Categories
Theory/Praxis

Discordant Concordance Part 2: Tasting the Wind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Music

“You Don’t Know How to Act”

Peppered throughout the new track from Algiers, “Can the Sub-Bass Speak?” are conversation-pieces, quick-fire statements, on the bands music, on the classification of Black music and the Black experience, a direct quotation from a negative review of the band’s last album on that gleaming bastion of taste-making “cool-kid” pluralism Pitchfork. “The effect is weirdly impersonal.” The track is unlike anything the group have made before, and cements their status as a genuinely exciting and exhilarating imposition on the musical landscape, an overwhelming machine-gun fire montage of re-contextualised snippets, a re-construction of experience and a conflation of segments surging through a justifiably venomous savaging of absurd outbursts of criticism, a re-framing of ugly behaviour and points of reference that might otherwise slip past the field of vision.

“The effect is weirdly impersonal.” Indeed, impersonal, it’s not about you. Weirdly impersonal is the unique capacity of art to re-frame subjectivity, not the tired cliche of “wearing someone else’s shoes”, but a genuine deconstructive tendency that probably owes more to the developments of modernism than the fluffy ironisms of PoMo culture. It’s the stage at which, rather than simply aiming to reflect an experience back at us we are struck roundly by a barrage of disconnected snippets threaded together into a narrative dis-continuity. It is not a no-nonsense account of real life we are faced with here, but in its overwhelming scattershot sprawl we find a certain worldview, each place it appears cut-and-pasted into the next, spread across the floor before us in a single line and only then being projected full force back towards us. There is a necessary violence to the track, a broadside directed at safe platitudinous assumptions around the supposedly “unified” Black experience. It’s supposed to be hip-hop, or soul, or one thing or another, “You don’t know how to act”.

The construction of experience, is it “weirdly impersonal?” Is this a problem? Is it in fact a mistake to assume we need to broadcast the personal to have an effect? What is contained in the assumption that a deeply political expression of urgency is “impersonal” in a negative sense? Isn’t it the impersonal, the dis-continuous, the cross-referencing, here that precisely gives the track its power? It is indeed not about the individual subject but about an experience, a very real, material experience, but one we don’t all share, that is not a unity, that lies fractured on the planes of subjectivity… what emerges on this track nothing a searing statement of anger and intent. It’s fast, its disconcerting, its profound and its a deep and unassailable cultural-political flash of energy in the best way possible..

Categories
Theory/Praxis

Discordant Concordance Part 1: Why I am Not an Accelerationist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The problem with accelerationists

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

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

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

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