Categories
Politics

Into the Breach

As it turned out, this election was just a continuation of the trend, a link in the chain of right wing nationalism that’s been enjoying a resurgence, albeit in some slightly more complex ways. One of the most galling elements of Boris Johnson’s ascendancy is how planned it feels; how, with the aiding and abetting of a number of media figures and commentators who loved for so long to think of him as some kind of loveable buffoon, who practically fed him material for his routine and perhaps laughed to his jokes as long as they got a light jab at him occasionally, it all seems inevitable. Mark Fisher rightly pointed to Johnson as the manifest weaponizing of satire to consolidate rather than attack, the status quo, and there have been whispers for as long as I can remember of his designs on power. Now, finally here we are. He has his wish.

The defeat was devastating, there’s no way around this, it was a massacre. Norwich the next morning felt like a graveyard and there was a kind of unspoken shock on a lot of people’s faces. In the realm of possibilities I imagined a loss perhaps, but such a landslide victory felt like a gut punch when I heard about it, and that sense of it being a bad dream still lingers. The fact that Johnson proceeded to talk about “healing”, and then [amid already stirring mentions of Scottish independence and a united Ireland] protecting the union, seemed like something of a bad joke; but then that’s what “Boris” is, a series of terrible jokes somehow crammed into a sock standing on the steps of downing street. There is little consolation to be had from the result, as much as we try desperately to pull something from it, so the question turns, now at this moment of dreary, crushing defeat, where next for the British left?

Alan Johnson has the answer. The man who wouldn’t know what class politics was if it hit him in the face with a copy of the communist manifesto suggests we have abandoned the working class. The irony of this coming from Alan Johnson, central figure of New Labour runs deep. New Labour was the utter abandonment of the working class by the Labour party. It was the pretence, moreso, that class simply didn’t matter anymore, that we were in a post-political world; the last thing we should do is accept righteous lectures from stranded political agents desperately trying to claw back the time when their world-view still made sense, when they had the hegemony of support and nothing could ever change.

Righteous lectures aplenty however from centrists everywhere, columnists who would probably be better off admitting their desires and aligning with the right if it means that they’ll stop pretending they’re constantly opposing the left out of some kind of limp moral purpose. What we are supposed to believe is that it is over for the left, that the centrists, the moderates have all won the debate. Can’t we get back to some good old sensible politics now, abandon all this… hysteria about fighting for the powerless, building a better world, roll back the utopian ambitions a tad and settle back into the dull, plodding, empty, hopeless and deteriorating limbo of Capitalist Realism. This is supposed to be a thrashing for stepping out of line, for thinking above our station. Does this line up however with the people I’ve spoken to and seen online who disliked Labour BECAUSE of New Labour and Blair, under the mistaken assumption that they remained unchanged? Does this speak to the fact that Blair and co fundamentally cemented a universal distrust of politicians in the British psyche? What left politics tries to do is provide agency to those who have none, and in that matter, New Labour abandoned left politics wholly, coasting by election after election on low turnouts rather than inspiring any confidence, ensuring that the horizons remained closed even as people ceased to care, resigned to their fate.

What we have to do first of all is reject wholesale this idea, that if only we had a “sensible” candidate we would have won. We can’t know for sure of course, but by all accounts this simply isn’t true. We only have to look at the Lib Dem performance this election and the hasty immolation of Change UK in the European elections to see how much people are supposedly flocking to that kind of politics, and what is being suggested here is that we follow the same route. We suffered a disaster this election, of course, but are we really suggesting that the only alternative is to embrace a tactic that is now failing everywhere, that is out of ideas and out of support, facing embarrassment everywhere it plays its hand. No. For one thing this roundly ignores the far better performance Corbynism put forward in the prior election [the missing element Boris Johnson, which is key to understanding this one] which does somewhat mitigate the idea that there was something fundamentally rotten that people rejected about the project, and for another it ignores the rather obvious point that Johnson’s landslide was won on anything but the kind of moderate, Cameronesque, centre-right platform this might suggest is the only route to victory, rather we have seen the fringe right offer their near blanket support, hard right rhetoric and talking points becoming somewhat accepted fare among the Conservative party.

