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Archaeology of Cultural Space Music

The Future Wears a Mask

A problem with the future is that everyone wants to be the one to find it. Just as the music press has often prided itself on having found “the next big thing”, we all want to be the ones to have picked up on the emergent strand, that one element of the present which presents a radical break, the coming of the new. Recently, I’ve noticed some grappling with this, partly in Simon Reynolds [worth reading] piece on “Conceptronica” and some of the murmurings surrounding it and associated acts. Reynold’s piece asks “Why so much electronic music this decade felt like it belonged in a museum instead of a club”, which in itself is not an uninteresting point of inquiry, one that he does his bit to look into; yet I feel there was something missing here. Past all the careful investigation, it comes back to that tagline and the failure to really address it.

One of the artists featured in the piece was Holly Herndon, specifically regarding her latest album, PROTO, an album which from the outset dreams big, in itself no bad thing, about the potentials of AI and technology, attempting to bridge the gap between choral, folk and more traditional musics and the collective ecstasy of the rave via the means of a collective pooling of voices into a kind of personified construct. The ideas swirling around the project scream the future, they grapple with emergent technological issues that may come to effect us all, and seem to point to potential new forms of collectivity through the medium of these very technologies. The problem for me, however, starts when we pass from the script, the blurb, and into the music itself, despite having the impression it was somehow supposed to be everything I’m interested in, a cultural attempt to scout out new futures, a bridging of subjective and objective gaps via music… The thing was, however, that the music left me completely cold.. it came off like a vaguely interesting series of experiments but nothing really imprinted itself beyond some particularly beautiful/ugly passages. It was at point of contact that the ideas, the concept seemed to dissipate into what may have been an impressive technological leap but just came off like a series of vocal glitches and effects, a sound that just didn’t conjure what it said it did. There existed a fundamental disconnect here between what was supposed to be happening and what actually was.

This isn’t a universal problem with all the artists Reynolds mentions, but it is something that I find is also present precisely in the museum press releases and statements he evokes, something that continues to dog contemporary art shows everywhere and lends to this general sense of disappointment or emptiness. The false idea has long been that the main problem with such writing is simply that it is “pretentious waffle” that it is incomprehensible, that it is simply a kind of pseudo-deleuzian art-speak babble that serves to alienate viewers. This may be true, but it’s only half the story, the other being the distance that is covered between the writing, the build up or blurb, and the art itself. Countless times I have read about what a piece of art is supposed to do but been encountered immediately by its failure to actually do it. It takes the same form as a narrative dissonance where we are told what kind of character we are watching or reading about while that character fails to materialise in the story itself, and the times we may have encountered someone who tells us one thing about themselves while enacting the very opposite. It’s not that its actively or maliciously misleading, but rather that it skips the unskippable beat, that it gets ahead of itself, beats itself to the finish line, and insodoing, unmasks itself.

It perhaps shouldn’t bear mentioning, but music directly positioning itself conceptually around the future does not make it of the future any more than lasers and androids are the sum of science fiction as a genre. It is possibly the largest mistake we can make about culture to assume that its proclamations of concept, that its evocations form the whole of its content and form. In other words, music that arrives in a cloak of future imagery and technological innovations does not automatically evoke such ideas in its execution. What I find here is that the mistake is a assumed prioritising. Similarly to the Logocentrism of western philosophy attacked by Derrida, here the content of words is placed above their form and textures in a cultural context, lyrical content above the timbre of voice, speaking above writing and photography above painting.

This brings me to something brought up by both Mark Fisher and Kodwo Eshun, and that is the place of the cultural critic not simply as a tastemaker, expert or institution, but as an intensifier. It is through such writing that sounds and images, are libidinally heightened, that they are interpreted in some sense and amplified. It also makes me think of the way Ian Penman, specifically in the essay on Sinatra included in his recent collection but throughout his work, puts so much focus not merely on what is being sung, said or we could say even written, but how. Sinatra took a significant amount of influence in his singing from observing horn players and their inflections, pauses and emphasis, and here we begin to see a fundamental rift that often persists between music writers and musicians themselves [where the whole “dancing about architecture” canard arises]. While you will find many music writers searching for a kind of explanation, an exposition of language-born meaning to the music, indeed this has developed into a blatant overvaluing of “pure” lyrical content itself, on contact with a musician, for all their ideas and concepts it quickly becomes apparent that all this is in service to the sound itself.

