Categories
Capitalism Politics

We Should Not Wish for Normality, but for Socialism

I, and others like me who were born after a certain point in the late 20th century, have never known anything but the long dark night of neoliberalism. The first time I ever became aware of politics it was Tony Blair’s innocuous grin in the newspaper, perhaps 9/11, the Iraq war.. New Labour, for many now, has been the limitations of our horizons, the extent of what “left” has ever meant. Shorn from the long experience of defeat altogether, is it hardly any wonder that, setting forth on the task of rebuilding leftism practically from the ground up, we struggle and falter?

What is “electability”? Those who often throw it around talk as if it were some kind of impartial judgement delivered from somewhere above, perhaps by some political demigod, but beyond that what can it really designate besides an ideal, a mould against which all politicians are measured? Of course what brings this into much clearer focus is the assembly lines of immaculately coiffured replicants pioneered under the New Labour brand of politics, wherein your average politician was a shiny, branded white male android programmed on demand to deliver a series of relatively believable platitudes to the public and perhaps emote to specifications. Politics appeared as, and was expected to be a branding exercise, a slick, well produced sheen akin to an apple commercial wherein the future was contained in the perfectly ironed folds of a suit and the “relatable” grin of a young prime minister. Tony Blair’s administration very much pioneered this more-human-than-human approach and you can see its innovations all over the off-putting smarm of David Cameron.

What this has done is nothing less than building the image of the ideal politician that now we either wish to escape or return to. It seems reasonable to think that this is a huge reason why Ed Miliband was given such a hard time both as Labour leader and in the 2015 election for reasons often beside his politics. Many references were made to the “wrong brother” being put in that position, and this speaks to a particular expression of the political hegemony. What was it that made David Miliband a supposed preferable option to his brother? Simply put, he looked and seemed correct. David fit perfectly into the model of the New Labour politician, the cloned appearance, free of blemishes or hiccups, the look of a car salesman with a healthy salary. “Red Ed” was simply a faulty model, and deviated from what we were supposed to be looking for in a politician, the effortless PR gloss that reeked of finance capital.

This really seems to lie behind the idea of electability; it is an idea of what we are supposed to expect, a baseline. Tony Blair became a kind of original from which all must be cloned, each time with just enough differences that we mistake them for another person… this vision of the default, the baseline test to ensure we don’t stray too far from our purpose, is something familiar to all of us in the form of the everyday etiquette of work, of interaction, the conformity of ritual that defines the rhythms of postmodern capitalism. It is the ideological hegemony, contained in a million repetitions; kneel and clasp your hands as if in prayer, and you shall believe, to paraphrase Pascal, and once we know nothing but the action of prayer, any deviance from this motion is an unacceptable break in rank..

This model of the politician may no longer hold the sway it did, but it plays into a certain hankering for the times of old, the supposed glory days of the 2000s from which we have been so violently torn. How else could we explain that some in fact think this era was some kind of golden age than that we have no direct experience of anything better than its profound mediocrity?

I disagree with Paul Mason on a lot of things [and will proceed to do so here], but I think his reference to Eric Fromm here is worth picking up on. I think it’s very true that the ruling classes are now very much relying on a deep despair and frustration to consolidate their position. They are gambling on the assumption that we will all be too fed up with the situation surrounding Brexit to do anything to stop them. But then, should our aim here be “the road back to normality”? Bluntly put, no, and I think this is a misstep if we are intending to move forward. The wish to restore normality has been the driving force behind political hegemony for decades now, the pull to the centre. If we have any commitment to the socialist project we must if anything resist the pull of the normal. This return is surely the most reliable gesture of the reactionary?

“Normality” like “Electability” in politics are values we should move away from entirely at this juncture. If there is something the populist right have picked up on and steamrollered ahead with, it is the realisation that these paradigms no longer hold the all-encompassing sway they did. We on the left should not oppose them by countering this realisation, as surely the situation of normality here is, if we are to understand it in terms of power dynamics, hugely damaging. We may look back to the pre-crash era of the 2000s with fondness, when there was the illusion of prosperity [for some], but surely in the long term we must take into account that such recessions are a regular an inherent feature of Capitalism, never mind the bloated debt fuelled economies of today. All we’ve been doing is living on borrowed time, as borrowed time is the only time capital can offer; the time of work, frittered away worrying about whether you can make the next payment, until the next time your landlord decides to up the rate of blood extraction.