Does this mean that the British electorate are all fascist lunatics? No, it doesn’t, and we shouldn’t sink to such easy and clumsy answers. That Johnson’s appeal to the right wing of the Tories and beyond was constantly disavowed and hidden behind BORIS the character, the clown, the court jester, speaks to a rather well-executed campaign of misdirection. That people fell for this shouldn’t be surprising, not because they’re plain old idiots, but because it appeals directly to their fears and anxieties in a way that Labour sadly failed to accomplish. Johnson was, to those who supported him, a heterodox figure, an anti-establishment, punk rock figure who didn’t give a damn about the press or well-groomed speeches. This has always been at the heart of the project of BORIS, a degree of flippancy and carelessness that feeds into an image of British eccentricity and avoids what are seen as the typical politician’s evasions all while plying us with dreams of affable upper class englishmen.

Against this, what was seen as Labour’s constant triangulation all too often fell into the trap of appearing to be “like the rest of them”, too much like what was innately distrusted. This is despite the best of foundations, the pleas to “bring the country together” and a strong Manifesto of genuinely meaningful positive changes, things which were lovely, and admirable, but we now have to tackle not that they were completely misguided missteps, but that they failed to cut through the indeterminate paste of Brexit and political disillusionment. The reasons are, honestly, complex. While guardian columnists are busy admonishing the Labour left and recommending that we re-install the Blair auto-pilot, and some are making much of how many votes were lost to leave, a host of issues, many of them contingent, emerge. When it comes to Brexit, we lost votes to both leave and remain; on top of this there’s little to suggest many 2017 Labour voters stayed home this time, which all lends itself to a slightly confusing shifting picture.

So if we have established that capitulating to the sensible middle is off the cards, which, let me re-iterate, I will establish a thousand times, how can the Left survive this? A partial answer is that it already has. Unexpectedly I found on Friday a strong network of support and solidarity that I can’t see disappearing overnight. There is now an active, enthusiastic left contingent in British politics that for its flaws is remarkable for simply existing where there was a void not so long prior. If we are to continue into this long dark night, we have to brace ourselves for a series of oncoming crises which I can only see wracking the Tories and their support from top to bottom. The umbrella of these crises is the impossibly fragile base material of the Tories recent majority, and that is the promise of “Get Brexit Done”, three words which in their simplicity play directly towards all our fatigue, our wish to move on to different, perhaps greener pastures. The idea of getting something like this “Done” is however deeply questionable at best once we consider the length of time we will be stranded negotiating trade deals in varying scenarios, the very real possibility of the complete breakup of the union, a global recession, and the knock-on effects of all of this in at least mild social unrest and even breakdown. We have to come to terms at some point with the impossibility of this simple wish, and I hate to say this but it may take the active deterioration of life for this to dawn. The point however, is that “Get Brexit Done” is a house of cards and a promise of an ineffable utopian middle England that will collapse with the slightest pressure.

It is at this point that we cannot repudiate the need to fight for the dying, the dispossessed and the powerless, for they will be at a greater risk than ever, without recourse. This is central to what we should consider on the left, and was central to that crushing feeling of defeat when I heard the exit poll. What bothered me about the shrugs of some was that this isn’t just about my football team losing, millions of lives and their wellbeing are at stake in an election, so the cost of this runs far beyond my own feelings of discontent. In effect, vast amounts of people did end up voting for their own repression yet again, and that, for me, is profoundly depressing not simply because of some failing on their part, but because of the avalanche of piss that they themselves are going to have to endure. Of course, this question; “Why do men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation?” can be found running through Deleuze & Guattari in Anti-Oedipus, and continues to be a primary issue for the Left to counter. To many, there is nothing innately attractive about emancipation, again they are resigned to their fate through a series of impersonal drives.

It is here that that Lacanian injunction also becomes apt “The only thing of which one can be guilty is having given ground relative to one’s desire”, this becoming of course a key realisation as to how elections like this work. The vote for BORIS was jouissance, a capitulation to the demands of desire at the expense of shared value or support, and this is no surprise given the emaciated sense of political agency of the British electorate. We want better lives, but we can’t see how. We may have thought or hoped that a programme of social democratic reform might have spoken to people in this regard, but truth is its never about the ideas, its how you sell them, how you eroticize them. The BORIS programme presented that in spades, no matter how unpleasant it seemed to us, a sunlit uplands beyond Brexit as objet petit a, even the cartoon buffoonery of his projection was an appeal to a kind of unsubstantiated British ideal, the Prime minister who embodies a kind of little england aristocrat. In this way this election becomes about the past more than the future in so many regards, that wish to retreat, to return. As in Brexit, via a subconscious post-colonial melancholia a dark strain of nationalism seized the moment and implemented itself behind the mainstream dominance.

