Categories
Books post-capitalism

Reflections of K-Punk

It’s likely no secret to many who have spoken to me recently that the work of Mark Fisher has become something of an important reference point to me; this goes beyond simply being an investment in a certain writers style, or some facile obsessive regurgitation of a someones’ ideas I might be particularly into at the time. Fisher’s writing has, the more of it I’ve read, managed to shift my perception of the world around me, and really, though this may at first pass sound a little melodramatic, given me what feels like a renewed vigour and purpose in life after a prolonged period of stagnation, repetition, depression and boredom, namely precisely the symptoms and conditions Fisher examines and takes a scalpel to over the trajectory of his books Capitalist Realism, Ghosts of My Life, The Weird and the Eerie, and the main subject here the recently published collected works, the mammoth tome I recently read from cover to cover.

There is a distinct melancholia in reading this collection, containing as it does enough of Fisher’s most important writing to put together the coherent strands that defined his project[s], and putting into perspective its tragically unfinished status. It cannot be said enough that Fisher was one of the most lucid, cutting and important cultural critics of his time, and his writing breathes new life into a leftist politics previously assumed to be long calcified into redundancy. The introduction to what would have been his next book Acid Communism, included at the end of K-Punk really hits home how really, he was just getting started; his appeals to the hauntology of lost futures manifesting itself in his own foreshortened political project. In the context of all else here, Acid Communism feels like the beginning of a culmination to where his ideas were going, the proposal to match the critique seen in Capitalist Realism and an intersection of the many influences and strands one finds him returning to throughout.

Something it would be hugely amiss to ignore; both Melancholy and Depression feature heavily, although he is careful to distinguish between the two, as he is between the nostalgia mode, as defined by Jameson, and Hauntology. Something that rears its head throughout his work is his own grappling with mental ilness, one that becomes almost difficult to read about in hindsight, but I think still essential at a point where many speak of the mental health crisis and I’m not sure I know many people, if anyone my own age, who does not labour under some form of anxiety or depression. While as one may read in Capitalist Realism he makes sure not to simply state that all mental illness is caused directly by political issues, he nonetheless makes the point repeatedly that Mental Health is a Political Issue. Indeed is it so difficult to imagine that the notable proliferation of mental health issues among younger generations is connected to changes in the way we organise our society? In the years since the rise of Neoliberalism we have increasingly had to live in a world of a million pressures, precarity; a damocles sword threatening us with the constant threat of collapse, we may lose our job, suffer a pay cut, be called in at a moments notice, we may be evicted from our home… we’re expected to be flexible, but this is code for what Franco “Bifo” Berardi describes in Precarious Rhapsody, a post-fordist capitalism where the line between work and life is blurred to an indistinction , where time is at a premium. Fisher references the film In Time as possibly the first science fiction film about precarity, where time itself becomes a currency. In this climate, it is hardly any wonder people everywhere, especially young people who are thrust out into this world after having been promised success for hard work, are buckling under the weight, especially when one factors in the transformation of the welfare state into a perverse system of punishment for the unemployed … increasingly we are told “it’s YOUR fault”, a mantra that worms its way into our brains, forming a thread of anxiety and despair.

Let it not be said that this is some dry, sad, lifeless tome of Marxist analysis; quite the opposite… Regularly Fisher reiterates a distinct venom for the kinds of theory and cultural attitudes that might deign to reduce political engagement down to some academic parlour game, the ways in which the the lifeless corpse of real political action is dressed in the dull rags of realism and put to work by the useful idiots of capital. The writing here is notable for its fire and drive, for the sense that it is by no means intended as empty pontificating. The focus is on doing something, an interjection into the social realities of the reader rather than a series of lumpen musings with designs only on a select few pompous clowns.

Something that shines through much of the writing here, besides the urgency that practically bleeds through each line, is a conviction in the importance of culture; through Fisher, one gains practically a new cultural canon, where the importance is always placed on historicizing and contextualizing every film and piece of music within the arena that produced it. To this end there is often a certain excitement in Fishers distinctly punk proclamations, both in the ones that played directly into some of my younger predilections [Siouxsie and the Banshees are more important than the Smiths!] and ones that drew me towards strange things I had never encountered [Artemis 81!] or finally lead to an immersion in something I’d never previously managed to crack [The Fall!]. Always running behind the words is what he terms as “a fidelity to the post-punk event”. That is to say, a yearning for a modernism, and an ongoing critique of what Jameson called “the cultural logic of late capitalism” or postmodernism as a cultural condition and malaise. The material here which coalesced into Capitalist Realism, Ghosts of My Life and Weird and the Eerie can be traced as three connecting tissues throughout, certain points acting as nodes in a larger political project that can be mapped across the book, and organically [perhaps synthetically] emerges in the connections drawn between sections; on books, film & television, music, politics.. the confidence throughout that the world can be transformed for the better, and the fear that we may have lost the ability to imagine this, defines the great extent of it, appearing in pieces on cultural objects as varied as Cronenburg’s Existenz and a Damien Hirst retrospective. While in many cases he directs ire at culture that he sees as reinforcing capitalist realism, hence the dominion of capital, some of the most stirring moments are often the surprising places he sees a way past this impasse, notably for instance in The Hunger Games, pulling no punches in declaring it anti-capitalist realist as opposed to for instance culture that previously engaged in a successful illustration of our cultural condition, prominently The Thick of it and The Wire. Fisher is equally as good at pulling unexpected joy from a maligned piece of art as he is ravaging your chosen idols in the strongest terms [see his choice words on Alan Moore at one or two points].

