Cascading Adolescence (Part 1): Adolescent Outsideness

In the introduction to his book England’s Hidden Reverse, David Keenan considers the sense in which England’s “esoteric underground” — of which “the formation of Throbbing Gristle in 1975 [was] year zero”[1],[2] and which was exemplified by the bands Coil[3], Current 93[4] and Nurse with Wound[5] — by predating punk — was the first genre to take up the inherently adolescent energy of “classic” rock ‘n’ roll, following its 1960s “Golden Age”.

Keenan’s sense of adolescence is broad. For him, it is a word that should not refer solely to a disparaged naivety or immaturity. Instead, it should be seen as an integral part of human cultural experience — and an experience which does not simply “end” with an escape into your 20s and the settling of unruly pubescent hormones.

Perhaps surprisingly, Keenan’s conception of adolescence stretches as far back as 40,000 years ago. He cites R. Dale Guthrie’s 2005 book The Nature of Palaeolithic Art to describe an adolescent cultural production that transcends not just our modern sense of the “teenager” — which arguably refers to little more than a socioeconomic demographic[6] — but even beyond our historic sense of civilisational belonging.

In his book, Guthrie, an anthropologist, puts forward the thesis that Palaeolithic adolescents were as obsessed with sex and violence as our modern-day teenage tearaways. He argues that the cave art from this era that survives around the world — depicting hunts and battles as well as the occasional disproportionate phallus — was most likely drawn by adolescent males; pubescent teens passing through the very same evolutionary hormone-fuelled phase-shift defined by a reckless exploration of the world and a preoccupation with its darker corners that we are all already familiar with.[7] For Guthrie and Keenan, then, the suggestion seems to be that these caves served the same function as the graffitied bus shelters, underpasses and bathrooms of our contemporaneous shadow-lurking youth.

Having exploded this sense of adolescence, Keenan — taking a view that is less explicitly masculine and anthropological — goes on to compare prehistoric art to the burgeoning noise and industrial music genres of the 1970s and ‘80s, specifically the music of Whitehouse — that notorious project captained by musician William Bennett — which he describes as a xenorock that rolls beyond the limits of the genre’s eventual social acceptance following the various social panics it originally provoked in the public imagination from the 1950s onwards.

Keenan writes:

Whitehouse, formed by William Bennet in 1980, … effectively birth[ed] noise music—or ‘power electronics’ as Bennett dubbed it—as a genre while making consistent and inexplicable use of extreme imagery, naming albums after concentration camps, like 1981’s Buchenwald, dedicating albums to notorious serial killers, as on 1983’s Dedicated To Peter Kürten Sadist And Mass Slayer, and using self-consciously atrocious track titles like ‘Tit Pulp’, ‘Shitfun’ and ‘I’m Comin’ Up Your Ass.’

So far, so very adolescent, right? But we need to be very careful when we use a term like ‘adolescent’ in a disparaging way. What do we mean?

Rock ‘n’ roll is an adolescent art form. It derives most of its energy from adolescence. If we’re going to damn music for being adolescent we’re going to have to write off all of the best rock ‘n’ roll, all of the music that we love. But as an adolescent art form the kind of grotesque, violent, hyper-sexualised imagery that Whitehouse dealt in can never be far from the surface.[8]

From here, Keenan contrasts Whitehouse to the way in which, for example, Elvis first shocked the world, infamously filmed only from the waist up on the Ed Sullivan Show so as not to offend or over-excite those tuning in; later, he notes how the Sex Pistols caused great offence with their caricatured Nazism and cartoonish hyperviolence on puerile songs like “Belsen Was A Gas”, but Keenan also notes that both these artists are now widely accepted cultural institutions and so “rock ‘n’ roll can also be seen as a safety valve, in a sense, a way of containing these inchoate powers, which is how Throbbing Gristle saw it, as a system of control.”[9]

Positioning themselves in opposition to this kind of cultural production and assimilation, noise and industrial musics don’t romanticise or aestheticise their subject matter but try to traumatically reflect the darkest corners of reality as they actually exist. They don’t want to function as an affective dam for libidinal desires but as a virulent amplifier. Keenan writes:

Noise and Industrial music function as the night time to pop music’s day. Where pop music exists as a soundtrack to nine-to-five work and consumption, noise provides the cover of night that facilitates transgressive activities, liberating suppressed personas and jamming the wavelengths that consensual reality broadcasts on. Crime calls for night; noise is no longer music as entertainment.[10]

Today, this disconnection between noise and pop — both broadly defined — persists. Noise musics, however, are still routinely derided and attacked for their aesthetic promiscuity. Pop is today broadly progressive if nonetheless somewhat innocuous. Black music’s continued dominance of the pop charts, increasingly comfortable with its own politicisation, has brought the politics of a minoritarian existence and experience into everyday life. Beyoncé’s tribute to black politics past and present at Superbowl 50 in 2016, for instance, ungrounds the suggestion that pop cannot facilitate transgression for some. However, whilst it might rupture everyday political discussion, it remains the soundtrack to work and consumption. Noise, in occupying the night, finds itself more readily associated with another kind of transgression, one which does not occur in plain sight, and which, perhaps due to pop’s own grasp of progressivism, is easily associated with a darker side of politics also.