In a recent piece on Debussy in London Review of Books, Nicholas Spice mentions how Adorno found distasteful Debussy’s supposed Fetishism of the materiality of sound, and the way in which Schoenberg himself mocked Adorno’s championing of him [“Was macht die Musik?” “Sie Philosophiert”].. both of these indirect interactions between musician/composer and philosopher speak something of the above disconnect, of a certain misunderstanding that the critic or theorist in their pomp might stand to make in demanding a certain conceptual rigour from the work they’re addressing. It leads to writing and analysis that for all its complexities, for all its length or reference points, often fails point blank to evoke the power of the music itself, functions at a kind of arms length from its subject, refusing to actually delve into the murky worlds of sonic texture and rhythmic communication, the cracking of the voice or the artificiality of an instrument. It is probably worth mentioning in the same breath here Susan Sontag’s call for an “Erotics” over an “Interpretation” of the arts, something that feeds into a sense that what music writing so often abandons is a sense of precisely of the materiality of its subject. For all Adorno’s disdain for the formulaic nature of pop, he missed an important element of it, and that is the effect of the sound itself.

This isn’t to evoke some kind of sublime here [something that most obviously Sontag argues against], some kind of primal spiritual presence or romanticised purity of the material, rather something of the opposite, that the writer can here function as something of an interpreter or amplifier for its effect. Some of the best sleevenotes I’ve found for instance have served just such a purpose in channelling the intensity of sound, the atmosphere of it, rather than providing a bone dry exposition of content. This is the last point at which we want to find a scientific thesis, but a plane of the poetic elaboration, of the power of masks and theatre. Rather similarly to the way in which we use clothes and makeup to construct rather than hide ourselves, it is in the resonances of the surface rather than a phantasmic pure nugget of authenticity beneath that we encounter the complexities and conceptual potency of art.

In a post about Japan’s Tin Drum, Mark Fisher asked, after Deleuze in Logic of Sense, “why, if superficiality is defined as lack of depth, is depth not defined as lack of surface?” This question still bears a good deal of consideration today, even as in response to the overload of signs and information the modern world heaps upon us we continue to find recourse to fantasies of some pure existence away from “modernity”. Here it is assumed that there lies an ideal sublime underneath the trash of the everyday, that if we scrape away the layers of makeup we find the real identity beneath. Such attempts at a kind of demystifying ambition, where we find a kind of absolute space or identity lurking beneath its surface, belies that it is precisely in this surface that an expanse of complexities and unspoken resonances emerge. It is the mask worn by the actor, the makeup and the costume, that construct the character, and is there anything gained by searching for the scaffolding beneath in the hope of an instructional document, some unadulterated truth? Indeed rather than an era of superficiality, might it be just as apt to ascribe to this current moment a priority of transparency? It’s something we’ve come to expect in all things that they remain true to themselves, real. You do you, just do your own thing… I’m just a normal bloke like you… isn’t this transparency, this injunction to bare all at all times, the constant deference to the authentic, the problem?

So rather than try to either ground or justify the music via the concept underpinning it, the kind of writing and exposition Reynolds talks about in relation to “Conceptronica” might be better served if they didn’t take as a point of assumption the music-as-thesis, art as pointing towards resolution, recourse-to-explanation of the museum piece itself. Against the backdrop of a kind of widespread disavowal of surface in favour of a supposed depth, it seems that the only way we can think of communicating complexity of ideas is via an accompaniment, by something beyond or above. The vicissitudes of futurity are that of the event, that of retrospective causality. Pointing towards a future potential in an artist due to their technological or conceptual proclivities says nothing in truth of the future, something which always lies masked. It is not in the process, in the conceptual underpinnings of a musical project that we might seek to place it in some kind of alternative canon, some kind of potential future form, but in its textural qualities and effects. If we wish to perceive the reverberations of as yet unheard futures, then it is to be found in the material of sound, the performance and surface, and the ambiguities and spectres held within this echo chamber of affects. If the future always wears a mask, then only an examination of masks, a serious approach to superficiality, will tease out its fragile strands into the light of day.

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Traversing the Fog of Perception

Oh my, where to start. I guess somewhere within the last few years, during my years at art school, that place where I simultaneously found myself learning the most important practical lessons of my life and miring myself somewhere out in the swamps of absolutism via the misguided will’o’the wisps of contrarian bullshit. I became the enemy of my youth, those stuffy, moralising suited old men telling you what to do with your life. Those “careers advisors” I had met in college who laughed at my desire to go to university and study art, purveyors of stifling oppressive corporate normalisation into a system of ideological presumptions I wanted nothing to do with. 

