An interesting follow-up by Matt Bluemink to his previous essay on SOPHIE and anti-hauntology. Again, we see a retread of mid-00s arguments here, and various overlapping discussions orbiting around that central conundrum, with both political and cultural significance in the early 21st century: What is “the new”? And what’s so great about the hardcore continuum anyway?
Bluemink writes, summarising some of the comments made on his last essay around the internet:
As one redditor claimed: “Fishers point is precisely that 20th century genres weren’t just a combination of current sound. They were radical, qualitative steps forward that didn’t resemble anything current.” His argument was that, much as Fisher claimed, a genre such as jungle (and it’s various incarnations) represented a truly qualitative shift that hasn’t been replicated since. The twenty-first century had been left to repeating old tropes and recombining them in various ways which has left us stuck with the illusion of creativity and novelty, when all we were left with was the spectres of the past. The qualitative shifts in genre that had defined the twentieth century were still haunting a twenty-first that could no longer create anything truly new for itself. In other words, hauntology still persists, even in the most progressive music today.
However, this was precisely where I departed with Fisher. His defenders might claim that jungle and the other genres which, to him, represented qualitative changes in musical timbre also represented a radical break from what came before. But is this really true? Can we not trace a clear progression through almost all musical styles? From blues to rock? From rock to metal? From early electro to techno, house and their subsequent incarnations? Even jungle’s roots can be traced quite clearly through a certain combination hardcore breakbeat, techno, ragga, reggae, and a variety of other styles. Yes, perhaps certain technical innovations made the leap between those genres and jungle larger than many we have seen in recent years, but no musical innovation appears out of a vacuum. Every cultural form is created through the difference of virtual potentialities and their interaction with other potentialities. It is precisely this interaction that leads to the actualisation of new forms of expression.
This only affirms the necessity of my last post, I think — it is this type of argument that the 2000s blogosphere was challenging, or necessarily complicating. That culture is recombinant is, arguably, a distinctly late-capitalist truism. It was Deleuze’s position, yes, but his position is more descriptive than providing any foundation for generating alternatives. For Badiou and others, this is why Deleuze wasn’t good enough — instead, they demanded a cultural revolution, in a still-contentious “post-Maoist” sense. For the 00s blogosphere, this was not just for the sake of culture in itself, but as a kind of prefiguration to address capitalist stagnation once and for all.
When we defer to culture’s recombinant nature as a defense against the “whataboutery” of the new, we rest on Deleuze for all the wrong reasons. As Mark once wrote on the k-punk blog, “There’s no doubt that Deleuze encourages psychedelic fascism, if he isn’t actually guilty of it.” Psychedelic fascism, for Mark, was a kind of cultural free-fall epitomised by hippie culture, which, at its worst, rather than going beyond the pleasure principle, gives into pleasure without any principles whatsoever.
Bluemink’s departure from Fisher comes very close to this sort of inane cultural generativity. In his previous post, he affirms, on the one hand, a kind of commitment to a sonic futurism. But then, on the other hand, in responding to his Reddit critics, he enters an all too familiar space where everything can be quickly explained away thanks to a creative “principle of plenitude”. We live in the best of all possible
Thomas Moynihan addresses the imaginative fallacy of this position brilliantly in his book X-Risk, albeit related to the topic of human extinction; the problem with the principle of plenitude is that it divests us of any responsibility towards our own future because it assumes nature will generate and regenerate all of its own accord, and therefore we needn’t take any real responsibility for its ebbs and flows. Culturally speaking, the point is not that new cultures are produced thanks to the general melting pot of human existence but rather due to the specific commitments of certain groups and communities at certain times — for better and for worse. What hauntology does, at its best, is it shines a light on how the Thatcher-Reagan years in the UK and the US decimated cultural production and social imagination in this way, and the echoes of this are still being felt decades later.
