Keeping Up with Hauntology (Part 2)

An interesting comment from Padraig on the recent hauntology post:

Though it is worthwhile pointing out, I’m not so sure that the central issue here is just that of the class envy & resentment of the negatively disavowing, of the reductively class unconscious, but you are certainly right to draw attention once again to the hegemonic appeal of the revenant of patriarchy in a post-patriarchal culture (most Hollywood movies are fundamentally fantasies of patriarchal restoration, from all of Spielberg’s movies to Nolan films — even a film that Mark positively reviewed, Nolan’s Batman Begins, was a disturbingly reactionary fantasy of a return to an impossible patriarchal capitalism).

Rather, it is that the current fetishisation of holography (which has been around since the 1970s, just as 3D film has been around since the early 1950s) is another instance of Jameson’s cultural logic of late capitalism, of the obliteration of all sense of history, the fact that such holograms (even if they are a spectral trace of a departed relative) are now just vacuous ‘special effects’. Indeed, Mark wrote about this in a blog post when he was critiquing Jackson’s execrable, instantly forgettable remake of King Kong:

“In King Kong, FX have replaced history. Or rather, ‘history’ — now flattened out into a series of period signifiers — has itself become a kind of special effect. (Technology substitutes not only for history but for culture, too; in 2005, technological progress is the only faith that remains to us.) Even if the simulation were note-perfect accurate, History, in the Marxist sense of struggle, antagonism and contingency, would still be photoshopped out. The Depression is a stage-set, an inexplicable backdrop. This a museum without History, the Past as Experience, Theme Park…”

Put another way, back in the 19th century, during the very early years/decades of photography (when most people had yet to even see or snap a photograph), someone seeing ANY photo, much less a haunting photo as a ghostly trace of a departed relative, would have responded in a radically different way to a contemporary pomo subject.

I certainly see the point being made here but, then again, I’m not sure I agree with the overall argument, particularly regarding photography. Mark’s argument, too, has a ring of truth, but I think it underestimates just how bad things have always been with photographic technologies. Whether we are talking about the daguerreotype process or contemporary holography, the argument that “FX have replaced history” is applicable throughout.

Photography has always been a reactionary medium. As paradoxical as this statement seems, as a technological innovation it led to far more experimentation elsewhere (e.g., within painting) than it occasioned for itself. In fact, despite being a technological innovation in itself, aesthetic attitudes towards photography throughout the twentieth-century (and particularly in the west) have always been very conservative.

There’s a strange tension in photography in this regard. It is arguably an innately capitalist enterprise. It was not invented as an artistic medium or scientific instrument but as a way to make money. Whilst there were some initial inventors, tinkering with different chemical processes, who saw the merits of its aesthetic qualities, the name-checked inventors of the medium (most of whom were French) were essentially the winners of an arms race for government funding who pitched their competing processes as new businesses catching the wave of an emergent post-painting trend among the bourgeoisie.

From there on out, most technological innovations in the field were driven either by the military or advertising companies. (The latter is something I have long found particularly interested: aesthetically speaking, photography created for fashion or advertising has long been more aesthetically adventurous and experimental than self-described “artistic” photography — you just have to compare your average issue of Vogue to the portraits found in The Wire to see the bizarre disparity in that regard.)

Gradually, respect for photography as an artform has grown, but it was nonetheless — and largely remains — a creative industry that likes to clutch at its pearls. Colour photography, for instance, was for magazines and family albums — it was commercial; this is why black and white photography remained associated with “fine art photography” until around the 1970s (when William Eggleston came along) — and, even then, not without continued resistance. The snobbish bourgeois art crowd has always been precious about its classical and oddly painterly aesthetics.

It is worth noting that colour photography, despite being looked down upon, wasn’t widely accessible at that time. The recent rise of popular and affordable access to photographic equipment is relatively new. We forget, now that we all carry cameras in our pockets, how much of a specialist hobby it once was, and we also forget the issues of class attached to it.

Many have written on the revolution photography instigated within the realm of subjectivity — myself included. We might even argue that it was one of the central technological innovations that made neoliberalism possible. Photography, it has been said, allowed the middle class to properly look at themselves for the first time. It also established what Mark once called elsewhere “an implied bourgeois gaze” — beyond the few rags-to-riches stories, images of twentieth-century working-class life were voyeuristic visions curated by middle class photographers for the Sunday Times. Even when taken by working class lads who’d somehow gained access to a camera — here’s looking at you, Don McCullin — they were instruments of social mobility more than the social realism they were otherwise championed as being by the middle classes who predominantly viewed them.

In this sense, I agree with the quote from the k-punk blog, but I’d also want to draw attention to the following passage, in which Mark writes:

In his classic analysis, Jameson identified a waning of the historical sense as a defining characteristic of the postmodern. The ‘nostalgia mode’ is evident, not so much in films whose content is backward-looking, but whose form belongs to the past.

By form, Fisher is referring to genre tropes, but I’d argue this is innately true of photography as an artform as well. It is not only a postmodern medium but prefigures postmodernity as such.

This is to say that I think the argument that the waning of photography’s historical sense (and, by proxy, that of all the mediums it has given rise to) is not a recent development at all. Paradoxically, the history of photography itself shows us quite clearly that history became SFX at the moment of its creation, particularly in that history’s often limited scope — writing metahistory about the things we use to record history is something a lot ofacademics still struggle to navigate. (John Tagg’s The Burden of Representation is the classic text on this maybe, and it was only published in 1993.)

This paradox is epitomised by the strange lag that occurred between photography’s invention and our popular understanding of how photographic cameras function. For example — and with Fisher’s comment on history-as-theme-park in mind — we might consider the development of cinematography shortly after photography’s ascendency. The medium was primarily presented to the public at fairs for the most part; it was literally a sideshow attraction at travelling fairs and theme parks. Most famously, this included the Lumière brothers’ film L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat.

The film is often cited when discussing contemporary reactions to early photography because it supposedly caused great panic when it was screened before unsuspecting audiences. This story is, today, often disputed. Indeed, it seems a bit rich that nineteenth-century fairgoers would be that frightened by a moving image. If by anything, this terror was likely instigated by their failure to realise the images they were seeing were in the past rather than representative of the unfolding present.

Wikipedia notes (although without a citation) that Benjamin Bratton has speculated on this before, arguing that this terror was itself linked to technological expectations. When seeing a projection of a train, many would likely assume it was produced by a camera obscura — a well-established piece of technology at that time; handhelds camera obscuras were invented in the 1600s but there is documentation of the effect these cameras harness going back to the 4th century BC. If this were the case, of course, then the train arriving at the station would actually still have been approaching them. They were used to seeing projections and technologically produced images but it was the idea that these images could be retained, that the past could be recorded, that took some getting used to.

It was this realisation that led to photography being associated with mourning. Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, after all, is seemingly named after this same process of realisation. When he considers the famously unseen Winter Garden Photograph of his mother, his grief is manifest in the realisation that this is a moment past and not a projection. A camera lucida is what he wants; a photograph is what he has. It is the same terror, the same cognitive dissonance, echoing down the years — and this is precisely why innovations in holography are driven by our desire to resurrect the dead. As such, I don’t think our contemporary reactions to these images are all that different to the viewers of early photography — in fact, I think they are woefully predictable given how we have always approached and thought about this kind of mournful medium.

It is for all of these reasons that I think the class antagonism baked within the hologram of Robert Kardashian is central. It is, once again, the rich who find a new technology providing them with an opportunity to see themselves in a new light. It echoes the popularity of spiritualism amongst the rich and famous in the nineteenth century, driven by fraudsters who’d figured out how to do double exposures. More broadly, our tendency to associate the lingering past with grand estates and the landed gentry is no coincidence. We’re less easily tricked now, apparently, but we are nonetheless possessed by those same desires, and it is these desires that will drive the market for holograms in future.

Echoing the development of photography in the first instance, I can personally imagine a time when this novelty and its popularity amongst an upper class drives a democratisation of access to and, later, the affordability of holographic relatives when the reproductive technology for producing such images catches up and it comes to mass market.

This isn’t to dispute the ways in which holograms do epitomise the cultural logic of late capitalism but, in this instance, these are not new desires hollowed out, but old desires better fulfilled. Put another way, they are bourgeois temporal anxieties — regarding the future as well as the past — made all the more enchanting and (im)material.

Holograms, then, are the endgame for a innately — at least within its proper social context — reactionary medium. They re-establish the class antagonism innate to mourning but also haunting. Ghost stories, after all, are often cynically described as expressions of our complicated feelings about real estate, and it is typically the upper classes, the property-owning classes, who find themselves and their grand mansions haunted, either by their own bloodlines or their curse-casting serfs.

The Kardashian dynasty invoking its own spirits is nothing new in this regard; the technology has just caught up with their desires — desires the rest of us will accumulate through the cultural trickledown, and I think it is pretty predictable where this trickle takes us.

Under Examination

In the UK over the last few weeks there has been an outcry over the decision to use “an algorithm” to decide the exam results of students whose school year was disrupted by Covid-19. (There are few things more insidious in the 21st century than a nondescript algorithm.) Whereas previously, in extenuating circumstances, a student’s “predicted grades” have been used when an exam or a course cannot be completed, this year, for reasons unknown, predictions are being sidestepped in favour of algorithmically-generated grades based on mock exam results and who knows what else. This led to horrifying levels of students having their results downgraded and left many already-alienated teenagers in coronavirus purgatory even less certain about their futures.

Thankfully, after a week of protests and outcry, the Department of Education and the examinations body Ofqual reversed their decision and allowed students’ grades to be based on teacher assessment rather than the insidious algorithm. The whole debacle has left a foul taste in the mouth, nonetheless. This country’s class dynamics were writ large in the fallout but the media has done all it can to ignore them — probably because the media is populated by people who never had to worry about how they were to be perceived as they entered the adult world of work.

That’s the main thing that stinks about media coverage of GCSE and A Level results day. We see the same narrative every year but fuck up the prospects of half the nation’s teenagers and it turns out that patronising discourse goes into overdrive.

As far as the media and the government are concerned, exam results are seen as a kind of lubricant to social mobility. It is an understanding that is deeply embedded in society itself — a kind of “academic realism”, if we might butcher Fisher’s concept some more. This is to suggest that, for the majority of parents and their children, there is no alternative to the university track. It is stifling but a norm reinforced from all sides. This is because, if you do good in your exams, at no matter what stage of your education, you’ll supposedly be better off. Points mean prizes.

That is far from the case, of course. (If things has changed at all in recent years, it is because the government’s trebling of tuition fees has made university less of a given to many of the poorest and least financially stable among us. This doesn’t mean there are alternatives, however; this just means that option no longer exists for those who need it most.) It seems to me like the truth is often inverted here. As far as I can tell, good results don’t necessarily make life easier for those with the decks stacked against them but bad results can make it a whole lot harder.

It reminded me of my own experience as a soon-to-be college student, not long after receiving my GCSE results. Even back in 2008, I found myself on the wrong end of an algorithm and required human intervention before being algorithmically denied my A Level prospects.

My GCSE results were truly a mixed bag. I had at least one of every single grade from A* to E. I was oddly proud of this at the time; I used to joke about my “full house”. The main thing was that I did well in the subjects that I cared about — A* in art, A in English Literature; I also miraculously scraped a B in maths despite being predicted much lower — and then everything from there on out wasn’t of much interest.

I didn’t think it mattered much, and I wasn’t particularly fussed because, frankly, I hated school. Having had the first proper onset of a depression that has stalked most of my adulthood, my priorities were more on my mental health than my exam results. The future wasn’t much of a consideration; I was, at that time, more focused on just getting through the week. And anyway, I got the grades I needed to do the A Levels I wanted (English Literature, Media Studies, Photography) so I didn’t think the rest of it really mattered.

It turns out it did, at least once the algorithm got involved.

On the first day of college, I had to have a meeting with the head. There was a lot of confusion about my results. I was clearly capable in the subjects I wanted to do but, because of the way my results were weighted, I’d come out with an average grade of a C/D, and the algorithm only cared about averages. I was technically on the borderline and a cause for concern and probably shouldn’t have been allowed to progress to the college at all if my grades in the subjects I wanted to do weren’t so strong. The problem, however, was that I had nonetheless been flagged up by the system and, under the auspices of the school’s algorithmic bureaucracy, I was supposed to have a few extra caveats added to my education.

Thankfully, there were humans on the other end to interpret the results. The teachers were also quick to realise that I was very capable, but my mental health issues at that time meant that putting me in an exam hall was a real gamble. I couldn’t work under pressure at all, generally freezing up in most exam scenarios. (The video from Novara Media below hits home regarding how important exam coaching is to good results; I still struggle with that kind of pressure today, but thankfully it is very rare that I’ll need to do an exam ever again.) The reality was that any exam could go great or it could be a complete car crash — which is exactly how my English Literature A Level went: I got an E on the first attempt and then got full marks and an A* on the resit. (Sadly, my coursework averaged it out to a B in the end.)

All of this is to say the obvious: I was a very inconsistent teenager, but is there a characteristic more applicable to the adolescent psyche than “inconsistency”? In fact, for most people, I don’t think that ever really goes away. Perhaps one of the most important things you can learn to do as you grow older is how to curate your own results better — this blog is certainly a testament to how much I struggle with that — but allowing this to be dictated by an algorithm is another matter. As Sonia Sodha recently put it, writing the obvious for the Guardian — and, of course, we live in a moment where the obvious often needs to be said:

We take it as given that dropping a couple of grades in a one-off exam should amount to the be-all and end-all in determining which university you go to. Have a good exam day, and you could be attending the university of your dreams; have a bad day and the anxious cycle of clearing starts. All this is predicated on the crazy idea that we need to avoid AAA students studying with ABB students, BBC students studying with BCD students at all costs or … what?

Rankings allow illusions of meritocracy and simple choices to prevail — obviously we should go for the AAA student over the ABB one — when the reality is they may be covering up a choice that is more random and arbitrary than we may like to think.

