Categories
Film & Television

Life in Marvellous Times – Thoughts on the X-Files and Twin Peaks

“In these strange times” is becoming one of those endlessly repeated platitudes that are becomes such a staple of journalese, something that we type out in lieu of anything else, that fills a hole rather than saying anything and belies the morbidity of a media largely resigned to simply delivering tautological reiterations of the current state of affairs ad infinitum. Place this term alongside “truth to power” and countless others in the crypt, seal it off and force yourself to look elsewhere, perhaps even challenge your audience. A challenge for the ages.

I’ve assigned myself the task of writing something after simply stewing in my own juices for a little too long. The problem with quarantine so far is that is has exacerbated the proliferating anxieties of constant communication that were already ever present outside it. Ubiquitous connection isn’t necessarily the blessing we might assume as soon as it becomes necessary to stay physically separate from one another; indeed, it’s in this scenario that the sheer effect of networked technology on my consciousness has twitched at the back of my mind, insect-like. Psychic pressures, the ever-present feeling that I’m not doing what I’m supposed to, creeping unease that I’ve just become too familiar with this screen, these buttons, this mindless action that I couldn’t even recall without its attendant task, the world closes in through its possibilities rather than restrictions. While the various plans I’ve had regarding projects have still stayed with me, the fragmented, frayed ends of my brain have struggled to articulate them for varying stretches of time.

To mitigate this, my newfound love of the X-Files has been an immense help, a love that has grown increasingly after I resolved to systematically watch through every episode [Currently making my way through season 3]. The fondness I have for a lot of these stand-alone stories and, yes, the alien conspiracy story arcs, by this point knows no bounds and I can’t see myself tiring of it. There has been some rough points, a standout worst episode so far is perhaps 3 at the centre of season 2, an attempt at pulling off this somewhat questionable sexy contemporary vampire shtick that was somewhat popular at some point in the 90s. The result is 45 minutes that feel horribly disconnected from the show around it, a Mulder who seems to have become an entirely different and much more baffling character for one episode only, something that only succeeds in coming off like a tacky exploitation film in tone. That this mediocre interlude stood out as much as it did is largely testament to the success of the show around it, and that it’s sandwiched in between a particularly moving three episode arc centred on Scully’s abduction [perhaps another reason 3 fails is due to her conspicuous absence from proceedings].

Watching the x-files today it comes across as something of a catalogue of concerns, fears, and notably technological developments. Early on, in the first season, a story involving a killer computer presents what seems for all the world like a kind of fictional Apple/Microsoft, and later on we increasingly begin to note the presence of the early internet, season 3’s 2shy even explicitly addressing the then novel fears around online dating. Many of these early 90s tech focused narratives are interesting to see today partly because of how quaint they sometimes seem, addressing these developments as supplementary experiments rather than immanent features of social life, the internet gradually appearing and developing with the show as it tried to keep abreast of the contemporary moment it occupied. Even more interesting than this is the way these technologies intersect with the central paranormal and supernatural elements of the show. Very early on in the first season, the notion that new technologies are “alien” is presented literally through Mulder’s theory that the government is trialling new military craft using UFO technology. Later on, however, this is complicated, where computing and the genesis of the internet become introduced both as tools for investigation, and portals through which unsavoury new threats may slither into our lives.

The paranormal in the x-files is always something explicitly there but never fully there, it lingers at the centre of Mulder’s belief and Scully’s scepticism, her faith and his atheism. Whereas at the show’s beginning this dualism seems a simple one, and the issue of faith not yet a glimmer in Chris Carter’s eye, it unravels in fits and starts not only during the alien conspiracy arcs, but throughout the succession of stand-alone episodes, perhaps more so. By the time we reach season 3, we’ve already seen them switch roles, perhaps evidence that both may not be as assured in their beliefs as they first appear, indeed that they both hold contradictory views. This hasn’t yet reached some kind of ultimate apotheosis, but it strengthens the conceit of the show immeasurably, and lends this dual characterisation the justification it deserves. The question arises, at least in my mind, what separates the paranormal from the normal, the supernatural from the natural? In a basic sense, the supernatural is nature that we haven’t explained yet. It makes me think of the point Mark Fisher makes in The Weird and the Eerie, where he says “In many ways, a natural phenomenon such as a black hole is more weird than a vampire”. If not in weirdness but in abjection this finds itself reflected in the 2nd season episode Irresistible, in which the central horror is revealed and/or accepted to be no alien or monster, but a man, a death fetishist digging up corpses who progresses to murder. Scully’s sheer horror in confronting this is one of the notable times her scepticism and scientific demeanour fails her, and one of the first times of a few until this point where the show has endeavoured to tackle the immediate emotional weight of the circumstances Mulder and Scully find themselves investigating. In this instance, as in others, even when the monsters and aliens are real, flesh and blood beings, when in the midst of uncovering US government conspiracies, that it’s not the extraterrestrial or paranormal events themselves but the powerlessness and suffering of their victims that disturb or unsettle.

