Hegemony of the Cliché: Pomophobia Revisited

This is something that emerged fleetingly from the Q&A following my lecture yesterday for the University of Birmingham’s Contemporary Theory Reading Group — which was fantastic by the way; I’ll post about it when the lecture recording goes live.

Hailey Maxwell asked a question about how I see myself and my project in relation to Fisher. I’ve obviously had a lot to say about this recently but it led to a coinage in the moment that Niall later suggested could be a decent alternative to capitalism realism: the “hegemony of the cliché”.

This emerged explicitly from my recent reflecting on Dan Barrow’s article about my book — particularly his affirmation of the fact that Egress reaches for a “Mark Fisher beyond the cliché”, something I deeply appreciated.

This was certainly my intent, quite explicitly in fact, but I have also recently expressed a tandem frustration regarding the suggestion that the presence of Bataille and Blanchot in my book is worthy of disavowal because Mark himself didn’t like them.

Writing beyond the cliché of Mark Fisher is one thing but what about the ways in which the text moves beyond the clichés of Bataille, Deleuze and others?

I’ve said all I have to say on that particularly thought-provoking article but there remains much to be said, I think, about the ways that many thinkers, of all stripes, are made impotent by the clichéd figures that are constructed around them as well.

I’ve written a few scattered things on this before but it is a difficult thing to articulate. For instance, there is a sense, particularly online, that everyone wants to Cliff Notes reading of a particular text rather than be supplied with the tools to excavate new readings for themselves.

There are many cases where these tools warrant further use. Nietzsche is always the first to come to mind as a figure whose legacy is still being debated. But also, how do we dismantle this desire for fast thought in a way that doesn’t just sound like obfuscation and gate-keeping?

When I think about this stuff, the death of the author, as famously described by Roland Barthes, always looms large, and I’m left wondering to what extent this has produced new (albeit oddly distanced) impositions upon how we think about texts?

Barthes’ argument that a text cannot have a single interpretation, grounded by its author’s intent, has led — perhaps inadvertently but nonetheless intractably — to the sort of postmodern relativism that Derrida has likewise been derided for contributing towards.

It is a slippage critiqued most powerfully by Mark Fisher himself and Robin Mackay in their conclusion to the Ccru era essay “Pomophobia”, in which they decry “the clogged digestive system” of the postmodern subject, “of the West’s Last Men”, which “expresses all too acutely the constipated Eurocontinence of these constricted bodies, themselves minor fascicular elements of a resonant system of transcendental miserabilism disseminated across all levels of culture.” (Suffice it to say that it is densely packed text and we’ll try untangled some of it in due course.) They continue:

The dreary textocratic dribblings of post-theory are merely the transcendental idealist counterpoint to the empirical realism of postmodern culture. Kurt Cobain embodied what theory disembodies, the raging stomach pains which plagued him finding their disintensified correlate in the chin-rubbing, brow-furrowing protocols of urbane academic anxiety. Smells like Hegelian Spirit.

By contrast, synthetic culture disorganises the docilising regimes of disciplinary body politics. Hip hop and jungle work on the body, not in the overlit luminotopological epistemoscapes of necrospective mummification, but in the dark zones where you don’t have a chance to think about what things would mean before they happen. Effects arrive before objects, scrambling the operating system of the automonitoring signifying apparatus.

The speed of jungle is important here. In racing passed apprehension as a flurry of unintentified sonic objects, it reaches down into the truth of speed itself as an intensity rather than as a commodified categorisation or USP — no one has ever said they like jungle for the speedy efficiency with which is delivers its constitutive parts to your eardrums. It raises the subject up, in a sense, to hitch a ride on the speed of the world around it, but subculturally speaking we can also consider its opposite.

Following the heydey of grunge, in which Cobain would ironically write hits critiquing the bulimia of the pop market, slowcore hit the scene. The band Low, in particular, made a name for themselves by, in their own words, playing as slow as possible in front of crowds who came for the next mindless angst-relieving thrashy grunge band. This wasn’t a rejection of speed as such but just a rejection of the markets expectation of it. Either you speed up even faster than expected (jungle) or you slow down — so long as you’re jamming the signal.

Here affect (or, more accurately, intensity) is still the name of the game but also we find ourselves confronted by what that intensity contains: the unadulterated “truth”, the Real. Cobain may have wrestled — alongside his stomach pains — with suggestions Nirvana had sold out but the band stayed true to itself even as it was dragged by the market into some kind of inauthenticity.

