This collection of lecture notes and transcriptions reveals acclaimed writer and blogger Mark Fisher in his element — the classroom — outlining a project that Fisher’s death left so bittersweetly unfinished.
Here Fisher advocates for the raising of a new kind of consciousness, whilst considering the cultural and political implications of doing so. For him, this process of consciousness raising was always, fundamentally, psychedelic — just not in the way that we might think…
The first book to consider the legacy and work of the writer, cultural critic and cult academic Mark Fisher.
Narrated in orbit of his death as experienced by a community of friends and students in 2017, Egress considers the politics of death and community in a way that is indebted to Fisher’s own forms of cultural criticism, ruminating on personal experience in the hope of making it productively impersonal.
Shout-out to Kode9, recently unearthing Mark’s old essay “SF Capital”, written back when he still didn’t trust the hippies. He noted that the following passage is oddly resonant with the Postcapitalist Desire lectures:
The smooth transition from hippy to hyper-capitalist, from slacker hedonism to authoritarianism, from engagement to entertainment, retrospectively reveals what the punks knew so we when they cackled ‘never trust a hippie’. Far from posing any threat to capitalism, the dope-smoking, soap-dodging rockers of the 60s were acting as capitalism’s reserve army of exploiters, whose time spent at festivals and on the experimental avant-garde fringe did little or nothing to engineer lines of collective escape, but yielded instead resources for the new forms of enslavement that loom everywhere around us now.
In our present moment, and following the softening of Mark’s militantly anti-hippie sentiments, the hippies remain far from vindicated. The issue, perhaps, is that we can’t trust the punks either. Far from posing any threat to capitalism, they lay the groundwork for new forms of reaction.
Post-punk? In 2020, even Nick Cave is an anti-masker.
Novelty does not necessarily belong to the new. Not anymore. Novus, as the word’s etymological root, means “new” quite explicitly, but it also means “original” or “unusual”. The newness of novelty is not absolute.
Increasingly, we might define a novelty as that which has either escaped or is newly present within the typical order of things. As the new stagnates in its postmodern crisis, we find that novelty is as applicable to the tired cliché as it is to a bold new mode of expression.
As a result, Arthur C. Clarke’s assertion that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” begins to lose its potency. Now it is more often the case that any sufficiently redundant technology is indistinguishable from magic also. Our most mundane analogue mediums are transformed by the passage of time into weird objects – not nostalgic objects but objects utterly decontextualised.
Old objects acquire a new power. They become relics, in the true sense of the world – the spiritually potent yet abandoned remains of old ideals.
Occasionally, this process provides older generations with an opportunity to laugh at their youngers, who are oblivious to the cultural power captured within these relics. There are countless videos online, for instance, in which we see parents give their children a VHS tape or a Walkman or something similar and ask them to guess how it worked. What is always captivating about these videos is that, whilst the children’s guesses as to what a given object is for may be way off the mark, their logic is often sound; they are simply approaching a past object from the perspective of an unfolding present.
“A VHS tape is for watching movies”, someone might say, offering up a clue. “Well, where’s the screen?” the child asks in response, curiously turning this opaque rectangle over and over in their hands.
We might interpret this hypothetical child’s attempt at reasoning to be a fine use of their imagination but, as François Bonnet has argued, “Contrary to popular belief, children do not have excessive imaginations.” In fact, when confronted by new sensations and experiences, “a child rapidly runs up against the limit of his imagination, then finds himself before the most radical, the most terrifying unknown.” This is most evident when a child hears something go bump in the night but, when confronted with the cultural artefacts of a previous generation, the situation is more complex. We don’t see terror but curiosity; the terror is instead projected onto them from anxious adults that corral around.
Consider the video above. The children’s innocent reactions to this strange object – a Walkman – are perfectly understandable; the incredulous adults betray a potent anxiety that lingers behind their smiles. After all, these children may not know how a Walkman works but they remain “digital natives”, always-already at home with technologies that baffle their elders.
One of the adults shares a telling anecdote in this regard, adding that his daughter recently went on his laptop and started jabbing at the screen, thinking it was touch-sensitive. “She is too used to her tablet”, he laughs, shaking his head with an obligatory and knowingly-clichéd “kids these days!”
But this clip was first uploaded online six years ago. At the time of writing, the screen of the laptop I am writing on is touch-sensitive.
Can we go so far as to argue that the contemporary intuitions of children predict the future? To watch them mocked, no matter how gently, is to see the joke backfire. A child’s lack of imagination with regards to the past comes full circle as adults find themselves just as incapable of imagining the possibilities of the present. In this sense, Bonnet’s description of a child’s terror and uncertainty when faced with a “new” aesthetic experience is just as applicable to the adults themselves, who are today routinely confronted with rapidly accelerating technological experiences that they can barely keep up with.
Readers, I’m sorry. I made a mistake. I recently promised you a 10,000 word monstrosity on the new Oneohtrix Point Never album, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never, but I think it would be better for all if I cut my losses and abandoned the project.
It seemed doable at the time. I had clocked up some 8,000 words of notes but the end was nowhere in sight. That was quite exciting. To be in the midst of such an outpouring is the kick I’m always chasing. It was clear that, if I was to fully unpack all my thoughts and feeling about this release, it could probably be the length of a small book, and I had every intention of vomiting it all up for you to probably bookmark for later and never come back to. But, in the end, I lost momentum.
Magic Oneohtrix Point Never has me feeling very inspired lately because the questions it has raised chime with a lot of my present research. I have been unearthing the early blogosphere’s writings around accelerationism for much of this year and I am some 50,000 words into a new book draft, but more recently I have entered a new phase of research where I consider how the questions asked by the first accelerationists and hauntologists and speculative realists — although largely maligned today — have nonetheless continued to percolate in our cultural discourse.