I have often thought about how my GCSEs and A Levels constituted something of a near miss in this regard. On paper, it was unlikely I’d ever amount to anything and this was probably why my decision to study photography was initially encouraraged — a low-stakes art degree. I agreed with the teachers for the most part. I had very low self-esteem and I was already deeply cynical about the whole education process anyway. I didn’t respond well to how things were taught, I didn’t see much future for myself in higher education, and even floated the idea of doing an photographic apprenticeship instead. Fortunately and unfortunately, my mum responded hysterically to this suggestion — I was going to be the first person in the family to go to university whether I liked it or not.

The irony was that I really did like it. The kind of study that I experienced as a photography student — self-directed but discursive — flipped a switch in my head. For the first time in my entire school career, from primary school (where I’d been placed in a special ed group for reasons unknown to me) through to college, I found myself actually flourishing in an educational institution. I didn’t feel that crushing futility that I was just wasting my time until the bell went and I could go home and do what I wanted to do.

I loved my arts education for that reason. It was a form of education that I really responded to and it allowed me to find my own way into the sorts of subjects that I’d previously been dissuaded from doing based on my exam results. I think about how I could have just as easily gone on to do philosophy or English literature at undergraduate level but would have found no way to translate my approach to learning into a form of examination that counted for anything at that level. I feel like a very lucky late bloomer.

I say all this not to offer up yet another patronising example of a happy ending thanks to the system. I feel like I found my feet late and very much despite this country’s educational infrastructure and bureaucracy.

A discursive space still has to be established for raising consciousness as to why these things happen, however. What they don’t teach you at school, and what you can only ever learn the hard way, is that that sense of being under examination never really goes away. I have found that my inability to respond to standardised testing and high pressure examinations has followed me persistently, for instance. Even though I have purposefully pursued qualifications since college that do not require an exam, I still find myself having to bend different systems to my will in order to find other ways to demonstrate my capabilities to those who have the power to make decisions about my life — even in medical exams. Twelve years on from my GCSE results, I might have a Masters degree and a book out, but the pressure felt to prove my worth or my ability against the inconsistent record of my inconsistent life is suffocating.

The reality, as this exams debacle proves, is that the stakes are too high for the majority of children and young adults, especially those who cannot afford to keep a clean record. It only takes a bad day or, even worse, alternative brain wiring an an incompatible form of learning, to make you feel good for nothing for the rest of your twenties, if not longer. I’m reminded of Fisher’s essay “Good For Nothing” here, of course. The illusion of meritocracy that has been shattered by this deferral to an algorithm may have just politicised a generation in much the same way the trebling of tuition fees did. It demonstrates how an incompetent elite falls back on tactics of low-level subjugation at every level of society, epitomising the structure of feeling that Mark was speaking to when he wrote the following:

For some time now, one of the most successful tactics of the ruling class has been responsibilisation. Each individual member of the subordinate class is encouraged into feeling that their poverty, lack of opportunities, or unemployment, is their fault and their fault alone. Individuals will blame themselves rather than social structures, which in any case they have been induced into believing do not really exist (they are just excuses, called upon by the weak). What Smail calls ‘magical voluntarism’ — the belief that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be — is the dominant ideology and unofficial religion of contemporary capitalist society, pushed by reality TV ‘experts’ and business gurus as much as by politicians. Magical voluntarism is both an effect and a cause of the currently historically low level of class consciousness. It is the flipside of depression — whose underlying conviction is that we are all uniquely responsible for our own misery and therefore deserve it. A particularly vicious double bind is imposed on the long-term unemployed in the UK now: a population that has all its life been sent the message that it is good for nothing is simultaneously told that it can do anything it wants to do.

The establishment of this kind of consciousness begins on (and is exacerbated by) successive results days every year. The establishment, however, has accidentally revealed its hand. It has revealed the structure often kept hidden behind their insistence on magical voluntarism. The media and even your average Twitter user has followed suit, revealing just how deep-rooted this structure goes, and how mundane it believes its deflation of young people’s worth is. The truth is that this kind of malignant bureaucracy, tilted in the favour of the children of elites, has been getting away with this sort of bullshit for decades.

Same Virus, New Zombies: Towards a New Hauntology

Following yesterday’s brief summary of some of the papers given at the Capitalist Realism: 10 Years On conference, one of the more persistent discussions surrounding Mark’s writings was on hauntology — and it was a discussion that irked me more and more as the weekend went on.

As is unsurprising these days, numerous people had problems with Mark’s arguments regarding our cultural stagnation. This ended up featuring quite heavily in my keynote and I’m planning to condense and redevelop this argument for elsewhere so I won’t rehash it here but, essentially, it drives me mad how common poor readings of this part of Mark’s thought are, particularly regarding the assumption that Mark just thought everything new was shit.

Of course he didn’t. He could see the future coming but what frustrated him, I think, was how unevenly distributed it was, with the experimental and the mainstream no longer sharing the same spaces as they once did.

Mark hated the Arctic Monkeys, for instance.

He saw their repetitive cultural pastiche as nothing more than a by-the-numbers product of pop cultural nostalgia, hauntographically ordering and describing late-twentieth century cultural signifiers on album after album. (Something which has not abated one bit over the last fifteen years.)

What Mark loved, however, was the hauntology of the Caretaker’s new modernism.

One should not be equated with the other. It’s like arguments surrounding accelerationism all over again. People are far too quick to flatten the distinction between acceleration itself and the subject affected by acceleration. What accelerationism does is observe the former and critique the latter.

Similarly, critics of hauntology flatten the distinction between repetition itself and the subject affected by repetition. Again, hauntology observes the former and critiques the latter.

This is to say that the Arctic Monkeys replicate uncritically a homogenising cultural mode at the end of history, seemingly without irony. They are repetition incarnate. The Caretaker, on the other hand, explicitly interrogates the impact of this very tendency on the contemporary subject, producing new sonic worlds in the process. Therefore, hauntology proper should be seen less as a description of the repetitive semiology of capitalist modernity and more as a study of postmodern capitalism’s innately repetitive nature and its effect on us as subjects.

Interestingly, however, the main critics of Mark’s hauntological thinking in this regard were a group of Huddersfield PhD candidates who would later perform together as a free improvisation group. There is so much experimentation going on today, they would argue, implicitly referencing activity on a campus known for its radical music department, and they couldn’t understand why Mark would ignore these other practices and potentials. (I’d argue he didn’t but, again, the distinctions within his work are flattened.)

The excitement and freedom they felt running through their musical practices made them openly annoyed at Mark, as if his critiques did nothing but shut down these potentials by demoralising his students. This was far from his intention, of course, but this was nonetheless how they felt reading Capitalist Realism for the first time ten years on.

Although I was vocal in my disagreement, I was also newly aware of my own over-familiarity with Mark. I could no longer imagine reading him for the first time without the baggage I carry around, so it was very interesting to hear the first thoughts of a PhD cohort otherwise unfamiliar with his life and trajectory. For example, most surprisingly, Capitalist Realism was interpreted as an indictment of political disengaged students, at least when compared with “their forebears in the 1960s and 1970s”.

I don’t interpret this as Mark being critical of individuals, however. He loved his students. They weren’t in his crosshairs. It was the system that encourage their disengagement that he took issue with. Mark made clear elsewhere — although I can’t remember where right now but it was in some interview — that Capitalist Realism was his attempt to change this and engage directly with and excite his A Level students. After all, he writes, through personal experience:

In Britain, Further Education colleges used to be places which students, often from working class backgrounds, were drawn to if they wanted an alternative to more formal state educational institutions. Ever since Further Education colleges were removed from local authority control in the early 1990s, they have become subject both to ‘market’ pressures and to government-imposed targets.

Here Mark is referring to the slow decline of the polytechnic — institutions known (and derided) for catering to vocational interests that fuelled radical experimentation. (Leeds University, for instance, is particularly famous for being a post-punk hot bed.) However, in 2009, at least in my experience, these reports of political disengagement ring true. The most politically active kid at my college was a smarmy cunt who became well-known as one of the youngest ever local Labour councillors but fell out of the public eye as soon as the anti-Blairite wave rose through the ranks. (He was a particularly slimy example.)

The politicisation of British students post-Millennium didn’t seem to happen until immediately after Capitalist Realism was published, which is partly why I think it had the surprise success that it did. It emerged at a time when Mark’s intended audience was suddenly very keen to listen.

The London riots and the protests around student fees in 2010 and 2011, for example, lit a literal fire under a whole generation who are, today, actively shaping cultural discourse. In 2009, however, that just did not exist. Owen Jones’ Chavs didn’t come out until 2011 — the book that single-handedly shone a light on the class consciousness of a generation who had not realised the ferocity of their own (often internalised) classism — but, as someone speaking to the future, he also appeared very lonely within the nation’s consciousness of radically left-wing political commentators at that time. Again, he was a breath of fresh air and this, too, is largely why his book started doing so well.

What is more sad, however, is that it is likely that Mark was going to continue to surf the edge of popular discourse but, since his death, his works have been criticised for posthumously falling behind. Further criticisms popped up infrequently, for instance, regarding Capitalst Realism‘s anglocentrism and its lack of diverse references. Pedro Alvarez — whose paper of Latin American protest music was great — derided Mark’s lack of engagement with the rise of neoliberalism in Latin America. It was sad to hear this criticism laid at his feet as Mark was intending to teach this topic specifically before his death. (One week of his “Post-Capitalist Desire” seminar at Goldsmiths, to take place in 2017, was to consider the “cybernetic socialism” of Chile’s Allende government, long before the West finally began paying attention during the riots of 2019.) Similarly, he derided the way that Mark’s references to Spinoza felt “second hand”, although Mark wrote repeatedly of his time at Warwick where he “spent over a year poring over The Ethics in a reading group.”

Others had issues with Capitalist Realism‘s political incorrectness — Mark’s impersonalisation of dyslexia under capitalism being seen as some affront to contemporary discourses around neurodiversity, for instance — but, no matter the concern, each complaint felt like a criticism made out of time and out of context and revealed, to me at least, the lasting impact of the very formalisation of state educational institutions that Mark was talking about in his first published book. As such, it felt like middle-class hand-wringing in response to a book that did not live up to an academic rigour that Mark ignored explicitly because he saw it as an acute barrier to student consciousness raising.

It should go without saying that criticisms of Mark’s work are, of course, welcomed and allowed, and I’ve heard some great critiques in recent years that have made me wonder what he might have said in response to them. Reading Mark’s writings, even posthumously, is to quickly learn that he was — as Dom put it last month — “a touchy sod.” I said something similar in my paper on Sunday in response to suggestions on the first day that Mark is a frustrating thinker. He absolutely is — and I wouldn’t have him any other way, personally. He’s a writer who remains wholly human in my mind, as a result. As much as we must resist “an emerging hagiography of Saint Mark”, we should also resist attempts to posthumously problematise him, at least if the reason for doing so is to subject him to the ever-increasing pressures of the dull academic landscape he stood in firm opposition to.

It is in this sense that I struggled with the perception of his books as excitingly accessible but academically flawed documents, embarrassing today for their lack of foresight about the academic trends of 2020, and yet repeatedly it felt like his conference critics had not given his work the attention they wished he had paid to their own particular bugbears. Mark’s claims of cultural stagnation are easily quashed, someone said, if you get online and have “a little curiosity” to push you into new zones. The same could be said of approaches to Mark’s own works. The books are easily accessible and digestible — as was the intention — but the meat was often found on his blog, purposefully disconnected from academia’s self-referential circuits of citation.

I don’t say these things to shit on anyone’s research after the fact — I, too, am merely a touchy sod — but one presentation in particular has stuck in my craw and has made me think a lot, over the days since, about what precisely Mark’s work was trying to critique and how those who disagreed with this at the Capitalist Realism conference were also, I’d argue, those most guilty of enacting it.

On the second day, Henry McPherson presented an interesting paper on the relationship between practices of mindfulness and improvisation. Reflecting on his own practice as an improviser, Henry considered how the corporate spirituality of McMindfulness is evidently well meaning but limited and captured. However, he argued that radical potentials are nonetheless still present within some of the less popular “presence practices”.

(After the conference, I was welcomed home to London by a galley of Matthew Ingram’s forthcoming book Retreat: How The Counterculture Invented Wellness which, interestingly, seems to draw a firm line between these two trends rather than attempt hold them in contradistinction with one another.)

However, I unfortunately found it a difficult paper to make head or tail of. Whilst the argument was incredibly clear, thoroughly referenced and carefully articulated, it felt like it was so polished that the medium immediately began to drastically undermine the message. A gesture of interrupting his own introduction by dragging a violin against the wall of the lecture hall was left subsumed by citations and reduced to precisely that — a gesture. All I could think throughout was: “What is it to present such a straight-jacketed academic paper about something as liberating as free improvisation?” It felt like mindfulness’s capture by a corporate spiritualism — a practice advertised as a paltry moment of internal freedom within the drudgery of the work day — was mirrored by a demonstration of improvisation’s capture by an academic affectlessness and propriety, providing a momentary creative outlet that nonetheless had to be justified by the REF-scoring expectations of the institution at large.

No offence to Henry, of course, who was a great contributor to proceedings throughout the weekend. As with Mark, the fault does not lie with him but rather the sort of institution that can disengage itself from the modes of critique it produces. (I had every intention of asking him about the relationship between his research and his practice but, unfortunately, we ran out of time.)

I also want to affirm that the free improvisation performance that followed the conference — intentionally and hilariously inserting a sort of bureaucratic anti-production into its set-up, where audience members were encourage to offer “performance reviews” mid-performance — was a welcome addition to the schedule, in much the same way that we have always emphasised the schism of a club night to follow the Mark Fisher Memorial Lectures, offering up the dance as an equally powerful way of articulating Mark’s beliefs and ideas beyond the propriety of the lecture theatre.

This is because Mark, too, was an “improvisor”. What is blogging, at its best, if not a rejection of academia’s “business ontology”; a kind of public writing performance through which success and failure are both potentials, equally embraced? Where writing is done for its own sake rather than to bolster your rating on or, again, to boost your REF score?

