Kit Kat Communism:
XG on Mandatory Redistribution Party

Did you know Sean Morley and I went to school together? Did you know that we live in a society? Hope?

I had a lovely and somewhat feverish time catching up with Sean last week. We spoke about left melancholy and the future of the left on the Mandatory Redistribution Party podcast.

Listen above via Spotify. Alternatively, check out the podcast on Podbean or Acast. Follow them on Twitter and Patreon for all future episodes as well.

Scared to Live, Scared to Dream:
A Concessionary Note on Magic Oneohtrix Point Never

Readers, I’m sorry. I made a mistake. I recently promised you a 10,000 word monstrosity on the new Oneohtrix Point Never album, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never, but I think it would be better for all if I cut my losses and abandoned the project.

It seemed doable at the time. I had clocked up some 8,000 words of notes but the end was nowhere in sight. That was quite exciting. To be in the midst of such an outpouring is the kick I’m always chasing. It was clear that, if I was to fully unpack all my thoughts and feeling about this release, it could probably be the length of a small book, and I had every intention of vomiting it all up for you to probably bookmark for later and never come back to. But, in the end, I lost momentum.

Magic Oneohtrix Point Never has me feeling very inspired lately because the questions it has raised chime with a lot of my present research. I have been unearthing the early blogosphere’s writings around accelerationism for much of this year and I am some 50,000 words into a new book draft, but more recently I have entered a new phase of research where I consider how the questions asked by the first accelerationists and hauntologists and speculative realists — although largely maligned today — have nonetheless continued to percolate in our cultural discourse.

Oneohtrix Point Never is exemplary of how those questions are manifest, but in trying to explain why I feel that is the case, I had begun to regurgitate a lot of my research. Whilst it has helped clarify my current work-in-progress immensely, I don’t think it would do me any favours to keep slogging away at it. The full exegesis is probably better left in the oven for a little while long.

Nevertheless, if I was to summarise where my head is at right now, I would do it as follows:

On the one hand, the early twenty-first century was defined by thinkers like Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek, who were considering how a new political movement could be born after Occupy failed to produce a new popular anti-capitalist opposition (although its cultural influence on an emergent generation of young activists surely cannot be overstated). On the other hand, a lot of cultural discourse was defined by writers such as Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher, who were explicitly concerned about a pop-cultural stagnation following the apparent “end of history”. This stagnation was supposedly disproven as the years dragged on and their critical view of the present was soon blamed on their disconnection from the youth or then-emergent subcultures. This does a disservice to their arguments. Though it is true that their critiques feel less relevant now than they once did — in part thanks to the terms they used to define their discourses falling into catastrophic disrepute — the tensions they uncovered have still yet to be fully resolved.

All in all, the questions that linger today are: What is the New? And how does it manifest itself? Or, alternatively: How is it produced? Philosophically, we can turn to Deleuze and Badiou. (I already wrote about this recently here.) Does the new emerge wholly ex nihilo? (Those who have internalised a misunderstanding of Fisher’s hauntological critiques certainly refuse to accept anything less than an absolute New, even though I reckon they’d reject it outright if it landed in their lap.) Or does the new emerge from a multiplicitious sense of the past? (The particulars of Deleuze’s theory of time(s) — difference and repetition, aion and chronos, etc. — are fascinating to consider here but aren’t so easily dissolved into a nice chat about pop music. Nevertheless, we can see this approach expressed in the work of William Burroughs, in hip-hop, in the Situationist International, in “deconstructed club music”, in all sorts of places.)

My feeling at the moment, for both contemporary music (pop or otherwise) and political philosophy, is that the truth is to be found in some synthesis of the two. How can we retain a fidelity to the new — new forms, new visions, new futures, new realities — without throwing the recombinant baby out with the bath water? How can we retain a cultural love of the sample, of chopping and screwing, of mutating, without becoming complicit in capitalism’s appropriations? How do we tell the two apart? How do use use the former to stay one step ahead of the latter?

Clearly these are very big questions. They were nonetheless some of the questions I hoped to tackle in my reflections not only on Magic Oneohtrix Point Never but all the previous albums Daniel Lopatin has released over the last 10-15 years. In fact, I had intended to break each of these albums down and consider how each entry in his oeuvre has toed the line between cultural innovation and capitalist appropriation.

Consider Replica, for instance — a slab of earworms created from sampled commercials and advertisements. It is a masterful and evocative record. It epitomises, I think, what Mark Fisher called a “digital psychedelia”; a capitalist counter-sorcery.

Advertisements are essentially fish hooks, intended to lure us into an engagement with the market. Lopatin, in removing the final destination and looping the samples into hypnotic grooves, emphasises that intention but uncouples it from its ultimate purpose. We feel that desire, hard-baked into the commercial soundscape, but here it is instead inserted into the unconscious in the form of earworms, and we are left with a music that leaves us desiring itself. Not a jingle that enforces us to remember a brand but a jingle that forces us to remember ourselves. It is both seductive and jarring in equal measure.

This experience has been shared by every 0PN record since. Indeed, every first listen to a 0PN record has been the same for me — I may not immediately enjoy it or be able to place it within my expectations, but rather than be absolutely repulsive I find myself always coming back for more. The feedback loop created is hallucinatory — whether it is capitalism or teenage memories of nu metal or format fetishishism, the target of Lopatin’s acidic practice is gradually displaced and a new kind of mental process takes over: one that is newly generative and inspiring rather than purely nostalgic or haunted.

This is where Lopatin’s time-travelling twists first emerge and set him apart from his peers. Whilst his practice is by no means — in and of itself — new, in constantly updating it to the present we find a new kind of psychedelia produced each time. It is hardly aesthetically comparable to psychedelic cliché but this is precisely how Lopatin has managed to skirt around the faults of his contemporaries.

For instance, I recently wrote about how I first saw Lopatin perform at an Animal Collective-curated music festival back in 2011. Looking back, 0PN feels like an odd fit for that line-up but, at the time, he wasn’t at all. His psychedelic output seemed very similar to much of what was being put out at that time but, in hindsight, it differs in a very important way.

The more typical production of hallucinatory feedback loops might be epitomised by a track like “Take Pills” by Panda Bear. It’s sampling of Scott Walker’s Proustian chanson “Always Coming Back To You” is inspired, but the track’s Sixties sentimentality is repurposed for a post-Beach Boys psychedelic bop that seems to lament a lost generation of acid casualties in a world where visions are nonetheless needed more than ever.

Lopatin’s output has never shared this psychedelic melancholy. In fact, his distance from his peers is arguably what has allowed him to persevere over the last decade whereas so many others have fallen from critical favour.

Lopatin seems innately aware of this difference. For example, in a 2013 cover story written by Derek Walmsley for The Wire, he notes that his love of synths set him very much outside what was popular at the time. When he was in college, he recalls, “it was the height of freak folk”, and his “Juno-60 and tape machine and loops”, contrary to what you might expect, were not welcome as part of that scene. “That whole experience was so unhappy”, he says. “It lacked a kind of communal vibe.”

So Lopatin finds himself falling in with the Boston noise scene. Walmsley notes what sets them apart, writing:

Noise is often discussed (and mythologised) as if it were a precisely definable musical style – a brutal endgame where all ideas of structure are thrown out the window. But in the US, particularly with its distinctively regional dynamic of independent local scenes, Noise was more like an optimistic fresh start, a blank slate for kids to start again from first principles and see where it took them.

Here we see how Lopatin, though he no doubt shared the counter-cultural tastes of his peers, was more attuned to the production of the new rather than a latent mourning of what was now in the past.

