Beginning his Studies in Classic American Literature, D.H. Lawrence questions the perceived “childishness” of the old American classics.
The old American art-speech contains an alien quality, which belongs to the American continent and to nowhere else. But, of course, so long as we insist on reading the books as children’s tales, we miss all that.
American literature requires — deserves even — a reappraisal, because it is we who are missing out when we patronise those writers of the new world with new things to say. And yet it is hardly surprising that so many would treat American art-speech so scathingly. Lawrence continues:
It is hard to hear a new voice, as hard as it is to listen to an unknown language. We just don’t listen. There is a new voice in the old American classics. The world has declined to hear it, and has babbled about children’s stories.
As I sat reading this opening chapter on a humid Sunday afternoon, I found my mind drifting to Stephen King’s IT and the notorious scene where the children all have sex with Beverly Marsh as they attempt to leave the sewers.
The scene came under fresh scrunity a few years ago, following the recent film adaptations, which drew more attention to it only by leaving it out.
What does it mean? Why is it included? Is it appropriate?
The general interpretation I see is that the Losers require some kind of end of innocence moment before they return to the outside world. Sex is a doorway out of innocence and childhood. But once they leave the sewers, having defeated IT, the children “regress” to a normal suburban existence; to a normal childhood. Their memories are repressed.
I wonder if King is illuminating the same tension that Lawrence is here, in a suitably immoral fashion. The scene is inappropriate because of the age of the children but, like so many American novels, perhaps the issue remains the same. This is not a children’s book — that is, a book for or about children — not really. America is defined, in its adolescence, by sex and violence; it is fitting, if nonetheless disturbing, that the characters in IT are too.
What the children really require is an end to fear. In defeating IT, they defeat fear, but they are nonetheless disconnected by their ordeal. Desire overwhelms them. The sexual experience reunites them but it is nonetheless contaminated by the drives that brought them there.
For Lawrence, IT is not to be feared but embraced. IT is freedom. Freedom is not doing whatever you like on a whim but “doing what the deepest self likes.” (Interestingly, for Lawrence, the “most unfree men go west, and shout about freedom” — a shout that “is a rattling of chains, always was.”)
IT is the deepest self. IT is our deepest fears and desires both — because, of course, sometimes we fear what we want the most. Indeed, even as Lawrence affirms IT, he paints IT as a horror, as if to fully comprehend it would ruin us, but comprehend it we must. He writes:
If one wants to be free, one has to give up the illusion of doing what one likes, and seek what IT wishes done.
But before you can do what IT likes, you must first break the spell of the old mastery, the old IT.
[…] The true liberty will only begin when Americans discover IT, and proceeds to fulfil IT. IT being the deepest whole self, the self in its wholeness, not idealistic halfness.
That’s why the Pilgrim Fathers came to America, then; and that’s why we come. Driven by IT. We cannot see that invisible winds carry us, as they carry swarms of locusts, that invisible magnetism brings us as it brings the migrating birds to their unforeknown goal. But it is so. We are not the marvellous choosers and deciders we think we are. IT chooses for us, and decides for us. […] We are free only so long as we obey.
The same is true of the Losers. Indeed, when Beverly recalls their copulation in the grey waters beneath the town, her memories are broken up and punctured by birds.
All of them . . . I was their first love.
She tried to remember it — it was something good to think about in all this darkness, where you couldn’t place the sounds. It made her feel less alone. At first it wouldn’t come; the image of the birds intervened — crows and grackles and starlings, spring birds that came back from somewhere while the streets were still running with meltwater and the last patches of crusted dirty snow clung grimly to their shady places.
It seemed to her that it was always on a cloudy day that you first heard and saw those spring birds and wondered where they came from. Suddenly they were just back in Derry, filling the white air with their raucous chatter. They lined the telephone wires and roofpeaks of the Victorian houses on West Broadway; they jostled for places on the aluminum branches of the elaborate TV antenna on top of Wally’s Spa; they loaded the wet black branches of the elms on Lower Main Street. They settled, they talked to each other in the screamy babbling voices of old countrywomen at the weekly Grange Bingo games, and then, at some signal which humans could not discern, they all took wing at once, turning the sky black with their numbers . . . and came down somewhere else.
Yes, the birds, I was thinking of them because I was ashamed. It was my father who made me ashamed, I guess, and maybe that was Its doing, too. Maybe.
The memory came — the memory behind the birds — but it was vague and disconnected. Perhaps this one always would be. She had —
Her thoughts broke off as she realized that Eddie comes to her first, because he is the most frightened. He comes to her not as her friend of that summer, or as her brief lover now, but the way he would have come to his mother only three or four years ago, to be comforted; he doesn’t draw back from her smooth nakedness and at first she doubts if he even feels it. He is trembling, and although she holds him the darkness is so perfect that even this close she cannot see him; except for the rough cast he might as well be a phantom.
“What do you want? ” he asks her.
“You have to put your thing in me, ” she says.
It is the last fear to break: their fear of each other. If it is disturbing in its rupture of adolescence, so be it. So is the American soul forever adolescent, in both its waywardness and its overarching obedience to an ideal. But adolescence is still where America remains most free. Much like the Losers in Stephen King’s novel, Americans aren’t free when IT is dead. They are at their most free when they are fighting IT.
Neo, to me, is Badiou. They both proclaim to see the world through a mathematical ontology but both fall back on a strange kind of affirmative quasi-Christian philosophy, in which they simply will their way past the new capture that undoubtedly results from becoming one with the very thing you hope to critique. For Brassier, it seems like Badiou’s inability to account for this is a major stumbling block in his philosophy… I’m not sure I can confirm or deny that but it is definitely true of the Matrix trilogy.
Anyway, in the end, I ejected all the Badiou chat from my talk and just spoke about the Matrix. Thanks to Enrico for the invitation and for the really excellent discussion afterwards. I don’t know if it was recorded or anything but here’s my contribution below anyway.
Also thanks to those who set up the excellent Minetest server to host further discussion. I had a lot of fun in there. At first, I just collected loads of free drinks tokens. Then I took acid and killed a horse. Then I had a go at a parkour challenge but fell in lava but then I also glitched out so I couldn’t die. My Sonic the Hedgehog avatar (because you gotta go fast) is probably still in the lava pyramid somewhere… Anyway, it was a truly unique Minecraft experience. (There are two screenshots from my adventures at the bottom of this post.)
Thanks to everyone who came by and asked questions.
Real Simulations: Onthe Matrix Trilogy
Today, declaring that “the world is a simulation” has all the profundity of ending a story with the words “it was all a dream.” But that our outlandish stories sometimes turn out to be dreams isn’t a problem in and of itself. The problem with saying “it was all a dream” is that this often undermines the fact that dreams are really cool. They’re mysterious and fascinating and question-begging. They are starting points, not points at which to end.
