The Return of the New (Again)

Good on Craig for giving us a proper hellthread. The first seen in ages. He tweeted:

Around 2015 Mark Fisher was saying that there hadn’t been any significant technical advances in electronic music to the extent that one couldn’t make music that didn’t sound like it could have been produced in the 20th century. Was that claim true and if so does it still hold?

Originally tweeted by Acid Horizon (@acidhorizonpod) on April 6, 2022.

There were so many replies and conversations, it was hard to keep up with. Chal Ravens’ tweets were the best of the bunch, I think. But there was some buffoonery from others in there as well.

For posterity’s sake, here’s a slightly polished version of my threaded response.

In lots of ways, I think this is a trap question. How we decide what is and isn’t new is maybe one of the oldest questions in philosophy (chicken-egg scenario, Zeno’s paradox, Heraclitus’ river, etc.) But it is one that becomes even more pertinent under the influence of postmodernism (as the cultural logic of late capitalism), because our perceptions of culture seem to mirror (even inform) our political views as well. (I wrote about this last year and later gave a talk on it online.)

This is the underside of Fisher’s point, which he wrote about repeatedly, but it nonetheless gets overlooked when this conversation is confined to music press pedantry.

For one thing, though plenty of points are made about different cross-cultural encounters and new technologies allowing for new modes of expression, all of which is engendered by capitalism, the stagnancy of capitalism itself is never addressed in many of these responses. If we’re talking about the veracity of Fisher’s old claim, we have to emphasise that this was the background against which he made it, and which launched this decades-long argument in the first place.

The arguments around “hauntology” rested on this oddly critical complicity. It became, as Alex Williams argued, a question of “good” versus “bad” postmodernism. Recombinant pop and rock (e.g. the Arctic Monkeys, as Fisher’s primary bugbear) were bad, set against the recombinant mutations of Burial, et al. Both were essentially produced by the same subject, but the argument rested on a necessary (but not always present) tension. For the Arctic Monkeys, for example, past cultural signifiers hang together with contemporary ones in a completely frictionless space; for Burial, these two things are instead bounced off each other, transforming the hardcore continuum into a sort of supercollider, now working at a subatomic level. But what does any of that matter if they’re both contained within the same overarching totality? Quickly, things get a little more complicated.

That totality — our recombinant political landscape; postmodern capitalism — is bad because it makes us feel trapped. But for Fisher and others to extend that critique to culture is seen as too pessimistic or uncharitable. Okay then, so let’s say for argument’s sake that culture does produce newness all the time. But how did this newness end up disconnected from a political sense of newness? Or maybe it’s not disconnected at all. And anyway, what good is a cultural newness if it is wholly compartmentalised, negligibly affecting the world in which it is produced? Is that not precisely the “frenzied stasis” — as Fisher called it — of capitalism writ large? The finer point of this whole discussion, for me anyway, is that music will always respond to its present moment, and it gets a sense of newness from that alone. But the very nature of a pomo capitalist present is that newness is so often illusionary and contained to certain outcrops or subcultures, deemed as such by their strained relationship to a hegemonic culture at large. So whilst music journos can argue that Fisher was full of it and just a reactionary critic, they fail to account for how his critique extended far beyond the incessant debating of low-stakes music journalism or even academic philosophy, instead straddling both discourses at once in the hope of producing a more influential and intervening synthesis.

The nature of the conversation suggests this attempted synthesis wasn’t all that successful, and as a result, Fisher’s position is always mischaracterised. People think Mark meant that nothing new has ever happened this side of the millennium, but in his polemic negativity, he instead calls into question the quality of the newness we’ve accepted.

Never mind insisting that “new” things happen, we need to first define our terms. What constitutes “the new” exactly? How do you know it when you see it? What is it “new” in relation to? If we can formulate a few answers to those questions, then maybe we can ask ourselves some more: What is the character of the present that allows this newness to emerge? What are the conditions of its emergence? Chal Ravens, in her great thread, does this well. She points to new kinds of or approaches to rhythm, arrangement, lyricism — a formal sense of the new — whilst later pointing, in part, to the “democratisation of access to music tech and hybridisation outside of [the] anglophone world” as the conditions that have allowed this formal newness to emerge.

But to play devil’s advocate, how has this happened, why, and in whose favour? There is nothing negative about democratisation and hybridisation in itself, but both are nonetheless products of global capitalism. How do we understand this “newness” when it is facilitated by a totalising global system that’s main goal is its own stasis? Is that not the problem at the heart of the matter, rather than the superficial suggestion that things are just boring and old hat?