Increasingly, throughout all this, you sense a strong yearning, and eventually an open call for what he terms “Pulp Modernism”, probably described in the most detailed terms in his magnificent three-part analysis of the Fall, Memorex for the Kraken. This was for him the hope that the dull flame of modernism might re-emerge in popular culture, subsumed as it is beneath a haze of reflexive pomo irony and self-satisfied snark, in which fidelity to fantasy is the ultimate heresy and everyone strives towards a kind of underlying sincerity, the stripping away of the surface to reveal the underlying real; this can be seen at its most screamingly egregious within the image fostered by Britpop, the blokish “realness”, all denim jackets and no-frills performance, a pompous cavalcade of anti-sensuality that reflected itself in much of the culture to follow, when it was not presenting itself behind unfathomable layers of ironic detachment.

Something that struck me reading this stuff in fact, as well as the fact that I myself only discovered Fisher years after his death, was that I could probably count myself as one of those generations who had entirely escaped the history we are experiencing repeated all around us. The excitement of discovering a new band predicated on not being aware of everything they’ve unimaginatively drawn from, who discovered the past largely through a long laundry list of influences relayed to us by our favourite artists, or as a cloyingly nostalgic narrative of rock-stardom and male ego crudely compacted and re-organised through duller-than-dishwater talking head documentaries where a rotating line-up of people would repeat like clockwork the tired old myths of the rock & pop establishment. I was to some degree a little lucky in that I chanced upon Siouxsie and the Banshees and Public Image Limited when I was quite young, the post-punk scene that Fisher loved so much having appeared to me like this compelling ghost of an era alien to me, when this kind of culture could still happen; of course, I didn’t phrase it as such at the time, but the appeal of the music to me was precisely that it sounded like nothing else, drawing from an unfamiliar pool of influences, something that only became diluted and lessened by the bands that so impotently tried to copy-paste their sounds. The existence of a culture this exciting, that could evolve like this, was something that looking back was in all honesty pretty notable in its absence from my growing up, it was more of a case of tracing musical influence, going back across the timelines and family trees, scenes and acts waiting to be plucked like fruit. In terms of contemporary cultural production, although I think we’re beginning to see stirring in that department at the very least, at the time it was dominated by things that sounded not only like each other, but like their influences stripped of urgency.

The reclaiming of the idea of the new, of the future, of urgency, of collective agency on the left and within our cultural moment is what can be found throughout the book, ringing through each piece of analysis and each swelling of anger. A pall of fatalism hangs over the present, the left operating as if against an inevitable failure, the right towards a luridly imagined “collapse of the west”. Everywhere we turn, we find people throwing their hands up in resignation and despair. If this sounds like an inescapable impasse, it’s worth noting that the pall may be gradually lifting, that we are starting to see the kind of speculation and confidence in the idea of another world as Badiou might put it, that was so utterly foreclosed for so many years. I speak in smaller terms of the resurgence of genuinely leftist approaches in parliamentary politics and the collapse of the toothless neoliberal populism that dominated as the naturally assumed status quo for decades, the retreat of the right from modernization, towards a position of imagined return to an idealised past. But also, we have I think seen a resurgence of cultural urgency, of experiments and sounds aiming to disconnect themselves from those of the past. Even if these approaches seem still like a flicker, it feels to me as if they are rapidly expanding to a flame. This is the one-two punch of the arc in Fisher’s writing, that of melancholy, of mourning lost futures, and that of a re-invigorating push forward, not unlike the way reading Fisher for me has re-invigorated theory and politics.