In this sense, dreams and simulations share something in common. They are situations: sets of circumstances in which we might act. Discovering what our circumstances are necessitates the question of what we do with them. As such, to say a story was all a dream is as laughable an end to a fiction as “it was all a life” would be to an obituary. It undermines the content and its affects, because knowledge of the conditions under which we engage with the world are important foundations, not conclusions. To discover something is a dream or a simulation doesn’t answer questions, it only begets more of them. This is because it is only at the point of realisation that we can truly choose how to act. It is only after discovering the true nature of an event that we can act accordingly and with fidelity to its truth.
It’s for this reason that, when talking about simulations, I think a film like The Matrix remains an interesting talking point. By now, culturally speaking at least, it is an example so far beyond cliché as to almost become interesting again. Much like a story that ends with the words “it was all a dream”, it has become something like an essential archetype that tells us a great deal about ourselves and the limits of our imaginations; limits which we’d perhaps prefer to just ignore.
Personally, I think the first film still stands up as a classic science-fictional exploration of our late-capitalist world and its contradictions. It is no surprise, however, that that allegory has been betrayed by the very system it sought to describe.
The disjuncture between the nature of reality and the nature of simulation is the Matrix franchise’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. At first, the potentials offered by the characters’ shared ability to lucidly dream within this simulation we call ideology seems to be infinitely productive but are these potentials not then betrayed by the characters’ dogged pursuit of the end of the dream as such? Is this even the case? It seems like a given, in the first film, that to destroy the machines is to destroy the Matrix, but just as the film’s sequels superficially address the symbiosis between man and machine, irrespective of the war raging between the two, it later becomes apparent that this symbiosis extends also to the relationship between reality and simulation. Here the true philosophical question at the heart of the Matrix begins to emerge. Are we at all capable of talking about reality and simulation in themselves? Or are we doomed to a restricted perspective that can only ever comment on the relationship between the two? A relation that is always making attempts to obscure itself, due to its being conditioned by the circumstances of late capitalism.
For example, in the first film, Neo’s desire for truth within the Matrix is mirrored by his desire, in the real world, for the destruction of the lie. But Neo immediately slips onto a paradoxical plane where an understanding of his own emancipation from the simulation is only possible in the context of his continuing non-freedom in reality. As such, if Neo is help humanity to transcend the Matrix, he has to become one with it. When Neo first gets a load of martial arts training uploaded directly into his cerebellum, the pun is obviously intended when Tank tells Morpheus he’s been going for ten hours straight. “He’s a machine!” he says — and necessarily so. Neo has to see like a machine to beat the machines. He has to become a better dreamer in order to dream differently. But when Neo’s powers later become useful outside of the Matrix, in the sequels, what does that say about reality itself? At what point does Neo’s oneness with the world and its representation just become another form of capture?
This tension in the first film is best explored through the character Cypher, who betrays his emancipated cohort to the machines because he wants to return to the lie and forget the truth. He is sick of the questions; for him, “ignorance is bliss.” His betrayal is presented to us as the selfish reasoning of a man who enjoys his own oppression. But Cypher’s reasoning makes a lot more sense than Neo’s utter lack of criticality, which is to say that Cypher’s unbelief, even if exercised through evil, seems far more rational than Neo’s techno-Christian evangelism. In this sense, Cypher is a nihilist but he is also much more of a realist than those who declare themselves to be on the side of the Real. This is only exacerbated in the sequels, when the militarised religiosity of the freed peoples of Zion feels even more ideologically unhinged than the somnambulist behaviour of those trapped within the Matrix.
This begs the question: do the characters in the Matrix really want what they say they want? Intriguingly, in the first film, the dichotomy between necessity and desire appears to be wholly absolute. The real world is necessarily a world without seduction. The slop that the characters eat, for instance, is described as this perfect substance that contains every mineral, protein and amino acid that the body needs, but it is still slop. The character Mouse claims that this slop, then, evidently doesn’t supply everything the body needs. He then changes the subject to talk about the Woman in the Red Dress — a programme he has written into a training simulation for the Matrix — a simulation of the simulation – in which she is meant to distract the dreamer. The Matrix is clearly the world of desires but we might interpret the lesson provided by the Woman in the Red Dress as being that your desires aren’t always going to make you act in our own self-interest.
Mouse’s more immediate insinuation, of course, is much more superficial. He seems to be making the point that the body also needs sex. But the Woman in the Red Dress isn’t somehow sex personified; she’s still just a sexy image. She’s seductive, like the Matrix itself, but she’s nothing more than that. She’s a centrefold, ripped out and stuck to the digital façade. She has no lines. She walks on and walks off. But there is a deeper psychoanalytic point made here. The fulfilment of all our basic needs is nothing if we can’t also tickle our libido but the Matrix has monopolised desire so absolutely that the real world is one even more devoid of an imaginative sexiness. In this sense, the Matrix is a libidinal sandbox. Anything you want you can have. In the real world, the opposite is the case. There is nothing to want. You do what must to survive and little more than that. So which world is more real in that respect? Mouse says: “To deny our own basic impulses is to deny the very thing that makes us human.” So what good is the real world, then, if it is a world without desire? Or rather, what is the real world if it is devoid of things to be desired? So surely we can acknowledge that, despite its irreality, the characters all like the Matrix to a certain extent? Yes, the human battery farms are horrible and the world is a hellscape and unplugged humanity lives underground fearing for their lives, but in the Matrix Neo can fly!?
This strange tension between reality and simulation, necessity and desire, isn’t just highlighted by the plot holes of the later sequels, however. It is readily apparent in Morpheus’s own mind games, which he uses to awake Neo to the possibilities of his newfound agency within the Matrix.
For Morpheus, the real world and the simulation are hardly that empirically different. Morpheus makes this clear when he first reintroduces Neo to the old world. Neo is aghast, running his hand along the back of a wore leather armchair in a pure white void.
“This isn’t real?”
“How do you define ‘real’?” Morpheus replies, smugly. “If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” This is true enough. And yet, whilst this may explain the Matrix, it hardly grounds what Morpheus, in the previous scene, calls “the real world” upon any sort of superior truth. Are we supposed to believe that the real world is the real world simply because it is the worse of the two? And how does this explain Neo’s emergent ability to use his superhuman powers in the real world as well as the Matrix? If the real world is as much of a simulation as the Matrix is, then isn’t the Matrix just as real as the world in itself? If that’s the case, then what is anyone fighting for?
From the vantage point of the end of the trilogy, Cypher’s betrayal in the first film only becomes more interesting in this regard, as we consider the extent to which it mirrors the Wachowski sisters’ meta-betrayal of their own franchise. Do they want what they say they want? Are they not also seduced by the very thing they want to critique? Their hypocrisy is plain to see in the later films, when the critique is so bloated on steroids that the visual effects go into hyperdrive at the expense of the story. As a result, the trilogy is robbed of all punch and satisfaction. In the end, the Matrix is rebooted — hurray!(?) — but the character’s sacrifices carry no weight now that we have overdosed on the very spectacle that the film sought to question. We are left flirting with our own impotence as an initially good idea is extended outwards into a trilogy of bad ones — a trilogy that leaves us on a cliffhanger with Neo — and, indeed, the new itself – left for dead whilst the Matrix supposedly starts over again, having successfully reterritorialized the threat to itself. Agent Smith, the true deterritorialising agency, unhooked from the rules and regulations of the computer mainframe, somehow becomes the ultimate villain, as if, as far as Neo is concerned, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and so reality and simulation enter a new period of peace; a new stasis. Bizarrely, it seems that, somewhere along the way, we have been left with the suggestion that this utter dissipation of the first film’s potentials is meant to be something to celebrate. In truth, it only leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
And so, The Matrix franchise ends precisely where it began. This is all a dream, the first film tells us, in its opening scenes. The final scenes of The Matrix Revolutions tell us much the same thing. This was all a dream, a recurring one at that, and wasn’t it fun. Maybe you’ll have that same dream again one day. With all of this in mind, the first Matrix film becomes a perfect allegory to the nature of neoliberalism’s cybergothic capture of human subjectivity. By contrast, the film’s sequels are an ironic demonstration of how capitalism reterritorializes all of the critiques we might lay at its feet into a sickly postmodern confusion.
