Thieves of Fire: Conceptronica and Cultural Capital

Following on from the quick introduction to what will be a loosely connected series of posts on the shifting music cultures of the last two decades, where I mentioned Simon Reynolds’ previous desire to reckon with the legacy of his post-punk youth, I think it is worth turning again to Reynolds who has offered up a number of other recent reckonings of his own that try to contend with the years immediately behind us.

His essay on “conceptronica” for Pitchfork is a great example of this. It’s a great article, despite becoming a bit of a meme on Twitter in the days after it went live. Personally, I found it hard not to laugh, from a distance, at how much it rattled so many musicians on Twitter.

As irritating as many may have found it, the argument makes complete sense from Reynolds’ own perspective. Having written the book on post-punk, it is unsurprising he would view the contemporary tension between material politics and art school theorising with a healthy suspicion.

I was reminded of his description in Rip It Up & Start Again of a cultural no-mans-land that existed in the late 1970s between working-class and middle-class cultures, noting how many who found themselves square pegs in the round holes of Britain’s class politics used this tension between worlds to conjure egresses for themselves into other forms of self-expression.

Is this still true today? I think it is. Talking about this with friends just the other night, many people I met at Goldsmiths during my time there identified in precisely this way, finding themselves stuck between cultures — and that is genuinely their situation (the less said about Goldsmiths class drag the better). But can you imagine anyone thirty years ago comfortably acknowledging a project’s lineage form “fine arts master thesis” to amorphous cultural production, as Reynolds describes the work of Chino Amobi? As fantastic as Amobi’s music is, it is undoubtedly a history that few would have previously acknowledged.

Reynolds describes his experience of this shift, striking in his job as a music journalist. He writes:

At some point during the 2010s it seemed like a steady stream of press releases started arriving in my inbox that read like the text at the entrance of a museum exhibit. I also noticed that the way I would engage with these releases actually resembled a visit to a museum or gallery: often listening just once, while reading reviews and interviews with the artist that could be as forbiddingly theoretical as a vintage essay from Artforum. These conceptual works rarely seemed like records to live alongside in a casual, repeat-play way. They were statements to encounter and assimilate, developments to keep abreast of. Their framing worked as a pitch to the browsing consumer, not so much to buy the release but to buy into it.

What is clear for Reynolds, however, is that this moment has been approaching us for a long, long time. Indeed, we might say that “conceptronica” — as he refers to the current glut of heady over-contextualised art-music releases — is the result of a colonisation of this very class-political in-between space by high cultural forces.

Repeatedly, as he lines up the usual suspects, Reynolds mentions familiar reference points for readers of this particular blogosphere — the Ccru and Deleuze and Guattari chief amongst them. But he also notes how these reference points — the latter pair in particular — are completely alien to the precursor genre of “intelligent dance music”. IDM, by today’s standards, feels about as arrogantly adolescent as punk was, Reynolds writes, “more likely to be daubed with puerile humour and porn references than concepts from poststructuralism.”

However, I’m not sure that’s entirely true, with the Mille Plateaux label, to my mind, invoking a certain double-down as purveyors of “the intelligent person’s IDM”, releasing plenty of extra-cerebral volleys from the world of techno in the 1990s, but also carrying on something of a post-punk lineage with releases like Terre Thaemlitz’ Rubato cover albums for Gary Numan and Devo, as well as early releases by Snd and the In Memorium Gilles Deleuze compilation featuring personal (post-)post-punk heroes Chris & Cosey.

In that sense, conceptronica has been around for a long time, but something has definitely shifted. This form of presentation has come to prominence over the last decade, rising into dance music’s own (still somewhat subcultural) mainstream.

The debatable existence of antecedents aside, I was still surprised by the backlash to Reynolds’ essay at first. Were people frustrated by being reduced to a neologism? Or did they feel “seen”? Nothing in Reynolds’ piece resembled ridicule to me and many of the principle purveyors of “conceptronica”, in his eyes, are undoubtedly the pioneering musicians of our present era.

Also, as Reynolds makes clear, this kind of music-making is a product of the times — culturally and otherwise. He cites the obvious influence of accessible technologies, gaming and dystopian pop culture, and the finger prints of these technocultural shifts in our media and entertainment more broadly are all over how many today think about their creative practices.

Perhaps that’s part of the reason for the backlash: being seen as a product of something rather than an interruption of a status quo…

Further to this, perhaps it is also because of what this shorthand summary calls to mind: a sort of bourgeois overly academic affectation that many of those “guilty” of conceptronicing would rather be seen as counter-acting, taking contemporary philosophy and thought into the club, and bringing the club into contemporary philosophy and thought, as a two-way act of subversion rather than a new run-of-the-mill and unfortunately still hierarchical exchange.