Oneohtrix Point Never is exemplary of how those questions are manifest, but in trying to explain why I feel that is the case, I had begun to regurgitate a lot of my research. Whilst it has helped clarify my current work-in-progress immensely, I don’t think it would do me any favours to keep slogging away at it. The full exegesis is probably better left in the oven for a little while long.
Nevertheless, if I was to summarise where my head is at right now, I would do it as follows:
On the one hand, the early twenty-first century was defined by thinkers like Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek, who were considering how a new political movement could be born after Occupy failed to produce a new popular anti-capitalist opposition (although its cultural influence on an emergent generation of young activists surely cannot be overstated). On the other hand, a lot of cultural discourse was defined by writers such as Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher, who were explicitly concerned about a pop-cultural stagnation following the apparent “end of history”. This stagnation was supposedly disproven as the years dragged on and their critical view of the present was soon blamed on their disconnection from the youth or then-emergent subcultures. This does a disservice to their arguments. Though it is true that their critiques feel less relevant now than they once did — in part thanks to the terms they used to define their discourses falling into catastrophic disrepute — the tensions they uncovered have still yet to be fully resolved.
All in all, the questions that linger today are: What is the New? And how does it manifest itself? Or, alternatively: How is it produced? Philosophically, we can turn to Deleuze and Badiou. (I already wrote about this recently here.) Does the new emerge wholly ex nihilo? (Those who have internalised a misunderstanding of Fisher’s hauntological critiques certainly refuse to accept anything less than an absolute New, even though I reckon they’d reject it outright if it landed in their lap.) Or does the new emerge from a multiplicitious sense of the past? (The particulars of Deleuze’s theory of time(s) — difference and repetition, aion and chronos, etc. — are fascinating to consider here but aren’t so easily dissolved into a nice chat about pop music. Nevertheless, we can see this approach expressed in the work of William Burroughs, in hip-hop, in the Situationist International, in “deconstructed club music”, in all sorts of places.)
My feeling at the moment, for both contemporary music (pop or otherwise) and political philosophy, is that the truth is to be found in some synthesis of the two. How can we retain a fidelity to the new — new forms, new visions, new futures, new realities — without throwing the recombinant baby out with the bath water? How can we retain a cultural love of the sample, of chopping and screwing, of mutating, without becoming complicit in capitalism’s appropriations? How do we tell the two apart? How do use use the former to stay one step ahead of the latter?
Clearly these are very big questions. They were nonetheless some of the questions I hoped to tackle in my reflections not only on Magic Oneohtrix Point Never but all the previous albums Daniel Lopatin has released over the last 10-15 years. In fact, I had intended to break each of these albums down and consider how each entry in his oeuvre has toed the line between cultural innovation and capitalist appropriation.
Consider Replica, for instance — a slab of earworms created from sampled commercials and advertisements. It is a masterful and evocative record. It epitomises, I think, what Mark Fisher called a “digital psychedelia”; a capitalist counter-sorcery.
Advertisements are essentially fish hooks, intended to lure us into an engagement with the market. Lopatin, in removing the final destination and looping the samples into hypnotic grooves, emphasises that intention but uncouples it from its ultimate purpose. We feel that desire, hard-baked into the commercial soundscape, but here it is instead inserted into the unconscious in the form of earworms, and we are left with a music that leaves us desiring itself. Not a jingle that enforces us to remember a brand but a jingle that forces us to remember ourselves. It is both seductive and jarring in equal measure.
This experience has been shared by every 0PN record since. Indeed, every first listen to a 0PN record has been the same for me — I may not immediately enjoy it or be able to place it within my expectations, but rather than be absolutely repulsive I find myself always coming back for more. The feedback loop created is hallucinatory — whether it is capitalism or teenage memories of nu metal or format fetishishism, the target of Lopatin’s acidic practice is gradually displaced and a new kind of mental process takes over: one that is newly generative and inspiring rather than purely nostalgic or haunted.
This is where Lopatin’s time-travelling twists first emerge and set him apart from his peers. Whilst his practice is by no means — in and of itself — new, in constantly updating it to the present we find a new kind of psychedelia produced each time. It is hardly aesthetically comparable to psychedelic cliché but this is precisely how Lopatin has managed to skirt around the faults of his contemporaries.
For instance, I recently wrote about how I first saw Lopatin perform at an Animal Collective-curated music festival back in 2011. Looking back, 0PN feels like an odd fit for that line-up but, at the time, he wasn’t at all. His psychedelic output seemed very similar to much of what was being put out at that time but, in hindsight, it differs in a very important way.
The more typical production of hallucinatory feedback loops might be epitomised by a track like “Take Pills” by Panda Bear. It’s sampling of Scott Walker’s Proustian chanson “Always Coming Back To You” is inspired, but the track’s Sixties sentimentality is repurposed for a post-Beach Boys psychedelic bop that seems to lament a lost generation of acid casualties in a world where visions are nonetheless needed more than ever.
Lopatin’s output has never shared this psychedelic melancholy. In fact, his distance from his peers is arguably what has allowed him to persevere over the last decade whereas so many others have fallen from critical favour.
Lopatin seems innately aware of this difference. For example, in a 2013 cover story written by Derek Walmsley for The Wire, he notes that his love of synths set him very much outside what was popular at the time. When he was in college, he recalls, “it was the height of freak folk”, and his “Juno-60 and tape machine and loops”, contrary to what you might expect, were not welcome as part of that scene. “That whole experience was so unhappy”, he says. “It lacked a kind of communal vibe.”
