Yesterday’s post has sent me into a fit. The line drawn from that mid-2000s folk revival to the weirdness of Taylor Swift in 2020 has suddenly connected a great many dots in my head and I have been writing feverishly all night.
A vague book idea that I have been throwing ideas at over the last few months, initially called Frontier Psychiatry, has a new focus. It has become increasingly apparent that this Yorkshireman who doesn’t know America at all beyond a screen or page can hardly be expected to write a half decent book on the West simply for the sheer love of it. It has also become increasingly apparent that many of the books I could write, given enough time to research it, have already been written.
But I am intrigued by this notion that slipped out of my fingers whilst writing yesterday’s post: the dream meridian. Is there a longitudinal psychedelia that connects British surrealism to the Lynchian Pacific Northwest? I’ve always felt so. In fact, spending the evening revisiting Mount Eerie’s 2005 album No Flashlight, I’ve been struck by that odd sensation of familiarity again. The themes explored on that album, which fascinated me as a teenager so intensely, feel only a stone’s throw from a book like Justin Barton’s Hidden Valleys.
Perhaps they’re just universal themes but, considering just how cemented in place the Mount Eerie project is, I think there is something more to it than that… Chatting to @bummertimebc after yesterday’s post went live, we spoke a bit about this affinity after they shared their amazing album Wastelayer, a Mark Fisher-referencing slab of “dirge punk” recorded in Elverum’s Anacortes base, The Unknown. These worlds colliding has sent me west.
And so, I was up all night thinking about No Flashlight and Hidden Valleys, these two explorations of two very different northern territories that nonetheless share a sensation (if not quite a concept) of lucidity. Elverum’s summary of the album is also prescient in this regard. It resonates with Barton’s eerie Spinozism beautifully. For instance, towards the end of the album’s copious liner notes, he writes:
There’s another world inside this one, and the only way to get it is to be generous and not afraid of the dark / the void. This “other world” only exists as an absence, yet it is overflowing and beautiful. Also, all of these words and merely pointing at it, not saying it.
Participate in everything with indifference in your heart.
Fifteen years after first receiving this album in the mail from Anacortes, WA, I now feel like I have spent all that time since reading philosophy and literature to come back to it and say, ah yes, I see you now, through the void. I see it just as I saw it then, but now I feel like I can talk to it, having come full circle.
That’s a journey I’d like to write up, ricocheting around my Western obsession, and with far more clarity than these recent rambling posts have dared entertain. What has this American frontierism taught this Yorkshireman about how to see the world at night? That feels like a book that only I could write, and that’s always an inspiring feeling.
We’ll see how that goes…
The main reason for writing this post, despite appearances, was not to prematurely announce a new (mutation to an already existing) project. I mainly wanted to share the photograph up top. It was taken by my Dad in the summer of 2006, at the height of my teenage Mount Eerie obsession, somewhere along an old train track that used to be part of the Hull and Barnsley railway. It felt like a portal to that other world I was spending so much time in — sonically at least.
It was a surreal place; or is. (I’m fairly certain it is still there but it has been years since I’ve seen it with my own eyes.) It is nothing more then a tunnel mouth and a railway bridge, buried in a valley out in the East Yorkshire countryside. It’s more or less invisible until you’re on top of it. I used to go out there at every opportunity, scrambling around with friends on the weekends. I took so many photographs here over the years but none came close to this one. I’d quite like to find a new life for it, somehow…
As I was looking for this photograph, I also found a few others relevant to yesterday’s meandering nostalgia trip, including photographs I took of Bon Iver at the aforementioned gig at the Leadmill in Sheffield (right) and also Atlas Sound at the Brudenell in Leeds just a few weeks later (left).
(I wish musicians still blogged like Bradford Cox did — there’s a lot to be said for the musical blogosphere of that period too. Even Radiohead got in on it. Remember that?)
My previous post on Taylor Swift was long and meandering — a sign that I had something to say that I couldn’t get out in a single (succinct) argument. This is going to be long and meandering too, but in a way that I hope fills in the gaps between recent postings.
Essentially, what I want to do here is connection my Taylor Swift post to my The Last of Us Part 2 posts via Ed Berger’s recent Western posts… And of course it was Ed Berger who was able to clarify my Swiftian concerns better than I was able to at the time.
I must admit that, whilst I was unashamedly in love with Taylor Swift’s folklore at the time of writing that last post, writing it has also tempered my own feelings considerably. If it’s a post that comes across as torn, that’s probably why.
Discussing this with my girlfriend the next day she feigned surprise: “You mean thinking a little deeper about Taylor Swift’s life and output left a bitter taste in your mouth?” I suppose that’s part of the point I wanted to make, although I mistakenly made it in the midst of the process rather than after my thoughts had settled on it.
To summarise: Swift’s music is often beautiful but it is is also superficially seductive (but seductive nonetheless); beneath the supposedly innocuous pop surface is a load of ideological distastefulness. This isn’t a new realisation, of course. The overarching point is that having this realisation doesn’t solve anything — I still like her music — so dismissing Swift outright doesn’t achieve anything. What is interesting about trying to traverse to strange complexity of her output, as Jillian Mapes did for Pitchfork, is that accounting for her aesthetic prowess and ideological clumsiness simultaneously requires something of an diagonal critique that initially feels like catching her own cognitive dissonance and making it your own.
Point being: critiques of capitalism require the same kind of mental gymnastics. How can we productively account for the seductive qualities of that which we find distasteful on paper? Coming down hard on either side of the pop seduction / capitalistic distastefulness divide does nothing to help us account for the relation between the two that keeps us where we are. Talking about capitalism in this way is quite difficult, especially in brief. Talking about Taylor Swift is (supposedly) much easier.
But why is it so difficult? What is this strange space between seduction and critique? Is there a better way to talk about it? I think it might be useful to place Swift in a much broader, acutely American context.
Ed Berger’s comment on my Taylor Swift post was very helpful in this regard. He picked up on the fact I called Swift’s new music “Lynchian”, for instance — the Sunset Boulevard references were similarly made to emphasise this — “with its play of a surreal, normalized surface and hidden, decadent depths being the motif that links the tracks together.”
Ed also pointed to the fact that the third season of Twin Peaks played with this tension explicitly. The season’s frequent featuring of dream pop acts — not to mention the casting of Sky Ferreira — were certainly at the back of my mind in the last post too, but Ed really drives this point home. He writes the following of Swift’s latest album:
… from the Hollywood-in-decline vibes that crop up repeatedly to the broader (career-spanning) trend of artificialized Americana … some of the tracks … tap into the synthy dream-pop that brings to my mind Twin Peaks. I have no idea if this is intentional or not, or is born from a mutual interest in the genre on the part of both Lynch and Swift (the obvious mutual admiration of Lana del Rey by both parties also folds neatly as another point in this).
The third season of TP has been on my mind a lot lately, in particular the use of a variety of dream/synth pop tracks throughout the musical codas that ended each episode. I recall some critics saying that the modernization of Twin Peaks (both in terms of the reboot but also the literal modernization of the in-universe town) caused it to lose a bit of surrealist edge (surreal in this sense being the strange anachronistic time-character of the locale). But the use of dream pop, and the accompanying fashion sense used — and maybe even the color template of certain scenes — still seemed anachronistic to me. For a show released in 2017, it looked as if it was set in cultural climate of 2010 through roughly 2014 — which in my mind was really an extension of the cultural formations that you note as emerging within the context of the Recession years. Perhaps this is reading into something that is not there, but it seems very deliberate to me.
Across the whole span, my perception of popular ‘indie’ culture pivoted around the twin poles of the folk revival and the dream/synth pop moment. The question of Twin Peak’s third season aside, this is (as you point out) the basic template for Folklore. The name deliberately invokes ‘folk’, and the whole neo-Americana aesthetic harkens back to this constantly. At the same time, the music tilts between this form and the synthetic… I’m curious as to why. Is it a simply case of repetition in the face of similar, yet different, traumatic events? Or is it an indication of how narrow the distance between present-nostalgia and its vanished object has become? Or something deeper still?
I think Ed makes some really excellent points here and it chimes with a certain atmosphere that I find so seductive about the American northwest. His mention of the folk revival too is interesting. Swift’s album most explicitly brings to mind The National’s album Boxer — particularly its melancholic postwestern themes — but that, in turn, places it in a very diverse context in my mind.
This popular melancholy over the loss of the twentieth century post-9/11 was coupled by a new American weird. Whilst The National, Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver rose to the top in the mid- to late 2000s, something else came up from below that was much more psychedelic if nonetheless still captured by the same structures of feeling. (It’s worth noting that the National’s Aaron Dressner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon both appear on Taylor Swift’s folklore.)