Duane Barry is an astounding episode of television when it comes to this, in both its simplicity and its potency. Even shorn of the other episodes in this story arc, the hostage situation here serves to lead us into an exploration of trauma and the re-visitation of childhood horror build on in future episodes, and as both Mulder and Scully grapple with the weight of family action and responsibility, the past weighing on the conscience of the present. The past becomes an alien, a horrible parasite as much as a source of comfort, and the disorienting, dehumanising process of abduction is mirrored in the unveiling of truth as falsehood, of their own subjectivity as a lie. The show is at its best when shifting around the co-ordinates of what natural or real implies, whether it’s in the form of the episode humbug, something of a love letter to outsiders and freaks and a genuinely funny outing, or the constant questioning of beliefs and knowledge. “The truth is out there” we are assured at the beginning of nearly every episode, and yet the meaning of this remains consistently obscured, whether we are talking about the truth of conspiracy, the truth that lies behind the closed doors of power, or the truth of what is scientifically verifiable, a naturalistic truth.

Part of this ambiguity in the x-files, partly facilitated and necessary to the set-up of the show, reminds me, though it is a very different piece of work, of the ambiguity of Twin Peaks, which in its case ended up leading to its own demise. The previously mentioned X-Files episode 3 feels so off precisely because, with Scully briefly out of the picture both Mulder as a character and the writing of the show seem to be spinning off their axis, unsure of where to go. In the case of Twin Peaks, this was a far more extensive sensation, coming to bear after the unveiling of the killer around halfway through the second season [the episode itself a masterstroke of uncoupled horror that shouldn’t be overlooked]. The central conceit of the show done away with, many of the plot-lines thereafter feel like Peaks desperately trying to find new land, rediscover itself somehow, resulting in some of the only moments where the show feels hackneyed and weightless in tone. There are some hits here and there but many of the new characters read more like straightforward and played out caricatures than anything prior. The irony here is that it’s leading up to the shows final moments, and its infamous cliffhanger, that it becomes wholly compelling again. While the show had failed again and again trying to right itself, introduce such quaint oddities ascoherent narratives”, it was with its final lurch into untrammelled, fractured and abstract structure that it went somewhere again.

The X-Files is, in some ways, a more standard show, but also the kind of show that doesn’t particularly get made anymore. It’s structure, wherein the standalone “monster-of-the-week” style episodes provide the glue for the periodic story arcs to hold together rather than the other way around, is something unthinkable for prestige TV with all its seamless singular narratives running the course of a season. There is a sense, and this is where similarities with Peaks and its soap opera structure emerge, in which both shows at their best emphasise, rather than trying to smooth away, the cracks and mould lines in the medium. This provides the pretext for their moments of failure, but also their enduring success, in which this hour to hour shift and lack of faith to the coherent narrative structure demanded of them prove something that could only be done via television. Perhaps its better, rather than to attempt a kind of melding of mediums into a smooth entity, to accentuate the broken, weird qualities of television as a medium. If the perhaps indulgent but largely unapologetically brilliant return of Twin Peaks a few years ago demonstrated anything, it’s that there’s nothing particularly wrong with being a television show.

Categories
post-capitalism

Emergent Cultural Realities – Part 1: Denaturalize!


To upend the social order is to defy the given precepts of its nature. To defy the precepts of the nature of order is a daunting proposition, and one that while we may envision occurring overnight may only set in entirely over several generations. This is something Mark Fisher noted as the fatal flaw of the ’68 radical moment, the lack of patience, the assumption that all would change within a single generation. It is key to any consideration of the future that we situate the molecular within the cellular, the cellular within the larger life-form, the life-form within the ecosystem. This stretching of time and space is something that precedes the realisation that what seems to be a solid rock-face is indeed transitory, that we live atop shifting sands, dividing and exacerbating into different intensities and formations. Nothing is permanent.

i. THE NATURAL ORDER

We are a social and historical animal. What I and others mean by this is not to strip away individual experience, but to place it within its surrounding matrices, to acknowledge that individual experience is a series of affects, connected indelibly to other individual experiences and surrounding stimuli. This is something pointed out in recent affect theory, Deleuze & Guattari, Massumi… and yet it can be found if we simply return to Spinoza’s Ethics. Spinoza preceded many of the concerns of modern science in his philosophy of affects and passions, his breaking down of the mind/body duality that had defined Cartesian metaphysics before him. Spinoza informs us that our mind and body are not separate, but engaged constantly, one informing the actions of the other. Ones state of mind is undeniably connected to physical health in a multitude of ways and vice versa, the matter of both engaged in a dialogue of affects and effects, generating lived experience as a determined and constantly shifting whole.