I don’t want this to be read as a simple denial of agency, arguing that all newness is impotently complicit in capitalism’s illusionary progress. On the contrary, it is worth considering how the new emerges in spite of this totalising structure. Jodi Dean has a really great example in her book Blog Theory, where she argues that television, as a technological innovation, allowed the new to emerge from two competing modes of power. It made the personal political but it also made the political personal: politicians were newly broadcast into our homes, whereas we might have previously entertained the idea that domestic spaces were cut off from their outside machinations; women were newly inspired to take their domestic realities into the political arena, fueling second-wave feminism. With this in mind, we might argue that many new music genres have emerged not so much from a democratisation of tech but via its hijacking. This is something heard in the crunchy aesthetics of a lot of footwork tracks, for example, which have clearly been sampled from YouTube rips and often float around in the world as unmastered “bootlegs” on file-sharing sites and blogs. That’s not so much democratic as it is staunchly defiant.

This was, for many, accelerationism in action — that is, not just the BPM of footwork but its distributive surpassing of capitalist systems. But the further question remains: if we can argue that we are capable of producing culture newness, then how do we insist upon this kind of innovation happening within our political spheres? How can the aesthetic better inform the political?

Fisher later came round to this anti-hauntological position, which was Williams’ — I have a longer essay forthcoming that goes into this conversation in more depth — but he did not abandon one position in favour of the other. He did both. He asserted that culture must make demands on the political, and he believed one way of making this possible was to use culture to question the political, as a font of negativity.

All this is to say, then, that Craig’s question is certainly valid, but is it the right question for us to be asking? What is happening underneath the hood? For me, the problem with this conversation, whenever it reemerges, is that the initial question is just argued over incessantly without us ever getting down to the finer details and the chaotic mess underneath the polemic pros and cons, which I’d argue was always the implicit intention. If we dig down a little further, this initial question becomes wholly insufficient.

For example, what use are the categories of “new” and “old” if the world in which we live is, as Chal calls it, a “global vortex”? Surely this leads to a necessary untethering from the temporal relativism of new and old, making it seem odd to even talk about any sort of teleological progress. Oddly enough, arguments made in favour of the new make our conception of the new itself null and void. Or rather, it makes it null and void when applied to the products of our creative endeavours. Any subject is capable of producing things and we can easily call those things “new”, in the sense that they did not exist before someone made them, but what if it’s not just the sounds that have changed but the subjectivity that is producing them in the first place? Is that not a more interesting newness for us to consider?

That’s why SOPHIE is always an interesting example in these discussions. Was her music sonically new? In many ways, yes; in others, no. It was a synthesis of different cultures, from the underground to the pop, and was its own kind of popular modernism in that regard. But to what extent was SOPHIE’s music also a product of a new sense of subjectivity? Again, I’ve written about this previously. The magic of SOPHIE isn’t just her music but her persona (which she nonetheless explores and mediates through her music). I think of that conversation, hosted by Dazed, between SOPHIE the musician and Sophia the robot. Sophia the robot is supposed to be the more immediately uncanny representative of a future struggling to be born, but it’s SOPHIE who appears to have been sent back from another world fully formed. The futureshock of the SOPHIE project doesn’t necessarily come from the music itself but who is presenting it to us and how.

In this sense, I don’t think that SOPHIE is necessarily “new” in any quantifiable sense that does her project justice. She’s weird in the sense that Fisher enjoyed, not so much giving us something new but denaturalising our complacent responses to sounds and forms of representation we might be broadly familiar with. Focusing on the sounds alone is only to consider part of what was new about her.

If SOPHIE does appear new to us, it is as a new kind of self, which isn’t so much a sort of “newness” born ex nihilo but rather of the sort explored by hauntology (albeit without any of the melancholy) and accelerationism. Her sound-persona epitomizes a new subject in that she emerges from a point of joyful collapse between various dualities — related to binaries of gender (male/female), temporality (old/new), subjectivity (subject/object), culture (pop/underground), et al.

It’s in the midst of this collapse that the most interesting things happen — and as I’ve also said before elsewhere, the blogosphere’s conversation was likewise produced by a tension between two philosophical senses of the new (Deleuze/Badiou). SOPHIE is one of the positive byproducts of the world in which we live, where various dualities have also been called into question. There are plenty of more negative examples that we could highlight as well. But the point is that you have to notice the collapse in order to express it.

