Better Queer?

Two years ago, I wrote a long blogpost reflecting on — and attempting to come to some preliminary terms with — my gender identity. “Bad Queer” was shared widely at the time, much to my surprise, and continues to resonate with others at intervals. Most recently, Twitter user @jamesd_todd shared the post, adding a few summarising reflections:

It’s from a couple of years back but I just read ‘Bad Queer’, a post by @xenogothic and was so moved and — despite coming at this from a different queer angle — felt so much resonance.

Matt reflects on points where the contours of their body haven’t ‘fit’ within space, the alienation and belonging they have felt, their complex relationships to/with queer communities, and how they have stayed in the shadows of queerness to avoid appropriation.

This piece reaffirmed the queer power and potential of being ‘cast out’, of having gone through hostility for not matching the expectations of a masculinist youth culture. And I felt a lot of this personally, deeply.

Matt talks of a need to “talk about myself in terms that feel appropriate to me rather than anyone else.” And surely this is the power of queerness? I too want to wrestle with my own disenfranchisement and fear as a young person. How do we do this?

How do we do this, indeed? I’m not sure I have much in the way of an answer, but the question feels much less daunting these days.

After reading James’ reflections, I returned to the blogpost myself, two years on, and was struck by how fraught I felt about things back then. My situation has changed a great deal since 2021. For starters, I am no longer in the relationship that is referenced many times throughout. It was only a few months later, in fact, that that decade-long relationship came to an end. Then, in the spring of 2022, I moved to Newcastle to start over. The post had not left my thoughts, and I explained to my friends what I wanted to achieve almost as soon as I got there. It was no small task. I had a breakdown a few weeks later and so much of my life felt over. But slowly, over months, I gradually came to rebuild atop the rubble and affirm the desires expressed previously.

I have now been publicly identifying as non-binary for a little over a year. I cannot express the sense of freedom that has resulted from this. In fact, figuring out my gender expression in general remains an active process. But in many ways, this unfolding adaptation is bittersweet. The end of that decade-long relationship remains something I am deeply sad about, precisely because one of the overarching reasons why it ended was a sad state of repression I had come to accept for myself.

I am quite a passive person in day-to-day life. I am quiet. I don’t make a fuss. Though this blog might be a melodramatic space of excessive self-assertion, where I share my life with a candour that horrifies some, I feel far more withdrawn and perhaps harder to get to know in reality. Writing is an outlet for the unsayable. An obvious disparity results. In my daily life, I don’t think many people I know in person actively read my blog. I can probably count the ardent readers who are also close friends on one hand. For that reason, whilst my coming-out might feel overdue for long-time readers, I think it surprised a lot of people who know the person and not the writer. It was the fear of that shock that kept it all bottled up, even in my most intimate relationships. And so, I let my feelings fester, and my last relationship suffered a great deal because of that. It is something I remain so regretful about.

There is a truly sad irony to it all: I ignored these feelings for fear of how they would affect my relationship. I assumed that, were I to truly be myself, my partner would not love me anymore. But it was precisely because I was ignoring them, leaving myself ambiently unhappy, that I became an unsuitable partner for someone I will forever love a great deal. I had a secret, infrequently murmured and then left alone, and the rot spread from within me to without.

This past realisation coloured my re-reading of the “Bad Queer” post in a way I did not expect. For all my prevaricating about being a “bad queer”, I was probably worse at being a cisgendered boyfriend. Not for lack of trying, mind you. As my ex has said to me repeatedly since, it was clear I wanted nothing more than to be a “good boyfriend”, but whatever was going on under the surface made many of my attempts lacking in ways that, in hindsight, I likely could not help.

But that was eighteen months ago. What about now? I have been living openly as non-binary since that time, and whether I am “good” at it, I cannot say — the dichotomy of “good”/”bad” is brought in here ironically, of course, as it’s a dumb measure, but nonetheless something I worry about from time to time. Overall, it will probably suffice to say that I feel more comfortable in my own skin than I ever have before.

That is not to say that things are suddenly so simple, however. But I can at least now identify many of the feelings I have long felt for what they really are. Previous feelings of anxiety, for instance, I now understand as gender dysphoria. Depending on how I feel in the day-to-day, this is easily navigable. I have changed my entire wardrobe, adding skirts and lots of culottes — lots of culottes. (Better young Geordie lads call me “Jack Sparrow” than “faggot”, maybe, but the difference is arguably semantic — “Jack Sparrow”, for all kinds of reasons, still feels like a slur.)

Getting dressed in the morning now feels like a kind of aesthetic affirmation of an inner self, and whereas I would have felt terror at dressing in a way that some people might find provocative previously, I feel so comfortable and happy now as to barely think about it.

Still, an inner androgyny is hardly reflected as well as I would like from without. Masc days are easy, if few and far between; femme days take some creativity. Playing with shapes and textures, breaking up my silhouette as much as possible, offsetting a “hard” build with softer fabrics. It is a challenge, but I have found there is so much joy in it nonetheless.

It invites interesting conversations too, of course. Working in a local pub for much of the summer, these conversations even feel inevitable. I recently had a telling chat with a regular, for instance, who asked to join me for a drink as I unwound from a six-hour shift. I (perhaps too courteously) said it was okay and that he could. (The pub’s manager shooed him off not long after; things got a bit weird.) Initially, he wanted to ask me about my clothes. “You’ve got great style,” he said, before adding: “Those trousers, man. I saw you in them the other day and thought, ‘damn, it takes some bollocks to wear something like that!'” (He then made a point — not entirely convincingly — of reassuring me he just liked fashion and wasn’t trying to hit on me.)

It was hard not to laugh about this encounter, even during it, but it also represents a problem that I have had to get used to all over again these past twelve months. I know how I want to be “read”; I know what signals I am hoping to put out. But I have returned to a odd place of uncomfortable familiarity — a place discussed at length in “Bad Queer” — of being understood socially as a gay man into fashion, rather than someone who understands themselves as gender-nonconforming. (And anyway, to identify as straight or gay as someone who is non-binary is not so simple in itself, since gender identity twists binary understandings of sexuality by proxy.)

Part of this is no doubt related to my beard. I like my beard. For all its eternal patchiness, it hides an aging chin. I feel comfortable in its coverage. But what I would like to change, in some way, is my body more generally. That is much harder to do. I have no intention of getting surgery, although hormones have been on my mind for months; I’m comfortably non-binary and surgery wouldn’t solve any of my problems anyway.

The biggest dysphoric trigger, for me, is my size. This is changeable, but even then, only to a certain degree. A complex relationship to food has often meant that my weight has fluctuated a great deal over the years. But at base, I will always be six foot two and broad-shouldered. No matter how much body fat is lost or redistributed, I’m always going to be big. There is no changing that. There is no getting rid of what is — or at least what feels to me like — an explicitly masculine form.

This makes me sad a lot. There is nothing I hate more than full-length photographs of myself, for instance, particularly those taken candidly by friends, who I feel like I tower over. My otherwise firm affection for my mostly black wardrobe does not help matters. I feel like a walking black hole of masculinity, from which no ambient femininity can escape. But again, there is little I feel like I can do about this at present. Coming to terms with the body I have, and the self it contains, is a longer journey for me — and clearly a necessary one.

The most pressing complication, still related to this, is probably starting to date again. Having dabbled, I am at once fearful of any sort of new commitment and have a rapid tendency to lose my sense of self when I have feelings for another. Woefully deferential, I try to be whoever someone may want me to be. (See: adoption trauma.) Asserting my gender identity, contrary to that personality trait, is taking a lot of practice. Sometimes it is non-negotiable; sometimes I slip back into bad habits. There’s a lot to unlearn.

As discussed in “Bad Queer”, I have always been shy when it comes to romance, and again, this is primarily because of the size that I am. I feel intimidating in my stature, and worry about asserting myself in this masculine form, perhaps due to some sort of internalised male fear. Like so many women, I too find cis men predatory. I have had (both sexually and socially) violent experiences with cis men that have often left me afraid when walking home at night. Of course, I look like I can handle myself (and have been told as much repeatedly). But a dual consciousness results, wherein I often see myself in the mirror as the very thing I am wary of. Maybe this is some sort of internalised transphobia — am I just a man in a dress? Whatever it is, it makes me far from forward when it comes to dating and sexual experiences.

I have never been, for better or for worse, someone who likes to “wear the trousers”, so to speak. But thankfully, an awareness of this has only helped my queerness flourish. A queerer approach to sex and relationships becomes so much more natural, where navigating each other’s bodies and senses of self is far less focussed on attending presumptuously to each other’s anatomies and their social bracketing. Sex becomes more exploratory, less regimented; more sensual. I have found a queerer sex so much more fun than I ever did in explicitly heterosexual relationships. But not everyone possesses this kind of receptivity, of course. All sex can be good and bad, and yet a newly honest communication, which I am still finding my feet within, makes the future of dating look bright, if more complicated. It is not a conversation I am yet comfortable having with those who I do explore forms of intimacy with, but I nonetheless accept now that doing so is essential to my own happiness. It is a case of waiting for the right person, who can meet me wherever I’m at and be happy with who I want to be.

I’m getting there, and this is helped by my community in general. Indeed, the same honest communication is as important to everyday social interactions as well. In Newcastle, it is easily done. I feel like a firm part of an explicitly queer community up here, feeling a sense of comfort and home I have not felt since I was a teenager. Those who I spend most of my time with make me feel wonderfully seen. I am even out at work, finding myself correctly gendered by people I have never even spoken to explicitly about my identity. Everyone I care about knows me for who I want to be. It is something I’m not sure I have ever experienced to such a wonderful degree. It makes me deeply emotional just to think about it. It really is the little things in life…

Two of my friends, in particular, have been instrumental in this. I do not want to mention them by name — it is necessary to remind myself sometimes that, beyond my own disregard when it comes to a confessional overshare, my platform here is larger than many may be comfortable with — but I imagine if they read this, they will know who they are. Together they have made me feel more at home in myself than anyone.

A conversation had some months ago with them remains stuck in my mind like a mantra. To paraphrase, someone said, in response to my anxious attachment to my beard, that the joy of a gender-nonconforming queerness, and a non-binary identity in particular, is that it can eschew all expectations. The bliss of being transgender is picking the parts of your gender identity that you enjoy, irrespective of others’ holistic understanding of how it is all meant to fit together. To wear skirts whilst bearded is valid as long as I am happy — and that is the only thing that should matter. (“I enter a little further into colour…”)

This is something worth emphasising explicitly in our current political climate. The travesty of TERF moral panics is that, fundamentally, what is being policed is other people’s capacity for joy. At base, there is perhaps no more banally evil crime. It is the promotion of a very amorphous kind of unfreedom. It is hard to weather the imposition of not being who you are, and so the demands attached to this desire are hardly impositions on their own. But such is capitalism — truly, it feels like capitalism holds the ultimate responsibility. The communist baseline of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” is humiliated daily. Trans abilities are many; our needs are few. To meet our own capacity for happiness is the only thing truly desired. Why is it currently so viciously denied?

It is cruel, but trans fury is vicious, because trans people already know better than almost anyone how deeply oppressive social norms can already be, to the point that — as “Bad Queer” demonstrates to me now — this unfreedom twists you up inside.

