that an attachment to the forms of the past comes into focus. The “Slow Cancellation of the Future” Fisher refers to [from Franco Berardi], is a nostalgia, but one very different from the paradoxical one found in sonic Hauntology for example.

Ghosts of My Life is the project of Fisher’s I’ve found is most sidelined. This is not to say that it is unknown or anything of the sort, but that the main focus tends to be on either of his other books. It has, however, resolved into my favourite of the three he published, and something of this lies in its diaristic, fragmented quality. The book, while it centres on themes, is not a simple treatise on them, but an exercise in the very excavations of lost futures implied through Hauntology as some kind of practice. This is why, far from its distended nature reducing its effectiveness as Hauntological text, it is precisely this that, in the lineage of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, and indeed Laura Grace Ford’s Savage Messiah zine to which Fisher contributed a preface, places it within the Hauntological beyond simply containing a definition of it as a tendency. While we might search for a clear, elegant, singular text, it is the cut-and-paste quality of a project like this, the immediate appearance of cracks and lines in its construction, that presents it as a kind of spectral archaeology par excellence.

So what to take from the yearning for Lost Futures. Is it, as some have tried to insinuate, some kind of re-constituted nostalgia? Are we, through this, doing precisely what donkey-jacketed old socialists are most often accused of and wishing for a return to the 70s? I mention Ghosts of My Life as here we can find an engagement with this –

What is being longed for in hauntology is not a particular period, but the resumption of the processes of democratisation and pluralism for which [Paul] Gilroy calls. Perhaps it’s useful to remind ourselves here that social democracy has only become a resolved totality in retrospect; at the time, it was a compromise formation, which those on the left saw as a temporary bridgehead from which further gains could be won. What should haunt us is not the no longer of actually existing social democracy, but the not yet of the futures that popular modernism trained us to expect, but which never materialised. These spectres – the spectres of lost futures – reproach the formal nostalgia of the capitalist realist world.

The point here is precisely not a yearning for times past but of tendencies curtailed. The “Lost Futures” are not a kind of Schlaraffenland we might readily associate with a kind of reactionary nostalgia for the past, nor are they the melancholia of Gilroy or Wendy Brown, “Post-colonial” and “Left” respectively, in which we become attached to either an idealised moment or the repetition of failure. As usual within the purview of Hauntology, the Lost Future concerns the unspoken, the yet-to-exist or the no-longer-existing. This might seem like an obvious point, one I re-iterate here, but it contains within it something immensely important to realise culturally and politically, and that is that tendencies we might look towards in the past, be they Socialism or Popular Modernism, are not restricted to the time within which they existed, and are not finished, packaged wholes. The common line directed at the left that “you just want to return us to the 70s” commits two major errors; it firstly presents us with a retroactively constructed narrative of the 70s, an image of neoliberalism arriving to modernise the clear failure of social democracy [Thatcher’s “Labour isn’t Working” posters come to mind], putting to the side a lot of the inconvenient attempts to forcibly impose neoliberalism and ruthlessly crush opposition, secondly, it assumes that the left, socialism, whatever we want to label the tendencies dominant at the time, are locked within that decade, that any attempt to continue them today is by its very nature some kind of nostalgic pathology.

Archaeologies

So, in trying to perceive the flickering, disintegrated echoes of a past era, there is a melancholia, but which takes the form, rather than a time-locked nostalgia, of a refusal, a refusal to mourn, to banish the dead. There is a defiance in yearning for something violently strangled before its time, to hold on to the reverberations it leaves behind. This distinct refusal to mourn, to give up on potential, is central to the political and cultural prevalence of Hauntology and the Spectral. It is the vector towards renewal perceived through a technological haze, just as the lone bluesman is heard through the indefinite layers of crackle and noise. It is the distance afforded us by the technological here that preserves and propagates the ghosts of our lives. The distended, fragmentary cut-and-paste alienation of time from itself that we experience in a landscape where all emerges at once, regardless of time and space, that distinct flattening of spatio-temporal distinctions of our era, is something that Hauntology, both in cultural, political, sonic, psychological, geological terms, intensifies.

It is this process, the intensification of disjuncture, that may become a vector towards a new modernist impulse. For how long now can we continue to hold to the limitations of presence, and for how long can we prioritise the kind of grounding Rockist authenticity demands? The disturbance of causality itself, and the undermining of metaphysical presence itself, becomes today the task of any future, for it is surely the “realistic” appeals to purity, to identity, that form the ritual exorcism of spectres. It is in assuming that what we see it what we get, that it is a solid, unmoving excrescence, that in a real sense we do away with any potential, any echo. There is only the music, and great music speaks for itself, right? Hauntology is to percieve in this gigantic echo chamber a world, a fragmented map of associations far larger than any building or song, to draw out the fabric into an immense spool outwards… unravelling, and through this sensing the tremors, the barely perceptible patterns still present through the gaps, reveal themselves…. like apparitions through the fog…

Reading List [Not all of these are explicitly mentioned here but all are relevant and informed/inspired it, however tangentially]-