Reynolds points to this as well, particularly in relation to broader marketing strategies deployed by the conjoined music and events industries. He writes:

Indeed, there is something of an audio-visual arms race going on within what the writer Geeta Dayal mischievously dubs “the festival-industrial complex”: musicians competing with each other not just to wow audiences but for places on the lineups. Festivals increasingly look not just for someone who can deliver a slamming DJ set or sonically stunning performance, but for world-exclusive premieres of a new show that impacts with the avant-garde equivalent of razzle-dazzle.

It’s a tricky situation to be in. My own blog-review of AYA and Holly Herndon at the Barbican recently seemed to galvanise a lot of people on Twitter whose music I really like. They responded so positively to an expression of the necessity of their scenes in our current climate. But AYA and Herndon are also perfect examples of what festival promoters, according to Reynolds and Dayal, love to see.

Does this detract from these events and experiences? I don’t think so but it does highlight a vigilance necessary for all music-makers and gig-goers to retain in their day-to-day listening habits. Capitalism is watching and it likes what you do as much as the maligned communities you represent. It will appropriate and subsume you without asking if it wants to. It’s done it before. It will do it again.

This is all the more worrying when we consider, as Reynolds does, the “political turn” visible in 2010s electronic music. Today, as Reynolds writes, we see

artists taking strikingly committed stances, often rooted in a minority identity based around race, sexuality, or gender. This contrasts with earlier phases of dance culture, where the politics were more implicit. […] Informed by the self-reflexive awareness of its makers and their background in higher education, conceptronica is a lot more clear-cut and committed. This new politicization partly reflects the urgency of the present.

Does all this become moot when such politics can be absorbed effortlessly by the industrial machine these artists rail against? Perhaps that machine’s intensification is already a response to this turn in itself.

This is important to consider today and particularly when thinking back over some of the debates of the last decade. How many times, in the aftermath of Trump and Brexit, have we heard calls for a “new punk”? And how many times have those suggestions been ridiculed, coming from the most out of touch and counter-punk people of the modern era?

The reason why we have not had a “new punk” no doubt lies here in neoliberalism’s unprecedented adaptability. It is capable of subsuming almost anything at breakneck speed. But there is also a sense that we have been groomed, unwittingly, to present ourselves to our unseen cultural overlords in a way that speaks to them. We inadvertently package ourselves up in the language of academic capitalist critique and serve it up to capitalism itself on a shiny and strangely marketable platter of $5 words, even when it is the system itself that is within our sights.

That’s not always a bad thing, though. In many cases, we might refer to these works as forms of “counter-sorcery”, as Mark Fisher referred to those cultural objects that appropriate the (visual) language of capitalism for use against itself. But this is an increasingly difficult thing to achieve without relegating oneself to cultural irrelevance.

As the article draws to a close, Reynolds comments on this tension explicitly, harking back to the post-punk era so dear to his heart. The differences between our two eras — then and now — become unnervingly apparent. Nevertheless, he ends with some hope. He writes:

With conceptronica, there can be a feeling, at times, of being lectured. There’s the perennial doubt about the efficacy of preaching to the converted. That in turn points to a disquieting discrepancy between the anti-elitist left politics and the material realities of conceptronica as both a cultural economy and a demographic — the fact that it is so entwined with and dependent on higher education and arts institutions.

As fascinating as conceptronica can be, something about it always nagged at me. If its subject, in the broadest sense, was liberation, why then did I not feel liberated listening to it? It rarely provided that sense of release or abandon that you got with ’90s rave or even from more recent dissolute forms like trap, whose commodity-fetishism and sexual politics are counter-revolutionary but which sonically brings the bliss. The parallel is truest with post-punk’s critical commentary on rock itself, the way it refused the simple freedom and cutting-loose of ’60s and early ’70s rock in favor of tense, fractured rhythms that expressed alienation and unrest.

Speaking to the music’s makers helped me both understand and also “feel” it more. Conceptronica is drawn to the residual disruptive power that still feels latent in archival underground genres like jungle, ballroom, and gabba, but also contemporary sounds like grime and trap. It wants to take the unwritten manifesto of emancipation and solidarity within these musics and articulate it crystal-clear. As one of the style’s vanguard figures, Chino Amobi talks about wanting to create critical art but combine it somehow with dance culture’s ecstatic communion. It’s a difficult balancing act, and a noble ambition.

I’m reminded here of The Pop Group. Their debut album, Y, has just been given a bespoke reissue for its fortieth anniversary. This, in itself, is a strange sign of the times but Y‘s new remaster gives it a much-deserved sonic update for now.