These free improvisors may have found Mark’s academic and musical references dated and oddly basic for someone supposedly on the cusp of cultural thinking, but what they tragically missed from Mark’s thinking was the way in which it offers those seeking new ways of living and thinking a practical tool kit through which to think differently. It doesn’t give you free improvisation on the one hand and academic propriety on the other. It is free action all the way down. It is getting our of your head through your head; getting out of the world through the world.

We might note here that, in mourning the separation of the mainstream and the experimental, Mark’s hauntological critiques apply as much to the stagnation of the avant-garde as they do to the stagnation of pop culture.

I’m reminded here of that Jerry Saltz article that left the art world shook back in 2014: “Zombies on the Walls: Why Does So Much New Abstraction Look the Same?” The title more or less says it all. Is the same not true of an avant-garde musical tradition? Saltz writes:

Galleries everywhere are awash in these brand-name reductivist canvases, all more or less handsome, harmless, supposedly metacritical, and just “new” or “dangerous”-looking enough not to violate anyone’s sense of what “new” or “dangerous” really is, all of it impersonal, mimicking a set of preapproved influences… It feels “cerebral” and looks hip… Replete with self-conscious comments on art, recycling, sustainability, appropriation, processes of abstraction, or nature, all this painting employs a similar vocabulary… This is supposed to tell us, “See, I know I’m a painting — and I’m not glitzy like something from Takashi Murakami and Jeff Koons.” Much of this product is just painters playing scales, doing finger exercises, without the wit or the rapport that makes music. Instead, it’s visual Muzak, blending in.

Saltz mention of music here stings a bit. Similarly, gestures of free improvisation do not go far enough in an academic institution, less so when draped superficially in the latest moral-academic trends. In fact, it was particularly telling that the other musics mentioned during the conference that had far more political resonance were Latin American protest songs or even something like Squarepusher’s “MIDI sans Frontières”. (The latter was mentioned alongside Aphex Twin’s face-mapping in an excellent presentation by Adrien Ordonneau who discused the relationship between embodied protest and so-called “IDM” which has surely shaked off its “armchair listening” reputation by now!). These protest songs are, effectively, pop songs. But more than that, they were musics that draw in the world outside only to push it — critically — back out again.

This is something emphasised again and again and again by someone like David Toop, who notably gave the keynote at the CeReNem “Ambient @ 40” conference last year (available to read here):

Toop, as an improvisor, appreciates the outsideness of sound, understood culturally and phenomenologically. His paper presented at Huddersfield asks a number of pertinent questions about music’s capture within capitalist infrastructures that resonate here, in ways that the Huddersfield students seemed reluctant to accept and engage with. He writes, for instance:

Last year Pitchfork magazine asked me to write an introductory essay for an ambient top one-hundred they were about to unleash. I declined and when I saw the hundred choices felt glad I had. A lot of it was genre ambient, industry ambient if you like, very little to do with the softening expansions of boundaries I was proposing in Ocean of Sound in 1995 and nothing to do with the field of possibilities that existed when I recorded for Brian Eno’s Obscure label in 1975. […] So the question now is what ambient means at this point in time. Is it ossified, cut off from change, eternally fixed as journalists’ shorthand for any droning, slow, dreamy, drifting, barely changing, consonant electronic music? Does it supply a perennial refuge for temporarily forgetting the precarity, hysteria and threat of current conditions or can it be a vehicle for engaging with those same conditions?

Regarding the last question in particular, following the Capitalist Realism conference, I am more readily inclined to agree with the former. The free improvisors engaged in a self-aware performance, for sure, in which capitalist work ethics were referents in the performance’s structure but the playing itself was hard to interpret as anything other than “a perennial refuge”. It was less critical and more panto. Their improvisation was less an attack on expectations and more of a welcome break for the academic brain.

Later still, Toop’s comments on ambient skewer the context improvisation was placed in here. Replace “ambient” with “improvisation” and the effect is the same:

So ambient was instrumentalised — it was conceived as a functional asset to well-being, an optimisation or facilitation of a thoughtful, tranquil approach to life — and given the fractious, stressful nature of most airports, any calming instrument is welcome. The music’s potential for this role is unsurprising. Ambient formed its own specialised branch, off-shooting sometimes in a reactive way, sometimes more benevolently, from a family tree that included yoga, relaxation and meditation tapes, Muzak, easy listening, background and library music and records of bird song aimed at ornithologists, the ultimate use-value lineage.

Of course, Toop knows that this is highly resonant. He adds: “The same criticism, if it is a criticism, of instrumentalisation and self-optimisation could be levelled at other genres, maybe all genres of music.”

Any highlighting of these tensions within the Capitalist Realism conference is not intended to be any comment on the skills of the performers at the conference, who were really excellent — they demonstrated collectivised attentiveness that is necessary for any good instance of free improvisation — but simply playing the space of the institution did nothing to assuage their complicity in its politically restrictive flows.

This is the lesson for cultural practitioners still to be found within Mark’s writings. Your radical practices, particularly when practiced within the bounds of the academic institution, wilt far quicker than you might think they do. But this isn’t meant to be a bleak demoralisation — a further penchant for which was also repeatedly laid at Mark’s feet. (Shout out to Nic Clear for affirming, in the final panel discussion, that Mark often made him laugh — really laugh.) This is precisely why popular modernism was so interesting for Mark, particularly when seen from within the field of academia. It takes far less effort for pop to weird itself. (A point made poignantly by John Harries, Rose Dagul & Joe Newman over Skype, in a presentation that was, very intriguing, improvisational in nature, with the structure of the paper given over to a dice throw, with a member of the trio reading a passage depending on the number assigned to it.) A contemporary post-classical avant-garde has a lot more work to do, and that work just doesn’t look like a sound use of Chicago style referencing.

This is part of hauntology’s observations about the treacle through which contemporary culture must pull itself. It is a danger that continues to stalk all cultural production even today. When Simon Reynolds described a contemporary conceptronica — with admiration we might note, but no one likes being neologismed — powerfully channelling the same sorts of cultural protest that defined post-punk, he did so as if to raise a certain awareness around experimental music’s next phase of capture that hangs like the sword of Damocles precisely in this REF-supporting mode:

The agit-prop sector within conceptual electronica is woke music, in all senses. “Using cacophony and unusual sonics, I reject the passive experience of listening, and try to use sounds that are active to wake the listener up and to bring them into the moment,” [Chino] Amobi has said. This rhetoric recalls the post-punk band This Heat, whose song “Sleep” agitated against consumerism and entertainment as mass sedation. In conceptronica and post-punk alike, there’s a similar interest in demystification and seeing through the blizzard of lies: When Lee Gamble uses the late theorist Mark Fisher’s term “semioblitz” — the desire-triggering, anxiety-inciting bombardment of today’s infoculture — I’m reminded of Gang of Four’s 1979 song “Natural’s Not In It” and its line about advertising as “coercion of the senses.”

But you can also sense some of the same problems that afflicted post-punk four decades ago, especially in its later years, when it reached an impasse. With conceptronica, there can be a feeling, at times, of being lectured. There’s the perennial doubt about the efficacy of preaching to the converted. That in turn points to a disquieting discrepancy between the anti-elitist left politics and the material realities of conceptronica as both a cultural economy and a demographic — the fact that it is so entwined with and dependent on higher education and arts institutions.

Is it possible that Mark was guilty of this himself? It may have had a part in encouraging it but he always retained one foot outside, in his immediate environment. That should not be the basis for critique if all we are going to do is do the academy’s work for it.

We’ve seen the problems with this on this blog already very recently with Slash, the Last Women of History. I didn’t think I’d see the same thing again so soon. But then, why not? It’s endemic and requires a vigilance from all of us — but especially those of us attending conferences about radicality we wish to see in the world. If you’re going to hurl critiques from such a platform, aim them firmly at the glass house that surrounds you. Anything less than this doomed to impotence.

Hell is Other People’s Cynicism: On Fans, Trolls, and a Purgatorial Mark Fisher

DIS magazine has a new video up on its website called “A New Face in Hell” — a 10-minute play written and performed by hip irreverent two-piece Slash, aka Emily Allen and Leah Hennessey.

Known for their penchant for ‘shipping figures from intellectual and cultural history and writing them into newly theatrical and homoerotic encounters, this new piece features — much to everyone’s surprise, no doubt — Mark Fisher and Mark E. Smith. (Shout-out to James Elsey from DMing me a link to it yesterday.)

The intro on the website reads as follows:

Welcome to hell. The late cultural theorist Mark Fisher, known to some as k-punk from his early blogging days, is giving a lecture on the “gentrification of contrapasso,” the Dantean term for a punishment resembling the sin itself. What could this flashy phrase possibly mean? Fisher is interested in those doomed to repetition until they realize their wrongdoing. See: Groundhog Day, Russian Doll. He hasn’t watched that show, but he doesn’t like what it’s doing to hell on Earth. What he does like is punk band The Fall, particularly their inimitably antisocial frontman Mark E. Smith. He drones on and on about Smith’s antiborgeious, radical inscrutability. Then, a certain kind of heaven. Smith appears before him. He got to heaven and he hated it. Soon he’ll learn to regret his reactionary choice, doomed to spend his afterlife as part of Fisher’s repeating his self-deluded sin.

It’s hard to know what to make of all this. To be honest, I only started writing this post to try and make sense of my own revulsion towards it.

On the one hand, I hate it… It embodies everything that Mark Fisher was not, transforming him into an incoherent existentialist Cultural Studies posho.

On the other hand, I love it… It perversely and reflexively skewers everything wrong with the posthumous image of Mark Fisher that his international fandoms have perpetuated and which have provided mountains of fuel for this blog’s vitriolic engine over the last few years.

With both of these responses waging war in my head, I’m left not knowing which way I should read this odd piece of internet theatre — and I can’t help but shake the feeling that that’s (somewhat paradoxically) the desired response: impotence.

What we are presented with is a shadow of the pomophobe-in-chief as seen through the eyes of a contemporary pomo schlock lampoon. “The cardinal features of PoMo — the arbitrary aesthetics, the simulated gestures, the boredom, the poignancy of the lost object — combine to produce a transcendental miserabilism — a deep sense not only that there is nothing to be done, but that nothing could ever have been done.” It is an ingrown parody, bent backwards so that Allen and Hennessy become Nietzsche’s Last Women — “They are clever and know everything that has ever happened: so there is no end to their mockery” — and yet still dramatise Mark as the bore that is Nietzsche’s Last Man.

It’s ironic, in more ways than one. In fact, it’s irony all the way down. Here the “dreary textocratic dribblings of post-theory” become theatre, letting the contemporary art world’s “transcendental idealist counterpoint to the empirical realism of postmodern culture” play out counter-intuitively on a blackened stage. These are words Mark wrote with Robin Mackay back in early 2000s, slamming Slash ahead of time, albeit with the very mode of hyper-compression they are ridiculing here as onanistic. It is a most cyclically cynical ouroboros.

Watching this, I’m left asking myself: What is self-awareness and what is a mimetic mirroring of Fisher’s contemporary reception? (Such is the eternal problem of postmodern media.) It feels like the only productive thing we can do here is to read it generously as both. (Kill them with kindness.)

This is to say that, understanding that our emotional horror as viewers comes from the fact that Slash allow Mark to embody everything he vocally hated, just as many other people online have since allowed him to do uncritically, our best approach to this odd piece of media is not to dismiss it outright but instead try and affirm it…

As horrific a task as this sounds, I think it is also potentially useful…

What this Slash video dramatises is a Mark that is now caught in the machine that he so frequently critiqued. To dramatise Mark was the word-salad ghost of a Derridean TedTalk in a Beckettian purgatory is precisely to insert Mark in the apparatuses of capture that he repeatedly poured scorn on. Perhaps that is precisely the repetition being viciously lampooned: no matter what he wrote and how many times he did so, Mark has still posthumously fallen victim to that which he lamented. (Again, it’s a hall of mirrors). After all, for all Mark’s writings, we’re still here. Perhaps, at our most cynical, we might say that it is appropriate for Mark the false messiah to end up in hell for failing to save us from our own capture. But this fictionalising of Mark’s ghost as a tragic false prophet feels less like a transgression to be attacked and more like an opportunity to make more visible the sort of “Mark Fisher Studies” discourse that I have repeatedly had problems with — even whilst others might see me as someone who helped inaugurate it.

This is to say that this Mark, no matter how perverse, is a contemporary reality. It is Mark captured in what he himself called “the purgatory of the pseudo-present”, in which his theoretical and cultural contributions to the 21st century are captured in “Beckett’s universe — a universe in which compulsion and waiting never end, a universe without any possibility of climax, resolution or transformation, a universe that is closed, but which will never finally run down into a state of total entropic dissolution”. The tragedy of our contemporary moment, of course, in which Mark’s legacy is now itself embroiled, is that this is as true of a Labour Party conference as it is of anything else. (Heck, we for k-punk organisers have been on the receiving end of such cynicism ourselves recently.)

I am nonetheless tempted to affirm this depiction of Mark. Not for its inaccuracy but because dramatising Mark in this way and in this context goes someway towards fuelling the kinds of virulent cultural production he admired.

Don’t feed the trolls — use them as manure for your own culturally productive capabilities. Do not attack others’ misgivings in order to shut them down but rather in order to extend the reach of a thought beyond them. The passivity of agreeing to disagree is not an option.

This is to say that refuting one person’s perception of a cultural figure in good faith need not be an egotistical attempt to demoralise but rather an attempt to extend one person’s thought beyond the cul-de-sacs of posthumous capture — that’s certainly been my intention in being a frequently Fisherian gobshite — and here Slash have provided us with the perfect effigy with which to do this.

I think it was this sentiment that Mark was channeling also when he once wrote: “Betrayal is just as important a cultural engine as fidelity; hate is just as important as love.”

This quotation comes from one of Mark’s better-known posts about the cultural productivity of fandoms and we might note that this is an arena that the Slash project is also very familiar with. As an article on the pair in Vogue notes: “What they understand intuitively, and what makes Slash so spot-on, is the thrill and stickiness of niche knowledge.”

