It’s not like me to use this space to repost other content wholesale but I’ve been thinking about this post I found on an old Warwick University blog all week.
“To think is always to follow the witch’s flight” is one of Deleuze and Guattari’s most evocative phrases, nestled within a chapter of What is Philosophy?, but it is a line that so many people have come back to again and again.
As with most things — sorry Guattari — there is a line here — itself a witch’s flight — that can be traced back through Deleuze’s philosophy. It’s something he writes about at length in his book on the painter Francis Bacon, The Logic of Sensation, but here he refers to it — via Wilhelm Worringer — as the “Gothic line”. (A line Mark Fisher would later take up and modify to become his “Gothic flatline”.)
It’s a meandering line within Deleuze’s own thought but is, more often than not, demonstrated rather than unpacked with any rigour but this old blog post from 2006 does a great job of tying it to Deleuze’s sense of the “diagrammatic”. It’s a really nice essay and short too, so here it is in its entirety:
In chapter 3 of What is Philosophy? Deleuze & Guattari talk of the three necessary elements of philosophy, a kind of trinity consisting of:
‘…the prephilosophical plane it must lay out (immanence), the persona or personae it must invent and bring to life (insistence), and the philosophical concepts it must create (consistency). Laying out, inventing, and creating constitute the philosophical trinity – diagrammatic, personalistic,and intensive features.’ (What is Philosophy?, pp. 76–7)
The initial ‘diagrammatic’ function within philosophy (the elaboration of a prephilosophical plane of immanence) necessary for the subsequent creation of concepts has clear resonance with Deleuze’s understanding of Francis Bacon’s creative practice in The Logic of Sensation, and offers a clear example of the type of creative pedagogy provided by art to our understanding of the practice of philosophy. Both involve taking what Deleuze & Guatarri term ‘a witches’ flight’. Deleuze asks in what does the initial pre-figurative act of painting consist for Bacon? For Bacon the initial act of painting is defined by the making of random marks; cleaning, sweeping, brushing or wiping the canvas which serve to clear out locales or zones on the canvas; and the throwing of paint from various angles and at various speeds. Such acts presuppose the existence of figurative givens on the canvas (clichés), and it is precisely such givens that are to be removed, by being cleaned, brushed, swept or wiped, or else covered over, by the act of painting. In the interviews with David Sylvester this is what Bacon called a ‘graph’ or a ‘diagram’. The ‘diagram’ is to be understood as the pre-figural preparation of the canvas (the initial acts of painting) – the series of shades, colours, scratches and layers of material set down prior to the actual delineation of the Figure. In Bacon this process consists of a series of haphazard lines, coloured spots and pitched paint. Such a physical rather than a visual act of painting lays out a ground that is in contradiction with the pre-planned figure. This is an automatic or random ground that threatens to engulf the act of figuration it prepares for. Deleuze claims that the ‘diagram’ is a kind of physical catastrophe that underlies the subsequent production of figuration in painting:
‘It is as if, in the midst of the figurative and probabilistic givens, a catastrophe overcame the canvas.’ (Deleuze, The Logic of Sensation, p. 80)
According to Deleuze the ‘diagram’ in painting allows the emergence of another possible world. The marks associated with the ‘diagram’ are irrational, involuntary, accidental, free, random. They are non-representative, non-illustrative, non-narrative. They are no longer either significant or signifiers, they are, Deleuze claims, ‘a-signifying traits’. Such (almost blind) manual marks attest to the intrusion of another world into the visual world of figuration. To a degree, they remove the painting from the optical organisation that reigns over it, rendering it always already figurative. The painter’s hand intervenes in order to disrupt its own dependence and deconstruct the sovereign optical organisation. Here one can no longer see anything, as if one was in a catastrophe or chaos. The ‘diagram’ serves to disrupt a certain pre-existing ‘sense’ and allow for the emergence of an entirely new ‘sense’. The operation or function of the ‘diagram’ is, according to Bacon, to be ‘suggestive’ of a new ‘sense’. Because such marks are destined to provide the Figure it is essential that they break with the conventional codes of figuration as such. Thus, such marks are not sufficient in themselves to break with figuration, but must provide a function of utility. They mark out certain ‘possibilities of fact’, but do not of themselves yet constitute a ‘fact’ (the pictorial ‘fact’). In order to be configured into a ‘fact’, i.e. in order to evolve into a Figure, they must be re-injected into the visual whole, but it is precisely through the action of these marks that the visual whole ceases to be a purely optical organisation:
‘It will give the eye another power, as well as an object that will no longer be figurative.’ (Deleuze, The Logic of Sensation, p. 81)
The ‘diagram’ evinced within Bacon’s work is indeed a type of chaos, a catastrophe, but it is also a germ of order of rhythm. It is thus a violent chaos in relation to the figurative givens, but it is also germ of rhythm in relation to the new order of the painting, a new and emergent sense. As Bacon says, it ‘unlocks areas of sensation’. Deleuze argues that the entire significance of Bacon’s ‘diagrammatic path’ is the recognition that the ‘diagram’ must not eat away at the entire painting, it must remain limited in space and time, it must remain operative, functional and controlled. The violent methods associated with the ‘diagrammatic’ must not be given free reign, and the necessary catastrophe must not submerge the whole. The ‘diagram’ is a possibility of ‘fact’ – it is not the ‘Fact’ itself. Thus not all the figurative givens have to disappear; a new figuration, that of the Figure, should emerge from the ‘diagram’ and render the bloc of sensation clear and precise. The ‘diagrammatic’ thus begins the act of painting, it lays out the prepictorial plane of immanence, and it is precisely this creative practice bound up with diagrammatic elaboration which is to be understood to form one of the three fundamental elements of philosophy, albeit a non-philosophical one:
‘Precisely because the plane of immanence is prephilosophical and does not immediately take effect with concepts, it implies a sort of groping experimentation and its layout resorts to measures that are not very respectable , rational, or reasonable. These measures belong to the order of dreams, of pathological processes , esosteric experiences, drunkenness, and excess…To think is always to follow the witch’s flight.’ (What is Philosophy?, p. 41)
I’ve been holding my breath since the UK general election was announced, waiting for the next trickle of “Acid Corbynism” op-eds, calling for a supposedly Fisherian radical politics for the left, and I realised recently what it was for me that stunk about Acid Corbynism’s initial emergence.