He may have initially hoped for some affinity with his peers, but this apparent inability to fit in with the Noughties cool kids has been vindicated. Recently reviewing Sufjan Stevens’ 2020 album The Ascension, Carl Wilson poignantly reflects on the “gauzy idealization of childishness [that] seemed endemic to indie rock” in the 2000s, “particularly among artists often grouped with Stevens as psychedelic folk or ‘freak folk’”. He notes that

collectively [the freak folk scene] seemed to be staging a kind of privileged retreat from the dystopic realities of post-9/11 America while claiming it as resistance. It recollected the worst solipsistic flower-child affectations of 1960s hippies and flattered and indulged their audiences’ insular LiveJournaling sensitivities.

In this sense, the Noughties idealization of a musical naivety was less a celebration of innocence than a mournful expression at its loss post-9/11. Freak folk was not an embrace of new freedoms but an attempt to hold onto to freedoms eventually lost.

The Boston noise scene may have been Lopatin’s saving grace. He has gone on to progress and mature in a way that very few others within his generation have. He has weathered the storm and retained his relevance from record to record.

How? Perhaps it comes down to a subtle difference in orientation. At the dawn of a new millennium and the end of an old dream, Lopatin was one of the grateful dead; his peers and the critics of the time were not grateful for their lot at all.

Fast-forward to 2020 and it feels like Magic Oneohtrix Point Never is an much-needed jolt for those of us who may be feeling that old melancholy creep back in, somewhat inevitably during this hollow and uneventful year where it feels like we have lost much more than just 12 months of our lives.

It is an album that is both strange and familiar. We hear shades of all of Lopatin’s preceding projects in here, as if he has expertly salvaged all the best bits of his various experiments and presented them to us on an irresistible platter. Philip Sherburne no doubt said in best in the leader for his review of the album for Pitchfork: “Daniel Lopatin’s latest doesn’t swerve in a new direction but instead serves as an overlook for his career, highlighting his skill at splicing the old and the new in continually fascinating ways.” Too right! And yet, this praise is also somewhat understated. It is the sort of praise all too often given to an album late in an artist’s career, which reminds us why we love them. A sort of victory lap, as it were.

Lopatin has certainly covered a lot of ground. From sorcerous muzak and nu-metallic concrète to baroque synth-trap and Svengali pop, it feels like he has been moving ever further outwards, and so an album that feels like less of a sonic challenge and more in-line with his oversall sound is surprising, but, to me, it feels more like a fly-by. This isn’t 0PN losing its edge. It is a project on an elliptical orbit out in the trash stratum and 2020 has brought it closer to earth than ever before.

There is so much left to say here but, if I am being honest with myself, I have once again bitten off more than I can chew. Instead, I hope that I can continue to expand the pages upon pages of notes I’ve gathered over the last month into a series that fragments these thoughts and offers them up piecemeal, one essay at a time — whether on this blog or posted elsewhere. Later, they’ll no doubt end up patchworked within my next book project in all their glory but, for now, I’m constipated.

Before the laxative kicks in, I would like to leave you with a final thought, cut loose from the unruly Document, which perhaps summarises what feels so precious about Magic Oneohtrix Point Never in 2020 of all years…

The image that defines this album for me is actually tangential to Lopatin’s OPN output. Back in March of this year, mere weeks before the world locked down, Lopatin was on Saturday Night Live backing up The Weeknd on a performance of his song “Scared to Live”.

It is an evocative performance, at the time of recording and even more so looking back. Abel Tesfaye’s battered and broken face prefigures a cultural landscape pummelled by political upheaval and strife, nonetheless imploring the subject of his song not to be scared to live again. It’s upbeat but dark — the sort of romantic ballad that I imagine empowering an agoraphobe who hasn’t left the house since their mugging.

More explicitly, it feels like a love song to a movement. Tesfaye’s face evokes the beaten protestors of the Black Lives Matter movement who once again define our present discontent, but who are threatened not only by the long arm of the state but the emboldened militias that counter their cries with an increasing ferocity. Defiant but battered, it is a movement that implores a whole race of people not to be scared to live again.

Familiar but jarring as ever, Lopatin bounces in the background to the pop power ballad. As producer, he comes to resemble that unconscious voice that speaks to a time beyond the battered present, somewhere eternal. As Tesfaye weathers the pop frontline, Lopatin lurks in the background, although no less significant, having survived the cultural contradictions of the last two decades somehow unscathed, face intact.

We should not presume that this is because Lopatin has sat out the fight; that old mask was more like a cunning shield. He has instead reached his ultimate — but surely not final — form: the producer as Man-in-the-High-Castle, somehow able to produce visions of alternative presents.

As Enrico Monacelli recently highlighted, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never is an album that evokes “format flips”: “those moments in which American radio stations change their biology, ceasing to be, for example, predominantly easy-listening radio and becoming soft-rock radio.” Lopatin isn’t so much nostalgia for radio, he is radio — a receptor for shifting signals, with one foot firmly in the present, helping to manufacture today’s hits, whilst his other foot is in the eternal, evoking the river that such hits are tossed into without a paddle.

This is how Magic Oneohtrix Point Never feels. It is not only that it compiles all that Lopatin has learnt and explored over the last decade or so, but in doing so it seems to map a way out of our stasis, beyond the injuries that ache all too presently.

With “Scared to Live” in mind, I think my favourite track on Magic Oneohtrix Point Never is “No Nightmares”, also featuring the Weeknd. It is a track that seems to reach out of its own conceptual landscape and into Tesfaye’s. Whereas the message behind “Scared to Live” seems self-explanatory, the sentiment behind “No Nightmares” is more elusive, but it is surely related…

Once you’re no longer scared to live, stop being scared to dream.

This is but one example how Magic Oneohtrix Point Never manages to float above the plane of pop’s present somewhat omniscient, with an eye to the past but also an eye to a future that has all but vanished in the fog of lockdown. If the future is going to be worth having, we have to learn lessons from both of worlds: the material and the immaterial. But, even more importantly, we have to realise that it is in the gap between the two — between the battered new struggling to be born, and the recombinant that emerges eerily unscathered — that is where the true new is lying in wait for us.

Lopatin has known for this a long time. We’ve struggled to keep up. If Magic Oneohtrix Point Never feels familiar, it is because Lopatin has been channelling this message for a long time now, but he has expressed it here with a whole new clarity.

This is to say that, although the sounds are different, the message is a repetition. But this is also why his message is so powerful and revelatory.

Consider the fragmentary text that still appears beneath the videos archived from his old Memory Vague project, first released over a decade ago:

It is in the weird stasis of in-between zones that this polarized system breaks down
This zone contains secrets that inform the future via exploding the past

[Nostalgia’s failure is a decoding force]

Magic Oneohtrix Point Never decodes 2020 in real time, as Lopatin doesn’t just express this in-between zone but finally becomes it.

Keeping Up With Hauntology (Part 4)

More from Padraig, following on from the previous post:

Just a quick note re hauntology

From hauntology to the eerie: we might conjecture that Mark’s theorising of the eerie is itself “haunted” by his earlier theorising of the hauntological. What starkly noticeable is that his last text, The Weird and the Eerie makes no mention whatsoever of hauntology/the hauntological, only many references throughout to “haunting”, and the “haunted”. Why this omission, this anomaly?

But then, the similarities between the hauntological and the eerie are too great to overlook. Recall Mark’s initial definition of hauntology via Derrida: “Derrida defines hauntology as the study of that which repeats without ever being present. To elaborate, we might say that the revenant repeats without being present in the first place – where ‘place’ is equivalent in meaning to ‘time’. Nothing occupies the point of origin, and that which haunts insists without ever existing.”

Derrida’s hauntology occupies the space between Being and Nothingness (both the “no longer” and the “not yet”), and Lacan’s ‘hauntology’ is located “between the two deaths”, of symbolic death or real death. The eerie is also located between Being and Nothingness, is also “between the two deaths”, of something where there should be nothing (failure of absence/nothingness) or of nothing where there should be something (failure of presence/being).