So Lopatin finds himself falling in with the Boston noise scene. Walmsley notes what sets them apart, writing:
Noise is often discussed (and mythologised) as if it were a precisely definable musical style – a brutal endgame where all ideas of structure are thrown out the window. But in the US, particularly with its distinctively regional dynamic of independent local scenes, Noise was more like an optimistic fresh start, a blank slate for kids to start again from first principles and see where it took them.
Here we see how Lopatin, though he no doubt shared the counter-cultural tastes of his peers, was more attuned to the production of the new rather than a latent mourning of what was now in the past.
He may have initially hoped for some affinity with his peers, but this apparent inability to fit in with the Noughties cool kids has been vindicated. Recently reviewing Sufjan Stevens’ 2020 album The Ascension, Carl Wilson poignantly reflects on the “gauzy idealization of childishness [that] seemed endemic to indie rock” in the 2000s, “particularly among artists often grouped with Stevens as psychedelic folk or ‘freak folk’”. He notes that
collectively [the freak folk scene] seemed to be staging a kind of privileged retreat from the dystopic realities of post-9/11 America while claiming it as resistance. It recollected the worst solipsistic flower-child affectations of 1960s hippies and flattered and indulged their audiences’ insular LiveJournaling sensitivities.
In this sense, the Noughties idealization of a musical naivety was less a celebration of innocence than a mournful expression at its loss post-9/11. Freak folk was not an embrace of new freedoms but an attempt to hold onto to freedoms eventually lost.
The Boston noise scene may have been Lopatin’s saving grace. He has gone on to progress and mature in a way that very few others within his generation have. He has weathered the storm and retained his relevance from record to record.
How? Perhaps it comes down to a subtle difference in orientation. At the dawn of a new millennium and the end of an old dream, Lopatin was one of the grateful dead; his peers and the critics of the time were not grateful for their lot at all.
Fast-forward to 2020 and it feels like Magic Oneohtrix Point Never is an much-needed jolt for those of us who may be feeling that old melancholy creep back in, somewhat inevitably during this hollow and uneventful year where it feels like we have lost much more than just 12 months of our lives.
It is an album that is both strange and familiar. We hear shades of all of Lopatin’s preceding projects in here, as if he has expertly salvaged all the best bits of his various experiments and presented them to us on an irresistible platter. Philip Sherburne no doubt said in best in the leader for his review of the album for Pitchfork: “Daniel Lopatin’s latest doesn’t swerve in a new direction but instead serves as an overlook for his career, highlighting his skill at splicing the old and the new in continually fascinating ways.” Too right! And yet, this praise is also somewhat understated. It is the sort of praise all too often given to an album late in an artist’s career, which reminds us why we love them. A sort of victory lap, as it were.
Lopatin has certainly covered a lot of ground. From sorcerous muzak and nu-metallic concrète to baroque synth-trap and Svengali pop, it feels like he has been moving ever further outwards, and so an album that feels like less of a sonic challenge and more in-line with his oversall sound is surprising, but, to me, it feels more like a fly-by. This isn’t 0PN losing its edge. It is a project on an elliptical orbit out in the trash stratum and 2020 has brought it closer to earth than ever before.
There is so much left to say here but, if I am being honest with myself, I have once again bitten off more than I can chew. Instead, I hope that I can continue to expand the pages upon pages of notes I’ve gathered over the last month into a series that fragments these thoughts and offers them up piecemeal, one essay at a time — whether on this blog or posted elsewhere. Later, they’ll no doubt end up patchworked within my next book project in all their glory but, for now, I’m constipated.
Before the laxative kicks in, I would like to leave you with a final thought, cut loose from the unruly Document, which perhaps summarises what feels so precious about Magic Oneohtrix Point Never in 2020 of all years…
The image that defines this album for me is actually tangential to Lopatin’s OPN output. Back in March of this year, mere weeks before the world locked down, Lopatin was on Saturday Night Live backing up The Weeknd on a performance of his song “Scared to Live”.
It is an evocative performance, at the time of recording and even more so looking back. Abel Tesfaye’s battered and broken face prefigures a cultural landscape pummelled by political upheaval and strife, nonetheless imploring the subject of his song not to be scared to live again. It’s upbeat but dark — the sort of romantic ballad that I imagine empowering an agoraphobe who hasn’t left the house since their mugging.
More explicitly, it feels like a love song to a movement. Tesfaye’s face evokes the beaten protestors of the Black Lives Matter movement who once again define our present discontent, but who are threatened not only by the long arm of the state but the emboldened militias that counter their cries with an increasing ferocity. Defiant but battered, it is a movement that implores a whole race of people not to be scared to live again.
Familiar but jarring as ever, Lopatin bounces in the background to the pop power ballad. As producer, he comes to resemble that unconscious voice that speaks to a time beyond the battered present, somewhere eternal. As Tesfaye weathers the pop frontline, Lopatin lurks in the background, although no less significant, having survived the cultural contradictions of the last two decades somehow unscathed, face intact.
We should not presume that this is because Lopatin has sat out the fight; that old mask was more like a cunning shield. He has instead reached his ultimate — but surely not final — form: the producer as Man-in-the-High-Castle, somehow able to produce visions of alternative presents.
As Enrico Monacelli recently highlighted, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never is an album that evokes “format flips”: “those moments in which American radio stations change their biology, ceasing to be, for example, predominantly easy-listening radio and becoming soft-rock radio.” Lopatin isn’t so much nostalgia for radio, he is radio — a receptor for shifting signals, with one foot firmly in the present, helping to manufacture today’s hits, whilst his other foot is in the eternal, evoking the river that such hits are tossed into without a paddle.
This is how Magic Oneohtrix Point Never feels. It is not only that it compiles all that Lopatin has learnt and explored over the last decade or so, but in doing so it seems to map a way out of our stasis, beyond the injuries that ache all too presently.
