Same Virus, New Zombies: Towards a New Hauntology

Following yesterday’s brief summary of some of the papers given at the Capitalist Realism: 10 Years On conference, one of the more persistent discussions surrounding Mark’s writings was on hauntology — and it was a discussion that irked me more and more as the weekend went on.

As is unsurprising these days, numerous people had problems with Mark’s arguments regarding our cultural stagnation. This ended up featuring quite heavily in my keynote and I’m planning to condense and redevelop this argument for elsewhere so I won’t rehash it here but, essentially, it drives me mad how common poor readings of this part of Mark’s thought are, particularly regarding the assumption that Mark just thought everything new was shit.

Of course he didn’t. He could see the future coming but what frustrated him, I think, was how unevenly distributed it was, with the experimental and the mainstream no longer sharing the same spaces as they once did.

Mark hated the Arctic Monkeys, for instance.

He saw their repetitive cultural pastiche as nothing more than a by-the-numbers product of pop cultural nostalgia, hauntographically ordering and describing late-twentieth century cultural signifiers on album after album. (Something which has not abated one bit over the last fifteen years.)

What Mark loved, however, was the hauntology of the Caretaker’s new modernism.

One should not be equated with the other. It’s like arguments surrounding accelerationism all over again. People are far too quick to flatten the distinction between acceleration itself and the subject affected by acceleration. What accelerationism does is observe the former and critique the latter.

Similarly, critics of hauntology flatten the distinction between repetition itself and the subject affected by repetition. Again, hauntology observes the former and critiques the latter.

This is to say that the Arctic Monkeys replicate uncritically a homogenising cultural mode at the end of history, seemingly without irony. They are repetition incarnate. The Caretaker, on the other hand, explicitly interrogates the impact of this very tendency on the contemporary subject, producing new sonic worlds in the process. Therefore, hauntology proper should be seen less as a description of the repetitive semiology of capitalist modernity and more as a study of postmodern capitalism’s innately repetitive nature and its effect on us as subjects.

Interestingly, however, the main critics of Mark’s hauntological thinking in this regard were a group of Huddersfield PhD candidates who would later perform together as a free improvisation group. There is so much experimentation going on today, they would argue, implicitly referencing activity on a campus known for its radical music department, and they couldn’t understand why Mark would ignore these other practices and potentials. (I’d argue he didn’t but, again, the distinctions within his work are flattened.)

The excitement and freedom they felt running through their musical practices made them openly annoyed at Mark, as if his critiques did nothing but shut down these potentials by demoralising his students. This was far from his intention, of course, but this was nonetheless how they felt reading Capitalist Realism for the first time ten years on.

Although I was vocal in my disagreement, I was also newly aware of my own over-familiarity with Mark. I could no longer imagine reading him for the first time without the baggage I carry around, so it was very interesting to hear the first thoughts of a PhD cohort otherwise unfamiliar with his life and trajectory. For example, most surprisingly, Capitalist Realism was interpreted as an indictment of political disengaged students, at least when compared with “their forebears in the 1960s and 1970s”.

I don’t interpret this as Mark being critical of individuals, however. He loved his students. They weren’t in his crosshairs. It was the system that encourage their disengagement that he took issue with. Mark made clear elsewhere — although I can’t remember where right now but it was in some interview — that Capitalist Realism was his attempt to change this and engage directly with and excite his A Level students. After all, he writes, through personal experience:

In Britain, Further Education colleges used to be places which students, often from working class backgrounds, were drawn to if they wanted an alternative to more formal state educational institutions. Ever since Further Education colleges were removed from local authority control in the early 1990s, they have become subject both to ‘market’ pressures and to government-imposed targets.

Here Mark is referring to the slow decline of the polytechnic — institutions known (and derided) for catering to vocational interests that fuelled radical experimentation. (Leeds University, for instance, is particularly famous for being a post-punk hot bed.) However, in 2009, at least in my experience, these reports of political disengagement ring true. The most politically active kid at my college was a smarmy cunt who became well-known as one of the youngest ever local Labour councillors but fell out of the public eye as soon as the anti-Blairite wave rose through the ranks. (He was a particularly slimy example.)

The politicisation of British students post-Millennium didn’t seem to happen until immediately after Capitalist Realism was published, which is partly why I think it had the surprise success that it did. It emerged at a time when Mark’s intended audience was suddenly very keen to listen.