What is so sad about that post, in hindsight, is the utter confusion that oozes out of it. I would likely never have questioned anything about my tastes, desires, general comportment, were they not struck in stark relief by a world that demands conformity in even the most inconsequential of experiences. I have never been anything other than myself. What made me a “bad queer” was being beaten so dementedly out of shape by two decades of social imposition. My sense of self was so stirred up, blurred and illegible to me. All the assumptions made by others about who I am, all the fear expressed about who or what I might be, all the abuse dished out to test and provoke and experiment — I had no hope in hell of peeling back all that baggage and taking a long hard look in the mirror.

Then the mirror was all I had. Was ending my last relationship the right thing to do? A question that lingers, but I think the answer is yes. For all the pain experienced, I would never have taken the opportunity to find myself without being pushed and thrown back into a certain solitude. In the end, it took the ultimate failure of a love for another, the ultimate collapse of all habitual defences, the protracted move to a new city with new friends. It took a total rebirth — and on being reborn, I did feel like some poor babe, cold on the scales, utterly alone. It was agony feeling all of that agony, but I am closer to myself now than I have ever been before. I am closer to loving myself and, as a result, finally closer to accepting the love from others I have long felt like I didn’t deserve.

It sounds like narcissism, maybe. But I haven’t described this new thing as my coming-out book for nothing. I just hope I get better at stomaching my own remedy. Until then, I know one thing for certain: I am, and always have been, queer. I’m just getting better at owning it.


I wonder if writing has begun to make me sad. It’s not writer’s block, but a kind of writer’s lament. Not “the words won’t come”, but “the words are not enough”. A Beckettian paradox for the meek scribbler: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on”.

It is a feeling too pathetic to warrant dissection. Woe, I am mildly perturbed by the thing that I love! But the sensation is peculiar. It is a sadness that eats its own tail. I am sad that I am sad.

Maybe I’m just tired. Maybe it’s just post-book blues.

I’m once again thinking a lot about “emotional dysregulation”, an oddly mechanistic term thrown around by the crisis team last year. The emotions constitute a strange ecology, an emosystem. Mine has a tendency to become periodically unbalanced.

In 2014, on Hallowe’en, I awoke one night in agony. I had a feeling of a deep inner burning. It sounds like heartburn; it was heartburn… But the pain was nonetheless so excruciating I collapsed on the bathroom floor whilst rummaging for a remedy. My girlfriend at the time found me, at first annoyed by my insomnia before realising I was in real trouble, and called for an ambulance. A few hours later — it was a very busy night for the emergency services — I was propped up against the wall in the corridor giggling with light relief, a shot of morphine injected into the back of my hand, in the only vein that would give itself up to the needle.

This happened a few more times over the years, before a well-hidden eating disorder was identified as the obvious cause. The pain was manageable after that, as I realised I could hold it back if I caught it early. But if the pain was allowed to run away with itself, it could become all-consuming. Irrespective of the cause, I discovered that pain itself was something I found hard to regulate.

I’ve come to understand my responses to emotional pain in much the same way over the last nine months or so. Depression, however, is entirely unaffected by acid reflux suppressants… It is more amorphous and elusive; psychosomatic in its dark effects upon the body and its apparent dwelling beyond any physicality.

Writing bridges the gap, I find. I write to regulate. It works well. The linear flow of words across the lines of my notebook, contained within these single centimeter rows, puts my emotions in order.

Words emerge from the emosystem like crows, gathered on the wires.

Crows, Huddersfield, 2021

Crows flutter loudly in my emosystem. I can’t sleep for them.

There’s a feather on my pillow.

Pillows are made of feathers, go to sleep.

It’s a big, black feather.

Come and sleep in my bed.

There’s a feather on your pillow too.

Let’s leave the feathers where they are and sleep on the floor.

Max Porter’s deservedly celebrated Grief is a Thing with Feathers brings the emosystem to life. The mixture of poetry and prose provides a dynamism to the experience relayed. Sometimes ordered and reflective; sometimes taking flight from the page. Lines break as hearts break.

The crow motif is a knowing nod to Ted Hughes’ fondness for corvidised grief, and Hughes’ own poems are the most affective on the topic I know.

To hatch a crow, a black rainbow
Bent in emptiness
over emptiness

But flying

Hughes has his own mythology of grief, and so much to grieve. But crow is a shroud. His wings envelop emotions in darkness. The poems are thus far from confessional. Crow flies high above the personal. It was not until the publication of Hughes’ Birthday Letters that crow’s wings were clipped.

In a different sort of letter to a friend, writing about the Birthday Letters themselves, Hughes remarks:

I think those letters do release the story [of his tumultuous, tortured and tragic relationship with Sylvia Plath. The story] that everything I have written since the early 1960s has been evading. It was a kind of desperation that I finally did publish them — I had always just thought them unpublishably raw and unguarded. But then I just could not endure being blocked any longer. How strange that we have to make these public declarations of our secrets. But we do. If only I had done the equivalent 30 years ago, I might have had a more fruitful career — certainly a freer psychological life. Even now the sensation of inner liberation — a huge, sudden possibility of new inner experience. Quite strange.

With this in mind, perhaps the previous metaphor has it backwards. Crow’s wings are not clipped with the publication of Birthday Letters; it is only then that crow is freed from the cage in which Hughes has kept it, examined and imagined in its natural habitat, but never allowed to roam as free as crow does in Hughes’ poems. Until then, crow had never taken flight, instead “Trembling featherless elbows in the nest’s filth.”

It is for this reason that Hughes’ crow feels different from Porter’s. In Grief…, crow arrives after death. “Four or five days after she died…” At least for Dad. The Boys, whose lives are just beginning, may never recall a moment prior to crow’s arrival. Always there from the start, the shroud over a still developing emosystem; “every surface dead Mum”.

The Boys are relatable. I’ve always known crow. A constant companion. Crow looms larger when loss comes to visit again. Not one crow, but a whole murder, and I have often felt that crow would one day be the death of me.

Life amongst a conference of birds. Tippi Hedren trapped in a phone box. Call for help! But crows line the telephone wires. Every communication is intercepted by crow. Crow listens in. But can crow speak?

God tried to reach Crow how to talk.
‘Love,’ said God. ‘Say, love.’
Crow gaped, and the white shark crashed into the sea
And went rolling downwards, discovering its own depth.

Oscine passerine. Crow is a perching songbird of the shapeshifting sort who moults just once a year. Crow lives almost everywhere but never travels far. Crow has its own complex emosystem, with an intelligence displayed most strikingly in play, empathy and affiliation. In disagreements amongst peers, crow takes a side. Watching over more human affairs, crow lingers and picks at the dead. In grief, crow picks at the living too.

Crow tore off a mouthful and swallowed.

‘Will this cipher divulge itself to digestion
Under the hearing beyond understanding?’

(That was the first jest.)

Crow feeds on grief, the inexhaustible carrion of the human emosystem. Some genus of crow are threaten by extinction; extinction is the black light that never goes out.

Crow saw it killing men. He ate well.

Hughes’ crow is silent; Porter’s crow a poet in his own right.

Decided to try words.

Hughes’ crow chooses silence. Rimbaud crow.

Crow turned the words into bombs […]

Crow turned the words into shotguns […]

Crow turned the words into a reservoir […]

Crow sings an “undersong”. Baritone crow sings a quaking bass. The rupture of all creation and decreation.

A cry
As the newborn baby’s grieving
On the steely scales

Gasp of frigid cold, intake shiver; pressure pull, vocal vacuum perforated; talking squawkward.

His wings are the stiff back of his only book,
Himself the only page — of solid ink.

Crow speaks wordlessly, much as Hughes does. The crow poems are not themselves solipsistic but oddly voided. Not a response to crow’s call, since crow’s call is itself an expulsion without meaning. A rich inner experience is observed in the narcissistic animal, impenetrable to us and wondrous for it. It is the formless experience of an abject other.

Neither meaningless nor meaningful, the words on the page play together like crows themselves do, with a strange intelligence and intent. Significant, signing, signifying, but in some ways still illegible. No one knows crow’s mind, or at least much less than we know our own. A communion held with crow is far from a conversation.

Erica Wagner: “it is vital to acknowledge the reality of Hughes’ silence to himself“; contra Plath, whose “unflinching gaze was forever directed at herself and those around her.”

Crow, who eats ciphers, is a cipher — for crow, for Plath, for Hughes, for Porter, for all.

Hughes, though perceived monstrously in many a Plath biography, no doubt knew her best. His cruelty cuts with only one half of a double-edge: his twisted affections a product of both a repressive coldness and a deeply loving familiarity. The privacy he seemingly demanded is double-edged too. In accounts of his behaviour after Plath’s death, there is a sense of Hughes being cruel to be kind. Hoping to protect their children from the public compounding of their grief, he denounces all who attempt to make gossip of their affairs (describing Al Alvarez’s disclosure of the circumstances surrounding Plath’s suicide as a “permanent dynamite” thrown from without into their lives). But to what extent was this privatisation of self and other itself a form of torture for a woman whose writing was often so confessional?

Introducing a collection of Plath’s stories, Hughes gives an account of her approach to the writing life that seems as perceptive as it is scathing in this regard:

Nothing refreshed her more than sitting for hours in front of some intricate pile of things laboriously delineating each one. But that was also a helplessness. The blunt fact killed any power or inclination to rearrange or see it differently. This limitation to actual circumstances, which is the prison of so much of her prose, became part of the solidity and truth of her later poems.

Ariel’s gift was her curse. Ariel’s gift was her writing. Did her writing-prison make her sad as much as it refreshed her? Is the ordering and regulating of the emosystem not at once as way to cope and a way to carve calendrically onto its walls? Crows in a zoetrope — beautiful and fragmented, furious and static.

Michael arrives for a pint or two and I stop writing. I feel a lot better.

The next day, I type up my notes and listen to Phil Elverum’s crow poems:

I feel so much better.

The Person Who Listens to Everything:
Notes on Sonic Tyranny and the
Vibification of the Future

In recent years, I’ve noticed a memetic shift in how we understand and appreciate the listening habits of others.

For a while — and I would somewhat sheepishly include myself in this — there was a tendency amongst the culturally promiscuous to respond to the question “So what sort of music are you into?” with the infuriatingly woolly and vague answer: “Oh, I listen everything.”

But it is a response that, in many instances, feels nonetheless valid and needn’t be underlined by a hipster aloofness with regards to over-categorised bedroom pop. Of course, on the one hand, it can be a shy response, noncommittal, and perhaps an anxious way to avoiding self-assertion; not defining yourself specifically as “a fan of…” and not wanting someone to pigeonhole you based on the response you give, at once identity jamming and socially anxious But on the other hand, there are many people who it suits well, who really do just love listening to everything.

Beyond the stereotypes, then, I have begun to wonder if this online cynicism comes from somewhere in particular. And the obvious source is our shifting approaches to cultural engagement.

In the 2000s, spending all available time on music forms dedicated to bands I love — primarily Radiohead, Animal Collective, The Microphones/Mount Eerie (with a love of AnCo falling off hard in about 2012) — a fixated fanaticism was rarely the vibe. All the “cool” posters — if such a thing could possibly exist — hung out on disparate “Other Music” subforums, where mostly what was discussed were the diverse but intersecting interests of people who had at least one favourite band in common.