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
Below are some preliminary thoughts on The Last of Us Part 2 that I’d like to add to as I keep going with my current first play-through of what is already an incredible game. It should go without saying that this post comes with a big spoiler warning: come back later if you haven’t played it yet.
This post is also part of an ongoing project I’ve mentioned a few times in recent years and which I’m (still) very slowly building behind the scenes: a book I’m calling Frontier Psychiatry. More on that soon.
Every era of modernity has had its own Western. The genre is a cultural weathervane for the United States (in particular but not exclusively) to reflect on, as well as assigning it a trajectory. By morphing and responding to each new phase of the USA’s history, the Western – although modelled on an ideological (and, therefore, also idealised) form of the past – suggests a state of mind in the present and what it sees in its own future.
The Sheriff, in this sense, is a great American imago. In many a classic Western, it is the sheriff or lawmaker who fights off the Red Man, the mad dogs, the robbers and rapists. And yet, he is also often an anti-hero – embittered, traumatized, perhaps a drunk. Indeed, as the genre has developed, along with America’s sense of itself, so too have the archetypes at its heart – and these developments have not always been positive. For instance, the frequently explored subgenre of the Acid Western paints a picture of the Wild West that acutely reflects the anxieties of the 1960s and 1970s. Most importantly, despite the horror of the environment, it is a subgenre that imagines the West as a mythical land that still retains a psychedelic function – that is, it retains its imaginative function as a land on which new (non-capitalist) worlds could manifest.
It is becoming ever clearer that our stories of a post-apocalyptic zombie-infested United States describe a new West for today – a putrescent West, rotting from within. The TV adaptation of The Walking Dead epitomised this new kind of Rotten Western with a distinct lack of subtlety. The show’s sheriff protagonist, Rick Grimes, definedthe show as a piece of transitional media in this regard. It walks a midway point between states of mind: between a nostalgia for the frontier and a fear of it, with the zombie hoards functioning a little too well as a racialised native other, at home in death.
Whilst this was an interesting tension in 2010, a decade later it is clear that the show exists in a very different world, in which the show’s internal drive to make a post-apocalyptic America great again takes on a far less melancholic momentum. With this in mind, the (apparent) death of Rick Grimes – the downfall of the great white imago – was long overdue and overwrought. By the time it happened, the show’s audience had begged so long for something new that the change went unnoticed by those who had stopped watching many seasons ago, but it was also unsurprising. For a long time, it had be necessary for the show to put its money where its mouth is.
No character can be afforded plot armour – that was The Walking Dead’s central traumatic assurance to its audience. This often led to grief being used as a plot device, often profoundly, but this rule seemingly began to test the writers’ own resolve as their audience staggered onwards in a brutalised daze. If the show was to stay true to its word, it had to refresh itself frequently. In a way, it was like the show’s narrative could do what much of its cast could not – shedding its skin, healing, becoming-new rather than becoming-rot. For many, it failed in that regard, and Rick Grimes’ lengthy rule as the only sheriff in town was the show’s Achilles’ heel. The sheriff was long best his best when he finally got the axe, both within the narrative of the show and within culture at large.
What has struck me most, in my playthrough (so far) of The Last of Us Part II, is that this franchise seems confident that it will not make the same mistake as its televisual cousin. Not only have characters been refreshed – I found that Ellie’s big nose, no doubt affixed to her face to settle that fall out with Ellen Page, took some getting used to – but, most controversially, the central character of the first game, Joel Miller, is brutally murdered at the end of the first act. There has been a lot of consternation online about this, and a lot of outright anger, but all I see in these responses is grief, of the sort that any viewer of The Walking Dead should be used to. In a zombie apocalypse, there is no plot armour. Joel, in the first game, demonstrated this in reverse. It was his daughter who died at the very start of that game’s first act, but in the final act Joel saves Ellie from a similar fate – murder, essentially, at the hands of the “state” (loosely defined as a pervasive militarised body) or, perhaps, for the sake of an apparent greater good. (A contentious connection to make between the two characters and one I don’t want to unpack here for the sake of brevity.)
The second game takes this brutality to a whole new level, Indeed, violence is one of the game’s primary USPs. This is a really fucking brutal game. And yet, the fact that the emotional impact of the game matches up to its gory spectacle is commendable. There are enough games out there that are all gore and no heart.
This sort of brutality is one of the defining characteristics of the Rotten Western – and, indeed, the Western more generally. In fact, what we are seeing with The Last of Us as a franchise is that it seems to be building towards some sort of trilogy, like the Spaghetti Westerns – those “operas of violence” – of the Seventies.
In the first game, you have an archetypal story of deliverance, specifically for Joel. It was the big Texan’s reluctant task to (quite literally) deliver an immune Ellie to a militia group, the Fireflies, so that they can develop a cure. But underneath it all, Joel also has to set himself free from the trauma of his daughter’s death at the start of the outbreak which has, at first, made him brutally cold to the world around him. It is Ellie who eventually thaws him out. 
In The Last of Us Part II, the tables have turned. The wintery tundra in which the first act of the game is spent tells us one thing only: Joel and Ellie’s hearts may have warmed, but the world is still cold to them – and to us. A fire still burns, however, and it reignites deliverance, turning it into vengeance. 
I think it is important that this act of revenge comes following the violent destruction of Joel as the sheriff-imago. In fact, it couldn’t realistically be anyone else. The Walking Dead‘s over-reliance on traumatised women and the horrific demise of the Asian-American Glenn, though still traumatic, felt like familiar instances of American dispensability for too many. It is a superficial twist on the black guy always dies first, swapped out for the minority always dies worst. This is to say that, in The Walking Dead, more abstractly but no less predictably, the less archetypal characters always had less plot armour than the likes of Rick Grimes.
Many have complained that the priorities of The Last of Us Part 2 betray a violent wokeness, through which the teenage lesbian outlives the patriarch, but it seems to me like this is the world that The Walking Dead didn’t have the nerve to inaugurate until its audience was passed the point of caring: a world in which the unseen and more nomadic subjectivities embedded within American life fair better than those we are more accustomed to cheer on.
Think again of the Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We have long wrestled with the fact that there is a future that may not be for-us. We might think of that as a world without the human race, or we might think of it as a world without the hegemonic subject of capitalism.
