I’ll be in conversation with James Butler, co-founder of Novara Media and easily one of the most interesting writers and speakers on the left today.
To book tickets, as well as pre-order a copy of the book from Housmans (if you live in the UK), follow the link here. [NB: Best viewed on desktop, as the ticket booking app tends to disappear on phone browsers.]
This Hallowe’en, Repeater Books are teaming up with the Neon Hospice to bring you almost 12 hours of live-streamed spooky goodness. There will be live sets and mixes from — as well as conversations with — Leila Taylor, Kemper Norton, English Heretic, and Claire Cronin, and more!
I’m going to be presenting an introduction to the eerie, considering how Mark Fisher’s final book The Weird and the Eerie relates to his capitalist critiques, before we broadcast a rarely-heard “eerie mix” by k-punk himself.
From October 30th to November 13th, the spooky folks at Bristol Transformed are organising a series of Goth Communism events that, frankly, couldn’t be any more up my street…
In 2020 every day is a horror. Join Bristol Transformed in a celebration of the dark and the macabre. But Goth Communism can show you the light in the abyss.
We’ll explore how leaning into the darkness can reveal a path forward for the movement.
You can keep tabs on the full lineup of events (with more to be announced) over on Facebook.
On Sunday 8th November at 14:00 GMT, I’ll be taking part in “Hauntology House”, a one-off reading group where we will look at the new Mark Fisher collection, Postcapitalist Desire, specifically the fourth lecture on “Union Power & Soul Power”.
You can book tickets for the event here and keep tabs on it on Facebook here. Every ticket comes with a free eBook of the collection so get involved! I’m very much looking forward to this — not least because it provides ample opportunity to talk about my two favourite if seemingly disparate interests: goth and disco.
You can read Bristol Transformed’s introduction to the session below:
In partnership with Repeater Books, we’ll be reading a new collection of lectures from the late Mark Fisher — Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures. We will be joined in this discussion by Matt Colquhoun
Matt Colquhoun is the collection’s editor and author of Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy and Mark Fisher. He will be discussing a little bit about how the book came about before we dive into a discussion on the chapter titled: “Union Power & Soul Power”
People who register free for the event ahead of time using the link provided above will receive a free copy of the Ebook + a zoom link. The deadline to register is Friday 6th November and spaces are limited.
Over the weekend, I followed @thejaymo down a clickhole for his incredibly wholesome web show, Come Internet With Me. We spent an hour talking about what I’d probably be writing about if I wasn’t doing all this other nonsense — tornadoes — as well as Microsoft Excel…?
Towards the end of our hour-long chat, we ended up reading about tornadoes in London — one that occurred in 1091, apparently destroying London Bridge and another that happened in 1954. For some reason, there’s only footage of the aftermath of the second one but its a terrifying sight. It is reminiscent of the London Blitz in a way must have been pretty traumatic for people.
I promised Jay I would continue this click hole to see where else it led me.
I ended up looking up two further storms to strike Britain in the twentieth century — not just singular tornadoes but “outbreaks”. One was in 1913, which led to two tornadoes in England and three in South Wales — this website provides a pretty thorough timeline of the destruction — and the other was in 1981, the largest tornado outbreak in European history. This resulted in tornadoes touching down in Liverpool, Birmingham, Hull, Manchester, the Welsh town of Holyhead and the Warwickshire village of Stoneleigh. Over a five-hour period on the 23rd April that year, there were 104 confirmed tornadoes. I found this very dense 2016 academic paper with diagrams galore re-examining the conditions that led to the outbreak.
I think part of my interest in tornadoes comes from the few I used to hear about happening over Hull. I remember one year there were reports of one that felled a tree and flipped a few cars. I tried to find a few reports about this but couldn’t find one I recognised. There were, however, various reports of other tornadoes forming (if not quite touching down) over Hull with a surprising frequency. The most recent was in 2019 (with video here), another in 2014 which caused considerable damage (with another report here). The one I heard about must have been in the mid-2000s.
I wonder if East Yorkshire experiences these things more frequently than I first thought? It would explain the strange synchronicities I’ve found in relationships with people over the years. I will never forget the first time I ever met my birth mother, we somehow ended up on this topic and I told her that it was a secret dream of mine to live in a van for a year and just chase storms full-time. She literally replied, “oh my god me too!” And that was weird…
Anyway, tornadoes are crazy and fascinating and wild.
