The “Value” of Openness: Reflections on Blogging and Concept-Engineering

Thanks to the lovely anon on CuriousCat:

I don’t post this message to massage my own ego but because it taps into a conundrum that has haunted me throughout my entire blogging life and which I’ve wanted to write about for a long time now. It speaks to an interesting dilemma, and one that says a lot about how we think about and respond to opportunities for cultural production. What I want to talk about is this “academic hamster wheel” and the problems and joys of existing outside of it.

The wheel is endemic, that’s for sure, and they push you on it young. Nyx commented on this when I posted this screenshot on Twitter, noting how she’d felt this pressure to keep your cards close to your chest even as a philosophy undergraduate.

This “hamster wheel” is most obviously an issue for writers writing theses and essays and books — and strict rules around plagiarism and self-plagiarism within universities only help to embed this culturally, even if it’s for the sake of protecting research — but it is also something I hated about studying and making art too: this suggestion that, to give something value, you have to keep it to yourself until the very last moment. This is a good thing to do in some ways but antithetical to thinking and cultural production in others.

This is quite a serious question for me. Struggling with it has genuinely triggered depressions in the past. I resisted any notion of self-privatisation as neoliberal professionalism for many years but — unemployed, broke and miserable — I purged all my old blogs in late 2015 when I thought that maintaining them was actually holding me back, stopping me from reaching certain personal goals because my openness online was only devaluing what I could do in the eyes of anyone who might be in a position to pay for it.

This is a tension that you see playing out across various different platforms and mediums and scenes, and I’ve known many friends who have likewise slidden up and down the scale of private/public during similar experiences.

People talk about this in the music industry most heatedly, I think, where there’s a protracted tension around debates regarding the best way to sustain the value of the medium you’re working with — how should you try and get exposure for your work whilst not undermining its potential for sustaining your life and your ability to make stuff? It’s a distressing question because, for many, it just seems to eat itself. This is a particularly pressing issue online too, where cultural hubs are increasingly diffuse and global rather than tight-knit and local. Given such circumstances, how do you keep a scene alive on the internet whilst also sustaining yourself through the monetisation of the cultural work you do (if you even have the option to do that)? How do you walk that line between principled creator and sell-out? Bandcamp, I think, finds a happy medium, with the website’s model and UX seemingly doing well when it comes to cultivating scenes and supporting those who create within them without too much privatising interference. (But then, I’m just a Bandcamp user, not a musician, so what do I know.)

With writing, these tension seem to be even more awkward and convoluted. For freelancers in particular, there’s a strong case to be made for strengthening the value of the work you do so that payment for it reflects the work put into it rather than the amount of space it takes up on the page. Making pop-cultural production pay in this way requires a pretty radical rethinking of the platforms we use and how. For instance, in my opinion, Patreon — whilst working for some — seems to be completely deaf to the nuanced differences between the mediums its platform is used to support. But, then again, I’m not a freelance writer either. I do sometimes write for other places and I like getting paid to write very much — who doesn’t enjoy that sense of validation? — but generally I contribute to stuff by invitation only. I’m not out here pitching anything because writing isn’t my day job and why would I want to pitch when I’ve got the immediacy of my own platform anyway. Blogging suits me because its light on admin which I don’t have any time for. I just wanna put stuff out there. (The precarity of my main source of income, however, does make me think about other options regularly.)

On the flip side, there’s a separate strong case to be made for devaluing academic writing that exists almost exclusively between paywalls and university library price-tags. I am more than happy to contribute to this devaluation but academic writing is not really what I’m going for anyway. I hear on the grapevine and get pingbacks which show that some people are referencing my blog in academic papers which I think is hilarious and brilliant as far as challenging the cloistered world of journals and conferences goes, but the main reason I’m here isn’t out of protest but because I care more about writing as its own form of cultural production. Xenogothic, in this way, is not meant to be a “Culture Studies” blog — I want to help make a culture rather than settle for writing about culture as an end in itself. However, I’ve found myself running into problems over the years because of the necessity of attaching writing to other cultural spheres, each with their own accessibility problems already.