  • Jacques Derrida – Specters of Marx
  • Ken McMullen – Ghost Dance [Linked above]
  • Mark Fisher – Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures
  • Fredric Jameson – Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
  • Mark Fisher – The Metaphysics of Crackle: Afrofuturism and Hauntology
  • Kodwo Eshun – More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction
  • Walter Benjamin – The Arcades Project
  • Laura Grace Ford – Savage Messiah
  • Simon Reynolds – Retromania [see also Rip it Up and Start Again]
  • Greil Marcus – Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century
  • Ian Penman – It Gets Me Home This Winding Track
  • Wendy Brown – Resisting Left Melancholy
  • Paul Gilroy – Postcolonial Melancholia
  • Sigmund Freud – The Uncanny
  • Mark Fisher – The Weird and the Eerie
Categories
Theory/Praxis

Discordant Concordance Part 2: Tasting the Wind

Now I’ve definitively extracted my foot from the mulch of certain online theory trends, there is a certain bracing wind that accompanies where I go from here. It is my intention from here to turn into this wind, taste the salt it brings in from the crashing waves and relish it. There has been a trajectory I’ve found myself on that I can most clearly identify from the evening I read Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism; something that I would compare to a genuine epiphany towards the anti-capitalist convictions that have only grown stronger. In the year since it’s been a wavering line rather than a strong arc, but as it clarifies, it became clear that it was defined by two distinctive currents; put simply that of a Praxis towards a communist alternative, the radical re-configuration of the means of production, and that of culture, of its production and its influence on social relations. This divides in different terms somewhat into the political imperative to build a better future, and that of what lies close to my heart so to speak, or more succinctly to the collective and the particular.

To elaborate on this I want to go further back in my own experience and elaborate on the significance music has for me. Music was actually something I never really got into until I was 16. By this I don’t mean that music had no significance, it was ever-present in my childhood, around me at home and in the circles I encountered, but until that point I had never really been a fan of a particular band, musician or anything like that. It was the fateful meeting of a guitar and a book of White Stripes tabulature that catapulted me into actually listening to music, and it was here at the intersection of creating and experiencing music that I found some kind of escape from the rather miserable experience of my social reality at school, an opening onto a world removed from the one where I had to endure the gauntlet of other people, something better. A few years on from this, the musical experience opened up to me in what I can now recognise as a characteristically postmodern deluge of multiplicity, flashing lights, different sounds, a million new things at once. I discovered probably hundreds of groups and figures in one sweep, and each successive sound was one I hadn’t really encountered before.

Nonetheless, despite this overwhelming wash of musical discovery, something else comes out at me from those initial years, and that’s how music consistently offered me something apart from the endlessly careers-focused hell of college, the social anxiety I faced in the outside world. This seems in a sense perhaps a result of the fact I was experiencing music at a greater rate as most of what I was stumbling across was both new and old, from multiple different decades and eras at once. At that time, the dizzying array was exhilarating and I embraced it. Music, the experience of sound, captivated me in the way that nothing else could, and the further I explored its corridors, the more it was this experience, not simply listening to a song but letting the song hit me in the face, that appealed to me. I distinctly remember playing Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennae to Heaven from front to back in a room on my own and being driven to tears simply by the combination of sounds at a particular moment, and this experience, similar to the experience of the mystical that often emerges into the lives of characters in Clarice Lispector’s stories, that began really to drive my musical obsessions. When it comes down to it, what bleeds through all the music that I’ve really attached to myself is this sometimes violent, sometime strange, always somewhat blissful entrance of something that seems otherworldly [and yet it’s worth noting that the reason it seems this way is precisely because it is not].

What is the point of this lengthy exercise in self-reflection? It is in part to ground more clearly what precisely it is that forms my intimate connection to cultural production as something that can change the constitution of the world. I felt the need to elaborate on this precisely because at this point the “communism” part is far more easy to understand without much exposition. The point, then, is how we might achieve it. Of course I might note at this point that I am not a professional musician and my university education thus far has been in Fine Art, so there is quite clearly more to this, but I find even my focus via visual mediums is often defined irreducibly by musical influence as much as or more than other visual ones; music is something that one might say haunts any work I produce. This leads in fact to what I want to start defining more in terms of the overlap between cultural forms and modes, the ways in which a piece of music may lead directly or otherwise towards a book, or the latter towards a film… the space in which it is possible to open up new worlds and teach new languages, something I will tentatively call a pedagogical cultural space.

Cultural Hegemony is the term used by Gramsci to refer to the naturalised social order, the idea that for the ruling class to maintain control, the natural order must seem like second nature, common sense [of course this has a lot to do with good ol’ ideology which I will no doubt address further down the line]. Something I’ve often held with me from my musical excursions is precisely an instinct of resistance to what was held to to be normal or natural, but one that at the time I obviously had no idea how to effectively talk about or channel into anything. All that the regular drumming into us in college of the market stalinist dogmas of careers and economic success achieved for me was an inherent distaste for the stultifying banalities that it promised, and I have no doubt that while this has caused me much grief in the form of existential/identity crises and persistent nagging anxieties, and capital is geared consistently towards making you feel like shit for doubting its good word, it set me in good stead. It’s when you consistently flout the rules of common sense that you simultaneously discover how contingent they are and how keen people are to reinforce them.