The London riots and the protests around student fees in 2010 and 2011, for example, lit a literal fire under a whole generation who are, today, actively shaping cultural discourse. In 2009, however, that just did not exist. Owen Jones’ Chavs didn’t come out until 2011 — the book that single-handedly shone a light on the class consciousness of a generation who had not realised the ferocity of their own (often internalised) classism — but, as someone speaking to the future, he also appeared very lonely within the nation’s consciousness of radically left-wing political commentators at that time. Again, he was a breath of fresh air and this, too, is largely why his book started doing so well.

What is more sad, however, is that it is likely that Mark was going to continue to surf the edge of popular discourse but, since his death, his works have been criticised for posthumously falling behind. Further criticisms popped up infrequently, for instance, regarding Capitalst Realism‘s anglocentrism and its lack of diverse references. Pedro Alvarez — whose paper of Latin American protest music was great — derided Mark’s lack of engagement with the rise of neoliberalism in Latin America. It was sad to hear this criticism laid at his feet as Mark was intending to teach this topic specifically before his death. (One week of his “Post-Capitalist Desire” seminar at Goldsmiths, to take place in 2017, was to consider the “cybernetic socialism” of Chile’s Allende government, long before the West finally began paying attention during the riots of 2019.) Similarly, he derided the way that Mark’s references to Spinoza felt “second hand”, although Mark wrote repeatedly of his time at Warwick where he “spent over a year poring over The Ethics in a reading group.”

Others had issues with Capitalist Realism‘s political incorrectness — Mark’s impersonalisation of dyslexia under capitalism being seen as some affront to contemporary discourses around neurodiversity, for instance — but, no matter the concern, each complaint felt like a criticism made out of time and out of context and revealed, to me at least, the lasting impact of the very formalisation of state educational institutions that Mark was talking about in his first published book. As such, it felt like middle-class hand-wringing in response to a book that did not live up to an academic rigour that Mark ignored explicitly because he saw it as an acute barrier to student consciousness raising.

It should go without saying that criticisms of Mark’s work are, of course, welcomed and allowed, and I’ve heard some great critiques in recent years that have made me wonder what he might have said in response to them. Reading Mark’s writings, even posthumously, is to quickly learn that he was — as Dom put it last month — “a touchy sod.” I said something similar in my paper on Sunday in response to suggestions on the first day that Mark is a frustrating thinker. He absolutely is — and I wouldn’t have him any other way, personally. He’s a writer who remains wholly human in my mind, as a result. As much as we must resist “an emerging hagiography of Saint Mark”, we should also resist attempts to posthumously problematise him, at least if the reason for doing so is to subject him to the ever-increasing pressures of the dull academic landscape he stood in firm opposition to.

It is in this sense that I struggled with the perception of his books as excitingly accessible but academically flawed documents, embarrassing today for their lack of foresight about the academic trends of 2020, and yet repeatedly it felt like his conference critics had not given his work the attention they wished he had paid to their own particular bugbears. Mark’s claims of cultural stagnation are easily quashed, someone said, if you get online and have “a little curiosity” to push you into new zones. The same could be said of approaches to Mark’s own works. The books are easily accessible and digestible — as was the intention — but the meat was often found on his blog, purposefully disconnected from academia’s self-referential circuits of citation.

I don’t say these things to shit on anyone’s research after the fact — I, too, am merely a touchy sod — but one presentation in particular has stuck in my craw and has made me think a lot, over the days since, about what precisely Mark’s work was trying to critique and how those who disagreed with this at the Capitalist Realism conference were also, I’d argue, those most guilty of enacting it.

On the second day, Henry McPherson presented an interesting paper on the relationship between practices of mindfulness and improvisation. Reflecting on his own practice as an improviser, Henry considered how the corporate spirituality of McMindfulness is evidently well meaning but limited and captured. However, he argued that radical potentials are nonetheless still present within some of the less popular “presence practices”.

(After the conference, I was welcomed home to London by a galley of Matthew Ingram’s forthcoming book Retreat: How The Counterculture Invented Wellness which, interestingly, seems to draw a firm line between these two trends rather than attempt hold them in contradistinction with one another.)

However, I unfortunately found it a difficult paper to make head or tail of. Whilst the argument was incredibly clear, thoroughly referenced and carefully articulated, it felt like it was so polished that the medium immediately began to drastically undermine the message. A gesture of interrupting his own introduction by dragging a violin against the wall of the lecture hall was left subsumed by citations and reduced to precisely that — a gesture. All I could think throughout was: “What is it to present such a straight-jacketed academic paper about something as liberating as free improvisation?” It felt like mindfulness’s capture by a corporate spiritualism — a practice advertised as a paltry moment of internal freedom within the drudgery of the work day — was mirrored by a demonstration of improvisation’s capture by an academic affectlessness and propriety, providing a momentary creative outlet that nonetheless had to be justified by the REF-scoring expectations of the institution at large.