My main issue with “the left-wing ideology you can rave to” was that it seemed to think itself backwards. (Or it has so far presented itself backwards, anyway, perhaps inadvertently, in a succession of inconsistent articles.) It has so far come across as a burgeoning left-wing sub-ideology that chooses to incorporate the politics of rave, rather than be a politics of rave that extends itself into a contemporary desire for a new democratic socialism.
It has, unfortunately, in the hands of Jeremy Gilbert, all felt a bit “boomerish”, betraying a woeful disconnection to the social spaces he was trying to champion. Well-meaning, no doubt, but counter-productive in being so out of touch. In all the initial essays about it, it was too much middle class yoga morning, with next to nothing said about the cultural developments of the present moment beyond “Corbyn and yoga are good for you”.
A politics of rave that extends itself into a contemporary desire for a new democratic socialism was surely Mark Fisher’s original intention with acid communism — or at least one shade of his intent. As his essay “Baroque Sunbursts” makes clear, he saw the “acidic” side of his burgeoning politics emerging from a long history of lumpenproletariat outsideness, doing its own thing against the grain, through fetes and carnivals and raves, and he saw this as emblematic of an all too often ignored undercurrent of contemporary desires for movement building and collective subjectivity, routinely suppressed by the state for centuries. His was a call to pay closer attention to those movements and activities that have long disrupted and called into question the cloistered establishment, but also those suppressed sentiments that nonetheless continue to influence the establishment left from below.
Contrary to this, Acid Corbynism’s off vibe has been — despite what it says about itself — to influence culture from the top down, “discussing ways in which a Corbyn project can engender new forms of collective consciousness informed by countercultural projects of the past”, as it was initially described in The Independent, falling into that classic hippie trap of patronising middle class cultural constructivism by going back to the ’60s and ’70s and largely ignoring everything that has happened since.
More specifically, it seems to ignore the countercultural projects of the present where such potentials as those they’re pointing to are already being enacted. This is to say that Corbyn isn’t simply an opportunity for reflection. He’s a symptom of something new in his own right. Acid Corbynism has so far been a bit of a weak diagnosis of what that is. Instead, we are presented with an apparently representative image of a sort of cringe mod revival micro Butlins corporate Dad weekender…
As a result of all this, in most appraisals I’ve seen that come from outside the camp putting out infrequent Acid Corbynite content, Acid Corbynism comes off as a product of London lefty cringe. It’s hard to disagree with that when you look over the majority of the content put out under its name. However, with the election on the horizon, and with my own retweet habits becoming increasingly Corbynistic as the weeks roll on, I’m left wanting to offer up a more generous reading; an avenue that might inject this provocatively empty ideological vessel with some substance. I’d like to call it the Corbyn Continuum.
One of Jeremy Corbyn’s most attractive qualities amongst his supporters is his political consistency. Any aspersions cast upon his character by detractors are often batted away with documentation of his political activism and voting record, finding him to be on the “right side of history” for decades. He’s not some post-Soviet tyrannical Marxist hangover, as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump want the country to think, but a principled man who has consistently stood against the policies of a deepening culture of neoliberalism since 1983. Whether protesting Apartheid, the War in Iraq or contemporary austerity, he has always been a supporter of the downtrodden, the powerless and the under-represented.
What he represents today, then, for so many, is a leftist continuum that has been smothered by neoliberalism for decades. He’s proof that the left weren’t all collectively insane and melancholic post-Thatcher. They simply didn’t have a democratic representative. Years were lost to Blairite centrism as a radical left went underground, and this dip below the political waterline notably occurred in tandem with rave’s own sociopolitical smothering. But, just as hardcore never died, neither have the principled politics of Jeremy Corbyn.
This is to say that Corbyn gives this intergenerational confluence of lost leftists a voice. He represents an always present but consistently undermined current of political energy that has never before had a democratic outlet. (Whether or not it has been looking for one is a separate issue.)
In this sense, Corbyn starts to resemble something of a post-rave candidate for Britain’s political left, and if there is any desirable instantiation of an Acid Corbynism, I think it has to be one that recognises the resonance between the Corbyn Continuum and the Hardcore Continuum.
Here we might turn to Simon Reynolds’ 1990s series of essays on ‘Ardkore for The Wire in which he defines the hardcore continuum as rave’s persistent channelling of a working class political disenfranchisement and a politically smothered collective subject:
Ardkore is really just the latest twist on the traditional contours of working class leisure, the latest variant on the sulphate-fuelled 60 Hour Weekend of mod and Northern Soul lore. With Ardkore, the proletarian culture of consolation has become a culture of concussion: hence amnesiac/anaesthetic slang terms for a desirable state of oblivion such as “sledged” (as in “sledge hammered”), “mashed up”, “cabbaged”, “monged”, and song titles like “Blackout” and “Hypnoblast”.
There’s a sampled slice of rap at large in Ardkore that goes: “Can’t beat the system/Go with the flow”. On one level, it’s just a boast about how much damage the sound system can inflict. But perhaps there’s a submerged political resonance in there too: amidst the socio-economic deterioration of a Britain well into its second decade of one party rule, where alternatives seem unimaginable, horizons grow ever narrower, and there’s no constructive outlet for anger, what else is there left but to zone out, go with the flow, disappear?
