“Art in Isolation” and “Eerie Architecture” — XG for Anise Gallery

As the exhibitions at Anise Gallery have come to a halt during the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve been working on a bi-monthly column for the gallery’s blog to reflect on the role of art in these strange times and also consider the work of some of our artists from within this new context.

The two first posts have gone live. Check them out below.

You can read the introductory post, “Art in Isolation”, here…

Anise Gallery, like so many other galleries and cultural institutions, has found itself rethinking its plans for the future during the Coronavirus outbreak. Our exhibition programme for the next six months has, unsurprisingly, been disrupted, but it might also allow us to reflect on why we do some of the things we do.

…And the latest post, “Eerie Architecture”, here.

For centuries, even millennia, ruins such as these have served as fuel for the imagination. Today, however, and increasingly so, they unnerve us, being as much a warning of a possible future as they are a sign of what has gone before. Our awareness of our own precarity on the lands on which we walk provides us with a thrill that is perverse but universal. To stumble across an environment that betrays the signs of a former use is to stumble across a simulation of the world without us. It is to both be a ghost and to walk among them; to be a presence within absence.

Looking for an Exit — XG for the Blue Mountain School

This is a view of psychedelia that still needs to be affirmed. It is its function, in this sense, rather than its form, that remains relevant to us today: the way it connotes the manifestation of what is deep within the mind, not simply on its surface. Capitalism is very good at this too, but it cannot be allowed to hold the monopoly on our desires. There are alternatives and they are waiting to be excavated.

I was really, really excited to be asked to contribute something to the Blue Mountain School during the first week of corona quarantine. Working on this kept me sane.

I had read David Keenan’s piece for them just a few weeks ago and quickly explored the rest of the playlists there. To have my own piece in such spectacular company gives me big imposter syndrome vibes.

Many thanks to George Hields for the invitation and I hope, once this is all over, I’ll get the chance to swing by Shoreditch to see the School in the flesh. It’s an incredibly beautiful building.

You can read the full text here.

I was tempted to do a mammoth playlist of deep cuts and weird things. Instead, “Looking for an Exit: Sonic Coordinates for Egress is a collection of written fragments, as if excavated from a life-long listening diary. It’s a short hop, skip, jump from 1966 to 2020, sketching a psychedelic line of flight from The Beatles via Led Zeppelin and D’Cruze to Lee Gamble and Nazar.

I’m very aware of the length of the jump made here, clean over the 1980s, and whilst working on this I was very tempted to take detours via Fred Frith and the Supremes and Throbbing Gristle to try and make this a more consistent journey through the songs that have made me look at the world differently but the length of the text ended up dictating to brevity of the mix.

Anyway, I think the fact it isn’t a clean genealogy is probably more fitting to the point being made. Cut through canons and do your own autopsies, particularly of pop culture because there’s so much hidden in plain sight.

As a bonus, here are a few other tracks I wanted to include but which I realised were only additional nodes to what was already a pretty concise (for me at least) argument.

Unveiling the Collective in Isolation: Thinking the Apocalypse with D.H. Lawrence — XG for Stillpoint Magazine

How do you write about an apocalypse in the midst of one? How do you affirm new connections with the people around you at a time when governments recommend “social distancing”? Perhaps there is no better time to tackle such things, if only so that, once we are on the other side of our present mess, we can begin our collective recovery and become reacquainted. Collective recoveries are never easy, however. The twentieth century demonstrated this repeatedly and relentlessly [and] it is to the early twentieth century that I have found myself returning.

I have a new essay in the April 2020 edition of Stillpoint Magazine on the theme of “Apocalypse”.

Entitled “Unveiling the Collective in Isolation: Thinking the Apocalypse with D.H. Lawrence”, it is about Lawrence’s final works, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Apocalypse, and the desire for a new form of community that bursts from within them — a kind of community that is still yet to materialise. (Or, as Stillpoint themselves introduce it: “An evocation of the potentials for a collective response to apocalyptic murmurs that defies the biblical division between the saved, and the damned.”)

I am very grateful to Anne Marie Spidahl for the invitation and editorial assistance, to David Peterka for his editorial assistance, and also to Kate Holford for reaching out and selecting a series of images from Tatiana Bondareva‘s series “Escape” to illustrate the essay. (The image below reminds me of that most famous scene from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which feels like the perfect bridge between Bondareva’s project and my own.)

Check out the rest of the issue and the previous work published by Stillpoint. They are a brilliant magazine and I’m excited to see what they do next!

This essay is an extension of some of the “philosophy of community” stuff that is central to Egress but it has also been written in light of my present research, which has focused on the literary modernists of the early twentieth century — including, most recently, Lawrence.

