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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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Strong Bloody Violence, Rebirth, The Inevitable Pull…

Some spoilers, perhaps.

The atmosphere in the cinema after seeing Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 re-imagining of Suspiria was notable.. many seemed entirely bemused, not sure what to make of the two-and-a-half hour art house horror epic, others somewhat stunned, others still engaged in animated and somewhat excited conversation. It very much reflected the intensely divisive reaction the film has been receiving in critical spheres, being both held up as a modern day masterpiece and torn apart as a bloated mess. It seems to be suffering from a particular kind of contagion in some respects, being an exceedingly strange, experimentally exuberant, difficult film that has been thrust into the limelight through being connected to its 1977 namesake and involving a number of high profile actors. Sure enough, people have flocked to see it, but many who wouldn’t usually touch a film like this with a twenty foot pole have wound up confused, maybe even angry or upset.

I should go ahead and say that I loved every minute of it. I fully accept that not everyone will agree with me by a long shot, but I found Suspiria the kind of out-there, bravura film-making many insist doesn’t happen anymore. It may very well be too long and over-the-top, it may be off-puttingly disturbing and violent for many, but the modernist-gothic of the visuals, the heady themes swirling around its centre and the utter creative ambition of it easily place it up there with the most unforgettable films I’ve seen in recent years.

In relation to the original Dario Argento classic, it quickly becomes clear that the term “remake” has been somewhat loosely used here if it applies at all. The film’s most disturbing setpiece involves the central character dancing in one room [and it must be said the choreography is absolutely magnificent] inter-cut with another dancer being violently thrown around the room, twisted and deformed by her movements. Without any real gore to speak of, it’s possibly the most effective piece of body horror I’ve seen in some time, hammered home by a slow shot of the hapless victim lying on the floor, limbs twisted into unspeakable positions. This seems redolent of the film itself, taking the basic skeleton of the original and deforming it, splaying it into a grotesque new form, a violent realignment of anatomy. The violence in the film may indeed seem overdone, especially when we reach the final Sabbath sequence, wherein by its end the screen is practically drenched in blood and viscera, but I think it’s fair to say its integral to what the film achieves.

By this I mean that violence and pain doesn’t just form the visual of the film, but a key element of its thematic thrust. From the political context if its setting [“Six acts and an epilogue set in divided Berlin”] leading towards something more deep-set and uncomfortable themes surrounding collective guilt and the violence perpetrated towards women throughout history. It would be a mistake I think to perfectly and neatly analyse it, cut the film up into nice little chunks to be wrapped up, labelled and understood… it deserves more than that, but the unmistakable thematic layers billow around it, bleeding into the atmosphere and underpinning the kind of feminine, even feminist mystique the film captures. At its very foundations, it subverts the dynamic of horror, placing us within instead of outside the witches coven, and digging into the history of witchcraft as something tied to the subjugation and division of powerful women. Witches, the occult, magic, were the other, inconvenient individuals to be disposed of, challenges to the status quo, and this political core to the history of magic and the occult is something that suspiria masterfully explores in its transposition onto Berlin wall era paranoia and unrest.

There is more, much more; undeniably there’s a parallel between the pain and violence of political change, personal rebirth, rebuilding… as if one were literally that dancer being torn apart in a mirrored room, reassembled, there’s abuse of power, refusal to listen, the value of collective empathy, all combining into one of the most intriguing and in many ways powerful feminist statements I’ve seen on screen, presenting us a feminism that lies beyond the boardroom, beyond slogans, and probes the very violence of being a woman in a world that seems to pay no heed to your suffering. 

I can’t guarantee you’ll like Suspiria, indeed I’m aware a good few people outright despise it, but for my money it was a artful, twisted, ambitious, relevant masterpiece of bravely excessive cinema that has continued to stay with me long after the credits rolled. It’s not something that can easily be laid out and picked apart, turned into a diagram, but it is a heavy and visceral, yet simultaneously patient and touching visual outpouring of feeling, a tribute to and portrait of injustice, violence, femininity, empathy, guilt, pain, beauty… it might not be a spooky Halloween fright-fest, but the fear it does contain is, in some sense, many times more uncomfortable.  

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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.

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Post-ironic Metamorphosis; Detachment, Horror, Collapse

“Prophesying catastrophe is incredibly banal. The more original move is to assume that it has already happened.” -Jean Baudrillard

If there’s one thing that we have to come to terms with, in this cornucopia of conflicting multiplicitous simulations, it’s undoubtedly that reality is an infinite pit of horrors. The reality, that which underlies our normalised interactions, the everyday, banal, surface-level minute to minute second to second, episodic temporal order, threatens to collapse our understanding into itself. It lies underneath everything, this seething weirdness, it bubbles to the surface occasionally, an unseemly reminder of all that is uncertain and fragile about our precarious social existence. We surround ourselves with normality, inculcate ourselves into a numbing process of repetition and ritual, a shroud of removal.