I remember first hearing Y after it was given the highest of recommendations from many of the people I used to frequent music forums with — as discussed last time — and I will forever remember it as this completely alien aural object.

Listening to it devoid of context, I had no awareness of the broader scene of which it was a part; I had no idea that this was a “post-punk” record or what that even meant. I just remember it blew my head clean off and remained on uncomfortable rotation as an album that, as far as I was concerned, was an outlier in my listening habits.

It didn’t feel like anything else. It might as well have come from another planet and, for the most part, when I listened to it, I had no idea what I was meant to do with it.

In hindsight, however, the album’s opening track, “Thief of Fire”, encapsulates the mindset of an era with its Promethean drama — no less relevant today — of stealing all you can from a “nation of killers”.

It is a sonic panic attack that does internal battle with a Promethean self-confidence and anxiety. After all, Prometheus’ theft of the fire from Mount Olympus was a revolutionary act, diminishing the authority of the powers that be, but it is also — like all other instantiations of that myth — a cautionary tale about who exactly you’re stealing from.

If you’re not careful, they’ll flay you.

It is a warning that still resonates today, encapsulated by the anxieties that Reynolds feels towards conceptronica. This Promethean flaying is not just an issue for the individual but whole cultures at large. The Thatcherite war on dance music has long felt like a Promethean punishment, doomed to perpetuate for eternity. Those deemed to be opponents to the state, in all their carnivalesque and notably lower class revelry, find their cultures stripped for parts and fed to the capitalist vultures circling overhead.

Perhaps the anxiety expressed towards conceptronica is that this sort of violent suppression is less visible today, shielded, as it were, by the state-sponsored infrastructures of the arts university. It represents less the theft of fire and more the lighting of candles supplied by an educational establishment.

This is, again, not to throw shade upon the musicians currently pushing boundaries. It is rather a vigilant appraisal and one which is worth paying attention to in a much broader context. Nathalie Olah, for example, is a writer who has a great deal to tell us about our present moment and why, perhaps, “conceptronica” touched such a nerve. She has recently written an article for the New Statesman on Ofsted’s deployment of the term “cultural capital” in their school assessment criteria.

For non-British readers, Ofsted is the Office for Standards in Education — a slightly Orwellian-sounding government organisation responsible for maintaining standards in schools across the country. Their name is one that all school children will know. Use of the phrase “Ofsted inspection” whilst at secondary school usually signalled teachers pleading for good behaviour whilst beige clipboard-wielding officials appeared in the backs of classrooms to pass judgement on how good or bad a job your school was doing at being a school.

Their ratings typically mirror the socio-economic makeup of their surrounding areas and come with an implicit political clout. The explicit introduction of a “cultural capital” assessment criterion only makes this clearer because, of course, “cultural capital” is a loaded term, referring to the “capital” that certain cultural objects and experiences can bestow upon an individual or group.

Describing the origins of the phrase “cultural capital”, Olah notes that it was first coined by French sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron in 1979:

In [their book] Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, both argue that cultural and aesthetic preferences are dictated by class, and that ascension, or what is often termed “social mobility”, relies on one’s ability to decipher and mimic the cultural preferences of the elite. Since then, the term has been somewhat diluted, used to refer to almost anything that might boost a pupil’s likelihood of success in the workplace, or in a university admissions process.

That might be all well and good, but as Olah writes, describing the nature of the debate triggered by the inclusion of this phrase in Ofsted’s latest assessment guideline document:

On one side of the debate were those arguing the move would allow children from all backgrounds to access a wide and varied cultural education. Others argued that the term belied a paternalistic tendency on the part of an elite to further export and entrench its version of culture.

Olah reports that Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, isn’t intending to bring those associations to mind:

“We’re not inspecting cultural capital directly,” she explains, somewhat surprisingly given that Ofsted chose the term to refer to the new assessment criteria. “We’re looking at whether a school provides a rich and broad curriculum. Take a hypothetical child from another planet, and assume that they’ve arrived in an English school. There’s a lot that they will get from a few years of schooling in English, maths and science – the stuff we’ve decided all children should know, which are absolutely valuable. But beyond that, there is a great range of stuff, which the more you know, the better equipped you will be to make the most of adult life.”

All of which is to say that children require an education that goes beyond the straightforward point-scoring of the curriculum. School should be a means of leveling the playing field, and given that wider cultural understanding is favoured by university admissions processes and employers, the impetus is noble.