In this way, we can understand ourselves as subjects not as the much vaunted individual agent, but as a conscious link in an ever-expanding spacio-temporal map of causes. It both disrupts and desublimates the ego as an arena of production, placing “me” next to a million other mes all acting upon one another, and sketching the clear outline of humanity the social creature. The factor of determinism in this picture makes us uncomfortable, as we like to think ourselves as defining our own destiny, but is it deniable that we lack a large degree of control over what drives us? Is it deniable that we are, if not entirely, not insignificantly enslaved by our sociopolitical reality? The one question that must be asked from this point is how agency can be meaningfully achieved in this picture, which is something I will return to.

This has illustrated the ways in which we are driven by forces outside our control, and can also be extended to history. The act of historicizing something, placing it within a time-line of causes, immediately rips it out of its comfortable status within the present and places it within a specific social context as the result of innumerable events and attitudes. What, for instance, may today seem like a purely natural state of affairs, common sense, may quickly unravel upon being placed within historical context, becoming something wholly temporary or arbitrary. Historicizing something effectively denaturalizes it. It’s why Fredric Jameson places such great emphasis on historicizing in his analysis of media and popular culture. If we place something within the universe of affects, events, intensities… it becomes out of time and place, and it becomes contextualised within sociopolitical tendencies, modes of production.

ii. WAYS OF DISMANTLING

Freedom is not a given – and it’s certainly not given by anything ‘natural’

– Laboria Cuboniks, The Xenofeminist Manifesto

The process of denaturalization is the dismantling of theology. Appeals to nature, some kind of inherent “essence” belie the fact that whatever this essence is, we remain in a state of constant alienation from it; they also deify, whether willingly or not, the processes around us, and point towards the kind of backwards motion that leaves the left stranded in the current trying to fight back the tide. To step away from appeals to an inherent nature and deal with the forces of production as they exist in relation to each other is the necessary step to realising the first hint of a left project, for to decouple our ways of thinking from such ideas, while difficult for myriad reasons is a process of a emancipation itself.

Not for nothing do conservatives and right wing figures often turn to ideas of essential nature to justify themselves. For if you can root tradition and subservience to authority in the natural order in a way where it appears to be an eternal, solid entity rather than an imposition or fantasy it becomes something unavoidable, something which it is futile and foolhardy to imagine an alternative to. It is, after all the way things are. 

The greatest contribution made by Deleuze & Guattari to how we consider the social order is their focus on its abstract potentials, the constant becoming and shifting intensities that lie beneath the surface of what we consider reality. Indeed, has this not been the impact of the most successful avante garde movements and impositions? What we get, for instance, within Jazz improvisation is a testing of the limits of an instrument, to tear the musician out of the comfortable boundaries of the social order and make what seemed previously ordered chaotic, unpredictable, unnatural. It reveals the presumed natural state of musical expression to be but one fiction, one imposition onto the real. In the space of the improviser, we see the forming of a new order from the jumbled ruins of the prior one, one that falls apart as soon as it is created, consistently existing on the boundaries of formation, the gap between realities, never fully existing and embodying the state of constant becoming.

If Avant Jazz can be the musical expression of denaturalization, weird fiction can act as the symbolic exploration of it. Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy if it is about anything is about nature, but it is about weirding nature, fundamentally denaturalizing nature itself. We enter a space in which nature has confounded our attempts to categorise it, moved beyond our epistemological limits and reorganised itself into a shifting, mutating viral entity. It occupies the intersection that weird fiction specialises in, again a space between realities, the imposition of one on another where the other is displaced, changed. Nature becomes unnatural, in other words resisting the comfortable rules we assign to it, generating a certain fear and anxiety somewhere in this antagonism. This is the power of the weird, something that Mark Fisher talks about in The Weird and the Eerie, that unlike fantasy, which constructs an entirely new order/reality, the weird displaces the current order, bringing it into contact with an Outside.

iii. WEIRD POLITICS

This displacement echoes and precedes any concern for an emancipatory politics. For if our aim is towards an order, which we may name Communism, which seeks to replace the natural order of Capital … it is first a necessity to plunge these territories into disorder, frame them as fictional impositions on disorder. It is not as much in this case a shifting of reality but of our perspective on reality, to the point where we must acknowledge the cracks, fissures and general incompleteness of its visage.