To be honest, I think I was depressed. I never became suicidal per se, and I was always [read: mostly] able to smile and chat and pretend I was enjoying things even if under the surface it was a fucking quagmire of anxieties and uncertainties. I retreated from reality because I didn’t want to engage with it. I found it overwhelming and the only way I could get past it was to find some strange solace in getting angry, not even at anything sometimes, I just wanted to work myself up, tell myself things were certain, worked out, feel something other than the constant disconnection that was building up increasingly towards the end of my Masters course. Disconnection to myself, to my work, to the world, to those around me.

That’s what bothers me most looking back on that time, the effect it had on those I care about and am close to. I’m aware I’m not disposable, and indeed have tried to focus far more on maintaining my health after coming out of this state of abjection, but thinking about how the state I got into ultimately pushed people away, hurt them and affected them bothers me far more than the emotional anguish it caused me. I came out of being lost and alienated and became more and more insular, irate, closed-minded and generally unpleasant to be around. I genuinely hate what became of me during that time. Here’s where we get to the exorcism.

At some point, like Agent Cooper trapped in the black lodge, I embarked on an odyssey back to Twin Peaks. Something snapped in my brain, the curtain parted and I found my way back from this waiting room, this stuffy old mask of penitence I’d been forcing myself to wear. And like Agent Cooper, the way I got there was far from conventional. Something that defined what I did to myself over this time was a suppressing of my taste, some attempt to prove something to others. Put simply, I like weird shit. I always have honestly, something to do with me being an outsider, a bit of a weirdo through my school, college and majority of university years. I wasn’t really “in” with the cool kids, or anyone else, for that matter.

I like Stockhausen, godammit. Not exclusively, that’d be a bit much, but the point is I grew to like a huge variety of strange, avant-garde, off-the-beaten-track music and films, and this connection to the weird, to the outside, the other became important to me. I’m not trying to brag here about how “cultured” I might or might not be, even if it sounds like that, but the fact is I always had a special place in my heart for the kind of stuff that lay outside the mainstream, that defied conventions and “pulverised forms” to paraphrase Alan Moore. My biggest source of emptiness during my year of bulshittery was my forsaking of this element. Save David Lynch’s work [a constant companion without which frankly I might have entirely driven myself up the walls], which managed to stay with me to a certain extent, and some things that seeped through the cracks, or that I enjoyed in secret, the weirdness I unapologetically revelled in was sidelined and absent.

So I found my way back to myself, through suitably strange channels, through meta-referential temporal distortions and allegorical arcs of scattered historical landmarks. I won’t tip-toe around any longer, I read Gravity’s Rainbow and it changed my life. I entered the deeply obscene, beautiful, profound, hilarious, disturbing, confusing and multi-sensory overload of Thomas Pynchon and it practically realigned my brain, poking around in there and unearthing stuff I hadn’t noticed. It acted as a intellectual literary pressure-washer to the cerebral cortex pushing me into a journey through the outer limits of perception I’m still very much enjoying today. 

More recently I’ve found my way back to writing in a big way, largely through finally delving into the work of Mark Fisher and finding a vast web of varied explorations throughout the radical fringes of philosophy and cultural theory. There’s a whole world of material out there I’ve only just started thinking about in the scheme of things, but it feels like a jolt of electricity to my increasingly zombified interest in philosophy, travelling into a strangely compelling yet terrifying dimension of abstract manipulations of cause/effect phenomena, a Lynchian ontological collapsing of space, a blurring of reality-perception. Question my sanity perhaps, but I find the whole thing immensely enjoyable. Simultaneously, through the nexus of Fisher, I have rekindled my love of music and its power to transgress the normal in so many ways. 

So I started this blog, right here, a kind of blank slate from which I intended to chronicle a new process of thinking. I accept that some of my preliminary writings here might be sketchy [preliminary, in other words], I might misinterpret some things, whatever, but what was important to me was this form, this ability to think and write on the fly, something I have started to find increasingly exciting and hopefully can improve my own use of in time as I read myself further into these arcane avenues. 

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Non-Philosophy Notes 1

I drink a branded soft drink, from one can of billions manufactured worldwide every day, standing a building erected in the 19th century, watching a film made in the 1960s on a smartphone made in 2016. During the day I will consume items and culture from the past and the present and from countries spanning the globe. I will continue to assert some kind of identity through this consumption, some kind of construction founded upon a confusing and heady mixture of information chunks and mental patterns shifting in and out of focus as the world changes around me.

I have an idea of self, but no core, none of us can truly claim such a solid idea of who we are behind the layers of clothing and masks that form what we experience as a reality. This is the postmodern condition, a hyperreality of things where what is true and what is tangible is as difficult to place as where I was on this day six years ago, where hundreds of different identities suddenly mingle shoulder to shoulder and experience the difference of the world in simultaneously greater immediacy. Everything more immediate, more now, and yet immediacy breeds distance, information is here, and yet to process that information is to remove ourselves. Some say, for varying reasons that we are approaching some kind of end point, a level of saturation, and that we should either worry or hasten the end.