Mark developed his ideas about Hauntology in parallel with those about the Weird (including weird fiction and weird realism), which is why he later distinguishes between the eerie and the weird, the latter entailing an ontological collapse, a collision of worlds, a “wrongness” of place, of that which does not belong, of the surreal montage, and a possible descent into psychosis/schizophrenia and/or the construction of a new world, a new reality.

Mark again: “Hauntology isn’t a political strategy. It’s about responding to what’s there –or about what *absently insists* in what is there. It’s best conceived of as a symptomatology, cultural rather than political (where culture is very much read, naturally, as a political-economic effect).”

Their relation to accelerationism is that they’re cultural lines of flight, are an aesthetics of desubjectivisation and disidentification via an encounter with the radical Outside, and indirectly entail a radical libidinal re-engineering separate from postmodern neoliberal late capitalism, a post-capitalist realism.

Acid communism is also about the “not yet” hauntology of the counterculture, but “acid” is here double, referring to acidic/caustic/cold/mordant/critical reason as much as to psychedelic reason.

The question of why The Weird and the Eerie is hauntological in all but name is a very good point. I hadn’t thought about that before. But I otherwise agree wholeheartedly.

There is a lot in that book that is far from explicit, in a way that seems very much unlike Mark. The whole book feels like an anomaly, in many respects, but a fascinating one.

I was said something similar on this blog and I think it was taken by someone as a criticism, when actually I find The Weird and the Eerie all the more compelling for how implicit it is in articulating the previous phase of Mark’s thinking.

Nevertheless, by way of a defense of the books, I was told that Mark was editing it whilst in the depths of his final depression, and so he was a lot less willing to make amends to it than he perhaps would have been. The feeling was apparently that there was more to be said but he didn’t want to hear it. However, I also don’t see that as a negative. I think the implicitness forces the engaged reader to make more of an effort to join the dots — as you’ve done brilliantly, Padraig. And I think that also helps the book feel more future-oriented, thanks to its omissions of Mark’s own past work. It is hauntological in all but name so as to better foreground what was to come in Acid Communism — that’s my feeling, anyway.

But perhaps that’s also because Mark anticipated the backlash to come from his Acid Communism. With hauntology having been reduced to “a neurotic and melancholic obsession with past forms” by cynics, his return to the potentials of the 70s was bound to open him up to ridicule. But what exists of Acid Communism makes it feel like a much more generative and positive project.

I suppose it is an attempt to re-emphasise that disparity, discussed in the last post, between Deleuze and Badiou — between historical difference and political repetition. If I might phrase your final point in another way: Having been weighed down by the innate melancholy of ghosts and spectres, is there a better way of thinking about the gothic nature of this problem of the new? Is there another way of talking about the weird and eerie — that is, the transhistorical — aspects of leftist thought and history that does not collapse onto grief and melancholy but still retains that’s hallucinatory — “seeing things that, materially speaking, both are and aren’t there” — valence of the political imagination? Acid Communism feels like a good stab at that.

Keeping Up With Hauntology (Part 3)

Many thanks again to Padraig, who left an extensive and really excellent follow-up comment on my previously blogged response in what is surely now a conversation on hauntology — a conversation on a blog! There’s still life in the blogosphere yet!

Padraig writes:

Matt, thanks for your excellent and extended response to my earlier very brief remarks about your post on holography and its related issues, and please forgive me for my somewhat lengthy response below, something I had not at all originally planned, but which fervently developed out of an underlying long-standing desire to “cognitively map” some of the issues raised both by technology & hauntology, and their connection with Mark’s ideas, as well as with the philosophical sciences, the natural sciences, political aesthetics and psychoanalysis.

As we’re discussing the hauntological dimension of recordings (even if they are just amounting to digital re-animations, re-creations, or simulations, whether visual or aural) by reference to one of its more recent technical manifestations — holograms & holography — it might be beneficial to reconsider recorded artefacts here — whether in the visual realm of photography, film, video, 3D, holography, as well as the fine arts, or the aural media of recorded sound, from speech to music – in terms of their spectrality and their relation to postmodernity and late capitalism.

The first issue to address is whether we’re to treat holography, in its current instantiations, as exclusively postmodern or whether it has a hauntological dimension. Recall, firstly, Mark’s contention that hauntology (derived from his readings of Marx, Derrida, Freud, and Lacan, as well as from such popular-cultural works as The Shining, Sapphire & Steel, The Caretaker, Burial etc.) is postmodernism’s doppelganger, that is to say, is its repressed underside, is that on which late capitalism forecloses. Instead of hauntology — of the in-becomings of past modernisms, movements, forms, relics, of their never-realised anticipations, their ‘lost futures’ — postmodernism instead just resurrects and simulates the dead forms of the past (“the nostalgic mode”), perpetuates them in their very deadness, persisting as dead, as the living dead, as an undead zombie culture in continuous decay, such archaic-dead cultural simulations serving as an extra-ideological or fetishistic support for late capitalism, as its “cultural logic”. Far from such living-dead simulations being an escape from quotidian reality, much less a challenge to it, they were what further enabled it, reproduced it, and perpetuated it (“capitalist realism”: Mark renamed Jameson’s late capitalist postmodernism as capitalist realism because it had now become so ubiquitous, hegemonic, full-spectrum dominant — retro culture and business ontology were now pervasive and largely unconscious, with the archaic presented as “new and innovative” everywhere while the genuinely innovative and challenging was paranoiacally dismissed, censored, aggressively discarded as passé and “old-fashioned”, still continuing).

Is, then, holography to be treated as just more vacuous postmodern kitsch — as “special effects” or (potentially) as a hauntological spectre that touches the unconscious real? Certainly its applications and instantiations to date seem affectless, deflationary, and banal, as they seem to reside in an atemporal, non-spacial, decontextualised, dehistoricised, empty-iconic realm of pervasive, flattened-out CGI, devoid of even the uncanny, as well as of the eerie or the weird. There’s a Hollywood-Disney comical-cartoonishness about CGI holograms precisely because, like cartoons, they are in infantile denial of death and sexuality. Like the Death Drive itself, everything is eternal in cartoons, their supernaturalist denial of mortality and finitude being their primary appeal. It is perhaps too early to say, but I don’t think we can dismiss all of photography and film as just bland “special effects” irrespective of the class structures and public-state/private-corporate alignments and bourgeois interests from which their various inventions emerged.

If I might interject here, just so as to properly give each point space to breath. I think this is a really interesting point.

I agree. This is the temporal tension that I often find flattened in a lot of hauntological writing. I suppose the issue for photography or audio recording, etc., is that it is hauntological in Derrida’s original sense. (I made this point on Twitter recently.) Derrida notes a certain kind of reactionary hauntological mode, far too mournful, that prefigures “the ghost [something] is to become” (or something like that — quote not verbatim.) Rather than doing “the work of mourning”, it makes the affect of mourning eternal.

Roland Barthes has that experience with photography, in that he sees in the photograph of his mother an eternality which she does not have. The same is true of audio recordings, like Basinski’s tape loops, the destruction of which is recorded so that it then exists for eternity and isn’t actually allowed to die. But I think you’re right that preserving something that goes onto die is one thing; resurrecting something is another matter.

Francois Bonnet’s recently translated book After Death is excellent on this (and Meta-Nomad’s recent essay on it is as well.)

Still, there’s an important tension here, which I’m thinking about quite a lot at the moment, which is that hauntology tries to walk a fine line between two modes of production of the new that are in crisis; it slides between Deleuzian multiplicity and Badiouian event.

(This might seem like something of a tangent but hopefully its relevance becomes clear in due course.)