So in this sense, I’ve always had a distrust of the hegemonic ideas that are spoonfed by decree, the rather distasteful implication that growing up is a process of self-imposed exile and disillusionment from our stupid dreams, that upon exiting into “the outside world” we just have to suck up, get a proper job and be happy with our lot. The most we can expect is a promotion at the behest of some depressed stooge whose task it is to shift the decks endlessly on board a sinking ship. In this sense, what culture offered me, in its otherworldly potential, was an alternative. It undoubtedly opened me up to worlds I would never have encountered without it, even as I grew frustrated at the endless covers of classic rock songs everyone insisted on learning whenever we actually managed to play music together.

Of course before I get too carried away I’m not trying to romanticise culture here as some autonomous zone, a genuine utopian enclave away from the troubles of reality, but it is apparent to me that this is precisely how it felt at the time, as if through the collection of music that I carried with me I could walk through the door in the wall and spend time in some ethereal wonderland for a bit. This sense of escapism through culture is something I want to come back to, but for now I want to address that culture cannot in fact magically detach itself from its own means of production any more than another facet of society. Indeed, what I’ve just described might all fall under the heading of Fetishism, a kind of reified description of something that is, when all is said and done, nothing but a commodified, packaged product from a supermarket aisle. As we are aware now, even alternative cultural spaces are by no means pure, untainted by the logics of the Culture Industry. In fact, its potentially in alternative cultures where it sometimes makes itself more apparent, whether that is in the sectioning of “avant garde” or experimental forms far from the centre where everything stays in its lane, never to intersect, or simply in the surface level adoption of an “alternative” aesthetic, symbols of resistance, transgression and “Punk” that have now become so much semiotic slurry in the every-day experience.

An object of study; the recent episode of Black Mirror, starring Miley Cyrus, called “Rachel, Jack and Ashley too”. Much has been said about why elements of the last season of Black Mirror didn’t necessarily come together, but what really stood out to me about this episode in particular was the way it presented the culture industry in what amounted to a good vs evil, imprisonment vs freedom ethical narrative wherein the malicious influence of “pop” is set against the transgressive freedom of “alternative” forms of music and presentation. Throughout the episode we have persistent black and white contrasts between the cartoonish villainy of the dystopian pop industry, an inhuman machine that must churn out palatable content at all costs, and the freedom of “liking what you like “, doing your own thing. This is exemplified in the relationship between the main character and her sister, who both constantly argue over this very cultural divide.

Much of what’s presented here echoes some of the blistering critique Adorno & Horkheimer levelled at the Culture Industry, but even they, often somewhat unfairly given short shrift today, grimly noted how expressions of spontaneity, freedom, improvisation, often are made palatable, they are accepted, but only through the absorbtion of their disrupting influence as a new tool in the Culture Industry’s armoury. We can experience the alternative, but only as another sub-heading of the commodity. Paolo Virno notes in On Virtuosity [from Grammar of the Multitude]that while at the time such deviations where considered by Adorno & Horkheimer as remnants, something that remained from the old cultural modes and was soon to be lost somewhere in the innards of capital, chewed to a pulp, it seems now, after the convulsive propulsion into post-fordist modes of production and labour, that these elements have re-aligned to the centre of the culture industry itself. Virno proposes, in a similar vein to the common statement that neoliberalism and post-fordism emerged as a result of a desire to escape the misery of fordist capitalism, that the very aspects of culture that in that primary critique were held to be dead meat, have become part and parcel of what Jodi Dean might call “communicative capitalism”.

“These were not remnants, but anticipatory omens. The informality of communicative behaviour, the competitive interaction typical of a meeting, the abrupt diversion that can enliven a television program [in general, everything which it would have been dysfunctional to rigidify and regulate beyond a certain threshold] has become now, in the post-Ford era, a typical trait of of the entire realm of social production.”

Here we move past the image of packaged goods on a production line that often comes to mind when we consider the Adornian culture industry, into the elasticity of contemporary communication, the feedback loops and open ended performances of online networks. Of course this does not mean that the promise this offers is legitimate, that we are seeing a complete cessation of formulaic entertainment, more that the means of its production are now supposedly in sync with these means of communication. We can see an example of this for instance in the increasing attempts of brands, from fast food chains to social media companies to Disney, to “appear human”, to generate seemingly spontaneous interaction online, and more generally in the universal PR machine that drives not only the culture industry today but practically every facet of socio-political life. When mark Fisher said “all that is solid melts into PR”, he was perhaps referring to this very tendency towards what Virno calls Virtuosity, away necessarily from packaged, closed off products, towards the open-ended performance.

In the aforementioned Black Mirror episode, this is most clearly criticised on the one hand as the inauthentic pop industry, purposefully hiding and effacing the unhappiness and suffering of Miley Cyrus’s character in order to present an “aspirational” figure, and then celebrated towards the end, in the ability, the implied freedom, allowed her in embracing her trangressive desires… except of course as we’ve found this transgression is not what it seems, for despite the content, in form this is simply another set of etiquettes, another mediating influence that must be maintained. The communicative matrix is the same, all that’s changed is the set of signifiers, the actions themselves… there is no escaping the machine… unless…

I want to return to the idea of culture as an escape. Of course when we talk about culture as escape so far, it is escape in a figurative sense, an abstraction, and so in itself could very easily translate to inaction, the “my planet needs me” approach to disaster or suffering, in which we simply beam up to the stratosphere to avoid tackling earthly problems, seen of course in Elon Musk’s extraplanetary ambitions. But does this have to be the case? The language here, “escape” perhaps belies the framing of the action, for it suggests above all the escape from one reality into another. Of course in this movement of escape its not hard to begin to see a translation into social change.