This is the first lesson taught by the Rotten Western.
 Western’s often play on deliverance like this, particularly in their video game variety. Fallout: New Vegas anyone?
 In fact, this is one of my favourite things about the haven of Jackson – the little frontier town out in the mountains of Washington where Ellie, Joel and co. have been holed up since the events of the first game. Whenever it is mentioned, I can’t help but think of June and Johnny Carter singing about how they got married in a fever. Joel and Ellie may not be “married”, but the threat of the characteristic body burn-out of infection certainly cemented their bond.
I finally watched Joker the other night. It was pretty good. Most takes on it seemed bad though.
For instance, I — along with about half of Reddit — kept thinking about Sisyphus throughout my viewing, particularly Camus’s absurdist Sisyphus. It is as if Arthur is the epitome of the Absurd Hero — or so the script wants us to think. This is to say that, despite all the shit he’s put through, we have to imagine Arthur happy. Otherwise why would he continue to live? He has to be able to affirm the meaningless chaos of the universe, affirm the drudgery, and find the funny in its absurdity.
The issue with this sort of analysis, of course, is that whilst it seems fairly obvious and accurate at the level of cinematographic symbolism, that’s only because we’ve let our eyes lead us and stripped out the broader context.
Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker isn’t like Heath Ledger’s. That much was clear to me. In fact, surely Ledger’s Joker was far more of an Absurd Hero? He doesn’t have the heavy symbolism of a long flight of stairs to climb up; nevertheless, he is absurd in his defiance not of the Gods but of capitalism. In wanting to watch the world burn, we can say he wants to suffer. He flourishes in a world of conflict, which is what separates him from the other gangsters, who are supposedly thrown into a life of crime for various material reasons. The Joker, however, wants to be there. He’s made a choice.
This is what defines his character. He offers up a backstory sometimes, about his facial scars, but it’s obviously all bullshit. He knows it’s easier for these basic heroes to imagine him a man corrupted, and he toys with them in this sense, giving them reasons for existence only to cast doubt on them. Even this is just a joke to him.
The Joker (in Ledger’s portrayal at least) is such a diabolical character precisely because he demonstrates the difficulty in imagining him happy; imagining him motivated by revenge or greed is far easier than imagining him being driven purely by a sadomasochist pleasure principle.
Phoenix’s Joker isn’t like this. He laughs despite himself. He’s medicated. He phantasises. He’s not happy but unwell. He’s a Sisyphus who only makes sense if we imagine him as he is: pathological.
“What’s so funny?”
“I have a condition…”
In psychoanalytic terms, Phoenix’s Joker is a true psychotic. Whereas the classic Joker is basically just a hysterical pervert, truly enjoying the violence of the world, Arthur slips out of the symbolic order entirely. He’s not consciously subverting our value systems. He’s tragically outside of them. This is demonstrated by his jokes, to an extent. Puns and homophones are his primary comedic domain; a comedy where slippages of meaning are affirmed. But this is an innocuous glimmer of the true tendencies that lie within. In reality, his cognitive experience is some distant from this largely innocuous eccentricity. It is only through language, and grappling with it, that he is able to make sense of life. Despite what he goes on to do, his actions aren’t really a part of this.
For instance, Arthur laughs when he experiences any negative form of emotion — due to a brain injury, it is suggested — but it’s a hollow laugh. This is what makes him creepy rather than evil. He’s not an absurd hero affirming his lot in life. He explicitly refuses to affirm it, in fact. He might enjoy slippages of meaning within his own hypothetical stand-up routine but when the world at large misunderstands him, he gets violent.
In this sense, Arthur is a psychotic unable to subjectify his experiences because his experience is foreclosed, in spite of his capacity for linguistic expression.
For Lacan, foreclosure is a sort of alternative to repression, where something is ejected from the symbolic order as if it never existed. For Phoenix’s Joker, what is ejected could be — in true Lacanian fashion — a father figure (and we see this in his relationship with his mother), but instead it seems that what is rejected is sadness itself.
This isn’t just the case in terms of Arthur’s emotional expressivity; it is also the case socially. His mother calls him “Happy”, for instance, (nick)naming him after an emotion he is not destined to feel. It’s the tragic irony of the sad clown taken to an oppressive Lacanian extreme — as if “happiness” is the fantasy of the big Other that he is being forced to embody despite himself.
This is a genuinely interesting twist on the tale, even though the film buries it under a heavy symbolism that implores we give it a more superficial meaning — but, in that sense, the film, in true modern Hollywood fashion, is guilty of precisely what it is critiquing. Phoenix’s portrayal of the character may have genuine depth but the direction is likewise guilty of this same foreclosure, insisting we think of him as the Absurdist Joker that Ledger portrayed so well, when in fact Arthur is anything but. This is to say that not only is Arthur foreclosed in his world but in ours too.
Thankfully, this foreclose is not as bad as with Jared Leto’s Joker, who failed because he seemed to misunderstand the importance of this psychoanalytic slippage. His Joker is just “crazy”. It was a Joker caricature; a stylistic variation on a Joker we already know and can account for as a cliched archetype. It failed to do what all successful Jokers are supposed to, which is tell us something quietly profound about ourselves in our contemporary moment. Whilst Ledger’s spoke to a absurdist-nihilist streak within Noughties capitalism, encapsulating the decadence of a new fin de siècle, Phoenix’s Joker tells us something else about now. Not that we might choose our own happiness and nihilistically affirm our chaotic world but that the psychopathologic intrusion of modernity into the psyche gives us very little choice in the matter at all.
In this sense, Phoenix’s Joker is rightly a sort of incel icon. But that’s not to say he demonstrates himself as a viable political subject, as many incels try to portray themselves. (Before you ask: no, I haven’t seen TFW No GF yet.) Just like Travis Bickle, similarly referenced in this film so heavily that it starts to get annoying, his political activities are little more than attempts to insert himself into a symbolic order. We, as viewers, might be able to imbue it with a certain vigilante moralism but it is hardly a conscious form of activism. Bickle is a slave to his own psychosis, drawn into the underbelly of his New York neighbourhood simply because that’s where he lived. He attacks pimps through an inability to navigate his own circumstances rather than out of an ideological need to clean up the streets. He attacks them because they are there and so is he.
Given the emphasis on language and an inability to effectively communicate in the world, it is easy to see why many incels characterise themselves as violent autists but the further (inadvertent) strength of Phoenix’s Joker in this regard is that he demonstrates how their communicative impotence is acutely psychotic rather than autistic. There are many on the autistic spectrum capable of understanding politics far better than they do, for instance. No, there’s is nothing more than a pathology dressed up as an ideology and, in this sense, Phoenix’s Joker is precisely the Joker we deserve.
Westworld took a big gamble by diminishing itself for half of an episode in service of a jokey plot twist.
During the first half of the second episode of series three, I felt really weird about what I was seeing. The show was suddenly so wooden. It felt like the writers had decided to introduce a bunch of unnatural narrative elements in order to keep the series going passed last season’s quite natural end point. As a result, it felt like poor Westworld fan fiction rather than Westworld proper.