Sam Gillespie discusses the difference between the two with incredible lucidity in his 2008 book The Mathematics of Novelty. He notes how, for Deleuze — quoting the man himself — “the aim of philosophy is not to rediscover the eternal or universal, but to find the conditions under which something new is produced.” Gillespie notes, then, that Deleuze’s “principal adversary” in this regard was not Hegel but Plato; “a Platonism of eternal, unchanging forms, existing independently of a world that is continually in a state of change.” It is philosophy’s responsibility, as far as Deleuze is concerned, to uncover “the conditions under which that change occurs.”

These conditions are, in one sense, the conditions of being itself. To jettison creativity into some outside is disastrously theological. Deleuze does not believe that all of life emerges from a kind of Oneness – be that one God or the Oneness of the universe – but from a pure and churning multiplicity. “The ‘lines of flight’ that should be familiar to even the most casual reader of Deleuze find their convergence not in a singular point,” Gillespie notes, “but in the various ‘bifurcations’ and ‘divergences’ they assume in the course of their own movement” — be that the evolution of life itself or the movement of cultural production, the New will generate itself.

Badiou, however, does not assume “that being exists as a creative power, but rather that to think being we need nothing more than a formal assertion that nothing … exists.” This is his “minimalist metaphysics” or his “anti-nihilist nihilism”. Gillespie asserts, however, that in many ways Deleuze’s and Badiou’s positions are not so different – “contemporary mathematics attests to the fact that zero” – as Badiou’s starting point – “and infinity” – akin to Deleuze’s notion of multiplicity – “are coextensive.” But when we consider the production of the New, the conceptual difference between these two positions becomes quite stark. We can imagine, perhaps, a generative infinity, but what is it to create ex nihilo?

The reason I’m mentioning this is that I think this is what Enrico Monacelli is gesturing towards in his recent essay on hauntology. (In Italian here but English version is forthcoming, I believe.) He makes an interesting provocation that undermines the cliched logic of most hauntological takes: how can you be nostalgic for something that exists eternally?

Again, that’s perhaps the difference between photography and holography that I think you very rightly emphasise here. But it does make me feel somewhat uneasy about Fisher’s separation between postmodernism and hauntology. (Personally, I don’t think there is one — postmodernism is the process; hauntology is its — potentially generative — effect on subjectivity)

I’ve recently been thinking that this may be another issue of Fisher stealing an already existing word or phrase and undermining himself in the process. I don’t think that what he is gesturing at is a “good postmodernism” — as Alex Williams once called it — but perhaps an “infra-modernism”. Hauntology is a way of shining a light on the modernist tendencies that still occasionally emerge from postmodernism. None of this is so simple as he makes it out, however. In fact, I think that’s why mentioning Badiou and Deleuze is important — they linger in the background, and their compatibility is a major talking point for the speculative realists, but Mark does have a tendency to obfuscate the nuts and bolts to his own disservice.

This is most apparent in his writing on hauntology and accelerationism. I know you said recently on Twitter how salvagepunk is part of hauntology’s toolkit but I think it is closer to accelerationism — and even then, perhaps hauntology and accelerationism are two sides of the same coin. But I think each again represents a different kind of “new” struggling to persist as postmodernity attempts to collapse both onto each other: one revolutionary and explosive; the other reformist and recombinant. The issue for hauntology / accelerationism is that both are arguably cancelling each other out, due to the fact they are held in such close proximity within the imaginative lack of late capitalism.

And so, in that sense, I do think holography exists in a peculiar middle ground, where generating a hologram of someone long dead is based on nothing but a CGI likeness, and therefore quite radically a new imagining of that person, but is also oddly recombinant of other people’s expectations.

This might be a considerable amount of overthinking, but I think when we are left asking the question “is this postmodern or hauntological?”, we’re already in a hauntological space. It is a question that precisely points to the somewhat abortive presence of “the New” that cannot be resolved. And it is that lack of resolve that allows capitalism to feed on it.

Padraig continues:

For some of the most moving and numinously sublime haeccieties are to be found in photography and film/cinema: see Mark’s post on John Foxx’s Tiny Colout Movies (‘old sunlight from other times and other lives’: John Foxx’s Tiny Colour Movies: June 19, 2006. This is easily one of Mark’s most insightful posts) for more on this and on the precise contexts in which visual recordings and artefacts can have the most profound affects eg Mark’s judgement on the famous slow-lingering tracking shot and sequence in Tarkovsky’s Stalker as “the most moving scene in all of cinema”:

“This is not an inner but an Outer calm; not a discovery of a cheap New Age ‘real’ Self , but a positive alienation, in which the cold pastoral freezing into a tableau is experienced as a release from identity. Dun Scotus’ concept of the haecceity – the ‘here and now’ – seems particularly apposite here. Deleuze and Guattari seize upon this in A Thousand Plateaus as a depersonalized mode of individuation in which everything – the breath of the wind, the quality of the light – plays a part. A certain use of film – think, particularly, of the aching stillness in Kubrick and Tarkovsky – seems especially set up to attune us to hacceity; as does the polaroid, a capturing of a haecceity which is itself a haecceity.”

“To leaf through other people’s family photos, to see moments that were of intense emotional significance for them but which mean nothing to you, is, necessarily, to reflect on the times of high drama in your own life, and to achieve a kind of distance that is at once dispassionate and powerfully affecting. That is why the – beautifully, painfully – dilated moment in Tarkovsky’s Stalker where the camera lingers over talismanic objects that were once saturated with meaning, but are now saturated only with water is for me the most moving scene in cinema. It is as if we are seeing the urgencies of our lives through the eyes of an Alien-God.”

“But, contrary to today’s dominant Ego Psychology, which hectors us into reinforcing our sense of self (all the better to ‘sell ourselves’), the awareness of our own Nothingness is of course a pre-requisite for a feeling of grace. There is a melancholy dimension to this grace precisely because it involves a radical distanciation from what is ordinarily most important to us.”

This is fascinating, and again shows how Mark’s Deleuzian drive for newness finds itself stepping into Badiouian territory. (Not that that is much of an insight — they do have plenty of overlap, in some respects.) But it also speaks to Mark’s Spinozism, which I think foreshadows a lot of neo-rationalism, and is arguably the shared starting point for Deleuze and Badiou despite their other divergences.

However, I’d argue that Mark later thawed on his Kubrickian coldness. I don’t say this to refute your nod to this post — it is magnificent — but I do think it once again points to a tension and an unsettled part of his thought. His transition from hauntology to accelerationism to acid communism (whilst all remain related to one another and share a common thread or set of problems) does suggest he finds himself once again falling between these two broadly Continental positions, like many of his peers.

There is a sense in which – one core aspect of – much of the entire Renaissance project, from early to late, from Da Vinci to Vermeer, was photography’s futur anterieur. The entire theoretical framework, methodology, and materiality of many Renaissance painters already entailed most all the elements, the components of what would later emerge as the photo camera, all elements bar one – the recording surface itself, the photo-sensitive chemicals on a glass plate, the eventual analogue-celluloid film strip. These artists drew on the Theory of Optics and used the Camera Obscura, mirrors, lenses, vanishing point, one-point perspective, chiarascuro, in preparing for, framing, and designing their paintings. If anything, photography was the end result of the late Renaissance/late Baroque/Rococo/neo-Classical eras, with its growing preoccupations with realism and empiricism and ‘natural philosophy’.