Any point of normality we might hanker towards is defined by this, it was never going to last, and was simply the moment of decadence before the fall. What Blair and his cohorts may have sold to us as a time of plenty, what some who still stand by their politics seem to hold as a golden age, was a time, if we look under its surface, thick with the viscous sludge of ruling class excess, an edifice at the brink of collapse. I’m sure some of us would love to simply undo the crash and all its particulars, but this belies its place in the historical continuity of capital, the events that led up to it, ignores the sheer economic despondency, the depressive impotence of the left New Labour represented in all its pomp and hubris. Indeed, we now stand upon the edge of what might, by some accounts, be a global recession many times more serious than that 11 years ago, demonstrating that in all this time we simply pushed forward the inevitable, that all this pretence that underpinned the brutal program of austerity and the “Fiscal responsibility” of successive Tory governments is nothing but a pathetic sham.

9 years. That’s how long we’ve now been under conservative rule, and taking into account the broken promise of new labour, we can reach back through the millennium into the 20th century and find that it may have been at least 4 decades since the left was a meaningful political force in Britain. Given this context, it is indeed understandable why many now believe that New Labour is simply the best we can expect.. what else have we to go on? But it is imperative that we create something new, and glimmers of this already exist today. Of course the surges in leftism among younger people have been imperfect, the organisations and parties they underpin have made mistakes and will continue to do so, but given that we are trying to build something that has lain shattered on the ground in a million pieces for decades, this is understandable and to be expected. Right now we must avoid condemning what little we have to go on for its imperfections and try collectively to move politics to the left. The socialist project today remains fragile and ready to fall apart, but if we ensure its further success into the future we may in fact be able to see something beyond the vapid, empty forms of normality.

Categories
Capitalism Theory/Praxis

Industrial Pastoral

There is a staple of BBC daytime television I remember filtering into my brain as a child called “Escape to the Country”, an example of the property/lifestyle programme in which prospective buyers are shown round a series of houses in a particular rural location. The very premise of the series, contained in the title, lies in the idea that the countryside is where one escapes. Usually in this context this means well-off city couples looking for somewhere they might be able to “get away from it all”, live out their days in idyllic peace and quiet, they’ve has too much of the hustle and bustle of city streets and want to find a nice cottage in a picturesque heartland, the good life.

Of course having grown up in a country village, this didn’t quite square with me, this clear-cut duality.. why would I want to escape to the country when I was already there? On top of this, it was far from the pastoral idyll these city-dwellers seemed to envision; sure, you might relish the idea of having a view over the fields, but just wait until that breaks down into a sea of industrial agriculture. Sartre pointed out the ways in which city people often see in the countryside an untrammelled natural world that belies the carefully managed ways in which the landscape is effected by human activity, how a hedgerow or a field, entirely man made, are interpellated as the sublime beauty of mother nature, undisturbed. What happens when someone else’s outside is your inside? What for many represents this mysterious other becomes for another a deeply familiar, even banal reality. The “escape from modernity” implied in its twisting branches fades into a pile of discarded kebabs and coke bottles, the terrifying sublime into a half completed building project.

This is of course the issue of familiarity that inevitably follows such distinctions. Home, where we come from or where we live, inevitably carries with it a certain familiar tinge that disavows us from the illusions and mythologies others stretch on top of it. For me, the Norfolk landscape I grew up with is as much a site of blasted industry as folk tales and crooked trees, as much the place that framed my awkward adolescence as a place of nostalgia and yearning. Of course such phenomenological inconsistency is ironed out completely in escape to the country, devoted as it is to selling a dreamlike vision, it is practically a textbook example of a capital-driven fetishization of an other, the ideal other free of blemishes and faults. Of course while this example is a clear, explicit move to sell, hawk wares in the most base sense, another way we encounter the same issue is in the attempt to escape such banalities. The problem here becomes an overall equation of “outside” with a particular subject, a particular place.

To us, of course, the inside/outside division will always re-orient itself along the lines of familiarity. Home=familiar, inside, Away=unfamiliar, outside. Someone who grew up in the city might indeed view the countryside with a kind of rapt fascination, or idealism, but then of course from the other side of the mirror the city begins to look just as exciting, a hive of modernity and hedonism, of the new, the future.. both an interlinked burrow of contradiction and negation. Familiarity on both counts becomes a moderating influence, what in psycho-analytic terms we could call a reality principle. From the unbroken mask, we begin to see the cracks, the guano on the pavements, and are disavowed of our previous excitement. The search for the outside as Lacanian objet petit a, always frustrated whenever we think we have reached it.