But retreatism is just one side of the rave scene. There’s an inchoate fury in the music that comes out in an urge for total release from constraints, a lust for explosive exhilaration — captured in titles like “Hypergasm”. The Ragga chant of Xenophobia’s “Rush In The House” kicks off “E come alive! E come alive! E come alive!” Ardkore frenzy is where the somnambulist youth of Britain snap out of the living death of the 90s, and grasp a few moments of fugitive bliss. Ardkore seethes with a RAGE TO LIVE, to cram all the intensity absent from a week of drudgery into a few hours of fervour. It’s a quest to reach escape velocity. Speed-freak youth are literally running away from their problems, and who can blame them?
This might not sound like it has much in common with Corbyn the manhole-cover-loving constant gardner and parliamentary left-wing figurehead and nor is it supposed to. Corbyn isn’t some perfect embodiment of a proletarian death drive suddenly inserted into our parliamentary democracy, but he is nonetheless a vector allowing long-derided subcultural currents to rise higher within the national unconscious than they have been able to since he first entered the House of Commons.
Because, despite rave’s apparent retreatism, hardcore has never died. It has had its peaks and troughs but it has been largely consistent as a path travelled by so many over the course of dance music culture’s development, fragmenting off into new subcultures that nonetheless retain a shared sensibility of collective action and jouissance. Sinking below the production line of commodified genres has led to its continuation becoming less easy to reify and capture but, chances are, if anything has recently been described as “deconstructed club” it can be fastened onto an almost 40-year lineage of musical experimentation and collective politics. In this sense, deconstructed club is the music press’s attempt to categorise a party that kept on going, stubbornly, on rave’s own terminal beach, amongst the washed-up detritus of past political and musical failures, mudlarking for new sonic futures found amongst contorted old objects.
This new generation has seen and heard the musics of rave, perhaps appropriated and repackaged after the fact, and wonders how we ended up where we did. Compared to now, the alternatives of the rave era seemed numerous if still impotently subcultural. Corbyn, surreally, represents their future prospects within parliament but to say he is representative of these sentiments overall is a patronising misstep.
This is to say that this hauntological beach rave has not been so woefully nihilistic that it needs someone like Corbyn to galvinise it into action. Its persistence has successively held rave’s offspring back from the brink of death and it has given buoyancy to their collective politics at the same time. It is up to Corbyn to encourage their proliferation, not for these scenes to embody Corbyn-supplied political strategies. It is, after all, the parliamentary instantiation of the politics of neoliberalism that are to blame for its near-death in the first place. It is up to Corbyn to dismantle those damaging infrastructures so that these precarious embers might blossom into a new way of life.
Grime’s international popularity and alignment with Corbyn’s politics is the perfect example of how this might be done. Whilst their cross-cultural love-in might have been a tandem surprise to many, it emerged out of this kind of sociopolitical undercurrent, emboldened by a generation that is unwilling to extend the nihilism of past generations any further.
This is to say that to call Grime an Acid Corbynist UK rap scene would be deeply embarrassing for so many reasons. It is Corbyn, instead, who was, for a moment, a exo-Grime political opportunity — offering up an allegiance to be encouraged where other politicians would have shit themselves before an audience with the country’s creative youth. Corbyn, instead, recognised their frustration and offered them his support. They, in turn, offer him theirs. This wasn’t a party political strategy on their part. It was simply the Corbyn continuum in action, with the man listening to their sociopolitical frustrations and vowing to alleviate them.
There is space for Acid Corbynism to grow as an idea along these lines — and it should — but to do so it must pay better attention to its own source material in a way that allows it to overcome itself rather than becoming reified into a control value for Labour party conference tension.
In short, Acid Corbynist dance infrastructure is intended to be a hadron collider where ‘the new’ might flourish and where people can party. It can provide firm, practical ground upon which we can try to move on from the capitalist realist cultural impasse.
The next step is to turn the concept into a strategy; to achieve something like what we have here proposed, a politicised dance culture movement will need the collaboration of journalists, DJs, promoters, club-goers and club-owners working together to imagine better organisations of space, policy, experimentation and, of course, a good night out.
And yet here, again, the representation is still backwards. There is a sense, in all of these articles, that the intended audience is a disenfranchised “common” left, but it ends up sounding like a cultural reappraisal offered up from within the Labour party itself that seems to ignore the scenes already going from strength to strength within UK club culture more broadly.
Instead, contrary to all intention, the concept of Acid Corbynism starts to resembles a tone-deaf electioneering campaign, excavating previous strategies that have been restricted and penalised by the state infrastructure the Labour party still — regardless of who is leading it — represents.
Frankly, it ends up sounding patronising.
We should note here that Mark Fisher, the supposed inspiration for Acid Corbynism, was heavily influenced by Reynolds and he would later respond to his ‘Ardkore essays in 2009 for FactMag, describing a musical trajectory that continues to resonate, analogously, with Corbyn’s own broad appeal. He would describe the hardcore continuum as “a cybernetically self-correcting system”, pivoting between rave euphoria and its darkside. What was most notable about this for Mark was that these “recalibrations and adjustments would happen without the continuum repeating itself.”
Previous moments were neither forgotten nor reiterated, but subsumed and synthesised into new hybrids; and, rather than individual artist-geniuses, it was the collective ‘scenius’, the interaction between DJs, producers and dancers, that brought about these shifts.
There is a scenic left in the UK but to define it by Corbyn’s own personality rather than his function as a political lightning rod is to undo this sense of a collective scenius in the present, setting up boundaries for what should instead be allowed to freely overflow.