Deleuze remains relevant here, but his thought was broadly untouched by the developments of neoliberalism. It was the generation after his that dealt with these short-comings, and this generation is all the more essential for us to explore in the present considering how vaguely Deleuze is used to explain away the questionable impulses of any contemporary creative practice. When uses of his recombinant thought do not contend with the ways that his folds precisely complicated this sort of Leibnizian plenitude, for instance, we end up making excuses for a kind of limited imagination that has been thrust upon us implicitly by half a century of neoliberalism.
For Mark, this was where Deleuze fell short, and he repeatedly took aim at a kind of lite-Deleuzian cultural studies that makes us turn immediately from the kind of conviction Bluemink demonstrated in his last post to the weak recombinant soup of a sort of secular creationism epitomised by the sentence: “Every cultural form is created through the difference of virtual potentialities and their interaction with other potentialities”.
For the 00s blogosphere, this was the importance of bringing Badiou to the table. As Mark notes, the way Badiou breaks “from Continentalism is in his return to conviction and engagement” over a vague gesturing towards the potentials of any given moment. Potentials will only ever remain potentials unless they are acted upon, and it is in that sense that the new developed for Badiou, through his philosophy of the event. Badiou also has his flaws, of course, but the truth of the 2000s post-hauntological moment, as Mark affirms it, was that:
The most productive area of conceptual discordance is that between Badiou and Deleuze-Guattari. Perhaps we’re in a position to use each to decode the blind spots of the other. Deleuze-Guattari have never been properly assimilated into Continentalism (the sad vitalist zombie that stalks the halls of the academy in their name is testament to that) because they too are philosophers of commitment, in which philosophy knows its place: as a theory of action, not a substitute for it.
It is in this sense that a debate around anti-hauntology, the new, and Deleuze and Guattari, must catch up on the last fifteen years or so, which complicated these arguments considerably. Indeed, what is the point of talking about and defending “the new” in the present if our conception of “the new” is still lagging fifteen years behind us, stuck on the moment immediately prior to the recommitments of our blogospheric antecedents? It is for this reason that these questions remain vital, and when we talk about an artist like SOPHIE, this is the level we should be engaging on.
Can we not demand radical change today? At a time when all that once seemed so possible now feels distinctly impossible?
To ask these questions with the force they require, we need to remain attentive to how our view of the past is informed by the specificity of the present. To trace a straight line through cultural developments, for example — from blues to rock, rock to metal; from blues to jazz, jazz to hip hop, hip hop to jungle — is only to look back with the benefit of hindsight and engage in an essentially capitalist process of neat periodisation. Historically speaking, it might be useful, but it precisely neglects those in-situational events where innovation happens, as well as the conditions under which such events were able to occur. (We need, as Badiou once argued, a sense of “historicity without history”.)
The point of hauntology was to intervene in this space. Its purpose was perhaps to say that things weren’t always like how they are now. Things used to happen differently. That was certainly Fisher’s point. Younger generations have all the capacity to innovate in the world but they also don’t appreciate the difference in potentialities and possibilities available to them — they barely even register the fact that the world as we know it is contingent — precisely because they did not experience the shift from 20th-century plurality and conflict to the 21st century’s totalizing capitalist globalism. They don’t understand how their “potentialities” have been limited in much the same way that some people my age (I’m 30 this year — fuck), albeit vaguely, can tell you how the whole vibe of the world changed post-9/11, with ways of moving through space suddenly made impossible. The change of vibe to occur after the end of the Cold War was huge but remains vastly under-appreciated — or, arguably, unknown altogether, other than historically — by anyone under the age of ~40. It was part of Mark’s task, I think, to share this experience that many of us were not privy to, and to tell us about this time when the world felt fluid, and how terrifying and inspiring it was in equal measure.
The importance of this is made clear when arguments for or against a hauntological perspective of the 21st century fold back on themselves. Consider the newly-present irony in Bluemink’s argument, in this instance, which now tends towards undermining the creativity he’s otherwise defending. Which is it? Is SOPHIE a thrust of newness in a culture of stagnation or a continuation of twentieth-century habits? Is she both? Does it matter? What does that tell us? These are the questions to be asked beyond the vague aesthetic arguments around what is or isn’t innovative.