The beginnings of Modernism – at least in the fine arts – were therefore a dialectical response to and engagement with the invention of photo-realism via photography, for the early modernisms in the 19th century, such as the Impressionists and the Pre-Raphaelites, did, of course, move in a very different direction to photo-realism, of a move away from a suddenly excessively present empiricism, simultaneously banal and overpowering, to both the symbolic and the fantasmatic-real, to the radically external real that the immediate-empirical excludes (hinting at a world beyond the Reality Principle, of contingency and possibility), and while some of it can be rightfully rejected as smug escapism and mysticism by the then-emerging bourgeois leisure classes, it nevertheless also reflected the latest developments in Optics Theory and the Colour Field, such as the central role of Colour Complementarity (the three doubly intense and ultra contrasting pairs of primary additive and primary subtractive colours: Red and Cyan, Green and Magenta, and Blue and Yellow/Orange), its insights informing also the post-impressionists, the early expressionists and proto-surrealists, the Fauvists, the Pointillists, from Monet to Van Gogh, and on into the 20th Century modernisms of Dadaism, Cubism, Constructivism, Surrealism, and Abstraction. All of that was occurring against the ‘realist’ backdrop of an increasingly dominant and mass marketed photography as well as the growth of what was suddenly termed “Science”, a term that only gained acceptance in the 19th century, replacing – after about two millenia – Natural Philosophy.

Painting and photography/film have themselves a spectral relation, much like the reversing ontological relation between sculpture and architecture (eg sculpture as a materialisation of the enclosed spaces, the voids, of architecture, of inhabited buildings). Take a film like Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, with its meticulously precise dynamic-filmic recreations of 18th Century Rococo paintings, where the formerly easy distinctions between painting and film/cinematography start to disintegrate, while still creating an intense and desubjectified vision of an imagined past that is a symptom, that bears witness to our own present.

This is fascinating, and perhaps again suggests an uncomfortable middle-ground for this sort of technology.

There’s probably a point to be made regarding the hologram of Tupac, for example — that the sampling of his image from beyond the grave is arguably fair game given hip-hop’s penchant for détournement. But, as you demonstrate, photography’s aping of painterly motifs — the new salvaging from the old or already established — backfired in that it freed painting from its own trajectory and made it new again.

We already discussed this briefly on Twitter, but this is what separates hauntography from something like salvagepunk, I think. Was photography painting’s accelerationist moment? Rather than capturing it, it revealed a way out through painting’s own aesthetic boundaries?

In that clip from The Wire previously posted, it is interesting that Mark says that salvagepunk is

at once a sensibility; a kind of non-genre embracing film, fiction and other cultural spheres; and a theoretical framework … opposed to the “inherent flatness and equivalency of postmodern cultural production”.

He continues:

By opposition to postmodern pastiche, in which any sign can be juxtaposed with any other in a friction-free space, salvagepunk retains the specificity of cultural objects, even as it bolts them together into new assemblages. That’s precisely because salvagepunk is dealing with objects rather than signs. While signs are interchangeable, objects have particular properties, textures and tendencies, and the art of salvage is about knowing which objects can be lashed together to form viable constructions.

Holography once again falls through the cracks here, however. And, as you suggest, this might just be because it’s too early to claim it one way or another. But the Robert Kardashian hologram feels like a challenge to this. In many ways, it is a kind of sentimental détournement — and therefore postmodern in the sense that it collapses a paradoxical assemblage onto a new flatness. In representing a specific person, no longer with us but resurrected, is RK a object-become-sign? Or an object-sign in his very spectrality?

Is that what makes it postmodern? Rather than disintegrating distinctions it attempts to represent both. It disintegrates by reifying rather than disintegrating the reified?…

Tory Maoism (Part 2)

I’ve had a few deadlines to get out of the way recently and it has swallowed up the last couple of weeks. I’m somewhat shocked by how much time has past… So forgive me if my next couple of posts have me jumping back into a few old conversations…

First things first, a couple weeks ago I received this excellent comment from Ed on my post about Tory Maoism. As ever, it is too good not to share above the comment line:

There’s kind of interesting motif I’ve noticed where Maoism has become the go-to label for a wide variety of political phenomena that have bubbled up over the last several years. The one that comes to mind the most is the refrain that we heard from the right during the George Floyd protests: that the protesters, especially when things reached the ‘tearing down statues’ phase, were basically Maoists, and that what was happening was effectively a new Cultural Revolution. But in the wake of the elections, we’ve seen the term deployed by liberal commentators in connection to the sharp political divide between the urban zones (strongly inclined towards the Democratic Party) and the rural regions (dominated by the Republicans).

I’m fascinated by the way that Mao(ism) is this thing that has returned to haunt the mind, in various and often contradictory ways. Clearly the deployment by American liberal commentators in reference to the election is distinct from the ‘Tory Maoism’ example (the critique of the George Floyd protests would be more directly isomorphic), but it is intriguing in its own right: one can argue — like Alvin Gouldner did — that Maosim a more ‘populist’ strain of Marxism, one that angled itself against the more technocratic form of socialism that was taking shape and being exported by the Soviet Union. The “bombard the headquarters” campaign exemplified this. Later, when Maoism was taken up by certain sectors of the New Left, it was taking the precise form of an organizational-political critique of the managerialism of the Old Left and the first wave of the New Left. So it seems to me that there is a kind of skeletal repetition of this dynamic, where for the liberal (the technocrat-manager par excellence) can only see in “populism” (in quotes because what goes for populism is largely a simulated construction; Baudrillard once wrote that the ‘silent majority’ is a sociological void, an implosion of socio-political management, but contemporary control systems have fabulated it into a quasi-potent political force) the echo of the Maoist uprising.

Perhaps going to far afield, but part of me thinks that the ghost of Maoism stalks postmodernity because it contains within itself elements that might suggest direct ways of acting internal to the postmodern, i.e. the acephalic model of dialectic that foregrounds the paradoxical structure, the breakdown of stadialist accounts of historical development, the division of the one into the two, etc. But whether or not these actual open the door to something else is another question.

This chimes with some recent research I’ve been doing around what Foucault called “sociological governance”, building on the previous post’s nod to Badiou’s crisis of the new, which he hoped to solve in the late 2000s with a resurgent Marxist-Leninism.

Credit where due, there’s an old article for Frieze magazine written by Lars Bang Larsen in 2012 that brought this to mind. In the essay, Larsen paints a familiar picture: our present socio-political purgatory emerged, on the one hand, from the “claim put forward by conservative thinkers vis-à-vis the end of the Cold War” that history as such had now ended. However, on the other hand, this new era of ultimate acquiescence to ideological and evental stasis was similarly interpreted “from a different perspective by critical minds such as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt” as the erasure of any “outside to the present order.” It was the ascendency of what Mark Fisher most famously called “capitalist realism”.

Larsen notes that this “‘no outside’ predicament” was the direct product of “Tony Blair’s and Gerhard Schröder’s ‘Third Way’ paradigm” – now diffusely known as liberal centrism. What was initially theorised as a way of “humanising” capitalism – following the introduction of elements from “ethical socialism” and a naïve belief in the power of gradual reform – led to the deferral of all change whatsoever. In hindsight, it is recognised as a political attempt to trap society in a postmodern resin. As a result, Larsen writes, “Left and right merged, state and economy were integrated in increasingly informal ways, and politics lost its fixed points.”

The tenets of “ethical socialism” are particularly notable here as this leads not to the normalisation of Marxian critique within social democracies but instead to the implementation of “sociological” governance and the calcification of capitalism itself. Larsen continues:

Foucault described neo-liberalism as sociological government: in this model, the realms of the social and cultural – rather than the economy – are mobilized for competition and commerce. During the 1990s, a new economy began brimming with imperatives to socialize through email, mobile phones and, later, social media, and as social and economic processes were pulled closer together, both art and power became ‘sociological’. The reification of the social form became almost indistinguishable from social content. In other words, the social can also be a simulacrum: an instrumentalization of models and tastes that are already received and working in the culture at large.

This point is important to note because it demonstrates how political stasis was purposefully dissolved into cultural production. Neoliberal governments failed to cover all the basis.