In this sense, considering what Slash are going for, it is an accurate encapsulation of Mark as a figure as seen through his stereotypical theorybro fan base — particularly of the New York PolPhil / Cultural Studies department variety. The problem with this sort of fanbase for Mark’s work, however, is that it often seems to exorcise the vitriol and cultural productivity that he saw as essential to any sort of engagement with intellectual or cultural works. Academia’s greatest — and most frequently committed — crime has been its dissolution of the positive feedback loop between cultural and intellectual production, with Cultural Studies, most ironically, rendering it wholly negative. (Not to shit on CS too much — Mark’s misgivings in this department might apply far more readily to much of the NYC theory contingent’s socialite miserablism these days, as we’ll see in a moment.) This remains the case even — and especially — when academics form their own kinds of “fandom.”

Here we can see how the landscape has changed over the last ten years — that is, how the relationship between academia and cultural production has shifted. For instance, take these comments that Mark made, again in his k-punk post about fandoms, regarding academia and trolls:

Trolls pride themselves on not being fans, on not having the investments shared by those occupying whatever space they are trolling. Trolls are not limited to cyberspace, although, evidently, zones of cyberspace — comments boxes and discussion boards — are particularly congenial for them. And of course the elementary Troll gesture is the disavowal of cyberspace itself. In a typical gesture of flailing impotence that nevertheless has effects — of energy-drain and demoralisation — the Troll spends a great deal of time on the web saying how debased, how unsophisticated, the web is — by contrast, we have to conclude, with the superb work routinely being turned out by ‘professionals’ in the media and the academy.

Here, writing in 2009, Mark is obviously emphasising how academics — in the name of the rational rigour of objectivity no doubt — tend to eschew the fan label entirely. However, I don’t think this is the case anymore. At least not in all circles. Cultural Studies itself seems to have wholly embraced and absorbed the desiring-production behind pop cultural wikis and encyclopedias. However, in the process, it has made pop cultural passion as impotent as the academy’s former virulent cynicism.

You can see this for yourself. Just look at the lineup for a Cultural Studies conference on any sort of genre (or — as is, notably, just as common these days — sub-genre) fiction. Perusing Gothic Studies sites, for instance, I’ve seen many a paper advertised on fanfic as cultural production that makes Mark’s comments above feeling wholly misplaced. The issue is not fanfic itself, however, but rather its capture by the engine that it was once made to feel so absolutely alienated from. However, with cultural passion now finding itself within the academy itself, the tables have resolutely been turned, so that it is now culture that trolls academic sycophancy in favour of a hipster’s hard-nosed irreverence.

As such, what Slash‘s video demonstrates is a caricature of Mark as seen through this newly established prism, but what is fitting is that his continuing comments on trolls more generally still ring true. He writes:

In many ways, the academic qua academic is the Troll par excellence. Postgraduate study has a propensity to breeds trolls; in the worst cases, the mode of nitpicking critique (and autocritique) required by academic training turns people into permanent trolls, trolls who troll themselves, who transform their inability to commit to any position into a virtue, a sign of their maturity (opposed, in their minds, to the allegedly infantile attachments of The Fan). But there is nothing more adolescent — in the worst way — than this posture of alleged detachment, this sneer from nowhere. For what it disavows is its own investments; an investment in always being at the edge of projects it can neither commit to nor entirely sever itself from — the worst kind of libidinal configuration, an appalling trap, an existential toxicity which ensures debilitation for all who come into contact with it (if only that in terms of time and energy wasted — the Troll above all wants to waste time, its libido involves a banal sadism, the dull malice of snatching people’s toys away from them).

Here we find it is the artist qua artist who trolls exquisitely, with their sort bred like rabbits on MFA courses around the world.

Here Slash emerges from behind their 5000 spirits; the layers of the irony onion. The desired effect of this video is no doubt to make writing a post like this feel like a nauseating process. Nevertheless, the mask slips. The fan has become the troll. A whole scenius finds itself with its pants down, revealed starkly within a box of its own making.

The response should be to map this out further. Extend outwards beyond the edges of an impotent art world autocritique.

Shoot to kill. They’re fish in a barrel.

Much love to Leah and Emily for taking this declaration of war in such good faith over on Instagram. I was really humbled by their response and feel very excited and fired up by the fact that this post resonated with them. Thanks for reaching out!

A Body Without Options (Part 1)

Last week I binge-watched the new Netflix series, Cheer, about a life in the Navarro College cheer squad.

Following certain members of the team as they prepare for the Daytona national championships, each episode explores their struggles and hardships and the support and discipline that cheerleading provides them…

Yeah, it’s pretty by-the-numbers…

But it’s captivating watching them throw themselves — quite literally — into cheerleading, navigating the sport alongside their various neuroses, suffering frequent injuries but always getting back up again.

Here, cheerleading is presented as a sport of extremes and one that seems to be getting more extreme every year. More flips, more jumps, more complicated maneuvers, pushing against the capabilities of what a young body can do and heightening the trust required in your fellow team mates to create an immovable bond. And it is a young person’s sport. They talk repeatedly about how there is no competitive cheerleading above the college level. Once you’ve graduated, you’ve aged out.

It’s your one and only chance. It’s all or nothing, until you’re ~25, and then you’re out, and you watch, as a viewer, how the bodies of alumni are so different from those still actively competing. They’re all a lot stockier — just as strong, perhaps, but less nimble — and they are also a lot more settled. The visible weight of their bodies seems to reflect their social status as grounded and well-rounded individuals, in stark contrast to the flying teens required to throw themselves like strands of thread through the eye of a needle. The mat is a microcosm of their young lives in almost every sense.

As a result, college cheerleading becomes this extremophile militant finishing school, where you push yourself to your limits and (hopefully) win big before you take your sense of discipline and your relentless work ethic and your communal consciousness into the State and the Family and then live out the rest of your days.

I struggled with this side of things a bit and couldn’t help but start philosophizing.

Most recently I’ve been thinking a lot about philosophical explorations of embodiment and bodily relation, attempting to work my way through Deleuze’s book on Spinoza, Expressionism in Philosophy, in which he explores Spinoza’s (and also Leibniz’s) Anticartesianism in which “expression” becomes an category of existence that better encapsulates the entangled nature of human experience than cogito ergo sum.

“Being, knowing and acting are the three forms of expression”, Deleuze writes, and he traces the emergence of this thought in Spinoza’s God, nature. Being, knowing and acting are drawn out from a consciousness of God’s acting upon the world and so the act of creation and the very essence of our metaphysical emanation within the world unfolds us across the world in which we see God.

God, nature then becomes, for Spinoza, a positive feedback loop between ourselves and our consciousness of the world outside ourselves. Deleuze articulates the radicality of this position with far more clarity. He writes that expression

at once gives back to Nature its own specific depth and renders man capable of penetrating into this depth. It makes man commensurate with God, and puts him in possession of a new logic: makes him a spiritual automaton equal to a combinatorial world. Born of the traditions of emanation and creation it makes of these two enemies, questioning the transcendence of a One above Being along with the transcendence of a Being above his Creation.

This is Deleuze’s concept of univocity. What we can say of God and nature is always also applicable to humans or things. The body without organs is a univocal way of thinking things in their parallelism. A mind is a body is a world. The world is a body is a mind. However, whilst Deleuze notes how Leibniz and Spinoza both express this sentiment, he sides with Spinoza’s particular interpretation because, as he sees it, Leibniz introduces a finality to this process. Univocity, for him, as with Spinoza, is “an absolute rule” and so to predict its end and restrict it to a set of known categories is to predict an end to expression as such, as if it is possible that we will eventually say and do all things, as if the world and the human body and everything in between will not continuously reevaluate their limits as our understanding and our technics continue to develop. It is a positive feedback loop all the way down. As Deleuze describes it:

Expression in Nature is never a final symbolization, but always, and everywhere, a causal explication.

It is here that the enforced cut-off of cheerleading becomes a poignant problematic. In applying a sense of finitude to its own process, it restricts the embodied imagination of these athletes in an oddly ideological way, creating a false ceiling where they believe they have pushed beyond to the very limits of what a body can do in their present moment and this somehow makes the compromise of a settled life more important. This is your one path to the limit-experience of cheerleading and, from such heights, there is a single path back down again. To deviate from it is to sin. To stray from it is to let down your team. You retreat when we tell you too. Then, and only then, you must take all you have learned at the limits of embodied experience and apply it to a life lived within its means. Those means may seem infinitely extensive and far reaching on the mat with our fellow team mates but it cannot last forever and so, if you are to pass this extension on to your offspring, it is necessary that you learn how to step back and step down into the social traditions that have made this experience possible.

Cheerleading becomes a sacred experience, almost religious in its habitude. Sundays are for limit-experiences. Every other day you humble yourself against the glory of the superego. It becomes, at once, a control value and an accelerant for radical embodiment. The control value, however, always has the final say.

Maybe that’s fine. Maybe that’s a legitimate ethical position to take as an expressive being-in-the-world. Deleuze and Spinoza, however, would disagree. Such a thought process makes ethical the soul’s limiting of the body in the name of a higher cause, precisely what Spinoza was rebelling against. As Deleuze writes, explaining Spinoza’s Anticartesian “parallelism”, Spinoza’s thought “overturns the moral principle by which” the actions of the body are the passions of the mind. He continues, first quoting Spinoza directly:

“The order of actions and passions of our body is, by nature, at one with the order of actions and passions of the mind.” What is a passion in the mind is also a passion in the body, what is an action in the mind is also an action in the body. Parallelism thus excludes any eminence of the soul, any spiritual and moral finality, any transcendence of a God who might base one series on the other. And parallelism is in this respect practically opposed not only to the doctrine of real action, but to the theories of preestablished harmony and occasionalism also. We ask “Of what is a body capable? Of what affections, passive as well as active? How far does its power extend?” Thereby, and thereby only, can we know of what a soul is in itself capable, what is its power. Thereby we find a means of “comparing” the power of the soul with that of the body, and so find a means of assessing the power of the soul considered in itself.

To encourage this embodied exploration to such extremes in childhood only to curtail it at its peak starts to resemble a violence. Deleuze continues on this point:

Reason, strength and freedom are in Spinoza inseparable from a development, a formative process, a culture. Nobody is born free, nobody is born reasonable. And nobody can undergo for us the slow learning of what agrees with our nature, the slow effort of discovering our joys. Childhood, says Spinoza, is a state of impotence and slavery, a state of foolishness in which we depend in the highest degree on external causes, and in which we necessarily have more of sadness than of joy; we are never more cut off from our power of action. The first man, Adam, corresponds to the childhood of humanity. This is why Spinoza so forcefully opposes the Christian, and then rationalist, traditions which present Adam to us as reasonable, free and perfect before his fall. Rather should we imagine Adam as a child: sad, weak, enslaved, ignorant, left to chance encounters. “It must be admitted that it was not in the first man’s power to make a right use of reason, but that, like us, he was subject to passions.” That is to say: It is not sin that explains weakness, but our initial weakness that explains the myth of sin.

It is with this in mind that I found the most interesting member of the Navarro cheer team to be a young girl who had auditioned for Navarro college and got in based on her “potential”. She’d had a troubled upbringing and came from a working class background. She had an assault charge against her name and repeatedly throughout the series her past comes back to haunt her. Her prior passions always, at all times, threaten her position within the team whilst, at the same time, she resents the external obstacles that have made this such an achievement for her against the relative ease of the other cheerleaders, and these external causes never quite go away. First, she’s a victim of revenge porn. Then, at the end, she’s busted during a car stop for having — it is suggested — weed in her car.

Despite having a hugely successful year at Navarro, and even entering the history books, so they say, for being able to perform a certain combination of skills that no one else ever has, she’s booted off the team for the possession charge and returns home.

They downplay her post-Navarro experience but I couldn’t imagine the torture of it. At first, early on in the series, she’s openly hostile. She has imposter syndrome, all too aware of that fact that everyone has a chip on their shoulder due to some sort of hardship but, for the most part, all she sees is rich kids regardless. She overcomes that perception and ingratiates herself into the team but she never escapes the trailer park kid inside. “Don’t you want family; kids?” the coach asks at one point, and she says yes, and the whole experience is then reframed as an opportunity for her to escape her former self, transcend her class and settle.

The last we see of her, she’s back at home, no longer a cheerleader, dancing with friends at an EDM concert, covered in glitter. Despite the melancholy of her voiceover, she’s still living her life and continuing her relationship with her body and the world around her through movement and dance. The reject she is supposed to have, presumably, is that she is doing this whilst eschewing the rules and regulations of the middle class microcosm in which she had previously found herself.

I wanted to reach out to her and be like, “Hey, ignore all this bullshit, framing you as a disappointment and a failure. You’re still living it.” She’s still exploring her body through these extremes of experience. So what if she wants to get high and dance rather than throw herself into human pyramids? She may not be cruising towards cheerleader stardom but she’s still a body. Just because they are not channeled into this extremist pressure point shouldn’t mean she is somehow missing out. Better that she sustains that experience and this relationship to herself throughout her life, allowing it to persist rather than burn out. Her sidestepping from a given moral code is more preferable than accepting her destin as a middle-aged body without options.

To be continued…

Note on God, Nature, Rave

Dionysus being this figure of chaos and unruly desire feels like a bit of a cliche. Invoking him is too often a Nietzschean hangover, all too loosely applied to sound a bit high and mighty. However, reading Bernard Knox essay on “Greece and the Theater”, I found this description that makes Dionysus out to be, to my mind, and quite explicitly, a sort of patron saint of rave, spirit of the Home Counties, spectre beyond the M25:

Dionysus was a god whose territory was originally not in the city at all. He was a god of the country but not of the level plain that surrounds and feeds the city; he and his Maenads, ecstatic women who followed in his train, belonged to the wild — on the vases where we see them painted they range through the pine forests of the high slopes. The mythic accounts of his coming to Greece all tell the same story: his rites disrupted the normal pattern of city-state life, and the authorities acted against him, only to be subdued by the god’s irresistible power.