Intriguingly, Mark points to this frustration on the horizon that Acid Corbynism plays chicken with, still commenting on hardcore’s continuation into the present of 2009 in response to Reynolds’ essays on ‘ardkore. He writes:
… a generation younger than Reynolds is frustrated that it has yet to produce a music which can’t be comfortably fitted inside a theoretical framework generated nearly two decades ago. It’s a measure of the robustness of the hardcore continuum (and its theorization) that it should still be holding on after twenty years. Yet it’s also a sign of the slowing of the rate of innovation in popular music, with British dance music, once so furiously inventive, now falling prey to the conditions of entropy which have long prevailed elsewhere. If only there could be a shattering break that would definitively relegate the hardcore continuum to the past.
Today’s younger generation may not have a new “rave” but they have Corbyn, as a political figurehead from that time that looms large over the present, who hasn’t been coopted and undermined and who hasn’t become corporate fodder for lobbyists. He is uncomfortable, just as rave was and still is, and that is his power. The prospect of him being elected prime minister heralds the ultimate success of the Corbyn continuum and its ending. By exploding through its former glass ceiling, Corbyn — and, potentially, rave and the politics its represents — could overcome themselves and their position within culture and society, opening out a space for the radically new.
It is this sort of collaboration that should be encouraged, but ravers have done enough to keep their way of life hanging on by the skin of their teeth. An Acid Corbynism requires a Corbyn government prepared to listen to the communities and collectives where these politics already exist in the here and now.
This is essential because, regardless of whatever it is Acid Corbynism hopes to bring to the table, the musical and political frustrations previously described by Mark have been waning recently — not through a big subcultural-but-commercial genre moment or rave explosion but through an on- and offline scene-building.
Because things have changed since Mark wrote of his concerns for dance music in 2009. Music journalists and musicians are more politicised now than ever before and yet they are still penalised from the top-down. In many respects, Acid Corbynism seems to be preaching didactically to the converted. It is the Labour Party’s own organisers who should be taking a closer look at what is already going on around them in the scenes they are attempting to appropriate the politics of.
The worst way to respond to this would be to point to the ’60s and ’70s. To look upon that era for strategies will lead to nothing but frustration for a new generation that couldn’t give a shit about old psychedelic aesthetics and simply wants to imagine the world anew for itself. Therefore, Acid Corbynism, like the hardcore continuum it professes to celebrate, runs the risk of being a multifunctional canary in the coal mine: for both the demands of the new and the lack of innovation among the old.
An Acid Corbynism that does itself justice would bring these subcultural insights from below to the top, strategising to make rave desires into policies rather than making policies into rave desires, reversing the smothering legislation currently killing the nation’s nightlife and doing more to support cultural endeavors that many passionately seek to keep alive despite the system trying to squash them at every turn.
As such, any “Acid Corbynism” that wants to get itself off the ground must not be reduced to a rave didacticism. It should strive to be a political offshoot surfing the sine waves of the hardcore continuum that lies adjacent to it.
“The general consensus [amongst grime artists] is that they were used,” said one grime manager, who asked not to be named. “They didn’t follow up. They weren’t expecting a general election so soon, and it’s a bit late to go to the grime community now after ignoring us.”
I wanted to hold off listening to Phil Elverum’s new album as Mount Eerie, released as his second collaboration with Julie Doiron. The track names alone made it clear that these were new songs — songs I’d heard performed live earlier this summer.
That performance had been so raw and so special, to hear the songs in a somewhat transitory form — undoubtedly different to what they would eventually become on a presently unannounced new album called Pink Light, listed tentatively on Elverum’s website — felt wrong somehow.
Nevertheless, it is hard to resist another collaboration with Doiron. Their first album together, Lost Wisdom, felt like a really big deal. Preceding the release of Dawn, a collection of solo-sung songs written by Elverum on his Scandinavian mountain retreat, the collaboration felt like an exercise in building these solitary songs outwards, beyond themselves, introducing another voice and allowing the songs to grow alongside it.
That album’s cover — a large folder poster — was the centrepiece of my university dorm room in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Like No Flashlight before it, it was an album you could live in. It’s oversized record cover emphasised that fact, perhaps inadvertently.
Now, the sensation has been inverted. These songs are striking in documenting Elverum’s self-described fall back into banality following the death of his wife. They are of another world. Whereas his previous two albums documented a tragically small world opened outwards, here it feels like we are bearing witness to some sort of retreat; some sort of return to a previous way of living — an impossible exercise, perhaps, and one to be undertaken with great care. It somehow feels even more intrusive than his initial collection of “death songs”. With Doiron’s voice appearing alongside Elverum’s again, it is hard even for the listener to adjust back to a time before — a time before Elverum’s unprecedented sonic isolation.
But Doiron doesn’t crowd these songs. She appears as a friend, taking them somewhere new, even prior to their release in their final form. This is not an extension but a transition and a strange one to bear witness to. But that lingering phrase — pink light — echoes not only to a beyond but a lost continuum.
On their first album together, Lost Wisdom, they would sing on the track “Grave Robbers”:
And our ghosts stay forever confined In wherever we haunt And hopelessly want to But can not get away And our bones do blow away In pink light
Prior even to this, on Mount Eerie Pts. 6 & 7 — a 12″ included with a book of Elverum’s photographs — one of my most prized possessions — he sings:
In and out of the fog, I forget what I know through rock revolves And there’s my sight The sun sets in the south, where it rose The song dissolves, bones blow in the pink light Mount Erie revealed in the breaking the clouds And then gone again
Earlier still, on the Microphones’ song “You’ll Be In The Air”, he sings:
You’d feel the hot blowing rock-filled winds And the clouds of ash would fill your skies And you’d smoothly glide over the cold river basin where we spend the night And again your gaping gap is pink in foggy light.