On Mortigi Tempo, Collected Animals and The Mount Eerie Preservation Society, an education was had when you would encounter various different genres of “guy”. There was the noise guy, the krautrock guy, the ambient guy, the hip hop guy, the post-punk guy, the post-rock guy, the prog guy, the modern classical guy, et al. To socialise and converse with each person online, swapping mixtapes and CDs through the mail, it didn’t take long to find yourself — especially as an impressionable teenage like myself — appreciating the merits and histories of each genre on its own terms. My listening habits soon came to reflect this kind of cultural immersion. I really did listen to everything, insatiably and with an never-ending curiosity.

Of course, this doesn’t make someone innately special and interesting, although announcing yourself as a person that listens to everything can be seen as a suggestion that you think of yourself that way. In fact, it is that creeping narcissism of generality that seems to have led to the person who listens to everything becoming the subject of such a scathing meme.

Fast-forward to the 2020s, you find memes that make jokes about “tfw you give the person who listens to everything the aux cord”, and it will generally be soundtracked by a band that many associated with the terminally online (irrespective of that band’s own merits and genuinely interesting output). Death Grips are a prime example, but regardless of the band, the overarching expectation is that the track chosen will be an assault on the senses of everyone else in the car or at the party who isn’t in control or isn’t riding shotgun.

It seems the horror of giving the person-who-listens-to-everything the aux cord is that their taste is rendered as purely abstract, but the truth is surely to the contrary. The vibe is made unquantifiable; the tracks chosen are too specific, too independent from each other. This is not the sort of curation we are used to any longer.

The joke is funny. There is no substantive or grumpy or defiant critique here. But I do wonder what this meme says more broadly about how listening habits have changed in recent years.

Consider a similar joke told from the other side:

I saw a TikTok recently — a section from some random comedian’s stand-up routine, of the kind that inundates that app these days — in which they described an encounter with a Gen Z relative, asking them what kind of music they’re into. The answer was “chill hip hop” of the sort heard on some infinite playlist of “lo-fi beats for studying”. The comedian asks for examples of bands that fit the genre but the relative can’t give any. “Imagine not knowing what bands you like?!” he says, incredulously. No discography available, taste is defined purely by vibe.

They make a further joke that actually makes this kind of cultural consumption sound more interesting, wondering what it would be like if we talked about food in the same way. I can’t remember the example given, and I’m sure I’ll not find this TikTok again if I tried, but it was a punchline that sounded like some sort of alien orientation to culture of the sort you’ll hear around the replicator in Star Trek. Objects are entirely withdrawn from their cultural context, only generalised qualities are left. “What’s your favourite kind of food?” Not Mexican or pan-Asian or Indian or fish and chips. “I like salty”; “I like soft textures.”

There is something futuristic about the suspending of specificities in this way, at least to my millennial brain, as if this is some speculative product of hyper-globalisation, such that it feels like the peak of a postmodern homogenisation of taste. But I am left wondering if there is something key lost here, such that a paradoxical critique of this kind of fear of the person who listens to all specificities, as opposed to the all-compassing generalities of vibe, is worth retaining.

There’s a really great interview with Terre Thaemlitz that was recently uploaded by NTS Radio and hosted by Zakia. Terre is asked about the critique made on Midtown 120 Blues, specifically on the track “Ball’r (Madonna-Free Zone)”, in which Terre critiques Madonna’s appropriation of vogue culture and her role in its genericization within mainstream house music. The voiceover on the track is as follows:

When Madonna came out with her hit “Vogue” you knew it was over. She’d taken a very specifically queer, transgender, Latino and African-American phenomenon and totally erased that context with lyrics about how “It makes no difference if you’re black or white, if you’re a boy or a girl.” Madonna was taking in tons of money, while the queen who actually taught her how to vogue was sitting on a table in front of me, broke. So if anybody requested “Vogue” or any other Madonna track, I just told them, “No, this is a Madonna-free zone! And as long as I’m DJing, you will not be allowed to vogue to the decontextualized, reified, corporatized, liberalized, neutralized, asexualized, re-genderized pop reflection of this dance floor’s reality!”

Expanding on this in the NTS podcast, in a manner that feels notably less militant (or at least slightly less pointed), Zakia and Terre’s conversation goes like this:

You’ve been quite critical about this sort of sense of nostalgia that a lot of people have about that period of time, about that scene, the early house scene in New York. What was your experience of those clubs at that time?

Well, I mean, just like with everything in life, you know, I’ve always been a little bit at the periphery of things, even when I was somehow in the middle of it. You know, kind of a wallflower-type. And also I never did drugs, I never drank, even till today and stuff. And so I also experienced all of that dead sober.

Which makes a big difference!

It makes such a big difference! And it also makes things kind of dark. ‘Cos you’re really… You’re not only participating but you’re also kind of witnessing, you know, what is happening with the people around you. You’re seeing them as they enter into and come out of their different states of being and mind through chemicals and stuff like that. And also the kind of drug scene at [NYC club] Sally’s and things like that was also quite complicated because, you know, America doesn’t have socialised healthcare, even today, still. So when it came to the kind of trans scenes and stuff, you’re dealing with a lot of people who had been kind of disowned by family, a lot of homeless street kids kind of trying to figure out if they wanted to transition or whatnot, and their access to those hormone therapies and things like that were also from the same drug dealer who was selling the coke and other stuff, and so it wasn’t just like [a] recreational kind of dealer thing going on, it was also like all this stuff connected to the transitioning culture, and as a result of the fact that most of the people there were struggling financially and stuff as well, and you also maybe had like one person who buys them hormones but then they needed money so they sold half to other people. So then that would mean they were deregulated. It would also mean the people who were buying it weren’t getting enough, so they were deregulated, and all of these bodies — intergenerational, deregulated body scene… And that also had a deep impact on my own decisions as someone who does not kind of conform to gender norms, in seeing a kind of intergenerational scene of like financial and social and emotional and hormonal kind of turmoil that the overwhelming majority of people were experiencing — that also kind of informed my own attempts to get through this world without those sorts of things. Yeah.

It’s a fascinating response, specially when seen written down. In some ways, it feels like Terre sidesteps the question all together. Zakia asks specifically about the experience of a music scene and its appropriation, but Terre’s response doesn’t even mention the sounds of the dancefloor at all. The focus is entirely extra-musical, with the dancefloor just a meeting place for different demographics, who do not necessarily congeal without friction, or whose relations are so much more complex than the music itself might suggest on its own.

Perhaps what I find jarring about this is how it differs from the response I expect. To talk about nostalgia for a scene, I expect to hear something about the labels, the sound, the excitement produced by the blossoming of something. But there is little nostalgia within Terre’s response. There is no mention of the tunes that may define that time period in the memory of others. All that is commented on is the community, but of course, community is always the most important part of any scene.

Zakia nonetheless turns back to the music itself, as if trying to gently lead the conversation back towards the sounds themselves. Terre’s response is once again unexpected, but nonetheless illuminating:

Do you feel like DJs who are playing a lot of the sorts of music from this era now, or like, you know, producing music that is sort of derivative of it… Do you feel like they have a sort of obligation, or do you feel like they should be conscious of these sort of darker elements of that period? Or do you think they should become conscious of it? Or can they just sort of play the music and get on with it?

[Pause] I don’t really care.

[Zakia laughs]

You know, in terms of like what other people… Like, I’m not here to tell other people what they should do and, you know, what they shouldn’t do or anything. I know that the overwhelming majority of people don’t need to care about it. You know. And that’s what a load of these issues are about, and I’ve always had a kind of awareness that not everything is everyone. And that, I think, has kind of informed my anti-populist stance, you know, that’s not about being against populism in an elitist, ivory-tower way, but the opposite: of thinking about locality and specificity and what it is to be culturally minor and [to] understand that the topics at hand… You know, a lot of these things, especially when it comes to things around gender and sexuality and stuff, things are kind of really convoluted and changing these days with social media and all that stuff. But you know, by and large, historically speaking, these are issues that people deal with out of necessity. You know, I mean, it’s things that you’re exposed to… It’s not like you make a choice to go into something. You know, it’s thrown on you. You know? … So things are just kind of thrown on you, and for the people who don’t experience those things, it makes sense that they wouldn’t naturally have an exposure to that, so then you have the conundrum of: okay, well, then do I just kind of want everyone to act like a shit liberal and pretend they understand things that they really don’t? Or would I rather want to interact with people in a more kind of sincere manner that — although it might reflect politics that are quite different from mine — can allow for a different level of solidarity when thinking about things like social organising and things like that, you know? Actually finding the points of solidarity as opposed to a kind of social fawning, and kind of focus on the community building, you know, rather than… I mean, community in the way that it’s been twisted with time now and identity politics into something that is about a kind of shared conformity of experience.

It’s a sentiment I explored towards the end of Egress, in which I discuss DJ Sprinkles in this context explicitly: talking about the ways that many of us, in spite of (or perhaps because of) our grief, threw ourselves into dancefloor joy, coming together amidst the turmoil of our own individual experiences. The sentiment, which my friend Natasha Eves immortalised, was one of “solidarity without similarity”. (I was overjoyed to hear Thaemlitz express a fidelity to this experience so explicitly, all these years later.)

This may seem tangential to the discussion above of the person who listens to everything, but I see a lot of resonance here regardless. For those of us who didn’t have club scenes growing up, who didn’t have that experience of moving to the big city and being raised by second queer families in the way that is today acknowledged (sometimes even romanticised) from the Eighties and Nineties, we at least had the Internet. That was the space we shared; that was the space in which we explored things through necessity.

Though “despatialised”, in a sense, this experience felt no less localised. The Radiohead forum Mortigi Tempo, for instance, was as much a space for talking about that band and other music we were into as it was a space for jousting about politics and it is also where I first engaged in discussions around gender identity. I made a friend on that forum who I later met (very much serendipitously) in real life. It turned out that they went to school with my housemate at university and we later lived together at a time when they had very much explored their own sense of non-binary identity and were very much out of the closet.

It would take me a lot longer to reach that point, but I remember being very drunk on Hallowe’en in 2021, whilst living in Huddersfield, which I was using as an excuse to throw myself a birthday party early. They came up from London to hang out and later on that night I drunkenly fawned over them saying how they were something of an inspiration to me, that I wished I had their confidence and moved through the world with the self-assurance they did. (Now that I feel like I am doing so, I have been on the receiving end of that kind of conversation myself, and I am regretful about my drunken enthusiasm, if only because I know how seen it makes me feel and how strange it can be.)

Suffice it to say, the relationship developed with this person who I witnessed and who made me feel like I too could affirm and express my sense of self in whatever way that I wanted was very much borne of a kind of sonic community building, albeit of a different and less celebrated type. And the listening we did over the decade or so that we were in each other’s orbit — on- and offline — was a major part of that. To be a person who listens to everything, to take the aux cord and share the culturally minor sounds that spoke to us, was an action that resonates with culturally minor forms of dress and social comportment as well. It is only now, with the benefit of over a decade’s hindsight, that I have come to truly appreciate that.