Not only that, but Knox also characterises Dionysus’ relationship to nature — via Dylan Thomas — that doubles up beautifully as a description of Nietzschean Will:

Dionysus is the life-spirit of all green vegetation — ivy, pine tree and especially the vine; he is, in Dylan Thomas’ phrase, “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”

Nothing to add beyond that… I’m reading Sophocles’ Theban plays and also Hamlet and Macbeth at the minute on a weird side quest out from my Deleuzian Virginia Woolf phase (but also via Nietzsche) trying to go deep with some stuff about time and fate. I’ve never been one to go anywhere near classics since doing English at school but I’m getting a kick out of it this December.

I didn’t expect these things to resonate quite so profoundly with a project I’m working right now. Always nice when that happens.

Mall Goth II: American Culture and the Reterritorialisation of Class Struggle

I have a further controversial opinion to tag onto my previous post — a post which caused quite an entertaining debate in the XG Discord. The cynicism I directed towards My Chemical Romance was not shared by others in there… (See meme from @geekycoconut.)

This cynicism, however, is little more than an addendum to a hot take I’ve been nursing for some time now. Unfortunately, it seems to me that Americans are terrible at navigating cultural expressions of class and class struggle.

Nothing has epitomized this more absolutely for me recently than the bizarre adjacency of someone like Donald Glover, championed for his relatively recent turn towards an explicitly politicized cultural production, engaging in a deeply embarrassing love-in at the BAFTAs for Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

Before I completely put my foot in my mouth, I want to stress that this isn’t some anti-American call-out post but just a few observations about our cultural schism — a schism that often seems to come from a lack of awareness regarding Britain’s national class anxieties and a tendency that even America’s most politicised entertainers have for reterritorialising our media class struggles when they import them to their own shores.

BAFTA is very well versed at this and, perhaps surprisingly, this is something of which I have first-hand experience.

Here’s a fun and previously undisclosed fact: I spent almost two years working at BAFTA in their exhibitions department from late 2017 to earlier this year. It was nice there but the majority of that office was Fleabag‘s target audience — outside the production department where I lived, it was lots of privately educated horsey girls. So it comes as no surprise to me that their LA office would throw a Britannia Award at Phoebe Waller-Bridge so soon into her career. It feels a bit like giving Obama the Nobel Peace Prize just for winning an election and without any foresight for the indiscriminate drone-bombing and neoliberal world order he would continue to perpetuate.

Without expressing too much hostility towards my former employer — I actually had a lot of fun working there although I did spend most of my contract in a deep depression — I mention this only to stress that there have been many embarrassing examples at home of our own cultural shortsightedness. So this is not a stone thrown ignorantly from a glass house. After all, who could have ever imagined, ten or twenty years ago, that, for example, the NME — the NME — would publish something as grotesque as this.

Nevertheless, there has also been a fairly vocal and classically British backlash against the outdated cultural elitism that Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s cultural dominance represents. She is, in a way, also like Freddie Mercury (as previously discussed). Edgy, maybe, for a posh lady, but she remains the embodiment of a cultural BBC ‘received pronunciation’ establishment that infected the minds of the population by declaring a “standard” in its own aural image.

Fleabag is a kind of cultural recuperation of this long fought against establishment, constituting nothing less than a reterritorialisation of poshness for the present era.

This is to say that, whilst there have been many previous attempts to dismantle this establishment through a slow-moving cultural deterritorialisation — the eradicating the BBC’s embargo on regional accents being the most noticeable inter-generational example — Fleabag nonetheless remains representative of the upper classes’ attempts to preserve their own relevance within our media.

Beyond the nostalgia of shows like The Crown, Fleabag tries to make the posh cool again by eschewing any previous Victorian propriety and instead being a bit more open about all the risky sex and drugs they can afford to do.

Aimee Cliff recently wrote an excellent article about all of this for huck, about what PWB represents for so many, including an insightful nod towards America’s tone-deaf expressions when it comes to class. She writes:

Phoebe Waller-Bridge doesn’t need to apologise for being posh. But she also doesn’t need to have a “struggle” story, nor does she need to represent Britain in its entirety, nor be “changing the narrative” for women, in order for Fleabag to be considered good. As she becomes an international success story, we should be questioning US media’s positioning of Waller-Bridge as an unlikely champion, and interrogating the use of her to ‘punch down’ in sketches about the working class. How Waller-Bridge is presented to the world shouldn’t be divorced from the reality of the creative industries in Britain right now — which is to say, we have an epidemic of poshness.

What Donald Glover’s speech championing PWB demonstrates, in line with all this, is how, time and again, Americans are even more susceptible to falling uncritically for British posh foppishness than we Brits are!

To be fair, Cliff’s article included, all of this speaks to a broad cultural awareness that has only really (re)emerged over the last two decades. The publication of Owen Jones’ book Chavs remains the major consciousness-raising moment to my mind, stoking a rejection of New Labour’s repudiation of the very existence of class struggle and almost single-handedly culling the word “chav” from what was then widespread pop-cultural usage.

This has, very noticeably, not carried over the pond, however. (I’ll always remember the out-of-touch NYT review of Jones’ book beginning with this weird view of its opening scene, as if Jones is some member of the European literati, reimagining Madame Bovary for the 21st century.)

I can’t claim to be any expert on America’s class structure but its bloated middle is seemingly unique to the Anglophone world and has much to do with the pervasiveness of this sort of tone-deaf response to the class struggles of others. Indeed, having spent a lot of time with Americans who have moved to the UK (usually to study), their encounters with Britain’s class structure are always eye-opening if not utterly mind-boggling. They don’t know how to deal with it — and will reluctantly admit to this when pushed on it, usually a few months into their residence.

This is surprisingly true of Europeans as well — I remember having a frank conversation about class with a German friend of mine recently and I was surprised, considering our cultural similarities, when they too admitted that they found Britain’s particular class structure a difficult thing to navigate — but it is America, most damningly, that represents the recoding of the European bourgeoisie on the world stage, representing to so many over here the ultimate success of an “I don’t see class” approach to life, diluted by the American dream as a capitalist commandment passed down from God and the State.

Perhaps this is because they have enough on their plate already. The British public lacks a relative understanding of racialised experiences in much the same way. But, in this corner of the internet, with its often hard-line Marxism, these class discrepancies are often far more egregious. In fact, I think it is interesting how many Americans conflate the Anglophonic internet to something resembling their own cultural image and will Yank-splain accordingly.

This is something I’ve noticed as being prevalent even among Acc Twitter’s supporters and detractors and I was reminded of this the other day whilst reading a blogpost from Totalitarian Collectivist that contains a few half-way self-deprecating jabs at what are supposedly the accelerationist aesthetics of an NYC Nike store. The weird (and notably working class) Englishness of Burial and Lee Gamble collides with smog, anime and video games collides with bombastic American consumerism. The music’s cultural context is explicitly removed in a way that I can’t imagine happening here.

It’s a really lucid expression of a contemporary anxiety and a great post, capturing the Catch-22 of criticising capitalism through its predominant aesthetic forms and communicative channels. And yet the experience described is completely alien to me. I recognise none of it.

The conflation of disparate cultural signifiers from here and there is, to my mind, an acutely American phenomenon. Although it’s not entirely unfamiliar. The internet, in particular, seems like a black mirror monstrosity of pseudo-American corporatism, and the effects of this are most resonant in the post’s conclusion:

Radical politics for creatures like myself (and probably you as well, if you’re bothering with a wordpress blog) is experienced as the rightful rage/despair/shame/hatred and then immediately mediated through online communication until it reaches its logical end as the ultimate combination of curatorial art/identiy creation and consumerism: the amazon wishlist.

It’s the fraught complicity of Jodi Dean’s “communicative capitalism” writ large but there is nonetheless something amiss in their otherwise lucid description of capitalism’s aesthetic melting pot and I think it is a lack of self-awareness around how this pot is an explicitly American export.

This is most visible here in the UK when we consider the fetishism with which America’s glossy clinical aesthetics are treated by the British televisual tabloid media. Morning news programmes, once appropriately shabby and innocuous, mirroring the pre-coffee malaise of the average British living room — or, perhaps more accurately, dentist waiting room — have been transformed into aggressively glossy American-esque talk shows in recent years. And it is wholly unnatural, jarring with the national aesthetic that Mark Fisher described as “boring dystopia”.

(I’ve talked about this a little bit before, in a post that is actually very relevant — in sentiment at least — to this one…)

This overlay of gloss has only happened over the last decade or so and it is bizarrely Piers Morgan who has led the way. The Brit who absconded from the UK following the hostility he faced over the phone hacking scandal, who made his name anew in the US, slotting far more easily into their aggro news cycles, and then attempting to bring that attitude back with him when he arrived on our shores like a prodigal son returned that we all rather wish we’d had aborted.

In this sense, Morgan represents the lowest rung of UK/US bourgeois collaboration. The triumvirate of Trump-Farage-Boris is a little further up the ladder. Together, they epitomise a cross-pollination of sensibilities that we, over here in the UK, see explicitly as a US style of self-representation. They are a series of square pegs in our cultural round holes. We recognise them and their habits but they don’t necessarily fit with our own worldview. It is a novel export that hasn’t been culturally ingratiated into the collective consciousness, like sickly American cereal or private health care.

Nevertheless, the post does take (tentative) aim at British culture in this regard and questions the UK’s apparent political nostalgia in terms that are supposedly comparable to American electioneering:

The current UK leftist (or twitter leftist, I have no clue what it’s like there beyond what I see online) obsession with utopian imaginaries and paths not taken are a part of this retro-futuristic aesthetic cultivation. Raves and the miner’s strike, science fiction and critical theory were woven together in Fisher’s writing in a way that is another kind of propaganda, though one far more appealing than the edgelord brutalism of the cybertruck or the crude casino-Fordism offered by MAGA.

This is surely only propaganda to the uninitiated? Raves and the miner’s strike are “retro-futuristic” only by their nature as cultural life rafts for the British working class, necessary for anyone under the age of 30 to deal with. It is less nostalgia and more a form of “post-memory”. These images remain pop-culturally resonant because we continue to live palpably in their aftermath and would do so without the very real electioneering surrounding the Corbyn Continuum. Indeed, Corbyn is just a symptom of a national cognitive dissonance.

Films like Billy Elliot or The Full Monty or Pride demonstrate this pop-cultural continuum whereby the trauma of the miners’ strike and its adjacent cultural deviations remain a strong part of the national consciousness. They represent a tendency that has been doggedly preserved against all the odds. Whether pop- or subcultural, these media examples speak to a form of working class experience where populations still palpably live in the aftermath of these socioeconomic traumas, and where communities have long held onto an often unarticulated sensibility of the Bakhtinian carnivalesque as a result of these poorly sutured wounds.

The present “radicalisation” of the Labour Party, in this sense, can be read as a result of that post-chav reevaluation of who we are as a nation. Corbyn deconstructed the veneer of neoliberal propriety — at least enough to scare the establishment — and forced the media establishment to begin broadcasting a disenfranchisement that has never really gone away.

To live on the corpse of former industries is perhaps something that is instead compartmentalised within the American psyche to the maligned lumpenproletariat of Appalachia or inner city Blackness, as in Detroit, itself the birthplace of a strong working class (now retro-?)futurist counter-culture.

In Britain, perhaps due only to our relatively diminished size, there is no space for such compartmentalisation. The North is still defined — aesthetically, we might say — by dead industries; by rotten harbours, mills, and factories. It is these spaces that are reclaimed and repurposed for their rave potentials, even today. It is not propaganda but part of the material fabric of a society that an establishment continues to try and repress.

All this is to say that, whilst Totalitarian Collectivist‘s vision may make sense for someone on the other side of the pond, from here the conflation of all these things together feels exemplary of American pop culture’s particularly one-dimensional nature — something the country has nonetheless tried to export, somewhat successfully.

Ironically, it is this that is described as some sort of accelerationist problem. They later quote from an article by Toby Shorin called “Haute Baroque Capitalism” which lays this problem strangely at accelerationism’s feet.

I don’t find this strange in that familiar form of “that’s not ‘actually existing accelerationism’ actually” but rather that it seems to encapsulate another explicitly American version of this phenomenon. America’s Accelerationist vision does not coincide with that of its European cousins or elsewhere in the world — and this is as true of the violent alt-right as it is of the reductive new left — because it is America, above all other nations, that attempts to reduce everything to glossy spectacle.

(Indeed, isn’t the main issue with the Tale of Two Accelerationisms a war between a European and an American variety? The latter doesn’t seem to be a part of our sub-political discourse at all.)

Shorin begins by describing the new baroque grotesqueness of Trump-style property development in these terms, as well as the art-historical vomit of various skyscraper projects supposedly being proposed or in development, going on to reference an article by Gean Moreno that connects this to an unfamiliar accelerationist discourse:

Moreno looks at the lasting popularity of the so-called “grey goo” problem, an imagined scenario in which self-replicating, biovorous nanobots consume the world, leaving behind nothing but a gray sludge of nano-material. He notes that the nanobots are evocative of another non-human entity: capitalism as an “Alien monstrosity, an insatiable Thing that appropriates the energy of everything it touches and, in the process, propels the world toward the inorganic.”

Something clicked when I read this. The pure expression of capital was exactly what I had been thinking about, but unlike Moreno’s “slimed and dead world” I was noticing the twisting forms of MFGA [Mark Foster Gage Architects], the “encrusted” capital inside Trump’s offices, and the seemingly self-powered explosion of 9 Dekalb Ave out of the Dime Savings Bank. Accepted as a creative point of origin, it turns out that capitalism still subsumes everything. But it does so by blossoming into evermore absurd stylistic forms, intricate angel sculptures, and shimmering copper cluster columns.