It should probably be said that the theme of this edition of the magazine was chosen long before the coronavirus took hold of the world. I’ve also been reading D.H. Lawrence’s later writings on and off since late last year. So, to be honest, it’s very surreal to me how this one came together. None of it was planned but it all feels very prescient.

This essay was initially intended as a sequel to my previous essay, “The Primal Wound”, but the connection may seem wildly tangential at best. Nevertheless, it is a snapshot of where my next book, One or Several Mothers, has taken me of late and I’m excited to be able to tell you that that book will also be coming out on Repeater Books in the future (at least once I’ve finished it.)

Watch this space for more adventures through and around the sentiment of “anti-Oedipus but pro-Antigone”… Lawrence is a particularly interesting figure in that regard. From Son & Lovers to Apocalypse, I think he passes from one to the other quite explicitly.

Ideological Evolution: Notes on New Books and Post-Libertarianism

I signed a contract for my second book last week. It’s nowhere near finished but it’s been really encouraging to know that, when it’s ready, someone wants it.

Unfortunately, the idea for it is not the only idea I have and, as soon as that initial idea was given an officiating stamp as an asset, it’s the other idea I’ve felt myself being pulled towards…

But this is also a sign of the times.

I want to write up a patchwork book — there’s certainly enough blog material ready to hammer one into shape — but I don’t want it to be a book about what patchwork favours and hopes to achieve. I’m not sure anyone but a specific few would appreciate that. What I want to do is some ideological groundwork.

Where has this idea come from and why? Not just in the sense of its antecedents in other political philosophies but why has it specifically grown out of the American West — be that Silicon Valley or the Wild West (and, indeed, what’s the relationship — if any — between the two.) I also want to ask why the ground patchwork has grown out of is worth people understanding more than I think they presently do.

These questions may be a lot more obvious to my American readers but I also think it’s worth affirming just how batshit crazy the rest of the world thinks you are. Not just because you’ve got a history of reality-distorting presidents but in a more general sense. The rest of the world does not understand you. It might be in its own interests, however, as America’s political influence continues to pass between governments by osmosis, to get smart about what’s going on in that collective unconscious of yours.

This takes some unpacking. Although the mainstream and cosmopolitan media in the United States presents a picture of the political landscape that is largely recognisable to the rest of the West — in that an American left-bourgeoisie is as recognisably post-European as much of American’s left-leaning political establishment has always been — it’s the underbelly of US domestic politics that we don’t see or really know how to compute.

Whereas the UK has Blobby, the US has the frontier and, despite declarations to the contrary, it has not gone away. As an analogy for the state, it has certainly putrefied and turned itself inside out, but it still exists deep within the American unconscious.

Under quarantine, I’ve been reading two books side by side that demonstrate this acutely.

The legacy of the Wild West needs to be better understood — not just in terms of the “myth” (the convenient compartmentalising and organising of America’s best loved and most shameful histories) but also in terms of how its central tenets have mutated into other forms of political reality that remain potent battlegrounds for the left and right today — as well as battlegrounds where the usual sense of “left” and “right” is being left behind.

There is an ideological evolution to be traced.

On the one hand — as Greg Grandin points out in his book The End of the Myth — there is a governmental frontierism that has decayed and inverted itself; on the other, there is the sense in which the frontier’s viral qualities have jumped species — as demonstrated by Cody Wilson’s incredible post-libertarian “guide to free thinking” — from the sorting of difference in space to that other still-fledging dimension altogether: cyberspace.

A large part of why I find the Wild West so interesting appeared in Egress — and there’s a comment in there about why the state-consolidating political class that closed the frontier has always been recognisably post-European — but I also think there’s an amorphous American libertarianism that is permeating outwards into the world but isn’t being digested so well by other nation-states. (I’d argue Brexit is the perfect example of something that was mutated through a diffuse Americanisation and entered our political system’s digestive tract only to become a kidney stone.) But this Americanisation isn’t just something that the right is welcoming. It is also something that the left is actively resisting and that may be part of the reason why we are being left behind in large parts of the world’s political consciousness.

In this part of the Internet, for instance, we can see this happening with a bunch of controversial political commentators and bloggers. Mencius Moldbug might be the perfect example.

An old post of mine still gets a lot of traffic, in which I commented on the fact someone told me Moldbug was #YangGang now. Someone else told me recently that his most recent essay on the coronavirus had pissed off the political right more than the left.