Olah has her reservations, however:

But children don’t arrive there from another planet. They come from an almost infinite number of social, political and cultural backgrounds whose representation in the mainstream avenues of public life varies wildly. Spielman may argue that Ofsted’s decision is based on purely altruistic efforts to broaden pupils’ horizons, but cultural capital doesn’t mean culture in and of itself. Rather, it refers to a particular form of culture — one that translates into employability and desirability within a marketplace. If schools are to deliver on this promise, they will likely be required to prescribe a version of culture that pervades most establishment seats of learning, whose histories are steeped in imperialism and the exclusion of working-class and minority peoples. 

Beyond this, even some of the most fervent criticisms of Ofsted’s announcement have often fallen prey to the worst kind of stereotyping. In a recent op-ed on the subject, the argument was made that it was necessary to teach Mozart and Stormzy, as if these constituted the two cultural modes. Going back into history and beyond the canon in search of work that validates the cultural identities of people from post-industrial towns, or the Indian and Pakistani diaspora (or to go one step further and challenge the foundations of white western history) hardly seems to figure. When it does, it’s always in the most tokenistic and celebratory of terms.

Here a return to Reynolds’ anxiety over conceptronica is intriguing. It speaks to a Ofsted-esque contamination of how artists and musicians view themselves. As progressive as so many arts institutions portray themselves to be today, assessment criteria continue to shape cultural objects that survive a student’s transition out the academy’s door. Indeed, the influence of the academy on our musical cultures — and I say this with caution, knowing how controversial it may sound given the identities of those who have been fleetingly discussed here and in the articles referenced — may be a symptom of the kind of cultural hegemonisation that fellow post-punk Mark Fisher mourned when he diagnosed “the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories” had become an insidious “quest to have ‘identities’ recognised by a bourgeois big Other.”

Not that this is necessarily a conscious quest, of course, and in many ways it is a relation to the big Other that has been implicitly enforced with more and more vigour over the last ten years. In many ways, this is the dilemma that troubles Olah explicitly. The “standardising” of cultural capital by Ofsted, even if well meaning, creates a strange feedback loop where, as ever, and as Olah also notes, “the responsibility to solve a problem of structural inequality falls squarely with the individual, and those working at the frontline of public services that have been repeatedly squeezed by central government cuts.”

This is to say that whilst so many individuals within our contemporary music cultures are continuing to push the envelope in terms of what is culturally important, the responsibility is not theirs alone, and the funding they require to do what they do so often comes from the top down. Whilst many incredibly deserving artists push through, the structure is still in place and it continues to have an impact on the shape these projects take once they reach fruition.

So what is to be done? Sticking with Nathalie Olah, she offers up plenty of advice in her new book, Steal as Much as You Can: How to Win the Culture Wars in an Age of Austerity, updating the Promethean cry of Mark Stewart to our present moment. Hers is not a book that unhelpfully rejects the opportunities offered by our cultural institutions but rather encourages “us to steal what we can from the establishment routes along the way.”

It is not anti-intellectual in trying to sidestep institutions of knowledge but rather advocates a militant and aphercotropic vigilance when moving through such spaces. It calls for a nuanced engagement with our institutions. One that demands we are included but which resists inclusion slipping into co-option.

These politics of inclusion will already be familiar to many. Olah writes:

Diversity and inclusion quotas will never redress this problem for the fundamental fact that inclusion is itself the product of an empiricism whose origins lie in neoliberal and capitalist thinking, placing emphasis solely on the external signifiers of diversity which have historically been undervalued in the marketplace: skin colour being the most obvious example, but also dress code, accent, vocabulary, etc.

Nevertheless, as she continues, real change will “need to come from outside, and what few opportunities exist for transformation only become apparent to us when we start to trust the feeling of impostordom that we’ve been told to resist and overcome.”

It is, in many ways, a call to embody one’s own difference. Accept your novelty — or rather, your own newness — within established institutions, but vulcanise it: harden yourself to your own adaptability. As Mark Stewart recently commented, when asked about ‘Thief of Fire’ during an interview with The Quietus: “You have to hold your whole body against everything you’ve been taught, in order to see things differently.”

I still reminded of Aya here. I can’t think of a better example of this, displayed brilliantly as she brought the grandeur of an institution like the Barbican down to her own level. Hers is an approach to be observed by all, and she is not the only one playing the game that way either.

Nathalie Olah’s book feels like the perfect book to read in 2019 in this respect. The book’s blurb declares that, “for many, the 2010s have been a lost decade.” I have a feeling that the 2020s are going to be quite different. We’re seeing a whole lot more thieves of fire on the rise.

UPDATE: Simon has added a post to his blissblog that responds to his post’s reception and added a few sections that got deleted during editing but which round out the argument, including a nod to the conceptronica pioneers Mille Plateaux, mentioned here.


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