Story time: I was at one of Bon Iver’s very first UK gigs at the Leadmill in Sheffield in 2008. The band was supporting Iron & Wine. It’s not often I’ve bought a ticket to gig for the supporting act rather than the headliner but it was a good decision in that case. That first Bon Iver album, before the Tumblr hype went some way towards neutering it, with all its questionable mythology, was similarly seductive to me. As a live act — then a new and somewhat awkward trio — they nonetheless torn the floor out from underneath Iron & Wine, whose set consisted of little more than awful dive bar alt-country noodling to my ears.
Bon Iver embodied a shift in the American folk pop sound at that time — a sound that seemed to embrace this new scattered aesthetic of an unravelling frontier mythology after the traumatic birth of the twenty-first century.
I often think about For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver’s debut album, of which Justin Vernon once said that the titular “Emma” was not a person but “a place you get stuck in”. Intriguingly, Vernon later named many songs after places or states, but in such a disparate and inconsistent way as to provide listeners with a wholly dishevelled cartography. Sufjan Stevens’ abandoned 50 states project this was not; Vernon seemed to be keen, from then on, to only pass through these disparate locations. The resulting map was nostalgic, in one sense, but nonetheless hallucinated, in another.
Whilst Bon Iver might be the most pop embodiment as this upturned cartography, it was similarly explored by some of the weirder acts of the new American folk scene. The droning folk numbers of Animal Collective for instance, particularly under their Campfire Songs moniker, made for that fluid sense of movement across the American plains; a song like “Visiting Friends” from the album Sung Tongs similarly travels through a heat-fucked haze.
Looking back over all the critically-acclaimed albums that were released around this time, it was undeniably an incredibly productive period for a certain subcultures. A “folk revival” is right, but even the outliers of this moment, that crossed in front of that Pitchfork-driven trajectory of alt-folk, dealt with many of the same themes.
Scott Walker’s The Drift; Akron/Family’s self-titled; Liars’ Drum’s Not Dead; Sun Kil Moon’s Tiny Cities; Mount Eerie’s Dawn; Atlas Sound’s Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See but Cannot Feel — those are just some of the albums that went into this mid-00s tapestry, often reaching far beyond the US, that seemed to be attempting to fill an anachronistic gap between (but also beyond) Slint’s Spiderland and the long shadow of the Incredible String Band, conflating counterculture weirdness with a postmodern melancholy.
Around the same time, Grouper released Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill — an album on which we find the American subject truly at sea with itself.
The song “Living Room” — recorded around the same time as Dragging… but released a few years later on the album The Man Who Died With His Boat — captures this tension beautifully and even more explicitly. Here Liz Harris navigates that gap, as described by Ed, between a present-nostalgia and a vanished object. She sings:
I’m looking for the place the spirit meets the skin Can’t figure out why that place feels so hard to be in We’re all of us at this ill-fitting party Busy pretending to relate And it’s getting harder and harder to fake Acting like everything’s in its place
If we might return to 2020, it is this sensation of a thin but nonetheless oblique veil between present-nostalgia and vanished object, keeping us apart from each other and the world around us, that may be making something of a comeback if Taylor-Swift-as-pop-vector is to be affirmed.
It is worth noting that Swift’s album being described as “alternative” is not quite the superficial marketing appendage it first appears to me. “Alternative” is doing a lot of heavy lifting here, but it always has done. To call something so unashamedly pop “alternative” probably says something about our postmodern moment in itself, but I think it is worth affirming for its nonsensical slippage between “pop”-as-pulp and pop-as-“popular” sounds. Swift is, in this sense — aesthetically at least — crossing a line that is connecting her sound to a whole new set of themes. Whereas she had previously done this with country music, she is now drawing on themes so far flung as to make for plenty of memes.
This is why the album cover for Swift’s folklore, particularly in its black metal meme version, is so excellent. The mess of associations brought to mind by that cover alone — of Swift standing in the woods in a long houndstooth coat — has led to many people laughing about it being “accidentally” black metal, but is it not instead the case that these environs epitomise the Northern frontier in the popular imagination? Is it not that this album’s whole aesthetic mess brings to mind associations that the “alternative” scenes of the mid-00s — from the folk revival to USBM to indie rock to electronica — similarly tried to contend with?
Less vaguely, I suppose this is to say that it’s not that woods are, by default, “metal” but rather that metal is often, despite how it sounds, very pop in its concerns. (Are you going to tell me that nature isn’t both pulp and popular? I’m a big fan of the Craghopper Goth aesthetic personally — if that’s not a thing yet, I am determined to make it one.) Of course, there are plenty of people who like to put forward particular visions of nature contrary to this, emphasising the extent to which nature is obscured in the modern imagination — I’m thinking of the embarrassing rightists on Twitter who love to talk about the onanism of social media before going out for a wank in the woods — but the truth is far less reactionary and dichotomous, and I think that Taylor Swift’s album, for better and worse, demonstrates how lacking in clarity these distinctions really are.
I’m reminded of that poem by W.H. Auden here:
The trees encountered on a country stroll Reveal a lot about a country’s soul.
A culture is no better than its woods.
The issue, however, is that black metal — like Swift on folklore — often fails to see the wood for the trees. Unless you’re a true Scandi misanthrope, chances are your favourite metal band’s musings about nature are nonetheless passed through the frame of (post)modernity, even if the movement made in response is one of negation. A band like Wolves in the Throne Room are well-known for acknowledging this tension between nature / society productively, rather than just doing the default one-with-nature, society-can-go-to-hell black metal mode. Mount Eerie is another band that really excels at this.
Is it any coincidence they’re both from Twin Peaks country; from Olympia, WA.?
I’ve never been the Washington State (or British Columbia) but, having grown up (more or less) along the same longitudinal line, I find cultural depictions of that part of the world to be really affecting; they always resonate with me in a profound way. But the particular dynamics present in that part of the world also affirm a certain kind of psychogeographic relation that is lost here in the UK.
For instance, whilst most will reduce the regional disparities in this country to being issues of socioeconomic difference and inequality, an increased class consciousness of more recent years that attempts to affirm the more magickal associations that come with a maligned yr hen ogledd often lacks a more nuanced cultural understanding of why this is presently so seductive. I think this is because, in the UK, we don’t really know how to think about frontiers (in Jack D. Forbes’ sense of “an intergroup [or interethnic] contact situation .. where one culture identity front[s] another.”) The US gives form to, crosses over and attempts to close frontiers in this sense all the time, especially in its media, and they don’t all look like cowboys versus indians.
For a superficial but interestingly pop example, we might talk about the Twilight series which plays on the same associations attached to the Pacific northwest. Twin Peaks, however, is interesting because its frontierism is far more productively collaborative than other more explicit cultural examples. This is true throughout the series entire run, regardless of its twenty-first century updates. We might think about how, for instance, the US / Canada border in the show has long functioned as the dream meridian to the US / Mexico border’s blood meridian. (Yes, Twin Peaks is also an Acid Western, folks.)
I don’t think Twin Peaks invented this understanding of the Pacific northwest, but it certainly bottled it in a way that resonated far beyond its immediate locale. For an alternative example, I’d offer up Phil Elverum’s Mount Eerie project. Whilst explicitly inspired by Twin Peaks, Elverum has regularly extrapolated outwards to find the reality behind the Lynchian fantasy. Nowhere is this more more explicit than on the song “Through the Trees Pt. 2” (embedded above), which wrestles openly with the twenty-first century’s disarticulation of nature and society (or, more specifically, nature and the web). As Elverum sings:
The ‘natural world’ And whatever else it’s called I drive in and out of town Seeing no edge, breathing sky
And it’s hard to describe Without seeming absurd I know there’s no other world: Mountains and websites.
Elverum acknowledges the reality that few reactionaries are prepared to: the inside is a folding of the outside. When we think about American frontierism, this statement becomes truer by the day.
The strange experience of being very online and then escaping out into nature should not be seen as some dysfunctional disarticulation between modes of existence but a new frontier to navigate, a new “contact situation.” This is to say that a life lived online and a life lived in the mountains can be as alienating as each other, but I think to live both simultaneously is oddly beautiful.
The philosophical challenges of accounting for this tension are, at present, very engaging and there is plenty for us to draw on to better articulate this alt-pop continuum that Taylor Swift has most recently wandered into.
For example, a few months ago, I read Greg Grandin’s book The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. It is a great book but one which tempts fate with its title, and one which I think oversimplifies the dynamic at play in the present. By focusing entirely on the political or historical evidence — it is undeniably an incredibly in-depth examination of how America’s political imagination could go from the actual frontier to JFK’s “New Frontier” to Trump suddenly wanting to build a wall — Grandin nonetheless ignores the cultural shifts that have presaged Trump’s wall bid, and so half the story is lost.
