Arriving at Newcastle’s Lit & Phil for the second day of Tusk North, the day begins with Edward George in conversation with Derek Walmsley. To set not just the stage but the whole room, George plays “Dub Revolution” by Lee Perry — a version of which I cannot find online. Given the nature of its production and the track’s dynamic range as a whole, it’s the perfect song to use to EQ your hi-fi, he says, to tune your living room.
Over the past three years, George’s recent broadcasts on Morley Radio, under the title The Strangeness of Dub, explore dub not only as a genre that is strange but as an approach to sound that actively produces strangeness. In the introduction to the inaugural show, he describes dub as “a sonic process, a way of making new music from existing music”; a music “waiting to be excavated and discovered for the first time.” It is a sound that “has at its heart a concern with ideas of emptiness and silence, being and presence, space and repetition, and these ideas intersect with themes, especially in reggae, of Diaspora, and ‘race’ history and memory, longing and loss.”
The Lee Perry track, with its perhaps unintended uses as a tool for attunement, is a perfect introduction to this sentiment, as well as George’s particular interest in dub’s affects. It places dub immediately in the context of a kind of Freudian uncanny, the unheimliche, the homely and unhomely. It is an approach to sound and production that may begin at “home”, in a room, in a studio, but which ultimately has a “queering” function, George says.
I’m reminded of Sara Ahmed’s 2006 book, Queer Phenomenology. There is a sense in which we not only communicate who or what we are, but must inherently create identities for ourselves — a process that is made explicit when we find ourselves coming to terms with a gender identity or sexual orientation that is deemed to be “other” to the norm. Indeed, to be “oriented” at all, Ahmed argues, is to “know where we are when we turn this way or that way”. It is to have a sense of “our bearings”, she writes: “We know what to do to get to this place or to that.” But in order “to become orientated, you might suppose that we must first experience disorientation.”
Though any sense of orientation is perhaps thought to be innately visual in its nature — we understand how our position in a given space is relative to certain landmarks that surround us — Ahmed argues that orientation is a far more embodied than simply visual exercise. Borrowing the fitting — and somewhat perverse — analogy of walking blindfolded into a room from Immanuel Kant, she notes how we orient ourselves in such circumstances by first walking this way and that, arms outstretched, ears open, nostrils flared, coming to understand our position through an ad hoc process of repeatedly turning and turning again. “Space then becomes a question of ‘turning’, of directions taken, which not only allow things to appear, but also enable us to find our way through the world by situating ourselves in relation to such things.” Extending Kant’s analogy and borrowing a further subversive reading by Martin Heidegger, Ahmed notes how orientation also becomes “a question not only of how we ‘find our way’ but how we come to ‘feel at home.’”
But not everyone feels at home in the same spaces, or in and with the same bodies. There is no one place for us all to be, socially speaking, and so it is necessary to embrace a kind of multiplicity in how we all orient ourselves across different positions. This is the very sense of positioning designated by the word “queer”, Ahmed argues. She notes how the word “is, after all, a spatial term, which then gets translated into a sexual term, a term for a twisted sexuality that does not follow a ‘straight line’, a sexuality that is bent and crooked.”
Though there are plenty of landmarks around us that might help us to “see straight”, with the various gazes of a heteronormative, patriarchal, white-supremacist and capitalist society offering themselves up as righteous examples, there are always other — and equally valid — ways of doing things.
With this in mind, for Ahmed, it is important that queerness does not lose this spatial sense in being translated into a sexual term. On the contrary, queerness is so often determined by the ways that “bodies inhabit sexual spaces”, but also in how “bodies are sexualised through how they inhabit space”. It is a queerness determined by how a body orients itself to the objects around it, and how the body is itself oriented towards as an “object” for others. But queerness is not only determined by “object choice”, Ahmed suggests. It is also determined by the ways we recognise how one differs from the other objects in a given space, to the extent that our “orientations towards sexual objects affect other things that we do, such that different orientations, different ways of directing one’s desires, means inhabiting different worlds.”
George notes how a queering of dub is (or was) deeply necessary in this regard, especially when considering the abundant homophobia in Jamaica’s cultural past — a legal oppression that has begun to soften and wane in more recent decades, he suggests. But this adaptation is itself strange, at least in being so overdue, in that dub’s very relation to space, to a sense of cultural identity, makes this adaptation of social norms far easier to accomplish than many may have previously thought, such that queerness has begun to feel like more of a norm in itself — perhaps because, sonically at least, it has always already been there, albeit closeted.