Because ultimately, what is horror but a pseudo-Heidegerrian encounter with being? We often encounter it as an invasion of the other, some insidious terrifying threat from the outsider, but does this not belie a realisation that we are entangled in an eternal dance with this other? That these demons and apparitions may have existed as part of this reality all along, we just refused to acknowledge them seems to underlie a lot of our search for abjection in entertainment, a place of safety in which we can run a simulation of truth, test our reaction to the all consuming threat of the real. Like Lovecraft’s story Pickman’s Model or the Man Behind Winkie’s in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive the terror arises not from invasion, not from some outside force, but from the breaking down of logics and realities. We realise that what we previously considered fiction is reality, that what we spent so much time explaining away, hand waving as some immaterial nonsense, is confronting us directly as a manifestation of being. This denial, this othering of aspects we don’t wish to confront, defines to an extent the violence and fear that have dominated our limited lifespan as a species. We do not wish to encounter the reality of our own situation, so we go to untold lengths to prevent that happening, from simply lying to outright bursts of violence. We pathologically avoid being.

And this is the background against which we find the proliferation of ironic detachment. We situate ourselves within something of a “postmodern” [though that term is nigh useless so I will try not to use it too much] capitalist landscape of economic hand-wringing and corporate platitudinous simulation undeniably laid upon a backdrop of unmitigated exploitation, violence, and, most prominently, ecological collapse. We live within a paper thin surface-ideology that works tirelessly to hide the blood and viscera underneath, and what’s more, it’s unsuccessful.

Yes, you heard me, it doesn’t work. The fact is, we all know about what lies underneath the shroud of capitalist idealism that governs the banality of our lives, we are, for the most part, aware that we are being lied to, not shown the whole picture, that the door is being held shut lest the horrors of the other pour through, and yet we find ourselves doing nothing. Some of us respond by simply diving headfirst into the neoliberal promises made to us, just strapping on the blinkers and getting on with the task of reinforcing the wobbly appendages of capital’s outer reaches, but many more of us begin to approach life with a ever-amplified sense of irony. When I say irony, I don’t simply mean irony in the sense that it might be employed in a  comedy routine or a novel as a contextual device, but an entire attitude, a worldview necessitated by the denial of the real that becomes a cultural touchstone. In everyday conversation, we run away from it not by avoiding the topic completely, but by talking about it with a wry smile and a wink. This thing isn’t real, it is merely a simulation of the future, one of many, one of the many topics available to us, like the weather, football et al. 

Confronting Collapse

Ironic detachment is also entirely understandable. It seems the only meaningful way to get though the day without utter despair, and we fear the alternatives. Indeed, we often see obsession with the horror of the world lead decent people down a dark path of total and complete devastation of their own well-being in the face of an all-consuming hopelessness. Left Wing Melancholy is a term used to describe this distinct sense that there’s nowhere to go, not chance of success, change, simply no hope, no way out. The current ruling framework does indeed often seem inescapable, its horizons constricting and limiting, the cogs seemingly endless and constant, and yet one approaching entity, a “Hyperobject” as Tim Morton would describe it, seems to break through all of it, and that is the similarly implacable, acentered, Rhizomatic effects of human-induced ecological catastrophe, something that over-everything takes on the mantle of the real. All other priorities pale in comparison to the possibilities of the ravaging of global warming and mass extinction, and in some sense it can be seen as a direct mirror of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Our ruling ideology examines itself in the mirror to find a malignant, twisted, fucked-up reiteration of its own idealistic vision staring back at itself. It is a self induced nuclear blast, the oncoming disintegration of every carefully constructed theological and philosophical construct that tried to reach beyond its unfathomable depths.

So surely, when we look towards this unthinkable horror, we laugh or turn away, we consider it with a nervous laugh, make fun of it, we detach ourselves from its reality… Is this our only recourse? While I’ve presented this as a distinctly macro issue, one of social devastation and world collapse, it is simply, to some degree, a scaling up of our own existential drowning in the waters of irony, a continuous attempt to avoid reality and subsist on simulation, in a world in which simulation has become an order far beyond what Baudrillard could have predicted. From something so vast and impossible to conceive, we can look under the hood of our own sensibilities and consider the micro effects tied into the macro umbrella. We can consider this not only as an adaptation to catastrophe on the widest possible terms, but something into which we are inevitably tied.

This is not the same as considering collapse and systematic issues as a problem connected to individual action, something that has become all too prevalent and tied up in the mechanisms of late capitalist irony that give us our existential coping mechanisms. In truth, part of our individual confrontation must be to recognise that ultimately no matter how many straws we don’t use, how much plastic we recycle, how much we buy the right products, undergo all the government-ordained and corporately managed ecological procedure, ecological collapse will still bear down upon us in the same way it has been for decades now, being not a consequence of individual decision-making, but the very structures into which the idea of individual culpability is baked. We have seen the very source of the horror we are now ensconced within and try desperately to avoid or mitigate try to sidestep its own central part in this cosmic comedy of errors in a gigantic exercise of what we might term in some sense as victim-blaming. 