And lest we forget Nick Land’s recent slap-down of Black Cat, whose own patchwork writings glaze over this central kernel of Moldbug’s writings altogether, to their own detriment:

… Moldbug is transparently a post-libertarian. [1]

… Private government (the consistent thread within NRx) is not even tangentially a fascist (or ‘post-fascist’) idea. [2]

Post-libertarianism is most often thought about as a kind of horseshoe theory — the space between the far left and the far right is becoming permeable, as a result of some sort of continental drift — but I think it’s a lot more than that. It’s a kind of political thinking, in the United States specifically — and I think it is a kind of political thought that is presently most applicable to the US — that has jumped to Level 2.

If we don’t follow it, it’ll only end up playing us down the line. It’s not like it takes much excavating though. Simply following the cultural trajectory of — the twists and turns that have mutated, again and again and again — the genre of the American Western, reveals to us the shifting conditions that have led us to where we are.

I’ll get round to doing just that eventually… Maybe sooner than I think… But expect a few glossing missives like this in the meantime as I continue to try and figure this out for myself…

Bitter State Failure

It’s a pleasure to welcome Ed Berger back to the XG comment box — it’s been a while. Ed has a few things to say about the previously mentioned Adam Tooze blog post, gestured to by someone on Facebook in support of the fact that “capitalist realism is ending”.

I was confused by this point mostly because I have not kept up with the US government’s response to Covid-19 and do not really understand the context.

Ed has done a great job here of explaining why certain government decisions may appear to echo what the left has long argued in favour of when not in the midst of a crisis but he also explains why such decisions are unsurprisingly, not unprecedented and also deeply worrying:

I find AK’s references to Tooze’s analysis as a means of illustrating the decline of capitalist realism to be rather confusing. [For the United States to] fail in comparison to more mixed or socially-oriented market economies isn’t a mark of the decline of ‘capitalist realism’ — it could instead reinforce it in perhaps its most virulent and braindead form.

The Trump administration has put in motion the specter of things that break with the sort of retrograde, finance-oriented mode of capitalist development that [we’ve] been stuck in for five decades (which brings to the static cultural formations that the CR concepts draw attention to the foreground): he’s invoked an act that allows the Federal government to potentially steer private industry to their own ends, the temporary quasi-nationalization of businesses needing bailout, hints of UBI, etc.

But in each case the opposite has emerged from each point: the Defense Production Act has been used only to seize goods that have been produced before [they] reach the destination of their buyers (see: the US seizing masks slated for Germany at the Bangkok airport), while in the case of the bail-outs the government has the option to take equity stake in the businesses in question, minus the voting powers that this would normally include. Finally, UBI has been turned into what is probably a one-time check of $1200. These latter two don’t break any new ground: they’re exactly the sort of responses that were mobilized in 2008. In the case of the DPA and seizures, this looks less [like] a dynamic overcoming and more like bitter state failure.

The Fed’s operations are interesting and as Tooze has shown in painstaking detail, go beyond (in terms of both structure and cost) what they did in 2008. But what is happening is that the Fed is trending towards becoming the ‘market maker of last resort’, where the central bank becomes the entity that keeps the dying economy artificially going. In cases where this is already the case — take Japan, for example — it’s clear that, while it can help hold off a deep collapse, it maintains the economy in a state of stagnation.

Between these two directions, the future here seems to be suspended between two paths:

1) The slow-churn of a horrifying Dead-Undead capitalism, lumbering monstrously along under the brrr of the Fed’s money printer.

2) The inability of these measures to prevent the really real threat of Depression, in which the US — and by extension, the rest of the world — is plunged into something truly nightmarish.

If the first path comes to fruition, measuring the failures of the US administrative state [against] the relative successes of social states won’t mean much of anything. At the macropolitical level, the capitols of capital — the US and the EU (and the UK?) will grind on. CR intensifies in the shadow of the long night of zombie capitalism. (Though there might be outliers where novelty may still emerge, but they won’t [be] liked by the left-liberal temperament: euroskeptic states, China…)

If the second path is what happens, then these social democracies will find their welfare programs and whatnot on the chopping block, much the way that the radiating spirals of economic contraction triggered by the Great Recession unleashed a regime of austerity against the world.

The Capitalist Realism of “Capitalist Realism is Ending”

Following the latest flurry of accelerationist fear-mongering and hypocrisy (previously discussed), no one has pinpointed the cognitive dissonance being displayed across leftist social media with more accuracy than Alexandra Chace.

Their immaculate tweet shall be pinned here for posterity:

I’m sure everyone has seen the “capitalist realism is ending” cheerleading on social media by now. It’s everywhere — and not just in Mark Fisher meme groups. To be honest, I’ve been surprised Mark hasn’t been trending with the amount of mentions Capitalist Realism has been getting across various networks in the current crisis.