The issue I see with the way I consumed the vast milieu of music available to me was the lack of what I’ll call a cultural space. I immersed myself in various expressions of culture that were nonetheless completely virtual, they rarely if ever manifested themselves in something that one might call the aforementioned social reality, in any kind of confluence, movement or presence. The move into globalization also facilitated in some sense the raising up of culture with a capital C into a kind of loft space where it could exist as a repressed simulation without really having much of an effect on the building beneath it. In another sense, this meant that music, cinema, literature, all simply became hats that we wear, topics for small-talk, nicely depoliticized chunks of empty entertainment that provide solace but little else. “Have you seen (x) on netflix?” “What music do you like?” becoming common questions but existing in a kind of netherworld of hedonism that can’t make itself distinct enough from serious issues of the world talked about by serious people.

The lack of space here is in some sense this sectioning-away, this mono-disciplinary approach wherein x is x and y is y and never the twain shall meet. By “Space” I here refer somewhat to what Fisher in Acid Communism called a confluence, a meeting point. I will lead off from this more in future posts at some stage but I hold that it is through a process of cross-pollination and intersubjectivity that the process of mere escapism becomes a movement into something else, that the fractured global multitude can collectivize into something more. A pedagogical approach has for too long implied what Lacan attributed to the process of psychoanalytic transference as the creation of a subject supposed to know. We immediately conjure an image singularly of a teacher doling out information like packets of rations to a willing audience, and collectively of a vanguard movement imparting the truth upon the supposed subject who does not know. We must desperately move past this, to open up the relationship between subject and object and to encourage a new form of cultural pedagogy at the intersection. There must be an uncovering, the exposure of each subjectivity to the open air, an archeology, of culture, and of cultural space itself.

Categories
Theory/Praxis

Discordant Concordance Part 1: Why I am Not an Accelerationist

I find myself, as I often do at this time of year, away from the perpetually bedraggled kingdom that for now still seems to be holding on for dear life to its browbeaten and blood-soaked photographs of past glories, nestled instead somewhere in the north of Germany where if I’m perfectly honest I haven’t much of an idea what specifically is going on. This said it has already been constructive to peel myself away from the quotidian day-to-day realities of city-life for a little bit; it seems that certain repetitions that prove necessary for a minimum level of survival also tend to channel my thoughts into a kind of analogous Nietzschian eternal return, whereupon I never truly allow myself a moment of commitment or pause to gather together whatever I’ve been working towards. The constant routine, while reassuring somewhat in its similitude, also is punctuated by blockages, pulses of activity that seem to interject and swirl up silt into the currents just as it was on the verge of settling.

Some thoughts that have emerged since I have been here, and as I was reaching the final passages of Fredric Jameson’s monumental Valences of the Dialectic [a book that will no doubt be informing my writing for a while yet and from which I have noted a staggering amount of new reference points] have surrounded as much what I intend to do, leading up tentatively to a potential PHD application in the coming year, as vigorously as what I absolutely want to avoid. Since it seems prudent to undergo a process of elimination before we reach any kind of statement of intent, I will first of all outline the latter in the most euraesthetically despondent way I can.

The Plane of Total Abstraction [No I don’t want to associate with Fascism]

My own experience studying Fine Art at university familiarised me a little too well with the kind of obfuscatory poetic allusion that dominates a certain mode of discourse there. Unfortunately, the same language extends, despite what one might assume, beyond the doors of the art school, as anyone who has encountered the reams and reams of pseudo-deleuzian romanticized creativity porn might attest to. The issue quickly becomes a wider theoretical one, in which you may find yourself buried amid attractively worded poetic and mysteriously aesthetic passages that nonetheless appear to have little to no purchase on anything concrete. This is the plane of total abstraction, where progressive really means reactionary, where emancipation is less desirable than reading ones preferred gothic allusions into Marx & Engels. We here end up at the point where largely online writers congregate, where we find the slippage between the emancipatory and the deeply conservative, where people are intent on transforming commitments to revolutionary/leftist politics into the same grey mulch of word syrup where practically mystical conceptualisations stand in for collective praxis, where “the left” is intoned with the same ironic cynicism as one finds in the worst right wing snake pits. Everywhere in this plane we find an unbearable malice towards those who in reality have good, if perhaps misguided intentions, and you don’t have to walk far through this blasted land to find the bitter, unpleasant aroma of first a general misanthropy, then as the fog thickens more immediately objectionable outbursts of racism, misogyny, the worst kind of reactionary poison until it all coagulates in the viscous sludge of fascism [here come the cries of “everything is fascism now!”].