I say here, and without any sense of metaphor or mediation, that what is necessary is a direct, horrifying, unfiltered confrontation with being. We can simply no longer afford to wallow in ironic detachment, and must find an alternative. The closer we come to realising the sheer tenuous nature of our situation, and the more we realise that we in fact exist in some sense as part of a post-apocalyptic landscape, instead of continuously awaiting said apocalypse in anticipation of fighting it, the more we need another recourse. Irony becomes a poor bedfellow when we come face to face with the unstoppable disintegration of extinction. We must find some spark, some catalyst for metamorphosis, beyond simply opining for revolution in some retrospective greatest hits compilation of radical politics, we find in this necessary confrontation with an ultimate abjection a need for some kind of new process and new mediator, whether this be found simply in the folds of unbound pessimism or something more, something more… other. 

This is, when we come to look at it in the cold light of day, the moment for the new and, if any point in history calls for a reconfiguration of every priority and axiom of culture, this is it. Any kind of futurism ultimately must, and this is a must I cannot place enough emphasis on, do two things; 1 – Abandon the ironic detachment from the horror of out current situation, and 2 – Adapt its precepts to the immediacy of catastrophe. If there’s one constant annoyance I find with predictions of the future, often ones with a technological bent, it’s that they consistently present a vision of humanity or posthumanity divorced from the collapse of values and progress currently on the definite horizon. If, for instance, we are to see a world overtaken by the engines of technology, machine incarnate, we would have to entirely ignore the disintegration of technological progress and capital itself that can be witnessed alongside that of the surrounding ecological systems that govern it. There simply isn’t a possibility of eternal progress to fuel the visions we so often pine for, it will, and I believe we can say this with a good degree of certainty, have to encounter the material effects of its own deficiencies. How ironic.

Irony does not cancel reality

For irony, ultimately, is as much a source of misery, perhaps more so, than its counterparts. Irony pervades so much of our consciousness that we find ourselves unable to enjoy, in any sense that isn’t mediated or removed from ourselves. Oh this song? I don’t actually like it, I just like it ironically. This hat? Of course I’m wearing it ironically, I wouldn’t wear something like this sincerely. This racism? Can’t you tell it’s just ironic?

Ok, so that last one might strike a chord with anyone who’s ever come across the cesspit of online racism cloaking itself under the pretence of fooling around, of edgy humour. The alt-right and associated branches often hide behind a heavy shield of irony when questioned on the deeply unsavoury nature of their words and actions, and while this may seem different to the simple act of claiming to like a song ironically, it works in pretty much the same way. This is the key thing to bear in mind when encountering the irony practiced by “provocateurs” to justify promoting or amplifying racist or otherwise morally defunct worldviews; Irony does not cancel reality. We find it, in this context, to be an entirely ludicrous excuse, as if a murderer had just told us he butchered someone as a joke in an attempt to escape the law. No matter whether we did something “ironically” or not, the fact of the matter is the result is the same, the irony here is imply a flimsy shield against accountability, and easy to recognise as such.

Ironic detachment as a way of approaching the world seems to change reality while leaving it pretty much untouched, it facilitates simulation in a way that is entirely non-conducive to our own happiness and simply leads into an ever increasing and expanding pool of cynicism; detachment coupled with deep disdain and elimination of connection, with the end result of a deep distrust of our own being. Ultimately the result is not exactly replicated between us, but it becomes apparent that this problem, that we seem unable to function without a layer of irony protecting ourselves from reality, permeates our social and political undertakings.

What?

What of it then? Can we even look beyond irony in this case? If anything, it might already be occurring to ourselves that in the face of collapse ironic detachment proves an entirely ineffectual salve, nothing but a pathetic sticking plaster to protect the small and vulnerable being of our own egos. The issue is one of translation from micro to macro, from the existential to the political, where we realise that not only do we have to shift our own priorities, search for new horizons and new possibilities allowing us to adapt to whatever this all-consuming collapse has in store for us. We may have to try, to whatever extent it is possible, to confront before we can move on, whether this takes the form of a theological, a philosophical, a political paradigm shift, or all of the above, as tied together as they invariably are. We must, on some level, try to push our fingers through the veil into the uncertain otherness we fear so much and in some way to tear it, to visualise the beyond and to venture forward into it, not only because its advisable, not only because of our drive to uncover it, but because it is upon us, because, on some fundamental level, we know this confrontation is now unavoidable. We already live in a post-ironic future, it’s simply a matter of navigating it without disintegrating.