The kernel of the observation is correct, of course — at least to an extent. These sorts of events and tragedies have repeatedly shone a bright light through the cracks in the system, but pointing at that and cheering can be just as much a part of the problem if you’re not careful. Indeed, as Alex makes so clear: it’s the very same attitude that many of the left will then go on to chastise the right for in the next breath.

This is what we were all talking about back in 2017. After Mark died, from Trump’s election to Grenfell and beyond, the cracks in the system were harder to ignore than they had ever been before, and we all talked about what Mark might have said about it all every minute of every day. Capitalist realism was crumbling all around us and he wasn’t around to see it. We watched as Fully Automated Luxury Communism became a meme (something Mark had already enjoyed a great deal) and then, the next year, Ash Sarkar called herself a communist on national TV. Discussions around the left’s preferred alternatives to capitalist hegemony were entering the mainstream — whether they were taken seriously or not is another matter but that’s less important in our present moment than actually establishing the idea of another world being possible in the minds of the general public.

By definition, that is all it takes for capitalist realism to end: the waning of a faith in capitalism having all the answers over anything else. In this sense, capitalist realism has been ending since the financial crash of 2008 and that seed has finally started to bear some mainstream ideological fruit. But there’s still a way to go: simply pointing at capitalism’s failures does nothing unless you’re filling its (and our) lacunae with alternative forms of action.

This is to say that the left has done alright at pointing out capitalism’s contemporary limits in a crisis but it has also struggled to capitalise — no pun intended — on the territory it has gained when things settle down a bit. (The election of Sir Keir Starmer to the Labour leadership in the UK the other day certainly seems to have placated an establishment that has been increasingly desperate to get back to neoliberalism-as-usual without all this ideological disruption all the time.) As such, for someone who first thought this three years ago, coming to terms with the reality is disheartening: we just keep talking about the end of capitalist realism and then pointing at it, talking about it and pointing at it, to the point that now it feels like that’s all anyone is capable of doing.

If we read beyond the first page of Capitalist Realism, we discover that shouting “capitalist realism is ending” and leaving it at that is just another form of reflexive impotence. Meanwhile, the system itself adapts and holds steady, in its “frenzied stasis”, just as it always has done. “Capitalist realism is ending” becomes the new capitalist realism.

This is my central problem with the popular readings of Mark’s work. They internalise the catchphrases that were so powerful in hooking people’s attention but then they ignore all the rest of it. They perpetuate the problem Mark was critiquing in Mark’s own name.

The truth, as the last three years have taught us, is that capitalist realism isn’t ending — it’s adapting to the times, as are we under its influence. The response from leftist social media in this regard is as impotent as the rightist fever dreams the left tries to “critique”, betraying a complete lack of engagement with the real critique that lies within Mark’s thought.

Reading Mark’s later work in particular, the accusation is clear: your touchscreen capture only entrenches the system even more.

Other modes of communality in cyberspace are possible and our current quarantine offers us the time and resources to imagine them — even make them happen — but your Facebook groups are far from an instantiation of that “digital psychedelia”. (I’d argue the schizoid nature of Twitter, at its best, gets close sometimes but I’m biased.) In fact, it’s interesting to remember Mark’s basic critique of Facebook, following his exit from the experiment that was the “Boring Dystopia” Facebook page:

Fisher casts Facebook as a distorted reality following an alternate sense of time, where old news is endlessly recirculated and human nature is subject to automated processes. The filter bubble is more developed and distracting than ever before: reality is being rewritten by what companies pay for us to see. Fisher sees it as a microcosm of “capitalist cyberspace,” perhaps even of capitalism as a whole. The endless production of information from users ceases to be useful when that information is biased by use of Facebook itself.

The punchline to the Boring Dystopia group is that by using Facebook in the first place we are likely already too boring to appreciate it.

Mark expanded this argument in far more detail (and more impersonally) in his essay “Touchscreen Capture” and, in our current moment of quarantine, where the importance of social media within all our lives has only grown, the relevance of that essay has only grown along with it. Mark writes:

One trap laid by communicative capitalism is the temptation to retreat from technological modernity. But this presupposes that frenzied attentional bombardment is the only possible technological modernity, from which we can only unplug and withdraw. Communicative capitalist realism acts as if the collectivisation of desire and resources had already happened. In actuality, the imperatives of communicative capitalism obstruct the possibility of communication, by using actually existing cyberspace to reinforce current modes of subjectivity, desocialisation and drudgery. 

This has never been more true than under our current circumstances. A captured subjectivity, cybernetic desocialisation, work-from-home drudgery: these are the defining qualities of life under quarantine; an intensification of business as usual, which has only made the lacunae of our daily lives even bigger.