In this corner of the internet, it is Deleuze and Guattari who we have repeatedly turned to to explore this philosophically. Ed recently wrote about this DeleuzoGuattarian view of the Old West (and the New West) on his blog, discussing that now famous footnote (to Cave Twitter at least) in the rhizome chapter of A Thousand Plateaus that was hugely important for kickstarting the blogosphere’s 2018 patchwork posting. (My posting on this topic later became the “Unconsciousness Raising” chapter of my book Egress.)
Here, D&G point to the literary critic (whomst I love) Leslie Fielder and his book The Return of the Vanishing American. They describe how Fiedler diagrams the West’s strange tendency, despite being so named, to change direction. The West, they note, in the American imagination, has always “played the role of the line of flight combining travel, hallucination, madness, the Indians, perceptive and mental experimentation, the shifting of frontiers, the rhizome.” They also note that the West triggers a kind of reciprocal contradiction in this sense. The opening of the frontier establishes a new kind of Orientalism in the American mind — America puts its Orient (its East) in the West, they argue.
This dynamic is still at play today. Although the frontier has long been closed (politically at least; I’d argue not imaginatively) this tendency to reverse directions has continued. We should be clear that East becoming West, for Deleuze and Guattari, is certainly not some racialised rewording of the Turner thesis. What is evidenced by placing this footnote within the wider context of the book is that East / West enter a new process of permeation. This process did not stop when the frontier was closed. In fact, within American literature, this multi-dimensional folding has continued apace.
Deleuze observes this for himself in his essay “Bartleby; or, the Formula” from Essays Critical and Clinical. Herman Melville’s obstinate clerk, in saying “I would prefer not to”, cracks open a linguistic frontier — an intersubjective contact situation that abjures “yes” and “no”, allowing him to exist in “an ever expanding zone of indiscernability or indetermination”. (A kind of zone that I like to think the more psychedelic musicians within the folk revival summoned sonically, as on a song like Animal Collective’s “Visiting Friends”.) And yet, “I would prefer not to” is nonetheless an aggramatical construction; its own kind of communicative border wall — a Great Wall that figures both a narrowing of the territory and an endless expanse in its own right. And so, Deleuze continues, Bartleby’s formula “excludes all alternatives, and devours what it claims to converse no less than it distances itself from everything else.” A productive paradox emerges. This unruly phrase bars those who would implore Bartleby to act from being able to penetrate his interiority, and yet the cunning nature of his grammatical madness alludes to an interiority so vast as to be incomprehensible. This unseen vastness “proliferate[s] around him and contaminate[s] the others, sending [them] fleeing.” But it also sends “language itself into flight”, into “a zone of indetermination or indiscernability in which neither words not characters can be distinguished”.
This zone, this linguistic West, is what concerns Deleuze — and no surprises there: A Thousand Plateaus similarly ties its geophilosophy to linguistics. In this sense, it is always best observed as a relation — between planet and thought but also, at least within the literature of Herman Melville, between Bartleby and the attorney or, alternatively, between Ahab and his whale. Whilst this perspective suggests that we begin with a pristine dichotomy, this dichotomy soon finds itself obscured by communication and inter-action. This is even true in the first-person, never mind the third-person. For instance, in Moby Dick, Ishmael’s narration is so exquisitely detailed as to present us with this great interiority that is both irreverent and cultured, intimate and distancing. But Ishmael cannot seem to fully comprehend the nature of the relation beyond him. His rationality, in all its majesty, struggles to rationalise Ahab and his whale. It is in this sense that Moby Dick is a truly modern novel, presenting us with a subjective interiority that is mapped in magnificent detail but which struggles to provide an adequate cartography of the world outside. Many “Great American Novels” dramatise this tension, in their own way.
But just as Deleuze described how this tension “devours what it claims to converse”, the Great American Novel today has smoothed the way for the New West’s border wall. Take, for instance, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian — what I’d give to hear Deleuze’s thoughts on that one.
Many have written about how Blood Meridian subverts the drama of Moby Dick. Whereas the latter presents us with a protagonist whose interiority has a seemingly infinite depth, the former gives us a nameless character flat as an adobe wall. Here the vast indifference of the West is mirrored in the close subject of The Kid. Whilst the novel is arguably no less epic in scope, we see another America here. But McCarthy’s book is hardly a negation of Melville’s, it rather reflects another stage in the process. It traces the rebound of Melville’s transcendental prose. In this sense, McCarthy’s book present us with a vast outside that is not tamed by a charming interiority; interiority is as barren as the world outside itself.
But McCarthy himself does not signal an end. We might argue that pendulum is once against swinging back in the other direction. Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport, for instance, presents us with another vast interiority but one where the exterior is all the more obscured. It is an American epic that is nothing but monologue. It inverts the austerity of McCarthy’s American.
And so, it is clear that America is still constantly devouring that which it claims to converse. Even when you would assume the psyche has had its fill, it continues to devour the screen memories left in its place.
Ed has written on this tension recently as well, unpacking a passage from Deleuze and Guattari’s “How Do You Make Yourself a Body Without Organs?”, in which the figure of a priest — a strange priest no doubt, perhaps not unlike Clint Eastwood’s Preacher in Pale Rider — attempts to navigate certain directions of the compass. They write:
The priest did not turn to the west. He knew that in the west lay a plane of consistency, but he thought that the way was blocked by the columns of Hercules, that it led nowhere and uninhabited by people. But that is where desire was lurking, west was the shortest route east, as well to the other directions, rediscovered or deterritorialized.
Discussing this strange reference to “the columbs of Hercules”, Ed writes:
The more immediate reference that Deleuze and Guattari are likely to be reaching for is the use of the columns of Hercules as a symbol used by Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason. In the discussion on transcendental logic, Kant described the ‘pillars of Hercules’ inscribed with the words nihil ulterius, ‘nothing beyond’: it is beyond this point that critique is not to venture. The pillars themselves were “erected by nature in order that we pursue reason’s voyages only insofar as the steadily continuing coasts of experience extend”. The Atlantean promise, following a Renaissance legend of the pillars, is inverted by Kant through this stark warning. If beyond the pillars, in the west, lay the plane of consistency, then Kant has fulfilled the function of priest who turns his back to this direction.
Nick Land similarly wrote once that transcendental philosophy is, in this respect, a fear of the sea — but it is also, we might argue, a fear of the unconscious.
Clearly no one told Herman Melville this.
This has led me to wonder about what exactly Deleuze sees in Melville, and likewise in the West, and what has often been culturally betrayed in more recent decades (although, literarily, it obviously still persists). It seems that, for Deleuze, the West is a great folding. Not an unfolding, but a folding.
Deleuze’s sense of folding challenges our conception of the frontier as a great and seemingly infinite expanse. When Star Trek (and JFK) take up the same metaphor of the endless frontier, this understanding was made all too literal. By transposing the frontier to the literal infinitude of space, they flatten out the folds of the American West proper, privileging a void “out there” in the indifference of space to be navigated by institutionalised imperatives and a para-militaristic federation rather than attempting to wrestle with the void that permeates both nature and society right here with and without us.
This is to say that the infinitude of space is not just a final but an unending frontier, and impotently so. The West, by contrast, and quite strangely, has a coast line. It has an inside, even when it was understood to be an outside. But when we speak of the West and its various directions — the peculiar dynamics that flow out north, south, east and west — we nonetheless find a great recursion. The earth as a body without organ(isation) does not have an north, south, east and west — the map is truly globular; east and west eventually meet and dissolve into one another. The globe folds directionality. The cosmic expanse outwards is, in this sense, an illusion. What the West really epitomises is a vast interiority, as found in Melville’s writings — and the inside is a folding of the outside.
It is this strange folding that I have been trying to tease out of my recent playthrough of The Last of Us Part 2 (and what is to follow has been clipped from my draft of the third part of that series that I’ve called “The Rotten Western”.)
In part two of my “Rotten Western” series, I hoped to shine a light on the ways in which this tension has been explored through a uniquely American “corpse bride”, where living and dead, past and future, become fatally entwined into a newly putrescent “present-nostalgia” (as Ed put it). Not a haunting, as such, but something all too material. And yet, as the game pushes on, it is clear that the story hopes to break out of this loop absolutely — and it struggles to do so.
When I last wrote about this game, I mentioned Joel’s house, presented the player as a kind of Old West museum, but this atemporal paradox becomes even clearer in a dream that Ellie has later on in the game.