No offence to Henry, of course, who was a great contributor to proceedings throughout the weekend. As with Mark, the fault does not lie with him but rather the sort of institution that can disengage itself from the modes of critique it produces. (I had every intention of asking him about the relationship between his research and his practice but, unfortunately, we ran out of time.)

I also want to affirm that the free improvisation performance that followed the conference — intentionally and hilariously inserting a sort of bureaucratic anti-production into its set-up, where audience members were encourage to offer “performance reviews” mid-performance — was a welcome addition to the schedule, in much the same way that we have always emphasised the schism of a club night to follow the Mark Fisher Memorial Lectures, offering up the dance as an equally powerful way of articulating Mark’s beliefs and ideas beyond the propriety of the lecture theatre.

This is because Mark, too, was an “improvisor”. What is blogging, at its best, if not a rejection of academia’s “business ontology”; a kind of public writing performance through which success and failure are both potentials, equally embraced? Where writing is done for its own sake rather than to bolster your rating on or, again, to boost your REF score?

These free improvisors may have found Mark’s academic and musical references dated and oddly basic for someone supposedly on the cusp of cultural thinking, but what they tragically missed from Mark’s thinking was the way in which it offers those seeking new ways of living and thinking a practical tool kit through which to think differently. It doesn’t give you free improvisation on the one hand and academic propriety on the other. It is free action all the way down. It is getting our of your head through your head; getting out of the world through the world.

We might note here that, in mourning the separation of the mainstream and the experimental, Mark’s hauntological critiques apply as much to the stagnation of the avant-garde as they do to the stagnation of pop culture.

I’m reminded here of that Jerry Saltz article that left the art world shook back in 2014: “Zombies on the Walls: Why Does So Much New Abstraction Look the Same?” The title more or less says it all. Is the same not true of an avant-garde musical tradition? Saltz writes:

Galleries everywhere are awash in these brand-name reductivist canvases, all more or less handsome, harmless, supposedly metacritical, and just “new” or “dangerous”-looking enough not to violate anyone’s sense of what “new” or “dangerous” really is, all of it impersonal, mimicking a set of preapproved influences… It feels “cerebral” and looks hip… Replete with self-conscious comments on art, recycling, sustainability, appropriation, processes of abstraction, or nature, all this painting employs a similar vocabulary… This is supposed to tell us, “See, I know I’m a painting — and I’m not glitzy like something from Takashi Murakami and Jeff Koons.” Much of this product is just painters playing scales, doing finger exercises, without the wit or the rapport that makes music. Instead, it’s visual Muzak, blending in.

Saltz mention of music here stings a bit. Similarly, gestures of free improvisation do not go far enough in an academic institution, less so when draped superficially in the latest moral-academic trends. In fact, it was particularly telling that the other musics mentioned during the conference that had far more political resonance were Latin American protest songs or even something like Squarepusher’s “MIDI sans Frontières”. (The latter was mentioned alongside Aphex Twin’s face-mapping in an excellent presentation by Adrien Ordonneau who discused the relationship between embodied protest and so-called “IDM” which has surely shaked off its “armchair listening” reputation by now!). These protest songs are, effectively, pop songs. But more than that, they were musics that draw in the world outside only to push it — critically — back out again.

This is something emphasised again and again and again by someone like David Toop, who notably gave the keynote at the CeReNem “Ambient @ 40” conference last year (available to read here):

Toop, as an improvisor, appreciates the outsideness of sound, understood culturally and phenomenologically. His paper presented at Huddersfield asks a number of pertinent questions about music’s capture within capitalist infrastructures that resonate here, in ways that the Huddersfield students seemed reluctant to accept and engage with. He writes, for instance:

Last year Pitchfork magazine asked me to write an introductory essay for an ambient top one-hundred they were about to unleash. I declined and when I saw the hundred choices felt glad I had. A lot of it was genre ambient, industry ambient if you like, very little to do with the softening expansions of boundaries I was proposing in Ocean of Sound in 1995 and nothing to do with the field of possibilities that existed when I recorded for Brian Eno’s Obscure label in 1975. […] So the question now is what ambient means at this point in time. Is it ossified, cut off from change, eternally fixed as journalists’ shorthand for any droning, slow, dreamy, drifting, barely changing, consonant electronic music? Does it supply a perennial refuge for temporarily forgetting the precarity, hysteria and threat of current conditions or can it be a vehicle for engaging with those same conditions?