I have mentioned Capitalist Realism as a book I would practically recommend to anyone, acting as it does as a pointed and effective analysis that definitely in my case contributed to a genuine re-alignment of perspective and flaring of consciousness from a point of relative fuzzy ennui. K-Punk may be a good bit less accessible, it being a few pages shy of 800, but it is no less valuable, a collection of writing that acts not only as an indispensable companion to the dystopian landscape of neoliberal capitalism, but a clarion call to imagine something else, to rediscover the potential of those lost futures and cease to accept reality as it is. My reading of the pieces here was, I should note, supported by reading a good bit of K Punk material not actually included in the book for whatever reason, and it’s worth noting that there’s still some excellent material out there that may not have fitted comfortably there but are still very worth a read for any interested party. Something else I read that really tied beautifully into Fisher’s concerns, especially towards the back end of the book, was Ray Brassier’s essay Prometheanism and its Critics. This is by no means essential reading, but I found for me there was a clear undercurrent of Brassier’s point in Fisher’s call to recognise the ephemeral nature of social reality. For Brassier, the idea that there is some underlying natural order is imminently theological, something that runs against any emancipatory politics. The key quote from Capitalist Realism, one that can now be found as a mural at Goldsmiths, reflects this;

“emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable”

This is something Fisher recognised as a through-line between all radical thought of different stripes. The implication being here, one that Fisher re-iterates at various points notably in his discussions of James Cameron’s Avatar, that any left that appeals to a return to the basic order of things, a return to natural simplicity, becomes a reactionary project, for to do so we must arbitrarily assert an order of things that cannot but reveal itself to be a phantom under closer viewing. Indeed, and one can see this in Fisher’s explorations of Glam and Goth, we see here a call for a closer affinity with fiction/fantasy, in a sense moving away from appeals to any kind of pure interiority towards the idea that in fact, the exterior, the mask, that is the locus of change itself. Image becomes a machine, a generator of affect.

At this point I want to set forth my intention with this blog leading into the near future. Not to restrict myself to a narrow and total project, or to simply try and ape the lifeless desiccation of the academy, but reading K Punk has really fired me up and clarified to me the ways in which I want to engage in the blogging platform, and how I want to proceed from here. I find it generally unhelpful to leave the field completely open, an anything-goes-buffet of themes that may organically coalesce [indeed I feel they have to some degree] but, much like political action itself, amount to nothing if this coalescing is not grasped and fashioned into something.

I mentioned that during my reading of K Punk I read some other complimentary material, and this lead to the themes of essentialism and fatalism irrevocably connecting. From reading The Communist Horizon Jodi Dean’s fantastic articulation of what may be meant by a collective political subject on the left, to Brassier’s essay, to the Xenofeminist manifesto, to Donna Haraway, to Deleuze & Guattari … all in some way shape or form must unseat natural order as a fundamentally theological and reactionary concept, to be discarded if we are to build another world. I will provide a reading list below for anyone who is interested, covering some things I have referenced here and others I have read partially or fully along the way. From here, however, I intend to set myself a project; by which I don’t mean a strictly regimented 10 part [a] to [b] narrative, god no. What I mean is that I intend to proceed from this point into an in depth critique of fatalism and eschatology.

For while in many respects capitalist realism may be showing cracks, it is still far from over as Paul Mason prematurely declared it some years ago, and this can be ascertained simply through the everyday, quotidian reality where capitalist realism takes root. While on some levels and in certain quarters we now see murmurs of communism/the end of capitalism that would have been unthinkable half a decade ago, if we look away from these and towards gossip, small-talk, general conversation, we still find those attitudes heavily embedded in the way we see the world. Something I’ve noticed enter the frame however, something that ties undeniably into capitalist realism, is a general depressive fatalism, often tied to an unconscious eschatology. Time and again I encounter the idea that we are headed unerringly and unchangeably towards some kind of hobbesian warlike future, a desperate struggle for resources in a world blasted by climate change. The collapse of society, we hear, will lead of course to an eruption of international conflict and a descent into a situation where only the strongest survive. It’s effectively like the most lurid fantasies of the right, and the fantasy driving those people dubbed “doomsday preppers”. But it goes further than this, it’s something I have encountered on both the right and the left, and it’s something I want to tackle properly.

Is my problem here that I’m some kind of humanist who hates the idea that there might be a world without humanity, or am I driven by a fear of collapse? Well no and maybe, but this is not where my primary issues lie. Rather, I find this dour breed of fatalism is itself, like any kind of overtly pessimistic approach, a hyperstitial spiral when translated into action, that is when it is enacted on the level of ritual, an internalised truth. We believe it to be inevitable so it is inevitable, it is inevitable so we believe it to be so. It, like realism, presents itself as a grand unveiling of the underlying truth, stripped bare of ornament, at the same moment becoming its own realisation, failing to take stock of itself as fantasy. If we empirically examine the world around us, and take this examination to its limits, we increasingly find that the very things that we live our lives by, the construction of a subject, the very idea of humanity, break apart, and this is to say nothing of meaning. What does meaning have to do with the world as it is?