Take Zoom, for example: what are the implications of us trying to (re)build a sociality through a “conference call” app? It would be a great irony for these tools to be repurposed for the establishment of a newly collective subject but, at present, the reality is that conference calls become the basis for a new kind of connection. If anything, it undermines the modes of connection we relied on pre-Covid.

This is to say that, whilst you cheer what appears to be the final death knell of Capitalism Classic, new Capitalism Zero (better known as communicative capitalism) intensifies and continues it’s ascendancy.

Maybe we should reflect on that contradiction and its accelerationist implications — how the intensification of this communicative system is changing our very nature — instead of batting back and forth the same misreading of accelerationism that the dumb left invented for the dumb right to adopt.

My two cents are already out in the world. After all, we saw all this happening in 2017 too and wrestling with these questions is precisely what Egress does. In fact, I’ve been struck in recent weeks that many nice messages I’ve received about the book have started with: “I was really wary of it at first but…” I know why people are wary; I know the book on Mark Fisher that people are expecting (and which some people would even prefer). Egress is a preemptive strike against that book whenever it emerges: a book that clutches onto an incomplete snapshot of Mark’s thought and ignores the ways he adapted his thinking with the times. If he can’t do that anymore, it’s up for us to do it instead, otherwise our preoccupation with Mark’s legacy will keep us stuck in a moment when he was alive.

A case in point: the questions we had in 2017 remain pertinent in 2020: How does the truism of capitalist realism — that our system is broken — transform its actual affect — pervasive melancholy — into action? How can we ensure that this moment, in which the “lacunae” of capitalist realism are more visible than ever before, is sustained long enough for us to have an impact? How do we stop ourselves from being nothing more than rabbits in the headlights of a self-fulfilling prophecy? How do we make ourselves worthy of the process unfolding around us and make sure the growing gaps are filled with more and more alternatives?

Ask yourself that instead of prematurely celebrating the stumbling of a zombie when you’re not even aiming for the head.

Update #1: An addendum.

Weed Picker

I haven’t played Animal Crossing: New Horizons yet, although I’d quite like to. (I need a Switch first.)

I can’t help but feel a certain dread when I think about it though.

As I scroll past other people’s clips and screenshots on Twitter, showing off all the fun they’re having with the game in quarantine, I just want to know one thing:

Do you still have to pick all the weeds?

I was a big fan of the original Animal Crossing, even before I’d played it. For a long time I’d wanted to try and get the Japanese import of the N64 version back in 2001 but rumours of a port were so rife I held out for years until they finally announced a European version of it for the GameCube in 2004.

I don’t know why but I had a thing for the quaint Japanese lifestyle simulators. Harvest Moon was another one. They were like a tonic to the drudgery of the school day. Goldeneye 64 was cool and Perfect Dark was bad ass but, sometimes, even a tween just wants to relax, you know?

The day it came out I was so psyched for what felt like a long, long holiday. After about a year of it I couldn’t go near it again.

The game was enchanting in all the same ways I’m sure the newest version is — albeit with a few less bells and whistles. But there was something else to it…

There was a pressure to it; a dark underbelly that tried to get inside your head. It was almost like living in Blue Velvet: the shiny veneer of suburbia held dark secrets and, just like in David Lynch’s unsettling masterpiece, those secrets weren’t just in dark alleys but waiting for you on your lawn.

It was nothing to do with Tom Nook. There were no communist memes wanting to send him to the guillotine back then. He was a little demanding and hard-nosed, sure, but he was also fairly easy to pay off and, once your house was as big as it could be, there was nothing but RNG and the game’s reliance on an external calendar stopping you from collecting everything and donating to your town’s museum.

This reliance on real time was novel and kept things interesting, but it was also its downfall. By relying on a schedule of real-world events, the game ingratiated itself into my daily routine. Even if it was just for 15 minutes, I felt the need to pop into my town every day to see what was new. But after a while, those 15 minutes weren’t enough.

It was because of the weeds. You always had to dig out the weeds.

I was fourteen years of age but by the time I was fifteen I felt like I knew what the life of a salaryman was like. My loyalty was to the company, or rather the village green preservation society. It was as tyrannical as any sovcorp.

My perceived lack of loyalty to the town brought a real sense of shame to my tiny abode. I even started receiving hate mail in my little bouncing postbox. As life outside the GameCube took over, the townsfolk refused to let my neglect go unacknowledged. Ironically, it ended up feeling like what real life — adult life — would soon become.