At the end of their first day searching Seattle, an exhausted Ellie and Dina hole up in a theatre. After Ellie makes sure the building is secure, she nods off in the front aisle of the main auditorium. The Freudian overtones are strong here — as she sleeps in the cinema, we play through one of her screen memories.
It is Ellie’s birthday and Joel has taken her to the ruins of the Wyoming Museum of Science and History. Joel’s strange relationship to American history is on full display here once again; it is quite endearing how all of his (woefully inaccurate) knowledge about dinosaurs comes from his memories of the first two Jurassic Park films, for instance. Indeed, after mistaking one species of dinosaur for a velociraptor, when Ellie eventually finds the (surprisingly tiny) skull of a real one, Joel makes a note to self: “Don’t trust the movies, I guess.”
Here we are, navigating literal screen memories within literal screen memories, and it is not long before history starts to eat itself. The wretched museum becomes a kind of Conan Doyle plateau — a lost world where humanity is confronted by memories of other extinctions, affirming its capacity for survival whilst also giving their visit an oddly spectral affair. What are survivors cut off from society and from history? Joel and Ellie feel like ghosts wandering through time old of joint.
Just as previously discussed, we once again find Joel’s memories of the past holding him back here. The museum becomes as an exaggerated version of his own home — a space given over to a more cosmic but nonetheless distorted perspective on the past. Perhaps this perspective is ultimately Joel’s undoing — history repeats, the past haunts, the killing of futures leads to his murder in his own. But Joel still continues to carry himself like he knows and has seen it all. When contrasted with Ellie’s curiosity and openness to the new, however, Joel’s bumbling knowledge of natural history is evidently not that natural at all.
This is no country for old men like Joel. He seems barely capable of bridging the gap between old and new. Somewhat hearteningly, Ellie is as fascinated by the lost world of the dinosaurs as she is by the lost world of late capitalism. She’s close to a true nomad, with little to hold onto but plenty to gain. Joel’s existence is the inverse of this. When she forgets this, it is nearly the death of her.
I think it is worth noting that the game’s championing of LGBTQ+ politics does seem to be making an interesting point here. Whilst many have been (excessively) angered by the extent to which the game emphasises contemporary political issues within the context of a zombie apocalypse — Ellie is gay, Dina is bisexual, Abby is straight but gender non-conforming, Lev is trans — the centring of these experiences does start to feel a little forced in the grand scheme of things. But it also makes perfect sense that these characters, who epitomise many of the talking points of contemporary identity politics, would find the space to do so in a “postwestern” like this. Stuart Hall once argued that the “post-” prefix is our way of articulating “a shift or transition conceptualised as the reconfiguration of the field“, and the “postwestern” has reconfigured aplenty. Westerns are, after all, all about the shifting of cultural boundaries (even, or especially, when they are at their most reactionary).
At its best, The Last of Us Part 2 might even suggest a new (pop) swing back in the direction of the Melvillian. Whereas McCarthy’s 2006 book The Road, for instance — notably published at the height of that New West alt-folk revival discussed earlier — continues to erase interiority in the direction of the “post-” (as an example of both post-western and post-apocalyptic literature), The Last of Us Part 2 attempts — emphasis on “attempts” — to ground its narrative in the interiority of its various characters. Unfortunately, the “zones of indiscernability” that result are repeatedly ruptured by the way the game forces you to betray its own categorical imperative. “I’d prefer you not to kill”, it declares, whilst forcing you to do it anyway. (Or, in other words, what Polygon said.)
If there is hope for what Neil Campbell has called a “postwestern politics”, this interjection of “alternative counterfictions to challenge any authoratitive distribution of the sensible with regard to the American West” must be allowed to play out, rather than being betrayed, as in The Last of Us Part 2, by a hall of mirrors; counterfictions countering counterfictions.
The Last of Us Part 2 is at its strongest right before it descends into this moment, and this excursion to the museum is a case in point.
Joel and Ellie’s wander through the museum soon pivots — quite abruptly — from dinosaurs to the space race, but not without first passing through the thin veil of extinction. They pass an overgrown wall, echoing the cordyceps’ global takeover, and then move through a dark tunnel and suddenly we have skipped over a few millions years of history to arrive at that technological arms race that used to define our sense of the future. The time jump is disorientating. Time spirals accelerate. The museum echoes the world as we know it now — that is, within the game. Dinosaur exhibits mirror abandoned mannequins and window displays in shopping malls, but Ellie is still capable of having fun in this odd facsimile of a lost future.
The tension is interesting. Whilst Joel wanders around a world he has lost, Ellie finds herself in a world that beckons her own interventions. That was then; this is now. I’m reminded here of a marvellous passage from Judith Butler on mourning which resonates with The Last of Us Part 2 completely. She writes:
Places are lost — destroyed, vacated, barred — but then there is some place new, and it is not the first, never can be the first. And so there is an impossibility housed at the site of this new place. What is new, newness itself, is founded upon the loss of original place, and so it is a newness that has within it a sense of belatedness, of coming after, and of being thus fundamentally determined by a past that continues to inform it. And so this past is not actually past in the sense of “over,” since it continues as an animating absence in the presence, one that makes itself known precisely in and through the survival of anachronism itself.
The excursion in the museum doesn’t quite end in this new space, however. Much like the rest of the game, it is a plot that attacks its own productive anachronism, contradicting itself in ways that are wholly unnecessary. The future is unfolding all around us at an alarming rate but the hand of god reaches down to pull useless triggers.
It’s strange, really, that The Last of Us Part 2 goes so hard on its abject nihilism. All you can do is kill, it tells you, and killing gets you nowhere. But this is a game that is also set in the Pacific northwest — specifically in Seattle? It has confused its dream meridian for a blood meridian. Perhaps we have too.
The sheer boundless horror of a McCarthy novel creates a tension with the region’s imagination, and perhaps this too contrasts with the current calm of our present pandemic. The Last of Us Part 2 is not a lockdown game in the way that Taylor Swift’s folklore is clearly a lockdown album, but as both Ed and I have vaguely pondered, perhaps this return to a mid-00s dream pop nostalgia is to be welcomed — if not from Swift herself, at least as a kind of pop vector that allows us to consider anew this strange world of mountains and websites. The tension is covered over as soon as capitalism restarts its engines. It may not be a new tension but it is at least an unresolved one, and we have been making good on unresolved tensions as of late. (Black Lives Matter remains a potent example.)
When Fiedler wrote of “the return of the vanishing American” he was writing about the native American specifically — a subject who disappeared in the figure of “the Indian” but returned anew as the native American to haunt the American psyche that had, for so long, othered it into a hauntological existence. Right now it feels like another kind of vanishing American is making a return — the late 2000s subject that looked upon the financial crash and struggled to imagine what new worlds were possible. Whilst it seemed like we were incapable of hallucinating the new at that time, at least in a countercultural mode that we were previously familiar with, it seems to me that our rampant melancholy can nonetheless give rise to strange visions. A post-apocalyptic or dream pop northwest share much in common.
I think this is worth noting when we talk about “acid” futures. When Jonathan Rosenbaum first coined the term “acid western” for the Chicago Reader, he was talking about Jim Jarmusch’s film Dead Man.
It is certainly halluncinatory but Rosenbaum tends to ignore the fact that it is also explicitly purgatorial. I think it is worth noting that the psychedelic has a strong association with death in this regard. We regularly talk of near-death experiences and visions and the surreality of continuing to live beyond that which has passed (away). This is the central premise of hauntology — as horrifying as it often is, it is a kind of goth psychedelia (something most Mark Fisher fans tend not to get). The acid western, the dead western, the rotten western are all cousins in this regard. They are all grounded upon varying degrees of melancholy. The melancholy doesn’t end but we might push it into a newly imaginative mode.
This is a point that I similarly find within Fielder’s The Return of the Vanishing American. That which is returning is returning from the edge of reason, the end of death. It is a subject that — again, to borrow some phrasing from Fiedler — has gotten bored of “waiting for the end”. THe vanishing American is that American given space to return once all the old white man have died. It is the second book in Fiedler’s trilogy — Waiting for the End — that takes these men in its sights.
Those old men who prophesied their own ends in the Sixties and Seventies are long dead, he notes, but their call for a people-to-come remains unanswered. Whilst Deleuze and Guattari are evasive in their labelling of the last men, Fielder is clear. An American tradition that was born with Walt Whitman died with Allen Ginsberg, and necessarily so. What comes next is less white and self-destructive. He writes:
It is, in any case, the dark side of Leaves of Grass that Ginsberg reflects or, more properly exposes, presenting himself as the apostle not of self-adulation but of self-pity, not of joy but of terror, not of sanity but of insanity. Whitman liked to boast that he drank nothing but pure water; Ginsberg tells us he smokes marijuana. Whitman saw himself as a kind of mystical healer; Ginsberg celebrates himself as an angel of death and derangement. He is a prophet not of the beginnings of man, but of his end; and if, like Whitman, he tries to write first poems, they are the first poems of the next evolutionary stage beyond us, anticipations of the verse of meta-humans.