And this is the problem, that in positioning oneself on an unerring line towards the post-apocalypse scenario, or towards the final retreat of humanity to their base, violent state, a whole host of theological assumptions are being made, not least that of some underlying natural order; the “way things are” that we suppress or build on top of. In applying to the future an arc against which it is futile to struggle we contribute to making it a reality. If enough of us believe that humans are ultimately competitive and violent that is precisely how we will act. It posits that a certain situation will come about but fails to consider the circuit breaker, the “unless we do something else”. This all largely connects to the unfathomable nature of climate catastrophe, something that a number of writers have tackled, some which I will mention below, but as Fisher observed takes up within capital the status of Lacanian real, something which is so traumatic to the state of things that it cannot be seen straight on except as some formless blur, only approached indirectly, Lacan used here the example of the skull in Holbein’s ambassadors, simply appearing as some spectral shape at the corner of our perception until we approach the painting from the side.

This incomprehensible trauma combined with the close proximity of said trauma, relatively, breeds it as an increasingly strong symbolic assertion within capital, which tells us time and again that we are all individually responsible. The lack of a systemic analysis here can lead us to no other conclusion that the worst is inevitable. IF we continue, everything in our nightmares will come true. IF. The eschatological approach will deny that this IF means anything, claiming that really there’s no chance, that people are just too enmeshed in capitalism to do anything about it. Isn’t the problem here yet again that by believing this we make it a reality? We cannot keep returning to these theological fatalisms if we are to undergo a promethean transformation, and in some sense what I want to do is make the case for staying the course, for continuing to believe in a future beyond the hobbesian scenario, for in the absence of the certainties provided by capital, we need a confidence in uncertainty, or, to put it another way, one which many have already put forward, we must act as if collapse has already occurred, because in many ways it has. The time is not for hunkering down and preparing for the absolute worst, it is for new systems of organisation, new forms of libidinal engineering. Fisher quotes Micheal Hardt in Acid Communism;

“The positive content of communism, which responds to the abolition of private property, is the autonomous production of humanity – a new seeing, a new hearing, a new thinking, a new loving

Pause.. I don’t want to give the impression here that I’m engaging in some kind of positive thinking exercise, as nothing brings forth the sickly taste of bile in my mouth than the positivity injunction, the coping mechanisms we employ in order to avoid confronting the negative fabric of our lives, that which manifests itself in younger generations in our constant search for pleasure, whether that be through drugs, alchohol or any other kind of dulling, escapist drive to enjoy. In fact, something else that I find ties a lot of Mark Fisher’s work together is his insistence that we must think beyond the pleasure principle. Culture must be more than mere enjoyment, consumer choice, politics, theory cannot be some purely affirmationist, even vitalist initiative. To move into the future is to grasp the negative. To quote Fisher from Terminator V Avatar, on Francois Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy;

 “Not far beneath Lyotard’s “desire-drunk yes,” lies the No of hatred, anger and frustration: no satisfaction, no fun, no future. These are the resources of negativity that I believe the left must make contact with again.”

That is to say that what I really want to do is to take Lacan’s observation that when we think beyond good and evil we only tend to think beyond good, and try to think good and evil simultaneously. The aim is to arrive not at the blasted hellscape of fatalist eschatology, nor the cult of affirmationist creativity and the multitude, but in a new form of organising, to recognise that both forms are theological in nature and both resolutely fail to encapsulate the way in which the future is dependant on our compliance, not some kind of unerring motor propelling us into certain oblivion. I want to make clear not only the parasitic, draining effect of fatalism but the ways in which an ostensibly opposing pure affirmation is similarly damaging on our ability to conceptualise the future.

I wish I could explore everything Fisher wrote, and that I plan to write, but then this already rambling post would potentially continue forever, and leave no space for future ones. Suffice to say I want to be ambitious, and to this end I want to make much more concerted use of this blog, potentially formulating a more extended critique or proposal that could be sculpted into a long essay or book format.

K-Punk is finished, but not done.