For Jacques Derrida, this reification of the social form was haunted by the spectre of Marx, the spectre of communism as that other grand ideal for how to organise society, now supposedly defeated by capitalism. This political spectre was accompanied by various cultural spectres as well. Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds, amongst others, argued that rave culture was similarly a spectre that lingered over a new generation of youth culture that was now, unbeknownst to itself, operating largely on received cultural norms from their elders – contrary to how youth culture had previously been known to operate.

Fisher and Reynolds are renowned critics, who have successfully brought the insights of critical theory to bear on popular culture from within. However, we might also note that a gulf between culture and politics has been widened by postmodern compartmentalising. In Francois Bonnet’s The Infra-World, for example, he makes the point that ghosts are often all-too-convenient explanations for inexplicable forces. As such, we have seen these spectres of revolt disarticulated from their all-too-material beginnings in the ascendency of “sociological government.”

To better understand this idea of a “sociological government”, we can consider how it truly came into its own in the early twenty-first century. In the UK, this was epitomised by David Cameron’s promotion of the “Big Society” – a “socialised” form of capitalism not unlike Margaret Thatcher’s concept of “care in the community.” However, whereas Thatcher had declared that there was “no such thing as society”, only “individual men and women and … families”, Cameron declared that individual men and women are precisely what society consists of. There nonetheless remains a considerable emphasis placed upon “individuals” here – the “Big Society” is the promotion of individualism and voluntarism, rather than a socialist state, as the only meaningful solution to all of our ills.

Sociological government, then, has resulted in the superficial dispersal of soft power into the wider population, and the psychological impact has been disastrous. Government sadism is no longer something to be blamed on puppeteering officials and capitalists, whose fortunes trickle down to the rest of us baying for their blessing and the scraps off their table. Capitalist sadism is instead sublated into an aparallel mode of social masochism. Capitalism is no longer out there; it is in here with us. Any attempt to attack this ideological hegemony resembles a form of socio-cultural self-harm.

This is, at least, how any form of revolution is now understood in the West. It is as if to operate upon capitalism within the “Big Society” model is to operate recklessly upon ourselves. Because we are the society that we despise — yes, we live in a society — but what is important to note that this society is actively produced by capitalism’s bastardisation of socialist principles, through which all social responsibility is shifted from the owners of the means of production to the those engaged with the means of consumption. As such, to destroy capitalism is to destroy ourselves – or so we have been led to believe.

This is what comes to mind when Ed notes how the “silent majority” is a “sociological construction”, but similarly how technocratic managerialism is understood to be a nascent form of socialism. (I’m thinking, in part, of the “Walmart as Utopia” accelerationist critique here — is Walmart embryonic socialism or hollowed-out socialism? I think that’s similar to the question Ed ends on, regarding “the spectre of Mao” — love that!

Putting the “Disco” Back into “Discontent”:
Between Róisín Murphy and Dua Lipa

hey @xenogothic do you plan writing something about the disco revival in 2020 (dua lipa, jessie ware and róisín murphy)? róisín herself said recently in this interview she wrote kingdom of ends after reading the k-punk book

Originally tweeted by alline (@smrknggrl) on November 24, 2020.

Honestly, I wasn’t planning to. But now you’ve got me thinking about it…

I love disco. I love its optimism and its feverish quest for some new form of desire — a quest that began with Donna Summer feeling love, and which has come back again and again in an elliptical orbit, pushing out that bit further out beyond “love” (whatever that is) every time.

The elliptical nature of this orbit needs affirming. It is this orbit that means disco oscillates between periods of critical acclaim and critical disavowal. But this is also part of my attraction to disco and its various motifs. It’s frequent proximity to trash is what keeps it in limbo, between cultural acceptance and transgression, as it lingers on the verge of good taste.

When I was a kid, I loved disco unashamedly. My Mum used to get these compilation CDs that came free with the Mail on Sunday that she kept in her car, and it was through those that I discovered Curtis Mayfield, the Jackson 5, Bill Withers, Donna Summer, Kool and the Gang, et al. A whole cross-section of funk, soul and the breaks that would birth disco and hip-hop. (The irony of developing an awareness of Black musical history through the Daily Mail is not lost on me, but this no doubt further emphasises disco’s strange cultural promiscuity.)

Later, in my teens, Throbbing Gristle embodied a new kind of disco transgression for me, with Cosey Fanni Tutti charging hot on the heels of love, channelling the latent anxiety of Giorgio Moroder’s ‘The Chase’, released the previous year, and using it to put the disco back into discontent, affirming that there was still a hard edge to be found in dance halls worldwide.

Interestingly enough, the first time I heard ‘The Chase’ was on a compilation of iconic sci-fi and horror movie themes, alongside ‘The X-Files Theme’ and the theme from Psycho… I’m still quite surprised how easily that iconic slab of disco synth slotted in there… But it was still Throbbing Gristle who connected the xenogothic dots of weird joy and defiance between my disco obsession and my taste for Northern post-punk.

What is important to emphasise here is that what conjoins disco and post-punk is not so much a shared aesthetic palette but a libidinal sensibility, an interrogation of contemporary desires and their affects, which must always find its contemporaneous mode of expression underneath disco’s reputation as the most innocuous of dance musics.

This has been harder to retain in more recent decades, not least because critics have arguably failed to keep up with the shifting nature of our collective desires. Older generations, for instance, crystallised in their eternal coolness, can probably hark back to audio-visual experiences with a certain self-assuredness. “Oh yes, well, I saw Marc Bolan and David Bowie on TV.” They find comfort in past radicalities, but what about those experiences that speak to young generations? Heretical, perhaps, to them, but resonant to us? After all, Daily Mail compilations and Hull’s industrial history are hardly the favourites of someone living in the present. But such is the problem of growing up at the end of history.

This is not to challenge the mutant subjectivity of glam and disco that carries a powerful punch to this day and remains appreciated, but what of those expressions of xeno-libido that have graced our television or laptop screens since?

Cher was my radical. I have the most vivid memory of watching her, aged six, on Top of the Pops, all Auto-Tune and long-legged swagger, asking a pre-millennial audience if they believed in a world beyond Donna Summer’s critical appraisal; in a life after love.

I was not so in control of my critical faculties back in 1998, but it had a meteoric impact on me all the same — one which has continued to resonate down the years. It captures something of the zeigeist that I was only barely attuned to — a time of great tension and uncertainty. Cher’s expression of being discarded and heartbroken, her iconic voice mutated by Auto-Tune — unheard on a pop track at that time — updated the otherwise saccharine pop of the Nineties with a 21st century anxiety-to-come. She embodied a sublime discontent.

It is a song that exists in close proximity to that other classic, existing somewhere between old disco tropes and new anxious stylings: GALA’s ‘Freed From Desire’ (first released a year before Cher’s smash hit in 1997).

Unlike Cher’s ever-presence as a life-long earworm, I’d never thought about GALA’s song until relatively recently, when it was all the rage amongst my London friends in 2018, who would request it on the jukebox at the Marquis of Granby in New Cross at lease once every pub session.

I wrote about ‘Freed From Desire’ a few months ago and heralded it as an anthem for acid communism. However, so as not to repeat myself, it may be better to discuss a different song, heard innumerable times during the coronavirus pandemic, thanks to my friends’ enthusiasm for it: X-Press’s ‘Lazy’.

Although the song came out in 2012, it’s sentiment captures something very much contemporary — the joy of laziness in the midst of a pandemic, at a time when no-one is doing much of anything.

There’s a humour to the track that is made even more explicit in its accompanying music video. It seems to capture an inter-generational tension. This isn’t just the teenage slackerism of Gen X passed down — although its resonance with us no doubt had something to do with that — but also a middle-aged acquiescence that finds a world of novelty otherwise hostile to the lazy future they were once promised.