We can basically draw a line under this — or we should, anyway. SOPHIE, like others, obviously built on a certain sense of musical history, but we should remain committed to the observation that she and her peers were only able to produce their music under the conditions of the present, and the decisions they made (and continue to make) regarding how to do this were counter-intuitive, heretical, and inspired. The same can be said of Ghost Box and Burial’s “nostalgic modernism” but, as Alex Williams points out, we can be modernists without being mourners.
The question remains: what are these conditions under which the new is generated? Can we identify them? Can we consciously produce them? (This, again, could lead us back to the importance of Badiou, but I’ll park him for now.)
If Fisher was a mournful modernist, it was because he mourned the conditions that had previously existed, from out of which radical cultural shifts occurred. This is very different from the belief often attributed to him: that nothing new can ever be produced again. He rather saw that the prime conditions for the production of the new were greatly curtailed by capitalist realism — that is, the ideological necessity of capitalism’s own stasis. Our own thinking undergoes a fatal error when we defensively assume he was just sad that his own youth was over. When younger generations assume this, we neglect what we have lost, not just culturally but politically as well.
It is important to consider that hauntology is borrowed from Derrida, for example, and precisely because of the term’s political context/content. Following the defeat of communism, the very idea that there could still be alternatives to our capitalist understanding of how society functions has been denied us. Fisher’s argument was similar, following the death of rave, and he was interested in how these two “endings” were sociopolitically related — the end of history and an intensified predilection for auditory ghosts.
This remains an intriguing observation, the relevance of which only fades away as the relevance of twentieth-century alternatives to capitalism fade away as well. It is simply the case that younger generations have no sense of the twentieth century other than how it is framed by capitalist cultural infrastructure, and that framing is in itself limited in a way that is — when you take a moment to think about it — completely contrary to the age of informative plenty we are otherwise supposed to be living in.
It is because of this that, when we make Fisher’s argument somehow personal to him, we neglect the broader structural questions he is raising, and we do so at our own peril. Unfortunately, Bluemink goes on to do this. He writes:
I believe that Fisher’s harking back to jungle as the last bastion of creativity in the twentieth century is a result of his own hauntological tendencies. The fact that Fisher’s intellectual maturation happened to coincide with an era of music that had produced something as progressive as jungle had clearly influenced his ideas in a radical way. Despite it’s radical inventiveness, jungle was, as much as any other genre, an assemblage of ideas that had been developed before it. The whole CCRU scene was so concerned with inventing the future that any future which arose would inevitably be seen as a disappointment. I feel that many of Fisher’s comments on hauntology in Ghosts of My Life, despite their intrigue as reference points for cultural theorists, are a reflection of that. I’m not convinced hauntology can be applied to the more progressive elements of modern music as well as Fisher thought.
This reading of Mark has stalked him for just about as long as I’ve been a reader of his work. The truth is that, when we dismiss his concerns as being those of an old cultural has-been, we reduce our conversation to aesthetics and personal taste, and we make the conversation anemic as a result.
This is to say that, when we reduce jungle to a purely aesthetic change in pop-musical style and attitude, we ignore the sociocultural context of rave as a movement and the political circumstances it wrestled with and responded to. Reducing jungle to sped-up Amen breaks that weren’t that innovative in the grand scheme of things views jungle as capitalism wants us to view it — as a flavour, a bit of cultural seasoning, rather than a broader imposition on society at that time. Indeed, if we want to make it a point of historical materialism, it turns Marxism proper into “cultural Marxism”.