Regarding the last question in particular, following the Capitalist Realism conference, I am more readily inclined to agree with the former. The free improvisors engaged in a self-aware performance, for sure, in which capitalist work ethics were referents in the performance’s structure but the playing itself was hard to interpret as anything other than “a perennial refuge”. It was less critical and more panto. Their improvisation was less an attack on expectations and more of a welcome break for the academic brain.

Later still, Toop’s comments on ambient skewer the context improvisation was placed in here. Replace “ambient” with “improvisation” and the effect is the same:

So ambient was instrumentalised — it was conceived as a functional asset to well-being, an optimisation or facilitation of a thoughtful, tranquil approach to life — and given the fractious, stressful nature of most airports, any calming instrument is welcome. The music’s potential for this role is unsurprising. Ambient formed its own specialised branch, off-shooting sometimes in a reactive way, sometimes more benevolently, from a family tree that included yoga, relaxation and meditation tapes, Muzak, easy listening, background and library music and records of bird song aimed at ornithologists, the ultimate use-value lineage.

Of course, Toop knows that this is highly resonant. He adds: “The same criticism, if it is a criticism, of instrumentalisation and self-optimisation could be levelled at other genres, maybe all genres of music.”

Any highlighting of these tensions within the Capitalist Realism conference is not intended to be any comment on the skills of the performers at the conference, who were really excellent — they demonstrated collectivised attentiveness that is necessary for any good instance of free improvisation — but simply playing the space of the institution did nothing to assuage their complicity in its politically restrictive flows.

This is the lesson for cultural practitioners still to be found within Mark’s writings. Your radical practices, particularly when practiced within the bounds of the academic institution, wilt far quicker than you might think they do. But this isn’t meant to be a bleak demoralisation — a further penchant for which was also repeatedly laid at Mark’s feet. (Shout out to Nic Clear for affirming, in the final panel discussion, that Mark often made him laugh — really laugh.) This is precisely why popular modernism was so interesting for Mark, particularly when seen from within the field of academia. It takes far less effort for pop to weird itself. (A point made poignantly by John Harries, Rose Dagul & Joe Newman over Skype, in a presentation that was, very intriguing, improvisational in nature, with the structure of the paper given over to a dice throw, with a member of the trio reading a passage depending on the number assigned to it.) A contemporary post-classical avant-garde has a lot more work to do, and that work just doesn’t look like a sound use of Chicago style referencing.

This is part of hauntology’s observations about the treacle through which contemporary culture must pull itself. It is a danger that continues to stalk all cultural production even today. When Simon Reynolds described a contemporary conceptronica — with admiration we might note, but no one likes being neologismed — powerfully channelling the same sorts of cultural protest that defined post-punk, he did so as if to raise a certain awareness around experimental music’s next phase of capture that hangs like the sword of Damocles precisely in this REF-supporting mode:

The agit-prop sector within conceptual electronica is woke music, in all senses. “Using cacophony and unusual sonics, I reject the passive experience of listening, and try to use sounds that are active to wake the listener up and to bring them into the moment,” [Chino] Amobi has said. This rhetoric recalls the post-punk band This Heat, whose song “Sleep” agitated against consumerism and entertainment as mass sedation. In conceptronica and post-punk alike, there’s a similar interest in demystification and seeing through the blizzard of lies: When Lee Gamble uses the late theorist Mark Fisher’s term “semioblitz” — the desire-triggering, anxiety-inciting bombardment of today’s infoculture — I’m reminded of Gang of Four’s 1979 song “Natural’s Not In It” and its line about advertising as “coercion of the senses.”

But you can also sense some of the same problems that afflicted post-punk four decades ago, especially in its later years, when it reached an impasse. 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.

Is it possible that Mark was guilty of this himself? It may have had a part in encouraging it but he always retained one foot outside, in his immediate environment. That should not be the basis for critique if all we are going to do is do the academy’s work for it.

We’ve seen the problems with this on this blog already very recently with Slash, the Last Women of History. I didn’t think I’d see the same thing again so soon. But then, why not? It’s endemic and requires a vigilance from all of us — but especially those of us attending conferences about radicality we wish to see in the world. If you’re going to hurl critiques from such a platform, aim them firmly at the glass house that surrounds you. Anything less than this doomed to impotence.

2 thoughts on “Same Virus, New Zombies: Towards a New Hauntology

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