Reading list, compiled from things that I have read lately, not including Mark Fisher –

Ray Brassier – Prometheanism and it’s critics [Can be found alongside a lot of other helpful material, provocations and weird musings on the outside in the Accelerationist reader, from Urbanomics]

Laboria Cuboniks – The Xenofeminist Manifesto

Jodi Dean – The Communist Horizon

Spinoza – The Ethics [of course, as one might expect I would not claim to have a full understanding but having it to hand has been highly valuable]

Donna Haraway – The Cyborg Manifesto

David Toop – Oceans of Sound

Categories
Music

“See You Don’t Bump His Head”: Scott Walker’s Anti-Mythology

While plucking feathers from a swan song, shit might pretzel Christ’s intestines” intones Scott Walker with operatic fervour on the opening track of his final 2012 album Bish Bosch. It surprises even myself that this sprawling and utterly strange avant tract of absurdity grotesquery, ugliness, beauty, horror was my introduction to Scott Walker, but in truth a section of it may have been the first material I ever heard of his. It is only after stumbling like a blinking stranger into the terrifying chasms of this album that I really took sight of his astonishing career trajectory, the uncompromising leap into the weird he undertook at the tail-end of the 70s and maintained for the rest of his life. By that point, the damage was done, Scott Walker had rewired my perception of what music could be.

So it was with some sadness I read this morning that he had passed away, considering really in light of that how important his music really was to me, the sheer cliffs of sound and violent lyrical contortions of Bish Bosch, as well as the majestic terror of Drift, staying with me like little else I’d heard and really percolating through all the music I loved thereafter. In a more general sense Walker is important because he stands in contrast that could barely be starker against the trajectory of most stars of his generation, collapsing into a tragic capitulation to mediocrity in the latter years of their lives, simply falling into reiteration and pastiche of their former selves.

Instead, the music Walker produced was in any sense of the imagination a hundred times more adventurous and alien than anything being produced by people less than half his age. Listening back to his material, out of chronological order, it strikes me also how his uncompromising tendencies, to produce what he wanted the wishes of the record companies be damned, can be seen as far back as records like Scott 3, and especially in Scott 4, not only in his choices of song topics but in the overt influence he takes from Morricone on the latter album, breaking with the explicit crooner stable and moving firmly into his own lane, an album of masterfully executed string arrangements and atmospheric and affecting song progressions where he sings about, among other things, Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal and Stalin.

This kind of confident breaking with form is something we need more of now than ever, and I cannot think of a better example than Scott Walker of someone who resolutely refused to submit to the injunction to be harmless, safe, homely, especially towards those who we enter into a dusty old hall of statues where they are to be endlessly ogled as elder statespeople of rock and pop and never disturbed. Scott Walker, from a background of 60s pop crooning, moved ever away from this mythologizing influence, the staid, calcified remnants of something exciting, culture become museum artifact. Scott Walker’s mysterious alien presence, where fame is concerned, was a kind of anti-mythology; musically he occupied a place of constant, wrenching uncertainty, where, ultimately the profoundly beautiful meets the nonsensical and the visceral where an utterly absurd line could lurch out of an atmospheric majesty. It is somewhere in this place where we all reside, and in that Walker really hit close to the bone of experience through the medium of phantasmatic weirdness.Indeed for a man who appeared often like a phantasm, appearing every now and then followed by a blast of bafflement and exhileration in equal measure, his presence will be deeply missed.

Categories
Current Affairs

The Brexit Balderdash Meat Carnival

You take a half-hearted bite of the dried meat, a vaguely rancid flavour hitting the back of your mouth as it goes down, with a good few particles of dust. It barely registers. A jolt of electricity might perhaps, straight to the nervous system. It feels like ten wretched, misbegotten years of dragging your feet down this dust trail without any sense of movement or change. In truth it’s been far less than that, but you severely doubt anyone would be around to question you regardless.

Almost as if in answer to that thought a fuzzy humanoid form seems to materialise ahead of you, though you know better than to trust your eyes at this point, reaching for your water bottle and taking a conservative swig. The form gradually becomes more defined, until, like a pallid nightmare, a dying man looks back at you through hooded eyes, all cracked parchment skin, a husk, ready to crumble at the slightest invocation. He lies, propped against a rusty pipe, perhaps a vision of flickering hope, more likely just another failed attempt at reconciliation, the residue of an experiment in living.

As you approach him, he attempts to raise his arm but cannot, and it flops down in resignation. You have a hand on your water bottle, both in anticipation that he may be deceiving you and that he may ask for help. You draw close and it becomes clear that he is not in a good way, oscillating between the living and the dead at this point he is in a delirium, even if he is still cogent enough to recognise you as another human face. He looks you straight in the eyes, and in his you find the milky whites faded, strata of rock leading to a central point, covered in fleshy membrane. As he looks at you his lips part, with great effort, and great pain. A wheezing croaking sound at first, but eventually words, he slowly asks you a question.

“what … is … your … opinion …”

He pauses, continuing is a difficulty. In this moment you are baffled, but wait to hear the end, part of you hopes he’ll pass out before that happens.