With “Scared to Live” in mind, I think my favourite track on Magic Oneohtrix Point Never is “No Nightmares”, also featuring the Weeknd. It is a track that seems to reach out of its own conceptual landscape and into Tesfaye’s. Whereas the message behind “Scared to Live” seems self-explanatory, the sentiment behind “No Nightmares” is more elusive, but it is surely related…
Once you’re no longer scared to live, stop being scared to dream.
This is but one example how Magic Oneohtrix Point Never manages to float above the plane of pop’s present somewhat omniscient, with an eye to the past but also an eye to a future that has all but vanished in the fog of lockdown. If the future is going to be worth having, we have to learn lessons from both of worlds: the material and the immaterial. But, even more importantly, we have to realise that it is in the gap between the two — between the battered new struggling to be born, and the recombinant that emerges eerily unscathered — that is where the true new is lying in wait for us.
Lopatin has known for this a long time. We’ve struggled to keep up. If Magic Oneohtrix Point Never feels familiar, it is because Lopatin has been channelling this message for a long time now, but he has expressed it here with a whole new clarity.
This is to say that, although the sounds are different, the message is a repetition. But this is also why his message is so powerful and revelatory.
Consider the fragmentary text that still appears beneath the videos archived from his old Memory Vague project, first released over a decade ago:
It is in the weird stasis of in-between zones that this polarized system breaks down This zone contains secrets that inform the future via exploding the past
[Nostalgia’s failure is a decoding force]
Magic Oneohtrix Point Never decodes 2020 in real time, as Lopatin doesn’t just express this in-between zone but finally becomes it.
From hauntology to the eerie: we might conjecture that Mark’s theorising of the eerie is itself “haunted” by his earlier theorising of the hauntological. What starkly noticeable is that his last text, The Weird and the Eerie makes no mention whatsoever of hauntology/the hauntological, only many references throughout to “haunting”, and the “haunted”. Why this omission, this anomaly?
But then, the similarities between the hauntological and the eerie are too great to overlook. Recall Mark’s initial definition of hauntology via Derrida: “Derrida defines hauntology as the study of that which repeats without ever being present. To elaborate, we might say that the revenant repeats without being present in the first place – where ‘place’ is equivalent in meaning to ‘time’. Nothing occupies the point of origin, and that which haunts insists without ever existing.”
Derrida’s hauntology occupies the space between Being and Nothingness (both the “no longer” and the “not yet”), and Lacan’s ‘hauntology’ is located “between the two deaths”, of symbolic death or real death. The eerie is also located between Being and Nothingness, is also “between the two deaths”, of something where there should be nothing (failure of absence/nothingness) or of nothing where there should be something (failure of presence/being).
Mark developed his ideas about Hauntology in parallel with those about the Weird (including weird fiction and weird realism), which is why he later distinguishes between the eerie and the weird, the latter entailing an ontological collapse, a collision of worlds, a “wrongness” of place, of that which does not belong, of the surreal montage, and a possible descent into psychosis/schizophrenia and/or the construction of a new world, a new reality.
Mark again: “Hauntology isn’t a political strategy. It’s about responding to what’s there –or about what *absently insists* in what is there. It’s best conceived of as a symptomatology, cultural rather than political (where culture is very much read, naturally, as a political-economic effect).”
Their relation to accelerationism is that they’re cultural lines of flight, are an aesthetics of desubjectivisation and disidentification via an encounter with the radical Outside, and indirectly entail a radical libidinal re-engineering separate from postmodern neoliberal late capitalism, a post-capitalist realism.
Acid communism is also about the “not yet” hauntology of the counterculture, but “acid” is here double, referring to acidic/caustic/cold/mordant/critical reason as much as to psychedelic reason.
The question of why The Weird and the Eerie is hauntological in all but name is a very good point. I hadn’t thought about that before. But I otherwise agree wholeheartedly.
There is a lot in that book that is far from explicit, in a way that seems very much unlike Mark. The whole book feels like an anomaly, in many respects, but a fascinating one.
I was said something similar on this blog and I think it was taken by someone as a criticism, when actually I find The Weird and the Eerie all the more compelling for how implicit it is in articulating the previous phase of Mark’s thinking.
Nevertheless, by way of a defense of the books, I was told that Mark was editing it whilst in the depths of his final depression, and so he was a lot less willing to make amends to it than he perhaps would have been. The feeling was apparently that there was more to be said but he didn’t want to hear it. However, I also don’t see that as a negative. I think the implicitness forces the engaged reader to make more of an effort to join the dots — as you’ve done brilliantly, Padraig. And I think that also helps the book feel more future-oriented, thanks to its omissions of Mark’s own past work. It is hauntological in all but name so as to better foreground what was to come in Acid Communism — that’s my feeling, anyway.
But perhaps that’s also because Mark anticipated the backlash to come from his Acid Communism. With hauntology having been reduced to “a neurotic and melancholic obsession with past forms” by cynics, his return to the potentials of the 70s was bound to open him up to ridicule. But what exists of Acid Communism makes it feel like a much more generative and positive project.
I suppose it is an attempt to re-emphasise that disparity, discussed in the last post, between Deleuze and Badiou — between historical difference and political repetition. If I might phrase your final point in another way: Having been weighed down by the innate melancholy of ghosts and spectres, is there a better way of thinking about the gothic nature of this problem of the new? Is there another way of talking about the weird and eerie — that is, the transhistorical — aspects of leftist thought and history that does not collapse onto grief and melancholy but still retains that’s hallucinatory — “seeing things that, materially speaking, both are and aren’t there” — valence of the political imagination? Acid Communism feels like a good stab at that.