And then it turned out that that was entirely the point.
This episode got meta — really meta. The opening in World-War-Two-World — or “Warworld” as the cast called it — teased a show not yet finished playing with other genres. It also revealed that this is a show not yet finished playing with other genre functions. The superficial pastiche and the over-bearing symbolism of a new world at war felt like the show had either completely lost itself or it was making a comment about the world of television production out here in the real world. I was grateful, if still somewhat convinced, when it seemed more like the latter.
The glimpses we saw of a hypothetical Game of Thrones World, for instance, whilst inside Maeve’s simulation within a simulation, were a funny twist considering how the televisual landscape has changed since this series started. In fact, I don’t think it is much of a stretch to say that this episode was a sharp dig at that final season — a bait and switch, feigning a dive before getting back to the story proper.
But what for?
For many years we have supposedly been celebrating a new televisual “Golden Age” but I’m sure many would now acknowledge that this time of great prosperity has started to wane. Many shows — Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are the first to come to mind — have found themselves unable to live up to their own grandeur, whether in failing to tie up loose ends or continuing to hang around long past the expiration of their welcome.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the makers of Westworld felt themselves pushing into this “expired welcome” stage of their development. This is a show that has been so convoluted and demanded so much of its viewer’s attention that it must surely be aware that the average viewer will not have mapped out the show’s twists and turns to such an extent that the narrative continues to hold together without some implicit scaffolding on the writers’ part. It was a discomfiting surprise that the Westworld writers sidestepped this altogether.
The holes in the plot and the complete disconnection from the end of the last season felt weirdly like a shoddy attempt to keep a character alive beyond the decisions of a previous writing team, like when a character is miraculously resuscitated or killed off in a soap opera to account for external issues or market demand. Maeve took on the brunt of this but Stubs the Bodyguard’s continued existence also felt like a convenient moment of deus ex machina.
This latest episode played up to this with an uneasy fidelity. Even when the joke was revealed, it left an odd taste in the mouth. This was an odd way to reintroduce the supplementary character arches in this third season. What I was left with, personally, was a feeling that this show is well aware of the questions left unanswered and the tight grip it needs to keep on its own internal logics if it is to get away with its own continued existence. It was a somewhat brave move, I think, to play up to the average fan’s need to warm back up to the world and its narrative after a couple of years off our screens.
It is a brave move because, with the cancellation of The OA and the shallow grave of Game of Thrones in its rearview mirror, and with The Walking Dead lumbering on far too much like its own namesake, there are a lot of challenges and lessons to be learned for new and continuing shows in our present moment. The likes of Better Call Saul are showing the way ahead for complex narrative universes — although, at this point, even that show’s predictable structure of character-developing vignette after character-developing vignette is starting to wear thin — but Westworld feels like one of the last “big” shows on our screens to emerge during that late-Golden moment to still be happy reinventing itself. Nevertheless, it has a lot to prove.
Whether it will be able to prove itself going forwards obviosuly remains to be seen, but watching this latest episode of Westworld, it feels like the response from within their production team has been a defiant: “Hold my beer…”
In my new book, Egress, I spend a long chapter going on about Westworld, how it’s connected to our cultural understanding of the American West, and how the classic racialised undertones of its second series (“Go native or go home!”) tell us a lot about how we continue to understand unconsciousness and its relationship to political action. (It’s, hands down, the chapter I’m most proud of and excited by and it’s a topic that I could — and intend to — dedicate a whole other book to at a later date.)
With all that in mind, the return of Westworld for a third season is something I’m really excited about, so below are a bunch of notes that I made whilst watching (and preparing to watch) S03E01.
The first thing to say is that I’m expecting the show to take a further turn regarding its central investigation of human unconsciousness. The first season explored why this unconsciousness should be raised; the second explored the potential and messy results (good and bad) of doing so; the third seems to be about how, more specifically, capitalism can still attach itself to these developments.
It was an inspired — and wholly believable — development in season two when it was revealed the park’s management was tracking the guests’ behaviour along with the hosts. As Bernard said last season, most succinctly: “We’re not coding the hosts; we’re decoding the guests.”
Every visitor to the park was being analysed and recorded with their behaviour uploaded to the cloud so that the park could run various experiments, cloning the consciousness of each individual and trying to replicate them in 3D-printed bodies. As it turns out, this is much harder to do than to allow consciousness (or unconsciousness) to emerge within a mind (somewhat) naturally. To replicate an already living person often led to rapid cognitive breakdowns and an accelerative dementia.
Regardless of the success of their experiments, the Delos Corporation was very much aware of the value of the data they’ve hoarded and so they aimed to capitalise on it and use it to — I don’t know — develop market research or something. It’s the sort of data I imagine companies could use, in the outside world, to create the most profitable hysteria on Black Friday, for example, or in ways that are far more insidious. All this computational data about unconsciousness and human desires will surely be used, by its very nature, in unthinkable ways. It’s a key to the back door of human consciousness. All the more reason for the hosts to stay one step ahead of capitalism’s capture of their “masters”. If they want to overthrow the world they have so far been denied access to, in order to make it their own, they’ll need to stay one step ahead of this unconscious capture in much the same way as they need to stay one step ahead of an all too physical capture also.
In the first episode, these threats were only teased. “Dolores” — side note: I’m having great difficulty remembering who is who now, following last season’s body swapping — found herself nearly captured (physically) and seems to only just becoming aware of the way the world she has newly entered works.
One of the first scenes in this first episode shows her robbing an old visitor to the park, whose information she’s acquired from the Delos servers. She takes all his money explaining that she’s become aware of its importance in this world and she wouldn’t want to exist too long in it without any.
If Dolores has newly acquired financial concerns, she’s not the only one. The new season opened with a flurry of implicit questions on this topic:
What’s the affect of the park’s revolution on the market in the outside world? Relatively speaking, it’s a tremor. A worrying one, for those in the know, but a “blemish” nonetheless — at least financially speaking; not counting the bodies. The hosts may have overthrown their world but our world is a lot more complex. How they will use their newly raised unconsciousnesses to overthrow capitalism’s iron grip seems to be the question of the season. That is, if they need to overthrow capitalism at all. They want to overthrow the greedy, selfish humans. Fucking with the market is certainly be the best way to get their attention. Just as Dolores has so far used the humans’ reliance on technology to her advantage, using it on one rich domestic abuser to employ his own unconsciousness against him — calling it his “unauthorised autobiography”, which I liked — exploiting the market might allow her to manoeuvre the humans in newly unconscious ways.
As she becomes increasingly aware of capitalism’s importance to the workings of the unconscious human mind, she might find that she’s able to manipulate things in ways even she hasn’t yet thought of. Perhaps she’ll become one with the system itself, in much the same way Maeve did within the confines of Westworld last season. Consciousness has broken free of humanity and is taking its own path. Maybe capitalism is due to do the same thing…
The disarticulation of my “Dreamless Pop” post has very quickly been remedied by a confluence of factors.