Hyperpop, at its very best, was its own rejection of this tendency. It was a cunning way of reconnecting pop to politics. As I suggested last time, this, to me, is the point of much of hyperpop’s sugary sonic palette. It deals in chocolate and lemonade and energy drinks and cakes. It deals in flavours and their intensification under capitalist technoscience, but then it reconnects them to a kind of broader libidinal infrastructure. It connects your innocuous late-capitalist chocolate craving to broader questions of desire. In so doing, it asks the same sort of questions Fisher was asking towards the end: Do we really want what we say we want? Do we want “sugar” or excitement? Do we want energy to work or to dance? What’s the difference? Does it matter? It’s a reweirding of Red Bull’s corporatized counter-culture — what Fisher would call a “counter-sorcery”.
This is what SOPHIE herself wanted, according to a quotation Bluemink himself uses. She argues that
there’s a huge amount of work to be done socially and culturally. The gap between where we are now and where I’d imagined we could be, and the places our imaginations could take us, are so far away from what we’re presented with a lot of the time. So I can’t get too excited about anything happening now.
What’s most ironic about the use of this quote is that she sounds like Mark, precisely who she is being opposed to. But, just like Mark, she channeled her dissatisfaction with the present into making cultural, material and pedagogic impositions on anyone who would listen, trying to midwife new conditions under which the new could emerge and proliferate.
Or did she? Or did Mark? We can find ourselves undertaking familiar retreats. Was anything Mark did strictly new? Was anything SOPHIE did strictly new either? I guess not… But then, by what measure?
Well, okay, everything follows on from something, sure. But we can still concede that there have been some innovations. There is newness, there is radicality, here and there.
No, we have to push through a step further. The broader point being made here is that, no matter what new thoughts or ideas or cultures get produced, there is still capitalism, and we remain incapable of imagining or instantiating any alternative to it. Indeed, to echo SOPHIE, there is still “a huge amount of work to do”.
Culture has a part to play in that work — an important part too, I think. Culture, as Fisher also believed, could prefigure (and had previously prefigured) political change. But it will only do so again if we retain that sense of the bigger picture. When we herald SOPHIE’s newness only for the sake of kind of impotent cultural relevance, we once again do ourselves a disservice. The point is less about whether music itself can innovate and more about whether that innovation actually counts for anything when broader social structures remain so fixed. The point is how does musical innovation disrupt the system at large, intervene in it, move outside of it, push through it. Crying foul and saying it isn’t revolutionary enough does nothing. The best response is to throw your weight fully behind a commitment to making it so. Because this is where “the new” lurks, and when we obfuscate that territory, especially in cultural criticism, all we do is double-down on our own impotence.
This is what Fisher skewered on his k-punk blog in the 2010 post, “Spectres of Revolution”. He writes:
It isn’t that anyone is calling for a revolution — on the contrary, there are very few such calls — so much as that there is a continuing appeal to revolution, an alleged revolutionary identification. This not only amounts to a weak messianic gesture, it is also completely at variance with the institutionalized nature of cultural Marxism that Paul [Ennis Jones] describes: “cultural Marxism finds a safe ground in the midst of academia where ones commitment is always partial and never costly”. What this produces in continentalist leftism is a kind of camp solemnity, and I fully share Graham [Harman]’s exasperation with it.
When we separate our cultural favourites from broader political questions for the sake of our own fandom, rather than the sorts of critique and imposition it may allow us to force upon a broader cultural moment, we deny ourselves of our own critical agency. When we argue over SOPHIE’s newness, detached from the new sort of subjectivity she represented, and focus instead of whether anyone has used chipmunk vocals and synthesised their own kicks before, we undermine the radical imposition that was her bold presence as a transgender pop star. We perpetuate the stagnation of a kind of Needle Drop criticality. We reduce cultural value to a decimal point rather than asking what it is actually doing to our sense of ourselves as late-capitalist subjects. SOPHIE did that, and notably with her music. That’s what’s important. And that’s what Bluemink so rightly focused on in his initial essay, concluding:
Is Sophie creating a whole new world with her music or is she is merely reforming elements of the past in such a way that the world itself is merely pretend? I think that will be up to my readers to decide. Either way, I think it’s safe to say that Sophie’s tragic passing represents a real loss for the progression of popular music as a whole. Whether you enjoy her work or not, it’s difficult to doubt she had begun to take electronic music in novel new directions. Let’s hope that, as the pandemic subsides, and the world tries to reclaim some sense of normalcy, that we can start to reclaim a present free of lost futures.