In this sense, the post-Westerner is waiting for an end that will never come. As they bring about a cultural apocalypse of their own, they lay the ground for what is to come. The Beats perhaps failed to realise this. Much like those glamorous figures admired by Swift, they had a marvellous time ruining everything. In the end, they appeared pathetic in their impotence, but we have (and must continue to) move on anew.
This optimism is not present in the conclusion of Fiedler’s Waiting for the End. He senses trouble ahead.
Our writers will learn to bear the indignities of success, as they have born those of failure; and out of these, too, with luck and skill, they will make the stuff of art. What new apocalypse they will dream as they work, we cannot imagine; and if we know that, whatever its nature, it will fail them, like all the others, that is a truth we had best keep to ourselves. In any event, no one younger than we will listen; but it does not matter, for there is no end.
Thinking back to a time before lockdown, I feel Fielder’s mournful resolve. And yet, having overcome the unconvincing brutality of The Last of Us Part 2, having been seduced and then repulsed by folklore, and having been utterly inspired to gob off 7000 words, thanks to Ed Berger, as my girlfriend and I spend the evening talking about an increasingly likely plan to escape London for the North, Fiedler’s conclusion to The Return of the Vanishing American feels far more appropriate.
If a myth of America is to exist in the future, it is incumbent on our writers, no matter how square and scared they may be in their deepest hearts, to conduct with the mad just such a dialogue as their predecessors learned long ago to conduct with the aboriginal dwellers in the actual Western Wilderness. It is easy to forget, but essential to remember, that the shadowy creatures living scarcely imaginable lives in the forest of Virginia once seemed as threatening to all that good Europeans believed as the acid-head or the borderline schizophrenic on the Lower East Side now seems to all that good Americans have come to believe in its place.
To speak of schizophrenics is to speak of a vast multiplicity within and without. America knows this tension well but continues to fear both, whether at its borders or in its inner cities. The pendulum is clearly swinging back the other way, towards a vast interiority, where monolithic subjects face off against a monstrous border wall, but this is not an end; there is no end to the frontier. It is all just another fold in a map that has long been tearing along its creases. These tears need not be destruction for destruction’s sake. They are an opportunity for a new American cartography.
To acknowledge Swift as a part of that landscape might be uncomfortable for some — she’s a Mount Rushmore in an American wilderness — but she’s useful as a coordinate via which we can situate ourselves; The Last of Us Part 2 and Wolves in the Throne Room and Twin Peaks and Mount Eerie and whatever else are (perhaps “cooler”) others but they serve the same purpose. We should look for ways to pass between the lot of them.
Folklore is, by definition, homogeneous. It speaks to experiences, values, ideas that are shared. The best pop music over the last ten years has always been folkloric in this regard — more specifically, stories told by the young about youth — and I find it hard not to admire those young singers and songwriters who manage to excavate something oddly universal out of the inherent narcissism of adolescence.
Lorde is arguably the queen of this. I still find her 2013 album Pure Heroine really moving. Although it was heralded, at the time, as pop’s future — vindicated in the form of Billie Eilish, no doubt — it is also an album that today feels very much of its time. This may be in part for personal reasons. It came out just after I moved back home to Hull after three years away at university, but it’s emotional impact was only doubled by my own surprise at how relatable I thought it was.
It had this slippery appeal to a petite bourgeois lifestyle coupled with a paradoxical pride in the decrepitude of an immanent locale — the ultimate pop paradox. Lorde’s songs about tennis courts and teenage luxury had this phantasmatic quality, bringing to mind the stereotypical sweatshirt-tied-around-shoulder vibe of middle class leisure time and also those nights spent drinking WKD round the back of the sports centre. For me, this made it an oddly powerful ode to a new life in an old town that lacked all the glamour I thought leaving Hull behind might bring — a fact I would have found more depressing but Hull’s rough edges felt beautifully homely on my return, whereas before they had been stifling.
It was this spiral of conflicting emotions and class consciousness that Pure Heroine tapped into with a surreal coldness that nonetheless resonated with a hidden emotional truth. It felt like an album about uselessness, wasted summers, that strange gap between a life of leisure and a life of benign poverty, clinging onto the freedom of adolescence as that gross tick of adult responsibility and guilt starts its long gnaw on the back of your neck. But this wasn’t Deftones-esque angst. This was crystalline pop — a new kind of beautiful melancholy. It was pop in a kind of Beckettian mode — decadent songs for the destitution of modern youth.
I’m not that age anymore though, and so, today, Pure Heroine feels very much like the product of a very particular moment. I can’t imagine it would have the same critical or personal reception it did then.
But Lorde’s music nonetheless epitomises a postmodern folklore for me in this regard, with all of its mythic surrealism and interscalar movements from universal to particular. She has an unmatched ability in the pop sphere to bottle the grand cinematic melancholy — the screen memories — of white adolescence, as seen from the verges of a nihilistic adulthood; the banality of life seen through the grandeur of a pop lens. This isn’t a John Hughes vibe for the twenty-first century, however. It’s too ingrown and unassumingly grotesque. It’s much, much closer to the edge of something. It’s a pop music that clings onto an overabundance of meaning, an enchantment with your own banality, right before it all turns grey forever.
That haze of post-adolescent limbo is truly hauntological, I think — a brief moment where postmodernity’s psychedelic nostalgia feels far more like a positive feedback loop than a negative one. (That Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life came out a few months after Lorde’s album only compounded that odd emotional moment for me.)
With this sort of cultural artefact in mind, I think there is a great deal left to be said about our present moment’s utter fetishisation of adolescence — ideologically it says something about where the “secret sadness of the twenty-first century” (as Mark Fisher called it) might come from. It’s not new, by any means, but it has mutated into strange forms over the last decade of pop — forms that are quite distinct from the twentieth-century teenage mode. This is Breakfast Club meets The Thing, the bodies of all its individual members occasionally rendered in their amalgated grotesqueness by the flashbangs of postmodernity.
If it’s nostalgic, it’s a weird kind of nostalgia — of the sort found in The Last of Us Part II, recently discussed. Whereas adolescence is generally referred to as a frontier of freedom before the world of work swallows us whole, it has been moving into a newly postmodern phase as of late, where an odd self-awareness of the surreality of your own age warps adolescence with an ingrown nostalgia for itself before its even “officially” over.
Maybe this just says something about me but Lorde’s debut album bottled this absolutely. The fact that she could release an album at aged 17 — presumably recorded when she was 15-16 — that resonated so profoundly with my view of my own adolescence aged 23 was very disorientating (in the best sense of the word).
She has this commitment to the truths that emerge from her experiences in this way. I remember reading an interview with her where she declared, before the release of 2017’s Melodrama, that she wouldn’t be able to write songs about tennis courts because that wasn’t her life anymore. She had to find a way to write about her new jet-setting lifestyle that could still resonant with people. No easy task but she managed it. She continued to find the universal emotions flowing through her particular existence.
To hear that Taylor Swift had released an album called folklore made me think about all of this in relation to Swift’s own creative output. Early on in her career, her best songs managed to walk this same tightrope between adolescent idealism and adult realism.
Take a song like “Fifteen”, for example. For all its age-of-innocence atmosphere and Disney princess chic,I’ve always found the song’s bridge to be a gut-punch. It feels like a powerful but momentary peek behind the rose-tinted Hollywood gloss, in which Swift — at least as the song’s default protagonist — reflects on her own naivety and the psychic pain caused when a teenage idealism falls victim to the harsh reality of a fickle teenage libido.
I’ve always loved the song for that reason. It’s this strange piece of whismical country-pop that contains this post-traumatic kernel of its own downfall. It’s the frontierism of country music repackaged in a Shakespearean high school pop tragedy; a true piece of adolescent self-reflection which is burst asunder not by the end of the frontier but its hormonal equivalent: the end of puberty.
Swift doesn’t really write songs like this anymore. She still writes love songs about the peculiarities of sexual politics, of course, but there’s often something missing… There’s no longer that country music nod to an emotional frontierism; no longer an Americana idealism with a knowing and melancholic nod to its own cultural redundancy at the end of history. Today, instead, it feels like it is all Hollywood and no truth; it is all capitalist capture with no opportunity to wriggle out through the emotional cracks in the firmament. It is simulation without the glare of reality visible on its otherwise over-polished surface.