It’s the sort of analysis that begs a history lesson — for Moreno if not Shorin. The analysis itself isn’t new in the slightest and, in fact, can be found — where else? — in the arguably proto-left-accelerationist writings of Felix Guattari, who writes in his book Three Ecologies about the way in which this goo reaches its zenith in American society, and he expounds at length on the contentions that Moreno, Shorin and others supposedly have about the superficiality of cultural production and aesthetic theory in relation to material praxes. He writes:

Now more than ever, nature cannot be separated from culture; in order to comprehend the interactions between ecosystems, the mechanosphere and the social and individual Universes of reference, we must learn to think ‘transversally’. Just as monstrous and mutant algae invade the lagoon of Venice, so our television screens are populated, saturated, by ‘degenerate’ images and statements [énoncés]. In the field of social ecology, men like Donald Trump are permitted to proliferate freely, like another species of algae, taking over entire districts of New York and Atlantic City; he ‘redevelops’ by raising rents, thereby driving out tens of thousands of poor families, most of whom are condemned to homelessness, becoming the equivalent of the dead fish of environmental ecology. Further proliferation is evident in the savage deterritorialization of the Third World, which simultaneously affects the cultural texture of its populations, its habitat, its immune systems, climate, etc. Child labour is another disaster of social ecology; it has actually become more prevalent now than it was in the nineteenth century! How do we regain control of such an auto-destructive and potentially catastrophic situation? International organisations have only the most tenuous control of these phenomena which call for a fundamental change in attitudes. International solidarity, once the primary concern of trade unions and leftist parties, is now the sole responsibility of humanitarian organisations. Although Marx’s own writings still have great value, Marxist discourse has lost its value. It is up to the protagonists of social liberation to remodel the theoretical references so as to illuminate a possible escape route out of contemporary history, which is more nightmarish than ever. It is not only species that are becoming extinct but also the words, phrases, and gestures of human solidarity. A stifling cloak of silence has been thrown over the emancipatory struggles of women, and of the new proletariat: the unemployed, the ‘marginalized’, immigrants.

It is this which both confirms and reevaluates the accelerationist disavowal put forward by Shorin that “most arguments for accelerationism rely not on reason but on compelling visual metaphors.” Guattari’s ecological thinking explains why.

I wouldn’t limit this disavowal to the visual, personally, but I absolutely see the value in inventing new forms of metaphor for collective solidarity and the workings of an increasingly para-organic (or at least non-anthropocentric) world. (Totalitarian Collectivist does this too, of course, in their bug communist writings.) For Guattari specifically, he imagines a world in which institutionalised forms — for him, most specifically, the apparatuses of Freudian psychoanalysis — “must be played with, rather than cultivated and tended like an ornamental garden!” This sort of praxis is far more familiar to a British cultural sensibility, I think. But of course, I’m biased. America, instead, has a reputation for treating the rest of the world like its own ornamental garden.

No wonder those over the pond have such little faith in calls for cultural subversion and reinvention. On their home soil, this takes the form of an EPCOT cultural imperialism that bastardises everything it touches. But just because it is bastardised in the US does not make its bastardisation so widespread elsewhere. Thankfully, though America’s influence on the world is second to none, many nations have nonetheless resisted its less palatable day-to-day cultural norms. This is to say that, in my experience, America’s own lack of cultural potentials and its capitalist recoding of the cultural potentials of others do not translate well when brought back home to the UK. They appear as bloated and hollow as everything else that defines the nation’s particular brand of “haute baroque capitalism”. Their treatment of Burial — and the history of rave culture more generally — is unrecognisable to us over here because they have radically transformed — or otherwise ignored — the material realities from which those sounds emerged.

With all this in mind, it is unsurprising that the “baroque sunbursts” brand of accelerationist discourse has far more traction outside of the US than inside it. Its American detractors do not seem to know any different than what they have been lumped with and so tar all other discourses with the same brush. Thankfully, their situation does not resonate with the material fabric of our realities abroad and so we continue unabated.

I’m not going to patronise — any further — regarding a necessity to unpick why it’s probably best the Americans consider themselves more closely, paying particular to the specificity of American grey goo, and its particular success at dissolving cultural solidarity. It is a goo that absorbs everything, yes — like capitalism, yes — but it also absorbs the Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s of this world with a distinct lack of criticality that is, they would do well to observe, far more prevalent at the source.

In some strange inversion of the Boston tea party, today we’re very vigilant about what the USA’s elites try to export to us. We might have a better chance of building solidarity if the US were as vigilant in this regard too.

Thieves of Fire: Conceptronica and Cultural Capital

Following on from the quick introduction to what will be a loosely connected series of posts on the shifting music cultures of the last two decades, where I mentioned Simon Reynolds’ previous desire to reckon with the legacy of his post-punk youth, I think it is worth turning again to Reynolds who has offered up a number of other recent reckonings of his own that try to contend with the years immediately behind us.

His essay on “conceptronica” for Pitchfork is a great example of this. It’s a great article, despite becoming a bit of a meme on Twitter in the days after it went live. Personally, I found it hard not to laugh, from a distance, at how much it rattled so many musicians on Twitter.

As irritating as many may have found it, the argument makes complete sense from Reynolds’ own perspective. Having written the book on post-punk, it is unsurprising he would view the contemporary tension between material politics and art school theorising with a healthy suspicion.

I was reminded of his description in Rip It Up & Start Again of a cultural no-mans-land that existed in the late 1970s between working-class and middle-class cultures, noting how many who found themselves square pegs in the round holes of Britain’s class politics used this tension between worlds to conjure egresses for themselves into other forms of self-expression.

Is this still true today? I think it is. Talking about this with friends just the other night, many people I met at Goldsmiths during my time there identified in precisely this way, finding themselves stuck between cultures — and that is genuinely their situation (the less said about Goldsmiths class drag the better). But can you imagine anyone thirty years ago comfortably acknowledging a project’s lineage form “fine arts master thesis” to amorphous cultural production, as Reynolds describes the work of Chino Amobi? As fantastic as Amobi’s music is, it is undoubtedly a history that few would have previously acknowledged.

Reynolds describes his experience of this shift, striking in his job as a music journalist. He writes:

At some point during the 2010s it seemed like a steady stream of press releases started arriving in my inbox that read like the text at the entrance of a museum exhibit. I also noticed that the way I would engage with these releases actually resembled a visit to a museum or gallery: often listening just once, while reading reviews and interviews with the artist that could be as forbiddingly theoretical as a vintage essay from Artforum. These conceptual works rarely seemed like records to live alongside in a casual, repeat-play way. They were statements to encounter and assimilate, developments to keep abreast of. Their framing worked as a pitch to the browsing consumer, not so much to buy the release but to buy into it.

What is clear for Reynolds, however, is that this moment has been approaching us for a long, long time. Indeed, we might say that “conceptronica” — as he refers to the current glut of heady over-contextualised art-music releases — is the result of a colonisation of this very class-political in-between space by high cultural forces.

Repeatedly, as he lines up the usual suspects, Reynolds mentions familiar reference points for readers of this particular blogosphere — the Ccru and Deleuze and Guattari chief amongst them. But he also notes how these reference points — the latter pair in particular — are completely alien to the precursor genre of “intelligent dance music”. IDM, by today’s standards, feels about as arrogantly adolescent as punk was, Reynolds writes, “more likely to be daubed with puerile humour and porn references than concepts from poststructuralism.”

However, I’m not sure that’s entirely true, with the Mille Plateaux label, to my mind, invoking a certain double-down as purveyors of “the intelligent person’s IDM”, releasing plenty of extra-cerebral volleys from the world of techno in the 1990s, but also carrying on something of a post-punk lineage with releases like Terre Thaemlitz’ Rubato cover albums for Gary Numan and Devo, as well as early releases by Snd and the In Memorium Gilles Deleuze compilation featuring personal (post-)post-punk heroes Chris & Cosey.

In that sense, conceptronica has been around for a long time, but something has definitely shifted. This form of presentation has come to prominence over the last decade, rising into dance music’s own (still somewhat subcultural) mainstream.

The debatable existence of antecedents aside, I was still surprised by the backlash to Reynolds’ essay at first. Were people frustrated by being reduced to a neologism? Or did they feel “seen”? Nothing in Reynolds’ piece resembled ridicule to me and many of the principle purveyors of “conceptronica”, in his eyes, are undoubtedly the pioneering musicians of our present era.

Also, as Reynolds makes clear, this kind of music-making is a product of the times — culturally and otherwise. He cites the obvious influence of accessible technologies, gaming and dystopian pop culture, and the finger prints of these technocultural shifts in our media and entertainment more broadly are all over how many today think about their creative practices.

Perhaps that’s part of the reason for the backlash: being seen as a product of something rather than an interruption of a status quo…

Further to this, perhaps it is also because of what this shorthand summary calls to mind: a sort of bourgeois overly academic affectation that many of those “guilty” of conceptronicing would rather be seen as counter-acting, taking contemporary philosophy and thought into the club, and bringing the club into contemporary philosophy and thought, as a two-way act of subversion rather than a new run-of-the-mill and unfortunately still hierarchical exchange.

Reynolds points to this as well, particularly in relation to broader marketing strategies deployed by the conjoined music and events industries. He writes:

Indeed, there is something of an audio-visual arms race going on within what the writer Geeta Dayal mischievously dubs “the festival-industrial complex”: musicians competing with each other not just to wow audiences but for places on the lineups. Festivals increasingly look not just for someone who can deliver a slamming DJ set or sonically stunning performance, but for world-exclusive premieres of a new show that impacts with the avant-garde equivalent of razzle-dazzle.

It’s a tricky situation to be in. My own blog-review of AYA and Holly Herndon at the Barbican recently seemed to galvanise a lot of people on Twitter whose music I really like. They responded so positively to an expression of the necessity of their scenes in our current climate. But AYA and Herndon are also perfect examples of what festival promoters, according to Reynolds and Dayal, love to see.

Does this detract from these events and experiences? I don’t think so but it does highlight a vigilance necessary for all music-makers and gig-goers to retain in their day-to-day listening habits. Capitalism is watching and it likes what you do as much as the maligned communities you represent. It will appropriate and subsume you without asking if it wants to. It’s done it before. It will do it again.

This is all the more worrying when we consider, as Reynolds does, the “political turn” visible in 2010s electronic music. Today, as Reynolds writes, we see

artists taking strikingly committed stances, often rooted in a minority identity based around race, sexuality, or gender. This contrasts with earlier phases of dance culture, where the politics were more implicit. […] Informed by the self-reflexive awareness of its makers and their background in higher education, conceptronica is a lot more clear-cut and committed. This new politicization partly reflects the urgency of the present.

Does all this become moot when such politics can be absorbed effortlessly by the industrial machine these artists rail against? Perhaps that machine’s intensification is already a response to this turn in itself.

This is important to consider today and particularly when thinking back over some of the debates of the last decade. How many times, in the aftermath of Trump and Brexit, have we heard calls for a “new punk”? And how many times have those suggestions been ridiculed, coming from the most out of touch and counter-punk people of the modern era?

The reason why we have not had a “new punk” no doubt lies here in neoliberalism’s unprecedented adaptability. It is capable of subsuming almost anything at breakneck speed. But there is also a sense that we have been groomed, unwittingly, to present ourselves to our unseen cultural overlords in a way that speaks to them. We inadvertently package ourselves up in the language of academic capitalist critique and serve it up to capitalism itself on a shiny and strangely marketable platter of $5 words, even when it is the system itself that is within our sights.

That’s not always a bad thing, though. In many cases, we might refer to these works as forms of “counter-sorcery”, as Mark Fisher referred to those cultural objects that appropriate the (visual) language of capitalism for use against itself. But this is an increasingly difficult thing to achieve without relegating oneself to cultural irrelevance.

As the article draws to a close, Reynolds comments on this tension explicitly, harking back to the post-punk era so dear to his heart. The differences between our two eras — then and now — become unnervingly apparent. Nevertheless, he ends with some hope. He writes:

With conceptronica, there can be a feeling, at times, of being lectured. There’s the perennial doubt about the efficacy of preaching to the converted. That in turn points to a disquieting discrepancy between the anti-elitist left politics and the material realities of conceptronica as both a cultural economy and a demographic — the fact that it is so entwined with and dependent on higher education and arts institutions.

As fascinating as conceptronica can be, something about it always nagged at me. If its subject, in the broadest sense, was liberation, why then did I not feel liberated listening to it? It rarely provided that sense of release or abandon that you got with ’90s rave or even from more recent dissolute forms like trap, whose commodity-fetishism and sexual politics are counter-revolutionary but which sonically brings the bliss. The parallel is truest with post-punk’s critical commentary on rock itself, the way it refused the simple freedom and cutting-loose of ’60s and early ’70s rock in favor of tense, fractured rhythms that expressed alienation and unrest.

Speaking to the music’s makers helped me both understand and also “feel” it more. Conceptronica is drawn to the residual disruptive power that still feels latent in archival underground genres like jungle, ballroom, and gabba, but also contemporary sounds like grime and trap. It wants to take the unwritten manifesto of emancipation and solidarity within these musics and articulate it crystal-clear. As one of the style’s vanguard figures, Chino Amobi talks about wanting to create critical art but combine it somehow with dance culture’s ecstatic communion. It’s a difficult balancing act, and a noble ambition.

I’m reminded here of The Pop Group. Their debut album, Y, has just been given a bespoke reissue for its fortieth anniversary. This, in itself, is a strange sign of the times but Y‘s new remaster gives it a much-deserved sonic update for now.

I remember first hearing Y after it was given the highest of recommendations from many of the people I used to frequent music forums with — as discussed last time — and I will forever remember it as this completely alien aural object.

Listening to it devoid of context, I had no awareness of the broader scene of which it was a part; I had no idea that this was a “post-punk” record or what that even meant. I just remember it blew my head clean off and remained on uncomfortable rotation as an album that, as far as I was concerned, was an outlier in my listening habits.

It didn’t feel like anything else. It might as well have come from another planet and, for the most part, when I listened to it, I had no idea what I was meant to do with it.

In hindsight, however, the album’s opening track, “Thief of Fire”, encapsulates the mindset of an era with its Promethean drama — no less relevant today — of stealing all you can from a “nation of killers”.

It is a sonic panic attack that does internal battle with a Promethean self-confidence and anxiety. After all, Prometheus’ theft of the fire from Mount Olympus was a revolutionary act, diminishing the authority of the powers that be, but it is also — like all other instantiations of that myth — a cautionary tale about who exactly you’re stealing from.

If you’re not careful, they’ll flay you.