“… on … Brexit?”

As soon as this word passes his lips you stand back and look at him with horror and pity. What on earth could possibly lead a man to the point where such concerns override his own survival? What unearthly possession must take hold, what hellish program? You suspect he is one of the acolytes, abandoned by their own gods, stripped of rank and denied meaning during the aftermath in which you are now a traveller. His face suddenly takes the form of an emaciated dog, caught between a bark and a growl, drooling over the shuddering artillery blasted concrete beneath, eyes rotating in their sockets as he starts to choke on something. He falls to the side coughing manically, clawing pathetically at the ground, staring wide-eyed ahead in panic.

Something emerges from his gullet, hitting the ground with a muted thud, covered in drool and slime. He drops, lifeless, and disintegrates, drifting apart in the wind. Stepping closer you begin to ascertain something, a smell, the awful, acrid smell of rancid meat overtakes the senses. It’s a slab of rotten flesh lying there covered in grey dust. a small note is stapled to it, barely readable and soaked in slime. IN HERE it reads, and with certain degree of sheer disgust you realise it’s telling you something is IN the meat. You close your eyes and pick up the degraded brown-green slab, holding it at arms length and thrusting your other hand into it until you find something there.. something hard, a stone? You extract it, little pieces of rotten meat falling off its smooth surface.

There are words on the stone, scratched into it roughly and very small. You squint but can barely make it out. Taking out a handkerchief you wipe first your hands and then the stone, an actually rather boring granite pebble. Holding it up the light you make out the words, written in a hurried and simple script. With dawning confusion and exasperation, you intone the words as they stand; “Brexit means Brexit”. What on earth? You ask yourself under your breath, trying to recall what this is supposed to mean, what it refers to. This word, Brexit. Ugly, sticks in the mouth like the an acrid aftertaste. You dimly remember reference to it, but these memories slide away from you as soon as they appear contorting out of vision constantly. All that returns to you is the slab of rotten meat, now lying distended on the ground before you as you investigate the stone.

Wait, the meat is reconstructing itself. Slimy, discoloured tendrils slither together, weaving into a solid sickening wall of fibrous mulch. It keeps going, extending and duplicating, a crude meat figure emerges, a poorly formed humanoid meat man standing in front of you, gulping up gobbets of gristle and unidentified matter. The rotten meat golem attempts to speak but cannot, only succeeding in rasping strange noises. You back away slowly in fear, the meat man advances; for what purpose? It is a ramshackle being, falling apart as it walks, but the sheer sight of it flares up as panic, compelling you to run, despite your utter despondency, your lack of a reason to care, you sprint away from the creature as it walks towards you, juices leaking onto the ground, creating channels in the layers of dust…

As you run, you spot a building to your right, a particularly run down construction, barely a shed, and slip through the door, immediately on the look-out, still hearing the slurping sound behind you somewhere as the golem drags himself with increasing speed towards you. Did he spot you? To your dismay a poorly formed hand immediately reaches around the door, flailing for a grip, and you back towards the corner of the structure, thinking of ways to avoid the meat man without directly engaging it, the door opens and two newly formed eyes gleam from crude sockets, barely holding their position and likely struggling to get even a solid visual. It walks, assuredly this time, towards you and grabs you by the arm, dragging you painfully out of the building. You look around and let out a muted cry.

Obelisks of meat tower over the landscape, barely holding together, slowly pulsating and expanding, tentacular limbs grasp onto each other forming lattices up which more meat climbs, forming heads, hands, shoulders, hearts, disembodied pieces of people and animals growing from the meat walls. Vaguely, a low chanting is heard, an unintelligible language amidst which the word rings out loud and clear, that awful word; Brexit. You see a circle, people dressed in meat, drinking from cups made of meat, enjoying themselves, a hideous carnival of meat. They speak some kind of strange patchwork of language, words known and unknown hastily glued in place and splurged out into space. Meat juice pools on the ground, and where it runs up sprout new forms, new walls and structures, but of meat. They instantly collapse into vast piles of rancid, awful meaty nothingness.

Categories
Books Film & Television

Better Dreams; Memories of Cyberpunk

“Don’t think of it that way” McClane said severely. “You’re not accepting second-best. The actual memory, with all it’s vagueness, omissions and ellipses, not to say distortions – that’s second-best”

Phillip K Dick’s We Can Remember it For You Wholesale

I recently, for whatever reason, decided on a whim to watch the 2012 remake of Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 Schwarzenegger starring action blockbuster Total Recall, itself an adaptation of the Phillip K Dick short story We Can Remember it For You Wholesale. While in some respects it is slightly less distracting than the Verhoeven film, Colin Farrell being slightly more believable as an everyman than the over-the-top action juggernaut of Schwarzenegger, in many other respects it is a pale and flaccid regurgitation, lacking both sci-fi heft and action effervescence.