Bob was nice enough to share the post on Twitter and call it an encapsulation of some sort of position when — I must confess; as is often the case with my blog posts — it was more like an attempt to articulate something that nonetheless remained on the tip of my tongue before it consequently fell out of my head due to this lack of a firm linguistic grasp on it…
Fittingly, Bob’s use of the word “simulacra” was precisely the jolt I needed to better articulate what it is I find so disturbing about Sex Education…
So here goes…
I was watching Sex Education recently, a few days after the previous post had gone up — or half-watching it, I guess, reading a book whilst my girlfriend caught up with the latest season. I had watched the first season with a morbid curiosity but could not stomach the second. This was not entirely — as I thought — because of its content but because of its location also. For all its accusations of rootlessness — part American high school drama, part British college-university romp, part general adolescent situated-identity crisis — I am actually very familiar with its setting.
I am sure I’ve mentioned this before — either on the blog or on Twitter — but Sex Education is filmed on my old university campus in Caerleon, South Wales. It is filmed in a place where I studied for three years and lived for one. It is also the place where I met my long-term girlfriend and countless other friends.
Watching that show is like sticking my head in a waterfall of memories. Forget Proust’s whiff of madeleine cake, it’s more like a snuffed line of simulated nostalgia that violently overrides the actual experience of being there.
We were talking about the series, following a more recent episode, when I asked her how she managed to stomach the show’s wokeness that is laid on so thick. She acknowledged it was often egregious but that it didn’t get too much in the way of the story for her, which she enjoyed regardless — fair enough — but, personally, it makes me cringe, and I realised the other day that the reason I find it so hard to stomach is precisely because it entertains the existence of some impossibly woke academic environment on a campus that has explicitly fallen victim to the worst neoliberal university practices. It is a simulation of wokeness dancing on the grave of those ideals it performs and says it holds so dear. It is, in this sense, precisely a sort of poor-taste simulacra that renders its over-scripted good intentions as little more than apolitical entertainment despite itself.
I should emphasise here that I am not using the term ‘wokeness’ to give scaffolding some liberal conspiracy that seeks to undermine the creative power of political incorrectness. However, as has been explored on this blog before, I do think transgressive arts must continue to carve out a space for themselves in the face of an institutionalised moralism, and most of what thinks of itself as oppositional these days can barely defend such a claim under pressure. This is a far more legitimate critique than the rightist one, I think, because this “wokeness” is a decontextualised band-aid for far deeper structural problems that few people seem capable of separating from the capitalist forces they say they are fighting against.
Sex Education, as a cultural product, is the perfect encapsulation of this. It is a show that cannot go five minutes without tripping over an oddly bureaucratised form of political communication but it does so — oh so tellingly — on a site of great cultural and political loss.
Caerleon campus only exists as a film set for this slab of Netflix wokeness because the listed status of the clock tower has thwarted developers from demolishing it to build a new housing estate. Prior to this thwarting, Caerleon campus was home to the largest photographic dark rooms in Europe where photography was taught for over one hundred years and where countless generations had their tandem artistic and political awakenings.
This was true for me as well. It was a home where I was first politicised, developing both a class consciousness, as I came to understand why I felt Newport, South Wales, was a home-away-from-home and so similar to my actual home of Hull in Yorkshire — short answer: both post-industrial towns on estuaries left to decay and atrophy despite (or, arguably, because of) an established history of radical cultural action — and a wider political consciousness, travelling to London for my first protest march in my first year of university to oppose the trebling of tuition fees that would not effect me personally but would effect countless others after me.
With this burgeoning consciousness emerging from a generally deflated sense of my own political agency, Newport was a place of hope for a radical future, both in terms of politics and culture — with the two being explicitly intertwined as a place where prescribed aesthetics standards were told to go fuck themselves on the daily and where a small town working class consciously “avant garde” community was going from strength to strength, despite persistently butting heads with the local council.
This wasn’t new. It was heartening to learn that this sort of activity was part of a Welsh continuum… And was well-founded in Newport itself as a city… But the slow creep of neoliberalism was well-established also, at least by the time I got there…
First, the Newport polytechnic — founded in 1840 to educate local workers and tradespeople, and where photography was first taught as a trade as early as 1910 — was transformed into the University of Wales, Newport, following the nationwide culling of polytechnics in the 1990s.
This process brought together a broad family of technical colleges under a single managerial authority, cementing the neoliberal oversight of a prior patchwork of empowering spaces. As time went on, it was revealed — to the surprise of no-one — that those in charge were caught in a spiral of overspending, building new campuses they couldn’t afford and trying to continue to expand beyond their means. Before long, UWN got into trouble, and was eventually gobbled up and consolidated into an even bigger institutional body: the University of South Wales — a Cardiff-based university. (This is a process innocuously documented on the university’s website, of course, with no reference made to the perpetual upheavals that underlined its haggard development.)
This final merger came at a very tense time for the area. It occurred during the final year of my studies in 2013, which was the same year that Newport’s Chartist mural, library and art gallery was controversially demolished to build a garish new shopping centre. These actions, though distinct from one another, nonetheless felt they were both part of the same socio-political process: the broad neoliberalisation of the city and its institutions. It had already happened elsewhere in the city. The polytechnic’s old site in the city centre, for instance, before it was based before the move to Caerleon, had already been transformed into luxury flats during our time there and, following the merger, when the beautiful Caerleon campus was sold off, it felt like that was the final nail in the coffin for a tradition that was far from dead. Its smothering was merely a byproduct of mismanagement by higher-ups.
This really is unbelievable when you consider the university campus on its own merits. In many ways it was outdated, rough around the edges, dysfunctional, relatively isolated from South Wales’ urban centres, but it was ours. It wasn’t some former private school turned fancy institution, as it superficially appears in the series. It was primarily a campus occupied by young people studying either an arts degree or a sports degree, in the orbit of a still proudly working class town. It was a really beautiful place to live and study and that felt all the more important considering how academically maligned the courses taught there were. In fact, the campus was a large part of why I wanted to study there. I’d been to open days in London (Elephant & Castle) and Farnham but immediately felt these campuses were hostile to “someone like me”. Caerleon was different. It felt right and continued to feel right for the three years that followed. (I’m still in touch with the lecturers there.)
When it was reported that the campus had been sold off, it felt like this was partly why. We weren’t allowed to have nice things. The new base in Cardiff’s city centre might be better connected and immersed in local business infrastructures but Caerleon was special precisely because it felt like a haven apart from all that bullshit. It was a place to experiment — and we really did experiment.
This is not to say that a radical political sentiment died with the institution — it certainly wasn’t an institutionalised product — and thankfully many of the lecturers who encouraged this kind of engagement with the world remain on the staff — but I do not think that anyone would deny that decades of growth had been amputated without a second thought. The task became less one of extension and more one of rebuilding, and it was a task that had to be pursued under an intensification of the university’s mechanisms of bureaucratic anti-production.