Many thanks again to Padraig, who left an extensive and really excellent follow-up comment on my previously blogged response in what is surely now a conversation on hauntology — a conversation on a blog! There’s still life in the blogosphere yet!
Matt, thanks for your excellent and extended response to my earlier very brief remarks about your post on holography and its related issues, and please forgive me for my somewhat lengthy response below, something I had not at all originally planned, but which fervently developed out of an underlying long-standing desire to “cognitively map” some of the issues raised both by technology & hauntology, and their connection with Mark’s ideas, as well as with the philosophical sciences, the natural sciences, political aesthetics and psychoanalysis.
As we’re discussing the hauntological dimension of recordings (even if they are just amounting to digital re-animations, re-creations, or simulations, whether visual or aural) by reference to one of its more recent technical manifestations — holograms & holography — it might be beneficial to reconsider recorded artefacts here — whether in the visual realm of photography, film, video, 3D, holography, as well as the fine arts, or the aural media of recorded sound, from speech to music – in terms of their spectrality and their relation to postmodernity and late capitalism.
The first issue to address is whether we’re to treat holography, in its current instantiations, as exclusively postmodern or whether it has a hauntological dimension. Recall, firstly, Mark’s contention that hauntology (derived from his readings of Marx, Derrida, Freud, and Lacan, as well as from such popular-cultural works as The Shining, Sapphire & Steel, The Caretaker, Burial etc.) is postmodernism’s doppelganger, that is to say, is its repressed underside, is that on which late capitalism forecloses. Instead of hauntology — of the in-becomings of past modernisms, movements, forms, relics, of their never-realised anticipations, their ‘lost futures’ — postmodernism instead just resurrects and simulates the dead forms of the past (“the nostalgic mode”), perpetuates them in their very deadness, persisting as dead, as the living dead, as an undead zombie culture in continuous decay, such archaic-dead cultural simulations serving as an extra-ideological or fetishistic support for late capitalism, as its “cultural logic”. Far from such living-dead simulations being an escape from quotidian reality, much less a challenge to it, they were what further enabled it, reproduced it, and perpetuated it (“capitalist realism”: Mark renamed Jameson’s late capitalist postmodernism as capitalist realism because it had now become so ubiquitous, hegemonic, full-spectrum dominant — retro culture and business ontology were now pervasive and largely unconscious, with the archaic presented as “new and innovative” everywhere while the genuinely innovative and challenging was paranoiacally dismissed, censored, aggressively discarded as passé and “old-fashioned”, still continuing).
Is, then, holography to be treated as just more vacuous postmodern kitsch — as “special effects” or (potentially) as a hauntological spectre that touches the unconscious real? Certainly its applications and instantiations to date seem affectless, deflationary, and banal, as they seem to reside in an atemporal, non-spacial, decontextualised, dehistoricised, empty-iconic realm of pervasive, flattened-out CGI, devoid of even the uncanny, as well as of the eerie or the weird. There’s a Hollywood-Disney comical-cartoonishness about CGI holograms precisely because, like cartoons, they are in infantile denial of death and sexuality. Like the Death Drive itself, everything is eternal in cartoons, their supernaturalist denial of mortality and finitude being their primary appeal. It is perhaps too early to say, but I don’t think we can dismiss all of photography and film as just bland “special effects” irrespective of the class structures and public-state/private-corporate alignments and bourgeois interests from which their various inventions emerged.
If I might interject here, just so as to properly give each point space to breath. I think this is a really interesting point.
I agree. This is the temporal tension that I often find flattened in a lot of hauntological writing. I suppose the issue for photography or audio recording, etc., is that it is hauntological in Derrida’s original sense. (I made this point on Twitter recently.) Derrida notes a certain kind of reactionary hauntological mode, far too mournful, that prefigures “the ghost [something] is to become” (or something like that — quote not verbatim.) Rather than doing “the work of mourning”, it makes the affect of mourning eternal.
Roland Barthes has that experience with photography, in that he sees in the photograph of his mother an eternality which she does not have. The same is true of audio recordings, like Basinski’s tape loops, the destruction of which is recorded so that it then exists for eternity and isn’t actually allowed to die. But I think you’re right that preserving something that goes onto die is one thing; resurrecting something is another matter.
Still, there’s an important tension here, which I’m thinking about quite a lot at the moment, which is that hauntology tries to walk a fine line between two modes of production of the new that are in crisis; it slides between Deleuzian multiplicity and Badiouian event.
(This might seem like something of a tangent but hopefully its relevance becomes clear in due course.)
Sam Gillespie discusses the difference between the two with incredible lucidity in his 2008 book The Mathematics of Novelty. He notes how, for Deleuze — quoting the man himself — “the aim of philosophy is not to rediscover the eternal or universal, but to find the conditions under which something new is produced.” Gillespie notes, then, that Deleuze’s “principal adversary” in this regard was not Hegel but Plato; “a Platonism of eternal, unchanging forms, existing independently of a world that is continually in a state of change.” It is philosophy’s responsibility, as far as Deleuze is concerned, to uncover “the conditions under which that change occurs.”
These conditions are, in one sense, the conditions of being itself. To jettison creativity into some outside is disastrously theological. Deleuze does not believe that all of life emerges from a kind of Oneness – be that one God or the Oneness of the universe – but from a pure and churning multiplicity. “The ‘lines of flight’ that should be familiar to even the most casual reader of Deleuze find their convergence not in a singular point,” Gillespie notes, “but in the various ‘bifurcations’ and ‘divergences’ they assume in the course of their own movement” — be that the evolution of life itself or the movement of cultural production, the New will generate itself.