The fun and joy of writing here and making related stuff is that it feels like contributing to a community of other bloggers and artists and interesting people; like being embedded in something beyond yourself (particularly when you’re not a part of an institution); like giving a structure to a diffuse online culture, positioning yourself as one of many columns supporting certain discussions and activities; feeling like a touchstone for other people in other fields, a cultural vector for the meeting of other things. And when I hear other people say they’d like to join that community but don’t know how or think they’ve not got the chops or whatever, I say bullshit. The best thing about blogging for me, and the best way to blog is: “show your working.”

“Showing your working” is exactly how I used to describe my old photography blogs. I’m all for big, somewhat secretive and long-term projects, but I think there’s a great benefit and excitement that comes from showing your working online, quite literally. And I really don’t mean this in the Instagram sense of showing that you’re busy. I mean showing your trajectory, your method, in all of its unruliness. I think of it a bit like a maths quiz, where just writing the right answer in the box isn’t really the point — half the marks are for showing your method in the margins and showing that it’s sound. Academia has its own fusty ways of encouraging this, of course, with “research methodologies” and whatever else, which are often rightfully ridiculed for just telling people how you plan to read to book. (“I dunno, from front to back — how do you do it?”) That’s not what I’m talking about here. The blogosphere — thank fuck — isn’t about good grades. It isn’t about bureaucratic hoop-jumping. Nevertheless, showing your working is good practice. Big mathematicians might call this having a “proof” but this is why I use the example of an quiz instead. It’s not about putting it on a big blackboard and going for the Nobel. It’s about sharing and bringing people in and building something together.

Demonstrate your method in the margins of the culture.

The methods you’ve learned in institutions or elsewhere are fine to use here, just set them free. Tracking the development of a thought, from seed to tree, helps you to keep track of it — and even showing how you can loose track of it keeps things vivid and alive. It’s not about knowing everything and sharing it. It’s about sharing your learning, in all the ways that it takes place. Twitter helps with this, at its best, when it’s not all about combative reductions and dick-measuring. As grumpy as I can be when combatting haters, I try hard the rest of the time to talk about and discuss things in a way that is accessible, open, and exploratory, like a study group people can enter and exit at will, regardless of experience. That’s why I think documenting, referencing and reflecting on Twitter conversations is a valuable thing to do here.

When I ran a photography blog, this was likewise — broadly speaking — the intention there too. I was posting pictures I was taking whenever I took them. If you think I’m productive here, the productivity of this blog is little more than a hangover from posting photos multiple times a week for five or six years. I was proud of what I was doing and sharing it felt natural. Why hold it in? Why isolate it? Why does keeping a public diary of your work diminish any final, polished product? What’s the benefit of the illusion of immaculate conception to culture? What has that done to our expectations? We romanticise it later, often posthumously, but why not when we’re alive and kicking? Why not embrace that fact? Working in this way did open up some really interesting doors for me — I posted one instance recently — and it likewise led to the formation of some beautiful friendships. And this was not just about sharing things but responding to others too. I liked taking pictures with my peers and then each of us sharing our views on the day across our blogs. It helped refine what we saw that was different to other people and it felt like collaboration, cultivating an atmosphere of collective thought. Cultivating a culture that was antithetical to the professionalisation being encouraged in other classrooms. (Shout-out Michael and Sara, I miss what we had during those years.)

Xenogothic has led to some very similar interactions, becoming a kind of node in a network of people sharing ideas, sometimes fully developed, sometimes half-baked. Yes, there’s a lot to be said for sitting on an egg until its ready to hatch — and there’s nothing that says you can’t do both — but sharing things with people and creating a community around that sort of activity has always felt more rewarding, interpersonally if not financially.

When I wanted to “be” a photographer, I would always be working towards big projects, of course — chasing that dream of publishing my own photo book or having my own exhibition. In this way, the attitude wasn’t a “punk” thing, exactly. When it came to photography, as a form of capturing your own processes of looking, I just felt like only showing off my eye in those big-ticket instances was phoney. I’m doing it all the time, not just in instances where I’m wearing a professional hat, and I didn’t want to have some sort of hierarchy of value over what I was doing. It was all valuable — to me, anyway. I didn’t want to compartmentalise casual stuff to a Instagram, as if that’s the place for it. I wanted everything to exist alongside everything else.