Again, Tom Nook wasn’t necessarily the enemy here. He was just an opportunist; cunning but as naive as the rest of them. It was the fact that the daily tasks and little quests had made incisive impositions upon the management of my time outside the context of the game. Soon enough, I wasn’t working to pay him off but simply hold together the fabric of this little society. If I didn’t do that, this community of animals quickly turned on each other.

I vividly remember loading up my save after a month-long exam period at school and finding that no one would talk to me. Everyone in my town would be angry and miserable. It was always because I wasn’t keeping up with the weeds. Drudgery was enforced by a needless moralism and an inequality of time. No one else took responsibility for their surroundings, after all. It was all left down to the new human whilst the animals in my midst leached off of my initial pride and turned it against me. It was like school had become my recreation and Animal Crossing was my job.

There was no escape. Choosing not to participate in the game began to feel like losing it. Breaks were allowed but you still had to play catch up. If you gave up entirely, good luck trying to get back in everyone’s good books.

I couldn’t play the game any longer. The demands it placed upon the player — the sense of responsibility — were too much. It was real life inverted. Soon, the therapeutic tranquility of Mattville, tainted by the drudgery of required labour, faded into the pixelated twilight until all that was left was darkness and disgruntlement.

I’d still try to load up the game on a Friday if I could bear it, so I could hear what song K. K. Slider had for us that week but, in the end, it felt like that dumb bohemian dog was just taunting me.

I thought that was the life I was going to live: roaming the towns, playing songs, swapping fossils, living carefree… It was all a dream — a futile, naive dream. That was K.K.’s role and his alone — the privileged nomad; the weekend hippy…

I was the weed picker. I had always been the weed picker and I always would be…

CTM 2020: On & After K-Punk

Recordings of the two k-punk sessions from this year’s CTM Festival are now online.

The first panel, “On k-punk: Egress and the Fisher-Function”, featuring Lisa Blanning, Steven Warwick and myself, can be heard here:

About the panel:

The late Mark Fisher’s work, like all philosopher’s work, oscillated through different stages throughout his life. Starting in cultural-studies, to philosophy under the CCRU, to cold rationalism to anti-capitalist critique, Fisher’s work was a project of constantly trying to come to terms with a world that begged belief, as is the case with the evolution of any intellectual worth their salt. There was throughout all of this a constant undercurrent indebted to psychoanalysis.

For Fisher the idea of world-building came with responsibility, something his work takes into great consideration with very sincere care. As he described in his later writings, the socio-political disease of our time is that of pervasive stasis in a rapidly accelerated culture. If we take the liminal as that which can occupy either side of a boundary, that which acknowledges complexity, then we see an opportunity perhaps to the deadlock of binaries presented by the worst trapping of the contemporary right and left.

This panel takes as its kernel the concept of Egress, a word used by Fisher to describe the exiting of the current cultural malaise through analysing the politics of teleology and collectivism. Liminality itself must be critiqued with the urgent need for determinacy in mind. Perhaps a solution to the pitfalls of liminality is that of determinacy, that cultural production must operate within a strong pedagogical model if it is to make its way out of its liminality. Fisher postulated that what was required for real transgression was a reprisal of the spirit of a world that could be free, to go beyond the beyond the pleasure principle.

The second panel, “After k-punk: Labour, Death and Cultural Artefacts”, featuring Dhanveer Singh Brar and Dane Sutherland can be heard here:

About the panel:

The dominance of certain cultural logics are an interesting point of departure from which to analyse the landscape of cultural artefacts and what’s at stake in maintaining them, given that these artefacts themselves produce their own logics, both good and bad. They might be physical spaces that foster new communities, scenes that evolve styles, or anything that propels music as a distribution of intelligence.

What kind of cultural logic produces a turn? With evolution comes culture, and with culture comes cultural logic, and with cultural logics come fields of knowledge—ones that compete against one another. And it is in the delineating of these lines, and perhaps even producing them, through clarifying complexity, that perhaps cultural criticism needs to take its next turn. How can we splice the DNA of cultural production and criticism in an age where music’s turns are emergent and occupy a complex horizon of possibility?

Throughout the K-Punk project, we find cultural artefacts analysed with a sense and appreciation of compulsion and pathology, both adopted and generated. Given Mark Fisher’s now seminal examinations of the capital’s cultural logic through to his desire that mass culture return to being a terrain of struggle rather than a dominion of capital, this panel attempts to draw preliminary lines across what cultural logic can do and how, what it cannot do and why, and what would be needed to change these conditions.

Both panels were organised and moderated by Terence Sharpe.

I did a write-up about the whole experience here back in February. CTM was an amazing time and it’s great to finally have these recordings up. Enjoy!