Contrary to this, Keenan argues that the music of Whitehouse is far less (politically if not aesthetically) offensive — or should be — than the likes of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, for instance, whose song “Mladić”, from their 2012 album, ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, he highlights as a cinematic and even romantic track, supposedly about (or—as Whitehouse might describe it—“dedicated to”) the Bosnian Serb war criminal Ratko Mladić.[11]

Keenan claims that the sublimity of their neoclassical, post-rock sound can be far more easily interpreted as a romanticisation of the man in question, in being somewhat neo-Wagnerian perhaps. The track throws together an often atonal mix of folkloric melodies, raucous guitars and walls of feedback — it is certainly “noisy” if not quite “noise” — but in doing so it seems to capture the spirit and energy of a war-mongering nationalism in its melodic delirium. For Keenan, this is far more problematic than the slabs of noise that constitute Whitehouse’s stylistically provocative discography. However, Keenan notes that the intention of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s aesthetic onslaught is never questioned due to their extramusical clarifications in interviews and elsewhere as being self-described “left-liberals”.

The unrelenting noise of Whitehouse stands in firm opposition to such a response. There is no attempt at aestheticising the chosen subject matter. If anything, for a project like Whitehouse, talk is cheap. Instead, Bennett’s project attempts to hold a mirror up to the worst of human society and re-present it as it actually appears to us — that is, abhorrently. We can consider the project, in stark contrast to the likes of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, as an attempt to grapple with that which is beyond words, beyond classical understandings of form and expression.

Whitehouse, in being named after the infamous moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse[12], can be seen as an inversion of Mary’s own raison d’etre, attacking the news cycles and mundane ideologies that do far more to normalise the worst acts we humans are capable of by confronting the listener with that which is so hard to comprehend about the human condition rather than censoring it. To transduce this into the normality of “classical” music — in the broadest sense of the term; “music” that is easily appreciable as such — is, then, for noise musicians, a dangerous game.

In this sense, the music of Whitehouse can be aligned with Georges Bataille’s concept of l’informe, or formlessness. In contrast Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s neo-Wagnerian overcoming of the folkloric, Whitehouse demonstrates an approach “that serves to bring things down in the world.”[13] As Bataille would write, at his most cosmically pessimistic:

What [formlessness] designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.[14]

Despite framing the reality of human depravity and its abject meaninglessness in these non-terms, it is bizarre to Keenan that it is instead the likes of Whitehouse and not Godspeed You! Black Emperor who must emphatically defend their artistic practice against accusations of fascistic sympathies.[15] Because, ultimately, as Keenan writes, “there is no poetry here.”[16] And that’s the point. There is no poetry in genocide or serial murder and so this music is offered up as a way to begin to process the darkest crevices of the human condition through a consciously paradoxical process. How to create a sound in the world’s image? It’s “true” image? How to attend to these travesties in a way that does not hide from the reproductive reality of their implications? It asks the question: to what extent are we willing—or even able—to withstand that which mirrors the worst side of ourselves in all of its abject difficulty?

The elephant in the room here, of course, is that much of the anxiety surrounding these movements in the present emerges from the fact that there are various creators of extreme musics who do attempt to glorify and embolden an “extreme” — in the sense of a violent, aggressive and propulsively right-wing — politics.

Death In June are the most notorious group of this kind, perhaps. Beginning in similar post-punk and industrial territory when they formed in the 1980s, and once self-described far-leftists, members of the group later found themselves influenced by the ideologies of National Bolshevism and Strasserism, both ideologies which implicitly inject far-left structuralist critiques with far-right sentiments. Strasserism, in particular, is best known as a call for a brand of Nazism which is birthed from proletarian revolution; a sort of faux-Marxism which conflates critiques of capitalism with the economic conspiracies of antisemitism.