Elsewhere in the replies to Craig’s post, it was apparent that others weren’t aware that the conflations they were making about our categories of newness were precisely those the initial blogospheric conversation set out to hold apart and challenge in tandem. These two modes of new were held apart, with a recombinant newness held aloft, but that’s arguably the older version. Philosophy has more recently entertained the idea of creation ex nihilo, unfettered by an anthropocentric sense of temporality. But still, the conversation is lagging decades behind a wider discourse. Indeed, this very idea of recombinant newness is a twentieth-century hangover popularised by the likes of Deleuze. (Fisher’s own militant newness was a clear product of Badiou hype in the mid-Noughties anglosphere.) But there’s no nuance or thought in a lot of our conversations, nor any sense of the original stakes under discussion, even among some of those who were supposedly there. Everything just collapses into an unproductive mess.

A good example can be found in Joe Muggs’ responses. He replies to Craig’s questions with an emphatic “no”:

No it’s the same obvious “better in my day” goth bollocks he always peddled. No we’re not having a Cambrian explosion of individual genres, but technological shifts like the mass AVAILABILITY of high powered DAWs have enabled hyperpop, drill, amapiano etc etc.

Some of them technically COULD’ve been made earlier, just like acid house COULD have been made in 1982, but the point is the intersection of tech and social factors meant that the full material conditions weren’t there for them. The whole Fisher/Reynolds view of the world is based on the idea of grand breaks, of revolutions, of single events that change everything, of — no pun intended — fissures. It’s a proprietary, boundary-drawing thing, that is desperate for the days when the white male inky music press declared X was the new thing and lo it was thus.

(It’s why, incidentally, that school always disliked and found it hard to engage with hip hop: because it is in a state of CONSTANT seething innovation, rather than having simple “this happened then this happened then this happened” linear step development)

Originally tweeted by Mean Old Daddy (@joemuggs) on April 6, 2022.

This is frankly just bizarre and woefully contradictory, conflating two sides of an old conversation: hauntology, on the one hand, which argues that 21st century culture is both impotently and productively recombinatory; accelerationism, which argues that we must strive for revolutionary breaks and fissures, on the other. It turns two opposing views that Fisher entertained and explored into one incongruously holistic worldview, which just didn’t exist. Muggs says it did in public, but the blogospheric conversation really begs to differ — not to mention the fact his strawman that they thought the world had to go one way ironically undermines the ways their own positions adapted, changed, and became new in response to the unfurling present.

Case in point: Fisher wrote at length, towards the end of his life, on his conception of a “postcapitalism”, which necessarily emerges from capitalism as we know it, not through a breakdown but through a sort of strategic adaptation. But in so doing, he also wrestled with the term’s insufficiency: how, as a signifier for a new world order, it nonetheless remains tethered to our understanding of what came before it. This is the same problem embedded in the various postmodern music cultures that are discussed by many in the above thread. We can argue they are new, by giving them new names, but each is nonetheless defined in relation to the long shadow of twentieth-century cultural innovations. For Fisher, though he might emphatically argue one way or the other, the reason the question of “the new” is one of the oldest we have is that it isn’t so easy to separate the two, and without a little bit more care, you just end up running circles around yourself.

To use Muggs as an example: the suggestion we’re not seeing a Cambrian explosion of individual genres is nonetheless followed by a list of new ones; the idea that the new emerges from distinct “events” is rubbished, whilst nonetheless affirming “the intersection of tech and social factors” as a necessary pre-condition of something happening, e.g. as a precursor to events…

This is exactly the sort of confused thinking Fisher and the rest of the blogosphere tried to intervene within, because it is confusing. What Muggs ends up doing is skirting around both the chicken and the egg, denouncing both depending on what vantage point he’s looking from. Which is precisely the problem of a postmodernist late-capitalist music industry that may struggle to maintain any sure sense of itself. But rather than address the contradictory, the result is a cynical denouncement of an. impossible position: new things happen when technology and the social collide, as with the example of television — which is preciesly how the blogosphere understood the idea of an “event”, central to both Deleuze and Badiou’s philosophies — but then we’re told that trying to name the event is boundary-marking. (Muggs’ later response that “It’s all sub-academic territorial pissing at the end of the day, who’s got time for all that?” compounds the issue and doubles down on its impotency: he expresses a certitude about what was being argued for, which I suggest he has misunderstood, and then suggests that understanding itself is something for academics to do… Why both having thoughts at all?)

Ultimately, the conversation amounts to nought. Lines are drawn in the sand, dualities are only affirmed in their apparent deconstruction, and the elephant in the room — how to intervene in capitalism’s broader stasis — is left by the wayside. Is it any wonder, then, that sometimes it still feel like nothing ever really changes? This conversation sure hasn’t.

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