Front Window #5: Once More, With Feeling…

Friday 3 April 2020

I was interviewed about my book again today. I’d planned to head to this magazine’s offices in Central London to record a podcast but Covid-19 scuppered that almost as soon as we’d organised it. We had a chat over Skype instead and it was really lovely.

Towards the end we were talking about how the stakes of community described in my book have once again changed shape under the current crisis. In Egress, these shifts and changes are documented in real time and, although the book feels like a time capsule now, in my mind, these stakes nonetheless continue to keep shifting and changing every day.

At the end of our conversation, I half-rehearsed an argument in an essay I’ve just finished on D.H. Lawrence and how there’s this sense in his final works — Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Apocalypse — of a kind of individual-collectivity emerging; a kind of new, diagonal relation that escapes both the enforced and restrictive collectivity of the proletariat versus the aristocratic individuality of the bourgeoisie.

It’s what Bataille calls “the community of lovers”. (I’m still so shocked Bataille never wrote on Lawrence — to my knowledge?)

I’m feeling the presence of this Bataillean community quite explicitly under quarantine. With my girlfriend ill, I’ve found myself relating to her in this subtly different way, now that our relationship is devoid of the workaday pressures of wage labour that keep us in a kind of orbit around each other. There’s a new syzygy emerging at the moment instead, of a kind that is typically obstructed.

The distinct pleasure of this relation was thrown into relief when a notification popped up on my phone announcing the death of Bill Withers. I was grateful, in a strange sort of way, that the announcement was not appended by that now-familiar adage: “due to complications caused by Covid-19.”

Bill featured on a lot of the old mixtapes I used to make for my girlfriend when we first met. I ended up listening to all my old favourites when I heard the news.

The drum break that opens Kissing My Love, followed by that wah-wah guitar, is maybe the most perfect Withers number for me — where the instrumentation is as seductive as his voice is.

And then there’s the way he commands the audience at Carnegie Hall on his live album. You can feel him palpably in the air: how the crowd hangs off his every word and how he seems to seduce them with every anecdote. By the time he’s ready to sing another song, they’re in the palm of his hand, and it’s not like he even needs to butter them up. It is electrifying and it is sexy as fuck.

But it’s not sexy in this sort of one-dimensional way. It’s sensual. It has a sort of embodied power. It really gets inside you, but not just in the cliched sense that it “gets in your soul”. Turn that baritone up loud enough and it even makes your organs vibrate.

I was thinking about Withers’ music like this when I put it on because I’ve spent much of the last week copyediting a book that’s coming out soon on Repeater. It’s not my place to say anything about it — it’s called You’re History: keep an eye out for it in the coming months because you should absolutely buy it — but reading it really resonated with this listening session.

It’s a book about women in pop music — some of the biggest and most ubiquitous names in pop, in fact — but it deals with their music in a way that focuses on how it feels rather than merely what it’s saying. The book considers the ways that some of the biggest (and even most derided) pop songs have jarring word plays and seem to linguistically express themselves in a way that looks moronic when seen written down. But that’s the fault of how critical faculties, not the songs themselves. These songs are overlooked because we are obsessed with a style of music journalism that is bizarrely obsessed with lyricism over musicality. Instead, You’re History is a book that explores not what words mean but how sounds feel — particularly the sounds of words or, more abstractly, vocalisations — and how the music itself functions, sensually, beyond the rigid hermeneutics of our present Genius.com era.

It’s the sort of sonic analysis that makes the videos on Genius‘ YouTube channel all too easy to ridicule. Their video on The Backpack Kid’s “Flossin'”, for instance, is comical and absurd because its lyrical content is analysed despite their supposedly abject emptiness but, as becomes clear, what makes the song a hit is its embodied quality — its not a poem set to music but a functional accompaniment to a dance move. In that sense, it’s the dance move that is the hit rather than the song — and this is how the Backpack Kid unabashedly frames the song himself when describing how it came to exist.

So, understood from this position — from the perspective of the song’s intended function — it is Genius that looks utterly one-dimensional and lacking rather than the song itself. It’s blinkers are used to comic effect but it’s still blinkered, reflecting the priorities of an industry at large and the priorities it wrongly impresses upon the listening public.

The book considers plenty of songs that are far, far less contentious than this — the above is more useful for demonstrating Genius‘s own straitjacket than anything else — but they are songs that are nonetheless ubiquitous and supposedly lyrically vapid or absurd. (There’s an in depth analysis of Tom Tom Club’s Wordy Rappinghood, for instance, which is just sublime and had me reaching for my copy of Deleuze’s Logic of Sense — the author indirectly articulates that book’s savouring of irrationality in a way that had me grinning from ear to ear.)