I enjoyed this first essay so much because it deals, head on, with some of the questions that unavoidably linger in the background here — questions that Mark more consistently than anyone, although the clichéd reading of his work is that he did the opposite. Of course, death makes us think mournful questions. What future did SOPHIE create? What future have we lost now that she’s no longer here? I understand this impulse. I felt like I had to write a whole book to try and get to grips with that tendency in my own thinking about Mark’s own body of work. But without addressing that tendency, we are prone to simply repackaging hauntology, rather than establishing any actual alternative to it.
The point is, perhaps, that we can mourn but mustn’t then make our thought mournful — and that’s a hard task. But it is precisely the task introduced into hauntological discourse by Alex Wiliams’ “accelerationism”.
Bluemink notes that the connection I make between hauntology and accelerationism is interesting but argues “that hauntology is essentially the innevitable post-90s comedown from the buzz of CCRU accelerationist movements.” This is incorrect. I understand how this view of its development has gotten twisted — and this probably lends far more credence to Max’s position that “popular modernism” is a less contentious and more broadly applicable name for this anti-hauntological sentiment — but there is a history lesson here that I think is worth affirming.
The term “accelerationism” was not coined until 2008. It named a persistent philosophical negativity — a sort of reactionary “punk” attitude — that had failed to bear any sort of fruit (as far as its first conjurer, Benjamin Noys, was concerned). Noys’ critique has become retroactively focused on Land, but “accelerationism” was affirmed by the blogosphere as a name for their own Deleuzo-Badiouian imposition; their post-punk make-it-new imperative that was distinctly “post-Landian”. It has been a failure of the wider online blogosphere and the inane Twitter chatter of the present that accelerationism has become associated with a ’90s cyberpunk fetishism rather than an attempt to turn Land’s nothing (and the “nothing” of Occupy) into a something. Instead, all we’re left with at present in a social media void where these sorts of conversations used to happen.
I don’t think Bluemink is contributing to this — in fact, his initial essay felt like a necessary prophylactic against the mournful nostalgia that could easily emerge from SOPHIE’s death. If anything, my frustration — my desperation — is that we accelerate this discourse, and bring it back up to the speed of the previous blogosphere, which asked these questions and then some — only to have them smothered by their own fear in their Landian antecedents. But Land was not the point. They had decisively moved past him — remaining committed to the attitude but looking for new ways to channel it. Indeed, hauntology may have been a post-’90s comedown, but accelerationism was a response to the comedown rather than the apparently heady heights that had been lost. In 2008, accelerationism was new. The “jaggling of nerves” at its heart may not have been, the the word “accelerationism” spoke to a new approach that could only have been produced by the specificity of that moment in 2008 — after the crash, after the ghosts, after Burial.
As such, my point is simply that we have been here before, and very recently. Hauntology isn’t our enemy but a still-unresolved set of questions. Accelerationism too. And we cannot do away with these questions as easily as we might think. Indeed, one could argue that the questions at the heart of accelerationism have stalked us since the very beginnings of philosophy — what was the focus on the pre-Socratic Eleatic school if not whether such a thing as “movement” was even possible? We are asking those questions still today, in our own way. These debates are infinitely more complex now, of course, but we fail to live up to our own stakes if our questions fail to appreciate the innovations made by those who came immediately before us. Claiming SOPHIE for an “anti-hauntological” sentiment short-circuits fifteen years of conversation had after the point that hauntology first came to dominate cultural commentary and the music press. Fisher’s thought, especially, did not end in 2006. Our shouldn’t either.