These ideological turns are regularly denounced, and rightly so, but far too often the argument is to denounce the very grounds from which they emerge. As Keenan suggests, to denounce adolescence absolutely is surely misguided. What is necessary, instead, is that we critique our inevitably conditioned approaches to such topics. For instance, are we to treat adolescence as the demonstrative ground for all creative activity and existence? Of course not. Adolescence is a process, a becoming; a period of development, of chance. It is, biologically and creatively speaking, a generative vector for the production of the new. (And it is not the only one either.) To denounce it outright is as impossible as an apparent commitment to — which is to say, an ideological packaging of — its processes.

This series will consider a confluence of such generative but likewise controversial vectors, with adolescence chief among them — but also “death”, “nature” and “mythology” — which emerge as integral gears of the adolescent process. These topics, like adolescence, can appear dangerous when isolated, but they are not antithetical to positive and generative processes in and of themselves. To demonstrate this we will consider a particularly “bad” example of an “adolescent” music scene, which — whilst initially intensely generative — collapsed in on itself, caught in a spiral of murderous intent all of its own making: True Norwegian Black Metal.

To be continued…


[1] David Keenan, England’s Hidden Reverse (London: Strange Attractor Press, 2016), viii

[2] Formed by Genesis P-Orridge, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Chris Carter and Peter Christopherson in 1975, Throbbing Gristle were known for their prolific and subversive activities, straddling a fine line between rock band and performance art, the main impetus of which was to always confound their audience’s expectations, no matter what. They are best known for their albums The Second Annual Report (1977) and 20 Jazz Funk Greats (1979), and are widely recognised as the progenitors of so-called “Industrial music”, named after their independent record label Industrial Records.

[3] Formed by John Balance in 1982 and later joined by Throbbing Gristle’s Peter Christopherson, Coil would push against the edges of post-punk and post-industrial music, dragging an already esoteric sound further into its outer limits. They are best known for their albums Horse Rotorvator (1986) and Love’s Secret Domain (1991), with the latter incorporating the contemporaneous sounds of Acid House with the industrial music on which they cut their teeth.

[4] Formed by David Tibet in 1982, Current 93 likewise took Industrial music in new directions, exacerbating the occultism that was of interest to late Throbbing Gristle and incorporating folk influences into their sound.

[5] Nurse With Wound is a project heralded by Stephen Stapleton and formed in 1978. They are arguably the most disturbing of the three groups that Keenan considers in England’s Hidden Reverse, having subsequently had a major influence on noise, drone and demonstrating a mastery of the aural uncanny.

[6] It is worth noting, in light of Keenan’s references, that the “teenager” is a very modern concept. Indeed, there is an argument to be made that the teenager was a concept “invented” by marketing companies in the 1940s, when young people in the throws of adolescence were identified to be an lucrative economic demographic. See, for example, Dwight MacDonald, “Inventing the American Teen-Ager”, The New Yorker, 29 November 1958: <https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1958/11/29/inventing-the-american-teenager&gt;

[7] See: R. Dale Guthrie, The Nature of Paleolithic Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005)

[8] David Keenan, England’s Hidden Reverse, viii

[9] Ibid., ix

[10] Ibid., vii

[11] Sentenced to life in prison in 2017, Mladić (also known as the “Butcher of Bosnia”) was convicted of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity at an international criminal tribunal which investigated atrocities committed during the Yugoslav Wars, largely ethnic wars of independence held throughout the 1990s which led to the breaking up of the state of Yugoslavia into six separate nations: Slovenia, Croatia, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Montenegro.

[12] Mary Whitehouse a social conservative and reactionary who was famous throughout the UK over a number of decades for her “moral campaigns” waged against the mainstream media and popular culture due to what she saw as the endemic promotion of bad language, sex and violence during the 1960s to the 1980s. She was known as an opponent of progressive politics in all its forms during her life time, particularly regarding issues of sexual liberation and gay rights. Although widely mocked in the media, she is said to have greatly influenced the premiereship of Margaret Thatcher and a number of censory laws introduced during her tenure, perhaps most notoriously the Video Recordings Act of 1984, legislation brought in to tackle a moral panic orchestrated by Whitehouse regarding so-called ‘video nasties’—a phrase it is said that she coined herself. Many famous and critically acclaimed films were cut or outright banned in the UK in cinemas or on home video due to this legislation, including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Rosemary’s Baby, Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th and Suspiria. Many of these films did not see an “uncut” video or DVD release until the late 1990s or early 2000s.

[13] Georges Bataille, “Formless” in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, ed. Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 31

[14] Ibid.