In many of its tics this Total Recall feels like it belongs in the early 2000s in a kind of post-Blade Runner, post-Matrix continuum, seeming to ape both films in the appropriating of a cyberpunk dystopia now as well worn as the action-structure of its plot, and the paper-thin philosophical dallying worked into its themes. In this, however, it could exist no other time but now, a blockbuster trapped in its own PoMo referential purgatory, finding itself unable to muster any kind of modernist impulse besides a copy-pasted hall-of-fame, even giving into the screamingly obvious impulse of referencing the original Total Recall.

It becomes difficult to buy the typical PR spiel at release that it is more of a re-interpretation of the source material than a remake of the adaptation, especially when if anything the film generates yet more stages of removal from the story itself with its piecemeal appropriation of sci-fi cinema visuals, and even takes the disentangling of ambiguities of the political themes in the Verhoeven film further, really driving home our main character Quaid [notice that again the name Quail, much less forgiving on the male ego of our protagonist, is yet again hardened into the much more action-hero-suitable denomination applied to Schwarzenegger] as a heroic [flawed of course; “he can be a real ass”] political freedom-fighter, starkly set against Bryan Cranston’s Chancellor Cohaagen, who in his enthusiasm for international conflict and torture seems to be a rough caricature of bush administration neocon politics, missing the essential component of smiling “likeability” that accompanied it. Something that Hollywood films often seem to miss when presenting their neoconservative archetypes is the banality of their warmongering, that sense of thumbs up and a smile as the meat-grinder kills a few hundred people somewhere else in the world bonhomie. This duplicity would never have conceivably worked given the explicitly authoritarian visage of Cohaagen in the film.

The kind of warmed over political simplifications we receive here only become more notable when set against the Phillip K Dick story, which in contrast keeps the actual political motivations for any of its developments almost entirely ambiguous. Indeed the main question we are intended to take away from both Total Recalls [and I say intended as I’m not sure either really succeed in the reality-questioning they supposedly reach for.. it all comes across as far to telegraphed and obvious], whether the whole thing is simply an implanted memory itself, really doesn’t factor into the story at all in such a fashion, somewhat ironic as these are the main pretences both films make towards sci-fi credentials. Instead the focus is on the nature of memory and fantasy itself, the “Vagueness, omissions and ellipses, not to say distortions” inherent to remembering something, and, by implication, inherent in how we experience the world.

This ambiguity, the partial nature of memory and experience, is something lacking in both films not in theme but in form. Just as one could say that Inception is a film that’s good at talking about dreams but not at representing them, Total Recall is good at mentioning the fallibility of memory without actually showing it meaningfully. The rote action film structure, built on the bare bones of a very short story indeed, forecloses any meaningful sense that what we are witnessing may not be real, the confusion simply acting as an explicit hint rather than an implication of the film itself. Dick’s story explores in many respects the unsettling idea that our memories are simply a simulacra, that is to say, that they an unreliable patchwork constructed of approximations, and that an actually imposed, artificial memory may be better than the real thing as it were. This is at least hinted at in the newer film, but this hint is immediately frustrated by the film’s need to throw us headlong into rather unexciting action set pieces for the rest of its duration.

“We need to get you some better dreams” says Quaid’s wife, played by Kate Beckinsale, towards the beginning of the film. The ultimate irony is that the film has nothing to offer in this regard, the dreams it offers are the same old dreams we’ve become used to, clad in the same old monotonous fabrics. Of course, Phillip K Dick was in every sense more than a simple sci-fi writer, his work toeing the line between speculative futures and psychedelic subversions constantly, even if the interests of commodification drive his work, much like J.G Ballard’s, out of its un-definition to be crammed into the sardine tins of bookshelf conformity. This is precisely what we see in this ultimate repackaging of the old cyberpunk standard, a tinned, vacuum packed reiteration with as much life as a nuclear desert. Its appeals ultimately rest upon our perception of culture becoming so fuzzy that the Blade Runner-Matrix dynamic just beds in as the best we can expect. This is particularly noteworthy when if anything the actual sequel to Blade Runner explored the theme of artificial memory much more effectively and, while not entirely empty of its past more often than not broke free of the cyberpunk-noir shackles of its legacy. Striking at something quite different in terms of theme and focus, it became that wonderful thing; a sequel that manages a re-imagining, a complete shift in perception within the same space. Total Recall on the other hand only musters a gutted out, empty vision of a future we’ve already seen.