Badiou, however, does not assume “that being exists as a creative power, but rather that to think being we need nothing more than a formal assertion that nothing … exists.” This is his “minimalist metaphysics” or his “anti-nihilist nihilism”. Gillespie asserts, however, that in many ways Deleuze’s and Badiou’s positions are not so different – “contemporary mathematics attests to the fact that zero” – as Badiou’s starting point – “and infinity” – akin to Deleuze’s notion of multiplicity – “are coextensive.” But when we consider the production of the New, the conceptual difference between these two positions becomes quite stark. We can imagine, perhaps, a generative infinity, but what is it to create ex nihilo?
The reason I’m mentioning this is that I think this is what Enrico Monacelli is gesturing towards in his recent essay on hauntology. (In Italian here but English version is forthcoming, I believe.) He makes an interesting provocation that undermines the cliched logic of most hauntological takes: how can you be nostalgic for something that exists eternally?
Again, that’s perhaps the difference between photography and holography that I think you very rightly emphasise here. But it does make me feel somewhat uneasy about Fisher’s separation between postmodernism and hauntology. (Personally, I don’t think there is one — postmodernism is the process; hauntology is its — potentially generative — effect on subjectivity)
I’ve recently been thinking that this may be another issue of Fisher stealing an already existing word or phrase and undermining himself in the process. I don’t think that what he is gesturing at is a “good postmodernism” — as Alex Williams once called it — but perhaps an “infra-modernism”. Hauntology is a way of shining a light on the modernist tendencies that still occasionally emerge from postmodernism. None of this is so simple as he makes it out, however. In fact, I think that’s why mentioning Badiou and Deleuze is important — they linger in the background, and their compatibility is a major talking point for the speculative realists, but Mark does have a tendency to obfuscate the nuts and bolts to his own disservice.
This is most apparent in his writing on hauntology and accelerationism. I know you said recently on Twitter how salvagepunk is part of hauntology’s toolkit but I think it is closer to accelerationism — and even then, perhaps hauntology and accelerationism are two sides of the same coin. But I think each again represents a different kind of “new” struggling to persist as postmodernity attempts to collapse both onto each other: one revolutionary and explosive; the other reformist and recombinant. The issue for hauntology / accelerationism is that both are arguably cancelling each other out, due to the fact they are held in such close proximity within the imaginative lack of late capitalism.
And so, in that sense, I do think holography exists in a peculiar middle ground, where generating a hologram of someone long dead is based on nothing but a CGI likeness, and therefore quite radically a new imagining of that person, but is also oddly recombinant of other people’s expectations.
This might be a considerable amount of overthinking, but I think when we are left asking the question “is this postmodern or hauntological?”, we’re already in a hauntological space. It is a question that precisely points to the somewhat abortive presence of “the New” that cannot be resolved. And it is that lack of resolve that allows capitalism to feed on it.
For some of the most moving and numinously sublime haeccieties are to be found in photography and film/cinema: see Mark’s post on John Foxx’s Tiny Colout Movies (‘old sunlight from other times and other lives’: John Foxx’s Tiny Colour Movies: June 19, 2006. This is easily one of Mark’s most insightful posts) for more on this and on the precise contexts in which visual recordings and artefacts can have the most profound affects eg Mark’s judgement on the famous slow-lingering tracking shot and sequence in Tarkovsky’s Stalker as “the most moving scene in all of cinema”:
“This is not an inner but an Outer calm; not a discovery of a cheap New Age ‘real’ Self , but a positive alienation, in which the cold pastoral freezing into a tableau is experienced as a release from identity. Dun Scotus’ concept of the haecceity – the ‘here and now’ – seems particularly apposite here. Deleuze and Guattari seize upon this in A Thousand Plateaus as a depersonalized mode of individuation in which everything – the breath of the wind, the quality of the light – plays a part. A certain use of film – think, particularly, of the aching stillness in Kubrick and Tarkovsky – seems especially set up to attune us to hacceity; as does the polaroid, a capturing of a haecceity which is itself a haecceity.”
“To leaf through other people’s family photos, to see moments that were of intense emotional significance for them but which mean nothing to you, is, necessarily, to reflect on the times of high drama in your own life, and to achieve a kind of distance that is at once dispassionate and powerfully affecting. That is why the – beautifully, painfully – dilated moment in Tarkovsky’s Stalker where the camera lingers over talismanic objects that were once saturated with meaning, but are now saturated only with water is for me the most moving scene in cinema. It is as if we are seeing the urgencies of our lives through the eyes of an Alien-God.”
“But, contrary to today’s dominant Ego Psychology, which hectors us into reinforcing our sense of self (all the better to ‘sell ourselves’), the awareness of our own Nothingness is of course a pre-requisite for a feeling of grace. There is a melancholy dimension to this grace precisely because it involves a radical distanciation from what is ordinarily most important to us.”
This is fascinating, and again shows how Mark’s Deleuzian drive for newness finds itself stepping into Badiouian territory. (Not that that is much of an insight — they do have plenty of overlap, in some respects.) But it also speaks to Mark’s Spinozism, which I think foreshadows a lot of neo-rationalism, and is arguably the shared starting point for Deleuze and Badiou despite their other divergences.
However, I’d argue that Mark later thawed on his Kubrickian coldness. I don’t say this to refute your nod to this post — it is magnificent — but I do think it once again points to a tension and an unsettled part of his thought. His transition from hauntology to accelerationism to acid communism (whilst all remain related to one another and share a common thread or set of problems) does suggest he finds himself once again falling between these two broadly Continental positions, like many of his peers.