Go check out the rest of Jay’s stuff on his website. He publishes a wonderfully diverse range of content and is legitimately one of the most interesting people I know.
Meta-Nomad very generously asked me to collaborate with him on a course about accelerationism six weeks ago. He suggested that he’d cover the philosophy of accelerationism and I could cover the politics of accelerationism. I thought this was a really interesting idea. The result is a load of content that we’re going to be releasing this Friday (24th July 2020) via his Teachable page.
I don’t want to give away too much — we’ll be sharing more info later in the week, including course outlines and costs — but we have recorded the above chat which begins a particular conversation that we hope this course will go on to further develop.
A promotional video for the second Hermitix course called The Philosophy and Politics of Accelerationism, a collaboration with Matt Colquhoun (www.xenogothic.com). The course will be a paid course consisting of 10 lectures and transcripts, with optional seminars and one-on-ones. James Ellis (Meta-Nomad) will cover the philosophical aspects of Accelerationism and Matt Colquhoun will cover the political aspects.
This Saturday I’ll be taking part in “Simulations Like Us”, something of a conversation between myself, Reza Negarestani and Enrico Monacelli, which is running as part of Turn Us Alias, an online event organised by Saturnalia.
From the 90s onwards, the idea of a simulated environment has become a pervasive, intrusive thought. From the hype surrounding the Matrix trilogy to contemporary neuroscience, which has transformed our cognitive abilities into a series of functional simulations of the outer world, from Philip K. Dick’s techno-gnosticism to the VR-craze of the past ten years, the idea that we are stuck in a fake and controlled world has become the metaphor for our contemporary predicament. What once was a cyberpunk metaphor is now almost a lived and urgent fact of our day to day life.
Come join us on Turn Us Alias festival to see how deep the rabbit-hole goes, as we discuss through the lags, the glitches and the hiccups of a post-lockdown Discord server, the future and the fate of this idea.
I think this is going to be a lot of fun. Swing by and read more about Turn Us Alias below, including what you’ll need to do if you want to play.
Turn as alias is a video game and a 24hrs music festival, following the tradition of our beloved Saturnalia.
Join us on Minetest to access music stream and play to find the hidden secrets of digital Viale Molise.
As Macao in Milan, this space is open to everyone, celebrating the freedom of expression of any kind, so respect all other players online as you would do irl. Turn Us Alias supports Brigate Volontarie per l’Emergenza, you can do it too
Recordings of the two k-punk sessions from this year’s CTM Festival are now online.
The first panel, “On k-punk: Egress and the Fisher-Function”, featuring Lisa Blanning, Steven Warwick and myself, can be heard here:
About the panel:
The late Mark Fisher’s work, like all philosopher’s work, oscillated through different stages throughout his life. Starting in cultural-studies, to philosophy under the CCRU, to cold rationalism to anti-capitalist critique, Fisher’s work was a project of constantly trying to come to terms with a world that begged belief, as is the case with the evolution of any intellectual worth their salt. There was throughout all of this a constant undercurrent indebted to psychoanalysis.
For Fisher the idea of world-building came with responsibility, something his work takes into great consideration with very sincere care. As he described in his later writings, the socio-political disease of our time is that of pervasive stasis in a rapidly accelerated culture. If we take the liminal as that which can occupy either side of a boundary, that which acknowledges complexity, then we see an opportunity perhaps to the deadlock of binaries presented by the worst trapping of the contemporary right and left.
This panel takes as its kernel the concept of Egress, a word used by Fisher to describe the exiting of the current cultural malaise through analysing the politics of teleology and collectivism. Liminality itself must be critiqued with the urgent need for determinacy in mind. Perhaps a solution to the pitfalls of liminality is that of determinacy, that cultural production must operate within a strong pedagogical model if it is to make its way out of its liminality. Fisher postulated that what was required for real transgression was a reprisal of the spirit of a world that could be free, to go beyond the beyond the pleasure principle.
The second panel, “After k-punk: Labour, Death and Cultural Artefacts”, featuring Dhanveer Singh Brar and Dane Sutherland can be heard here:
About the panel:
The dominance of certain cultural logics are an interesting point of departure from which to analyse the landscape of cultural artefacts and what’s at stake in maintaining them, given that these artefacts themselves produce their own logics, both good and bad. They might be physical spaces that foster new communities, scenes that evolve styles, or anything that propels music as a distribution of intelligence.