We need to get ourselves some better dreams.

Categories
hauntology post-capitalism

Brutal Fantasy

After recent visits to the Barbican centre in London, I’ve been left wondering what it is I find so uniquely compelling about it’s stark concrete geometry in direct contrast to the sleek contradictions of minimalism and ostentatious corporate sheen in the sprawl surrounding it. What makes these concrete abstractions better than those glass abstractions? Indeed Brutalism as a style has proved controversial, representing as it does something of a departure from ideas that buildings must be positive, welcoming spaces first and foremost, choosing instead to ostensibly [more on this in a minute] value utility and function, presenting a cold facade rather than a cosy idyll.

In fact, I think that the idea Brutalism represents some kind of stripping back of aesthetic is somewhat ill-judged, as any brief encounter with a brutalist monolith might make abundantly clear. They are cutting aesthetic statements through their commitment to an anti-aesthetic, in the same manner as the spiky experiments of post-punk were exciting musically precisely because of their departure from aesthetic norms of their cultural time and place. What we have in the alien forms of concrete in these structures is a negation of the sensible, an unseating of the comfortable. They arrive in the landscape like something utterly strange, but not, as it happens as visitations. They encapsulate something a little more uncanny, the unfamiliar within the familiar, the parasitic alien residing within the host.

Perhaps this is why Brutalism is commonly associated with failed Utopian socialist experiments, more than any explicit connection [which needless to say do exist]. Not only is there an attempt to use a common, banal material to produce strange, angular distortions in a different aesthetic dimension to both cosy homeliness and baroque flourishes, but we find a rehoming of the homely. In something of an inverse of Freud’s uncanny, the strange/unhomely within the familiar becomes the familiar situated within the strange. The banal surroundings of the home are assimilated into alien surroundings. This produces an interesting effect; the buildings reflect a kind of attempt to rethink social structure in their design, the concrete walkways, balconies and escarpments all tying into a unified vision of a communal space that stands in stark contrast to the open plan slabs and corporate minimalism of much contemporary architecture.

Of course Brutalist architecture stands today as something of a lost moment, symptomatic of many of the failed utopian experiments themselves, a place like the Barbican now exists as a kind of other-worldly reminder, an element of that ghostly residue of failed revolt that hangs over the present. The hauntological element of these structures today in no small part lends them power, that sense of lost possibility within their concrete walkways. Brutalism, as utopia, was a fantasy of the new, a grounding of the possibility of achieving something beyond, of an emerging outside, an alien bursting from the chest of the urban environment. This alien space, now foreclosed as a failure, a monument to what could have been, exists like a surreal temporal shift within that landscape. Emerging from the hyper-simulated labyrinth of smooth lines, incongruous shapes, brushed aluminium, reflection and stale corporate minimalism of postmodernist capitalism around it, the Brualist enclaves act as softly disquieting ruins, in the case of the Barbican acting as a cultural hub, in others simply lying abandoned or in disrepair, eerie monuments rather than living buildings.

So what becomes compelling about the Brutalist project, and it’s leftovers today, is the spectre of modernism they embody at a time when the futurist drives of modernism seem a distant memory, dissolving into a pool of PoMo reflexivity, ironic tricks and a distinct fear of the fantastic. If there’s anything that screams out of the tower blocks and minimalist apartments of the modern city, the building blocks of the overload, cybercapital given form, is an aesthetic realism. Where the geometric abstractions of Brutalism organise into a utopian symbolism, albeit one that lies forever beyond reach (walkways above the streets, buildings organised into a kind of grand communal living space) , the emptiness and functionalism one finds in, for example, the Shard, a phallic capitalist monolith on the London skyline, embodies much more a kind of foreclosure, the clean glass surfaces enclosing apartments, offices, endless repetitions and brands… a sleek, shimmering cage.

Something that is lacking in these structures, grand cathedrals to commerce, is any sense of a beyond, something to reach for beyond capital. The very top of a skyscraper is usually a huge status symbol, incredibly expensive and only procured by someone immensely successful under the rules of Capital. This is it, all there is. Don’t dare to dream beyond these metal girders, because there’s nothing up there…

What one finds by contrast within the forbidding concrete of Brutalism, as controversial and a matter of taste as they may be to many, is an attempt to imagine some kind of outside inside. It is suddenly possible within these structures to imagine something that isn’t confined by the blinding fug of Capital, something alien to the given natural order that forms of “realism” demand we lock into place as the underlying real governing our lives. Through the perhaps utopian folly of the concrete dream, we can rediscover a kind of sublimation, a rejection of the repeated refrain “be realistic”.

In the eerie, abandoned remnants of our dreams we find the echoes of the future.