George later talks about how this kind of queering process has been more evident in dub’s lyrical content over the decades, particularly its frequent references to religion. Dub has changed how subsequent generations understand actuality and the Real, he says; their understanding of cause and effect, and of material relations. This is something achieved by doing a kind of “creative damage to the things that tell you whether you’re human or not”, George says — a process that begins with dub’s inherent queering of the Bible.
The audience at Tusk North are enthused. However, during the Q&A at the end, the discussion is perhaps predictably turned towards punk and post-punk, towards The Clash and Rock Against Racism — despite the fact George seems to parry this overbearing period of British cultural history away when in conversation with Walmsley. But dub’s influence is integral here regardless. George suggests that dub’s influence on punk and post-punk in particular was an integral bridge and olive branch for a generation that was about to get “dumped on” by Thatcher in 1979. A few years prior, here is an important instance of cultural exchange that provides a white working class with a moment of creative intersectionality; a way to understand and gain solidarity with that demographic of people who are about to be framed by Thatcher’s fascists as their enemy.
But beyond this, George suggests that what is most important about dub, and black music in general, at least when it reaches the ears of white people, particularly working class or otherwise tangentially oppressed white people who embrace black music, from the birth of rock‘n’roll onwards, is that it is a music of and for life, against all the odds. He discusses Joy Division in particular, the gothic fetishisation of Ian Curtis and his suicide, but pays closer attention to record producer Martin Hannett, who transduces the sounds of Kingston and Berlin through his studio, using digital delays and tape echo in the construction of the Joy Division sound.
This sonic displacement is no coincidence, George suggests, nor are the geographic locations invoked, which are defined as sites of struggle. What Hannett does — for Joy Division as a group but perhaps also Ian Curtis in particular — is construct around this band, synonymous with post-industrial discontent and depression, various “architectures of survival”.
Walmsley goes on to ask George about his work with the Black Audio Film Collective, particularly their 1996 film The Last Angel of History, written by and starring George as the time-travelling “data thief” of its title. George suggests that the figure haunting the film’s cultural excavations is CLR James, whose approach to historiography is precisely that of a writing and re-writing of history; a way of providing a history to those who are said not to have one; history as another architecture of survival and perserverance.
Previously, it might have been suggested that, “If you don’t have a country, you don’t have a history”, George says, such that a new approach to history must necessarily be created by and for those who have suffered through forced migrations, crises of independence and state-formation, and an extreme kind of subjugation to other’s histories. It is an approach to the writing of history that might best be summarised by Michel de Certeau, in his 1975 text L’Ecriture de l’histoire:
Writing is born from and deals with the acknowledged doubt of an explicit division, in sum, of the impossibility of one’s own place. It articulates an act that is constantly a beginning: the subject is never authorized by a place, it could never install itself in an inalterable cogito, it remains a stranger to itself and forever deprived of an ontological ground, and therefore it always comes up short or is in excess, always the debtor of a death, indebted with respect to the disappearance of a genealogical and territorial “substance,” linked to a name that cannot be owned.
Walmsley later asks George about his own approach to the history of dub, which is not so much a written history, which he provides through a chronological explication of movements and moments, but instead ricochets against writing’s own bounds, in being sonically rather that literarily constituted. George does not provide much in way of an explicit answer here, perhaps because it is hard or even improper to concretise a process that is still ongoing. But the key to George’s approach might be found here nonetheless.
George remains a “data thief”, scavenging tracks from his own heritage, not as an outsider so much as someone who refuses to take any explicit ownership of a sound that is not only collectively constructed but is itself always a recombination of pre-existing objects. Dub is fugitive; it cannot be owned. But it can be used.
I hope to ask a question when the Q&A begins, but time is short. After two questions about punk and post-punk, the session is wrapped up. But the question I am left wanting to ask is: if Lee Perry allows you to EQ your living room, using the extremes of his production process to attune yourself to space, does CLR James — and the undertaking of a black historiography in general — allow you to EQ and attune yourself to time in the same way?
It is an approach put into action later in the afternoon, when George does a live rendition of his radio show in the Lit & Phil’s central library. The sound in the room is incredible, and as the day progresses, it modulates the body in surprising ways.
The intensity of sound reverberates against a collective ear in such a way that, at times, extreme frequencies seem to come as much from within as they are hurled against the delicate barrier of an eardrum. The nervous system is played and plays along, as the sound comes to feel even more at home in this strange space, decorated with the busts and portraits of so many unknown white men, whose objectified materiality deadens the sound in a space otherwise brought newly alive.
You half expect the books contained within the library’s walls to be shaken from their perches, razing history to and scattering it upon the ground, but dub instead rattles all that is around it, as existence itself is rocked steady. In the end, it is not history itself that is shaken so much as ourselves, who make it.