There is a sense in which – one core aspect of – much of the entire Renaissance project, from early to late, from Da Vinci to Vermeer, was photography’s futur anterieur. The entire theoretical framework, methodology, and materiality of many Renaissance painters already entailed most all the elements, the components of what would later emerge as the photo camera, all elements bar one – the recording surface itself, the photo-sensitive chemicals on a glass plate, the eventual analogue-celluloid film strip. These artists drew on the Theory of Optics and used the Camera Obscura, mirrors, lenses, vanishing point, one-point perspective, chiarascuro, in preparing for, framing, and designing their paintings. If anything, photography was the end result of the late Renaissance/late Baroque/Rococo/neo-Classical eras, with its growing preoccupations with realism and empiricism and ‘natural philosophy’.
The beginnings of Modernism – at least in the fine arts – were therefore a dialectical response to and engagement with the invention of photo-realism via photography, for the early modernisms in the 19th century, such as the Impressionists and the Pre-Raphaelites, did, of course, move in a very different direction to photo-realism, of a move away from a suddenly excessively present empiricism, simultaneously banal and overpowering, to both the symbolic and the fantasmatic-real, to the radically external real that the immediate-empirical excludes (hinting at a world beyond the Reality Principle, of contingency and possibility), and while some of it can be rightfully rejected as smug escapism and mysticism by the then-emerging bourgeois leisure classes, it nevertheless also reflected the latest developments in Optics Theory and the Colour Field, such as the central role of Colour Complementarity (the three doubly intense and ultra contrasting pairs of primary additive and primary subtractive colours: Red and Cyan, Green and Magenta, and Blue and Yellow/Orange), its insights informing also the post-impressionists, the early expressionists and proto-surrealists, the Fauvists, the Pointillists, from Monet to Van Gogh, and on into the 20th Century modernisms of Dadaism, Cubism, Constructivism, Surrealism, and Abstraction. All of that was occurring against the ‘realist’ backdrop of an increasingly dominant and mass marketed photography as well as the growth of what was suddenly termed “Science”, a term that only gained acceptance in the 19th century, replacing – after about two millenia – Natural Philosophy.
Painting and photography/film have themselves a spectral relation, much like the reversing ontological relation between sculpture and architecture (eg sculpture as a materialisation of the enclosed spaces, the voids, of architecture, of inhabited buildings). Take a film like Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, with its meticulously precise dynamic-filmic recreations of 18th Century Rococo paintings, where the formerly easy distinctions between painting and film/cinematography start to disintegrate, while still creating an intense and desubjectified vision of an imagined past that is a symptom, that bears witness to our own present.
This is fascinating, and perhaps again suggests an uncomfortable middle-ground for this sort of technology.
There’s probably a point to be made regarding the hologram of Tupac, for example — that the sampling of his image from beyond the grave is arguably fair game given hip-hop’s penchant for détournement. But, as you demonstrate, photography’s aping of painterly motifs — the new salvaging from the old or already established — backfired in that it freed painting from its own trajectory and made it new again.
We already discussed this briefly on Twitter, but this is what separates hauntography from something like salvagepunk, I think. Was photography painting’s accelerationist moment? Rather than capturing it, it revealed a way out through painting’s own aesthetic boundaries?
In that clip from The Wire previously posted, it is interesting that Mark says that salvagepunk is
at once a sensibility; a kind of non-genre embracing film, fiction and other cultural spheres; and a theoretical framework … opposed to the “inherent flatness and equivalency of postmodern cultural production”.
By opposition to postmodern pastiche, in which any sign can be juxtaposed with any other in a friction-free space, salvagepunk retains the specificity of cultural objects, even as it bolts them together into new assemblages. That’s precisely because salvagepunk is dealing with objects rather than signs. While signs are interchangeable, objects have particular properties, textures and tendencies, and the art of salvage is about knowing which objects can be lashed together to form viable constructions.
Holography once again falls through the cracks here, however. And, as you suggest, this might just be because it’s too early to claim it one way or another. But the Robert Kardashian hologram feels like a challenge to this. In many ways, it is a kind of sentimental détournement — and therefore postmodern in the sense that it collapses a paradoxical assemblage onto a new flatness. In representing a specific person, no longer with us but resurrected, is RK a object-become-sign? Or an object-sign in his very spectrality?
Is that what makes it postmodern? Rather than disintegrating distinctions it attempts to represent both. It disintegrates by reifying rather than disintegrating the reified?…
I’ve had a few deadlines to get out of the way recently and it has swallowed up the last couple of weeks. I’m somewhat shocked by how much time has past… So forgive me if my next couple of posts have me jumping back into a few old conversations…
First things first, a couple weeks ago I received this excellent comment from Ed on my post about Tory Maoism. As ever, it is too good not to share above the comment line:
There’s kind of interesting motif I’ve noticed where Maoism has become the go-to label for a wide variety of political phenomena that have bubbled up over the last several years. The one that comes to mind the most is the refrain that we heard from the right during the George Floyd protests: that the protesters, especially when things reached the ‘tearing down statues’ phase, were basically Maoists, and that what was happening was effectively a new Cultural Revolution. But in the wake of the elections, we’ve seen the term deployed by liberal commentators in connection to the sharp political divide between the urban zones (strongly inclined towards the Democratic Party) and the rural regions (dominated by the Republicans).
I’m fascinated by the way that Mao(ism) is this thing that has returned to haunt the mind, in various and often contradictory ways. Clearly the deployment by American liberal commentators in reference to the election is distinct from the ‘Tory Maoism’ example (the critique of the George Floyd protests would be more directly isomorphic), but it is intriguing in its own right: one can argue — like Alvin Gouldner did — that Maosim a more ‘populist’ strain of Marxism, one that angled itself against the more technocratic form of socialism that was taking shape and being exported by the Soviet Union. The “bombard the headquarters” campaign exemplified this. Later, when Maoism was taken up by certain sectors of the New Left, it was taking the precise form of an organizational-political critique of the managerialism of the Old Left and the first wave of the New Left. So it seems to me that there is a kind of skeletal repetition of this dynamic, where for the liberal (the technocrat-manager par excellence) can only see in “populism” (in quotes because what goes for populism is largely a simulated construction; Baudrillard once wrote that the ‘silent majority’ is a sociological void, an implosion of socio-political management, but contemporary control systems have fabulated it into a quasi-potent political force) the echo of the Maoist uprising.