What if it has already happened? What happens if we are living within an aftermath of an event we didn’t even realise occurred? We might keep ourselves in a state of constant apprehension and expectation, but what happens if the true event isn’t the altering of our course but the lifting of the curtain. The more heightened things become the more evident its workings become, the more those systems work to cover them, the more we try to distract ourselves, the more we accept the state of events and centre ourselves around a future we are now certain will happen. As the late Mark Fisher once noted “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of Capitalism”, and yet why do we seem to automatically assume it is always an end, is this our brain reading understandable patterns onto random occurrences? Is it really easy to imagine the end of anything? Does anything end?

Italian philosopher Emanuele Severino proposed an idea countering the common assumption that all things return to the nothing from whence they came, an Eternity of all Beings, a dismantling of the notion of becoming, a deconstruction of the notion of distance between being and non-being, the proposal that perhaps, being does not come and go, we do not come into being and then dissipate. Being in this model is a constant, a shifting eternal thing, something that can never become nothing. In this most heightened postmodern technological future of constant information feeds and digital preservation this notion seems to gain practical resonance. Of course the digital is the physical, civilization is nature and nothing is eternal, and yet.. even when things dissipate, they remain, ineffable but there, a thread of being.

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here but maybe counter to the idea that the eternal has nothing to do with the postmodern it has everything to do with it, for if anything is eternal is it not the transient, the temporary? It is the contradiction of countering the all consuming narrative by proposing an all consuming narrative of non-narrative that must be made if we are to tackle the non-narrative flow of modern life and reach some kind of understanding of any kind concerning ourselves and the people around us, if not the planet we reside on. Is not contradiction another constant, uncertainty? Surely this non-modernist interpretation is in itself a solid foundation? The foundation upon which to dismantle every preceding foundation? The establishment of a model with which to critique all other models?

For this is the defining response to the postmodern condition, that of critique and dismantling, that of examination, that of resistance. It is not destruction, but a close observation and understanding that defines this, a drawing back of the veil. Social construction, an all encompassing one, an increasingly complex one, defines who we are and that cannot be undone, but if we become aware of the machinery by which it operates social construction can be shifted and crafted anew, and to achieve this perhaps I suggest we must operate somewhere outside the bounds of both philosophy and Praxis, at some intersection of method and theory where contradiction breeds affirmation.

To sit in a room and call it philosophy, then hope the room tells us something meaningful in response, it is entirely ineffectual as any meaningful way of moving forward, and so we reach a point where culture and philosophy compliment each other, the avant-garde and the experimental, those forms of expression that dismantle the excepted modes and create a poetic dissonance, an aesthetics of transgression in response to a stifling unanimity of cultural homogeneity. We must manipulate the very forms of critique and expression to serve as an effective tool of protest, protest at the mandates of socially conservative appeals to normality, to mundanity and banality. To encompass the staggering variation in our number, to recognise difference as an essential component we must endeavour to practice it and look outside the construction of acceptability and prejudice we have erected like a fortress to protect our most fragile works of power and artifice. 

It is with an act that defies the narrative we are provided that this fortress can be dismantled, block by block, an act of creative manipulation. An act of creativity as transgression, as a political and philosophical interrogation of what we consider true, real, natural, human, sane, ordered, normal. Both the artist and the philosopher, and the point where both intersect, are at a unique spot somewhere at the fringes of social change, not driving it per se, but operating outside the eye of the storm. This makes the area of creativity and philosophy far more valuable to us than commonly believed. Think of both as encompassing the role of social critic, of helping us probe and investigate our assumptions of how we live. If there’s one thing that is necessary in this age of information, shifting conceptions of truth and power, of unprecedented complexity and progress despite staggering inequality and exploitation, it’s that. The ability to be critical of the values that drive us, the hierarchies that constrain us, unpick the prejudices that dictate our decisions, take a closer look at what we consider normal and fair. The humanities, the social sciences, art movements harking back to Dadaism, the genuine spirit of experimentalism that drives free improvisation and conceptual art; these more than anything provide us with the tools to interpret this subjective postmodernist cornucopia of horror and riches. Thus, fundamentally, the artist, the philosopher, the critical theorist, the free spirit, they have a key role to play in the times to come. They have the power to speak up for outsiders and to transgress the social norms that define us. We may not have to look to the agents of order to iron out our differences, but the practitioners of chaos to celebrate them.