This pink light has followed Elverum for some time. Perhaps for all time. It was present even through his grief for his wife, which he sings about on the song “Ravens“, having glanced “up at the half moon pink chill refinery cloud light”. At that time, and previously also ,he bathed in it alone and then with singers and then with Doiron and then with his wife and then with his daughter. And then again alone. And now again together.
These transitory songs are a humbling document of a strangely circular process and one which seems endlessly healing. I look forward to hearing them in their next form — forms that will no doubt be inspired by these ones.
On my old RateYourMusic account I used to have a customised zero to five-star rating system.
The site would let you assign words and phrases to your ratings and, because it included half-stars, there were ten options to fill in.
Across the site people got quite creative and meta with these. Some were deadly serious. Others would knowingly poke fun at numbered rating systems all together. (Pitchfork still haven’t got that memo.)
Someone might order the films of Steven Spielberg, for instance, from golden to trash, and use them as markers for the albums they would rate on the platform, adding an extra layer of fun to think about why someone has given Can’s Tago Mago a rating of E.T. The Extraterrestrial or Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation a Jaws out of five.
I had an idea for one that I thought was pretty inspired: medical conditions. I thought why not assign every rating between zero and five stars with a different disease or syndrome and use that as my marker for whether an album is good or not. I thought it was funny, if a little darkly so, and the spectrum was certainly one of extremes.
Five stars was, obviously, synaesthesia. If there’s any medical condition you’d want to have, surely that’s the no-brainer choice?
Four point five stars, the next step down, was Jumping Frenchmen of Maine. Weird, a little esoteric maybe, but a mental image that brings joy. I thought that made sense at the time.
Zero stars was the Ebola virus.
The middle ratings were kind of hard to make a decision on. Something not life-threatening but maybe just a bit irritating or inconveniencing or temporarily mildly debilitating.
I remember that three stars was the common cold. Everyone gets it, there’s a season when it’s all the rage, but it’s hard to enjoy and probably only lasts a couple of days. The dead centre, however — two point five stars — I’d decided would be diabetes.
I didn’t really put that much thought into it the other ratings. It was a gag. Maybe in poor taste but thankfully there are very few albums that I’ve heard in my life that I thought were as bad as the Ebola virus or cancer. However, there have been plenty of middling uninteresting releases out there, and one day my indifference to one release would get me into a bit of trouble.
In 2014 there was this guy, who should probably remain nameless, who released his first EP. It was talked about by everyone all over the music press and was totally caught up in the “deconstructed club” hype machine. I remember Boomkat had it as their recommendation for the week. FactMag too maybe. It was everywhere and had this mad cover art that someone threw a big-name graphic designer at and they were being heralded as the next big-deal underground producer.
I didn’t get the hype, personally. The EP in question was of the sort that you hear ten a penny of these days. Half-ironic trance-inspired post-dubstep whatever, and it’s meant to be for the club maybe, but whoever deconstructed it just took all the soul out and then just said it was post-industrial to justify the monotony.
I didn’t say any of this online at the time, of course. I just logged it in my RYM catalogue with a two point five “meh” and left it at that. Diabetes.
A couple of days later I got an email in my inbox.
It was the guy who has put out the EP and he wanted to know why I said his EP was “diabetes”.
I was mortified. I tried to explain it was just a joke and how the customisable rating systems on the site worked and why I’d chosen mine. We had this awkward back and forth where I tried to play it down and I’m nobody anyway so don’t worry about it, mate. I didn’t mean anything by it. I didn’t like the EP, sorry, but the “diabetes” thing is just an arbitrary thing. Honest. No offence intended.
The more I tried to explain it the less funny it got and the more awkward. He wasn’t satisfied with any of my (admittedly poor) reasonings.
“Yeah but why diabetes though?”
I didn’t know what else to say. I had no reason to justify saying this guy’s first EP was like a lifelong condition of glucose imbalance. It just seemed like the most “meh” of medical conditions to me at the time — a bit shit but you can live with it. Imagine putting up with the monotony of daily injections and having to tell yourself no, you can’t have an extra biscuit.
But he kept persisting and, as our emails went back and forth, me feeling like I had a pile of embarrassment bricks in my stomach, I kept trying to explain my lack of thinking and it was just an irreverent thing. (“Shitposting” wasn’t a thing back then.)
In the end all I was doing was adding salt to a wound and I was running out of ways to politely reiterated the fact I thought the EP was dull and even started to eat my words, saying things like, “anyway maybe I just need to listen to it a few more times. No hard feelings, dude.”
But still he was persistent and he was starting to come across as a little unhinged. But then that became more and more clear as I thought about the situation. My mortification was wearing off and I started to wonder why he’d contacted me in the first place — and how!? I was some nobody workaday very online guy living in Cardiff with no social life or media platform. Just a random RYM user. Why was he emailing me? Surely his skin wasn’t this thin? Was I the only person not to like it? All the other reviews had been pretty glowing…
Then I remembered that my email wasn’t even attached to my RYM profile. He’ sought me out and must have done a fair bit of digging to get to this point. And then he said:
“Yeah but why diabetes though? I’m diabetic and no-one outside my closest mates knows that and I’m touchy about it so how is it that you know I’m diabetic when I don’t know you?”
It was hard to know what to say to that. I don’t think I said anything at all. I did the internet equivalent of backing away slowly but still probably tweeted about it. He might have threatened me with violence at some point, I’m not sure. But in the end, the whole thing blew over and so did he. I don’t think he’s put anything out since. Maybe a disappointing follow-up but then they fell off the map completely.
When John F. Kennedy spoke of Americans taking themselves to our planet’s closest celestial neighbour, he did so to invoke an image of America’s will-to-power and, most importantly, to orient the entire nation towards an ethics of the new frontier.