In the video, we see a man living out an almost automated existence, like a real-life Wallis & Grommet — endearingly poor inventions made to save time but just as likely to kill. The man lives in a world where he is almost capable of living entirely from his couch, but the scene is drab and, frankly, looks pungent. It seems like he is caught between unfulfilled promises — utopian promises of a world without work (of any kind whatsoever) and the dystopian reality of a world without the means to be truly lazy. It is a world very much like our own — not fully-automated but still populated with sad robots in a piss-leak infrastructure.

The irony, of course, is that whenever that song comes on, my friends and I are anything but static. There is a beautiful irony to an utter expenditure of energy triggered by a song celebrating laziness.

It’s this tension that I see in a lot of Mark Fisher’s writings on disco, particularly towards the end of his life. It’s a paradox that sets the energies of music and dancing firmly outside the performance principles that border a modern-day “work ethic”.

On his mix ‘No More Miserable Monday Mornings‘, this is dramatised perfectly, as Mark slips from Sleaford Mods to Chic…

Peaceful and angry, pure disco and rhythmic post-punk…

No matter the mode of expression the intention is momentary release from the drudgery of the every-day, in the hope that that release might one day become eternal.

No more miserable Monday mornings… No more living for the weekend… No enslavement to desires… Desires for those things we are told are coming but which we can never have — not whilst capitalism makes the rules…

Capitalism hasn’t gone away, unfortunately, but neither has disco.

It is with all of this in mind, I don’t really understand the notion of a “disco revival”. Disco has never gone anywhere. If anything, it has begun to decay, but the shards that float down the bloodstream still have the potential to block our insatiable desires in their tracks, halting — even if just for a moment — our present-day drudgery.

Disco’s affects, however, have become convoluted. But this is only true of the genre-markers that have been scattered diffusely around pop culture. True disco, as far as I am concerned, retains that sentiment, that desire (or undesire) for a libidio beyond capitalist capture.

How does Róisín Murphy fit into all this? Somewhat awkwardly, it must be said — but that is where her power lies.

Writing about her music back in 2004, Mark Fisher noted this after seeing her old outfit Moloko perform at “the otherwise desultory Common Ground festival in Clapham”. Later, he affixes Murphy to a longer glampunk lineage carved out by pioneers such as Roxy Music. He notes, for instance, how a song like ‘Mother of Pearl’ infuses disco’s libidinal expression with a new melancholy, as if Bryan Ferry is to disco as Burial is to UKG — composer of a mournful soundtrack for when the party is inevitably over; “as Penman observed”, Mark writes, ‘Mother of Pearl’ “is the whole of Lacan in seven minutes, more or less” and “the closest Ferry comes to writing a manifesto for his meta-melancholia, a meta-love song about the impossibility — and undesirability — of attaining the Ideal object.”

Murphy’s recent ‘Kingdom of Ends’ updates this same manifesto a step further. The track was inspired by Mark Fisher explicitly, as she explains to The Quietus in the interview shared by @smrknggrl. (Her album title too, Róisín-Machine, is taken from his blogpost “k-punk, or the glampunk art pop discontinuum”.) It eschews the joy of Chic and co. for a more tragic glampunk mode — one which feels utterly and abjectly of our time.

This is to say that Murphy’s melancholy is weaved into the drudgery of the present far more explicitly than her prior disco excursions. The synth and vocal repetitions of ‘Kingdom of Ends’ are notable because they do not give way to any sort of release, although its structure leaves you salivating for some sort of “drop”, trolling the Pavlovian dogs that we all are. In fact, it is a song I find difficult to enjoy, precisely because it is anxiety-inducing. “There’s only one desire left”, she says — a desire to just keep on keeping on? It’s a sort of Sisyphean disco that unearths the dark side of dance music’s repetitions. Murphy chants:

Keep going in, keep going on
Keep going down, can’t turn around no no no no
Keep waking up every morning
Thinking “What the hell am I doing?”
Keep going on, keep going onwards
Ever in, ever downwards, yeah yeah yeah
Keep going in, keep going off
Keep going down, can’t turn around no no no no
Keep waking up at 6 AM
Getting up, doing it all again

Murphy’s album is a disco for now, but it is nonetheless a disco desiccated. That is less a critique than an acknowledge that it is the disco we deserve.

Again and again and again, when writing about dance music, I come back to that line from Terre Thaemlitz’ Midtown 120 Blues: “Let’s keep sight of the things you’re trying to momentarily escape from.” Murphy’s house-infused industrial-disco hybridity will be damned if it lets us forget that for even a second. But again, this is not a critique. In fact, perhaps just as Mark did, I admire her honesty — an honesty that creeps in, pokes through and suffocates an otherwise unashamed flirtation with pop artifice.

Dua Lipa does not fit into this same camp. Her album Future Nostalgia takes a very different approach. Plenty of people have noted how Fisherian the title is — albeit superficially. How exactly this phrase functions at the level of desire is worth emphasising.

The “future nostalgia” Lipa is celebrating on the album’s title track sounds like a sort of romanticised addiction, dealing desire. She’s declaring she is here to blow your mind and get you hooked. Once she enters your life, you’re not going to want to let her go. But she’s a free spirit who isn’t going to be pinned down by some man.

It’s a hauntological romance in an utterly negative sense — she’s the kind of girl to draw you in and then ghost you. As soon as you meet her, you know what it is going to be like to miss her. It is an encounter based around the sexual tension of a “future nostalgia”, best translated as an “anticipated lack”.

Though Fisher’s argument hasn’t exactly aged well, it is this prefigured lack that he criticises in his glampunk post when he contrasts Kylie Minogue and Róisín Murphy. Whereas Kylie betrays a “simpering subordination to the Lad’s Gaze”, Fisher writes that

Murphy, by contrast, gives the impression of enjoying herself, of doing what she would do any way (and just happening to have an audience). It’s clear that she enjoys attention (male or otherwise) but like all great performers, her jouissance seems to be fundamentally auto-erotic. The audience function not as passive-consumer onanist spectators, but as a feedback component in the Roisin-machine.

And so, when Murphy sings “there’s only one desire left” on ‘Kingdom of Ends’, is it the apparent success of this disco-lack that she means? How has disco come to mean an insatiable desire that is dependent on — as Fisher puts it — “grim determination, never enjoyment”?

This is clear for Dua Lipa. For her, there is still a thrill to the chase, but what sort of chase is it, really? It is of little surprise that her songs and their anaemic club edits are tailor-made for Spotify exercise playlists. “Future nostalgia” is only hauntological in the sense that it is a soundtrack for the treadmill of modern cultural stasis — her anticipated lack doesn’t arrive. Nostalgia for her presence is jettisoned into the future.

For Murphy, there is perhaps a rousing horror and anxiety to be found on this chase — a chase that has gone on for decades, but which is starting to become another kind of drudgery.

The same is true of Jessie Ware. On her recent single ‘What’s Your Pleasure?’, freedom from desire is postponed in favour of pleasure itself becoming a specific question to be fulfilled imminently. “What form does your pleasure take?” she asks. But conditioning pleasure is capital’s gambit so that it can sell our pleasure back to us.

We are a long way from Donna Summer’s amorphous, formless love without horizon.

I’m with Murphy on this one. “Our love is stuck on replay”…

…”I want something more.”

More than love, more than desire, more than some impotent lack for gym rats.

Anti-Semitism and Anti-Capitalism:
A Note from Žižek

There’s been some tweets flying around this evening following a Cambridge Union debate on the current turmoil in the Labour Party. Apparently — I haven’t watched it for myself — Margaret Hodge made the comment that the anti-Semitism of Corbynites is innate because they equate Jews and capitalists. Therefore, their anti-capitalism is “inherently racist”, as well as “anti-Western” and “pro-Russian.”

It is certainly a change on the usual “anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism” take, but I think @malaiseforever’s perspective above is one that warrants further attention.