Although this is an experience that may not neatly congeal with the image of the “music bro” that the meme is used to poke fun at, it is nonetheless a kind of minoritarian listening that falls under the same affects of listening to everything. Though listening to everything might easily be a form of hipster populism, the true joys of such an exercise come from an honest engagement in other scenes, other forms of life, and not necessarily understanding them or feeling a deep affinity with their specificities, but nonetheless meeting this music and its associated communities where you find them. It is not so much a sonic tourism, as an appreciation of other cultures and their differences. It is to seek solidarity without similarity. It is something that so many go looking for online and off. It is what you hope to get from a good mix CD or a good club night. After all, there is surely some strained crossover between the aux-cord tyrant and the respected DJ, even though their contexts may differ wildly. As a point of curation and subjection, there is power to be found in affirming the culturally minor against the homogeneity of your infinitely generated chilled-beats playlist.

In The Order of Sounds, François Bonnet writes that

desire and power are not simply opposing terms: each excites and stimulates the other, each one is by turns means and end of the other. Power is desirable, but it is also an instrument for the deployment of desire.

But power also “has another ability which desire does not have at its disposal”, namely its tendency towards establishing “order”. To talk, to make sound, to listen — all of these acts play a role in the mechanisms necessary needed to establish an order (of understanding) in any instance: discourse.

Discourse, for Bonnet, is both an act of ordering and also the struggle for order itself: “Discourse intervenes in listening by turning the perceived object into an object that can be spoken or described, classified, linked to this or that other object — that is to say, by making it communicable.” He adds: “Discourse introduces heard sound into a community.”

With Spotify curation or lo-fi beats playlists on YouTube, as well as the sonic purview that each establishes for its community of listeners, is a discourse not pre-established, even restricted, in being curated in advance based on commodified desires? Many have previously written on the act of genrefication, arguably nothing more than a marketing tool, and its impact on listening habits, but perhaps playlistification is the next step in this corporatizing process.

Spotify, in the realm of sonic discourse, represents a kind of soft power that has the tendency to feel all-consuming (or perhaps all-producing). Does the person who listens to everything not then humiliate this popular “discourse”, introducing disorder, as if the hostile vibe of disordered sound or extrinsic taste frustrates Spotify’s own version of “reason” or its own kind of sonic “common sense”?

This kind of disorder is not other to discourse, however — it is not sonic nonsense, as the memes may often make out. It is the introduction of other sound worlds, other sonic communities. The rupture produced by the person who listens to everything is “[a]t once more and less than discourse, it is a discursive seed. It is that which, as yet silent, provokes listening, determines an aim for it, a reason.” It is thus that the power found in discourse comes from the fact that is “exerts an authority”.

The aux cord is a symbol of such power, a symbol of subjugation. What will you, who possesses the aux cord, choose to subject your fellow listeners to? It is for this reason “that listening is a matter of interest to power and authority; control of listening (the listening of those upon whom one seeks to exert power) and control via listening (the surveillance of those whom one wishes to master) become decisive functions for anyone who seeks power.”

But it needn’t be the case that this kind of sonic subjection, as an exercise of power, is always a negative — that is to say, an unpleasurable — experience. (The tension between the two French words for power, puissance and pouvoir, is undoubtedly integral to this.)

It is here that Bonnet pays particular attention to a kind of “[t]yrannical power of listening” that may “dumbfound” the listener, and there may be no affect more implicitly associated with the person who listens to everything.

This dumbfounding is both an experience that may accost us and/or one that we might actively seek out. To attend a performance by a particularly experimental musician or DJ, for instance, we might go knowing full well — even relishing the fact — that our ears (and our bodies as a whole, singularly and collectively) will be challenged. (This was certainly my mindset on attending Bang Face six weeks ago.)

It is an experience that Bonnet also notably associates with religious liturgy. To seek out a dumbfounding is a “custom”, he says, even a “‘tradition'” in many cultures. He also associates it with radio — “an important locus for the dumbfounding and control of the author.” He notes Adorno’s interest in radio, specifically its use as a Nazi propaganda tool — not forgetting that Adorno experimented with the medium himself, perhaps as a way of subverting this more dominant twentieth-century usage — as well as William Burroughs’ interest in radio not as a tool for “maintaining order or promoting ideologies; on the contrary, [as a tool for] disintegrating them and provoking disorder and confusion.”

More recently, I can think of no better commentator on this process than Steve Goodman, whose Sonic Warfare bridges the gap between audio-tyranny from above and below. It is a book, first published in 2010, that anticipates the decade ahead. Prior to the established ubiquity of algorithms, though Spotify was already a popular music platform, at that time I remember using it to curated my own playlists exclusively. It was perhaps this extractive period of “preemptive power” that allowed Spotify to use such playlists to train itself on future listening habits. As Goodman writes:

Preemptive power seeks to colonize this activity of the future [– in this context, perhaps the future overreliance on the playlist –] in the present. Anticipative branding culture, for example, sets out to distribute memory implants, which provide you with the sense of the already enjoyed — already sensed — to encourage repetition of consumption, a repetition of a memory you have not had. This strain of building is at the forefront of crystallizing memories of the future — memories that are only virtual despite their sense of familiarity… No longer relying on lived bodily experience — actual sensory responses — brand memory implementation operates through the body’s remembering a virtual sensation. In short-term intuition, the future yet to be formed is actively populating the sensations of the present, anticipating what is to come, the feeling of what happens before its actualization. Preemptive power therefore invests in the contagious virtual residue of memory. The sonic mnemotechnics of capitalism modulate future desire by activating the future in the present.

It is interesting to see how this preemptive power exerts itself today. What may have previously been most applicable to brands is now made more amorphous through music-industrial marketing’s ability to produce memories of the future through the explicit historicization of the present.

Consider how pop experimentalism is today made static in advance through the preemptive curation of an “era”. Exceedingly popular artists like David Bowie or Björk are/were fascinating for their individual sense of futurity. Album to album, you could hardly expect what stylistic interests would define each cycle. These cycles were also generally periodised in hindsight. Bowie is the most obvious example. From Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke to his typical derided drum’n’bass era, Bowie simply appeared plugged into his present and responded accordingly. Today, such shifts in stylistic approach are concretized in advance, however. Pop stars like Lorde, Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift define their “eras” prior to any release, easing the listener into a new album’s sound before they have ever heard a single note. What is marketed is not so much a new sound as a new present, a new temporality for the hungry fan. What is otherwise implicit becomes a core part of the marketing campaign. “Are you ready to have the next six months defined in your memory by so-and-so’s next album?” What might have happened naturally is called upon and shaped in advance. Sonic warfare, seizing the specificities of the present and using them for your own ends, becomes a kind of sonic acquiescence. This is now and also the future you will remember. How to frustrate such a process, tyrannically prefigured by corporate interests?

Goodman suggests we turn to the Black Atlantic, Paul Gilroy’s term for “a counterculture of modernity”. Gilroy’s term is notably geopolitical and so expansive as to feel unquantifiable, but such is his intent. Beginning from two polarities of identity — his being both European and black — and instead situating himself in the oceanic space in between the two, placing innumerable specificities into the space that surrounds two “genres” of self, which are themselves both affirmed and eluded, he mines the “contact zones” of disparate localities, aiming again for a “solidarity without similarity”:

What might be called the peculiarity of the black English requires attention to the intermixture of a variety of distinct cultural forms. Previously separated political and intellectual traditions converged and, in their coming together, overdetermined the process of black Britain’s social and historical formation. This blending is misunderstood if it is conceived in simple ethnic terms, but right and left, racist and anti-racist, black and white tacitly share a view of it as little more than a collision between fully formed and mutually exclusive cultural communities. This has become the dominant view where black history and culture are perceived, like black settlers themselves, as an illegitimate intrusion into a vision of authentic British national life that, prior to their arrival, was as stable and as peaceful as it was ethnically undifferentiated. Considering this history points to issues of power and knowledge that are beyond the scope of this book. However, though it arises from present rather than past conditions, contemporary British racism bears the imprint of the past in many ways. The especially crude and reductive notions of culture that form the substance of racial politics today are clearly associated with an older discourse of racial and ethnic difference which is everywhere entangled in the history of the idea of culture in the modem West. This history has itself become hotly contested since debates about multiculturalism, cultural pluralism, and the responses to them that are sometimes dismissively called “political correctness” arrived to query the ease and speed with which European particularisms are still being translated into absolute, universal standards for human achievement, norms, and aspirations.

What Gilroy aims for, in a way, is a retention of difference. Not the “shit liberal” universalism that Thaemlitz also spoke of, but a retention of black English experience as a kind of viral infection, which mutates the body-politic inside which it finds itself. Goodman calls this process a kind of “dub virology”, which “produces a very different viropolitics of frequency in contrast to that implemented by sonic branding.” He continues:

Whereas sonic branding seeks to induce consumption by channeling sound’s power into the modulation of affective tonality [what we might now call “vibes”] in order to force associations with real or virtual products, Black Atlantic futurism seeks to enact the demise of Babylon through dread engineering and the tactical deployment of sonic dominance.

Just as Burroughs sought to sonically disintegrate ideologies and provoke disorder and confusion, dub virology aims not for cultural assimilation but mutation. It is a form of subjection from below that enacts minoritarian powers against the majoritarian; a practice of (black) antagonism [cf. Saidiya Hartman].

When we think of the person who listens to everything, suspending their generalised dismissal as hipster nuisance, perhaps we can understand them as someone who listens to more than just vibes, as someone attuned to the extra-musical implications of sonic warfare. But even their status as a “nuisance” can be affirmed in this regard.

Terre Thaemlitz’ 2016 book, Nuisance: Writing on identity jamming & digital audio production, begins with a noteworthy definition of the term:

nuisance noun 1. a thing, person or situation that is annoying, inconvenient, or causes trouble or problems; 2. behavior which is harmful, offensive or annoying to the public or a member of it and that a court of law can order the person to stop.

To be a nuisance is to be a “feminist killjoy”, perhaps, as Sara Ahmed writes. It is to intervene in a discourse, making it other at the same time as contributing to its purview. It is not strictly an extraction or an infusion, but what Mark Fisher calls “dubtraction“. Quoting an old blogpost, almost lost to cyber-redundancy, Goodman highlights the following definition:

Dubtraction is the hyperdub practice par excellence… Fundamentally, dubtraction is about the the production of virtualities, implied songs all the sweeter for their lack of solid presence. It’s all about what is left out, an involutive process that identifies desire with the occupation of a plateau. Hints, suggestions, feints: these complications of desire function not as teases but as positive deviations from both climax and monotonous idling on the spot. Dubtraction understands that desire is about neither engorgement nor emaciation, but about getting the right amount you need in order to keep moving.

The social status of the person-who-listens-to-everything has led to this dubtractive modus operando being excised almost completely. Only the generalised marker of the nuisance remains, decontextualising its fundamentally deconstructive function. Discourse is not so much infected as denied altogether. This is not the vibe. But perhaps it is the preemptive vibe that is entirely the problem. Affirm listening to everything, but remember to eschew the homogeneity it implies. Jam the signal. Dub the algorithm.

Colour Theory
(Part Three)

← Part Two

Two months of sugary breakbeat highs give way to a persistent sadness. It is weathered, but only just.