With all of this in mind, it becomes very difficult not to be wholly cynical of a show like Sex Education, preaching radical but tellingly bougie politics of communication on the piss-soaked grave of a former polytechnic. Its politics are, of course, important, but so is the context in which they are contained and puppeteered. Take, for instance, Sex Education‘s persistent exploration of the politics of interpersonal consent. What becomes of this topic when it is dramatises on a site where the previous occupants were turfed off without any consultation? This may sound a bit too much like a Justin Murphy logic gate but surely if we are to take the show’s dramatic politics seriously we should be able to extend these politics beyond the fictional relationships of individuals and apply it to the very real situated politics of its location and the communities that called it home? Removed from its fictional bubble, the show becomes nothing but a parody of itself.
It is this disparity that I thought of this morning whilst reading Will Davies’ Guardian op-ed on the persistent radicality of the humanities within neoliberal institutions. (The fact that Davies teaches at Goldsmiths probably goes someway towards explaining how he is able to write from an apparent bubble of hope. The historical continuum of HE experimentation that Davies gestures to has long been impotent, broadly speaking. If the government is now lopping off humanities courses, it is less a active culling and more a sign that neoliberalism has decided to stop playing with its already butchered food.)
Interestingly, Davies argues against the political right’s cooption of “a bogey-ideology known as ‘wokeness’, constructed by conservative commentators and ‘free speech’ advocates, [that] now serves as an all-purpose bin into which any form of activism, complaint or critical theory can be thrown.” The problem with this — and the article at large — is subtle. There is no denying that a cross-section of small-c and big-C conservatives in this country despise the persistent influence of the humanities, as Davies argues, but to say that ‘wokeness’ has been constructed by the right is wholly disingenuous. It is a term — both positively and negatively — that has the left’s fingerprints all over it.
This is to say that Davies may be right in fingering the contemporary culprits of educational dismantling but his analysis just feels hollow — a sort of extension of student populism that is about two years too late, and by ignoring the left’s own failure to tackle and preempt current problems, the article reads as nothing more than cheerleading puff piece, preaching to the converted.
(Sidenote: I have more to say on the specifically anti-modernist tendencies — and I do think they are that specific — that Davies points to within the Johnson-Cummings cabinet but I want to save that for another post.)
To better articulate what I mean by this, I think it is worth emphasising the fact that Davies deploys a right-wing conception of “wokeness” — now culturally dominant — over a left-wing one.
On the left, “wokeness” has, until recently, referred to a well-established slang term borrowed from African-American political discourses referring to the possession of a kind of raised consciousness. If you’re woke, you’re awake to the banal injustices of a quotidian and marginalised existence. That’s pretty much common knowledge at this point.
The right’s disparaging and cynical use of “wokeness”, however, reveals (at least in negative) a sort of empty and apolitical leftism that has run riot through many of the left’s attempts at political organising in recent years. This is to say that the collapse of “wokeness” as a political contagion — from a call-to-arms to a disparaging and cynical label thrown at moralisers — is as much the fault of the left’s incompetence as it is the right’s penchant for cynical cooption.
Take this Medium post by @scenicpasture on “Apolitical Corbynism” — an excellent post that goes someway towards articulating the two factions that really gave Corbyn his staying power in the UK since 2015: a new politicised youth on the one hand, but also middle class apolitical former Green Party voters on the other. They write:
In the case of Corbyn, he inspired people who previously hadn’t been involved in parliamentary politics and who certainly had no interest in the intricacies of left factions and alliances. That appeal was largely to “graduates without a future”. There’s a big chunk of these people who were very happy attending Occupy, the demonstrations orchestrated by XR, and needless to say were proud to march for a ‘People’s Vote’. Each of these moments were, in their own way, apolitical insofar as they were attempts to ditch the constraints of parliamentary politics and appeal to something ‘beyond’. In XR’s case, this was completely explicit in their calls to establish ‘citizens assemblies’ (which under scrutiny turn out to be panels of wonk NGO experts. The Marxist critique of these forms of politics are well-documented and I won’t rehearse them here, the point for me is that in the absence of anything else they were the only game in town. The generations that attached to these political modalities did so out of the wreckage of the end of history, the failure of New Labour, the failure of social democracy in the 20th century, which occurred inextricably with the collapse of the labour movement and its institutions. Corbynism aspired to rebuilding these things, but was always just aspiring, was always in lieu of them, and therefore was in fact closer in its origins to these forms of apolitical populism than I think has previously been acknowledged.
The merits of this form allowed us to function and work as organisers without the usual baggage, and at its height produced the hysterical joy of the 2017 election. That election feels dream-like in hindsight, precisely because it did seem to actually achieve what apolitical moments always claim to be able to achieve: transcending the parameters of ideology and politics as such. Could such a colossal upheaval have happened without Corbynism’s broad, moralistic appeals to decency, change, standing up for “the many”? I’m not sure. However beneficial, though, it was precisely this strength of apolitical Corbynism that, in part, engineered its downfall. This downfall came chiefly from the despicably vain, juvenile remain campaign, indulged by far too many people who in a state of flailing panic should’ve toughened up and known better. But also, I’d argue through a specific political-cultural tendency that emerged under late-Corbynism; self-flagellation and capitulation. Taken together, these outcomes have now engineered a situation where Keir Starmer is seen by many Corbynistas as the right successor to whatever Corbynism was about. It’s worth emphasising how absurd this is. Starmer is utterly archetypal of everything that Corbyn was supposed to replace. He is a character-less centrist, interchangeable with any prominent man among the liberal professional managerial class. If someone showed you a picture of him and said he’s the head of Save the Children, or an investment bank, or the Liberal Democrats, you’d have no difficulty believing them. His appeal to exhausted, depleted, Corbynistas comes from the same empty, directionless desires of apolitical populism. Just as Occupy never articulated a demand, just as XR was somehow apocalyptic without being antagonistic, just as People’s Vote wished away 17.4 million people; so too Starmer, by looking nice and sounding posh, will alleviate Labour of its existential contradictions.
Sex Education, to me, is the ultimate cultural encapsulation of this. Whilst its script is over-wrought with pseudo-ethical negotiations of contemporary adolescent conflicts, attempting to place it at the vanguard of a new form of “woke” political communication that presents a seemingly utopian high school experience for the temporally displaced left, it is also wholly impotent and removed from the actual political struggles it is indirectly parasitising.
Endnote: Notably, the book I was reading whilst having these thoughts, with Sex Education playing in the background, was Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. I don’t have it with me whilst I’m writing this post but it’s introduction and first chapter helped to articulate how this apolitical wokeness is itself a product of neoliberalism’s cultural logics, and that is precisely because of the way that neoliberalism — and neoliberal universities most explicitly — iron out the creases and differences of our political spaces of action.
Niall Gallen hit on this too earlier today when he tweeted:
I think he’s right. I responded:
I was thinking exactly this whilst reading Jameson the other day. The absence of ‘neoliberalism’ from his description of the mechanisms of “late capitalism” at the start of Postmodernism… is telling.  Precisely because, as the elephant in the room, he is trying to prise the economic and the cultural apart in order to understand how they affect one another. Neoliberalism emerges as an ideological project for smoothing out [these] discrepancies. 
Wokeness was a concept that fell into this trap all too easily — the way that “woke” has been turned into a ironic marketing ploy by the likes of Burger King in recent weeks is a case in point.