In a 1962 speech given in Houston, Texas, Kennedy would declare: “We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.”
By speaking of the project in these terms, JFK made scientific and technological progress innately sociopolitical issues of which a new collective consciousness was required because the very project of scientific progressivism had “no conscience of its own.”
Similarly, for many an accelerationist, it is our very dogged fixation on that which seems to exist over the horizon of established reason and knowledge that will help us get there. However, any call for the reestablishment of an ethics for a new political frontierism — particularly one oriented towards communism rather than capitalism — requires considerable caution.
We must ask ourselves: what, if anything, might we bring with us on our journey—inadvertently or otherwise?
In seeking to enter new lands and climes, we must be wary about what we erase and perpetuate as we enter them, such is the necessity of an ethical dimension towards which we consider our horizons. Speaking still of the Space Race, JFK tellingly continued: “Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man,” and not just man but an American and capitalism man, implicitly in opposition to their space race rivals: the Russian Communists.
For JFK, the United States had to occupy “a position of pre-eminence” if the nation was to “help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.” This is likewise the sort of wishful thinking employed by left-accelerationists, containing many of the same misfortunate undercurrents.
When attaching your project to the state, you must be careful what you wish for. Bootstrapping — whether nationalism to space colonialism or communism to capitalism — is a dangerous game.
The uprising taking place in Chile at the moment is really something. Not only in terms of the numbers of people demonstrating — “A Million Chileans” is the name of my new hardcore band, just FYI; our demo, “Piss Gauntlet”, will be up on Bandcamp soon — but also the slogans that are raising of people’s consciousness related to the centrality of Chile to the building of our current world system.
The video above draws attention to this by highlighting one of the protest slogans I’ve seen going around in recent weeks on Twitter: “Neoliberalism was born in Chile and it will die in Chile.”
As Pablo Navarrete explains for Double Down News, it wasn’t thirty pesos that brought the country’s cities to a standstill — referring to the increase in the cost of public transportation. That was “just a trigger”. The real impetus behind the protests is a nation that is done with “thirty years of neoliberal tyranny that they’ve been living through.”
Navarrete extends this period to forty-six years, aligning the infection of neoliberalism with the beginning of the Pinochet dictatorship that ruled from 1973 to 1990, and which left behind a neoliberal socio-economic model that has taken over the Western world.
This is another one of those moments for me where I wish Mark was still around to offer up his thought on his k-punk blog.
The seventh lecture of Mark’s “Postcapitalist Desire” postgraduate course at Goldsmiths — which he didn’t live to give — was meant to focus on Chile explicitly. Entitled “The Destruction of Democratic Socialism and the Origins of Neoliberalism: The Case of Chile”, he assigned the “States of Shock: The Bloody Birth of the Counterrevoluation” chapter from Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine and “Cybernetics and Socialism” from Eden Medina’s Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile.
Much has been made in the press about what the Pinochet regime, propped up by the US, brought to the world, but less has been said about what the US and Pinochet so violently overcame — the birth of a new 21st century cybersocialism.
For Mark, via Eden Medina’s book, this is what interested him — the close relationship between Chilean Socialism and the burgeoning technologies of cybernetics in the early 1970s. Stafford Beer, a British cyberneticist was a major influence on the Allende government in this regard, and had been invited personally to oversee the technological development of the new government’s overhaul of Chile’s sociopolitical infrastructure. Medina writes:
In July 1971, the British cybernetician Stafford Beer received an unexpected letter from Chile. Its contents would dramatically change Beer’s life. The writer was a young Chilean engineer named Fernando Flores, who was working for the government of newly elected Socialist president Salvador Allende. Flores wrote that he was familiar with Beer’s work in management cybernetics and was “now in a position from which it is possible to implement on a national scale — at which cybernetic thinking becomes a necessity — scientific views on management and organization.” Flores asked Beer for advice on how to apply cybernetics to the management of the nationalized sector of the Chilean economy, which was expanding quickly because of Allende’s aggressive nationalization policy.
Less than a year earlier, Allende and his leftist coalition, Popular Unity (UP), had secured the presidency and put Chile on a road toward socialist change. Allende’s victory resulted from the failure of previous Chilean governments to resolve such problems as economic dependency, economic inequality, and social inequality using less drastic means. His platform made the nationalization of major industries a top priority, an effort Allende later referred to as “the first step toward the making of structural changes.” The nationalization effort would not only transfer foreign-owned and privately owned industries to the Chilean people, it would “abolish the pillars propping up that minority that has always condemned our country to underdevelopment,” as Allende referred to the industrial monopolies controlled by a handful of Chilean families. The majority of parties in the UP coalition believed that by changing Chile’s economic base, they would subsequently be able to bring about institutional and ideological change within the nation’s established legal framework, a facet that set Chile’s path to socialism apart from that of other socialist nations, such as Cuba or the Soviet Union. Flores worked for the Chilean State Development Corporation, the agency responsible for leading the nationalization effort. Although Flores was only twenty-eight when he wrote Beer, he held the third-highest position in the development agency and a leadership role in the Chilean nationalization process.
Beer found the Chilean invitation irresistible. Flores was offering him a chance to apply his ideas on management on a national level and during a moment of political transformation. Beer decided he wanted to do more than simply offer advice, and his response to Flores was understandably enthusiastic. “Believe me, I would surrender any of my retainer contracts I now have for the chance of working on this,” Beer wrote. “That is because I believe your country is really going to do it.” Four months later, the cybernetician arrived in Chile to serve as a management consultant to the Chilean government.