At one point, in order to further bolster why the book is written in this way, the author quotes an essay by Mike Powell for Pitchfork on the value of this kind of music criticism. (Not that the book needs to defend itself but appearing, as it does, some way into the book, the quotation serves to drive home just how invigorating and how largely absent this kind of writing is from the canon of music writing.) Powell writes:

Ultimately the way we talk about music doesn’t come down to prescribed terms, but associations, poetics, and the way language has the potential to open music up rather than shut it down. I remember a friend once telling me that a song sounded like braids to her, as in hair. This wasn’t just an unusual thing to say about music, but an observation that tapped into this particular song’s dense, overlapping rhythmic structure without deferring to words like “syncopation” or “staccato.” A few more riffs on the braid metaphor and you’d have what I’d call an insight: A statement that takes something you thought you already understood and makes you see it in a new way.

So little criticism does this. Not just music criticism but criticism of all kinds. It’s the drudgery of what now passes for “Cultural Studies”. Insightful writing should, instead, be a mode of cultural production in its own right, in the sense that it affects you directly rather than simply ordering and describing a cultural artefact based on standardised opinions and technical understandings.

This is precisely what I meant in my recent interview with Music Journalism Insider, when making a comment that a few people have picked up on on Twitter:

Writing biologies instead of biographies of music was meant to be a sly condensation of an argument made in my Quietus essay — “we can understand the difference between hauntology and hauntography as being similar to the difference between biology and biography — one orders and describes the events of a life after the fact; the other is a study of life as it is lived, and all the mechanisms and relations that make it possible” — and this forthcoming book from Repeater has given me an example to point to now that I only wish I’d had at my disposal a few months ago.

All of these seemingly disparate threads come back together for me, forming a braid of their own, when reading D.H. Lawrence under corona quarantine. The function of his writing and the unbound eroticism therein is precisely an attempt to unearth the radical insights of feeling and sensuality in this way — what he refers to explicitly as “tenderness”.

Lacking the textural properties of music, Lawrence uses sex to pull all our focus into how desire feels, but it is simply a means to an end. His writing just as often asks us to think about how relationships feel — both romantic and familial — or how the structures under which we live feel. Desire is not only projected onto an object of desire but is embodied — desire and its lack constitute a tethering, and it is the tethering that Lawrence holds firmly in his grasp. When thinking about the subject-object relation, it is the hyphen that Lawrence stimulates.

I’m particularly enchanted by Mellors’ sensual frustrations in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, for instance. In a scene that almost feels comic — it’s the sort of moment of internal tension usually only sated by an angry-dance montage in the movies — Lawrence attempts to describe Mellors’ politically erotic experience of being overcome by a sort of thwarted sexual energy. He’s not horny, exactly — it’s like he feels claustrophobic in his own skin, but he is only made aware of his own interiority in this way because of his capture of capitalist forces. Lawrence writes:

Driven by desire, and by dead of the malevolent Thing outside, he made his round in the wood, slowly, softly. He loved the darkness and folded himself into it. It fitted the turgidity of his desire which, in spite of all, was like a riches: the stirring restlessness of his penis, the stirring fire of his loins! Oh, if only there were other men to be with, to fight that sparkling-electric Thing outside there, to preserve the tenderness of life, the tenderness of women, and the natural riches of desire. If only there were men to fight side by side with! But the men were all outside there, glorifying in the Thing, triumphing or being trodden down in the rush of mechanised greed or of greedy mechanism.

Mellors doesn’t just want to fuck — he wants to fuck up capitalism!

This is how most of Twitter seems to feel right now. Two kinds of tweet jostle for position — “Bring down capitalism!”; “I just want to fuck!”

For Lawrence, these two sentiments aren’t so distinct from one another. This was the function of his writing — a celebration of fucking in all its guises, from sex and violence to revolution and destruction. No dichotomies, no dialectics — just an ever-complicating web of desires.

That’s what I’m really aware of right now under quarantine. The tether between myself and my girlfriend but also the newly strained nature of the tether between myself and everyone else. It’s not one-dimensionally sexual but a sensual complexity. The overbearing cloud of illness drives this home even more. Every hour or so, I pop my head round the bedroom door and ask my girlfriend, “How are you feeling?” I find myself asking this of other people too. Not just “how are you” but how do you feel under the present circumstances — and what is being felt, in every single instance, is the new tension of this tether; the embodied connection between self and other.

It is a tether strummed by other forces the rest of the time but, with those forces abated for the time being, other sensations are emerging. I feel like a spider on a web in a sheltered alcove, each strand connected to someone else in my midst. The slightest breeze will overwhelmingly disturb my present existence. Without such a breeze, however, other tremors are felt even more intensely — tremors from other possible worlds.