And so, as I was looking all the time I was blogging all the time, collecting instances of forms that I liked and visually enjoyed, like a magpie. Unfortunately, this very natural way of looking and working has already been monopolised. Wolfgang Tillmans, for example, has built his entire career off of this way of working. It even won him the Turner Prize — making him the only photographer (so far) to ever win it. Tillmans is a brilliant photographer and, in saying this, I don’t mean to downplay his obvious skill, but the prize was awarded — so said the jurors — for the ways in which “his work engages with different aspects of contemporary culture, while challenging conventional aesthetics, taking photography in new directions in both his methods of working and in the presentation of his work.” This way of working, now wholly associated with him, is, in essence, a kind of photographic honesty, and it seems strange that, as far as the art world is concerned, he has been allow the monopoly on that.

What’s even worse is that, rather than Tillmans win opening doors for a less conservative photographic culture (as it should have done), this way of working is almost impossible to enjoy now because of intensified gate-keeping practices which emphasise keeping your work hidden to the extent that you should pay other people to look at it. Here we find the frankly criminal photographic sub-industry of “portfolio reviews” where a photographer’s eyes are so precious that they won’t even open them to look at you unless you pay them £50. Make that a couple of hundred if you want the privilege of having them look at what you’ve made. You pay to have your work seen. You have to pay for entry into the hallow halls of professionalism.

Fuck. That.

In the spirit of this “show your working” approach, my final project as an undergraduate photography student was an installation of disparate and loosely connected photographs that could be walked around and seen from different angles. I also made a mix CD that was given away, featuring a selection of songs that I listened to whilst making the work which I felt poeticised the act of looking in itself and which likewise tried to encourage it. The sounds of this CD were also pumped into the exhibition space. This became “my thing”, my novelty, but it was genuinely very important to me that these static, two-dimensional instances of looking — these photographs — were accompanied by songs, by a temporal experience, where looking at photography became an exercise in looking in itself. There were photographs in frames, photographs as wallpaper, zines, found objects… Things collected over time. I wanted to try and bring the temporal process of making the images back into the images themselves because the images alone felt wholly unimportant unless they conveyed the experience of taking them in the first place. Their temporal nature had to be emphasised despite themselves.

I kept this project going for a few years after graduating but nothing ever came of it. (I did bizarrely get nominated for the inaugural Magnum Photos Graduate Prize — by someone who I think was trying to protest their position as a juror — and Magnum was so antithetical to what I was about that my submission was something of a protest too — you can buy it if you like!) At first, I called it “Automatically Sunshine“, after the song by the Supremes. Later, it became “Looking at Life” in honour of a song by Alice Clark. It was all very colourful and soppy and joyful, trying to have a sense of humour and not allowing it to take itself too seriously. I made it during the “positive affirmations” phase of combatting my own depression so I look back on many of the messages of these songs with a certain cynicism now (even if they’re still bangers). More than anything, it was a project that was, at its heart, deeply inspired by the ineffectuality of the “finished” object.

Music returns here as an exemplary cultural form. We think of the album often as a fully realised artistic vision, as a product of a process, as a honed performance. Many avant-garde musicians hated records because of this — John Cage most vehemently. They diluted the experience of live sound, changing audience expectations for the worse, unable to adequately represent the sonic qualities of minimalism, for instance, or the extreme temporalities of long-form performance. (David Grubbs’ book Records Ruin the Landscape is an interesting overview of this sentiment in its time, interestingly challenged nowadays by the digital era — Terre Thaemlitz comes to mind.) However, I always loved the bands and musicians who emphasised the limitations of the medium in this regard, seeing their records as snapshots, as frozen moments in time, so obviously different to the nature of live performance. It was music in the dub tradition — studio as instrument and environment. Phil Elverum, a favourite of this blog, was a major influence on me as a teenager for his approach to cross-genre music-making in this vein — and he continues to be so. His best records have always been those ones which are about to fall apart at the seams, barely containing the experience which produced them, whether that be abject grief or the unruliness of creative expression in itself.

My favourite hiphop albums are self-reflexive in this way too, embedding their making-of into their very DNA. J Dilla’s Donuts is an album with a whole mythology attached to it in this regard — made, as it was, from 7″s sampled from Dilla’s eventual death-bed — but, personally, I think it is mythologised at the expense of a broader cultural tradition. I can name you a dozen other records that keep this tension at their heart, for instance — painstakingly constructed records that nonetheless try to retain the energy of improvisation; the act of listening, of call and response.