It is a warning that still resonates today, encapsulated by the anxieties that Reynolds feels towards conceptronica. This Promethean flaying is not just an issue for the individual but whole cultures at large. The Thatcherite war on dance music has long felt like a Promethean punishment, doomed to perpetuate for eternity. Those deemed to be opponents to the state, in all their carnivalesque and notably lower class revelry, find their cultures stripped for parts and fed to the capitalist vultures circling overhead.

Perhaps the anxiety expressed towards conceptronica is that this sort of violent suppression is less visible today, shielded, as it were, by the state-sponsored infrastructures of the arts university. It represents less the theft of fire and more the lighting of candles supplied by an educational establishment.

This is, again, not to throw shade upon the musicians currently pushing boundaries. It is rather a vigilant appraisal and one which is worth paying attention to in a much broader context. Nathalie Olah, for example, is a writer who has a great deal to tell us about our present moment and why, perhaps, “conceptronica” touched such a nerve. She has recently written an article for the New Statesman on Ofsted’s deployment of the term “cultural capital” in their school assessment criteria.

For non-British readers, Ofsted is the Office for Standards in Education — a slightly Orwellian-sounding government organisation responsible for maintaining standards in schools across the country. Their name is one that all school children will know. Use of the phrase “Ofsted inspection” whilst at secondary school usually signalled teachers pleading for good behaviour whilst beige clipboard-wielding officials appeared in the backs of classrooms to pass judgement on how good or bad a job your school was doing at being a school.

Their ratings typically mirror the socio-economic makeup of their surrounding areas and come with an implicit political clout. The explicit introduction of a “cultural capital” assessment criterion only makes this clearer because, of course, “cultural capital” is a loaded term, referring to the “capital” that certain cultural objects and experiences can bestow upon an individual or group.

Describing the origins of the phrase “cultural capital”, Olah notes that it was first coined by French sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron in 1979:

In [their book] Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, both argue that cultural and aesthetic preferences are dictated by class, and that ascension, or what is often termed “social mobility”, relies on one’s ability to decipher and mimic the cultural preferences of the elite. Since then, the term has been somewhat diluted, used to refer to almost anything that might boost a pupil’s likelihood of success in the workplace, or in a university admissions process.

That might be all well and good, but as Olah writes, describing the nature of the debate triggered by the inclusion of this phrase in Ofsted’s latest assessment guideline document:

On one side of the debate were those arguing the move would allow children from all backgrounds to access a wide and varied cultural education. Others argued that the term belied a paternalistic tendency on the part of an elite to further export and entrench its version of culture.

Olah reports that Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, isn’t intending to bring those associations to mind:

“We’re not inspecting cultural capital directly,” she explains, somewhat surprisingly given that Ofsted chose the term to refer to the new assessment criteria. “We’re looking at whether a school provides a rich and broad curriculum. Take a hypothetical child from another planet, and assume that they’ve arrived in an English school. There’s a lot that they will get from a few years of schooling in English, maths and science – the stuff we’ve decided all children should know, which are absolutely valuable. But beyond that, there is a great range of stuff, which the more you know, the better equipped you will be to make the most of adult life.”

All of which is to say that children require an education that goes beyond the straightforward point-scoring of the curriculum. School should be a means of leveling the playing field, and given that wider cultural understanding is favoured by university admissions processes and employers, the impetus is noble.

Olah has her reservations, however:

But children don’t arrive there from another planet. They come from an almost infinite number of social, political and cultural backgrounds whose representation in the mainstream avenues of public life varies wildly. Spielman may argue that Ofsted’s decision is based on purely altruistic efforts to broaden pupils’ horizons, but cultural capital doesn’t mean culture in and of itself. Rather, it refers to a particular form of culture — one that translates into employability and desirability within a marketplace. If schools are to deliver on this promise, they will likely be required to prescribe a version of culture that pervades most establishment seats of learning, whose histories are steeped in imperialism and the exclusion of working-class and minority peoples. 

Beyond this, even some of the most fervent criticisms of Ofsted’s announcement have often fallen prey to the worst kind of stereotyping. In a recent op-ed on the subject, the argument was made that it was necessary to teach Mozart and Stormzy, as if these constituted the two cultural modes. Going back into history and beyond the canon in search of work that validates the cultural identities of people from post-industrial towns, or the Indian and Pakistani diaspora (or to go one step further and challenge the foundations of white western history) hardly seems to figure. When it does, it’s always in the most tokenistic and celebratory of terms.

Here a return to Reynolds’ anxiety over conceptronica is intriguing. It speaks to a Ofsted-esque contamination of how artists and musicians view themselves. As progressive as so many arts institutions portray themselves to be today, assessment criteria continue to shape cultural objects that survive a student’s transition out the academy’s door. Indeed, the influence of the academy on our musical cultures — and I say this with caution, knowing how controversial it may sound given the identities of those who have been fleetingly discussed here and in the articles referenced — may be a symptom of the kind of cultural hegemonisation that fellow post-punk Mark Fisher mourned when he diagnosed “the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories” had become an insidious “quest to have ‘identities’ recognised by a bourgeois big Other.”

Not that this is necessarily a conscious quest, of course, and in many ways it is a relation to the big Other that has been implicitly enforced with more and more vigour over the last ten years. In many ways, this is the dilemma that troubles Olah explicitly. The “standardising” of cultural capital by Ofsted, even if well meaning, creates a strange feedback loop where, as ever, and as Olah also notes, “the responsibility to solve a problem of structural inequality falls squarely with the individual, and those working at the frontline of public services that have been repeatedly squeezed by central government cuts.”

This is to say that whilst so many individuals within our contemporary music cultures are continuing to push the envelope in terms of what is culturally important, the responsibility is not theirs alone, and the funding they require to do what they do so often comes from the top down. Whilst many incredibly deserving artists push through, the structure is still in place and it continues to have an impact on the shape these projects take once they reach fruition.

So what is to be done? Sticking with Nathalie Olah, she offers up plenty of advice in her new book, Steal as Much as You Can: How to Win the Culture Wars in an Age of Austerity, updating the Promethean cry of Mark Stewart to our present moment. Hers is not a book that unhelpfully rejects the opportunities offered by our cultural institutions but rather encourages “us to steal what we can from the establishment routes along the way.”

It is not anti-intellectual in trying to sidestep institutions of knowledge but rather advocates a militant and aphercotropic vigilance when moving through such spaces. It calls for a nuanced engagement with our institutions. One that demands we are included but which resists inclusion slipping into co-option.

These politics of inclusion will already be familiar to many. Olah writes:

Diversity and inclusion quotas will never redress this problem for the fundamental fact that inclusion is itself the product of an empiricism whose origins lie in neoliberal and capitalist thinking, placing emphasis solely on the external signifiers of diversity which have historically been undervalued in the marketplace: skin colour being the most obvious example, but also dress code, accent, vocabulary, etc.

Nevertheless, as she continues, real change will “need to come from outside, and what few opportunities exist for transformation only become apparent to us when we start to trust the feeling of impostordom that we’ve been told to resist and overcome.”

It is, in many ways, a call to embody one’s own difference. Accept your novelty — or rather, your own newness — within established institutions, but vulcanise it: harden yourself to your own adaptability. As Mark Stewart recently commented, when asked about ‘Thief of Fire’ during an interview with The Quietus: “You have to hold your whole body against everything you’ve been taught, in order to see things differently.”

I still reminded of Aya here. I can’t think of a better example of this, displayed brilliantly as she brought the grandeur of an institution like the Barbican down to her own level. Hers is an approach to be observed by all, and she is not the only one playing the game that way either.

Nathalie Olah’s book feels like the perfect book to read in 2019 in this respect. The book’s blurb declares that, “for many, the 2010s have been a lost decade.” I have a feeling that the 2020s are going to be quite different. We’re seeing a whole lot more thieves of fire on the rise.

UPDATE: Simon has added a post to his blissblog that responds to his post’s reception and added a few sections that got deleted during editing but which round out the argument, including a nod to the conceptronica pioneers Mille Plateaux, mentioned here.

Feuding and Feudalism: Notes on the Class Politics of “Inflammatory Language”

Boris Johnson’s reputation as our Poundshop Trump feels like it has been set in stone these past few days, with the argument around MPs’ use of “inflammatory language” dominating the news over the last week following Johnson’s foiled attempt to prorogue parliament.

Johnson has called accusations that he continues to stir up the far-right with his language of traitors and surrender as “humbug” and many others on the right of parliament have gone a step further to call the left “hypocrites” who also use “extreme” language when calling Conservative MPs fascists or whatever else.

Such responses contain clear echoes of Trump’s comments following the Charlottesville protests in 2017 about there being bad people “on both sides”, despite the right being the only ones to have clocked up a body count.

This is true of the UK as well. I don’t see Conservative MPs expressing any sort of fear for their lives. No Conservative MPs have been killed. No right-wing pundits have been assaulted — and let’s not compare getting milkshaked whilst on never-ending propaganda tours, purposefully spreading certain kinds of rhetoric on the streets, to getting kicked and punched on a night out with friends.

The disparity here isn’t just one of political disagreement, though. It feels like it is explicitly grounded in our country’s class politics.

I’ve been wrestling with how to talk about these sorts of arguments recently as I revisit my recent essay on friendship, which will appear in adapted form in my forthcoming book, Egress. I’m left feeling a similar way about it as I did my old essay on the right-wing bastardisation of accelerationism — discussed here.

Any anxiety I have around that essay is its potential for being misread as some sort of centrist clap back decrying the outright rejection of certain discourses. The last thing it was meant to express was an impartiality against hate speech, for instance — all the more relevant right now as another argument about political language also unfurls itself across the UK press, with many talking about how the BBC’s policy of impartiality should contend with reporting racism. It is clear that there are some topics to which an “impartial” response is always an apologist one.

The aspects of “friendship” as a concept that I find interesting, in this context, and specifically related to its deficiency on the left, ties into these problems quite closely. How is it that internal accusations of fascism break apart subsections of the left with ease whilst the right can let similar accusations roll off their backs without a second thought? With a “Bah, humbug”?

Community is the most important underlying concept here, and this is something I’ve found presented with clarity when researching the political trajectory of Maurice Blanchot, whose turn from the neo-monarchist right to the communist left I would put down to his acknowledgement, in the 1930s, that right-wing communities are closed and reactive whilst the political left’s historical writings on community have always been — and, I think, should again be — turned towards a speculative people-to-come rather than a doubling-down on pre-establishment categories of identity (a sort of “taking sides” which Bataille refers to explicitly, in his Unfinished System of Nonknowledge, as a preoccupation with the past — side with the future rather than identities that fly passed and appear only in the rearview mirror, which is to say, in more paradoxical terms: side with becoming.)

The implicit issue with this is that right-wing (or perhaps, more broadly, neoliberal) conceptions of community poison left-wing attempts to come together, with community only understood in economic terms of competition and work-space politics rather than in other non-capitalist terms.

To explain what I mean by this, I was hoping to find a tweet I saw this morning that has now unfortunately been lost to the site’s constant flow of updates. It spoke about this problematic in relation to another hot political topic in the UK this week: the Labour Party’s plans to abolish private schools.

The gist of the tweet was summarising a study that argued something along the lines of: private schools produce a certain kind of ideological resilience in their alumni due to the intensity of their in-crowd understanding of themselves. My reading of this was that the frequent arrogance of the privately educated is such that it razes such opportunities for consciousness raising for the less privileged. Those on the inside see nothing but benefits. Those on the outside have to deal with the delusions of grandeur that the rich and mediocre are constantly in possession of. The rich have confidence whereas the dispossessed, arguably by definition, do not.

It is this banding together — this sense of community — that the rich and the right acquire with ease. The challenge is for the left to be able to construct a similar sense of itself, for itself, without adhering to their example.

The Telegraph responded to Labour’s calls for private school abolition predictably but tellingly, with Martin Stephen trotting out the tired line that “Labour’s war on private schools is an attack on aspiration“. But an aspiration towards what? The aspiration to be more like “them”?

As another tweet — first seen yesterday — made clear, any rejection of that in-crowd sensibility is often smacked down with classist hostility.

Aspiration in the UK means aspiration to be upper class rather than an aspiration for any other form of solidarity.

This is to say that social mobility in this country is only understood vertically, and even then only when it goes upwards. There’s no such thing as a horizontal class mobility — whatever that means. We might define it as a movement across working sectors or communities or living conditions through which solidarity is retained for others as people move around.

It is in this sense that the leftist in-fighting that still haunts us is acutely pathological, in the sense that it is a mindset installed at a young age due to our immersion in an uneven educational system, which produces what Mark called the “bourgeois-liberal perversion” of classically leftist politics of consciousness raising.

This is to say that any politics of community is implicitly defined by the culture of those born at the top. We learn lessons of consciousness from the privileged who, in turn, work hard to deflate any consciousness that is not their own. And these tactics are evidently more economic than they are explicitly political.

I liked a quote about this from an interview with Chris Morris I read on my commute this morning: “It’s a sort of privileged position [occupied by white liberals] whereby your conscience is allowed to operate in a particular way, without fracturing your worldview. Then they go and have a bracing latte.”

This is something true of the middle classes on either side of the divide, and in my view, in the UK at least, it is the middle and upper classes who continue to define the debate — and the Brexit debate most specifically, which is the source of this week’s political tangents, we should remember (but, of course, how could anyone forget…)

Here my dejection over Brexit emerges again. I voted Remain, personally, although I’m also a Eurosceptic. (The sort of Eurosceptic who likes Jeremy Corbyn and thinks his supposedly under-defined position on Brexit is just fine.)

As far as I am concerned — and this is a line I’ve trotted out on this blog many times before — Brexit is a war between neoliberalism at home and neoliberalism abroad. But I suppose things are actually a bit more complicated than that, at least when considering the situation at home. Perhaps its not quite neoliberalism as we know it that we’re fighting over. The Conservative political establishment — specifically that lot who are richer than everyone else but somehow think they’re not part of the establishment at all, in a similar sense to Trump and of whom Johnson is the de facto leader — are in fact members of an older order compared to much of modern Britain. It is an older order that sees itself as maligned due to the deep, archaic roots of its conservatism and who view the neoliberal cabal of contemporary European leaders as their mortal enemy. (Is this N(ice)Rx? Or something else? I’m not sure.) To me, all it looks like is a war between new and old money — that is, the new money of Europe of post-Berlin Wall neoliberalism versus the old money of England’s landed gentry.