All of this may be of little consolation right now, but its key I think to at least understand not only what the Left failed on, but how the right succeeded. We may have done far better two years ago, but that was against Theresa May, Boris Johnson was always going to be a different, far more dangerous proposition precisely because of his blunders and fuck-ups. There was a tendency to take aim at him for things like snatching the image from the journalist, hiding in the fridge and generally doing the things that were precisely the pull for many supporters. He’s not Trump, but like Trump, its his “not a politician” demeanour that was a huge draw, precisely that he isn’t bound by such things as decent political conduct and will just do things. There is an excitement to that for many that simply became far more important than any list of policies or political programme.

The key thing now I think is to establish that “Corbynism” as a term is dead, but the Left is not. The worst mistake we could make is to attach socialism to one man, as if he is the last representative, the final gasp of left politics. We are not going to progress with “Corbynism”, but with socialism, and keep pushing. If I’m perfectly honest I reach points of thinking what’s the point, really. I imagine how it must feel to have your political side win consistently by hook or by crook for so long that you can’t even remember not winning and a certain degree of despair beckons. The left are never going to win are we, the right will always be a step ahead I tell myself. But really, this is only true as long as we let it be. Physically, materially, there is nothing to stop us building a better world, but it is always the impersonal mechanisms of politics, of desire, that stymie this modest goal. Moving forward, we have to work with this, to try and mould ourselves around these mechanisms and learn their operations. We have to make sure than when push comes to shove, we are waiting with a new offensive, and this time, the tide of feeling won’t be so easily stemmed. The Tories have won, and they’ve won big, but all this means is that the pressure has built to unsustainable levels. We are at a point where things cannot remain, where the immortality of capital has become an impossible dream, and at this point the last thing we should do is retreat, back down, cede ground and accept reality.

BE UNREALISTIC, CHANGE WHAT’S POSSIBLE

Categories
Music

Criticism and the Discontinuity of Pop

“Who?” – Billie Eilish

Who is Van Halen? To some not knowing the answer to that question is unforgivable, a mark of disrespect to ones elders, what came before you, to these guardians of music history there is a right and a wrong way to listen, talk about music, and it invariably arcs back towards the pull of the self-evident classics, the ones we all know are immortal, game-changing and iconic. Not knowing one of these monoliths is a failure in this sphere, and immediately places you lower down in the hierarchy as the head of the pack shows off his gleaming credentials, going off on one about their favourite Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Black Sabbath records, potentially even displaying them in pride of place like trophies.

So when Billie Eilish recently received inordinate amounts of heat from people indignant that she didn’t know who Van Halen was, it was hardly surprising, all these I-used-to-practically-live-in-a-record-shop-and-knew-who-the-velvet-underground-was-when-I-was-3 music trivia buffs with all the right reference points, these arbiters of rock heritage who ensure that you like all the right kinds of things and if you don’t will make damn sure they tell you are just waiting for opportunities like this. Old rockers schooling the youth on good music taste is a cliche by this point, but as it turns out they are only too happy to oblige, passing on a musical canon as if it were a divine pantheon, carved into the rock of an ancient temple and passed via myth from father to son.

The patriarchal aspect to such indignance is more than a passing comment; there is a distinct masculine posturing at the heart of this heritage culture, the kind we may encounter within the usual pissing contests between men over cars or equipment, the phallic subtext behind the competition, the display of craft and ability, is a Pseudo-Darwinian Fantasy of Capital, the howling of the alpha-male into the valley, the ability to dominate your surroundings. This is at the heart of so much of the crude rock-classicist fantasy, whether it be that of the omniscient record collector or the gruff, denim-wearing man hefting a guitar, that reactionary cynicism towards ones surroundings serves as an excuse to elevate yourself above the rabble, to be the beholder of true value in the world. And all so you can interject into conversations in mock-outrage [this behaviour is usually masked behind a kind of jokey demeanour] that someone doesn’t rate the Clash or Bob Dylan, and how you know how to appreciate what your elders gave you, or in other words what you are supposed to listen to.