The distance between these two things — authenticity and truth — can seem superficial but authenticity is, again, firmly within the purview of the postmodern. Truth is perhaps that which is buried beneath the all too easily available. It is that which passes beneath the hegemony of the cliché — an all-powerful blanket of superficiality.

This is similar to what I think Fisher and Mackay are gesturing towards when they point, in their essay, to “samploid music and video games” that emerge “as the leading probe-heads of synthetic culture precisely because of their overt machinism, their asignifying functionality, their indifference to epistemological conundra brewed up in the depths of the strata.” (As far as video games are concerned, this is arguably no longer the case.)

It is a function that is demonstrated by the text itself. This is a gourmet word salad; a linguistic Impossible Burger, a billion dollar lab experiment made to imitate a Big Mac. This is to say that, although it has the cognitive effect of a rapid fire look through a thesaurus, hitting you with affective utterances that may appear pretension and superficial, the technical nomenclature also demands a slow reading in order to be understood, as each term used packs a punch that perforates the “epistemological conundra” of the (c)overtly familiar. This is not philosophy as sleek Ferrari but philosophy as backyard kit car, ready for a deconstruction derby. If it’s Derridean, it’s Derrida with a cattle pod up his arse.

It’s messy and it’s dirty. There’s no fetishing this. And that resistance to fetishisation is largely the point. As Fisher and Mackay continue:

What is dissolved in synthetic culture is not commodification per se, but commodity fetishism as it regulates the bourgeois object system, in which everything is assigned a proper place. Synthetic culture sheds no Benjaminite tears for the lost aura of objects in the age of mechanical reproduction, celebrating instead the way in which the subject-object dichotomy and its attendant pathos are reconfigured as machinic circuits in the age of cybernetic replication. “The transaesthetics of banality” plays upon the poignant, if bathetic, aura of found objects, but for abstract culture everything that’s ready made, or mass-marketed, is there to be dismantled and relocated into the unfamiliar architectures of the synthetic composition, the “uncanny adjacencies” of the hip hop or jungle track, where they have a machinic, rather than merely a citational, role to play: decomposable elements on a plane of consistency, not cut up fragments.

To the jaded eyes of the PoMophile, sampling can appear to be part of its own aesthetic of incongruent bricolage, yet another example of the crippling self-consciousness bedevilling a culture so exhausted it is fit only to sort through its own entrails. But, far from being imprisoned in the past, synthetic culture unlocks the machinic surplus value in the already actualized, stretching and warping time into nonorganically reprogrammed somatic circuits of inhuman speeds and slownesses.

A breath of fresh air, a little relation to the outside, that’s all schizoanalysis asks.

Sample culture precisely employs a kind of machinic thinking through which sounds are repurposed beyond the cliché; that is, behind their smooth reception in a culture that always wants to flog the convenient and familiar. (I’m reminded of rkss’ DJ Tools here.)

These reintensifications are possible (and necessary) with so much culture, not just with music. I’ve spoken about it in recent months in relation to DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf but the truth is that I think it is possible with anyone. It is always worth looking beneath the philosophies you think you know and excavating explicitly those concepts and frameworks that jar with that abstract sense of market propriety. Getting down into how something feels always reveals untold connections to present affects. That which you think you know can always be updated to a present in which it finds itself resituated.

This is not to say you must suspend your judgement of things; rather it is to argue that you can find in almost anything an understanding that grates against the system in which we presently live. This is like the arguments that the removal of the statue of Edward Colston from Bristol isn’t an erasure of history but history happening. The “destructive” repurposing of a statue for protest is sample culture at its most potent. The affective release of the act is more powerful than any object, all too comfortable on its pedestal.

The final question of the Q&A, asked by Niall, was what exactly did Mark Fisher hate about cultural studies despite being somehow who, arguably, “did” cultural studies himself, and I think the answer lies in this very suggestion. When Barthes argued that no text should be limited by the immediate (material) context in which it was produced, he nonetheless set the stage for a kind of cultural studies that has made little attempt to feed back onto the immediate (still material) contexts of its readers. “What does / did it mean?” supercedes “How does it / could it change the world?” But as Marx (and, more explicitly, Stuart Hall) made clear, the former should always lead to the latter, otherwise cultural studies is doomed to impotence. It is doomed to support, rather than intrude upon, the hegemony of the cliché.

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