It’s not hard to pinpoint the exact moment this doe-eyed stare through the haze of adolescence failed to overcome the all too real end of Swift’s innocence: her encounter with Kanye West at the VMAs. This wasn’t a foundational experience like crying over feelings of wasted virginity in a teenage bedroom, as dramatised on “Fifteen”; this was something all the more public and traumatic, and whilst the shadow this has cast over her private life can only be assumed, the shadow cast over her creative output is evidently long.
Since that moment, Swift’s music has never really recovered. Instead she began a downward spiral into pop mediocrity. It was as if, in that moment, her twisted self-image as the marginalised white country girl was shattered against the marginalisation of black excellence. Kanye West was, of course, right. That a video as iconic as “Single Ladies” lost out to a video as forgettable as “You Belong To Me” is widely acknowledged as a particularly mind-numbing example of music industry racism, but the fact that Swift then abandoned the self-pity contained on a song like “You Belong To Me” to embrace the pop braggadocio of her rival hardly seems like a coincidence.
Ever since, Swift’s attempts to affirm or negate the things people say about her have led to this country stalwart to transform herself into an oddly defiant fashion-flux pop weather vane. She has become the fatally insecure pop princess who defines the times for all the wrong reasons. It seems that, for Swift herself, she’s just staying loyal to her hopes and dreams in spite of the haters, but what is really on display here is a capitalistic vulnerability that is not commensurate with her post-adolescent vulnerability. It is nonetheless interesting to see how Swift attempts to conflate the two.
For instance, her attempts to absorb what she has previously been seen (patronisingly or not) as a wholesome alternative to — the R&B and hip hop-enthused charts — has been increasingly distasteful. From loosening up her songwriting to reflect some record exec’s idea of a sub-“urban” lyricism to the innumerable examples of her particular brand of lean-in feminism, it has all been done to death. But the impact of this on her songwriting remains a complicated topic.
So, what happens when all of that is stripped back? What happens when the usual flows of pop world drama are stunted by lockdown and the weather vane is left spinning in the uncharacteristically calm air?
Swift’s latest album, folklore, released just the other day, provides a very intriguing answer to these questions. In many respects, the title itself is an interesting enough response. Strip back the drama and you have an artist who has written love song after love song for fifteen years. Swift has her own folklore, in this regard — her own back catalogue of lovers’ lessons and social etiquette, cultural glamour and good business sense. She’s been doing it for so long that she’s going to be very good at it by now. And she is. Having had folklore on repeat for much of this past weekend, I have to say I think it is a great album — easily her best for many years. Whilst the album’s first half is business as usual (at least for late-2010s Swift) — albeit with production that gives the illusion of a more stripped-back sound — the run of songs from “August” to “Invisible String” might be her strongest run of album tracks since the first half of her otherwise bloated 2012 album Red.
Without any celebrity drama to subtly hint at or rumours to stoke for marketing purposes, it’s an album that seems to take a gradual slide back into a classic Swiftian mode, with the strength of her storytelling and her vulnerability on full display, but it also captures something often obscured by the spectacular sandstorm that is the pop machine — a giant ever-moving hard-to-ignore expanse of formlessness. This is to say that folklore, beyond the undeniable pleasantness of its sound, nonetheless captures the homogeneity of an acutely capitalistic post-adolescence, despite often being wrapped in the nostalgic cloth of her guitar-strumming heyday.
Because if there is anything folkloric about Taylor Swift, in a classical sense at least, it would be a song like “Love Story”. It takes that Nineties trope of updating Shakespearean drama to the present day — I’m thinking of 10 Things I Hate About You as an update on The Taming of the Shrew — and makes it into a pop trope. This was Swift’s MO for the first five years of her recording career — transform supposedly universal love stories into contemporary country parables. But — and this should go without saying — any adaptation of this kind always carries with it the baggage of the contemporary, and as Swift conjures up the novelty of returning to a “purer” singer-songwriter mode after an extended detour elsewhere, it is fascinating the see what kind of worldview she has inadvertently brought with her, following the maximalist spectacle of all her albums since 1989.
At first, it’s all quite predictable. From the sub-“urban” cadence of her lyrics on album opener “The 1” through to the Lana Del Rey-aping banality of lead single “Cardigan” and the strange ode to an oil heiress that is “The Last Great American Dynasty” — we’ll come back to that last one — the album’s first half is a stripped-back version of everything wrong with megastar Swift, nonetheless tied up in an innocuous and well-written package. Then, the album transitions, oh so subtly, into a kind of late 2000s indie-pop nostalgia. But, as Swift shifts towards more classically adolescent love songs, the songs nonetheless remain oddly contaminated by the ideological hangover of her more recent maximalist output.
This is to say that, just as Swift is derided for reflecting the worst of the music industry’s purely capitalistic impulses — particularly in her live shows if not so explicitly on her records — folklore encapsulates this same machine albeit in a moment of calm. It is novel, and it is strange to see it from this angle, but it is undoubtedly the same beast. Just as lockdown has made us newly aware of the faults or lacunae of a dysfunctional capitalist system, so too does Taylor Swift’s lockdown album reveal the default state of her worldview when not caught up in the spectacle of celebrity beefs and love affairs with beige actors.
There are those who already dislike folklore on principle, who assume it’s another calculated attempt on Swift’s part to position her career as just so (how dare she); meanwhile, fans will hold it up as tangible proof that their leader can do just about anything (also a stretch). While it’s true that folklore pushes the limits of Swift’s sound in a particular, perhaps unexpected direction, her reference points feel more like mainstream “indie” homage than innovation, taking cues from her collaborators’ work and bits of nostalgia.
Swift stans have been coming hard at the outlet for this passage, as if it betrays the reviewer’s bias. (It sounds like a total lack of bias to me and the album has received a generous 8.0 regardless.) But what I find most interesting is that, if you swap out “folklore” for “lockdown capitalism”, this section of the review still makes perfect sense.
There are those who already dislike lockdown on principle, who assume it’s another calculated attempt on capitalism’s part to position itself just so (how dare it); meanwhile, fans will hold it up as tangible proof that capitalism can do just about anything (also a stretch). While it’s true that lockdown pushes the limits of capitalism in a particular, perhaps unexpected direction, its reference points feel more like mainstream “austerity” homage than innovation, taking cues from its collaborators and bits of nostalgia.
Maybe it requires a bit of poetic license… Still, to the cynics, lockdown capitalism is calculated, insidious yet innocuous, worryingly static and also oddly safe, turning an otherwise traumatic global event into an opportunity to steady itself anew; to the fans, our present moment is evidence of its unparalleled adaptability and superiority and long may its reign continue. For an artist like Swift, who has been criticised for epitomising the worst cultural (read: WASPy) tendencies of the music industry, it is interesting that this album should take on such the thin ideological veil of a moment so easily.
This is going to start sounding like a conspiracy theory. The point, in short, is innocuous but interesting (to me at least). The dream pop mode of expression is taken as a given — it fits this woozy moment. But why does it feel that way? And what about the content?
For instance, is it too much of a stretch to note that Swift’s “indie” album seems to be specifically drawing on a kind of dream pop vibe that was all the rage around 2007/08? Is it a coincidence that the moment this album seems to be nostalgic for is the American dream pop moment from around the time of the last recession? Is folklore an album for the next one?
This is all conjecture, I suppose. The album makes no grand statements and only quietly pledges certain allegiances so I’m undoubtedly over-reading it… And yet, the references it does make are very telling, and whilst I have found myself at first utterly seduced by its catchy lyricism — “Invisible String” has been in my head for a few days now and I can’t get it out no matter what I do — it nonetheless starts to leave an odd taste in my mouth as I become more attuned to its references.
Take “The Last Great American Dynasty”. It is a song that has been praised left, right and centre as one of Swift’s best. I don’t hear it personally. To be honest, it’s a song I find weird and uncomfortable.
Whereas Rey’s last album felt like a humble attempt to emphasise the modernism of her otherwise postmodern stylings, as she finally sours on her temporally displaced Americana (contextualised really well here), Swift takes on an odd choice of subject matter for her moment of reckoning with the current way of the world.
Just as capitalism comes up against its biggest speed bump since the financial crash, Swift finds “her spirit animal in the eccentric heiress Rebekah Harkness” who lavishly blew her inherited millions on champagne, boys and bets with Salvador Dali. She’s a bourgeois icon renowned for doing whatever the fuck she wanted as the world went to shit. “There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen”, Swift sings. “She had a marvellous time ruining everything.”