Mark Fisher, in Weird and the Eerie, as well as elsewhere referred to the “inside as a folding of the outside”. This is indeed an apt observation, but by itself incomplete. What this seems to point towards at various points in his writing is if anything the collapsing of an inside/outside distinction as ontological truth, akin with both a Spinozist collapsing of Cartesian dualism and the post-structuralist death of the subject. And so just as much as the inside may be a folding in of outside influences, it is equally true that the outside is a projection of the inside. The point, as ever, is not the search for the green grass on the other side, but the collapsing of the boundary itself. Here we find the alien contained within the human and the human in the alien, nature in civilisation and civilisation in nature, the country in the city and the city in the country, each clear distinction muddied, questioned and broken down. It is here that the subject becomes an extension in contravention of experience which might hold each of us to be a walled off entity in our own right.

From this then, it becomes a matter of de-familiarisation. If it is the familiar that generates reality, to generate another reality, what Alenka Zupančič would attribute to a process of sublimation, requires a de-mystification of the banal, the reality principle itself. It is of course this process, this “revealing” of the ideological mediation that is experience, that opens the door to new worlds within the familiar; it is not the projection of some ego ideal but the very unfolding of what we perceive as natural and real. The conception of nature is a prime example of such a reality, a nice comfortably sectioned-away, bottled and labelled thing that must stand in opposition to the human subject, in a kind of pre-copernican anthropocentric universe. To de-familiarise, to unfold our surroundings is then to place the outside within the inside, the inhuman within the human as it were. But just so I don’t fall into a particular trap here, this unfolding is not any kind of revealing, not the mechanism hidden behind the magicians illusion; indeed don’t we have to assume that within this action of unfolding is contained the inherent precedent to a “re”folding, wherein the act of sublimation not only unveils the contingency of reality but transforms it, creating new possibilities.

Isn’t there a problem then, with our assumption of the “otherness” of the country? Should we be staring at the mirror hoping to reach the reflection on the other side? It is true, and I value these experiences very much, that we can stand in the middle of the woods and experience a remarkable and refreshing emptiness, feel somehow that we have “escaped”, but today what’s the likelihood we can do this without both coming across some clear evidence of manmade intervention or being interrupted by a holidaying family? More to the point, doesn’t this simply leave one familiar for another? The urban industrial for the pastoral industrial, we move from one to the other side of the river in the hope that the other we so desperately seek is contained there, and neglect the vital work of re-orienting the perception of the ground beneath our feet.

Categories
Books Music

Drifting… Reflection; on Ian Penman’s “It Gets me Home, This Curving Track”

“One morning you awake and all the time has melted away: no more hotel bedroom afternoons, light moving like seaweed over the pale impersonal walls. All your life, dreaming of the other side of the mirror, where the colours all reverse, and now you finally remember what it was you saw in that dressing room mirror, so long ago: clouds, full of rain.”

Ian Penman’s new collection of writing, what feels like an exquisitely chosen sequence of essays already published elsewhere but here forming so many cross-continental, cross-colour threads; a slight volume, it feels perfectly formed in its open ellipsis, dicing repeatedly with characters who we like to think of in trite, closed-off semiotic terms, as icons. Indeed, the subjects of the essays here read when listed off like a dusty pantheon, a museum of objects no longer invested with any kind of current or force today, devoid of lasting tension or relevancy. Elvis? Sinatra? Mod? Surely all bygones, remnants kept by rusty elders in the shed, mouldering in a box for the last decade?

What is absolutely remarkable about Penman’s approach here is that these symbols, characters, icons, subject elsewhere to text after bulging text of fawning empty platitudes and heritage fluff [let’s be honest, do we really gain anything from one more write-up going on at length about “iconic musical genius” or “trailblazing influence” et cetera], open up into a complex mesh of uncomfortable and uncertain threads, here emerging as pathetic man-children and there as existential melancholy personified. Above all it must be noted that on even the most surface level consideration, Penman’s is some of the most essential and electric music writing around at this current juncture, and that is despite his status as an “elder” of the British music press by this point. While younger writers toil ceaselessly at outlets like Pitchfork churning out barely-readable attempts at ego-fulfilment-fantasy, Penman’s work, while undeniably rooted in his own predilections, practically rolls off the page in a cascade of riveting prose, something which barely conceals the glint of a hard-edged analysis.