I’m working most weekends behind the bar at the Cumberland, in amongst all the fun had. I love it there, but the body cannot take how much I want to do around it. I have had too much fun, perhaps. My mood swings into dark pits but eventually climbs out again. The unconscious cries for help the only way it knows how. One night on shift, I feel this deep pit open up, a gravity well. Music remains an integral salve. The walks home with headphones on put my head back together. When the heart sinks, music provides buoyancy.

Every mood swing is fleeting, but they hit hard and frighten me. I have worked hard to keep depression at bay. “You’ve been doing a lot of drugs”, I’m reminded. But not too many. In general, I steer way clear of my limit. In fact, I’d like to think that the drugs are helping.

Back in January, what felt like a reckless night on MDMA instead shakes loose a lingering cloud of depression.

I had spent the last three months of 2022 on a too-high dose of sertraline, my GP ignoring my constant complaints of a state of anhedonia. “Wait and see” was the repeated and increasingly dispassionate response. Easy for them to say. I go cold turkey over Christmas and New Year and a January night on ecstasy clears out the build-up, like a riot hose taken to my synapses. I feel almost whole again.

The 2C-B taken at Bang Face has a similar effect.

In late 2020, I started shooting on black-and-white film for the first time in years. I told myself I liked the texture of things. Colour was a distraction. I still remember one of the first pictures taken at that time, which I loved so much that I thought I might make the change of medium permanent.

I was walking along the Thames path with Natasha, an emotional and drawn-out goodbye before I left London for good. Having passed through Greenwich, I turn back and spot a lone rower moving silently across the water like a pond skater. I thought about that image for months afterwards. It seemed to encapsulate some wordless feeling shared, as I felt myself rowing backwards across the capital, filling my eyes with one final look at the neighbourhoods I’d called home for last four years.

I’ve shot almost exclusively in black and white ever since. But the 2C-B unlocks something I didn’t realise had become so inaccessible. Bang Face throws me back into colour. On returning to Newcastle, I continue walking around, and where I once saw texture, in the light cast on the city at night, I see a new vibrancy. Colours swell in ways they have not done for years. I enter into colour and do not look back.

Whether this be succinct or reductive, I am currently obsessed by the idea that to be an artist of any sort is to have an interesting relationship with the unconscious.

Following the recent death of Cormac McCarthy, as well as turning affectionately to the novels I love, I have also returned to his 2017 essay on what he calls the Kekulé problem, in which he offers up a novel explanation for the strange disconnection between the speaking subject and the unconscious mind, which eschews (or otherwise simplifies) many of the explanations provided by psychoanalysis.

He argues that the reason the unconscious feels like such an alien part of us is that it operates at a more primeval level that has not yet caught up with our uniquely human capacity for language. Language is a relatively recent development in human evolution, after all, with the unconscious being much older and more settled in its ways than the speaking subject. It is for this reason that it often communicates with us in abstract images and unfiltered feelings. Its primary language, if it can be said to have one at all, is the sublime. Extrapolating outwards from Kantian aesthetics, we are most struck by the things of this world when they agitate the unconscious mind.

The problem is named by McCarthy after the German organic chemist August Kekulé, who

was trying to arrive at the configuration of the benzene molecule and not making much progress when he fell asleep in front of the fire and had his famous dream of a snake coiled in a hoop with its tail in its mouth — the ouroboros of mythology — and woke exclaiming to himself: “It’s a ring. The molecule is in the form of a ring.”

The problem that provokes McCarthy

is that since the unconscious understands language perfectly well or it would not understand the problem in the first place, why doesn’t it simply answer Kekulé’s question with something like: “Kekulé, it’s a bloody ring.” … [W]hy is the unconscious so loathe to speak to us? Why the images, metaphors, pictures? Why the dreams, for that matter.

McCarthy is far from self-reflective on this point. He says little of how his own unconscious has assisted him in the production of a much-celebrated body of work. Perhaps the answer is already perfectly implied by the questions asked: “I’ve no fucking clue, and isn’t that so interesting?”

It is particularly interesting to me that McCarthy focuses on the unconscious production of solutions to problems in mathematics and the sciences. Much has already been written on the role of the unconscious in the production of art, but this should hardly surprise us, as it is almost like our second-level (re)production of the images it shows to us were a more natural form of communion with our internal depths. But this leads to a strange inversion of our wonder. Cave paintings, as the disconnected products of a prehistoric culture — that is, we should remember, the products of a pre-linguistic culture, or at least one prior to the invention of the written word — instead appear as rudimentary reproductions of something already familiar to us. It is in writing that things get really weird.

McCarthy writes:

Problems in general are often well posed in terms of language and language remains a handy tool for explaining them. But the actual process of thinking — in any discipline — is largely an unconscious affair. Language can be used to sum up some point at which one has arrived — a sort of milepost — so as to gain a fresh starting point. But if you believe you actually use language in the solving of problems I wish that you would write to me and tell me how you go about it.

I’m left wanting for postcards of a similar sort. I hope to pass them onto the unconscious but it has no forwarding address. It is a dead letter office, an empty and cavernous room, like a prehistoric cave or a cathedral, the walls lined with synaptic pigeonholes and otherwise beckoning resonance.

It may make no sounds of its own, but all else chimes wonderfully in its rafters. I want to move my decks in there.

If there is a certain melancholy to these notes, after the bombast of the preceding weeks, perhaps that is to be expected. The last two months I have read a lot, written little, danced constantly. The body grows tired and the mind reflects. The drugs are left alone, the unconscious reverts to its normal state. I write because the itch needs scratching, but perhaps the sadness emerges from writing’s very insufficiency. It solves nothing, instead only ruminating on things less easily put into words.

The communication breakdown grows loud. Sad for what reason, beyond fatigue? I don’t know, or can’t say; one does not necessarily follow from the other. But the writing comes with ease, as if this unknown and unconscious problem, whatever it may be, is signing at me through vague gestures and lucid dreams. Though a break might be needed from the dance floor, I feel reassured by the knowledge that the music will continue to play and things will be worked out in time, at varying tempos, in some future to come.

Colour Theory
(Part Two)

← Part One

I’m sat in our chalet on the first night of Bang Face. Earlier, we dished out the 2C-B. Two friends take a half each, they say, and when the high doesn’t come, we take the rest. I make the comic error of assuming my friends had taken a full half, like I had. Instead, they had shared a full pill together. They had taken half of a half.

Having taken my full pill, bouncing from room to room, pummelled by jungle and gabber and hardcore, my heart feels like it is about to burst out of my chest. Others head back to the chalet and I join them. After a joint is shared to balance things out, they return to the dance and I decide to lie down for an hour, not feeling unwell but grasping for some serenity as I realise I have had a little too much.

Once settled and alone, I start writing in my notebook — not because I’m thinking about anything in particular, but because the spidery scrawl of my handwriting looks like the worms that have come alive dancing on the Artex ceiling. Everything undulates. But rather than simply witness the world in its writhing paroxysm, I try to master it, producing lines that wander at my command.

This is my first psychedelic experience. It feels somewhat overdue. To describe it, the experience may sound disconcerting, as stories of trips often do, but when I look at the ceiling I laugh uncontrollably. I am overjoyed that the mind is creating something that I know is not there, but which is felt as intensely as if it were.

It is the affirmation of what is not that makes it real. An aesthetic experience is automatically produced from within, coupled with an awareness of the fact that it would be imperceptible outside of my present state of mind. But the demarcation becomes less clear when the worms are spilling out from the point of my own pen. The illusion is compounded and made even more pleasurable by the secondary illusion that I am birthing word-worms.

Why start to write in such a state? Because ultimately, I know I cannot photograph the ceiling.

I leave the chalet as I start to sober up, ready to head back to the dance, at least now that the high has started to subside and feel more manageable. On my way back, I bump into Aya, Evan, Rebecca and Pat. We head back to their chalet instead, soon joined by others, and play silly tunes whilst drinking Buckfast and doing lines of ketamine. A drum’n’bass bootleg of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” has everyone waving finger-guns and laughing hysterically.

I go outside for a cigarette and Evan and I end up talking about an all too familiar creative paradox: an enthusiasm for a craft that drives you to learn its formal mechanisms inside out, producing a sense of mastery, whilst being all too aware that the things made casually and without too much thought, the things that emerge immediately from a spark of inspiration or as a distraction from a more conscious mode of working, often turn out to be the best things you can make.

Evan talks about albums that retain that quality even for the listener. He says there are albums that, as a producer, he can deconstruct and reconstruct at home, easy to pastiche, as he figures out what tools were used and how, so that you can eventually produce a perfect imitation. But there are other albums that, irrespective of any technical enquiry into their make-up, remain elusive. Andy Stott’s Never the Right Time and Actress’s RIP are two that never get old for Evan. (He shows me a tattoo on his forearm of the symbol that adorns RIP’s cover.)

I’m too inarticulate and tired and high to add much to the conversation. But the serendipity of falling from a private reflection to a conversation between two, each on the same topic, makes my ears feel warm regardless.

At Kitty’s top surgery fundraiser in London, around a hundred people descended on the Avalon Café for a night of performances and dancing. Many people were familiar: Goldsmiths alumni, or people otherwise affiliated with a broader social network; people I haven’t seen in the same room together since before the pandemic. We all gather to celebrate someone so loved.

Others are there just for a good time, but it only adds to the jubilant atmosphere. Affections run deep and everyone falls into it. A group of people thrown together, through circumstance, through university degree, through shared interests, through love, through trauma. You can’t construct a group of friends like that. You can’t produce that kind of kinship as you would a family. It’s not so much “social reproduction” as “social invention”, at once conscious and unconscious.

Something else Evan said that stuck in my head, amusingly highlighting the incongruity of love and its rupture: “Not to be a dick, yeah, but I love hanging out with my friends.”

It’s more or less the same group, with some additions and absences, that gather for Bang Face. We all arrive at different times, on different days, but congeal again in a pool of sweat, front and centre for Aya’s set. Another friend celebrated, just as everyone celebrates each other when they arrive at the dance. Jenn arrives and I pick her up in a smothering embrace. Joy in the act of joy.

It’s hard to keep from gushing about this gathering, but writing it down seems useless. The feeling is elusive, ambient, ethereal, and the writing cannot touch it. Articulated thought does nothing more than threaten its purity, but there is something precious felt in the habit of acknowledging it regardless – that thing that cannot be bottled or given a sufficient image, but which cannot be allowed to pass by. It is a revolution. It is sublime.

I’m proofreading one of Fredric Jameson’s soon-to-be-published seminars from the mid-2000s. It’s a mammoth task and I have only two weeks to do it; I later end up getting an extension. In the downtime between the night before and the night to come, I chip away at the reading in our Bang Face chalet, no longer hallucinating a new sort of life in the words on the page.

I read a lecture in which Jameson speaks about the Kantian sublime, wherein Kant writes that “the beautiful presupposes and sustains the mind in restful contemplation,” whereas “the feeling of the sublime carries with it a mental agitation”. Something happens in between the two. The spectator is struck by “the feeling that his imagination is inadequate for exhibiting the idea of a whole, [a feeling] in which imagination reaches its maximum”, but the acknowledgement of the limit is paradoxical – although it goes beyond thought, we are nonetheless able to think the limit. Kant’s “thing-in-itself” thus becomes a signifying phrase that makes the illegible legible. You perceive it, in some restricted way, but the sublime is not so much inaccessible, it only overwhelms the senses and the unconscious that attempts to filter them, and we make of the cascading affects whatever we can.