What kind of cultural logic produces a turn? With evolution comes culture, and with culture comes cultural logic, and with cultural logics come fields of knowledge—ones that compete against one another. And it is in the delineating of these lines, and perhaps even producing them, through clarifying complexity, that perhaps cultural criticism needs to take its next turn. How can we splice the DNA of cultural production and criticism in an age where music’s turns are emergent and occupy a complex horizon of possibility?
Throughout the K-Punk project, we find cultural artefacts analysed with a sense and appreciation of compulsion and pathology, both adopted and generated. Given Mark Fisher’s now seminal examinations of the capital’s cultural logic through to his desire that mass culture return to being a terrain of struggle rather than a dominion of capital, this panel attempts to draw preliminary lines across what cultural logic can do and how, what it cannot do and why, and what would be needed to change these conditions.
Both panels were organised and moderated by Terence Sharpe.
I did a write-up about the whole experience here back in February. CTM was an amazing time and it’s great to finally have these recordings up. Enjoy!
Thank you to everyone who came out to the ICA last night for the launch of my new book, Egress. It was a packed house and amazing to see so many people there. Not just for this book but for Mark. It speaks volumes, I think, that he is still packing rooms out, three years after the initial shock of his death.
It was also an absolute pleasure to be in conversation with Kodwo. We had a whole series of talking points prepared that we had pieced together over a two-hour Skype call last week and, after all that, we didn’t touch on any of it. I think we could have spoken amongst ourselves for hours and I think we intend to, in private, at a later date.
It was a really strange event, as far as I was concerned. There was an underlying anxiety, as I read the book’s afterword and Kodwo and I began talking about what exactly the book may be trying to do, that this was a very strange conjuncture. It felt like a conversation had directly off the back of the year that Kodwo and I first got to know each other and, for those arriving at this event with little knowledge other than “Mark Fisher is a writer who is no longer with us”, the specificities of our experiences may have been a bit morose and hard to penetrate.
But such was the moment. “Conjuncture” was Kodwo’s repeated word of choice, not just for the evening itself, but the very strange way that events have since fallen into place, thanks to the passage of time. Events become moments to measure intensity by — its ebbs and flows. Last night was no exception. It was surreal for me because it felt like the latest in a series rather than a singular moment of contextualising.
Because of all this, I’m not sure I have the capacity to try to summarise what was discussed. I was braindead immediately after leaving the stage and suddenly lost the capacity to string sentences together.
However, the one thing that stuck out for me personally was Kodwo’s amazing summary of one of the book’s central tensions that I hadn’t considered before.
There was a moment where he discussed the ways in which so much philosophy is deployed within the book to unpack words that are otherwise shrouded in a quotidian banality. This is not to inject these words with pretentious amounts of significance but rather to uncover the surprising amounts of heavy-lifting they do in our day-to-day lives.
Kodwo listed a number of examples but the one that stuck out for me was “friendship”. In a later chapter, in which “friendship” is considered philosophically through the writings of Blanchot, Nietzsche, Deleuze and others, the drive behind the writing and researching this chapter was not so conscious. Like “community”, it felt like a particular word that had certain philosophical valences that were interesting to consider in the book’s context. It is an attempt to pop the hood on a concept like friendship — not simply in a philosophical sense but in a social and political one also.
I am obviously missing the particular potency of Kodwo’s articulation but it was the clearest summary of what the book is trying to grapple with that I’d yet heard. It opened a new dimension to it even for me.
The event was filmed, although I’m not sure that footage will ever see the light of day in its entirety. I may also have more to say on the event once the dust settles. For now, I just want to say thank you to everyone who came last night and who made it happen and who ended up in O’Neill’s with us in Chinatown at 1am.
As a bonus, below is a 30-minute mix that Kodwo and I put together — our entrance music. Something to get us in the mood more than anything. I certainly won’t forget the sight of Kodwo’s air-synth to Sylvian & Sakamoto.
I didn’t really plan ahead so I winged it somewhat and also had to put up with a really stupid delay because YouTube has outsourced its streaming software for reasons abjectly unknown, so chat was nice but stunted and after a while I just read the book’s intro out loud (and became newly aware of how long it is…).
Thank you to everyone who swung by to chat and hang out and listen, and if you’re watching for the first time here right now and want to skip ahead, I introduce the book and start reading at around the 40:30 mark. Happy listening!
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.
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 CapitalistRealism 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 Academia.edu 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.
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.