This exists in constant tension with its supposed enemy, that of the pop-hedonist, the “there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure” injunction to enjoy, the effacing of oppositions as a radical transgression. The dominant tone of, say, some in the Guardian music pages for some time now has been one of flaunting the very fact that you like pop as if you’re sticking it to the high-culture snobs, who in fact exist in tandem with these critics, their perfect mirror. Beyond this facile dynamism however, both tendencies within music criticism, now firmly embedded in our critical institutions and publications, fall into the same trap. What is completely effaced is any kind of excitement or indeed, reason to get excited, concerning the music itself. The Big Other is always present, the non-existent arbiters of taste who have to see how correct you are, and in this context demand your authentic credentials as a writer. Hence we see a reflexive disavowal, a stepping back from strong positions, and a maintained detached “cool” that forecloses any kind of embroilment in the vicissitudes of fandom or enthusiastic prose.

The flat plane of anhedonic positivity that results never manages to escape the stale hallways of heritage [it ends up invariably raving about the unimpeachable and timeless perfection of the classics alongside everything else], but it is against this that the guardians of the ancient rock gods can maintain any sense of “outsiderness”. In truth, their reactionary pull towards the past has masked a distinct lack of adventurousness in the present, but the idea that the disruptive impulse of rock may have calcified into a museum exhibit itself never occurs to them. As accomplished as IDLES are for example, musically they are about as innately transgressive as a Hovis advert. The sound of blaring guitars has been taken as a marker of punk subversion tout court, where one might gradually find the sounds of dance and electronic music causing far more consternation among certain well-to-do suburbanites . The problem with “punk rock” now is, frankly, that its all bit too together, the freakouts are too co-ordinated, the stage invasions too glossy.

So if I call back again to that opening salvo from Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant than the Sun, it is now to point towards the privileging in the way we talk about music of the immaculate, the pre-determined and the carefully combined whole, as a continuity. The power of Afrofuturism [or even its relative in the Hauntological] is not in some kind of straight vector from the past to the present to the future, rather in breaks, stutters, cuts, remixes, scrambled time. I’ve spoken before about how the most exciting music tends to exist in a kind of tension, where you get the sense its hanging together on a thread, ready to fall apart at any minute, or about to fade from view. This has far more in some sense to do with how we write or talk about music, as in doing so we communicate what we prioritise, we choose what to amplify about it in our language. The tendency has been to elevate the finished, the rounded, the whole, while denigrating the partial, trailing or fractured. Where music might exist in fraught oscillation with its underside, with its own characteristics, we prefer to think of it as an uncomplicated presence.

Pop music, at its best, is always anything but uncomplicated, always compromised, broken, frayed. This might not be what’s most often celebrated in her music, but this inchoate translucency lies everywhere in the lurid dreamland of Lana Del Rey. Her latest album Norman Fucking Rockwell! was subject to some frankly huge misfires that tried to jam the baroque mystique of the record, where the abstracting vortex of the american cultural imaginary pulls us into an eerie calmness, into some “necessary” “important” commentary on the american dream. A common tactic among the critiquarium, the open vein of desire and fantasy that might spray over the walls are insistently reined in, closed off, dialled down into the most banal examples of “important” art, the vivid power of pulp collage sidestepped in favour of a neatly packaged “message”. To do so, to insist that art stands or falls on its ability to either be read as a pure slice of hedonist utopia or as a serious, unalloyed political comment, is, once again, that old tired attempt to tie off loose ends at all costs, cauterise affect, avoid anything that might cause too much consternation.

But if we’re not being even slightly unsettled, if there is no tension, no risk, then what is there to be excited about? In truth, what turns writers away from the uncertainties that spark the engine of popular culture is the degree of spikiness, the presence of the forbidden, the there be dragons of inscribed opacity. Once we’re out here, there are no maps to guide us anymore, so we have to rely on our own navigation. The constant appeals to the correct way of doing things, the deflection to the Big Other, are easier than committing to any kind of encounter with the discontinuity of affect, rather take refuge in the whole, where contradictions are neatly plastered over and the abstractions of experience calcify into the kind of mummified discourse that has defined all too many “intellectual” engagements with pop culture. To talk about pop, or pulp, we must engage with its surface, its colours, forms, rather than continue to deliver the hackneyed hagiographies of the genteel critical class.