I am not so familiar with Kant’s aesthetics, but I do wonder how love – particularly a love of community – fits into this. Jameson emphasises that, for Kant (as well as Burke and Lyotard), the French revolution – more so than the Alpine mountaintops of Romanticism or the grand friezes of ancient art – is the sublime moment par excellence. An enthusiasm for a new sense of communality, a certain communism, is the archetypical sublime of our modern era.

No use talking about Kant at Bang Face. That being said, we are here whilst King Charles is being coronated. We curate our own hyper-spectacle as the state produces its own elsewhere. Politics is unavoidably present at Bang Face, but perhaps only as parody, or at least as imagination. It is our silly utopia.

There is no signal here. No phone reception. Only elusive pockets of 4G. No one is following the events happening in London. Bang Face is an enclave from the discourse surrounding Britain’s monarchist realism.

The people of Bang Face are lampooning the royals left and right, wearing clothes for a new rave royalty, hanging banners that celebrate alternative kings.

One chalet, a few doors down from us, has a giant banner of Kim Jung-Un in the window. I get chatting to a guy called Howard, who is staying there. “He’s my king,” he says, tongue firmly in cheek, as he admires this giant meme-image of Kim grinning as a nuclear submarine surfaces behind him, as if all that divine power bestows on despots and monarchs is little more than an infantile dominion over one’s various supersized toys.

We have toys of our own and we are here to play. There is a palpable enthusiasm for another world. Bang Face as maximalist heterotopia.

Still outside the chalet smoking cigarettes into the early hours, Evan lifts up his hoody to reveal a t-shirt made that morning with permanent marker, adorned with the kind of nonsense slogan that is ubiquitous at Bang Face. “MARK FISHER BABABOOEY”, it reads in thick black block capitals. The cleft between silly fun and political enthusiasm is at once made wider and narrower.

What would Mark Fisher do?

Natasha and I used to hear complaints from some For K-Punk attendees when we’d invite different members of the Hard Crew contingent to play at our events. Should happy hardcore have a place at a Mark Fisher event; at an event that hopes to celebrate someone known for their predilection towards the darker side of jungle and UK rave culture? But this darkness is not only present in the more melancholic sounds of Burial and others. It can still be felt in the maximalist high-energy of the hardest hardcore. Fisher did once write for Fact Mag, after all, that one of his favourite jungle tracks was Hyper On Experience’s acceleratively silly track “Lord of the Null Lines”:

A crew with a superbly apposite name and an eye for a great track title too. This one is crudely bolted together out of rave-era piano and hypercharged FX, plus vocal samples from Predator 2 (“fuckin’ voodoo magic man”), and a diva on downtime (“there’s a void where there should be ecstasy” – a line that could serve as a slogan for the whole genre).

At Bang Face, it feels like there is ecstasy where there should be a void. The world beyond is voided, high on monarchy. We’re high on something else. Or perhaps the void is still present, still here with us, but this culture of late capitalism is affirmed to its absolute breaking point, lest we forget the closing sample from “Lord of the Null Lines”, uncommented on by Fisher himself – there may be a void where there should be ecstasy, but it “sure feels good to me”.

Fisher’s own interests, of course, are hardly the be-all-and-end-all, even amongst we friends and devotees. What mattered to us, when putting on the For K-Punk nights, was that the producers and DJs we invited liked him, respected him, saw something in the work that spoke to them as they mainlined an accelerating present into music that can turn on an affective dime. Hardcore will never die – a sense of self-belief shared with capitalist realism, of course – and so it is transformed into an abundantly errant postmodernism. The supposedly lowest forms of sonic culture are broken down into components for a veritable future music. (As Philip K Dick writes in VALIS: “the symbols of the divine initially show up at the trash stratum”.)

Bang Face surprises me. It is intergenerational. You have the most contemporary post-rave maximalists shoulder-to-shoulder with junglist legends. I catch Technical Itch, DJ Trax, 2 Bad Mice, Dom & Roland and Sully at the Over/Shadow takeover.

In the main room, I watch Luke Vibert followed by Sherelle. Vibert plays old favourites. Hearing Bizzi B and Ruffkut’s remix of “The Return” by Cutty Ranks is a revelation, another glimmer of the sublime, a baroque sunburst no less. It decimates me. Sherelle opens with a brand-new track by We Rob Rave, who played the day before. It is called “Bodymotion”. No matter the BPM, such sonic assaults feel timeless.

This is music of another time, the present, rather than the music of the Eighties and Nineties. Yes, it is fascinating to think about what Mark Fisher would make of Bang Face, the ultimate post-rave maximalist postmodern spectacle. The critiques are easily imagined. Capitalism is a total system, capable of incorporating everything – even critiques of itself or alternatives to its worldview. It is a system that has a way of acquiescing everything that exists to its contours. Most of the music at Bang Face simply replicates the gesture. But capitalism must nonetheless resist or obscure the inclination to radically transform itself, as the great assemblage becomes more and more unruly. Capitalism steamrolls every bump and blemish into the flatness of its own world-image. The music at Bang Face operates in much the same way, but intensifies and then inverts control’s polarity. Rave sublation nukes the capitalist control-valve from orbit.

The first act we see, at the start of the weekend, is DJ Noeyedear. There are three people on stage – one dressed as a clown, one as a fairy, and another as a Tellytubby. They are blazing through insane mash-ups of songs that do not belong together, smashing Nirvana into Rick Astley and My Chemical Romance and a hundred other instantly recognisable tunes at hilarious speeds. It is the ultimate expression of postmodern formlessness.

I can’t help but wonder if this is what TikTok might well become. The viral fragments of contemporary music marketing, so sought after, are gathered into a new maximalism, which of course has its place in contemporary aesthetic experience, irrespective of its fidelity to or mockery of capitalism’s own accelerating forms of cultural dissemination, just as maximalism had a place in modernism previously.

Jameson reflects on a modernist maximalism in his expansive reading of Adorno. He discusses Malevich’s Black Square as a particularly fascinating example. As a single block of colour, we might call it a minimalist work, but what is black if not the product of every colour combined? There is a radicality in this kind of minimalist maximalism, such that it obliterates everything. In using everything, it breaks everything, and something new and incomprehensible emerges. A black canvas can appear just as sublime as a mountain range, just as a pounding 200bpm cacophony of pop-cultural atoms can become sublime when you immerse yourself in the Bang Face particle accelerator.

It’s what Eisenstein might call a “montage of attractions”. It is the circus of semioblitz. Though it is easy to dismiss for its abject lack of seriousness and “good” taste, it nonetheless feels like a potent reflection of or commentary on the accelerated sonic worlds in which we now live. As Jameson says, “artworks are political because they absorb into themselves historical processes”. The music of the future hurtles along faster than capitalism itself is yet able, accumulating vast swathes of contemporary detritus in its wake and giving us monstrous new idols that loom over and dwarf capitalism’s modus operandi.

I’m reminded of Maya B. Kronic’s amazing essay on Katamari Damasy and the readymades of Yuji Agematsu; his “clump spirit” of dust-bunnied detritus. They write:

clump is less than a set, in so far as it is subject not to the selectivity of the concept, but to a principle of universal adhesion (fundamental glomtology) combined with a situatedness and a tempo of accumulation which dictate its singular composition. The clump emerges as a kind of abject eidos, a quintessence via processes of material selection and agglomeration rather than conceptual purgation and generalization — something like the piles of moss, litter, and animal bones that fall through a fissure to cluster on the floor of a cave, invisible except to the most intrepid speleologist capable of fathoming such a ‘bottomless pit’.

Hyperpop feels accumulative in much the same monstrous way. It horrifies some, as a conscious assault on the senses, bringing together all cultural ephemera in a way that capitalism itself tries to, but thus humiliating its own processes. Hyperpop rebuilds heaven from the trash stratum of rave ephemera. Bang Face is its kingdom on earth.

None of this comes to mind at the time, as such. As I wait for others to wake up, I write all this down whilst lying on my sofa bed in the living room of our chalet. I keep adding to it on trains and later sit up all night in my new flat, Color Theory on repeat, filling my new domain with clouds of cigarette smoke diffused by the approaching sunrise. There is no temporality here. In the black of night, neon washes of pure immanence, deep immersion in the maximalist heterotopia, joy in contradiction and incongruity, pure energy flow, bodies moving, hallucinogens, psychedelics, breakbeats, friends, colours, bowel-moving bass and its lingering affects. The words could never have been assembled at the time, but the affinities were already drawn, encapsulated in a minimising slogan of psychedelic consciousness and inarticulate rave mindlessness:


The phrase is itself an ingenious construction, a hyper-specific proper noun conjugated with a nonsense word of uncertain meaning. Between the certainty of the signifier and the formless affect, sense is eclipsed and colours gloam wordlessly at the edges.

Colour Theory
(Part One)

“Remember when you used to write about every night out we had,” Kitty reminisced.

I said I did, although I felt surprised at how alien the impulse felt in that moment.

That impulse had been the cornerstone of what became my first book, Egress. (There’s even a picture of Kitty on page 193.) Back in 2017, I was always so driven to document every moment shared together, perhaps because, at that time, the times apart felt so difficult and alienating, with grief seeping in when social distractions were not readily available, and even then it remained palpably in the background.

We’re together a lot at the moment, we same friends, who are split between Newcastle and London but remain in various forms of close proximity, equal parts serendipitously and intentionally, six and a half years later. The times apart hardly bring discomfort anymore. We are a firm if ambient part of each other’s lives. Neighbours. Friends. Family.

I still like taking pictures of us all. I do that a lot. But the nights themselves tend to live on happily in memory, beyond words and without the need for earnest commemoration. When one night is over, the next one is never far away.

Still, as ever, it doesn’t take much to encourage me to write, and Kitty’s reminiscing made me want to make the effort.

We were walking home that night from the Avalon Café in south London, after the first of two fundraisers thrown to raise money for Kitty’s top surgery. I say “home”; I mean to the Royal George pub in Deptford, where two of our group lived and the other five of us were just staying. A London home it feels like nonetheless.

Thus prompted, I started making notes in my head of things to remember, things to write in my phone once I got into bed. But I also don’t feel the need to write it down at all. I don’t need to write down how I felt. I already knew how I felt. Writing felt superfluous.

I read a Flannery O’Connor quote recently: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” That is true enough for me too, most days. My writing self is distinctly other to the inarticulate goof of everyday conversation, who feels like an idiot in spite of any sort of reputation. But when dancing, I’m not thinking about anything, and I already know how I feel. I never feel more in tune with my body, more aware of when to move, of when to adapt to a beat, when to stop and rest for a while, when I don’t want to dance but smoke and talk. I write only when I feel I have something to work through. Dancing is a working-through of its own sort.

There’s a photographic equivalent of this maybe, and photography has always felt like a more embodied process for me than writing. There is a more immediate sense of phenomenological intention, and so I still take plenty of photos on dancefloors (even if such a practice is generally frowned upon these days). Less something done to take myself out of the moment, photographs are taken when I feel most immersed in things. Not hard records of events but glimmers of fleeting feelings. A dropped pin in the river of unfolding experience. But theories of photography usually proceed otherwise. Its status as an -ography lends the medium a sense of inscription that I have always felt generalises a much more complicated relationship to the self and its intentions; a more complicated relationship between consciousness and the unconscious. It is not simply the case that the author is dead or absent within the final product of a creative exercise, but that the relation between self and world becomes truly blurred in the making.