[15] See: William Bennett, “Personal Statement”, William Bennet (blog), 19 March 2013: http://williambennett.blogspot.com/2013/03/statement.html

[16] David Keenan, England’s Hidden Reverse, xiii

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10 thoughts on “Cascading Adolescence (Part 1): Adolescent Outsideness

  1. Also worthy of comment I think is the appositeness of Keenan’s criticism of GYBE to a BM outfit like Drudkh, whose music has a similar romantic melancholy prettiness – Vaughan Williams if he’d drawn on Ukrainian rather than English folksong, perhaps – which is quite clearly linked to a romantic nationalism with distinctly fascist and anti-semitic undertones (one album is titled “Blood in our Wells”…). Beware BM that has strayed too far from ugliness! The (typically awful) politics of the True Norwegian teenagers was mostly inchoate (although Varg Vikernes seems to have put together a fairly systematic, and extremely fascist, worldview quite early on). There was still a connection to the formless in it, to the unformedness of adolescence. Not enough to exonerate it of all crimes, but enough for it to point beyond itself, to an unground distinct from the tragedy and bathos of individual life-histories.

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  2. Huh. WordPress does swallow things sometimes. I saved the text elsewhere, but on a computer I now can’t access until tomorrow morning, so it’ll have to wait I guess…

    Like

  3. Trying again…

    For a long while I’ve thought about “adolescence” under the heading of “the puerile”, thinking back towards the word’s Latin origin (puer = boy). Emerson theorises self-reliance as essentially puerile, boy-adolescent:

    “The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature. A boy is in the parlour what the pit is in the playhouse; independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome. He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests: he gives an independent, genuine verdict. You must court him: he does not court you. But the man is, as it were, clapped into jail by his consciousness.”

    The gendering (and the class-positioning) are not accidental. A “female puerility” – Lydia Lunch? – is not impossible, but will have had to be *produced* against the background assumptions conditioning this figure.

    You’re probably way ahead of me here, but Wolves In The Throne Room (the USBM GYBE, arguably) theorize black metal’s puerility as a specifically teenage phenomenon:

    “Norwegian black metal is completely unbalanced – that is why it is so compelling and powerful. It is the sound of utter torment, believing to one’s core that that winter will never end, that spring will never come. It is really music that can only be made by bitter and rage-filled teenagers. It is powerful and important to have these kinds of feelings of deep misanthropy and misery while one comes of age, because our age is sick. I don’t think, for instance, that a 35-year old man could make a record as great and pure as Filosofem. BM is about destruction, destroying your belief system – it is a cleansing fire that opens up new possibilities for thought and feeling. In many ways, it is a first step, not the alpha and omega.”

    http://www.ultimatemetal.com/forum/threads/wolves-in-the-throne-room-black-metal-on-their-own-terms.238052/

    For WITTR, this adolescence is something to be got beyond, rather than loitered in. But loitering is the characteristic adolescent mode of abiding: infesting a space, overstaying your welcome. An adolescent is always-already an “overgrown adolescent”, someone who should already have started to know better. Whitehouse strike me as very overgrown-adolescent in just that sense. Whereas DIJ strike me as creepy old men hanging around the carpark where the youths gather to drink cider and smoke, whose sunwheel denim patches are supposed to make them look cool and edgy but who are generally shunned as nonces except by a few sad cases who can’t resist the attention.

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    1. Yes! It’s WITTR’s insistence they’re past it that was, in part, the inspiration for this series, because as much as I like them, I feel like they themselves are missing something. The self-assured maturity they express in some interviews does feel very GY!BE but, again, I’m wondering how best to think that adolescence in a way that doesn’t play these time-periods off against each other. But a bunch of these references are new to me too so I’ll have to see about working this into future parts.

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      1. There’s a collection of Lyotard’s short essays on the postmodern, framed as letters to the children of his colleagues, called “Postmodernism Explained To Children”. He describes at one point the general problem of AI (and/or technocapital) in terms of childhood: because childhood is an experience of unformedness, “the season of the mind’s possibilities”, philosophy must retain a connection to childhood in order to be able to pose and return to fundamental questions. The type of “intelligence” posited by technocapital is always governed by a criterion of performativity – it’s there to process information and solve problems, with the ultimate goal of “gaining time” – but childhood is from this perspective a kind of dead or scandalously under-utilised time (“loitering”, again). AI is typically imagined either as never having had a childhood, or as having superseded it (its childhood is just a “training” period, directed towards the goal of “adult” competence) – this is why HAL’s reversion to singing “Daisy, Daisy” at the end of 2001 is so eerie. It seems to me that Lyotard’s addressees are better conceived of as adolescents, as “youths” to whom philosophical stories can be told and questions addressed. Their agency, as knowers and thinkers, is still confounded with infancy and unformedness, with the possibility of being formed one way or another, or in multiple contradictory ways at once.

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