Harkness’s cultural glamour (for Swift) seems to come in part from her association with Salvador Dali, and much like Dali himself Harkness seems to epitomise the surrealism of a dying breed: an aristocratic old-money capitalist overdosing on twentieth-century decadence. She’s a telling person for Swift to admire — Swift lives in her old house, apparently — and it is telling that this ode and affirmative affinity with the loud heiress gradually slides into songs about sexual politics and illicit desires over the course of the album’s run. Whereas, at first, it feels like an album of two halves in this regard, the self-ruin of capitalist decadence soon starts to bleed into and even finds itself mirrored in the more innocuous tales of teenage love affairs.
Harkness’s wasted millions start to reappear in nods to wasted potential, wasted time, wasted liquor. It’s not long before the innocent love songs lose their nostalgic wholesomeness and start to feel as decadent as Swift’s old money idol. Soon every appeal to broad cultural themes is filtered through her lean-in worldview. It’s all a love affair.
This is certainly a kind of folklore but it soon starts to feel corrupted by a contemporaneity that it oddly insists on denying itself access to.
The result is that folklore becomes a conflicting listen. It is seductive and beautiful and fascinating but also troubling. It is melancholic in the best and worst senses.
As a result, Swift soon starts to embody a boomer ideal of renegade adolescence that has found itself beached upon postmodernity’s cultural dementia. Just five years ago, she was channelling this on songs like “Style”, with its anachronistic synthpop James Dean chic; now she’s settled for the melancholic demeanour of Mae West, as seen through the eyes of Salvador Dali — the drooping face of old glamour made into fancy furniture to lounge on in lockdown. Her career becomes a strange ouroboros, where teenage dreams collapse onto Norma Desmond fantasies.
This is not to cast unnecessary aspersions upon Swift’s character or this album. Again, much of that has been done to death already. And I am nonetheless enjoying it immensely. If this post is anything, it is a shaky attempt to treat her output as she seems to want it to be treated — as an ode to old Hollywood glamour for 21st century women.
However, within the broader context of the present moment, what Swift represents — as ever — inevitably starts to resemble something surreal and melancholic. It is pitiful, in many respects, but contains its own kind of beauty in another. I must admit I find it endlessly fascinating. As negative as all this might sound, I am inclined to put it back on repeat. It is an album that captures so much about this present moment, much of it without meaning to. There are strangely eccentric perspectives buried under her appeals to a kind of late-capitalist folklore. I’m left interrogating the threads that stitch together these supposedly shared values and desires and seeing a surprisingly Lynchian underbelly. There is an invisible string here, beneath the pop beauty, but it doesn’t connect Swift to babyfaced heart throbs; it connects her to a peculiar decadence.
Beneath the glamour is a sickly sweet rot. The pop machine itself has obscured it with tabloid drama. Now, after years of hiding behind a strange defiance, it seems like Swift is ready for her close-up. For better and for worse, it’s the performance of a lifetime.
Neo, to me, is Badiou. They both proclaim to see the world through a mathematical ontology but both fall back on a strange kind of affirmative quasi-Christian philosophy, in which they simply will their way past the new capture that undoubtedly results from becoming one with the very thing you hope to critique. For Brassier, it seems like Badiou’s inability to account for this is a major stumbling block in his philosophy… I’m not sure I can confirm or deny that but it is definitely true of the Matrix trilogy.
Anyway, in the end, I ejected all the Badiou chat from my talk and just spoke about the Matrix. Thanks to Enrico for the invitation and for the really excellent discussion afterwards. I don’t know if it was recorded or anything but here’s my contribution below anyway.
Also thanks to those who set up the excellent Minetest server to host further discussion. I had a lot of fun in there. At first, I just collected loads of free drinks tokens. Then I took acid and killed a horse. Then I had a go at a parkour challenge but fell in lava but then I also glitched out so I couldn’t die. My Sonic the Hedgehog avatar (because you gotta go fast) is probably still in the lava pyramid somewhere… Anyway, it was a truly unique Minecraft experience. (There are two screenshots from my adventures at the bottom of this post.)
Thanks to everyone who came by and asked questions.
Real Simulations: Onthe Matrix Trilogy
Today, declaring that “the world is a simulation” has all the profundity of ending a story with the words “it was all a dream.” But that our outlandish stories sometimes turn out to be dreams isn’t a problem in and of itself. The problem with saying “it was all a dream” is that this often undermines the fact that dreams are really cool. They’re mysterious and fascinating and question-begging. They are starting points, not points at which to end.
In this sense, dreams and simulations share something in common. They are situations: sets of circumstances in which we might act. Discovering what our circumstances are necessitates the question of what we do with them. As such, to say a story was all a dream is as laughable an end to a fiction as “it was all a life” would be to an obituary. It undermines the content and its affects, because knowledge of the conditions under which we engage with the world are important foundations, not conclusions. To discover something is a dream or a simulation doesn’t answer questions, it only begets more of them. This is because it is only at the point of realisation that we can truly choose how to act. It is only after discovering the true nature of an event that we can act accordingly and with fidelity to its truth.
It’s for this reason that, when talking about simulations, I think a film like The Matrix remains an interesting talking point. By now, culturally speaking at least, it is an example so far beyond cliché as to almost become interesting again. Much like a story that ends with the words “it was all a dream”, it has become something like an essential archetype that tells us a great deal about ourselves and the limits of our imaginations; limits which we’d perhaps prefer to just ignore.
Personally, I think the first film still stands up as a classic science-fictional exploration of our late-capitalist world and its contradictions. It is no surprise, however, that that allegory has been betrayed by the very system it sought to describe.
The disjuncture between the nature of reality and the nature of simulation is the Matrix franchise’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. At first, the potentials offered by the characters’ shared ability to lucidly dream within this simulation we call ideology seems to be infinitely productive but are these potentials not then betrayed by the characters’ dogged pursuit of the end of the dream as such? Is this even the case? It seems like a given, in the first film, that to destroy the machines is to destroy the Matrix, but just as the film’s sequels superficially address the symbiosis between man and machine, irrespective of the war raging between the two, it later becomes apparent that this symbiosis extends also to the relationship between reality and simulation. Here the true philosophical question at the heart of the Matrix begins to emerge. Are we at all capable of talking about reality and simulation in themselves? Or are we doomed to a restricted perspective that can only ever comment on the relationship between the two? A relation that is always making attempts to obscure itself, due to its being conditioned by the circumstances of late capitalism.
For example, in the first film, Neo’s desire for truth within the Matrix is mirrored by his desire, in the real world, for the destruction of the lie. But Neo immediately slips onto a paradoxical plane where an understanding of his own emancipation from the simulation is only possible in the context of his continuing non-freedom in reality. As such, if Neo is help humanity to transcend the Matrix, he has to become one with it. When Neo first gets a load of martial arts training uploaded directly into his cerebellum, the pun is obviously intended when Tank tells Morpheus he’s been going for ten hours straight. “He’s a machine!” he says — and necessarily so. Neo has to see like a machine to beat the machines. He has to become a better dreamer in order to dream differently. But when Neo’s powers later become useful outside of the Matrix, in the sequels, what does that say about reality itself? At what point does Neo’s oneness with the world and its representation just become another form of capture?
This tension in the first film is best explored through the character Cypher, who betrays his emancipated cohort to the machines because he wants to return to the lie and forget the truth. He is sick of the questions; for him, “ignorance is bliss.” His betrayal is presented to us as the selfish reasoning of a man who enjoys his own oppression. But Cypher’s reasoning makes a lot more sense than Neo’s utter lack of criticality, which is to say that Cypher’s unbelief, even if exercised through evil, seems far more rational than Neo’s techno-Christian evangelism. In this sense, Cypher is a nihilist but he is also much more of a realist than those who declare themselves to be on the side of the Real. This is only exacerbated in the sequels, when the militarised religiosity of the freed peoples of Zion feels even more ideologically unhinged than the somnambulist behaviour of those trapped within the Matrix.
This begs the question: do the characters in the Matrix really want what they say they want? Intriguingly, in the first film, the dichotomy between necessity and desire appears to be wholly absolute. The real world is necessarily a world without seduction. The slop that the characters eat, for instance, is described as this perfect substance that contains every mineral, protein and amino acid that the body needs, but it is still slop. The character Mouse claims that this slop, then, evidently doesn’t supply everything the body needs. He then changes the subject to talk about the Woman in the Red Dress — a programme he has written into a training simulation for the Matrix — a simulation of the simulation – in which she is meant to distract the dreamer. The Matrix is clearly the world of desires but we might interpret the lesson provided by the Woman in the Red Dress as being that your desires aren’t always going to make you act in our own self-interest.