Perhaps going to far afield, but part of me thinks that the ghost of Maoism stalks postmodernity because it contains within itself elements that might suggest direct ways of acting internal to the postmodern, i.e. the acephalic model of dialectic that foregrounds the paradoxical structure, the breakdown of stadialist accounts of historical development, the division of the one into the two, etc. But whether or not these actual open the door to something else is another question.
This chimes with some recent research I’ve been doing around what Foucault called “sociological governance”, building on the previous post’s nod to Badiou’s crisis of the new, which he hoped to solve in the late 2000s with a resurgent Marxist-Leninism.
Credit where due, there’s an old article for Frieze magazine written by Lars Bang Larsen in 2012 that brought this to mind. In the essay, Larsen paints a familiar picture: our present socio-political purgatory emerged, on the one hand, from the “claim put forward by conservative thinkers vis-à-vis the end of the Cold War” that history as such had now ended. However, on the other hand, this new era of ultimate acquiescence to ideological and evental stasis was similarly interpreted “from a different perspective by critical minds such as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt” as the erasure of any “outside to the present order.” It was the ascendency of what Mark Fisher most famously called “capitalist realism”.
Larsen notes that this “‘no outside’ predicament” was the direct product of “Tony Blair’s and Gerhard Schröder’s ‘Third Way’ paradigm” – now diffusely known as liberal centrism. What was initially theorised as a way of “humanising” capitalism – following the introduction of elements from “ethical socialism” and a naïve belief in the power of gradual reform – led to the deferral of all change whatsoever. In hindsight, it is recognised as a political attempt to trap society in a postmodern resin. As a result, Larsen writes, “Left and right merged, state and economy were integrated in increasingly informal ways, and politics lost its fixed points.”
The tenets of “ethical socialism” are particularly notable here as this leads not to the normalisation of Marxian critique within social democracies but instead to the implementation of “sociological” governance and the calcification of capitalism itself. Larsen continues:
Foucault described neo-liberalism as sociological government: in this model, the realms of the social and cultural – rather than the economy – are mobilized for competition and commerce. During the 1990s, a new economy began brimming with imperatives to socialize through email, mobile phones and, later, social media, and as social and economic processes were pulled closer together, both art and power became ‘sociological’. The reification of the social form became almost indistinguishable from social content. In other words, the social can also be a simulacrum: an instrumentalization of models and tastes that are already received and working in the culture at large.
This point is important to note because it demonstrates how political stasis was purposefully dissolved into cultural production. Neoliberal governments failed to cover all the basis.
For Jacques Derrida, this reification of the social form was haunted by the spectre of Marx, the spectre of communism as that other grand ideal for how to organise society, now supposedly defeated by capitalism. This political spectre was accompanied by various cultural spectres as well. Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds, amongst others, argued that rave culture was similarly a spectre that lingered over a new generation of youth culture that was now, unbeknownst to itself, operating largely on received cultural norms from their elders – contrary to how youth culture had previously been known to operate.
Fisher and Reynolds are renowned critics, who have successfully brought the insights of critical theory to bear on popular culture from within. However, we might also note that a gulf between culture and politics has been widened by postmodern compartmentalising. In Francois Bonnet’s The Infra-World, for example, he makes the point that ghosts are often all-too-convenient explanations for inexplicable forces. As such, we have seen these spectres of revolt disarticulated from their all-too-material beginnings in the ascendency of “sociological government.”
To better understand this idea of a “sociological government”, we can consider how it truly came into its own in the early twenty-first century. In the UK, this was epitomised by David Cameron’s promotion of the “Big Society” – a “socialised” form of capitalism not unlike Margaret Thatcher’s concept of “care in the community.” However, whereas Thatcher had declared that there was “no such thing as society”, only “individual men and women and … families”, Cameron declared that individual men and women are precisely what society consists of. There nonetheless remains a considerable emphasis placed upon “individuals” here – the “Big Society” is the promotion of individualism and voluntarism, rather than a socialist state, as the only meaningful solution to all of our ills.
Sociological government, then, has resulted in the superficial dispersal of soft power into the wider population, and the psychological impact has been disastrous. Government sadism is no longer something to be blamed on puppeteering officials and capitalists, whose fortunes trickle down to the rest of us baying for their blessing and the scraps off their table. Capitalist sadism is instead sublated into an aparallel mode of social masochism. Capitalism is no longer out there; it is in here with us. Any attempt to attack this ideological hegemony resembles a form of socio-cultural self-harm.
This is, at least, how any form of revolution is now understood in the West. It is as if to operate upon capitalism within the “Big Society” model is to operate recklessly upon ourselves. Because we are the society that we despise — yes, we live in a society — but what is important to note that this society is actively produced by capitalism’s bastardisation of socialist principles, through which all social responsibility is shifted from the owners of the means of production to the those engaged with the means of consumption. As such, to destroy capitalism is to destroy ourselves – or so we have been led to believe.
This is what comes to mind when Ed notes how the “silent majority” is a “sociological construction”, but similarly how technocratic managerialism is understood to be a nascent form of socialism. (I’m thinking, in part, of the “Walmart as Utopia” accelerationist critique here — is Walmart embryonic socialism or hollowed-out socialism? I think that’s similar to the question Ed ends on, regarding “the spectre of Mao” — love that!