Indeed, links can be drawn here to Barthes and Derrida, even if they don’t appear in the text itself. Instead of explicit reference or extensive footnotes, here these influences are implicit, woven into the text but never weighing it down. James Brown as a figure is dissected as a mess of contradictions and unresolved tensions, between his militaristic approach to his music and image, and the lack of control over his own impulses. Everywhere here we find such tensions, whether it be between the perfectly groomed set of signifiers of their iconic status and their unavoidably unpleasant personal behaviour or for example between the modernist, pan-european hipness of Mod as an emerging phenomenon and its current iterations as saccharine, empty, postmodern shell.

It would be easy to simply tie the essays together through the “Home” of the title, but this seems to do it something of a disservice. Ostensibly what emerges is what Penman describes as a “cross-colour” collision of culture, a threading together wherein Black and White commingle and again move across the Atlantic. Within this however we find that symbols like Mod and figures like Elvis must be unwrapped, prised open into their component parts. Yet what we hope to achieve with such dissection, a closure, to finally uncover the core nugget of “soul”, leave bare the “me” underneath the constructed persona, or retrospective vision. Thankfully, or not depending on your disposition, the opposite occurs here. Instead of the pretence of some questionable uncovering of the true spirit of Sinatra, we find Sinatra from the ready-and-set-showman-glitz-mafioso-darkness dualism that we all know, fan out into into a cornucopia of unfinished sentences/an intermingling of threads.

It is this intermingling wherein we find the home, both its excess and lack. As we find through the exploration of Prince and his meticulously controlled excess and demand, notably for perfectly curated hotel rooms, “Look in the mirror children: each and every space is simultaneously fantastical, but also an endless repetition of the same. Nothing ever changes in Prince world … everywhere is home, nowhere is home”. Similarly with Elvis we enter a world of oedipal supply and demand, where every wish is catered for and it bloats, fattens, dulls.. even if, as it is pointed out, the immortality of Elvis itself does need some solid explaining given his deeply inconsistent catalogue of work.

Home ultimately always comes down to the music, and the relationship between the music and the people who produced it is something that doesn’t escape complication here. Much is said, in the form largely of slightly uncomfortable soundbyte discussion, of “removing the art from the artist” with regard to the deeply unpleasant behaviour of an artist we may admire or respect. Penman here makes no such easy concession, and both the essays on James Brown and John Fahey deal directly with the [in different ways] troubling nature of their personal conduct, and how this effected or made itself known in their work. Here we find a temporal drift, attempts to rediscover, reform, claw back, keep alive, a constant “re”, whether this be the retrospective nostalgia-porn of today’s Mod or the rat-a-tat-tat of Charlie Parker’s heroin fuelled virtuosity, what Penman points to in his music as the lack of drift, of reflection. The figures here in many ways attempt to escape home but are continuously drawn back towards it, whether this is the finality of death/old-age, the empty museum pieces of retro or the immortality of heritage, supposed “influence”, the undead.

The problem of course with drift and reflection, something in short supply in the midst of the semiotic tidal waves of cultural consumption today, is that we find things we might rather ignore. When we visit, for instance the British museum, can’t we just be left to marvel at the immaculately carved marbles, the array of objects from various slices of geography and history? To unambiguously do this of course requires the kind of suppression, we must, the museum itself must at all costs draw our attention away from the blood soaked into the stones on display, that we also find in our attempts towards some “pure” enjoyment of past cultural objects. If we simply don’t allow ourselves to drift backwards, keeping a kind of perpetual present in which everything simply exists in one place shorn of its bedrock like a plant cut off at the stem, then the uncomfortable, the ambiguous and the downright disturbing remain where they belong and we can make some kind of pretence of “art without artist”, fantasise about the past without complication.

When it comes down to it, Penman’s beautiful de-constructions of a certain, carefully chosen pantheon of figures is simply a small antidote, an important gesture at a time seemingly still dominated by the ideal constructions of past moments. Where the dominant mode of writing about figures like this is one of cloying reverence, writing like this remains essential and valuable, wherein rather than a cut-and-paste revue or ego-bloating attempts at virtuoso analysis we find a short and sweet series of thoughtful and propulsive, simple yet deeply complex, affecting yet biting essays. IF you want to delve into a single example of music writing at all this year, or the next even, I can think of no better than this.