This connection between a Chilean technologist working for a socialist government and a British consultant specializing in management cybernetics would lead to Project Cybersyn, an ambitious effort to create a computer system to manage the Chilean national economy in close to real time using technologies that, in most cases, were not cutting edge. Such a connection between British cybernetics and Chilean socialism was rather unusual, not only because of their geographical separation but also because they represented very specific strains of scientific or political thought. As I argue in this chapter, Beer and Flores joined forces in part because Beer and Popular Unity were exploring similar intellectual terrain in the different domains of science and politics.
Here we have the development of a project that neoliberal economists, under the tutelage of Milton Friedman, as Navarrete points out in the video above, would later seize upon after Allende’s death. This sort of management system was occupied and appropriated for a globalist capitalism and the rest is history.
But, somewhat ironically, or perhaps worryingly, considering the positions of some of Friedman’s descendents, is that this process of appropriating Allende’s innovations is not yet over. It is even more unfortunate that these ideas have been abandoned to those people who are picking over the bones of a group that were far more radical in the 1970s than they are today. In essence, what was intended by the Chilean socialists to be a state-management system that could adapt to the future has been transformed into a capitalist propensity to absorb dissent. Medina again:
The idea of control is commonly associated with domination. Beer offered a different definition: he defined control as self-regulation, or the ability of a system to adapt to internal and external changes and survive. This alternative approach to control resulted in multiple misunderstandings of Beer’s work, and he was repeatedly criticized for using computers to create top-down control systems that his detractors equated with authoritarianism and the loss of individual freedom. Such criticisms extended to the design of Project Cybersyn, but, as this book illustrates, they were to some extent ill-informed. To fully grasp how Beer approached the control problem requires a brief introduction to his cybernetic vocabulary.
Beer was primarily concerned with the study of “exceedingly complex systems,” or “systems so involved that they are indescribable in detail.” He contrasted exceedingly complex systems with simple but dynamic systems such as a window catch, which has few components and interconnections, and complex systems, which have a greater number of components and connections but can be described in considerable detail. Beer classified the operation of a computer or the laws of the visible universe as complex systems. Examples of exceedingly complex systems included the economy, the company, or the brain; such systems defied the limits of reductionist mathematical analysis. The behavior of exceedingly complex systems could not be predicted with perfect accuracy, but it could be studied probabilistically. You could have a good idea of what such a system might do, but you could never be one hundred percent certain.
In Beer’s opinion, traditional science did a good job of handling simple and complex systems but fell short in its ability to describe, let alone regulate, exceedingly complex systems. Cybernetics, Beer argued, could provide tools for understanding and controlling these exceedingly complex systems and help these systems adapt to problems yet unknown.
She continues later:
Beer’s ideas on management cybernetics resembled the Chilean approach to democratic socialism. First, Allende and Popular Unity, like Beer, wanted to make structural changes and wanted them to happen quickly. However, they needed to carry out these changes in a way that did not threaten the stability of existing democratic institutions. Second, Allende and his government, Popular Unity, did not want to impose these changes on the Chilean people from above. The government wanted change to occur within a democratic framework and in a way that preserved civil liberties and respected dissenting voices. Chilean democratic socialism, like management cybernetics, thus wanted to find a balance between centralized control and individual freedom. Third, the Chilean government needed to develop ways to manage the growing national economy, and industrial management constituted one of Beer’s core areas of expertise.
Considering the outline of Mark’s postgraduate course, the case of Chile was just the first in a trilogy of lectures that would set the scene for Mark’s contemporaneous considerations of accelerationism, xenofeminism and Prometheanism, and how each of these was informing his developing thought of an acid communism. It considers Chile as a major national antecedent of a left accelerationist project but unfortunately that is all we have now from him — a nod.
Medina’s book is brilliant though. It’s essential reading if you want to find out more about this.
I think it’s quite clear, from Medina’s descriptions there and here, how Chile was an antecedent to the sort of democratic socialist response to the observations of a thought like accelerationism, likewise concerned with the behaviour of “exceedingly complex systems”. (See Nick Land’s essay “Teleoplexy”.) But that is now something to get back to. It was a burgeoning movement snuffed out by a violent, capitalistic authoritarianism.
The memories of Pinochet evidently still haunt the region but we might wonder how, as in the UK and elsewhere, we might return to the potentials of that era. Not nostalgically but in terms of a digital psychedelia, imagining new avenues for what was not allowed to be. Capitalism has allowed the technological innovations brought about in Chile to proliferate globally but with neoliberalism installed as an operating system. Here’s hoping Chile can achieve a reboot.
Sphinxter argues that accelerationism has “a tenuous relationship with ecology and green politics” and so they draw together some new extensions that attempt to make the climate crisis more of an explicit focus for accelerationist thought. The responses, so far, have been mixed.
Accelerationism was meant to raze all of this moral exhortation IMHO, but whatever. Increasingly dewy-eyed Virtue Accelerationisms are probably inevitable.
@Metanomad adds that their argument “has the same anthropocentric bias as L/ACC; if you can ’embrace’ the process as a form of conscious agent then it isn’t the process of Acceleration, only an ideological offshoot.”
I think my favourite thing about these sorts of threads is that they proliferate even more concise definitions of what accelerationism actually speaks to, with @bognamk writing:
[Accelerationism] is a description of system complexification both alligned with and separate from human (political) interest. To use it as a political program for positive human-system alliance exclusively misses something crucial.
I don’t much care what letters panicked crypto-leftists put in front of “/acc” in their Twitter bios, but I do have to wonder what the fuck accelerationism is doing in the realm of post-capitalist community projects instead of measuring teleoplexy. What’s the point even?
A lot of these posts in the thread would prefer to keep ACC theory as a done deal, a fait accompli. Well if one accepts the dromological drive of ACC, such an approach is suspect. Have your cake and eat it too kinda thing… more appropriation (app) necessary here.