Contrary to this, many of the great photographers have a tendency to oversimplify and undermine their own relationships to their practice. I’m reminded of a Garry Winogrand quote I read once, which seems to echo O’Conner’s sentiment but doesn’t really: “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.” I was introduced to Winogrand’s work by one of my lecturers as an undergrad, Jason Evans, himself a raver and music photographer, and I relayed this quote to him, assuming a natural affinity with it. But he didn’t like it at all. It took me a while to figure out why.

Garry Winogrand. New York. 1968.

There are others who have said similar things, who talk about a kind of autonomous process at work in making photographs. Lee Friedlander speaks about things in a similar but more interesting way, for example:

It fascinates me that there is a variety of feeling about what I do. I’m not a premeditative photographer. I see a picture and I make it. If I had a chance, I’d be out shooting all the time. You don’t have to go looking for pictures. The material is generous. You go out and the pictures are staring at you.

Lee Friedlander. Self-Portrait. 1968.

Friedlander is interesting precisely because he sees images everywhere. His photographs are themselves often embedded with other images, at once giving rise to a photographic practice that is compositionally complex, demonstrating what we might recognise as a masterful “eye” and deployment of photographic agency, but the complexity of the images also tends to displace the photographing self that Friedlander is. We thus find ourselves before images of a multifaceted world in which the self is increasingly buried under a semioblitz that is nonetheless seized upon by the admiring trigger finger.

Thinking about that particular Friedlander quote just read, I do wonder if my old lecturer would dislike that one as well, although he was a great admirer of both Friedlander and Winogrand’s work. He was and remains far more explicitly intentional in his photographic practice; more sculptural, and more poetic in a way, too. It is as if, in his view, immersed in the world with a camera in hand, you’re not so much searching for something outside of yourself, which is missing from ordinary cameraless perception, but constructing something new out of the elements in front of you. The real creative practice is found not so much in constructing the images themselves, but alluding to the elusive relationships between them in the edit. Better to construct an aura, rather than see if one comes through the lens on its own.

The reality of all other aesthetic experience is probably, truthly, some combination of the two; a combination of searching and constructing.

I have often thought about writing in the same way – a medium that feels like a natural extension of a much older, if now less habitual, documentary practice, with writing now taking precedence. At its most exciting, the words do just appear on the page, and those pieces of writing are usually the ones that people respond to the most enthusiastically. But the work you really care about is often so much more laboured. Sometimes that sense of labouring comes through disastrously (for the reader). But occasionally there is a wonderful middle-ground.

I sit and write fluidly, automatically, and then reconstruct a sense of lucidity from whatever falls on the page, always feeling more like an editor of the unconscious than a writer in any more proactive sense. The words and reflections that seep out from nowhere are gathered like objects, like jigsaw pieces. They are objectified by an editorial consciousness, then used to construct something new, which is more subjective, and at the same time objective in another way. Objective for the other. I thus alienate myself from my own life and walk around it in such a way that it comes alive again, as if for the first time. Memory, yes, but more than that. Memorializing. At once historicising, situating, and imbuing recorded life with another form of living life.

When writing Egress, there was so much to work through. So much death. On all the nights we spent dancing, there was so often a conversation held on some deep topic or other in the smoking area or back at the afters – we were all Goldsmiths students, after all – but those conversations were seldom what I wanted to capture. I wanted to capture my friends, paint pictures of them, with care and attention. Document life in death’s midst, retaining it, walking a tightrope so that the writing did not produce more death of another sort but rather a rebirth. It was a way of nurturing friendship through philosophy.

I like to write about my friends, my experiences, in this way. To write about someone is to let them know you love them. However, quoting them, relaying conversations verbatim, is unnecessary, even intrusive. But to nonetheless acknowledge their presence and the way they themselves contributed to an atmosphere and a sensory experience – that is enough.

To write about and share photographs of our nights out together was another way of saying “I love you” once the night was over, when the feeling wasn’t so strong.

Writing in the pub the other day, “Circle the Drain” by Soccer Mommy came on the in-house Spotify playlist, pumped out into the beer garden. I liked it and, having not heard it before, Shazam’d it. Another track from the same album, Color Theory, called “Up the Walls”, which we’ve just heard, has been a persistent earworm ever since.

The colour theory in question, according to singer-songwriter Sophia Allison, is a mixture of blue, yellow and grey, each signifying a different emotional state; a different shade of depression. However, what sounds, at first, like some unsubtle symbolism becomes far more joyful in its actualisation.

There is a clear movement of sublation here. Not so much the absolute negation of something, but rather its mastery. An album about depression, at least this one, transforms depression into something innately overcome in song, and a lesson is retained from the overcoming, such that the affect wrestled with is no longer an obstacle but an expressive tool. A feeling becomes a colour to be painted with, and it is striking that the paintings themselves are not muted and washed-out, which is how depression itself may feel. To make a feeling a colour and paint with it makes the affect expressed come all the more alive, rescued from its own anhedonia. As such, Color Theory is not drained but bright neon. It is an album about depression that nonetheless radiates with a certain kind of joy – a Spinozist joy.

I remember what Gilles Deleuze once said about joy in the works of Baruch Spinoza. Joy, for him, is a complex emotion, albeit rendered wonderfully simplistically in his Ethics. It is an affect of life, an affect of resistance, an affect of action. You can (and must) find joy, even if you do not feel it naturally at a given moment. Joy is a flight from sad affects. Joy is an act.

Deleuze says, in an explanation that is as obscurely poetic as it is crystal clear:

I conquer, however little this may be, a small piece of colour. I enter a little further into colour. I think that is what joy could be. That’s what it means to fulfil a power of action, to set a power of action in motion, thereby causing it to be fulfilled.

“Up the Walls” is a good example. It is a song about a kind of directionless intensity, a feeling without outlet, a feeling of entrapment, which may be difficult to flee from in the moment, but which nonetheless finds an outlet later in song. It is a song about an apparent lack of presence or dynamism that contradicts itself, manifesting in a short song that is nonetheless a slow burn, a song that grows and builds and does have release, even if the moment it describes did not.

There is a moment in the song that sends shivers down my spine every time. The second verse goes:

Tell me that you need me
When everything is wrong
Be there in the morning
When the feeling ain’t as strong

And just as the feeling is described and denounced, just as the desire for desire itself is affirmed in a moment outside of passion, when insecurity may be at its zenith, the drums kick in and provide immediate gratification. Solidity is delivered in an instant. The song delivers joy in a way the anonymous lover may not.

To write about a night spent with friends and music may feel like a betrayal of a moment, a cheapening of an affect. To spend a night with poetry in a certain space-time, only to then encapsulate it on the page, where poetry might be most at home but is at once conspicuously absent and ever-present. Poetry is transformed into little more than a description.

But I’m reminded of a Phil Elverum quote used in Egress:

I don’t have to interpret this. I don’t have to make it pretty or find wisdom in it at all. It’s okay to just describe what happened, then leave it at that. There’s no lesson.

There’s no lesson, at least, in (and with) music. Poetry abounds from its own absence.

It’s a feeling that re-emerges, much to my surprise, from TikTok, in a viral video made by the user @garrettlee39, who chugs his body back and forth in one place to the 2014 song “Need 2” by Pinegrove. The video is cut short just before Garrett seems to burst into tears. The song’s lyrics become a kind of convoluted and paradoxical reflection on what any song might itself mean:

What’s that sound?
What’s that song about?
It’s nothing worth me sayin’ aloud
So then why do I seem to
Need to?

The Itty Bitty No Titty Kitty Committee
on Slack’s Radio

Before our big night at the Lubber Fiend, the Itty Bitty No Titty Kitty Committee took over Slack’s radio for three and a half hours. In all honesty, we were jittery and tired and had no plan, so technical issues and fuckups abound. But whatever.

My favourite part of this was probably talking to Dr Michael Waugh about Mackenzie Wark’s new book Raving, which we’ve both been enjoying very much recently. That starts about 90 mins in.

“I’m Sorry It’s Not Blue”:
RIP Cormac McCarthy

His work lies all wheres and his hounds tire not. I have seen them in a dream, slaverous and wild and their eyes crazed with ravening for souls in this world. Fly them.

— Cormac McCarthy, Suttree

The news was hardly unexpected, but it saddened all the same. Cormac McCarthy has passed away at the age of 89. His most recent two works, the entwined Stella Maris and The Passenger, sit unread atop the bookshelf in my bedroom and my eyes turn to them as I look up from my phone with remorse. The spines will be broken on them soon.

So much has been written on McCarthy, and I must confess to having read very little of it. I never recognise the writer I know in the many assessments of his works. I have my own ideas about them, and whether the scholarship agrees or not, I have no idea. Such an awareness of McCarthy scholarship is hardly warranted to appreciate his works, of course, but for someone like myself, who loves to read everything around an artist or writer I become fixated on, the solitude of McCarthy’s quadrant amongst my bookshelves is stark.

I think I own and have read (with the exception of the aforementioned two) all of his novels. I first read Blood Meridian and The Road in my mid-teens, sandwiched between excursions with Camus. The absurdism of McCarthy’s work shone through immediately in that context, but I always found something so intriguing in its presentation.

McCarthy’s noted brand of nihilism is not tinged so much with a sense of humour as it is with an overflowing appreciation for the speculative and the absurdity of the imagination in a world that can scarcely be comprehended. Renowned, in more recent years, for his love of science and new human knowledges, his Westerns (if we might lazily loop his books into that genre) so often feel like microcosms of our universe at large in this way. Space, that final frontier, appears folded back on the American plains, such that the chaotic storms of our universe are allowed to unfurl in the teacup of McCarthy’s weird wild West.

This distinguishes McCarthy from a lineage of writers he is otherwise seen as a natural bedfellow of. As far as I am aware — again, my knowledge of his critical reception is uncharacteristically sparse — McCarthy has often been framed as a grumpy and hypermasculine prose stylist of an ilk with Hemingway or the other alcoholic modernists, perhaps even being understood as a “reactionary modernist” like so many other classic American (male) authors. But the sparseness of his prose feels less like the aping of an old masculine tradition than it is innately cinematic, intrinsically postmodern, such that his “reactionary modernism” feels less conscious than it is a product of the American landscape in which McCarthy has grown old.

My McCarthy books are stacked on their side; atop them, my collection of Burroughs. The proximity of these two bodies of work was not intentional, but right now it feels so apt. McCarthy — much like Burroughs; perhaps even more so like Kubrick; provocatively, also like Baruch Spinoza — is what Mark Fisher might call a “cold rationalist”. His works are cold and impersonal — especially those, like The Road and Suttree, that veer close to the autobiographical and most personally affecting. Take this passage from one of Fisher’s odes to Kubrick, replacing the director with McCarthy himself:

It is precisely [McCarthy’s] coldness and slowness that are missed in a contemporary culture that is so obsessively ‘warm’ and ‘fast’; ingratiating, emotionally exploitative, relentlessly fidgety. [McCarthy] took us out of ourselves: not via the transports of ecstatic fervour, but through the icy contemplation of what drives and traps us, and the vision of a universe indifferent to our passions. To see the mechanical deathliness of the human world from the perspective of that indifferent universe: that is what [McCarthy] offered us. A vision of God (which is also an approximation of God’s vision).