Mouse’s more immediate insinuation, of course, is much more superficial. He seems to be making the point that the body also needs sex. But the Woman in the Red Dress isn’t somehow sex personified; she’s still just a sexy image. She’s seductive, like the Matrix itself, but she’s nothing more than that. She’s a centrefold, ripped out and stuck to the digital façade. She has no lines. She walks on and walks off. But there is a deeper psychoanalytic point made here. The fulfilment of all our basic needs is nothing if we can’t also tickle our libido but the Matrix has monopolised desire so absolutely that the real world is one even more devoid of an imaginative sexiness. In this sense, the Matrix is a libidinal sandbox. Anything you want you can have. In the real world, the opposite is the case. There is nothing to want. You do what must to survive and little more than that. So which world is more real in that respect? Mouse says: “To deny our own basic impulses is to deny the very thing that makes us human.” So what good is the real world, then, if it is a world without desire? Or rather, what is the real world if it is devoid of things to be desired? So surely we can acknowledge that, despite its irreality, the characters all like the Matrix to a certain extent? Yes, the human battery farms are horrible and the world is a hellscape and unplugged humanity lives underground fearing for their lives, but in the Matrix Neo can fly!?
This strange tension between reality and simulation, necessity and desire, isn’t just highlighted by the plot holes of the later sequels, however. It is readily apparent in Morpheus’s own mind games, which he uses to awake Neo to the possibilities of his newfound agency within the Matrix.
For Morpheus, the real world and the simulation are hardly that empirically different. Morpheus makes this clear when he first reintroduces Neo to the old world. Neo is aghast, running his hand along the back of a wore leather armchair in a pure white void.
“This isn’t real?”
“How do you define ‘real’?” Morpheus replies, smugly. “If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” This is true enough. And yet, whilst this may explain the Matrix, it hardly grounds what Morpheus, in the previous scene, calls “the real world” upon any sort of superior truth. Are we supposed to believe that the real world is the real world simply because it is the worse of the two? And how does this explain Neo’s emergent ability to use his superhuman powers in the real world as well as the Matrix? If the real world is as much of a simulation as the Matrix is, then isn’t the Matrix just as real as the world in itself? If that’s the case, then what is anyone fighting for?
From the vantage point of the end of the trilogy, Cypher’s betrayal in the first film only becomes more interesting in this regard, as we consider the extent to which it mirrors the Wachowski sisters’ meta-betrayal of their own franchise. Do they want what they say they want? Are they not also seduced by the very thing they want to critique? Their hypocrisy is plain to see in the later films, when the critique is so bloated on steroids that the visual effects go into hyperdrive at the expense of the story. As a result, the trilogy is robbed of all punch and satisfaction. In the end, the Matrix is rebooted — hurray!(?) — but the character’s sacrifices carry no weight now that we have overdosed on the very spectacle that the film sought to question. We are left flirting with our own impotence as an initially good idea is extended outwards into a trilogy of bad ones — a trilogy that leaves us on a cliffhanger with Neo — and, indeed, the new itself – left for dead whilst the Matrix supposedly starts over again, having successfully reterritorialized the threat to itself. Agent Smith, the true deterritorialising agency, unhooked from the rules and regulations of the computer mainframe, somehow becomes the ultimate villain, as if, as far as Neo is concerned, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and so reality and simulation enter a new period of peace; a new stasis. Bizarrely, it seems that, somewhere along the way, we have been left with the suggestion that this utter dissipation of the first film’s potentials is meant to be something to celebrate. In truth, it only leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
And so, The Matrix franchise ends precisely where it began. This is all a dream, the first film tells us, in its opening scenes. The final scenes of The Matrix Revolutions tell us much the same thing. This was all a dream, a recurring one at that, and wasn’t it fun. Maybe you’ll have that same dream again one day. With all of this in mind, the first Matrix film becomes a perfect allegory to the nature of neoliberalism’s cybergothic capture of human subjectivity. By contrast, the film’s sequels are an ironic demonstration of how capitalism reterritorializes all of the critiques we might lay at its feet into a sickly postmodern confusion.
The course is a two-parter, with James covering the philosophy of accelerationism and me on politics. (I’ll put the full course outline after the jump…)
We’re both very excited to be coming together on this. The course comes in three tiers. Tier 1 (£100) gives you access to all the course materials — almost seven hours worth of video + audio + lecture transcripts; Tier 2 (£150) is the course materials and the opportunity to take part in two seminars with James and myself; Tier 3 (£200) is all of the above and you also get a one-on-one seminar (or more like a threesome) with James and myself as well.
As we discussed the other day, we’re both very excited about the kinds of conversations that the course might generate — Ed Berger has already written a genius blogpost in response to the promo chat. So please join us for what we think will be a really exciting set of conversations.
Meta-Nomad very generously asked me to collaborate with him on a course about accelerationism six weeks ago. He suggested that he’d cover the philosophy of accelerationism and I could cover the politics of accelerationism. I thought this was a really interesting idea. The result is a load of content that we’re going to be releasing this Friday (24th July 2020) via his Teachable page.
I don’t want to give away too much — we’ll be sharing more info later in the week, including course outlines and costs — but we have recorded the above chat which begins a particular conversation that we hope this course will go on to further develop.
A promotional video for the second Hermitix course called The Philosophy and Politics of Accelerationism, a collaboration with Matt Colquhoun (www.xenogothic.com). The course will be a paid course consisting of 10 lectures and transcripts, with optional seminars and one-on-ones. James Ellis (Meta-Nomad) will cover the philosophical aspects of Accelerationism and Matt Colquhoun will cover the political aspects.
This Saturday I’ll be taking part in “Simulations Like Us”, something of a conversation between myself, Reza Negarestani and Enrico Monacelli, which is running as part of Turn Us Alias, an online event organised by Saturnalia.
From the 90s onwards, the idea of a simulated environment has become a pervasive, intrusive thought. From the hype surrounding the Matrix trilogy to contemporary neuroscience, which has transformed our cognitive abilities into a series of functional simulations of the outer world, from Philip K. Dick’s techno-gnosticism to the VR-craze of the past ten years, the idea that we are stuck in a fake and controlled world has become the metaphor for our contemporary predicament. What once was a cyberpunk metaphor is now almost a lived and urgent fact of our day to day life.
Come join us on Turn Us Alias festival to see how deep the rabbit-hole goes, as we discuss through the lags, the glitches and the hiccups of a post-lockdown Discord server, the future and the fate of this idea.
I think this is going to be a lot of fun. Swing by and read more about Turn Us Alias below, including what you’ll need to do if you want to play.
Turn as alias is a video game and a 24hrs music festival, following the tradition of our beloved Saturnalia.
Join us on Minetest to access music stream and play to find the hidden secrets of digital Viale Molise.
As Macao in Milan, this space is open to everyone, celebrating the freedom of expression of any kind, so respect all other players online as you would do irl. Turn Us Alias supports Brigate Volontarie per l’Emergenza, you can do it too
The current tension between astronomers and astrologers over Ophiuchus sums up 2020 pretty hard. Something this mundane will be the final death of us, I’m sure.
The confirmation that astrologers pick and choose what they want from the stars, appealing to a exotic cosmology that has been restricted so that it better fits in with the dominant form of Gregorian calendar, is all sorts of levels of irony. That astrologers are upset about this is an extra layer thrown in as a treat.
NASA’s reassurances to those people who are upset is also pretty funny. “We didn’t change any zodiac signs, we just did the math”, they say, which to my ear has a ring of passive-aggressiveness.
According to NASA, the math tells us this: there should be thirteen months in the year. We can very easily divide up the thirteenth months of the year into fifty-two weeks with every month having twenty-eight days. They don’t say this, of course, but it is interesting to point out that they’re not the first to do this math, and you don’t have to go back to the Babylonians to find the last instance.
Interestingly, there used to be such a thing as a “positivist” calendar which does have thirteen months and would be a better fit with this. Auguste Comte created it and put forward his proposal in the hope that it would be accepted as a suitable reform for the Gregorian calendar. The problem with this is that it throws out all of the hard-baked theology that remains attached to our tracking of the seasons. For instance, he even swaps out the names of the months for historical or literary figures — Aristotle, Archimedes, Descartes, Shakespeare; Moses and Saint Paul still get a look in too, of course.
The main objection to this reform came from the main Abrahamic religions, who insisted that they had to retain their holy days. The seventh day of each week wouldn’t always be a Sunday, for instance; it would change every year. It would also lead to massive reform in terms of how we measure our own lives. Birthdays would have to be recalculated and the year could no longer be nicely divided up into quarters.
It could simply be the result of our deep superstitions around the number thirteen (a similarly Christian superstition; it’s lucky in plenty of other cultures) but this, in turn, could be related to the fact that it is a prime number. It is hard to imagine a life governed by a prime but the systems we have instead are far more god-fearing than rational. Astrology, even in its currently secular guise, is no different.