Unfortunately I find that despite the moment of cyber-futurism that led to what is called Accelerationism holding some degree of historical interest now, I would take aim at a good portion of the online communities around what now carries that label. Am I saying they’re all fascists? No. What I’m saying is that I have less than zero interest in reactionary politics, in maintaining social relations with “ironic” fascists, or people who form their online identity around an obnoxious edginess and occulted language. In terms of actually effecting the world, in considering others, in any form of democracy, empowerment or collective joy, these online cultures are a lead weight, a choking cloud of dust, at worst actually dragging people down to their level and emptying them of blood. Their aloofness, objection to emancipatory desire, insistence on removing themselves from the social and political particulars, remaining behind the veil at all costs, make them little better than the academic professors they often so despise, and even on a surface level all that we really find here is a universal ironic dismissal where everything is weightless, nothing forms unless around the individual ego…

So where do I stand here. No doubt there is no small degree of abstraction per se in the sometimes labyrinthine texts I’m approaching, so it’s not the abstract itself clearly that I object to, lest I be accused here of a monumental hypocrisy. Where the problem intervenes, and shows itself time and again online, is in the failure to bridge the gap from here to the particular. Something is wrong, quite simply, when what is objected to in the work of a political thinker is precisely the point at which they directly engaged with politics, the point where Lefebvre becomes actively involved with the production of space he wrote about, the point, in other words, where theory intersects with praxis. The whole idea of praxis in this regard becomes lost in the plane of total abstraction, a place where a concept shared between a few clued-in people somehow stands for a whole process of collective engagement.

The issue here is a shortcut taken in between conceptualisation and realisation that unfortunately must be somehow bridged, whether in potentiality or actuality. We can’t progress, for instance, from some extensive pontification on “exit” towards a genuine radical redress of social reality without at some stage theorising how this in the starkest terms translates into material processes and affects. This of course means not simply from the position of the individual subject, but also the ripples we can perceive across the totality, by which I mean the vast webs of cause/effect that criss-cross the reality beyond direct experience and can largely be accessed through a kind of narrative topology, or in some sense a conceptualization, whether that be explicitly through the avenues of theory or the no less effective dreamworks of cultural collage and social imagination. Either way, the shortcuts taken in this regard often lead into an effervescent confusion in which the entirety of the political and historical processes that form the socialist project and horizon becomes transmuted into something… fuzzy. In this no-mans land, discussion of political strategy becomes unfashionable, so it is not approached, anything as concrete or dry as history becomes something more sexy to some perhaps, but loses its hold on particular reality.

The problem with accelerationists

Even worse is the perturbation from these spheres to anyone who dares “misunderstand” their chosen buzzword. Let me for example take the term “accelerationism”. I repeatedly see protestations from people who to a certain extent identify with accelerationism as a term, often in the form of a modifier such as U/acc. Much of accelerationism it must be said keeps itself intentionally occulted, vague, easy to appropriate into a million different forms, but let’s be honest, upon hearing it our first associations will likely come from the word “accelerate”. In both senses it becomes patently absurd when people connected to this term complain in the most vociferous, hard-done-by-terms about the association with speed. I’m not one usually these days to attach to a term concrete and unmovable definitions, but we choose a certain language for certain reasons, and if we don’t want our philosophy [or project, or politics, or whatever it is] to be associated with a concept like speed I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest you probably don’t use a word of which the dominant connotation is precisely to “go faster”. If we look towards the singular [and relatively brief] moment of the 90s in which the current usage of the term online largely arose from, there is a general quickfire, heightened aesthetic and lifestyle and way of writing that is indelibly connected to it and formed its dominant mode. Even extending to the use of amphetamines, or “speed” no less, the heightening suggested in this cyber-futurism was dominated by the implications contained in the term accelerationism itself, it was either an injunction, a prediction, a wish perhaps, for something faster, more intense, bigger, more total. Now of course before I am accused here of wilfully misinterpreting anything I’m acutely aware that many do not actively pursue it in this way, but in lieu of that it must be said it’s not particularly clear what’s being offered. A theory of time? Perhaps, in fact quite likely, but frankly if acc-heads don’t want their philosophy or label to become so frequently appropriated or misused according to their own ideal interpretations I might advise setting forth something a little bit clearer about what precisely it is supposed to be.. what it really is, what implications it has, other than some kind of easily ignored teleology. If it is not a political project for instance, or just another, cooler word for futurism what is it? The more you read about it, the less clear it gets. In the plane of total abstraction, things are made to be misinterpreted.

And here I reach what really becomes uncomfortable territory for anyone who calls themselves in some regard an accelerationist, and another regard in which I have seen hand-waving protestations, as if one is nothing but a troll for bringing this up in the first place, and that is the nigh-constant flirtations with the reactionary right. The proximity of the acc sphere to Nrx isn’t difficult to ascertain after a small amount of research, and not just because one of it’s primary progenitors Nick Land now spends most of his time spouting exceedingly dull neoconservative talking points on twitter and penned some of the primary literature for what has become known as neoreaction, or Nrx for short [none of this lessens the interest of his early work, but it does bring it into perspective], but because of the consistent allusions, friendly banter, politesse, compromise and praise for right or reactionary ideas and figures. When coupled with a certain brand of misanthropy, irony and the sneering attitude towards left action and politics, one begins to legitimately question the political aims here. Of course if you are more inclined towards the reactionary right, and make no bones about it, then fair enough on your part, but I don’t really have much of a reason or desire to share your predilections.