K-Otix’s Spontaneity EP might be one of the most lyrically explicit example that comes to mind. From the EP’s second track, “???????!?!?”: “Blowing simplified versions of extended mental, co-incidentally extends from the existential / Breathing life into the Mic”.

The second verse of “I See Colours” by Edan also featured on an old photography mix due to its masterful combination of self-reflexive sampling and lyrics: “I work with the aesthetic of a brain medic / Cutting up the reels with crystal shards to make a tape edit”.

A lot of this stuff would fall into that nauseatingly-named genre label of “Conscious Hiphop” — invariably named “political hiphop” or “socially conscious hiphop”. All hip-hop is conscious, of course, but what the genre name seemed to be getting at in its original instance was a strain of hip-hop that was about hip-hop; a kind of meta-hiphop, reflecting on itself as often as it told stories about its outside. Jeru the Damaja is one of my favourite rappers from this sphere, tying mental knots around himself as he shadowboxes hip-hop and its aesthetic expectations along with his own love and mastery of the street culture. For instance, on the short song-skit “Tha Bullshit“, he would critique the aesthetics expected of rap music but then, on tracks like “My Mind Spray“, he would embody the energy and bravado of a battle rap, reflecting on the power of words themselves — words sprayed like bullets from the loaded chamber of his brain, raining down on his linguistic opponents.

Throughout, we see a dance where the very processes of listening, rapping, writing, speaking are articulated within the acts themselves.

Elsewhere, Kool and the Gang, on cosmic gospel number “Heaven At Once”, declare:,

“What are you doin’ to make things better”
“Well, you see we are scientists of sound,
We’re mathematically puttin’ it down”

I can’t find the page reference for this but I’m positive this line gets a shout-out in Kodwo Eshun’s sonic-bible More Brilliant Than The Sun, likewise echoing the libidinal engineering mindset that weaves itself through Jeru the Damaja’s 1996 album Wrath of the Math.

This enunciation of a Black desiring-production embraces the Deleuzean materialism of the body as a factory, with math being a sort of dual signifier for human intelligence and divine design. As such, the rationalism of math and science is combined with a certain spirituality, a mental acuity. You don’t think in order to engineer — thought is engineering. Raising consciousness is drawing blueprints. Writing primers and reading lists and mixing your essay notes in with your diary entries is enacting and breathing the philosophy and science and math of life in its actuality and its virtuality, refusing the compartmentalisation of either. This is likewise how I interpret Kodwo’s evocative self-description of himself as a “concept-engineer”. It’s not just wordplay or a cool ’90s rephrasing, as so much of the Ccru-era poeticisms are reduced to. It’s a term that contains the task at hand succinctly within itself. Concepts are constructed and built up by people; by cultures. It’s a challenge to the isolated image of the philosopher. It’s saying something like, “I just draw the thing, the culture builds it”, or even points to a conceptual reverse-engineering — drawing the potencies of culture out for other uses. Culture-production is the name of the game but it does not simply flow in one direction. It’s rhizomatic at its core and always has been.

This is not the only way to do things, of course. It’s just important to me. And I think there’s a lot left to be said for other writers who do this — many of whom we are already (intentionally) in orbit of. Putting out a book of woke and trendy opinions isn’t that hard to do, in the grand scheme of things, and everyone knows that no book has ever been written in isolation. So why not be honest about that? Why not show the links and the workings and have this open community that exists below or, better yet, adjacent to your blog ejecta? All of us writing online here today are writing in the shadow of those who came before us in this regard. The Mark Fisher’s, the Robin Mackay’s, the Nick Land’s, the Nina Power’s, the Ben Woodard’s, the Dominic Fox’s, the Justin Barton’s, the Simon Reynolds’s, the Steven Shaviro’s, the Reza Negarestani’s. These are just some of the names that jump out at me from my bookshelf, whose books I have studied closely but whose blogs I also follow and whose methods I’ve seen unfold in “real time”, whether in the present or retrospectively (or both).

This is what blogging should be able. It’s doing it and writing about doing it. It’s not careerism or networking or arse-kissing or erecting a paywall to be taken seriously. I already take it seriously and that should be self-evident by the fact that the method is considered as in-depth as the product. In a way, the method is the product. I value the method above all else. I value the fact that I am living it. And the value and affect of that method is that every time I say “I”, I should melt away.

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