The issue of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party being inflamed by opponents for political reasons — i.e., the performative hand-wringing from columnists and talk show hosts who have a more shameful history of racist outbursts than most but somehow get away with taking the moral high ground with regards to the Labour Party — has not come, as many assumed, from the pro-Israel lobby. It is instead embedded within capitalist realism itself.

It was Slavoj Žižek who made this argument best, I think, in his recent appearance on the Red Scare podcast. Asked about the ejection of Corbyn from the Labour Party for apparent anti-Semitism, which supposedly happened on the day of recording, Žižek says:

Keir Starmer … said after reading [the EHRC report] on anti-Semitism in the Labour Party that it is a day of shame for the Labour Party. I think it’s a day of shame, indeed, but … if you ask me, Corbyn was right.

I link this to another ominous thing. I wrote a short text — it didn’t get very popular, I think. You know what happened about a month ago exactly, at the end of September, in the United Kingdom? Their Department of Education gave to all schools — universities, high schools, and so on — it’s a horrible text — a clear, unambiguous order that prohibits them to use, as part of the curriculum or literature, any documents that criticise or are negative towards capitalism. And then they go a step further and say … anti-capitalism implies, in these terms, the limiting of human freedoms, advocacy of violence, and anti-Semitism. I find this horrible.

I think that — although when I see anti-Semitism I am ready to attack it brutally — but at the same time — I’ve already written about it — I think anti-Semitism is today used to discredit, for the establishment, a little-bit-too-radical critique of capitalism.

You know what’s the irony? The usual leftist sense was that anti-Semitism is anti-capitalism of the primitive people. This figure of the Jew, who grabs money and so on, is a primitive representation of the capitalist… Now, today, it is anti-capitalism that is the primitive mask of anti-Semitism. Again, the moment you are too anti-capitalist, you are suspected of being too anti-Semitic.

You know why I find this line of argumentation horrible? Because it itself — this line of argumentation — mobilises an old anti-Semitic cliché, which is that Jews are essentially capitalists — which is, incidentally, a crazy thing, historically. Look at Lenin’s Politburo: it was the only case in Christian history where the majority of the leading body — those who really held power — were Jews. So to say that communism is purely anti-Semitic is crazy. But what I want to say is that I think, if you remember, is that they already used this against Assange, they used this against Bernie Sanders at the end when they tried to discredit him, they use it now in Europe against … Yanis Varoufakis, and they already used it a year or two ago against Corbyn.

Corbyn is a wonderful, gentle guy. The problem is that I’m almost tempted to say he is too good for this world. He is absolutely not anti-Semitic. He just follows the line that I tried to formulate once, a year ago, when I said that, for me, the struggle against anti-Semitism, and the struggle for Palestinian rights, are part of the same struggle. That’s what all my good friends from Israel claim. They said that, today, to be really faithful to what is the greatest thing in the Jewish legacy, is to try to understand Palestinians.

Again, this is what explains this throwing out of Corbyn. It’s an attempt to purge out of the political space a little bit too radical left, and it is happening all around the world.

Žižek publishing his recent short text on the UK’s anti-anti-capitalist push on RT probably won’t help change Margaret Hodge’s mind here, but I think his argument is an insightful one nonetheless.

It is clear what the right-wing establishment in the UK is opposing, and it has been clear for decades, but no-one has yet managed to articulate just what a self-own it is like Žižek.

The lines of argumentation have become so convoluted it is now increasingly difficult to see the politics for all the outrage, but the left has always had this same problem — in the UK specifically since the Blair years. It is refreshing to listen to someone cut through the chaff.

I’m as surprised as anyone in 2020 that that person would be Žižek.

Billie Eilish’s Pop Cartesianism

Billie Eilish deploying Descartes’ famous “I think therefore I am” in the chorus to her new single doesn’t seem to warrant too much thought. But, accompanied by a video in which she runs around a shopping mall picking up fast food, during a year when her figure has frequently been the subject of tabloid thinkpieces, there’s maybe something to be said for her allusion to the seventeenth-century’s mind/body dichotomy.

At first, the song’s lyrics appear to be directed at the haters and those clinging onto her name for clout, but I see another reading. There’s a deeper sense of alienation here, beneath the pop cultural politics — a kind of schizoid monologue wherein multiple Eilish’s are scattered to the winds by conflicting parasitic agents. First, there are the two Eilish’s being discussed in the press — artist and celebrity — and there are two Eilish’s being discussed by Eilish herself in her songs — projected self and introjected subject. There are multiple Eilish’s vying for attention but each can be place into two broad categories: one of mind and one of body.

Lyrically, consider how, at first, the mind takes swings at the body — I’m more than I appear to be, I’m more than my body; the mind comes first (or should) for an artist of my stature. But then, there’s a recoil, as the world’s bodily ideals conflict with Eilish’s own sense of herself. By the end of the first verse, it’s hard to know who is addressing who. For example, when Eilish sings:

We are not the same with or without
Don’t talk ’bout me like how you might know how I feel
Top of the world, but your world isn’t real
Your world’s an ideal

… I hear a body calling out a mind, afflicted by an unwelcome superego.

It soon becomes apparent that this schizoid vortex of voices and perspectives is where the spectre of Cartesianism cashes out in the twenty-first century. Descartes melds with Freud. We become familiar with the mind and its internal structure of sugerego, ego and id and find ourselves ventriloquising each perspective. Presented to us as angel and demon on each shoulder, bracketing an egoic consciousness somewhere inbetween, but what about that which lurks below the neck? That which Eilish embraces and finds to be a battleground in equal measure? There’s a body without organs lurking under the surface here, trying to make itself heard over the tabloid gossip and Eilish’s own internal monologue.

Psychoanalysis clearly has a lot to answer for. For Deleuze and Guattari most famously — both tangentially involved in the anti-psychiatry movement — Freud’s stratified structure of the mind is nothing but a cage for who we really are and could potentially become. As they write in A Thousand Plateaus, psychoanalysis “royally botches the real” in this regard, “because it botches the BwO.” Deleuze and Guattari were far more interested in bending social rules to better accommodate the divergent subject.

In “Therefore I Am”, Eilish seems to be flexing her line of flight. There’s a sense that she’s doing whatever she wants in an empty shopping mall, that grand temple to desire, but also that she is able to get away with it because she is Billie Eilish. Is this a defiant individualism? Or something else?

“I think therefore I am” soon becomes a loaded statement. Think how, exactly? Or think what? It is telling that the “I think” of Descartes’ phrase is jettisoned from the title itself. “Therefore I Am” gives new meaning to the phrase “immaculate conception”. No thought, just the BwO. Eilish conceives of herself, divested of pop-cultural influence, from her own mind or outside. After all, the BwO “is what remains when you take everything away”, Deleuze and Guattari write. Is there a hint, below the braggadocio, of an Eilishian program of desire; a “motor program of experimentation.”

“Expression in Nature is never a final symbolization, but always, and everywhere, a causal explication“, Deleuze wrote in Difference & Repetition. This is precisely why the body without organs is better expressed, for Deleuze, by a schizophrenic out for a walk than by a neurotic on a couch. The psychoanalyst explores and deploys symbolisation, that “unconscious mental process whereby one object or idea comes to stand for another through some part”; the schizophrenic finds truth in the infinite intermingling of things.

In practice, for Eilish, this is expressed through singing a song to the haters in an empty shopping mall bouncing around to her heart’s content, following desires without recourse to any of her conflicting selves. In the twenty-first century, does the schizophrenic out for a walk still resonate? Or is a media-hounded pop star in a shopping mall just as good an analogy? “Therefore I am” — here Eilish is all explication.

Parts of this post were recycled from my notes for the first episode of Buddies Without Organs. You can listen back to that here.