This is far from some complete denunciation of anything at all connected with the realms of theory I’m here discussing; in fact if it is anything it is my cry of frustration at the state of theory as it is discussed and formulated online at the present moment. Accelerationism as it exists online, in twitter communities and elsewhere, is in some sense merely a symptom for the wider issue I might now connect back to the plane of total abstraction, that discourse that really does seem to result in nothing besides an aesthetic commitment. Of course if we are to hold that aesthetics, or rather the manner of presentation matters, then how can we avoid the conclusion that people who wallow in an aesthetic of mysterious cyber-allusion/gothic darkness/scrambled poetics/irony to some degree are actively resisting interpretation. And, if indeed this is the aim, more power to them, but in this regard, why protest misinterpretation? Is it only the horror at being connected via the term to violent murders that provokes this? And if so, shouldn’t this provoke some reflection, shouldn’t the question be asked “why is it so easy to misinterpret?”, instead of the usual comments on the idiocy of those doing the misinterpreting? Why, even, is the aesthetic of accelerationism, the term itself even, attractive to such people who would commit such acts? Is the fault here not with the misuse of the term, but the lack of feasable interpretation, of structure, of explicit implication?

If this has proved a little negative, I promise soon a more positive affirmation of what I do intend to do; before I did that however I have found it constructive to get these issues out of my system, as the contradictory dominance online of a discourse that claims for itself a fringe status, the constant and unwelcome appearances of reactionary sentiment and abstract edginess, has become on the whole quite irritating, not to mention the consistent hostility towards open and unambiguous leftism. Some of the same problems I would argue extend more generally to people who adhere to a kind of vulgar-deleuzian language and philosophy, who deliver passages that for all the world could have been uttered from the mouth of your local weed-head, but here I wanted to outline specifically some of my issues with accelerationism as it appears and is seen today, precisely to illustrate the sum of what I want to avoid in my own work. It is all too easy to dissolve oneself into the plane of abstraction, to avoid any sense of commitment to a cause and to immerse oneself in a kind of constant deferral of intent. After some time however, perhaps all this effort should be reverted into a single question; why?

Categories
Uncategorized

The 2018 End of Year Hole

2018 draws to a close, the chattering storm clouds gathering at its edge announcing its eventual dissipation. Swarms of insects shift and stream through the gap between now and then, probosces prod and tremble in response to viscous stimuli, the temporal current bubbling from further, deeper indices. Data, folding and multiplying, copying and expanding, exploding and mutating, shattering and penetrating, tearing and shuddering. Turning in on itself, the corpus of social chains rots into new forms, dissolves and rebuilds structures within the real, extending tentacular feelers into spongey substances. The links in the chain become open doors.

CLARIFICATIONS

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Before I list some things proper, I feel it necessary to clarify the context of this entire list. 2018 was a hell of a strange year for me, one characterised by massive, in some sense violent change; to such an extent that in truth it only feels like it started halfway through. It was the year in which I abandoned my prior pretence of being an unbridled cynic, a disillusioned political centrist, and someone I really didn’t want to be, governed by an increasingly depressive cloud from which I attempted to shield myself via pathetic projections of certainty and blinkered ignorance. I shed the mask of the miserable bastard and found somewhere that I’m actually a Utopian at heart, finding, through some of the things I shall list below, something entirely new but difficult to solidly define. The disillusionment didn’t disappear, it’s simply that I found that continuing to press on despite it was more gratifying than my previous approach of simply giving in and wallowing in the mud of failure. The pushing against obstacles, the overcoming of hurdles, is something I can’t help but think defines not humanity per se, but matter itself. The structure of matter is constant straining, pushing, the paths of resistance, overcome or worked around. This is all why this list will prove a little open ended, including a few things I haven’t finished, or even that I’ve only just started on… 2018 only really got going for me relatively late in the game, and towards its end has been a veritable avalanche of new discoveries. Without further ado, I’ll get the ball rolling.

THOMAS PYNCHON – GRAVITY’S RAINBOW

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Gravity’s Rainbow blew the doors open. I’m not even sure I read to the end, I think I did, and I can’t remember starting, though I know I spent a good month and a bit more buried in this whirlwind of obscene profundities. It had the effect of violently tearing me from my slumber, unfolding the spacio-temporal disjuncture of my condition at the time. The structure of this fable, a careening arc of sexual absurdities, octopuses, a giant adenoid, all coming to a point of eschaton and obsession, pulling apart reality at its seams. It acted on me as a kind of molecular insurrectionist book, seeding itself in my mind and proceeding to shift the boundaries of my thought in a torrent of things I’d never encountered before, an experimental barrage of the unknown with one sweep tearing asunder the thrones of yore and setting in place an oscillating fleshy blob of matter to rule the kingdom on their stead. I intend to further explore Thomas Pynchon’s work, I have an unread copy of Mason & Dixon sitting on my shelf and the Crying of Lot 49 calls out to me, but Gravity’s Rainbow as an event was for me a wormhole of possibilities and a strategically placed bomb.

GHOST – PREQUELLE

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“It’s not metal!” they cried, clutching their copies of Opus Eponymous. They’re right, it’s not, but it’s long been obvious that Ghost’s aspirations didn’t lie in being a pure metal outfit for a long time, and in truth what I find so compelling about the band is their commitment to their cheesy, over the top theatrical stylings. What makes it more than just surface level sheen though is their ability to construct an absolutely wonderful pop song, see Dance Macabre, and refreshingly overblown Ballad in See the Light. They do away with the insistance that everything must be serious, sad, dour and inject some much needed fun into the modern rock landscape, fun here not intending to lessen their serious intent as a band, but to encapsulate a certain rediscovery of the limits of aesthetic expression that in its current iteration on Prequelle finds Ghost traversing a distinct emotional catharsis that lodged the album firmly into my brain for the better part of this year. It’s not metal but is is Ghost, in all their costumed glory.