[McCarthy] returns — why deny it? — to an essentially religious sensibility, although his religion is “atheistic” in the same sense Spinoza’s was. For Spinoza, God = immanence, matter in itself, the gloriously dispassionate, desolated cosmos. [McCarthy] evokes the desubjectified affects of awe and dread, rather than the compulsory, socially-endorsed, ‘warm’ emotions of empathy / sympathy, as homage to a universe whose indifference entails not pessimism, but freedom: freedom from the miserable prisonhouse of the human.

We find this kind of worldview everywhere in McCarthy’s works. Take this celebrated passage from Blood Meridian:

The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

But beyond this, one need only read No Country for Old Men to be struck by a more effusive Kubrickian and cinematic quality, and it is stunning just how alike to a film script the novel really is. It was based on a film script, of course, and so this might hardly be that surprising or insightful a comment, but I’ve rarely read a film script that is so evocative and so keenly attuned to the capacities of the human imagination than McCarthy’s effort. His Westerns are so cinematic, then, as to almost be psychedelic. They are, as it were, Acid Westerns, deploying a “psychedelic reason” borne of a cold apprehension of America’s own grappling with the inherent violence of its subjective indeterminacy.

It’s an effect that is common to all his novels, which are well-known for their shunning of grammatical convention. But for all their missing punctuation, at his best McCarthy dismantles the scaffolding of written language in such a way that makes it all the more alive. (In a way very different to Burroughs, of course, but nonetheless producing a similar eviscerating of the word-virus in his attending to colloquialisms and dialects.)

But McCarthy’s novels are self-reflective on this point, too. For all his consideration of America’s humiliated sense of reason, this overcoming of pessimism is hardly absolute. In fact, the great challenge of so many of his novels is how his characters respond to situations in which pessimism might be the most natural response.

One of my favourite scenes from his books, in this regard, is the anticlimax of The Road, when the father and son finally reach their destination on the coast. Having walked the road for so long, having been used and abused by the near-future Wild West of a post-apocalyptic America, it is as if the only frontier now worth searching for is the sea, with its firm but energetic horizon and sublime sense of impossibility. Following the closing and necrotising of the great frontier inland, the sea returns as a significant signifier of a freedom that America has hubristically contained within.

At first, it may seem like an odd choice of destination, since the American dream was so fixated on taming its inland wilderness, but lest we forget that the recuperation of that dream, in something like Star Trek, turns back to seafaring terminology. It is as if McCarthy desires a return to a Melvillian frontier, but knows that such a return is impossible now. Within the context of the novel itself, it is as if the father knows that, since the land of the free is so forsaken, a life at (or at least by the) sea is the only place to think the future.

I’m reminded of David Farrell Krell’s comments on the sea in Melville’s Moby Dick, as something to be conquered; a landscape as evocatively elusive as the white whale that dwells in its depths. But it is an impossible task, since Ahab can hardly mark his achievement on an environment that leaves no traces of man’s conquests. Krell writes:

The sea’s magnanimity consists in the fact that it “will permit no records,” so that when all collapses the sea rolls on “as it rolled five thousand years ago.” Every name and every deed, including the deed of a meditation on the sea, is therefore “writ in water” and remains “but a draught of a draught.” And yet. If there be “a metaphysical professor” in the vicinity, he or she will ineluctably lead you to water, and water will eventually guide you to the sea and all of its ungraspable phantoms. Even if the journey is arduous, “either in a physical or metaphysical point of view,” what Melville’s Ishmael calls “the universal lump” descends on all alike, so that “all hands should rub each other’s shoulder-blades, and be content.”

But there is no awestruck contentedness in McCarthy’s novel; no return to and acquiescence with the sea’s magnanimity. The sea is not sublime. Its undulating chaos only mirrors that of the land at his characters’ backs, albeit in a manner somehow more barren. It is a shock to the father; a disappointment to the son. It is as if the father hopes to show the son the wonders still left in this world, but the expected ideal only leads to dissatisfaction, which is all the more painful after their violent and miserable journey.

The scene unfolds as follows:

They ate more sparingly. They’d almost nothing left. The boy stood in the road holding the map. They listened but they could hear nothing. Still he could see open country to the east and the air was different. Then they came upon it from a turn in the road and they stopped and stood with the salt wind blowing in their hair where they’d lowered the hoods of their coats to listen. Out there was the gray beach with the slow combers rolling dull and leaden and the distant sound of it. Like the desolation of some alien sea breaking on the shores of a world unheard of. Out on the tidal flats lay a tanker half careened. Beyond that the ocean vast and cold and shifting heavily like a slowly heaving vat of slag and then the gray squall line of ash. He looked at the boy. He could see the disappointment in his face. I’m sorry it’s not blue, he said. That’s okay, said the boy.

At this juncture, it appears that all desire for escape is dissolved by the ashen waves; the sweet sugar cubes of hope dashed along the shoreline. There is nothing left to do, it seems, but return to the road, to the West, and imagine it anew.

Many believed, before the publication of his last two books in 2022, that The Road might be McCarthy’s final novel. And yet, the journey it takes seems like the distillation of McCarthy’s own. He began his career with a return to the Old West, considering a New West and what it might still further become.

Readers of my first book Egress will know that this is a sentiment that has long fascinated me, as someone with a perhaps surprising love of the Western genre. In truth, the chapter from that book on the American West, though nestled into narrative of the book in a manner I hope is convincing, was nonetheless written for another project entirely, which I hope to someday return to — a book called The Rotten Western, which updates an argument popularised in film studies by Jonathan Rosenbaum, in his short study of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man.

Rosenbaum is famous for expanding on Pauline Kael’s term “acid western”, of which Jodorowsky’s 1970 film El Topo is the most obvious example. But Rosenbaum notes how Jarmusch’s psychedelic Western does something different to the genre. Though it is no less psychedelic and dream-like, we are no longer within the radical consciousness of Seventies America; the film feels more like a deathbed hallucination of American life at the end of history. It hardly seems surprising to me that, following this, so many “post-Westerns” have turned this speculative landscape at the heart of American life into a more explicitly posthumous expanse, in being post-apocalyptic and so often zombified.

The book will consider The Walking Dead and video game series like Fallout and The Last of Us as some of the most explicit examples of this turn, but McCarthy’s works are nonetheless integral here. Indeed, against their couching in a kind of “reactionary modernism”, his novels are often far more imaginative and speculative than they are given credit for.

Neil Campbell is perhaps my favourite writer on this. In his Deleuze-infused writings on the American West, he notes how “No Country for Old Men, both novel and film, has been interpreted in various ways; for example, it has been called conservatively Reaganite, portraying ‘the ineffectual residuum of a lost Western white male hegemony,’ and ‘an allegory of salvation, or even, perhaps a moral allegory of post-September 11, Neocon America.'” But his own interpretation fixates on Tommy Lee Jones’ character (in the film), Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, whom he calls “a pensive ‘sounding board’ struggling to understand the world around him, a world undergoing dramatic change as it shifts from a mythic Old to a troubling New West, and beyond that even to a tentative and projected post-West.”

The relationship between the book and the film becomes particularly interesting here for Campbell. He suggests that “the film of the novel is akin to Benjamin’s notion of translation as an ‘afterlife … a transformation and a renewal of something living,’ whereby the original is changed so that its ‘translation’ is ‘pursuing its own course’ in a new and different language.”

This makes the film, for Campbell, “a reflective text, always framing the violent events of the present, such as drug trafficking, border politics, and corporate globalism in relation to the afterlife of the western past, or at least versions of that past recited, remembered, and imagined by its various characters.” No Country for Old Men thus becomes a film that is not so much reactionary — though it echoes a view of American postmodernity closely associated with an arch-conservative like Clint Eastwood — as it is an utter undoing of the Western genre in a more positive sense. It is a film, in Campbell’s words, that “emphasized how a genre might ‘outdo itself to become itself,’ to find a cinematic space in which Deleuze’s ‘image from all the clichés’ might come into view to interrupt the given and accepted ‘distribution of the sensible.'”

This reference to Deleuze — I assume from his Logic of Sense — fits well with Sheriff Bell’s odd American stoicism. As Campbell continues, Bell’s “imagined western past of order and hierarchy is undone by ‘something outside one’s control,’ a sense of grief for the loss of this coded West seen now in the inexplicable signs and wonders impinging upon him from all sides.” This leads to the film’s central concern with “this tense, fuzzy borderland” — not simply that between Texas and Mexico, but that which lies “between old and new, lies and truth, ‘I’ and ‘we’, and the inability to distinguish them clearly.” It is a striking reading, transforming the Reaganite reception of McCarthy’s works into something more positively Butlerian.

This is the McCarthy I love, beyond all restrictions of his writing to America’s most reactionary codifications of its own history. In this sense, his immersion in his own culture may well be driven by a desire to call it into question, but not in the sense that things were so much better in the old days. This is what is so fascinating about the Western as a genre. It is so archetypically American to romanticise the abjectly worst and unsettled parts of one’s own history; it is even more archetypical to transform that abhorrent instability into something so paradoxically static in its codification. But McCarthy’s novels do not fall neatly into this same trap. Though many readers presumably miss the gambit, it is still present. McCarthy may not provide much in terms of a positive vision of a post-West, but he violently asserts its arrival.

To quote Campbell once more, all of McCarthy’s novels cut across the strata of the West’s codifications in this way. But the more we immerse ourselves in his world, the more we find that the tight strata of Old West and New start “buckling like the desert rocks, each folding into the other in a complex intertwining of history and myth.” McCarthy’s post-Western America thus becomes a prefiguration of its post-truth present. (Many have of course drawn parallels between Donald Trump and Blood Meridian‘s Judge Holden.) His death is all the more significant for this reason, but like the father who leads us to the ocean and back into the wilderness, though he may be sorry that the colours of any imaginable future seem muted, we continue onwards like McCarthy’s son. McCarthy himself, the stoic father, led the way and travelled the road; what is built along its edges now is up to us.

In response to McCarthy’s apparent pessimism, we might too reply, “That’s okay.” But such a response is less passive than it is comforting to a man who seemed ill at ease with a country he felt outside of. No country for an old man like McCarthy, but the task of building one anew was never his in the first place. The task is ours.

Illness #01:
Recording Now Online

You can now listen back to the readings from the Illness event at the Horse Hospital the other week.

I read a chapter from my new book Narcissus in Bloom on the influence of the Stoics on Hervé Guibert’s relationship to photography and the self in the midst of his AIDS diagnosis.

Audio from illness #1, the first Red Medicine event held at The Horse Hospital on May 25th. The evening was a night of readings from Micha Frazer-Carroll, Amber Husain and Matt Colquhoun on the political, cultural and historic significance of illness.


05:00 — Red Medicine introductory text
12:15 — Micha Frazer-Carroll
10:50 — Amber Husain
47:12 — Matt Colquhoun

Soundtrack by Mark Pilkington