This is an argument often levelled at those who try to defend accelerationism from woeful appropriations and whilst, on the one hand, it is a fair point — after all, haven’t so many of us argued that fragmentation is good? — on the other hand it has also undoubtedly led to a misfortunate watering down of what accelerationism was initially concerned with, leading to echoes of the same sorts of argument again and again. Indeed, with every new disavowal based on a misunderstanding, the infrequent building out the /acc umbrella, more often than not, leads to drag.
If we want to talk about the ecological implications of accelerationism, we need not look further than Thomas Moynihan’s work, whether his writings on existential risk or, even more recently, his book on Urbanomic: Spinal Catastrophism. What Tom gets right, where others fall short, is he has a rigorous grasp of the effects of the dynamics accelerationism concerns itself with on the human subject.
The place of the human subject within accelerationism has been — and we really need to stop forgetting this — the foundational tension since the original publication of the Urbanomic reader — a tension first explored by Simon O’Sullivan in his own essay on accelerationism’s (then too implicit) speculative recalibrations of subjectivity.
Today, at least as far as I see it, and following Simon’s insights, the contemporary subject of late capitalism, shaped by a mandatory individualism, amongst other things, finds itself torn in two directions — towards the collective (communist) subject of L/Acc and the inhumanism of R/Acc.
U/Acc, in my (biased) opinion, combines these two projects together and attempts to observe these sensibilities as libidinal instantiations of accelerationism’s life and death drives. And I mean this quite literally, rather than obfuscating an argument behind Freudian pretensions. (This is, in many respects, what my forthcoming Egress book deals with — and it has a whole chapter on the climate crisis too.)
Alexander Irwin in his book Saints of the Impossible, particularly a chapter where he writes about Bataille’s novella Blue of Noon, summarises this dynamic well, paying particular attention to the biases of competing ideologies that attempt to grapple with such complex systems. Foreshadowing the all too familiar argument that has played out repeatedly between the old spheres of L/Acc and R/Acc, Georges Bataille and Simone Weil would frequently come to blows over Bataille’s dismissal of her Christian virtue-signalling and Weil’s dismissal of Bataille’s ontopolitical morbidity. Irwin writes that, for Bataille (and also, I think, for U/Acc):
The point is to recognize that to genuinely love life, one must have “signed a contract with death.” The love of life — to the extent that it is something other than naiveté, delusion, or cynical manipulation — will (ambiguously) emerge from, nourish, and incorporate necrophilia. A “love of life” that seeks to exclude or refuse death is not, in fact, a love of life at all, but the worship of an idealistic myth whose inevitable effect will be a devaluing of life in its real and tragic fullness.
L/Acc — and the left more generally — has repeatedly embarrassed itself with its virtue-signalling in this respect whilst R/Acc’s preoccupation with death too often slips into fascist sympathies by defining itself in opposition to L/Acc’s initially warm-hearted humanist sensibility. (A dual tension Land already preempted in his essay “Making It With Death”.)
This epiphany of the life and death drives of politics, as a sort of collective instantiation of the life and death drives of the subject, led Bataille to his formulation of a theory of general economy, but even that consideration of the subject at the scale of the planetary isn’t new, by any means, and it is this that Robin Mackay and, now, Thomas Moynihan have explored at length in their writings on geophilosophy.
Tom’s book, in particular, is a mind-bogglingly rigorous and philosophical account of how we, as humans, in our thought and in our very morphology, are related to the planet on which we presently live, and we are as much in crisis as the climate itself.
He writes, early on, “that Homo sapiens‘ ability to exert cognizance and control on a planetary scale results from the same species-specific peculiarity as its susceptibility to back pain.” The more explicitly accelerationist version of the argument is not all that different, but what is to be considered is our species susceptibility to technological whiplash. And if that isn’t intrinsic to our understanding of the contemporary climate crisis, I don’t know what is.
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 Pitchforkis 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.
‘Your Wilderness Revisited’ might be [Doyle’s] most accessible record to date. The worlds William conjures, of broken fences, stretched out washing lines and lustreless blocks of flats, is one that’s all around us. On ‘Design Guide’, in his beautifully crystalline vocals, he sings, “I stood still in the cool of the evening / Watched the sun as it skimmed the horizon / Every house silhouetted in unison,” evoking that suburban feeling of removal from the bustling city but also the discovery of your own kind of beauty.
And whilst there may be references to wider academic concepts about space and architecture across the record, it’s there for us to stumble upon if we want to, not forced into the listener’s face. William wants us to find our own experiences in amongst his. Because these songs are personal, but also open to us…
How refreshing to encounter, in the age of algorithmically engineered instant Spotified gratification and an unstemmable torrent of albums that barely demand a single play, a proper old-fashioned grower, intriguing enough to stick with after the first spin, and increasingly rewarding with each subsequent one. The fact that William Doyle’s first commercially available album under his own name (and his third including those as East India Youth) is only a shade over half an hour certainly helps its moreishness, but even more so is the abiding spirit of upbeat stoicism, the knottily nuanced symphonic arrangement and the knack for nagging melody that peppers the entire record.
It’s amazing to see this out in the world, after almost five years spent talking about and exploring England’s strange suburbs with Will and video whizz Sapphire Goss. I get a bit emotional listening to it now, after spending a whole summer a few years back driving around the suburbs of Hull to Will’s first string of demoes. It’s been amazing to hear it grow.
It’s an amazing album — and perfect for the car, which is always a bonus for me personally — and it has been an honour to work on the visuals with Will over the last few years.
You’ll find my photographs on the front and back covers (of both the main and indie-exclusive versions) and in the vinyl gatefold, and I hope you find they encapsulate the album as well as we think they do.