MARK FISHER – CAPITALIST REALISM

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[See also “Terminator v Avatar: Notes on Accelerationism”] I can’t actually remember where I found Mark Fisher’s essay Terminator v Avatar now, but I don’t find it hyperbolic to say reading it changed my life, as has the rest of Fisher’s work, and it caused me to immediately order Capitalist Realism on impulse, something I usually avoid entirely. If Gravity’s Rainbow blew open the doors, Capitalist Realism gave form to the seething energy beyond them. What I found in Terminator V Avatar was a concise but incredibly formulated piece on the follies of an anti-capitalist appeal to the past, this wish to return to a more “primitive” time, to live of the land, being fully assimilated into capitalist infrastructure, illustrated via looking at James Cameron’s Avatar as an embodiment of this capitalist drive to re-assimilate its own opposition. In Capitalist Realism I found one of the most effective accounts of the Capitalist apparatus I’d read, Fisher’s titular concept making sense of so much of the world around me, and again shifting the boundaries of my perception in a significant realignment. Beyond this, Fisher’s work has helped me immensely, grounded me from a state of drifting apprehension, and without it I wouldn’t have started this very blog. I won’t ramble on too much here, but Fisher finally led me to something resembling my own position, and has been something of a revelation not only in terms of my ongoing interests in philosophy and theory, but in my sense of political vitality and urgency, re-awakening a sense of potential new realities I had long given up on. Read Capitalist Realism if you haven’t already, it’s very short and well worth the few hours it’ll take.

JULIA HOLTER – AVIARY

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The prospect of new Julia Holter is always an unexpected joy, but the vast expanse of Aviary confounded my expectations in the most delightful way, unravelling on first listen into an experimental cacophonous space redolent of its title, seeming to reflect the weirding of the modern world in its creation of an entire sonic ecosystem. At times it screams and wails, at others it echoes, it breathes softly, all these sounds merging into each other and flowing across the bedrock, eventually forming a vast lake teeming with life. It’s long and winding, at times forms fractured rapids and whirlpools, but the separate parts connect into a sublime organism, organic and shifting in tone and mood. It is I suppose a much more difficult, abstract release than her previous album, but in this lies some of her most ethereally beautiful compositions, and if one can spend the time on it, Aviary is one of the most impressive musical projects of the year, one that manages to weave together teeming multitudes into a coherent expression of musical catharsis.

DELEUZE & GUATTARI – ANTI-OEDIPUS

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Disclaimer: I haven’t actually finished reading this yet, I’m just enjoying my time with it too much to pass up mentioning it here. Beyond its rather toothless and vapid interpretations one might find in universities, the Academy’s full tendency to shave the edges off the theory it tackles on display, Deleuze and Guattari present a truly radical work here [I would argue still today] the primary purpose of which is to ask why we wish for our own domination. In other words, this is, as Foucault expresses in his preface to the book, an anti-fascist work, not just on a structural level, but on a molecular level, taking aim at the tendencies of psychoanalysis to defer to control, to institution and tradition via Oedipus, and formulating capital as that which necessarily represses desire. The mistake some make is to think that D/G are presenting either a model, or a symbolic/metaphorical picture with this book. This is to rob their ideas of power, and as they make perfectly clear throughout the book, they are simply not talking in metaphor. The insistence of academics to time and again reduce powerful ideas to a purely imaginary gesture is consistently infuriating. With Anti-Oedipus in particular, while they no doubt use imagery to illustrate their ideas, the ideas themselves are real. When they think in terms of multiplicity, when they say “making love is not just becoming as one, or even two, but becoming as a hundred thousand” this is exactly what they mean. Every time we reduce these statements down to nothing but poetics we turn D/G into a shell of their potential. Taken as a book intended to have real effect upon the world, not just as a theoretical vaguery designed to be dissected in a lecture theatre somewhere, Anti-Oedipus is a remarkable work, and I’m looking forward to re-reading it in the future and to tackling the rather more daunting scale of A Thousand Plateaus.

WIDOWS

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My big question going into this film was “Can McQueen really keep this up?”. The man hasn’t directed a film that’s been anything less than incredible, and I’m happy to report Widows did not break that streak, a heist film on the surface that really digs deep into the social and political surroundings of everyone involved. Not a single character didn’t work, all contributing to the sense of place and political decay in the setting of Chicago, all the parts of the film operating in organic synthesis to paint a picture in the strongest terms, of being forced into a situation through no fault of ones own, of being at the whim of an abstract structure that has anything but your best interests in mind. It’s maybe not quite the stark and uncompromising statement that 12 Years a Slave was, but in its own ambitions it excels, upending the genre standards of heist stories with the greatest attention paid to the emotional resonance of each individual character’s situation. He did it again, this is another must-watch.