When I hear right-wing populists declare themselves the representatives of the people and the working classes most specifically, all I hear is a call back to that old relationship — the fantasy of a productive feudalism where this country’s rich had more control over the livelihoods of their poorer publics. “Remember the good ol’ days”, I hear, “when you paid us rent and we kept you somewhat fed.” When the Conservatives demand we “take back control”, that’s the sort of control I imagine — the return to an imagined stability where economies were more closed off and local and were not over-affected by outside forces. (Patchwork is a similar position, but again, one split between a striving from a new feudalism and the other for a postcapitalism.)

By contrast, much of the neoliberal pro-Remain left is beholden to a new stasis, of a decisively capitalist Europe where alternatives are nonetheless viciously squashed and struggling nations are left to languish on the outside until they submit to their restrictions. (Personally, I won’t forget Greece anytime soon.)

When we talk about inflammatory language, and political feuds, I think that’s something we should remember — the affection that Johnson and Rees-Mogg and others no doubt unconsciously feel towards feudal relations. This is what so many of our private schools represent and even our political system as a whole — parliament is still full of landlords, after all.

Johnson’s language is inflammatory and dismissive but precisely because of this. I can’t help but feel like if the Labour Party were better attuned to and vocal about the historic forces that our present crisis represents the reemergence of, they might have a better chance of changing minds, but it feels like the whole system is too entrenched in its own outdated sense of itself to even comprehend the nature of its most recent changes.

If there’s a new philosophical sense of friendship to be build, it has a lot to contend with — not only the capitalist present but the feudalist baggage that we continue to carry with us. (“Capitalism is the failed escape from feudalism”, as Mark Fisher said.) And there is a sense in which this is a national consciousness unshared by anywhere else in the West — at least in my experience, no one in the US or the rest of Europe seems to understand the depths that the roots of our national class consciousness reach as a country — which only makes the uphill climb that much steeper.

We have to become more aware of this for ourselves because no other country is in any position to help us.

Everybody in the Place: On Jeremy Deller and Rave Rhizomaticisms

He’s lost control of the nightclub. There’s been a coup.

There’s been a lot of talk online about Jeremy Deller’s new Acid House documentary, aired on the BBC last week. I finally got round to watching it after seeing David Stubbs‘ glowing praise on Twitter — high praise too from a legendary music writer whose recent Mars By 1980 is an excellent history of electronic music as a whole.

I’m left feeling giddy after watching it. It sent me on this weird trip down memory lane, thinking about all the chance cultural encounters had when I was growing up, their age and younger. If Jeremy Deller had shown up in my classroom to talk about rave culture in this way, it would have been like throwing gasoline on these teenage temperaments. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those kids pop up on the forefront of something a few years down the line. It makes a strong case for this sort of arts education being introduced into mainstream curricula — although I won’t hold my breath for state education to get state-critical. That’s the sort of thing you only get — and even then, only if you’re lucky — once you get to art school.

“Everybody in the Place: an Incomplete History of Britain 1984-1992” is as brilliant as everyone is saying it is but there’s an obvious change here in how Deller is presenting his particular brand of cultural history. I’ve been to Deller’s exhibitions and seen his other films. This isn’t like those. This isn’t just an hour of expertly curated archival material made with the art world in mind. Here, the sort of psychedelic rave documentary (no less brilliant) pioneered by the likes of Mark Leckey, is being given a much-needed deconstruction.

Leckey’s Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore remains the blueprint for so many films about underground British culture. It is a time capsule that nonetheless contains within it a certain timelessness, due to the way in which the “subjectivist fuzz” of a particular time and place gets dissolved in its own euphoria. It’s the sort of approach to cultural work that we can still see echoes of today in, for example, Paul Wright’s recent film Arcadia.

Here, however, Deller’s documentary is presented through a very different structure. We begin — and remain throughout — in a typical London classroom. (And the London centricity is important here.) Deller is, essentially, giving a lecture to teenagers who look to me like GCSE students — 15-16 years old — about the rise and politics of Acid House and there is a subtly about the presentation here that I found really affecting.

I can’t claim that this “typical” classroom is anything like mine was. London, in general, is so much more radically diverse than the rest of the country. I went to a school just outside of Hull where I could count the non-white students in my year group on one hand. Casual racism and the associated “banter” were commonplace. The old adage that kids always pick up on difference was writ large then. It felt like if you were into or wanted to find diverse cultural experiences, the last place you’d look would be in the people around you.

Coming of age during the retromania of mid-00s Northern indie bands, my “Northern Soul” moment was disarticulated from any local club scene — despite every kid having a shoulder bag swearing allegiance to a scene that no longer existed for us. I’ve never really enjoyed the tracks that epitomise that subculture– the standards of the scene have always represented a sort of exoticised aesthetic conversatism to me: we like this because it’s so different but we only like this very particular kind of different — but I do understand the delirious confluence of sentiments found in dancing to Motown on amphetamines down the local conservative club.

I remember seeing an advert on the TV for the 2004 compilation Superbad when I was 14 and being haunted by the earworm of WAR’s “Low Rider” for weeks, as a track that is explicitly grounded in another culture, but which also strangely made sense jaunting around country roads at the mouth of the Humber estuary as you escape the city and hit the ocean wall.

“Take a little trip, and see” is a message to carry with you anywhere — no matter what kind of trip you’re after. I asked for that compilation for Christmas that year, much to the bemusement of my parents, and it blew my prog-dominated world wide open.

That was a gateway into a whole new way of existing for me. It was a gateway into a libidinality and form of expression that was wholly other to my own and, whilst it’d be disingenuous to deny a certain sense of exoticism in discovering the history of Black music whilst living my white British life, it ignited an autodidactic obsession in tracing the lines between the local culture I knew and that which seemed so radically culturally different.

Black music quickly became associated with the rhizomaticism of online cultures for me. The first hip hop track I ever heard was A Tribe Called Quest’s “Excursions”, selected as the opening tune of a mix CD I got sent from the US after taking part in a mixtape swap organised on a forum I used to post on.

If the title of the track didn’t already capture that “take a little trip and see” mentality, the lyrics disappear down a rabbit hole of references, genres, names, etc. It’s intoxicating if you’re already a hip hop head — imagine hearing it for the first time as a 15 year old white kid from Yorkshire.

What I like about it is that it captures the very autodidactic essence of adolescence whilst doubling down on the cartography of the band’s eclectic but loyal approach to sampling and culture with a four-minute extended verse flow that starts with the jazz-hiphop lineage in the first verse:…

Back in the days when I was a teenager
Before I had status and before I had a pager
You could find the Abstract listenin’ to hip-hop
My pops used to say, it reminded him of Bebop
I said, “Well, Daddy, don’t you know that things go in cycles?
Way that Bobby Brown is just amping like Michael”

… and then ends beyond the sleeve notes with:

What you gotta do is know the Tribe is in the sphere
The Abstract Poet, prominent like Shakespeare
(Or Edgar Allan Poe, or Langston Hughes, or…)

I mention all this because Deller has built an entire career on making these sorts of connections between cultural moments and there is always a sense that whiteness or white Britishness is the underlying thing being probed here. I’ve always particularly enjoyed his work connecting Acid House to mining bands, having enjoyed both a good rave and once playing lead cornet in a brass band when I was the same age as these kids.

Even this existence would be probed by strange outside forces: I remember taking a lesson from my trumpet teacher in his garage out towards Howden in East Yorkshire where he had a hoard of jazz memorabilia and a collection of battered VHS tapes that were on the verge of technological redundancy. He put one on of a live performance by Rahsaan Roland Kirk which felt like watching Top of the Pops beamed in from another dimension but every time you saw him outside the comfort of his own studio it’d be playing standards at the school BBQ.

This is to say there is a strange frequency to these encounters. They’re alien and mind-blowing but happened so often its strange now to remember I once thought they were so disparate. You feel enclosed in your own immediate community at that age but things only appear that way because the State has done it damndest to compartmentalise forms of expression along economic, racial and geographic lines. Some people never escape them.

This is reflected in the documentary. It’s interesting that, beyond the music, many of the Asian students on screen seem more curious about the miners’ strike and its relationship to a music they might be more familiar with through their friends and relatives. If I’m talking about my own experiences here, it’s because I had never thought before about the extent to which these perspectives mirror each other, precisely in the sense that they gaze back at each other over an apparent line of state-sanctioned difference.

They talk about the miners’ strike in the same way I’ve heard kids talk about the Troubles in Northern Ireland: everyone knows it was significant but today no one can make sense of the arguments for or against. Deller does it for them and all in the context of the rave scene as this underground web that connects London to Glasgow to Birmingham to Stoke-on-Trent to some unnamed field in Wales; how the scene spread outwards from the neighbourhoods these kids know today and into the outsideness of the Home Counties, tapping into a broader and more material sense of disenfranchisement felt nationwide.

When Deller begins to talk about this relationship to the countryside and to the historic libidinality of rural areas — again, in line with Wright’s Arcadia and Mark Fisher’s excellent essay “Baroque Sunbursts” — he discusses with one student this two-way alterity of how, today, the countryside is an alien place to inner city youth and, likewise, inner city youth are alien to rural areas. Deller’s aim, it seems, is to bridge this gap — and others — for a new generation.

Watching “Everybody in the Place”, where Deller is getting teenagers to read quotations from Karl Marx, Derrick May and Juan Atkins, list famous clubs from around the country, and letting them play with synths and samplers, regrounds these discrepancies in precisely the place they should be and indeed are explored, albeit indirectly. Teaching a classroom full of kids about rave culture feels, at first, like a radical gesture but quickly the novelty wears off and we see a group of kids beginning to understand the relevance of an underground scene to their more standardised education. It’s his way of saying, here’s how what they teach you in school connects to what they don’t.

In this sense, there is an unspoken affinity between these arguably by-gone cultures and the cultures these kids are no doubt immersed in when they go home at night. The anger and virality of drill music, so often in the news like rave was, the latest teenage moral panic on London’s streets, starts to appear like an explicitly 21st century form of stunted libidinal expression, caught in the bottleneck of inner city pressure.

This is arguably why rave culture did so well for itself. It was a culture that had a geographic outside to escape into, and Deller is not the first to claim that a reconnection with such Outsides is necessary if we’re to tap into these potentials again.

The importance of this for our sense of national and international identity is huge, and the key to this documentary’s approach, I think, is that it sidesteps the heady melting-pot euphoria of most rave documentaries. Deller, at one point, asks who in the class identifies as British and is met by complete silence. And so he goes on to challenge the unruliness of identity that has always haunted these lands — the folk traditions that might now be fatally associated with whiteness in their minds but which were just as antagonistic to the English state at large as rave and the subcultures of today.

Because of this approach, Deller succeeds in not fetishising the importance of a trans-Atlantic Blackness to cultural trends. He sidesteps the sort of wide-eyed wonder and hackneyed admiration that someone like me no doubt continues to fall into when talking about Black musics. It holds white and Black both up and says, “Look at the crazy shit all these people were doing and look how important it is to everything we love today.” Look how important Kraftwerk was to Detroit techno and look how important Detroit and its industries was to them. Look at how important Northern class politics is to 21st century inner city pressure… The difference is that the latter is generally framed negatively. All we hear about is how the white North has lost out to the racially diverse urban centres and London in particular. But London isn’t a happy place either and there’s a reciprocal relationship to be rebuilt here.

Deller’s tactic has long been to rebuild these relationships through the mapping of cultural rhizomes, and there are plenty of others we could still explore. After watching this documentary I’m left wondering: What’s the six degrees of separation between voguing and morris dancing? But the more important question is: what does the making of that kind of connection do to how we think about ourselves and how we encounter each other?

I’m reminded of the White Pube’s current essay on diversity and representation. They cite Riz Ahmed’s lovely speech to Parliament a few years back but then add an all important caveat:

The issue with us, as ~diverse~ publics, seeking representation as a singular end goal, is that it is fundamentally a liberal position. That is: it does not seek to overhaul, change, disrupt or dismantle. Rather to preserve; to move within the current structures that exist, that it recognises as broken, exploitative and oppressive, and expects to have a minority of that already excluded minority succeed within these busted frameworks. It does not look to change for all, only for a few. In forcing an excluded minority to funnel through the existing structures around us, this system ensures an assimilation into the cultural values that created the existing structures, and precludes those unwilling to buy into this assimilationist narrative from succeeding within it. In short; it believes in exceptionalism. The institution ensures its survival at all costs by absorbing the critique that hits it, bc it can point to a few success stories that have conformed to its requirements. This drive for representation within that system runs off of a politic of lack, and in that lack, it opens the door to neoliberal ideologies; of creating new markets to exploit and harvest for value. In our quest for representation and visibility through existing structures and channels, we will see ourselves consumed as a sellable commodity ourselves.

This is the resonant heart of Deller’s movie for me and likewise various politics explored on this blog. Dellers’ incomplete history of Britain is knowingly selective but it shows how cultural praxes of disruption are available to everybody in the place. The politics of Black musics and stereotypically white mining communities share a common — notably Marxist — grounding of seizing the means of production, whether that be national infrastructure or making tunes in your bedroom, each having the potential to influence people around the country and, indeed, the world, and explicitly without the exceptionalism required for your own continual state-sanctioned existence.

These “worlds” speak to each other more than we are encouraged to recognise and it demonstrates the innate flaws of this liberal position when talking about rave and mining in the same breath in a modern day classroom can look like a radical act. In reality, all Deller is doing is showing how two events that happened in spatiotemporal proximity to one another are related. It’s the sort of thing these GCSE students would be asked to write about in a History exam. The flaw of British education is we don’t do this for ourselves unless we’re talking about how we won the war.

Deller disrupts the “old” but nonetheless still contemporaneous order of things by reconstructing (through historicization) tandem lost potentials which remain buried in the future. I hope it’s these kids that go and dig it up.