Something that is talked about a great deal in leftist circles is the harmful influences of stereotypes of social impositions such as gendered toys, what many might call “indoctrination”. The tricky aspect of this is that we eventually run into the realisation that however we proceed some form of this “indoctrination” is inevitable, unless we choose somehow to subsist in some entirely neutral grey zone which no sane person would likely wish upon themselves or their children. That said, this is not to say there isn’t a point here, there very much is, and this is regarding the naturalisation at play when we repeat the ritual of gendered inoculation time and time again. It effectively generates through repetition a natural order wherein anything outside it is automatically considered unnatural, the effects can be seen historically if we look at treatment of many groups considered outside the natural order of the time, and such issues persist.

This has often been the value of subversive cultural turns. I wrote about this a while back, framing it as disruption, but I would take this further and say that it represents, down to an ontological level, a denaturalization, in the sense that unleashing the explosion into a bloated, long-running established culture shifts it along its foundations, introducing an element so disruptive that it must realign to cope. The punk ethos becomes a tool of cultural leverage, an expression of negative discontent that tears away the appearance of natural reality, presenting itself, like a Lovecraftian otherness, as something that simply shouldn’t be there, and more than that, something that knows it shouldn’t be there and doesn’t care. Therein lies the value of cultural transgression to a political framework, the idea that we are to confront those agents of the natural order an incongruity so immense that they climb over themselves to try and condemn it. This is, I have come to believe, also the value of Communism as an idea, precisely the provocation that lies within it and the incongruity that it presents to anyone enamoured with the way things are, or who demonstrate an unthinking reverence towards it.

I was planning to make this a single post but as I wrote it I believe this is best expanded upon over two or three, as subjects I was planning to write about fit neatly under the same heading, and serve as a nice way to approach the same thing from multiple angles. In a way this is my attempt to return to what I wrote about disruption at the beginning of this blog and really dive into what I briefly and to my mind unsatisfactorily outlined there on cultural subversion and transgression. There will be a post arriving in the near future on demythologizing that will examine in greater detail some of the things I only touched upon here, as well as some of the contradictions and antagonisms contained within them.

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Uncategorized

The Weirdening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Uncategorized

Weird Sunday; Thought Gang

I was listening to Thelonious Monk earlier, engaged in a kind of Jazz haze of the kind typical of a Sunday morning when a small reminder crossed my computer screen somewhere that an album had come out by “Thought Gang”. I was vaguely aware of this, Thought Gang being this name under which a few collaborative tracks had been recorded between David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti, cropping up on the soundtrack to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and the recent third season of Peaks as a few slices of bizarro-world jazz one might expect from a Lynch-infused project. Here was a fully realised album of material under the name, one that apparently had been made a long time ago, but languished unreleased until now, fulfilling the prerequisites of what we might call a “lost” album, though in truth this is a bit of a misnomer.

Lynch has released two albums of music under his name by this point, both being highly atmospheric affairs and engaging in exactly the kind of sound-play one might expect from the man knowing his other work. This thought gang album, though, is a different kettle of fish. A couple of tracks on it have been heard before, prominently “A Real Indication” and “The Black Dog Runs at Night” from the FWWM soundtrack, the former, when I first heard it coming across distinctly like some long lost Tom Waits song, but a good deal of the material here is seeing the light of day for the first time, and boy is it worth it. 

Far from the dreamy atmospherics of Lynch’s solo work, Thought Gang delivers some truly strange excursions through avant-jazz, electronic manipulation, noise infused ambient soundscapes, even at a certain moment becoming reminiscent of the rhythmic stabs of early Swans. The formal deconstructions of jazz meld with sinister atmospherics to produce a marvellously disconcerting collage of fractured sounds culminating in two drawn out pieces probably the most reminiscent of Badalamenti’s later soundtrack work. The Lynchian usually entails a deep structural confusion, solidity dissolves into a psychedelic folding of reality, and this Thought Gang album is suffused with that essential deformation, careening in a subconscious fashion from sound to sound and coalescing into something that works excellently as its own piece of surreal jazz experimentation. Perfect for your inter-dimensional nightmarish Sunday excursions.