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE

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Confession: I’d never seen a Lynne Ramsey film before I saw this one on the strength of what I’d heard about it. On the strength of this I intend to rectify this situation. Joaquin Pheonix tends to be excellent, so that his performance here fits this description isn’t necessarily a surprise, but Ramsey’s direction really hits home regarding the existential instability of his character, the non-existence of his being. What’s noteworthy about the film’s approach to violence is its uncompromising focus on the aftermath rather than the action itself. The actual heat-of-the-moment combat, the brutality, dissolves into a heap of bodies on the floor, blood pooling, the psychological torment…

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE

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Despite this show’s occasional use of cheap scare tactics [though it mostly steers clear of the depressingly familiar twee scary tropes of contemporary horror, preferring to stick to the genuinely unsettling building of atmosphere] it stuck with me, going into some deep psychological territory via a loose adaptation of the Shirley Jackson novel of the same name. Each of the main characters serve as our guides through their own trauma, their own struggle to come to terms with the events of their childhood in a way that transcends the usually rather dull “horror as metaphor for psychology” set-up, something that usually just makes me curse the writer’s inability to have faith in their creation, to become a legitimately stirring existential poem of grief, addiction, empathy and memory.

MANDY

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Nicolas Cage engaged in a chainsaw battle. That caught your attention? Nicolas Cage lighting a cigarette from a flaming severed head. That? This is to sell the film short though. It’s much more than just a “Nicolas Cage goes mad” kind of film, pulling together some of the most visceral and colourfully violent scenes I saw this year as as well as featuring a soundtrack by the late Johann Johannsson, a growling, drone-metal inspired descent into hell. The first half of the film is even a surprisingly slow build up to the second half’s utter insanity. It won’t be for everyone, but Mandy is a remarkable film in many ways.

SUSPIRIA

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Now here’s a film everyone definitely didn’t love. Opinions on Luca Guadagnino’s re-imagining of Dario Argento’s horror classic varied from “masterpiece” to “total garbage”. I will concede that the film is probably too long and over-the-top in many ways, but if I’m being entirely honest this exactly why I loved it. The sheer ambition here, the political overtones of the film, and moments of pure body horror [seriously don’t watch this over dinner] won me over in the best way possible, so when I’d finished watching this film I felt like I’d just greedily devoured a large meal and didn’t regret it one bit, even if it was a tad rich.

FIRST MAN

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Having been significantly moved by Chazelle’s previous two films Whiplash and La La Land, I took an interest in First Man on the basis of this alone, and what I got was again what could have been a flaccid, stifled historical drama transformed into an emotionally affecting exploration of grief, waste of life, being caught in a process you can’t control. On top of this, no film about space travel I’ve seen has more effectively captured the feeling of hurtling through the atmosphere in a small metal box held together with bolts. Elements of this film were like a cinematic immersion tank in how intimate the cinematography was and how Chazelle cleverly eschewed the many wide open space shots that are so tempting when making a film like this. A wonderful film in many ways compounded by a masterful soundtrack yet again from Justin Hurwitz. Oh and lest I forget to mention it, Ryan Gosling IS a good actor, he’s excellent here as Armstrong, and I won’t hear any different.

STAR TREK – THE ORIGINAL SERIES

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Having set myself the task of watching more Trek, having seen frankly shockingly few episodes of it over the years, I decided this year to systematically go through the original series, and despite it being dated in some aspects, looking clearly of its time and the occasional story element really showing its age, I was surprised at how well this series still resonates. It says something to the characters that despite the fact that I know they’re not really at risk and nothing looks quite convincing I still became invested in their fates. Many of the moral quandaries and SF concepts here, while executed around a low budget, are excellent and legitimately fascinating. Of course for various production reasons the third series is … patchy, but I can enthusiastically recommend the first two as wonderful period sci-fi pieces that despite the years of pastiche, ridicule and more still hold their own.

ANNIHILATION [BOOK AND FILM]

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Last, but definitely not least, are both Alex Garland’s film Annihilation and the book upon which it is based, by Jeff Vandermeer. When I originally saw the film, I’m ashamed to admit I was not in the right state of mind to appreciate it, my mind fogged for a number of reasons, so it took a second watch to really cement the film for me as a truly wonderful piece of modern SF/Horror, a film that treads ground I can remember few other films in recent memory touching, bar perhaps Under the Skin, and containing visual and conceptual intrigue far beyond even what Garland’s last Ex Machina [a film I also rather enjoyed, but one with a far greater stamp from its influences] achieved, via some utterly hair raising set pieces and leading towards a conclusion that is stunningly beautiful and uniquely disturbing in idea and execution, exploring the breaking down of identity and self destruction in profound ways.

Much, much more recently, a few days from when I’m writing this in fact, I finally read Jeff Vandermeer’s book, the first in his “Southern Reach” trilogy, and found myself enthusiastically engrossed in its pages, devouring a novel in a way I hadn’t experienced for some time. The book itself, while hitting some similar themes to the film, is a different beast in many ways, unfolding in a strangely dreamlike manner apropros the constant questioning of how much the characters can trust what they’re seeing, the constant muddying of reality via hypnosis and mutation. It reads like a visceral blend of Lovecraft, Phillip K Dick and countless others but simultaneously sets itself apart and is one of the most gripping pieces of weird fiction I’ve read in recent years. All things told, I believe I very slightly prefer the book as an entity, but I would recommend both as supremely interesting, strange and well executed works that stand on their own merits.

CONCLUDING REMARK

Not a comprehensive list by any means, as I can already think of some things I could have easily included, but the most important milestones of my year found their way here, a rough patchwork quilt of my rather strange life in 2018 in the form of films, books and television. Do whatever you want with them, I suppose. Have an INCOMPREHENSIBLE new year.