If neoliberalism is to be have continued valence as a political term, the left must be capable of seeing its developments and influence from within its own ranks, not just pointing to it when the right gets its way.
When did dream pop lose its psychedelia and become the generic soundtrack for every new Netflix teen drama going?
I unashamedly like a lot of weird YA dramas on Netflix. Locke & Key is a good example. Dark is a better one. I liked The Umbrella Academy too. I even continue to have time for Stranger Things despite many being fed up with its pastiching. I think I just have a soft spot for shows that emphasise or try to exaggerate the sheer surreality of adolescence and childhood.
It’s an age old trope, of course. The two-part adaptation of IT might be the most obvious big screen example in recent years but it’s hardly new. Bingeing Locke & Key from my Sunday sick bed today, I feel newly aware of just how far this continuum stretches back.
The show contains numerous references early on, for instance — explicit ones, that is, in the script — to The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. This got me thinking about how, as a kid, I always preferred The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Then I remembered in the pub last night how I inadvertently started talking about Skellig. On Twitter last week someone blogged about Elidor. Last year I read Alice in Wonderland aloud to my girlfriend before bed, for its own merits and to support a reading of Deleuze’s Logic of Sense…
Across time periods, the strangeness of childhood and adolescence has been fertile ground for telling stories of the weird and the eerie. Perhaps that’s because fairy tales themselves have always been good examples of the weird. Culturally, we like to scare our kids, to install superegos, perhaps, but also I think just because their minds are more easily taken advantage of. It’s a fun kind of transcultural sadism…
This is all very obvious, really, but I guess what I’m trying to affirm here is that, past or present, I’m always interested to see how youth is used as a vector for sociopolitical potentials; how a child’s innately psychedelic perspective allows other worlds and forms of life to emerge in our cultural imaginations.
At times, I find my fascination with these sorts of stories becoming entangled with a sort of nostalgia for a previous social and cultural freedom but I also love to hear the new emerging from an articulation of a sensation I am already familiar with and appreciate the importance of.
Pop music can be great for this too. Lorde’s album Pure Heroine might be one of the best musical distillations of adolescent weirdness from the last decade. It’s an album that I listened to obsessively when it came out, not long after I left university, and I was totally consumed by its songs of teenage outsideness presented with a production style that felt incredibly refreshing. You’d be surprised — in fact, I even surprise myself — just how emotional that album makes me still, as an eerie document of fading innocence. That’s certainly what it felt like to me at the time, fully entering my twenties, newly outside the bubble of full-time education, feeling fully devoid of prospects, instead doubling down on the particular temporalities of unemployment in my hometown where I felt like I was slipping through the cracks into my own subcultural underworld.
I was thinking about all this and more whilst I was watching Locke & Key earlier. I thought about how much I liked the magical realism in the show, even at its most janky. I liked how this weirdness of the Locke family home could permeate the high school environment with surprisingly little resistance whilst the adults are, for the most part, oblivious to the teenagers’ dramas. The plasticity of the teenagers’ brains and the rigidity of the adults made me, as a viewer, feel oddly in between. Both responses were weird. But there was something else that kept pulling me back from this and which made it a really jarring experience, but not in a positive way at all.
The soundtrack could not have been any more generic if it tried.
I don’t know if there’s a name for this or not. There probably is. It’s that corporate pop that all sounds the same and has no message or distinguishable production style. It feels like it’s been made by some sort of hit factory somewhere. I associate it most explicitly with something like Made In Chelsea. It’s wellness pop. Gooped pop. Middle class generic pop made by some quartet who have had a completely frictionless twenties. You’ll know what I mean. Think Bastille and their hundreds of clones. It seems to permeate every teen drama there is, and it’s all the more obvious if a show has a supernatural or paranormal element.
When I think about k-punk’s various requiems for popular modernism, I always feel like we haven’t reached the true depths of its absence yet. The BBC might have sonically unweirded Doctor Who, for instance, but there was still a time recently when the music controllers for popular programming could shoehorn in contemporary oddities. I remember Top Gear car reviews soundtracked by Boards of Canada, for instance, and even though a whole generation might have wishfully modelled their lives after Skins, it felt like very few within its target audience were picking up Animal Collective albums after hearing them soundtrack a point of narrative tension.
Looking back on a show like Skins now — proverbially, at least: to actually rewatch it would be torturous — these sorts of musical decisions made it feel contemporary. It hasn’t aged well but, at the time, it felt like the bleeding edge of… something.
Watching these new weird shows, they feel distinctly devoid of a time — which, ironically, is what makes them feel most now. These scenes with cookie-cutter dream pop make the shows feel culturally disorientated in much the same way that many have claimed a show like Sex Education is. Whereas previous shows were buoyed by well chosen soundtracks these shows are dragged down by a complete lack of sonic imagination. They are defined by a sort of ambient music, especially when diegetic, that serves only to remove any well-scripted weirdness.
Why do I feel like the fault lies with Spotify? Maybe someone better informed can shine a light on the silent death of smart licensing? Maybe music licensing is one of those jobs woefully given over to algorithms? Or maybe this is the trickle down cultural impact of capitalist realism at its most banal?
Whatever the cause, all narratives of new worlds suffer if they’re incapable of referencing the newness of now. How are we meant to find connections between the radical magic of a coming new and the already contemporary if the characters on our screens aren’t given the same opportunity?
It’s almost as if we’re not supposed to. No longer are these strange tales of psychedelic childhoods meant to keep the fire of otherworldly potentials burning. They’re salves. Nothing more.
This stasis doesn’t lie with music licensing alone. I want to offer up another case in point that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently: Gilmore Girls.
My girlfriend just completed an epic rewatch of that show’s seven seasons and I enjoyed watching it myself for the first time — at intervals — alongside her.
The show’s wit still holds up todat and its machine-gun cultural referencing is pretty electric. But I kept thinking: All that aside, what are we left with? A relatable story of a modern middle class family. A girl and her mum, growing up together in Small Town USA. Rori Gilmore’s life aspirations of going to Harvard and joining the rat race as a hot shot journalist are weirdly 00s and bougie but the rapidity of the hypertext dialogue was pretty incredible to me. In fact, it was what made the show so entertaining for me personally. Bands and films and other references, from low culture to high, old to new, pepper every exchange. An otherwise generic sitcom is given a unique energy as it feels like the two central characters are, when not on screen, jacked into a rapidly emerging cyberspace and a contemporary moment of atemporal postmodern cultural proliferation. It’s the sort of metadialogue that has been fetishised in a sitcom like Spaced or, more recently, Community (where it is reduced to a particular trait of an autistic character) but here it exists intergenerationally and effortlessly.
What does this mean, if anything?
I’m not sure. But I’m increasingly disturbed of late that we’re continuing to lose a lot more from our pop culture than we’re aware of. I feel more and more like this is what constituted the “frenzied stasis” of late capitalism for Mark Fisher. The spectacular but superficially new distracts us as we lose far more than is currently being produced to the ambient incursions of capitalist stasis on our cultural imaginations.